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  • Archive for the ‘Outdoors’ Category

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    Thicket of blackberries

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    Prunella vulgaris

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    Salvia lyrata

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    Yaupon flowers

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    Prairie plantain, Arnoglossum plantagineum

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    Looking at a lizard.

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    Five lined skink

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    A Vaccinium in bloom.

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    Wild onion flowers

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    The Pineywoods Nature Trail turned out to be a fascinating trail for us to hike and one that was perfectly suited for Forest to explore on foot. We went through the loop twice over the weekend we were camping and each time saw new things. Forest really enjoyed being able to explore on his own and funnily enough he remembered some key points about where we’d visited on the first round, such as where exactly we had found a green anole on the first trip. Turned out, the green anole was still in the same place he was on that first trip and he and Chris had a bunch of fun oogling at the lizard.

    If following the boardwalk in a counterclockwise direction, it leads to the bird blind and pond first. Chris spotted a bullfrog on the far end of the pond on one of the visits and Forest and I spotted a rabbit near the bird blind. I’m stuck figuring out if it is a swamp rabbit or eastern cottontail—anyone want to tell me? One of the interpretive signs had a display for swamp rabbit which is what I’m leaning towards here but I’m really unsure because of the angle of the photo.

    There were plenty of caterpillars, too, though we saw a few other species that we weren’t seeing at our campsite. They weren’t dropping nearly as plentifully as they were at the campsite, either, but near the Frog Pond area the railing and picnic table was covered in them. Forest enjoyed watching them from a distance and really, this trail is what I believe eased his fears on the caterpillars. He was able to experience them as an exploration instead of an infestation and I think he came to appreciate them a little bit more.

    What I enjoyed about this trail was that we really took it easy, stopping to look at the different plants or insects, enjoying the changing habitat. While it was mostly a forested and mesic area, there was an open area on the north end of the loop with grasses and full-sun plants to enjoy.

    I realized later that we didn’t really hike a whole lot on this trip. Sure, we did this loop twice, popped over to a short 1/3 mile loop near the park entrance, and then the short section of the Trinity Trace trail, but we didn’t hike the other trails. Chris spent a lot of time fishing and Forest and I just meandered around the campsite and around the area Chris was fishing. It was a pleasant change from the hiking we usually do and I found myself excited for the days when Forest is able to ride a bike and we can bike around the campground, too.

    We have a few more camping adventures planned for spring—hopefully!—and I’ll keep y’all posted on those trip reports as they happen.

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    The Trinity Trace Trail meanders from the Pin Oak camping loop on the north end of the park down to the south end of the park, beyond the Hercules Club camping loop. We hiked only on the portion that began between the Piney Shores and Yaupon loops, heading south. I had been on this section before with Keely but I couldn’t remember everything about the loop. In particular, I’d forgotten about the bridge being out and the inability to complete the loop on the southern end.

    On our way out, behind the Hercules Club camping loop we passed a group of scouts heading north, appearing to go pick up trash. No one else was heading the direction we went and as we carefully passed over a decrepit bridge crossing a creek channel Chris mentioned casually, “Snake!” I had passed last across the bridge so I wasn’t even aware of where he was talking about and I jumped. We paused for a few minutes to take photos and kept on down the trail. As we walked it became evident that not many people went this direction; the trail was overgrown and we were knocking down spider webs. It was a little weird that no one ventured this direction.

    Forest fell asleep not long after and we continued on quietly, looking at the overgrown woods, ambling over downed trees, and avoiding the poison ivy reaching out for our legs. Once we reached the lake we became unsure of where we needed to go. We’d missed the downed bridge on the map when we passed it so we were unaware of where exactly we were on the map, only noticing it when we backtracked our steps.

    Quietly we returned the way we came, letting Forest continue sleeping as we headed back for camp. The snake was gone when we returned.

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    Roadkill speckled kingsnake

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    Roadkill garter snake

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    Our camping excursion for the end of March was over to Lake Livingston State Park. I hadn’t been since I met Keely there in 2013 and it was Chris’ and Forest’s first time. This state park is one of the few in Texas that allowed advance spot selection when you reserved your site—usually you have to take the luck of the draw when you arrive. Apparently this is a feature that is going to be available at more state parks later this year, something we are thrilled about. We’ve been frustrated by this lack of ability since we’ve returned to Texas and it was a feature we liked about Florida state parks.

