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Had the opportunity to do a seven night trip on the River-to-River Trail, starting in Elizabethtown and heading west, getting eventually as far as Fern Clyffe. We did the trail during our spring break week, from March 7th to the 15th. Tried to thru-hike the whole thing in eight days with a friend, but the lack of trail clearing and seasonal requirements in clothing/sleeping gear made the twenty mile days needed all but impossible. Many sections of the trail were poorly marked, and this made wrong turns common enough to be a nuisance. We had to get out our GPS or map out at many turns; the time lost in completing this task was incalculable. Despite these setbacks, we had a great time, traveling some ninety miles in eight days, eventually meeting up with a couple common friends for the last two days of the trip.
We experienced relatively dry weather, with rain only three days of our eight-day walk. We carried rair gear and waterproof stuff-sacks for our sleeping bags though, because we knew water crossings might be a problem, especially so given the sometimes steep canyons of the Shawnee Hills and accompanying Oak-Hickory forests. Buds were breaking all around us, and most of the ground looked like a faint, bright green net had been cast over it. The stuff-sacks gave us a margin of safety when we were required to build our route across a severely swollen stream, as knowing our gear would stay dry no matter what the pack did was a great comfort. Still, the crossing went without a hitch, and we got past the obstacle which held us back by a night. We didn’t have river shoes, or waders, and though I had my Keens, the temp of the water and the force of it and the air temp were not in concert with each other, or something to that effect, and my friend agreed with me to “lay up,” as they say in the golf world (I think).
Had enough luck to spend four of our eight nights in caves or overhangs, sleeping on leaves and pads under the night sky. Insects were absent, including ticks. We ate like kings, as far as I’m concerned, and we both packed a bit too much food, which is generally not a problem. I thought the Probars were the finest trail food I had ever eaten; the Superfood Slam is perhaps the tastiest concoction I’ve ever eaten, ever, in food-dom. That said, I made my own meals from scratch whenever possible, to keep packaging and waste down, buying in bulk and measuring things out. I ended up putting waaaay to much couscous per serving in each bag, and had to dump maybe eight to ten ounces of couscous each night, our bellies filled beyond comfort. We knew that with the mileage we were making, we would process the extra food all the same.
When temps got down to the low 30’s and high 20’s, and I felt comfortably warm in my 40ºF REI Kilo Flash bag with Patagonia Cap 3’s underneath an R4 Jacket and generic polypro pants. I wore up to two pairs of wool socks each night, with an over-the-ear synthetic hat, warm and thick. I also could be seen donning light, knit synthetic gloves on the coldest nights. I was never cold. With the R2 fleece on, the bag's fit was noticeably looser, with more room to turn around inside the bag. I was always able to roll around inside the bag, actually, without me or the bag falling off the pad, no matter what layering system I used. I’m 165lbs, 6’1”. The bag in long length fit me perfectly; with a bit of wiggle room around the legs and an upper-torso fit that allowed the movement of my hands from my chest to my side but not much else, the Flash is a very thermally efficient bag. With 60% of its down of the top, the Flash works well with me, as I’m a side-sleeper, often curling up into a fetal-like position by morning. This distribution of down ensured a warm back if the bag happened to move with me in the night. No pillow, just whichever fleece I wasn’t wearing tucked under my head.
Going back to the hiking side, we were considerably slowed by my friend’s choice of water filter. I offered my First Need XL filer with nearly-new cartridge to use, but I said since he’d be the one carrying it, he could make the decision which filter use: mine or his MSR Miniworks EX. He took his, and twelve miles out, when we want water for the first time, we realize his filter’s cartridge is shot, because it takes him twenty minutes to filter half a liter of water. Well, we quickly realized that it would take hours to fill our entire water supply, and we soon relegated ourselves to one water stop a day. Even that, however, became an exercise in futility, as that session took an hour and barely yielded a liter. By necessity, then, we had to boil water every night in camp, followed by cooling it in the river, before dumping it into our respective Nalgenes and Camelbacks.
So, given these restrictions, we traveled an average of eleven miles a day, though on the first two days we averaged much higher, as we were sill hoping for greatness that first Saturday and Sunday. When we ended our first day at 16+ miles, in a little under seven hours of walking, we felt good but knew our late (10:30am) start had really started us off on the wrong foot, so to speak. The next day, another late start all but sealed our fate, as the water filter issue began to take its toll. By lunch we had agreed to take it easy and not worry about finishing, a decision which turned out a good one. We came across so many other obstacles that a twenty mile day could not happen without some kind of night hiking. I think that with a clear trail, clear markings, and warmer weather (so as to cut pack weight), eight, if not seven, days can be a real goal for the entire RTRT.
I think late summer will see me trying the trail again, this time walking from the Mississippi to the Ohio, with a tarp/bivy setup, water treatment tablets instead of the filter, and an esbit stove to replace my canister. I can also dump my full-length foamy for my torso-length inflatable, and just bring a single pair of trail-runners. These changes should reduce my weight from 18lbs “dry” as configured for my last trip to around 11lbs, thus reducing my maximum “wet” weight from 38lbs to 31lbs, and making the trip exponentially easier.
Golite Infinity 3000 cu in backpack
REI Kilo Flash sleeping bag, long
3/8in. black foam full-length sleeping pad
MSR Missing Link tent
Sea-to Summit E-vent compression sacks, small and X-small
Sea-to-Summit Garbage Sack
Marmot Exum Jacket, small
Sierra Designs Waterproof/breathable pant, medium
Few small kitchen trash bags for rain covers
Patagonia Capilene 3 shirt and pants, medium
Patagonia R2 Fleece, medium
Patagonia R4 Fleece, medium
Home-made first aid kit (duct tape, super glue, few band-aids, 100,000 or so of them new band-aid blister patches, thread, couple needles, couple alcohol pads)
Ka-Bar Eagle II, blacked-out
Generic polypro pants
REI UL Carbon Poles
3pr. socks: 2 wool, 1 synthetic
Forgot-the-name lightweight pair of North Face pants
Lowa Banff boots with SOLE ultras
One Princeton single-LED light on a Petzl head strap
Some dryer lint and some Paper Birch bark
50mL eye-dropper filled with Peppermint Dr. Broners
25mL eye-dropper filled with hand sanitizer gel
Camelback Omega reservoir w/neoprene hose insulation
Vargo Jet-ti stove w/4 8oz. MSR Iso-Pro cartridges (2 per person)--Mine
Primus Eta-power 1L pot with lid, waterproof matches, bandana, and stuff sack (stove, 8oz. canister nest inside)--Mine
MSR Blacklight 1.2/1.5L pots—Friends
Garmin 60Csx GPS—Mine
MSR Miniworks EX--Friends
“Southern Illinois River to River Trail Pocket Guide” by John Voights (www.rivertorivertrailguide.com) --Mine