Best of 2017 OzarkMountainHiker

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Here are my top five posts in no particular order based on views for 2017. Following these five are my personal favorites for 2017, posts that were particularly rewarding to write or that reflect on an experience I enjoyed on the trail. 

In 2012 when I first started this blog, I had no idea that it would provide such enjoyment and learning. Thank you for reading and letting me share my love of the trails! Pass OzarkMountainHiker.com along to others who love the outdoors. 

Ouachita Trail’s First 51 at the (Im)Perfect Time

Walking Toward Authenticity: Nimblewill Nomad

Hiker-Dog’s Adoption Trail 

Exploring Arkansas Features the Marinoni Scenic Area

Completing Our Goals in the Ozarks

Personal Favorites 

When in Doubt, Write 

A Special Guest on My Home Trail

New Strings

Evening Walk in the Marinoni

Hiker-Dog’s Resume 

Ouachita Trail’s First 51 at the (Im)perfect Time

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It’s too dry, too warm, and a busy time with the job. It’s the im-perfect time for hiking the first 51 miles of the Ouachita Trail (pronounced: Wash’-i-taw). But, wait too long, and I’ll hear Jimmy Buffett in my head singing, “someday I will.” So, thru-hiking the Ouachita Trail has been on my to-do list long enough. Perfect time or not, now’s the time to do this!

Bob Cable completed the Ozark Highlands Trail thru-hike with me, so I contacted him about doing this. He was ready to go, and we hoped others might join us for some of the sections.

The plan developed to do the first very dry 51 miles over a week in late November, planting water caches where needed. We’d continue our hike over Christmas break.

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Our first steps on the trail at Talimena State Park were met with a cool, sunny morning, and a pine needle carpeted forest floor. Early on, we passed through a glade-like area that reminded me of the Missouri Ozarks.

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Sometimes, mile markers were missing but usually shown with placards. Less often, we’d see USGS metal markers. 

Thanks to Michael Reed for his Ouachita Trail Map linked from his blog, The Compulsive Hiker. A portion is shown on the heading of this post.

We were surprised to see water pockets in a small creek as we approached Dead Man’s Gap where we’d stashed couple of gallon jugs the day before. I didn’t schedule Hiker-dog for this trip due to water concerns and my lack of familiarity with the trail. She was missed, but will join us on later sections.

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Small water pocket covered in leaves.

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I hadn’t planned to use the shelters regularly, but the modest distance between and the reputation of a rugged Winding Stair Mountain led me to schedule the first 51 miles around their locations. The novelty of experiencing these shelters was also a factor. It turned out to be a good plan because miles were just right and allowed some exploring time upon arrival each afternoon.

IMG_4136rrThe Rock Garden Shelter got its name honestly. The next several miles involved careful stepping. We were impressed with how different the Ouachitas felt from the Ozarks. Part of it was the increased number of pine trees, but I think the foundations of the differences stemmed from geology. The Ouachitas were formed by the colliding of geological plates while the Ozarks developed from a volcanic uplift, both followed by many years of shaping from erosion.

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The shelters included a fire ring and picnic table, luxuries by our standards. The fire ring grill and plenty of dry wood made cooking easy. I used instant potatoes as a base for each dinner. The biggest challenge was getting those handles without burnt fingers.

On a couple of mornings, I used my fuel tab stove for oatmeal and coffee since no simmering was needed.

We arrived at the Holson Valley Shelter in the early afternoon and watched the view into Holson Valley as darkness fell. Beautiful coyote howls and owl calls filled the cool night.

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We were puzzled by this lone rock structure a few yards from the trail. It appeared to be a smoker or grill, but there were no other indications of civilization in the area.

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It was smooth sailing on this old abandoned roadbed leading up Winding Stairs Mountain toward the shelter by the same name, placed close to the footings from a now absent fire tower. We enjoyed reading through shelter journals. What follows is one of the more artistic entries from this mountain peak journal with a popular quote by Shanti Devi.

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I woke during the night and could barely see the picnic table through the thick cloud that enveloped Winding Stair Mountain. The next morning we began our hike with soft lighting provided by a gently lifting fog.

