Tuesday, March 9, 2010

hiking with darwin...

This past weekend, I felt like Flanders.

The Flanders of Simpson's fame.
I was a 'nervous pervous' most of the weekend.

We went to Hocking Hills in Southern Ohio, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains for a little getaway. It was supposed to be relaxing. And it was, for the most part...except for those times when we were hiking. Then, I was nervous.

My mind playing out worst case scenarios with each trepidatious landing of my foot.

If you've not been to the area, you should do yourself a favor and go. There are extensive hiking trails through some rugged territory that lead to amazing caves, cliffs and waterfalls. No need to travel to the ends of the earth. They are all here, right in O-H-I-O. And despite of the size of this relatively small park area, no matter how many times you visit the landscape changes and there is always something new to admire.

Hocking Hills National Park is made up of 6 named famous rock formations. The towering cliffs, deep gorges, waterfalls and caves all provide stunning beauty. The Blackhand sandstone bedrock was deposited here over 350 million years ago. There are markings of ancient Adena which resided in the area 7,000 years ago. It's a plethora of outdoor opportunities that beckons you to visit again and again.

We found a wonderful rustic, yet well appointed cabin just north of the State Park. What drew me to this particular beauty was their advertisement of the need for a 4WD vehicle if visiting when snow is on the ground. To me? That sounds wonderfully remote and heaven like.

Only 3 1/2 hours from home, driving into this rural area diverse with such incredible raw beauty makes it the perfect place to really getaway without the investment of too much travel time. As we approached our backroad destination in the dark, I invisibly clapped myself on the back for adding the Navigation System when I purchased my Commander. Without it we might still be driving around looking for a lone cabin in the Hills of Ohio.

Our hillside was silent.
And dark.
And perfect.

Nothing but us and the stars.

And the much appreciated hot tub and fireplace. I love a roaring wood burning fire. It's mesmerising. Especially in a rustic log cabin in the middle of the woods with no one within sight.

Always a planner, I'd read up and charted a route for the next mornings hike. Our destination: the 8 mile circle between Old Man's Cave, Cedar Falls and on to Ash Cave. It's a nice hike. A good distance, but not too overwhelming for Boo and the dogs. If you go too far, they lose interest. And energy. We'd done this same trail before in the spring and were looking forward to seeing the frozen waterfalls and their massive icicles in the winter off-season.

We couldn't have asked for better conditions. Sunny and cool, but warm enough for just a fleece. Decked in the proper trekking gear, we left the car and headed to start the lower gorge trail and return on the upper rim.

However my plan was immediately thwarted. The stairs heading down into Old Man's Cave were frozen. Solid.

A gal was huffing up with her dog and twanged, "There ain't no way yo'all make it down there. That dog's gonna pull ya."

At that moment I didn't know she had intended herself to go down that stairway, but was unsuccessful. Her statement wasn't a taunting 'your dog ain't gonna make it'; rather it was a 'there ain't no one going down there today...'

We didn't heed the warning.
We were fresh. We were ready. We wanted to go.

In actuality, I didn't take it as a warning. It sounded more like a 'that dog won't hunt', I thought she was returning from her own visit to the Devil's Bathtub and was dissing my anxious pups...so we did as my Grandpa would say, "don't pay her no never mind". So I didn't.

D led the way. I liked the idea of him forging the trail for us to warn of danger ahead. 1 step-2-3-4-5 steps and then Whoop! D took the rest all at once with Stuey sliding down with him. He looked up, brushed himself off and said, "You comin', or what?"

I'll choose the 'what'.
Wisely, I decided it might be best to start our hike minus a full slide down some mighty long, rough, frozen stairs that'll end up with a bruised backside. Plus I'd like to keep all my teeth exactly where they are, thank you very much. I knew there were other ways down into the cave. Let's just go find the one slightly less hazardous.

This national park is well visited with hundreds of thousands of people coming to see it's wonder each year. Surprisingly enough it is still rather wild and unmarred by humans. It's not a commercial park. They take the 'natural' seriously. So yes, there are a few stairways and rock bridges, but they are not salted or cleared. There are no railings. There are just warning signs.

WARNING: Ice danger
WARNING: Rock ledges
WARNING: Hazardous cliff

All above signs and maps noted with a picture of a little stick guy falling on his arse. Fitting.

With the caveat of 'Stay on the Trail' they really do mean 'STAY ON THE TRAIL'!
100 foot drops are common throughout the park land without so much of a 'Be Careful' sign or fence. All the trails at Hocking Hills are pet friendly except for one; which is a nature preserve.

