Sheltowee Trace: February

For section 2 of the Sheltowee Trace Challenge I drove down on Friday Night. (For the initial section of the trail, click here.) As the first week, the meeting spot was well off the beaten path, several miles down a gravel road to Peter’s Mountain. The Challenge has two teams that are hiking the entire trail in monthly bites and I was walking with Team 2. However, the weather the previous weekend was both snowy and very cold to the point that Team 1’s hike had been cancelled and rescheduled for two weeks later. However, many of that group opted to join Team 2 for the week and our meeting area parking lot was filled upon my arrival at 7 PM. Tent spots were at a premium as well though it was no problem to find a flat spot along the road and sleep in the bed of my truck under the camper shell. By the next morning, the crowd had swelled to 52.

Saturday morning was spitting a little rain, but warm as the large group boarded shuttles for the 45 minute ride on gravel to the starting point. Sleeping in the truck worked out well as packing up was easy and my tent remained dry in the backpack. Eventually we all disgorged at the same parking lot where last month’s hike had ended. It was close to 7:30 when Steve Barbour gathered everyone together for some last minute intel. He spoke of a steep downhill, some curves, creeks, uphills and more. About all I picked up on was that there was a left turn that I really did not want to miss. I wasn’t sure how far it was, but I didn’t want to miss it. With that, the day’s 18.5 mile hike began with the big group quickly stringing out down the trail.

The lead group starts down the trail
The lead group starts down the trail

After a significant, steep descent, a rather impressive bridge and passing by Charit Creek Lodge (a hike-in lodge open during the warmer months) the trail followed Station Camp Creek for several miles. At the confluence with the Big South Fork the trail turned left (the left I needed to remember?) and stayed relatively flat along that river for another few miles. This section near the waterways was a bit sloppy at times and there were a few trees down, but the walking was generally pretty easy. Considering it was mid-February, the weather was pretty good too. Cloudy, but dry with the temperature in the 50s.

Eventually the trail turned left again (the one to remember?) and hopped between a few creek valleys. Lunch was by a pretty little waterfall. A couple hikers stopped to take my picture while I ate. Or perhaps they were taking photos of the falls; hard to tell.

I hiked with Rodney and Denise for a while. Several sections were slick with mud. At one spot, Denise slid in the mud, but caught herself a tree while keeping her rear end mere inches above a large mud puddle. At that point she was locked in; refusing to go all the way down, but unable to get back up. I was close by and was able to hoist her pack, and her along with it, back up.

Chris relaxes at John Muir Overlook
Chris relaxes at John Muir Overlook

A steep climb ended at the John Muir Overlook with impressive views in several directions. Beyond that, the trail stayed relatively level, passing the headwaters of multiple creeks. This stretch seemed extra long to me. I picked up water for the night’s dry camp at what I had hoped would be the last creek crossing, a half mile from the finish. Unfortunately, there were two more creeks and around three more miles to walk. By the time I made it to Divide Road and our stopping point for the night, it was nearly 5 pm. As I was about the fifth person to finish, it was looking like a few folks would be hiking in the dark.

It certainly seemed longer than 18.5 miles. Talking to several hikers with GPS devices, I was told the day’s distance was anywhere from 20.5 to 22 miles; a long day either way.

The camp area was large, flat and comfortable for a big group. Steve and Laura had a fire going and had brought everyone’s “Five Pound Drop.” The “Drop” was an effort in the early months to make packs lighter and the hike easier for hikers. Each person was allowed to leave five pounds of equipment with Steve that would be taken to the Saturday camp spot. On Sunday, the same equipment would be taken to the endpoint of the hike. Some folks “dropped” their tent or sleeping bag. For others it was extra warm clothes for the evening. Steve’s only requirement was that the drop not weigh over five pounds. An unrelated, yet interesting side note: a six pack of beer and a small foldable cooler weighs almost exactly five pounds.

Hikers straggled in throughout the evening. A couple hikers finished around 9:30, after I had gone to bed. That had to be a long day. The rain began around 4 am, but the temperature remained in the 50s. I was able to take advantage of a break in the rain around 6 am to eat breakfast and pack up my camp. Just as I started hiking, still needing a headlamp, the rain restarted, along with lightning. The showers would continue on and off all day.

After an initial downhill, the trail followed an abandoned rail line that had been carved through a steep hillside. After less than a mile though, the trail split off, started following picturesque Rock Creek, and crossed into Kentucky. Unfortunately, the rain had turned the five miles along the creek into a slick, tough to hike mess. In addition, several spots were a bit difficult to follow. Eventually I ended up with Rodney, Denise, Dave and four others as we navigated the segment as a group.

A hard turn near Hemlock Grove Picnic area had the trail following Mark’s Branch. The Trace Notes, a description of the weekend’s hike posted by Steve, mentioned that the trail is in the creek for 100 yards. That was the understatement of the weekend. The trail was in the creek for 100 yards or so, then we waded across the creek maybe a half dozen times, then back in the creek for a while. I was extremely glad that at least the air temperature was warm. I felt like a salmon, fighting my way upstream. While there was no spawning at the end of it, at least in my group, there was the reward of an absolutely spectacular waterfall.

Visual reward for the "swim"
Visual reward for the “swim”

After sloshing up the steep bank and over a few downed trees we popped out at Peter’s Mountain and our vehicles. We weren’t done quite yet however. There were six miles of gravel (Beech Grove) road to cover yet. After a snack, a change to dry socks and leaving my pack in the truck, several of us rode with Steve down the road so we could walk back to our vehicles, covering the miles backwards. The thought was that way we wouldn’t have to wait for a shuttle in the rain at the endpoint.

Knocking out a few road miles
Knocking out a few road miles

I’m typically not big on road walking, but being on dry ground with no pack made for an extremely pleasant stroll. In addition, the rain finally ended and the scenery wasn’t bad at all. I finished the walk a little after 4 pm and headed home with a total of about 60 miles of the Sheltowee Trace behind me. Interested in what happened in March? Click here.