The DNR is reminding campers about firewood policies at all DNR properties:
Enjoy campfires on DNR properties this Memorial Day weekend and throughout the year in a way that will protect forests from the spread of invasive insects.
The 140 known pests and pathogens that affect forests are moved from place to place primarily through the movement of firewood. As a result, DNR has a new firewood management policy. In short, the policy means: “Buy it with a stamp, bring it debarked, burn it all.”
That means you can still bring firewood into a state park, reservoir, state forest or state fish & wildlife area from home if you live in Indiana, as long as you have previously removed the bark from it. Insect larvae live in the sapwood under the bark. (People from surrounding states cannot bring their own firewood because of the federal EAB quarantines.)
You may also bring firewood into DNR properties if:
It has often been said that you should “be careful what you wish for.” If you were the two novice backpackers who volunteered to go hiking with Your Humble Servant this week, that advice goes in spades.
Our adventure of the week was a three-day, end-to-end backpacking trip of the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, located at the point where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia rub shoulders.
Both regular readers of Wildindiana.com know that we have visited Cumberland Gap N.H.P. on a frequent basis in the last few years. As the park is only a five-hour drive from Indianapolis and offers history, 70 miles of great hiking and wonderful facilities, Cumberland Gap is a no-brainer for Hoosiers who enjoy backcountry adventure.
This trip was hatched last fall when frequent co-conspirator Ken and Yours Truly were conducting a hike that has since become known as the Cumberland Death March.
What started out as a simple September two-day adventure became a survival ordeal after temperatures soared into record levels. In spite of the terrible temperature, lack of water, horrific climb and subsequent thunderstorm that came within a few feet of turning us into smoking lumps of carbon, we decided a return spring backpacking trip might be fun.
Our plan was to finally hike the entire 20-mile Ridge Trail, a foot and horse path that runs the length of Cumberland Gap park along the top of the mountain of the same name that served as a substantial barrier to the westward expansion of America in the late 1700’s. As an afterthought, we chose to invite some friends who had expressed a slight interest in undertaking such an adventure.
One of those friends, with only six months lead time to plan, was forced to back out at the last minute due to a conflict. Instead, we got Kevin, who turned out to be a great guy and wonderful hiking companion. Kevin was available due to one of those little downsizing decisions that nowadays make corporate executives seem to resemble pond scum.
He took the whole job-loss thing in stride, while we would have probably driven a rental truck full of manure through the front doors. But I digress…
Fast forward six months to this past Monday and you would see this writer, Ken, Tony and Kevin standing at the Pinnacle Overlook parking lot ready for the challenge. With a second vehicle parked twenty miles east at the trailhead in Ewing, Virginia, we stepped off under china blue skies and leafless trees that offered an open view of the valley a thousand feet below. Life was grand.
Our mental portfolio of adventures can seldom remember such a sublime hiking experience as that first day on the ridge trail. The temperature was perfect for hiking in the lower 60’s and a steady wind provided a bit of refreshment whenever the climbs generated sweat.
It seemed like every few minutes there was another outstanding view that seemed to go on forever, or at least until Georgia. We burned up much digital memory in our cameras as while attempting to capture the impossible.
There were a few tough climbs along the trail, especially the climb out of Lewis Hollow. After much huffing and puffing, we finally climbed back to altitude and enjoyed a relatively easy trek along the ridgeline.
Around noon we stopped at Table Rock, a nice spot for lunch out of the chilly wind. The hour was spent lounging around on the large rock slab and discussing the rest of the poor unfortunate souls in the world who weren’t likewise eating their noon meal in the backcountry.
Your Obedient Servant noshed on our standard trail lunch of foil-pouch tuna and whole-wheat tortillas from a large plastic bag. As the lifetime total of miles under our boots increases, we lean more and more towards dining simplicity rather than extravagant tastes. On the other hand, everything tastes better in the outdoors, especially when you’ve been working hard to reach your lunch spot in the first place.
Lunch finished, we shouldered our packs and staggered back up the trail. Though Ken and I had visited this area last year, apparently the heat had baked our brains and we didn’t realize that table rock was less than a half-mile from our first overnight campsite at Gibson Gap. We staggered into camp around 1 p.m. having done approximately 6 miles.
The campsite at Gibson Gap is located in a slight notch and sits 100 yards above a good flowing spring, a rarity on top of Cumberland Mountain. That night, Kevin and Ken build a large campfire with wood that some kind soul had left behind and we sat around telling stories, poking the fire and taking the occasional nip of snakebite medicine. Each man packed a flask of spirituous beverages in case of attack by reptile and we all made sure to take a preventative draught or two each evening. Cigars were also included on the bill of fare as added protection against mosquitoes and respectable ladies.
