Day Five: Jungle, meadow, lake, mountain
- August 23: Whispering Pines Campground to campsite south of Sheridan Lake
- Miles: 21.5
- Elevation gain: 4,100
It was cloudy, humid and warm when I woke before dawn at Whispering Pines. I was back on the CT at 6:05.
The trail continued its long, gentle descent through Boardinghouse Gulch, rambling through open forest and grassy meadows toward Pactola Lake (where I’d been some 45 years earlier with the scouts, though all I recalled was the name).
I spooked several whitetails along the way, sending a mother and her spotted fawn bounding in opposite directions. I fretted until mama finally leaped up the hill to my left and raced back for the reunion. I was also charmed to see a small red squirrel scurrying up a tree with an enormous mushroom in its mouth — who knew? And once more, I stopped regularly to feed on raspberries alongside the trail.
I caught my first sight of the reservoir after about four miles, glimpsing a finger of it below me through the trees. I soon crossed a paved road leading down to a boat ramp, and on the other side, in classic CT fashion, all sign of the trail promptly went AWOL. After glancing at a map, I bushwhacked in the general direction I thought I should be going until picking up a faint track.
The trail headed uphill to cross Highway 385. On the other side, the trail offered varied views of Pactola Dam before crossing Rapid Creek. The CT skirts along south of the creek before crossing a small foot bridge. Then, for the next half a mile or so, I found myself pushing through dew-soaked willows and grasses that were, as often as not, over my head. I was reminded of descriptions of wet, close marches through southeast Asian elephant grass. The going was slow and sloppy, and by the time I emerged, I was as soaked as if I’d walked through a thunderstorm.
After passing cabins at the Tamarack Trailhead, I began climbing up through Tamarack Canyon. Topping out after about a mile and a half, the trail descends Brush Creek Canyon, passing through several different ecosystems, from dense pine forest to open pastures and the lush bellies of shallow draws.
Though the route seemed fairly obvious to me, the tread was in places all but invisible. And once again, an erratic system of markers led to the need for tiresome second-guessing.
Cranky lecture interlude (feel free to skip):
Here’s the problem: You’re going along, seeing very regular markers, feeling confident. Then suddenly, you realize you haven’t seen a marker in a while, so you stop, maybe look at a map or backtrack to the last marker. In other words, if signs or markers are sporadic or irregularly spaced, it can lead to a lot of unnecessary backtracking.
Some will scoff at such a “problem,” arguing that any hiker should be skilled with map and compass and not even require trail markers. I agree that every hiker should have at some familiarity with orienteering, and I have quite a bit. But the maps and guides available for the CT are not at all granular, which renders orienteering skills less effective (i.e. the trail might take several turns that are not visible on a map, due to scale). Interpreting topological features can be helpful, but again, at such a small scale, not always useful.
Here’s the point: If a trail is going to be marked, then it should be marked … at regular, fairly predictable intervals. If the trail were totally unmarked, then of course a different set of tools would be necessary. But erratic marking is the worst of all worlds.
End of lecture.
I finally crossed Brush Creek and stepped out into dirt Brush Creek Road. The CT slithered back and forth across the road, but I decided to just walk right up the middle to the trailhead, a small dirt parking area. It had been an interesting, if trying, morning, but I had my “10 by 10” — at least 10 miles by 10 a.m. — so I was feeling good.
After a gentle climb I reached a thinly forested ridgetop with panoramic views of the open, rolling pastures surrounding the Bald Hills. Beautiful even beneath low-hanging, iron-gray clouds, I imagine it’s a truly exhilarating vista in full sunlight.
After dropping 50 yards from the ridge to the next CT stanchion, I couldn’t see another. I decided to follow a faint track heading west toward a small swale, but it soon disappeared. Spinning again, I still could make out no markers. I started following an old jeep track south-southeast toward a metal gate, but soon returned to the last obvious marker. Only then did I detect another hint of tread heading northeast into a draw. Following it, I soon spied the next marker, which had been obscured from above.
Beneath the clouds, the air was warm and humid, and I was drenched with sweat as I finally passed the Twin Sisters and followed the trail down into the next long, grassy draw, bordered by pine forest. The ground was frequently muddy and lumpy, trampled by cattle, and in several places ORVs — supposedly prohibited here — had created deep, boggy ruts. Still, the lush landscape reminded me of The Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
Down in the bottom of each draw, I couldn’t avoid sklunching down into calf-deep mud, revealing an unexpected downside my Xero sandals. Even after tightening the straps, the slick mud made my feet so slippery that they pushed far out over the sole. I would wash them off in a cattle trough or relatively clear pool, only to have to slog through through another bog … and another … and another. Thanks, outlaw ORVs and legal cattle!
As I walked up the last such draw, I saw a scrawny older guy and his expansive wife, putt-putting on their illegal ORV on the other side of the muddy creek. I noticed them long before they saw me, and when they did, they did a quick about face and fled my judging eyes. These people have literally hundreds of miles of designated trails throughout the Black Hills to ride; why do they insist on violating the law, shredding the land as they go? I don’t get it.
