England 2017: Week 3

It was still insanely hot and humid Monday morning when we went to meet nanny. It was mid-morning by the time I had walked to the B&B from mom’s house. Mom had inadvertently dropped a very important piece of mail somewhere along the route and had to turn back to find it….eek…but I continued in order not to keep nanny waiting. We met mom in the center of Horsham. Most of the day was spent perusing the many shops in search of an ever-elusive, not-too-long plain skirt for my nan…and we never did succeed. Lunch was a brief but enjoyable stop at the cafe in the Waterstone’s bookshop afterwhich we left nanny at her hotel for a nap while mom and I headed home. Nanny was raring to go again around 4pm and mom went to pick her up so she could join us for dinner.

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Tuesday and Wednesday continued in much the same way, although without mom as she had to work. Nanny and I enjoyed conversations and walks in the beautiful park and manor house gardens, we watched shirtless guys playing soccer and sweating profusely in the heat, we stopped with young moms and nanny bubbled with effervesence as she talked to the babies, something that brings her great joy. We had lunches at outdoor tea rooms and in an old but air conditioned restaurant that once used to house the council offices. We wandered through the local museum and went to pick out nice gifts of wine snd chocolste for my mom and sister. I learned how her and my grandad had met and courted, I heard more stories about the war and her childhood and I listened to funny tales of my mom when she was growing up. When we were tired and fed up of being hot we headed home to enjoy the cooler confines of the house and shaded garden while sipping on a beer (me) or a cup of tea (nanny). I got to spend a lot of quality time with my nan, and take some wonderful pictures, and it is time I will hold in my heart for the rest of my life.

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Nanny joined us on Thursday as we headed to my sister and her boyfriend’s (Adrienne and Chris) house where I was staying for a long weekend. It was the first time either nanny or I had seen their house since they had bought it three years ago and the full renovation has only just been [mostly] completed. It was stunning and it was amazing to think they had done a large portion of the work themselves. It was a HUGE project but their house was stunning, especially the massive walk-in shower that, with a couple of hanging ferns, could have been the set for a shampoo commercial.

The afternoon saw us heading to Chartwell, the famous home of Sir Winston Churchill. Chartwell was bought by the former English Prime Minister in 1922 and it was his primary residence until he died in 1965. In 1946, when it appeared that financial constraints would force Churchill to sell the property, it was bought by a consortium of his friends, led by Lord Camrose and donated to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, on condition that the Churchills could remain until their deaths. Churchill continued to live there until October 1964, when increasing frailty forced him to leave Chartwell for the last time and confined him to his London home.

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We did not purchase the house tour but wandering through the rose and kitchen gardens was more than enough regal splendor for all of us. Of course my poor sister was seriously suffering pollen allergies at the time and we didn’t stay more than a couple of hours. And in grand British tradition, no visit to a stately home or historic site would be complete without the obligatory cup of tea.

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On Friday I awoke to a much more gloomy sky, and much more British weather but that was not deter Adrienne and me as we headed to Hever Castle, not 5 minutes from their home. Knowing my love of castles and all things medieval Adrienne made this visit, plus lunch, her portion of my birthday gift.

Hever Castle, located near Edenbridge and 30 miles south-east of London, is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. Henry inherited the castle after the death of Anne’s father in 1539. It also, in the later years of Henry’s reign, came into the possession of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves as part of the settlement from the anulment of their marriage.

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Hever Castle went through three distinct periods of construction, renovation and repair in it’s 900 years. The original and oldest part of the castle, the gate house and walled bailey, dates back to post-Norman time and the time of the Plantagenets in 1270. In 1462 the castle was inherited by Geoffery Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s great-grandfather, who restored and converted the castle, which was in dire need of repair, into a manor and added a tudor dwelling within the walls. The final renovation, completed by William Waldorf Astor, and American millionaire, was undertaken after he bought the castle in 1903. It was used by the family as a residence until 1983 wherein it was sold to a private company as a conference center, although the castle and grounds remain open to the public.

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Sunday took us a Bough Beech Reservoir and the nature reserve where we planned on hiking a 2 mile loop near the lake. What started out well sign-posted ended in, not surprisingly for me, a complete and total lack of signage. We ended up walking 10 minutes the wrong way on a country road, dodging minimal traffic thankfully, before we turned around and headed back to the last signed gate on the opposite side of a wheat field. We found a second trail that was also sign posted and dared to follow it. Again, it was well signed and an obvious path…for a while…but once through another gate the trail and the signage once again disappeared. We were left to guess where the route was supposed to go, and unlike the badly signed Centennial Trail where I had a map and could make a good chice, we had nothing to go on. After wandering around for 15 minutes on the far side of the pasture I gave up looking and crawled through the fence. Two more fences and one minor barbwire injury later and we were back at the start. We debated getting a cup of tea or coffee but I was in the mood for something slightly stronger and we headed home to enjoy a movie and a beer or two.

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Adrienne and I had a quiet dinner before heading to the station to catch the next train back to Horsham at 8pm where mom was waiting to pick me up an hour later.

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England 2017: Week 2, Part 2

After a long day on Thursday, and knowing Saturday would also be busy, mom and I kept Friday easy and simple. After a quick grocery shop to supply for my nan’s visit we packed a picnic and headed 16 miles south, by car, to Cissbury Ring, an old iron-age fort that is classed as the best preserved hill fort in Sussex.

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It is estimated that Cissbury Ring was built around 250BC with a double rampart, and ditches on the outside of each, with two gates on the eastern and southern sides. It covers and area of almost 75 acres. It would have been impregnable by other hostile forces with the weapons and tactics of the day. However, while inter-tribal war and skirmishes did happen the forts were more of a deterrent to inhibit conflict, similar to the nuclear weapons of today.

Cissbury Ring is in a beautiful location that looks out over the south downs to the north and the English Channel to the south, with green rolling hills full of immaculate farm fields and trees in every direction. While life at the time would have been hard they certainly picked a beautiful place to live it.

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After walking around the fort and admiring the views and taking photos of the semi-wild herd of horses that grazed the area we made a brief pit-stop at a very old local pub with a beer garden for a quick drink. It was a very pleasant way to end the short hike and enjoy the sun. Notice the one with a strange lion-like “mane” under his belly; I’ve never seen anything like that before on a horse.

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Friday evening saw me taking the train to Sutton, a suburb of London, to meet up with my two best friends from high school, Melanie and Uzma. We had decided on an inexpensive but well-recommended Italian restaurant near the station called Casa Nostra. Mel and I met on the train and arrived early so we asked to be seated at out table, ordered a drink and chatted while we waited for Uzma to arrive. We reminisced about our school days, and in the grand tradition of our friendship we had a very attractive Italian waiter who flirted shamelessly…of course, still being single, I obliged and flirted back (back when were 15 or 16 the waiters were too old to be interested in us “kids”). We talked about the “old” days and what our families were doing, where our jobs had taken us and what our plans for the future were. It was an awesome evening to be spent with friends I haven’t seen in a while but who have been a large part of my life for over 20 years. It was good to see them.

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Saturday had been planned more than a month ago, before I left the US. I had been looking for medieval festivals or renaissance faires that might be taking place while I was in England and found a small event happening at Arundel Castle. It also happened to be only a few stops down the tracks from Horsham which made it extremely convenient.

Arundel Castle is a stately home and a medieval castle with Norman roots. It was originally founded on Christmas Day in 1067 by Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Arundel who was one of William the Conquerer’s most loyal barons. Arundel Castle is one of the longest inhabited country houses/castles in England and many of the original structures, including the Norman keep, the gatehouse and barbican, and the lower part of Bevis Tower survive to this day. In the late 1800s the house was almost completely rebuilt in a Gothic style and is considered to be one of the great works of Victorian England.

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Upon arrival at the castle mom and I meandered along the winding pathways with magnificent views of the castle walls and towers before settling down in the shade of a large tree for “Story Time” with a bard recounting some of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”.

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From the tales of medieval England we made our way past the hog roast to the tents of the knights donning their armor in preparation of battle. We found another shady spot (prime real estate on such a hot day) in some long grass and waited for the event to begin. The event was a live-steal and full armor event which meant real-but-blunted blade, full shields and full suits of either plate armor or maille.

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The battles were a cross between SCA and the Armored Combat League and were continued through until submission upon the part of all but one combatant. Some battles were one on one and others were last-man-standing melees. It was a fun half hour cheering for or booing for whichever contestant the audience chose to support…mostly raucous loyalty for England and a lot of thumbs down and hissing for the French. The Danes and Poles were left somewhere in the middle.

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We enjoyed the hog roast for lunch, although it was a lot of food, and then made our way through the castle to the ancient Norman keep. The information inside the keep detailed the life of various members of the household, including soldiers, officers, musketeers, the King’s Cavaliers, a Lady in Waiting to the lady of the house and more. Sadly no pictures were permitted inside the castle itself but I did manage to sneak one or two on my phone. Outside of the buildings photos were permitted and I attempted to capture the grand scale of Arundel Castle and all of its buildings and walls but with limited success….it was just too much to fit into a series of pictures.

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A break for tea or lemondade was taken after the tour and we almost fell asleep as we settled into the large couches in what was once probably a cellar or kitchen of some kind, before it was open to the public. We were trying to kill some time before the falconry display.

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Finally we could find no excuse to stay and keep a table occupied and we strolled back through the lush gardens to the display arena, again finding a shady spot from which to watch. Sadly this time the whole thing was interrupted constantly by a young Chinese guy behind us Skyping with someone, who we guessed to be his girlfriend, during the show which was somewhat distracting.

We enjoyed the show and watched their Barn Owl, Benny, show off his moves although he was definitely slightly confused when commands he understood came from the speakers. Second was Neo the kestrel who was only 9 months old. Sadly for the falconer the bird’s age showed during the demonstration and he disappeared for a while and was almost impossible to bring back. Finally they did manage to call him back but it did shorten the rest of the show. The last bird flown was a peregrine falcon called JJ. He was beautiful to watch fly and they had to use a flying lure for him due to his speed. It was certainly incredible to see him dive for the lure and hear the whistle of the wind over his wings.

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The falconry display was the last event we stayed for. We headed for the main gate to head to the small town of Arundel outside of the castle walls but got briefly diverted by the rose garden that was in full bloom. The flowers were stunning and the heady scent was almost overwhelming in the heat. It was a stunning place and very much a little sanctuary.

I had voted for ice cream earlier in the day and so we stopped in at a little tea shop as we explored the medieval town, although mom thought hers was too large and too indulgent. It was very good ice cream and well worth the pause to eat it at the war memorial.

A brief but hot walk took us back to the station and we headed home, tired and sweaty but having had an amazing day.

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Sunday

My heart was heavy this morning as I staggered out of bed and sent my dad an email to wish him a Happy Father’s Day. Of course I missed my dad while he was in the US and I over here but what weighed more heavily on me this morning was my grandad’s memorial service. The funeral service, open to one and all, had been held at the beginning of May but my nan had very kindly and lovingly suggested holding a brief memorial and burying my grandad’s ashes during my time in the UK. Today was that day, all the more special and emotional for it being Father’s Day.

The vicar said a few words of faith and remembrance as my mom, my uncle and my nan lowered the box into the hole. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and those who chose to laid flowers and dirt in or around the grave site. It was an emotional time and tears flowed for some, but not all.

To make the occasion lighter and more celebratory of life rather than the sadness we all felt the entire family (minus one husband who had to work) went to lunch at a local eatery called The Red Start, a restaurant/pub establishment a mile or so from the church. It was the first time we had all be together since my cousin’s funeral in 2013. It was a lunch of great conversation and family memories and I made sure to get family portrait in the beer garden after we were all done with lunch and the bill had been paid. It will likely be the last photo we have of us all together.

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It may have been fate, or the gods smiling on us, that we ended up at that restaurant on Father’s Day as they were having a Viking event in the beer garden. While the day was a somber the feeling was light and I enjoyed watching the Viking warriors battle it out in the arena and teaching some of the kids how to use and sword, axe and shield. Sadly, it was another one of those things I didn’t get pictures of as I was more concerned about talking with family.

With lunch over and the afternoon turning into evening we met my nan back at her house. I took the chance to spend a few moments alone in grandad’s workshop, viewing the last train he had been working on before he died. It was a beautiful engine with saddle-style water tanks along side the boiler. It was so close to completion. This was the place I knew grandad best and was a more fitting place for me to say my final goodbyes than the grave site. The familiar plastic bags still covered his old but precious lathes, drill presses and grinders, among other various pieces of classic metal-working machinery. I still felt his memory and spirit around me in that place and my fondest memories will always be watching him construct these beautiful steam engines from scratch. I dug through some of old scraps of metal in a box on the counter top that grandad had fabricated but discarded and took a couple of random pieces that would remind me of him.

The train he was working on when he passed away:

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Finally, as the temperature of the day started to cool slightly we packed nan’s bag in the car and headed home. She would be spending the next few days close to mom and me in a local B&B to get away from things for a short while. This was exactly what I had wanted to focus my trip on…spending time with grandparents who I knew didn’t have too much more time left. Sadly I missed out on seeing my grandad by two months but I will make the most of the time I have with nan.

England 2017: Week 2, Part 1

Monday was a very quiet start to the week although it ended up being more eventful than I had planned. My UK passport was due so I sent in the renewal application for that, went to the bank, did yet more grocery shopping and then returned home for lunch.
After lunch was when things got exciting and mom asked me for some help with car shopping. She had been in need of a new car for a while but had procrastinated because her old car was still running well…but peer pressure from others had convinced her she really needed to get serious about looking, somewhere other than the internet!

Somehow the first place we looked had exactly what she wanted, coming in under her budget and checking all the boxes of things she wanted in a new car. Being the smart people we are we asked all the necessary questions and then left to go check out a few other used car lots. The first one we checked out, and the only other place my mom was convinced there might be some other good options, was fairly grimm. With that place checked off and some breathing room to decided my mom was convinced that the first car was the one she wanted…so we went back and took a test drive, and I did some basic checks under the hood.

With both of us that certain that it was the car she wanted we waded through a few negotiations with tires and then the paperwork until mom had signed the papers committing to a new (to her) 2014 Ford Fiesta in dark blue…pretty snazzy little car. We pick it up this weekend.