The next morning we headed out early under windier but still-clear skies. Our destination was Chadwell Gap near the Hensley Settlement.
As day two progressed, everyone fell into the rhythm of the hike and we often went long periods without conversation. Lunch was held on another large sun-warmed rock that seemed to overlook a good portion of the commonwealth of Virginia. The hiking on this day didn’t involve as many large climbs but did provide numerous elevation changes that quieted everyone as each man sought to conserve strength and continue the grind of up-and-down.
In the early afternoon, after walking along an unseen but heard creek in a tunnel of rhododendrons, we began seeing signs of human habitation such as clearings that were reverting to forest and finally the ruins of old cabins. We had reached the outskirts of the Hensley Settlement.
Here the Ridge Trail makes a right hand turn and sees much more horse traffic.
Before we continue, we feel the urge to rile up horse owners.
It became obvious to all that the amount of trash and trail destruction increases in proportion to horse usage. While we feel that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the backcountry, we would again publicly ask horse riders to refrain from discarding their water bottles, cigarette butts and beer cans along the trail.
Cynically (and sadly), I believe this plea falls on deaf ears. Please prove us wrong.
For the sake of argument, we will admit to not having seen any horse riders pitching Natty Light cans into the wilderness but my counter-argument is that I’ve also never seen a hiker carrying a 12-pack of beer seven miles from the nearest trailhead. As they say, “Do the math.”
The Chadwell Gap campsite was at a high spot on ridge, larger than most anf gave the appearance of having been an open field when the settlement was in operation. With a scraggly collection of trees, tired outhouse and no water nearby, the campsite wasn’t the most desirable in the park. After a quick conference, we agreed to move along to the Martin’s Fork cabin area, approximately half a mile away. At least it was closer to our destination.
Part of our reasoning was a weather system that was reportedly bearing down on the Cumberland. None of us savored the idea of being caught in a bad storm on the high open ground at Chadwell.
Foreshadowing Alert: our fears proved well founded.
We walked another .3 of a mile and then took the .2 mile side trail down into the small valley where the cabin is located. Turning a corner on the steep downhill, we were pleasantly surprised.
In a small clearing framed by rhododendron and hemlock, a picturesque cabin stood guard over a verdant one-acre clearing in the forest that was wrapped by a clear burbling brook. In all, it was a picture of Appalachian paradise. After seven miles of hiking, it was a great place to call an overnight home.
The evening was uneventful as we told more stories, took our standard precautions against snakebite and then turned in under clear skies. One member of the party who happens to own this website enthusiastically stated (repeatedly) that the weather system had blown over and the forecast was wrong.
I was reminded of this prediction around 5 a.m. when the hail started in earnest…for the first time.
It was fortunate that we had picked such a sheltered campsite as I shudder to think about our fate had we stayed at Chadwell. Based on the wind gusts, it seems likely that our tarps would probably have been found somewhere near South Carolina or perhaps Bermuda.
The cabin was a godsend as its meager porch provided a sheltered space to eat breakfast and pack our gear in the rain and gathering gloom. “At least,” I told our rookie hikers, “you get the full-meal-deal. Now you will experience real backpacking in all its glory!”
Judging by the looks I received, it is fortunate that: A) these people were really good friends and B) I was carrying a pistol (legally, of course.)
Actually, I must commend everyone in the expedition as there was no grousing, whining or complaining during the entire day. We all just geared up, hit the trail and slogged onward toward our car and the decadent possibility of dry underwear.
The entire final day was spent hiking in rain, heavy fog and the occasional downpour of misery. As visibility was often less than a dozen feet, I expended my entire arsenal of bad jokes, worse songs and rambling gibberish in an attempt to not surprise any bears as we tromped through the mire. As it was cub season, I didn’t relish the idea of inadvertently getting between mama and her babies.
After one long climb, Kevin and I waited for the other two to catch up when I was startled to see a giant skull staring at me in the fog. I thought that things had finally reached the point where hallucinations had set in when realization struck: I knew where we were!
The apparition was actually a 30-foot rock was that, in the fog, presented a remarkable likeness to a human skull. Even better, I recognized that we just 100 yards from the junction with the Ewing trail that would lead down to our car.
Our original plan was to hike to White Rocks before heading down but the fog made those extra two miles an exercise in futility. In all, nobody seemed especially upset. We could hear clean clothes calling our name.
