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Foraging with the Wild Dog

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You might not be able to see her in this picture, but Huyana, our year and a half old Carolina Dog, the American Dingo, is out in the mess, foraging wild foods with her mama, my wife Brandy. You can see some persimmons that weren’t quite ripe yet in the foreground.

Next weekend is the 4th annual Hammockforums group hang. When the planning thread started this year, Brandy offered to demonstrate the knowledge of wild foods that she’d gotten from her adopted parents, who were born during the Great Depression. The idea started out as just being a short hike through the woods, pointing out which plants she knew, and briefly going over what they were good for.

Then she thought it would be nice to harvest some a week or so before the hang, so she could prepare some finished items for people to try. A small booklet to hand out to review what she talked about also sounded like a nice idea.

Of course, a lot of the hammock hangers are also back country Appalaichan Trail hikers, and are intensely interested in anything related to woodland survival. Next thing you know, she’s got 25 people signed up for the “class,” with about a dozen more maybes.

Yikes! This just became a serious project.

So, she begins the task of trying to figure out where she can legally harvest. Most land in Texas is privately owned, so you need permission to do any foraging. Harvesting is flat-out forbidden in state parks, and the national forests are a) not quite the same type of land, and b) require some kind of special permit.

One apparent option was to look into the Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), which is commonly used as public hunting land, requiring a permit. One of the types of permits is known as “limited use,” not good for hunting or fishing, but it does allow you to hike and camp within the WMAs. After a lot or poring over the rules and speaking with several game wardens (and their supervisors), we eventually determined that since there didn’t seem to be a rule against foraging on a WMA, it would probably be okay, especially when Brandy explained how she did her harvesting, leaving the bulk of the plant to grow back and spreading her take around different plants and areas.

Finally, the Saturday came. We packed up a nice lunch and the day hammocks, and I took the excuse to load it up in my external-frame backpack, so I could imagine what it was like to be on the AT for a day. Huyana also came along, with her own little backpack to carry her water and a snack.

Granted, deer season had just started, so everyone was fretting about whether we’d be okay out there, but we had a stroke of luck! The WMA Brandy selected was currently closed for hunting, and she got special permission to be out there. They only left the one permit, so we would be the only people in the whole place!

We still dressed in bright colors (just in case), and brought along the GPS and a topographic map, since we didn’t know how much bushwhacking we’d end up doing. Turns out, hardly any.

We unlocked the gate to let ourselves in, and took advantage of our last chance for modern facilities at the hunter’s check-in just inside the entrance. After that, we followed the paved road well into the park. We noticed where there were many “closed” dirt roads, which mainly meant no vehicular traffic. We also saw the Parking Lot of Death, where sloppy hunters had just left bits off their deer carcasses that they weren’t interested in.

We figured that since our audience would consist mostly of car campers and AT types, we’d park and hike up one of the dirt “roads,” since that would be similar to a well-travelled trail. And since it was just us there, we let Huyana walk off-leash, which she did flawlessly, heeling if we told her to, but pausing less than 100 feet ahead of us on the trail if we let her go. She caught the scent of something a few times, but always stopped and came back on command. We’re very proud of our pup today!

Brandy saw some greens right at the beginning that she meant to harvest when we came back, but we forgot. A little along the trail, though, she paused and dug up some wild onions. After hiking for a while, we decided it was time to break for lunch, so we found a likely clearing in as much shade as we could find (most of the leaves had fallen already), and strung up the hammocks. We had brought a feast with us: summer sausage, cheddar cheese, tortillas, several flavors of peanut butter, boiled eggs, butter crackers, saltines, and a couple of oranges. With Gatorade to drink, we stuffed ourselves silly, and relaxed in the hammocks for a little bit.

Of course, leave it to Brandy to notice what I didn’t – we’d set up among a bed of poison oak and poison ivy. We’ve both always been immune to it, and I’ve never given it a first thought, much less a second. It was never a problem for me or my friends on any of the hikes we did growing up. Oops…guess we’ll have to shower and wash all the laundry as soon as we get home, so we don’t accidentally expose Angela.

While we were laying there, we heard a rumbling that we soon realized was thunder. There hadn’t been any rain in the forecast, so we hadn’t come prepared for that. Well, better safe than sorry, so we made our way back to the car. Then we drove around a bit, only walking a short way down other paths to see what else we could find.

We did have one amusing incident. We were chattering along, when I looked to my right and saw an incoming spider at head height. I backed up a step, and it kept coming. I stepped to one side, and it followed suit, changing direction in midair! Brandy thought the strand was probably on my hat, so I waved my staff between myself and the spider. It changed direction away from me all right, somehow attaching to Brandy even though the was 15 feet away! She twirled around, and it just kept following her, finally landing on the ground just inches from her foot. It jumped toward her, and she backed up, then I finally stepped on it, and the attack was over. Yep, we’ll be giggling about that story for some time to come.

Finally, we made our way back to the beginning, where we shook every last ripe persimmon off the trees, following game trails to find other ones that might not have been visible from the road.

We never did get rained on, as it turned out, but the sky was turning ominously dark in one direction, and the radar showed a big system heading our way, so we figured it was best not to chance it, and started heading back, only pausing to leave the bottom half of the permit in the box, where Brandy noted the doe she saw running into the trees, and what she picked.

That was one of the better day hikes I’ve ever been on, and I’m sure the pup thought so too. For one day, I once again felt like a boy and his dog, hiking in the woods, unbound by modern rules like leash laws. Having my best girl there with me was just icing on the cake.

