Icy Home Trail

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Years ago we asked my youngest daughter about vacation ideas. This young lady is now more widely traveled than her father, but at that time she named several options that we’d already visited. When asked why she liked these places, she said, “Because we’ve been there.”

After 160 new miles on the Ouachita Trail, I understood my daughter’s feelings and looked forward to a walk on my “home trail.” The familiar Lake Alma Trail is comfortable, but continues to provide new sights or sounds. Today was no exception.

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McWater Falls

With temperatures in the low 30s, ice remained from the previous days of temperatures dipping into the teens.

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McWater Falls

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Ice patterns at the edge of Little Frog Bayou fascinated me. I ended up spending some time along the shore while Hiker-dog enjoyed some leash-free time. IMG_5466rrI’m thankful for the comfort of a familiar trail and my little hiking partner’s energy. Below are a few ice patterns I noticed while on our home trail walk. 

I’m looking forward to sharing the Ozark Highlands Trail and others at Hobbs State Park on Sunday, January 21st at 2 p.m.

No Nonsense Guide to Day Hiking – Do I Go or Do I Stay?

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Darian, Delaney, and Trey enjoying a fall day on an Ozarks trail.

What do I wear? What do I take with me? Where and when should I go? Will a bear get me?

Many questions come to mind when you consider going on a hike, especially if it’s your first. Thinking about a few good questions can ensure that you want to continue hiking after your early experiences in the woods.

This is not a comprehensive day hiking guide, but my thoughts come from personal experience and a few mistakes along the way. If you want more information about hiking and trails, pick up a hiking guide for your area.

What do I wear?

You can wear almost anything and get away with it on the trail. Let function, not fashion, be your guide.  We’ll look at this from the ground up since happy feet are essential for success.

  1. Wool blend socks are among a hiker’s most important pieces of clothing. Use wool blend socks and avoid cotton unless you like blisters and soggy, smelly feet. Any tennis shoes of reasonable strength are fine for day hiking.
  2. Clothing – If the weather is nice, any clothes will do. If there’s a chance it might be cold and/or wet, avoid cotton. Cotton gets wet (making you colder) and then will not dry out in the humid Ozarks. For added insurance against the elements, put warm gloves and a hat in a rain jacket pocket and stuff it in the bottom of your daypack.

What do I take with me?

As little as possible is my short answer, but there are ten essentials you’ll want to have with you on every outing.

  1. Water and access to water – Put your water in a bottle or a bladder in your pack. Rather than purchase a bottle, you can recycle any plastic water bottle. I carry a small Sawyer water filter in my daypack in case I run low. It doesn’t add much weight and has made me a few friends on the trail when others needed water.
  2. Food – Snacks that you’re used to eating are what you should take on the trail. This is no time to try something new in the food department.
  3. Extra clothing – Think protection from the elements. If it looks like cold, rainy weather, carry an extra layer and be sure that rain jacket is stuffed in the bottom of your pack.
  4. Navigation – Don’t assume that you can’t get lost on a well-used trail. Like Jeremiah Johnson, “I’ve never been lost, just confused for a month or so.” Fortunately, I’ve only been confused an hour or so, but it can be a little scary if you’re not prepared. A photocopy of the appropriate pages from a trail guide in a zip-lock bag is always a good idea, and a compass can help you avoid confusion. Don’t count on the compass app or GPS on your phone. Batteries don’t last.
  5. Illumination – A small headlamp or flashlight in your pack can be a big help if a hike takes longer than anticipated. I carry a small LED light in my daypack at all times.
  6. Sun and bug protection – A little sunscreen can make you a happy and healthy hiker. Bug spray around the cuffs of your pants will discourage ticks and other crawling insects. Check for ticks often, even in cooler weather. I can usually feel the little guys climbing up my legs and pick them off before they attach.
  7. First Aid supplies – I like a zip-lock with some bandaids and any medicines I might need if stranded for a while. Keep it simple and light then forget about it until you need it.
  8. Fire – I always carry a lighter just in case.
  9. Emergency shelter – Cut an 8-10-inch hole close to the bottom of a large trash bag then stuff it in the bottom of your pack and forget about it. If you need shelter, sit on top of your daypack with the bag over you like a small tent. The opening allows you to see and breath but protects from the elements. It’s like having cheap insurance policy on your trip.
  10. Most ten essentials lists include repair kit, but for day hiking a small pocketknife is sufficient. One of my hiking poles has some duct tape wrapped around it for emergencies. I’ve used this twice to reattach shoe soles for other hikers.

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Where should I go?

Fortunately for those in the River Valley and Ozarks, the answer is, “Hike anywhere your feet will take you.” We live in one of the best locations in the country for hiking, especially through the fall and winter.