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Red Spring got its name honest. The red of iron tainted water puddled around the PVC pipe. A covered concrete cylinder captured the spring water that trickled steadily from the end of the pipe.

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Rock gardens greeted us occasionally but less frequently than the miles earlier in the trail.

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We scouted Big Cedar Creek before beginning our hike and determined that no water stash was needed. The water was clear and easily filtered. We filled all containers and enjoyed lunch next to this beautiful creek’s rocky shore.

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Big Cedar Creek

Both signage and maintenance are impressive on the Ouachita Trail. We saw signs at important junctions and examples of recent work to keep the trail clear of trees. Thank you FoOT (Friends of the Ouachita Trail). The stone footings for this sign appeared to have been there for many years.

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The State Line Shelter was perched just below the trail shortly after crossing into Arkansas. There was just enough space behind the shelter for Bob’s tent. Powerful winds blew through the night.

The next morning we enjoyed stopping at the Pioneer Cemetery. Bill Hefley’s stone was the only granite marker.  All others were native stone with illegible lettering. We were interested in the coins and small rocks placed on many of the headstones. I later learned that it’s common for veterans to leave coins paying tribute to the deceased.

A sign at the entrance shares the legend that during the Civil War a young girl was collecting firewood for her family (other sources say water from a nearby spring). She never returned. Her frozen body was found in a tree where she sought refuge from wolves. It is said that her spirit continues to haunt Rich Mountain, evidenced by strange lights seen in the trees. I thought of the previous nights’ coyote howls and starlight peeking through stunted oaks on the high ridges of Rich Mountain. It’s easy to see how the story of haunting continues today.

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As we approached Queen Wilhelmina State Park, we passed several impressive rock walls on this fast level section of trail, hindered only by occasional green briers that arched across our path.

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Walking through the campground at Queen Wilhelmina State Park with the Lodge uphill in the distance was a joy, knowing a high calorie meal was in our immediate future.

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Queen Wilhelmina State Park Lodge

Our next steps will continue following the trail toward the east. This first dose of the Ouachita was a treat, so we’re looking forward more Ouachita Trail miles to come!

Links to other sections of this the Ouachita Trail project:

Ouachita Trail: Just Add Water

Ouachita Trail: Just Add Ice

Ouachita Trail Completed 

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An excerpt from Michael Reed’s map #13 east of Queen Wilhelmina State Park, our next section.

Luxurious Ouachita Trail Base Camp

 

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Mountain Thyme B&B, a beautiful base camp for the Ouachita Trail

Mike and Rhonda, owners of Mountain Thyme Bed & Breakfast, probably didn’t select their property specifically because it was two miles south of the Ouachita Trail’s intersection with Scenic Highway 7, but I think it was a brilliant choice! If Becca and I truly want to get away for relaxation balanced with exercise, the Mountain Thyme “Base camp” is ideal. Rooms are reasonably priced, and the best part is that there’s nothing to do there but relax and enjoy the woods, delicious breakfasts, and afternoon cookies.

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Yogurt and granola to be followed by omelet and sausage

A future trip on my to-do list involves covering the Ouachita Trail from it’s beginning in Oklahoma and concluding the extended backpacking trip with a stay at Mountain Thyme for some post-hike pampering. I’ve told Rhonda and Mike they could hose me off in the yard before letting me inside. This visit was for the celebration of our wedding anniversary and a chance for some early morning day hikes.

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Short Mountain overlook on Hunt’s Loop

Hunt’s Loop Trail begins at Iron Spring on Hwy 7 and climbs Short Mountain before intersecting with the Ouachita Trail. Hunt’s Loop has become a favorite over the years and is one of those trails you enjoy doing in all seasons and conditions.

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Stream running through Iron Spring Recreation Area with remnants of an iron water gate installed by the CCC.

I’ll hike Hunt’s Loop in different directions to add interest. If I have a little extra time and want some more miles, I’ll tack on the 1-mile out-and-back to the Moonshine Shelter on the Ouachita Trail. No evidence of a whiskey still but a nice place to take a break and read a few entries in the shelter journal.

