Niagara Falls and work travel

2018 was a great year for a lot of reasons. I’m progressing in my career and I’ve never been in a better place in my life, I finally found myself in a job that I love waking up and going to every day that also happens to include the opportunity to travel for work periodically. This January marks 3 years since I got out of the cloud of VA prescribed medication that almost destroyed my life. My relationship with my wife and my family is better than ever and I have a genuine love of life that has been growing stronger and stronger since I started using the outdoors, and specifically hiking and backpacking as a way to safely ween myself off of the pharmaceutical industry’s teat.

With all that being said, 2018 was not a great year for me in regards to trail miles. I had a job transition in April that took our family from South Texas to Nashville, and even living in Tennessee (a backpackers mecca), I barely managed to fit in a handful of trips over the second part of the year while trying to balance my new responsibilities with the work travel opportunities that were presented to me. I frequently bat back and forth between the drive to be hyper ambitious, fueled by some recent success, and the desire to give everything up and make travel and backpacking my full time focus. Obviously it isn’t practical to leave a career that pays well and is genuinely fun and challenging. But it’s difficult to shake the urge to just take off and leave all the stress of modern life behind. No more deadlines, projects, office hours or typical responsibility to worry about. The idea of spending the days and weeks focusing on the beauty and simplicity of what’s immediately around you is a siren call to some of us. Living in middle Tennessee the drive to Springer Mountain, Georgia and the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is quick enough to be an extended day trip.

But for now I’m staying practical and taking advantage of the travel opportunities that my career presents. Most recently I had the incredible, and incredibly poor timed opportunity to visit Buffalo, New York in January. We lucked out for the most part and got to stay for a week that was relatively warm for the northeast and we avoided any major snow storms (by a matter of hours on the return flight). This trip felt like the perfect cap to a 2018, when we’d taken a few trips around eastern and middle Tennessee chasing the many waterfalls that snake through the local topography. It was a frigid day in the middle teens when we made our way to the American side of the falls, at dusk so that we could see them in the daylight and at night. We got some cool pictures and an amazing video of the falls, but Niagara is a wonder that is only done justice in person.

The Lone Star Hiking Trail: Day 3

My third day on the LSHT ended up being my last on this particular trip. From the minute I woke up to the heavy tapping of rain pouring from the forest canopy onto my rain fly I knew that this day would be different than the past two. The ground at my feet was soaked, the temperature had dropped during the night and my gear and clothing was still damp from the day before. The worst of it all was the fact that I no longer had dry shoes or socks to wear, and my feet were worse for wear now. On the previous day’s pursuit of the 20 mile day I had neglected my feet for the entire second half of my day and I now had several large, painful blisters on each foot. I spent most of the first hour of daylight doctoring my feet with moleskin while I boiled water and cooked the mountain house meal that I had skipped the night before. Once I got my hammock broken down and stowed, cleared as much of the standing water off of my rain fly as possible and stowed it, I was on my way. After another 4 miles on the sandy, flooded trails that had swollen to a full blown creek with all the rain of the past 2 days the trail came out of the woods and followed a forest road for most of the next 4 miles.

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Walking on the forest road was much quicker than navigating through the underbrush and around dead fall blocking the trail in the forest, in a futile attempt to keep my already soaked feet as dry as possible. The down side to walking on the forest road was that with the absence of mental stimulus that comes with trying to find a dry, clear footpath in a rainstorm. I was now painfully aware of each and every blister on my feet, I was also becoming painfully aware of how hard it was raining on this day. That terrible, heavy rain that makes you think “I’ll wait this out, it can’t last forever”. The truth is that it doesn’t last forever, but sometimes it lasts all day. This was one of those days. I decided to listen to an audible book to help pass the time and keep my mind occupied. After a little over an hour and a few road changes I came back to a forest path that was mostly dry, but my feet were still wet, I was cold and wet and my spirits were in the tank. But  I kept on the path, a little while into the path I passed the 30 mile marker. That was a small victory for my morning. I tapped it with my hand as I passed, like I’d done with all of the others and thought “only 16 more for the day”, as I continued down the path.

