26 August 2007

Excellent Results from Lizard and Fat Man Cave

DAY 5 (24 August 2007) Last day of August 2007 Fieldwork on the North Rim

After the sun slowly rose, Kyle and I did also. We didn’t have much on the agenda for today, so the work was going to be light. We needed to pull traps and temperature sensors from Lizard Cave, collect the ANABAT detector from Lizard Cave, and then travel across the rolling grassland to Fat Man Cave to collect water and bacteria samples in hopes that they would contain tardigrades. I will submit a lab blog in coming weeks regarding our success in our search for cave-dwelling water bears.

While we were having breakfast, I saw a deer approaching the water tank. We were camped near a corral and water tank maintained by local ranchers. This deer was most impressive and was a strapping eight point buck. He cautiously approached, stopping every few steps and looked towards us, once he determined we were not a threat, he walked to the water’s edge. This gave me ample time to capture several photos of him. As goes the luck of photography, only one of these photos came out, which is the one featured here.

After breakfast, we broke camp and headed for Lizard Cave. Upon arriving there, the “cave guardian,” our friend the crevice lizard was perched on the ledge above the entrance. After greeting our old friend, we twisted, crawled and pulled our way into the cave. Much as we expected, Lizard Cave was the antithesis of DryBone Cave. Most of our traps were replete with arthropods. However, the most abundant critter trapped was the cave cricket.

On both trips to this cave, we observed crickets mating. This picture depicts two individuals reproducing.

As I was processing the contents of each trap, I continued to note the large amount of guano deposited by the crickets within the trap. While there is evidence of past porcupine activity in the dark zone, packrat activity in the entrance, and infrequent bat use, cave crickets are fueling this entire ecosystem. They are the primary nutrient input into this cave. They bring in nutrients from the outside environment via guano, and the nymphs (baby crickets) provide food for carabid beetles and spiders. I also suspect the guano provides food for psocopertan, who in turn, are a food resource for pseudoscorpions. Upon our forth visit to this cave, the web of life here is slowly becoming more apparent.

From this cave, we trapped and/or collected, cave crickets, beetles (at least three species), Psocopterans, and possible two spider species. From our work to date in northern Arizona, this cave is by far one of the most biodiverse. Perhaps if more diverse is Fat Man Cave – our next stop of the day.

Upon completion of our work at Lizard Cave, we hiked back to the trucks and began our drive to Fat Man Cave. The roads up here are marginal at best. These roads are all dirt, infrequently maintained and quite bumpy. Consequently, it can take a long time to get to where you are going. It took us over an hour to drive 30 miles to Fat Man Cave.

Fat Man Cave involves a nuisance drop of about 20 feet, which requires the use of a cable ladder to gain access. Kyle is in the process of securing an anchor line to ‘bineer our ladder onto.

While standing at the entrance, I observed owl pellets on the ground. Owl use at caves is quite common in this region. While we cannot ascertain exactly what species of owl left behind this pellet, we do have confirmation that an owl was here.

Fat Man Cave is a large cave system characterized by a 300 foot crawl from your hands and knees to a full belly crawl before it opens up into walkable passage. Once you reach this point, it was about 60 feet further before you reach several sulfur rich pools. Beyond the pools, there’s about 900 feet of walkable passage. This is a large and neat cave.

But today we are going no further than the sulfur rich pools. Navigating the crawl will be a lot of fun. This cave floods substantially during the late summer due to monsoon rains, so we expected to get muddy. Once we arrive at the pools, we will collect bacteria and water samples in hopes that we’ll collect tardigrades as well. We have to be careful in this area because we don’t have our gas meter today. The sulfur levels can get high, and this can be dangerous. We will not be spending much time at the pools, so Kyle and I both agreed this was an acceptable calculated risk.

This cave is also one of three caves to contain our new cave-limited millipede genus. Once we reached the walkable passage, Kyle found these two millipedes caught in the reproductive act. This is the first photo documenting reproduction of this new millipede genus. You can find more information about the new millipede genus by going to my Media page on my website.

