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January 2020, Three Days At Devil’s Backbone Wilderness

Another empty trailhead – About to start three days in the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Here I am parked up, ready start a three-day hike around the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness. My plan is to camp off of Mary Hollow for my first night, and then hike the unofficial McGarr Spring trail on Day Two — we’ve never visited McGarr spring. When I’ve done that it will be all of the trails in this wilderness hiked. I plan to spend the second night down by the North Fork River (the North Fork of the White River). Finally, on Monday I’ll hike out on the Collins Ridge Trail.

This trip should get me near to my target of twenty miles backpacking for January.

And I have more new gear to test and set up on this trip…

Day One

On the trail – Collins Ridge Trail. There’s still a small amount of snow about. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

It snowed yesterday, just a couple of inches. There was still snow on the ground in Springfield when I departed. In the wilderness, there was not much sign of the snow. Before leaving I decided to wear my huaraches because I didn’t fancy hiking in shoes made wet from the snow. Oh well, it wasn’t too cold, so it was a reasonable choice.

Ramen Noodles for lunch – Eating lunch on the Devil’s Backbone. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Confession time, I’ve never eaten ramen noodles. I bought some on a whim as I was buying protein bars on my way out of Springfield. I was shocked to read that a packet provides over 60% of your daily intake of sodium, but I ate them anyway. I’ll try them again, however, I need some higher quality ‘helper’ to go with the noodles.

Gary on the Devil’s Backbone. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I’ve got to stop taking selfies with a wide-angle lens. I’m pretty sure I’m not quite as chubby chopped as I am portraying myself.

New Backpack

New Backpack – Zpacks Arc Haul backpack (3lbs lighter than my old pack). Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Keeping to my vow to not add weight to my pack without lessening weight somewhere else to compensate, I’ve invested in a new pack. The Zpacks Arc Haul and front pack have the same base capacity, but at 1.76lbs, it is over 3lbs lighter than my Deuter backpack and Ribz front pack (5.03lbs). Of course, that weight saving comes at a cost, ultralight gear is very expensive.

It is also going to take a lot of ‘dialing in,’ I’m well aware that it will take several trips out before I’m happy with the adjustments and where everything is stored. In fact, it wasn’t until Day Three that I was happy with the basic set-up. Working out (and remembering) where everything is packed is another challenge too. There was lots of learning to be had on this trip.

Checking before I left home, the base weight was 18lbs which puts me in the ultralight backpacking zone, something I would have laughed at when I started backpacking. Loaded with food, water, and camera gear, etc. It was 27lbs. Not bad for a full winter (20°F load-out). You can see a list of all my gear for this trip here.

The pack is, to all intents and purposes, waterproof. So I need to rethink my wet weather strategy, I no longer need a rain poncho that keeps my pack dry. However, the poncho also doubles as an under quilt protector, and I haven’t got any lightweight rain gear at the moment.

Considering solutions, a set of Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite2 ought to fix the rain gear problem and they are relatively inexpensive at under $20update. The jacket can be used as a windcheater which is something I don’t carry at the moment. Reverting to a larger groundsheet and fitting grommets to it will enable that to be used as an under quilt protector. Lots to think about.

Why do I want to save weight? Well, I want to be able to bring along a chair which will weigh1lb-ish. You might wonder why I want a chair when I can sit in my hammock. Well, I can’t sit by a campfire in my hammock, I shouldn’t be eating in my hammock, and just maybe, after a day on the trail, I’m not so keen on sitting on the ground, especially when the ground is frozen.

Update February 2020

The Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite2 Rain Suit was a disaster. When it arrived it fitted well, the weight was good (10.41oz), but I noticed a small hole in the front of the jacket, so I requested a replacement. When the replacement arrived, the first thing I did was hold the jacket up to the light, and lo-and-behold, there was another hole, right in the middle of the back at shoulder level. So I’ve sent them both back and asked for a refund. Now I’m researching alternate rain gear. In the meantime, my poncho will work fine.

Pool – time to filter some water – This pool is filled with water seeping down and through the rock shelf. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Gone are the days when I carry loads of water. The Sawyer Squeeze filter is so quick and easy to use, often I only have the one-and-a-half pints that my water bottle holds, filtering water as I find it. Having boiled water for lunch, and being quite thirsty from all the salt in the ramen noodles, I’d run out of water by the time I got to Mary Hollow and the end of the Devil’s Backbone Trail.

Opposite where the trails join is a rock shelf with water pooling beneath it. It’s one of the few places where I’ll take water from a standing source — I prefer running water.

There’s none to little water in Mary Hollow, so I filtered over a gallon to last me through the night and until I (hopefully) arrive at McGarr Spring, lunchtime on Day Two. That’s an extra 8lbs I’m going to have to carry on the trail.

The end of the Devil’s Backbone Trail. This is where it joins the Mary Hollow Trail. I’m going to turn right. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Snow, moss, and leaves – Seen on the Mary Hollow Trail. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Icicles. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The ice and snow may have melted in the sun, but there was still signs of it deep in the hollows. This patch of icicles was only a few yards off of the trail.