Well, here I am in my meticulously lined nest, hoping that I don’t freeze to death for the second night in a row.  So far, I feel a bit warmer, which is quite promising, considering my own nocturnal heater hasn’t kicked in yet.  Huyana the domestic coyote (or so the german shepherd would have you believe) is bedded down in her crate, with a Coleman sleeping bag thrown on top to conserve her warmth.  The propane lantern is hissing away, brightening our campsite to await Brandy’s return.  I’m hunkered down, enclosed by digital forest camouflage, and preparing to find out whether I’ll see the morning after the sun rises…or before as I rush shivering to the car to grab the backup foam pad once more….

It started shortly after the HammockForums Fall Hang in November….as people (myself included) were posting their trip reports and photos, some began talking about the next group hang.  Next thing you know, there’s a planning thread for going to Caddo Lake State Park — mid-January.  Now, winter weather in Texas does some funny things.  I still remember growing up in San Antonio, and actually having a brief heat wave, with temperatures in the upper 80s and lower 90s, in winter, as well as the one freak snowstorm that gave us 6 inches of completely foreign to us white stuff on the ground for a couple of days.  So nobody really knew what was going to happen until about a week before the agreed-upon date, when everyone had already committed to their site reservations.

Another thing that had happened at the group hang was that I’d finally gotten to see, and decide I wanted, one of McEntyre’s insulated hammock socks.  This is basically a piece of material that’s cut to completely enclose your hammock.  It’s insulated on the bottom, and then there’s a length of just breathable nylon that you bring over the top, and it acts to help retain heat within the hammock above you.  Brandy and Angela were kind enough to order it as a Christmas present, but McEntyre was busy with other holiday tasks, and couldn’t have it to me in time for Christmas morning.  No problem, as he said he’d have it in time for the hang.

Two days before we were due to leave, I began to feel a bit concerned.  Okay, I’ll be honest…Brandy had to email to check on it before the anticipation made me explode.  We had paid for it about a week before, and I was worried there may have been some kind of post office foulup with the tracking or something, and my cover was sitting in a dusty warehouse out there, singing wistfully to the moon it could just glimpse through a tiny window….you know, if it had eyes….and lungs…and maybe the form of a cute little mouse in a coat and hat.

Anyway, he wrote back apologising, as life had gotten in the way and he hadn’t been able to mail it yet.  Fortunately, he was able to get it FedEx overnighted to me at work, where it arrived Friday morning.  This gave me part of one lunch hour (I had to walk the dog, since she goes to work with me) to hang it up in the warehouse and figure out how it worked.  I thought I had the idea, and put it away until we arrived at Caddo Lake.

As usual, I got home and Brandy (who works from home) got off around 6.  She had spent time that the phone wasn’t ringing gathering everything together, so we could just load it into the car and head out.  Once again, years of Tetris pays off.  We were driving out of the neighborhood when she asked if I had remembered her tarp and stakes and such.  I hadn’t known it wasn’t with her other hammock stuff, so we went back to retrieve it.  I remembered a Hennessy stuff sack in the computer room closet, grabbed it, peeked inside, saw a set of tree straps (she had said her stakes and other accessories were in with it) and ran back out to the car, for our second departure.  At least this time we remembered the forgotten item before we got out of the neighbourhood…usually, we’re at least 10 miles away.  Of course, we were somewhere around Tyler when we realized we’d also forgotten the coffeepot.

We stopped at the Walmart in Marshall, hoping to simply walk over to the camping section and get a cheapo camp coffeepot, but while it seems you can get every other component of a standard cookset individually, you are just out of luck if you want coffee (or hot water for all the tea and cocoa we’d brought).  Funny story, though — while I was searching every aisle for a campfire-tolerant container of hot liquid, Brandy was walking Huyana out in the parking lot.  At one point, she turned a corner, where some teens were hanging out, dressed like inner-city thug-wannabes.  One of them started to leer at her, then noticed the 50-pound coyote on the leash, and literally jumped!  “Um…nice dog, ma’am.”

Once at Caddo Lake, roughly 4 hours away from home, we saw that the campsite we had been assigned was not only unsuitable (the only three trees that weren’t actually in the water were either too far apart, or too big to get our tree straps around them), but was all the way at the other end of the loop from the other hammock campers.  So we scouted out what was still available, and decided to set up in site #56, right next to some other hammock campers.  As usual, we set up by the light from our headlights, because as usual, we arrived right around midnight.

Right away, Brandy saw that I had grabbed the wrong bag for her tarp.  The stuff sack I had gotten held the Hennessy hammock that I had recently replaced with a Warbonnet Blackbird.  Fortunately, the trees we selected were close enough together that we could cover both our hammocks with one tarp.

I rigged up the brand new hammock sock the way I’d guessed at in the warehouse, and it looked basically okay, although it wouldn’t hold the weight of the sleeping bag we’d brought along to ensure that we’d stay warm overnight, as it was supposed to get down to the mid-thirties.  We’d taken a rig including those sleeping bags down to 27 before, so we figured we’d be fine.  I tried loading the bag into my hammock sock, but it just weighed it down, so I went ahead and skipped it, knowing I’d be putting my gear to a serious test, and went to bed.

