A Scouting Trip in Early Spring

woods

Sunday afternoon at my desk had grown tiresome. Something was lacking, something was calling me. Besides, I had some new Vasque Breezes to break in and a new stretch of lake shoreline I wanted to explore. So it wasn’t long before I threw my daypack into my truck and headed out to a remote section of shoreline along a local lake that I’d not explored before.

The trek from suburban cul-de-sac to wilderness was a brief and abrupt one. One moment I was walking through the sort of ragged lawn one associates with derelict lots mowed by the city and the next instant I was entering a typical North Carolina lakeside thicket of fallen trees, brambles, mud, and leaves. The wind was vicious, and indeed, we were under a high wind advisory, but due to the warmer weather, my focus was on searching carefully for slithery friends who might be nestled in a patch of sunlight on the far side of a log I was stepping over. One duck under a fallen tree and I found myself face-to-face with my first obstacle, a quiet, deep creek about six feet wide. I had no illusions of jumping it, but soon found the means across: a branch from a tree growing on the opposite side of the creek that stretched across the water. I scrambled onto this, balancing precariously until abruptly a higher limb snagged my backpack, momentarily imprisoning me and threatening my balance. Soon, though, this obstacle was behind me. Next lay a muddy bog, the low-lying area next to the creek that floods with high water. Mucking through this was doable, just not enjoyable. My Vasques felt great, though, a perk. A six-foot rise met me as I dodged through scrubby trees and briars. So this is how it’s going to be, I thought, eyeing my next adversary.

And so it was. Nothing was fast going today, but all was new and fresh and thus exciting: certainly, it was better than my quiet desk at home. I was walking along a thin peninsula of land, a ridge that was a most twenty or thirty feet wide. To my right was a cattail swamp that looked sure to harbor snakes; to the left was the lake, whipped white by the wind. Across the cattail swamp rose a mixed forest of hardwoods and pines, woods blanketing a hill that rose sharply up and away from me across the cattails. Falling away to the left from the little ridge I was on where thickets of blackberry briars and tangles of vines and a border of shoreline trees that reached over the water to shelter heron, duck, and goose. Underfoot were the bristly brown coils of thankfully dormant poison ivy entertained with tangles of honeysuckle. An occasional cedar sprouted up, a flash of green amid a blah landscape that had not yet escaped the dour colors of winter. But then, just as I was dismissing the monochrome grayish-brown, I spotted a red bud, harbinger of spring, and soon after a lone daffodil, separated by some unknown journey from her fellow flowers. I was uplifted for a moment, blessed by some of nature’s unexpected beauties.

My going was made less arduous after a short while by a game trail, and falling into this hidden groove, I marveled–not for the first time–at how sensibly animals move through the wild. This was the path of least resistance, of greatest cover, and it quickened my own progress. A pile of deer scat confirmed my suspicions as to the architect of this trail. The peninsula now curved along the lake’s shoreline, and ahead I saw emerge front he cattails morass a dark, stagnant creek, deep brown with decay: this I would have to cross again if I were to regain the mainland at the end of the peninsula. On the lake, a heron rose from its nest, disturbed by my presence. Geese followed its lead, swimming away from the cover of the shore for open water. Ahead, the woods suddenly thickened, and I saw that the open area of briars and vines was giving way to the same sort of woods that I had spotted on the far side of the cattails. Descending toward them, I found myself behind an earthen berm, suddenly and blessedly out of the fierce wind. I contemplated stopping for lunch here, but soon dismissed the idea: even with my alcohol stove, cooking on a bed of dried grass was out of the question. So back up the berm, back into the wind, but soon into the forest.

Vines gave way to pine needles underfoot, and I found a lovely, secluded portion of the peninsula. From my vantage point I could see across the lake, but the pines gave me some small measure of protection from the wind, and I was able to relax my guard somewhat about where I was stepping. Pine needles, though, would not do as a base for a stove, either, and so I pressed on again, this time back from the lake toward the creek I knew I would have to cross. The elevation rose ten or fifteen feet, but at the back of this little finger of land I saw the creek as well as the reason for its dark color. Enterprising beavers had crafted a superb dam across its flow, creating a deep pool in the bend of the creek. Downstream from this I saw my crossing point, a tangle of sand bars and trees and fallen trees, sufficient islands and bridges to make it across.

Having gained the mainland again, I swiftly attacked the slope I had seen from the far side of the cattails, rising into an open hardwood forest. A second creek, clear and trickling pleasantly along appeared on my right with mossy green banks. No beavers had thought this creek worth damming. A fallen tree was my footbridge across here, and then–as the hardwood forest gave way to pine–I saw fresh devastation from winter’s last ice storm. A vast brush pile of pungent pine lay on the forest floor. Above, shattered trunks stood like splintered totem poles. Balancing on these fallen trees, I made my way to the base of another hill, this one rising to offer a superb view of the lake now below and to my left again.

It was on the crown of this second hill beside another fallen pine that I decided to eat my lunch. This was to be the furthest extent of my trek, and I had something of a windscreen due to the fallen tree and clean dirt to safely set up my stove. Soon I was perched on my camp stool, measuring out alcohol for my Trail Designs Caldera Cone stove, and in no time at all I was sipping hot coffee and waiting for the second batch of water to boil for my Ramen noodles–not exactly great fare, but welcome on this windy day after my exertions. For all that it was instant, the coffee was deeply satisfying. My perch on my camp stool felt earned. My crazy everyday life was further away now than the distance I had covered to reach this point. Despite the wind, a feeling of calm overcame me as I sipped my coffee. I lost the world and all of my thoughts, I  simply was. This, I suddenly knew, was why I had left my desk. “Come to the woods, for here is rest,” wrote environmentalist John Muir in one of his journals. Indeed. I had set out for an adventure, but I had found peace.

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