A ‘Shake-Down’ hike is basically a ‘test run’…a chance to test your gear, and to find out what you need or don’t need to take with you on an upcoming long hike. I really wanted to do this before my Appalachian Trail hike.
The Buffalo River Trail is in Newton County, Arkansas. It is a 37 mile hike if you do the whole thing from Boxley to Pruitt. Here is a map of it, if you are interested. There are basically 4 sections, and there are campgrounds at the trail head of each section. The trail is a hop, skip and a jump from where we live, and I have wanted to hike it ever since I started planning my Appalachian Trail hike.
I happened to check the weather and saw that we were going to have some unseasonably mild weather–the high’s were supposed to be in the 70’s, and the Low’s, in the 50’s. The seed of an idea began to sprout, and I mentioned to Bud that I was thinking about going. I woke up on Wednesday morning and decided to go for it. Most of my stuff is always in my backpack. I got my food together (which I have been working on dehydrating fast and furiously) and Bud took me to the Boxley trail head, which is about an hour from our house. The direction I would be hiking would be toward home.
It was about 11:30 a.m. when we started out. I was very nervous. Though I’ve had one short hike to a campground, with an overnight camp-out by myself, this would be my first real backpacking trip by myself. When we were almost to the end of our road, I realized I had forgotten my water bottles, so we decided to stop by the Dollar Store to pick some up, rather than go back home to get mine.
When we were finally on our way, and almost there, I realized with panic that I had forgotten my trekking poles. Trekking poles not only help you with climbing uphill, and steadying yourself going downhill, but with a heavy backpack, they help you with balance and prevent many potential falls. I have balance issues, anyway, because of the M.S., so I couldn’t fathom hiking without them. Bud asked if I wanted to go back home and get them, but I said no. I was already worried that I was getting a late start.
When we got there, Bud found a small tree and cut it down and made a hiking stick for me. I bonded with that stick! I was so glad to have it. I don’t know if I would have made it without that stick! I know for a fact I would have had more falls without it.
It was hard to say goodbye, but Bud and I kissed and hugged each other, (more than once). Bud told me he had complete confidence in me, and that he would be praying for me, and I began my journey at about 12:30. Right off the bat, I had to cross a low water crossing. It was covered in cement, but had water flowing over it. My shoes (Merrell Moab Ventilators) got wet, but I was happy to discover that they dried out quickly.
The first miles of the trail had some pretty steep climbs, but my legs were fresh, and I took them at a pretty fast clip. I was concerned that I had gotten a late start, and concerned about finding a place to camp before dark, so I kept a pretty fast pace.
There were several creeks to cross, but all were low, and I was able to rock hop them with no problem. I stopped and filtered water for the first time at one of the creeks. My Sawyer Squeeze filter fits on a Smart Water bottle, and the Smart Water bottle is malleable, so I can squeeze the water into my other bottle, which is a Powerade Bottle, then fill up the Smart Water Bottle to be filtered later. I was relieved that it went off without a hitch.
The maps do not list where the water sources are, like the guidebooks for the AT do. Many of the creeks are seasonal creeks, meaning they only flow after a good rain, and we have been pretty dry, lately. Also, the trail is not well-marked at all, and there were really no good landmarks to judge how far I had gone, or how soon I would come to a campground. The sun was getting lower in the sky. The thing about being in the mountains, is that in the hollows, it’s gets dark earlier than it does on the top of the mountain.
I do not have a lot of experience hiking, but since this summer, I have been hiking on our gravel road about every day for 6-8 miles. There are some tough climbs, but it’s not like being on a trail. On a trail, there are roots, and rocks that bend your feet this way and that. They cause you to trip and slide a lot. There were some tough inclines, but my legs felt good, and my adrenaline was pumping, so I did very well on that first day.
I saw very few animals. I saw one squirrel. I saw some cattle when the trail passed through private land.
I saw what I believe to be Coyote scat…it looked like a poo poo shaped fur ball. At one point, I heard a horrible sound, and I thought for sure it was an Elk. They have introduced them to this area, and we saw some in a field on the drive to the trail head. It took about three seconds for me to realize that it was only the engine breaking noise of an 18 wheeler on the nearby road.
A little while later I heard a loud crashing noise in the leaves off to my right, and I thought for sure it was an Elk. It was only an Armadillo, and it was running as fast as a horse to get away from the terrible monster invading its territory. (That would be me.) It was so funny watching it tear through the woods, because it was practically not even touching the ground as it glided over the leaves in its hurry to get away.
At about 5:00 p.m. or so, I came upon a bluff that had a cleared place where someone had camped before. There was even a fire ring with some wood by it. I decided to camp there for the night.
I set up my tent first. I feel confident with setting my tent up, but I was a little nervous that the sun was setting so quickly. Some clouds had blown in and it was blocking the sun, making it look darker.
I somehow put my rain fly on inside out, and had to flip it over and get it hooked in and secure. I kept tripping over my tent stakes. Then, I unloaded my backpack, and blew up my sleeping pad (Thermarest Pro-light Plus). It’s supposed to self-inflate, but I’ve had to blow it up every time I’ve used it. I got my Enlightened Equipment 20 degree quilt and laid it out, and I put my Sleeping Bag Liner underneath it. My bed was ready.