I finally emerged from the final boggy draw, relieved to have solid, dry, flinty ground beneath my feet. Something about this day — too many wrong turns; bogs; thoughtless, selfish people; — had left me feeling cranky, and the descent toward Sheridan Lake felt long and boring. When I finally reached Sheridan Lake Road (with its yellow gate and screamingly apparent sign prohibiting motor vehicles), I stopped to look at Steve’s databook. The suggestion was to go west on the paved road about a mile to the North Cove camping area. But it was only 1 p.m., so I decided to go on.
Not far across the road I wandered briefly in another confusing spot before marching up a short, steep hill and soon passing the Dakota Point trailhead. Descending a rocky road, I crossed footbridge and descended a short flight of stone steps to cross Sheridan Lake dam. Skirting around the southern shore of the lake, I resisted the urge to leap from several low rock outcroppings into the water, and after about a mile spilled out into the paved parking area at the Flume/Calumet Trailhead. No sign of where the CT went from here. Surprise.
Wanting to rinse the crust of sweat from my clothes and body, I walked north toward a small marina on a paved, unmarked road. I dumped my pack and waded in to the deliciously cool, clear water, scattering small fish before me. I dunked several times, then stripped down to my shorts and lay the rest to dry on the asphalt.
After looking over my sources again, I decided that part of the signage problem might be the fact that Whetham and Huhtiniemi’s guidebook was written for a northbound hike. In theory, a SOBO just had to read it from back to front, bottom to top. But in reality, just turning around can change things considerably. I suspected that there was a clear sign on the northbound CT pointing to the Flume/Calumet Trailhead, but looking southbound, nada.
I wandered into the Sheridan Lake south shore campground, but balked at paying a whopping $26 for the privilege of setting up my tent. I tanked up on water, then meandered uphill to see if I could find a trail sign, but instead came upon Bluewing Road. I headed down the road toward the trailhead, and just as the road turned east, I spied a shy little CT sign on the hillside to my right. My suspicion had been correct: Had I been a NOBO, the route would have been obvious, but from the trailhead a hundred yards away, it was invisible.
The clouds had finally burned away as I began the sustained uphill march toward Samelius Peak, a total of some 1,500 feet over three and a half miles. The trail skirted around two small peaks, then after a brief descent I found a nice, level camping spot atop a ridge, a stone’s throw from an abandoned mining “glory hole.” I pitched my tent, hung my clothes to dry, and plopped down for a snack in a pleasant breeze.
My usual practice is to put my phone into airplane mode while walking, to save battery and fend off distractions. This day, I forgot to check for a signal until around 6 p.m., when I discovered several text messages from Steve and Luke “Strider” Jordan, who were in the area after route-scouting for the GPT north of Bear Butte and had been trying to reach me to meet up. We decided to meet in about a half an hour where the trail crossed Calumet Road. I was fairly beat, but hankering for human contact, I ran 1.3 miles back down the mountain, hoping all the while that I might score a bit of trail magic.
It was great to see them. I’m sure I looked like a lunatic, wearing short-shorts and a rain jacket with a headlamp strapped onto my greasy, unkempt head. We jawed and laughed as I slugged down the Gatorade Luke handed me and munched on trail mix from Steve.
I’m more than happy to walk along for eight or 12 hours by myself and I’ve never once felt lonely on trail. But I become an enthusiastic chatterbox whenever I get to a town, campground or shelter; recharging my social batteries, I guess. On this hike, there had been no other backpackers, no shelters, no hostels, and only brief interaction with people at campgrounds or the two tiny towns I’d come through. So it was nice to see familiar faces and talk trail.
By the time we wrapped up, it was almost dark. I didn’t mind the 25-minute haul back up to the campsite as much as I thought I would. My headlamp revealed several sets of shining greenish eyes off in the forest, presumably deer. When I finally lay down to read, it was 9:30.
An hour and a half later, I was awakened by a shattering crash of thunder to find the alight with near-constant lightning. Scrambling out of the tent, I yanked my shorts and shirt off the branches where I’d hung them. Within a minute, it began to rain, and shortly after that hail began to fall.
Got bombed hard with hail and rain, large marble-sized, lightning and wind for at least 30 or 45 minutes, I wrote in my journal. Only minor leaks but much condensation inside in the morning.
Images of glowing green eyes blinking from the blackness of the abandoned glory hole awoke me sometime later. The storm had passed.
“Heed no nightly noises! for nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top,” the enigmatic Tom Bombadil tells the hobbits when they take shelter in his home in “The Lord of the Rings.”
I hadn’t been afraid in the Dreamtime and now, lying in the dark, instead of fear or nervousness, I felt a tangible surge of exhilaration at my solitude and joy at feeling so very comfortable in my little tent so deep in the woods, on a mountainside, utterly alone.