After the long belly and hands and knees crawl we reached the sulfur pools. I collected several vials of bacteria and water in hopes of finding tardigrades. Tardigrades or “water bears” as they are commonly known occur anywhere there is water. They can withstand being chilled for days at -200°C; can be subjected to ~ 570,000 rads of x-ray radiation (1000-2000 rads can be fatal to a human); it’s suggested they can survive in the vacuum of space, and can withstand up to 6000 atmospheres pressure ( ~6x the pressure of water in the deepest ocean trench); and, can survive extended periods of dehydration (I read a report indicating a piece of 120 year old moss from a museum collection was hydrated, and tardigrades were observed within – they successfully recovered after +100 yr of dormancy!). All of the factors combined make this organism one of the, if not the, most extremophillic organism on the planet. While this is somewhat outside the purview of my dissertation research, cave-adapted Tardigrades interest me greatly from a Mars analogue perspective.

I’m collecting water and bacteria samples using a pipit. We’re collecting four vials of bacteria and water. I’m extracting as much bacteria as possible using the pipit. Because tardigrades are known to feed on bacteria, this is the most promising area to sample for water bears.

As we were leaving the sulfur pools, Kyle observed a spiders walking across the floor. It had pale legs and a pale cephlathorax and abdomen. Note the light color and lack of any markings of this individual in the image. I realized at once this was our best candidate to date for a cave-adapted spider in northwestern Arizona. We collected this first individual and then continued to search the sulfur pool room and the room adjacent to the sulfur pools. We saw several spiders, but collected only four more. I will be sending these spiders, as well as the others collected during this work to my friend and colleague Dr. Pierre Paquin. He is a North American spider expert, and specializes in cave dwelling spiders.

We then began our crawl to the entrance. This trip did not go off without a hitch – at least not for me. As I arrived at the entrance, and I was so ready to climb out, hop in the truck and head back to Flagstaff, I stood up quickly and banged my head against a large boulder. This was done perhaps as hard as one could possibly hit their head against a rock. The impact was such that it put me on my butt and the rim of the helmet cut the bridge of my nose. Yes indeed, this did not feel very good. Not to mention, when one does this, it really makes you feel smart. In addition to being humbled by the cave, it also showed me that I was not paying as much attention as I should have been. This is the lesson that I took with me out of the cave.

I am normally incredibly vigilant while working in caves. I pay attention to my foot and hand placement, and always look at where I’m going and thinking “is this rock/ boulder stable enough for me to climb over or under. Caves are very dangerous, and one dumb move could lead to an early checkout time. Fortunately, the helmet buffered my otherwise hard head from direct contact with that boulder – I was even more fortunate the big boulder chose to stay put after I crashed into it.

DryBone Cave was Bone Dry, Yet Other Interesting Things Were Afoot

DAY 4 (23 August 2007)

I spent last night in a hotel in St. George, UT. Kyle returned home to get in some quality time with his wife and kids. Whenever one is out in the field, one always looks forward to a quite nice hot shower. While I was only in the field for a few days, the pleasure derived from a hot shower was not even slightly diminished.

We returned to the field by around lunchtime. Our tasks for today were to collect traps from DryBone Cave and deploy the ANABAT detector at Lizard Cave. These tasks were accomplished in short order.

Unfortunately, DryBone Cave was indeed dry as a bone faunistically. We did not observe one arthropod around our traps prior to pulling them, and of the 12 traps deployed for a period of four days, we captured only eight cave cricket nymphs. We did not capture or observe any adults. We did not collect any specimens from this cave because nymphs cannot be identified to species. We need adults to for identifications – preferably males.

What we did learn from this exercise is: (1) my hunch about not finding any arthropods was correct – so perhaps I’m developing an ability to somewhat interpret the ecology before actually sampling, and (2) removing traps from caves without critters takes no time at all!