    Chris and I took a three day weekend so we planned to enjoy a long weekend camping. We knew in advance that the weather was likely to be rough Friday afternoon and evening so we went ahead and planned to eat dinner in Livingston instead of trying to make dinner while it was storming. Well, the afternoon came and went and it was gorgeous! When we arrived at the campsite it was quickly evident that this is a bumper crop year for eastern tent caterpillars because they were constantly dropping from the canopy and also dropping their frass everywhere. Forest has become accustomed to seeing various caterpillars in our yard but this was such an overload that I’m sure it was the toddler version of a bug horror movie—he was not pleased. It took him until Sunday to finally come around to them but it was a near state of terror for him a lot of the time. Needless to say we spent a lot of time trying to play in areas where the canopy didn’t overhang the campsite, which was more towards the picnic table and parking area and out on the street where he would ride his little four wheeler.

    The campsite was directly across the street from the lake which made it a prime spot for Chris to set up a spot to fish. We spent a little time over there, the caterpillars seemed less dense than over at our campsite, and we enjoyed some time looking out across the lake. By dinner time the rain was moving closer to east Texas but it still wasn’t that close and looked like it would arrive after dark. We headed for Livingston anyway and found a great local place called the Blue Duck Kitchen. It was the kind of place you would find in a trendier small town which made me wonder if Livingston was trying to become that trendy small town, trying to revitalize their downtown as an excursion for Houstonians. The food was great as was the atmosphere and I recommend the place if you are in the area!

    The storm did blow in about an hour after Forest finally got to sleep, somewhere around 10pm. Chris and I were checking various weather reports and watching the radar as there were severe thunderstorm and tornado watches and warnings around the area. The county the park was in did end up with a tornado warning that extended to our north which prompted someone from the park to drive around telling people about it and to take cover “if you need to” in the bathroom. The warning wasn’t for the park itself but we kept it in mind knowing that some worse weather was coming our way with another cell directly behind that one. When the second cell arrived, the wind kicked up and with one whoosh the west side of the tent collapsed.

    Before we’d settled in for the evening I had put a few things together in case we needed to get into he car but even in the flurry it was hard to grab everything plus hold a sleeping toddler (who only woke the entire time when the cold rain pelted him just as we got out of the tent!) and rush to the truck. We waited it out in the truck for about 30 minutes until the rain subsided enough for Chris to fix the tent. I kept imagining everything being soaked through that we’d have to sleep in the truck and go home the next morning. At one point Chris was going to go out and take down the pop-up tent over our cooking table but I told him it wasn’t worth it for him to get soaked and cold. In the end the tent blew over and it broke. Oh well.

    Somehow there was no damage to the sleeping tent and very little water inside the tent. Chris fixed it and we piled back inside to go to sleep. Or attempt to sleep. I was wound up from the events and not long after someone started playing music from their RV. I was irate—and I never do this—but I got up and went to find the source so I could bitch them out. It was after midnight and I was not having it. Thankfully they turned it down and actually we heard very little from them the rest of the weekend.

    The rest of the weekend was not eventful in a stormy way and the weather cleared. More caterpillars dropped and we had to protect our food from little pieces of frass falling into our meals. No one wants to ingest caterpillar poop. Forest became a helper and would sweep the caterpillars off of things he wanted to play with and eventually found some bravery in dealing with them. Chris fished down at the docks near the park store and saw an elusive mink—apparently it is a rarely seen resident according to park rangers—and there was a lookout tower that Forest became enamored with, which had to be climbed multiple times.

    In all it was a fantastic camping trip. I’ll have separate hiking reports for the trails we hiked on soon!

    *Photo heavy post! Write-up at the end! It’s also long!*

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    Prep and Planning
    I think we picked the perfect weekend for introducing Forest to backpacking. It wasn’t our longest hike with him ever but we also didn’t want to be too far from the car should we need to hoof it back if something went awry. The weekend before I had seen the 10 day forecast and thought it looked like a promising one for a backpacking trip. The rest of our weekends through April and early May are pretty busy with commitments and Chris heading out of town for work, so unless we planned on doing this when the heat really ramped up, this was going to be our only window for getting out and going for an overnight backpacking trip.

