After months of research, planning and calibration I spent my first night in Wayne National forest this weekend. When I was up in Portland visiting Doug last year I picked up a used copy of “The Ultimate Hikers Gear Guide,” by Andrew Skura. There is an excellent section where he talks about the various types of outdoor experiences. Backcountry hiking, backcountry camping, and <car> camping. Since 2017, I have been primarily a car camper. It’s been a great deal of fun too. Yet, I have been intrigued by taking another step. Especially in light of my goal to hike the Olympic Mountains in September with Doug.
I’m grateful to Jason Wish, the guys from SBOutDoors, Bryce Newbold and Outdoor Adventures for the videos they have posted on YouTube. These comprise a very important part of my research. As a non-Boy Scout, the education from the documentation they have compiled has been a huge asset. I must, however, return to something Anthony Skura talked about though. He was getting a little coaching when one of his hikes was falling apart. He was told to do “whatever is right for you.” As a man with underdeveloped outdoor skills, and heart disease, reality is definitely a constant reminder for me to “do what is right for me.” The new book that I am reading on my Kindle Paperwhite by Brené Brown, “Braving the Wilderness”, is talking about being your true self a lot right now. One of the things I liked most from my reading at camp the other night was the idea of writing permission slips to ourselves for various things that we might not do normally. This is also consistent with the saying that Anthony Skura mentions. “Hike your own hike.” HYOH. Mantras and ideas sometimes flock together. Maybe it’s indicative of the Universe trying to teach us something. Or our own clouded quests toward growth. I don’t know. But I am giving myself permission to explore hiking. To get lost. To make, hopefully non-lethal, mistakes. To have fun. To be myself outdoors. To hike my own hikes. To create more balance and harmony than darkness and anxiety.
Iron Ridge Campgrounds is a truly wonderful place. Finding it was pretty simple and only a little over a two-hour drive from Columbus. It’s set inside of Wayne National Forest so the tree cover and geological makeup are very pretty. Situated on the very southern border of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, the area reminded me of my trip to Shawnee State Forest last Fall. Nicknamed the “Little Smokies” since the landscape is comprised of large tree dense hills which hold mist in the mornings that hint at what you see in the Smokies proper.
I stayed at site 33 further back in the campgrounds. You drive up and pull off onto a ledge. From there you walk down a stone path to a landing below the road line which hides you from the rest of the area to a large site surrounded by white oaks, with a nice metal fire pit and a picknick table. Dinner was Outdoor Herbivore Pacific Crest Vinaigrette and Good to Go Mexican Quinoa Bowl with some Folgers instant decaf coffee. Both dishes were delicious and something I’d repeat. After putting the food kit away, I started a fire and got out my Kindle. It’s July so the temperatures are a little warm right now. But around 9 ish a cool shift started to happen as the sun began to set. I like to think of this as the microclimate within Wayne National Forest. It felt great as the moon began to rise and stars started to pop out between the gaps in the tree canopy overhead.
At around 11 or so everything was still and the only sounds were of the forest itself, bugs and such, and the crackling of my modest but roaring fire. I noticed that I smelled sort of off, bug spray and sweat, and decided to hoof it up to the shower room to clean up a bit before turning in. Like I said earlier, Iron Ridge is an excellent facility. The restrooms and showers are clean and modern. Pretty luxurious for camping in a forest. I didn’t expect to have that so I didn’t pack a towel or soap. Regardless, the shower felt good and served to wash the grime of the day off of myself. As it was dark and no one was around, I hoofed it back to my campsite in my underwear and sandals then stripped down back at my picknick table and air dried in the cool air while reading more by the firelight.
I didn’t know whether or not there would be trees suitable for a hammock so I brought my Kelty 1 person tent, my Therma Rest bedroll, and my new Big Agnes air mattress. I slept on top of my sleeping bag as it was still a bit warm, albeit comfortable. Taking a gamble with the prediction of rain, I left my rain fly off so I could watch the trees and stars overhead as I slept. I had a great night there and I would definitely come back to this spot again.
Morning came and I rose pretty early so I could start the hike in time to get out before the thunderstorms rolled in. While Iron Ridge does connect to the Lakeshore Trail at Lake Vesuvius via the Whisky Run trail, I only had my site reserved for one night so I packed up and drove the short distance to the trailhead by the dam.
Now came the part where I needed the permission slip. While I am averaging over 50 miles worth of walking and running per week right now. Sometimes with a weight vest. It’s an entirely different experience to strap yourself into a 23 lbs. backpack however and then head out for an 8-mile walk. Once I reached the trail entrance, going clockwise, I remember one moment where I thought “you can turn back.” Instead, I did a little walking meditation and paid attention to what my body was saying. It was telling me that my pack was imbalanced and aggravating my right shoulder. So I stopped. Took the pack off and reconfigured its contents. After that, It was a whole different ballgame.
I was clipping along at about 3.5 mph and enjoying the morning sun and wonderful views from the bottom part of the lake. The rock outcroppings, trees, Lillie pads in the water, flowers wildlife and smells were beautiful. While there was very little elevation gain, yeah, some hills that I’m still feeling in my quads today, the experience made me a trekking pole convert though. They helped me balance. I suspect they also helped with pacing as well. I broke my first pair of poles by using them the wrong way of course. But my new Black Diamond Pro Shock poles were awesome. They also doubled as spider web removers as well.
Toward the north part of the first half of the loop, the lake narrows and you run into more bugs. Still, it was beautiful to be surrounded by trees. Some of the guides and maps I read talked about walking along a road. Which I thought was actually walking on the road. Wrong. It’s just a segment of trail that runs adjacent to a road which you can’t see. That was a nice surprise.
The one thing that sort of went wrong with my packing, which I became aware of the day before while driving… I forgot my boots. Instead, I had my camp sandals on. This was the footwear I bought at REI in 2015 to climb Saddle Mountain with Doug. And while not ideal, they worked in conjunction with my wool socks treated with Permethrin to ward off ticks. That is until I stomped ankle deep into a pool of mud. Once I got over the mental distraction, it was totally fine.
I stopped for a fruit and nut bar and to fish my rain cover out of the main body of the pack to put in the front outside pocket in case the thunder I was hearing turned into a full-on storm. It was pretty though hearing the raindrops hit the leaves above while impacting on the lake surface a little further away. It was, again, just as wonderful as running in the rain. Maybe more.
I came across a family of deer at one point. Heard the deep bellow of frogs. Saw all these beautiful magenta flowers at the water’s edge. Walked beside amazing rock outcroppings that were peppered through the green landscape consistently. As I made my way south toward the end of the trail, I got the elevation gain they talked about. Again, grateful for the trekking poles. Even under shade, it was warm enough that I was happy for the moisture wicking clothes I had on. I was sweaty from balls to skull. Still, I felt dry enough that I wasn’t feeling chafing or uncomfortable. Here’s to Patagonia Quandary Pants, 2UNDR boxer briefs and race running technical shirts.
There was one beautiful rock outcropping about two-thirds of the way through the trail going clockwise, however. This would be a wonderful lunch spot for anyone doing this hike and probably has been. I was not hurried, but I decided to skip this in an effort to avoid any severe turns in the weather.
Once I got to the end, I saw the dam proper. There is this beautiful bridge you walk across back to the parking lot though. It’s just, well, perfect. I am immediately planning on coming back to witness the change of color this fall. Maybe to reflect on the Olympic Mountain trip thinking back to this hike as the moment where I gave myself permission to live a little more freely. Outdoors. With just myself and my thoughts in nature.