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Tuesday mom had to go back to work which left me with not much to do. I walked to the station and caught the same train as her, although getting off a stop later in Ashtead…the town in which I spent the middle part of my childhood.

Having never explored Ashtead Common before I meandered along a series of paths surrounded by verdant undergrowth, avoiding blackberry brambles that crowded the trails, with limited success. Pathways scattered in dozens of different directions as walked beneath massive oak and beech canopies, and it felt incredibly peaceful. I saw few people and those I did see all had dogs…it made me miss Kye and Cody all the more since I knew how much they would have loved exploring the common. Can you see the heron?

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The path eventually returned me back to the station and I took a brief detour to an old familiar memory….Ashtead Pond. A man and his son were feeding the ducks and I did not want to disturb them so I circumnavigated the surprisingly-brown water and came across a heron perched on an old log. He didn’t seem spooked by me so I took a couple of pictures, watched a few fish grabs flies from the surface and headed back to the station where I caught the next train to Leatherhead.

Leatherhead was the town where I spent the older and last years of my childhood, right up until I was 18 and moved to the US so it holds some good memories for me. Not much had changed in the town center as I strolled by the store fronts; some stores were new and had been replaced but some were still the same stores as 20 years ago. It felt comfortingly familiar.

From the town I took the river walk, an old favorite of mine, along the River Mole and heading west out of town. I was heading for another place that held amazing memories for me, Wildlife Aid. From 1995-1998 I worked as a volunteer, cleaning cages, feeding injured or orphaned wild animals and helping with rescues and releases, including a couple that were aired on their TV show “Wildlife SOS” in the first season…it was one of the most rewarding and satisfying things I had ever done and I loved it.

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Sadly Wildlife Aid is not open to the public, not even former volunteers, and Simon (the founder) was in a meeting so I didn’t get the chance to chat. It was amazing, from the little that I could see, how much the center had changed and grown in twenty years. A brisk walk back to the station in the slightly-oppressive sunshine and humid air brought me to the platform just in time for the next train to Horsham. I arrived back at the house just in time for lunch and to enjoy a relaxing afternoon in the warm sun while typing up blog entries

Thursday: The Science Museum

Thursday saw the beginning of another busy and long day. Walking to the station with mom instantly made me regret bringing an extra layer as it was very warm already. I had a bad feeling that all I would be doing was carrying my light-weight hoodie.
Mom caught her train to work and I crossed the platform to get the faster train to London Victoria train station where I was meeting my cousin, Siân, and her husband, Byron. After a successful meet-up we made our way to the Science Museum via the Underground and a subway tunnel.

I had forgotten how large the Science Museum was. There was so much to see across 4 floors and I knew we wouldn’t get to see more than a small portion of it. We started with the “Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care” which was one of the temporary exhibits the Science Museum does in order to keep their content fresh and educational for repeat visitors.

The Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care focused on the medical side of World War 1, following the care injured soldiers received on the front lines and in the trenches and then through their journeys home for rehabilitation and recuperation. It didn’t just include information about the care these soldiers received but also how medical practices improved and how better equipment was invented in such a short period of time to deal with the huge variety of injuries and maladies, as well as the huge number of soldiers affected. It was the first war that had seen chemical warfare and old medical practices were initially not equipped to deal with the aftermath. Many soldiers feared gas more than any other aspect of the war they were fighting. This exhibit was of particular interest to Siân and I as our great grandad had served in the medical aspect of the army, taking care of hundreds of soldiers himself.

 

From the injuries of World War 1 to steam-powered engines we saw and read about the initial stages of early energy production. Large steam-powered pumps and machinery was initially used to pump water out of shallow mines, to drain wetlands and to pump water to towns. Later improvements saw the introduction and development of locomotives and traction engines with ever-increasing horse-power and efficiency, much like modern combustion engines. This was another exhibit that hit a personal note for me since my grandad, who had recently passed away, had spent much of his life building various steam engines and pumps.

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From steam and energy to space, we traveled with astronauts to the moon, looked at photos from Mars, read about Jupiter’s moons and imagined Saturn’s rings. We were taken inside the life on man on-board a space shuttle and how they stayed cool in their space suits, grimaced at what they had to eat for extended periods and had an odd degree of interest in space toilets. A temporary, visiting exhibit, made possible by a co-ordinated agreement between Russia and the UK, gave us some unique insight into the life and history of, Valentine Tareshkova, the first woman in space, but who also did so solo. Again, there was so much information it was hard to absorb it all.

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From Space exploration we stepped back 250 years to the “Making the Modern World” exhibit. The Making the Modern World gallery presented some of the Museum’s most remarkable objects. It charted a quarter of a millennia of science and technology and presented some iconic items that have shaped our society. We came face-to-face with the Apollo 10 command module, Stephenson’s Rocket, Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1, Crick and Watson’s DNA model and the first Apple computer.

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Thought-provoking objects such as penicillin from Fleming’s laboratory, a porcelain bowl salvaged from Hiroshima and a clock that will tell the time for the next 10,000 years helped to round out the collection of thousands of historic and modern pieces of equipment we have used over the decades.

The final gallery we meandered through, cursing our lack of time and feeling a serious case of information overload, was ironically the Information Age exhibit. This hall followed the journey of communication technology from the first radios to the modern call phone and how each iteration led to the next. The one thing that I felt was missing from this gallery was the influence of the Linux operating system in the modern world, used by 3/4 of major “back room” operations around the world.

We finally gave up trying to add any more information into our already over-saturated brains and decided it was time to head home before the work rush-hour and crowded trains. We said our farewells and departed home.

England 2017: Week 1

I checked in with Denver Air Connection at Sheridan airport more than two hours before my flight which gave me and extra hour and a half to spend with family in town and grab a snack before having to brave TSA security.

Dad dropped me back at the airport an hour before my flight departure time and we said our farewells. I would see him in five weeks.

The flight was bumpy but otherwise decent and the service was excellent with free soft drinks and snacks offered during our time in the air. The plane smelled a little old and musty but the price was decent for the quality of service and 50 minute flight from Sheridan to Denver. With a bit of a cross wind blowing as we came in to DIA it was a bit of a stomach-lurching landing.

Sadly my flight landing at 2:50pm gave me over four hours to kill in Denver airport which I barely managed to fill with a wonderful lunch and a couple of beers at the Mesa Verde Grill on Concourse A followed by an episode of Supergirl on Netflix I had downloaded before I had left Story. It still didn’t fill all the time I had to fill and I eventually ended up at the gate half and hour too early.

The flight was a full one and marked one of the only times when I have been stuck with someone sitting in the seat next to me. It does make it much harder to sleep with someone else there. Despite the amount of people the flight was a good one with only a little turbulence followed by another rough landing due to some very strong winds as we came into Heathrow.

While my bag took a while to come through, both immigration and customs were super-fast and took no time at all. Some times it is really nice to have dual citizenship when it comes to immigration.

My mom, who I have not seen in almost in four year, was there to meet me with a happy smiling face at Terminal 3. It was good to see her and the smile was followed by a massive hug. We located the car and got the heck out of the madness of Heathrow airport.

While I was definitely tired it did not stop me from chatting with mom all the way to Horsham, and appreciating all the greenery and lush growth that is synonymous with the English countryside. Wyoming had been in the middle of its six week green period when I had left, but it was nothing compared to the vast emerald landscape of England.
For the next couple of days I caught up on sleep, did a little grocery shopping to make sure I had my diet Pepsi for the morning and to get my body onto a new circadian rhythm as quickly as possible.

Friday was my birthday and I had planned this trip to be able to spend this one with my mom and other family for the first time in nearly twenty years. It was a huge thing for me, and for them. Mom and I decided to head to the coast by train for the day so we headed to the station and made the journey to Bognor Regis, a well-known and frequented tourist destination…when it’s warm. While the weather wasn’t cold it was extremely windy and the rolling breakers were quite impressive. We sat behind a wave break to get out of the wind and eat out picnic…cheese and pickle sandwiches, although mom had forgotten the pickle! A walk down the pier followed by a coffee and a walk around beautiful Hotham House Park near the station completed the day.

 

Returning home we stopped for birthday cake and instead of the traditional fare I opted for berry pavlova, a favorite dessert of mine that can only rare be found in the US.
Saturday saw us relaxing for most of the day until my sister and her boyfriend, Adrienne and Chris, and my mom’s partner, Robin, arrived for lunch and a cup of tea, and to celebrate my birthday with me. With the sun shining down on us and with a light breeze keeping the temperature perfect we took a beautiful nature walk by Boldings Brook to the nature reserve about a mile and a half from the house.

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Another cup of tea was consumed by all but me (not very British of me, I know) before we spent some time in the Tern Hide to watch some of the reserve’s inhabitants. Sadly there were no kingfishers which are apparently in residence, and also my sister’s favorite bird.

The returning walk was just as pleasant although a few black clouds did threaten to dump their load on us once or twice. Thankfully the rain never materialized.

Reservations had been made for my birthday dinner at a local Thai restaurant. When my mom had asked where I wanted to go my only requirement was for food I can’t easily get where I live…so Thai is what it ended up being…and it was very good, as was the wine and the company.

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Back at the house mom pulled out a birthday present my sister had given her a month ago; a large “sharing” collection of dipping chocolates. With five of us in the house it was time to warm up the chocolate, pull out the tongs and get stuck in. It was a pretty yummy way to finish out the evening with my family, and a really great birthday.

A late night last night did not encourage an early morning start and I slept until almost 9. A relaxing morning a little grocery shopping preceded lunch, and lunch led into an afternoon of visiting my nan. This was the first time I had been to the house or seen her since my grandad died and I found it a little overwhelming and emotional. It was good to see her, and for being 88 years old my nan is still wonderfully nimble and independent…she is truly an amazing woman.

Below is a picture of the first train I watched my Grandad build. I have some amazing memories of watching him build it and how excited I was as it was more and more complete each visit

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Centennial Trail South, Black Hills, South Dakota

This hike was dedicated in memory of my Grandad, Ron Finnis, who died at the age of 92 on April 8, 2017. I carried his picture with me the entire trip and carried his memory in my heart.


Day 1

Southern Wyoming and northern Colorado took a final wintery hit during mid May and were nailed with over 12 inches of snow in under 48 hours postponing my departure to the Black Hills of South Dakota for 24 hours. Sheridan was blessed with maybe half an inch of snow, a few clouds and some very wet precipitation but we weren’t affected by the final “hurrah” that Mother Nature sent our southern counterparts.

While the weather didn’t affect me directly it did affect the acquaintance who was helping me out with transport logistics from truck parking to trailhead drop off. Thankfully, Saturday morning saw cold but clear skies and wet but snow-free roads out of Cheyenne and we met at the Norbeck Creek trail head in Wind Cave National Park.

With my backcountry permit in hand, my resupply box dropped off at Legion Lake Lodge I bid farewell to lonehiker (his WhiteBlaze ID) and prepped the dogs for the trail. It was at this time I realized, with dread, that I had left my wallet…ID, money, credit cards and all in my truck, an hour away by car and 60 miles on foot. I cursed myself and my stupidity as I had been planning on, and looking forward to, lunch and a beer at Legion Lake Lodge as one of my meals. I had only packed a certain amount of meals and snacks to get me through the planned days.

With my irritation level on high I set out in a less-than-perfect mood from Rapid Creek trail head, the same trail head I had started from the previous year, although this year I was heading south. My legs felt oddly new and my pack felt heavy and I questioned my ability and decision to hike 60+ miles for the first outing of the year.

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My doubts and misgivings were quickly quelled as the dogs and I followed the trail along Rapid Creek, through tall grasses and spring growth that was vivid and green with new life. Within a mile I remembered vividly why I loved being out there with everything I needed on my back. The wind was chilled but the day was a good day for hiking.

Trees with new budded leaves provided a veiled canopy and birds hidden in the branches sang us a hiking theme as we trekked up and down the modest inclines of the hills. Very little stood out through those first few miles and they quickly disappeared beneath our feet.

After four miles we ran into a cyclist coming from the south. We stopped and chatted for a while; he had hiked the trail before but this was his first attempt at biking it…and he admitted it was tougher than he thought it would be. We went our separate ways after a brief intermission. We crossed Brush Creek and refilled and filtered water before taking a break for some M&Ms and to relax out of the wind and in the sun. At this time the cyclist came back down the trail; he had lost his rain pants (not a good thing with the weather forecast). He went back down the trail to look for them…I never saw him again so I don’t know if he found them and continued his trip.

I was surprised by my arrival at Brush Creek trail head. The miles felt like they had flown by and my plans for only doing 5 miles went out the window. It was only 3pm and I was not ready to quit hiking for the day…what the heck would I do for six hours before bed if I set up camp?

We continued on for a while, through meadows and stands of pine trees, negotiating terrain of moderate difficulty and complexity with relative ease…it was the first day after all and the three of us still had fresh legs.

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The wind was the bane of our existence and made filming anything worthwhile a little difficult. Who knows whether anything will come of it.

We finally stopped at around 6pm, a couple of miles north of Sheridan Lake. It was my first night setting up my hammock and tarp without YouTube and the good folks at hammockforums.com to help me. I had set things up at home before so I had the basic concepts down but it was definitely a new experience…I was starting to miss my tent.

The campsite was pretty and just up the trail from a good water supply. Sadly, at this point I noticed that my water filter was acting improperly and I wasn’t getting much flow from the dirty water container to my Smart Water bottles. This is not a good thing in any backcountry expedition.

It took me a long time to get settled into the hammock that night. It was my first night sleeping in such a manner and I was forever adjusting the underquilt to get it into the right position to keep me warm from below. I finally got it right after a couple of hours and fell asleep. It was not the most natural of sleeping positions for me but I was surprised by the quality and quantity of sleep I achieved; I generally sleep very poorly on my first and second nights of camping.

Day 2

I awoke at my normal 6am time, ignoring the sun for a while until the raucous calls of the morning birds dragged me out of the warmth of my down quilts. (I have to give a shout out here to George Carr of Loco Libre Gear for making outstanding quality and super-warm hammock quilts that were intuitive to use…absolutely awesome and worth the money and the wait (they are custom made to order in the USA)).

The second day started a little slow but we were back on the trail by 8am, quickly covering the few miles to Sheridan Lake and encountering a bridge-enforcer…a lone marmot who decided to make a stand against intruders who wanted to cross his bridge.

