Monday, October 29, 2012

Backpacking in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve

It was a Halloween-themed backpacking weekend, complete with Franky, Ghost and Jack lanterns!

How did the Kickapoo get its name? Well I have my theories, which I conjured up in my mind as I hiked Saturday and Sunday along some really awesome regularly and recently used equestrian trails. There were many a’ poo I nearly kicked. But after getting home and doing a couple of simple Google searches, I learned that the Kickapoo is really the name of an Indian Tribe (which was my second guess). Kickapoo actually means “stands here and there” or “wanderer.” I like that. I like everything about the name – and everything about the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. What a wonderful place to spend outside. And it’s got a really interesting history. 

A super-quick history lesson by Robin: Because of some major clear-cutting lumber work done on the land in the late 1800’s, the water tables got all goofed up, causing too much runoff and some pretty major flooding, so in the 1960’s, several families were forced to move out of the valley because they were going to dam it all up and make a giant, man-made lake to help with the flooding issue and create some recreational opportunities. In fact, one of the businesses we stopped at was going to have lakefront property and be a yacht club. But the early 1970’s brought on the environmental movement, and they didn’t think it would have the positive benefits they originally thought, so the project was abandoned half-way in. There’s still half of a dam built, and it sounds like some local residents are still kinda’ ticked off about the whole situation. I don’t know how it would’ve been as a giant lake, but for now, it remains a beautiful valley of trees, trail, the Kickapoo River and some really cool bluffs and overlooks. And that business we visited? It’s a really cool bar/restaurant that invites in hikers and horse riders (the trail goes right by it!) and it also rents out canoes and river equipment... instead of yachts. Now that’s some cool stuff right there.

If the dam had been finished, we'd be lookin' at a big lake here instead of trees, hills and farmland.

This backpacking trip was another Fox Cities Backpacking Meetup trip, and one of my bestest backpacking buddies, Randall, was the organizer. He did a great job bringing all 10 of us to a new place, and the route he planned for us was really fun with some spectacular views. We started out on Friday night meeting at a cart-in campsite at the Wildcat Mountain State Park. We arrived during daylight, which is always nice, and we started off the weekend with a Halloween-themed camp. Randall brought along a few glowing lanterns for ambience, and later passed around some banana-liqueur-soaked gummy tarantulas. They were scary-looking for sure, but tasted pretty good! One of the Friday night highlights was a unique, random flyover. We had about 3 GIANT planes fly over our camp – I mean RIGHT over our camp. RIGHT over the treetops. It was super-loud and super-awesome. We all stared up into the sky and followed them out of site. I have no idea what kind of planes they were, but I was so excited that I exclaimed, “Hey! I can’t believe those flanes just plew over like that!” Sigh... yeah, that was the beginning of my oral-ambidextrousness during the weekend. All in all, we enjoyed a nice fire and slept in warm sleeping bags at night as the temps dipped down to 22°F.

Gummy tarantulas! Scary!

The next morning we woke up, ate breakfast and packed up camp. Rachel was first to don her Halloween costume. Returning from the bathrooms, she came up the trail towards camp dressed like a bee! We later learned that Darth Vader also enjoys backpacking – although sleeping out in the cold leaves a chilly layer of frost on his helmet. We also had a prison inmate amongst our group, but he was a pretty cool guy, so it was cool with us. I went as a two-part costume. I wanted to find something easy and not too expensive, so I safety-pinned about 50 mini Snickers bars to myself and went as “Bear bait” or, as a few of our Meetup members would refer to as a “Snicker Locker.” My costume lasted about an hour on the trail before I stopped and unpinned the remaining Snickers that hadn’t already fallen off and/or been eaten. It didn’t look like the hikers behind me minded as I dropped them along the way!

Costume: Bear bait/Snicker Locker

Saturday morning, after shuttling cars, we hit the trail for a little over 8 miles. We hiked some nice rolling hills, through woods; down into a little river valley with a snaking creek and bluffs on either side, then through some farmland, and then the trail went right past the Rockton bar. Well, why not stop in for a quick drink!? We all enjoyed a drink of choice, then head back out on the trail, past a line of “parked” horses (riders were having lunch in the bar – what a great idea!), and then continued towards camp. We hiked past some gorgeous fields of seeding wild grasses that glowed in the sunlight, and back into some hilly forest until we came out onto a dirt road where our campsite was located.

I was a ball of energy, and I’m not really sure where it all came from. Maybe it was the jelly beans; maybe it was the crisp fall air. But I cruised up the giant hill next to our camp and sat on giant tree for quite a while as I looked down on our camp and everyone milling about getting tents set up, starting a fire, and chit-chatting about this and that. It was a nice moment. Then I got another burst of energy and started to collect some big downed branches for firewood and had fun dragging it down the hill with me. I felt like a plow through the crisp leaves, using the steep decline to give me some momentum. Fun!

Pretty-colored pheasant feathers

After that, with still a little left in me, I explored the area around our camp. There was constantly-flowing water well at our camp that created a small stream, so I followed that for a while until I came across an area where local pheasant hunters decided to clean their birds. We saw a couple of live pheasants on this trip, which was pretty cool – they are beautiful birds. Even though the butchering area I stumbled upon was kinda’ nasty, I did enjoy getting some pictures of their pretty feathers close-up. The colors are just amazing. Then it was back to camp for hot drinks, dinners, more Halloween-themed fun (Randall broke out the temporary tattoos!) and an appropriately haunting nearly-full moon. I picked up a kid’s activity booklet for Smokey Bear at the Visitor’s Center on Friday, so I pulled that out while sitting around the fire, and as I read, I discovered the truth to his name... finally! I’ll get to that later. But for the evening, we again had a great fire, Mad Libs, fun conversation, laughs and more hot drinks until we all crashed into our tents and the warmth of our sleeping bags. This weather was getting COLD!!

