Backpacking Forest Glen

We were incredibly busy people this spring, and we have a tendency to put off packing until the last minute. This creates an incredible amount of stress for me, and I really need to stop doing it. I had planned for us to pack 4 days before we left, but it ended up being done the night before and the morning of… again. We were in the shoulder season – that time when it’s not really winter, but its not entirely warm yet either. This makes packing for a trip where gear space is limited is extra challenging. I bought a new 0 degree topquilt for the occasion. We’ve been using lighter topquilts plus sleeping bags for our winter car camping trips, and that just wasn’t going to be an option this time around. Still, I didn’t account for the extra space a heavier quilt would take up and my 50l backpack was barely going to manage to hold everything I’d need for the weekend.

Fortunately, we made it fit and weighed our packs with food and water included. Mine was 35 pounds and Arbor’s was 40. While mine was a lot better than the 45 pounds I carried on the River to River trail, I was packing for one night out – not multiple nights! Arbor made the best improvement from his 55 pounds down to 40. Still, we need to work a lot harder to get pack weight down because its just not near as much fun to hike with such a heavy load.

We drove out to Forest Glen and met up with 10 other hikers from the Corn Desert and Adventure Group. 3 of them decided to just make the trip a day hike, as the event was taking place over Easter weekend. We chatted and caught up with folks as everyone got suited up for the trail. I know we weren’t alone in wearing a pack for the first time in the season. It felt good to put it on, but I knew that sensation would pass as the day progressed.

That initial bridge was sketchy enough the last time we crossed it with the Hopeful Hikers, but with another 35 pounds on my back, it was especially concerning. Everyone made it across and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. We started the day at 40 degrees, and it was too cold for the frogs to be out. It’s a shame because they really add something to the atmosphere.

Still, it was warm enough that I was questioning my decision to wear my gortex hiking boots as I was starting to sweat in my wool socks. After enough unavoidably wet and mucky water crossings, I knew I had made the right call. Normally I would be ok getting my trail runners wet, but it was still cool enough that wet feet would have been a serious problem for me.

The great thing about this trail for training purposes is the steep pitch to the hills we encountered. Illinois is particularly flat and we just don’t get any sincere elevation in our hikes, so vertical hills over and over are a great way to prepare for the mountains in our future.

We had gotten a generous amount of rain earlier in the week, and I was concerned about one steep hill in particular – but the path was surprisingly dry. The sun was out and there was a small breeze that just made the whole day delightful.

The wildflowers were just starting to show themselves. In a couple of weeks, they should be out in force.

As wonderful as the hike was, I was feeling every ounce of those 35 pounds. My shoulders ached and I was developing bruises where my hip belt sat. I was starting to recall why we only hiked 8 miles a day on the River to River trail. We had taken an early break for snacks, but I was feeling ok then. By the time we hit 5 miles, I really needed just to sit down in my chair and rest my back. As much as my shoulders and hips bother me, what really forces me to stop is my mid-back. It starts to burn and develop shooting pains that are impossible to ignore. Even blisters are better.

Most of the group hiked on ahead, but a small band of us stopped and rested for 15 minutes. It was everything that I needed, and I was able to tackle the final stretch. It was even better when Kris found a camera on the ground near a bridge crossing that turned out to belong to a member of our faster group. I don’t know that anyone would have noticed if we had all pushed on together.

We got to camp and blissfully took off our packs and sat down to rest for a bit. There was some regular hiker banter with the group and then we set off to set up our hammocks.

With that out of the way, we came back together and ate dinner and made a fire where we spent the next few hours enjoying each others company. As we crawled into our hammocks, I went to sleep with my hot water bottle and the sound of coyotes howling in the near distance.

I slept amazingly well. My hammock was pitched at the perfect angle, my quilts were gloriously warm and I was ready to sleep the morning away. I heard movement outside and knew I needed to get up and join the living.

I was in no hurry to pack up and go, so I sat around and drank my coffee and ate my breakfast while people came and went from the main gathering spot. Kris was the last to get up, so he was my barometer for action. The faster group decided to hit the trail early, but I was enjoying my pace and we hung back for a while knowing that our hike out would be more relaxed as well.

It was nice to have a smaller group to hike with as well as its a change in dynamic from the day before. I like both experiences, and enjoy them on the same trip is a real treat.

I think the last 3 miles of the trail are the prettiest. They certainly have the most challenging hills, so its a great way to tackle them – after a good nights rest.