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Unfortunately, by this time, the sun was mostly hiding behind the clouds and the wind was unpleasantly brisk and chilled me quickly. We paused for a half hour to refuel and filter water (a chore with a barely functioning filter) and started the arduous 3 1/2 mile trek up Mount Warner. I had been warned that the next water source was over seven miles away and had loaded up with four liters of water. It is always guaranteed that the heaviest water-carries begin with the steepest and longest inclines, and every time I thought I had reached the top I was wrong and the trail kept climbing.

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During the climb we constantly heard the blasts of a steam engine whistle. A glance at the map confirmed we were near Hill City which has a historical railroad museum; it was a fitting reminder of who I was hiking this trail for.

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Finally the top of Mount Warner was a achieved and we took a snack/lunch break, basking in the sun that had briefly appeared. Sadly the reprieve didn’t last for long as we watched some dense rain clouds heading in our direction. I did not want to be on top of a mountain if the storm was an electric one and we hurried down the far side of the peak and into the trees. I was praying fervently that the rain would hold off, at least until we reached the underpass that took the trail beneath the highway.

Sadly we didn’t make the tunnel in time and we were caught out in it, protected by the trees to a degree but still we got wet. Thankfully we only had 3/4 of a mile to cover and we hurried through the downpour to get to the shelter of the tunnel.

In typical hiker-trash style we waited out the deluge beneath the road and made use of the shelter by pausing to cook a dinner of mac and cheese, or a poor substitute of it without milk and butter. It was filling and hot and hit the spot even as I burned my mouth while trying to eat it. It was at this time that I realized I had left my usual lighter in my other cook kit. A few more curse words erupted from me. Thankfully I carry a spare in my first aid kit.

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The rain abated and we packed up and headed out, leaving the road behind. The frustrations of the rain was compounded by the lack of or incorrect signage for the trail and I wandered through tall grass for a while before checking the map and finally stumbling across the trail accidentally. Rain was threatening once more and I donned my poncho, again. It drizzled a little but the clouds kept the moisture to a minimum.

With the clouds disappearing and the sun finally coming out I found a good place to set-up camp. Water, for me, was filtered from a nearby creek a little further down the trail but I left the water for the dogs unfiltered as my filter was pretty much done.

I tried a different technique with the suspension of the ridgeline of my tarp but couldn’t get it tight and I hoped the wind wouldn’t be too strong throughout the night as I was too tired to return it to the original configuration. I was in my hammock by 8pm and listened to the birds for a while before finally falling asleep as darkness fell.

Day 3

I woke up pretty sore and sleeping in a hammock was not helping my back, aggravating an old injury. I had not slept well, but I still felt refreshed and had still slept better than I usually do on the ground. The pain dissipated after I extracted myself from the warmth of my down quilt and started moving.

After collecting more water for the dogs we crossed some rails and followed a powerline up a short but steep incline to Big Pine trail head, crossed another road and hiked a short distance to the wilderness permit station. As with any wilderness area in the USA a self-issued “permit” is required; it is really only a way for the NFS to keep track of the usage in the wilderness and is free.

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With our permit in hand we headed into the Black Elk Wilderness. The initial trail proved to be one of the nicest I had hiked on until that point and the grade was easy to climb. A creek provided a great excuse to pause and enjoy the sunshine and eat a snack before heading deeper into the mountains. It was after this break that I ran into lonehiker hiking north; we were both a little surprised to run into each other so early…I had predicted it would be around noon (it was only 8:30). We talked for a while and he offered me the use of his spare water filter which I graciously accepted, along with the loan of a $20 bill to get a burger at the lodge as I had originally planned. Trail magic (unexpected acts of kindness or food) is a wonderful thing.

With a lighter heart and less stress over my water situation we parted ways and I continued deeper into the wilderness with lonehiker’s warning about all the downed trees ahead. Sadly, downed trees weren’t my only problem as it started to rain again as we climbed up to the view of Mount Rushmore. Helicopters buzzed like flies overhead as the transported people on aerial tours of the national memorial which dampened the feelings of being in the wilderness.

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Lonehiker’s warning was appropriate and I was soon cursing the condition of the trail as I negotiated over, under and around countless large, broken trees…in the rain. It was the worst hiking I had ever done…if it could be called hiking at that point. I was really starting to question why I was even doing what I was doing and I certainly wasn’t having a good time.

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The only positive was the beautiful butterfly I almost stepped on in the middle of the trail, and a few stunning rock formations.

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While I now had a usable filter my dirty water squeeze bag had sprung a leak which made keeping my clean water separate a lot more difficult as potentially contaminated water leaked down the spout as I filtered. I continued to leave water unfiltered for the dogs.

The trail finally improved as we left the wilderness and passed Iron Creek trail head where we paused for lunch and a long break. Again the rain was threatening so we made use of a large evergreen to protect us should it downpour while we were eating and sleeping (the dogs, not me).

It was too early to quit for the day at only 2pm and I was definitely tired but I was motivated to keep moving to put a couple more miles behind us before finding a good campsite.

Knowing that it would be a dry camp that night I loaded up with four liters of water and dreaded the uphill climb that awaited me. Rain started to fall as soon as I donned my pack and we climbed upwards to an exposed ridge that had been logged extensively. I was concerned about lightening but while it rained and the wind blew continuously the danger of an electric storm was avoided. The trail followed a good logging road and the miles flew by, somehow. By the time the rain was done I had already put 4 miles behind me…I hadn’t even realized how quickly I had covered those miles.

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The sun finally came out and the clouds and rain departed for a while and we used that time to hike the last couple of miles for the day. I wanted to get camp set up before the rain came in again.

With only a mile to go before the Legion Lake Lodge we set-up camp. I returned the tarp to it’s original configuration (still not happy with it) but at least it was moderately taught. The dogs dozed and I ate a snack or two before climbing into my hammock as more rain clouds loomed over us, finally dumping their load on us as I stared at the trees through the translucent fiber of my tarp, listening to the drumming sound of each raindrop as it fell. My tarp did a good job and we stayed dry. I finally fell asleep as the rain quit.

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Day 4

With plenty of time to kill in the morning before heading to the lodge, only a mile away, I decided to try fixing my tarp ridgeline suspension in a more suitable manner. I cut the continuous rideline that suspended the tarp between two trees and attached each piece of cord separately to each end. I hoped it would work better.

By 9:30 I ran out of things to occupy me and loaded up, climbed the hill and covered the mile to Legion Lake Lodge. I retrieved my resupply box and sat on the patio with the dogs as I sorted through all the unnecessary food I still had…I had made some mistakes with the food I had packed and just wasn’t eating it due to the complexity of making it. I dumped half of the things I had either carried or added to the box, keeping only that which I knew I would use on this trip or future hikes. It was still too much food.

The weather had finally cleared and while the breeze was a little chilly the sun was finally the dominating fixture in the sky, and no rain was predicted.

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I had been informed that lunch wasn’t available until 11 so I spent the hour on the lodge’s deck with the dogs, enjoying the sunshine, watching a family of geese and waiting impatiently until I could order that much-desired burger and beer. The radio station was playing a lot of 90s music which was a fun and pleasant backdrop to the beautiful lake, and definitely lent an air of nostalgia to the morning.

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Finally I got to order my burger and beer…and DAMN was that thing good. My caloric needs had not been kept up for the reasons mentioned above so the burger went down a treat…but I should have ordered fries instead of coleslaw. I was trying to be a little healthy and I can rarely manage to eat a side of fries; this time I think I could have managed it.

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With only a short four miles between myself and the next campsite I relaxed on the deck until 1pm, ordering another beer which I drank while people watching. It was a pleasant day to sit and relax but finally I made a move, loaded up with four liters of water from the lodge so I didn’t have to filter any for a while and hiked away. (I had thought it was seven miles to the next potable water, hence the amount I carried).

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Signs at Legion Lake Lodge campground had warned about the possibility of bison in the area. Up until that time I had not realized I was in Custer State Park. Bison are dangerous. I had gone the first three days of the trip with constantly being cognizant of the weather, now I had to be continuously aware of the possibility of running into bison…not an event I would relish.

From Legion Lake we bypassed a group of horse riders using english saddles which surprise me. We chatted briefly before I continued on and followed an easy grass-covered trail through some pines where a coyote crossed our path, and then out into a beautiful rocky scenic area with views of Custer State Park that were pretty stunning. The trail quickly went from pleasant to rough, steep and very rocky with loose scree making the hiking particularly difficult…progress was slow as we paused often. During one break two other backpackers passed by, going the opposite direction. They said “hi” but weren’t particularly friendly…not something I’ve come to expect from most backpackers who are usually apt to chat for a while.

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With the steep climb behind us we now had to navigate an equally steep and rocky descent more suited for four-legged creatures, like mountain goats and border collies, than bipedal critters like humans.

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Thankfully the trail eventually flattened out but the rocks remained for a while until we entered French Creek Canyon. Two water crossings were tough to navigate but I avoided getting wet, just barely, and was glad to not have to remove shoes. The canyon’s wide and flat bottom made for a last easy mile of hiking before we reached the campground where we took a break and learned that camping in the area wasn’t free (I thought the campground was the only fee area). Of course, without my wallet I had no money and eventually sought out the camp host who gave me permission to camp without paying…another wonderful source of trail magic.

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I set up camp a little further down the creek from the campground, hoping the bison I had seen across the bridge wouldn’t wander into my camp during the night. My tarp was finally set-up properly and I was very happy with my adjustments to the suspension. I crawled into my hammock early as it was getting chilly and listened to some music for an hour before settling in for the night as it got dark.

Day 5

I woke at 5am, a little cold and aware of the condensation on the inside of my tarp and on my quilt. I was pretty sure it had dropped below freezing overnight, and ice in the dogs’ water bowl confirmed my suspicions when I finally crawled out from my hammock. I tried to accomplish as many tasks from the warmth of my quilts and hammock before braving the cold morning air and packing up camp.

Two large bull bison blocked the entrance to the campground. I had to navigate my way around, through very wet grass and up a hill to get back to the trail. Of course bison were scattered throughout the campground (I was surprised that it wasn’t fenced to keep them out) and blocked my way to get from the horse corrals to the water spigot and the exit trail. At least four bison were within twenty yards of the road. I finally asked one of the horse owners if they would be willing to transport me and the dogs the two hundred yards to the bathhouse in their truck. They kindly helped me out (more trail magic).

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I filled up with another four liters of water so I didn’t have to filter later, but lost some of it inside my pack due to the worsening leak in my squeeze bag. Some of clothes were wet by the time we had gone a mile; this is why I keep most of my clothes and down quilts in a waterproof trash compactor bag in the bottom of my pack.

I rearranged water bottles, changed pants as the day was already heating up, and kept hiking while a couple of garments were strung on the outside of my pack to dry in the sun and breeze.

Wide valleys, tall grass and adequate shade provided the perfect location for bison and I was more aware than ever of the possibility of running into a herd. I was constantly vigilant and kept the dogs to heal at all times unless I could see for a good distance.

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While the warm sun was appreciated, the lack of trees through the meadows and the burned forested areas provided no shade as the day heated up. I saw many cars on the wildlife loop road pause so I believed there were bison in the immediate area, but without seeing any there was a possibility they were stopping for deer or other wildlife.

I had been following bison and horse tracks for a while as we crossed a steep hill and the valley before us was prime bison grazing. At least in the open areas it was easy to spot the large animals from a distance and give them a wide berth. I still didn’t run into any.

It was only after nine miles of hiking, and reaching the grazing area by the gate between Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park that we came across a large bull. He eye-balled us and started heading in our direction, crossing the creek with a huge leap and paused. The dogs and I quickly diverted and made an unscheduled crossing of Highland Creek. I got wet, but it was better than the alternative. The official creek crossing on the trail was far too close to the bull.

With some space between us and the bison I stopped to converse briefly with an older couple who had also been watching the bull and waiting to see what he would do before they started hiking. They were heading up the trail I had just come down. I was informed that they use dogs when rounding up the bison and it was probably Kye and Cody more than me that had attracted the bull’s attention.

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Once safely through the gate and into the Wind Cave National Park we paused for some water play time beside the road before looking at the map. The trail confounded me and there was NO signage for the Centennial Trail (89), anywhere. I wandered up a road for a while before making an educated guess and locating another trail with a national park number on it. I could only hope that it was the right trail. Finally after several markers I found one with the correct trail number “89” designation on it. That kind of information would have been useful on the trail head sign.

I was very disappointed with how poorly the trail was marked in the national park especially when I found myself in a wide, flat valley with prairie dog towns extending in all directions. Poles with trail numbers on them went in at least 4 different directions but there was no indication from a distance which way I should go, no arrows, no nothing.

Finally I found the correct pole designating the trail number I needed. I think I pissed off a lot of prairie dogs during my wanderings back and forth, and they were certainly very vocal about it.

It was getting hotter, shade was more-or-less non-existent and I was a little worried about my water lasting until the next creek.

I saw a handful of bison off in the distance, a safe place for them to be, and meandered through the endless prairie dog towns following the occasionally-hard-to-find trail markers. More hikers coming the opposite direction warned me of bison on the trail a little further down and I spotted them over the crest of a hill. Thankfully it was an area that was easy to navigate around and we finally made our way to Norbeck Creek, following a steep descent down to the valley floor.

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By this time both Cody and I were limping pretty badly. I was having some serious knee pain that was exacerbated by the downhills and Cody’s old shoulder injury was bothering him. Kye was doing great and thankfully we only had a mile or so to hike, uphill, to the trail head and the truck.

We enjoyed the stream for a while and Cody decided that laying in the cool water felt good. I was glad I had removed their packs.

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Norbeck Creek followed a beautiful but narrow canyon upwards and it was definitely in my mind that it would be a pretty unfortunate place to run into any buffalo, a feeling confirmed by the ever present hoof prints in the dirt of the trail. I had just finished filming a clip regarding that thought and hoping I wasn’t junxing myself when the canyon opened up and several cow bison and their calves were descending a trail at the far end. I had certainly jinxed myself.

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With nothing to do but wait I let the dogs sleep for fifteen minutes before deciding to make a move, planning on bushwhacking around the far side of the valley. Apparently the bison had decided the same thing as they crossed the creek and climbed a trail on the opposite side of the canyon and left. It was now safe to continue.

