OHT Sections Sections 4 and 5: Lick Branch to Big Piney (almost) – Days 3 & 4
I woke up to a brilliant sunset day 3 of the hike. I can’t say that I was truly refreshed from my night’s sleep but my body had relaxed a bit and I was eager for a new day of hiking not least of all because I would have company joining me on this day. By the time I woke up my son Hud was already on the way toward me packed into a truck with Ben and Steve. We had about twenty miles ahead of us to start and finish section five from Ozone to Big Piney. In fact, we would be starting a little further into the trail at Forest Road 1405 that intersects with the OHT about 3 miles past the Ozone Rec Area Trailhead.
The guys arrived a little later than expected with some breakfast for me. The breakfast burritos were good but they kind of hurt my throat as I ate. That has happened once before. I think it’s a sign of dehydration. The trail intersection was a difficult to find and it was not where you would think. There is a nice campsite between the end of 1405 and the river and a shiny piece of blaze hangs on the tree there. I am not sure what the blaze is there for but it kept us confused for about twenty minutes before we finally realized the trail actually crossed 1405 a little further up the road.
Packs on, shoes tight, we kicked off on the trail leaving Ben’s truck parked and locked on the roadside. We had a short initial ascent right off the bat as we hiked into the Horsewater Ridge. The ascent ended in not too long a time. I already had two days of hard hiking behind me and my pack was about as light as I could get it. The newcomers were still moving on the initial high of starting out on the hike. The weight of their packs became apparent after the first hill and already thoughts were going through their minds of what they might have been able to leave behind. As Hud walked in front of me I noted that he had a pair of climbing shoes tacked to his pack along with some climbing rope. Although the next two days did not provide a lot of opportunity for climbing, I don’t recall ever hearing him complain.
At about a mile and a half in we came to a small stream and stopped to fill up our water bottles. The trail section so far had been over a mostly pine covered hill. In fact, the bulk of this day was walked under pine trees, something that came as a surprise since very little of the Ozark Highlands Trail before this point has a lot of pine. I suppose that is evidence of timber industry at some point in prior decades.
Not too far past our watering hole we came to yet another creek, Owens Creek, this one deeper and wider, which required the removal of shoes to cross. Hud and Steve did this quickly while Ben and I took some time (too much time) trying to find an alternate course across. As a result our group got separated here for a short time.
As expected, after the creek we were heading back uphill again. The hills were getting to me today. I found my body in a different state than it had been at any time in the previous two days. I was utterly spent and the situation only grew worse as the day wore on. There was a gap between what my mind was intending to do and what my legs and back were able to do. The lack of calories on the previous day was hitting me hard although I did not realize how bad it was until the next morning. Every step held a new level of fatigue but especially those uphill of which the day contained a lot.
It was probably not necessary but I explained to the guys while on this particular ascent that I was not doing good. I found the rest of the troop slowly moving ahead of me on a regular basis so far. I kept having to stop and take a breather. It was not the weight of my pack so much or even the trail itself. This day’s trail was pretty wide and tame with a lot less rolling rock compared to previous sections. The issue was me. Exhaustion was gaining ground.
We descended again into another valley and into Lick Creek. This one was wide but fairly shallow with plenty of rock islands to get across. We all paused here for a moment. The map showed a long ascent to follow. I put some foot powder on and we drank up our water bottles then refilled while at the creek. Hud found a tree along the creek, climbed up in it and finished off a Cliff bar. A couple of hikers coming from the other direction passed us here and wished us luck stating off handedly that the hill they had just descended was not too difficult. (It generally isn’t when you are coming down.)
Our goal was to get just past mile marker 100 for the day. That would leave a 5 mile descent in the morning for a quick and scenic hike to where our ride was to meet us on Saturday. Saturday was New Year’s Eve and we all had an appointment for a party that included a Mexican food feast back in Fayetteville that we could not and did not want to be late for. We therefore had to keep to a schedule. That meant two more major ascents left in this day. The first one we were about to set out upon was a little over 1500 feet spread out over two miles and the second was just as high but in the space of about a mile. It was the second ascent after Cedar Creek that we really expected to be bad and we did not want to start the next day with it if at all possible.
We climbed back out of the valley and the exhaustion clamped itself around my whole body once again. I was just a little embarrassed by how slow I was moving, how worn out I obviously was but shame could not get me past it. I had hit my wall and unfortunately it was hit the night before and I had a half day of hiking still in front of me before I could find a way over it.
This section of trail featured several waterfalls and although section 4 seemed like almost non-stop waterfalls in my rear view mirror these waterfalls were unique. They were a bit higher and instead of being just big drop offs on creek beds like many of the others were, section 5’s waterfalls seemed to come right off of cliffs. We came to our first one as we ascended the hills past Bee Ridge. A great rock wall to our front and then to our right layered with intricate designs and effects of erosion through the millenniums. Some of the wall looked to have only recently fallen in fact. At the head of the water was a great waterfall that spit out a small but steady stream of water into the pool below. A second waterfall sat to the left, smaller and hidden from the trail. The blaze here turns blue for a secondary hike down to the pool that receives the outflow from the falls.
We stopped and Hud climbed along the walls here while Ben grabbed some shots up close of the waterfall with his camera. I was happy for a rest not compelled upon the band of hikers by my heavy breathing.
The ascent grew much steeper at this point as we went ever higher into the hills and in not too great a distance we were above the pine tree line and into an area that held a lot of fallen trees. Most of them looked to have been cut or rotten. I don’t know if this was a deforested area or what. It wasn’t pretty though and the sun really hammered on us on the face of this hill side.
