Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Trip Report: Ozark Highlands Trail, Section 5(19.8 miles)

By Jake Willits


For over 6 weeks I had been planning a weekend-long trip in the woods. It appeared that my hiking partner wouldn’t be able to make it for the hike. Will has been working nights so normal weekend hours really hurt him. I begged him to at least shuttle me so I could get on the OHT. He agreed, so I selected Section 5(Ozone campground eastbound to Big Piney trailhead). 

         To access the trail at Ozone, the easiest way for most is to exit I-40 at Clarksville, then head north on Hwy 21. The Ozone campground is about 2 miles North of the town of Ozone. Or, you can drive South on Hwy 21 from Hwy 16, turning at Fallsville. Will met me in Clarksville and we shuttled his car to our ending point at Big Piney. He decided he couldn’t be kept out of the woods after all. We then drove to Ozone.

        The campground is on the East side of the highway. It has a covered pavilion with picnic tables. Also a vault toilet with a busted door lock. It is maintained by the Forestry Service and there is a small fee to use it. We arrived in the middle of a storm, long after dark. We were planning on sleeping in the back of my pickup under the camper shell. But, since the campground was unoccupied, we decided on open air picnic table sleeping. Off the ground, with a nice breeze and lightning for mood lighting.


        We settled in quickly. Sitting around swatting mosquitoes and talking were all that we did before nodding off. The lightning made it difficult to get to sleep. It was almost bright enough that we could have walked to the toilet without a headlamp. The thunder wasn’t too bad, though. By the way, sleeping in a head net is not comfortable. 

        I awoke about 6:15 to the sound of dogs whimpering for attention. There was a short legged Beagle and a lean Walker Hound sniffing around us. They were friendly, but I shooed them away so that we could begin making breakfast. I worked on starting a fire in my Backcountry Boiler with wet wood. My newest angle is to use a product called “Wetfire”. It is essentially like esbit. With much smoking, I got water boiled for coffee and oatmeal. Will’s pocketrocket beat me by at least 5 minutes. 

        We packed up and were on the trail by 8:20. The heavy rains of the past 2 days were over, leaving behind a steambath. It wasn’t too warm yet, but sticky. The trail doesn’t take off directly from the campsite. Across the highway on the West side, there is trailhead parking about 50 yards North of the campsite. We walked over and hit the trail. We registered so that the OHTA would have our info. The trail then led us immediately back across the road and we meandered around the campsite area. There was a lot of water in the trail and all of the vegetation was weighed down by both internal and external water. You just have to love green if you’re going to enjoy a spring hike in Arkansas.


        From the trailhead(mile 85.5,elev 1800ft) the first 2 miles of or so were a steep descent into the Little Piney Creek valley. Over 700 feet drop. The dogs had decided to follow us and they were treeing squirrels all the way down. I was adjusting to carrying my brand new ULA CDT pack with all of it’s 15 lbs. of heaviness. Yeah, I’m a braggart. There really was a difference. I was carrying 4 lbs. of it on the shoulder straps, so only 11lbs. on my back. Will didn’t weigh his for this trip.

        The sharp descent brought us straight down the mountain for a bit, then we angled down the benches until we came to the creek. It was out of its’ banks in some places and was rushing with a sound that strangely made you have to pee. When we finally came to the crossing, we had a short discussion about how wet we wanted our shoes to be. Since I was wearing gaiters that ended shortly below my knee, I voted for wet shoes. There was no way I wanted to remove my shoes and gaiters more than a half dozen times in one day! It was decided, so we trudged through. It needs to be pointed out that we have had record rainfall in the last month or so. I believe most of these crossings could be done with dry shoes normally.

        After the creek crossing, we stayed in the valley for another mile+, enjoying the sound of rushing water and talking about gear. The trail was both mushy and runny, but there were plenty of solid spots to put your feet(rocks). The rain has engorged the plant life. Everywhere you looked there was lush green. Even running up the trees in vine form. Poison Ivy, that is. I thanked myself again for the last second gaiter purchase. 