    When planning the hike I asked Chris where exactly he was thinking of going and he thought the Lone Star Trail in Sam Houston National Forest was good because it was close. He did want to hike a different section than we’d hiked before, however. The LST club has a helpful website with downloadable maps and a KMZ you can view on Google Maps/Earth so it was pretty easy to plan out the hike. There is a bigger guidebook which we may need to get in the future, but the printable maps and their concise guide for water sources and camping sites was all I needed for this particular section. I ended up printing the area for Section 9 – Big Creek, which goes from Trailhead 11 on the north end to Trailhead 13 on the south end. In the south is the Big Creek Scenic Area which I wanted to hike through. I added up the miles from Trailhead 13 heading towards a designated campsite on the north, just south of Double Lake campground. That mileage was a little over six miles which would make a 12+ mile round trip—totally doable.

    Since we were doing a shorter hike and really had no end goal on where to finish for the evening other than a decent campsite with water access, we didn’t get started hiking until after lunch on Saturday. In fact, we didn’t pull our backpacking gear out until Friday evening to start going through our gear. We realized our Aqua Mira water drops, our go-to water treatment, were a year expired, but we had a pump so we packed that instead. We couldn’t find our headlamps either. Well, Chris found an older one of his and I used Forest’s—Chris misplaced his newer headlamp as we were packing and I haven’t seen my headlamp in months or maybe over a year or more. We also had idea where our metal sporks went. Instead, we ended up using two plastic forks we had in the kitchen and brought one of Forest’s little baby spoons for him to use. Our gear hadn’t been used since our attempted thru-hike of the Northeast Texas Trail in November of 2013, right before I got pregnant with Forest, so I was apprehensive about getting our stuff together so late in the game. Luckily it all worked out. We just had to figure out what to divide with whom.

    As Chris was carrying Forest in the Osprey Poco Premium carrier I would be carrying much of the other gear. And it was just one overnight so it wasn’t like we had to go all out with carrying a ton of food or other extra clothing. Chris and I took no main extra clothes, just a change of underwear and socks, leaving a change of clothes in the car in case we wanted it when we got back to the trailhead. The main clothes in my bag were Forest’s because I didn’t know what he would do, particularly in regards to potty accidents. Forest has been pretty well potty trained since October (more on that in a bit) so I didn’t have to heft around diapers, just one for sleeping overnight, and I had several changes of underwear for him in case of accidents.

    For food we opted to go pretty easy. We’d eat lunch at Chick-fil-A before the hike (Forest’s favorite place!) and just needed dinner, snacks, and breakfast on the trail. I was most concerned food-wise for Forest because he is still in a picky toddler phase, though slowly getting better at eating more diverse foods. For dinner we opted for Santa Fe Instant Refried Beans, which we discovered on the AT. Chris picked up a package at our local HEB grocery store, though you can them on Amazon. Forest likes beans so we figured he’d eat those (he didn’t, of course) and we took a few tortillas from the fridge and picked up a couple of packets of hot sauce from the Chick-fil-A condiment counter. Snacks were various bars, trail mix, snap pea and lentil pea crisps, and some animal cookies and Goldfish for Forest. Breakfast was oatmeal, again because I knew Forest would eat it (and he didn’t, of course) and it was an easy meal for all of us.

    I’d been telling Chris for awhile that we needed a three person tent because Forest is too much of a crazy sleeper for all of us to fit in the two person tent. I think Chris finally realized this and opted for the time being to take a hammock for him, with Forest and I sharing the tent. Chris is going to research three person tents (if you have input, let me know!) and hopefully we will have that for the next time we go out for a hike. So, I carried the tent, a new endeavor for me, and Chris carried his hammock. In addition, Chris carried his light sleeping bag (I carried my heavier down bag to use as a blanket), his water, and Forest’s little potty chair, in addition to a few other smaller items. When your base load is a 26+ pound toddler you don’t want too much more added to that weight.

