Ultralight Shakedown & Wonderful Walk

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Open woods on the east loop trail

To friends, I’ve said, “The older I get, the lighter my pack.” Over the last 20 years, I’ve gone from a very heavy backpack to much lighter backpack. I say “very heavy” because I never actually weighed it or the items inside back then. I’d guess 45-50 pounds because I remember hoisting it to my knee before lifting it to my shoulders in a second move. I also remember the smothered feeling I felt while breathing under its weight.

Moving to lighter loads has been a process over time. By the time we did the John Muir Trail in 2016, my pack was at 32-36 pounds. That included a 2-pound bear canister and food for up to nine days.

This week I tried my ultralight sleep system and shelter. I considered it a “shake-down” hike to prepare for the last 63 miles of the Ouachita Trail coming up soon. My loaded pack weighed 18 pounds with food and water. Base weight (without food and water) was 14 pounds. There’s no heaving this pack, just a smooth swing from the ground to the shoulders.  I’d love to shave off more and approach a 12-pound base weight. It might be easier to lose a couple of pounds in bodyweight. 

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Shores Lake White Rock Mountain Loop is one of my favorite routes and close to home. After dinner, Hiker-dog and I drove to the trailhead as the sun dropped low in the sky.

This treasured Bliss Spring that crosses the trail required that I pause for a photo, so Hiker-dog waited patiently.

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I love the waterfall that roars softly below in White Rock Creek close to mile 2 but knew a side hike down was out of the question in the fading light. This waterfall was one of my earliest pleasing waterfall photos. I thought about the time I spent there as I hiked past the spur trail.

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Waterfall on White Rock Mt. Creek from several years ago.

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White Rock Mt. Creek in fading light

As we approached White Rock Falls, I knew we were close to home for the night. I used a rock as a tripod and took the photo below before continuing across the creek to a campsite close to mile 3. I thought we might stealth camp away from the trail, but the undergrowth in this area changed my mind.

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Photo in fading light from a rock tripod

I sat up the tarp by headlamp. It went nicely since I didn’t have to avoid rocks on the site. This tarp is 7 ounces and durable, a far cry from the 5-pound tent I used 20 years ago. After feeding Hiker-dog on a nearby flat rock, I crawled under the quilt. Soon I felt the familiar weight of Hiker-dog curled up next to my feet. She slept soundly all night. I was distracted a few minutes by moonlight through the translucent tarp but then fell asleep in the cool air.

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The next morning we packed and began walking by headlamp. It was fun to see the sunrise as we walked. After a breakfast stop, we continued the loop clockwise. Where I most benefited from a lighter load was on the climb up the first couple of miles toward White Rock Mountain. Speaking of “lighter,” I failed to pack one so coffee was cold. Forgetting a lighter was an embarrassing oversight and reminded me it’s important to check that list before I leave home.

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Nice signs at junctions at White Rock Mt.

The loop trail follows a portion of the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) where you’ll see both blue and white blazes. When we reached the OHT mile marker 19, in earshot of Salt Fork Creek, we turned to the south and began the east side of the loop. A muted sun lit distant hillsides through the clouds, and we had several small rain showers as we walked along.

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Mayapples and Dwarf Crested Irises were prolific in many spots. We enjoyed pausing to enjoy the color and variety. With my light pack, I never felt the urge to take it off. Click on the wildflower images for plant names. Yes, I like Crested Irises a lot…

 

 

IMG_7425rrDogwoods were blooming in all their glory. Their gentle clouds of white popped against the light greens of spring.

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Hiker-dog walking past one of many Dogwood trees

 

Hiker enjoyed taking a dip to cool off as temperatures rose to the mid-sixties. I filled a water bottle and carried it for the drive home. The next morning I enjoyed a cup of coffee at home from that creek water while planning another hike with my lighter backpack. 

Little Gems Along the Trail

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Hiker-dog getting ahead of me

On Friday, April 13th, a tornado damaged several homes and buildings in Mountainburg, Arkansas, about eight miles from my adopted section of the Ozark Highlands Trail. I was anxious to see if winds had caused damage to the woods, so Saturday morning Hiker-dog and I headed out, wondering what we’d discover.

What we found was an open trail with temperatures in the mid-40s. It stayed cool all day as the sun peeked from behind puffy clouds. Quite a contrast from the ominous storm clouds of the afternoon before!