        Our path seemed to encounter a lot of old forest roads. Wider than usual by Arkansas standards, with brush growing up on all sides. There was Honeysuckle in good amounts, but other than that not many flowering plants. Hardly any birds even stirred in the calm air. It was overcast, so I kept checking the barometer on my Casio Pathfinder watch. It stayed in the mid 28’s. We didn’t know it then, but we wouldn’t see a drop of rain until the last hour of our hike on Sunday.

        After mile marker 89, we started gaining elevation a bit as the trail turned away from the valley. We came to a sign explaining that the Forest Service had recently executed a controlled burn of over 500 acres. It’s rugged ground, so they used the trail, jeep roads, and a helicopter to light and contain the fire. For the non-locals reading this, let me explain. In order to rid the National Forests of “excess fuel”, they will purposely burn certain areas. I have seen their preparations going on before. They will completely circle the burn area and cut down all the “hangers” around the border to create a neutral zone. Then they will wait until conditions are just right. What it creates is a dead wood free forest floor, with black marks around the bases of living trees. And enriched soil that immediately spawns a plethora of brambles and poison ivy. In this case, the burn must have been in the last year, because none of this was out of hand.

        After leaving this area behind, we crossed Owens Creek(mile 90.9) and began a 400 ft climb in about 1.5 miles. This brought us to the top of Bee Ridge. Then back down again, into the Lick Creek(mi 94) drainage. There is a bit of up-down through this section of the trail, staying within 40 ft elevation. We stopped for lunch at the creek. I enjoyed a MetrX Big Colossus(meal replacement bar), while Will insisted on making himself Ramen. Since there had been no climbs, this is the first time we had even sat down all day. 


        Strangely, the dogs were still with us. Normally I’d have chased them away, but as they were obviously hunting dogs, we weren’t worried about them getting lost. I’d like to say something about hiking with dogs here. If they will lead, then you are safe from snakes. Some dogs will kill snakes for you(my rat terriers), but nearly all dogs will at least alert you! After our lunch and treating water, we only had about 4.5 miles to our camp. Since we had covered 8.3 miles before lunch, we actually discussed turning this into a dayhike. We both wanted to sleep out, so we slowed down a bit and took more pictures. 

        There were so many waterfalls running that I couldn’t even keep track of all of them. Even the pictures kind of run together. The only bad thing was that there was no strong sunlight to bring out the color in the pictures. Oh well, I’ll leave that to Tim Ernst. I saw them in person anyway.

        The next several miles-ish brings another baby climb of about 500 ft. Not horrible in itself, but there is a lot of undergrowth edging in on the trail and plenty of rocks that you have to pick around. What makes it worse is that the footing is kind of beveled off downhill to your right. Walk trail like this enough and you’ll end up with one foot longer than the other. Don’t worry, you can always hike it backwards next time to equalize things a bit.

        There was a forest road to cross at mile 96. The squishy feeling in my feet began to wear on me and the constantly down-sliding gaiters actually made me consider chancing the poison ivy. In short, I was ready to make camp. We still had another 2.4 miles to go, but it was all downhill or level. At first, the trail led us around the mountain on a bench, then we crossed a very wet drainage(ravine) with a nice waterfall above us on the left. Then we proceeded nearly straight down the mountain for a 350 ft. drop. Now we were in the Cedar Creek valley. Our path lay across gentle benches until we came to a sudden switchback and a drop into a gorgeous little box canyon with a fantastic waterfall and 2 creeks flowing into a bigger one. This was a picture stop before rejoining the trail, which now resembled an old jeep road. Within a tenth of a mile, we waded through knee deep Cedar Creek. This one seemed to be running colder than the ones earlier. Well, maybe it was just colder than the warm water in our shoes.

        After emerging with water running out of our shoes, the trail curves to the left through a nice, open area with big trees and very little under brush. It was a carpet of green leaves, but seemingly in flat benches and of uniform size. You could have seen what looked like a thousand tree trunks. After another ⅓ of a mile or so, we came to Cedar pool, and a campsite. There was a family of about 7 here, boiling water for lunch. Since they weren’t camping, we set up our shelters and talked gear and treks with the dad.

        The pool is of nice size. If we hadn’t company, I likely would have bathed here. The water flowing into it runs through a sluice looking little canyon. It was really running. Fast enough that to wade would be dangerous. Will gathered firewood and I talked, because that is what I do!


