Slideshow for the 223-mile Ouachita Trail

Previously, I did a slideshow for the first 160-miles of the Ouachita Trail. When we completed the 223-miles, I never updated the slideshow to include the last 63 miles. It was a wonderful experience so please enjoy traveling along with us for 223-miles on the Ouachita Trail in five minutes.

If you’d like to read the reports of our hike, begin with Ouachita Trail’s First 51 at the (Im)Perfect Time.

 

The Ouachita Trail: Just Add Water

IMG_4910rr

Early morning vista from the trail

Ouachita (Wash’-i-taw) is a word I’ve heard all my life. As a child, I knew “Ouachita” as the name of my parents’ college. The Ouachita was also a large river that flowed through Arkansas and close to my home. It was imprinted in my memory due to a very cold dunking I took during a winter float trip.

With this hike of 70+miles, Ouachita’s Native American translation as “happy hunting grounds,” resonates with me. I would add “VERY BIG hunting grounds.” Again and again, I found myself pausing in awe of these massive woods.

IMG_4704rr

Bob approaching one of many large pines in the Ouachitas.

After completing a very dry 51 miles of the Ouachita Trail using several pre-planted water caches, we decided to skip 37 typically dry miles and begin at the Buck Knob Trailhead close to mile 88. We had wished for rain during our last hike in hopes that creeks would collect water for our next outing. On this hike, our wish was more than granted!

IMG_4671rr

Day 1 (Dec. 16) We placed one water cache with our names and dates of travel written on the side of the plastic jugs. Then we hiked from Buck Knob Trailhead to Big Brushy Shelter as the sun went down. I’d tossed an Arby’s sandwich in my pack for a quick supper. I threw the meat on the grill and toasted the buns. A fast food sandwich never tasted better. There was a light sprinkling of rain that night.

IMG_4734rr

Gage fixing breakfast

Day 2 – 3 (Dec. 17-18) Woke to a soft fog and hiked to Fiddler’s Creek Shelter with occasional light rain and drizzle. Temperatures were warm, so wetness wasn’t a concern. As the evening fell, Gage joined us at the shelter. He was thru-hiking from east to west, and we enjoyed visiting around a warm fire. He would be the only backpacker we saw during our eight days on the trail.

The next day was a short distance to Suck Mountain Shelter. We arrived at 1:30 p.m. after walking an extended ascending roadbed.

IMG_4775rr

The Suck Mountain Shelter completed the series of structures covering the length of the Ouachita Trail. The newer shelters include extended front covers and shelves as well as gravel surface in the porch area. We marveled at the amount of work and funding it must take to prepare sites, transport materials and complete the construction. The final structure is solid and meant to last!

IMG_4776

IMG_4784rr

We considered ourselves visitors to the shelters. Permanent residents included mice, dirt daubers, and barn swallows. We saw evidence of wasps from warmer seasons. During the night stereophonic coyote calls bounced around in the valleys below.

IMG_4778rr

Barn swallow nest

IMG_4788rr

Sunset at the Suck Mountain Shelter

Day 4 (Dec. 19) We had a rainy 14-mile walk to the John Archer Shelter. It was one of the earlier designs and perched unobtrusively on a hillside away from the trail. Dry clothes felt good when we arrived, and it didn’t take long to eat and crawl under my down quilt. It rained all night with periodic rounds of hard rain.

IMG_4823rr

Ranger John Archer Shelter

Day 5 (Dec. 20) We began our walk in a drizzling cloud wearing our wet clothes from the day before. Later in the day, we caught some of the only sun we’d seen in three days.

A concrete walkway across Irons Fort allowed us to cross high and dry. We spent a few minutes enjoying the views upstream and down. I later learned that in 1981, John Archer and a group of Ouachita Mountain Hikers came to this concrete bridge that had recently been built by two men from Mount Ida.

Archer wondered if the bridge withstood recent flooding of Irons Fork. He wrote, “When they came to the bridge the first comment I heard was, ‘Isn’t this a beautiful place!’ The hikers were looking up and down the creek. That made my day.” Read more in John Archer’s concise History of the Ouachita Trail 1970-1997.

Following Irons Fork crossing, we came alongside a tributary with small cascades that called for more exploration. I could have spent a whole day walking up that stream with camera and tripod, but we had trail miles to walk.

IMG_4839rr

Irons Fork concrete bridge built in 1980

IMG_4849rr

The view up Irons Fork

IMG_4867rr

Tributary to Irons Fork

After covering 12 miles, we arrived at the long downhill spur trail to Big Branch Shelter. We were relieved to find good water, though I had to backwash my Sawyer Filter between every filtering session. During the night, we listened to distant coyote calls, but our thrill came from the howls within our very own Big Branch valley. Amazing sound!

