This autumn’s Boy-Free Backpacking Trip was the first weekend in November, in celebration of Amy’s having taken the PE test the weekend before. It was planned by Miss Pic the Iowa Chick, and it couldn’t have been better. Well, it could have been better but that didn’t have anything to do with Pic. She chose to have us spend parts of three days in the Irish Wilderness in Oregon County, Missouri. Everyone from last spring’s trip was there again (Mandy and I, Debbie and Amy, Pic and Sue) and we were joined by Amber, Kathy, and Patti. And lots of snacks, including Godiva pumpkin truffles. Continue reading “Boy Free Backpacking in the Irish Wilderness”
Last fall’s all-girl backpacking trip was such a success, Amy and I began planning a second one. I was busy in March, and she was busy all April and most of May, so this weekend before Memorial Day was the first we could use. I reserved the group camp at Blanchard Springs for Friday night, figuring that it would be an easy place for everyone to find. (Plus it has a cool shelter cave, and is only $10 a night, which is amazing.) Debbie and I pulled in just at dark to find Pic and Sue there waiting for us. Amy arrived at bedtime.
Saturday morning, after breakfast and packing, we ran up to the visitors center for parking passes and a map to help find the upper trailhead where we needed to start. We ended up with four maps, all of which looked completely different, and all of which indicated completely different road names for access to the trailhead. (In this area, roads have county numbers, forest service numbers, logging company numbers, as well as names involving actual words.) Any intersection may be marked with zero, one, or eleven road signs, any of which may or may not be visible above the weeds or actually have anything to do with the maps of the area. It took us awhile to find the turnoff to the trailhead. The mixup was clearly my fault, since I hadn’t planned well, but the other women were great sports about it.
We were glad to be finally at the trailhead, so we unloaded our gear, threw it across our backs, and launched ourselves down the trail. Launched ourselves so fast, in fact, that we didn’t have time for a group photo, and I completely forgot my poles leaning up against Debbie’s truck. About a quarter mile into our hike, I sent the rest of the group ahead while I flew back to the truck for them. Starting out again, I nearly stepped on a HOLY SHIT THAT IS A HUGE RATTLESNAKE. I waited on the trail for him to move, and I told myself it was to see his rattle, to be certain my identification of his markings was correct. But really, it was because I could not move.
It was a hot, hot day, and humid, and it’s happened quickly this spring, so we aren’t accustomed yet to the Arkansas summer. Fortunately, four-year-old Izzy had helped Amy pack, so she wasn’t as bothered by the heat.
The extension to the Sylamore trail is new and very overgrown, largely because it’s been closed and underused due to damage from a recent ice storm. There were times I felt that we were walking through a rain forest.
I know Sue as a caver, but I had no idea that she’s also quite an accomplished bird-person. She spent the weekend listening for bird calls and identified quite a long list of birds just by their songs. She carried a beautiful Sibley guide along.
At Cole Fork, we stopped for lunch. There’s a road crossing here, though there’s not much of a road. We ate lunch and rested next to the little creek, and an LEO stopped by to inquire whether to cars parked there were ours. He kept asking silly questions: where had we parked our cars? (At Cripple Turkey.) Did we have cars on the other end of the hike? (Yes, sir.) Where was that? (Blanchard.) Did we leave them in the day use area? (Yes, sir, right where we were told to, with day parking passes on the dash.) We asked him some questions, which he didn’t know the answers to. We invited him to eat a plant we found. Amy said “He doesn’t know what it is, he has a gun.” We had the very clear impression that he wanted us to be doing something wrong.
The extension trail apologizes for its difficulty by sharing its waterfalls with those who visit it. There are two very nice little waterfalls on the ten mile extension, both tucked into pretty little shelters, both big enough to bucket water to filter, both just right for sweaty hikers to stand under.
Six o’clock found us lined up on logs, close together, in a high little pocket of cell phone coverage. Sue cursed quietly at her phone, since she’d been missing work-related calls all day. While she took care of serious business, Amy gave her father instructions on helping four year old Izzy with bathroom things, and pic sang happy birthday to her boyfriend. I leaned gingerly over Sue, deep in conversation, and tried to disentangle Mandy’s earring from her pack strap.
We hiked down into the creek bottom, tired and ready for supper and a swim. The campsite we had in mind, which had looked so perfect last October, was completely overgrown and terrible. We found a likely-looking gravel bar and crossed the Sylamore to set up camp there. After cooling off in the creek, Mandy and Debbie set up a bear bag line while the rest of us pitched tents and started supper.
Of the five adults on the trip, four of us brought wine, and the fifth only decided not to at the last minute. We enjoyed cabernet sauvignon with supper and pinot grigio with dessert. I’ve decided that I despise all dehydrated backpacking meals, and in protest made a lovely onion/mushroom/garlic pizza on a Pocket Rocket. I also made six individual chocolate pudding pies, which I thought was hilarious, at least after drinking wine all evening.
