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After August's trip to Mississippi Palisades SP, and September's trip to Shawnee National Forest, I knew October would probably be the last and final month I could take a three-season trip.
Living where I do in the Chicago suburbs has two drawbacks:
1.) There is either very little or no printed or published information on backpacking in my home state (and what is available is vague at best and usually inconsistent), and
2.) once I've found a place to go backpacking, it usually requires a two-and-a-half hour drive (at the minimum) to get someplace with even an acre of legitimate "backcountry."
That said, my free time these days is largely spent combing through books, maps, and websites compiling information on all the places I CAN go as a Chicagoan backpacker.
One of those places is Weldon Springs State Park, in Clinton, IL.
It's a two-and-a-half hour drive from my home, and is probably one of the closest possible places I can go backpacking. It sits centrally in the triangle created between Bloomington-Normal, Decatur, and Champaign.
While I can't say WSSP is right in my "backyard," I can say it's the third consecutive time I've been amazed at what I'm able to see in my home state.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
H 55F / L 37F
Sunset @ 6:11PM
After taking the time to make it through Andrew Skurka's gear guide, I went back to my own pack and made some downsizes, upgrades, and substitutions. The old, 78L Kelty Coyote was sold on eBay to afford a new, 50L Mountainsmith Haze. It's a lightweight, frameless top-loader that's all business and none of the weight. Ironically, it cost less to buy a new MS pack than it did to buy the used Kelty. I'll review it down the line, but my first impressions from the first time are nothing but positive.
Still, though...anyone out there legitimately use a daisy chain? Ever?
Ice ax loops? Not for a three-season camper...in the Midwest USA.
And trekking pole loops? Maybe for the car ride down, but that's about it.
The pack came in just under 25 pounds with two days of food and 2.5L water.
It was part of another round of downsizes and substitutions. Long story short, the greatest weight loss came in eliminating redundancies and taking absolutely no more than I needed.
Pulled in around noon, and got my lay of the land. The main park road circles the lake, and all the trails branch off of it like spokes on a wheel. Since the lake is the main draw of this park (for the boating and fishing crowd), it wouldn't be right to visit without stopping by and snapping a photo or two (or several) of it.
And, man, it is postcard-perfect.
Especially when the fall colors are starting to come into swing.
As much as I wanted to take in the sights and enjoy the two-mile trail around it, I was here for the backpacking.
Pulled into the main campground, trying to find the campground host. I was expecting a brick-and-mortar building. Or a wooden one. Or some sort of semi-permanent structure.
Turns out the host resides in an RV.
And keeps hours that rival the most difficult of union employees. Turns out they were only available in the early morning and later evening on Saturdays. Well, I wasn't about to sit around waiting, so I pulled off to find the backpacking trail, and if nothing else, would get an idea of where I could camp for the night.
Finally found the trailhead for the Salt Creek Backpack Trail. It's down the road you take toward the Lone Point Picnic Area.
Threw the pack over my shoulders, assembled the 'ol Z-Poles, and hit the trail.
Passed by 4 primitive sites along the way.
They're closer-in, and allow you a quick walk back to the privy, water pump, and garbage cans available at the picnic area.
The trail is alongside the sledding hill, so take note that while this is an easy trek down and into camp, packing up and coming back up requires a little more effort (and definitely makes a point for bringing trekking poles along).
This trail shares the same area as the Whitetail XC Ski Trail, and gets a little confusing at times. The ski trail makes a large, sloppy, "Figure 8," and bi-sects the backpacking trail. There are no markers, signs, or blazes, so you're on your own. Bring the map along and have your compass with you.
To give you an idea of how many times you have to choose between left and right, here are my pictures from the trail junctions.
Mind you, it's a only a little over a mile hike in.
You get a LOT of seclusion for a little distance, though.
The only people I saw in those two days were:
A.) Two fellas I made friends and split a campsite with, and
B.) Some dude out for his morning jog on Sunday.
Aside from the 15-second breach of our privacy Sunday morning, we'd the place entirely to ourselves the rest that time. The site definitely scores major points as far as privacy is concerned.
Found myself at the end of the ski trail before I made the decision to double-back and figure out which of the turns I made was a wrong decision.
Through intuition and using the compass more than the map, I made my way back onto the backpack trail. When helpful, I'll use my digital camera to photograph landmarks or trail junctions so I can commit the trail to memory and not have to rely navigational tools every time I want to go into or out of camp.