    On the potty chair—over a year ago I bought a Oxo 2-in-1 Potty Chair for the back of my car. Since we were doing elimination communication with Forest I wanted the option to try to get him to pee if we could while we were out and about, and I knew that once we really started potty training that the travel potty would come in handy. It definitely has and we’ve taken it on countless day hiking trips already. I usually carry a refill bag if I know he’s going to go #2, but with #1 he just sits and tinkles on the ground. This time I left the bags at home and we just dug a hole when he said he needed to go #2—oh and thank goodness he’s now better at telling us when he needs to do either one! Next up is teaching him how to squat over a hole so we can leave the potty chair at home but I think that’s going to be a bit down the road!

    In all, packing for this trip wasn’t terribly different than any other of our backpacking trips, just more of a reorganizing of items and trying to take less than usual.

    The Hike

    We finished packing on Saturday morning and headed over to Chick-fil-A for lunch. Afterwards we hit the highway eastbound to the part of the national forest we hadn’t been to before, off US 59. We encouraged Forest to sleep on the way but he did not comply, despite his sleepy appearing eyes. When we arrived at Trailhead #13 there were several cars in the parking lot already, which was encouraging. It was good to see other hikers out but also because I don’t necessarily like being the only car at a trailhead—more cars feels like a little more safety-in-numbers.

    Forest was excited as soon as we got out of the car because were “HIKING!” and because there was a giant muddy puddle that he really wanted to jump in. No muddy puddle boots meant no splashing about so we had to keep telling him to stay back. Eventually he couldn’t contain his excitement for going on a hike and was ready to get into the pack. Chris lifted him into his pack and I strapped mine on, and we set off down the trail.

    Immediately we came across phlox and verbena and continued seeing various wildflowers blooming alongside the singletrack. It was bright and sunny with the perfect crisp blue sky above the tree canopy. Really, it was an awesome day and weekend to be out on the trail. There was a slight chance for a scattered shower later in the afternoon (we left the rain gear at home in favor of saving space and weight, deciding to just set the tent up if a storm came along) but otherwise the outlook was favorable.

    The trail meandered through lobolly pine forests and down to hardwood bottomlands along creeks before reaching an elevated tramway that led straight to the Big Creek Scenic Area. We encountered two men heading back to the trailhead after doing some dayhiking; one of the men had an Air New Zealand tag on his pack and complete with their accents I figured they were from NZ and wondered if they had hiked the Te Araroa and some of their other long trails. I’m sure they had, but we kept the conversation to minimal niceties—they were intrigued by Forest sitting in his pack—and we kept on down the way.

    Not long after we made it to the scenic area (no camping!) Forest decided it was nap time so Chris and I kept our conversation fairly quiet as we walked through the less maintained scenic area. It was thicker forest, more bottomland hardwoods, and had a wilder feel. A mile later we found Trailhead #12 and opted to continue on since Forest was sleeping. We didn’t walk much further because we came to a bridge over Big Creek and the area was ripe with wanting to be explored. Chris carefully put Forest down to sleep in the pack on the ground and I sat down for a break. Chris grabbed the camera and took off to explore the creek and adjacent wetlands while I laid down on the bridge to relax. This relaxing reminded me so much of our other long distance hikes, the breaks we would take and short snoozes I would steal while staring up at the tree canopies. Getting a taste of that again was divine.

    I had no idea how much time passed while we lazed about there but it had to have been about an hour before Forest woke up. He was cranky when he woke so he took a few minutes to figure out where he was before being awake enough to eat a snack. Chris had found several interesting critters along the creek, including a water moccasin, while on his explorations. After our break we continued down the trail, tracing the contour of the creek as we meandered north. The bottomlands called out to both of us and we kept pausing to see what we could see across the way. Further up beavers had dammed the stream, creating a swampy pond above the dam. We were looking for signs of beavers when we heard a dog not too far away, across the stream. There were no trails over there so we were a little weary of a possible wild dog in the woods and we began walking north again, trying to keep our voices down so we wouldn’t entice a stray dog to chase us. Luckily, no dog followed or showed up later that night.

