Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Trail Maintenance-Giving, or Taking?

 Last Labor Day, while hiking section 4 of the Ozark Highlands trail, I encountered trail conditions that I hope to never see again. A three mile stretch of trail that took over six hours to hike. That was the day that I realized that the maintainers needed help. Sure, I always try to do some light cleanup every time I hike, but not like the maintainers do. The OHTA maintains over 200 miles of trail, on extremely rugged ground. Steep grades, lush vegetation, rocky soil, and an overall erosive environment make it so. By erosive environment, I'm referring to the Ozark Mountains(also called the Ozark Plateau). Limestone and sandstone make up the bulk of the bedrock. Water strips away anything not held firmly by tree roots. Trees that are being plagued by bugs and disease. Add our unique weather patterns to the mix and you see high heat and humidity doing their part to rot standing trees away. Our winter doesn't provide the glorious snowstorms of the Rockies either. Instead, we may get ice storms that can decimate acres upon acres of backcountry timber. Don't forget about spring, when we get severe thunderstorms as do all locales within "Tornado Alley".
     The trail begins at the western end of the Ozark National Forest, and ends over 200 miles away, within the same national forest system. With exception of the dozen miles or so within the Buffalo National River area, it is rarely maintained by any other group. So volunteers before us have built and maintained this wonderful trail. With success, I might add. It is well blazed(perhaps too well for my desires), and easy to follow. The battle to establish the corridor has been done. The bright plans of (eventually) linking to the Ozark Trail in Missouri are being worked on. And I have done no more than push a log out of the way, pick up trash, and enjoy the work of others. I've taken, without giving in return. Well, I've given complaints, but not all were constructive. So what does that make me? The kind of man I want to be? Not even close.

     The outgoing president of the OHTA, Wade Colwell had even asked me once to get involved and help spearhead building a bridge. I had declined, citing inability to reliably commit. I guess I always thought the return help could be later. What I figured out that day last September was that something had to change. On the trail, within the community, and within me. It was just time to give back. A thought returned to me from my younger days in scouting. When I received my Eagle, I was told that it wasn't just a rank. To join the Eagles before me, I would have to BE an Eagle Scout. To continue the principles that had gotten me there. Leadership isn't an achievement, it's a measurable quality within a person. If a person wants to claim leadership, they need to live it. This is what I have in mind. 
     My first act of the new year was to join the OHTA, and recruit my brother as well. I went to a meeting and spoke with the maintenance director, Roy Senyard about when I could help out. Oddly, I felt guilty about explaining that I would not work on Saturdays. Taking a Saturday off of work would only be for hiking weekends. That's when most of Americans are available to participate in this type of activity. He said there were others who worked on Sundays. Wade Colwell volunteered me for chainsaw duties. I protested, but instantly knew he was right. With my Dad and brothers, I've wielded a saw for over 20 years. Not often in the past several years, but lets just say we've cut literally thousands of truckloads of firewood. Using a saw is really a pain in the neck. Heavy, awkward, and dangerous. But a requirement for any serious trail work.

     The Forest Service requires chainsaw users to undergo certification. So the OHTA set up a one day class with ranger Roy Estep. Last Saturday, I joined about 40 other maintainers for the certification. There was instruction and a small test. But there was a lot of camaraderie in that group. Not just that we all hike, but in the spirit of men who want to give back. I cannot begin to explain how strongly I felt the pull to make friends with these people. They are the best of us.
     I have not yet begun to actually DO the heavy lifting, but feel involved with making my playground a better, safer experience for others. I will adopt a section of trail to be my own. Three different sections come to mind. One is the section that required my early exit last year. But that's a team job. It's too much to do alone in my limited time. If I am able to assemble the team, I'll snatch up the opportunity for the difficult one. If not, it'll be the easy, ugly section available. Or maybe snag a section from a guy with more than one section already, closer to home. 
      My reason for posting this is to encourage the rest of the hiking community to get involved. Everyone has too many things going on in their lives. We're all busy. But that doesn't stop us from contributing to this cause. If a person wants to do something, they have to MAKE it happen. Proactively, that is. Join your local trail organization. Get on the mailing list. If you can't do that, look into donating money to help pay for their equipment. Volunteer your Boy Scout troop or other youth organization to give service hours. You'll help other people, and rest easier at night. Especially on nights when you camp along the trail. 