Found the first of the two backpacking sites.
Each sits at the end of the trail alongside the loop that turns you back around and puts you back in the direction of the park.
Although a mile away from most everyone else in the park, it was right off of the trail, and looked more like someone's front lawn than it did a backcountry site.
Didn't help someone decided to have themselves a Pagan ritual, leaving a dozen sticks pointed upward in the ground. I saw "The Blair Witch Project," and I know how that turns out. If for no other reason than avoiding that, this wasn't going to be my site.
Sure, you could SEE Salt Creek from the site, but you couldn't get to it.
Behind the wooden fence at the back was a 10' drop-off. Even when the creek isn't as dry, and 3' higher, you're still seven feet from a water source. Too many feet for me. Hell, I'm only six feet tall.
Kept on the trail and smelled a campfire.
That meant someone else beat me to the site.
I still hadn't been able to check-in with the campground host, and the longer I waited, the closer it became until sunset.
Introduced myself to the guys, Ryan and John, and stayed awhile to talk. I planned this as a solo trip, and while I'm able to make 'em, I'm never one to turn down good company.
Well, what was shooting the breeze turned into a conversation, which turned into an invitation to stay for supper.
Not wanting to be rude, I figured what the hell, and stayed for dinner. If these guys turned out to be crazy rednecks, well, I'd be glad I lightened my pack and could book it out, running.
They sure as heck weren't rednecks, nor were they crazy.
Two really cool, down-to-earth, laidback guys.
They were bushcraftsmen. Bushcrafters? Eh...bushcraft enthusiasts? Well, whatever the title may be, they both had a different approach to camping.
Instead of spending most the day moving, they spent the majority of theirs in camp. They'd been at the site since Friday night, and I'd been the first guy to come across them on the trail.
Enjoyed a homemade stew Ryan cooked in a cast-iron pot above his campfire, held up by a tripod he fashioned himself. It was a beef stew with fresh veggies and with a kick of jalapeno. And when I say "kick," I mean the kind that can make a winning field goal in a Super Bowl game. Holy hell. Tasty, but turned me into my own furnace the rest the afternoon! Also marked the first time in my life I've eaten brussel sprouts. Not bad, and I'm not kidding! Like the fellas told me - it's like a miniature head of cabbage.
Thanks to those guys for sparing me from a weekend of entirely freeze-dried meals and non-perishable snacks. It's amazing what a difference fresh-cooked food makes when it comes to morale.
Liked 'em both enough that I checked to see if they'd mind having me pitch my tent on their site.
They told me ten minutes after I came by, they already made up their minds are were more than willing to let me stay if I wanted. Well, they already paid for the site and deliberately overpaid to help out the park, so I was covered.
Didn't have to spring for dinner.
Didn't have eat my meal from a bag (one of the saddest sights you'll see is a solo backpacker eating this way).
Didn't have to pay for a campsite.
And didn't have to camp alone.
Man, I was lucking out left and right, and was sure as heck grateful for the generosity of some fellow outdoorsmen.
Outdoorsy folks - in my experience - are more consistently the kindest, friendliest, most outgoing folks I'm come across.
So, the site!
It was plenty large enough and offered a lot of flat ground where a tent could sit.
Saw this as an opportunity to learn some things.
They were kind enough to spend the rest the day teaching me bushcraft skills and - without asking - explaining to me what they used, why they used it, and why they liked using it.
These guys had the right idea and were within feet from the banks of the creek - minus the natural high-dive the other site required.
This is the creek.
And yes, this is feet away from the backpacking campsite.
Nice enough a view I've made it the wallpaper on my iPhone. Who'd have thought Illinois would have views like these? Well, we do. If you haven't seen them, come and check them out.
The rest the day was spent talking about ourselves, our gear, and all that. Didn't take much effort at all to get along with these guys, and didn't take much time before we started giving each other $#%^ and poking fun at another. Had a lot of good laughs.
Made good friends with 'em at the creek: Ryan had a Katadyn filter, which was slow, but effective, and John didn't have a filter at all: he packed his in. John dehydrated quickly and easily, and didn't have much water left on him. He carried a large, solid-wall hydration bladder that held at least a gallon.
Ryan's Katadyn wasn't going to fill that anytime soon.
I lent John my Sawyer Squeeze, and he was curious, after seeing how quickly and easily I was able to filter my water.