It was here that my cheapo trekking poles gave out. First one of them popped out so that the springs were showing. Try as I may I could not shove the pole back into itself. I knew it would soon fall apart completely and elected to get what use I could out of them. That amounted to another half mile as I poked a pole down into the ground for another step and lifted it up to find half of it in my hand and the other half sticking into the ground like a fence post. I tried hiking along with the one remaining good pole, which happened to be the one bent in my fall on day 1 of the hike but that was only frustrating and I soon strapped them both to my pack. It wasn’t long after this that I felt my knee pains return proving the value of trekking poles and also the inconvenient timing of the great descent that was not too far ahead.
The hike up this first hill took hours. It did not seem so far on the map and perhaps we took more breaks than I realized but for what amounted to a relatively boring section of trail it was frustrating to move so long in a direction that seemed to go nowhere. We stopped for lunch near the forest road that marked the top of the mountain we were on. I had a Cliff bar and decided then and there I hated Cliff bars. It was dry and sour and all together unsatisfying. I just wasn’t having fun.
Steve was also getting tired. He had an Iditarod sleeping bag in his pack which was guaranteed to keep him warm that night but was making for quite a haul that day. I was pleased to at least have some company in my exhaustion although I was winning that race to most exhausted.
Ben appeared tired at that point too but after lunch he found a second wind and he and Hud raced ahead of us. Hudson made the comment amidst our whining that we sounded like a bunch of weenies. I took great pleasure watching him move slowly in a cold frozen stupor the following morning as we tore down camp and reminded him of this statement on several occasions.
The descent down this mountain was just as long as the ascent. While easier on the body the trail remained pine trees and pine needles with little view and little excitement. It seemed to stretch on forever and we knew that our reward would be Cedar Creek and a much steeper ascent which up to this point was planned before setting camp for the night.
As Hud and Ben moved ahead Steve began concocting an alternative plan. Its details included concluding our hike at the forest road that ran across the peak of the summit that followed Cedar Creek. We would still have to take the big hill but we would not finish the section having 5 miles and some change left before Big Piney. It also hinged upon the chance that we would find cell signal to notify our ride on Saturday morning of the new pick up spot. I think Steve might have considered I would not be for any plan that included not finishing the section. If that was the case then I was hiding my exhaustion better than I thought. That did not matter to me at all by this point. I was whipped. Any plan that included a shorter day suited me fine.
We caught up with Ben and Hud and ran the plan by them. Instead of taking the Cedar Creek hill we would camp at Cedar Creek for the night, now just 1 mile away (halle-freakin’-lujah!). We would then wake up early the next morning, take the hill, and call our ride. If we could not get cell signal then we would drop our bags, finish the section then get a ride back to our bags, pick them up and be back to Fayetteville in time for the New Year’s Eve party.
All votes were tallied and the plan found unanimous support.
We completed our descent into the Cedar Creek valley. This was the prettiest section of the day. The final descent enters into a canyon of boulders and rock walls and the second great waterfall of the day off to the left.
As we entered level ground we found a semi dry crossing point on the creek, and a camping spot on the other side. Hud ran off to climb the boulders and rock walls while the three of us remaining went about setting up our tents and a fire for the night.
I don’t know if I have ever eaten so good. I finished off the jambalya I had packed with plenty for me and Hud both. Then I had some of a Steve’s clam chowder he had cooked up and finally some of Ben’s smoked sausage. That food was just what I was needing and although the next night’s anticipated Mexican food feast continued to dance in my head I thought this evening’s meal was a close competition. To wrap up the evening Hud had packed some packets of hot chocolate and we each had a somewhat watered down edition and I had a stogie with mine.
The fire was burning bright and the night air in the hollow was diving quick as I fell asleep to the sound of the waterfall rolling off the canyon wall.
We woke up at 530 the next morning before sunrise. I have found it is always easier to get up and around with a group in the camp. In less than an hour’s time our tents were down and back packs were strapped on tight. The temperatures had gotten so low as to freeze a layer of ice to our tent poles meaning we would have to air out the tents when we got home.
I found myself feeling fully recharged from the caloric intake of the previous night although I wondered what I would feel like once we were halfway up the hill. Less than a mile past our camp we ran into another group of hikers. There were about 5 guys who had set up camp within sight of the creek. They looked to be just getting up to breakfast as we walked past them on the trail and said good morning.
The ascent out of Cedar Creek was nowhere near as bad as we had thought. Any ascent is rough to be sure but either we had better prepared ourselves mentally or we were just stronger after a night’s sleep or maybe it just wasn’t that bad. The path is narrow and steep meaning you have to be very careful on it and can’t take it too quick for the sake of safety. It is pretty wet and mossy and each step has to be gauged carefully.
After the deepest part of the ascent we came into a set of rolling ridges and a mix of pine and some other breed of trees. We crossed another waterfall, not as pretty as that at Cedar Creek but nice just the same. In less than an hour’s time we were to the top and on the forest road. I sat my bag down by mile marker 99.5 (the only half mile marker I recall seeing on the trail so far).
We tested the phone and found we did indeed have a signal. The call was made and we settled in for the waiting time on our ride. The cold air came alive against the sweat that had been produced while coming up the hills and ridges behind us. We got a small fire going and heated up some smoked sausage and a couple cups of coffee for breakfast.
I was tempted to shoot into the trail a half mile to find the 100 mile marker. I was so close and that was a marker point on this hike I was looking forward to. My mind had already settled in for the trip though and instructed my body that the hike was completed. I will get it next time and pick up at the same spot for section 6.
As I reclined against a tree by the fire I realized that exactly one year ago I had done my first “long” trail when I did the Butterfield Trail at Devil’s Den on New Year’s Eve. Here I was, 1 year later with almost 100 miles of the Ozark Highlands Trail behind me. A good year!