Having completed task one and with plenty of time left in the day, we decided to explore this cave a little. There have been several significant prehistoric artifacts collected from this cave by Kyle and an archaeologist. One complete pot and a basket were among the artifacts collected. While exploring this cave, we also discovered another basket. This basket will be removed at a later date by the archaeologist and stored in a climate-controlled facility to insure curation in perpetuity.

I'm not certain exactly what this is -- if anything. The possible digging stick may have been intentionally placed within this elongated chamber to signify some sort of fertility totem. Or...it may mean absolutely nothing. As with many things found in archaeology, this is completely open to interpretation.

In a small room I initially identified as a possible bear den. We later determined it was either a bobcat or fox den. The image provided here shows the scat of a small predator. Note the hair within the scat.

Once our work at DryBone was complete we left for Lizard Cave. We deployed the ANABAT detector, and then headed to the camp site for the night.

While I was getting ready to turn in for the evening and do some reading, Kyle wandered off to a cattle tank about 100 meters from camp. He decided to search for salamanders along its banks. He returned with a rather odd looking critter known as a Triops and commonly known as tadpole shrimp or shield shrimp. Thanks to my good buddy, Justin Henningsen, for identifying the Triops for me.

22 August 2007

A Coyote Bowl without Millipedes

Day 3 (21 August 2007)

This day in the field got off to a slow start. First thing this morning, we went to DryBone Cave to retrieve the Anabat detector. We already surveyed all caves on our list located at the higher elevations of the monument (DryBone, Lizard and Rattlesnake Caves), and now we have to wait until Thursday and Friday to retrieve our traps.

We wanted to optimize our time in the field and decided to sample one additional cave further north. We had a few options for our forth sample cave of this trip. After a lengthy discussion last night, we decided to visit and sample a cave that contained year round dripping water, and periodically flooded bringing detritus into the cave. This is one of the only caves in northern Arizona that contain year round water. Because caves are nutrient starved environments and we know the combination of water and nutrients input into a cave can result in higher biodiversity, this seemed like an appropriate candidate. Also, from our knowledge of two caves that contain cave-limited millipedes, this cave had the added benefit of being an excellent candidate to search for millipedes.

It took about an hour and a half to drive across the monument on unimproved dirt roads to reach this cave, a cave we are now calling “Coyote Bowl Cave.” We assigned this cave this synonym because of what happened upon our approach to this cave. Once we arrived at the entrance, we observed, one, then two coyotes bolt from the cave entrance and disappear into the hills of rolling sagebrush. After following them with our eyes, our gaze returned to the cave entrance and we saw a third coyote. The third one was rather reluctant to leave. He/she was perched upon a rock with its hair standing up on its back and its ears lowered. We were about 20 feet from the coyote, and I didn’t think it was going to attack. This coyote was smaller than the other two, and we think it may have been a pup. However, it was possible there were two females and one male using this cave. If this was the case, perhaps there were pups within the cave.

This mummified pallid bat was found between the entrance and the second room of CoyoteBowl. Photo Credit: Kyle Voyles.

We searched the entrance and two small passages near the cave entrance, which I thought may contain pups if they existed. One of these passages likely contained a porcupine. There was a strong smell of porcupine within the entire entrance and it became stronger as I went into one passage. There was fresh scat leading to where it narrowed to about porcupine width. The passage was too narrow for me to proceed. It would have been great to have a shot of a porcupine within a cave, but this wasn’t going to happen today. The other passage I searched yielded no pups. This does not mean there were no pups in this cave -- it means were unable to locate them. Perhaps the coyotes were “pup-less” and simply did not want to leave their den, or maybe the third coyote exhibited defensive behavior because it felt cornered.