This should all be gone soon. In two days the temperatures are supposed to rise for a while.

Mary Hollow Trail – I liked the colors and light. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Day Two

Morning view across the hollow – I’m camped very near the edge of the wilderness. Beyond the skyline is an open field. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

No coyotes seen on this visit, though I did hear a load go along the Mary Hollow Trail last night. The main wildlife seen so far on this trip is armadillos.

The skyline marks the edge of the wilderness. Too close to civilization for my liking, especially as the darned near-by dogs kept on barking and yapping through most of the night.

Day Two: Breakfast and hot chocolate – Camped off of Mary Hollow in the Devil’s Back Bone Wilderness. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Give me a fishing rod and I’d make an excellent garden gnome.

I also camped here in February 2019.

Camped off of the Mary Hollow Trail – I camped here in February last year. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Ready to get back on the trail

Leave no trace. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Trail Junctions – Devil’s Backbone Wilderness

Junction of the Mary Hollow and McGarr Ridge trails. The Mary Hollow Trail joins here from the left. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Junction of the McGarr Ridge Trail and the ‘unofficial’ McGarr Spring Trail (left). The sad thing is that the unofficial trails are better marked and maintained than the official ones. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Trail side Fungi. In my current favorite color. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Trail side Fungi. In my current favorite color. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
The unofficial McGarr Spring Trail was very well marked – I can see three orange blazes from here. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

It’s a sad comment on the state of things, that the unofficial trails are better maintained and marked than the official ones looked after by the Forest Service. They are so much better, it prompted me to take this picture. The official trails are listed as maintained. They are not and haven’t been as far as I can tell since we were first here in 2010 – unless you count the fact that someone sprayed red paint on trees at just two of the trail junctions. Years ago work-gangs were sent out to keep the trails clear and maintain them. No more.

There were only two points where this trail was badly blazed. The first was by a stock pond, where the blazes didn’t pick up immediately on the far side of the pond, so I had to circle the pond looking for the faint traces of the trail. The second was near McGarr Spring where the blazes stopped abruptly.

Stock pond on the McGarr Spring Trail. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The water in this pond looked very clear and clean. I suspect it would make a good emergency source for people and it obviously serves the horses hacking through the wilderness.

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My first attempt at using my camera’s time-lapse photography feature. It probably would have worked better if I had had the camera attached to a more sturdy tree that wasn’t moving around in the breeze. Lesson learned.

For lunch, I heated up water for oats, made a cup of hot chocolate, and enjoyed the sunshine.

The pool below MCGarr Spring. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I have been meaning to visit this spring almost every time I’ve hiked in the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness, so I made it the focus of this trip. Hiking the McGarr Spring Trail and finding the spring means I’ve now hiked all the main trails of this wilderness.

The spring was a lot faster flowing than I was expecting, so it may not dry up — good to know for any future visits in the hotter and drier months.

I topped up my water and heated up my lunch beside the spring, enjoying the warm afternoon sunshine. I was tempted to camp near here but decided I ought to stick with my plan.

Sycamores in Mary Hollow. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Having finished lunch, I packed up and hiked the last part of the McGarr Spring Trail back to Mary Hollow. Emerging into Mary Hollow these brightly lit sycamore trees caught my eye.

Mary Hollow Trail – this part gives you a false sense of security. The western end of this trail is a disaster. Washed out, overgrown, and blocked by a huge number of fallen trees. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The western end of the Mary Hollow Trail is a mess. It starts out well enough. And gets rapidly worse. The trail is washed out and buried in debris and fallen trees. I had to resort to hiking down the creek bed and bushwhacking. It took me two hours to get the two miles from the McGarr Spring Trail Junction to the junction with the Collins Ridge Trail.

For most of those two hours I was hiking in the rain, which I expected as “some showers” were in the forecast I’d checked before I left on Saturday. It ended up being a good test of my rain gear.

The sunset bathes the world in pink. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I hurried to get the hammock set up before the sun went down, so I could go and take sunset pictures by the river. I had to pause though, to watch an oblivious armadillo that was snuffling straight towards me. I was wondering how long it would take it to realize it had company. About 15′-20′ out it finally stopped, got up on its hind legs, sniffed the air, and ran off in the opposite direction.

The sunset pictures did not come easily. There was a steep, muddy, and slippery bank to negotiate to get down to the water’s edge.

Nor had I bargained on the impact of the rain on my choice of campsite. Shortly after dark, a thick mist came down, coating everything with moisture, and I was concerned about my under quilt getting soaked. I couldn’t use my poncho as an under quilt protector because it was all wet from the afternoon’s rain, and folding it up had spread to dampness to the inside too — there’s another lesson learned.

Unusually, the mist was moving upstream. Maybe I was just in an eddy.

Sunset and ripples – Sunset at the North Fork River. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

This is a ‘focus stacked’ image. That is, two pictures merged to form one photograph. In the first I focused on the foreground, in the second I made the horizon my focus point. Doing so allowed me to get the entire image sharp.