Sadly, the rig failed to keep me warm…badly.  Fortunately, we had brought along a roll of blue foam as a backup, and it was enough to get me through the night, even if I wasn’t really comfortable.  Deciding to have mercy and give a “Needs Improvement” instead of an F, I reexamined the setup in the morning, discovering that the bottom of the sock was just lying on the ground, as the suspension wasn’t holding it against my hammock at all.  I managed to fix that, and with the help of Oldgringo and another gentleman whose name I didn’t catch, we came up with a way to hold up the sleeping bag, as well.  The second night should be much better.

Having dealt with that, and some socializing from Gimpy and Alan and a few other folks wondering when we’d gotten in (I’m surprised nobody’s given us a nickname yet for always pulling in after everyone else has turned in for the night), we enjoyed a delicious batch of breakfast tacos, courtesy of Brandy, we wandered up to say howdy to UncleMJM and clan before heading out to do some more geocaching!  Oh, except we also paused to get some charcoal going and the german potato soup started.  Then we started out.

Our first cache was the state park-sponsored one.  At ground zero, we wasted a fair bit of time searching all around a hollow fallen tree that would have been a good hiding spot, but eventually found it along one side of a natural pit.  I dropped in a geocoin and signed the log, and we were off for the next one, a multi-cache.

After cutting across from the amphitheater to the other nature trail, uphill, we started down a well-marked trail, until the GPS started pointing off to one side.  I briefly consulted the trail map, and saw that the narrow footpath to our right was the best option…at least until it was time for bushwhacking.  We clambered uphill, avoiding briars as best we could, until we got to the general area where we would be looking for coordinates to the cache location.  I looked for a washer, like before, and on a suspiciously-hanging strip of bark.  I even looked at a tree where the bark was missing, in case it was carved there for some reason.  It’s a good thing they thoughtfully include hints for those of us who are new to the hobby, as I might not have thought to see it painted on the underside of a rock.  Brandy spotted the designated stone first, and I entered the coordinates, but thought it strange that it showed a spot outside of the park.  I had Brandy double-check me, and she saw the digit I read wrong.  Correction made, we climbed back down to the trail and walked on.

Eventually, we saw that the GPS was pointing to the far side of the valley we were walking along.  I looked at the map again, and it showed we’d go out to the road, then cut across to a different trail and head back on the other ridge.  The fun part here was the footbridge — it was marked off with caution tape, as one of the side rails and some of the walking boards were damaged.  Yeah, right – like that’s going to stop us.  We slipped under the tape and hiked across, careful of our footing, then under the tape again on the far side.  Of course, a moment later, as it joined the other trail, we found that we could simply have walked up the road.  Meh, we like the danger better!

After hiking along the “old road” a little bit, and letting someone coo over Huyana, we again turned off the trail, climbing down into the valley until we eventually reached ground zero.  Now, the hint and logs said something about a tree hollow, and Brandy saw a hollow log that would have been great as a hiding spot.  I climbed over to it, folding myself around various branches until I could squat down and look into the hole.  I didn’t see anything, but it was very dark, and I didn’t have my headlamp.  A little judicious poking didn’t seem to reveal anything, so we continued searching.

“Think small and look for the string,” the hint had read, so I looked in only small nooks.  While standing still and staring down the various trees, searching in finer detail than my vision naturally tends towards, I spotted a dark hole in the middle of what looked like a knot on a tree a little down the hill.  I walked up to it, and sure enough, there was a small white container wedged perfectly in there, with a little bit of string hanging off it.  When I pulled it out, there was a stream of cool air coming from the hollow — now I’m probably gonna pore over topographic maps of the area, looking for a cave entrance.

At this point, we decided to head back to camp for a bit, as Brandy wanted to check on the soup.  I also noticed it was getting a bit late in the day, and suggested we save the next one until Sunday.  We schlepped back up to the trail, mainly just remembering it was uphill until we hit it, back out to the road, and down again to camp.  Brandy stirred the soup while I inhaled the lunch she’d thoughtfully put in my daypack — salami, cheese, and carrot sticks!  Gimpy stopped by and we spoke a bit about geocaching and wild foods, when Brandy said she’d like to go try for that third cache near the CCC pavilion.  We stopped where the group was, and found that dinner was planned to be served around 5:30.  Since it was only about 4, we took off to try our luck.

Down to the boat dock, along the path through the wetland area, and then up ten thousand stairs until we reached the top of the hill, cut over to the pavilion, and the GPS pointed down into the valley again.  Brandy spotted a path under all the leaf litter (don’t ask me how, but the dirt was packed, so it was an actual trail, even if it wasn’t on the map), and we climbed down the hill until we reached the target area.  Once again, we poked into every likely hiding spot, under and in logs, holes in the ground, whatever likely spot for a small rubbermaid container we could guess at.  A lot of poor critters were going to have to rearrange their bedding that night.  Finally, as the sun was setting behind the hill and the clock read 5:11, we decided to give it up and go back to camp.

Sadly, once there, nature called, and I had a phone call to make, so that left Brandy to haul the Dutch oven of soup over to the group site — the time I saw said it was around 5:35, but apparently that was just too late, as people were already going through the food line when Brandy got there, and the german potato soup got overlooked.  Oh well, lesson for next time — don’t try to do one more thing when it’s anything less than 2 hours before supper is expected to be served.

