Have no fear. I’m working on the Rutgers preview and prediction, but I want to chronicle yesterday’s hiking misadventure, which I won’t soon forget.
Monday was the eighth anniversary of the hike on which Artificially Sweetened and I first met. I wanted to commemorate that event with an anniversary hike, but AS has been encumbered by a plethora of issues while this retired turkey can frequently find some free time. Accordingly, not wanting to let the event pass yet another year without a proper celebration, I decided to do a solo hike in the same wild area in which we had hiked eight years ago. I felt that I could get out to my remote Kerberos cache and do some maintenance on it to provide additional purpose to my hike.
I arrived that decision around noontime yesterday. The first sign of an impending calamity evidenced itself when I checked out my handheld GPS unit, which it turned out had been incapacitated by a percussive encounter with concrete pavement suffered at the Heart Walk on Saturday. Okay, I thought. No dedicated GPS unit. But hell, GPS is built into my Android phone and I have a couple of mapping/tracking apps. Besides, I’d be sticking to well-marked trails on which I’ve hiked many times.
So, I made my way to Seminole State Forest with a fanny pack, two large bottles of water, some cheese and crackers, and my hiking stick. Upon arrival, I sprayed myself with the obligatory DEET, for bugs are much happier about 92° (F) weather than are humans. I was dressed lightly to accommodate the heat, which meant I was wearing shorts, which I don’t ordinarily do if there’s a chance I might be bushwhacking. This was going to be a wide open trail hike, so no problem.
Yeah, right. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
I knew the area well, and I was on my way to the first stop, a shelter used for camping just a mile from the trailhead. It was essentially an uneventful walk in the park to get there. I snapped a photo to SMS to AS and moved right along, passing the spot where we had encountered an eastern diamondback rattlesnake on our first hike. I encountered neither him nor any of his descendants as I marched on for what should have been a 10-mile hike.
Harassed by deer flies, I was glad when a slight elevation change placed an invisible barrier in their path. It is amazing how small changes in elevation transform the ecosystem. Exit the deer flies, enter the mosquitoes. I marched on through the low-lying area to the palmetto scrub beyond. The trail was good, not overgrown at all, so I felt that the 10 miles would be a piece of cake.
At about 3.75 miles, I knew I was around the location of one of my Geocaches, the famous Kerberos. I had planned to do maintenance on it, checking the contents and making sure it was high and dry. Two problems with that were that I didn’t have my GPS unit due to its untimely demise, and the Geocaching Android app didn’t like the absence of a cell tower in range. Of course, I could have loaded the data into the phone to use off-line, but why would I have thought of that and screwed up a good story?
The Hike Takes a Nasty Turn
Accordingly, I decided not to do cache maintenance, but I had left the trail at some point. The white blazes that I had been following ended a while back, leaving me in a somewhat overgrown swamp. I decided to double back and intersect my track on the GPS app I was using on the phone. However, unbeknownst to me, that app had stopped recording my position when I switched to the Geocaching app. Switching back to it, I saw an arrow presumably pointed in the direction I was walking, and I adjusted my path so it would intersect the crumb trail on the screen at the point where I got off the trail. It didn’t compute when I kept looking at the screen and seeing the pointer in the same spot, always pointed the same way. I have no idea where the hell I was going, but the brush kept getting thicker and thicker. I was doing some serious bushwhacking.
It took me about a half hour to figure out that where I thought I was going had no relation to where I actually was. At that point, I fired up another Android app that had a U.S. Topo map built-in, and fortunately, it was working. It showed my actual position relative to where the Topo map said the trail should be. I was a damn half mile off the trail.
So, I pointed myself on a course to intercept the trail. Now, the brush was even thicker, including sand live oak and worst of all, saw palmetto. If you think of Saw Palmetto only in its processed form as a cure for benign prostatic hyperplasia, let me take the opportunity to familiarize you with the plant itself. “Saw” is the operative word. The stem for each low-lying frond is lined on both sides with sharp saw teeth, which cut up one’s legs if one is stupid enough to not wear long pants while bushwhacking through them. What’s that? I was wearing shorts? Yeah. I’m a moron.
When palmettos grow wild, they form dense clusters that are hell to get through. What’s worse is that their “trunks” generally lie on the ground or just below it, so as to create a tripping hazard to accompany the flesh-ripping saw teeth. Even if you bushwhack very carefully, you’re bound to get snagged a few times each hundred feet or so. It’s slow, painful going, particularly for a moron in shorts.
As well as being a source for the herbal remedy of the same name, the saw palmetto serves as as food source for several animal species due to its proliferation of fruit. Hey, bears love to eat the palmetto fruit. They crap out the seeds in huge piles, disseminating them to create new palmettos. I guess that’s why you never hear bears complaining about prostate problems. But I digress. Palmetto proliferation is what I’m talking about.
