3 Days Backpacking The Irish Wilderness

Two weeks ago, I drove down south near the Missouri-Arkansas border to complete my solitude monitoring data in the largest Wilderness in the state, the Irish. But this time, I chose to seek my refuge within the forest itself, instead of the pampered comforts of more “civilised” life in Winona. I was also eager to take some new kit out with me. The weather forecast showed mostly clear skies and slightly cooler temperatures, though it would still be hot enough trekking with a pack.

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On this occasion, my planned route would take me from the Camp 5 Pond trail-head (far right in photo, as indicated on the map), to Bliss Spring (where my thumb is pointing), and then back. Essentially, this trek traverses the width of 16,427 acre wilderness, with elevations varying from approximately 900 ft/274 m at Camp 5 Pond to less than 500 ft/152 m by the Eleven Point River. By taking the northern part of the White’s Creek Trail loop, I would avoid getting tangled (literally) in the 2 mile section around Fiddler Spring which I now refer to as “the Irish Jungle”.

Day 1:

I left on Friday the 26th of August with all my kit tucked away in a new rucksack, an Outdoor Products Mantis Dragonfly. I dearly love my modded LK-35, but something a bit larger is really nice for multi-day trips…otherwise I have to secure the more bulky items to the outside of the pack. With an extra 10 litres, I also have room for additional food and water.

I arrived at Camp 5 Pond close to 10:00, under a light rain shower. But before I could start my journey, I had to first gather solitude opportunity data in the transition zone, which is indicated as the first 0.3 mile/0.5 km of trail into the Wilderness and a short ways past the fork, extending approximately 100 yards outward on either side of the trail, as outlined on the map in the photo above. Zone 2, or the “remote” zone, consists of the rest of the trail system (including the Brawley spur), and everywhere else is designated zone 3, or “pristine”. Per Forest Service protocol, this data has to be collected in a minimum of 4 hours spent in that zone. Any “unnatural” sights or sounds, such as distant gunshots, overhead planes, or the echo of a passing vehicle, is recorded, as are encounters with other people. Essentially, this data gives wilderness managers an idea as to what a visitor would experience in that area. According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, federally designated Wilderness areas should have “outstanding opportunities for solitude”….ideally, a place where one can feel totally immersed in natural surroundings without encroachment from the outside, “civilised” world.

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Just after 14:00, with a light lunch in my stomach, I finished the day’s work and started my trek. The rain had ceased, and the clouds were parting to reveal an auspicious and enduring sun.

Oaks and hickories were the dominant trees in this part of the forest, their great spires reaching reaching high to form a tangled canopy. Much of the forest had a relatively open understory, though wherever an old oak had fallen, there would be a large gap in the canopy and thick clusters of young Sassafras, Winged Sumac, Flowering Dogwood, and oak saplings, taking advantage of the enriching sunlight. I crossed through multiple fingers of the upper reaches of White’s Creek, each stream-bed unmoving and silent, with no water to give the tumbled stones life.

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A little over 3 miles in, I came to the steep gorge carved out by the main flow of White’s Creek, indicated on the map as a “U” in the trail before the Brawley Pond spur. This valley dips down about 300 ft and makes for a rather fatiguing climb on either side and will leave you winded. Though it can be a challenge, the ascent is rewarding, with edifying views from the hills.

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Once I reached the western side, I un-shouldered my pack and set up camp about 100 yards from the trail amongst a grove of towering Short-leaf Pines.

This time, I brought along a hammock and tarp setup, which I prefer in warmer weather.

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In the past I used a DD Frontline hammock, but I found it to be on the heavy side and too bulky for what it is. What I have now is a simple, lightweight, double-wide hammock without mozzie netting, suspended with ultralight carabiners, tree-huggers, and webbing. I’m not sure exactly how light the hammock and suspension is, but it’s definitely lighter and less bulky than what I used to have.

I strung up my bear bag 100 yards north of my camp using a new (to me) method of suspending it.

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This is what’s called the “PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) Hang”, and unlike the more conventional method of throwing a line over a tree branch, raising the bag, and tying the line off to an adjacent tree, the PCT Hang relies on tension provided by a simple toggle system. This arrangement is more bear-resistant, because there is no tension stored in the excess line, meaning bears cannot chew through the cordage to release the bag.

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I had an early dinner of quinoa, and after that there wasn’t much to do other than relax and watch the dying sun yield the sky to star-kissed darkness. Nightfall brought strong breezes rushing through the gorge, and the trees quivered and swayed almost as if in a primal trance.

Distance hiked for day 1 – 3.85 miles.

 

Day 2:

When I awoke, I was greeted by a golden sun, casting aureate rays across the depths of the gorge…pure bliss. 🙂

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I reluctantly got up out of my hammock and started fixing brekkie. I knew it would be at least 10 miles to get to Bliss Spring and back, and what better way to start the day than with a cup of real coffee and a dose of carbs? 😀

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For convenience, I prefer to cook my oatmeal (the non-instant, old-fashioned kind) in a re-sealable pouch, like that of the dehydrated or freeze-dried boil-‘n-bag meals marketed to backpackers. It saves time spent cleaning the kettle/pot.