We left Huyana at the campsite, so there wouldn’t be any arguments with the beagle someone else had brought.  We sat and enjoyed many different dishes, although I couldn’t see what I was eating.  I know I had some other potato soup, some pasta, sauteed veggies, red beans and rice, and of course, the cherry crisp.  UncleMJMs wife had expressed an interest in seeing one of my other Christmas presents, the Martin backpacker guitar, so I showed it to her and doodled with a few chords (I’ve only been playing for 3 weeks), while we chatted with the people nearby.  Discussions ranged from hammock stands to water restrictions to dog training and many other subjects.  After a couple of hours, though, I was feeling the cold even through three layers of clothing and a thick leather jacket, so I wandered back to camp, where I lay in my nest and started this entry until Brandy returned from the group.

By the time she got back, I was actually sweating a little bit, so I went down to one layer, shoving the rest to various corners within my hammock.  This actually got me through about 2am, when Brandy woke up and headed for the restroom.  Now I was feeling a little chilly, so I put the other layers of clothing back on, and zipped up my sleeping bag.  I’m not entirely sure of the solution — my guess is I need to hang the ends a little farther up the suspension strap — but I had a fair-sized gap directly underneath me.  It wasn’t intolerable, just a little uncomfortable…I was still able to sleep in until 9:30 the next morning.  When Brandy got up, I asked her to stick her hand up inside the cover before I released the warm air — she guessed it felt about 10 degrees warmer than outside to her.  Yeah, I still have some tweaking to do, but I’m happy with the Molly Mac Hammock Sock.

We had another breakfast, and when Brandy went to change, Huyana started raising a fuss, so I put a hand on her — at that very moment, a ranger drove up.  “Do you have that dog on a leash?”

“Yes, sir, she’s attached to the tree.”

“I’m just checking, since a lot of people let their dogs loose and put a hand on them when they see me coming.”

“No, I’m just trying to settle her down since mama is walking off down the road right now.”

Another funny dog story is that we’d given her a milk bone the day before — she just buried it in the leaves instead of eating it.  A little while later, she dug it up, tossed it around to play with it for a while, then buried it again.  Well, Brandy had her when we were saying our goodbyes after packing up camp, and she had dug up the milk bone and carried it over with her.  As we turned to leave, she finally reached down and ate it — I guess she figured it was her last chance.

We dawdled a bit with everyone else, looking at people’s various bits of gear, and Brandy found a turtle shell in the woods.  Time grew short, though, and we had a long drive back, so we eventually made our departure, although Brandy did pop into the store for a couple of park souvenirs.  On the way home, we did pop in briefly to Tyler State Park to seek out one last geocache and send a second trackable on its way.

Yet another great trip, and my head is already full of new ideas for my next gear upgrade!  Thanks for the hang, everyone, and we’ll see you again in November, if not sooner!

Yup, Throkda’s been a nickname forever, after a character in a series of stories a friend and I wrote in high school.  But when we went hiking, over hill and dale and through thornbushes and mud taking a “shortcut,”  I got saddled with being called Throkda Jones.  (The Indiana Jones movies were very popular at the time…yes, I’m old)

Today, I got to live out a little bit of my pirate nature, going treasure hunting!  Then again, that too relates to Indiana Jones — maybe the Throkda Jones nickname was pretty much on the mark after all…  I’ve been interested in geocaching for a few months now, and messed around with the phone GPS a bit, but with results that were a little hit or miss, such as standing around under completely clear blue sky for 20 minutes, waiting for the phone GPS to actually connect to some of the 11 satellites it says are up there, and then only having 50% (and rapidly falling) power left by the time it does….and having to reconnect every time you let the phone go to standby to save power while it’s in your pocket — yeah, not the best experience.

In case the term’s not familiar, geocaching is, in brief, a global treasure hunt.  People hide a small container (sometimes only big enough to hold a piece of paper for people to sign, sometimes as large as a person, usually about the size of a peanut butter jar or a military ammunition container), then note its coordinates with their GPS.  They post these coordinates, and other people use their GPS to find it — it’s usually out of where people normally travel or look, so that people who aren’t playing the game don’t accidentally find it, potentially stealing the whole cache.  When you find it, you usually sign the log-book, and there will often be goodies in the box (keeping it family friendly, so no knives, for example).  If you take something, you’re supposed to leave something in trade.  Then you re-hide the cache where you found it.  It’s a fun game and a good excuse to go outside…and these things are all over the place — even in the city, like behind guard rails or under lamppost skirts.

I had been reading about the GeoMate Jr, which sounded neat as an entry-level GPS.  It comes with 250,000 caches preloaded, and you just hit a button to show whatever is the next closest.  Simple, and it gets great reviews.  But, I also found that it doesn’t have things like the description, hints, and stuff like that — just an arrow and distance….very very simple, since it’s marketed mainly for kids (maybe they assume a parent has a better GPS to get most of the way there).

So, after further research, I got a different entry-level unit, the Magellan eXplorist GC, which is a liitle low-end in that it can’t do some things like import topographic maps, but it does have a basic street map preinstalled, and its ability to sort and work with geocaches directly from geocaching,com looked like it would work out well for me.

So, to summarise, I have a brand new GPS unit, loaded with a bunch of geocaches from state parks near me, as well as a smattering of others, and today I went treasure-hunting with good equipment for the first time! We went to Cleburne State Park, turned on the unit, and within a few seconds of getting to the main screen, it beeped to tell us we had GPS lock.  We parked at a trailhead, leashed up the dogs, grabbed our staves, locked the car, and we were on our way!