I was carrying a lot less water and food this time around, and my pack felt terrific. I had adjusted it differently too, and I ultimately felt stronger and incredibly happier for the remainder of the hike. After weighing it when we got home, it came out to 28 pounds. That’s my new goal for the future, because it completely changed the entire trekking experience for me. You hear it in theory, but to feel it one day after the next like that is a real revelation.

We made our way out of the hills, and back into the flat section of the park and I felt triumphant. First backpacking challenge of 2015 accomplished! Then it was back to chatting while walking and enjoying the surroundings. We passed the frog pond and listened to their wonderful chorus, and saw what we think was a badger skull and spine on the path. It’s always a surprise out there.

And then, just like that, the trip was over and we said our goodbyes and made our way home. I can hardly wait to throw on my pack again and test my limits on the trail.

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Bonnie’s Bramblers Celebrate Birthdays

Our good friend Bonnie, of Corn Desert fame, was having a birthday and decided that camping was the absolute best way to celebrate another year around the sun. A group of us went to the Jim Edgar campground to help make the event a party.

We got a much later start than we wanted, but magically seemed to show up just about the same time everyone else did. Still, with the late arrival, we only had about an hour of workable daylight, so set out to find suitable hanging trees. The group camp we had reserved was terrific, but was largely a mown grassy area with some trees and brush on the perimeter, close to the lake. I started to get nervous, but after some scrambling, found trees that would do the job.

The area was a beaver buffet through, Chewed and downed trees were everywhere! One year we camped right next to a beaver lodge in the Boundary Waters and I heard crashing trees all around me all night long. I hoped I wouldn’t experience the same this time around.

We got camp set up and joined the others in the nifty shelter, complete with fireplace. It was entirely cozy with all the Friday arrivals. Dan and Penny treated us to salmon and a potato medley that was out of this world, and we brought champagne to toast the birthday girl. It was a lovely first night.

The sky was clear and all the stars were out. It was also 20 degrees! This was supposed to be a spring trip, but it was just as cold as FYBO. When we left our house, it was even snowing a little! Still, not to be dissuaded, we had all our winter gear and were prepared for a cold night in our hammocks.

The next morning was bright and chilly, and I was well rested as it appeared the beavers had abandoned our area, at least for the time being. With the day starting so well, a small band of us went seeking a nearby trail that purported to be 7 miles long. (It turned out to be closer to 4)

The trail wound around a small lake, and we saw plenty of water fowl.

It was too early for any of the green to have grown up, so the hike wasn’t particularly pretty, but I’m sure it’s a lot nicer during the summer.

We did find a geocache entirely on accident, which was pretty cool.

We also hiked through a large area that had recently been burned. That would have been cool to see and I bet it grows back magnificently later in the season.

We returned to camp and the rest of the group had arrived. We settled in around the fire for food, drink and hi-jinx.

I know I say this a lot, but this is a group of incredibly fun people and I always look forward to time spent with them.

We ate gorgeous cake.

While it may have been Bonnie’s birthday trip, this particular weekend actually fell on Arbor’s birthday! It was like two celebrations in one, and there was a terrific ‘underwater’ birthday song for him.

We even had a celebratory pyramid! How many people can say they’ve done birthday pyramids? 😉

Freeze Your Butt Off 2015

I always look forward to the annual Freeze Your Butt Off meetup with our Corn Desert group. It is a terrific time to unwind, laugh a lot and brave the cold together. On warmer outings, I tend to try and do too many things. One of the perks of FYBO is that a lot of the time is spent hunkering down and staying warm around the fire. It’s often the most relaxing vacation I ever get.

The fun times began right away this year. The park service had cut down a lot of troublesome trees and left them for us to use as firewood. The guys got out their burly man axes and made short work of the wood we were given, but not before getting in a few jokes.

Kings of the woodpile! Everyone is supposed to bring firewood with them, because we go through a lot of it with the temps being what they are. This year, however, we were resplendent with resources.

We set up our hammocks and prepared for the night ahead. I had really been hoping we would get down into the teens at night because we’ve never tested our gear that low. I would love to be able to incrementally see how low we can get while still being comfortable with our underquilts. The great thing about car camping is that you can bring backup options because weight and space are non-issues. Unfortunately, we only got down to 20 degrees at night, which is the same temp we’d slept in before.

After setup, it was time to socialize around the fire. There was plenty of time to catch up with people we hadn’t seen in a while, tell stories and share future plans. There is nothing better than a campfire at night with great friends.

