When we woke up on Wednesday morning, the group seemed much more cohesive. I’m not sure whether it was the challenges we had already traversed or the anticipation of what was ahead that helped us to gel as a group, but I was thankful to see more cooperation. We had oatmeal and pop tarts for breakfast, then started to filter and purify water from the stagnant pond.
Just a few minutes later, one of the other adults came back from his own water expedition. Following the same stream bed where I had found water the night before, but going upstream instead of down, he found a couple of deep, clear pools of water each about the size of a kitchen table. A few of us took most of the water bottles and our largest pot to fill up and bring back to camp. It was a stroke of luck that he found it, because the filter had started to clog. The new water supply looked clear enough that we were comfortable just purifying it with tablets, instead of using two different methods.
After all this water drama in the valley, we decided that we needed to modify our plans, because we were worried there would be even less water after we got to the top of Winding Stair Mountain, which was where we planned to camp that night. After deliberation, we decided to curtail the backpacking portion of the trip. To that end, we split into two groups. The first group would go ahead all the way to the van (about eight miles away), and bring it back to a rendezvous point at the location of our first-day water drop. From there we would head to the nearby state park, which had running water and even showers.
We broke camp and let the first group of four start down the trail before the rest of us got rolling. After just a few minutes, when we were going down the hill instead of up, I got nervous and pulled out my GPS to see that we had missed a critical early intersection. Luckily, the leaders were still within earshot and we yelled them back, found the intersection, and headed in the right direction. If we had stayed on the wrong trail without realizing it, we would have been in for a very long detour.
The new trail was uphill almost from the beginning. It was gradual at first, but those who had suffered most the previous day hadn’t fully recovered, and needed lots of stops with plenty of rest. We tried to lighten their packs as much as possible and maintain a steady pace. One signpost along the way had an arrow pointing towards “Deadman Gap,” and we eventually realized that’s where we were heading to climb the mountain. We hoped we wouldn’t meet the same fate as the person it was named after.
I’ve hiked up some steep trails in my life, and I’m of the opinion that it’s impossible to say which has been the hardest, because in the midst of things they all seem the worst, but afterwards they don’t seem as bad. Nevertheless, I’ll say that the trail we took that day is comparable to any of the steepest trails I’ve ever climbed. Adding to that, it was very poorly maintained, so at times we had to wade through a sea of poison ivy. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only one who was affected by it, and only one small patch on my wrist. We certainly learned why it was called “Deadman Gap,” but persevered and eventually all made it to the top of the mountain.
At the top, we found the Talimena Scenic Byway, which is a lightly-travelled road that follows the Winding Stair mountain ridge line. After the climb, most of the people in my group had visibly reached their limit, so we made another executive decision–I took one other person (a junior leader) and we forged ahead without our packs. We thought we would wait at the rendezvous point for the van, and when the lead group came to get us, we would load up and head back to the first road crossing to get everyone else.
Instead, without our loaded packs we made such good time that we caught up with the advance group. Although we were on top of the mountain, we saw more flowing water than we had down in the valley. But the decision had been made, and everyone was ready to be done. We helped carry the packs of the lead group, and eventually made it to the rendezvous, although we did pause for some early season wild blueberries that had ripened along the sunnier parts of the trail. At the rendezvous, with several miles still to go before the car, we decided to send just two people the rest of the way–my hiking companion and the van driver. They were in good shape, and the rest of us could stay with the packs.
While we waited at the panoramic vista, they hiked along the road. Even though it was hotter than on the trail, they hoped that someone passing by would pick them up. They only saw a few vehicles, mostly motorcycles heading in the opposite direction. They deserve a lot of credit for forging on ahead at the end of the day to get to the van and rescue us.
On Thursday, instead of a final day of hiking, we found a state park along the shores of Broken Bow Lake, and enjoyed a relaxing day of swimming and eating all the leftover food. The next day we had a “reward” activity–after the rigors of backpacking, it was a great change of pace to canoe the Mountain Fork river, which featured Class II rapids and a three foot waterfall. I’m proud to say that my canoe was the only one in our group that never tipped over. My partner Gabriel deserves the credit for that, because his good handling helped us out numerous times.
With that, we were ready to head home. On Friday night we camped in the sweltering heat of Texas, at Cooper Lake State Park. The heat motivated us to get going early on Saturday morning.
We had an appointment at the Dallas temple, but instead of wearing our church clothes for the whole drive, we stopped at the Galleria Dallas to change. It’s a luxury mall, and I think that it was a little bit of a culture shock after our time in the wilderness. The temple was wonderful, and everyone liked the buffet we ate at afterwards. I was shocked by the amount of food that some of the boys packed away, including the tallest soft serve ice cream cone of all time. After we finally pried the boys away from the food, we made good time on the way home, and arrived only a few minutes behind schedule.
I was happy to see Elena and Jenny, and they were happy to see me. I think that everyone had similarly joyful reunions with their loved ones. It’s good to go to the woods, but it’s even better to come back. In the end, everyone had a good time for at least part of the trip, even those who had doubts at the beginning. In addition, nobody died or was seriously injured, and we’re all still talking to each other, so it was a successful trip.