After weeks of shopping and list-making and trying out recipes and packing, my backpacking class met at the Campus Federal Credit Union on Friday afternoon to carpool to Chicot State Park for our beginning foray into backpacking. There were one or two in the group who had backpacked before, but we had an assortment of experience levels. Some had never slept in a tent before, others had camped but not backpacked and still others had backpacked but wanted to learn more. Nevertheless, thousands of dollars later, we loaded up into our cars and headed west from Baton Rouge to the swamp.
Almost all of us spent our lunch hours or the few minutes before the trip picking up last minute items at the Backpacker, Academy or Wal-Mart. It’s no wonder The Backpacker welcomes the backpacking class into their store after hours to teach them about their equipment. It must be like a mini Christmas season for the store when Katherine’s backpacking class happens twice a year. Overall, we all ended up thinking it was worth it to spend the extra dollars at the specialty store because they have everything you need, and they know how to help you with it. That being said, they were out of my last minute item – the trowel for burying excrement – when I made my last stop there. I’d have to borrow someone else’s when the time came for my first crap in the woods – a moment I was not happily anticipating.
We got to Chicot before dark, and the welcome center was packed. I imagine that people were flocking to get outdoors after the three straight weekends of rain and the sudden drop in temperature. It was going to be a fabulous weekend to be outdoors. Our plans to camp in campgrounds 3 and 5 got averted when campground 5 was booked for Saturday evening, but Katherine, our fearless leader, made plan B, and we headed off into the woods just moments before it got dark.
Nearly everyone agreed our packs were much heavier than we anticipated, and we had just thrown stuff in as we bought it last minute, so the walk in was not that comfortable. It got dark … darker … and darker, and we walked through the unknown territory with headlamps for light. I think a few people mentioned this felt like the Blair Witch Project. We hiked for a little over an hour in the dark and finally made it over the hill to our campsite. On it were two tents, and our little motley crew waited to see what would happen.
I realized that we had disturbed a couple of gator hunters who had stumbled upon our empty campsite and assumed it was not occupied. Thankfully, we had reservations, but these gnarly characters already had their tents set up, had built a roaring fire, were roasting a rattlesnake over the flames and were smoking something that seemed vaguely familiar from my youth. I took a deep breath.
Katherine spoke up first as the skinny one tried to hide whatever he was smoking. “Hey, we reserved this campsite,” she said.
“Well, we were supposed to be at campsite 2, but we couldn’t find it. We saw this one empty and decided to camp here,” said the obvious leader of the pair.
“I understand,” she said, and then said something amazing. “You are going to have to pack up and let us camp here. You can camp with us, but you’ll have to let my class have the prime territory.” I gulped. This was not going to be good. These guys had set up camp like they were staying for a week. A cleaned alligator carcass hung from a tree, and they had a pile of wood cut for the weekend. They were moved in. We all had Gerber tools, but they had an ax.
She turned around to us and told us to go pick out our sites and start setting up our tents. Carryn, Jennifer and I chose a spot down the peninsula right by their kayaks. I tried not to look, but I didn’t hear an argument at all from the burly guys. It was pretty silent as they started breaking camp and packing all of their things into their kayaks. About the time I was staking out my tent, the big guy let out a scream. His bungie card had snapped back and hit him in the mouth. I was standing right beside him, and I could literally feel his anger flare up. I held my breath wondering if this would be the moment he would snap, and we’d all end up in a scene from Deliverance which would make a great blog but not exactly a great weekend. Katherine offered him her first aid kit, and he sucked it up and said it wasn’t bleeding. “It just hurts,” he said. They did make sure they packed up every stick of firewood, and we thought they were going to take the fire, too, but they left it, unable to figure out how to put it in their kayaks. They paddled away into the night, and we were alone.
We ate dinner, sat around the campfire and then went to hang the food in the trees to keep it away from the wild hogs, mice and Ashok. Katherine mentioned that she heard something large in the grass on the way over, but she wasn’t sure what it was. I said, “I hope it’s not those canoe guys coming back for us.” Everyone nervously laughed, but I think we were all a little nervous about that whole scene. It could’ve gone a lot worse than it did. Needless to say, they didn’t come back for us – at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I will say that it’s pretty amazing what you can hide in a swamp.
We woke up at daybreak – those of us that slept – and caught the first glimpse of our little peninsula on Chicot Lake. It was beautiful, and it was just what I imagined it would be like to backpack. For years, I have looked at photos of tents right in the middle of the wilderness and have longed to wake up with no sign of civilization in sight. It was totally unlike my camping experience in campgrounds. There were no children screaming, no generators buzzing and there was no rush to get to the bathhouse. We sat around the fire enjoying coffee made with our new little stoves, made breakfast and got to know each other. One by one we each learned how to crap in the woods and “leave no trace.” It was life at its simplest. And we were doing it together.
