Turkey Run and the Power of Social Media

Our grand adventure started with this photo. I took it while on our weekly Hopeful Hikers outing, at Allerton. There was this glorious swath of yellow flowers all over the floodplain.

That night, while scrolling through Instagram, Thom noticed another photo with yellow flowers that looked eerily similar. So he asked the poster where it was taken, because we’d seen some at Allerton – and he tagged me. The next morning she responded that it was also at Allerton, and that she was in town from Utah, and here for a short stay to visit her brother and his family. I asked her how long she’d be in the area, because it would be fun to go hiking, and learned that she was leaving the next morning!

Let’s bear in mind that I had never interacted with her before this moment. This is the kind of crazy wonder that I love about social media! She let me know that she and her brother’s family had plans to hike this day, and after some back and forth – I convinced her that Turkey Run was the best kept secret for our area, and not to be missed. I asked her when they were leaving, and she said, “Now!”

This was just at the start of my day, and I hadn’t even left bed yet! I ran to find Thom and told him that he was calling in to work and taking a vacation day – because we were going to Turkey Run.

We scrambled to get ready, and hopped in the car to meet up with Kayla and company. We all met in the parking lot, feeling shy but excited at the same time. Kayla’s brother Keith and his wife Heather had also brought along their 4 year old son, Sam. We didn’t know if Sam would be up for the glory of trail #3, but we figured it was worth checking out.

It is a show stopper of a trail, and the weather couldn’t have been more wonderful. We took off our shoes and waded into the canyon streams to begin exploring in earnest.

Trail #3 is about 3 miles long, and has surprises and glorious views around every corner. I am in love with this area, and how other-worldly it all feels. It was especially fun to share it with people who had never been there before. It’s like having a chance to see it all again with fresh eyes.

Sam was a real trooper. His interest never waned, and kept imploring the rest of us to forge ahead. He even started exclaiming “Eureka!!” at each new discovery. His enthusiasm was contagious and I found myself having more fun on this hike than I had ever before. I love sharing the outdoors with kids. They bring something unique to every experience.

We had a terrific time getting to know one another and sharing stories while being out in this beautiful place. The trip ended far too soon, but new friendships were forged, and there were certain to be other adventures ahead of us.


Altitude and the Appalachian Trail

We had a great time on the Ramsey Cascade Trail, and wanted to hike more. We were planning to hike Porters Creek, but our guide let us know that what we’d see would be pretty much the same as what we already experienced. We had several people suggest we hike out to Charlie’s Bunion from Newfound Gap. We had wanted to take photos with the AT sign anyway, so this sounded like a terrific plan.

We drove up the next morning and parked at Newfound Gap. It was windy and super cold. I was glad I had my puffer and soft shell jacket. It was awesome watching all the backpackers coming through the area. I’m certain a healthy percentage of them were thru hikers and we enjoyed seeing what packs and accessories they were carrying.

We got our coveted sign pics! We hope to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 2020, so have been reading and learning everything we can about the journey. Most of what we know about backpacking has come from the research about the AT. We had planned to hike it sooner, but we have been scheduling too many other exciting excursions, and we had to push it out. Ultimately, we would love to be triple crown hikers. (AT, PCT, CDT)

Hiking on this venerable trail was exciting, and incredibly beautiful. It was a perfect day, with the sun out and the view on either side of us. I was super excited about reaching the incredible photo op at our destination.

Unfortunately, I started feeling off. I was getting slightly dizzy, short of breath and my vision turned into a ‘fish eye lens’ perspective. I pushed on for a while, but started to feel insecure. With the steep drop offs and uneven trail, I began reconsidering the day’s hike.

Thom convinced me to try a little longer, and I’m glad that I did, because the surroundings were amazing. Ultimately, I decided that it was entirely unsafe for me to continue. We had hiked about a mile out, and I was feeling pretty stupid. I had just killed the 2,000 elevation gain the day before and couldn’t even manage an easy 4 mile trail. The tears welled up, and I compounded my embarrassment by crying.

We headed back, and all I could think about was our upcoming trip to Idaho with Hell Hike & Raft. Newfound Gap has an elevation at 5,049 feet and our time in the Seven Devils Mountains would take us to 8,300 feet! If I was having issues here, I was worried that I was going to fail at the big trip of the year.

