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River to River Trail

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.

Gear, personal:

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

Diary w/pencil

3pr. socks: 2 wool, 1 synthetic

Forgot-the-name lightweight pair of North Face pants

Lowa Banff boots with SOLE ultras

Keen Newports

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

Other stuff

Community Gear:

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 ( --Mine

Reading your trip report it sounds like you had a great time down in the Shawnee Hills.

What sort of trees grew down in southernmost Illinois? Here in southeast Ohio we have tulip trees, virginia and white pines, various oaks and maples and paw paw.

I do alot of hiking/backpacking here in the Wayne National Forest.

We've got a great mosaic of Oak-Hickory forests being replaced with Maple-Beech forests, because of the lack of fire on the landscape. We also have the ubiquitous paw-paw, and there's a local movement to get a local variety of bamboo, Giant Cane, planted as streamside vegetation, as it was 100's of years ago, before European settlement.

One thing I do love about hiking is looking at the different kinds of trees that are in the surrounding forest.

Here in southeast Ohio we have what is called the Appalachian Forest type.

Southern Ill. is unique because of the variety of ecosystems found in such a small footprint. This is largely due to the size and continuity of the Shawnee National Forest System. One can find 150 different tree species within a given 25 acre square in some parts of the forest; the fauna which accompany these flora are equally diverse. Wild Turkey thrive in these woods, as do bobcat, coyote, beaver, salamanders, and all kind of frog and reptile (over 30 snakes are native to Illinois). Of course, deer are a major problem, but with any luck, we'll be releasing some mountain lions into the shawnee hills somtime soon (hehe).

Seriously, though, this land is spectacular, and the trail is worth the time.

Sounds like you had a good time despite the water filter, those things happen and you have to just roll with the punches sometimes. As far as finding your way I have found it helps to just paint a blaze on my sunglasses. This cuts way down on time spent trying to find my way.

I would say if you can get your pack weight down to 31 lbs. for a 7 day trip that is doing pretty good. How do you like your GoLite pack?

The pack fits my 19.5" torso perfectly; it has a thinly padded wasitbelt and equally-thinly padded shoulder straps which work well, distributing load while keeping weight down. I wore it through a few briar patches and sandstone canyons, and it's held up great--just a few small scrapes here and there. I'd recommend the pack to anyone looking for a lightweight, fairly durable pack.

June 22, 2021
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