Upon pondering this, I realized deploying traps in this cave would be a nightmare. Regardless whether they have pups in this cave, or if its used as a den site, this cave contains year-round water. Consequently, the coyotes would be back. It takes between three to four hours to deploy traps within a cave. I suggested to Kyle that it was quite likely we’d go through all the trouble to deploy traps only to return to find our traps uprooted by coyotes. Coyote Bowl Photo Credit: Kyle Voyles.

We decided to evaluate the cave and decide whether we should deploy traps. We explored throughout this cave looking for evidence of coyotes. We found several large holes apparently dug by coyotes. We also found one drip pool within gypsum that was dug out so the coyotes could access the water. Based on this observation, we decided we weren’t going to trap in this cave -- at least not on this trip. When we do decide to trap this cave, we’re going to need to camp out in front of it for the four day window to prevent the coyotes from using it during the trapping period.

A yet to be identified caterpillar found within the cave entrance of Coyote Bowl Cave. Note the porcupine quill and the possible owl down feature also within the frame. Photo credit: Kyle Voyles.

This cave is dissolation gypsum and likely limestone. It has two plunge holes at the back of the cave where the water goes when this cave floods.

We did take note of at least three beetle, one psocopteran, one collembolan and a moth species. It is near impossible to identify arthropods to species visually. Thus, this very general information is of limited value. It is informative in that this information aided us in deciding we would future sampling.

Interestingly, we did not observe any millipedes within this cave. There were large detritus banks with fungi decomposing the detritus. This is a similar habitat to the two nearby caves supporting millipedes. Why are there millipedes in these two other caves, but not in Coyote Bowl? Is Coyote Bowl too wet? Does the cave flood with such intensity that the millipedes would be scoured from the cave? I also noticed that cows were heavily using the area surrounding this cave. There was considerable dung littered upon the surface. It may also be possible that the high input of nitrogen into this cave was too much for the millipedes, and they were extirpated from this cave due to the high nutrient input. These are some of the questions we hope to address in future research.

This image was taken several years ago from one of the north rim caves containing the cave-limited millipede. Photo credit: Kyle Voyles.

Rattlesnakes, Lizards and Cave Bugs, Oh My!

Day 2 (20 August 2007)

Last night was incredibly peaceful up on the North Rim. Our camp is located at around 5500ft elevation in the pinyon-juniper woodland, and last night it became quite chilly. I’m not sure exactly how cold it was last night, but I’d say it was in the 50s. Once I had finally settled in, the silence was broken around 0430hr by a pack of coyotes howling and yipping in the distance. There’s perhaps nothing better on this planet than being serenaded by a pack of coyotes in the American Southwest.

At around 0700hr, it was time to get up, make breakfast, break camp and get ready for another day underground. Once all this was accomplished, we headed for our next stop -- Lizard Cave. As I was standing above this downsloping cork-screw narrow entrance, I did my best John Rhys-Davies impression and stated, “Hasps, very dangerous – you go first.” No more than two seconds later, we heard a rattler. I was unable to see him, so I could not identify him to species. He was wedged in a small rocky crag beyond my sight, but near the cave entrance. We decided to give him a few minutes before we entered the cave. I figured because we had disturbed him, he would likely move on. After about five minutes had passed, I decided I would climb down into the cave. Rattlesnakes tend to rattle first and bite later – especially, if they are given the opportunity to do so. I chose to give him plenty of opportunity.

Also, on the ledge above the cave entrance was a large and “ferocious” crevice lizard. This lizard is the namesake for this cave name synonym that were using to describe this cave. As I approached this cave entrance a second time, he started doing “lizard pushups” and flicking his head toward me. This behavior is done to intimidate other male lizards. Presumably, they do this to warn other crevice lizards they are entering their territory. I guess he did this to me to let me know I was on his turf.

After my brief encounter with the big boss of this cave, I tossed a few rocks into the entrance to see if our other cave entrance-dwelling reptile had chosen to move on. Upon hearing nothing, I decided to it was now safe to venture into the darkness.

