Thursday, August 7, 2014

Hiking to the Narrows From My Backdoor

A Crazy Idea

My wife and I hiked to "the Narrows" yesterday.
This is a grueling hike of five miles each way from my house up the Blanco River.

The Narrows from inside... a little bit past the main pools below falls.

When I say hike, I don't mean hike like walking with a stick over a trail. I mean hiking like crawling/hacking through brush with a machete, climbing up and down steep ravines, boulder jumping, and free swimming while holding your pack up with one hand - yeah, that kind of hiking.

Flood levels carry big trees

The River

The Blanco River is one of the last truly wild rivers in Texas. It does not have dams controlling the flow and making lakes for people to build houses on and go fishing from off their backyard dock. It is a wild river. It goes underground in places during drought seasons and carries large trees and brush when it floods during heavy rains.

From my house on the Blanco river you can get into the valley. From what I can tell it's maybe the closest inlet access on the east side of the Narrows. We started our 5 mile journey from here at 7:30 AM on Wednesday, August 30th. Temperature was expected to hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

My plan was to wear my heavy hiking boots most the way and carry my lighter weight river shoes - switching when needed. My wife only had river shoes.

Stuff - Do I really need all this?

The Gear

I carried a machete and a small .22 pistol along with a Leatherman, 4 bottles of water, and a gallon jug of water. Wife carried all the food, 3 bottles of water, and first aid. The plan was to drink from the jug on the way up and stash it half empty about half way for the return trip. I had a compass, my phone (with GPS if needed - it was), and a piece of map gotten from a Google satellite photo.

We covered the first 2 miles in just over an hour. It took us 4 hours to cover the next 3 miles. (Do the math.)

The Skills it Takes

I had hiked this valley during dry spells several times. A couple times with a friend mapping the springs for his Master's Thesis. We maybe only covered the first 2 miles. Give or take.

I'd also hiked this with 2 determined healthy friends several years ago. We turned around at about the 4 mile point, unbeknownst at the time how much further we had to go. We were less than prepared and one guy had twisted his ankle already. I think we were out of water and just about to get to the hardest parts. It's good we turned around. That trip took about 10 hour’s total.

A mermaid enjoy her triumph
I say that to say I had some experience and knowledge of the land layout. I knew certain trails already and markers and what to avoid. That knowledge is what made this trip's first 2 miles go a lot quicker. After that I had to constantly figure things out.

The main skill on successfully pulling off a hike like this - I'm convinced (besides pure endurance and preparation) - is the navigation. Navigation - it must be what Lewis and Clark geniuses were made of. My eyes were constantly looking up and down, both sides of the valley, trying to determine if that slope was getting higher and turning into a sheer cliff in a half mile, or was it fading away? Do I go UP this side, outside the valley, and try to follow along keeping it in sight, while hacking through brush and woods? Or do I stay in the middle of the hot river bed, crunching through mixtures of deep gravel, boulder jumping and wading through water? You don't want to have to back-track. We only had to a few times.

That sort of navigational instinct need is what pulls at you constantly. And you HAVE to keep walking at fast a pace as doable. No space in time to sit and ponder in the hot sun over a map. Remember; whatever you hike TO you also have to hike back FROM. Time is limited unless you're prepared to camp all night.

We made it. Wow it's hot!

Hog Trails

The country from here to there changes somewhat. I finally started seeing what the animals that live there see. We noticed hog wallows and trails. Muddy swampy areas they were. The trails of a hog aren't much good. They walk UNDER brush. And your back gets sore bending over too many times. They are not good animals to follow and you really don't want to come upon one either - especially without a nearby tree to climb. I have seen hogs weighing well over 200 pounds in this area. They are not your friends.

Deer Trails

Deer trails are everywhere. You have to use them when you can but don't depend on them. More times than not, they get through some tight area but then they network into several veins eventually petering out to nothing. You can watch deer do this. They rarely follow single file except through tough areas sometimes.

Cattle Trails

If you're lucky, you'll be in cattle country for a while. Of course you are trespassing throughout this whole hike and could be shot at I suppose if some owner just happens to be out there. Most of this is ranch land, and ranchers don’t particularly want their cattle disturbed. Cows are big beasts that will generally move away from you. You just hope there's no bulls. In an open field though don't ever run. I've had a herd chase-follow me one time when I was running. I wasn't able to make it to the fence line before they did. Almost stampeded over me. That's another story though.

