Four Days on the Ouachita Trail

I’m back home from a four-day backpacking trip on the Ouachita Trail (and fresh out of the best shower that was ever showered!) This is a trip that took me months to plan and train for and was definitely the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been going on long hikes at least once a week for over three months to condition my body for these four days in the wilderness, and while the training definitely paid off, the hours of hiking, rocky terrain, and changing elevation made this a very intense trip.

Day one, my parents drove me an hour and a half away to my starting point so that I wouldn’t have to leave my car somewhere while I hiked. Here I am, looking clean and human! (It’s no accident that I’m not posting pictures of myself from the end of the hike…)

Let’s start this thing!

The weather was beautiful and my mom hiked with me for about 8.5 miles. My favorite part of day 1 was hiking alongside these gorgeous cascading waterfalls!

Waterfalls!
And more waterfalls!

I also almost stepped on this little guy (snake sighting #1 of 3):

He was not too interested in getting off the trail

I dropped my mom off at an access point where my dad was waiting and backtracked about a mile and a half to one of the trail shelters. I was supposed to meet up with a group of hikers from Oklahoma (a married couple in their early 60s, Paula and Mark, and a single woman named Cheryl) so that we could hike somewhat together over the next few days (safety in numbers and all that), but the other hikers were having some issues on the trail that prevented them from getting all the way to the shelter. So I prepared myself for a night in the woods alone. I wasn’t too bothered about it, really. Trey was the one who didn’t want me in the woods at night alone, but I found it very peaceful. (At first, anyway…)

Here’s the shelter where I stayed. I had it all to myself.

Oak Mountain shelter

And here’s my tent, all set up and cozy.

My little home for four days

I enjoyed reading the log book in the shelter and decided I wanted to add my own post. I noticed all of the other hikers were using trail names. I didn’t have a trail name, so I spent way too long trying to decide how to end my post. I finally signed it as “Bookworm” because even on a backpacking trip where going as lightweight as possible is key, I couldn’t be without some reading material. And reading is kind of what got me into this in the first place. I read several memoirs of thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail and other famous trails and decided I wanted to plan my own adventure. So Bookworm seemed appropriate, and also loosely tied to hiking in my case.

Soon after I turned my light off in my tent and tried to go to sleep, I heard something (or several somethings) prowling around the campsite. It was probably something really normal like raccoons, but I was too scared to stick my head out of the tent and investigate. I did make some noise and yell “Go away!” but they didn’t seem bothered by me in the least. It took me a loooong time to fall asleep. It probably didn’t help that I’d recently been watching survivalist shows and one of the last ones I watched involved some bears stalking a guy while he tried to sleep in his tent. He bailed on his expedition the next morning. And someone on the Ouachita Trail Facebook page had posted a photo of a bear he spotted on the trail only a few days earlier. Quite a bit west of where I was camping, but still. The imagination does unkind things when you’re alone in the dark in a tent with something outside.

But morning came, and I was glad to see that my food bag that I had hung in a tree was still untouched. I had made all of the proper preparations to keep myself and my food as safe as possible.

I was pretty groggy at 5 a.m. from only a few hours of sleep (and no coffee! Waah!) so I mixed up a caffeinated electrolyte drink that tasted sort of like watermelon kool-aid. I had decided before my trip not to bring my camp stove. I didn’t want to deal with the extra weight of the stove and the gas, and I figured I’d be too tired most days to bother cooking anyway. So all of my food was shelf stable: trail mix, beef jerky, dried fruit, tuna packets, pita bread, etc. I decided to start a fire and enjoy breakfast while watching the sun rise. It took me an embarrassingly long time to start a fire (I was glad there was no one there to watch me), but I did finally get it a-blazing. See? Proof! I CAN start a fire.

Why is it so hard to get a dang fire going?

Soon after packing up and leaving the shelter, I was able to connect with the other hikers. We made introductions and since we were all nearly out of water, I showed them a nearby creek I had spotted the day before and we all refilled. I have a filter bottle that I drank out of the whole time, but I also had a couple extra bottles on hand that I would use to collect creek water and then refill my filter bottle from those. That system seemed to work really well (except for the 2nd morning when I had a brief brain failure and drank out of the wrong bottle. I got a good, long swig of creek water before I realized I was drinking from my unfiltered bottle. Thankfully I always try to gather clear, flowing water, so the risk is actually pretty small. But still, it’s a risk I’d rather not take. Giardiasis doesn’t sound fun. But here I am a couple days later with no ill effects, so all’s well that ends well.)

It was pretty clear to me right off the bat that the other hikers were probably going to go at a much slower pace than what I’m comfortable with, so I told them I’d connect with them again soon and forged ahead. Day 2 was full of more beautiful views, and I got my first glimpse of Forked Mountain in the distance.

Forked Mountain. Looking mountainous and forky.

