5 Days Backpacking the Irish Wilderness

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Well guys, I’m back from spending some time in the Irish Wilderness :D. Last week my supervisor, Big John the Badass, informed me that I would be heading down into the Eleven Point Ranger District to work with an AmeriCorps intern to monitor the wilderness. But because of all the wildland fire activity out west, she was sent out on a hand-line crew, leaving only me. BJ told me that I could stay at a cabin a few miles from the wilderness and from there venture out each day to gather data – we needed 5 days (3 weekdays, 2 weekend days) of monitoring information in the transition and pristine zones to be completed for the Forest Plan. Instead, I offered to backpack – the main trail system in the Irish is 18.6 miles long, and can be completed in a 2 day trek, but I chose to extend my hike as a 5 day trip. BJ gave me a topo map and marked points suggesting where I could camp each night.

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The Irish Wilderness is the largest wilderness area in the state of Missouri, having an area of 16,500 acres. Its history dates back to mid 1800s when an Irish¬† Catholic priest, by name of Father John Joseph Hogan, purchased land deep in the Ozarks to form a colony wherein Irish immigrants could live in peace, away from the stresses and discrimination they endured whilst working on the railroads. Father Hogan left the colony for St. Louis upon request from another parish just before the Civil War began. Missouri was torn, ravaged by Union and Confederate soldiers. Much of the Ozarks became a “no-man’s land”, and when the war finally ended, Father Hogan came back to find that the colony had vanished. The most plausible theory is that the Irish families fled one by one after being raided by both sides during the conflict. But there is no definite proof of this, and to this day there is no clear answer as to what exactly happened to the Irish colony Father Hogan founded. For more information about the colony, I highly recommend reading the book ‘Mystery of the Irish Wilderness: Land and Legend of Father John Joseph Hogan’s Lost Irish Colony in the Ozark Wilderness‘, by Leland and Crystal Payton.

Since that time, the area was logged –¬† most of the trees are less than 50 years old, but you can still find a few older growth trees. Some of the logging roads remain, but only as faint imprints in the land, now shrouded by brush. Thanks to the efforts of the Forest Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the ability of the landscape to ecologically re-stabilise itself back to a woodland environment, the Irish Wilderness has regained much of the natural character that Father Hogan found.

I left Wednesday the 29th of June with my kit sorted. Since this was my first time exploring the Irish Wilderness, and because I did not know how reliable the water sources would be (due to the usual dry summers here), I brought about 3.5 quarts/3.3 litres of water. Even though I packed light, I definitely felt the weight of the water…about 7 lbs of it. Usually I bring no more than 2.5 quarts, and as it turned out, I never needed the extra quart, but it was nice to have as “insurance”, so-to-speak. Pretty much all of the streams had dried up, leaving only the Eleven Point River (on the far side of the wilderness) as well as Bliss and Fiddler Springs as potential water sources on my course.

 

Day 1:

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I arrived a little after noon at Camp Five Pond, the main trail-head for the wilderness. After spending some time studying the map, I hauled on the pack and started my trek. Since I was only monitoring the transition zone that day, I didn’t need to go very far (no more than 3/4 mile from the trail-head). After a short time, I reached the fork where the trail splits off.

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I chose to start on the south loop since that route would take me closer to the water sources. After a quick 1/4 mile of hiking, I picked a spot well off the trail and set up camp. My shelter consisted of a Mil-Tec poncho, a mozzie net and a heavy duty space blanket for a groundsheet. After that there was little else to do except watch the hours slip-by and record the day’s data.

For dinner I had Backpacker’s Pantry Chana Masala, cooked on a new (to me) stove system.

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Now I’m sure most of you guys know about the $10 Chinese Pocket Rocket clone made by Etekcity. It is rather popular, especially as a budget 3 season cooking system. This was my first time trying it out in the field, I am quite happy with it. Not only is the burner adjustable, but the canister fuel burns a bit more efficiently than alcohol. Less fuel is required than you would need with an alcohol stove. Alcohol stoves certainly have their place, but lightweight canister stoves such as this are worth checking out.

After dinner, I hung up my food in a bear bag, 100 yards from camp, just to be on the safe side.