Our first target was a cache we’d attempted the previous weekend, with the phone GPS.  That evening had been entertaining, as we took a straight-line route through dense brush, across an area littered with rusty cans from who knows how long ago (which was kinda cool, since they may have been from an old homestead or CCC camp), and out to a field, where we discovered the main trail did eventually loop around and take you there, much more easily.  Then again, when it comes to hiking, I’ve never been that concerned with doing things the easy way — my friends from my childhood had a whole set up superstitious habits when I said things like “shortcut,” “trust me,” or “this way.”  We’d been right on top of the cache, but didn’t find it, and since the sun was setting, we gave up and headed back to the car.

Of course, once we were back home, I logged that we didn’t find it, and we saw that someone else took some pictures of their kids holding up a log with a metal plate when they had found it.  Brandy glanced at the picture and said she saw that exact log — we had both stepped right over it…d’oh!  So this time, we didn’t really need the GPS, as we knew pretty much right where to go after having been right there once before.  We arrived at the spot, Brandy turned over the suspected log, and sure enough, we’d found the cache!  Not a lot of room in there, so I signed the log paper with the supplied golf pencil, dropped in a sticker from my cache-donation items, and we noted the find in the GPS.  Hey, it gave me a little achievement award – “First Traditional Cache Found” — cool!  After that, we set it for the next-closest geocache.

Our next target was listed as 0.2 miles away, and it’s description said it was a 6″ long camo container.  We started back down the trail, took the other direction where it had forked, and found ourselves walking the fenceline of the park boundary for probably a quarter of a mile before it turned in the right direction and the distance actually started counting down from the original 0.2 miles.  Eventually, we arrived in the right vicinity, and the GPS beeped that we were within about 20 feet — which is apparently normal, since different models of GPS, the weather, time of day and such can all cause coordinates to be off by a couple dozen feet when seeking it out.

We were staring at a line of densely-packed cedar trees.  The name of the cache was “It’s in there somewhere.”  We were looking on the ground right by where we were standing, but couldn’t see much except for branches and needle-like leaves.  At one point, Brandy asked if the GPS might have more information for us to puzzle it out.  Well, there weren’t any other hints, but I found a setting that made the map hold still to have North be up instead of rotating the map based on our movement. Then I zoomed in to the 25-foot scale, and it showed a solid green line heading southwest on the compass from our current position.  The GPS compass also helpfully showed the positions of the sun and moon on the compass dial.  It showed the sun as just barely east of due south — we looked up, saw the sun, and I pointed in the exact direction the line pointed according to the compass…and then looked down and saw a faint path at my feet heading in exactly that direction.  I think I got whiplash when I smacked my forehead…Sure enough, after pushing through, we found this tiny cache.  Um, note to self, bring our own pen in the future….oops.

So we marked that one as found, and told the GPS to find the next closest.  Good news, the next one was the official state park cache, and it was only a little over a half-mile away!  Bad news, that distance assumed we were swimming across the lake.  No problem, we were enjoying ourselves on the boundary trail — we’d turn and go around the lake when there was an intersection.  So we started walking.  After a while, though, we were grateful to find a bench to take a break on.  We gave the pups (and Brandy) some water, and I had a granola bar while screwing around with the map on the GPS, scrolling the cursor around.  In addition to the geocache symbols, I found one that looked like a little signpost.  What’s this?  Hovering the cursor over it, it identified itself as the intersection between the boundary trail and the spillway trail — cool!  And one of the caches we meant to hit was on the spillway, so I figured we’d go up to the intersection, then select the CCC spillway cache, and we’d go find it, then cut to the road on the other side of the lake to look for the ones over there on the way back around to the car.

Plan set, we got up and continued our trudge, with Brandy starting to comment about how she needs to work back up to this level of activity again.  Well, if I have my way, we’ll be doing a lot more geocaching in the future, so she’ll have plenty of opportunity.  When we were about 500 feet from the waypoint according to the GPS, we saw a trail leading toward the lake, with a couple of numbered wooden posts.  Did we just find the hike-in primitive camping area?  Deciding to check it out, we followed the path, and automatically started sizing up the area for good spots to hang our hammocks.  One thing I will say, given the amount of prickly pear cactus in the area, there were more options for the hammocks than there would be for tents….plus, we saw a couple spots on the slope that would overlook the lake!  If we ever wanted to try camping backpacker-style for a weekend, this looked like a good option.

We made our way all the way down to the lakeshore, and just walked around for a bit, enjoying the serenity of it all — white gravel, small waves lapping at our feet, and very quiet — there were hardly any people in the park that day.  Huyana walked into the water as much as the leash allowed — I think we’re definitely gonna have a good water dog on our hands this time around.

But, we were on our way to the geocache!  I started walking back up the hill to get to the trail we had originally planned, when Brandy suggested just following the shoreline.  Well, the lake was pretty low, so it shouldn’t be too muddy — yeah, we’ll do that.  There was a little mud, and a lot of cattails — one of which Brandy made go poof!  White feathery seeds drifted on the breeze for a bit.  Huyana tried her best to stay in the water instead of walking with daddy on the shore, and eventually we rounded a bend to see a rock wall, and the course that guided the water to the spillway.  The GPS was pointing straight through the reeds, and I asked Brandy if she wanted to do blindly through them or try to go around.  She smirked and disappeared into the 8-foot-tall cattails.  That’s my girl!

We pushed through, and in no time, we were facing a stone stair-like wall, which the GPS pointed to the other side of.  I climbed up, and found myself facing a trail leading across the dam.  The GPS pointed just slightly off to the side, though, among some trees.  I couldn’t help myself; without waiting for Brandy, I made my way down, and put the GPS in my pocket, since I was within about 30 feet, and started looking around for where a cache might be hidden.  At exactly the moment that my eyes fell upon it, the GPS gave its little triumphant chirp to tell me I was at ground zero — like it knew I had just found it.