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There were many stretches of trail over the next 5 miles that switched between dry pine needle strewn forest path and deep pools of water that required you to soak your feet up past your ankles or walk a good distance off the trail through the underbrush in order to keep your feet dry. At this point I was painfully aware of how badly I’d neglected my feet up to this point so I opted for the latter option. I had done a decent job of keeping all new water sources out of my shoes for most of the morning. That was until I got to the spillway. Out of the blue there is a portion of the trail where you come to a paved road and several houses. There are no tree markings at this point, just a T in the road. So after pulling out my trail map and finding where I was, I saw that I needed to go left about 200 yards to the pump house that sits on the “lake”. The trail map says that there is a hose behind the pump house where you can fill your water without having to filter. This was great news to me since I had been out of water for the last couple of miles. After a quick refill my spirits rose, for all of about 2 minutes, until I got to the path that crosses the spillway. At this point just a moss covered concrete slab with water rushing quickly over it. The moss made the path slippery so I had to move slowly to avoid being swept away in the current of water that was leading off into the forest to my right. The water was already ankle deep and fast moving. The combination of the two quickly soaked my shoes and socks once again.

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After this my spirits were at an all time low. But I continued on into the forest until coming to parking lot 8 where the trail forks, one path leading to the highway and the other leading down into the forest. I took the path into the forest for about a mile before realizing that I couldn’t remember seeing a trail marker since leaving parking lot 8. As I was telling myself I would follow the path for a little longer to see if I could find a trail marker I came face to face with one of the only other hikers that I encountered on this trip. We exchanged “afternoon” before he let me know that I was indeed off of the LSHT and was currently on an ORV path. “Its a big loop I like to hike to add miles to my day hike” he told me before asking how far I was going today. After I told him that I was planning on thru hiking the trail he came back with “You know they’re calling for tornadoes tonight don’t you? I wouldn’t want to be out in the woods if one of them comes through”. After this I agreed that I, in fact, did not want to be in the forest if a tornado came through. Especially given my already miserable conditions. At this point I made the decision to hike the mile or so back to parking lot 8 and call for a taxi ride back to my truck, about 35 highway miles away. After fighting waterlogged fingers and a wet phone screen for about 10 minutes, I managed to get a  hold of a taxi company that knew where I was at, and managed to snap a crappy quality picture of what the trail looked like at this point in the afternoon, after over 24 hours of continuous heavy rain.

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In the end, the trail got the best of me on this trip. Both physically (feet) and mentally (rain). But I left trail head 8 happy that I had spent the time that I did on the trail and looking forward to coming back at a time when I can walk ON the trails instead of next to them because of all the rain, and without the fear of windstorms blowing over the tree that I’m attached to while I sleep. I’m looking forward to getting back out and finishing the rest of the trail, but next time I’ll take a few more pairs of socks just in case.

If you’re interested in hiking the Lone Star Trail, additional information and directions are available in the link below.                                                                                                      http://lonestartrail.org/

Happy Trails!

The Lone Star Hiking Trail: Day 2

 


Day two of my trip started out rainy, and the weather stayed that way. I woke up around 6 in the morning to the same sound I fell asleep to. The patter of rain on my rain fly (video above). I’ve camped in the rain dozens of times in my life, and I never get tired of it. Hiking in the rain on the other hand can be a real pain in the ass. Or pain in the feet as myself and so many others have found out the hard way. Once daylight hit I broke down my hammock and put it away, boiled water for coffee and a mountain house breakfast. I took advantage of the time my food was cooking to collect some rain water for later on the trail, since it was coming down pretty hard. I also grabbed my “lunch” of two nutrigrain bars and a few cups of GORP and put them in the waist strap of my pack. I don’t always feel like stopping to have lunch, depending on how hard the trail has been and how I’m feeling that day. So I like to keep my lunch in an easily accessible area, so I don’t have to dig into my food bag to find it. Once lunch was prepped and coffee and breakfast were devoured I took down my rain fly, shook as much of the rain droplets off of it as possible and packed it up.

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By this time, the trail has taken on so much rain that about 40 percent of the trail that I came across on this day looked very similar to the picture above. I spent most of my time finding flat, clear places to hike adjacent to the actual trail in a futile attempt to keep my shoes and socks dry. In the end they only stayed dry for about the first 5 miles. At around mile 4 I started to feel the morning coffee doing what morning coffee does, and just as I was lamenting the fact that I was going to have to dig a hole in the mud and try to answer natures call. I came around the corner of the trail to an empty parking lot and the glowing blue glory of a port-a-john. “Salvation!” was all I could think as I barrelled across the parking lot, stripping my pack off and grabbing my bio degradable wet wipes. Once back on the trail I took off across more sandy trail that was an absolute creek. About half way through the video below, as I was dreading the fact that the rest of the trail might look exactly like this, I realized that I had left my hat on a wooden pole next to the port-a-john when I had stopped.

 

So after a quick double back, I was back on the trail and making good progress. Eventually, I made it to dryer ground and saw some cool tunnels in the undergrowth and a steady, fast moving, if silty, stream that I could filter water at along the way. It kept raining consistently until around 1:30 in the afternoon when it finally let up and the sun peeked out for about an hour. By this time I had already put in 12 miles and was ready for a small break. After finding a nicely sized downed tree, I stopped for lunch, stripped my sock and shoes off, took the insoles out of my shoes to help them dry faster and began assessing my feet. If you’ve hiked any amount of distance, especially in the rain or in otherwise wet conditions. You know that taking care of your feet and paying attention to hot spots is an absolute must. At this point in my trip I’d been hiking in wet shoes and socks for about 5 hours. To my relief I only had a few hot spots, no true blisters yet. I let my feet dry out for about 30 minutes, threw some mole skin on my hot spots and put my semi dry socks and shoes back on.

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About a mile down the trail from where I stopped for lunch I came up on a decent size lake. Well, really a big pond. But where I’m from we call most stagnant bodies of water bigger than something that you’d have in your back yard a lake. This particular body of water was lined with people fishing and had two or three watercraft on it when I went by. The trail skirted the water for most of the next two miles before meandering back into the woods until it came out into an established camp ground. It was pretty barren on this particular rainy Monday in January, but there were still 3 or 4 older couples with campers that were out and about. I was a little disappointed to find a water spout in the middle of the camp site. I’d spent nearly a half hour filtering 4 liters of water earlier that morning. I hadn’t been checking my trail guide since I got to the trail and found how well marked it was, so I had forgotten that it mentioned running water this early in the trail. Once out of the campground the trail followed a paved road for about the next mile. It was great to be on dry level ground again, but about the time I’d hit the campground it had started sprinkling and clouding up again.

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Once I got back into the woods I found myself on trail that was between 1-2 inches of standing water. My shoes didn’t stay dry for very long and my mood started to dampen a bit with them. I knew coming into this trip that the weather was going to be an issue, but being drenched from head to toe and walking all day has a way of bringing you down to a low spot, especially when you’re on the trip by yourself. By 3:30 in the afternoon I’d gone 15 miles, even through the rain and the soggy trails I was still close to putting in my first 20 mile day. So I buckled down, started my war chant in my head and started knocking out the miles. By mile 18 I was aching everywhere, my feet felt like they were worn down to blister covered bone. But putting in 20 miles in a day was something I knew I had to do if I was going to finish the trail in my allotted time, so I kept my war chant going in my head and kept plugging away until I found myself staring down mile marker 26, letting me know that I could, in fact, walk 20 miles in a day while carrying a (probably 40 pound when soaked with rain) pack and battling wet feet.

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It was around 5:45 when I finally found a suitable place to set up my hammock, the area around mile marker 26 is rife with standing dead trees and I knew that strong thunderstorms were incoming. So I wanted to be as far away from any potential widow makers as possible. There was quite a bit of undergrowth that I had to clear from the space before I could get the hammock up comfortably and set the rain fly. Doing this in the rain isn’t the most fun thing in the world when you’re racing quickly fading light. I set up the rain fly first so that I could get my hammock up without getting pelted by rain. I ended up setting up the hammock by head lamp. At this point I was so exhausted that I skipped dinner, stripped out of my soaking clothes and climbed into my hammock to call my wife before calling it a night. I promised myself a nice big breakfast after my phone call as I laid up in the hammock, listening to an audio book as the wind rocked me into a trance before more heavy storms rolled in. This day was miserable for the most part, but I proved to myself that I can do 20 miles in one go, and that meant the world to me at that moment.

If you’re interested in hiking the Lone Star Trail, additional information and directions are available in the link below.                                                                                                      http://lonestartrail.org/

Happy Trails!

The Lone Star Hiking Trail: Day 1

What had originally been planned as a thru hike of Lone Star Hiking Trail this past week ended up being cut short by almost half, due to my own “series of unfortunate events”, though not quite as intense as the Lemony Snicket story. I knew going into the hike that I’d be fighting the weather for most of the trip. I would like to have scheduled the attempt at a thru hike here for another time. But because of work, birthdays, an anniversary and having our house built this was the only time until late spring that I would be able to take that kind of time off for a hike.

