Ozark Highlands Hiking Trail Section One – Day 1 – Lake Fort Smith to White Rock Mountain
To begin with it is safe to say that this was the most strenuous hike I have been on to date, especially day 2 of the hike. Prior to this experience,e the Centerpoint Trail return trip out at the Buffalo River was at the top of this list but now falls to a distant second. As I look on the topo maps for the sections still to go on the OHT, I think this is a trend ahead for me.
This was also my first group hike. Typically I have always hiked alone or with my son or dad. We did this one as a group of four. There are a lot of advantages to hiking in groups. There is the safety aspect of course but one thing I noted on this trail was that I moved a lot faster than by myself. I am not sure why that was but as long as I was out front my pace was significantly faster than when I am on my own. I think there was some subconscious obligation to lead the way when I was out front and act like an old time scout or something. On that same note, if you are hiking in a group, front is the place to be. I moved to the rear for the last couple of miles of the hike and it was miserable. It’s a mental thing but it wore me out.
The first set of miles flew by pretty quickly. The slowest part was just getting our vehicles set at White Rock and at Lake Fort Smith and finally hitting the trail. The weather was perfect though and there was no looking back once we were off. These initial miles follow the shoreline of Lake Fort Smith. It’s a beautiful state park, fairly new, real clean facilities. This section of the trail gets walked a lot and that could be seen. I think we passed 1 or 2 individuals. It was mid afternoon on a Friday so most of the traffic was probably still at work at that time. We were actually starting off ahead of the fourth member of our group who had to work a half day and was then planning on doing a quick scoot up the trail and catching up with us so we did not move too fast here as we waited for him.
Along the shore line we came across a couple of chimneys that at some time or another had stood part of old homes in the area. Also we found an old rock structure which I think must have been an old cooler fed from a spring. We took a few pictures and kept moving along.
The shoreline is really nice and the trail is well marked. In fact the trail was well marked throughout section one. There were some nice rock outcroppings and some especially large boulders along the shore that we made sure to get pictures of. I was surprised how far back Lake Fort Smith goes. Every time we thought the edge of the lake was around the next corner there was another long inlet that we had to hike only to find yet another deceptive corner. The lake was pretty dry though and we actually dropped down to the shoreline and cut across some of what would normally have been underwater. We figured this cut about a mile off the route. It was a strange sight walking on land that is typically under water and the cracked earth and mud we walked on provided different levels of consistency. When we got to the opposite side of the lake there was one point where I grew a little bit concerned that we might be hiking into quicksand but it hardened out soon enough. The pictures of that dry lake bed were kind of surreal and reminded me of something off some apocalyptic movie. It did not dawn on me at the time but the dry lake bed should have served as a sign for things to come.
We paused at a piece of large driftwood on the lake bed and waited on Ben, our fourth group member. There was some concern that taking this shortcut might put us too far ahead of him to catch up. We phoned but his phone was off. We had a whistle that we were to signal him with and blew on it several times but never heard a response. We couldn’t figure out how we were so far ahead of him. We waited for some time and then decided to head on, hoping he would check his voice mail. Had we turned toward the north we would have seen Ben descending onto the lake bed probably a ¼ mile behind us. The winds were so strong he never heard the whistle and thought we had seen him in any event. We hadn’t though and we ended up getting separated here with Ben taking a wrong turn onto the trail and forcing an additional three miles into his hike that first day as he searched for us.
On the opposite side of the lake we climbed back onto the trail and moved forward in our hike. One of the guys brought his dog, Rainer. Rainer is a half Australian Shepherd half mystery mix but one heck of a trail dog. For the entire length of the hike I watched Rainer lead the way down a trail often when it was hard to figure out where a trail was. He would shoot ahead and show the way then fall back to his master, Ty before receiving some kind of unspoken consent to move out again. The dog did not cease to impress throughout our two days of hiking and even in the ride back from White Rock he minded his manners.