I opened the cache up and discovered that it was a newer one — I was only the third person to sign the logbook — the first had been on vacation from the Netherlands!  And I found another trackable!  There are several kinds of these, the most common being Geocoins (coins with a custom design and a serial number), and Travelbugs (dogtags with a serial number, that people usually attached to different small objects).  When you log the cache, you can log the trackable separately, whether picking it up, dropping it off, discovering and leaving it there, or finding it in a cache other than the one it was supposed to be in.  Usually, you simply move it to another cache, although some have goals for which way they want to go.  With logs and pictures, it’s a way to vicariously travel.  This one was a little yellow Jeep 4×4 that I later found had travelled around 6,500 miles.  I snagged that, and dropped in a deck of Care Bear cards that had somehow come into my possession — I’ve been thinking that as a personal theme for myself, I’d like to drop in game-oriented items when I go geocaching.  Since we’re going to Caddo Lake to camp next weekend, I figured I’d move the two trackables in my posession a couple hundred miles from where I picked them up.

Cache rehidden, the next closest was back out to the park road, and across a field.  This one was what is referred to as a multi-cache.  This is the kind that feels the most like a treasure hunt — the cache isn’t actually at the coordinates in the entry.  Instead, you find a clue that you have to solve in order to find the cache, or sometimes the next location with another clue.  In this case, it was a large washer hung from a tree with a three digit number etched on it.  To find the coordinates of the cache, you had to manipulate the numbers, sometimes the digit itself, sometimes some addition, sometimes subtraction or multiplication, then enter the result into your GPS as a waypoint and go there.

As we were approaching the coordinates with the washer, we heard voices.  Sure enough, there was a family over there.  I asked if they were geocaching, and in fact they were.  They said they were having some trouble reading the numbers, because the washer was rusty and it was badly faded.  The parents led the kids and their dog away (ours were going nuts wanting to play), so we could examine the washer ourselves, but they hung around the area so we could compare notes.  I took a look, and yeah, this thing was covered in rust and the numbers were barely legible (the top half of two of them was just missing).  Later, I read that there was a newer washer in the same area, but we didn’t spot it, nor did we even know to look for it at the time.  Fortunately, I did a lot of work with fonts and such for work, so I was able to decipher the numbers from just the segments that were visible — 636.  When I passed this information on to the family, they said that made more sense (since one of the final digits involved adding two of these numbers together, and they had guessed 686, which yielded a two-digit number).  We first hiked down the road for a bathroom break while I figured up our final coordinates, and hung out for a while, giving the pups more water.  After entering the waypoint, I saw that it was on the way to the next cache in the list, the official state park one, and in the direction we’d have to hike to eventually return to the car.  I even created a waypoint for where we parked and put a little car icon on the map, just for the fun of seeing how far away the car was.  Sitting there, it was 1.1 miles away…directly across the lake.

Feeling a little rested, we started walking down the road, and eventually, the arrow pointed off to one side, across a field, saying it was 500 feet away.  Given that part one was just a little ways into the treeline on the far side of a field, I figured this one might be as well, so I just started cutting across the field.  Brandy didn’t follow — she told me later she was looking for a trailhead instead.  As I got closer, I heard voices again, and sure enough, the family was coming out of a trail leading into the treeline I was headed towards.  We exchanged hellos, and I started down the trail as they continued the other way, looking for their next cache.  When I was about 50 feet away, the arrow was pointing directly into thick undergrowth, which meant more bushwhacking for me.  I started pressing through, Huyana faithfully following, and emerged…on another trail.  Figures.  I went a little bit down this trail, until the arrow pointed into the thicket again, and found a path that was a little less overgrown, leading to the cache.  This time, it was a large flashlight — I couldn’t help myself, I pressed the button, but of course nothing happened.  This particular one was simply disguised as a lost flashlight.  Opened it up….and yet again, a logbook, but no included writing utensil — I really need to carry a pen when I do this.  The GPS gave me a new achievement – “First Multi-Cache Found!”  I dropped in a toy top, closed it back up, and walked back to the trail, intending to go look for Brandy, and she was conveniently just then coming down the trail toward me.  I asked if she wanted to see the cache, which she did, so I got her to the general area and pointed her in its direction — she found it quickly enough, and we both commented on the clever container.

Next cache, the state park one!  Brandy was really starting to feel tired, though, so we walked slowly up the road, with our goal to get to one of the day use spots with a picnic table to pause and take another break.  On the way, a ar pulled up to us, and it was that family — apparently, they hadn’t actually found the multi-cache, and asked me where it was — when I mentioned it was under a low tree branch behind a rock, the father said he knew right where it was, and they drove on.  That amused me, as I’d only been using my GPS for a few hours, and they seemed to be a little more experienced at it.

After a while, we rounded a bend, and saw a bench facing the water, so we sat down.  The cache was within 300 feet, but we’d have to continue down the road to a trailhead and backtrack to get to it.  Brandy had pointed out a trailhead on the way up, and it was the correct one, but it was also the far end, and at the time, my priority had been finding a picnic table or something so she could sit for a while.  As we relaxed and looked at the water, Brandy showed me a large burst blister on her foot.  I expressed concern, given how far the walk was to the car, but she insisted she’d be fine.  A little while later, she was feeling the pain a bit more, so I put my foot down, and said we were done for the day – I would go get the car.  That’s where my most adventurous hike of the day began, and also where the true benefit of the GPS showed itself…yup, I let the Throkda Jones in me fully take over.