I'm sure Boo was getting tired of me following her and repeatedly telling her, "Be careful. Stay on the fresh snow. Stay to the left. Watch that ledge. Be careful."

As I was walking (and pushing the images from my mind of a bruised and bloodied Boo, or myself, at the bottom of the gorge) I thought about a past golf lesson. My instructor had told me, "Don't look at the water. (or whatever hazard there was that was giving me immediate anxiety) If you look at the water, you'll go in the water. Pretend it's not there."

So I would. I'd pretend that enormous lake wasn't there. Low and behold, I got over my fear of hitting over water. And managed at the same time to stay out of it.

Now I desperately was trying to channel some of Paul's insight of hazards and not think about the death cliff edged in slippery ice. If i succeed, I might just make it out of Hocking Hills alive.

Our hike, which was quite enjoyable although somewhat hazardous at times, was rewarding and exhilarating. Physically and mentally. Towards the end we all had one thing in mind. "The sun is setting. It's getting colder. The snow will again start to freeze up after a days worth of rays. We need to get out of this gorge. Please God, let us make it up the stairs with all our teeth and limbs intact."

As I witnessed several times over during my hikes, seemingly God does protect the ignorant.

With our trek over, the parking lot in sight, a girl and her friends were heading down into the park at dusk. They were wearing Uggs. Classic Uggs. Not even the winter ones. No traction. No tread. I just spent the last 4 hours dealing with getting my family home safely. I thought, "I may be reading about them tomorrow. I hope I don't, but I just might..."

There are several deaths attributed to this park each year. It's usually blamed on people wandering off the marked path, getting into trouble on unstable ledges and plummeting to their doom. Many times, as in the case of young Jacob Walls, he lost his footing after a quick rain when he was trying to get a photo of the Old Man's cave. A shot for the photo album. One worth framing. The family at the base of the cave where young Walls fell could do nothing to save him. He was only 15.

Or Amy Adams, 22, who was 100 yards off trail and tried, unsuccessfully to jump a stream. She slipped and was swept off the precipice. Or even Peter Westoff, 23, who was an amateur adventurer who got separated from his group and fell 60ft into the deep gorge. It took 18 hours for park officials to remove his body.

Peter that was on my mind during my hike this morning. Because he had been hiking in February when the conditions were the same as they were today.

Any printed park material that you pick up states several times over" Because of it's wilderness character, the park can be hazardous if you stray from the designated trails. Be sure not to lean over rock ledges and keep young children restrained." Yet, people hang over rock ledges, stray from the trail and let their kids run amok.

We were at the top of Ash Cave and passed a family walking towards us. "Be careful. It's very icy up ahead.", I told them. Trust me, it was. Even with my caution, I slipped several times. Yet here was this family with a 6 year old and toddler running ahead of them. Cliff ledge 150 feet. No rail. Icy trail. Toddler. They nodded, smiled and did nothing to rear in their children running 30 yards in front of them.

Ummmm. Hello? Anybody home?

The Rim trail runs exactly that. Right. Along. The. Rim. One mistake and BAM! You are now one with the cave. Forever.

There was another guy that almost gave me heart failure as well. The small stream that feeds the waterfall you see from below has a rock bridge you can cross. For the untrained, or ignorant eye, it doesn't appear fatal. But it could be. Easily. The bridge is exactly 20 feet from the edge. And yet this guy and his excitable puppy walk right out to the lip! IN THE STREAM, no less!

Let's see.

  • Slick rock bottom stream. Check.
  • 40-50 degree weather with spring meltoff and hidden ice. Check.
  • Slick ice forming everywhere. Check.
  • Right above the Cave! Check.
  • Potential Darwinian award recipient. Check.
Prior to witnessing his ignorant bravado of "Hey! Come look at this!", I sat on a bench, leisurely enjoying my packed lunch. Soaking in the sunshine listening to the brook, the waterfall and the sound that spring brings in the woods, I was relaxed. Then I spied this group of ignoramus's approach the bridge and him take a beeline for the edge of the cliff with his dog in tow. One jerk of the leash could easily knock this guys footing right from under him.

"Either this guy, his dog, or both are going to fall. It's not going to be pretty."
I do not want to witness that.

It about ruined my day.
And Boo's.

I spent the remainder of our day riding her extra hard about her making sure of her footing. But this trail led us away from the cliff and into the lowlands. If you slipped, you just got your jeans wet and lost a little ego. But (hopefully) you weren't about to crack your skull or snap your spinal cord. I did get a hiking boot blow-out which made my feet slosh, but I can handle that. I wanted to buy some new treads anyway, so this was a perfect excuse to do so.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not encouraging the resurrection of handrails and fences in the park. I'm not even asking them to put up more signs. It is the hikers responsibility to educate themselves and have respect for their surroundings. Even if there were railings, you know you'd see the same mindless people standing on them.