96 miles in 5 days was my goal, a lofty one for sure. One that would mean hiking 20 miles a day for the duration of the trip. Something that I had yet to accomplish on previous hikes. But the Lone Star Trail is notoriously flat and 20 miles is not an out of reach goal for someone who had been hiking frequently for the past year. So I set out. After a 3 and a half hour drive to drop my truck off at the eastern terminus of the trail, my friend and work colleague “honey badger” and his wonderful lady drove me the additional hour to the start of the trail. By the time we got to trail head 1 it was 3pm and with the sun setting at 5:30 at this time of year I needed to get a move on. 16114364_396976823974494_6081444669369267212_n

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After a quick goodbye and thank you to my friends I set off down the trail. Full of anticipation and excitement, I covered the first miles quickly. Much of the first 3 miles was through area that had seen a substantial wildfire in the last 2 years, based on the charring of the trees and the level of undergrowth in the area. It clearly hadn’t happened this past summer, but possibly the summer of 2015.

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One of the first things I noticed was that this trail seemed over marked. As my trip went on through the first 38 miles I would find portions of the trail that went several hundred yards without any marking and other that had 4 t0 5 trail markers on a single straight of the path. On day 1 I was excited to be back in an area that has an abundance of tall piney trees. The trail was a blanket of pine needles from prior seasons that cushioned each step and spurred my forward. After finishing 6 miles by 5pm I decided to find a suitable place to put up my hammock and make dinner before the forecasted storms rolled in and drenched me. I’ve been hammock camping for long enough now that it didn’t take long to find two suitable trees and get my Clark NX-270 and my rain fly up. The most difficult part is finding a space that is free from dead wood and widow makers in case the storms produce strong wind. Nothing gets your blood pumping more than hearing a massive old growth fall close to you in the middle of the night.

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As it turned out, I got my rain fly up in perfect time. Not long after I fastened the last rope the first sprinkles started falling. In areas like this that allow off trail camping in other than specific designated camping spaces I like to get far enough off trail to ensure that I have my privacy and that no one will wander across my camp site while I’m in it. After a quickly prepared mountain house dinner I was in my hammock enjoying a slight rock from the wind that had picked up as storms rolled into the region and the rhythmic tapping of rain on my rain fly lulled me to sleep.  My first day, and my only dry day on the LSHT during this trip, quickly came to an end.

If you’re interested in hiking the Lone Star Trail, additional information and directions are available in the link below.                                                                                                      http://lonestartrail.org/

Happy Trails!

Winter Hiking: How to Stay Warm

Happy New Year! People always seem to choose the beginning of the year as a time to commit themselves to be more active. Over the last few years I’ve really gotten to enjoy nature during the winter months, specifically winter hiking. If you live in an area that gets snow, hiking in the winter can make your favorite trail seem like a brand new adventure. Hiking in the snow and cold also burns more calories than hiking in temperate weather so it can help you keep off those holiday pounds that tend to creep up on us.

One of the big reasons that people tend to take a hiatus from hiking during the winter months is that they don’t want to be cold, cold is uncomfortable, who wants to be cold? But what people fail to understand is that with just a little knowledge and planning, you can beat the cold and have great day hikes, or even overnight trips. So here are a few tips on how to stay warm that I learned during my years in Alaska and during winter hikes in the Midwest.

 

