Dear Knob-heads: Let’s NOT Die in the Woods this Weekend!

1 11 2015

In case you haven’t met me, I love hiking. I love camping. I love hiking AND camping. So, I thought, isn’t it about time that I went camping WHILE hiking? Yes, indeed it is.


‘Thru-hiking,’ as it is known, is not something that you just wake up one day and go do. Unless you’re a 17-year-old boy. They don’t know any better. But for the rest of us, it takes practice, preparation, and good gear. It’s taken me years to accumulate enough lightweight, quality gear to feel like I could realistically load up everything it takes to live onto my shoulders and travel through the woods without falling to my death. If you don’t enjoy packing for a normal trip, this process of packing for a thru-hike will blow your mind. Not only does it require a tent, sleeping bag, pillow, sleeping pad (if you are so inclined), but also socks, a mug, a stove, a lighter, a pot, spoons, water, food, toothbrush, safety gear, spare socks, ways to see in the dark, clothing for all temperature swings, more spare socks, a knife to fend off rabid wolves, a compass, a map, emergency hand warmers, ibuprofen, and one last pair of socks just to be safe, in case the first pair gets a hole, the second pair gets wet, and the third pair gets thrown at the pack of rabid wolves to buy time while you realize in which of the 37 zippered compartments on your pack your knife is hiding.


This year, our friend, Summer, asked us if we had ever hiked the Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana, and if we would be interested in going on a trial run thru-hike there with her. Like us, Summer is perfectly outdoorsy, but never managed to cross over into the realm of extreme survivalism that inspires thru-hiking. Bethany & I jumped at the chance to finally attempt what we had been wanting to do for years!


Water Drops

12088368_10208117798572935_6934933217593447015_nWe met over coffee to look at maps and plan our route. I texted questions to Diana, our resident expert, who had been test hiking all across the state all summer long in preparation for her big cross-country hike in New Zealand this winter (well, winter here- summer where she’s going). I am used to more desert hiking, and so we often plan our routes around rivers so that we can easily make more potable water whenever we need it. Diana warned us that this was not possible on the KT (Knobstone Trail), so we would have to plan on ‘water drops.’ With the help of another friend, Jennie, we strategized how much water we would need for three people per day. Despite Jennie’s military expertise, we dialed down our rations, knowing that we would not need water for shaving or- scoff- showering. We are tough women! Besides, this trip is in mid-October, which means that the sweat-drenching humidity of Indiana has finally passed, and our main concerns are about the cold nights.



Tick biting - with its head burrowed in my skin - engorging on blood. Likely female Brown dog tick, Rhipicephalus sanguineus. Hard for to ID; with her head buried in my skin. Can see pink inflammation around the bite. Camping and hiking. One of few which can complete its entire life cycle indoors. More common on dogs; in kennels, homes, than outdoors.

On a recent trip to Red River Gorge, KY, we were resting atop Double Arch, and chatting with the folks having lunch nearby. Another hiker, having learned where we are from, started telling us all about how her eagle scout son and his friends were just on the KT in August. She paused, looked at her friends, and said, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this.” Okay, lady, now you HAVE to tell us. “Well, they ended up cutting their trip short because they all got ticks. I ended up pulling about 60 of them out around his butt.” Umm……… I’m sorry, SIXTY?!?! Sixty. There were SIXTY ticks on this poor boy, and on his butt, no less!!


pant legsNaturalists that we are, we decided to be prepared. We were grateful for the chilly fall weather, as we tucked our pant legs into our calf-high hiking socks, hoping to confuse the little bastards. I sprayed my shoes with the strongest stuff I could find in our house, which isn’t saying much. It was probably mostly tea tree oil and sage, stirred with a dash of unicorn tears, but at least it had the word “tick” on the bottle. We never saw a single tick the entire 4 days. Good thing too, since my fingers were so numb from the cold that I could barely untie my shoelaces, let alone properly check for ticks before going to bed.


Leota Trailhead

The KT is a total of 58 miles long, but the Delaney Loop is closed until further notice. Knowing that we only had 3 full days, we decided to hike the northern half of it, which would have been about 20 miles, not including the Delaney Loop. Not knowing any better, we planned to start at the Leota Trailhead, near the middle of the trail, and hike our way back north to Delaney, where our second car was waiting for us. We arrived on Thursday night, just an hour before dark. We loaded up our packs, extended our hiking poles, and set off into the woods.