You see, if I followed the road like a sensible person, it would veer away from and back toward the lake, making my walk much much longer.  I could see this on the GPS street map.  So, at the first opportunity, when I saw a trail leading down toward the lake, I cut down that, following the waterline on a path that cut some distance, but eventually dumped me back on the road when it veered back.  After doing this twice, I found myself striding directly across the picnic area to the swimming beach and on to the fishing pier/boat dock.  Once there, thanks to the low water level, I hopped down to the gravel (thus putting me on the “other side” of the lake.  Unfortunately, after following this for a little bit, I ran out of navigable land, as dense plants came all the way up to the water’s edge of the creek I was now following (where people would paddle up in their kayaks).  Well, since I couldn’t continue walking this way, I had to cross the creek back to the other side.

I spotted a beaver dam, and walked across that, carefully balancing with my staff to avoid falling in the mud and water.  On the far side, I saw some crushed reeds where someone else had done the same, and I started up the shore.  My first step, the reeds weren’t quite on the solid ground I assumed — gloosh!  Meh, one wet sock — they almost held my weight!  I cut across a camping loop, where some people at their site watched me emerge with an expression like “what the hell?”

With rapid strides (and Huyana was loving this), I cut past the group barracks and back down to the creek, looking for where it was narrow enough for me to hop across.  When I found it, I first had to hop across a narrow branch, landing on a bank that was 4 feet lower than the ground I started from…poor dog went under, which meant I had to unhook the leash, and reconnect it once we were both there.  There, we’d cut about three quarters of a mile off my walking distance with that one hop.  Now, back up onto the road, passing some surprised RV campers, I continued on my way, watching the GPS for options where I could take a straight-line shortcut instead of following the road.  Soon enough, I came across another one, this time following the easement under some electrical lines, up the rocky hillside, over stumps and cacti and through some brush when the path dipped into a ditch, until finally, I dropped back onto the road on the final stretch toward the car.  Total time to get to the car, about 20 minutes.  Total time to drive back, following the road at 20 miles an hour, about 5 minutes.  Plus I got another achievement – “Travelled 5 miles!”

I picked Brandy up, and we headed home, happy and excited with our success.  Yeah, I’m really gonna enjoy this particular hobby..

We hadn’t decided what to do this weekend as it was approaching, until the Mineral Wells State Park staff announced on their Facebook page that they were doing a “Wild Walk” on Saturday.  What caught my attention was the picture, of kids walking through a low-ceiling shallow cave, using their hiking staves to keep balance.  This reminded me so much of hiking the Woods (as we called it) when I was a teenager that I decided we had to go check it out.  As a bonus, it didn’t start until 2pm, which meant we could sleep normally and still get there, given that we weren’t camping at the park (most of these things seem to start between 8 and 10am, and we’re an hour and a half drive away).

We’d hoped to kill an hour beforehand by looking for the TPWD official geocache, but the trails, unfortunately, were closed due to wet conditions.  No big deal, we just walked them around the loop by the hike’s starting point until everyone else showed up.  By the time the ranger and other attendees arrived and we were ready to go, we had learned two things.  First, we’ve been bad about regular walks with the dogs…they were being a little less obedient about heeling than normal.  Second, Huyana needs much more socialization time…there was a family with a tiny poodle that they appeared to treat as a toy for their toddler daughter.  Huyana barked and whined and pulled — she desperately wanted to play with it…or at least chase it.  Given the situation, the best I could manage for the hike was to keep our distance and try to avoid letting Huyana focus on the other puppy.  It helped a bit that the owners carried it for just about the entire hike…I forsee issues with small dog syndrome in that family.

We started off down a steep slope, then around behind a boulder to begin our adventure.  They really drove home the warning about the walk’s difficulty right away, since the next thing we know, we’re crawling on our hands and knees through a tunnel of stone.  And that was how the rest of the hike went….through tunnels, over boulders, up and around the lip of a cave, across creeks, and through many brambles and briars.

We were both quite thankful for the hands-free leashes.  The dogs calmly followed us through all of it.  Several times, people tried to help Vaquita over things, but Brandy kept telling them that to be patient and let her figure it out.  Every time, Vaquita managed her own way through or over the obstacle.  We were so proud of our little problem-solver.

Another particularly amusing moment came when I attempted “The Squeeze.”  This was a thin tunnel between two 30-foot high rock walls.  At one point, a ridge of rock juts out, that kids have no problem with, but almost all adults can’t get past.  I gave it a shot, but while it didn’t catch my gut, my ribcage was another matter.  Oh well, but when I started back, I was so proud of Huyana — she backed up one step at a time, keeping pace with me until the tunnel widened enough that she could slip past me back to the heel position.

And after all that, we climbed the stairs, finishing the hike with a gorgeous view of the lake, as the sun was getting low in the sky.  It was a perfect day, and we look forward to doing it again soon!

First off…we apparently slept in too late…I was up by 8:15, went and did the campsite registration, filled the gas tank, came back, woke Brandy, made coffee, and got to the group site only to find out that they’re all early risers — we’d not only missed breakfast, but everything had been cleaned up and put away.