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Black bears are becoming more prevalent in Missouri every year, and it is better to take the proper precautions than to end up losing your food. A bear used to scavenging leftover or littered human food is a dangerous bear, since their behaviour will be altered to associate people with food. And somewhere down the line, they will lose their fear of humans, and that’s where problems between people and bears start.

The first night was cool and the sky clear, giving me a lovely view of the moon and stars, and nearby Barred Owls soothed me into quiescence through the tranquil darkness. This is my newly acquired and current summer sleep system:

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The liner is really made of polyester, not silk and cotton as the label says, but doesn’t matter to me so long as it breathes well and keeps me comfortable. The pad is a Thermarest RidgeRest SoLite (2.8 R-value). It never got below 60 F each night, and I was warm enough in the liner.

 

Day 2:

Early in the morning, probably around 05:00, I awoke to the cries of coyotes howling at the new dawn. A short time later, when the first rays of the rising sun brightened the woodland understory, I noticed that I had a visitor up in the top peak of my mosquito net…

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…a 3 inch Wolf Spider :D. It some coaxing to get her out, but she finally crawled away.

Time for brekkie!

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This is a gorp/trail mix I put together to serve in part as breakfast and as an occasional snack. It consisted of dehydrated apples, sunflower seeds, m&ms, and banana chips. The bulk of the necessary calories comes from the sunflower seeds.

After my morning munch, I packed up and headed back to the trail.

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I planned to hike at least up to Fiddler Spring (where I’m pointing in the pic) and camp in the area, a little over 4 miles away.

I passed by a rather large Blackjack Oak. The trunk diameter was easily 3 ft/91 cm.

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Blackjack Oaks prefer open sun…they don’t grow well in the shade, which is why they are very common in rocky glades. This one has been around for awhile, towering above much of the newer growth.

After losing some altitude and crossing a few dried-up, rocky sections of White’s Creek, I noticed that the forest became much thicker, and the further I went, the thicker it became, until it was practically a jungle, with brush camouflaging much of the trail.

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I am glad I had my staff to help push back the dense undergrowth. The nasty part was negotiating the thorny vines of Carrion-flower and Bullbrier. Makes me wish I had a machete with me. But…..it is a wilderness after all, and thickets like this should be expected. New growth can re-claim a cleared trail very rapidly.

Through the thick undergrowth, I saw what appeared to be a narrow pond to my left.

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It eventually led to a ford where the trail crosses over, and there I stopped to cool-off. With the sun out, the weather felt steamy even though the temperature had cooled from the 90s to the 80s.

It was also a nice place for a break to remove the many ticks I collected from pushing through the undergrowth (with help from the mirror on my sighting compass), and I had time to refill my water supply.

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Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t through the jungle yet. It was just as thick after I crossed the water, and there was a steep ridge yet to climb.

I eventually came to a trail junction…

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…and this was where I got a bit “turned-around”. At first I couldn’t find where White’s Creek Cave was located on the map until later the next day – the lettering was all garbled as if it didn’t print out properly. I figured I was close to Fiddler Spring, but I couldn’t tell for sure. On the map it was portrayed as a spur from the right side of the trail heading south.The main trail appeared to continue to the left, as indicated by the sign, but that wasn’t consistent with the map’s trail route. Straight ahead at the junction, the path faded into the brushy thicket, and I took it to be a user-created trail, which can be deceptive and sometimes lead you to no-where, so I chose to go left. Maybe the spring was somewhere up there?….

I gained elevation, and the climb became steep and treacherous with loose rocks…and I was still not yet out of that confounded jungle. I trudged up and through the undergrowth, plastered with more spider webs across my face and arms than I care to remember. Finally I made it to the top of the ridge, and the jungle finally gave way to a less-clustered woodland. From there, the trail follows the contours of the ridge before dipping down again to White’s Creek and the White’s Creek float-camp spur trail. That climb made me quite hot and sweaty, and I was wishing for rain. But be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it – and I sure got it.

Clouds had gathered, and to the west, I heard the distant rumble of thunder. I didn’t have much time, so I reluctantly pitched camp on the ridge, and the rain came hard and fast. Lightning struck close (2-3 seconds, so around half a mile away) a few times, and I stayed under my shelter. Luckily, I had found a somewhat open area to camp, but I was still nervous, being surrounded by large oaks. However, the downpour of rain meant that I had a chance to refill some water bottles.

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The storm passed after a half hour, and seeing how I wouldn’t make much more progress that day, I remained there and focused on preparing dinner.