Here's  links to a great page listing many trail maintainer and hiking groups. Link    Link

Here's a link to the Ozark Highlands Trail Association (OHTA)

Here's a link to the Friends of the Ouachita Trail (FoOT)

Please feel free to link to other trail maintenance groups in the comments. I'll likely add them to this post or create a page for them. Thank you!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Trip Report: Ouachita Trail, Section 6

Click here to view these pictures larger

When the Holidays roll around, so do out-of state friends. So the crew was back together and we wanted something different. The Ouachita National Recreation Trail(OT) is in our home state of Arkansas. This was to be my first trip on it. The trail runs 223 miles from Talimena State Park in Oklahoma to Pinnacle Mountain State Park near Little Rock, Arkansas. Unlike the Ozark Highlands Trail, it is actually protected from clear cuts in the National Forests by law. I'm sure that many of you think of the National Forests as parks. What they really are is publicly owned resource management areas. Timbering, oil and gas exploration, etc. are the real purpose. It just so happens that they are still open to recreational use. This suits me perfectly. No permits needed for backcountry access. This is where they beat the National Park System.
     Anyway, we chose this 17.1 mile section for a reason. It is one of the shortest sections, has less up/down, multiple shelters, and was equidistantly located from our relative homes. We required an easier hike since we were breaking in a new hiker. My buddy has this girl, ya know? He told me it was important(to him) for her to enjoy the trip. Maybe he has long range plans with this one. So we all agreed on a simple trek with old friends. Six hikers in all.
     We planned to meet Will at the trailhead along Hiway 298 before 5:00 P.M. and drop one vehicle there, another several miles back up for the trail for an early exit option for our new compatriot. Then dropping the third at the trailhead on Hiway 27(mile 121.7). This got us off the pavement by around 6:00 P.M., or dark-thirty. We only needed a one mile uphill night-hike to get us to the James Archer Shelter(mile 122.6).
     With so many hikers all alighting from one pickup truck, it took a while to get our packs loaded up. You know how it goes. People digging out headlamps, gaiters and trekking poles. Stowing phones and filling extra water bottles(no water source until the next morning). Even loading up borrowed gear. THIS is why I don't recommend night starts with large groups.
     There was a bright moon out so I brought up the rear and never even used my headlamp. I'm very comfortable and have good trail eyes anyway. I had to laugh when Sara(our newbie) was actually trying to avoid stepping in a bit of (shallow)mud. I'm not picking on her, just noting that what we think is normal is odd to others. We arrived at the shelter and claimed our spots. It was a beautiful shelter. Nicer than any we saw in North Carolina last spring on the AT.
     Will, Scopa, and I gathered up wood and got a fire going while Turtle entertained the ladies. He's good at it. By the time we got settled in, Sara was huddling in her bag to stay warm. It was probably about 40 degrees F. It just goes to show that although jeans and a sweatshirt will work, they aren't ideal. She was game to come out when the fire got cranked up a bit. We ate and told stories until about 10:00 P.M.
     Shelter floors are much harder than the ground in my experience. I MUST remember to bring an inflatable mattress next time I plan on sleeping on hard wood.  It dropped down to about freezing that night and I was just a tad chilly. But only enough for one potty-break in the night. We all slept in until nearly 8:00 A.M. I guess we were waiting for the Sun to wake us up. It stays dark much longer in a northward facing roofed shelter.
     Scopa and Turtle boiled water for us while the rest of us broke camp. Now that it was daylight, you could tell that the trail follows a ridge for most of it's length. This also differentiates it from trails in the Ozarks. Up there, the old mountaineers all ,"so used to running up mountains, down valleys, when they get to flatlands, one leg is too long." All day long, our elevation would stay between 900-1450 ft.
     We came to one of only 2 good watering spots for our entire hike within the first mile. I didn't see a name for it on our map. It was an 10 inch deep, smooth running brook that we crossed foot dry by finding a log. Most data sources I found say that it dries up in the summer months. But the Ouachitas had plenty of rain in December.  The trail crosses a forest road after 1.5 miles from the shelter, then it begins a long, snake-like path upwards for about 500+ ft. within the next 1.5 miles. This is the toughest part of this section.