    We left the scenic area, rising up to another tramway and down again, back into the wider landscape of the pines once again. The trail took off away from the edge of the stream but we weren’t more than a hundred yards or so from it and could see the edge of the trees that signified a wetter area. I knew the trail jogged even further from the creek at one point but would reunite closer after a short period so I kept waiting for that turn to gauge where we were on the map. I’d tucked the map into my zippered pocket on my pants and it was easily accessible. The trail has mile markers along the way which are a great help, too.

    Somewhere along the way Chris asked Forest if he wanted to get out and walk for a bit. Chris wanted a break and Forest wanted out so this worked perfectly. Forest might have been a little exuberant because he would take off running and then splat on the trail because he’d trip over a tree root or stump. There was plenty of poison ivy lining the trails so I’d have to keep him from wandering into the vegetation too much. Forest had been walking maybe a quarter of a mile when Chris looked up and saw something to our east and thought it looked like an old washed up bridge. I stopped to look with him and after we surveyed the area we realized it was a cleared terrace with a fire pit. The ‘bridge’ was really a table. This was a campsite!

    There wasn’t a designated campsite for another two miles so I was a little weary that this was perhaps on private property, just across the stream, as there was a white area on the map across the stream. I looked closer, later, and realized the white area didn’t have a boundary on it like the other in-holdings on the map, so I figured it might not have been an in-holding. Nevertheless, we walked downhill to the campsite to check it out and see which side of the creek it was on. It was on the west side, so, no chance of it being on private property and we saw no trees painted with border markers—we set up camp! What luck to stumble across this great site! It was clear at the beginning of the trail leading to the campsite that it was not used often as the trail was slightly overgrown near the beginning. We figured that it wasn’t a campsite that they (the forest service or trail association) wanted to be widely used; however, the campsite itself was relatively clear of new growth and the fire pit looked like it had been used in recent months, so I’m willing to bet it gets used more often than ‘they’ would like!

    I’d forgotten how easy it was to set up our backpacking tent. Chris and I put it up like it was old hat, maybe with a few pauses to remember how we did something, but it was almost genetic memory. Then came the fun part of blowing up the NeoAir mats. This time I got to do both of them, which is no fun because I always get lightheaded as I’m blowing them up. Forest loved the tent and wanted to get in to play immediately but we had to reiterate a million times that he couldn’t put his shoes on inside and he couldn’t bounce on the mats and he couldn’t poke anything on them! He played like it was his nap mat at daycare and I gave him two of the books I carried for him to read so he could unwind after the hike.

    Chris and I stretched out and set up camp, taking some time to wander around the site while we each took turns to stay with Forest. It was 4:30pm when we arrived at camp and with the late sunset it would be a long three hours to keep Forest entertained. It turned out to be pretty easy, as we explored with him—checking out the creek side, looking at ants, flipping over logs, and finally, gathering pine cones. He also entertained himself by running around in the leaves, trying to balance on the wood beam meant for sitting, and being an all-round goofy toddler. At some point I wished I’d carried my own book because reading at camp is one of my very favorite things to do. As the sun lowered on the horizon it produced a wonderful glow through the pines and reminded me a little bit of Ocala National Forest on the Florida Trail.

    I kept getting antsy as the evening wore on, waiting for other hikers to arrive. I think this is a carry over from our thru-hiking days, where you’d get to a shelter or campsite and hope maybe you’d be the only one there only for someone to arrive just as you are getting ready for bed. No one arrived, which was much to our liking.

    After dinner, to kill about thirty minutes before bedtime, we hoofed back up the little hill to the main trail and went for a little walk, continuing northbound. We realized we weren’t very far from the next mile marker, maybe a tenth of a mile, which was comforting to know and helped us figure out where we were on the map. Forest enjoyed the walk and did a little better with watching out for tree roots.

    Finally it was bedtime and time to wind down for the evening. This was a frustrating task for me because it always takes Forest at least 30-45 minutes to wind down at night and I knew it wouldn’t be very easy because he’d be loose in the tent and not confined to his crib like usual. Of course there were the typical stall tactics, which included a trip back outside after dark to hang with the mosquitoes while he went to the potty. Sleep that night was alright but not comfortable. I mean, sleeping on those air mattresses never is that comfortable, but Forest was his typical kicking, squirming, rolling self and the mats kept slipping all over the tent. Thankfully he didn’t wake up before dawn so we all slept in a little bit.

