Garden of the Gods Wilderness, April 24-27, 2008
Springtime. The last chance, as far as I'm concerned, for good camping before the FARGING bugs start. I prefer camping in designated wilderness areas, just so I really know that no cars will show up. Looking at the map of wilderness areas close to Chicago, I noticed two things. One, there ARE no wilderness areas close to Chicago, and two, Illinois does have it's very own national wilderness: the Shawnee National Forest, which includes the Garden of the Gods Wilderness.
Jim and I arranged to meet at about 4 pm in a central location where we could swap cars and families; to keep from having two cars out and about all weekend, I drove Kim to work on Thursday. Jim had some work troubles which kept him from getting to me until around 4:30. By 5 we were rolling toward the highway, but further delays awaited. Jim had an opportunity to stop at an army surplus store and get some great black cargo pants for camping (cotton/poly blend, great for durability, lightness, comfort, and minimal drying time.) Due to some confusion with the cashier, he ended up with a pair of XL and a pair of mediums. Neither one of us has fit in pants that small since freshman year of high school, if then. So we had to head back to the store for an exchange. It took a while to get through the back roads -- thus avoiding highway traffic jams, which would have delayed us even more -- but we did get to the place. Of course, you canít go into such a place without browsing just a bit. I ended up getting a new pair of throwing knives, and Jim got a new canteen. After getting our shopping done, we got back on the road, headed for southern Illinois. Turns out the highway we were on did not intersect with the highway that would take us to our destination. We found ourselves crossing the Indiana border!?! All told, we got really rolling, on the correct highway and headed out of Chicago proper, at around 7:30. So, three-and-a-half hours late, who cares, we can make up some of that on the road, right?
Once we were most of the way downstate, we stopped for some food and gas. While Jim was off doing his thing, I started futzing with his fuses, trying to figure out what the problem was with his cigarette lighter, which had not worked for a while. I found the blown fuse, and we ended up hitting 2 different gas stations to find a replacement. Midnight on the road, when youíre already late to get somewhere, is a great time to do this.
As we were getting close, I called Erica to give her a status update and find out how she was doing. She had made it to the park hours earlier -- she made awesome time! -- and was asleep. "Iím in the silver car in spot 7," she said.
We finally rolled in to the park at 2 am. First, we parked in the backpackerís overnight camping lot. There was a silver car there, but no spot numbers. No spots, for that matter, just a gravel lot. I checked our location on the park map bulletin board, which showed me where to find the campgrounds. So we got back in the car and headed up the hill. Sure enough, at the top of the hill, there were numbered campsites. Most were empty, but number 7 was marked by a silver car. We didnít spend a lot of time on unpacking or other formalities; we just went down the path to a great little limestone shelf overlooking a section of the park, threw out a tarp and some sleeping bags, and passed out. I ended up waking a few times in the night to find myself sliding slowly down the hillside, toward the ledge. Despite this, it was a beautiful night, clear and cool.
The next morning we all woke early, feeling more refreshed than our brief rest really should have provided. We woke up more when we discovered that there were ticks everywhere. None were on us, thankfully, but we found (and crushed in Jimís multi-tool, which included a pair of pliers) at least five or ten. Breakfast was leisurely, and unfortunately not great, but we still enjoyed being there. The camp next to ours -- site 8, I believe it was -- turned out to belong to a guy and his girl on a bike. (We couldnít help noticing him in the night, as he snored loud enough to hear him from quite a distance.) I went to the pump, a strange wobbly affair, to wash my hair, then I played for a while with my throwing knives, new and old. Jim and Erica joined me for a few minutes when we played "find the small object buried in the leaf litter". At this point I brought out the map and we decided on our goal for the day: to head west along the trail and find a camping spot near the western border of the wilderness area, somewhere close to water. Then we packed up and prepared to move down to the parking lot.
At this point I discovered that I couldnít find my GPS. Of course, one isnít supposed to depend on an electronic device in the wilderness, and I did have a compass and a good topo map, but a $100 GPS unit is not something one likes to lose. When we got down to the parking lot, we ran into a young couple who asked if weíd lost a GPS. They found it on top of their car, they said. I thought maybe Iíd left it there the previous night, when Iíd thought their silver car was Ericaís. As we were talking about it (and I was thanking them profusely) an older couple -- older than the rest of us, at any rate, say in their late 40s -- came off the trail and asked the Youngstons (names created out of whole cloth) couple if theyíd found their GPS, which the Middletons had found on the ground in the middle of the lot. Turns out Iíd left the GPS on Jimís car the previous night, when Iíd been trying to see if Erica was in the silver car that wasnít hers. I thanked everyone profusely again, then got into a conversation with the Middletons about Geocaching. I wonít be too surprised if they pick it up before too long.