  1. Stay Hydrated: When you’re dehydrated your body doesn’t work as efficiently. In a cold environment this leads to headaches and cold extremities. Just because its cold doesn’t mean you’re not losing water. In fact, because the air is less humid during the winter you’re actually losing a little bit more water through respiration and evaporation. Take enough water to get through your trip or be familiar with fast running water sources along the route that will not freeze all the way through. DO NOT attempt to eat snow if you run out of water. This will lower your body temperature and does not provide you with enough water to benefit you. In a pinch you can fill a bottle full of snow and place it in an interior pocket of your jacket until it melts. When this happens, repeat the process until your bottle is full of water.
  2. Layer your clothing: One of the biggest mistakes people make in this specific area is attempting to put on every layer of clothing that they have. But over layering actually makes you feel colder. The air between the layers of clothing is what keeps you feeling warm, so if you condense that air pocket by adding too many layers of clothing you will actually be colder than if you had layered correctly. In most cases a poly blend base layer (long tops and bottoms) with hiking pants, a long sleeve midweight top layer and a microdown jacket will be more than enough to keep you warm in all but the northernmost states.
  3. Layer on, Layer off: Only use what you really need in that moment. If you start to sweat while hiking, take off your hat, gloves and outer (or middle) top layer. The big tip here is to avoid excess sweating. Wearing too much and sweating through your clothing will destroy the insulating properties. So when you stop to take a break you will get cold. Instead of doing this, take off the excess layers and put them in the top of your bag before you start sweating. Then put them on when you stop. Your body heat will be retained by the dry layers and you’ll stay toasty warm even when you stop. Improper layering and use is the biggest reason that people have unpleasant winter hiking trips.
  4. Know your feet: Cold feet tend to be a pretty consistent problem in cold weather hiking. But there are a few tricks of the trade that you can use to beat this nuisance. 1. Bring extra socks on long trips. Dirty clothing loses its insulating properties. Bringing a change of socks for each day of trail time, plus a spare, is always a good idea. Loosen your laces. We’re back to the insulating layer of warm air again. When your shoes are tied too tight it hurts you in two ways. The first is that it compromises blood flow to the area, making your feel work less efficiently and allowing them to get cold quicker. The second is that it compresses the fabric in your shoes. When you compress the fabric too much there is no room for the air warmed by your feet to get caught in the fabric of the shoe. It’s the same reason your butt gets cold when you sit in the snow, the compressed fabric doesn’t trap heat as well as it would if it were not compressed.
  5. Clear snow from sleeping areas and bring a sleeping pad: You can sleep comfortably in the snow if you remember to clear away the snow under your sleeping area. Additionally, you’ll want to use a sleeping pad since the sleeping bag that is compressed under your body weight will not insulate you as efficiently. When you go to bed, strip down to your base layer. This will be cold at first, but when you wear too much clothing to bed it doesn’t allow your body heat to reach the sleeping bag and insulate you the way it was designed to. You will always sleep warmer in fewer clothes. To avoid that morning shiver when you get up, pull your clothes into your sleeping bag with you in the morning and allow them to warm up passively before you get dressed. If you plan on warming your tent with a fire source, always remember to open one side of the tent for ventilation. Once the tent is warm, removed the fire source before sealing the tent. If you hammock camp, a sleeping pad, sleeping bag and an underquilt will get you through even the coldest nights in relative comfort.
  6. Always bring tools for a fire: Know the area that you will be hiking in and what you will need to make a fire. In the event of an emergency this is an absolute must. I recommend taking waterproof matches or a ferro fire starter, some quick tinder like dryer lint or dry moss and a tea light candle. Before you attempt to start a fire scavenge for your firewood and arrange it next to you from smallest to largest. The biggest being about the circumference of your wrist. Build a teepee with your smallest twigs and keep finger size twigs nearby to add once it’s going. Light your tinder in the open air. Fire needs a lot of oxygen to burn and placing the tinder in the teepee cuts off precious oxygen that the fire needs to start. Once you have an adequate flame place the tinder under the teepee. Slowly add twigs of increasing size until your fire is established. *If you are attempting to start a fire in the snow, you MUST dig down until you are on soil before attempting to start a fire. Placing a fire on top of the snow will put your fire out when the snow melts from the heat.* **In areas that receive a lot of precipitation it will be easier to scavenge firewood and tinder from standing deadwood in the area. Firewood on the ground will likely be wet and will be difficult to light. In a pinch you can use a knife to cut away the outer layers of wet wood in order to get a fire started. But always look for standing dead wood first.**

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It only takes a little bit of knowledge and preparation to keep you warm and happy in nature, even in the cold.  I hope these tips help you get out and stay warm on your own winter adventure.

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Happy Trails,

Aaron

Pate Hollow: In the Rain

Over the weekend we traveled to the Pate Hollow Trail in Bloomington and it turned into a great little hike. The weather was about as perfect as it could get for this time of year and since the trail lays across very clay-like soil it wasn’t muddy except in a few areas close to stream crossing even though it was raining steadily for most of the hike. This was also the first occasion that someone else has shown up for one of our scheduled hikes.

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Since we founded Free Range Hiking at the beginning of the year we’ve been doing our best to try and share our love of hiking and the outdoors with people in the areas that we hike by setting up a Meetup group and weekly events associated with the Free Range Hiking Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/freerangehiking/?ref=hl. So today Dave from our Meetup group and his Yellow Lab Corbin decided to show us how Hiking is supposed to be done. Corbin absolutely loves being on the trail and checking out anything that moves in the underbrush as they hike. Dave has been out to a lot of the places that we’ve hit in Morgan Monroe, he also suggested some other nearby trails that he hikes regularly. Dave has been actively hiking for a lot longer than we have and had no problem burning my legs out as he was leading the hike for the first half.