We realized at some point that Amy was actually drinking wine out of a plastic cup with a big cross on it, from some long-forgotten church event. This, like the pie, was made much funnier by the fact that we were all drinking wine. Much later we discovered that a slug had pooped in the cup.
Pic announced during the evening that this had been her longest backpacking day ever. I was completely shocked–she’d done beautifully, even with a heavy pack, extra layers of clothes (she’s very allergic to poison ivy) and a harder-than-expected trail. We pointed out that the next day, at eleven miles, would let her set that record two days in a row.
After the moon set behind the wooded hills, Mandy was the first to announce “I’m going to bed.” “Why?” we asked. “Because I am a little kid.” I guess she thought we’d forgotten. Later, Debbie and Amy managed to soundlessly raise all our food and trash into the trees while I bathed and Sue and Pic slept.
Morning dawned clear and pretty on our private creek.I woke to find that Sue had already retrieved our bear bags, and I put on my boots and took a few photos while our camp began to stir. Sue requested, from her tent, that we repay her by making her some coffee. I think I heard three people volunteer.
Mandy had some trouble getting started, too, but a good breakfast helped us all and it wasn’t long before we crossed the creek again to start toward Barkshed. (It was at this point that, balanced strangely with a heavy pack, I almost fell off a tall rock onto my head, but I’m not going to tell that story because it’s extremely stupid.)
The Barkshed campground, even with its usual redneck population and pit toilet, was a welcome sight. No stranger to pit toilets, Amy was well prepared to visit this one.
I decided to ‘pack heavy’ so that Mandy could be light on the second day, which allowed her to hike in sandals. She enjoyed being able to wade (or jump) into the creek anytime, without worrying about shoes and socks.
The section of trail between Barkshed and Gunner Pool is my favorite Stone County trail, and one of my top three in Arkansas. It’s beautiful, and it’s interesting, and it’s easy. We all enjoyed it after the overgrown jungle of the extension. We stopped at the swimming hole just before Gunner to have lunch, spread out in the sandy shade above the creek. There were a few other swimmers, but it wasn’t at all crowded, and most of us got into the creek to cool off before eating.
Sue started first, and we all trailed across the bridge at Gunner and through the campground to take the turn in the trail to head toward Blanchard Springs. Debbie and Mandy and I hiked in the middle, with Amy and Pic working on their wildflower catalog in the rear. Just as I caught a glimpse of Sue’s pack, two deer ran down the hillside behind us, faster than I’d ever seen deer run. What had spooked them? Debbie thought they were being chased by something big, and I was glad that we were all together right then so I could be confident that everyone was safe. When we caught up to Sue she had three more birds for me to add to her list. Amy reported having seen a beaver.
We saw a turtle along the trail in this section, and a black snake. Mandy seldom hiked with me, but was usually nearby. I heard funny conversations: “Is it poisonous?” “No.” “Oh, good. Can I pick it up?” “No.”
Not long after this stop, the trail turned onto an old logging road and headed uphill. And uphill, and uphill, and uphill, up what must have been the longest hill in the county. It was hot, and we were tired, and grateful that we had only another mile or two to hike. Amy, Sue, and Debbie made a group and went a little faster; Pic and Mandy and I trailed behind a little. By the time we reached the top, I was convinced that we’d lost the trail turnoff, and I was right. We continued on a bit and found that not only was the condition of the road improving quickly, but that we could hear traffic noise close by. We decided that since we still didn’t know where the turnoff was, we’d be best served by just hiking out to the road to meet up with our friends at the ending trailhead, so that’s what we did.
The last couple of miles on pavement was hard for me. My pack was heavy and I’d been nursing a wet, sore foot for several miles. We arrived at the cars to find that our friends Paul and Dee McIntosh were there to meet us. Sue, Pic, and Amy had been there for a half hour or so, and Amy had just gone back up the trail to look for us. I dumped my pack at Mandy’s feet, Debbie topped off my water bottle, and Paul and I took off up the trail chasing her.
I was relieved when, only five minutes later, we met Amy returning to the trailhead. We were all tired, and jealous of Pic, who planned to spend another night camping at Blanchard. Sue and Amy took off for Missouri, and Mandy, Debbie, and I went with Paul and Dee for a fabulous Hardee’s supper (involving unlimited free fountain drink refills) before heading back toward Little Rock.
I had a great weekend. I learned that the wine store sells little tiny boxes of wine. I learned to bring better maps, and to be sure that everybody has a copy. I learned that I can make good pizza on a backpacking stove. I learned that abject and paralyzing terror is an excellent way to cope with rattlesnakes. I learned never to plan a backpacking trip in Stone County in late May.