Just as I thought I was home free I saw a plume of dirt…a good indicator that there more buffalo ahead. And yup, three bulls were in grazing or sleeping just off the trail and they didn’t look like they were planning to move any time soon.

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I could see my truck ahead, at the top of the hill. Instead of waiting for the bulls to move (which probably would have taken forever) I bushwhacked up the side of the canyon, tripping on rocks and branches, and feeling utterly exhausted and deflated, and finally got back to my truck. I was grateful that the incline was neither steep nor dangerous.

Back at my truck, Cody was still limping badly…right up until the time I removed his pack and he took off to explore under a fallen tree that held countless interesting smells, no limping in sight!


Final Thoughts

Between the weather of the first three days, and some signage problems in a few areas, I was initially frustrated and not having the greatest time. There were several times I thought about quitting but between not being a quitter in general, and remembering who I was hiking the trail for, I persevered and gutted it out…and I’m glad I did.

This one’s for you Grandad; thanks for coming with me

Johnson Creek Loop…or that’s what I’m calling it! And the Elk Lake Loop

Johnson Creek Loop

Day 1

I had grander ideas in mind than the trails would allow today.

Kye and I started out at Hunter Trailhead, but instead of heading into the wilderness we followed the road for a short way then turned onto a jeep track. We saw multiple riding groups from the Paradise Guest Ranch and they were all very friendly, although some of the horses weren’t completely sure about the pack I was carrying, and several of the riders complimented Kye as always. We followed one group at the turn off to trail 167 and hiked through a myriad of pine trees on an easy trail as it meandered through many blow-downs of pine trees. I tried to keep my distance from the horse group so as to not bother the horses too much…some horses don’t like backpacks.

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Looking east along French Creek; the trail went below the cliffs in the background

I caught up with the riding group at the bottom of the hill just after they crossed French Creek, a willow-bordered moderate creek with cold water. As always I looked for a way to rock hop across and didn’t have to look far. The horse group went one way, and we turned east following the valley downstream as we sung nursery rhymes to keep any bears aware of our presence. Apparently I need to learn some more songs!

After about a mile and a half a trail led north. It wasn’t marked and but it was in the right location according to the map. What I didn’t take into consideration were the maze of riding trails in the area that lead back to the ranch, and it was these trails that were clear and obvious…the one I wanted didn’t have a turn off and I bypassed it early on. A mile or more later I discovered my mistake and back-tracked and headed across country until I found a reasonable trail to follow in the right direction. Thank God for GPS again because even when I was on the supposed “right” trail it was pretty much non-existent. There were a few stretches where it could be seen, but many places were buried under fallen trees or completely grown over with low growing plants and grass.

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My only water source…kinda unpleasant!

We got to the destination creek, Johnson Creek, after spooking some antlered critters (I couldn’t tell if they were bucks or bulls) a little further east than I should have been. It was slow-flowing and didn’t look great, but I needed water and I needed to cook lunch which also required water. I filtered two liters and hiked up the valley, following a cattle path…yet another horrible, hard to follow route…to where the “trail” headed up to an ATV road from the marsh. I boiled water and “cooked” pasta and potatoes for lunch but didn’t heat quite enough water and some of the pasta was still slightly crunchy…I didn’t care, I was starving and my body needed some energy; it was 3pm already and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

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One of the many upland game birds that ALWAYS make me jump when they fly noisily out of their hiding places in the downed timber and low brush

It was due to the lack of trail and the amount of time it was taking me to get anywhere that I decided to change my plans slightly. Instead of aiming for Elk Lake, which was too far distant for the daylight and tired legs and frustrations, I decided to take a different trail, pick up some water at the South Fork of Sayles Creek and camp at a four-way trail crossroads near the boundary of the Bud Love Wildlife Habitat Management Unit.

The initial trail was great and easy to follow and hike but when I checked the GPS I was off-course…apparently! I backtracked to the point the trail was supposed to go but the trail was another one of those barely-there trails that must have been re-routed. I needed the water from the creek that the trail supposedly went by but I was seriously let down by the total lack of water…it was a seasonal flow higher up but this area was supposed to a continuous creek. I didn’t have enough water to camp where I’d planned and I was a little concerned. I looked at the map and figured I’d make a decision at the crossroads…there were options, but not good ones.

Somehow, as we climbed over and under trees, there was a little water in what was supposed to be a seasonal drainage. We disturbed a golden eagle drinking in the rocks but of course as soon as I went to pull my camera out it took off. The water didn’t look great but it was flowing and I had my filter. It was all I needed to see and I set up camp above the “creek” and below two beautiful rock formations, and surrounded by cow poop! I didn’t care.

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A pretty open and stunning campsite location; a little windy but it was stunning!

I ate jerky, cashews and cookies for dinner, fed Kye and then went to filter some water. I managed to get enough floaty-free water to mostly fill my water bottles and enough to get me to the faster and cleaner creek in the morning.

After pulling water from the creek (pre-filtering) we came up the hill and found a cow and calf glaring at my tent. Kye of course wanted to run them off and take care of cow-dog business but I didn’t think it was necessary and they eventually wandered off, down to the water below. I did not see them again.

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Who can stare the longest?

We sat outside, on the saddle between the two rock formations, enjoying the last warmth of the sun before it disappeared behind the trees as I filtered the water from the wannabe creek; it actually looked and tasted good once it was filtered. With the air temperature dropping without the sun it was time to put my jammies on, crawl into my sleeping bag and write the day’s journal.

Day’s Note: After some modifications to the lumbar area of my backpack at home (some faux sheepskin wheelchair-arm-covers, some velcro and part of a thin yoga mat) I have found it incredibly comfortable all day which is awesome. My legs, having had a two week hiatus from hiking, are not happy with the weight. I didn’t realize such a short break would make that much of a difference…wussy legs!

Day 2

I almost got ate by a bear this morning!!!

Actually, that’s not true. Something rattled and shook my tent at about 5am and I woke up abruptly, screaming at the critter to leave…or more screaming/roaring at it! Of course I had been dreaming about bears, but after yelling at the culprits and rattling my tent at them I heard pounding hooves take off in the darkness. I got out of my tent with my headlamp and saw three pairs of eyes looking back at me in the darkenss from the ridge beyond the icky drainage water. I am 99.9% certain they were cows, and not a bear sow with cubs, trying to figure out what strange construction was in their pasture.

I managed to sleep until 7am despite the adrenaline coursing through my system from the scare. The sun penetrated my tent from over the eastern plains and warmed the tent quickly. At that point there was no more sleeping and we got up.

If you know me by now, you know my normal morning routine and I need not repeat it yet again. The only thing new was the enjoyable Snickers bar for breakfast and the inaugral use of my new titanium cat-hole shovel, which worked fabulously…I won’t go into details!

After packing up camp we followed the trail south, crossing the nasty drainage “creek” and up and over a saddle in the trees into the Johnson Creek drainage. We spooked a herd of bull elk…yet another occasion I spooked wildlife but barely saw them. The hike through meadows and aspens was pretty and serene as we hiked down from the top and we passed a young man on horseback, with his dog. They were polite and courteous and we continued down the trail after they had gone on their way.

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The ONLY hoofed animal that allowed me to get a picture

From that point until French Creek the trail was a mix of pines and open meadows. The meadows were hot but a welcome reprieve from the closeted evergreens and often provided decent views…however, the trees provided shade from the ever-present sun that was beating down pretty intensely. We passed another couple of men on horseback, and one of the horses decided to crow-hop when he saw me…he eye-balled us big time and snorted a little as he went by.

We reached French Creek Cow Camp and took a break and ate a snack or two while relaxing in the shade of the quaking aspen trees. It didn’t last long (I never can sit still for long which is why I need a hiking partner) and we continue to follow the creek to where we had left it the day before (trail 106…the non-existent trail). We retraced our footsteps from this point, playing the Lord of the Rings soundtrack at a moderate level to keep bears aware of our presence, until we reach the creek crossing where trail 167 and 042 merged. Cows relaxed in the shade of many of the trees, rocks loomed over the valley and the brooks babbled incoherently as we took another break and filled up with water…our first since the icky water of the previous night.

Relaxing in the shade of the pine trees along French Creek I chugged almost a liter of water while I ate some lunch. Jerky, cashews and M&Ms were on the lunch menu, followed by a breakfast bar for dessert.

After about 30 minutes of rest and relaxation we hiked on, following French Creek for a short way before turning up a draw and over another saddle into an area inhabited by the saddle-horses of Paradise Guest Ranch. It was a beautiful scene seeing the horses in such an open meadow with the rugged peaks of the Cloud Peak Wilderness in the background.

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Paradise Guest Ranch

The trail mostly disappeared, but having checked Google Maps before I left I knew where the trail went through the fence/gate and out to the road. A few of the horses were intrigued by our presence but were more worried about eating and getting to water (a nasty “pond” they seemed to revel in).

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Ranch horses heading for a drink…and I thought they were coming to see me!

The ATV road seemed to go on forever. I was worried that the map was incorrect (again) and kept an eye on my GPS app. The biggest issue was that my GPS app (Earthmate for DeLorme) showed too many of the available trails this time and was of little help. I felt like I had been hiking for two miles on the track (it should have been one mile) when we finally came across the junction that split the road…one heading back to the car, and the other heading towards South Rock Creek and Soldier Park. I was relieved to see the sign but also had to resign myself to another 30 minutes of rocky, boring ATV-road hiking…not the most fun or the most scenic.

The only interesting thing along this stretch were the countless frogs in the wide fords crossing a couple of creeks.

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Around 2pm we arrived back at the car at Hunter Trailhead, used a real restroom and headed home to a beer or three. It wasn’t the greatest or prettiest weekend of hiking, and it didn’t go as planned, but a rough weekend hiking beats a day in the office any day of the week!


Elk Lake Loop

Day 1

With the weather looking pretty warm for the weekend I decided to try a shorter version of the hike I had intended to do two weeks ago.

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Kye and I started at Hunter Trailhead again, spooking a curious coyote, and retraced our footsteps for the first mile, crossing French Creek before turning left instead of right and following in the footsteps of the mile I hiked near Paradise Guest Ranch…this time, knowing where the gate was I made a direct line for it and found an easy trail to follow. Once through the gate we followed an ATV road down to the South Fork of Rock Creek before climbing gently out of the valley.

For once the trails had moderate inclines and weren’t too rocky. After Rock Creek there were no more views and we spent the rest of the day hiking through pines, aspens and undergrowth. The only wildlife we saw were the rear ends of some elk I spooked near a hunting camp.

As I hiked down towards the Middle Fork of Rock Creek a palomino horse was standing to the side of the trail, not tied and not with anyone. He or she (I forgot to look) had a bow scabbard on the saddle. He looked pretty happy to see me and followed me down the trail. I tried to get him to stay but he was having none of it, so I had another companion with me for a half mile or so. We got to the Middle Fork of Rock Creek and another horse whinied at us. I assumed they were together and sure enough I found the other half of a red lead rope on the ground. There was no one around, but a jacket had been left on a branch. I tied the horse with what was left of his lead rope, which was barely enough, and got back on the trail.

At this point my map and GPS didn’t agree with where the trail should be and it wasn’t marked (surprise!) so I actually went past it the first time until the other trail I was following petered out and I had to backtrack. Even following the trail, which went in the right direction and was well-worn, I couldn’t get my GPS position to admit that I was on the right trail…hmmm.  And there was snow!

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Snow, and one of the better parts of the steady and steep trail

The only opportunity for a picture across the plains was as we got towards Gem Lake…after a constant upward slog for several hours. I was making poor time as I was out of energy and needed to reach the lake to cook dinner. It was very picturesque. I had planned on getting water and hiking a little further on but I was spent so I made do with a narrow meadow over-looking the mountains and the lake.

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Cloud Peak Wilderness in the background, and Gem lake to the right

We set camp and took some photos as we listened to an elk bugling to the north of use. One elk appeared across the lake and I tried the elk bugle call on my phone, with no success. Dinner was hot and very welcome after such a tough day and hiking for close to 8 hours and with the sun setting Kye and I made a quick walk to the lake edge before crawling into bed to listen to the elk.

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Kye keeping me company while cooking dinner in the safety of a rock well

I was definitely hoping nothing would rattle my tent during the night. I didn’t bother even trying to set up my hammock which meant I was carrying that extra pound for no reason.

Day 2

Damn it was cold and windy last night. I wore three layers in my sleeping bag, mostly because I couldn’t be bothered to take them off and I was toasty in my sleeping bag. The only chill was the wind creeping under the doors of my tent. It was also the wind that kept rattling my tent that kept me awake for much of the night; I certainly wasn’t cold because of the outside temperatures. I even closed all four doors of the tent to keep the wind out, but it only did so much. I was surprised there was no condensation in the morning…I guess the wind was good for something!

I pulled all my clothes under the quilt before I changed and kept all layers on until I left camp. It was definitely a chilly morning and Kye’s water bowl had frozen. Learning from experience I had stored my water filter under my pillow and on top of my down-filled sleeping pad to keep it from freezing!

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Bundled up just after leaving Gem Lake

The morning sunrise was gorgeous over the peaks and Gem Lake, and I got to witness all of it since I was up before the sun. We took the trail south towards Elk Lake, through yet more trees before opening onto a mountain-side meadow and came across a small herd of cow elk up on the hillside.

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The watched me for a while and I was able to take a few pictures. The trail dumped us out above Elk Lake with the sun highlighting the peaks to the west. The previously mentioned elk herd was above us and was accompanied by a rather large bull elk. I tried to get pictures but they were quite a way from us.

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I crept quietly between pine groves to see if I could get a better picture or two but they disappeared into the trees. I pulled out my phone and played the one elk bugle call I have downloaded. The bull and I talked back and forth a couple of times before he disappeared over the hill, apparently bored with us. We saw no more elk.

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Elk Lake. The Solitude Trail led me on the far side of this lake the last time I was there

We hiked through trees and crossed creeks back towards Hunter Corrals, trying to hurry in order to make it back home in time to talk to my sister in
England before the end of the day. Trying to cover 10 miles in 4 hours was more than I was accustomed to and I spent a most of time tripping and cussing the roots and rocks in my path. We took no breaks coming down and my legs were like jelly by the time I reached the car; it didn’t help that I’d had very little sleep the night before and I was beat.

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Kye taking a break before the long march back to the car.

