With the kids away for Spring Break with their father for a week we decided it was time for our next backpacking trip.
The children had to be dropped off and picked up from St Louis, so that focused our attention on the Berryman Trail. Some people do this trail in a day, bikes do it in hours, but as this was our third backpacking trip ever, we decided on a leisurely 5 day hike based on where we thought we’d be able to find water. That meant an average of 5 miles a day, which we thought that even in our poor condition we could manage.
The weather forecast was mixed (the worst type) meaning we had to pack for winter and spring conditions, and not knowing if there would be any water available we carried as much water as possible.
The trip didn’t start out quite as planned; the kids’ train to Chicago had been delayed until after five pm, meaning that after we’d dropped them off and driven the sixty odd miles back down I44, we arrived at our planned destination, Berryman campground after dark. Finding the campground in the dark wasn’t all that easy either.
Not only was it dark, but it was raining heavily too. The first real test of our rain gear, and a challenge for me to remember how to put the tent up ‘fly first’, a cunning method which keeps the tent and contents dry. The rain gear worked great, and I mostly got the tent up fine; I say mostly because I made the mistake of staking it out before I’d put up the tent proper.
Once ensconced in the tent we shared a Subway ‘$5 Foot long’ before lights out and listening to the rain pitter-pattering on the tent before falling asleep.
Berryman Trail – Day 1
Today the sun shone. Which was a relief after last night’s downpour. It didn’t take us too long to pack up the tent and our packs and move the van to the Berryman trail head parking lot. We left the trail head shortly before ten-thirty am with six days’ food plus a couple of litres of water each. Our packs were quite heavy at 42-45lbs each.
The Berryman trail is very nice hiking, the gradients are generally fairly gentle – possibly because they are adapted for biking, and the surface is generally good, either soft or gravelly with a few muddy patches, which the previous night’s rain added to. The puddles on the trail were a great test for my new huaraches, which worked well and didn’t slip against my feet when wet. However, there was a different problem; the foot-bed material was so hard and sharp it abraded my feet. I had to stop using them after today and revert to my pair with the foot-bed that becomes slippery when wet. For today though, it was great to be able to walk straight through the mud and small creeks while Ginger had to search for a dry route across.
We stopped for a cooked lunch of cranberry almond tabouli at a creek about four miles in. All of Ginger’s efforts with the food dehydrator definitely paid off. Even though the food was dehydrated, the six days’ meals we were carrying amounted to 16lbs between us. Over the week we worked out a revised food strategy which will shave a few pounds off. We had enough food for a cooked lunch, dinner and dessert every day. We quickly discovered we didn’t need the cooked lunch – our daily trail mix rations were quite enough to keep us going. We can also drop some of the heavier foodstuffs. The salmon and any pasta weighs a lot more than the alternatives.
Our plan was to hike a nice easy five miles a day, today needed a little bit longer, six miles, to get us to an old disused campground – Edward Beecher Recreation Area, where there is a spring which we could use to top up our water if no other opportunities presented themselves. The campground must have been quite large, though it is completely overgrown now with only a few posts and old fireplaces and grills to show it was ever there. The spring looked like it was an overused and open camping spot, so we bushwhacked off the trail to be well out of the way and set up camp near a creek.
Once we’d got the tent up, we collected wood for the fire; there were plenty of fallen limbs around to choose from, enough for us to keep a small fire going for a couple of hours or more. Dinner was smoked salmon pasta with carrot cake in a bowl for dessert. Who says backpacking isn’t luxurious?
Sitting quietly by the fire the amount of noise coming from the frogs was startling, and one in particular seemed to be intent on making a very eerie and initially unsettling noise.
Berryman Trail – Day 2
The day started dull and grey, with the overnight temperature somewhere around 45°F but it warmed up to 80°F later and was nice and sunny at times. We had a slow start, a problem we encountered most of the trip, what with sitting in our bags chatting, drinking coffee and eating breakfast, breaking camp and taking pictures. We never seemed to get away before eleven!
Our plan was to camp somewhere near Harmon Spring Trail Camp, and once we were on our way we stopped only briefly so that I could take pictures of one of the old Edward Beecher Recreation Area campground grills, which are scattered around the area and are being slowly consumed by the undergrowth. I also took a picture of the completely unspectacular spring, actually an artesian well, which looks like a large metal gate post stuck in the ground, out of which runs a length of metal pipe with a bit of rubber tube on the end, from which the water runs into a concrete trough. We didn’t take any water from the spring as we’d already filled up with water from the creek – filtering and purifying it using the MSR SweetWater Water Purifier which combines a ceramic filter, an active charcoal filter plus a chlorine treatment.