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The funny thing is that you don’t really take your speed into account when you’re hiking as a pair or on your own. But when you hike with someone new you start to think more about your speed versus their speed. If you’re a fast hiker, you probably don’t like to be slowed down and if you’re a slow hiker, trying to keep up can be a real challenge. On this occasion I stopped a few times to snap pictures only to turn around and see that they had left me in the dust. But it was a fun experience and definitely put into perspective where we actually need to be before we try to take on the Appalachian Trail. After starting at about 10:45 because a little delay in finding the actual trail head we made it through the 7.7 mile loop and back to the cars right around 1:30 making this the fastest hike that we’ve completed yet. I try not to think about time from start to finish so much while I’m out there, instead I like to enjoy the scenery and the serenity of the forest and take in the moment. But every once in a while it’s cool to see how quickly you can get through a rugged trail when you’re pushing yourself. I know there are a lot of people that could do those miles faster. But we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the year and we’re only going to continue to get better.

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Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/pate-hollow-trail

Until next time,

Happy Trails!

Yesterday we took on the Pate Hollow trail in Bloomington.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, March 14, 2016

Mississinewa: Lost Sister & Blue Heron Trails with a little off trail meandering

I was born and raised in the Wabash / Peru, Indiana area so this reservoir was familiar to me going into the hikes. However, the last time my dad and I got out and hiked here was roughly 14 years ago when I was a child. So this held some special meaning to him and I.

We decided during the week that we would head up to my grandparents house Saturday night when I got off of work, sit around their fire pit and have a few beers before setting up camp for the night. I was pretty excited about this trip because I haven’t had the opportunity to get up north to see my grandparents since Christmas and I knew that I would be trialing my new Clark Hammock NX-270 to see if all the hype is true about this brand (it is and then some). So after running some errands in town we finally made it to our destination around 9:30 to a roaring fire and cold beer waiting around the fire pit. We had the chance to catch up and pass around a flash of Tennessee Fire for about an hour before we mutually decided to call it a night, camp was quickly set up by headlamp and we were dead to the world within an hour (pictures are from the next morning).

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The next morning we were up around 6:30 and ready to break down camp and get started. So after a hearty breakfast we cleaned up the camp area and headed off to the Lost Sister trail in the Frances Slocum SRA at Mississinewa.  This was listed as being 2.5 miles but when we came out our GPS units only showed it being a little over 1.5. While distance doesn’t matter a whole lot to us, we had still been expecting a little more. So after stopping for a hydration break and munching on some trail snacks we decided to load back into the truck and head over to the Miami SRA on the other side of the reservoir to see the Blue Heron trail. This went off without a hitch, but again, the trail was listed as being 2.5 miles and came up just short of 2 on our GPS. Of course, in our haste to get on this trail and because of the lack of signage, we took a game trail to find the trail instead of starting at the trail head on the opposite side of the picnic area that it starts at. I’m not sure if that equates to a mile or not, but we’ll figure it out next time.

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Since we’d finished the trails that we came to do and the day was still very early, warm and cloudless. We decided to head over to some of the horse trails in the rougher part of the SRA and try our luck out there. This turned out to be the most fun of the whole trip as we spend about 2 and a half hours winding through a myriad of different unmarked trails, followed a trail that ended up being under water, which led to us scaling a very steep hill about 200 feet and wandering through thickets, heavy wind and rocky ledges as we exercised our inner explorers. The off trail parts of our hikes always end up being the most fun. Even if we’re never more than a few miles from civilization in Indiana it always makes you feel a little more at one with nature. Which is after all, why we do this.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/lost-sister-trail  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/blue-heron-trail

Happy Trails!

GPX Maps and Pictures of these hikes are linked below.

This past weekend we took a trip up to north central Indiana to check out some of the trails at the Mississinewa…

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, February 29, 2016

 

Mason Ridge: Sun, Canines and closed trails.

We’ve been lucky enough to have great weather for the past 4 days. Even luckier for me because I have Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays off every week plus the vacation day I took on Saturday. So I got 4 days of sun and warm temperatures right before work starts again, the temps plummet and we’re talking about snow again.