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Moonshine Shelter

I like to walk Hunt’s Loop early and then make it back to “base camp” in time for breakfast. At 6:15 p.m. on our most recent trip, I surprised a black bear a few yards off of the trail, or as I said later, “the bear surprised me.”  I heard a low huff and looked toward a pine sapling thicket to see the back side of a black bear’s head and shoulders as it tromped quickly out of sight. I’d never heard that type of stomping on the ground before. I was pleased to have seen my first Ouachita bear! No photos. Barely got a look with the two lenses in my head!

Iron Spring is a great place for a family picnic or a restroom break when driving down Scenic Highway 7. There are pit toilets, but no drinking water unless you filter out of the creek.

GPS for Mountain Thyme B&B “Base Camp”

34°45’05.7″N 93°03’35.0″W

GPS for Iron Spring Recreation Area and location of Hunt’s Loop Trailhead

34°45’44.5″N 93°04’15.4″W 

Just to clarify, I don’t do product or service endorsements. I just like the place!

A few more scenes…

Old Trail Revisited

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Certain we’d be attacked by multitudes of ticks, I sprayed down my pants cuffs. By the time Hiker (dog) and I stepped onto the Ouachita Trail at mile 165, the sun was high.  I was feeling a little early trip anxiety because I was violating a long-held practice of avoiding backpacking in July.  The first section is pretty exposed, allowing a lot of undergrowth, but only a few ticks managed to climb up my pants to be easily picked off.

As we approached Green Thumb Spring, I wondered if there would be water.  I’d packed enough to last to Crystal Prong but was concerned with having to share with Hiker if other sources were dry. Hiker saw the water first and lowered herself slowly into the dark murky fluid with an expression of bliss.  I realized the water of Green Thumb Spring was much different that what I saw there twenty years ago, probably due to the difference in seasons.  There was a slow seep below the black pipe where I had filled my water pouch with crystal cold water in a few seconds years before.

The bandana captured a lot of stuff that would have clogged my filter.

The bandana captured a lot of stuff that would have clogged my filter.

To be safe, I decided it would be necessary to filter some of this nasty stuff.  I used my bandana to filter the big stuff before using the Sawyer filter.  This worked well and the water was usable.

Climbing to the ridge just past Green Thumb Spring, I remembered looking to the northwest and seeing Forked Mountain many years before.  I kept glancing to the left as I topped out, but the summer foliage blocked most mountain views.  Still, I enjoyed the memory of my first sight of that odd shaped mountain twenty years before.

Arriving at Crystal Prong was a relief. The water was clear and cool, even on July 3rd.  Temperatures were in the mid to upper 80s with lows during the night around 60-degrees.  It was still summer with mosquitoes and ticks.  The promise of cooler temps was enough for me to make this trip if for no other reason than the novelty of backpacking Arkansas in July.  I didn’t see one other backpacker during my four days on the trail.

Hiker cooling down in Crystal Prong.

Hiker cooling down in Crystal Prong.

Camping at Crystal Prong was a treat.  I’d camped there with my nephew and father twenty years before.  On that earlier outing, I don’t remember learning any significant outdoor skills other than to avoid getting too close to the water in winter.  My nephew slipped while exploring the shore and soaked one shoe which made for some discomfort that cold evening.

I learned a couple of lessons on this, my second visit to Crystal Prong in twenty years.

Lesson one: The “no-see-ums” that seemed so benign were actually biting me during my evening meal.  The little dots they left turned into itchy pinpoints the next day and continued to provide itchy entertainment the following week.  A little repellant would have avoided this.  I’ll know better next time.

Lesson two: Always do a final check of your packing list.  My spoon was nowhere to be found.  I stirred my pasta with a stick and used a small piece of metal from my stove as a short spoon.  Less than ideal but it worked.  As I ate my pasta, I pictured myself drinking potato soup the next night.

Lesson three: Hiker is a good camp guard dog.  You wouldn’t think it because she’s everybody’s best friend, never growling or barking in anger.  During this night, she heard a suspicious sound and gave several barks that were very different than I’d heard before.  She seemed to say, “Noooo! This is our campsite.  Stay away!” She also growled like I’d never heard.  Whatever troubled her left the area.

