I finally got out and did my first backpacking trip on the weekend of Jan 23-25, 2015. My hiking buddy, Stephen, and I both had to work that day, so we made it to the trail pretty late. We had planned to hike in Arkansas, but after setbacks and cancelled trips, we decided to take the one weekend we both had free for a while and hike closer to home, on the 20 mile 4C Trail through the heart of Davy Crockett National Forest in east Texas.
We parked Stephen's car at the north trailhead just at sunset, and by the time we drove my car to the south trailhead, it was dark. Our camp for the night was in Ratcliff Lake Recreational Area, where the only other "campers" we saw were trailers and RVs. He set up his tent, and I pitched my tarp, too low as I would come to find out in the morning. By the time we finished our dinners, it was after 9:00, so we turned in for the night.
I slept only slightly cool that night, in spite of the outside temperature dipping below 30F. I hadn't bought a decent sleeping bag yet, so I was sleeping inside of two cheap bags, one inside the other. I was using an emergency blanket as a ground sheet, a Therm-a-rest Neoair pad, and reflective car window shade on top of that for a little extra insulation. I hadn't tested this setup yet, but since we were car camping the first night, and I knew it was going to be the coldest of the two nights out, we had the luxury of bailing to the car if we had to. Luckily, that wasn't necessary, and I only woke a couple times during the night.
I woke shortly before dawn, and Stephen wasn't up yet. I decided to take a walk around the park, both to wake up a bit and to find the restroom. I had been a little disappointed we had to cancel our original plan to hike in the foothills of the Ouachita (wash-i-taw) mountains. I had been looking forward to the scenery, but on the way back from the restroom, The sunrise over the lake was just as breathtakingly beautiful.
"Ugh, might as well camp in a garbage dump!"
When I got back to camp, Stephen was gone. I figured he must have had the same idea as me about finding the restroom, so I started packing up. That's when I found I had pitched the foot of my tarp too low, and it was touching my outer sleeping bag. The condensation running down the tarp had left a patch of ice on my bedding. Well, I just pulled all the bedding out a bit so it wasn't touching the tarp anymore and hoped it would dry by the time I got everything else packed.
Stephen's tent and my tarp, a Kelty Grand Mesa 2 and a 2mil square of polyethylene, respectively.
When Stephen got back, we ate breakfast before we finished packing.
Stephen at breakfast. Somehow eating straight out of grocery bags is not very appetizing.
The ice on my bedding hadn't even melted yet, so Stephen let me drape the bag over his tent. This didn't seem to do much at first, but eventually, the sun came up enough that I was able to turn the bag and put the ice in a sun ray. Waiting for the bag to dry out really set us back time-wise. In the end, we decided to pack up and go anyway, in hopes that we'd get to the second camp in time to let the bag dry some more. It was almost 10:00 before we set out on the trail. We weren't sure how far camp was, but we knew it was over ten miles, so we had to make good time, or we'd have to turn around.
Trying to melt and dry ice on a sleeping bag.
We set an alarm on my phone for when we'd have to make a decision whether to press on or turn around, and we set off for the day. The trail was typical of east Texas at first, easy with a fair mix of pine and young hard woods. As the we went on, it started to become soggier and soggier. It had rained a lot the previous two days, and while the rangers tell you to carry in all of your water, that wasn't a concern that day. There were puddles and streams everywhere. One thing this trail has going for it is there's a ton of wooden foot bridges to carry you over the low spots, but that wasn't going to keep our feet dry. I had brought plastic bags to put over my feet, but in the end, I decided not to mess with them and just deal with wet feet. After a mile or so, we crossed the highway we'd drove the night before, marking the boundary of the park and into the national forest proper.
Long straight section of trail.
Me on one of many bridges.
Sikes Creek. It's artistic because it's tilted.
We started to notice the areas we walked through were surprisingly diverse, with distinct areas having different atmospheres. Areas with more pine, areas with more hard woods, high, low, flat, dry, wet, sparse and dense underbrush... you get the idea. The trail crosses private property in a couple places, and at one point, we almost got turned around because it abruptly meets an unmarked road. It looks like the trail should cross the road and continue on the other side, but there was clearly a no trespassing sign in that direction. It turns out we were supposed to turn left and follow the road. The road, of course, wasn't on the map, I guess because it was a private road. We'd actually walked a hundred feet or so down the road before we decided to backtrack and make sure we were going the right way. When we got back to the spot where the trail turned, we saw a giant white arrow pointing the way down the road, which we had somehow both overlooked the first time.
