Mile-161 to Mile-165
10 March 2017
As I planned for my Spring 2017 attempt, I was crossing my fingers for clear weather and a 40-60* temperature range on or around the full moon tomorrow. That'll be my shot, I thought. But no such luck. The weather was calling for mixed snow and rain every other day during that week. Woof. But I wasn't gonna let a little weather ruin the trip altogether. No reason I couldn't do a little scouting. And I'm glad I did; I learned a lot about options for the end of my trip this fall and what the last bit of trail looks like, what to expect.
Woolum was more accessible than I’d expected, but the trail, a mere 45-foot ford of the Buffalo River between the two, was not. I tried three times to cross, and failed as many times. I first attempted where the trail intersects the river. I could see the "Woolum" sign on the other side of the crossing, just a stone's throw away. Seemed the obvious choice. As I took off my shoes and socks, I thought to myself how odd it was that the sign was on the bank opposite the Woolum Campground. At least I'll be officially done before I hit the ford on my next speed attempt, and I'll have a sign to mark it. The water was moving really quickly, and I noticed that I felt anxious as I stepped cautiously into the swift current. I used my trekking poles to steady my stride as I ventured further out. I could feel the fist-sized riparian rocks shift and roll beneath my feet. The water reached the middle of my chest as I neared the middle of the crossing. Then, the wind picked up and nearly knocked me off balance. I stood there fighting the current, not yet halfway across, trying to slow my breathing and ground myself as the water pounded relentlessly against my upper chest. I felt as though I were a whisper away from being swept downstream. This is kinda fun, I thought. And terrifying.
I knew the water probably wouldn't get more than a few inches deeper before I'd start to climb out the other side, but I also knew that I couldn't go any deeper and keep my feet under me. I made the decision to turn back, which was the easy part. I still had to make the turn, which would be the moment where I'd be most likely to be overtaken by the river. And sure enough, I misjudged the placement of my trekking pole as I turned and could feel the current pulling me off balance as I retreated back to the Woolum shore. Fortunately, I was able to climb up the sloped riverbed as I let the river take me just a little bit. Before I knew it, I was back on terra firma. Close one.
Well I hadn't driven all that way just to quit, so I put my shoes on and started to scout upstream. I found a much wider crossing point above the narrower section I'd just tried to cross. This time, I left my gear on the shore as I stepped out into the river again. Though the riverbed was wider and the water slower, it got much deeper much more quickly than I'd expected. Guess the soft, muddy bottom erodes more easily than the rocky bottom at the narrower crossing. I wasn't even a fifth of the way across when the water reached my mid-chest again. Given the slower current, it didn't feel as dire a situation, but I knew it was hopeless to continue. I turned around again, defeated. After that, I headed downstream. Although I figured it was a waste of time, I also wasn't willing to leave without at least having a quick look. The broader crossing below the narrow section looked promising, especially given the significant eddy on the opposite side, but I was skeptical. I dropped my gear (again) and stepped into the river (again). I hadn't even gotten into the current and the water was already waste-high. Forget it, I thought, and returned to the car.
I was done with Woolum, but I wasn't done. I drove out to the Richland Creek Campground to scout an access point there. It was accessible, sure, but it would've required me to backtrack 25 miles after completing the trail. Or worse, to hike that far just to reach the western terminus and get started. I figured there had to be an easier way, and upon further investigation, I found that there is.
I knew the weather was going to turn for the worse on Saturday, which left me a day to kill. I drove back up to Snowball, AR and then on to the Richland Creek ford, which ties into the OHT just four miles west of the Woolum terminus. Richland Creek is wider and deeper than I expected, but the current was lazily meandering, so I staged my gear - including my shoes - and made my way out into the current. I could see that the road picked up again about 15 yards upstream of where it ended on my side. Rather than try to cross perpendicular, I made a b-line for the opposite bank. I was over halfway when the water reached my collar bone. Had to swim the last 40 feet. No risk; it was a super-easy swim. Woohoo, there I was on the other side. Barefoot. And trying to figure out how on earth I was going to get all of my gear across without getting everything soaked in the process. Without an obvious solution, I pushed that question out of my mind and started walking up the road. I figured I'd at least have a peak at the trail intersection before heading back to get my shoes.
I took a similar approach as I forded back across Richland Creek. This time the water only reached my mid-abdomen. It was like- no thang at all, y'all! I walked the couple hundred yards back to my car and switched up my gear. Since I'd already ruined one camera, I chose to leave my phone and camera in the car. I opted for an old smartphone to use as a camera, figuring I wouldn't be too upset if I found myself swimming again. Grabbed some old trail runners too, which I wore for the next two crossings, and which drastically improved my footing. On this, my third ford of Richland Creek, I took a direct route, road to road, and the water reached my upper abdomen. I was still able to keep my feet, though I felt anxious as the water got deeper and deeper. Through all of that, I learned the best line to follow when I ford this fall. And the line held true on the fourth ford of the creek after my short hike today. I was surprised that I gained 10" of vertical over just 15 yards.
Hiking the last four miles of the OHT heading east toward Woolum was a total cruiser. It's all on graded dirt road, which is heaven compared to what I saw on the maze of well-maintained trails near Lake Fort Smith State Park. Having seen both ends, I'm leaning toward hiking the trail eastbound again for my next speed attempt in November. Standing at Woolum today, looking out over the Buffalo River crossing that had bested me only yesterday, was surreal and exciting. I can't imagine how it will feel to walk 165 miles straight through, then come out of the woods and see Woolum across the river. I have goosebumps writing about it.
As I was snapping photos along the river, a Great Blue Heron flew off from the opposite bank. I'd seen one yesterday too as I tried to cross from the other side. Probably the same one, but seeing him twice got me thinking about Native American medicine. The Great Blue Heron is the animal totem representing self-determination and self-reliance. And within that, a balance between standing alone and relating to others. Sounds about right as I continue to reconcile those two very real parts of myself.
I headed back and forded Richland for the fourth and final time this trip. Easy-peasy. And cold. The sun was setting as I arrived back at my car. That was the longest I've taken in a long time to hike just 8 miles, and it was kinda nice. The full moon was rising ahead of me as I drove out, a reminder of what I'd hoped to accomplish on this trip. Still, I feel satisfied- and excited. It was nice to go for a walk in the woods. I still wanna speed-hike the OHT, and I might throw in a nice leisurely thru-hike at some point as well. For now, I'm focusing on a section hike. Next order of business was to get eyes on the 34 miles of trail that I haven't seen yet, but the weather has made that difficult. I'd been considering a yoyo, but the snow and freezing rain in the forecast have led me to scrap that plan entirely. And I'm not curious enough to pay for a shuttle or go through the trouble to hitchhike, so I'll just do that little piece blind in the fall. As far as I can tell, there is nothing to be concerned about. And I'm reluctant to hike it in the summer, which I'm sure would be miserable.