Sunday, April 9, 2017

McGee Creek Misadventure

Sunday morning after I ran all day and night at the Spring Fling 24 hour event in Coalgate I decided to make a third try at finding the trailz at McGee Creek. I tried once before and gave up when I found it was quite a bit further from HWY 69 than I thought; then the next time I made it to the lake, but could not find more than a 2-mile loop. It turns out that the hiking trailz are on the far east side of the serpentine snake-tongue-shaped lake. This time, I zoomed in on my google map app and dropped a pin where the trail head was, and it took me right to the place. The park office should have been closed, but a park ranger guy was there doing some maintenance on the building. He answered a few question that I had and gave me a paper brochure/map.

He suggested a few different route options leaning toward the shorter distances I think because I was moving quite slow getting out of my truck and was wearing blue jeans and clown shoes (Hokas--I'm sure he expected any legitimate hiker would have hiking boots.)

The trailhead was right behind the park office. It was a safe place to park, which I liked. I still had my Salomon pack bladder filled, and my trekking poles handy. I was accidentally prepared. Entering the trail, right away, I knew I had found a trail running paradise. These forest service roads (more like jeep road) were cushioned by pine needles from tall pines and on this foggy day, the treetops seemed to disappear into the low cloud cover.

About a half mile down a gradual downhill, it started raining-- but again, I was accidentally prepared. At LandRun a few weeks ago I had packed a contractor trash bag and had cut arm holes and a tight neckline opening as well. My homemade poncho hanging down halfway between my knees and feet was sufficient but would have been perfect with a sash. The rain was steady and actually heavy at times yet I was dry and toasty. 

At one point I came upon a rock among many on the trail that was shaped like a face. Someone had placed two small forks on it where the eyes would have been--sort of a cairn--sorta creepy, kinda cool. I wish I had taken a picture of it, but it was raining too hard.

My plan was to run the South Rim Trail to where it intersected the Little Bugaboo Creek Trail and take that back to the main trail that led back to the park office--a 4-mile round I figured. 
Reaching the bottom of a long descent (about 1.5 miles) I had my first water crossing that was easily traversed thanks to well-placed rocks. Then I had a steeper climb that topped out 3/4 of a mile later by a section line fence. I followed the fence line to the left for 100 feet and then the trail veered left from the fence line and back down another hill. Finally, I popped out in a clearing that was actually an equestrian camping area. No horses, but I had noticed a little horse poop here and there.

Checking my map, I saw that I could stay on the South Rim Trail for about a half-mile up a pretty good climb to the Bugaboo Creek Canyon overlook. I was game for that--I'd have 5-mile trip instead of a 4-miler. But after a half mile, I was still climbing and seeing nothing that looked like an overlook--and the rain was really coming down.

Finally, after 3/4 of a mile, I saw a faint trail leading over to a rock outcropping and what must have been the overlook. It was good for a few pictures. These huge boulders towered 50-60' above the valley floor below. It seemed like such a good place to explore, but I did not have an unlimited budget of time, and it was getting sloppy wet.

On this dreary day, I couldn't capture the majesty of this place. Whereas I'd normally spend time looking for creative camera angles that caught the essence of the towering rocks, today my phone was getting wet.

Leaning over the edge, I found out that these rocks were pretty slick, so rock scrambling for me today.

From there, I had a 3/4 mile run back down to the horse camp clearing, and on to the Little Bugaboo Creek trail.

This was pure single track, and for a while ran alongside Little Bugaboo Creek--a beautiful boulder-strewn cascading stream--if only it were not dry. I am betting I was a mere few hours from this being a raging stream as it continued to rain on me and my run.

It did seem like this trail was not really going the direction that the map indicated. Twice, I pulled my map out of my pocket under my poncho, and could only see that if I kept on this trail I would eventually intersect a trail that led back to the park office.

At 5.5 miles, I began to get concerned. It was cloudy and I could not get bearings based on the sun, but still, it sure seemed like the trail bent more to the north than the westward direction. I felt I was getting further and further away from where I needed to be going. Eventually, I intersected an unmarked trail that briefly gave me encouragement. I got my map back out and tried to focus on it, but the rain was coming down hard and my glasses were fogged up. The wet map was starting to disintegrate in my hands. Desperate for direction, I used my zombie instinct and took the left turn. It seemed like that would go more toward the south and toward my truck. 