The next morning we were treated to an amazing breakfast in the food tent. (which is kept slightly warmer with the aid of a propane heater) We camp at electric sites, so everyone can bring crock pots to keep food warm. Scott even brought his smoker this time around! There are so many delectable options to choose from throughout the weekend.

After stuffing our bellies, we settle around the fire to talk and make plans for the day. Have I mentioned how relaxing this all is?

Of course, even a winter meetup will involve hiking when you’re with a hiking group – and Kickapoo State Recreation Area doesn’t suffer from a lack of wonderful trails.

Always a good time with this crew. We got to joking this time around that Kris needed his own hashtag – and from that point on, he was #HashtagKris.

The trail we chose to hike had a series of carved faces hidden in the trees. It elevated the hike to a bit of a treasure hunt.

I think they’ve even added new carvings since the last time I had been out there.

We met up with Amy partway into the hike. She wanted to keep going after the group was returning to camp, so we took her to our favorite Out-n-Back trail. All year long it remains a beautiful hike with varied landscape and points of interest.

She always brings her backpack along for trips like this. She says she tries to hike at least once a month with a pack on, so that her muscles don’t forget how to wear one. It’s really good advice that I ought to start heeding myself – but I just can’t quite convince myself to do it just yet. Obviously, I am not as hardcore as she.

In our absence, Kris and the gang had a little fun on their own. I had stowed my jacket in Kris’s pack during the hike as I got warm and forgot about it when we parted ways. You can see the danger of that. 😉

By the time we’d finished, we’d hiked a good 10 miles, which was a lot more than we had anticipated going in. I was rightfully tired and hungry on our return. Fortunately, Scott had fired up the smoker and prepared ribs for the entire crew. They were soooo good after a day of exertion, and I went to bed full, happy and sore.

We woke up the next morning to several inches of snow on the ground and more still falling. It was incredibly beautiful and just the landscape you want for a winter retreat.

The snow was too much for our campfire canopy however. Fortunately the fire was out before the tarp collapsed. Since it was our day of departure, we just wrapped things up and a new fire was never lit.

Even though we didn’t have a fire, we still had the refuge of the food tent. A final breakfast was a great way to finalize the trip, and before long it was the last thing to take down before departure. It looks so stark and lovely out there on its own.

Kris is a late sleeper, often waking up hours after everyone else. He gets teased about this rather regularly, and this time around a woodpile prank was set up just in front of his tent door. When he popped his head out to greet the day, he said that his groggy brain couldn’t figure out if we had moved his tent to the woodpile, or if we had moved the woodpile to his tent.

Until next year!

Shawnee National Forest – Day 2

It had been cold sleeping, hovering around freezing temps. I stayed snugly warm with my zero degree underquilt and my potpourri of top quilts, blankets and sleeping bag. I really want to get a zero degree topquilt, but that’s a purchase for another year.

Mornings are a great opportunity to kick back and chat while enjoying breakfast. I love a leisurely morning! It’s amazing how much more stuff we bring while car camping, though. It’s not like we eat more than we do on the trail, but we certainly eat differently.

On today’s agenda was a group hike out to Rim Rock. We were lucky enough to just walk out the back of our campsite, down the hill to the road.

We followed the road along Pounds Hollow lake and enjoyed the absolutely gorgeous weather and scenery.

I just can’t get over how beautiful the area was in the fall colors. Everywhere we turned was another amazing view with color and rock features.

We climbed up and down several sections and explored the area like we were the first to discover it.

We stopped for lunch and tried not to get too cold as the warmth of the trail left us. Arbor and I had the brilliant idea to pack in cheese and cider for our break! It certainly added a little special something to the day.

We cleaned up and headed back to the trails.

Ultimately deciding to bushwhack off onto an old trail that was not out of service. It was terrific fun and we had a good time talking about gear choices and future travel plans.

It was an excellent afternoon, but before we knew it we were heading back to camp to enjoy the last night of the trip.

We had the most amazing communal dinner with shared treats and hot entrees. We stayed up late into the night laughing and telling stories.

Until next year Corn Desert Hiking and Adventure Group!

Shawnee National Forest – Day 1

We went on our annual Shawnee camping trip with our amazing Meetup friends from the Corn Desert Hiking & Adventure Groupback in November. They are such a terrific bunch of people, and we always have the very best time with them. This year we stayed at Pounds Hollow Recreational Area, which is just as lovely as anyplace we’ve been in the Shawnee.