IMG_4958rr

Big Branch

IMG_4964rr

Glancing skyward while huffing and puffing my way up Blue Mountain.

Day 6 (Dec. 21) We had good weather for our hike from Big Branch to Blue Mountain, passing through great open woods. I was smitten with nostalgia during the climb as I thought back to hiking this section as a four-mile out-and-back over twenty years ago. I was surprised and a little disappointed in how difficult today’s climb felt. I chalked it up to carrying a loaded pack and the fact that I’m twenty years older than the last time I walked this trail. I looked forward to seeing the shelter that I visited then and was relieved that, unlike my body, it didn’t show its 20-years of wear.

IMG_4994rr

Blue Mountain Shelter

Day 7 (Dec. 22) It rained all day with only one pause as we got our water cache close to the Ouachita Pinnacle. It was a cold walk but only 8 miles to Big Bear Shelter, next to a small seasonal stream labeled as having “fairly reliable water.” After the rain of the past four days, it was flowing nicely, but we were glad to have our water cache and avoid lost time filtering. I privately plotted another hike to this area in the future to explore rock outcrops in this valley and to place a new journal in the shelter.

IMG_5010rr

Rock outcrops across the seasonal stream at Big Bear Shelter

During the night temperatures dropped, and rain raged strong. We were thankful to be inside the Big Bear Shelter! I slept warm under my down quilt with slight feelings of dread as I anticipated having to put wet clothes on the next morning.

IMG_5048rr

One of several vistas from the last day

Day 8 (Dec. 23) We enjoyed a 9-mile walk to the Highway 7 Trailhead. It was cold, and my feet were wet, but the big woods of the Ouachitas were beautiful every step of the way. The miles clicked off steadily as images of a big post-hike meal filled my thoughts. A hot, crispy catfish dinner from The Shack in Jessieville filled the bill as we planned our next excursion on the Ouachita Trail!

the-shack-jessieville

Trip Advisor image

Equipment fail but high praise for True Grit Running Company: I’m sorry to report a shoe fail. I had high hopes for my Altra Timp trail running shoes, but with only 125 miles of the Ouachita Trail completed, they must be retired. I’ve liked the wide toe box, sticky soles, and platform, but they’re not built for dirt and rock trail hiking.

When I returned these shoes to True Grit Running Company, owner Melissa exchanged them without hesitation and set me up with another pair of shoes that will meet my needs. I’m thankful for locally owned businesses like True Grit, and helpful service-oriented people like Melissa!

IMG_5102rr

Altra Timp Trail Runners with holes worn through the upper fabric.

IMG_5504rr

Replacement shoes from True Grit Running Company

Gathering in the Ouachitas

IMG_3358rr

Josh Hamilton makes fire from a bow drill

Each October, backpackers and hikers gather in the Ouachita Mountains to share outdoor skills, backpacking tips and reports from the trails.   The event, known as The Gathering, includes food, fellowship, and beautiful surroundings.

IMG_3391rrThis year I was honored to share Five Star Trails: The Ozarks and a report of the John Muir Trail from last summer’s trip. I like starting with the JMT to make the point that there’s no visual letdown when the mountains of Arkansas follow in the program.

IMG_3445rr

One of the views on the walk from the campground to the pavilion

Shady Lake is an ideal location in the Ouachitas. It’s a little out of the way which adds to the beauty and limits crowds in the campground. It has a homey feel, plenty of beauty, and great hiking trails.

IMG_3400rr

Sean Dupre demonstrates water purification techniques

Backpacking Arkansas (also known as BPA) is a true grassroots story. Tomas Trigg started a forum for backpackers and hikers several years ago. It gained many followers and eventually led to a desire for the online community to meet in person, hence The Gathering.

For seven years, this loosely connected community has “gathered” somewhere in the Ouachitas. Sean Dupre took the rains when Tomas relocated and wasn’t able to continue coordinating the event. Commitment to the group is reflected in the fact that that Tomas continues to maintain the website and pay for its domain. Backpacking Arkansas has now added a Facebook page so be sure to follow.

Sean did a great job coordinating The Gathering for two years, despite living in Texas. This coming year, the job goes to Mark Davis, and The Gathering tradition, seven years strong, continues.

IMG_3418rr

Hiker-dog enjoyed exploring the creek that feeds Shady Lake.

Join us next year on October 19-21, 2018. You’ll enjoy the fellowship, sharing of skills, and learning about new trails in the Ouachitas and Ozarks!

Backpacking Arkansas Hosts Nimblewill Nomad in the Ouachitas

img_6711rr

Meeting Nimblewill Nomad was an honor!