     I brought up the rear until I couldn't stand it any longer. I don't mind hiking at the pace of slower hikers until it uses energy just to slow down my steps. So I settled into a rhythm of hiking until my followers were nearly out of sight, then slowing down on the easier portions of the climb. Will and the Scopas seemed to be doing the same with me. This is where I really started to take notice of my surroundings. The trail had far less rocks in it than we see in the Ozarks, with lots of pine needles padding our feet. I love a pine forest for hiking through. There was just enough hardwoods that the view opened up nicely to the North. You just can't beat a mountain view after leaf-off.
     We stopped for lunch after about 4.5 miles of hiking, on Sandlick Mountain. Our mileage was a bit disappointing, but we started late and  had already finished the toughest part of the weekend's hike. I knew then that Turtle and Sara would be using the early cut-out where we parked his truck. But it didn't matter to any of us. We had lots of time to talk while we breaked. Sara was a trooper. The weather was in the 50's, so there was a lot of de-layering going on all day. Then re-layering for our longer breaks.
     After eating our Ramen and GORP respectively, we proceeded down the mountain for another mile or so. There we found Irons Fork Creek, which runs all year long. This is the ONLY sure water spot on this section of the trail. It is wide and deep, but has a concrete low-water bridge on it. We were able to cross feet-dry because there was only a trickle going over the top of it. We all camel'd up and refilled all of our water bottles here. All of us guys were carrying 4 liters of water from that point on. According to everything I had read, there might not be any more water available. There wasn't between there and the next shelter, at Big Branch.
     But we didn't even make it that far anyway. The climb out of the Irons Fork basin seemed to tucker out poor Sara. She probably only weighs 110 soaking wet anyway. Scopa(trail named "Burro") carried her pack up that hill, and we found a mountain top campsite about 100 yards South of the trail. There was lots of rocks to be moved before we could set up our 4 tents. But there was a remnant of an old fire ring, so we settled in nicely. It was way before dark, so gathering wood was very easy. I started a fire while Turtle started to make dinner and Will gathered wood. These guys really like their campfires.
     We looked at the map and planned our next day. Turtle and Sara decided to just hike to their truck at the North crossing of CR 78, while the rest of us pushed on to Will's car at the trailhead. We would be going 4 miles further than them so decided on an early start. We ate dinner before dark and Turtle and Sara sacked out while the sun was still up. It wasn't even cold! I guess we wore them out. The rest of us sat around the fire drying our moist socks and warming our bare feet for hours. We turned in before 9:00 ourselves. They don't call 9 O'clock "backpackers' midnight" for nothing.
     It got a lot colder that night. I got hot enough to sweat in my bag within 20 minutes, then shivered the rest of the night. I think I was too well hydrated if you know what I mean. I finally gave up on sleep at about a quarter to 6. I woke up the other guys and we lit out before sunup with our lamps blazing. We didn't need them by the time we stopped to de-layer. It was smooth sailing down the trail. Breakfast en route. There was only a little up-hill left before basically downhill to the end. We passed their truck by 8:00 A.M. and made a bet amongst ourselves whether they had even got out of their bags yet.
     We slackpacked from there, hustling through the remaining trail(5 miles) by 10:00A.M. It was really a refreshing hike, with our first views southward. I worked up a good sweat, but didn't worry about chilling that close to the end. Scopa carried my ULA CDT pack with our water. He wanted to give it a go since he had never worn a frameless pack before. I think he didn't care for the lack of air flow on his back. Will shuttled me back to my truck and we all returned to Turtle's truck about 5 minutes before our wayward friends arrived. Perfect timing. We all ate a big, greasy meal at this little country store in Story, AR. FYI, that store actually does some shuttling. Will has the number, so maybe he will leave it in the comments.
     We all had a great time on a relaxing trip. It reminded me that we don't have to challenge ourselves every time out. Just being out there is good enough. Save the challenges for times when you need the extra miles to make a trip even possible. Savor the companionship of allowing new hikers to join your party. Relish the teaching moments with the newbies. Just imagine the day when they might be teaching the next generation of outdoorsmen.