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I was thankful for little gems that sparkled with color alongside the trail. In spite of the cold, several patches of Mayapples greeted us with a few hidden blooms below their leafy umbrellas.

 

 

IMG_7056rrDwarf Crested Irises were starting to open and share their pinks and purples.

Later in the day, we passed full blooms, their petals raised toward the sunshine.

Because of the influence of my Arkansas Master Naturalists friends, I now read about the plants I see and was interested to learn that Native Americans used the roots of this Iris for medicinal ointment and tea. IMG_7099rr

Just as I was sensing relief that the trail was intact, unnatural objects started to appear. By the end of our 8-mile out-and-back, my daypack was full of hard foam insulation that had blown over from Mountainburg. I tossed the debris and a little trash on the truck floorboard at the end of our hike.

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Several pages of text also appeared next to the trail. I found myself reading these little snippets with interest. I photographed each of the pages then slipped them into my pocket. Were they trash or did they add meaning to today’s walk? Probably a little of both. I did think the chapter title on one page was appropriate given what brought it here.

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Excerpt from The Hobbit

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The first line of this sliver of a page might apply to several backpacking trips from the past when challenges grew with the accumulating miles.

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Jack Creek next to a campsite

I was interested to see the campground at mile 5 of the OHT. It’s an easy hike from Lake Fort Smith State Park and gets trashy sometimes. The area was clean today and carefully inspected by Hiker-dog.

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Open views above Jack Creek

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Repeated crossings of tributary streams are a special treat on this section of trail. These pretty drainages all flow into Jack Creek as it makes its way toward Lake Fort Smith. One of my favorite stops crosses a flat rock stream. Its slippery surface is avoided by crossing large boulders downstream.

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It was a beautiful day to be in the Ozarks. Thankfully, no one was injured by the tornado the previous afternoon. As a bonus, the trail was undamaged other than a few gems (or trash) brought over by strong winds.

Photo Challenge: Favorite Place With a Favorite Friend

WordPress Photo Challenge: Favorite Place

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Quenching thirst on this morning’s walk.

Daily walks with my friend are important to both of us physically and mentally. If I skip a day, my four-legged friend lets me hear about it.

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This morning we strayed from the main trail to have a look at this historic well. It was probably built in the early 1900s by the same folks who laid rock walls to mark their property lines.

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View into the well

When water’s flowing, we take a short spur and enjoy the sound of McWater Falls, named for the man who initiated the work to build a trail around Lake Alma.

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McWater Falls

I’m thankful for this favorite place and my little favorite trail friend.

For the Lake Alma Trail backstory and driving directions, read Lake Alma Trail: A Trail for All Reasons 

For more about Hiker-dog, check out her resume.

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Never the Same Trail Twice

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Nick and Hiker-dog crossing Frog Bayou

Hiking buddy, Nick, said he needed some time on the trail and wondered what section we might try. Hiker-dog had never done the few miles from Dockery Gap to White Rock Mountain, so we decided to do Lake Fort Smith State Park to Fane Creek, just over 30 miles.

This route included new miles for Nick and Hiker-dog but repeats for me. As we walked this familiar path, I remembered once again that we never walk the same trail twice.

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Nick checking out the fire bricks inside the remnants of one homesite along the trail.

IMG_6532rr Water was plentiful. This was my first filterless backpacking trip using only water treatment drops, so I enjoyed “selecting” my water from any number of small streams we passed.

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Little Hurricane Creek

IMG_6569rrWe met a family camped at mile 10. While visiting with the father, Luke, I was impressed with his two young daughters’ ability to run without pain barefoot through the woods.

The next day we met two backpackers, Nick and Foster, from Kansas who’d camped in the area and were continuing on the OHT the next day. As we approached White Rock Mountain, a young man with a group called out, “Is that Hiker-dog?” She’s such a celebrity. Turns out, Chris had picked up a copy of Five Star Trails: The Ozarks, and met Hiker-dog at the Hare Mountain Hike-In. We expected a social hike due to the time of year and enjoyed meeting good folks on the trail.

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For the first evening meal I boiled red potato slices a few minutes then added a Knorr side dish that cooked quickly. Good stuff!

On the second night at Salt Fork Creek, I used instant potatoes combined with a slice of Spam. Quick, easy, and light.