Would I like to schedule a book signing in Northwest Arkansas on October 22 or drive into the Ouachita Mountains and meet Nimblewill Nomad? The answer was easy! Saturday morning, Hiker-dog and I hopped into the Jeep and drove the 125 miles south, arriving at Shady Lake by 10:00 a.m.

img_6703

Pavilion at Shady Lake

Backpacking Arkansas (BPA) began as a web forum where hikers share knowledge, serve the trails, and draw inspiration. Once a year, an event is held where a portion of members of the forum meet and greet and share educational sessions.

img_6705rr

First aid demonstration

When we arrived, Gerry helped get me sign in. He recognized my forum name and asked about Hiker-dog. Turns out he has followed our trail stories, so it was fun to put a face to a blog name. Nimblewill was scheduled for the afternoon. We enjoyed a first aid session before breaking for lunch.

img_6715

Randy and Nimblewill enjoying lunch in the sun.

Randy, a fellow board member of the Ozark Highlands Trail Association (OHTA), was present, and so we sat in the sun and had lunch with Nimblewill, who’d driven down from Independence, Missouri.

Jackson Spencer, who completed the first 165 miles of the Ozark Highlands Trail in 4 days and change, shared some of his experiences on the trail and the mental aspects of hiking 18-20 hours a day. He and his girlfriend enjoyed visiting with members before and after his session.

img_6729rr

Jim Woolly and Jackson discuss long distance hiking

img_6743rr

Nimblewill sharing his vision for the future

Nimblewill began his session with a challenge to those present. He began to describe the beauty to be found in the Ozarks and Ouachitas while questioning the most recent addition to the list of eleven National Scenic Trails in the eastern United States.

He said the beauty of Arkansas and Missouri is on par with mountain regions anywhere in the United States and that a combined Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas and Ozark Trail in Missouri, or Trans-Ozark Trail (TOT) would meet the requirements for a National Scenic Trail. He even mentioned that the Ouachita Trail could eventually be tied into the long trail leading to Saint Louis Missouri. He mentioned that many of the great trails in the country involve some road walking to follow so connecting the Ouachita Trail would be a possibility.

Nimblewill’s session was laced with poetry. He used poetry to express ideas that might have been more difficult in narrative. In the following poem he describes the wanderlust many distance hikers feel.

Watch Nimblewill deliver his poem, “Home of the Free.”

img_6900rr

I won one of his books, Ten Million Steps! It’s his journal of his trek from the Florida Keys to Quebec, Canada, laced with poetic interludes and a real pleasure to read. My book, Five Star Trails: The Ozarks, was presented as a door prize at the end of Nimblewill’s session. It made me feel good to know that we were both published by Menasha Ridge Press.

Nimblewill is in his late 70s and still planning long walks. His next goal is to walk Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angles. One of the big challenges is getting waivers to walk some sections of Interstate Highway that cover the old route. Some states have laws forbidding foot traffic. Over morning coffee Sunday I suggested he get some type of slow vehicle permit. He walks around 3.5 miles per hour and is powered by two legs.

Nimblewill described the contents of his ultra-light pack. He said the task has been to bring your wants and needs together so that only what is necessary can be found in his pack.

img_6759rr

Nimblewill’s loaded pack weighs in at about 8-10 pounds.

Sunday morning, I was up early and had the pleasure of some time with Nimblewill. He shared some of the logistical challenges of his Route 66 trek planning. I have no doubt that he will walk the length of Route 66. I hope the states he passes through facilitate his travels because they’ll have one kind soul walking their roads while he’s passing through.

img_6786r

Paul with EtowahOutfitters visits with Nimblewill while waiting for coffee to brew.

img_6882rr

Hiker saying we must hit the trail

Sunday, after breakfast, I thought of heading back home, but my little buddy had been so patient the day before, and now she was urging me to take the  3-mile trail around Shady Lake, one I’d not hiked in more than 20 years.

img_6797rr

As always, following Hiker-dog’s lead was wise. We both felt much better from the after-breakfast exercise, and we saw some of the beauty of the Ouachitas. The old trail around Shady Lake had some spots that were hard to follow. I started down what I thought was trail and noticed Hiker-dog up above me. Once again, she was right, so I backtracked and followed her lead.

img_6782rr

Early morning on Shady Lake enticing us to walk the trail

img_6819rr

Hints at Fall color and deep green moss along the stream flowing into Shady Lake

img_6848rr

img_6841rr

Another scene along the creek entering Shady Lake

A big thank you to Backpacking Arkansas for putting this event together. Thanks also to Duane, Paul, Gerry, and others who worked to set things up and sponsor the weekend. All presenters were excellent, and the Saturday night potluck alone was worth the drive. I’ll definitely put this event on my calendar for next year!