Once underground, I hollered at Kyle it was okay to enter. Kyle then crawled into the cave and we were ready to begin a day of searching for and trapping invertebrates. Today was quite successful as compared to yesterday. However, we both knew it would be. Lizard Cave is home to one of our new discoveries – it contains a large colony of a new genus of cave cricket.

Crickets can be vitally important to cave ecosystems. They transport nutrients, via guano into the cave environment. Their presence can often fuel and entire subterranean ecosystem.

A female spider and egg sac. This specimen was not collected. It is difficult to identify invertebrates unless you have an adult male. This spider belongs to the family Theridiidae -- the same family as black widow spiders.

Because of this, we are hopeful our research at Lizard Cave will contribute to the discovery of additional new species. At nearly every sampling station we surveyed, we found and collected invertebrates. This included spiders, pseudoscoprions, psocopterans, crickets and beetles. In general, caves are nutrient starved environments, and we always collect specimens judiciously. Our research goals are to identify the invertebrate communities in an attempt to protect these ecosystems. So, we are very cautious not to over collect invertebrates.

After about five hours at Lizard Cave, it was time survey our next cave – Rattlesnake Cave. Rattlesnake cave was known to contain rattlesnakes, and today was no different. As we were standing at the entrance, we heard a rattler sound. Once again, we remained topside for a few minutes to deliberate our next move. We ultimately decided to go into the cave, and I went first. We took the same approach as at Lizard Cave – we passed our gear down and then Voyles entered. At once, I realized this would not be a good candidate for our research. The cave had no dark zone, and was lit up by several small holes leading to the surface.

Because we were there, we decided to fill out several survey forms and look around for signs of animal life. As I was scanning the rock floor, my eyes were drawn to a large boulder – atop this boulder was a neatly coiled western rattlesnake. We both removed our cameras from the bag and began to slowly approach the snake. The snake at once retreated, but before he did, he gave us a warning with his rattle. This snake was about five feet in length and was a remarkably beautiful animal. I felt quite blessed to encounter this magnificent creature underground.

After our apparent last rattlesnake encounter for the day, we hiked back to the vehicle. We had one more stop to make. We were going to Drybone Cave. We had observed bat activity at Drybone the day before, and we were going to deploy an ultrasonic bat detector (aka ANABAT) that would run overnight. After this was accomplished, we headed back to our campsite to make camp. It was another great day in Grand Canyon country.

My Return to Grand Canyon North Rim

Day 1 Cave Ecological Inventory Greater Grand Canyon Region (19 August 2007)

These entries were written while in the field and will be entered when I have internet access.

I am currently in the field in one of the most remote National Monuments in Arizona. I am sitting in my tent as my colleague snores in his tent about 10 feet from me (once I have completed this entry, I plan to move my tent).

My plan will be to blog nightly from my tent. The moths have been incredibly around our lantern and cook stove. So, although I’d prefer to blog underneath the star-filled sky, if I were sitting outside my tent, I would get nothing done for I’d be dealing with the incessant swarming and buzzing of kamikaze moths.

This week I’ll be working with one of my best friends and thunderous snorer, Kyle Voyles. Kyle and I have worked out here for the past three years, and have identified over 10 new species and two new genera of cave-dwelling arthropods in the early stages of our research in northern Arizona.

Our work out here began with more of a curiosity -- “To what extent are tiger salamanders using caves in northern Arizona?” In the Spring of 2005, Kyle, the late Dr. John Prather and myself came up here to collect data to gain insights into this question. This worked ballooned into cave-dwelling faunal inventory. Today, Kyle and I are continuing this very important work. Virtually nothing is known about the cave ecology in Arizona, and we are working to change this.

Day one in the field was marred by numerous kinks and bumps. This seems to always be the case for one’s first day in the field. First, while in St. George, UT and in the process of loading Kyle’s truck, we realized we had a flat. After spending an hour trying to find an open garage (the town of St. George is almost completed shutdown on a Sunday) we were unsuccessful. Realizing time was ticking and we needed to leave for the field, Kyle started searching for another field vehicle that he could take and about another hour passed. By the time we left St. George, it was well after 1200hr.

