Monday, September 30, 2013

Sunrise Hike out at Ponca State Park

I was looking forward to this 'business' trip all week. Lucky I finished all my studies early. So Friday, after class, I drove three straight hours North to Ponca, Nebraska. This weekend was a much anticipated event for all Nebraskan outdoorsmen and women. The Missouri River Outdoor Expo attracts  thousands of outdoors enthusiasts to Ponca State Park during this weekend, and the outdoor involvement program I work for always has a booth set up for this event. I worked the booth all of Saturday, and Sunday I was free to play!
I decided, instead of sleeping in on Sunday, I would rise before the sun, and hit the hiking trails. So Sunday morning, I ate my breakfast as soon as the hotel lobby opened, and I stuffed an extra banana in my pack for the day. It was a quick 20 minute drive to the park entrance, where a Game Warden greeted me with a gruff morning voice, "You a volunteer for the Expo?" to which I replied, "I'm just a hiker, heading down to the Corps of Discovery and Prairie Loop trails." He waved me in with a smile. After I parked and made ready my pack with the morning's supplies, I walked with a hop in my set up to the trail head. My Merrel Chameleons made my feet feel like I could walk for days without tiring. 
As I crested a bluff next to the Missouri River, I was greeted by a beautiful sunrise!

And  that was enough to make my day, but I was excited for everything else this morning would bring!
As I continued up the trail I was anxious to see some wild life, and not 15 minutes later, I spotted 6 turkeys (3 gobblers and 3 jakes) as I crested a hair pin in the trail. I stood stock still as they examined me from 70 yards away. Luckily, they continued sorting through the leaf liter and scratching up any food items they could find. After they crested a hill, I made my approach. Mouth open, ears keen, and eyes searching for their movement as well as any potential noise-making foot steps that might give me away, I stalked up the hill. As I reached the top, I heard a boy talking to his father and I then saw their camp site. The turkeys must have veered off across the ridge and down into the valley to my right. And sure enough, as I followed the trail around I met the turkey troop again. As it turns out, these turkeys seemed to be used to people in the camp sites, and weren't much of a challenge to observe.
As I continued on, I came to a four way cross in the trail, and after referring to my map, I found which turn to take to continue down the Corps of Discovery trail. But shortly after, I came to a sign read "trail closed 8:00am-5:00pm for horse rides" I thought it was odd the hiking trail had not marked the notice at the trail head, so I spent a good amount of time walking up and down the trails referring to my map and concluded I was right on the Corps trail and I would just have to listen for horses. I knew the horse rides were usually scheduled on the hour, and it was about 10 past 8:00. I knew sooner or later I should be hearing some hooves. Rather than risk being discovered on a closed trail, I did what I do best, and I got lost. For some reason I feel most comfortable when I am lost out in the bush. In retrospect, a bushman is never truly "lost" because the bush is our home, and we can navigate to any place we may need to. But none the less, I bush-whacked along the side of a bluff, and noticed the incline was getting steeper. So much so, that when I slipped, the only thing that would catch me, and arrest my tumbling down the full slope, was the thick vine-like undergrowth. I was able to observe some Cedar Wax Wing birds on the bluff slope, as well as various unique deciduous trees, and a stellar view of the flood prairie. 

I decided the situation was too risky to continue along the bluff side, and I needed to somehow bush-wack over to the Prairie Loop trail anyway. But along the whole hillside which I had been traveling on, my descent was blocked by a 50 foot shear drop. 

This happens a lot in the Loess Bluff hills along the Missouri River, when the loess dirt compacts into a shale-type rock, and erodes away, leaving and impressive climbing face (if only the rock material didn't break when you grabbed or stood on it). I found a crack in the face formed by water draining down the face. Though there wasn't much to stand on to navigate down this crack, I was sure I could throw a few solid elbow and knee jams in there to climb down it.

As I approached the crack, I noticed a ball of silver fur sticking out the side of the cliff face. A badger? Possibly. I waited, and waited, and soon enough I found it was not one, but two raccoons! living the high life in this "prime real-estate with a view"! And though I'm not bothered by any animals, I was cautious of these guys because their borrow was a mere five feet from where I need to enter this climb. 

As I started down the face, occasionally glancing back up at the borrow to check for any raccoons coming to join me on my climb. And about half way down, the frail dirt-rock crumbled beneath my foot. I arrested my fall with a quick elbow jam in the crack and by smearing every other part of my body to the cliff face. It was at this point I realized a sinking feeling  of  "Oh crap! this could actually not turn out so good" as I stared to the bottom still 30 feet below. But a few more cautious elbow jams and fist jams allowed me to descend far enough to jump to the bottom ledge. Dirt clods and plant fragments showered me as I completed the decent. My pockets, gloves, hairs, and bag pack were filled with dirt when I reached the bottom. I was thankful to be safe and filled with a sense of adventure and accomplishment.

The rest of the hike was full of beautiful prairie walking and exploring some neat rock slides. That afternoon, I decided to strap on the light weight Merrel Trail Glove shoes for some trail running!