Backpacking the Solitude Loop Trail

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Looking down on Misty Moon Lake

The Solitude Loop Trail is a 55+ mile trail that circumnavigates around the Cloud Peak Wilderness of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. It can be accessed from several trailheads within the Bighorn National Forest; the easiest to access from the highway is Hunter Trailhead off Highway 16 west of Buffalo, while the closest trailhead to the Solitude Trail is at Coffeen Park at the end of a 7 mile high-clearance road.

Day 1: Coffeen Park Trailhead to Camp 1 near Granite Lake 

Today began leaving the house just after 7 am and stopping briefly in Sheridan for some breakfast to get me through the morning. The drive up Red Grade was uneventful and we finally turned off towards Park Reservoir. It was a 7 mile rough dirt road to Coffeen Park where the trailhead is. Cody and I got organized (he ate a can of Vienna sausages),added our Wilderness permit to the box, put on our packs and started hiking.

The trail started out very easy through a green tunnel of pine trees. We were very lucky to spook a couple of moose within the first few hundred yards and they took off across the creek. Less than half a mile later we came face to face with another young moose who turned around and headed back up the trail. Not long after we saw a large pine martin. Unfortunately, all of these animals disappeared into the trees too fast for me to get a picture.

We passed several other groups hiking down on our way to Geneva Lake, a beautiful long lake set below immense granite cliffs. The trail was generally easy with a few rocky sections, but it was simple to navigate and well signposted…for a change. An unchallenging trail was nice for the amount of weight I was carrying and my back and shoulders were definitely feeling it, especially without it being adjusted perfectly. It was at Geneva Lake we stopped for lunch and to take a 45 minute nap before continuing on and following the east bank of the lake for a half mile. At the end of the lake the trail got a lot steeper and rockier and disappeared into the trees.

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Lake Geneva

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Looking down on Lake Geneva from the steep trail up to Crystal Lake

We hiked up and up switch backs, watching the clouds come over the sheer cliffs to the west and hoping it wouldn’t rain. It drizzled a little when we crossed a creek that fed into Crystal Lake where we stopped to refill with water and take another break before attempting Geneva Pass.

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Crystal Lake

At the creek Cody discovered a porcupine. I didn’t realize what he had flushed initially and was glad I never let my dogs chase stuff…a face full of quills would have put a swift end to our trip. I did manage to get a couple of photos, but the porcupine was pretty shy.

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The shy porcupine hidden in the brush as I balanced precariously on a rock in the middle of the creek to get a picture

We continued climbing for a while until we were dumped into the lush meadow below Geneva Pass. It was beautiful with a small creek and towering pinnacles to each side. It was easy crossing the meadow but the hike up to the pass was particularly rough and rocky with hundreds of loose stones. A stream flowed from a waterfall and meandered through grass and careened over boulders before disappearing down a ravine and into Crystal Lake below.

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The meadow below Geneva Pass, with Geneva Pass in the background

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Looking back down the path to the meadow

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From the top of Geneva Pass

We finally reached the pass with a stiff wind ahead of us and some seriously dark and forbidding clouds to the south-west…promising rain. The view from the top of the pass, however, looking both ways was stunning but pictures will never be able to capture the grandeur of the peaks.

We hurried down the valley, hoping to avoid the rain and praying it wouldn’t thunder while we were so exposed and high up. The rain did start briefly and we ducked under a tree to wait it out while I pulled my poncho out of my pack to protect us if it got torrential, but it the only thing I needed it for was protection from the cold wind.

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Looking down the south side of Geneva Pass with the incoming rain clouds

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Finally the sun came out and we ate some snacks before packing everything away and proceeding. The hike down the valley was just as gorgeous as the hike up and the bald granite mountains made me feel pretty small. Cirques had been carved into the rocks high above and we passed the turn off for the Cliff Lake Loop. I didn’t take it, although I’m sure it would have been a gorgeous side trip.

We took another break at 4pm for 30 minutes for a quick nap and then we hiked on. After only 10 minutes back on the trail it started descending back into the trees so I made the decision to backtrack 100 yards and find a place in the open and airy valley, surrounded by boulders and pine trees and grass. As usual it took me a while to find a flat spot for the tent, and of course after the tent was up I realized, as always, that it wasn’t in a flat spot.

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Camp 1 near Granite Lake

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Dying light over the mountains

I cooked a dinner of rice and pasta on my little alcohol stove, fed Cody and hung my food bag. I actually managed to find a decent branch and get the rock over it the first try…I must be getting better. I had discovered at this point that the heavier the rock, the easier it is to get the bag over the higher branches.

There were no biting flies this time like on my trek over Walker Prairie and Horseshoe Mountain, and there had been a fairly consistent breeze. There were a few mosquitoes, but nothing the breeze couldn’t handle…or me killing them!

Sadly the breeze died down just as it was time for mosquitoes to come out, and while waiting for what I was hoping would be a beautiful sunset. It wasn’t, but the dying sun and dark clouds over the eastern peaks created beautiful lighting. It was also during this time that I heard a female elk bark and we crept to where I thought they were. There was a small herd of about ten cows and a couple of calves eating and drinking in the meadow just beside us. They continued to bark and grunt for a couple of hours, well past the time I went to bed at 8:30.

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I got a decent amount of sleep but not great, which is typical for the first night out.

Day 2: Camp 1 near Granite Lake to Camp 2 at Lake Solitude

Woke up this morning around 5:45 to the irritating “caw caw” call of a crow or two. I dozed fitfully for a while and made it to 6:45 before I actually crawled out of my sleeping bag and got dressed. It was chilly as the sun was still hidden behind some ominous looking clouds. The sky was leaden as I retrieved my food bag and ate breakfast. I started packing everything away as a few rain drops fell. I stuffed my backpack quickly as I rolled up my tent…more rain drops. Looking at the sky I debated leaving my poncho within easy access but decided against it. By 8am we were packed up and heading down the trail just as the thunder was rumbling over the peaks to the east. Black clouds shrouded the granite, merging together like Thor and Atlas (yes, I know, two different mythologies).

We didn’t get far before I had a major mishap crossing North Paint Rock Creek. I’m not sure if I tripped, slipped or if a rock rolled but I fell…hard. Now, my trekking poles have saved me from many hard falls on multiple occasions, but this time they were the cause of my injury. I planted mouth first onto the head of one of my trekking poles and one of my teeth ripped a rather large and bloody gash inside of my lip (don’t look at the pictures if you are squeamish), and put a hole in the cap of my pole. My mouth was numb for a while but the pain and shock caught up with me quickly and I had to sit down along side the creek as I was feeling a tad bit nauseous. I took that time to filter some water as I recovered.

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Major owie

After about twenty minutes I felt okay to continue, drank some water (which stung) and headed down the valley, which was gorgeous and was mostly grassy open meadows, and followed a very fishable creek…I looked in one pool and saw two or three 8-10″ trout.

We finally reached Teepee Pole Flats and the junction to go to Poacher Lake, which was the way we were to take. The trails in the wilderness have all been well marked so far but I have been curious about where each one leads so I stopped and pulled out the map to take a look what trail we were merging with.

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Teepee Pole Flats and the junction with trail 059

We crossed the creek…again…and started hiking up a rather rough and rocky trail which, similar to others I have done, never seemed to end even through it was only supposed to be just over a mile from the junction to Poacher Lake. It felt further.

We paused at Poacher Lake for lunch and I was disappointed. We had just finished our water and I was hoping to refill, but the edge of the lake was really hard to access and very marshy from the east side. It would have been possible to walk around but I knew, from the map, that there was a creek only another half mile further on, and a pretty easy hike downhill.

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Poacher Lake

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Cody looking less-than-impressed for some reason

At the unnamed creek, with an incredible view of the peaks to the east and marshes below, we refilled with water and took a nap…or at least I did; Cody kept watch.

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Nap time…and yes, I love my shoes, gaiters and suitably-ugly hiking pants

Another climb over a low saddle dropped us into the Paint Rock Creek valley and we got our first glimpse of where we would be climbing the next day. It looked impossible from our vantage point. The climb down was treacherous for a short stretch and reminded me of Wolf Creek Trail, except it was shorter and the footing was slightly better. The trail dumped us out on the banks of Paint Rock Creek, and try as I might I could not find a way to cross by rock hopping. This was our first wading creek of the trip so far and I had a hard time getting Cody to cross the deeper water. There were rocks he could manage (I just couldn’t do it with a backpack) but I had to walk a short way up the stream to show him. He eventually figured it out and we again refilled with water before the mile to Lake Solitude.

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This squirrel was completely unphased by us watching him eat not 10ft off the trail

The initial climb away from the creek was steep and slightly rocky but easy to follow as there were many foot prints, although I had seen no one since Circle Lake the day before. We rested a couple of times as my new pack as been causing me some of the same issues as my Arc Haul, as well as some new ones (so at least I know it’s not the pack, it’s me), and we were pushing ourselves the last couple of miles.

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One of the many great fishing spots

We reached Lake Solitude and were met by a very friendly white labradoodle. At least he was friendly! The one thing I can’t abide on trails is people not keeping their dogs under control. While this dog was friendly and Cody seemed to like him/her, there’s always a chance that something not so genial could happen.

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First view of Lake Solitude

The labradoodle belonged to a group of young men with horses who had paused at the beginning of the lake. They also had a blue heeler with them who didn’t seem impressed with Cody…but he pretty much ignored her and we kept going. I had planned to pause for another rest at that spot but with only another mile of fairly flat, decent trail to go before my chosen campsite I delayed delaying and kept going. I was definitely hurting, but not enough to stop.

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Trail built on broken boulders…and Cody with his very fashionable pack

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The east end of Lake Solitude. My campsite would be to the very left of the picture.

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Lake Solitude, looking from the east end

We reached the eastern end of the lake and grabbed a snack of M&Ms before crossing the creek. Of course we managed to spook a cow moose who eyed us very warily. She was very close and I hurried to get across the creek. Of course nothing is ever simple when you are in a hurry and the creek was impassable with shoes on. I hurriedly pulled off shoes and socks and gaiters and waded the creek quickly, not even stopping to put shoes or socks or gaiters back on when we reached the other side.

A large meadow, used extensively by horsemen, provided ample camping opportunities. It was way too early but I was spent and we found a previously used flat spot (actually flat for a change) and put the tent up amid some major blustery wind which continued well into the evening. I fed Cody and gave him the last of the water while keeping an eye on the creek to see if the cow moose would show herself for a photo…she didn’t. That’s four moose now I’d seen and not one picture to show for it.

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Camp 2

With the wild wind I decided not to cook and ate tomorrow’s lunch instead along with a couple of extra snacks I hadn’t eaten. I decided I would eat dinner for lunch the next day when I could find a more convenient and less breezy (ie safe) spot to cook. As I was eating a couple of other backpackers arrived from the other direction and their dog decided to be their welcome party as he bounded into my camp. Cody liked him and wanted to play…again, not impressed with people allowing their dogs to run wild.

I filtered water from the lake and then washed my socks (not IN the lake; Leave No Trace principles), leaving them on a rock by my tent to dry. I hoped the wind wouldn’t blow them away and made sure to bring them under the tent awning before bed.

I did not hang my food bag today for two reasons…one, no suitable trees this high up, and two, the chipmunks are more of a worry here than bears. Hoping I don’t get eaten tonight!

We watched sun disappear behind the cliffs of the lake and then crawled into the tent to escape the wind which blew insanely hard for two minutes…it almost felt like the tent was going to blow away with me in it. I hoped everything would still be there in the morning. Also went inside to write the day’s journal before dark.

The cliffs on the far side of the lake looked stunning in the fading light…unfortunately we lost the sun ourselves and that meant it was getting to be time to crawl into bed, even with it still being daylight out.

Unfortunately it seems that even up here in the wilderness you can end up with some noisy neighbors. They were across the valley from our campsite, but I could still here them…inconsiderate poofballs!!!

Day 3: Camp 2 at Lake Solitude to Camp 3 near Trail Park

Woke about 6am after a fairly restful night. The noisy neighbors didn’t stay noisy and the only thing that woke me was Cody constantly moving himself under the floor of the tent…don’t ask! I think he is probably getting cold, but he’d be cold inside the tent or out since there is only mesh separating us. It would help if he stayed sleeping on the insulated sleeping pad I always bring for the dogs.

I was out of my sleeping bag a little before 7am and watched the sun hit the highest points on the south side of Lake Solitude…it was really beautiful. It also got colder as the sun pushed the colder air down into the valley. I was glad to see that I had camped far enough away from the lake that I didn’t have a condensation problem.

I followed the normal morning routine in packing up, and thankfully my food bag is starting to feel lighter. That’s a good thing since my pack is not so comfortable.

From Lake Solitude we hiked up another crazy steep and rocky hill and through some pine and aspen groves until we crossed a bridge below a waterfall. I believe this is one of the few permitted structures in the wilderness. We continued climbing…and climbing…and climbing and crossed a hump that put us back in the Paint Rock Creek valley. The walls of the canyon were steep, shear and overly impressive. I’m not sure whether I stopped more to catch my breath or to look at the view. Mostly the trail was open but occasionally ducked into stands of trees, depending on the terrain.

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Waterfall of unknown name or origin

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Only bridge in the wilderness (that I know of)

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Looking back at Lake Solitude from the high trail along Paint Rock Creek

The trail dropped down slightly (ugh) to cross Paint Rock Creek before rising sharply again (yes, more climbing) to parallel the creek on the southern bank. Eventually it levelled out slightly and rose out of the trees to Moor-like tundra and rocky outcroppings. From this point on until I reach Misty Moon lake I stopped so often I was barely hiking…there was just too much view to take in.

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Had to keep stopping to look at the views…I’m not smiling because my lip hurt and was puffy!

We rounded a bend high above the valley floor and saw some rock climbers and then a small tent village. It was at the base of a waterfall and it is my belief that this is where most people camp who are summitting Cloud Peak. It reminded me of the videos and images I have seen of Mt Everest base camp.

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Cloud Peak summitters base camp…you can just make out a few tents below the boulders

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Cloud Peak

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A lazy marmot who just wanted his picture taken…he didn’t move even when we got really close. I think he was enjoying the sun.

