Sunset, Night 2 from our campsite at Handsome Lake

This past weekend my husband – Chris, dog – Taco, and I set out on our very first backpacking adventure.

Chris and I decided to try to out backpacking / back-country camping after learning a lot about it during the planning process on our most recent road trip. Here’s a fun fact that took me 31 years to learn – there are free campsites all over the country! Who knew! You won’t find this natural, free, barely visited land in any old National Park though. No sir. You have to go an extra step, and look to the State owned parks (which takes a LOT of research) or, in this area of the country you can make it easy on yourself and look to the closest National Forest.

There are exactly 2 National Forests within a one tank trip of Northeast Ohio. This includes the Allegheny National Forest, in Northwest PA, and the Wayne National Forest, in Southern OH. We had already been to southern Ohio this year to group camp for my brother’s 30th birthday weekend in the Oh-So gorgeous Hocking Hills, so after heavy discussions and some recommendations from old friends on Facebook, we chose to go to PA.

Once we decided that we would go to the Allegheny, we had to start checking out different trail options and camping set ups. In the Allegheny, you can camp anywhere you want as long as you are 1500 feet away from the shoreline. If you prefer, there are designated campgrounds set up through out the different trails they have offered.

Chris took the lead on planning this backpacking trip. After a ton of research including watching youtube videos and visiting different park maps he decided that Tracy Ridge was the best area for us.

In our chosen area, there were 3 campgrounds available to us. Handsome Lake campground, Hopewell campground, and Tracy Ridge campground. Tracy Ridge is directly on the road at the trail head, and is set up for car camping. The other 2 campgrounds are accessible only via foot or by boat. All of them provide pump water and outhouses. Of course I intended to find the most solitude and wanted to go off trail and find our own campsite, while my husband was more attracted to the idea of camping in a designated campground. I told him I’d keep him safe, but he still felt better going to a real campground. It keeps the boogie man away apparently. (Not saying he’s afraid of the dark… but he’s afraid of the dark.)

We had found our forest. We found our trail. Now all that was left to do was count down the days, and get as prepared as we possibly could. We collected lightweight gear, we decided what our meals would consist of, I decided that 3 days without a shower wasn’t becoming of me and learned how to make my own, all natural, homemade body wipes. I am so glad I did, and judging by the amount of praise I received from my husband regarding the wipes, I think he is glad too. (I’ll talk more about this later).

Being a hairstylist, my weekends off work come and go very quickly. If I don’t request a certain weekend off months in advance, the possibility of getting it off with no clients last minute are very VERY slim. So, we had our date nailed down months ago without really knowing what we would be doing. It just so happened that this date fell on a moonless night, which is prime for proper star gazing. Especially if you want a chance to catch a glimpse of the elusive milky way. (It’s not actually elusive, but thanks to human light pollution most Americans have not and will not ever see it.) I got really excited when I realized this, because I haven’t seen a proper night sky since last summer, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the Perseid shower.

Finally the week had arrived! Excitement was building! Vacation mode was turned all the way up. Then came Wednesday, and we realized that the weekend weather outlook was grim. 100% chance of rain Friday, 60% chance Saturday and 80% for Sunday. It was starting to occur to my husband that he maybe should have listened to me when I suggested finding a backup trail in the complete opposite direction. Panic set in as he realized that yet again, his most amazing and talented wife (that’s me) was right. (Shocker!) He started looking into it, only to find that this entire section of the country was expected to have random storms popping up, pretty much non stop. The radar was a big green circling blob with random red and yellow spots sprinkled through out. It sort of reminded me of the fall foliage I was hoping to see.

This definitely put a slight damper on the momentum and hindered my motivation. While I don’t mind camping in the rain, I highly dislike walking in it. According to a few blogs we read while trying to figure out whether we’d survive backpacking in the rain, it can be enjoyable, if you go into it with the right attitude and proper rain gear.

I didn’t have enough time to develop the right mentality, and I definitely didn’t have proper rain gear. The only clothing I own that isn’t denim or cotton (Both bad for hiking on a good day, let alone in the rain) are clothes reserved for work only. My “Fancy” clothes. I’ve never been known for my sense of fashion.

We decided to wait it out before making any rash decisions. The weather changes constantly in this area and has for as long as I can remember. The old saying is – “If you don’t like the weather in Ohio, wait five minutes”. If the rain didn’t clear up not only in the Allegheny but also through out the backpacking trails scattered all over Ohio, we decided we would just stay home.

