This was only my 4th backpacking trip and my first solo, although with it being spring break, it didn't really seem like a solo trip. I met folks from Oklahoma, Missouri, Mississippi, Indiana, Texas, four wayward boys from Louziana, (more about them later), even some folks from Arkansas. Met two separate young couples on the trail, both of which the women had shoe/foot issues. One was wearing flipflops, as her boots were killing her; it was her first backpacking trip. The second one was wearing a pair of Vibram 5 KSO's. Now I have a pair of these and they are NOT conducive to comfortable hiking in the Ouachita's. She'd accidentally left her boots at home. To her credit, she was on day three of the loop. Oh yeah, and Larry the Hiker Guy, a nomad living and working from his cabover camper while hiking all over the country. How cool is that!?
I had considered doing the whole ERL,and most that I met were, but after my left knee raising cain the weekend before the trip, I decided to play it safe.
After getting a late start from home and a short stop at a Walmart for knee braces, I hit the trail at 512 about 11:00. It was a beautiful day, albeit a bit warm. Before I got on the trail, four young guys (early 20's, I'd say) came over to ask me about the trail. They were from Lafayette, LA, and we had a nice conversation about one of my favorite parts of LA. They didn't have a map of the the loop, but I let them take pictures of my map with their cell phone. They were going to do the loop and be back to their car by Sunday night. Now, I really didn't think that was realistic, but hey they were young and who am I to judge? About that same time a family drove up and asked about Winding Stairs and the Falls....geez I was beginning to feel like a tour guide, LOL. It does amaze me that people don't bother to research an area before heading out. By 11:30 I was heading down the trail. I planned on spending the night somewhere on the other side of the falls. At Crooked Creek, there was a group of seven or so from Dallas, fly fishing for itty bitty fish. Well that's what they caught anyway. All in the group were novices, except for their guide, a young woman in her late 20's whose father guides flyfishing trips in CO. We talked a while and they said they were going on to Winding Stairs. I headed across the creek toward the falls, and in a bit they followed me. I mentioned they'd said they were going to WS, and they replied, "yes, but we're driving and our car's at the falls. I tried to get ahead of them, but the guide girl continued to ask questions about various things. I was beginning to think there was not going to be any solitude on this trip.
As I made my way through the falls day use area, it looked like a convention of ATV'ers. One of the guys made a comment about me packing solo, and I lied and told him I was actually meeting friends that had started at the upper trailhead, and that we were rendezvousing at a campsite for the night. I think they bought it. I hiked on about a mile and found a nice hillside to camp on above the river. The mosquitoes were out, so I was glad I'd brought the bugnet for the hammock. After a satisfying meal I fell asleep listening to the river's song and a barred-owl's call. One of the great things about solo camping is that I don't need to wear my earplugs...no one snoring around me, HA! I dreamed of toenails falling off. HA, I'm still growing back a toenail from hiking in my boots at Big Bend. I have officially sworn off hiking boots except maybe in the dead of winter.
The next morning I got up at 7 left camp at 9 and ran into Larry the Hiker Guy. We talked gear and hikes for a bit, took pictures of each other, HA, then went on our way. Somewhere about a mile or so below the upper trail head, I ran into the Lafayette group coming back down the trail. This wasn't a complete surprise. One of the guys said he was sick so they were heading back. Well he did sound stopped up, but I suspect they misjudged their ability, or at least regained some sense of reality. Maybe they changed their minds after the first hill on the ABF. I didn't ask them how far they got. I told them I'd think about them the next time I made it down to south LA. I arrived at the upper TH at 11, stopped and had lunch before going back the opposite direction. I passed a boyscout group from Mississippi, with boys ranging from maybe 8 to 12. I talked with a couple of the adults about the Sipsey, and they commented about hiking around Red River, NM.
I wanted to be somewhere back on the other side of Crooked Creek for the night. I made it to game plot 70 for the night. The sky had been overcast all day, which kept the heat down, but I knew there was about a 70% chance of rain for the night. A group of college guys from Denton passed as I was scouting trees for hanging. I can't get over how hard it is to find trees that aren't dead or have dead branches overhanging. I collected water for the next day and while walking along the river, found a beautiful creek, or maybe spring spilling over the rocks on the opposite side of the river.
It was cool enough not to have to use the bugnet, and after dinner I slipped into the hammock, but not before lowering the tarp sides and setting my backpack under it for the night. Somewhere around 1 AM it started to rumble and by 2 AM the storm hit. The lightning was loud and near, but not so near as to scare the bejeezus out of me. I'd found a spot below several ridges, and away from the tallest trees. It's a great feeling to sleep in a hammock in a thunderstorm, and I was quite pleased that I stayed high and dry. Although I did dream of floods.
The rain was gone by morning, but the wind was blustery and cold, so I donned my raingear to stay warm. I am very impressed by how well they block the wind. I headed down the trail about 9. Not long I heard the sound of an ATV, then came upon a campsite, that judging from the size of the two tents, were not backpackers. A guy and girl with a blue healer, were making breakfast as I walked by and said hello. The dog began to bark and run to me, I closed my hand and let him sniff, then deciding I was not a threat, proceeded to jump up on me, muddy paws and all. Fortunately, somehow he didn't tear my DriDucks, but nonetheless it ticked me off. I don't allow my dog to jump on people. I have no doubt the dog was smart enough to learn this, just guess the owners weren't smart enough to teach him. Needless to say they didn't apologize.