There were many more tents around Misty Moon Lake, which was as picturesque as it sounds, although busier than you would think for somewhere you can only hike or ride to. We climbed down a small slope to the edge of the lake and found the perfect spot to cook lunch. I am very careful with open flames anywhere in the forest, and even more so when fires are such a risk. It was an open dirt area that looked like it had probably been full of water when the snow melted but had since dried out. It was perfect for a safe cooking spot, and protected from the wind. Pasta with enchilada-soup sauce was on the menu today and it turned out really well. It was very satisfying and I have decided that it is actually better to cook lunch than dinner. I rarely want to cook at night and a bigger meal in the middle of the day when I am actually hungry gives me a good boost for the rest of the day. It also forces me to take a good long break half way through the day which I often have a hard time doing.

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Misty Moon Lake, and where we also ate lunch

After refilling on water we circumnavigated the lake while taking the usual obligatory pictures and then started the climb towards Florence Pass, the first step of which was up a steep ravine in which flowed the creek that fed Misty Moon Lake. I ran into a horse rider just before the top and we talked for a short while…she warned me how pretty it was.

The horse lady was right…it took my breath away. Granite walls rose straight out of the valley like fortress walls (hence the name of the lakes) and turquoise-blue lakes rippled like eyes, something living in the face of the mountain. If I thought I had stopped a lot before it was nothing compared to this valley…two steps stop, three steps stop. I took so many pictures but nothing could capture the grandeur and majesty of such a place…I just wanted to keep absorbing it all as much as I could.

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The first of the Fortress Lakes

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Another boulder trail and looking back on the second and third of the Fortress Lakes

From Fortress Lakes we continued hiking up the valley until we had to cross a talus field where it was obvious someone had put a lot of work into making a path through the boulders. It was an artform in itself. There had been a short one yesterday as I had followed the bank of Lake Solitude, but nothing on this scale.

At the top, which I didn’t realize was the top without a sign, was Florence Pass and it looked down on Florence Lake, another blue-green lake encompassed by yet more steep slopes of granite boulders and cliffs with just one tiny cornice of snow still hanging on high above. We paused for a break at the lake’s outlet and looked at the memorial plaque for the bomber plane that had crashed into the mountain above us. It was renamed Bomber Mountain in honor of the men who died there.

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Below Florence Lake lay a mile or so of boulder fields. The book had warned horse riders that this was a trail not suitable for novice riders or inexperienced horses. After hiking down it and wondering who on earth ever though it would be a good idea to build a “trail” from Medicine Cabin Park to Florence Pass I came to the conclusion that only the most experienced riders and most sure-footed horses should ever attempt such a trail…and only going up.

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The trail was built almost entirely on boulders

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Yes, there is a trail there somewhere

The hike down was slow and it was definitely hard on the feet, but we made it while taking our time being careful…one bad move would send you down to a very ugly grave. I really still can’t fathom how much work it must have taken to put in the usable trail as it is now…so much work and dedication.

At the bottom of the Stone Giant marble-alley (Hobbit reference) we reached the green meadows of Medicine Cabin Park. I had planned on pausing for a while to kill time but the black clouds behind us had us scurrying quickly down the trail to avoid the rain. For about a mile we stayed in the open meadows and then the trail took us back into the trees where we pretty much stayed for the rest of the day, except for a few view-points of waterfalls and two creek crossings, both of which forced me to remove my shoes. This water was quite a lot colder than the crossing of Paint Rock Creek…no idea why except maybe that Lake Solitude is 2000 ft lower that the source of this creek (Florence Lake) and thus warmer.

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Finally the end of the boulder trail; looking back up the pass

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Looking down at Medicine Cabin Park

We got caught in a short rain shower after the second creek crossing as I was trying to put my shoes back on and we ducked under some thick-branched pine-tree limbs. It didn’t last long and I looked at the map while we were waiting. It was about another mile to the last water before tomorrow’s hike over Ant Hill and to Elk Lake so we planned to stop there and find a dry campsite.

We found a secluded campsite on a grassy knoll just off the trail and with views up the canyon we had just come down not too long ago. We put the tent up and I bent more tent pegs (I already bent one the first night but had a spare). Sometimes the most level place to put a tent doesn’t have the greatest soil. The tent pegs still work though.

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Camp 3

With the tent up, sleeping pad aired up (for now) and sleeping bag re-lofting I fed Cody and ate dinner then returned to the creek for water. I was beginning to wish we’d stayed in some of the flatter spots nearer the creek, but since it was prime moose habitat I didn’t want to get stepped on during the night. We took 3 liters from the creek so I wouldn’t have to go back in the morning if I decided I needed more for yet another steep climb first thing. We lugged the heavy weight back to camp and chilled out for a while as I cautiously watched the sky for rain. Two thunderstorms skipped by us with barely a drop of rain, one to the west and one just barely to the east of us. We were lucky. I had already thrown everything in the tent and was ready to dive in myself, with Cody, if the rain hit.

I remained cautious and decided to wait out the rain in the tent and write since there was so much to record about today. It was the one part of the trip I had been looking forward to most and it certainly didn’t disappoint in any way. Every hard step was completely worth it and I hope the pictures can show at least a little of what I was seeing.

We also, finally, got a beautiful mountain sunset…the first of the trip.

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Day 4: Camp 3 near Trail Park to Hunter Trailhead

It was cold last night…so cold that I had to put my down jacket on inside my sleeping bag, and despite having the tent doors open there was condensation inside the tent and my sleeping bag was thoroughly damp from head to toe.

I was awoken by a very angry squirrel outside my tent this morning…it was only 6am! How inconsiderate of him to be yelling in the tree next to my tent at such an early hour. It was a good thing we got up when we did for the frigid temperatures last night had frozen the water in Cody’s water bowl. The sucky thing about that is that my water filter should never be allowed to freeze, and this meant an emergency message sent from my DeLorme InReach satellite messenger to have my parents meet me at the nearest trailhead. I had to replace it, unfortunately, and that meant a 6 mile hike out.

The best thing about the morning, despite the chilly temperatures and potentially frozen water filter, was the moose cow and calf that wandered into camp around 7:30. They trotted off into the trees before I could grab my camera but I stalked them to the far side of the clearing and managed to get a few shots before I let them be….finally some pictures of moose!

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The hike to Hunter Trailhead was long and boring, being mostly on rough ATV trails which are never fun to hike. I swear it was divine intervention that the filter was at risk of freezing last night as the day brought rain, thunderstorms and more rain. It would have been miserable hiking. On top of that both my sleeping bag and tent were wet, Cody was looking stiff and a little sore first thing and my sleeping pad was losing air over night, and I was glad of the opportunity to switch packs.

A brief reprieve meant a shower, a chance to wash clothes, eat some good food and drink a couple of beers…as well as the trip to Walmart to get a new filter. I will be dropped back at the trailhead tomorrow to continue my hike on the Solitude Trail.

Day 5: Hunter Trailhead to Camp 4 at Willow Park Reservoir

The parents dropped me back at Hunter Trailhead at 9:45 with my other pack, a different dog and a new sleeping pad. I still hadn’t decided exactly which route I was going to take…stick to the Solitude Trail as a purist and hike the extra 6.2 miles back to where I left it, or take a slightly shorter (by 4 miles) non-Solitude Trail route. I hiked a short 2.5 mile trail to Soldier Park where I made my decision; I would regret it if I didn’t hike the whole loop. It was also here that I paid my respects at the graves of the two soldiers buried there, and for which the park is named.

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With my fate decided we hiked the last 3.5 miles back to the junction of trails 038 (the Solitude Trail) and 024 and started the hike up the Ant Hill trail portion of the loop. As with most of the trails encountered so far it was steep and rocky but we made good time for the first section which was well marked trail through pine trees and some meadows. Once the trail crossed South Rock Creek it became very faint and often non-existent, relying on the presence of cairns to show the way. Unfortunately the cairns led straight up the side of the mountain; after having done 6.2 miles I hadn’t planned on it was tougher than I cared for, and after I reached one cairn I thought was the top there was another, higher up and further on…that happened more than I care to think about. Once Kye and I finally reach the real top we took a break…or at least I did. Kye was way too interested in the marmots to take a nap or rest.

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Back at Trail Park and the view up to Florence Pass

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At the top of Ant Hill

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Kye watching marmots at the top of Ant Hill, plus the top-most cairn

The way down wasn’t much easier than the way up since there was no trail, but the north side of the pass was rougher and rockier although at least we had gravity on our side this time. The trail led back into pine trees and boulder fields as we cut down towards Elk Lake. It was here where I finally got a picture of one of the elusive pika that live in similar rocky areas to marmots.

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The elusive (at least for pictures as we saw quite a few) Pika

I spooked some elk (I had my music playing quietly to makes bears aware of my presence) but still managed to get a couple of pictures before they completely disappeared.

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We circumnavigated the lake and lost the faint trail a few times. I knew where we supposed to go so wasn’t worried about the lack of cairns or signs. I had planned on camping at Elk Lake but thought it was a little early so looked at the map and decided to get water and camp a little further on…big mistake! I met a nice Hutterite (I think) couple on horses, who had spooked a cow moose and her calf just in front of me, and they asked me about camping at the lake and if there was an easier trail to Hunter Trailhead than the one they had had come up on from the Bud Love WMA.

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Elk Lake

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Spooked cow moose and calf

After explaining the trail from Elk Lake to Hunter via Triangle Park I was looked for the trail to Gem Lake…it wasn’t signed so I never found it and ended up hiking to the ATV trail and the next creek crossing. Of course, from that point on there were no suitable places to camp in the dense forest and we just had to keep hiking. I made use of my GPS map and satellite tracker and was glad to see we were only 1.5 miles from Willow Park Reservoir which is where we stopped for the night…after 7pm. I did see a bald eagle fly just over the lake within minutes of our arrival which was pretty neat…no pictures though.

I got the tent up, fed Kye and hung the bear bag. I wasn’t even hungry enough to eat anything and I was exhausted, and with the rain that had been threatening all day starting to get more serious it was time to crawl into my sleeping bag at 8:30, write the day’s journal and listen to all the creatures making noises outside the tent…including a screech owl (I think) and a deer (I hope). I made sure to have my bear spray close by and easy to grab. No food or smells in the tent except me and the dog, but being alone spooks me with the bears…probably more likely to get stepped on by the deer than anything else.

Day 6: Camp 4 at Willow Park Reservoir to Camp 5 at Highland Park

Not a great start to the day…it rained most of the night, off and on, so both the inside AND the outside of the tent were wet with no chance of the sun helping out for a few more hours due to the trees and the clouds. I carry a half of a small Tek Towel by Sea to Summit for just such an occasion and got the tent dry enough to pack away.

The morning routing was normal except I didn’t get up at the normal time and I refused to get out of my sleeping bag until almost 8!

The bald eagle showed up again this morning as I was cutting crossing country at the head of the reservoir.

The lack of a good start continued when I couldn’t find the trail leading away from the reservoir…in fact, nothing was signed at all. Checking the GPS it said I had passed it…NOPE. Where the trail was supposed to be there was nothing…not even the faint hint of a trail left behind. That was frustrating so I kept walking back along the road to look for trail 118 which went via Beaver Lakes but wasn’t actually part of the Solitude Trail, just a more scenic route. I couldn’t find that trail either and ended up back where I started by the bridge over the creek. I sat down and almost cried…the two routes to Highland Park, and thus back to the car in Coffeen Park, just didn’t seem to exist.

I got up and crossed back along the head of the resevoir to where my GPS said the trail should be. I made a risky decision to try and bushwhack along the route and see if there was a remnant of a trail. Thankfully there was but somehow I ended up off course (too many deer trails) and found myself wondering how good an idea it had been. I retraced my steps to a decent path and followed the direction my GPS told me I should be heading…it turned out that track was actually the trail I needed to be on, even though it was rough and unused. Many downed trees had to be navigated over, under or around during the descent to the creek. And there was another challenge…crossing not just one, but three creeks. The first was easy with a sandy bottom and the second was more like an irrigation ditch, but the third was tougher. I gauged the speed and depth of the water and decided it was too deep and fast for Kye to carry her pack across so I removed it and carried it for her. She struggled a little with the crossing but managed it without incident after a little encouragement. The whole ordeal left us exhausted, tired and frustrated, but we did it and I was proud of myself for not giving up and going back like I almost had several times. (It should be noted that the book does not list this as the correct route for the Solitude Trail even though it is listed as such on the map; it takes the hiker/rider around via ATV roads and then a pack trail).

We found a spot to sit and put shoes back on and were finally reacquainted with a proper ATV trail. Except this one didn’t look like it had been an ATV trail for a year or two…I’m guessing that’s why the other cut-across trail was closed also. At least it was a worn trail with no trees to climb over and easy to find. We followed it all the way to Kearny Lake Reservoir. It was a pretty tedious and boring hiking through never-ending pine trees and no views. The only exciting things in three miles were the waterfall and the three cow elk I spooked out of the river just above it.

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Waterfall on Kearny Creek.

Kearny Lake Reservoir was nothing special and in fact I barely saw it, just as I topped the dam and then followed the road away again; you couldn’t even access it for water. I hiked on and climbed one of the steepest hills yet, all to get to Lake Winnie and a water supply since I was out. With all the frustration earlier in the day I hadn’t been drinking much and was a little dehydrated.

It was still early and the mosquitoes were bad so I made the decision to push on for Highland Park and a dry camp. Those two full liter bottles of water were heavy! I also knew that it would have to last for a few miles out of camp in the morning since the map showed no creeks for a while.

The hike up to Highland Park looked steep on the map but wasn’t as bad as I expected, mainly due to the fact that I was trying to kill time and not get to camp too early. I hate sitting around for hours with nothing to do but stare at the sky or the view.

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Looking back on Lake Winnie (left) as we hiked up to Highland Park

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First view of Highland Park with Black Tooth Mtn and Mt Woolsey in the background

Some of the best views were to be had from Highland Park as the trail dumps you just below Black Tooth Mountain and Mt. Woolsey…a very spectacular last campsite for the trip. I’m glad it was a good one.

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Camp 5

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Day 7: Camp 5 at Highland Park to Coffeen Park Trailhead

It was pretty cold last night…or at least I started out that way and I put my down jacket on under my sleeping bag and pulled my Buff over my beanie to cover my ears and my neck. I stayed warm after that and woke up so toasty I didn’t want to crawl out of my sleeping bag into the chilly morning air. I watched the early morning sun touch the peaks of Black Tooth Peak and Mt. Wolsey through the door of my tent…it was definitely a good way to start the day, and a much better beginning than the one I had yesterday.

