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.


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.

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!

Hell Hike & Raft Weekly Challenge

Our small band of Hell Hike & Raft participants have been getting to know one another. We’ve got a seriously terrific group of hikers and I am growing eager to meet them all in person. Pablo suggested we set up weekly challenges to help us get ready for the adventure ahead and already it has been terrific fun. This past week’s challenges included:

Hike a local trail of at least 3 miles total
We hiked 3.5 miles on Wednesday with our Hopeful Hikers at Homer Lake, and then another 11 miles on the challenging Forest Glen backpacking loop. Good times all around!

Go to your local outdoor store of preference (REI for me) and ask/look for hiking shoes/boots
Champaign Surplus is a local favorite, so we stopped by to look at shoes. I got a replacement for my torn trail runners from REI, so I will be wearing those in Idaho. Arbor isn’t sure what he wants to do yet and asked the fabulous Patrick all about their hiking selection. Unfortunately, so many hiking shoes these days involve Gortex. While it’s a terrific component for day hiking, its a bad idea for multi-day outings. Once treated shoes get wet, they just don’t dry out – so having footwear with great ventilation is really important. Ultimately, we didn’t get any shoes, but I did manage to score an excellent shirt. (on sale!)

I also want to take a moment to introduce one of our sponsors, who is becoming an important part of the Hell Hike & Raft family. Teton Sports is an outdoor gear company dedicated to making durable products that won’t kill the pocketbook. They sell backpacks, sleeping bags, cots, tents and more. Scott, our intrepid leader, owns a Teton tent and brings it along to meetups, so I’ve had the chance to see it up close. Knowing firsthand how cool the tent is, I am really excited to see what we will be testing on this trip.

In addition to making awesome equipment, Teton Sports also hosts the weekly Twitter #Hikerchat! For an hour every Friday at 11:00 Central, a fast flying conversation begins while using the #hikerchat hashtag. There is typically a theme and a schedule of questions that the hosts toss out for everyone to answer. If you have a Twitter account I encourage you to join in. It’s a lot of fun, a terrific way to meet other enthusiasts, and a chance to share your own outdoor stories and goals.

Hell Hike & Raft still has spots available! Apply today and join us on this amazing adventure.

Clinton Lake with the Hopeful Hikers

I was really excited to share Clinton Lake with my fellow Master Naturalists. None of them had ever hiked it before, although many had wanted to for years. It really is a gem of a trail, offering challenging climbs on a 10 mile loop, that are difficult to find in the Midwest.

We’ve hiked the trail several times on our own, and with the Corn Desert group, but Master Naturalists love to stop and talk about all the wonderful discoveries along the way. This is how Arbor and I like to hike, so its just pure joy to have a group of friends that feel the same.

And we discovered many wonderful natural finds to include birds, animal tracks, fungi and plant life. There is just so much left to learn and I’m struggling to find the time to fit it all in.

This trip was this past December, so we were still in the thick of hunting season and needed to wear our blaze orange for visibility. I think it makes for some interesting photos.

We made our way through the hills and valleys to the halfway point, where we stopped for lunch. Its a great area with a picnic table and the launch point for kayaks and canoes, so the views are pretty nice. There is also a parking lot for the paddlers, and we had shuttled cars so that a couple of our beginner hikers could finish their hike here. It’s a terrific option that makes the trip more accessible to everyone.

It was a lot of fun to hike with these folks. Many we knew from our class, but hadn’t had the chance to really get to know them. One of the nice things about hiking in a group is that you get to pace yourself with one or two others and really talk. I find trekking to be a very social activity when I want it to be.

We made our way through forest and prairies, past ponds and floodplains. There are always amazing views and incredible things to see. I’m at a loss with these posts, because I want to share all of my photos, but there are way too many for a simple blog post.

Before we knew it, the loop was completed and we said our farewells. We look forward to hiking Clinton Lake again in April.

Turkey Run

I’ve been so busy lately that I just haven’t had the chance to update. This means I’m horribly backlogged on posts, because we haven’t stopped camping or hiking! In the meantime, let me share my latest adventure to Turkey Run State Park.

