Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Return to Raccoon Creek: Blood and Sweat but no Tears

Not wanting my hiking legs and skills to atrophy over the summer by cycling rail trails rather than hiking forest trails, I returned yesterday to Raccoon Creek State Park, my go to local hiking destination. I had not hiked in over three months, my last day hike being an 11.68 mile circuit at Raccoon Creek. I decided to hike the 9.78 mile Heritage – Forest loop because I thought the mileage would be manageable after three months off the trail and because the Heritage Trail between Rt. 18 and its southern terminus is one of my favorite trails in the park.

I had last hiked this mostly ridge top loop on February 5th. When I started that hike four months ago  the temperature was a cool 26° but warmed to a moderate 38° by the time I finished the hike. As I hiked that day I carried a small stove as well as a wind/rain jacket and pants. I also wore my full leather hiking books, a pair Merrell Wilderness Originals.

Bloody scratch from a pricker bush
After parking at the Mineral Wells parking area, I glanced at my phone as I hit the trail. The temperature was a warm78°, 52° warmer than the last time I had hiked this loop. My day pack was also lighter than last time because I was not carrying a stove or any extra clothes or rain gear as the weather forecast was calling for almost perfect conditions. I was carrying the ten essentials and four liters of water. I was also wearing a brand new pair of Solomon XA Pro 3Ds rather than my heavier hiking boots.

With less weight on my back and feet I felt like I was more agile and hiking at a faster pace. Gone were scenic views through barren trees I had seen in February as the canopy was thick and green this June 14th. The understory was also verdant, and so thick that in a few places I could not even see the trail I was hiking on and that was before me. In some places pricker bushes had overgrown the trail and I could not but being scratched so deeply it drew blood.

Sweat running down my face
A couple hours into my hike I found myself standing at the bottom of what some call “a very steep climb of a hogback.” (Walks, Hike and Overnights in Raccoon Creek State Park by Mark H. Christy, page 70). I call it “The Hill”, perhaps the steepest grade I have ever encountered in the park. The first time I faced The Hill was from the top and it was snow and iced covered. Even though I descended it with trekking polls in hand that first time, I slipped on a snow and ice covered exposed root, one of the many roots protruding from the earth on this almost sheer section of trail, and ended up sliding down several feet of its slope before stopping.

The Hill is so steep that yesterday I found myself employing the mountaineers rest step, using my trekking polls for balance and to insure I did not slip backward on the loose dirt, stones, and tinder as I climbed from its base to the open area in the forest at its top. At little winded and sweating as I reached the top, I decided I would rather climb this steep grade on a warm day like yesterday than descend it on a snowy, cold winter’s day, as I had done several months ago.

I saw less than a dozen hikers while I was out two couples and several singles. One in particular bothered me, a young man, wearing large headphones to assumingly listen privately to his favorite trail tunes. I consider that a safety issue and wonder why anyone would venture out for a day hike in the woods and not want to hear the chirps, calls, and songs of birds and small game rustling through the grass and dry leaves. To each his or her own however.

By the time I returned to the car four hours and forty-five minutes later, I had drunk more than two liters of water, so I was glad I had taken a couple of two liter bottles rather than just one. I had also developed a hot spot and a small blister on each instep, but considering I had just hiked 9.78 miles wearing a pair of Solomon’s I had not  broken in, with brand new Superfeet insoles I also had not broken in, I felt like I could not complain. I was also happy that my left knee was not aching as it has after other day hikes of a similar distance, thanks, perhaps, to the Aleeve I popped just before I left home to drive the 26 miles to return to Raccoon Creek State Park.

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