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Because it was so nice out today, I decided it would be nice to take the dogs out and hike the Mason Ridge trail that I didn’t get to hike a few weeks ago when I was out of commission for a week with what the Dr. thought was meningitis (until the spinal tap came back negative to my relief). Anyway, today being the beautiful day that it was I packed up the truck and headed back out to Morgan Monroe to check this trail off my to-do list.

As it turns out, it’s a good thing that list is pretty long. After hiking into the trail about a mile and a half and crossing the road that marks the half way point I found myself faced with a notice explaining that the southern portion of the Mason Ridge trail and a large portion of the Tecumseh (40 mile) trail are closed until further notice. You see, they’re in the process of tearing out thousands of trees and destroying huge portions of the existing trails so that they can put in a paved bike trail. Something that those of us who regularly hike out here vehemently lament. After spouting a few curse words and laughing to myself when I found that someone who had come before me had torn one of the signs off the post it was attached to, shredded it and placed the pieces in a plastic bag containing another notice.

As I doubled back the way I came and watched the dogs sniffing and playing along the trail I reminded myself what hiking has shown me since I started getting back into it regularly. That is that life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Sometimes that journey is what you’re expecting it to be and sometimes it’s doubling back the way you came. But when all is said and done, it’s what you remember and cherish the most.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/mason-ridge-trail

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GPS route and pictures are linked below.

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https://www.facebook.com/freerangehiking/photos_stream?ref=page_internal

Starved Rock: Beer, Trails, Stairs and Friends

A little over a month ago my Army buddy Jarred hit me up on Facebook and told us we should come check out the Starved Rock trails about an hour away from where he lives in Illinois. I was going to make the trip regardless of what the trail was like because it’s not every day that you get to see one of your Army brothers once you stop wearing the uniform. But after a quick google search of Starved Rock and some dramatic waterfall pictures this quickly became one of my most anticipated hikes so far. So after taking a day off of work on Saturday, we loaded up the truck and were on the road by 8am. From my front door to his is about a 3 and a half hour drive. But going from central Indiana to Illinois you make up an hour, so we made it right before noon after awkwardly blowing through several toll areas because we’d forgotten to bring cash for the toll road (they just take your license plate # and you pay online).

After quickly introducing my father to Jarred and his (then) girlfriend Cassie, we loaded into the truck again and drove about another hour to Starved Rock. The parking lot was filled almost to capacity when we arrived, since it was 60 degrees in mid-late February and it had snowed heavily the prior week, everyone was taking advantage of the short respite from the winter weather.  So we all piled out of the truck, my father and I strapped our daypacks on and we took off for the trail.

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The first part of the trails here are all built up, wooden walkways, concrete paths. All lined with college kids taking selfies in “nature” and complaining about getting their shoes that are “meant for breathing” dirty in the mud. We admired the views that we could and quickly scrambled further into the trail. After a short walk with a good many stairs and a lot of tourists we came to our first set of incredible views overlooking the levee right off the state park. We played tourists here ourselves and took lots of pictures and heard the backstory of the Starved Rock before moving on to the next area. The whole Lovers Leap, Eagle Cliff and beehive overlook area was like a spider web of wooden paths sneaking through the trees and over the cliffs to pop out for scenic view after scenic view. It was quickly apparent why this state park was so popular.

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So after the overlooks, we moved on to the canyon areas. While we didn’t hit all of them while we were out we did hit most of the more popular views and got some amazing shots of Wildcat Canyon, Lonetree Canyon and Basswood Canyon. These were the homes to some of the most dramatic and awesome pictures and views that we saw through the entire trip and were definitely my favorite part of the hike. Even my protesting legs were okay with the 50 or so flights of steps that we’d gone up and down to see these views. Although at this point I was starting to question my decision to wear the daypack that’s still loaded down with everything I’d need to start hiking the AT today. But I remembered that sometime in the next 4-5 years I’ll be standing at AT approach trail in Georgia and likely wishing I’d hit hillier trails with that pack on BEFORE starting the thru hike.

Anyway, after the Canyons we started Cassie’s (Jarred’s Girlfriend) least favorite part of the trail. The roughly 2 mile portion of bog style mud from all the meltwater and foot traffic on the trail that day. While we covered our boots and shoes with mud we saw a few stray shoes stuck in the mud that reminded us why we tie double knots before we go into stuff like that. This whole portion of the trail took us about an hour each way, even though it was muddy and tedious it was mostly flat and there were no more hellish stairs to clamber up. We made our way to Own Canyon Overlook and LaSalle Canyon and explored off trail for a little while before deciding to turn back, as we noticed that we would soon be running short on daylight.