12096270_970875966328361_8168649366688444138_nNobody told us that Leota is basically the steepest, most intense part of the trail. Although you may not think of Indiana as having any mountains, what we do have is endless, undulating, tree covered hills that are 200-300 feet tall. It’s like somebody buried an entire family of giants back there. Over the entire course of the KT, you end up ascending 20,000 feet in elevation gain…. up, & down, up, & down. Yet you never climb to more than 1,000 feet above sea level. I was SO happy that Summer had heeded our warning and purchased her own set of hiking sticks, because I had also offered to share one of mine with her if she needed it, and I definitely was grateful to have both of my hands firmly wrapped around the cork of my poles. With just one, I’m sure that I would have been found in a tangled ball at the bottom of one of those hills, shaking a leave-covered fist towards the trees, mumbling, “Damn you… Leota… damn you…”


12088498_10208117510485733_1819092549892675723_n12122935_10208117526206126_3557328629597749795_nWithin minutes of starting our journey, we passed another trio of campers who had already set up for the night. Three large men in their 40s, circled around a large fire, waved as we proudly strutted past. “Yeah, we are just as cool as you, “ I thought smugly to myself. We knew it was going to be getting dark soon, so we only hiked in about a mile before settling down for the night. We crested a hill and found a split in the trail, unclear which way was the right way to go. I looked to my right, and, with some trail magic, discovered what was clearly someone else’s old campsite. A stone fire ring was flanked with two large logs, perfect for sitting! Without much hesitation, we all agreed to stop here for the night, and figure out the trail in the morning. I set up the tent for Bethany & myself while she unpacked the Jetboil camping stove to boil water. A short while later, we settled in for a peaceful night of sleep, listening to the wind rush through the treetops. I imagined the force it would take for any one of the infinite number of thin trees around us to come crashing down atop our tent as we lay sleeping. Then I heard the sounds of a helicopter buzzing over our heads, clearly searching for a lost hiker who had been reported missing after foolishly starting a 4-day thru hike at the worst trailhead of them all. The helicopter moved farther away, but hovered, circling, endlessly into the night until I finally managed to doze off.


What in the Blazes???

The first morning on the trail went off without a hitch. I woke up before dawn and laid in my comfy sleeping bag, excitedly thinking about all the miles we were going to accomplish today. We’d looked at the map with our headlamps the night before, and decided that it was just 7 miles to our first water drop, but if we were really feeling good, we might make it 12 miles on our first full day. We’d play it by ear, of course. All we really HAD to do was get to our water.


start ktWhen I couldn’t stand it anymore, I finally got up and out of the tent. I quietly foraged for branches to build a fire while my camping mates slept in. I saw two young men walk by, carrying only a small lunch-bag sized vessel. You know, those super geeky disc golfer bags, where you would unzip the top and instead of finding a PB & J, you’d be awe-struck by the fact that there are 17 kinds of frisbees they can justify buying to play this game? It looked like that. I waved hello as they walked past, and I pondered what they were doing here, in thru-hiker-land.




A bit later, when Bethany & Summer had risen and were diligently working on making coffee, we saw another group of thru hikers walking past our site. They were heading back towards Leota, where we started last night, and paused to look at the trail markings. I told them they were headed in the right direction, since they were obviously heading opposite from us. About ten minutes later, we saw the same three guys walking back towards us.  At that point I paused to ask where they were headed. Apparently, they were the same guys we passed right after we got on the trail, and they were already somehow lost. “Great,” I thought, “this surely bodes well for us newbies.” They seemed to find another trail that looped them backwards, which none of us could quite figure out.


1506754_10208117801613011_6877198851640560601_nThe trail was severely damaged by a tornado in 2012, and apparently more recent summer storms left much of the trail tree-strewn and rerouted. When we were done with breakfast and ready to hit the trail, we followed the path of the earlier trio, hoping to learn from their mistakes. There were marks on the trees to guide us, sometimes white circles, sometimes white rectangles, and sometimes simply the letters “KT” scrawled in white spray paint. As the dappled sunlight fell across the bark, it was frequently difficult to discern whether there I was seeing a faded white blob or just sunshine reflecting into my eyes. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, the forest itself was conspiring to confuse us. Patches of the forest were also polka dotted with some sort of bark lichen that grows in the EXACT SAME size of white circle. I lost track of how many times I asked, “Is that a white dot or just fungus?”