Turkey Run has been one of our favorite hiking areas, but this time we had the pleasure of joining our meetup group.

We were a little late, so showed up after dark. Let me tell you, setting up hammocks in the dark is no easy feat! After getting settled, we joined the group for late night snacks and good conversation before heading to bed.

After a lovely breakfast the next morning, we hit the trails. Unfortunately, after the spring flooding this year, the main suspension bridge across the river had been badly damaged. While it was largely complete – it hadn’t been opened to the public, so we had to walk an additional 2 miles to get to our desired destination.

Of course, this is no real hardship as the landscape here is second to none. Its just gorgeous – and with such good company, extra travel is a treat.

Once you find the sandstone gorges, the temperature drops at least 5 degrees. After hiking up and down steep climbs (and stairs!), its a blessing.

The landscape is so varied for such a small space – deep woods, sandy river shores, and then these prehistoric looking canyons. I always feel like one of the original explorers as I head into a stream bed to find whats around the corner.

The park staff love to keep things interesting. See those stairs carved into the stone? While they weren’t necessary during our trip, I’m told that the stream can be both deep and fast in the spring time – and those stairs are required travel.

After the challenge of the 140 stairs, we had ladders before us! Three sets of steep ladders bolted to the stone. I’m sure they’re not so bad going up, but its always nerve wracking going down.

We saw loads of flora and fauna out there. The turkey vultures soaring above us are a fixture of the area and we were delighted to find the millipede, caterpillars, spiders and more.

When wood stairs and stone stairs become to mundane, there are always tree roots to climb on!

In the end, walking the additional 2 miles to get back to camp was more than anyone wanted to tackle, so that meant fording the river back to the other side. The water was cold, which was a welcome respite to our hot and buzzing feet.

We returned to camp, retrieved some refreshments, made dinner (to include jambalaya and corn bread!) and spent the night tell stories about ourselves. It was an incredible way to get to know one another better, and we laughed until the wee hours.

The next morning, we had planned to hike nearby Shades Park, but the rain started and we decided to call it a day. We all enjoyed a hearty breakfast at a local diner and then parted ways and headed home.

Comlara Camping

We camped at Comlara County Park this past weekend and had a marvelous time. We hiked two of the trails there, and met up with the Peoria Backpackers for kayaking on Evergreen lake.

There were great blue herons everywhere, and often you would hear them in the brush. They squawked like some prehistoric beast and one caught us off guard enough to make us jump! The first trail was littered with wild blackberries as well. I’ve never eaten any in the wild before – always just black raspberries, so this was an enormous treat. Couldn’t find any mushrooms this time around.

We did see a turkey though! We walked around a corner and practically ran into it – he must have been 3 feet from us. We all looked at each other in stunned silence, and then he sauntered into the undergrowth. I am still kicking myself for not getting it on film. Capturing a turkey has become something of a mission for me now. We also saw a beautiful doe under the pines, 6 varieties of butterflies, and a really cool watersnake.

I didn’t manage to get the underquilt for my hammock done in time, so I brought the less ideal air mattress. It all worked out ok, and I got a good nights rest. The weekend did inspire Arbor to jump on buying a Warbonnet Hammock for himself, and I’m super excited. It can take a month to arrive, and we have an important trip around that time, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that it shows up.

I experimented with our first homemade dehydrated meals. I made the Hungarian Goulash and Spicy Vegetarian Rice from the Hungry Hammock Hanger, and will need to keep tweaking things a bit. The potatoes in the goulash never rehydrated all the way, so I think I will try grating the potatoes instead. The rice just had way too much salt for us, but thats an easy adjustment.

We headed down to the docks and joined the Peoria Backpackers and had a ton of fun paddling the lake and getting to know everyone. It was a perfect overcast day, so that it was warm without the sun beating down on us. A few hours later we met up on land for a cookout and got to share more stories with a sincerely terrific group of people. It was such a good time that I can hardly wait for the next meetup! (thank goodness the wait isn’t long)