Challenges, Hornets, and Snakes, OH MY!
Like much of 2020, we had a few setbacks and challenges, but we certainly didn't let them stop us! The 2020 Lite-Nite OWLs included Asha, Beth, Laura, MaryBeth and Suzanne with special guest Avenue; Asha's sweet Border Collie and our furry friend. Though we were trekking during the Pandemic we took all necessary precautions.
The day started with a small celebration where Laura was named an OWL Trailblazer for the deeply compelling and heartfelt article she wrote about her experiences as an Outdoor Wilderness Lady and what it has meant to her. Link to full article Laura was given a beautiful OWL Trailblazer certificate, designed by Fraktur artist Ken Scott, and then we were off to the woods!
Before setting up our wilderness camp we decided to go for what should have been only a five mile walk, our destination, a little known cave on an unmarked trail in the wilderness. Things started off as they often do, with laughter, chatter and story telling. It wasn't long after we started Beth noticed a fairly steady stream of water leaking from the bottom of her canteen. Since there was not going to be any potable water available this was a pretty serious issue. We discussed several options but as with many things, the simple solution was the best - she simply tightened the cork and turned the canteen upside down on it's carrying strap. Problem solved for now!
After about two miles, Laura pointed out a beautiful spicebush tucked under a canopy of birch, oak and maple trees. We stopped to smell the leaves and taste the bright red berries. Spicebush, she told us, can be used medicinally as a fever reducer or used in place of allspice or pepper in recipes. The peppery flavor was certainly distinct and memorable! By my calculation we should have only been about a half mile from the cave, but a twist, a turn and another turn soon had me all turned around.
I walked silently with a feeling of slight dread, finally after about fifteen minutes I stopped, checked the compass and map and had to admit to my friends that I had somehow managed to turn us back on our own path and we were going the wrong way! Laura and Asha shared a knowing glance and I had to ask why. Laura laughed out loud and said, "I KNEW that was the same spicebush we just passed!" We all had a good laugh, I told them if I had been smart I would have said, "So, how long were you going to follow me in the wrong direction!" Asha shook her head, lifted her shoulders and said, "I just figured you knew something we didn't. You were leading, we were following!"
We were at a point now when we had to make a decision, did we return to where we planned to camp or turn back and still try to make our way to the cave. Never a group to be detoured, even in a detour, we opted to carry on toward the cave. "A trek is never a complete success unless there's at least one mistake to learn from," is my motto! I rechecked the map, turned 180 degrees and off we went, right past that spicebush once more!
Another forty minutes and we hit the most difficult portion of the trail we scrambled and climbed up up up slipping on dry leaves and loose rocks. The peak elevation was just under a thousand feet but it certainly felt much higher, particularly when climbing in 18th century gear and shoes.
One of my fondest memories and sweetest moments of our time together in the woods was as we were coming down the other side of the peak only a hundred yards from our destination. I turned and saw Beth and her mom MaryBeth traversing the slope hand in hand. It struck me neither was stronger nor more capable than the other. They were in a brief moment of complete equanimity between mother and daughter. The mothers hand that had taught her daughter how to walk was grasped tightly in the hand that would support her inevitable frailty. Tears stung blurring my vision. I called for a short break among the boulders littering our path as we descended to the cave.
Photos 1 and 2 by MaryBeth Enloe
A brief lunch of cheese, bread, landjaeger sausage and apples gave us the nourishment and rest we needed to make it the last few treacherous yards to our destination. Taking a sharp hairpin turn, the trail was barely a thread strung loosely across the fabric of the hillside. Slowly, taking tiny baby steps we stuck ourselves to the path like stick tights to the wool of our skirts. Thankfully, the last five yards opened into a relatively wide flat apron on the gaping mouth of darkness.
The opening was roughly ten by twelve and stretched deep into the hillside. We agreed without dissent to only go in so far as we could comfortably walk and still see daylight. It was quite unsettling how quickly we were absorbed into the unutterable darkness. We were all nervous and even Avenue was startled when Beth yelped as her foot went underwater in a surprisingly deep and very unexpected hole. Our laughter echoed back to us seconds later and I vaguely remembered there was some type of calculation I should know to tell
us how far it was to the back wall of the cave. Regardless of how deep it was, we could still see a glimmer of light from the opening and as my eyes adjusted I could see a large boulder ahead and the ceiling was getting lower with every step. Almost as one, we stopped with an unspoken agreement that this was as far as we were going. It was here I asked my dear OWL sisters to share a song. I had requested everyone come prepared to sing at least one song and this was exactly where I had hoped we would be able to fill the space with song.