It’s a bit of a drive to get down there, but was way more fun this time because we got to pass by all the places we hiked last summer on the River to River trail. It’s so much different seeing these landmarks by car, and helped us to appreciate all that we had accomplished.

We arrived on the early side, and grabbed a site with our good friend Scott of Hiking Forward fame. This was great for us, as it was a really nice spot with good hanging trees, but I don’t know that Scott was aware of Arbor’s snoring before the first night. He was a good sport about it all.

Everyone typically brings a bundle or two of firewood, but this year we had the extra bonus of several cut tree sections left by rangers in other campsites. John, a man who is always prepared, grabbed his *ax*, and made short work of the wood and must have split at least a cord. He emphasized that this is fun for him. I think John should join us on all outdoor ventures from now on.

After all that, there was little else to do but enjoy the fire and greet our friends as they arrived. I love getting the chance to share stories with old and new friends and catch up with what everyone has been up to.

A small group of us decided to head out and explore Pounds Hollow to see what we could find.

There were no direct trails from our campsite, so we bushwhacked a good portion of it until we picked up a network of hiking paths.

We found some really neat things along the way, though. Up by the cliffs, we found these tags, which indicated research areas studying the Eastern Woodrat. We were very careful not to disturb anything, but John pointed out areas that could likely be nesting spots.

We also discovered an old abandoned well. I imagine Southern Illinois must be littered with them, but this was a first for me and conjured up jokes of Lassie. It was pretty nifty to look down and imagine what life must have been like when it was dug and used.

John found a really wonderful deer skull laying in the leaf litter and upon closer inspection we could see that one side of the antlers had been getting a lot of attention from mice. I love seeing things in the process of decay. It’s such a perfect reminder that life really is cyclical and self sustaining.

It wasn’t a terribly long hike, but was decently challenging and before long we decided to head back for dinner. Of course, we didn’t really know where ‘back’ was – so there was plenty of map consulting and discussion about the best direction to head. All part of the adventure!

Just before we picked up the road again, we hiked down into a ravine and John stepped off a shallow ledge and all we could hear was his sudden hollering and cursing. Apparently, living under that same ledge was a wounded racoon who was surprised by all the movement and rushed out between John’s legs, scaring the crap out of both of them! John quickly moved out of the way and the racoon found his way back into the shadows, leaving us to our best devices. You could really smell the rancid odor from its injury, and unfortunately I don’t think the animal was long for this world. It was an amazing story recounted later around the fire and I think it will go down as a Corn Desert legend.

We ate dinner back at camp and as a group drove over to the Garden of the Gods to explore and watch the sun set. It’s a beautiful area with sandstone rock formations that are supposed to be 320 million years old.

There are so many places to climb and scramble and look out over the expansive view of the valleys below.

It’s amazing that in today’s society they even leave these areas open to the public. I feel really fortunate that they haven’t been fenced off.

We stayed to watch the sun set over the cliffs and landscape below. We had such an amazing time and it was the perfect end to a glorious day.

Clinton Lake State Recreation Area

Clinton Lake North Fork Trail has to be one of our favorite area hikes. Its a beautiful 10 miles, with some terrific climbs for the very flat Midwest, and its a loop. All that makes for a challenging but convenient trek that isn’t far from home.

We hiked it with one of our favorite outdoor groups, the The Corn Desert Hiking and Adventure Group. They are always a fun, interesting and eclectic group of people and we have a great time with them!

Because the group attracts people of all backgrounds, we usually break into smaller groups based on pace. Its great, because you get the chance to chat with your hiking partners and hear all their amazing stories. There is all the requisite gear talk, future plans and greatest accomplishments shared. I just love it!

Being fall, there were some amazing specimens of fungi out there. I just love taking pictures of fungus and it helps that they hold still.

This find was our crowning achievement! I’ve learned that this is Laetiporus, or commonly known as “chicken of the woods”. Its an edible mushroom that can be prepared in many of the same ways as chicken, hence the name. Its still good to be cautious, however, because some folks can react negatively with swollen lips or nausea. We haven’t tried it yet, but I’m considering it for the future!

I have a mushroom ID book on my holiday wish list! Hopefully, in the future, I can label all my fun mushroom pics with their names.

The trail is genuinely beautiful with ponds, floodplain forests, bluffs and of course Clinton Lake.

We had an amazing time and went home tired, sore and feeling accomplished. We’re looking forward to a winter hike here again with our Master Naturalist hiking club!