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Later in the night, a second thunderstorm rolled in and brought gusts of wind. I stayed mostly dry despite the wind whipping the rain all around, though some of my kit got wet. I did check the weather forecast before I left for this trip, and a “chance for scattered thunderstorms” was predicted. Looking back, I wish I had brought my larger DD tarp instead of the poncho.

 

Day 3:

After brekkie, and still unable to find the blasted Fiddler Spring, I struck camp and headed back down the hill the way I came the previous day. I was sure I missed something. All I knew was that I was somewhere on the main trail, between White’s Creek Cave and the spring…wherever the heck they were. I came back to the junction and decided to turn left onto the path I figured was a user-created route. After a short distance, I found Fiddler Spring. What a fool that made me feel like. But, curiosity drove to me discover where the runoff flowed, and after a short walk following it, I found larger pools of water. Thus, I determined that the”narrow pond” from the day before was in actuality a pool of runoff from the spring, and part of White’s Creek, the main stream in the Irish Wilderness. I took the opportunity to top-off my water bottles, and made my way back to the trail junction, hiking back up that steep, jungle-choked ridge. The cloisters of undergrowth parted, and I continued along the trail that now dipped slightly downward.

After a little while, I found White’s Creek Cave off to my left. I was not expecting to see a cavern that large.

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Here’s a view inside from the entrance:

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On that sauna-like day, the cave’s entrance felt like stepping into an ice box. It seemed to be 20 degrees F cooler, and what surprised me was that it also felt dry. Sure enough, as soon as I stepped away back on the trail, my glasses fogged up :P.

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The cave is closed-off from September 15th to April 30th due to protect the Indiana Bat population that inhabits the cave, an endangered species. I wanted to stay at there for awhile longer and enjoy the cool, dry air, but after lingering for half an hour, I decided it would be better to continue. My goal for the day was to make it to Bliss Spring.

I lost more elevation on the trail and eventually came to the float-camp junction.

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This was towards the lower end of White’s Creek itself, where it feeds into the Eleven Point River 1/4 mile to the southwest.

I saw some more, smaller caves on the other side of the creek.

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There also appeared to be a beaver or two inhabiting the area, as I found 2 partially-gnawed trees.

I crossed the stream again at a ford, and from there, my course led me west and then north, gaining 300 ft of elevation from a broken ridge, outlining Orchard Hollow. From there, the trail turned southwest, following the contours of the bluffs above the Eleven Point.

Here’s a nice view of the famed Eleven Point River, about 1/2 mile from Bliss Spring.

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It is a popular destination for anglers, canoeists, and kayakers. And it was here, where I stopped temporarily for a water break, that I heard and saw the only people during the entire 5 day trip. One was a fisherman passing by in his motorboat, and the other 2 people were somewhere 150 ft or so below me on the far side of the river.

I made it to Bliss Spring earlier than I expected, and I took the opportunity to cool down.

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The water was delightfully cold, and to a sweaty backpacker, delicious. I did not bother filtering the water since I drank straight from the source, rapidly bubbling out of the rocky earth. I can see why the it was given the rather charming name, “Bliss Spring” :). Nearby, there’s a spur trail that leads out of the wilderness area to the Eleven Point, following the spring’s runoff into the river.

Springs such as this can create their own micro-environment for moisture loving plants and mosses. There lots of Watercress, and even some Wild Ginger:

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Whilst exploring the surrounding area, I discovered an old White Oak, clothed in moss.

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This tree isn’t as old as other oaks I’ve seen, but it is certainly among the eldest in this wilderness.

I made camp some 200 yards from the spring, and got the evening’s meal prepped, starting with an appetizer of gluten-free corn tortilla with smoked tuna and watercress :).

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And for the main course…..

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Katmandu Curry with a Peanut Butter desert to top it off :D.

Unfortunately for me, I lost about 40 ft of paracord from attempting to hang my bear bag line from a Dogwood. I could not retrieve it, for the counter-weight I was using (a rock from the trail) had gotten lodged and stuck in one of the crotches of the tree. I did not have any extra cordage I could dedicate as a bear bag line, and after a half hour of fussing with the tree, I gave up. I had no choice but to hang the bag as high up as I could…and this left me with a hard decision to make; to either hang it up near my camp where I could, if need be, guard it, or I could risk stashing it 100 yards away from camp. My main concern was unwillingly attracting a black bear, and if I placed the bag 100 yards out, it would likely be snatched without me there to defend it, leaving me with little food (1 or 2 prepackaged and sealed meals) for the next two days. In the end, I figured it was better to keep the bag close to camp.