After brekkie, I struck camp and headed further westward along the trail. For this day and the next, I would collecting solitude data in the remote zone (Zone 2). Fortunately, this meant that I could hike and record at the same time, since the designated remote zone consists of the entire White’s Creek trail (except for the 0.3 mile transition zone from the Camp 5 Pond trail-head) as well as the Brawley Pond spur.

One thing I particularly like about the Irish Wilderness is that, if you’re observant to your surroundings, you’ll notice areas where the trees transition from oak-hickory forests with Sassafras and dogwood undergrowth into stands of Short-leaf Pine with young Red Maple in the understory.

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Some of these pine groves were the result of planting efforts several decades earlier, like this one about half a mile/0.8 km west of the Brawley Pond spur. However, these pine-dominated and mixed pine-hardwood forests would have existed back before the forests were logged to meet the demands for settlements. The virgin timber would certainly have been much larger than the trees today, and most of the woodlands would not have been as choked with undergrowth as they are now. This is due to the fact that the Native tribes who inhabited the area used fire to clear the brush, opening the woods to make travel and hunting easier, all the while creating a balanced ecosystem that benefited the pines and the forest as a whole. In short, the Natives were mimicking Nature’s own processes of naturally-caused wildfires (caused by lightning) in order to help manage the land.

Logging and nearly a century of fire suppression have created a regrowth which is much thicker than what used to be, though, thanks to efforts by the Forest Service and other federal and state agencies, prescribed fire is now once again part of land management efforts in certain areas, such as the Hercules Glades Wilderness in the Ava Ranger District.

I pressed on through part of a broken ridge etched by Barn Hollow, hiking past a few shallow sinkholes.

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These are some of the many other Karst topographies that can be found all over the Irish Wilderness.

As I neared the Eleven Point River, the undergrowth gradually gave way to a more open woodland, sloping down into the river valley.

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Here you can see the other side of the Eleven Point River. To the north is Horshoe Bend.

By now, I was quite hot from hiking up and over the finger-like sections of the broken ridge, and the sun didn’t help, nor did the many mosquitoes who acted as though they were starving. Despite slapping the daylights out of what seemed like scores of those little blood-sucking buzzers, I still ended up with numerous bites on both arms and shoulders. Lucky for me, mosquito bites aren’t particularly bothersome, and they clear up in a week or less. But all I wanted at that point was to make it to Bliss Spring so I could taste that cold, revitalising water. My own water supply was quite low from constantly rehydrating myself due to the heat, so I was eager to reach my destination.

Bliss Spring can be a real tease, because you hear its rushing water long before you can see or get to it. But at length I found the treasured oasis, sparkling with effusive liquid life.

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After cooling myself off and refilling my water bottles, I took the opportunity to rest and have lunch.

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The greens are watercress sprigs collected from the mass that flourishes across the mossy rocks at the spring.

I was reluctant to turn around and head back, but I had miles to trek, and after a quick look at my topo map, I figured it would be best to camp next to the gorge again, but in a different location even further from the trail. As I made my way up the broken ridge, I noticed that a brief shower had dampened the forest – apparently it skimmed-by just to the north as a dark cloud blocking the sun, and I felt no raindrops at Bliss Spring.

By the time I reached the crest of that steep valley at 16:00, I was hot and sweaty again, but I took comfort in relaxing in my hammock, grateful whenever a breeze would swish through the trees.

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Dinner promised to be a highlight of the day…lentil, potato, and noodle soup. 🙂

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And this is why I brought my Olicamp kettle – yes, it’s stainless steel, so it isn’t as light as something made of titanium or aluminum, but it excels at slow-cooking due to the shape of the pot. Besides, cooking “real” food can be a real nice change from boil-‘n-bag meals, gorp, and carb/energy bars, especially on extended trips. Needless to say, the soup was delicious :).

Unfortunately for me, as I was consuming that carb-packed, lentil goodness, I noticed that my lower legs had been ravaged by chiggers. They probably crawled onto me when I passed through a few overgrown sections of the trail earlier that day. I did my best to wash them off with biodegradable soap and water, but the damage was done…and I was itching like mad during the night. Lesson learnt: spray permethrin on clothes.

Distance hiked on day 2 – 10.13 miles

 

Day 3:

I awoke to another spectacular dawn, pierced by the howls of distant coyotes. After munching brekkie, I took down camp and started my trek out, travelling east into the rising sun. Thankfully, hiking seemed to lessen the itching from the chigger bites. Along the way, I backtracked a bit to cut back an overgrown section of the path. As I neared the end of the north section of the White’s Creek trail, I was surprised to find another backpacker. This was the first time I encountered another backpacker in the Irish Wilderness. We both stopped and chatted for awhile, and I learned that he was planning on hiking to Bliss Spring. We parted, and I continued on, eventually reaching the fork and then the Camp 5 Pond trail-head.

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While this wasn’t the most enjoyable trip with the heat, humidity, hungry mosquitoes, and the blasted chiggers, it was great to come to the Irish Wilderness again to savour not just the spring water, but to soak in that special feeling of being alone, separated from the chaos of modern society in a wide expanse of trees and shrubs. I was immersed in solitude.

Distance hiked for day 3 – 4.72 miles

Total distance hiked – 18.7 miles