If you are prepared and respect the potential danger of nature, then it's gorgeous. Everyone should experience it's beauty.

But be smart. KNOW your surroundings. Exercise caution. Err on the side of reserve with every step...no matter what season you are visiting. In spring, it becomes wet. And moss and leaves can be a slippery as ice. Or buy some Get-A-Grips crampons to wear on your shoes. They help.

Just be smart.
I was. And it was wonderful.

I've got the frameable photos to prove it.
Darwin didn't get me. At least this time around...


  1. Oh, Nancy, please share more photos!

    I'm deathly afraid of falling off trails, yet I go back time and time again.
    You told this tale beautifully!

  2. Excellent Post Nancy,

    I do love nature and this sounds like such a beautiful place, good people lose thier lives due to simply not being aware of their surroundings and idiots are always getting themselves into trouble for just the same reason. Your post will make any reader think when in this type of area.

    Thank You

  3. You managed to highlight the joys as well the need to be careful while hiking quite effectively. All this without sounding preachy, which is great. Hope you enjoy all your future hikes just as much if not more...

  4. I would have been a nervous wreck! When it comes to the children I get especially anxious. If they walk too close to a ledge or whatever- I get a sick feeling in my gut. I would have been excatly as you were.
    It sounds like a beautiful place! I hope to see more pics!

  5. I'm so happy you had a great time and all was safe and beautiful. Part of the excitement was knowing how scary it was, bet. Can't wait for photos.


  6. Great way of picturing the two sides of life... and how easy can be to switch from joy to tragedy, if we are not aware.

  7. i was hoping darwin was your date's name...so i think i missed the whole point of your story...must re-read. :P

  8. The picture is gorgeous. Glad you had a lovely, exhilarating, and safe hike! Nothing like getting back to nature. It amazes me when parents like the ones you mentioned are so casual about danger with their kids. We often visit Crabtree Falls (the beauty is stunning) in Va where their have been many deaths have been attributed to carelessness and failure to heed warning. People don't believe that the mossy rocks could possibly be sliperry and thus fall. Warnings are usually placed for a reason.

  9. Love the picture. The hike sounded great but a little stressful. I never like being that far out in the wilderness for as much as I enjoy hiking. Good for you for doing it and getting back to nature.

  10. Wow, it sounds like an amazing experience.
    You're right tho, some people have no actual concept of how dangerous mother nature can be.

  11. Hey Mad Woman...you wanted more photos, so I added a few more to the bottom for you!
    It really WAS an amazing experience. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. As long as I have some sort of blinders on so I can't see all the stupid people that were so careless about their safety! I had a sream last night about that dude standing on the ledge! OMG.


  12. What beautiful pictures...love the cabin shot. It sounds like a wonderful outing, except for the few careless people you encountered.

  13. That looks like a really beautiful place. The Appalachian Mountains (and trail) are hard to walk in on my end of PA as they are very rocky.

    If I ever get out that way, I'll definitely look up Hocking Hills.

  14. Beautiful pictures! My husband and I call the people that you were descibing as all members of the douche crew.. we will see a group of people, usually teenagers acting stupid on trails liek this and say, "Step aside, let the Douche Crew pass first" Gotta be looking out for #1 out there!
    Great story!

  15. Great story and gorgeous photos. I grew up in the mountains of Tennessee. Nature is breathtaking.

  16. Thank you for all the great posts from last year! I look forward to reading your blog, because they are always full of information that I can put to use. Thank you again, and God bless you in 2010.

  17. It sounds beautiful up there! And the pictures are amazing.

    I agree with you; people should be more aware of their surroundings. Being smart isn't a bad thing sometimes.

  18. Lovely articles and pictures - great stuff

  19. Great articles and nice pictures


  20. Oh, these photos are so beautiful. I particularly like the icicle waterfall. Now there's a shot you're not going to get in Australia.

    My Grandfather had a saying for people who took unnecessary risks. He called them "Temporary Australians. Sounds like you have them in Ohio too.

  21. I'm glad you enjoyed it regardless of idiocy & have beautiful pics to show us because you were careful!
    That just reminds me of all the idiots we have here that go out on the ice when it starts warming up, despite of all the warnings & fall through. I still say that they should pay for their rescues instead of the taxpayers doing it.----->stepping off of soapbox...

  22. after reading that I'm not sure I am brave enough to visit; I tend towards the Flanders mentality too; did you see the episode where his kid was singing AC/DC lyrics and said "kindly deeds done for free" - that line always makes me smile :D - nothing to do with your post, of course, but figured I'd share it anyway!