Guidebook Used: Ouachita Trail Guide by Tim Ernst

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Guest Post- Amanda Scopa-What it's like being an Outdoorsman's wife?

I'd like to introduce a great friend. She's the "cool wife" of one of my best friends- a longtime hiking companion. It recently dawned on me that she might be an untapped resource. She has always seemed supportive of his outdoor pursuits(backpacking, climbing, cycling, kayaking, sailing, and Scoutmaster-ing). He does it all, and she does it with him sometimes. But she rarely puts the brakes on one of our trips. For that, she has my admiration and thanks. So I asked her to explain what it was like, and what were her motivations for the support. Here she is... Amanda Scopa!

What it's like being an Outdoorsman's wife?
by Amanda Scopa

     Does your garage look like an outdoors store? Is your spouse frequently mentioning new gear that needs to be added to the collection?  Could you outfit a group of people with gear to go hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding, or fishing?  If so, you might be married to an outdoorsman, or be an outdoorsman.  This is a different type of post. It is about being married to an obsessed outdoorsman.  Now "obsessed" might bring about a negative connotation to most, but that is not the truth. It just means he is dedicated.  A true outdoorsman goes out no matter the weather report, no matter the looks he gets from less dedicated friends or his wife (myself included).  Being a wife to an outdoorsman brings excitement, exhaustion from trying to keep up, and truly a life you can look back on with no regrets.  
     Overall, I have been told that I am the "cool wife" so I may not be objective in telling the story of being married to my outdoor loving husband.  Although I do like being outdoors myself, mostly it is the views I go for.  If the weather is cold or rainy, I would rather curl up with a good book, or a movie next to a fire and let my crazed husband go on his own.  Unfortunately good therapists, marriage books, and even my gut instinct tells me that every once in a while I should.  To understand this reasoning you have to know my husband and know that he is so much more satisfied in our marriage when I do go.
     Frank is the most dedicated, fun loving, trustworthy, friend and partner in life.  Between his search for adventure and wanting to live his life to the fullest, he stays pretty busy.  Not to mention we have an almost two year old son and a career that sometimes wants to suck the life out of him.  Sometimes life gets in the way of Frank.  The Frank I know and love is a laid back person that wants to live his life to the fullest.  So much so at the end of it he wants to be is exhausted, because everyone knows "You can rest when you're dead."  I know it's time to get him outside when he seems down and out, gets frustrated easily, and he comes home talking about work a little too negatively. This I have found is true for most outdoorsmen.

     The key is most people do not understand what it is like to shut the phone off, remove oneself from the constant drama of life, and experience true peace in the sounds of the woods.  As someone that does like to get out and take her fair share of pictures of nature I can try to encompass what it feels like, but probably won't come close.  Take my advice and go out and experience it yourself, even if just for the day (can I please say don't go on a trail that has 400 other visitors, it misses the purpose).  The following is my attempt at giving you a glimpse at the wonderland of nature and why these men and women love it so much.
     There is a transformation that happens the second your car has been parked at a trailhead, and you start hiking down a well worn path or even a barely distinguished trail.  A moment of excitement on what the journey will bring, and then a split second of here goes nothing.  Plus, without all the noise of town suddenly your ears seem to perk up and you hear noises you are sure weren't there a second beforehand.  Then the final thing that I always  notice is this deep breath I take.  Like it is my first breath of a new life for a few days, when all of the problems or stressors I'm dealing with fade, because it doesn't matter out here.  You feel stronger, more relaxed, and whether there is easy conversation or not it is nice having a little fellowship of friends experiencing the adventure ahead. But it's not just the trip itself.  There's the planning and anticipation at the beginning, at the end there are all the great stories to be retold.  And no trip would be complete without a great meal at some hole-in-the-wall diner, all the better because you just truly accomplished something.  An outdoorsman will savor each aspect of the trip and make its enjoyment last much longer than the time spent in the woods.   You have survived by your own hand and led your feet so that your eyes could see breathtaking vistas and maybe even a little wildlife.  Plus at the end you look back on those moments of hard hills that were climbed and realized you appreciate the fact your body was able to summit those hills.  
     What I love about being an outdoorsman's wife is that life is never boring.  Let me repeat that, never boring.  Now there are hard moments of being an outdoorsman's wife when all you really want to do is hang out at home or cook a good meal.  Then your beloved significant other expresses the need to go visit the woods.  For the most part I try to remember that I am not a true outdoors girl, and that those moments of solitude in the woods are not my survival methods for dealing with daily life, but they are my husband's.  The thing to remember is that if he can go out and cope with his stresses then he is going to come back so much happier, a better husband and father because he has decompressed.  Plus he is grateful that you are understanding enough to let him go and experience his other love, God's creation.  And who can argue with that?