Once we entered the backcountry of Black Rock Mountain State Park—moments after leaving a paved parking lot--sounds of the outside world were muffled by forest. We walked in silence until our guide stopped us to point out a few more dangers we might face. That would be in the event we survived stepping on a snake.
Do you know what a widow-maker is? To hikers, it’s a tree or large branch that suddenly falls to the ground. Happens all the time in the woods, and you don’t want to be under one. Not only should we keep our eyes on the trail for snakes and now branches in our path; it wouldn’t hurt to look up once in a while as well.
Tip: An alert hiker stays alive.
Our hike to the campsite was about two miles, largely downhill. As we descended the mountain, our guide made sure we could recognize poison ivy growing along the trail, and there were discussions of mushroom types, water purification, and large animals.
“Make yourself big” during a bear encounter, he said. “Hold your jacket open and put both arms up so you’ll appear larger than you are. And make noise.” Don’t worry; if I come face to face with a 300-pound black bear, my screams will be heard in Cincinnati.
Did you know that an orange plastic buckle on the sternum strap of a backpack indicates a built-in whistle? The patented Whistleloc is easy to reach if an animal is a bit too interested in you. Unaware of its existence, I carried my own whistle on a cord, hoping not to have to mimic Cheryl Strayed, who had averted disaster by blasting hers at a charging bull in Wild. A whistle also comes in handy if you need to be rescued. Just saying.
The trail isn’t for sissies, particularly after a rain, but it’s a good test of boots. If your toes don’t jam up against the insides on a sharp downhill slope and you keep your footing while navigating wet rocks, slimy roots, and mud, that’s a good thing. I do love my boots.
Halfway down the mountain we took a snack break, removing our packs on a wooden bridge over a quiet little creek. The back of my synthetic shirt was soaked with sweat. I grabbed a hunk of my hair, and it was the same story. I was surprised; we’d walked only a mile. At least I had followed one rule: “No cotton!” The fabric of our lives is a deterrent on the trail, being too absorbent and slow to dry.
Wardrobe tips: Light-colored clothing will make it easier for you to spot ticks. Brightly colored outer garments will make it easy for hunters or rescuers to spot you.
Thunderstorms can be another danger to backpackers, as we found out minutes after pitching our tents. “Get in your tents,” our leader said. “If lightning strikes, crouch on your sleeping pad, touching it with only the balls of your feet.” My tent-mate and I sat side by side and listened to the distant thunder. We were not forced into the survival position; however, rain pelted our campsite. “Do you feel that?” I asked. “Our sleeping pads are moving.” The floor of the tent was undulating beneath our legs.
“It’s like a waterbed,” she said. “We’re floating!” Outside the rain flap, my trekking poles lay in a growing puddle. I pulled my pack into the tent, but that wouldn’t save it. We had to move.
Here’s a tip: Pitch your tent on level ground.
The storm put off dinner for a while, and by then the sun was gone. Our guide said, “Everybody put on your headlamps. We might be cleaning up in the dark.” When you camp, you don’t leave anything for scavengers. Solid leftovers go into a trash bag to be hung from a tree. If you have dishwater, as we did, you dump it away from your sleeping area. Fortunately, the men took over most of the duties that required going into the woods.
Later we gathered around a fire pit minus the fire, with a few dimmed headlamps our only light. Not only are campfires ill-advised in many wooded areas; it was the end of August and no one needed heat. We were a circle of shadows, and behind us the darkness was complete. Critters started making their night noises. I thought about those tigers in India that slip into remote villages to snatch people from their huts and drag them away.
Tip: The wilderness is a good place to try positive thinking.
To be continued…