After talking with others, we learned that dehydration may have been an issue as well. We were super glad we had decided to hike here, instead of Porter’s Creek, if only so we could learn about potential pitfalls for future trips. We try to take every experience as a learning exercise, and all of them are valuable. We knew from this hike that we were going to have to study up on elevation prevention in order to succeed in Idaho. That alone was worth the price of admission.

The Magnificent Ramsey Cascade Trail

After the robust education we got from the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, it was time to go out and see the splendor for ourselves. What better way to do this than to hike?

Our friend suggested we take a guided hike with A Walk in the Woods. She had been on a couple of their trips, and had loved them beyond measure. She found their knowledge of the area, the history and natural surroundings enriched an already incredible experience.

This would be our first time hiking with any elevation outside of the Midwest, and I wanted to see how my abilities stacked up. We chose the Ramsey Cascade trail, an 8 hour round trip hike over some challenging terrain. We would gain nearly 2200 feet in elevation to the tallest waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I was looking forward to every inch of it.

We met up with our guide Michael and our fellow travelers Ben & Meghan at the trailhead parking lot. The day threatened rain, but so far was beautiful and sunny.

Our surroundings were lush and green, and the first portion of the trail was pretty level, making a very pleasant walk. This gave us a chance to get to know one another better, and ask a bajillion questions about the incredible things we were seeing on the trail.

We were just a touch late for the wildflower boom, but there were still many gems to be found. It is so much fun to travel outside of your normal region and be surrounded by flora and fauna that are vastly different from what you are used to seeing.

About 2 miles in, we came across a footbridge that was looong and narrow – and about 20 feet over the roaring river below. Standing on the bridge, it felt 100 feet up, and a mile long. It took every ounce of convincing in my own head to make me put one foot in front of the other. My legs were jelly when I finally reached the other side, but I felt amazed that I was able to do it. My list of accomplishments were getting longer by the day.

Among the many highlights of the day was getting to hike through old growth forest. Some of these venerable trees include white oak, red maple, tulip poplar & hemlock among others. With the increasing loss of native species due to invasives and climate change, it is gratifying to see these old trees holding on.

After the footbridge, the trail became more challenging, and I was glad for all the training we had done on stairs. I was killing it though, and felt great. Perhaps it was the inspiring surroundings, but I was absolutely in my element.

With how lush everything was, its not surprising that we found an incredible number of new fungi. I want to know what every single one of them are, but with 50,000 different species of visible fungi, I have my work cut out for me.

The closer we drew to the falls, the more steep and slick the trail became. I admit to falling on my butt once – but was so graceful in getting back up that no one else noticed. 😉

Just before our destination, we spied this sign. Apparently, there have been deaths as a result of people climbing around and to the top of the falls. The area is incredibly slippery with all the algae, moss and mist. With as cautious as I generally am, and as badass as I felt after the footbridge, I was feeling pretty secure.

The Cascades were impressive and incredibly cool. In spite of coming across a handful of people on the trail, we were the only ones at the falls themselves. The mist was powerful and I pulled out my jacket to keep dry and warm.

We sat on the large boulders below the falls and ate the lunch we brought along with us. It was a fun way to celebrate and to linger in this incredibly beautiful place.

It began to rain on the way back. It was a light rain, and cooled everything off. It also brought out all the fascinating wildlife. I had never seen a salamander before, and I saw 4 that day!

It was an incredible hike, a magnificent day, and I fell in love with the Smokies.

Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the GSMNP

We were invited to visit the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for several days this spring with some good friends.

We’d never been before, and didn’t have high expectations in spite of all the glowing reports we’d heard from friends. Wow, were we blown away. Just driving into the park is magical, with towering trees, rivers & wild turkey in all their glory right on the side of the road. It’s like the rangers staged the scene just before we showed up, in order to make the best possible first impression.

We were extra fortunate that our time in the park allowed us to attend one day of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is 5 days of classes, hikes, seminars and more – all in the the park and surrounding area. I wish we could have been there for the whole event, but we packed in a lot on the one day that we had. (you can see last year’s brochure here)

Our first class was “Forest Foods and Pharmacy” taught by the venerable Ila Hatter, who has been teaching about wildcrafting for more than 25 years. Some of our other classmates have been coming to her sessions year after year, because they always learn something new.