We headed south, and after almost being ran off the road by a speeding red utility truck, we arrived at our first study cave by 1400hr.

We were well aware our first cave would take a while to sample. Kyle and I had met for breakfast early this AM to finalize our methods for sampling cave-dwelling invertebrates. So, given this, we realized this would need a little tweaking for nothing applies perfectly from the office to the field. The first cave of the project will serve as our “test case.”

Geologically, DryBone Cave is characterized by dissolution gypsum with a limestone cap rock. The gypsum was dissolved by water and the limestone ultimately subsided into the void creating a jumbled labyrinth of breakdown including monolithic-sized boulders strewn throughout the cave. This made the job of applying our sampling techniques that much more challenging.

Pitfall trap: two cups placed within one another. Holes are punched in the bottom of the inside cup and the peanut butter is placed within the lower cup.

Given the dryness of this cave, I speculated we would not find many invertebrates. I was correct. After spending approximately three hours in this cave, and applying time-constrained searches at seven sampling stations, we did not encounter one invertebrate – not even a cave cricket. It is possible we will encounter collembolans and perhaps psocopterans within our baited pitfall traps. This will be determined on Thursday.

We believe the packrat activity may be paleontological in origin, for we did not observe any recent packrat activity. We observed extensive packrat activity throughout this cave. This was evidenced by pack rat midden throughout the entrance, twilight and dark zone and nearly a complete carpet of packrat scat on the cave floor. We also noted amber rat (crystallized and fossilized mixture of urine, scat and plant material) along many of the walls and floor well within the cave’s dark zone. We also noticed some porcupine scat within the cave’s dark zone. But perhaps most exciting was this cave was used by bear. From a fossilized carnivore scat collected several months ago by Kyle, NAU Paleontologist Dr. Jim Mead identified a specimen as “bear.” As I was chimneying down a stretch of vertical passage I noticed a small room below me and thought “if I were a bear, I would definitely catch a long winter’s nap there.” Sure enough upon closer inspection, I noticed a lot of large carnivore scat. While I do not know conclusively whether it was bear, it certainly looked like it. We plan to collect some additional specimens for identification.

Also noted was contemporary used by macrofauna. Owl pellets and feathers were found within both the entrance and dark zone. We also documented a light but apparently consistent distribution of bat guano throughout the twilight and light zone of the cave. Based on the appearance of the guano – most of the guano appeared to be Townshend’s big-eared bat. We will have further insights on this once we analyze the Anabat data. In addition to guano, we found three Myotis spp. bats roosting within this cave.

Our invertebrate traps will remain in situ for the next four days. However, I don’t expect our efforts in this cave will bear fruit, or bugs – for that matter. Now, I’m going to move my tent away from Kyle’s…

04 August 2007

A Competitive Chi

Today, I ran my best race in my three year career of trail running races, duathalons and quadrathalons. I ran the Machine Solutions Annual 10k race held on Soldier's Trail, Fort Tuthill, Flagstaff. Although I didn't bask in the glory of taking the podium on this fine day, it was a transcendental experience nonetheless. While a 10K may pail in comparison to the grueling 17mi run up and over Imogene Pass, CO (completed in 2005), or the 43mi Mt. Taylor Quadrathlon, NM (completed the past two years), my performance in this little race supersedes my performance to date. Last year, I ran this same course and finished in ~58:00 minutes. Today, I finished in 47:38. I shaved almost 10 minutes off last year’s time!

Most likely, my improved performance was due to a strong and consistent training regimen, and my ever evolving and improving HP Yoga practice. I’m now logging upwards of around 60 miles per week running and biking, and practicing Yoga daily. Perhaps these are indeed the reasons, but I'm wondering if it was something else.