Crossing someone's private hunting grounds.
When our point of no return alarm went off, we both felt like we were making great time, and the weather was warm and fantastic, so it was an easy decision to keep going. It was well past that when we got to Whitely Creek, where we had decided to eat a late lunch and fill our water bottles (filtered of course), only to discover that the bridge had washed out. We were going to have to wade it, and it was going to be cold.
Yep, it's gotta happen.
We ate and made sure everything was carefully packed up in plastic, double layered in the case of our sleeping bags. Then we rolled up our pants legs and took turns wading in. And, yes, it was painfully cold. I went first and used a big stick to steady myself in the water. We didn't know how deep it was or how fast the water was. Luckily, even though it looked swift on the surface, it wasn't very forceful. Unfortunately, it was deep enough to get our pants wet, even though we'd rolled them up as high as we could. I managed to make it over to the stranded section of bridge and then threw my stick over to Stephen for him to use, but I miscalculated and ended up splashing cold water all over him instead. Lucky for me, he's a forgiving guy.
Almost there, Stephen.
Finally, we were across. We continued on to find a very long raised boardwalk, one small section of which had been knocked out by a falling tree, but that was easy enough to climb over. There had actually been a lot of fallen trees, several of which damaged bridges. The area had suffered a drought a few years earlier, and the trees didn't fare so well. When we got to the end of the boardwalk, we crossed another forest road, one of many. Stephen said he had seen a middle aged couple on the other side of the creek when we were still eating and working up to wading it, but they had disappeared as quickly as they appeared, before I ever saw them. I guess they must have come in on the road and hiked as far as the creek, giving up when they saw the washed out bridge.
Before long we actually saw a small waterfall, one of the few I've seen in east Texas.
Proof that there is rock in east Texas. You just have to dig deep enough.
I liked that area because it was hilly and had several streams, but Stephen did not, because many of the trees had burned down. We continued our soggy trudging, at times walking up the center of a flowing stream that was supposed to be a trail, but there was no shortage of pretty scenery.
Just one peaceful spot.
To my relief, we started going slowly uphill, out of the wettest spots. It wasn't too long before I started seeing familiar landscape I had seen on a short day outing with my kids. We were almost to Pond Camp, where we were spending the night.
When we first got to the campsite, there was a car parked there, but no one around. We would have set up close to where the car was, but decided to give the owner some space, in case they came back that night. I decided to sleep in my hammock, and while I was setting up, the owner of the car was dropped off and drove away. By the time I was done, it was nearly dark. I was debating whether or not to start a campfire. The wood was wet, and I didn't want to smell like smoke, but on the other hand, it would be nice to dry out my socks and the bottom of my pants. I tried, but in the end, it was too soaked to light easily, and I didn't want to put that much work into it in the dark. I ate close to Stephen's tent, and then the two of us struggled to hang our food in the dark. I realized then I should have hung the line when I first got there, so I could see what I was doing. Then, all I'd have to do when I was done eating is clip the food bag on and hoist it up. Lesson learned. We ended up going to bed really early that night.
In the morning, things seemed to go much quicker than the previous day, both the packing and the hiking. It was probably no more than a mile down the trail that we saw some other backpackers just starting to pack up their stuff as well. I hadn't expected to see so many other people while we were out, especially not any other backpackers in January.
The very sandy banks of Camp Creek.
About mid morning, we crossed forest road 511, and we knew we were getting really close to the end of the trail. We had been hiking about as fast as we sanely could with our heavy packs, because my wife was leaving for a trip that day, and she needed me back by 2:30. But, when we crossed 511, we realized we could take things at a more leisurely pace.
A very straight section of 511.
While we were taking a breather at the road crossing, we saw a truck drive by. A few minutes later, that same truck passed us going the other way. Once again, I was amazed at the number of people out that weekend. I had driven all over those forest roads with my kids on a fine Saturday once before, without seeing another soul. Maybe east Texans were getting cabin fever?
Soon after that, we met up with the Neches river and walked the tiny and very muddy dirt road that follows it for a mile or so, before the trail split off and we started winding our way up the bluff where the trail ended. All too soon and not soon enough, we were there.
Stephen taking in the view before we leave.
Me taking in the view before we leave.