We were led on a 3 mile walk in the Metcalf Bottoms area to rustle up whatever useful plant life could be found. We learned about mullein which can be good for wounds, partridge berry that you can eat for its vitamin c content (tastes bland, but kindof nice), sweet birch branches that taste like wintergreen and can be made into a vitamin rich tea, and many more.

It was all so fascinating, and I wish I could absorb everything she said. She was passionate and wrapped her lessons in wonderful stories of past experiences. Fortunately she was selling her books afterward, and we picked up a copy of her cookbook Roadside Rambles .

We were having the time of our lives. There is not much better than learning while being outside and hiking – sincerely three of our favorite things. The trails here are not to be beat. Everything is so lush, varied and well maintained.

Our next class was “Fungal Roles in Forest Ecology” taught by Ed Lickey and >Gary Walker. Right off the bat we learned about the basic classifications of mushrooms and got to see some great examples. It’s no secret that Thom and I love to take fungi photos, but we really didn’t know much about them before this class.

For instance, we had no idea that the mushrooms we usually see are just the fruiting body of the organism – like an apple to the tree. The actual fungus is the mycelium, a complicated thread-like structure that branches its way through the host. That’s why, in certain areas, it’s ok to harvest found mushrooms – because you aren’t harming the actual fungus.

Our teachers were full of energy and got up close and personal with the specimens they found. Here, Ed uses a hand lens to see the structure of the fungus. These lenses are incredibly powerful, and reveal an entire new world. If you are interested at all in mycology or plant-life, I encourage you to pick one up. You can learn so much more by getting a closer look.

We have so much more to learn about mycology, and this book came highly recommended. It’s still on our to-buy list, but we did purchase Musrooms of the Midwest just to narrow the field a bit. We were so inspired by this class – we can hardly wait to learn more.

To top off our wonderful day, as we were departing, the line of cars began to pile up. My instinct was *bear* and I was absolutely right. This gorgeous black bear was hanging out on the other side of the river, just taking a gander at the line of people standing around taking photos. It was our first day in the Smokies!

The 2016 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage will take place April 19 – 23 and we think that it is an amazing opportunity for anyone who loves nature and wants to learn more. We will certainly be going back!

Wildflowers and Whimsy at Clinton Lake

Earlier this spring, we had a beautiful day for a hike! The temps were perfect, the sun was out and there was just a slight breeze to keep things interesting. I just love the 10 mile loop at Clinton Lake. It’s the first time this season that I donned my trail runners instead of my winter boots. The last few hikes have been uncomfortably hot for my feet, but there were enough wet trail crossings that it seemed worthwhile. Today seemed just right to switch, and I was right. These are the new Brooks Cascadia that I got, to replace the ones that tore on the River to River trail. They just seem perfectly made for my feet because they were just as comfortable at mile ten and there was not a blister in sight.

As our small band of hikers walked up to the trailhead, we caught sight of a bald eagle flying overhead. It seemed like a good sign of a great day.

The wildflowers were certainly out in force. We identified 21 different varieties, and saw a dozen more we couldn’t put a name to. It meant we kept stopping to see something closer and talk about it, making the first few miles take a lot longer than they normally would – but it was so great no one minded the extra time.

The lake had great white pelicans and the frogs were singing their little throats out. We climbed up and over the hills, through prairie and crossed small streams. It was so nice to stretch our legs and not be bundled up in winter jackets. Even better to see that the forest was once again turning green. I just love to see everything coming alive again.

We even found some surprises along the trail, left by someone with a sense of whimsy.

As well as a sign left by someone with a sense of.. boredom? I don’t know – what motivates people to shoot up signs anyway?

All of my recent hiking and stairs have really made a difference. I can feel my legs and endurance getting stronger. I really need to find a way to work on my cardio, because that’s where I’m currently weakest. Still, by the end of our 10 miles, I didn’t feel worn out like I often have before. My hip joints weren’t wobbly and my legs were in great shape! If I keep this up, I might survive the mountains of Hells Canyon.

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.

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? 😉