Finally, after an almost four year absence, I was ready to get out on the trails again. My hiking buddy, Cesar, and I looked at potential trails, and after a lot of research decided on the Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas.
This beautiful 218 mile trail (and growing) travels east from Lake Fort Smith, which is 32 miles north east of Fort Smith itself, to Woolum on the opposite side of the Buffalo River.
The first thing we did was to purchase the excellent guidebook aptly titled the Ozark Highlands Trail Guide by a gentleman called Tim Ernst. I had several email exchanges with Tim, and he is a wonderful person who loves the OHT. He was instrumental in the creation of the trail, and remains very involved in it today.
The guidebook is just about all that is needed for the trail, except maybe maps and/or GPS for those that like to use them.
Water is plentiful (or at least it was for us, sometimes too plentiful when crossing freezing rivers!), and the trail is well marked. So navigation wasn’t going to be an issue at all.
A work colleague of Cesar’s, Jeremy Grady, was to join us on this trip. Jeremy is a tough ex-Marine who is about 20 years younger than me. So immediately I had visions of being left behind in the wake of two ex-Marines bombing off into the distance like two racing pigeons!! As it turned out Jeremy’s pack was legendary, and it allowed me to keep pace with him. More about that later..
After studying the trail guide, we decided that early March 2012 was a good time to get on the trail. The leaves were still off the trees so the views would be spectacular, water should be in good supply, and bears and snakes shouldn’t be much of a problem.
The weather, according to the guide, is usually around 50-60F in the daytime, with nighttime lows in the 30-40 range. This is perfect weather for backpacking, so a date of March 10th 2012 was set for the adventure to begin.
I have a dehydrator, and I enjoy cooking, so I offered to make the dinners for our trip. For some reason, both Cesar and Jeremy were happy with that arrangement. I just hoped I didn’t give them food poisoning!!
So I went about my work with a spring in my step, excited about the upcoming adventures.
I planned my gear lists carefully, recording everything I was planning on taking down to the tiniest details. I went walking around the local park every morning throughout the winter to test my gear as best I could, and March couldn’t come soon enough.
Due to time constraints we only had a week for this trip, so we planned on doing the first three sections – a total of 56.9 miles. We were taking two vehicles, leaving one at Lake Fort Smith and the other at the Lick Branch Trailhead. This meant that we had to cover an average of just over 8 miles each day. Easy. Or so we thought!!
England doesn’t have bears roaming around our wilderness areas, so I had absolutely zero experience with hanging food correctly like so many do in the USA. At that time, the only alternative I knew of other than hanging food was to take a canister. So I never gave a second thought to the huge, heavy, bulky, and difficult to carry bear canister that I was taking with me.
All the food was made and dehydrated, and everything was ready. Except one thing. My trusty Atmos 50 backpack wasn’t big enough to hold all my gear. This should have set alarm bells ringing in my head. After all, I was an experienced backpacker who had successfully hiked the Lost Coast Trail right?
I knew I was taking my Marmot Helium Sleeping bag rather than the Marmot Atom I had taken to California. Although warmer, the Helium was bulkier than the Atom and took more room in my pack.
After the Lost Coast Trail, I moved into my own apartment and had to sell a lot of gear to get me through the first few months. So most of my gear was different for this trip. The Atom was one of the items I had to move on or I would have taken it on this trip too. Although only rated to 40F, I would have used my clothing layers to keep me warm into the 30’s.
The Helium is rated to 15F, and is a brilliant sleeping bag. I had owned it for several years and the only reason it wasn’t sold when I moved to my apartment was the fact that I had damaged it on a weekend trip in New Mexico several years earlier. I tore a hole in the area near the top of the zip, and although I sent it off to be professionally repaired, it was obvious it had been damaged. I figured I wouldn’t get anywhere near its worth if I sold it, so I decided to keep it. I also loved this sleeping bag, so the decision to keep it wasn’t difficult at all.
Every long distance trail report that I have ever seen talks about the raging hunger and calorie deficiencies that hikers experience. So I packed enough food to satisfy a small army, completely overlooking the fact that I was only going to be on trail for a week and that I hadn’t been overly starving during the Lost Coast Trail.
During the week of our departure I laid out all my gear and started packing in earnest. Because my gear wouldn’t fit into my Atmos 50, I had bought a new, larger backpack from our local outdoor store. I got an Osprey Aether 70, and it fit everything in with room to spare. So I forgot everything I had ever learned, and committed the cardinal sin that beginning backpackers make, and that was to fill up the remaining space with spares and extras – all the just in case items that I thought I might need. The result was a backpack with a base weight of around 50lbs. I was going to live to regret this in so many ways.
I was committing errors with every decision I was making. It had been almost four years since I had last gone on a backpacking adventure, but surely I should have learned something? Apparently not, as I completely overlooked the fact that I was injured and severely weakened by my stroke. I should have been making efforts to lighten my load, not add to it. It was too late now to change anything, and although I knew the pack was way too heavy, I was really excited to get back out there again. I would learn some hard lessons the following week!!