  23. Great photos! You are much more adventurous than I. Heights scare me to death. I can't even climb a step ladder! I think this sounds great and it's the only way I have to "see" this place. So nicely done! Thank you!

  24. Hey Nancy, this sounds awesome and quite terrfying. More photos please! Indigo

  25. Sounds like you had a wonderful time!! I love your beautiful pictures! The one thing that has always bugged me about people is they never can obey the rules and then ruin it for the rest of us!

  26. Wow! AWESOME photos! My finacee is quite the hiker, and she would love to see a place like that. I've never seen frozen waterfalls before. That whole place looks beautiful.

  27. While both of my parents were born and raised in Ohio, I have never spent much time there, but I sure love getting to know it through your blog. What a gorgeous place! Now I want to take a camping trip there. And as for safety, I think people have become so used to being taken care of or living lives in the safety of their urban houses that they don't recognize real danger and the need for caution. As you way, Darwin will take care of them. But I shuddered reading about the family letting their toddlers run out in front of them. Good grief!!

  28. Ok. WOW! Just wow! I love to hike but yours was definitely an adventure! Great photos! We live near the Appalachian Trail and hike quite often. You have me intrigued to visit your neck of the woods!

  29. How pretty! I'm glad you made it safely. I always laugh at tourists who fall into the Grand Canyon. It's the biggest hole on this planet, and you can't miss it, but still, people fall into it and die.

    My favorite episode with Flanders is the one where he turns out to be Satan. "It's always the ones you least suspect!" he declares, with a twinkle in his eye.

  30. thanks so much for stopping by and following! i appreciate it!

    your hike looks absolutely beautiful, but i would also be terrified out of my mind! i would have refused to go any further!

  31. Absolutely gorgeous. Love your point about how each time you visit, it's different. I appreciate this so much about nature. And though I'm comfy in everything outdoors, it's never a bad idea to be on high alert for potential dangers. You never want to die out there and have a family member eat you to stay alive. :)

  32. Sounds like an absolutely wonderful trip and beautiful pictures!

  33. *standing ovation*

    bravo! Going out and doing stuff you'll remember is all about what you did here. It's admirable as I see more and more people either act as if risks don't exist or avoiding stuff that might be risky from any perspective.

    Find the hazards and minimise the consequences where possible, then assess if the risks (hazard multiplied by consequence) is worth taking...

    That was my risk manager speech (I used to do that for a living, but on trying to figure out if new reactions were going to blow up factories or not).

    At the time people asked me how I could be a risk assesment leader and skydive at the same time. Well that's exactly why I could, it's also why I would never try base jumping or cliff diving: no margins, drastic consequences...

    You did well! It sounds like you're a natural at risk assesment.

    Risks should never stop you from doing something exciting, but the awareness of them will help you to actually live through them...

  34. I totally get wanting to expose kids to nature, but that sounds like the wrong place to do it. Way too dangerous.

    I'm glad you and Boo made it out of there alive and undamaged.

    Fabulous photos!

  35. Nancy, There will be an award waitinf for you at my place in the morning.

  36. Beautiful photos...thank you for being brave enough to go get em! My mum is a bit of a "worst case scenario" person and when we moved into this house we had a convo that went a bit like this:

    Mum - This is your house? This will be a death trap in a bush fire, there's only one way in and one way out!
    Me - We're renting mum...I don't intend to stay and defend.
    Mum - There are no perimiter fences! The little ones will wonder off and get hit by a truck or lost in the bush.
    Me - We have strict rules about them being outside only with adult supervision anyhow.
    Mum - This is a snake wonderland.
    Me - We haven't seen one yet (five years later) and we don't go bush bashing looking for them.
    Mum - It looks like it would be expensive to heat.
    Me - But very cool in summer.
    Me - So do you like it?
    Mum - Yes, it is very nice and peaceful.


  37. Beautiful contrast in that picture, glad you enjoyed your hike!

  38. Wow. This is a place I am definitely going to visit.

  39. The place where I want to enjoy my day! I wish I can come there! Very nice photos..Thanks

  40. What an amazing picture of snow,i love snow very much and i wish i can come there,thnx.

  41. Well, I appreciate this so much about nature. And though I'm comfy in everything outdoors, thanx.

  42. I shuddered reading about the family letting their toddlers run out in front of them. Good grief!!

  43. I am jealous. I wanna experience something like that. The pictures are gorgeous. Glad you had a lovely, exhilarating, and safe hike! Nothing like getting back to nature.

  44. Beautiful pictures thank you a lovely blog.


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