After the normal morning routine I packed up quickly and looked at the map to gauge how long it would take me to cover the remaining distance back to Coffeen Park. I figured it would take about 5 hours to cover the distance, which would put me back at the car around noon.

I left camp at 7:15 and hiked to the top of the ridge overlooking Highland Park, and the valley of the East Fork of Little Goose Creek, scattered with boulders and pine trees to the north. The hike down was fairly easy and we crossed the seasonal trickle that was the beginning of the East Fork of Little Goose Creek where I made sure Kye got some water. I hadn’t planned on there being water available in this creek as the map had suggested it wasn’t always flowing, and being a dry year I wasn’t relying on it. With only a liter of water left from yesterday I was glad to make use of the water available for Kye.

From the creek we hiked back up towards another ridge, through the pines with only an occasional view of the pine-clad hills in the valley. It wasn’t the most scenic stretch of the trail, but it was short and soon took me back into boulder-fields and grass meadows which then led me over the second ridge of the day. The view to the north and east was expansive and I could make out the line in the trees and fields that was FSR 26, aka Red Grade. It looked so far away.

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The trail remained at a similar elevation for a couple of miles, following cairns from point to point before dropping down into the trees again. The grade was pleasant and the rocks weren’t too irritating (for a change). We ran into a group of four women backpackers who were on their way up to spend a few days at Highland Lake, above Highland Park. We chatted for a few minutes while they were resting before Kye and I continued down the mountain.

As we hiked I started to feel as though the trail was taking us in the wrong direction so I pulled the map out to check. It wasn’t particularly informative at the time as I had no reference point to go by, but since there had been no other trails joining the one I was on I had to trust that I was going the right way.

The trail dropped me out at the head of Bighorn Reservoir…not where the map said I should be coming out at, although the sign at the junction of the trail and the ATV road said “038 Solitude Trail”. I traversed Cross Creek barefoot since there was no way to safely boulder-hop and filled up with water on the far side. I was half a mile too far north on FSR 625 and questioned an ATV rider as he went by. He said he was heading towards Cross Creek Reservoir but had never seen a trail sign off that road before; that was not information I wanted to hear.

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Bighorn Reservoir and Cross Creek

We hiked half a mile up 625 and found where the Solitude Trail originally joined FS 625, coming in from the east, but the trail leaving the road and heading west did not seem to exist. Both the map and my GPS agreed on the point it SHOULD have been, but there wasn’t even the hint of a trail there. I knew there was supposed to be a well-worn trail crossing the ridges between me and Coffeen Park as I had passed the junction of the two trails the day I had started, on my way up to Lake Geneva.

I steeled myself to having to hike across country again and kept my GPS on, checking it every few minutes to gauge my location in relation to the “trail”. We went straight up a ridiculous incline littered with boulders, downed trees and shrubbery. It wasn’t impossible, but it was difficult. At the top, stepping over, around and under trees and “hiking” for a short distance we finally found the actual trail coming from the north-east. I was interested to know where it had started and how we had missed it. I was sure there had been no signage anywhere we had walked along FS 625, and I had been looking pretty intently even at the start of the road; of course I have been known to be blind on occasion. I couldn’t locate it on Google Maps when I got home either.

Now back on the proper trail the hiking was much easier but remained within the trees. With the last ridge climbed and crossed the trail meandered steeply down…and down and down and down. I was glad I hadn’t started the trip going this way as it would have been a little disheartening to climb such a steep hill for so long and with no views. I did note that the trail I was on didn’t line up with the one on my GPS, and my location was nowhere near the trail on the map or Earthmate App for the GPS. If my GPS location was wrong, it would have been a first as I had been consistently checking its accuracy.

Two hours later than expected we finally reconnected with the Geneva Pass Trail I had started out on, and I did a little dance and “whooped” a little as I celebrated completing the Solitude Loop Trail, (plus 14.5 extra miles hiking out to and back in from Hunter Trailhead, and the mile in and out to Coffeen Park Trailhead). It was a proud moment as I finished one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.

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Yes, I am kissing the sign…I was so relieved to see it and to have completed the trail

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All done! Just have to take 592 a mile back to the car.

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Kye getting her moment of glory too

We hiked the last mile back to the car and of course I hadn’t taken the key out of my toiletries bag and put it in my belt pouch like I had planned to, and it was buried half way down in my pack. Oops!

After I got the car open I gave Kye a treat of a whole can of Vienna sausages, which she wolfed down pretty fast. I loaded everything into the backseat and headed back to civilization, not really ready for such an epic trip to be over.

 

Gear Review: ZPacks Arc Haul Backpack and Duplex Tent

I’ve read so many reviews for gear that it almost seemed redundant to do another one myself, but since all the reviews for the Arc Haul and Duplex have been predominantly positive I figured I’d throw my two-cents worth into the pot.

ZPacks Arc Haul

Specs: The base weight for the Arc Haul is 24 oz. Mine weighed in at approximately 31oz with the added belt pouches, lumbar pad, top/side mesh pockets, shock-cord lashing, double top straps and side roll-top closure straps.

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I have now used this pack on four trips. It took most of the first trip up Tongue River Canyon to get the fit dialed in properly which can take a few miles since everything is adjustable and removable. I started with the shoulder straps sitting too low and they would rub my collar bone and pull down with too much weight on my shoulders. A slight adjustment in the strap attachment and they fit great. The other issue was the mesh backing where the top would rub against the bones of my shoulder blades. A few more adjustments to move the mesh upwards towards the top of the pack while still keeping the arc in the frame and it was again comfortable.

I have loved everything about the design and quality of this pack. The 62L capacity (main compartment, mesh back pocket and two side/bottom pockets) was adequate for all my gear and four days of food but I did find that the two side/top mesh pockets to be extremely useful for my water filter/squeeze bag, dog water-bowl and a rain jacket for convenience. I highly recommend them if you buy this pack.

The roll-top closure is very secure and I like the velcro closure aspect of the opening. It is not normal velcro that seems to pick up all kinds of debris and wears out, but some kind of hybrid that feels more durable. I chose to incorporate the side buckle closures on my Arc Haul as I like to carry a sit pad on top of my pack and the standard closure wasn’t going to work for me (plus is could catch overhead branches). I am glad I chose the side closures and they kept the pack closed securely and did not permit the entry of any rain water.

The belt pouches are HUGE and carried all my food for the day (except dinner), my phone, camera, car keys and still had a lot of room left over. The only issue I had was the tape used to seal the seams on the inside started to separate and left a very sticky and hard to remove residue on the screen of my phone. After learning that I made sure to keep my trash or snack bag between my phone and camera and the interior of the pouch (the side that is attached to the belt).  With this one exception, the belt pouches were great and sit comfortably on the belt and hips and don’t get in the way.

The lower side pockets are a perfect size for two 1 liter Smartwater bottles, and while it can be a pain to put them back in, it is possible to remove and return the bottles to the pockets while wearing the pack if you are limber enough. I can also fit my bear spray and bug spray in the side pockets with my 1L Smartwater bottles but that does make it difficult to remove and return the water bottles while wearing the pack…but that is my problem and not an issue with the pack in general. The elastic around the top of the pocket is tight and keeps things secure so I never once worried about a water bottle falling out, even when bending down to pick up a dropped hiking pole.

The only issue I had with this pack is the frame. I had it arced to just below the recommended 2 1/2″, and even with the additional lumbar pad I still had issues with pressure from the lower bar of the frame to which the belt is attached. I could not feel the bar itself, but the rigidity of the frame pushing into my back caused my legs and lower body to fatigue faster. Towards the end of the day I would have to loosen the belt and carry more weight on my shoulders to relieve the lower back pain and give my hips and legs a break.

I seem to be the only one with this issue with the frame and believe it is more to do with my size (very slender with almost no natural cushioning on my hips and back) than it is to do with the pack/frame itself. I have found no other reports or experiences of others having this issue, especially after adding the lumbar pad.

Overall, I have loved everything about this pack, but due to the lumbar/frame issue it is a pack I will have to retire for the foreseeable future. I would, however, recommend this pack to others since no-one else seems to have the issue I do. After contacting ZPacks, and receiving an email directing from Joe who made some suggestions and offered to make a custom belt for me (which I’m not sure would alleviate the problem), it is obvious that their customer service is impeccable. I have constantly been impressed by their responses and attitude to my questions and requests for help.

Edit 8/31/2016: After a little bit of research, experimenting and crafting I made my own modified lumbar pad that is thicker and slightly larger than the stock pad you can order from ZPacks. It works wonders and feels amazingly comfortable now. My Arc Haul is back on the trail and doing what it is supposed to do very well. Yay!

ZPacks Duplex

Specs: I ordered the Duplex in the heavier-weight 0.74oz spruce green which weighs in at 23.2oz. (This does not include stakes).

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This tent is my first piece of Cuben Fiber gear and I went with the 0.74oz material vs the standard ZPacks 0.52oz CF for the added durability and thickness. It only added $15 to the cost and 2.2oz to the overall weight; I felt that this trade-off was worth it for peace of mind and added life-length since this was a big investment.

I watched the ZPacks Youtube video for how to put this tent up as it is not intuitive, especially using the doors. Joe at ZPacks makes a very good and clear instructional video on how to erect the Duplex which I have linked to at the bottom of the page.

After figuring out how to put the Duplex up I have found that after a few times of practice it goes up very quick and easy. It takes a few adjustments once it is up to get the correct angles on the lines and the roof pitch, but these are often minimal and take just a few seconds.

The fluorescent yellow guy lines are solid and light, but I still manage to trip over them sometimes. Even as bright as they are, yellow still blends in with tall grasses more than pink or red. I have been using some stakes I got with an old Kelty tent and are similar to MSR Groundhog stakes in profile (Y-shaped cross-section), but not as light. I have found they work very well with the guylines and have been far more secure, durable and easier to get into the ground than the U-shaped stakes I had from Six Moon Designs, especially in some of the harder or rockier ground.

The biggest test of the Duplex was in a major thunderstorm the first night of my Walker Prairie hike. I was able to get it up quickly and all my gear and dog inside before it poured down on us. The nice thing about Cuben Fiber is that it is waterproof, not just water resistant. There were no seams or locations that water leaked into the tent during that deluge and my dog, my stuff and me all stayed dry, even when the wind picked up.

There is enough space in the Duplex for me, all my gear and two dogs (if necessary) but it would be a very tight fit. Two people would find it a squeeze and wouldn’t recommend it unless it was an adult and child, and then all gear would have to be left under the awnings which are definitely adequate for dry-storage of gear. Due to the nature of CF I don’t generally have my dogs in the tent with their claws so the storm was an exception to the rule for me, and would be again if conditions necessitated it.

The awnings are spacious and are high enough off the ground to permit a reasonable amount of airflow, but I have found that with two dogs in the tent (the first night in the Black Hills) plus me that I still ended up with a lot of condensation on the inside. Leaving one or both doors open and having the dogs sleep under the awnings makes a big difference in the condensation levels. My one night up in the Little Horn Canyon with one dog and an open door left me with a completely dry tent in the morning. Of course so much of this has a lot to do with campsite location and most of my condensation issues have been due to camping near creeks and at the bottom of valleys. The condensation issue is always going to be one of the trade-offs with a single-wall tent.

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The Duplex has become one of my favorite pieces of backpacking gear so far, and despite the hefty price tag, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again. I love the space, the design, the ease of putting it up and stowing it away, and I love how much living area I have for the weight. Sitting out the storm was comfortable when you have enough room to move around and organize.

I would like to see ZPacks offer a net tent inner with bathtub floor to go with their Duplex tarp (an option not well known about) as well as the standard model with the attached floor and mesh as I believe this would be a great set up, and even more versatile.

ZPacks now offers a free-standing option for the Duplex tent, but with another hefty price tag for the poles plus a weight gain of 10.2oz which puts in the weight category of other free-standing but less-expensive double-wall tents. It would be a good option for those who don’t use trekking poles. Here is a great review of the Duplex tarp with the freestanding option.

ZPacks Duplex Set-up Video:

 

 

Three Days Backpacking Walker Prairie, Horseshoe Mountain and Wolf Creek Trails

Walker Prairie – Wolf Creek Hike

Day 1

The trail head for the Walker Prairie trail was down a mile-long rocky, primitive road. I decided to not torture my parents by driving to the bottom and making them drive back up. I started hiking about 1/2 a mile from the trail head. The road was easy for Kye and me to navigate on foot and the roads were well signed.

We started by crossing a log bridge over Ranger Creek and following short climb to the ridge line where we hiked along a nice and easy path through the trees for a while before dropping down to run along the bank of the East Fork of Big Goose Creek. The freakiest thing was coming across the carcass of a half eaten elk half in and half out of one of the minor tributaries running into Big Goose. It was covered in flies and I hurried away from the water crossing as fast as possible with a pack before the owner of the carcass came back to finish it off.

We followed the creek for almost three miles, making four fords of the creek in a short period of time. The water was bitterly cold and I had to carry my shoes and Kye’s pack while trying not to loose my footing and get too wet. It was irritating to have to keep switching out my hiking shoes for water shoes, but having dry shoes and socks to hike in was a priority. The shoes I chose, however, were pretty crappy and too big.

The creek itself was gorgeous and I kept having to stop to eyeball all the fishing holes (and the pretty big fish I could see in them), and was beginning to wish I had a backpacking fly rod and some flies with me.

From Big Goose creek we hiked up the side of the valley to a place I lost the trail. Using intuition and having keen eyes (and screenshots of the guidebook pages) helped me locate the faint signs of a trail and climbed through a grassy “field”, past a granite knob and through a saddle. Looking behind me gave me some great views of the creek.

Having made it over the saddle and to the ATV trail I was rewarded with stunning views of canyons, peaks and wide open grassland. This was a short but sweet section of the hike and soon we were descending down a steep and rocky section of road/trail that led us to the West Fork of Big Goose. Thankfully there was a bridge to cross this time and we took a break in the meadows alongside the water.