More important than any of this, I got to watch my daughter spend a weekend with women who are like the woman I want her to be. Strong and intelligent, graceful and kind. This is what I want for her. This is what I want for myself.
Thank you, Amy, and Pic, and Debbie, and Sue. When the blisters and bug bites and sore legs are all healed, I hope you’ll hike with us again.
Sometime last summer, my friend Amy from Missouri emailed me. Amy car-camps a lot, and she canoe-camps, and she even did a four-day camp trip in Mammoth cave recently. But she hadn’t gone on a backpacking trip in years and so we compared schedules and set up an all-girl trip to hike the Sylamore Trail, north of Mountain View.
Originally we’d planned to hike from Allison to Barkshed, the length of the old standby Sylamore Trail. But it’s rained and rained, and I change plans every day, all week. I don’t want to do the creek crossing at Allison. The Blanchard campground’s closed. I hear from the ranger office in Mountain View that the new extension trail — the connection between Barkshed and the OHT — has reopened after months closed due to ice storm damage. So we plan to hike the new extension and then the old trail from Barkshed to Gunner Pool. We hope that the wet weather will mean there will be lots of waterfalls and mushrooms to see.
Mandy and I pick up Debbie in Little Rock and we meet Amy and her friend Catherine at Gunner, where we spend the night listening to the creek. The morning is beautiful. Arriving at the Cripple Turkey trailhead around ten, we load up our bags, lock the car, and take our group photo before someone points out that the trailhead marker has no signage posted except for a big “THIS TRAIL IS CLOSED!” I insist that just yesterday a ranger in Mountain View had said it was fine, so we ignore the sign.
It’s a sobering walk. Almost immediately we’re in the middle of shockingly bad ice storm damage, right on the trail. Limbs are cut and stacked to the sides of the trail, in places head-high for a hundred feet. We have to carefully navigate around huge holes in the trail made when whole trees fell under the ice, pulling up their root balls.
The trail follows near the 900 foot contour line in this area, which is exactly the spot where the damage was the worst. The destruction is staggering. They’ve done a great job of clearing, but the amount of work required to make the trail passable has been immense.
The trail also runs near a number of tantalizingly dark holes in the ground, and all of us are, after all, cavers. Amy is particularly inclined to notice them, and particularly itchy to explore. We laugh as we remind her that we’re hiking today, not caving, and she grudgingly stays on the trail, most of the time.
We hike past some very pretty waterfalls, including one in Amy’s ‘Arkansas Waterfalls’ guidebook. It was one she’d found and wanted to see, but didn’t think we could afford the time for the side hike from the road. We are all pleasantly surprised to find that the new extension trail passes right by.
From another cascade, we catch water in the folding bucket, and filter it for later use. I fuss at Mandy for getting so wet but then realize that it’s impossible not to. We notice with interest that none of these waterfalls feed into streams, but sink immediately into rocks and head underground.
We make camp a mile or so upstream from Barkshed, near the top of a wooded hill. After pitching tents and making beds and cooking supper, Debbie shows us how to properly hang a bear bag. (Those damned lazy Ozarks backpackers!) Mandy shells stick-tites and discovers that their insides look suspiciously like tiny lima beans.
It rains a bit just at dawn, but stops in time for us to make breakfast and pack up. The walk between our camp and Barkshed gets even prettier, with long views down toward Sylamore creek.
At Barkshed the nature of the trail changes a lot: we switch from hiking on new, spongy, overgrown paths to walking on the solid, packed, moss-covered old trail. As pretty as the new extension is, this old standby section is still my favorite: the views are wonderful, and much of the trail follows the edge of a bluff, sometimes undercut to form a roof over our walkway. There are springs and cascades running over the rock. We descend and hike just next to the creek for a bit before joining the gravel road that takes us to Gunner Pool.
We drive back up to get the Subaru, parked at the far trailhead. On the way out, Debbie sits in the passenger seat, talking about a piece of car she’s seen leaning up against a tree some yards back. It’s red. It’s actually just exactly the color of OUR car. I sigh and stop in the middle of the road, and we walk back to pick up two big pieces of trim that have fallen off my car. We shove the muddy chunks of car into the hatch, completely surprising Mandy, who’s got her nose in a book and has missed the whole conversation.
Amy puts on this fabulous hat and she and and Catherine head back to Missouri.
But Debbie and Mandy want to go on a Blanchard tour. $41 later, we own even more bat shirts and have made yet another visit to a favorite place.
It was a good weekend spent outside with strong women, good cavers, valued friends. The quote of the weekend came at the very end, from the cave-tour guide: “Those men who discovered this room, they really liked to cave. Why, they’d come into the cave and just explore, for fun. They even brought their WIVES down here, sometimes!”