Then I came to another intersection that said South Rim Trail, and another road that veered west. West definitely seemed wrong, but I rationalized that where I had earlier jumped onto the South Rim Trail was somewhere in the middle of it and I'd surely come to the trail leading up the hill to the main trail head. Then I came to a familiar water crossing--one I had crossed before. WHEW!! Now I  was sure I was going the right way. And just after that, I saw the rock that was shaped like a face with small rocks for eyes.  I felt at ease--happy that a well-planned adventure was concluding. A few minutes later I saw what looked like a roofline just ahead. I just knew I'd see my truck through the trees any second--then the roofline turned out to be a just a fallen tree. :-/ And the climb got a little more intense--I sure did not remember starting my trip with such a steep downhill!!! When I reached the top the steep climb, the trail intersected a fence line---oops!! I had gone in a big albeit a funky shaped circle.

So now, I was at a loss. I decided to improvise. It seemed to me that this fence line could be followed straight west and it should intersect with the fence at the park office. Good plan. The fence line was cleared--sort of. I started west on a gradual descent that just kept getting steeper. When I reached the bottom, there was a bit of water flowing across it--but it was rocky and not at all muddy. Then I had a good long climb--about half a mile up and I'd estimate 75-100 feet of climb. Then the next descent ended in some dense thickets. A dead end!! I could still see the fence through the thick undergrowth and thought I could just hang close to the fence and punch my way through. So into the briers I went. My poncho quickly was shredded from the thighs down, and I descended down a ravine, walked and waded through it for a while, and then clawed my way out of it. And there was no sign of the fence. Did I get turned around in the ravine? And if so, where did I need to go from here? Every possible answer to that question seemed wrong. It was 3:30--far from getting dark, but for the first time, I was cold. I had water to drink and snacks in my pack, but no headlamp. What to do what to do? My best bet was to retrace my steps and try to get back to the fence that I had lost. Down the ravine but not in the same place I was in earlier, I tried to walk what I felt was upstream. Finally, I climbed back out and then descended into another creek bottom where I found a log that I remembered stepping over earlier and saw brier that had a piece of my trash bag toga in its teeth. And then I found the fence line. Good.

Fifty feet into my fence line climb back up the first of two hills, I saw a faint trail that led to the north. I really wasn't interested in this when I saw it earlier, but now felt it was worth looking into. Why was this trail there if it did not go anywhere, and maybe it was what led westward bypassing where the fenceline trail dead ended. And a good trail it turned out to be. There was fresh horse poop on it, and it was seemingly leading somewhere--somewhere like to the fence that disappeared. Now I was back on track!! Up a hill, down a hill, and up another. But at the top of the last climb, the fence made a 90 degree turn to the south!! Now I was screwed. 

At this point, I was sure I was a 1/4 mile of or less from the park office, but I could not afford to make another mistake like bushwhacking through thickets. The faint trail that followed the fence around the turnto the south did not look at all promising, and hey--what if I was just confused? Maybe I was sleep deprived--no wait--I was!! My map was yellow mush. I tried to bring up my google maps on my phone, but my fingers were wet, and water had gotten under the screen protector, so my iPhone was useless. And if even if it were not, I could not read it with my fogged and soaked glasses. So despite my fatigue, I made what I thought was the best decision--trek my way back down and up and down and up, around the brier bypass trail, to the long trail that I was on by mistake, and back to the intersection where I was sure I needed to go left, I should go right. At least I'd know where I was. Sort of.

On the way back, a few things had changed. The road had water standing so it was splashing through puddles all the way. My water crossing had the rocks pretty much covered. I waded through without even thinking about it. I never saw my face with the rocks for eyes. That worried me, but maybe the rain and running water washed the eyes off. I took the turn that I was so sure was wrong earlier, and the road gradually ascended and a half mile later I was at the park office!!! My 4-mile trip turned into a 9.8 mile wandering.

So after looking at the map online, I see that the final right turn the fence made might have taken me back to the park office. I'm anxious to go back again on a day when I have more time and it's not raining. There are 25-30 miles of trailz here. You know I'll be back.

What did I learn?
1. Always study the map of where you're going. That's how I managed to find this place after two tries. 
2. Laminated maps might be a good thing to have. A map on recycled paper in the rain is not much use.
3. Horse poop can be a good sign, but more often than not--it's just horse poop.
4. Trail gremlins (or maybe bigfoot) just LOVE making cairns and rock faces and then removing them to jack with you.
5. Impromptu adventures are sometimes the best.