Halloween-style full moon. Can you spot the food bags hanging in the tree?

On Sunday morning, I woke up at about 5AM with the urge to pee. I hate getting up to pee when it’s so cold outside – it’s so hard to get out of the cozy warmth of that sleeping bag! I tried to ignore it, and was successful for about 45 minutes, but had to finally give in. I strapped on my headlamp and found myself enclosed in a beautiful dome of diamonds. No, I wasn’t dreaming. We had a nice, decent layer of sparkly frost covering the entire inside of our tent. It was definitely cold! We later found out that the temps dipped down to 14°F overnight! Awesome! Even more awesome that I slept nice and warm all night! Yay!

Anyway, I found my booties and put them on, crawled out of the tent and took my walk. It was still pitch black out, but it was really nice. It was completely silent, and the stars were super-bright against a deep, black sky. That explained why it was so cold! Everything in the forest had a sparkly layer of frost on it, just like the inside of our tent -- every blade of grass, every edge of bark on the trees and every fallen leaf. It was pretty amazing. But... not amazing enough to keep me from crawling back into my warm sleeping bag for another hour!

Bear rope stash bag all frosty.

After I got up again we had breakfast around the fire. I tried something new, and that was fun – and successful. I mixed an instant packet of Jell-O vanilla pudding in a bottle with 2 cups of water and a scoop of protein powder. It was tasty and nutritious! I’ll be doing that again for sure. I also had a packet of oatmeal, a latte and wouldn’t ya’ know it... a couple pieces of bacon fell from the bacon tree right above us and landed right next to me! That was a nice treat... it had been taunting us since all the low-hanging bacon had already been scavenged.

Packing up the cold, frosty tent was a serious reminder of winter. Snowballs of frost fell out as I stuffed the cold nylon into the stuff sack with quickly numbing fingers. After the job was done, I ran over to the fire to rewarm them and continue with the morning chores. It didn’t take long before we were all packed up and ready to hit the trail again.

Things got really interesting right away Sunday morning. Just a little ways down the trail was a stream. Our trail crossed that stream. The outside temp at the time was a chilly 35°F, and the river water was even colder. And there were not any places for a dry cross – no downed trees to balance over, no rocks to hop across on... just a wide, low, running river. And it was wide enough that there was no chance of jumping across. We had one choice. Wade. Boots came off, pant legs were rolled up, and we all followed one another across through the chilly water. The water was definitely a bit shockingly cold, but the killer was the sinking mud on the other side. Our feet would sink down into the mud just over our ankles as we quickly crawled ashore. By the time I sat down I could not feel a single toe. I took a towel to them to wash the mud off, and it may as well have been someone else’s foot altogether! I could not feel a thing! Once I got the mud off I pulled out my booties and put them on to try to get at least a little feeling back in my toes before putting my socks back on. That worked pretty well. 

One of the trip's highlights was having to wade through a freezing cold creek and up a muddy bank! Awesome, but cold!

I like to think I’m invincible, but admittedly, I am not. I think my nemesis is cold feet, and walking through that freezing cold river gave me flashbacks from my childhood. Whenever I went ice fishing with my parents, they knew to bring along at least one set of extra boots, socks and snow pants, because EVERY SINGLE TIME, I would step in an ice-fishing hole up to my hip. Every time we went. At least once per trip... right up until my feet were a little too big to get in the hole. Then I just tripped over them and fell onto my face. I don’t know what it is with me and ice fishing holes. I am happy to say I’ve gotten less clumsy over the years and haven’t stepped in one in a long, long time. But how much do you want to bet now that I said that here, it’ll happen this year!? That’s the way it goes! Hah!

Anyway... so once I got my feet dried, cleaned and a little bit of feeling worked back into them, I strapped on my shoes and hit the trail hard. Thankfully there was a hill right away. My feet warmed right back up and felt normal within 10-15 minutes. Ahhh, yes.

Fun scrambling rock bluff.

The trail came to a neat overlook that had a rock that jutted out over the forest, and it was perfect for climbing on. A few of us scrambled to the top and snapped some photos, and then we hit the trail once again until we reached another amazing lookout over the Kickapoo Valley. We ate lunch there, and I discovered that I really love cereal for second breakfast! I mixed my powdered milk with cold water and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and really enjoyed that. It was a sunny spot, too, so the break felt great, and it was warm! The next stretch was back out to the visitor’s center where the cars were parked and the hike was over. We all met up at the Rockton bar for burgers and drinks before heading our separate ways back home.

And, as promised, back to Smokey Bear – to top off such a great weekend, I was really excited to come home with the story behind the famous Bear’s true name. This has been a conversation that has come up quite a bit on past trips – in fact; it was quite the conversation on a Pictured Rocks trip a few years ago when a group of guys were actually conducting a survey to see what other people thought because they couldn’t stop arguing as to which one was correct.

So, what is his true name? Is it “Smokey Bear” or “Smokey THE Bear?”

It’s amazing what you can learn from a children’s activity booklet! His real name is just “Smokey Bear,” and the confusion came in when they added the word “the” as his middle name – get this – because they needed an extra syllable for the “Smokey The Bear” song! There ya’ have it folks. That’s the story! It was a serious revelation for us backpakin’ folk. For reals.

Here it is in writing! It's a big deal!

“Hey, I just ate pizza grass.”
This trip was awesome. Bacon trees and pizza grass. What else could you really ask for?

No comments: