Beautiful weather was in the forecast for Labor Day weekend so my husband and I decided that Sunday we would hit the trails. The morning didn’t start very well, we were both tired from responsibilities the day before and when the alarm went off at 5am neither of us seemed to have much enthusiasm. Still we got ourselves up and going, determined to take advantage of the cooler weather and get outdoors.
With the sun barely peeking over the shortest trees, we loaded up the truck and headed out to Land Between the Lakes. This trip took us to the southern portion, across the state line into Tennessee, and to an area where Fort Henry once stood. We had attempted to hike this area previously and found the trails in poor condition with muddy terrain and being inadequately marked. The US Forestry Service had done some work over the years remarking the trails, and had produced some trail maps and literature in 2015.
We had done our research and chose Pickett Loop; the idea of seeing old home sites and views of the lake as we hiked appealed to us. There is also a Fort Henry Trail marked on the map but there were no details on the trail as for a description or what color markers were used for it so we pretty much threw that trail out of the considerations all together. Two other trails were marked as temporarily closed which was disappointing as one traced U.S. Grant’s march towards Fort Donnelson.
We both seemed a little irritated that morning, most likely from fatigue. I had driven almost 3 hours round trip the day before, so I was not thrilled to be behind the wheel again and the drive seemed to be taking forever. To add to the frustration we were unsure of where to go to pick up the trail. The map appeared to show the trail right next to USFS 230 but there was nowhere fairly close or convenient to pull off and park even in a 4×4 Chevy extended cab. I wheeled the truck down USFS 233 and encountered the Fort Henry Trail which also serves as a connector trail but again there was nowhere to pull off and park. So I decided we would just park at Boswell Landing Back Country Area and use a connector trail there to get to Pickett Loop.
I hadn’t bothered to print off a trail map but did have it downloaded to my phone as well as a zoomed in screen shot of the trail we’d chosen. Tensions still running high, we left the truck parked in the boat ramp area and set off down the trail. The trail followed alongside USFS 233 for some ways and we questioned if we were on the right trail despite the map. With more frustration mounting, we continued. Finally the trail turned sharply away from the road and down into a hollow exactly as the map showed so our confidence was given a boost, the tension and frustration started to melt away.
The connector trail wasn’t long. After a dry creek crossing and a little hill climb, we soon found ourselves at a sign post that identified the trail by a number, 24, which according to my screenshot was the trail we were looking for. What I did find odd was that there was no trail name on the sign post, just the number, a warning for motor vehicles and horses then a reminder to “pack it in, pack it out”. We decided to go left at this intersection and head down toward the lake front.
Not long on the trail we could soon see the lake peeking through the trees as well as some campers along the lake shore. One camper greeted us from below with a friendly “Good Morning” and we complimented him on their choice camping spot as we hiked along a rather wide trail. Our little dog, Kennedy, excitedly trotting along with us.
The trail followed the shoreline around a bend and into the back of a little inlet before following up the other side of the inlet, where we spotted a beaver swimming along the shore. The trail was overgrown with weeds on both sides crowding over the trail, making it difficult to see the trail or any snakes lurking close by. It followed the shore along Panther Bay for some distance and passed an old home site with the remnants of a fireplace, before turning uphill. We found ourselves atop a bit of ridge, not horribly steep, plenty wide, and the lake off in the distance, although not visible, on either side of us. The sound of a Baja boat being started carried easily up the ridge and through the forest. Following the trail up and away from the lake, it again became overgrown and it became obvious our little pup was getting tired.
According to the map, we had hiked just 1.6 miles before the trail came close to USFS 230 with traffic noise being heard well off, as light as it was. It felt as if we had hiked much further and I cursed myself for not having downloaded a tracking app on my phone. I also still hadn’t gotten a water bladder for my pack, but I did pack several bottles of water and we were working our way through the second one as the day began to warm up. I was ready for this trail to be over already, my ankles hurt and my pup was tired but we had only made it about halfway. This was by far the furthest hike we had attempted in some time, and even though my body wasn’t as sore as my previous trip, I wanted to be done. I was tired in other ways: tired of lugging the pack on my back, tired of holding the walking stick in my hand my husband had picked up for me, tired of stepping over/around downed and dead tree limbs/branches, and tired of trampling through brush that crowded the trail in places.
I could tell my husband was wearing thin also, and it began to seem like this wasn’t the right day. We had already grown weary from trying to wave sticks in front of us to combat the spider webs and just failed to keep it up constantly leaving us with them clinging to our faces, arms, hair and even having the owners scurry across our bodies before we could flick them away. Our state of mind, our fatigue from the previous day, and our frustration from that morning had worn us out, let alone the miles we were putting in on the trail.