As I walked away I heard the ATV approach the camp. I know there is a FS trail to the game plots in this section, so I'm guessing that's how they came in.
I arrived back at 512 about 12 (actually 1 PM, with the time change that I forgot about). It was windy, grey and cool, and I was ready for a meal. I was also concerned about a noise that had plagued my right front tire on the trip up, so I headed to DeQueen, found a McDonald's, got a fish sandwich combo meal, stopped at a tire shop and had my lunch while they tried to remedy the problem. After that I stopped at the Walmart to buy a cheap watch with a glow in the dark face, and return the knee braces since they were too small. I then gambled and didn't get a larger size. I started to head for Shady Lake campground then decided for a dollar more and the certainty of a nice hot shower, did I mention it was hot and sticky on Sat.? PU, I was standing in Walmart, wondering what that stench was....then I realized it was me! I dialed up Tom at Dierks Lake campground to check and see if he had room, and I was on my way. Boy is that water hot!! Just what I was hoping for.
Early the next morning I headed back to 512 to head in the opposite direction. Not counting 5 miles of upper ABF (the hard part), the only other part I had not hiked was the section between 512 and theWinding Stairs TH junction, and my plan was to hike down to the river crossing, have lunch, then putter around, make camp somewhere close to the river, and hike out the next day. I had considered crossing the river and continuing down, but was fairly certain the Winding Stairs area would be overrun with people, and I didn't really care about camping on the Viles Branch trail. I also wasn't completely sure I could negotiate, solo, the 3 ft bank at the river crossing. If the trail hadn't been so crowded I probably would have, but the rewards on the other side just weren't worth it this time. I did however have quite an entertaining show at lunch watching the boyscout group from Mississippi crossing the river. Talk about chaos!! What a hoot.
After lunch I walked on down the trail past the crossing and found another beautiful creek flowing into the river complete with falls. After spending about an hour or so here I headed back up the trail, passing some day hikers. I hiked back up the hill to a campsite I'd seen on the way down, but after inspecting the trees a little closer, decided to backtrack back to the glade above the river, and made camp there. I didn't want to take up a designated campsite, nor did I want to camp too close to one, I spent what seemed to be an hour trying to find a decent place to hang, and finally found a nice spot above the river and set up the hammock. This exercise made me realize all the times as a tent camper that I never gave much thought to widowmakers. I sure do now. The weather was still cool, so I hadn't brought the bugnet this trip, and didn't need it. About 5:30 a small group of hikers passed by, on their way no doubt to Winding Stairs. After dinner I sat watching the sky change and the river flow. The day hikers I'd seen earlier were making their way below the bluff along a gravel bar in the river, and then crossed to the opposite bank and disappeared into the woods.
The next morning while having breakfast a small herd of whitetails came through camp on their way to the river. Seeing me, one of them began to snort a warning to the others, and there was a moment of chaos before they made their way down to the water. I left camp at my usual 9 AM, crossing Blaylock Creek around 10 or so. Somewhere near where 106 and the trail run parallel, some campers had left a smoldering campfire, which I spent the next 20 minutes putting out. People absolutely amaze me! And since I'm on a rant, let me also add that if I had packed up all the trash I found while on this section of ERL, the weight of my pack would have easily doubled!!! Disgusting to say the least. And while I adhere to a leave no trace philosophy, I'll be damned if I'll pick up after others! At least not while backpacking. I did entertain the thought of dayhiking for the express purpose of trail cleaning, but I seriously doubt it would have the slightest impact. It was while I was making my way back and forth from the campfire to the creek (less than 25 ft away) that the inside of my right knee started bugging me, and by the time I made it over the hill at Albert Pike, it was definitely hurting. When I got to the car, I decided a good meal was in order (man I love that I can eat anything I want after a hike!!) I drove to Mena and had possibly the best vegetarian quesadillas I've ever had.....maybe I was just really hungry :)
From there I decided to have another shot at the Talimena Scenic Hwy, since last time it was too foggy to see a thing. This time it was so windy I had to hold onto my cap! I made a big loop south and back east toward Shady Lake. My plan was to hike the trail around the lake the next morning to see how the knee was doing, and if it held up to do the Buckeye Loop Thurs/Fri.
The trail around the lake is very nice, although not very well maintained, and was hard to keep the trail at times, especially once it gets past the interpretive loop, but also just after it heads away from the lake. By the time I finished the knee was not happy.
I decided to drive east to the White Oak Lake SP, to try a flat trail that Tim Ernst mentions as worth the drive. I was also considering spending the night there, but once I saw how close the campsites were, decided to just hike and head home.
After talking with the gal at the park office, I discovered they'd added an extension to the trail, a new 9.8 mi loop called Fern Hollow. At the 1/2 way point are 4 pretty nice primitive campsites. I was tempted to hike in and stay the night, but it was 80 degrees, I'd already unloaded my pack, and I didn't trust me knee. Turns out it was a good call, I did the 3 mile Beech Ridge/Coastal Plain loop and really struggled with my knee on the last 1/2 mile. So, at about 5 PM I headed back home.
It was a great week, despite the traffic on the trail, and my knee. I was a little disappointed that spring wasn't more apparent in the wildflowers blooming; the next week or two should be much better. I was also happy to come away without any ticks and only one mosquito bite.
Now I've got to seriously work on both knees to get them ready for the full ERL in three weeks! Link to pics