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...

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