I ran a purely competitive race today. This is the first time I’ve done this. Sure, I’ve marked someone on the trail and thought, “I’m going to pass that person.” But today, I ran my race and it felt as if I was playing a game of chess.

During the race, I recalled an article I read in Men's Health, "When you need to kick your own ass" (July/August 2007: 141). Point four indicated competitiveness brings out the best in athletes. While I completed disagreed with the notion of "making an enemy," on the trail as the article suggested, I did take to heart the notion of competitiveness -- in its purest sense. So, today in the middle of a race, I decided to give this a try.

Once the crowd thinned out and each runner fell into his/her rhythm, I decided once I passed someone, they were going to stay behind me. In the past, I would indiscriminately pass people during a race, and at some point down the trail, they would pass me and leave me in the dust. However, today, before I passed someone I decided in my mind that if I was going to drop that person, they were going to stay dropped. It worked!

I realize competitiveness may not always sync with Chi. But I do believe Chi and competitiveness can co-exist in an athlete. The ability to maintain a “competitive chi” resides within. Today, I embraced a competitive spirit in a pure and healthy sense without attaching any negative attributes to it. I maintained my usual positive attitude throughout the race; and as always, I maintained respect for all beings around me.

Thus, I believe as long as one’s competitiveness does not interfere with promoting positive thoughts and actions, and one's competitiveness does not negatively affect other beings, one’s Chi is intact.

So, was today's performance related to my training regimen, my Yoga practice, or a competitive chi? I don't know. I do know a little competitive spirit doesn't hurt.

Top Image: 2007 Machine Solutions 10K Trail Run (04 August 2007), Courtesy Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association

Bottom Image: Race photo, Gaspin' in the Aspen Duathalon, Flagstaff Nordic Center (October 2006)

01 August 2007

The Indiana Wood

As a trail runner, I'm rather addicted to getting into the backcountry for a good long run. When I'm out of town on travel, I'm always looking for opportunities to get into the backcounty and appease my trail running appetite. Once you've done this long enough, the body craves the endorphins, and you must heed your body's call.

Last week, I presented at the National Speoleological Society's Annual Convention in Marengo, Indiana. On Wednesday, once I was near brain dead from an afternoon of talks and after presenting on the Earth-Mars cave detection work, I was ready for a trail run.

After chatting with the kind folks at the Convention help desk, I decided upon the Harrison-Crawford State Forest. Established in 1932 largely to provide hunting opportunities for Indianans, this state forest encompasses ~26,000 acres. It was quite convenient because it was about 20 miles west of Corydon -- the little town where I was sojourning while attending the conference.

My plan was to get in an eight miler for that day. And this is where my fun began. I should point out, this state forest touts that it contains hundreds of miles of horse trails. Knowing this, I took pains to study the map before my departure (first mistake - leaving the map behind). I knew the Blue River was to my south and that State Route 62 flanks the river and it actually abuts the river at several points. I also knew the road where I had parked my car was to the west, and several miles to my south lay the Ohio River.

I left the car around 5:45 pm, and started out on the trail. After about three hours out on the trail, and winding up on the horse trails half a dozen times, I realized I was nowhere near the end of my run. To add insult to injury, at around 8:15pm, I realized I had completed one large loop around a large hill.

At this point, I realized I was either going to spend the night in the woods, or I was going to shoot the river to pick up HWY 62 and from there I'd take the road to the car. Well, about this time I was feeling a lot like Gilligan. A eight mile trail run had taken a turn. However, the entire time out there, I knew I was going to have a hot meal, a hot shower and a warm bed that night. I double-checked my pack -- I had my first aid kit, four energy gels, and a bag of trail mix.