I stopped for lunch at Green Thumb Spring, which is a natural spring that feeds into a pond. And then the upward climb began. There were several steep switchbacks for over a mile. Here’s where I was thankful for the training I had done ahead of time. Once I made it to the top of the ridge, I had about three miles left to get to our designated stopping point. My feet were starting to hurt, and I was looking forward to soaking them in the creek and enjoying some down time to write, take pictures, and read a little before dinner. Right around the time I got to the end point, I started getting texts from the others that Cheryl was having a lot of trouble with dizzy spells and trouble breathing. They weren’t sure she could make it any farther. I wouldn’t have minded too much if we’d had to camp a little farther back than planned, but I knew there was no water between them and the creek, and we would all need to refill that night. So I offered to leave my pack at the creek and come back to help carry Cheryl’s pack the rest of the way. I set my pack down and hiked back almost two miles to the others and took Cheryl’s pack. When we were close to the creek, I pointed out what I thought could be a good campsite. It was fairly level and had a couple of fallen logs we could sit on. (I love staying near the shelters so that I have access to picnic tables and fire rings and a covered space to leave my gear, but there are no shelters in the Flatside Wilderness, so we had to make do.) Mark and I left Paula and Cheryl at the campsite and hiked to the creek to retrieve my pack (I was really thankful no wild animals had torn into it while I was gone), and we collected and filtered water for everyone. We finally made it back to camp at about 7 PM and I was too exhausted to even bother eating much. My Fitbit said I had gotten nearly 40,000 steps and about 16 miles (on very hilly terrain). I set up my tent and collapsed into bed with some reading material. Just as I was about the drift off to sleep, I heard coyotes howling. And they sounded pretty close. They didn’t bother us, though.

On day three, Cheryl and Paula both made arrangements to be picked up from a Ouachita Trail shuttle service at a nearby dirt road crossing. I was sad for them that the trip hadn’t turned out to be what they would have hoped for, but I think they made the right decision to get off the trail. I knew day three was going to be our toughest day yet.

Mark was still committed to finishing the hike, so he and I set off early in the morning to try to beat the heat we knew was coming. Soon after we started, we came across this gorgeous waterfall.

Pretty!

There was an amazing campsite just across the creek with a view of the falls. If I ever hike through this area again, I’m camping here.

Pretty soon we came to Crystal Prong, a major water crossing. The water was deep and flowing at a pretty good rate. I was a little nervous about this one and thankful that I wasn’t alone. Here’s a view upstream and downstream:

Upstream
Downstream

Thankfully, we both crossed without any catastrophes. I was soaked up to my thighs (and that was about the shallowest we could find). And then our Friday climb began. We started out at creek level and would have to gain about 1,000 feet in elevation to get to the top of Flatside Pinnacle. That wouldn’t be too terrible of a challenge if we didn’t have our massively heavy backpacks weighing on us every painful step of the way. We took a few breaks to catch our breath and chat about our families and jobs, and I got to know a little more about Paula and Mark. It was funny to me that this backpacking trip had really been her idea, and Mark wasn’t too enthusiastic in the beginning. But now that he was out on the trail, he was in awe of Arkansas’s beauty.

The beauty really hit a high point when we finally made it to the top of Flatside Pinnacle and were able to look down on the wilderness we had just hiked through over the last couple of days.

We hiked through that!

From there it was just a little over three miles to the next trail shelter, and I was eager to get there because Trey and the kids were hiking in from a nearby access road to spend one night with me on the trail. I couldn’t wait to see them and tell them all about my journey so far. They timed their arrival really well and got to the shelter only about five minutes after Mark and I arrived. We set up tents, took a trip to the creek to fill water bottles, and even spotted a tiny baby deer! We had dinner together and started a fire even though it was a little warm for a fire.

Family is here! And they brought a hammock!
My little backpackers!

The next morning I took time to doctor my feet—I had some painful blisters on my heel and toes. The one on my heel in particular was quite large. I drained it a bit to relieve some of the pressure then applied moleskin, a big band-aid, and three layers of duct tape to cushion it. That seemed to do the trick. It was mildly uncomfortable, but not painful. We all hiked out together and I was able to drop off my heavy backpack in our car so I wouldn’t have to carry it for the final five miles. Brielle came with me and Mark for this last leg of the hike, and without having to carry a heavy backpack, I felt like we were flying down the trail! We still had a really steep section to get up, but it felt so good to only have a small water pack. I didn’t mind the elevation at all. We made great time and met Trey, Cheryl, and Paula at our ending point at 10:30 a.m. and had a little celebration. My hike was over.

I’ve had some friends and family members wonder about certain aspects of backpacking, so I’ll provide a few extra details.

What about hygiene? Well, the short answer is that I got really gross. I did try to maintain some level of cleanliness. I washed up in my tent every night with wet wipes. I used deodorant and brushed my teeth. I used hand sanitizer and biodegradable soap. But there’s just no getting around the fact that I had to go four days without a shower.

What about going to the bathroom? This was my least favorite part of backpacking. When you gotta go, you find a secluded spot off the trail and you go. I carried toilet paper and ziplock bags to stash my trash. I have a new appreciation for indoor plumbing.

What about wild animals? I almost stepped on snakes twice. And if you’ve read this whole post, you know there was something outside my tent on night one. But for the most part, I didn’t worry about animals. I think it’s good to be cautious and aware. It’s good to hang your food bag every night. But animals generally don’t want to come near us any more than we want to come near them.

What if something bad happens in the middle of nowhere? I took as many precautions as I possibly could. I trained well for this trip so that I would be in shape to handle the physical aspect of it. I carried a first-aid kit. I carried pepper spray. I watched videos on wilderness first aid. I had my cell phone and a portable charger and I was constantly checking it to be aware of what spots along the trail had signal in case I needed to call for help at any point. I connected with other hikers and made sure they and my husband knew approximately where I was at all times. I can’t completely remove the risks associated with backpacking, but I can do a lot to make it as safe as possible. And I was comfortable with the precautions I took.

How far did I hike? As far as the OT goes, we covered a little over 30 miles of the trail. But that doesn’t count all of the backtracking, trips to creeks for water fill-ups, explorations off the trail, etc. Fitbit says I did about 50 miles of walking total.

Would I do it again? Yes! But not any time too soon. Ouch.

It was quite an adventure. I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad to be safely home (and clean). Thanks for reading!

–Bookworm

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