Finally, all gear accounted for, all preparations made, we started on the trail. It soon became apparent that the kid who sold me my pack Ďway back last September had no idea how to properly advise a person to fit a pack. My shoulder straps were riding way too low, which would very soon have my shoulders in a lot of pain. Jim helped me get the straps adjusted and the pack raised for a better fit -- OK, he sort of forced it upon me. But it worked, and the pack was much less of a burden thereafter.
Within 5 minutes, we came across a small pond -- too small to show up on the map -- that contained an entire group of snakes and about 8,492,349,492 tadpoles. Already Iíve seen more evidence of animal life than Iíd seen in the entire weekend last fall in the Deam wilderness. The trail led up a bit and soon opened up onto a series of limestone bluffs overlooking the valley below and the farmhouses therein. The Shawnee National Forest is still actively being carved out of privately owned lands, and as such is a checkerboard of forested and cultivated lands. This vantage point showed this clearly. From the middle of a wilderness area, where no motorized vehicles or tools of any sort are allowed, one can see farms, roads, cars, tractors, and all the trappings of civilization. You can see on the map (at the end of this narrative) what I mean; all the gray areas are NOT owned by the Forest Service. However, this view was wonderful, as was the exposure to the cool spring breezes and the sight of the vultures performing their morning ascents in the thermals rising off of the rocks.
We realized, at this point, that we had taken the wrong trail for our goal. Back at the parking lot, there were 2 trail heads: one clearly marked with a BIG trail map and bulletin board, and one buried in the trees with one vegetation-covered sign on the other end of the lot from the big sign. I hadnít even seen it before, and Jim only at this point recalled it. We turned around and headed back down, but we all agreed that this excursion to the top of the bluffs had been worth the trip, just for the views. As we headed back to the lot, a tree stopped us and said, "The trail goes this way, but not for long! *NOM NOM*"
Back at the lot, we ran into another young couple, the Youngestons. They looked at us in all our gear and asked, "Is the trail that difficult? Do we need that much stuff to get up there?" We reassured them that, for a simple day hike, they would be fine. We didnít mention that it would be a great spot for the obvious necking they intended to pursue.
Now, finally, we started some serious hiking. Down into the valley (such as it was; the elevation change really wasnít all that great) and up again on the other side, with occasional stops for weird plants. Erica found some seed pod that looked like a green grape with measles. I found some cup fungi, which I guess aren't that uncommon, but they look cool. After an hour or so we passed a couple of survey markers, after which we stopped for lunch. Nobody was really hungry, despite a light breakfast, so we just snacked heavily. I had peanuts and peanut butter cups for lunch. It was very satisfying.
We took off again into an increasingly hot and humid afternoon, which by this point was starting to take a toll on me, especially after a morning of wearing the weight of my pack incorrectly. Then we reached the steepest part of the trail, where it heads up 200-plus feet in about a tenth of a mile. In the larger view, that isnít much of a slope, but near the end of a day of hiking with 55 pounds of gear on your back, itís pretty harsh. The view from the top, though, was awesome. Weíd reached another set of limestone bluffs, these even steeper than the ones weíd found that morning. There were three or four designated campsites on the bluffs, with fire rings and obvious tent spots. Beautiful views, nice campsites, but we werenít there to let someone else do our site set-up for us. We found a nice bit of flat ground near a stream, about 100 yards back from the trail, another half mile or so along.
We had lots of new ideas and toys to play with this time out. I had already played with my new throwing knives, of course. I also tried setting up a tarp as a giant rain-fly over our tent, to give us a sort of vestibule. Erica brought along her brand-new water filter, which saved us from using the iodine tablets. We discovered that the stream, only 500 feet away, was also 100 feet down, but it was a pretty little spot, and nice clear water. While we were filling bottles, I was asking about the habits of ticks, whether they were diurnal, nocturnal or (for lack of a better term) omnurnal. (Erica insisted that I include that term in this journal.) Then she sent me back up the hill with the water so she could bathe in a pool under a limestone outcropping. Back at camp, Jim went whole-hog and set up a tentless shelter with his old and small tarps. It looked a little makeshift, but for a first effort (and with old, tattered, undersized tarps, no less) it was a pretty cool setup.