Well, John gladly took me up on my offer, and managed to fill his bladder halfway-full with my filter in a short amount of time. Ironically, Ryan saw all this, tried it himself, and the first thing he did once he got home? Got online and bought himself a Sawyer Squeeze. I'd like to say I'd make a decent salesman for it, but really, the filter sells itself.
After filtering and filling-up on water, we went out as a group to find some downed trees for firewood.
The temperature was going to plunge somewhere in the mid-30's that night, and we were going to need a large, warm fire to help keep comfortable.
Turns out if you go off the beaten path and know what you're looking for, it isn't too hard to find. We took apart an entire downed tree, carrying it back to the site in several trips, and processing it into kindling and fuel wood. The guys were kind enough to teach me how to use and swing a hatchet and give me some pointers on firemaking skils.
It came in damn handy, because come the next morning, all that remained of our firewood was a chunk the size of my rolled-up Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad.
Once we'd water, and firewood, we had the rest the evening to do whatever we wanted. The fellas laid down and took a nap while I ran back to my car to get my winter coat and a fleece liner for my sleeping bag. While I swapped-out my 40F bag for a 15F, I figured the extra liner wouldn't hurt. Since I'd a lighter pack, anyhow, it would be worth the extra weight to know I could sleep comfortably that night.
It was cold, sure, but it was a nice night. Put on a beanie and some fleece gloves, and I felt fine - hot, even, when sitting by the campfire.
Since we all were night owls, we decided to grab the headlamps and do a night hike. Lucky for John, I always carry a lantern (with 4 AAA's in it), and gave the guy my spare batteries so he could use his headlamp. They made camp after the sun set yesterday, and the poor guy had to go find wood without a headlamp in the rain and pitch dark. Also taught me that I really don't need the added weight and bulk of a lantern.
The night hike was a lot of fun.
We used our headlamps half the time, but went by the light of the full (or near full) moon and just went with the ambient light from that.
Walked along the banks of the creek, because the guys never once found a place to successfully cross it. Since the water level was about three feet lower than it usually is, we thought now would be a good time to find a crossing. Sure enough, heading eastbound, we did. Trouble was, it did require crossing a shallow section of the creek - it was 40F and dropping, and I hadn't a spare pair of shoes to change into (opted to save weight by not bringing camp shoes). Said "no thanks," and the guys came back from the other side of the creek. Moreover, once crossed, there aren't any places elsewhere to cross back from it.
Got a little more adventurous and decided to hit the trails and venture off them, from time to time. We always found our way back onto the trail, and never got lost. Heard some bats, found some interesting trees, and was cool to actually be stepping out into the true backcountry, there. Since the leaves had started to fall, there wasn't much bushwhacking involved, but it was a neat exercise in night navigation.
Hiked back to the campsite and all of us hung out around the campfire. It was as warm as it was large, and apparently comfortable enough that John decided to take himself a nap lying down next to it.
While John napped, Ryan let me try his hammock and walked me through his survival kit, demonstrating what he carries and how he uses it. Learned a lot and was constantly making mental notes where his experience and gear crossed over with my own (as a lightweight backpacker).
Around 1AM, time caught up to us, and we all headed to our respective shelters to turn in. Glad I brought the fleece liner, and even more glad I brought the 15F sleeping bag: this was the first time my warm-sleeping self actually zipped the mummy 100% up!
I've not a single complaint about this day, and this was probably the first camping trip I've had that went without neither incident nor inclement weather.
Sunday October 20, 2013
Sunrise @ 7:10AM
Eh. Yeah. We slept in. Until past 10:00AM.
Didn't do much the second morning.
Took the remaining kindling in the pile I made and burned it up, making a small fire to warm up and making sure the fire was completely burned-out before we left camp.
The guys and I packed up, and hiked back to the parking lot.
They carried military-grade systems and gear which, while durable, is also considerably heavier than anything I carry. Their packs ranged from 40-60 pounds. Mine was 20.
On that final climb up the hill, those two fellas were breaking a sweat, and taking a breather once they reached the top of the hill.
The lighter pack I had this time came in handy. I didn't break a sweat or run out of breath once. And I'm not gloating, because I've been there before, and have found myself atop a climb where it took me ten minutes to catch my breath.
Big thanks to Ryan and John, whose company and generosity made what could have been a miserable night into a really memorable one.
Lot of laughs, a lot of fun, and two guys I'll definitely be looking-up next time I'm in the area.
And with that, another backpacking trip under my [hip] belt!