Kennedy was tired also since this was further than he was used to hiking. He had gone from excitedly leading the way and sniffing everything to trotting and panting at our sides as we picked our way along. Sniffing now turned into an opportunity to rest which we somewhat welcomed but knew we were delaying the inevitable. We wondered and yet hoped we wouldn’t, have to carry him the rest of the way. Marching on, what choice did we have? The trail intersected with an old dirt road that looked as if it may have been used fairly recently even though it was not on any of my maps or mentioned as part of the trail system. A sign pointed towards the forest announcing a Civil War Cemetery but we could find no trace of it in the overgrown terrain. If it was there, it would be a mission in itself to find it unless you knew where to look and neither of us had the extra energy for a side mission.
Plodding down the dirt road we navigated our way around stinking, stagnant pools of water before finally coming to another intersection. The number 23 hung high on a tree, sort of cocked off center and again the same warning against vehicles, horses and garbage which no one read apparently from the trash we had seen. We took a rest on a fallen tree, attempted to gain our wits and hydrate a bit before continuing on.
This was when we made our mistake, or I made our mistake, as I pulled out my phone and in my fatigued state assumed we needed to go left to follow the blue trail markers like we had been since the start of the main trail. My fatigue and the blue trail markers in combination with the numbered sign cocked off to one side had us headed down another steeper hollow.
At the bottom of this hollow the trail turned and headed toward a road. I thought maybe for a minute that the trail came close to it again, but my husband pointed out that it in fact crossed the road ahead. I instantly knew we were not where we were supposed to be and pulled my phone back out to confirm. We had veered off onto the undescribed and undetailed Fort Henry Trail. At this point we had two options to get back to where we had parked the truck, back track approximately a half mile or so up the steep hill we had just come down then continue on Pickett Loop for yet another half mile back to the connector trail (which was just under a half mile itself) or hit the pavement despite a dog leg in the road that would add more distance to our hike.
To say I was aggravated was understatement. I cursed, I swore and I wanted the person who had marked these trails in front of me to account for this insanity. What the ever loving hell was going on here!?! What person with any kind of common sense about trails marks two connecting trails with the same color?! F*&$!! I didn’t want to walk on the road, I wanted to hike on a trail but I knew everyone was spent at this point and going backwards seemed ridiculous.
Our little family pushed on up the pavement toward Boswell Landing, and occasionally we had to get off the pavement and onto the steep bank beside the road to allow a car to pass. The terrain was smoother, more open and allowed more of a breeze to reach us, but at this point it didn’t make much of a difference. I was tired and pissed off.
My husband wanted to kick it into high gear and push through the last bit but I couldn’t. I don’t set a fast pace right out of the gate so there certainly wasn’t any hope of me accomplishing it at this point. We walked up a hill, stopped for a break, and allowed a truck to pass. I considered jumping onto the bumper and hanging onto the tailgate since there’s no shame in that, right? It would still technically be getting myself back to where I started.
It was now 11:30am and we had been on this little adventure for 4 hours. My husband wanted me to wait there for him and allow him to push hard over the remaining, unknown distance and return with the truck to pick me up. I stood there, leaning on my walking stick and spotted the remnants of another old homestead. I pointed it out to my husband and after another minute or so he again suggested I wait on the steps that remained so he could push on. I hesitated.
I didn’t want to give up. I could do it. I knew I could. I wasn’t that spent but I certainly couldn’t do it at the pace my husband wanted too. Was it failure? I asked myself. What would the girls (other Ambassadors) think if I gave up? F&*# it, I was done. I was too tired to argue and too tired to explain myself to him in any hopes he suddenly developed the patience after the day’s events to wait for me.
My husband headed up the road toward Boswell Landing, and the dog and I went across the road to the old homestead. I shucked the pack off my back and seated myself upon the cracked and crumbling concrete stairs that had a small tree jutting up through them. I could tell Kennedy was wondering just what was going on. Why had Dad left us? I reassured him he would be back with the truck so we could go for a ride and go home. He quickly found himself a spot and took a seat, content it seemed with my explanation. I quietly cursed myself for taking the wrong trail and for not pushing on to the end. Then I decided not to be so hard on myself, this trail system had confused us more than once and this was to be the final time I vowed. I had hiked for 4 hours and over 3 miles which I couldn’t remember when I done in recent years. Sure I didn’t set a blistering pace which is not why we hit the trails to start with, but I had accomplished a lot.
Soon I could hear the sound of the truck approaching, grabbed my pack and with the dog headed across the road just as my husband pulled up. Kennedy was so tired he didn’t even want to move into the backseat when I put him in. When we came to the intersection of USFS 230 and the Trace the South Welcome Station which sits caddy corner across the road, I asked my husband to pull in so I could tell someone to take their happy asses back out to the trails with some white spray paint and remark the Fort Henry Trail. He chuckled a bit as he wheeled the truck north onto the Trace, towards home.
Ultimately I know the navigation error was my own fault despite the trail markers. Had I taken a little more time to consider things it was evident from the map we were headed the wrong way. The improper trail markers only served to fortify my incorrect decision. Chalk that one up to lesson learned and file under misadventure.