Friday morning came. Chris woke up earlier than normal, spent the morning with the girls and let me sleep an extra half hour. He came to wake me before sending the girls to the bus stop. For the first time ever, my daughter Andrea didn’t cry. She always is happy to see us go and have a good time, but she always cries a little. She says she can’t help it. This time, no tears. I assume it is because she was just about to get on the school bus, but I won’t know for sure until next time.

We had originally planned to get up super early, shower, then drive the girls to the bus stop then hit the road immediately after. With the failed momentum, we hadn’t even finished packing by Friday morning at 8 am. It took us almost 4 hours to finally make the decision while getting ready to leave while watching the ever changing radar after my kids left for the bus. Talk about procrastination! We definitely put the “PRO” in it.

By the time we finally left the house, the radar and chance of precipitation changed for the better. We checked 3 different apps just to make sure. We decided to stop at a store along the way and get some polyester pants and ponchos before we got to the national forest, and man oh man am I glad we did. We had forgotten flashlights, so we grabbed a headlamp / flashlight combo kit too.

We stopped for a hot, protein packed meal before heading to the nearest ranger station to make sure that we didn’t need any special permits and that everything was a-ok on the trails we were heading to. Of course, everything was fine. I collect patches from all of my most memorable places and hiking trips, and the Allegheny was no exception. I found one at the very small ranger station. This patch will be sewed onto my backpacking pack though, rather than my day pack. I definitely earned it. We grabbed some free maps of the area and got on with it.

part01We FINALLY arrived to the trail head at about 5:30 pm. We had originally intended to be there by noon. This is how much the pending doom of rainstorms spoiled our momentum. Again, I’ll have to better prepare my mind for inferior weather conditions next time. Sunset was at 7:05 pm, and we had at the bare minimum 5 miles to get to a campground. Chris originally planned for us to hike a longer route which would have been about 10 miles, a whole lot more scenic, and something to really brag about, but because we got there so late we had to take the path of least resistance.

We parked the car, got the dog ready with his cute little backpack, changed into our super cool Walmart polyester pants and hit the trail with a sense of urgency hanging onto both of us. Granted, it was mostly downhill, but it was still almost a 1,000 foot change in elevation and we would have to hustle to make the 5 miles before it got dark. After all, you can always count on it being pitch black a whole lot sooner in the forest.

It didn’t take long before we needed our first break, to adjust ourselves and our pack. I think we could still see the Tracy Ridge campground from where we were at, I could definitely still hear road noise and campers talking back and forth. We adjusted our packs to rest more on our hips and less on our shoulders, and got to it. This trail was so primitive that the maintenance on it is almost non existent. There were parts of the path with trees down that had obviously been there for quite some time, as a new path would be forged around it. Taco had a tough time going around rather than under or over the debris. We found that some parts of the trail weren’t marked very well, but for the most part navigation was easy.

We walked through beautiful, dense forest. We saw gorgeous, bright green colors of moss contrasting against the black streams and dark brown wood from damp fallen trees. Some trees had already begun to turn orange and yellow. We passed through trickling streams and ditches, walked the steep rocky trail next to cliffs. We found an old growth forest that felt like something straight out of a fairy tale (I wished I had a giant ball gown that did “the thing” when you twirl) with towering pine trees and giant oaks, it was absolutely stunning and smelled of hearty pine with just the slightest hint of fall decay. Peaceful. Serene. Just me, Chris, Taco, and nature. The only sounds were our loud heavy steps maneuvering through the uneven, beaten up old paths. We would only feel the silence and hear the birds and critters when we stopped for water or the occasional granola bar. These are the moments that I need a lot more of in my life.

We made it about 3 miles before my toes started to burn really bad. I was wearing the same hiking boots I’ve worn for a couple of years. I’ve hiked Angels Landing, all around Yellowstone, & the Olympic National Forest. I’ve hiked up giant sandstone fins on the Devils Garden trail in Arches NP. I used these boots for a 6 mile winter hike through hocking hills, and I’ve NEVER had a hot spot, a blister, sore feet, or any other problem. I’d boasted about how great they were the last time I used them. The only difference this time was the extra 30 pounds on my back and thick wool socks.

It didn’t take long to figure out the problem, and this is a small piece of advice that could potentially have a very big impact on you – I hadn’t trimmed my toe nails short enough. As a matter of fact, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. Any girl who takes good care of her feet will usually have a bit of a “free edge” on their toe nails, keeping them manicured and filed during the sandal season. Our sandal season hadn’t quite ended yet and boy!, I was paying for it now. My toes felt like they were going to bleed. Miles of walking down hill, my toes pushing all of my body weight, plus the added weight I had on my back, into the tips of my boots felt like it would bring me to my knees if I didn’t find camp and take these shoes off soon enough. I didn’t complain too much, and tried to maintain my calm composure and continue on, taking breaks as I needed them.