I figured that I had to get through at least a half mile of dense palmetto scrub to get back to the trail, and bushwhacking through that stuff is not only a bloody affair, but tiring as hell. At one point, I stepped into a depression and lost my balance, falling forward. Hell, I thought, this was a great place for a lay-down to regain some energy and I was already on the ground, so why not. I rested there for a few minutes until I had enough of the mosquitoes, and I pressed on. After two hours, looking for an opening to the northwest to get to the trail and not finding one, I was still bushwhacking somewhat south of the trail and parallel to it.
Boy, was I getting tired in the damn 92 degree heat. I was conserving my water, because who knows how long I would be out there. I had my Sig 239 strapped to my hip just in case I needed to put me out of my misery. But I’m a stubborn old coot, and I felt that I needed to just quit my whining and press on. I also needed to conserve my phone’s battery, just in case I needed the phone in the likely event of an emergency. This meant that I had to enable emergency mode, which would shut down my navigation app among other things. Now I had to employ celestial navigation in its simplest form — heading toward the setting sun.
Having started the hike around 1 pm, I had reached the 3.75 mile mark at around 3 pm, a leisurely pace. Now, the pace was a helluva lot slower. At 4:40, it was time for another lay-down. I found a bare patch of ground, surrounded by saw palmettos and scrub oak and I plopped my weary ass down. I disabled the phone’s emergency mode so I could look at my Topo app, on which I observed that I should have been close to the trail — yet the trail was nowhere to be seen. Was my smart phone lying to me or was it just being stupid?
I stayed down for a good 15 minutes until I felt I had enough strength to move on. The prospect of having my already bloodied and painful legs beaten to a pulp by the dense brush with its hidden leg saws was daunting, but what choice did I have? I got up and chose a direction that looked good on the Topo map app.
Eureka! I found it!
Bingo! Holy crap, I chose the right direction. My lay-down spot turned out to have been about 50 feet from the trail, but the vegetation was so dense that I could not see the bright, white sand trail from there. However, now, there I was, looking at a river of white sand through yet another dense thicket of scratchy, dastardly bushes. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! A little more pain and I’d be in the clear.
I made it through the crap and to the trail. Hallelujah! I was almost glad to be welcomed by the committee of deer flies buzzing my ears — aw hell, I was glad! But by my measurement, I was still about 3.5 miles from my car. At least I could get to the shelter for a pit stop, but the shelter was about an hour away.
I had no choice. I pressed on, the thought of the shelter giving me purpose and hope. The shelter has no amenities, just a couple of plywood platforms on which one can throw a sleeping bag, but it would be great to lie on something other than dirt, the hot tin roof shielding this sun-drenched cat from Old Mr. Sol for a change.
The going was easy but I was slowed a bit by my weariness. I kept hoping that the shelter would be right around the next bend. Something landed under my bearded chin and stung me. “Screw you, asshole!” I barked as I swatted at the annoying little flying piece of shit. Onward.
Finally, the shelter was in sight. I sucked down the rest of my water on the way there — yeah, warm water never tasted so good — and I had a snack of cheese and crackers once I got there and plopped my weary ass down on one of the plywood platforms. Then, I reclined.
After a nice lay-down, I left the shelter at about 6:15. One easy mile to go. It went pretty fast, but I was a mess. Soaking wet with sweat, bloodied from combat with unrelenting plants, itchy from bug bites and stings, and beginning to cramp up, I arrived at my car.
Back to Civilization
Having been alone in the woods all afternoon, getting back to civilization was somewhat of a shock. Coping with slow drivers who wanted to keep me from that much needed shower tried my patience. I flipped a few birds at the most annoying ones. Sometimes I prefer deer flies, mosquitos, chiggers, and wasps to people.
The aftermath involves some pretty painful legs and lots of assorted itchy insect bites collaborating to ensure that I didn’t sleep much last night and probably will repeat the same crappy experience tonight.
To coin a phrase that AS hates, “Those things that don’t kill us make us stronger.”
This one could have gone either way.
Epilogue: Lessons Learned
I made a few mistakes on the way to getting stronger; indeed, some of them could have gotten me killed. I got lucky. I can learn from this experience so I don’t repeat it anytime soon. Here are some of the lessons:
- Unless I’m absolutely certain that I’ll be sticking to a wide, non-overgrown trail, wear long pants. I’ve got a few pairs of convertible pants that become shorts if you unzip the leg part. Why the hell I didn’t think of using them, which I usually do, I can’t say.
- If I’m wearing shorts, I won’t leave the trail unless the going is open and easy. This sounds a whole lot like the first bullet point, but I’m trying to convince myself not to do this again!
- If I don’t have my handheld GPS receiver, I won’t leave the trail unless I’m certain that the phone apps are properly working and that I have sufficient battery charge to use them for an extended period without compromising the phone’s primary purpose.
Now that I got all that off my chest, I’ll get back to writing that Rutgers preview.