[pictures were lost when recovering posts from old web server ]
Little more than a month ago, Kevin and I drummed up the idea of doing some backpacking. I did a bit of backpacking in college, so I’m already equipped and ready to go. Soon thereafter, we convince Rojo and my brother Ryan, who has no noteworthy Internet presence, to join us in our wild and crazy adventure.
The first lesson of backpacking the guys learned leading up to the trip: as simple as it seems, walking to the woods and sleeping there for a couple of nights can quickly require a lot of very expensive crap. Backpacks, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, tents, and more can easily cost $100+ each. Fortunately, I suffered through that realization back in my single days.
The second lesson of backpacking: when you are going to spend the better part of two days in the woods, it is not, not, NOT a great idea to swing by a gas station for some quick biscuits and gravy while on your way to the rendezvous point. Talk… about… bubble… guts. Ouch.
The third lesson of backpacking: don’t talk about backpacking. …. I couldn’t resist. I just couldn’t.
Our plan was to travel a few hours north into Arkansas around Albert Pike. I spent a number of vacations there as a kid as had my brother. I think we both had forgotten how much we remembered the place until we got there. When I did some backpacking a few years back, it was exclusively around this area on the Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouachita National Forest. On this trip, however, I thought we’d change it up a bit by parking at Albert Pike and deciding which direction to go from there. The loop passes through Albert Pike, so we could just head north or south from there. Bad idea.
When we arrive at Albert Pike, the only trail head we could find was called “Little Missouri River Trail.” What bits of information should we have derived from this name?
- The Little Missouri River Trail follows The Little Missouri River.
- Rivers don’t go over mountains. They stay at the bottom.
This should be considered particularly important information because it was February. In February, water is cold. Very cold. The Little Missouri River crosses water. Frequently.
The point I am attempting to make is that after a series of crossings like these, we decided to just trudge through them in our shoes and socks, find a camping spot, and find a trail that is NOT named after a river the next day. This water, by the way, was not pure. It was filled with microscopic needles of pain, agony, and death. It was very cold. I repeat, it was very cold. Of course, I was the only one that executed the bright idea of taking my shoes and socks off. Everyone else just walked through it and got their clothes wet. Peer pressure quickly forced me to do the same, but I stood strong for this one crossing. Had I just taken the time to cross the river like this every time, I wouldn’t be participating in the main event at the camp that night: shoe and sock toasting over a mediocre fire. The area received some heavy rain earlier in the week, so dry wood was difficult to come by. Weak fire and wet socks forces one to roast his socks a little too close to the flames. Socks brown exactly like marshmallows.
That night was terribly cold, but we survived it. On the way out the next morning we succeeded in finding a way to cross the river only once and take the road back to the truck. We opted to leave the area and take a back way to the southern part of Eagle Rock Loop that I’ve done before. The up side of this plan was that I knew exactly what was ahead of us. The down side of this plan is I knew exactly what was ahead of us and it wasn’t going to be easy. The map at Albert Pike warned that the Athens Big Fork Trail was “extremely strenuous.”
Nevertheless, we started this trail with a renewed vigor, the defeat from the river behind us and mountains ahead of us ready to be conquered. We start off on the trail, and no more than 100 yards in I get us lost, being the front of the train. After 15 minutes or so of scrambling up and down the side of the mountain, the consensus became that I wasn’t too retarded. The trail took an unusual turn that was covered in leaves. The ascent up the first mountain was absolutely a humbling experience. This trail didn’t ease you into anything. It greatly contrasted with the Little Missouri River Trail, whose only difficulties were fluid. The top of that first mountain felt like my personal Everest. I was weak, out of breath, and ready to camp for good, but we had another battle ahead. What’s funny is during the descent of the opposite face of this mountain, I distinctly remember hearing murmurs of “this part will be easy on the way back.” As we later learned, this was as wrong as we could possibly be. It was steep and long. In the valley below, there was a medium sized stream which I assume fed into that devil river known as the Little Missouri. We crossed the stream with dry shoes, giving us a second wind to climb the last mountain to our final campsite. It too was very long and winding. So much so, we had to take a break halfway up for photo ops.
The final campsite was a beautiful sight, and that’s about as eager as I have ever been to eat an MRE. The camp fire this time was a victory, as well. We had to hunt for it, but we found enough dry kindling to swindle the wet(ish) wood into burning. And alas, a fire is born. The weather was much more pleasant this night, and by pleasant I mean in the 40’s. Around 8 that night, Ryan thought it was good idea to mention pancakes and/or waffles. This began a shift in the weekend. Waffles… those were our new motivation. Within the hour, rain rolled in and we hit the sack early. Surprisingly, I had some cell reception, so I stayed up a while texting. What a woodsman I am. I know. This night’s sleep was far less fragmented. I only woke up a half dozen times or so and was much warmer throughout the night. This was partly due to the higher temperatures as well as me being better prepared for the night. The interruptions were disturbing. Wolves were howling on either side of us, at one point being easily no more than 100 yards away. The first occurrence of this naturally caused me to shout a “You guys hear that? Not… cool.” They heard it, and they were awake too. I have little doubt that the only reason we weren’t eaten alive was because of the layers of funk we had accumulated by this point.
Sunday morning pack-up was performed in record time. Well, record time for everyone but Rojo. Rojo. Gotta love him. At the persistent reminder of waffles from Ryan, we descended the first mountain in 14 minutes, climbed the next in 50 minutes, and descended the second in 11 minutes. Breakfast is no joking matter.
Overall, the weekend was incredibly fun. In all seriousness, taking trips like these truly make you appreciate those little things from day to day… like fire and food. And heat. And dryers. And extra clothes. And drive thrus.
I encourage anyone who doesn’t regularly go camping, backing, or otherwise experience the outdoors to try to do so. I can’t wait for my next trips with these friends, other friends, and family.