I decided to shoot the river. At first, I gingerly removed my shoes and socks, crossed the river to get on the side that abutted the road. However, about five minutes into this I realized, I was going to get wet -- really wet. I was trying to stay on one side of the river, which proved quite treacherous in shorts. I was having to climb up slippery mud banks, traverse steep undercut banks, and wade through still pools up to my chest. I realized I was simply burning too much fuel with this approach. So, I changed my plan of attack, and essentially weaved back and forth across the river seeking out the gentlest lying banks to traverse.

This state forest is simply gorgeous. It's largely large diameter deciduous trees with a thick understory along the Blue River. On my run, I saw several coveys of turkey - I believe I saw at least 50 while out there. Also, I kept hearing something large moving through the forest, which I thought at first were black bears. It turns out these were gray squirrels that were as large as a fox! They were so noisy moving through the woods, that I was actually able to confirm their presence based on the way they moved through the woods.

As I was criss-crossing the Blue River and traversing the river banks, I found stinging nettles. Boy, these plants can surely light you up. These delightful little plants not only leaves nettles in you, but it rips your skin as you moved through them. At one point, my legs felt like they were on fire, and I tried to rub mud on them thinking this may dislodge some of the nettles. This didn't help much. So, I kept going. Later in my trek, I was blasting through the stinging nettle patches, and didn't think twice. At this point, I think my adrenalin was pumped and I was amped out on energy gels.

As I was walking along and swimming the river, I kept seeing what I thought were headlights. At first, I got a little excited. Then, I realized they were fire flies. "Those little tricksters!," I thought.

But it kept getting darker, and I knew I didn't have much time left. If I didn't reach the road soon, I was spending the night in the forest. So onward I went, and the darker it became. At about 9:15pm, I finally saw headlights splash onto the river. I knew immediately "these ain't fire flies!" I was about 500 feet from the road. I was elated. I knew I was going to have that hot meal, hot shower and warm bed!

Once I reached a point where I could see the guard rail, I scouted the area in the dusk. I spotted a ravine where I chose to climb up. At this point, it was almost completely dark, but I felt I was home free.

I reached State Route 62, and then returned to my run. I ran about two more miles down the road, and feeling like I couldn't eat anymore Cliff gels for additional juice, I chose to start hiking.
I was about a mile from the car, when an Indiana DNR (Department of Natural Resources) law enforcement officer spotted me. He stopped and said "red car?" I replied that it was mine. He then asked if I was alright, and if I wanted a ride back to my car.

I told him, "I'm training for a 30 mile race, and I should say no, but...yes." So, I hopped in his truck and he took me back to my car. I arrived about 9:45pm.

Although I have worked in some of the most remote areas on the planet, this little afternoon trek in the Indiana wood was the closed I've ever been with nature. I found true wildness in southeastern Indiana. I was completely at one with nature. I realized it was me, the woods and the river. No one knew where I was, and if anything happened, it was largely up to me to get myself of that jam. It was truly a remarkable "five hour tour."

As I was doing this, I realized I overlooked some critical logistics and I lacked many critical pieces of gear in my pack. Firstly, all of the mistakes I made I have pledged never make again. I will always tell someone where I'm going, and I will leave a note in the car with my return time. As for gear, I will carry more food, a map and compass, a knife (which is the first time I didn't have one with me), and I have added an emergency blanket to my first aid kit.

I’ve also become reacquainted with the unforgiving nature of the forests of the eastern U.S. The stinging nettles that I trudged through countless times on that day – I had an allergic reaction to these nasty knee-high plants. My legs looked like they went through a cheese grater, and when I got back to the hotel room I realized the contact points where the nettles had entered had swelled up considerable. I popped 50mg of Benedryl and the swelling abated shortly thereafter. As I looked closer at my legs, I realized they were covered in seed ticks, and the next day...I realized I had about 100 chiggers who chose to make my legs their new home! Despite the nettles, the parasites, and my low fuel while on the trail, this was my best trail run ever!

This being said, I'm doubtful this is the apex of my trail running career. So, I'm sure, at some point, I'll have another story to rival this one. Stay tuned...