The light in the forest was diminishing at an alarming rate when we finally got our first glimpse of the reservoir. What a sight to see! It was still a couple hundred feet below us, but we could just make it out through the trees. I could taste sweet victory.Chris, Taco and I were all starting to show our fatigue. Taco moving at a slower pace but still keeping the lead, Chris breathing hard and moving slower, and me trailing along behind the two.

Then, IT happened. We came to what looked to me to be a giant death hill that we obviously had to climb. Steep. Slippery. A consistent incline that stretched up, up, up as far as I could see. The light was disappearing at a much quicker rate at this point but I just put my eyes to the ground and kept climbing. My feet were burning and I was certain that I would see blood when I finally peeled my socks off. After a while, I had my first moment of uncertainty and wondered what I had gotten myself into. Out here, in the dark, in the woods, with broken skin and achy feet and I am just now feeling like maybe we should have called the whole thing off.

I slid my pack off my shoulders and muttered to myself, told Chris we needed to either find a site and set up or unpack the flashlights. He glanced up the hill off trail and I could see in his eyes that we were going to  unpack the flashlights. Headlamp for him, handheld for me. I clicked it on and Voila! Just like that, I felt renewed with just a little light and found a new sense of motivation to peak this damn hill and put it behind me for the night. Chris helped me back into my pack, and we continued our journey. One foot in front of the other, head down, eyes on the fallen trees, rocks and streams ahead of me, watching every step I took.  Just when I thought we couldn’t go any further, we crested the top.

From here I could barely see the reflection of water below us. I could faintly smell a burning campfire and I was sure I heard a voice. We were close. We found the final map check point, realized we were less than 1/3 mile away and got on with it. We headed down another steep hill, climbing over broken trees covered in slippery moss, avoiding random holes that would otherwise grab our feet and twist our ankles. At this time I was so happy to have trekking poles. There was a few times they saved me from falling or rolling my ankles, and on this mountain of a hill in particular, they were worth their weight in gold. We would see this area the next day in light and be completely shocked that we made it down without injury.

It didn’t take long to find the source of the campfire, 2 younger guys camping together. They were the first people we had seen in hours. We avoided them and headed deeper into the deserted campground. We picked a nice spot, waterfront, where we could no longer hear or see our neighbors. I peeled off my boots and socks feeling the magic of skin to cool air contact. Barefoot we immediately got started setting up. Chris got fast to work building a fire while I set to work putting up the tent.

In moments like these I’m always reminded of why we are married. We are such a great team. When one task is completed, we immediately and wordlessly help the other. We work together like a well oiled machine.

Our site was set up and Chris had water boiling for our food in no time. Unfortunately, the cloud cover was too thick to allow for any stargazing, but that didn’t stop Chris from climbing down to the shore with Taco on his heels. I was aching entirely too much to put my boots back on and head down the rocky shore, so I stayed put and tried to absorb the quietness of my surroundings as best as I could.

For dinner, we had a very delightful selection of freeze dried meals. Just add water. This evening, I had a nice and hearty chicken and dumplings meal (only a few crunchy spots) and Chris enjoyed a hot pouch of re-hydrated beef stew.

Poor Taco was so exhausted that  he just took our selfie shenanigans, instead of trying to steal the spotlight.

We filled our bellies and I climbed into the tent, completely exhausted. While Chris bagged our food and hung it in a tree on the other end of the campground. I finally examined my feet and found two blisters. Thankfully there was no blood! My toes were bright red and irritated so I gently cleaned up with those handy dandy body wipes and laid down on my hard bed. It didn’t take long until we were both fast asleep on top of our 1/2 inch sleeping pads.

I’m not sure what time the rain started, but it came with no warning. Fast and furious. I was concerned that our tent wouldn’t be able to keep us dry. Since we had set up camp in the pitch black, I wasn’t sure if their were trees or widow makers hovering just above, ready to come crashing into my tent at any moment. Of course I let my mind wander and ended up expecting certain death at any moment. The rain came roaring down even louder and harder. Instead of wasting time worrying, I rolled over, squeezed my eyes as tight as I could and just like a little girl avoiding the monsters in the closet, I went back to sleep.

To be continued…..