After I got that all set up, I put on my long-sleeved shirt, because it was cooling down quickly. I decided not to make a campfire, because we’ve had a burn ban out at our place, and I figured it was the same here on the trail. Also, the wind was extremely gusty!
I checked my cell phone to see if I had service. No service. I began to worry, because I knew Bud would be very worried. I had told him I would call him when I arrived at my camping spot -if I had service- but I really expected to have service. It was dawning on me that I would have no way to call for help if I needed to. I didn’t think I would need to. I would just wait until I hit a high hill tomorrow and give him a call…but it was nagging at me that I was ON a pretty high hill already, and had no service.
I decided to go ahead and get my bear bag line tossed and ready to go, so I could quickly attach my food bag and hoist it up after I had eaten supper. There ARE black bears in this area, but I talked to a camp host a while back who told me that hanging a bear bag was probably not necessary…that the bears around here are not used to people, and don’t associate people with food, like the more tame bears do in other parks. Still, I wanted the practice, since I’ll need to hang a bear bag on the AT. I also wanted my food to be safe from any raccoons or other critters that might smell it.
Bud told me a camping story about how raccoons ripped into his tent and tore into an ice chest to get to his food. He had to fight them off all night because they were trying to get in the hole in his tent. I didn’t want to take any chances. I’m not sure I tied it up correctly, but I was able to get it tossed over the branch with only a few tries! I threw it underhanded and it worked like a charm. I hooked the bag onto the carabiner when I was ready to hoist it up.
I heated the water for my dehydrated meal (Taj Mahal Chicken Curry) on my little MSR Pocket Rocket stove. I realized that one thing I did not have, was a wind screen. With the wind blowing so strongly, it took a little longer to heat the water up. I put my stove behind a large rock, and that helped.
There is not much worse than eating alone. With the adrenaline wearing off, I began to feel a little lonely. I ate quickly. I wanted to get into my tent before it got dark. I figured I would be less afraid if I didn’t have to see the place when it was dark! I hung my bear bag on the rope, hoisted it up, and tied it to a nearby tree. I quickly brushed my teeth to get rid of my Chicken Curry breath. (Didn’t want any raccoons getting a whiff of that.) I took a second to watch the sun yawn one more burst of color before it went to bed, and then zipped myself into my tent.
The first thing I did was lay out my headlamp, my kindle, my ‘night-time pee things’, my glasses, etc. so I would know where to find them in the dark. Then, I changed into my Cuddle Duds and got into my sleeping bag liner and under my quilt and I read a book about the Appalachian Trail.
I was not sleepy. It continued to get darker and darker, and I was thankful that the moon was out, because it was like having a built-in night-light with it glowing on top of my tent. I could see the shadows of the leaves dancing on my tent ceiling, as I listened to the wind howl. I read and I read, and still I could not sleep.
Then, I thought I heard something. What was it? It sounded like a pig grunting off in the distance! Not unheard of to find one here. We’ve seen wild pigs on our dirt road close to home. I kept on hearing the grunting sound, but it never got any louder or closer. Finally, I figured out that it was my stomach digesting my Chicken Curry.
I put away my Kindle and tried to sleep, and I began a routine of reading for a while, and then trying to sleep. Reading. Trying to sleep. It went on and on. Thankfully, I can honestly say I was not afraid! Praise God, I was not afraid. I did hear some real animal sounds. Something was rustling in the leaves, and I feel sure it was an Armadillo or Possum. The most exciting thing I heard was the snorting of a Deer, or maybe an Elk? (I really wanted to see an Elk. I’ve only seen them from a distance.) Whatever it was, it trampled around snorting for quite a while. I’m guessing it was angry at that strange thing (my tent) in it’s territory. I finally heard it’s feet trampling off and away.
At times, the wind blew so hard, that it knocked leaves and twigs onto my tent, and a few times, I thought it was starting to rain, but there was no rain in the forecast. It started to get colder, and I put on my down jacket and hat. My hat would not stay on my head. I was not comfortable on my sleeping pad. I tossed and turned. Side. Stomach. Back. Side.Nothing was comfortable.
I bought a stuff sack that is reversible with felt on the inside, and can be stuffed with clothes and used as a pillow. This worked pretty well. For the most part, with my down jacket on underneath my quilt, I was able to stay warm. Later, when I got home, I found out that it had gotten down to 28 degrees that night.
I tossed and turned, and finally, yes…I HAD TO PEE. I couldn’t deny it any longer. For those of you who did not follow my trail journal before I deleted it, I don’t want to go outside in the middle of the woods in the dark to PEE! I had heard of a lady who used a ziplock to pee in. I had used a coconut oil jar when I went on my first overnight campout by myself, and had grown confident just peeing right into it while on my knees. I decided to switch to the ziplock since it took up less space in my pack. In my over-confidence, I didn’t even get off of my sleeping pad to go. I didn’t want to lose all of my warmth by getting completely out of my sleeping quilt. I ended up getting pee on my sleeping pad, sleeping pad liner and cuddle duds. Dumb move on my part, but lesson learned. On the second and third time, I got off of my bed, and to the side. I used my F.U.D. (feminine urinary device) to pee into the ziplock, and SUCCESS! No spills.
Finally, I fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning with my sleeping quilt over my head and a little opening to breathe out of.
(To Be Continued…)