Just after 1:00 AM on a quiet night in January, the Zaleski trail was pierced by the howls of nearby coyotes. On past trips I have heard individual calls while deep in these woods, but tonight’s opera was even more primal, suggesting a special meeting deep in these woods. At that moment, while I was suspended in the trees and exposed to the elements, I only knew two things for sure. First, this coyote call was both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. And second, there was no place I would rather be.
Starting in September 2016, I set a goal that would test my ability to camp in cold weather. To do this, I selected one of Ohio’s finest backpacking trails, Zaleski (Fig 1 – Trail Map) located within the Wayne National Forest and just south of Hocking Hills. I have always found this terrain challenging enough to really push myself (Fig 2 – Trail Elevation) but so beautiful and well maintained it offers an illusion of safety. My backpacking goal was simple. Every month I would complete a 14 mile loop, hiking in approximately 7 miles into the woods (often alone) to Zaleski’s 2nd campsite. There I would spend the night, cook some wonderful meals, practice my bamboo flute, and sleep in my ENO hammock. In the morning I would follow a different route back to my car, and enjoy a few excursions along the way. I honestly could not ask for a better playground to test my skills.
As you can see from the above chart (Fig 3 – Zaleski Weather) I was very fortunate this year. Each month there was a gradual drop in temperature, giving me enough time and encouragement to adapt. I enjoyed making the necessary changes in my gear and finding a new approach to the changing climate. By selecting days in advance and pushing myself to go, no matter what the weather, I often found myself on the trail during heavy rainstorms and strong winds. But as you would expect, the biggest issue I found was the wind chill. While temperatures only dropped to the 20s, the fierce gusts of wind, especially along the ridge lines, often made the temperature feel like it was less than 10 degrees (F). But with the right gear and attitude, I continued to enjoy all the beauty that nature could provide. NOTE: Do not be fooled by the photos. I only took pictures when it wasn’t pouring down rain. 😉
It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy backpacking in the winter. I have always had a tendency to hike and camp solo. Somehow this makes me feel a stronger connection to the world around me. But I must confess, camping this winter and meeting so many wonderful people on the trail has given me a new appreciation for running with a pack.
I remember one month, perhaps in October, arriving late to the Zaleski parking lot and it was pouring down rain. It was still early enough in my decision to learn winter camping that I started to question my sanity. But this was the only weekend I could get away in October and if I was going to camp, I needed to get myself out of the car and go (the only thing worse than setting up camp during a cold rainstorm, is setting up camp during a cold rainstorm… in the dark). And just when I was about to throw in the towel and drive back to Columbus, another car pulls up next to me and an older couple jumps out and starts putting on their packs. Their timing and positive comments were a real gift.
Another time in December, when the temperature and wind chill was especially bad, a group of five people hiked into camp. Up until this point it was rare for me to see others on the trail, and when I did see someone, I had a habit of keeping to myself. But using some of that Nerd Fitness 20 seconds of courage, I walked over and introduced myself. And after everyone finished setting up camp, I went back over with some firewood and spent the next several hours listening to great stories, learning new winter skills and appreciating the people around me.
On my last trip to Zaleski in January, I was surprised when a group of 9 people marched into camp. They seemed so friendly, that I again got up the courage to say hello and sit around their campfire. I learned they were from the Cincinnati Area Backpackers club, and I found these people were funny, truly respectful, and full of positive energy. It was that night that we heard the coyotes which I took as a good sign. And the next morning, just when I was stepping onto the trail, they suddenly appeared, ready to go. The timing was just too perfect to pass up. So instead of taking my planned route back, I followed them into the woods and had a great trip back. I can not say enough kind words about that group. If you ever get a chance to go camping with them, do it. I highly recommend it.
Another big reason I find myself attracted to the woods, besides testing myself physically and mentally, is the direct contact with nature fuels my creative spirit. I always come back to the studio with new ideas, full of inspiration and a renewed creative spark to push me further. I do believe the city has a lot to offer, and I choose to make my home in Columbus. But whenever I go backpacking, deep in the woods and away from obvious signs of civilization, I can not help but feel the natural patterns and colors surrounding me somehow speak a more truthful language that my heart craves. I hope that some of that beauty is reflected in my pottery.