        After our companions headed back to their car(our dogs followed them), we commenced boiling for an afternoon cup of joe. We’ve both taken a liking to Starbucks Via. He always brings cream and sugar packets. We relaxed while he got a fire going. It was a chore as usual with wet wood, but the Eagle in him prevailed. We ate an early dinner then sat around talking until dark. I brought along a small flask and we let our cares melt away.        

        We awoke again shortly after 6(the beagle was back) and headed out by 7:30 or so. We immediately had to get our feet wet again. There is a small stream that flows into Cedar Creek near the campground. Too wide for jumping. The first mile of the day was undoubtedly the steepest 600 ft climb of the hike. It was a good thing we had a spring in our step. We powered up the hill and crossed another wide country road at the top. After the road, the going was flat for a bit, taking the hiker through some dense foliage. This is the kind of hike where I have to not only watch the ground for ivy and snakes, but also the vines running up the trees. I remember wishing they would burn this area off. We had a discussion about the seemingly tropical climate of Arkansas. As it turns out, our area has three different climate classifications. Most say that we are temperate, but others say we have “continental humid” in winter and “sub-tropical humid” in summer. I agree with the latter two.

        We hit marker 100 right as we started some switchbacks down into the Gee Creek valley. This area gave us the first real view across a valley towards mountain tops. There were plenty of areas to get our feet wet on the way down as water was draining everywhere in sight. There was another good campsite just before the ford. It would have been a good overnight home if we were on a longer hike. After crossing Gee Creek you will stay within earshot of it for the next 1.6 miles until you cross Hwy 123 into the Haw Creek Camping Area(mi 104).

        As you cross the highway, we saw a gate across the paved road headed into the campground. I’m not sure, but I think it was closed because the water was too high over a low water bridge. We crossed on the bridge but it was very slippery. Trekking poles helped here. We followed the road into the campground, stopping only to admire Haw Creek Falls, which would make a fantastic swimming area. We didn’t stop since we were nearly done.

        At the back of the campground the trail takes off uphill again, but it’s not bad. There are some nice rock formations uphill to your right, but we didn’t stop. We could practically taste our post-hike cheeseburgers by now. We flew through the remaining 1.5 miles in about 25 minutes. Though the trail needed some maintenance through here, it was pretty easy going. Before we knew it, we were staring at a bog separating us from Will’s waiting Beemer. Wouldn’t you know it? With all the water we had crossed, this was our first mud, with nowhere to clean our boots afterwards. Such is the way of (my) world. Oh, and our “guardian beagle” slipped out on us. After all that walk?



What we learned:

1. Gaiters beat waterproof pants by a mile.

2. Dogs are wonderful hiking companions.

3. Waterproof maps were invented with Arkansas in mind.

4. Will has good “trailer park cookin’” recipes.

5. Picnic tables were made for sleeping on.

6. Esbit beats Vaselined Cottonballs, hands down.

7. Gaiters need to be at least  knee high for me to avoid poison ivy.



Ozark Highlands Trail Association

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gear Review: Boilerwerks Backcountry Boiler

By Jake Willits

Image property of theboilerwerks.com, used by permission.


The story:
     This is a very interesting product that was developed as a MYOG project. The creator, Devin Montgomery hatched the idea to build the “world’s first practical ultralight chimney kettle.” So, after multiple prototypes and a lot of testing(and tons of input from the UL community on BPL), he came up with several versions of a workable kettle. To read the entire history of the boiler, check his blog(theboilerwerks.com) or Hendrik’s blog.
     Now, you may be wondering what I mean by “kettle” and “boiler”. What I mean is that this is a device meant to boil water. Simply put, it is an all inclusive wood burning water kettle. It works by using a detachable aluminum firecup on the bottom, then positioning the canister on top of that. The center of the canister is a cylindrically shaped tube that functions as a chimney.  The water then goes in through a hole in the top effectively surrounding the chimney. The beauty is in the design. It actually seems to pull the superheated air through the middle of the kettle. The boiler is completed with a silicone stopper to hold water in. The outside has a neoprene sleeve for handling and it all goes into a lightweight silnylon stuff sack.
Image property of theboilerwerks.com, used by permission.