The 2.5 mile hike down was a nice change from the pulse-pounding climbs and we hiked out of the clouds within the first mile. Once below the clouds, the hike was visually interesting as dozens of springs and small creeks cut across the trail due to the cloudbursts at the peak.
Several times we saw the small orange salamanders endemic to this area lounging around in the middle of the trail. We kept our head down to avoid slipping on the water-slicked rocks but regardless, we would have been equally attentive because accidentally crushing one of the benign little lizards would have ruined the mood.
Finally, after what seemed like a week on the trail, we arrived back at the trailhead in Ewing for a round of handshakes, rest and dry socks.
Overall, the hike remains one of my favorite backpacking destinations. With plenty of challenges and scenery but easy access to the frontcountry and low probability of getting lost, the park is ideal for introducing first-time backpackers to the sport. To our subjective minds, the trail would merit a solid “moderate” rating.
Now that Tony and Kevin are grizzled backpacking veterans, they’re already talking about the next backcountry challenge.
Of course, judging by the looks I got back on the cabin porch, I’m assuming I won’t be invited along.
Talk about putting your money where your mouth is!
The CEO of national retailer Camping World is putting up his own money to keep the Recreational Vehicle Hall of Fame in Elkhart.
Marcus Lemonis has pledged $325,000 out of his pocket if the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) will donate $2.00 from every RVIA certification plaque it uses. He would also like other manufacturers and suppliers to donate $250,000.
The Elkhart Truth newspaper is reporting that the Hall of Fame is about $5 million in debt and in danger of imminent closure.
To finish up on yesterday’s post, once we had extracted ourselves from Squire Boone Caverns, it was time to head down the road to O’Bannon State Park, Indiana’s newest.
The park is surrounded by Harrison-Crawford State Forest and in fact had been state forest land until just a few years ago when the central part of the forest was converted into park land in honor of former governor Frank O’Bannon, who hailed from nearby Corydon.
I had visited the area around 15-20 years ago on my first solo backpacking trip. I was planning on hiking the Adventure Hiking Trail, one of the only (at that time) backpacking long-distance trails in the state.
What I found at the time was an area with little to no recreational facilities and a complex and poorly marked network of trails. I later realized that horse trails and hiking trails were never printed on the same maps but not really marked on the ground. I did stay overnight but gave up and went home after considering the good possibility of getting lost in the remote region.
Now, things are much more developed, the Adventure Hiking Trail has been shortened and there are abundant recreational facilities.
We stayed in the park’s single campground, a large affair ridge top affair that only held a smattering of other campers. As nearly every site was situated adjacent to the side of the hilltop, the entire campground was very breezy and comfortable.
If you ignore the flaming idiot who played his stereo at top volume until well after dinner, it was all very enjoyable.
After dinner, we climbed the firetower, explored a bit and then headed back to camp to catch the final strains of country music wafting at top volume across the countryside.
In the morning, we packed up and headed to Wyandotte Lake, a shallow spring-fed lake and wetland complex near the caves of the same name (all caves in the area are currently indefinitely closed due to the White Nose Fungus epidemic that is killing hibernating bats across the U.S.) We hiked around the lake and then picked our way across a poorly-marked network of trails (including one that I believe was part of the ‘old’ Adventure Hiking Trail) and found Sharpe Spring, the source of the lake.
The spring issues from the base of a cliff and is very large, judging by the good-sized creek that flows away from the several different outlet that form the watercourse. We could only dream that perhaps the stream, with it’s pure water and mid-50-degree water year-round, held a small population of trout.
Unfortunately it was time to head back home after our 24-hour vacation from responsibility and we hit the road, slightly stinky, slightly tired and determined to return again for more explorations.
IF YOU GO:
The good: a wild and scenic area that is abundant with rock formations, springs and caves. There are abundant ‘civilized’ recreational opportunities and plenty of wild land to explore.
The not-so-good: the trails are sometimes a little sketchy in the signage department, especially in Harrison-Crawford State Forest. A good map, compass and GPS would help ease the worry of backcountry hiking in the area. There is also little or no surface water due to the karst topography.
Just in time for March and the coming of spring weather, the DNR’s improved reservation system for camping, cabins, recreation buildings and shelters is now available.
Going to www.Camp.IN.Gov allows customers to select preferred amenities and use an easy-to-read availability calendar and interactive campground maps. Eventually, photographs of campsites will be added.