Begin with 1-2 trail miles. I say trail miles because hiking on most trails is more demanding than walking a paved path.  I learned this lesson many years ago on the Seven Hollows Trail at Petit Jean State Park. I was sure we could do four miles in just over an hour since that was our pace on pavement. Two hours later as it was getting dark, my wife and I finished our exhausting hike. Even as an experienced hiker, I always allow about one hour for every two miles of hiking distance.

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Copperhead in the Marinoni Scenic Area

What about the bears and snakes?

Bear sightings are rare because our sounds and smells alert bears to our presence. I’ve only seen two bears in Arkansas, and both were at a distance. They avoid humans when possible.

Many fear snakes, but they also avoid people. Just don’t step on or antagonize a snake and you shouldn’t have a problem.

Deer season coincides with some of the best times of year to hike. I tie a hunter-orange bandanna to my daypack year round and avoid impersonating a deer while in the woods. I’ve never had a problem.

Creek crossings are a real danger in the woods. If you have any doubts about crossing safely, turn around and go back the way you came or go upstream looking for wide areas in the creek bed.

Always tell a friend or family member your itinerary, even if it’s a short day hike. Do this whether hiking alone or with a group.

Do I go or do I stay?

Hiking has enriched my life, enhanced my health, and connected me with some great folks. It’s a great big beautiful world out there. Get out and enjoy!

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Jim Warnock authored Five Star Trails: The Ozarks, a trail guidebook that covers the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri. He has thru-hiked the 180-mile Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas as well as the 210-mile John Muir Trail in California. The Ouachita Trail is next on his list. Follow his adventures at OzarkMountainHiker.com.

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Five Star Trails: The Ozarks is in bookstores and available online.

Novice hiker prescription for healthy and happy hiking: Hike the Lake Alma Trail from the picnic area to the waterfall and back (2-mile round trip). Next outing, hike to the Hexagon House and back (3-mile round trip). Gradually work up to hiking the entire 4.2-mile loop. Many trails lend themselves to this approach for increasing distance and endurance.

A map for the Lake Alma Trail is on page 2 of this link:  CAS900 Alma Park

LAT Map 2

100 Steps

 

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Here are a few photos from an assignment I thought up during a morning hike on my home trail. I took a photo using my smartphone camera every 100 steps, allowing myself to move up to ten steps from each stopping point to locate a photo.

This little exercise had a couple of effects. One was the realization that 100 steps pass quickly on the trail. Another was that I paid closer attention to what I was seeing every step of the way. An added effect was I learned my cell phone memory fills up quickly and that I prefer the flexibility of my real camera. Nevertheless, it was a good experiment.

Fiery Sky Over Lake Alma

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Eric Scowden and I hiked to The Point well before dark and determined where to place our tripods. In the water was the best spot. As we prepared our cameras I asked, “Would this be a bad time to tell Tim Ernst’s cottonmouth story?”

Eric had been at Tim’s slideshow so we were both remembering it at the same time as we stood in grassy water close to shore. We were not waist-deep in water as Tim had been and there were no boulders for cottonmouths to get eye-to-eye with us.
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The show began at 9 p.m. with color still in the sky but the brightness and sounds were still startling and beautiful.

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Plant growth at the bottom of the frame where we stood in the water.

Delayed percussive booms traveled across Lake Alma with jarring impact. On the hike out, we heard continued fireworks provided by local residents, mixed with distant thunder provided by Mother Nature. I was glad that Hiker-dog was hunkered down at home since she doesn’t care for loud noises, though she may have been fascinated by the fiery skies over Lake Alma.

With lightning showing thorough the foliage in the distance, we spent some time experimenting with light painting and long exposures. Eric took a photo of me swinging my headlamp around to illuminate the scene.

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Thanks to Eric for the photo coaching. His advice helped me capture some pleasing photos of our small town fireworks show.

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Follow this link to download a pdf of the Alma Park Map 2017.

Be sure to check out Tim Ernst’s website and journal for wilderness stories and photography.

New Lake Alma Trail and Disc Golf Map

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The following link will open a pdf of the Lake Alma Trail Map and Disc Golf Map, suitable for printing or using with your electronic device. We’ll eventually post this link on the City of Alma website. Hardcopies are being distributed through Arkansas Tourism Visitor Centers.

Alma Park Map 2017

  • Thank you to Western Arkansas Planning and Development Commission and Rep Charlotte Douglas for design grant.
  • Thank you Crawford County Advertising and Promotion Commission for printing grant.
  • Thanks to Mayor Keith Greene, the City of Alma staff, and Harry McWater, for technical assistance and support.
  • Thank you to Arkansas Master Naturalists for inspiring me to invest the time to write grants!
  • Thank you to Calvert McBride Printers in Fort Smith
  • Thank you to Kristian Underwood, for his commitment to producing beautiful and functional maps, whether for a city park or the Ozark Highlands Trail!