Eating Wild Grapes Along the Way
Cow trails are guiding signs hiking through their country. We considered it a prize to see cow chips. Cows are tall enough they break up the brush. And if you are hiking down middle of the river bed and see where cattle have made a solid trail up the bank at some point, you might as well follow that trail. They're doing that for a reason. They've already been up ahead and you can't get through. Use your instinct and think like a cow or else you'll be back-tracking.

It looks like you are somewhere, but you are really nowhere

It is Illegal

There are a few other events that occurred that I won't elaborate on. Remember you are trespassing on private land. That is illegal. You are there by the grace of the land-owner. Enough said.

You Will Get Lost

At one point, I did feel lost a bit but not panic stricken. We were trying to cut off maybe a mile or less of hard brushy/rocky hiking. We went high and using just a compass trekked through the best country we could find. At one point I finally broke out my phone and tried for the GPS. I had never actually used the mapping before or GPS and wasn't sure it'd work. It picked us up on the map instantly and did show where we were in relation to the river. Now the trick was just to find a way down that wasn't falling - off the cliff we were navigating around. Not easy, but the GPS did help confirm at least we were where we hoped to be.

When we finally got there, we found a warning sign. It was weird. It was like this was a park or something. We know it's not. It's private land that Texans to some degree in these parts have known about for a century or more. No one is really welcomed there.

This is a safer picture... prettier ones I didn't take

You Are There, But You Are Not

Now the trouble was, how do we get IN to the Narrows. If you've seen pictures or been there you know it’s just a giant narrow gorge, where the Blanco River flows over 3 levels down and into a basin of magic swimming holes. When water is running significantly, these are raging waterfalls that only an Olympian kayak-er would dare to try. Kayaks-ers coming down river will just "port" around this section.

My wife bravely declared we should hike to the start and just slide down the falls. "Okay," I said, smiling from exhaustion and lack of a better idea.

It worked out, but she was scared and leery of jumping into these dark dark water holes that look like they go forever. For all I know they are aquifer deep.

God's Swimming Hole

The water felt totally refreshing though. We swam and ate. I tried to take pictures and take a nap. Any more romantic notions of lingering and bathing in God's swimming hole where over-shadowed by the looming burden of the hike back. I've been here before, coming down the river in kayaks. I was scared for my life then and can't say I had good feelings about the place still.

You Made it to Nowhere

Face it. There is a level of lonesomeness and isolation from civilization by sheer distance and rugged terrain that is scary. I've been lost in the woods and in foreign cities once or twice before. It never feels good. But sitting in the middle of the Narrows on a hot summer day in Texas isn't lost. You know where you are. And you know it's the center of nowhere. (At least in Texas.)

We made it back after 5 hours of trudging work. I was delirious a few times. You know, getting to the point where you thought you saw something move or heard something. You stop, look and listen. It's gone. You’re confused and testy. Drink water. Keep walking. Keep watching.

We got lost a little bit once, but was lucky in our choice, going to high country till finally it smoothed out.

Memories of a Distant Swimming Hole Where Angles Swim
The final hike up my hill, up my back porch steps, and into my back door was the hardest but most satisfying of course.

When You Make Your Own Path - It's Maybe Better to Stay Home

My advice for anyone thinking about doing this hike, (and I've been asked by several people) is simply this - "don't." You really don't want to do it. It is dangerous. There are no real routes. Every step is of your own choosing. No pre-configured way of "that's how experts do it" to get you though. It's not there. It requires good knowledge of this country, some wilderness instinct, good gear and grit. All these plus some luck and good sense when to turn back if needed.

I am but a Chigger on the Ass of Great Men Before

One final note:  I'm left awestruck and can only nod with embarrassing humility to the giant explorers of old - such as Lewis & Clark, Joliet and Marquette, Daniel Boone and the mountain men of the old West - perhaps even Pocahontas, my wife's 13th great-grandmother, who traveled to England to die.

These people lived life on the adventurous edge to an extent I can only maybe vaguely glimpse at. It leaves me feeling like I've lost some major part of my humanity by being born in civilization where large territories have already been explored.

To the point where a little 10 mile turn-around hike out my back door seems like a big deal.

Whew! I'm 5 Years Older but Wiser - Well, Older at Least

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