No problem, we poked around and mingled…I already told the story about the Switchback and Warbonnet hammocks, although I didn’t mention that I thought the custom tarp the Switchback guy had was really cool…room for two hammocks next to each other, with dark blue walls, and a translucent white stripe directly overhead to let in ambient light.

We watched a gentleman saw through a piece of wood and discover an angry carpenter bee while he was prepping for a friction fire demonstration.  While there, I had my whetstone out and turned UncleMJM’s (the host) knife from a dullness like it was meant for butter to a properly sharp instrument.  I tried a few times to see if I could find people interested in learning some games, but that just wasn’t meant to be, it seems…I never got any takers.

Lots of people expressed interest in the Trail Sling chair, and everybody was either petting or asking about Huyana.  Brandy and I basically did our own things all day…sometimes she was with the group and I was at camp…sometimes vice-versa.  Due to my frequent trips to the restroom, not to mention the nap, she had Huyana the majority of the day.

One thing we definitely didn’t miss was the potluck supper and the Stone Soup, which turned out pretty good.  These people are masters of dutch oven cooking.  Pineapple upside-down cake, bread, chili, banana pudding, black forest cake….mmmm….

Our names were entered in the drawing, and there were so many donated items, it seemed everyone won something twice.  I won a prototype of a wood-burning stove, and a new multitool, while Brandy won some red whoopie slings and a bottle for distilled alcohol, if we ever do another alcohol stove.  We hung out around the campfire for a long while, discussing a multitude of things, although I went back to camp for a bit to use my new stove to make some hot water for cocoa.  Eventually, it was time to turn in…so far, I’d say this trip has been a good and educational one.

I just woke up from a nap in a Blackbird.  Two hammocks I had definitely wanted to try out at the hang were the Warbonnet Blackbird, and the Tree to Trail Gear Switchback.  Both were available, and I was impressed with each in their own way…the Switchback had the really nice liner, and the netting was way above my head, making it feel very spacious.  The Blackbird had the nifty gear shelf and footbox, and I would still have a structural ridgeline.

Sadly, the only Switchback that was being sold at the hang was a netless model, which just won’t do for me.  Someone had a Blackbird up for sale, and it was only $100….this is normally a $160 hammock.  I asked if I could try it for a night before committing, and he said yes.  So I spent the next hour or so hanging it at camp…taking my Hennessy Explorer down, detangling the multi-layer underquilt I’m using this trip, reattaching said insulation, and retweaking everything to fit.

Somet time later, I was in the mood to hang out at camp for a while, feeling a bit nappy, and next thing you know, I’m asleep in my Blackbird.

Yes…MY Blackbird.

Now that I’ve had a comfortable sleep in it, I do believe the man has sold his hammock…and I will enjoy it again tonight.

A Good Ol’ Texas Hangin’

For two years, we’ve missed it.  Third time’s the charm, I guess.  Of course, this time, we planned things out months ahead, and had just about everything packed a week before we left.  No matter what, we weren’t going to miss the HammockForums Texas Fall Hang three years running.

So my annual bronchitis started up a week before time….I spent the weekend in bed and have been pretty much exclusively been drinking hot beverages since then.  So I needed a haircut and couldn’t get it the weekend beforehand…I arranged to get out of work a little early to deal with last-minute errands like that.  So what if I was feeling a little run-down right after I got home from said errands…I managed to squeeze in a 90-minute nap and a shower, and felt much better.

And suddenly, the car was packed, the dog was loaded up, and we were on our way!  We didn’t dally all the way to Fairfield, and got into town in about an hour and a half, then paused to grab a quick bite at McDonald’s before arriving at the park.

Strange, our name wasn’t on the posted list at the entry station when we arrived, though I had definitely gotten my confirmation of our reservation.  Well, at least we knew what loop everyone would be on.  We drove through and found a vacant site, started to set up, and discovered the key tree we both needed (because it was the only one with trees the right distance away) was big enough around that our 8-foot tree straps didn’t quite get around it, meaning we couldn’t attach our hammocks to it.

No big deal…we walked across the road and found a great spot to set up, even allowing us to have our tarp “porches” pitched toward each other to have a large area between us for Huyana to wander around, attached to her ridgeline so she didn’t wander off.  With that task done, we set off in search of other hangers.

A quick shortcut behind our campsite, across an open field, past a little amphitheater and the bathroom, and then we found site 26, where a few people were still awake and hanging out by the fire, including MacEntyre, the creator of the Insultex underquilts we were using that very night.

We introduced ourselves, and let people love on Huyana.  Someone tried to let their dog say hello, but with him growling and Huyana hiding behind me, I explained that I just didn’t think it was going to happen and that it would be best to let it be, rather than force it.

I comandeered someone’s vacant camp chair, and we proceeded to chatter about the weather, wildfires, dogs, and the one hang we did manage to attend a couple of springs ago, when a winter storm ran everyone off the morning after we arrived.  All told, a nice hour or so before people decided to wander off to bed.

When I got back to the campsite, I saw that my incredibly thoughtful wife Brandy had beaten me back and was almost finished heating up some water so I could have some tea before bedtime.  Mmm…apple cinnamon.  Huyana just calmly lay on her pillow, watching us until we were ready to turn in.   Alas, after I was in my hammock, snuggled up in my sleeping bag for the night, I suddenly had that urge that required me to get up, climb out, and put my jacket and shoes back on, so I could hike to the restroom.  Oh well, at least I have a nice warm nest to go back to…mmm…peaceful sleep in the woods.  I’m looking forward to Saturday’s activities.

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