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During the night I heard what I will call a “preachy screech owl.”   The initial long high-to-low screech was followed by a series of random and rhythmic scolding hoots unlike what I’ve heard before.  This occurred two times within a couple of minutes and then all was silent.  Hiker didn’t react to this sound.

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Butterfly at the edge of Crystal Prong Creek

My memory of Crystal Prong from twenty years earlier was much different than the way I found it on this trip.  Still beautiful, yet different.  Hiker and I took a couple of dips in the creek to cool down. The sun slowly set and stars began to peek through the darkening sky.  Lightening bugs soared overhead and across the creek like our own private little campsite meteors.

The next day (July 4) was a marathon hike.  Crystal Prong to Lake Sylva for a little break before beginning the return trip to Brown Creek; a fifteen-mile day.  We were beat so Brown Creek was a pretty sight.  The water was cool and clear.  The fireworks were a nice distant sound that evening and potato soup (supplemented with my dehydrated golden baby potatoes) was delicious.  My newly found spoon worked well.

Brown Creek Shelter

Brown Creek Shelter

Earlier that day we took a break at  Brown Creek Shelter.  I enjoy reading entries from shelter journals and sat on the steps for a while.  As I was returning the notebook, I noticed a plastic Wendy’s spoon in the storage box.  Backpackers and trail maintainers occasionally leave small items that might be of use to future hikers.  I slipped the spoon into my shirt pocket and thought about creamy broccoli potato soup.

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Shelter storage box.

Several hiking buddies call me “Tater” because of my habit of packing dehydrated potatoes.  As I walked away from that shelter, I thought they might change my trail name to “Spoon.”  During a winter thru-hike of the Ozark Highlands Trail, I let my plastic spoon sit on the bottom of a hot pan. By the time I smelled it the spoon was firmly melted to the pan.  After prying it free and sanding it against a rock, the spoon was functional.  It would have worked better if I hadn’t had any front teeth.  The next day we camped at Lynn Hollow and a metal spoon was at the fire ring.  I still have that metal spoon.  The trails seem to provide what I need when I need it, especially where eating utensils are concerned.

Ummm good!  Creamy potato soup and my new spoon.

Ummm good! Creamy broccoli soup with dehydrated potatoes and my new spoon.

 

Evening temperatures were cool.  Originally I’d planned to use only my 2/3-length sleeping pad and silk-weight bag liner.  I thought my 40-degree bag would be too warm, even if used as a quilt.  Turns out that bag would have felt just right.  I’d packed a light emergency bag and used it each night.  I was comfortable.

July 5 was to be a shorter recovery day after the previous day’s 15-mile trek.  To give Hiker a break, I carried her pack but made sure she watched me stuff it into my pack as if this would increase her appreciation of the favor I was doing for her.  We took our time at breakfast then started out at a leisurely pace up and out of the Brown Creek drainage.  We stopped at Flatside Pinnacle and hiked up for the view.  The sun was already high, but the views were a treat.

The view from Flatside Pinnacle

The view from Flatside Pinnacle

 

We’d planned to spend the final night back at Crystal Prong but decided to hike farther to the beautiful little creek we’d enjoyed on our first day hiking in. I had entertained the idea of taking a nap there and hiking on out that same day, but Hiker convinced me to make other plans.  She folded and was down for a long nap while I enjoyed the water and then slept in my tent.  Since we both had some good rest, I decided we’d get an early start the next morning.  Sometimes dogs know best and I was wise to follow Hiker’s lead.

Cool, shaded creek close to our campsite.

Hiker making sure I understood we were done for the day.

Hiker making sure I understood we were done for the day.

July 6 we rose at 4:30 a.m. and began hiking by 5:30, the first 15-minutes with headlamp.  This was some pleasant hiking.  The only challenge was “accepting” the occasional spiderweb.  These Ouachita spiders weave a nasty web.  They are spring loaded and almost push you back when you hit them.  I found that it was much easier to just walk through and let them wrap around you.  Then while continuing to walk, I’d pull from above and below my eyes which would remove most of the web except for my hair.   This strong “spiderweb mousse” pasted my hair firmly into place.

Stopping for a break at Oak Mountain Shelter with spiderwebs holding my hair firmly in place.

