Traversing The Road Less Traveled

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Our crew yesterday…

There were a couple of times when we hiked Black Creek Mardi Gras weekend that we lost the trail. We only lost it for a few minutes as it was easy to backtrack to the last trail blaze and see where we went wrong. But my heart always sinks a little when I look up and wonder what happened to the trail. Every time it happens, I kick myself for not knowing how to navigate by compass. I HAVE to learn to do that if I’m going to get out in nature. Besides, some of the best scenery is often located off the trail.

Katherine taught us basic navigational skills in the backpacking course. One week we learned to read topographic maps, and the following week we learned how to read a compass. We practiced it, but somehow navigating around a field on the LSU campus did not make me feel comfortable enough about navigating in the wilderness should I get lost. And I’ve been lost before – complete with helicopters and a rescue team – so I know the danger is real.

The preparation….

We met Katherine yesterday at Clark Creek Nature Area so she could take us through some orienteering drills. She promised to get us lost in the woods, and we’d have to find our way out. We grabbed maps at the Pond General Store – except for my engineer friend Mike who had downloaded a topo map, divided it into grids, marked key points of interest and printed out the Natural Area section.  Gotta love engineers! At the trailhead, Katherine gave us a long list of navigational points and compass bearings for the hike. We would find specific points and then use the compass bearings on the directions to navigate us to the next point.

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Clark Creek is not an easy hike. It’s very strenuous normally,  and last week’s rain make the clay very slippery especially on the steep inclines with nothing which to get traction. Several places became butt slides but I was very happy to do it since the alternative would hurt so much more. The day was perfect. It ended up being about 75 degrees but overcast so it wasn’t too hot.

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We had some new people this week. I invited my friend Mike who just joined the hiking club. I asked him if he’d like to come out and practice his compass skills, and he was very excited about it. The others – Collette, Vanessa and Steve – were experienced hikers, but I hadn’t hiked with them before. Katherine and her partner, Curt,  and Kin and Debbie from the backpacking class were along too. It was interesting group, and I was glad to get out and get to know some new people.

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I was particularly excited to pick the brains of Collette and Vanessa who had hiked a couple of sections of the Appalachian Trail after the backpacking class. Their first backpack was on the AT! I spent most of the hike quizzing them about what they learned on the trail, whether or not they would hike the same sections again, and how they managed the weight of their pack with the difficult terrain. They told me that the AT was wet. The air is wet with humidity. It rains a lot, and it’s so hot that if it’s not raining you are soaked from your own sweat. As they were explaining how they dealt with it all I imagined myself hiking the AT. The visions of the mountain ridges, the shelters full of mice and the people I’d meet along the way kindled my desire to get on that trail. I know it is in my not-so-distant future.

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Several of the people on the AT that they met were surprised that they knew so much on their first hikes. Most people wing it and learn along the way, but apparently Katherine’s class is a big jumpstart that eliminates a lot of learning curves that could potentially be dangerous. Check…. class completed. Now, I was learning navigational skills.

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We navigated from point to point. She led us on some side trails and into some areas that I had not previously visited. There were very few people on the trail.  We were definitely on the road less traveled. We finished our orienteering instructions and reached the scenic overlook. Katherine had us pull out our maps and draw a line from where we were standing on the trail to the intersection of two streams. We were heading off trail – straight into the forest. We all agreed that our bearing was to be set on 50, and we used our compass to guide us from landmark to landmark.

We drew a line from the trail to the intersection of two streams... NO TRAIL!

We drew a line from the trail to the intersection of two streams… NO TRAIL!

The set up… 

We headed off into woods – bamboo, trees, lions and tigers and bears ….

 

If this had been flat land, it would not have been too bad. But Clark Creek has steep hills and deep ravines. We crossed two. The declines were so steep that we had to use our trekking poles to keep from slipping too fast and slid on out butts a few times. Ashok had no problem with any of this. She’d run down to the bottom and climb back to the top, looking at me and urging me to “come on”!

Come on, Momma! You can do it!

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The second ravine was really steep, but I was able to navigate down. When I got to the bottom, I looked up, and the climb back to the top on the other side was almost straight up. Ashok bounded to the top. I followed Mike up, but he was there long before I got there. The leaves gave way to slippery mud, and my feet kept slipping. Curt taught me how to use my trekking poles to keep me from slipping backward, but it was a slow, torturous journey to pull myself up. I don’t know how long it took, but I was extremely happy to get to the top.

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When we got to the top of that incline, Katherine pointed out the intersection of the two streams. We had picked a point on the map and navigated exactly where we wanted to go. I was amazed. I felt so much more confident that I could navigate to a landmark. I just always need to have a good map and condition it beforehand so it’s useful should I need it.

Throngs of people were in the creeks on the main trail. It was odd because we had been the only ones on the trail all day, and it was literally like an amusement park around the creeks. I think every teenager in Louisiana and Mississippi were out yesterday – many of them with their own booze. Most were obviously not prepared for hiking. I was so grateful that we had been on the road less traveled and not walking around with the masses. It made all the difference.

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After the hike, Katherine treated us all to Sarsparilla or Cream Soda at the Pond General Store. We laughed about our adventure, our mud-covered butts and Katherine’s tendency to just take off and go off the grid with a bunch of newbies. She pointed out that we may have had an adventure, but we still had not seen the most elusive and terrifying aspect of this area – the Big Foot of Clark Creek!  I guess I have to go back to find him!

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