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New Map of Lake Alma Trail and Rec Areas

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Coming soon! A beautiful map of the Lake Alma Trail, Disc Golf and recreation areas designed by Underwood Geographics.

  • Thank you to Western Arkansas Planning and Development Commission and Rep Charlotte Douglas for design grant.
  • Thank you Crawford County Advertising and Promotion Commission for printing grant.
  • Thanks to Mayor Keith Greene, the City of Alma staff, and Harry McWater, for technical assistance and support. 
  • Thank you to Arkansas Master Naturalists for inspiring me to invest the time to write grants!
  • Thank you to Calvert McBride Printers in Fort Smith
  • Thank you to Kristian Underwood, for his commitment to producing beautiful and functional maps, whether for a city park or the Ozark Highlands Trail!

We’ll be able to share this map/brochure in print and digital forms soon!

LAT Map 2

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Going With the Flow on Our “Home Trail”

IMG_1190rrI woke at midnight to a lightning show and intense rain. I pulled back the window curtains to get a better look then went back to sleep anticipating this morning’s walk on my “home trail,” alive with flowing water.IMG_1213rrBluffs rained down along my approach to Mc Water Falls. This was a good sign and meant I was in for a treat.IMG_1204rrMcWater Falls ran strong and the water almost seemed to generate its own breeze in the hollow below the falls.IMG_1219rrSometimes you catch yourself entranced as you look down a trail. Colors seem deeper and filled with contrast after a storm.IMG_1220rrWe heard Little Frog Bayou long before arriving at the bridge. I exclaimed to Hiker-dog, “This is how you fill up a lake!” The bridge had held strong, so we crossed but not without sitting in the middle for a few minutes to appreciate the roar.

I enjoy seeing, hearing and even feeling water when hiking in the Ozarks. The best hikes tend to be the ones where you get your feet wet. Today was no exception!

When in doubt, write.

As a child, I thought writing was magic. For real writers, words must flow without effort in finished form, or so I thought.

My senior English teacher was Inez Taylor. She was pretty tough but got me excited about writing. I worked particularly hard on a short story about a newspaper photographer who realized he wanted to make a career change as he photographed a tragic fire scene. Ms. Taylor liked the story, especially my description of the photographer’s boss. This positive experience was memorable but didn’t transfer into continued writing.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m an educator, working with young children. In a workshop by a wonderful teacher named Dee Post, I learned some strategies for leading children in writing. I applied what I learned and ended up creating some fun products with the children in my school. Later, I felt the desire to share my thoughts about learning and began writing short features in our school’s newsletter. Slowly my confidence increased.

Over the years, I grew to love hiking, largely by reading trail guides by Tim Ernst.  My desire to share trails with others led me to write short blogposts about my outdoor adventures. I discovered a beautiful regional publication in Northwest Arkansas called @Urban, now known as Do South Magazine.

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October 2012 issue of @Urban, later to become Do South Magazine

In September of 2012, while working with volunteers to build a trail around Lake Alma, I wanted to share this trail with others. I was reminded of something my mother often said, “When in doubt, take a step.” One morning while browsing the @Urban Magazine (now Do South),I decided to email Marla Cantrell, Managing Editor, and propose an article about the new Lake Alma Trail.

Marla responded by asking if I could share something I’d written. I sent one of my school newsletters that included the story of one of my former students and a book review I’d written for an education publication. Her short response the next day was, “I love your writing.” An award-winning writer like Marla Cantrell making this statement had a strong impact on me. She went on to ask for a 700-word article about the Lake Alma Trail and photos for their October issue. That article was “Lake Alma Trail: A Trail for All Reasons.” IMG_0199rrMarla Cantrell became an important influence in my writing. I told her I should have paid tuition with each article written because of her excellent coaching and encouragement. Writing still didn’t flow like magic, but it was worth the challenge because of the chance that my words might open others to new learning and beauty.

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October 2016 article by Marla Cantrell in Do South Magazine

In October of 2016, I was honored by a Do South article written by Marla about the publication of my first book, Five Star Trails: The Ozarks. I’m thankful for my mother’s advice to take action in spite of my doubts. I’m thankful for mentors and encouragers along the way and for readers who’ve shared in my joy of continued learning and discovery.


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An unforeseen pleasure of writing this book has been working with a great group of professionals. A few words of thanks to the following individuals:

Tim Jackson, Acquisitions Editor, for asking me to write a trail guide for the Ozarks, and for guidance during the two years we worked on this book.
Scott McGrew for his beautiful work with mapping and cover design.
Kerry Smith for copy editing and insightful clarifying questions.
Laura Frank, proofreader, for attention to detail.
Holly Cross, Managing Editor, for support and guidance through the writing and publishing process.
Tanya Sylvan, Marketing, for promotional expertise and encouraging me to share on the Menasha Ridge Press Blog.