Stopping for a break at Oak Mountain Shelter with spiderwebs holding my hair firmly in place.

 

Forty-five miles of walking on just over twenty-two miles of trail filled four wonderful days.  By the time I began to backtrack our route, I was thankful that shuttle plans hadn’t worked out.  Seeing the same trail in both directions gave me a better grip on this section and allowed for a more reflective walk. The memories from past treks on this same ground added a richness to the trip. You never really walk the same trail twice.

Now I’m ready for some new trail!  Next up when the weather cools is Lake Sylva to Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

A few random pics:

Maiden voyage with Solo Wood Stove.  It worked well!

Maiden voyage with this Solo Wood Stove I picked up at Pack Rat in Fayetteville. It worked well!

Dehydrated pasta and sauce.  At home, cook the pasta about 6 minutes then dehydrate.  One of my favorites on the trail!

Dehydrated pasta and sauce. At home, cook the pasta about 6 minutes then dehydrate. One of my favorites on the trail!

Color is a benefit of hiking in warmer weather.

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Hiker trying to carry a turtle.  She gave up quickly.

Hiker trying to carry a turtle. She gave up quickly.

 

 

 

Yard Work in God’s Backyard

Lake Alma Trail mile marker 3.5

Lake Alma Trail mile marker 3.5

While working on a local trail this morning, Clifford, a fellow volunteer said, “When I tell people what I’m doing out here, they think I’m crazy!   But I love it.”  Exercise, fresh air, beautiful surroundings, and good fellowship, all for free.  We both agreed it was nice to do yard work in God’s back yard.

Clifford doing some side-hilling on the Lake Alma Trail.

Clifford doing some side-hilling on the Lake Alma Trail.

As we continued our work, Clifford stopped, looked at his watch, and commented that he had just met his Arkansas Master Naturalists certification requirement of 40 volunteer hours.  About 30-minutes later we reached our stopping point for the day.  We walked the short section several times commenting on the difference our work had made.

Little Frog Bayou

Little Frog Bayou

I continued around the trail with Pulaski in hand to chop out several little stubs I’d been noticing on my daily walks.  As I hiked along thinking of many workdays on this trail since March of 2012, I began to realize what a wonderful treasure we have here.

I experienced a sense of deep gratification and thought of the thousands of steps that have already been taken on this trail.  Some of our local hikers, especially children, got their start on this trail.  The Lake Alma Trail is having an impact on the health of our community.  I know it has benefited my own health and wellbeing.

I began to think of some of the trail volunteers I’ve worked with and how committed they are to making hiking trails available to others.  Working with them has given me a new appreciation for every step I take on a trail.

Here’s a short list of reasons to volunteer to do trail building and maintenance.

1. Trail work is good exercise – It is a full body workout for sure.  No gym charges and no gym smells.

2. Good fellowship – Great chance to work with good people.

3. Satisfaction – Tangible results from work is rewarding.  It is nice to hike a section of trail where you’ve done some work.

4.  Trail work blurs the lines between work and recreation.  Nice to have an activity that you can frame any way that suits you.   If you want others to think you have a strong work ethic, tell them you’re doing trail work.  They don’t have to know how much you enjoy it.

5. Building or maintaining trails is a way to express your gratitude for creation and share the beauty with others.   A well built trail allows many caring eyes to view an area and increase the likelihood that it will be protected.

If you want to be a trail volunteer, how do you get started?

1. Place a small trash bag in your pack and pick up any trash you see on the trails.

2. Occasionally hike with loppers and cut limbs back that brush against you as you hike.  Kick rocks off of the trail or drag small trees off the trail as you hike.

3. Be part of a volunteer work crew on a workday.  All you need is lunch, water, and work gloves.  You might want your own loppers but most tools are provided.

4. Join a hiking community.  If you’re in Arkansas, the Ozark Highlands Trail Association (OHTA) or Friends of the Ouachita Trail (FoOT) are great places to make contact for volunteer opportunities.  Membership is inexpensive and your money goes to maintaining trails.  Go to the Lake Alma Trail Facebook page to volunteer on a local community trail here in western Arkansas.

Nice place for a break on the Lake Alma Trail.

Nice place for a break on the Lake Alma Trail.