Making the improvements required a system interruption that started Feb. 8. All of the inventory that would have been listed as open during that period is available now on the site. Labor Day camping inventory will become available via the call center and website at noon on Wednesday, March 2.
The State Park Inns/Lodges, whose www.indianainns.com was not affected by the shutdown, is also available for reservations for rooms and cabins via that website or by calling 1-877-LODGES1 (1-877-563-4371).
Annual entrance passes for state parks can be purchased in person at the gatehouse or offices of state park and reservoir properties during business hours, at the Indiana Government Center South in Indianapolis, or at innsgifts.com.
Indiana resident passes are $36 or $18 for individuals 65 years old or older. Annual passes for vehicles with out-of-state license plates are $46. Normal daily gate fees for residents at most properties are $5 per vehicle. For more information on Indiana State Parks and Reservoirs, see stateparks.IN.gov.
As I sit at my desk endeavoring to write a column, a dry cool breeze is blowing through opened windows and the feeling of fall is definitely in the air. Outside the cloudless blue sky and low humidity promises a cool, crisp evening that would be perfect for sitting around a campfire.
Various topics swirl in my head and are rejected as I inadvertently keep shifting back to recent pleasant evening spend around a bonfire fire with friends. I finally can’t resist the temptation and decide to build my own fire in the backyard after writing chores are finished.
Even though my daughter is almost in High School, I’m sure I can use the old excuse of building the fire “for the kids.” Of course, building a fire to entertain the children is the actual truth if you will allow that one of the kids in question in his middle forties.
There is something undeniably hypnotic about a campfire. It is hard to resist being enraptured by the glowing blue-orange caverns that form among the coals and the mystery of seeing wood transformed from inanimate object into a sinuous, fluid elemental substance.
It is an obvious paradox that I enjoy a nice fire though frequently shunning one while camping, especially on backpacking trips where I consider the rewards not worth the effort. My viewpoint on this topic grows considerably harder and unyielding as I grow older.
It’s not that I hate fires so much as I hate the trouble of putting one together, the constant fiddly maintenance and the duty of making sure it safely dies after business is concluded. There is also that eye-irritating pall of smoke that hangs over public campgrounds every evening, even in summer when the temperatures are still hovering somewhere between uncomfortable and unbelievable.
There are many benefits to running a “cold” camp. First of all, cooking over a wood fire is romantic but tremendously inefficient and troublesome unless it is a particular brand of madness you personally enjoy. This is why liquid-fuel stoves are a required piece of camping gear unless your goal is to spend hours instead of minutes trying to produce edible food.
More importantly, the fire cuts off the happenings of the natural world around you. By sitting quietly in the dark, enjoying your favorite after-dinner camp beverage, you hear and see so much more of what is taking place around your camp. Such things are supposedly one of the main reasons you are camping in the first place and contemplation of the clear, starry roof overhead is alone worth the price of having no fire.
In spite of what I believe are compelling reasons to leave the wood unburned, I must admit that a fire does create a certain atmosphere outdoors that is hard to replace.
A good fire serves as the centerpiece for the camp, the natural place to gather, discuss, cuss, evaluate, consider, ponder and lie. There is a special ebb and flow to conversation that is facilitated by the quiet crackling of burning wood and curling blue smoke. As one thread of discussion dies there is a pause, often filled with small tasks of poking the fire or adding wood, slowly refilling the reservoir of contemplation like rainfall into a parched creek.
As a person who tremendously enjoys the camaraderie of being with a group outdoors, I also find that one of the most relaxing moments of existence is that time spent alone by the fire.
There is no need to exchange thoughts or reason with anyone except that ceaseless voice inside your own mind. Being the sole guardian of the flames seems to be especially effective in soothing the psyche, calming the internal dialog and getting in touch with the deeper philosophies within your own consciousness. Those few moments allow clarity of thought seldom achieved in the noisy world of man.
As you sit alone next to the whitening coals, there is also the immeasurable but undeniable linkage to generations of native people, mountain men, explorers, pioneers, previous hikers and our own ancestors who used fire as a vital tool instead of a modern-world amusement.
In the silence next to the fire ring you are connected with a nearly endless line of people stretching back into the hazy mists of human history. Though the time, place, motivation and circumstances are different, there is a dim genetic memory of likewise staring into the flames and thinking about the world around us.
It is a wonderful, deep, restful feeling. A campfire is one of the few things in the 21st century that instantly connects us with our roots, our ancestors and the land.
I admit that is a pretty good bit of magic for something that can be conjured up with merely a handful of dry twigs and a kitchen match.