3 round lichen



With each mile marker we passed, Bethany took a picture to recognize our accomplishment. My calves were aching from the climb. As the tallest one in our party, I frequently hiked ahead, and would stop to wait for Bethany & Summer to get back within line of sight. At that moment, my hiking poles became marionette props, resting against my armpits as I lowered my back horizontally in order to relieve the pressure from my shoulders. Each uphill began to wear on me, as I felt my glute muscles burning to lift my weight up a 45 degree slope. At least I think that was why they burned. That’s not a sign of ticks, is it?


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At some point, several miles in, I stopped to scan for the next white dot, struggling to see the path. Ahead of me, those two young men from earlier that morning came strolling down the hill, still carrying that mystery bag. Maybe they had a human head in it, and had just finished burying it in the woods where noone would ever come looking. I waved hello again as we passed on the trail, and prepared my legs for another steep climb. This one was a doozy. It just kept going up, and up, and up. At least the path had finally widened from a deer trail to something wide enough to drive an ATV on, so I could weave a bit to avoid the washed out ravines, and find firmer footing.


By the time I got to the top of the hill, I was relieved to see that we had ascended to a ridge, and the trail appeared to continue along the ridge for a while. Yay! Bethany and Summer arrived at the top and we all took off our packs to rest for a minute. I jogged ahead to scout out the trail,  which seemed pretty clear, although there were not more white dots. Unlike the other parts, this was obviously not worn by 4-legged animals, and we all agreed that, because it was so clearly the trail, the nice folks at the DNR must have decided not to bother painting the white dots.


climb hillAnother 20 minutes down the trail, we got to a valley where the path disappeared amid the low growth of the creek basin. To the north, I could see a lake that I recognized from the map. Except, I thought the trail went a ways south of the lake, not right up to it. Bethany pulled the map and compass out again, and we examined it more closely. I was positive now that the trail we had been on- while clearly some sort of man made trail- was not THE trail. According to my very sophisticated orienteering skills, developed in 9th grade OSMTech, the KT was running due south of us, just on the other side of that ridge. We himmed and hawed. None of us wanted to retrace our steps back to the last white dot we had seen, because we knew it was way back where I had seen those boys coming down the monster 300 foot hill. Bethany wanted to climb directly up the ridge to our south to try to find the trail. If we followed the creek bed, we decided, it would take a little longer, but we would eventually intersect the trail again, while still moving in the right direction. And we would avoid climbing another steep hill for no reason.


After just 5 minutes of hiking up the dry creek bed, over fallen trees, through thickets of prickers, it became obvious that this would be a slow go. We needed a machete. All I had was my handy dandy pocket knife and some really cool hiking sticks. I had visions of us being lost in these woods, running out of water. I had opted out of packing my water filtration gear because it was extra weight and we planned ahead with the water drops, so this is how we would die. Drinking contaminated water from an unnamed lake, in the middle of Clark State Forest. I gave in, and suggested that we turn around and go back. Bethany wanted to trudge on, refusing to admit defeat, but Summer’s desire to live won out over her super agreeable nature, and she voiced her preference to backtrack as well.


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At the end of the day, we finally made it to our water drop as the sun was setting. I collapsed onto a beautiful spot by Elk Lake, watching the sky fill with honey colored clouds as I strapped a light to my forehead. We were near another trailhead, and I had just enough reception to power up my phone and check how many miles my FitBit thinks we did. In theory, it was supposed to have been 7 miles from Leota to Elk Creek, and we had started a mile or so in. After all the missed turns and retracing our steps, up and down, and up and down… my little FitBit is convinced that I just completed 12 miles. So, we met our goal… we just didn’t get as far as we hoped. But, I was proud, and tired. And a little bit scared that we still had 2 more days to go.


astronaut dustThankfully, it turns out that Day 3 was a bit less strenuous than Day 2, and Day 4 was an easy walk in the park compared to Day 2. Of course, by Day 4, we were all half frozen, with open wounds, aching shoulders, blistered feet, and ready to be 30 pounds lighter. We concluded our trip with delicious Mexican food from a local restaurant- NOT made by reconstituting dehydrated astronaut dust!!- and uploading pictures from our phones to Facebook. That’s when I learned about these things called “Blazes.” Apparently, when you see two of them marked together on one tree, you’re supposed to know that the trail is turning. Sometimes they even show you if it’s turning left or right. That might have been nice to know. And, FYI,, I would like to challenge your comment that “Two blazes should never be visible at once,” and “Most trails are over-blazed.” A little more blazing would have been helpful on the KT. We only got off trail another 6 times. At least we learned that when we get to a fork in the trail, always choose the deer path, and steer clear of the two-tracks.SURVIVED


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