And, sure enough, at some point during the night, I heard the noise of some blundering animal approaching my camp. I could not see what animal it was since I chose not to take a head torch, but that didn’t matter to me – something was too close for comfort, and I would defend my food. So I blasted my whistle and shouted at whatever was out there. It was no deer, for the deer in this wilderness see or smell you and run the opposite direction. I doubted it was wild bacon (my terminology for “feral hog/s”), and I didn’t believe it could be a coyote because coyotes, in my experience, prefer to keep a safe distance…unless, of course, if the food was unguarded. Plus, I have never known coyotes to make that much noise moving around – they are part scavenger and part predator, and they tread quietly.

Whatever animal was there did not want to leave, and it took some more bellowing for the creature to depart. Lesson learnt: bring a spare 50 ft cordage. A bear canister is also worth considering for more convenience despite added weight.

 

Day 4:

I awoke in the morning to the yips of nearby coyotes, and thankfully, if that animal in the night was indeed a black bear, it did not return to snatch my food whilst I snoozed. I noticed that the sky had turned into an overcast of stratus clouds, and after a quick breakfast, it began to rain. Not a heavy rain, just a shower, but I was grateful that the rain brought cooler temperatures.

I made my way up another finger of broken ridge, passing a few sinkholes. The forest gradually became more open, with little brush in the understory to obscure my view on either side of the trail. Fortunately for me, this meant less spider webs to deal with, though I did encounter this eight-legged friend, whose large orb web was draped across the path like an invisible net.

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It appears her web location was good enough, for she had caught a large beetle. I took care not to disturb her as I walked around her sticky snare and home.

Further on I came ventured into a grove of Shortleaf Pines, presumably a plantation leftover from the days when the place was logged before it became designated wilderness. As I passed under the pines, I saw a beautiful though deadly mushroom, an Amanita.

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I’m not sure what kind of Amanita it is, nor does it matter, since most (if not all) of that particular genus are either extremely poisonous, or they create psychedelic reactions and hallucinations. Better to leave them alone.

A short while later, just after noon, I came to the Brawley Pond spur, which goes directly north. The rain had ceased, but the remaining overcast told me that the rain was not yet over.

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My course would take me west back to Camp Five Pond and the trail-head.

About 1 mile later, I reached a small gorge, one of the northern reaches of White’s Creek that meanders through the wilderness. I setup camp for the night under a stately Shortleaf Pine, overlooking the narrow ravine and enjoying the gentle breeze. Just before dinner time, the rain started again, but it stopped after about an hour, and the sun peered through the gloom before setting in the west. That night it did not rain, and again I was charmed by the distant hoots of Barred Owls.

 

Day 5:

When I awoke, the forest was cloaked in mist.

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I love a misty woodland – it conjures a primeval feeling to the landscape. And in those early hours of the morning, my mind was consumed with thoughts of what this wilderness looked like so many years ago when Father John Joseph Hogan created his dream of a place where the wearied Irish immigrants could live far from the toil of urban life, to “…profoundly worship as in the depth of that leafy forest…where solitude and the heart of man united in praise and wonder of the Great Creator.” So much has changed since those earlier days. We humans have permanently altered the structure of the landscape to suit our wants and needs. Yet, even so, in places that have been carefully nurtured, the wilds have returned…and with it, a numberless host of trees, shades of their grandfathers, yet tenacious and enduring. They are the pillars in this grand cathedral of the Irish Wilderness.

As I pondered about wilderness philosophy, I fixed myself brekkie.

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And yes, that’s “real” coffee on the left, not the instant stuff ;). After munching, it was time to leave, complete my final monitoring work, and head out.

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Plotting a bearing to monitor the pristine zone.

I made it back to the fork close to noon.

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From there, it was a quick 1/3 mile to the trail-head at Camp Five Pond (where I stopped to gorge on wild blackberries), and a 2 hour drive back home to a much needed shower and a welcoming, cold beer :).

Thanks for coming along with me :D.