I sang (poorly) "The Wind and the Rain" a sad song about two sisters who shared the love of a miller's son. Even with my horrible voice, the song was even more haunting by the echo of the cave. MaryBeth's rendition of "Four Strong Winds" was lovely, but "Danny Boy" by Beth with MaryBeth's harmony was truly magnificent and produced tears all around. It seemed the perfect note on which to close our cave explorations and we cautiously made our way toward the sunlight.
The path away from the cave was no easier than before and we were all cautious as we made our way. Fortune was with us and the return to camp was smooth with only a brief stop to laugh at the omnipresent spicebush we passed for the fourth and final time that day. Finally, with only a few more hours before dark we found a good campsite. We nearly passed it by, but something about the sunlight streaming through the pines and the bed of pine needles drew us back and we decided it was meant to be.
A lovely flat expanse opened up in the deciduous forest and we were set to make it our temporary home. Throwing down our bedrolls and packs we each chose a different tree or two to string our oilcloths from to make our shelters. Laura, Asha and I got to work and were immersed in pounding stakes or tying ropes when suddenly Beth let out an "Oh, Oh! Oh no! Ouch!" She was under attack and being stung over and over! Inadvertently, Beth and MaryBeth had chosen to put up their shelter right over a hidden nest of ground hornets!
We took a few minutes to examine and treat the stings, Beth and MaryBeth are both nurses well trained and ready to handle such misadventures. My wilderness first aid kit contained some sting wipes, Benadryl and Naproxen. Laura had an epi-pen at the ready, but Beth didn't feel it necessary. She did need a short break and a bit of food, so while she took a much deserved rest, MaryBeth relocated their belongings. After a quick search of the ground to avoid any other dangers, MaryBeth soon had both of their oilcloths set up. We each established our own little home for the night, every set up just a little different like the the woman who made it.
As always, as soon as shelters were set up we commenced collecting firewood which provided a few unexpected laughs. A discarded pair of underwear from a previous camper who clearly didn't subscribe to the leave no trace (LNT) philosophy, and Avenue helped Asha carry every stick to (and away) from our pile of firewood.
Our next surprise did not elicit any laughter! Laura reached out to pick up a piece of firewood only to find it rapidly moved away from her as she stepped closer. The large black snake opted not to stick around our camp and we didn't argue a bit!
It was nearly dark by the time we had enough wood collected and it was definitely time for a fire, a warm drink, and dinner.
MaryBeth shared some absolutely delicious dried blueberry tea and some of us added a bit of spirits we had brought. By this time several of us were beginning to run short on water and I made the mistake of skimping on the amount I added to cook my rice. My mistake cost me a burned kettle and burned rice for dinner. Funny, even though my dinner was burned, after the day's good 6 to 7 mile walk, and the excitement of the day, I hardly noticed and ate every bite!
Darkness descended and soon we were singing and telling stories, our laughter and songs rang through the night. Somehow it was suddenly almost 3:00am. Asha and Avenue were laying side by side next to the fire, Beth and MaryBeth had slipped off to bed, and it seemed a good time to say good night. I can't speak for the others, but my last thoughts before I fell asleep were of how grateful I was to be surrounded by such amazing women.
Sunday morning we freshened up the remains of our fire, managed to find just enough water to make coffee or tea, and all agreed we had slept well enough. Sleeping under the stars with only a wool blanket or two (or a doggo) is never comfortable, but it has enough benefits to make it worth it! Before noon our bedrolls were tight, our packs full and we were on our way out of the woods, another OWL Lite-Nite a success!
Post Script - Nearly two weeks later, Beth was still healing from the hornet stings! She shared with us that she had to have steroid treatments for the skin damage and cautioned everyone to always look closely at the ground prior to deciding where to set up your shelter or lay your belongings down.
Photo by Beth Sturdevan