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It was a lot steeper and rockier than it looks…it didn’t look like it would be much fun for an ATV, but then again that’s not really my thing anyway

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West Fork of Big Goose Creek…and Kye

Before long we packed up and hiked up another steep path, through more grassland with no trail and over yet another saddle to Prairie Creek. Unlike previous hikes, this trail definitely had plenty of water and I didn’t have to carry much which was nice for my pack weight

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We followed Prairie Creek down to where it joined Walker Creek which we forded by rock hopping instead of getting our feet wet, although Kye still insisted in wading through it, and took a few minutes to fill up on water before another steep climb into Walker Prairie, a huge expanse of grassland high in the Bighorn Mountains. Again here we lost the trail, but knowing which general direction I needed to be going we meandered up the valley above some massive granite outcroppings. The biting flies were a nightmare and we had to keep moving just to keep them from harassing us too much. Kye was on receiving end of the worst of it so despite wanting to take a break and rest and eat we just kept going.

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Looking back at the mountains and part of Walker Prairie

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Walker Prairie ahead of us

We passed She Bear Mountain and Walker Mountain and crossed a fence line before turning up a grassy draw with, again, no easy trail to see until we’d done some more trail blazing.

Now we were on an exposed trail above the trees and the clouds just kept looking darker and darker, and unfortunately they seemed to be heading our way. Thankfully they were moving slowly and we hurried down the hillside to Quartz Creek, hoping I’d have enough time to get my tent up before the rain hit. We forded the creek and I tried rock hopping in order to keep from having to switch shoes again but one rock rolled and my trail runners ended up soaked. Hopefully they will be mostly dry by the morning.

A few sprinkles hit us as the tent was finally up and I threw everything inside, including Kye despite the delicate nature of the material my tent is made of…it’s not generally good to mix claws and cuben fiber. After I had things pulled out of my pack, and trying to get organized in such a small space, the rain started and the thunder and lightning came. One strike was almost on top of us and it freaked Kye out more than me and she almost jumped on top of me, although it did make me jump too. I ate a few snacks while waiting for the storm to pass and wrote most of today’s journal.

A second storm came through about 30 minutes with a lot of intense rain but the thunder and lightning wasn’t as close. I finished dinner and fed Kye hers while waiting for the rain to abate, which it eventually did. When we could finally see the sun we went to the creek so Kye could drink and I could find a rock to throw into the trees to hang my food bag. I did better with hitting the branch this time, although the choices of usable branches was still limited.

With all the rain and the sun coming out there were two half rainbows above the valley and I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the stunning scenery, my campsite and the rainbows above it, and Kye.

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Gorgeous double rainbow over my ZPacks tent

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Little Mountain in the foreground with Big Mountain further down the valley…the view from camp

Headed to bed around 8:30 but it was too light and I wasn’t particularly sleepy so I took the time to finish writing today’s blog.

Tomorrow should be another good hike, although it is looking steeper than most of today’s hiking. Hoping the weather holds through the night and gives my tent and shoes a chance to dry out…wet shoes in the morning will not be pleasant.

Day 2

No flies this morning but the tent was still wet outside from last night’s rain, and inside from condensation. Having camped near Quartz Creek I expected there might be an issue with condensation…it is the bane of single-wall tents, even with decent but not good ventilation. I tried lying in bed fpr a while, waiting for the sun to peak over the mountains but by 7am it was still not visible and I attempted to dry the inside of my tent with camp towel…it helped but didn’t completely cure the problem.

I had my sleeping bag, pad and pillow packed up before I exited the tent, and changed into my hike clothes so I could put my base layer/pajamas away. I put on my water shoes because they were, ironically, the only footwear that was not wet. I retrieved my bear bag and made coffee while waiting for things to dry…my tent dried quickly after I toweled off the exterior and the sun and breeze had their turn.

My trail runners and insoles were not so lucky and I resigned myself to hiking in my water shoes and socks for a while. I stuffed the insoles in the mesh pocket on the front of my pack and hung the shoes from my top straps. Thankfully the sun was at my back and a mild breeze was blowing. This still didn’t keep the flies at bay which started harassing us as soon as I disturbed them along the water’s edge while getting water. We were packed up in record time after that!

The trail followed a fairly easy trail along and slightly above Quartz Creek, which was good because hiking in too-big water shoes and socks was not conducive to anything more than a flat trail.

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Looking back up the valley. Camp was in the little triangle of green to the left of my face

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Looking down the valley and Quartz Creek

A couple of miles downstream we could see the ford of Quartz Creek that led to the Wolf Creek Trail, and another which I was planning to take. As we approached the ford from downwind a small herd pf elk was crossing the creek. We stayed still and quiet and I managed to capture some great pictures. Being downwind meant they didn’t catch our scent and didn’t realize we were there until they were 20 yards from us. Kye behaved impeccably but still watched them intently as they took off up the slope towards the rocky outcropping of Big Mountain.

With the elk gone we crossed the creek…I did it barefoot which was very cold but I didn’t want to deal with wet shoes again. On the far side of the creek I filled up with water, and finally my shoes and insoles dry enough to put back on.

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From the creek we climbed an incredibly steep hill for about 3/4 of a mile before it joined an ATV road. It was so steep I was stopping ever twenty or thirty yards…it was also incredibly which made things that much harder. At least out of the grasslands the flies weren’t as bad, although they were still somewhat irritating when we stopped at the top for a break and to eat some lunch.

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Looking up the valley of Quartz Creek we had just hiked down.

The ATV road continued to climb gently upward with some challenging rocks, at least for vehicles. They were a minor nuisance and the trail gradually flattened out. Within a quarter of a mile I was bored of the road and turned on some music (thanks to my friend Geoff who provided me with some Bellowhead…the perfect hiking music) to keep me company as I hiked down the tree-lined road. There was very little to look at and a couple of creek crossings, the last one of which we stopped at for a break and a nap and to fill up with water.

After four miles we turned onto FS 427, a trail that had some use but mostly disappeared in the grassy areas. At one point I lost it and then thought I had found it…a very well-groomed, well-defined trail that led north. It was even marked “TRAIL”. It was NOT the trail I wanted…and I ended up too far north and too far west of where I wanted to be. I had no idea what trail I was actually on or where it would come out but it did eventually dump me out about a mile west of where I actually needed to be.

There was no way to easily cut across from my location unless I hiked on the road (not ideal) and I found myself bush-whacking across some very rough terrain to get to where I needed to be and even then the trail wasn’t sign posted, and the book was little help now the access road had been abandoned.

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Steamboat Rock and Highway 14

We finally got on the right trail, just below Steamboat Rock and south of the highway, and started climbing the valley after almost going the wrong way again. It amazes me how badly some of the major trails that are on the National Forest Bighorn map are sign-posted or marked.

All the bad signage of the day and off-trail hiking were made up for by the sighting of a rather large bull moose in a small clump of aspens which I never would have seen if I’d been on the right trail in the first place. Kye alerted me to its presence and it was certainly aware of us so I gave the aspen grove and the moose a wide berth and almost lost the path again. He continued to watch us as we got above him and I attempted to take some pictures which was hard since he was so well hidden.

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The grade started out fairly easy but got steeper as we hiked and the sun beat down on us without any clouds to help. There was little breeze and my energy was pretty much spent by this point. We did make it to the top and chugged a lot of water. We passed an old brass NF boundary marker and continued down into another drainage towards the South Fork of the Little Tongue River, passing several cattle and fighting flies again…it must be an upper grassland issue because they were miserable.

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We made camp just below the strata of Horseshoe Mountain, filtered some water, hung the bear bag and relaxed while trying to fight off the bugs. I am currently hoping the cattle don’t run over my tent in the night…at least I have a cow dog!

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Don’t jump cows…they were perched on top of a very high and steep rock face

I spent a few amusing minutes watching a wasp catch some of the really irritating biting flies that had caught themselves beneath the awning of my tent. It came in and out several times, it took several attempts before it consistently remembered how to get out again…no matter how many times it ducked under the door. I’m just thankful for the clean-up job it was doing. It went to bed as the light faded but showed up again at first light. I’d never seen a fly-eating wasp before!

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After a short rain shower

Day 3

Unfortunately I woke up at 5:30 this morning and was out of bed by six, quickly packing things away. I was still tired and achy from the day before but I knew I only had six miles to go. I couldn’t stomach another chocolate pop tart so settled for last night’s cookies instead. I didn’t have coffee either and tried just munching on it…well that was gross!!!

We tried starting out at 7am but with no clear trail I tried a couple of different routes…actually there was no trail at all except for some steep cattle trails which the book explicitly told me to avoid. I was really beginning to cuss the book and the map. This time it was the map that came through and gave me a clearer idea of where I should have been going. It was all steep uphill, through grass and on sideways angle which just sucks to walk on, even with hiking poles. It was fairly miserable and my ankles were really hating on me, especially the Achilles tendon in my left foot which I’d already been having problems with.

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Looking back at Horseshoe Mountain and my campsite, and the ridge (the lower line of rock) the cattle were perched on yesterday

We finally reached what I thought was the saddle at the top and found the trail…who knows where it started but I was glad to have found it, especially since the top wasn’t really the top and I had another half mile of upward hiking to go.

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I THOUGHT this was the top 😦

Finally we reached the top of the Sibley Creek watershed and meandered through grassy fields towards the junction with Wolf Creek Trail. While the upward climb had been hard, especially on my tendon, now it was all downhill, and once we reached the junction of the two trails it was steep and loose dirt and rocks and completely miserable. It had to have been one of the worst trails I have ever been on. By the time I completed four miles of this my legs were like jelly and I’m not sure I could have walked much further. The book had claimed the waterfalls were worth the trail but I’m not sure they were, at least from the direction I had come. They were pretty though and there were a couple of nice-looking fishing holes.

 

I arrived at the trail head at Eaton’s Ranch to witness the wranglers running the horses down and off the mountain, and the subsequent cloud of dust, and made my way to the office to drop off a guest’s driver’s license I had found on the trail, to call my dad for pick up and to hope they had beer for sale…they did, but the girl behind the counter couldn’t sell it to me because she was underage.

I’m beat up, stinky and worn out but it was quite the three days of backpacking.


After-thoughts from the hike:

Sadly I think the super-lightweight backpack I’ve been carrying has been contributing to my fatigue due to the bar that sits along the lower back. I’m thinking I need to rent something different from a local store to find out in order to be sure before I order a new one. My shoes are also an issue and I think they are contributing to my Achilles tendon issue as it doesn’t seem to hurt when walking without them.

I also need to re-think my food strategy. I’m not loving on my breakfast choices but my lunch and morning/afternoon snacks are generally fine. Dinner is another problem as I don’t want to cook. I am finding a need to research a way to make pasta or rice salad from dried ingredients that I can add cold water too to make a decent meal. I am also done with trying to make coffee in the morning as it’s never been my favorite beverage and am looking into the caffeinated candy bars available on the coffee aisle for a combination breakfast snack and wake-up boost.

With no cooking or heating water on the menu I can now leave my stove and fuel behind to lighten up my pack even more…it’s kind of addictive trying to figure out ways to lighten your pack while still carrying enough to be safe and comfortable-ish.

A Weekend Hike up the Little Horn Canyon

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Today was the big 50K Big Horn Trail run. I parked at the trail head parking lot and hiked a few hundred yards up a two track. It was pretty crazy and I had no idea where the trail actually was with all the tents, vehicles, trailers etc. I ended up having to ask someone where the Little Horn Trail started.

Kye had her pack on and got of compliments as we meandered through the myriad of runners.

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Kye in her stylish pack with a view down the canyon

The trail followed the river for a few miles, mostly staying above it, but coming within a few feet of it on a couple of occasions. We took these opportunities to cool off and refill water.

The one and only water refill I did was at our first river stop. We had crossed so many springs and seeps that I didn’t think of refilling again at the second stop or when crossing the next creek. This was a pretty big mistake on my part and while the water lasted to within a mile of the next water source I had rationed it as much as possible, and Kye and I were both pretty thirsty by the time we reached Wagon Box Creek…that water was SO good. It was definitely our salvation.

Very little notable on the trail except for the small garter or grass snake I almost sat on and the amazing land slide area across the canyon near to where I camped for the night. The trail runners had pretty much disappeared by noon and a bunch of people were packing down bags of garbage…that looked like a lot of work. I also ran into a few backpackers, one of whom happened to round the bend just as I was done peeing and pulling my pants up…I honestly think he was more embarrassed than me; no one on the trail for an hour and then when I got to pee, THEN there’s someone walking by!!!

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The garter snake (I think) that both Kye and I stepped right over. It didn’t even move.

I also realize I brought too much food….again…but the decision to go stoveless was a good one. I am enjoying the lighter weight of my pack.

Kye and I camped just above Wagon Box Creek, in a sheltered (mostly) alcove, so I do ‘t have to worry about water. I had an amazing view and a little fire pit…it was too breezy for a fire, but maybe Sunday evening.

Tomorrow I plan to leave my tent and sleeping bag behind and hike up and back with just water and food. My pack isn’t really designed for such a small load, but I will make do since there’s no point in packing it all up.

Day 2

I had added strips of silicone to the underside of my sleeping pad, and even though I still don’t care for the pad the silicone kept the pad in place in the tent, and underneath me, and I managed to get a pretty good night of sleep. I had my beanie on and pulled down over my eyes so I didn’t wake up until 7:30am. I hadn’t realized how badly I had oriented the doors of the tent until the sun rose through the opening, blinding me even with the beanie over my face.

As decided yesterday I left much stuff behind, but I did pack it away since I was a little worried someone might come along and like the look of my gear. The problem with ultra-light tents and sleeping bags is that they come with a hefty price tag, and I didn’t want all that money walking off the mountain without me.

With just a few snacks and some water Kye and I continued to hike up the mountain for another mile, where I thought the trail split and came back together as they often do. Well, I was wrong, and I ended up taking the wrong fork. I studied the map and returned to the ford of the creek but there was no way I was crossing the raging torrent without water shoes or a companion. I’m not even sure Kye would have crossed it safely either, even without her pack.

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Looking down the valley. Camp was opposite where the landslide area is on the right side

With that route a no-go I had no where else to hike and made the decision to hike back to camp, pack up and hike the 10 miles back to the car.

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Beautiful raging creek. They had purposefully leveled this area as a fording place for horses

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This was the people and dog-crossing for the creek.

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Quite the log jam

I was definitely exhausted upon arrival at the car at 5pm, but it was definitely a worthwhile weekend of backpacking.

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