Sunset at the North Fork River. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Sunset at the North Fork River. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Day One & Two Stats

Day Three

Morning light. I tried all sorts of shots to capture the light glistening in the frozen droplets on the branches. I failed. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

All the moisture condensing out of the overnight mist had collected into supercold droplets sparkling in the sunshine and on my tarp. Just touching the back of my tarp caused the droplets to transition into a frozen state, I spent several minutes playing with it, writing in ice, until I shook the tarp and everything froze into a complete white frosted coating. Fascinating.

I wanted to get a picture that showed the myriad sparkles on the branches of the trees. My attempts didn’t work out. With hindsight, I should have tried for some close-ups — though the wide-angle lens isn’t suited to close-ups.

I’d saved a packet of Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy for my Day Three breakfast, and it didn’t disappoint. Normally I scoff at the Mountain House claim that their packet meals are two servings, but this one was so filling I struggled to eat it all.

I also had a cup of hot chocolate to warm me up while my breakfast re-hydrated. I had to keep the tarp up because all the ice in the trees was melting and dripping on me.

Once breakfast over it was time to pack up and head back to the trailhead.

On Day Two I had experimented with not putting my quilts in their stuff sacks. That doesn’t work with this backpack. It made the pack feel uncomfortable. So today I stuffed the quilts back in their sacks first and I was much more comfortable.

My final adjustments were to move the load-lifting straps in towards the center of my back, Swap my water bottle from my rear left side to my right, and bring it further forward. I clipped the Sig onto the hip belt (prior to this it had been living in the front pack), and finally I moved my camera from the right hip belt onto the left front pack strap. All these minor changes made a huge difference in accessibility and comfort. Testing out and working out how to pack and make the best use of my new backpack was another of the aims of my trip. Mission accomplished.

On the Collins Ridge Trail. Moments after I took this picture four deer came running past. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I thought this shady spot would be a good place to take a selfie. It was. I’d just taken the picture when I heard and saw what I thought was a group of horses trotting along the trail towards me. It was difficult to see through the brush.

I was about to clear the trail by stepping into the bush that was providing the shade when I changed my mind as the horses wouldn’t be able to see me and might get spooked as they went past. Many years of riding have taught me how jumpy some horses can be. So I moved around the front of the bush and off the trail and was surprised as three deer ran past in the brush twenty feet behind me. A fourth deer stopped and we stared each other out for a minute before it too ran off. No horses, just fast-moving deer. How cool!

Lunch on the Collins Ridge Trail. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I promised myself a lunch stop, and I was going to have one. The reality is that I was about 200 yards from the start of the Devil’s Backbone Trail — the tree across the trail behind me is visible from there — and I’m less than half a mile from the trailhead.

In that final section I met a couple hiking in, they were the only people I saw during my three days here.

Lunch on the Collins Ridge Trail. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Back at the trailhead. In the last quarter mile of my hike I met the first people I’d seen on this trip. At the trailhead a met another couple just about to set out. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The pickup belongs to the couple I met on the trail. The other vehicle was a couple who arrived just after I’d got back. They were looking for the trailhead and trail.

Near the trailhead, I noticed this tree (below), which appears to be a thong tree (Native American trail sign), but looks to my uneducated eye to be far too young. But it’s in the right sort of place and pointing in the right sort of direction…

Thong Tree or not? It looks like one, but I don’t think it is old enough. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Day Three Stats

Wrap up

According to the GPS I hiked a total of 12.5 miles this trip, bringing my monthly total to 18.99 miles and four nights out in the hammock. Not quite the 20 miles I was aiming for, but close.

Gear & Notes

  • The backpack worked well, but I need to re-think my wet weather gear. I do not need a heavy, backpack covering poncho when I have a waterproof backpack (not to mention that all the dry things are kept in a plastic contractor bag inside my pack).
  • The Fancee Feest stove worked well too, but I’m going to take out a Trangia next time so I can compare the two. It may be I’ve not given the Fancee Feest (or myself) enough time to get acquainted, but I don’t like (okay I’m not particularly good at) finessing the amount of fuel I put in. That’s not a problem with the Trangia.
  • I’m not overjoyed about using stuff sacks for my quilts, but the backpack is much more comfortable when I do. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get away without stuff sacks when I switch to my much smaller summer quilts.
  • Now I’ve worked out the best setup for my pack I need to get out on another trip to check it out and refine it 🙂
  • I’m going to leave my journal behind in future. I hardly use it, and if I need to make notes I can write on the back of the map.
  • Spare Meal. Somehow I only packed one main meal, so having the spare on-hand was a great help, or I would have been a hungry Gary on Day Three.
  • I need to be more careful. Twice I stepped on slippery fallen tree trunks and slipped off. “That’s how you break a leg.” I thought to myself at the time. I was very careful near the river which, incidentally, was running fast. Even so, I ended up slipping and falling on my backside getting down to the water’s edge. I forget I’m now in my sixties and probably need to take a bit more care.

Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.