That night, more experimentation happened. First, we had a massive thunderstorm. Rain pouring down in buckets for hours. I was still sweaty from the work of the day, and the heat of the storm was keeping me from being comfortable, so I thought to myself, "Well, they call it a rain SHOWER, donít they?" Washing in the rain has some plusses and minuses: itís easy enough to get damp and lather up, but itís cold, and there really isnít enough water falling in one concentrated area to rinse off. I ended up being quite grateful for the rain fly I had erected over our tent; it was gathering a lot of water into a small pool. I had heard it, while lying in the tent, dumping out as it got too heavy every so often. (It sounded a little like bigfoot kept coming by to take a giant leak against a nearby tree.) Now I used it to rinse down. Itís a shame itís illegal to be naked in most places, because showering outside is much nicer than in a stuffy, steamy shower stall.
Once I got dried off and back in the sleeping bag, Erica and I discovered that my tent is not fully waterproof. (Not that Iíd expect anything to be that watertight when submerged in an airborne swimming pool.) Along the submerged seams, and where things were pressing against the tent fabric, water was seeping in. Not in huge quantities, but enough to be a potential problem. We soaked it up with towels and dirty shirts and placed said (now wet) items such that theyíd absorb any more infiltrating water, and left it at that.
The next morning we all woke bright and early to a clear and clean forest and a bright, clear sky. It didn't take us too long to convert our nice little campsite into a Chinese laundry. We even had to hang up our sleeping bags and pads. Then we had a look at the map to find a good fishing target. We chose Eagle Creek as our first stop.
The trail through the Garden of the Gods wilderness is less than perfectly maintained. It's marked erratically, with over half a mile of nothing, then 5 trail markers within 100 feet of each other. It's also un-graveled, which means that it washes out a little more in every rain storm. In many places the trail is a foot or more below the surrounding forest floor. And there are many places where downed trees across the path have not been sawn through or removed, so there are new paths growing where people have had to leave the path proper to go around a deadfall.
Well, when we left the River-to-River trail and jumped on the Eagle Creek trail, the deadfall got much worse. In one 50-foot section of trail, we had to fight our way past 10 trees. At least, on the relatively flat ground this trail followed, we didn't have as much of a trail washout issue to contend with. Jim at this point became fascinated with some webworm nests alongside the trail and asked for a video of them. He was unable to get them to crawl on his fingers, though. We followed the trail to the road, and then the road to the creek. Eagle Creek is pretty, but not nearly big enough to fish in. We headed in a little ways to find a nice rock to sit on, have a snack, and soak our feet in the creek, while we discussed where to go next. There was a nice looking dual-pond system marked on the map that looked ideal for fishing, but we'd have to either walk into town (not that Herod, IL is much of a town) or we'd have to follow the creek through the brush. We voted for bushwhacking.
After only a few minutes I realized that the creek we'd need to follow was not Eagle Creek, so we headed back to the road and hiked over to the other creek, the name of which I never discovered. We followed that back through some pretty clear undergrowth and past a very small pink snake. (Spring had only just sprung, after all, so there wasn't much undergrowth to deal with.) We passed a simple stake in the ground that marked the edge of a "natural area". You can see on the map, that brief bit of creek that isn't in a gray area is the only part of that bushwhacking hike that was through forest-owned lands. But even though the ponds seemed to be in private land of some sort, there weren't any buildings marked on the map. (I probably should have noted that the last time anyone official checked this map for accuracy was 1996.) We found the ponds, and they were LOADED with fish. There were bluegill and largemouth bass swimming all over the place, in plain sight. There was also a house on the hill overlooking the pond, but nobody seemed to be home, so we set to fishin'.
I caught a bluegill almost immediately, but that was it for my day. Jim managed to land a largemouth and a catfish, and he almost had an even bigger largemouth. (He's a better angler than I am.) This pond system featured even MORE tadpoles than Friday morning's pond, and they were all circling the pond, following the shore in a band about a foot wide, all headed clockwise. Kinda spooky.
We found more and more signs that the ponds were abandoned the longer we stayed; old fishing nets, sunken boats, a decrepit fishin' dock that was about to fall back into the water, and handfuls of old tackle, just sitting there on the dock. Then, very suddenly, we discovered that just because a pond isn't being actively fished doesn't mean that nobody feel possessive about it.
