By Mike Ryan, OCJ Field Reporter
Ohio’s Appalachian autumn, with its balmy temperatures and spectacular scenery, is just around the corner.
American author and environmentalist Ed Abbey describes the beauty of Appalachian autumn: “Rustle of wind through the dry corn, rattle of dead leaves beneath our feet, the frosty breath of morning, the sleepy stasis of Indian summer.” And Abbey reverently describes this “land of the breathing trees, the big woods, the rainy forests…those mountains, those forests, those wild, free, lost, full-of-wonder places.”
Such places are plentiful in southern Ohio’s Appalachian foothills where backpackers commonly visit to immerse themselves in the wilderness. Abbey describes such a wilderness adventure as “cutting the bloody cord, that’s what we feel, the delirious exhilaration of independence, a rebirth backward in time and into primeval liberty, into freedom in the most simple, literal, primitive meaning of the word.”
Richie Hines, of south-central Ohio, has a similar adventurous spirit and he encourages others to experience wild nature in off-the-beaten-path locations, taking advantage of chances for the mental and physical stimulation of backpacking. Hines has backpacked into remote and scenic places around the world and closer to home.
“I have taken advantage of many backpacking opportunities throughout southern Ohio,” Hines said. “I have solo hiked portions of the Buckeye Trail through the Hocking Hills and into the Wayne National Forest for several days. I also enjoy the backpacking trails in Zaleski State Forest and Wildcat Hollow in the Wayne. The Vesuvius Lake backpack trail outside of Wheelersburg is also very nice.”
The hills and hollows of Ohio are welcoming for outdoor recreation and nature viewing enthusiasts as well.
“The best part about Ohio is that we have a balanced blend of Appalachian foothills and flat, fertile farmland. In the south, we have rolling hills with good elevation changes, and the black Mississippi sandstone is gorgeous. We have plenty of wildlife to view — from deer and turkey to lesser seen creatures like bobcat, which are making a comeback. I once briefly saw a bobcat while hiking the Wayne, just before it hissed and disappeared back deep into the woods. All of these things make for a satisfying hike or pack trip,” Hines said.
Backpacking is a strenuous endeavor that can tax both body and mind.
“I like land navigating with map and compass and I love the physicality of backpacking. I like the physical aspect of having a bunch of weight on my back while hiking around. You are going slower, so you see a lot more wildlife and experience the landscape first-hand. You can take a .22 rifle out and hunt small game in season and cook it up for dinner that night,” Hines said. “Backpacking can certainly be strenuous on the body, but it can also be mentally rejuvenating and relaxing. While deep in the woods, you have left your ‘real’ life behind. You aren’t looking at a phone or a clock, but going by the sun instead. There is a good spontaneity to it as well—you can stop when you want, roll along at your own pace, fish in streams, set up camp where you want. Backpacking is not necessarily comfortable. But it is not about comfort; it is about experiencing something different that you do not do in your everyday life. If you get in the right mindset and get into the experience, you are going to feel something different. You step out of the norm and get to feel a little more natural.”
For a pack trip in Ohio, Hines prefers the cooler seasons of the year.
“Ohio summers in the woods get really muggy and buggy,” Hines said. “The forests are nice but when in full summer foliage, everything looks pretty much the same and you cannot see much due to the tree canopy. Backpacking in the spring and fall are very pleasant times to be out in the Ohio wilderness.”
Beyond Ohio, Hines has undertaken some longer backpacking adventures.
“One of my longest backpacking trips was a seven day pack trip in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. My personal favorite place to backpack in the Rockies is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. There is a huge, rapid river with a lot of big fish in it, a lot of bird life —hummingbirds, eagles, and hawks — and bats swoop around after dark. You are surrounded by 2,000-foot rock walls on either side of the canyon. It is very hard to get down into, but it is pretty impressive,” Hines said. “I have also gone out backpacking into Utah’s Zion National Park where I witnessed a peregrine falcon circle down to her chicks from a vantage point above her nest, which I liked a lot. On trips to Europe, I backpacked in places like the Swiss Alps and Cairngorms National Park in Scotland.”
Hines has suggestions for folks interested in getting started with backpacking.
“It is best to be in good physical shape before attempting a pack trip. Sturdy, lightweight hiking shoes are also important. You might already have 50 pounds on your back, but to take every step with 5 pounds on your feet can really make a hike difficult. It is also wise to have a good lightweight rain suit. Frog Toggs are inexpensive and very water resistant. They are a good choice for someone just getting started,” he said. “A well-built backpack designed for backpacking that has a waist support clasp to help distribute weight and with a back arch support is very useful on multi-day outings. It keeps the pack off of your back and the air moving. You do not need a giant pack to start backpacking — you need something with room enough to organize your supplies and store dried food, water bottles, a small backpacking tent, and sleeping bag. I have a 70-liter backpack and a 32.5-liter backpack. The smaller one I lived out of for a month while trekking Europe.”
His personal preference is to pack lightly and carry a minimal amount of gear.
“I am a fan of doing anything that can cut down on weight, though some people want more supplies for comfort,” Hines said. “When it is warm in the summer months, I don’t even take a sleeping bag. I use a hammock and sleeping bag liner. More supplies that are packed for comfort equals more walking weight, which tires you out more quickly. You can either enjoy the walk or you can enjoy the night.”
For those willing to take up the challenge and adventure, southern Ohio has an array of backpack trails. Some of the more popular include: Burr Oak State Park’s18-mile trail that circles the lake; Wildcat Hollow, located in the Athens District of the Wayne, has 5- and 15-mile backpacking loop trials; Zaleski State Forest offers 10- and 23.5-mile trail options; Shawnee State Forest has a series of backpack trails totaling over 60 miles in length; and Tar Hollow State Park has a 21-mile backpack trail.
Hikers interested in Ohio pack trips should consult backpackohio.com, a valuable resource that contains an interactive map of backpacking trails, trail and location descriptions, links of interest, and a 13-page PDF, “Complete Technical Guide to Hiking and Backpacking in the Buckeye State.” The Wayne National Forest Welcome Center, located between Nelsonville and Athens on US 33, provides information on trails and topographic maps; information on backpacking the Wayne can also be found on their website, www.fs.usda.gov/wayne.
Backpackers, those vagabonds of the wilderness trails, are familiar with what George Catlin says is “the Everlasting Urge” in his book Some Must Wander: “In any old place or any time—/What matters it how or why or when—/My heart is awake with eagerness/To follow the road from end-to-end.”