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After making our way back through the mud, up more sets of devilish stairs that made me appreciate switchbacks and making it back to the truck, we finished out the day having hiked 8.5 trail miles according to my Fitbit Surge with just over 70 flights of stairs. So after this momentous feat we decided to end the journey with beer and nachos at a Duffy’s (fluffy’s) Pub right down the road. So after dropping Jarred and Cassie back at their place and reacquiring the hour that we lost on the way to Illinois we made it back to our homes at 1am and 2am respectively. This made for an incredibly long but immensely satisfying trip, and definitely one that I won’t soon forget.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/illinois/starved-rock-and-sandstone-point-overlook-trail

 

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Our GPS trail and complete set of photos are linked below.

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Our late February hike at Starved Rock in Illinois.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Sunday, February 21, 2016

Three Lakes Trail: An Epic Winter Adventure

When we decided to hike the Three Lakes Trail at the Morgan Monroe State Forest over Valentine’s Day weekend we knew that it was going to be a test of our hiking skill and fortitude thus far. This 10.5 mile trail is nearly as rugged as they come in some spots. But in the spirit of making bad decisions so that we have cool stories to talk about later over beer, we decided to tackle this behemoth of a trail (by our standards) during a snowstorm and with day temps dipping down to around 18 degrees. Our plan going in to this hike was to complete the entirety of the Three Lakes Trail, then hike a mile or so into the back country where camping is permitted, as it’s not allowed on the Three Lakes Trail, so that we could test out our winter camping gear.

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So we got underway at about 2:30 on Sunday (valentine’s day) and got our first taste of the trail while the snow fell pretty heavily. Now, when we went into this, we knew that the trail was supposed to be tough. Definitely a test of our fitness level thus far. In any case, carrying a 50lb pack full of everything you need to survive in a subfreezing environment for a day or two is a test of anyone’s fortitude. On this occasion we definitely didn’t take into account how much the snowfall was going to slow us down. Having to trudge through 2-3 inches of fresh snow and deal with slick ledges on narrow portions of the trail slowed us to nearly a crawl at some points.

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As it was we had seriously underestimated this trail. After making it about 5 miles in and with night quickly closing in on us, we made the decision that we would have to find a suitable place to wait out the night, test our gear and hike out safely in the daylight on Monday. We could have tried to make it out and not break the no camping rule. But portions of the trail that we’d already been on had become so slick that we didn’t want to chance one or both of us getting injured in the dark with temps in the high teens. So we hiked as far off trail as we could and found a nice camping spot.

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The night went by without a hitch, we got a nice fire going, heated up some food for dinner and warmed up before turning in. We listened to the haunting call of the local coyotes in the distance bouncing off the trees of the otherwise silent forest. Our 0 degree sleeping bags held up to their promise of keeping us warm and alive through the frigid night.

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The next morning we packed up and were back on the trail by 8:15. We rounded the second lake, snapped a few pictures of the scenery. Then both experiences our first winter hiking “oh shit” falls on the trail. Luckily no one was around to laugh at us except for a few hundred Cardinals and some rather unhappy squirrels. We had tackled the southern portion of the trail on day one, we hadn’t known at the time but most of the serious hills were now behind us as most of the northern portion of the trail is flat. This was a blessing for me especially, being over 300lbs with all my cold weather gear and my pack. My legs will be about the size of tree trunks before our next hike. But at this point they were screaming like kids in a toy store when mommy and daddy are on a budget.

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We kept a slow and steady pace for the remainder of the trail, stopped a few times to get water at some of the semi-frozen creeks and to try to talk the fatigue out of my very unhappy calves and quads. But we finished the trail after another 3 hours, we walked off the trail right around 11am on Monday. At this point we were greeted by one of the local DNR employees who told us he’d seen that my truck had been sitting overnight and was about to go check some of the shelter houses to make sure we weren’t stranded somewhere. We recounted the story of our miscalculation, lamented how tough the trail had truly been and got a bit of a scolding where we were told that under most circumstances there is a $200 fine for anyone caught camping on the Three Lakes Trail. But because of the situation he said he understood the necessity. We took the warning, dropped our packs at the truck and ended the first real epic adventure of the year for the Free Range Hikers.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/three-lakes-trail

 

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Complete photo gallery and the GPS map from this trek are linked below.

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