Jim had handed Erica his pole while he went to put his catfish on the stringer, and Erica had almost immediately run into problems with an old sunken wooden something that didn't want to let go of the hook. While I was helping her free the line, Jim came walking quickly up, urgently saying, "Guys, it's time to go, right now!" Four large dogs had been released from the house on the hill, and they were slowly walking towards us, barking to let us know that they didn't want us there.
Fortunately, these dogs knew their business, and they weren't attacking. They were just making sure that we left their pond alone. They stopped on the edge of the pond to give us time to leave the dock, and when we were 50 yards or so away they trotted over to inspect the dock and make sure we hadn't done anything to it. They then followed us, always staying 50 yards or so away, as we went to our day-packs, packed our gear, and left. As soon as we were 50 yards back up the creek, they trotted over to where we'd left our packs and inspected that area, again just making sure that we hadn't done anything to their pond. Then the left us alone.
WE stopped a quarter mile up the creek and ate THEIR fish. The consensus decision was that the landowner was being rude. Yeah, we were fishing in a private pond, but there were no signs posted, and it does back on to a national forest, you gotta expect people to wander in and fish in your pond. Whoever you want to say was MORE in the wrong, we still ate their fish. And they were good, too.
In the process of cleaning up our fish dinner, I cut my finger. Not a horrible wound, but it still dripped quite a bit. And of course, I had decided that I didn't want to carry my first-aid kit out of base camp. Jim had his kit, though, so we were fine.
When we got back to the road, Erica found a bleached clean skeleton of some sort of canid. It had obviously died by the side of the road, maybe hit by a car. We couldn't identify it absolutely, but it could have been a coyote or a large dog. It had been there a long time, but at some point someone had decided to make some sort of point and mounted the skull on a tree, staring at the road. Jim claimed a canine tooth as a prize. I took a molar, but I decided later not to keep it. It's just not as cool as a canine.
By the time we got back to camp, nobody felt like going down the hill for water, so we finished up what we had in dinner and tea. Then we sat by the fire, chatting and enjoying the nightfall. At one point a beetle landed on the back of Jim's neck. Given the number of ticks we'd been seeing, he freaked out a bit; an understandable reaction. Once he realized that it wasn't a tick, he relaxed a bit, then he asked, "Can I eat it?" Erica and I both agreed that he could, if he really wanted to, so he did. He describes it as "crunchy and bland."
The next morning we all woke early again. Something about being out there does that to a person. We also woke cold. I went down to the stream, filtered some water, and had a cold bath in the same pool that Erica had used. This process woke me up more. I also washed my shirts.
Striking camp was a pretty quick process. Somehow, I ended up with half of my food uneaten. I think that was due to the strange trail lunches we'd been eating. I slipped a summer sausage into my pocket for lunch and packed the rest. Jim went down for a bath while we finished packing, and I bit the bullet and put on one of my still-wet shirts. It was cold, but as soon as we started hiking I was glad I had it.
On the way out we passed by the same bluff-top campsites we'd passed coming in, which were now occupied by a group of young folk, probably college kids, who seemed less than thrilled to have to talk to anyone. Jim had noticed the previous evening that he thought he could hear something going on up on the hilltops; guess he was right.
We stopped for lunch at almost the same spot we'd stopped while hiking in on Friday. Jim and I both thought we recognized the spot, but neither of us had seen the survey markers, so we both thought we weren't as close as we has hoped. Turned out the markers were 50 feet away, just around the next bend.
Pretty soon, we were close enough to the shorter day-hike trails that we could hear the voices of the giggling teens atop the rocks. Just to mess with them, I blew my hunting horn at 'em. The voices stopped, then one girl said, "Did you hear that?" In response, I barked at her.
When we got to the cars, we agreed to head back up to the campgrounds for some road water and to check phone messages (the hilltop campsite was the only place where we could get a signal). I took my boots off before we got in the car, and I didn't put them on again. Stayed in my socks all the way back home. Jim had the most wonderful message (on my phone, 'cause his was out of juice) from his little girl; it had ME grinning like a goofball.
We drove into Harrisburg and stopped at a Dairy Queen for lunch. (Yes, I wore socks into the store. For some reason, this freaked Jim out.) Then Erica headed northeast toward Virginia, and we headed west toward I-57.