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Hiker-dog enjoyed a nap early in our second evening as a soft rain began to fall. Stronger storms and a beautiful lightning show followed later during the night, although not enough to raise the level of Salt Fork or Spirits Creek by more than an inch. 

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Nick and Hiker-dog crossing Spirits Creek

As Nick crossed Spirits Creek, I thought back to my thru-hike with Bob a few years ago. A heavy rain raised the creek level enough to cause us to pay careful attention while crossing. Never the same trail twice…

Below is another example of how different the same trail can be depending on conditions. Early in our hike, the Shepherd Springs Waterfall was a trickle in bright sunshine. On a previous visit during a wet springtime day, I got one of my favorite photos of this same waterfall. Part of the pleasure of the OHT is repeated visits during varied conditions and seasons. In the Ozarks, just when you think you know a trail, you realize it has something new to reveal.

Word of thanks to Ozark Highlands Trail Association volunteers: The photo below right shows the obvious work of trail maintenance volunteers who hike in with chainsaws and cut out obstacles. The photo on the left shows a full day’s work by several volunteers although it would be easy to walk by without notice. At one time, water flowed across the trail continually washing it out and making this a difficult spot. Volunteers trenched an alternative route for the water, directing it away from the trail and toward a culvert that channels water under the adjacent road. They’d be proud of how well this erosion fix is working.

Between Two Creeks in the Ozarks

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Hiker-dog’s first overnighter close to Salt Fork Creek

Hiker-dog’s first overnight backpack trip after she joined our family was Shores Lake to White Rock Mountain, then east to Salt Fork Creek. On another occasion, she joined a group of us from Fane Creek west to Spirits Creek.

That left just over four miles of the Ozark Highlands Trail between two creeks uncovered by her paws, so we drove up a small road that intersects this four-mile stretch and hiked to both creeks out-and-back for a total of just over eight miles.

I’ve rarely hiked a section of trail with the feeling of checking it off a list, but that was the task for the day. What I found was beauty, sunshine, and the chance to clarify some troubled thoughts.

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Some of the pleasure of the Ozarks comes from the simple open hardwoods and winter views of surrounding mountains. Restful sights for the eyes!

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Salt Fork Creek was flowing nicely, a little milky from recent rains.

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As we backtracked up and away from Salt Fork, we stopped to collect GPS coordinates for a couple of large trees that had fallen across the trail. The OHTA (Ozark Highlands Trail Association) has expert sawyers who clear the trail when they learn the locations of obstacles. They’re amazing!

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A downed tree isn’t a problem for Hiker-dog.

As we approached the soft roar of Sprits Creek, memories of past trips came to mind. It was comforting to see the familiar campgrounds below and the varied surrounding landscapes carved out over time.

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IMG_6230rrA White Trout Lilly greeted us as we approached the edge of Spirits Creek. We sat beside the water and enjoyed the sound.

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After a snack, we headed back up out of the Spirits Creek drainage toward the trailhead for the drive home. We drank in the sunshine and enjoyed side-streams we passed as they came down from the hills, making their way toward Spirits Creek.

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IMG_6243rrA big thank you to trail maintainers! The trail passed through a couple of devil’s walking stick forests, but they were cut back away from the trail.

I’ve always thought of these as bothersome, but evidently, these prickly plants have redeeming qualities. Seeds provide food for birds, and the leaves are browsed by deer. Nectar-insects and butterflies are attracted by the large bundles of yellow flowers put out by these prickly tree trunks. The aromatic spicy roots were used for toothaches by early settlers.

As we climbed back toward the trailhead, I felt stronger, relaxed, and thankful. Hiker-dog looked back as if wondering why I was lagging behind. I think she wishes I had four legs so she wouldn’t have to hold back so much to stay with me.

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A Painted Walk

LAT013018_3This evening’s walk brought the magic of color. I’d carried only my smartphone camera, but it captured the color I was seeing.

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Light show at the shore

I hurried to the water’s edge when I realized the potential light show I would find. Hiker-dog was excited for another reason and strode proudly into the water for her evening bath.

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The places closest to us often surprise and amaze if we’re paying attention. This evening’s painted walk was no exception.

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What We Drop on a Quiet Trail

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Crossing Little Frog Bayou

Hiker-dog and I both needed the trail this evening! The trappings of life and full schedules had left us both tight and in need of a hike.