I always believe that groups come together for a reason. Whoever is supposed to show up will show up. That’s why I never try to talk people into doing things. If they are supposed to be there, they will be there. Our little group was perfect. We had Ashok – the camp dog – Ratih and Kevin – the happy couple from Oregon – Carryn, JoAnne, Jennifer and I – the single adventurers – Kin – the backpacking scientist – Katherine and Curt – our infamous teachers – and Michael – the backpacking connoisseur. I can’t imagine a better group to hang out with in the woods for 2 days.
On Saturday, we had to practice breaking camp, hiking to another location and throwing camp again. It had been awkward Friday because of the gator hunters and our inexperience. The hope was Saturday would be easier, and we had the chance to re-pack our packs so the hike would test our packing skills. Because our initial campsite was booked, we planned to hike to campsite 5 – about 4 miles away – play around there a bit and hike back to where we were. It seemed silly to pack up from a campsite where we’d be camping that night, but we needed to practice. After all, this was a class. We were there to learn.
There was a lot of moaning and groaning on that 8-mile hike. We were all hurting. I can’t tell you how many times we adjusted our packs. Pull this strap… tighten that one… move the pack up higher …. use trekking poles – I tried everything. It was harder than I imagined to carry a pack. My reality check about backpacking is I’m going to have to start walking with a loaded pack to get in shape to do this on a mountain. Chicot was surprisingly hilly, but it was nothing like the Appalachians. I will need to get in shape to do this where I want to do it.
We got to campsite 5, ate lunch and did a little exercise to learn to pay attention to nature. I got my first opportunity to filter lake water and drink it. I look out at those swamps, and I couldn’t imagine walking into that water much less drinking it, but I was assured that it would be fine if filtered. I’m still here to tell about it, so I guess I’m a believer. And it actually didn’t taste that much different. It was a little brown, but with a red bottle, I couldn’t even tell.
Our little band of backpackers arrived back at our campsite exhausted. It was much easier to throw camp this time, and we all had new ideas about how to do things that would make it easier. Dinner was cooked, and we built a big fire. We were so tired that it seemed it was 9 PM, but somebody mentioned that it was 6. We all laughed and wondered how we would stay up until 9 or so. Katherine showed us how to see spider eyes at night with our headlamps, and we all were a little astounded about how many spiders there were. Afterwards, we huddled by the campfire listening to Katherine tell stories about her amazing father until we could not longer stay awake. It was about 8 PM when we retired to our tents for the night.
I slept like a baby last night. Ashok was exhausted, too. She was definitely the hit of the weekend. If she wasn’t being fed by my fellow travelers, she was being petted, and she ate it up. I should never have worried about her carrying her own stuff. Once she got in the woods, you’d have never known she even knew she was carrying a pack. She hung in there like the rest of us except she never complained at all. She is the best hiking buddy in the world, and I’m not biased at all. Now she’s a backpacker. There’s not many dogs in the world lucky enough to claim that.
This morning over coffee in the swamp, I was thinking about the weekend. Backpacking seems like a hobby for those who want to get away from it all. You might think it’s for those who want to disconnect. But our whole weekend felt like connection in the best sense of the word. I felt connected to others and got some one-on-one time with everyone in the group. Hiking is an amazing way to talk to others. There’s something about the rhythm of walking to a destination that opens people up. I felt connected to nature. I was in it. I was surrounded by it. I was at its mercy. I felt connected to my body. Trying to maneuver that pack and do something physically challenging had me acutely aware of what was going on in my body.
When the sun subtly lit the water through the filter of cypress trees, I felt Louisiana in my bones. Though the swamp doesn’t have the over-the-top beauty of the mountains, the subtle natural beauty of the swamp stole my heart in a way I didn’t anticipate. I was born here. This is my country. And this weekend, these were my people. At a time in life when I’m anticipating endings of all sorts of things, my heart bubbled with the excitement of new beginnings. Perhaps this would be the beginning of new friendships. I definitely have a new hobby that I can carry into my later years. And perhaps my heart opened a little to a new relationship with the swamps. Yes, I felt connected to Louisiana.
I’m tired. Ashok is exhausted. The cats are happy to see me. Tomorrow is a work day. But, I think I’ll put this down and reflect a little on my weekend. I’m still blown away at what it feels like to actually carry my own stuff in to the heart of nature and just be there. I think I want to spend a little time in that feeling. It is all at once empowering, awe-inspiring and humbling. All of a sudden, I want to be back there – mosquitoes, hogs and all.
Good night, y’all. Have a good week! Be thankful for your toilet… I know I am. 🙂