It seems that the problem with stopping near water (apart from the noisy frogs) is that it generally means the next day’s hike will invariably start with a climb of some sort. Today was no different, after a short walk up a hollow the trail started to climb a total of some 260 feet. It was fairly easy going, and after that the trail tended to hug the ridge contours. We crossed a couple of forest roads and the trail ran along side but not visible from a couple of gravel roads for a mile of so.
At the top of the ridge we had a cell phone signal – useful to know in an emergency.
Soon the trail started to descend off the ridge towards Little Brazil Creek, near the bottom we passed a large man-made stock/wildlife pond. Once in the bottom of the valley the going was fairly boring for a while, and it was difficult to work out exactly how far down the valley we’d progressed. We stopped for a quick trail mix snack after crossing a small creek. Shortly after, we crossed Little Brazil Creek and the trail to Harmon Spring Trail Camp which was very wet and muddy. We realised afterwards that someone had blazed (follow the orange tapes) a higher and drier alternative trail. I was fine but very dirty squelching my way through the mud, Ginger had to do a lot of bushwhacking to avoid the worst of the mud and water. It put her in quite a foul mood to have to trudge through ankle deep mud.
Harmon Spring Trail Camp is obviously well used. There was a wonderful display of daffodils around a couple of the trees. Seemingly either brought in by the horses that are obviously tied up there, or providing more fertile ground for the daffs to grow in.
The area was too well used for our liking, so after a quick look at the huge stock pond built around the spring we carried on along the trail until we crossed Little Brazil Creek for the final time. At this point the trail then climbs back onto the ridge over to Brazil Creek. We left the trail following a forest road running North parallel to Little Brazil Creek, and bushwhacked off the road to find a camping spot near the creek. The weather forecast was good, and the overnight temperature predicted to be up in the fifties, so we decided to not set the tent’s fly, and watch the stars from our bed. I found a pool in the creek deep enough for a good, if cold, wash.
We spent the evening sat by the creek watching the sun go down and eating one pot pasta and chicken followed by rice pudding serenaded by hundreds of ‘peepers’, one of which we found halfway up a nearby tree.
Berryman Trail – Day 3
Although it was a warm-ish night, 55°F or so, without the flysheet set it felt quite cool, in my 0°F bag I was hot and I kept it unzipped all night.
We had cleared up and were away by 10:40 am. By 10:55 we were back on the trail proper. The Ozark Trail and Berryman Trails had split just before we crossed Little Brazil Creek, so now we were on the Berryman trail only. The day started with a modest two hundred foot ascent over about half a mile. There was a lot of evidence of trail improvements and changes being made, with very recent tracks of a large bulldozer in several places. Once up on the ridge the trail ran nicely along the contours winding in and out of lots of very steep hollows. At one point the trail was blocked by a fallen tree. Ginger managed to scramble over it, I elected to take a more sedate bushwhacking route.
There was some evidence of spring to be seen in the hollows, with a few flowers and some leaves showing along the trail. The five miles to Brazil Creek Campground passed quickly, and by two pm we were descending the very muddy switchbacks down to the creek. Up until that point the day had been sunny and warm, but it soon clouded over, and while we were examining Brazil Creek Campground trying to decide what to do next it started to rain. We quickly set up the tent and decided to stay put. In the evening we had a great fire in the provided fire rings.
We’d foregone lunch in the morning’s hike so we had double rations – partly to try and reduce our pack weights. We had chicken couscous, Creole albacroe and a very yummy upside down lemon pie for desert.
Berryman Trail – Day 4
We weren’t sure there would be water at our proposed overnight stopping point in Smith Mill Hollow, so we filled up with water before leaving Brazil Creek. Once more we had a late start, and we were delayed even more when right at the start of the hike Ginger managed to slip into a muddy pool and get her shoes all wet and full of mud. Swearing and sputtering, it took a while to dry and clean things out. Wearing my huaraches I was able to stroll straight through all the mud.
Today’s hike started with a climb again! This time the trail had a lot more ups and downs. We took a short lunch break sat by the trail enjoying the sunshine.