At the end of our 3-minute drive, I was surprised to see an empty parking lot. We walked the whole 4-mile loop without seeing another person. Part of the reason might have been recent rains that made Little Frog Bayou a wet crossing.

After watching Hiker cross, I paused and sat down for a photo of the creek. A minute later I realized she was sitting quietly at my back. Stealthy little dog!

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Slightly wet crossing at Little Frog Bayou

We continued at a brisk pace since light was fading. At one point Hiker-dog paused and took that familiar backward glance as if to say, “So, are you coming?”

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Hiker’s backward glance

As the day drew to a close, I realized that my feelings of anxiety and stress had passed down through my legs and into the trail. What a gift to have this beautiful path sitting quietly in our own backyard!

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End of the day over Lake Alma

Talking Trails at Hobbs State Park

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Sharing the joys of down layering

The next best thing to walking the trails is talking the trails. I had a great time with the Friends of Hobbs State Park on Sunday sharing my thru-hike of the Ozark Highlands Trail and Hiker-dog’s story. A young man from the audience assisted me by unpacking my pack as I described changes that resulted in a lighter load. I let him try my down vest, but he shed it pretty quickly due to its warmth.

After sharing my children’s book intended for second graders, Hiker-dog entered the room at the end. She enjoyed some petting and then curling up on the floor as the program continued.

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Jim Flickinger assisted with Hiker-dog

Just under ninety were in the audience. They were responsive, asking good questions and sharing their enthusiasm. The hour flew by!

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Almost 90 in attendance!

Steve Chyrchel, Hobbs State Park Interpreter, does a great job promoting programs and sets the schedule far in advance. He’s already scheduled me for March 3, 2019!

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Sallyann making announcements

Sallyann Brown, a fly casing instructor, heads up the Friends of Hobbs programs and always makes folks feel comfortable. When I presented the John Muir Trail in September, she made me promise to bring Hiker-dog if I returned.

Hiker-dog enjoyed the attention. I enjoyed signing copies of my book, Five Star Trails: The Ozarks, and talking trails with folks after the program.

Below you’ll find the Friends of Hobbs Speaker Series for 2018.

Hobbs schedule 1

Hobbs schedule 2

Silent and Pensive Hiker-Dog

WordPress Photo Challenge: Silence

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Relaxing above the Current River in Missouri

When I read the photo challenge for this week, I immediately thought of Hiker-dog. A trait I like is that she is always silent through the night, whether at home or in the Ozark Forests. Sometimes she sits silently looking awestruck by the beauty of the Ozarks.

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Hurricane Creek

Even though she’s a dog, it seems like she expresses a worshipful gratitude for natural places. I sometimes wonder if her near-death experience on the Ozark Highlands Trail where we first met four years ago accounts for her sense of appreciation. Or, maybe she’s just intently looking for a squirrel. Regardless, she’s a silent trail partner until it’s time to eat.

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Mulberry River

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Camping close to the Salt Fork River on the Ozark Highlands Trail

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Hiker-dog in awe of nature…or is that a squirrel up there?

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Hiker taking a break on the Redding Loop Trail

………

We’ll be sharing the Ozark Highlands Trail thru-hike on Sunday, January 21, at 2 p.m. at Hobbs State Park’s Visitor Center in Arkansas.  It’s a beautiful venue and Hiker-dog will be there, too! Five Star Trails Poster 012118 Hobbs State Park

The Urge For Going

“One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted to do. Do them now.”  ~Paulo Coelho

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John Muir Trail

Yesterday a friend sent me a couple of links for the Rae Lakes Loop in the High Sierras of California. In a short conversation two weeks earlier we’d hatched the idea of hiking this area again. The thought lingered in both of our minds.

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John Muir Trail

As I remembered our John Muir Trail experiences, I felt deep thankfulness for that nagging, troubling, and sometimes inspiring “urge for going.” I also felt thankful that I can go, and admonished by the reminder that I have no guarantees of time and strength in my future. All is a gift. Let the planning begin!


I’m looking forward to sharing the Ozark Highlands Trail thru-hike on Sunday, January 21, at 2 p.m. Hobbs State Park’s Visitor Center is a beautiful venue. Hiker-dog will be there, too! Five Star Trails Poster 012118 Hobbs State Park