     The first batch of the boilers was 200-250(numbered) units. They were all manufactured in/around, Pittsburgh, PA. Devin was involved in the entire process. He uploaded videos of the production and diagrams to his growing following. I pre-ordered mine through Backpackinglight.com for about $109. It was a several month wait, but the constant progress reports made it livable.


The stove:
     As expected, my boiler arrived on my front porch while I was on my 8-day AT trip in late March. Even though I had just been in a car for 11 hours, I still opened it before even using the restroom. I was overjoyed to have it in hand. As I took it out I noticed exemplary workmanship. It was shipped within it’s stuff sack, so the first thing I noticed as I unpacked it was the etched Boilerwerks logo, and the number #152! I felt like I was a member to an exclusive club. There was a hole for the water and a stout little chimney sticking out as well. The base/fire cup was well formed, with no sharp edges. It even had a perfectly tight fit.
     The only thing I was missing was the silicone stopper. I emailed BPL and was told that I needed to contact the manufacturer. I did so and received a response the next day. He sent me not one, but two stoppers. I was very impressed with the customer service. And this from a cottage manufacturer!
     According to his blog, the weights were consistently within about a half an oz. By those standards, I received one of the heavier ones. Mine weighs 10.1 oz with all parts, including stuff sack. But you will need to understand, there is no fuel canister to carry with it. So, it is still under half the weight of a Jetboil w/fuel, as well as any kind of isobutane stove w/fuel.


The burn:
     I got my first use of the stove on an overnighter with my son and 2 nephews. The boys used my jetboil, and I used my Backcountry Boiler. I used a petroleum jelly coated cottonball for a firestarter and mostly pine sticks for fuel. I boiled 14 oz. of water(it holds somewhere between 16-18 oz.) in about 4.5 minutes. It was just sick! Flames shooting out of the top of the boiler! My nephews were in awe of it. So was I.


     The next morning, I boiled water for oatmeal and coffee, with similar success. I need to mention that my fuel was very dry, and my burn area had a stout prevailing wind. But it still shocked me how easy it was to use.
     The next trip out was on the Ozark Highlands Trail with my brother. We stopped to boil water for our lunch near Richland Creek. It had been raining for about 5 consecutive days. There was no dry wood to be found anywhere. I had a lot of difficulty getting it going. With wet wood, there is a lot more care required to get it boiling. I eventually had to split some small sticks lengthwise and shave off the wetter areas to have dry fuel. I played with it for several more burns as we drank coffee all evening.



The pros and cons:
     Pros: Light and all inclusive if you are just boiling water for pouch meals. Fast burning, with free fuel anywhere in the world that I am likely to go hiking. You get to help support the small American businessman. You get to reward creativity. And you get the coolest new toy on the block, with a collectible # on it as well.
     Cons: It only boils water. It will be slow and require additional skill development when your fuel is wet. For an overnighter, it still weighs more than an alcohol stove. It will need more cleaning as soot and sap build up in the chimney and firecup. It will make your pack smell a bit like a campfire. Also, it may require a legitimate knife for handling the wood. I know some of you prefer to just carry a razor blade, but you may need to peel back some outer layers from downed wood to get dry fuel sometime.


The verdict:
     I absolutely love this piece of equipment. It is a joy to use, and even more to show off! It will not replace my Jetboil or alcohol stoves, but will have it’s place among my favorite pieces of gear to use on selected hikes. I don’t use my down booties in summer, but they are still fab. This one will not get used for certain menus, or when I am going SUL, but it is still FAB!


How to get one:
     Currently, there are none available for retail sale. However, Boilerwerks has listed the Backcountry Boiler on Kickstarter.com. Here’s how it works; you go to that site, pledge a certain amount of money for the project, and when they get enough money, you get your product. This may be a new way to buy, but community funded projects are the wave of the future. As I understand it, they are selling fast! *UPDATE* The project has reached his minimum goal, but there is still some available.


Customize:
     I chatted with Devin one day about a way to place a pot stand on top of it. He was noncommital, but didn’t trounce the idea. I also started a thread on BPL. Some of the guys had some ideas on how to do it. Here is a picture of one idea.
Image property of Douglas Ide, used by permission



     This would allow for heating water for a hot drink while you were boiling your meal water. Or you could even simmer something up there. The flame might not be very adjustable, but it would work.