I can’t praise my home-made huaraches enough. They’ve worked really well, it is great to be able to wade straight across creeks and through mud. I’ve not had any problems with hurting my feet. In 36 miles I’ve only caught my feet on sticks twice. Stones getting caught on the foot-bed isn’t much of a problem, I pick up about one a mile and because there’s no straps, etc. to keep them in, they normally come straight back out. I’ve extended the sole at the front which helps prevent me from stubbing my toes. The rough foot bed surface on my latest pair has got round the problem of my feet slipping off of the foot bed when they are wet. As for getting cold, I can go barefoot to below freezing with no problem providing I’m moving, and I’ve a really nice pair of woolen socks that Ginger has made for my huaraches – they have a separate toe.
Once we’d dropped into Smith Mill Hollow, we found the creek had plenty of water in it. So much for carrying a load of extra water. We decided to hike on down to where the trail rises back up out of the hollow before looking for a campsite. We bushwhacked for about a quarter mile from the trail to the creek – only to find the previously full creek absolutely dry. So it was just as well we had plenty of water with us.
The wind was gusting to over forty mph and it didn’t feel very safe to be in among all the trees. We checked the trees near our chosen camping spot and none of them looked rotten or likely to fall. For the first time we had to set guy ropes on the tent to keep it steady. It was while we were surveying the area that Ginger saw a tree fall about 600 yards away. Not good. We carry a NOAA weather alert radio, and the forecast said that the wind would drop in the evening which was comforting, but we decided not to try lighting a fire in the gusty wind. With the wind, which had shifted from the South to the North came a rapid drop in temperature – around 20 degrees.
In the evening we heard a very raucous pack of coyotes run the trail up the hollow, 400 odd yards away. Coyotes sound pretty other-worldly at the best of times, sitting in the dark listening to them pass by was an unnerving experience which led to a discussion on the merits of carrying a sidearm. Coyotes, of course, aren’t known for attacking people, but that information doesn’t help when you think about them running around outside your tent!
Berryman Trail – Day 5
Today was the day we’ve been carrying around additional clothing for. Since yesterday the temperatures plummeted over forty degrees, we even had some snow sprinkles as we broke camp.\
For a change we got away a bit earlier – the temperature in the tent being around 45°F encouraged us out! We started out bushwhacking back to the trail just after 10am and arrived at the Berryman Trail head just before 1pm. We spent a bit of time exploring and dallying on the trail, but the weather made for a quite dreary hike. This part of the trail is a lot more uneven with lots of changes of elevation. Unlike most of the trail, this section doesn’t tend to hug the contours, but dives down into the hollows and then climbs up the other side. We were relieved to find the van where we’d left it, and undamaged – as you never know what to expect when leaving your vehicle at a trailhead.
So we’d hiked a modest 24 miles (61,000 steps) in five days, our longest hike was day one – six miles, and our shortest was today’s at around four miles. To put it in context, it is possible to hike the entire Berryman trail in one (hard) day. We planned our trip around stopping where we thought there’d be water, and to last out a reasonably time as we had the whole week without the kids. We probably carried enough food and fuel for nine days, and had to carry additional clothes for wet and cold weather, both of which really pushed up our pack weights. Ginger had some trouble with her feet and knees towards the end of the hike, so I was carrying most of the heavy stuff, including extra water yesterday. Most of the time the day time temps were in the high seventies and nights were in the low to mid fifties. Though last night was below freezing and today’s day time temps just a tad above.
All the gear worked fine, the only items I carried but didn’t use were the first aid kit, emergency kit, my toe socks and my Vibram five fingers – which I took along in case I had trouble with the huaraches. However, My huaraches worked a treat, though I need to do something about the foot-bed of my second pair as it was too rough (I sanded them down when I got home and now they are perfect). The dehydrated food was excellent, though we’ll carry a lot less in future. The water filter/purifier, stove, tent, weather radio, trekking poles (I lost the rubber tip on mine, probably sucked off in some mud), sleeping bags (a tad too warm for me), sleeping pads and chairs (yes we took chairs) all worked fine. We had a bit of trouble with the coffee filter – but that is mainly because our cups are too narrow to be stable. We even managed to use the compass to fix our position on the trail at one point. We found that on the high points of the ridges my cell ‘phone was able to get a signal, so at least once a day we could check for messages (there were none).
Before arriving back at the trail head we’d realised that we had made a major planning blunder by not putting any end of trail beers in the van. So instead we drove to Potosi and treated ourselves to a nice thick hamburger. With an end of hike celebration later in the day in mind we raided Walmart for some scotch, cheese and crackers.