Miles 5-8 and some change…
We were pretty pleased when we came to mile marker 5 (the entirety of section one has mile markers with only mile 9 being difficult to make out), as it showed us our shortcut had not been in vain. We were still watching for Ben though. Soon we passed a couple of other hikers. I think they were hikers. I wasn’t too sure what they were up to but they weren’t walking, weren’t talkative, and to be honest my attention was focused more on their dog than anything else. I couldn’t tell what all breeds were included there but it was partial pit bull and I was curious how he and Rainer would respond to one another. There was some sniffing and a yelp of annoyance but that was about it.
We crossed a number of small creek beds that were not really noted on our guidebook. They were all dry though. Around mile 6 or 7 we stopped for a breather at a little stream we had come across. It wasn’t deep at all but there was a little bit of movement seen in the water and that was enough to provide confidence to drink from it with my purifier. I took my shoes and socks off and took the time to apply foot powder and we all had a little snack while we combined a moment of rest to the continued wait for Ben. He was still nowhere to be seen. Joseph, another member of the group had a notepad with him so before loading our packs back on we made a note for Ben and posted it to the nearest trail marker blaze. We told him what time we had been there to give him an idea of how far ahead we were.
Then out we moved again. There were a few stops for photos along the way but during this stretch of hike I saw for the first time how much faster we moved as a group than when I am hiking by myself. This was pretty much the exact opposite of what I expected. If I am by myself there is a lot more stopping, pausing, considering, reflecting. When I was with the group it was just go time. There are positives and negatives to this but I was leading the way and setting the pace so I can’t complain too much. We stopped at one point for a drink of water from our water bottles and I even mentioned slowing the pace up. Once we got going though I couldn’t do it. There was some drive coming from somewhere to just keep moving.
The original plan was to get 10 miles in on that first day but we had gotten a late start due to all the shuttling of vehicles and as we got to mile 8 with still no sign of Ben we were all a little concerned about how far back he might be and what sort of visibility he would have for hiking if we went too much farther. We decided to find a level patch of ground and set up camp. We looked for some time and eventually got off the trail and found a creek bed to camp beside. The creek bed was somewhat hidden from the trail although not as much as we first thought. It was dry but there were a few spurts of moving water so we had a water supply while at the same time the bed was dry enough that we actually set up our small campfire in it.
It was my first time to test out my new hiking tent, a Marmot 2 man tent, and it set up pretty quick and easy. Ty did a hammock, Rainer sleeping underneath him. Joseph was doing tarp camping. While I am on that I have to mention Joseph’s camping gear. He did the whole hike in Chacos without socks suffering his first cut but not the last on his foot in that first day. He also failed to bring a sleeping bag but brought a bedroll instead. He didn’t complain that much, or at least not as much as I would have, but that first night he did end up burning a hole in his shirt when he wrapped himself around some hot rocks he brought from the fire to his bedroll in the 44 degree cool night air.
The sun was going down and there was just a little light left in the sky when we heard some movement on the trail above us. We called out, blew our whistle, and sure enough it was Ben. He hiked down into the creek bed where we were working on the fire and after using the last bit of daylight to get his own tarp up he related the tale of how he had gotten separated from us back at the lake. Luckily the whole of the trail that we covered in day one had cell phone reception and Ben was able to call Lake Fort Smith and figure out where he was on his map and they guided him back to the trail. The note we had left him had been a lifesaver confirming he was on the right path and giving the extra boost of encouragement to pick up his pace to catch up.
I was in charge of dinner for the night and cooked up a mean batch of chicken stew (I’ll cover our eating in a separate post). We relaxed under a beautiful clear and starry night by the campfire and talked until around 10pm before one by one making our ways to our beds. Rainer kept our camp free of raccoons and other critters throughout the night and we stored our cooking pot in soapy water further down the creek bed as a precaution for keeping the camp free of bears or other larger animals. The first 8 miles had held a lot of uphill progress for us but looking at our guidebook we knew the really hard parts of the trail were still to come the following day. Taking advantage of the surprising cell phone signal at the end of day one I shot my wife a text message to let her know all was well then powered down the phone to save battery in case it was needed in an emergency. It was a good day. The body was tired, my feet enjoying some cool night air, and a whole day’s journey was still before us.