    Mornings at camp are another one of my favorite things. A light fog enveloped the forest, not too low, and the sun brightened the forest to the east. We ate our oatmeal (or bars and mish-mash of stuff like Forest) and began packing up camp to hit the trail back to the car. Part of me was ready for another 10 miles to go to another campsite but the other part of me had that feeling you get after being in the woods for a week, where you are antsy to get to town for your shower and giant plate of restaurant food.

    Back on the trail we headed south once again, through the pine trees, up the tram and back down to the scenic area. No barking dogs this morning, thank goodness. In addition to the Lone Star Trail running through the scenic area, there were three loop trails that connected back up to the LST. For a change in scenery we opted to take the outer loop, the 0.6 mile Big Creek Trail. It winded through mesic woods that gently rolled up and down as we traversed across creek bottoms. By taking this trail we had a botanical discovery, finding trilliums and may apples! What luck! I’d wondered if we would be too far west for either of them—apparently not!

    As we headed out of the scenic area Forest appeared sleepy and began leaning over in his pack. I think he was relaxing more than anything, but it gave us a reason to make extra effort to get to the car faster in case he wasn’t feeling good. He usually doesn’t nap in the morning. We weren’t far from crossing over Tarkington Bayou, a cautious crossing over piled up logs, when he asked to get out and walk. We told him to wait until we crossed and then he could hop out and walk, which he did once we were on the west side of the bayou. Thankfully he also asked for a snack. My stomach was beginning to gnaw at me, the oatmeal was long burned off, so we sat down in the middle of the trail for a snack while Chris searched for the snake he’d seen in the water before we crossed.

    Forest did end up walking, he walked the entire way back to the car which was about a mile from the bayou! Chris led the way and I trailed the end and Forest walked in the middle in some varying state of running to dilly-dallying while poking at plants. There were plenty of splats on the trail when he didn’t pay attention and tripped over a root or stump (or tried to turn around to talk to me and while walking!) but each time he brushed it off and kept on going. Soon we heard the echo of cars driving down the road and before we knew it we saw the patches of phlox and verbena we had passed on our way in the day before. And not long after we arrived at the trailhead!

    In Forest’s words, “Did it!” We’d survived the first overnight backpacking trip!

    It is immensely satisfying to have that done and under our belt. All of my hiking memories came back to me, the different feelings from relishing the hike to being ready to get to camp—they were all there. It was funny how much I have come to associate Burt’s Bees diaper cream with backpacking because when I opened the baggie to move around some of our medical kit stuff, the smell of it wafted out and it was an instant flashback to the trail. Even getting inside the tent at night had me remembering so much about our long hikes. I’m hoping we can squeeze in one more hike before next fall and maybe by next backpacking season Forest will be ready for doing more hiking on his own. We may have to pick close sites at first to build his stamina but that’s ok. It will be fun to see where we get to hike in the coming seasons!

    Part II will be a video of our hike but I have not had a chance to even get it edited and processed so that will be up sometime next week.

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    We finally managed to get out for a camping excursion after several months of dormancy in that department. Busy schedules and chilly weather left us without a camping trip on the schedule for December and January and while February warmed up nicely Chris ended up out of town for work for several weekends. We’re sticking closer to this side of Texas for our spring camping trips and we kicked the season off with a trip up to Huntsville State Park. While we’ve hiked here many times, Chris and I have only camped here here once, back in February of 2012. I like that this park is so convenient, only an hour drive from our house so it makes it easy for us to leave on a Saturday morning and come back later in the day on a Sunday and still get home in time to unload and prepare for the week.

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    We lucked out with site 49 in the Raven Hill campground, which put us close to the bathrooms and playground but we had a buffer from that which meant we weren’t too close to the comings and goings of that area. In addition we had access down to the lake and the campsites right here were not stacked up on top of each other. I’d say that sites 49-53 on the lake side would be ones to get if you are coming to camp at the state park. The last time we camped the place was fairly deserted due to bad weather but this time the place was packed. There were umpteen Boy Scout groups to boot, but thankfully they were all kind of placed in a scout area, where all of the groups were in one general section of the campground. I have nothing against the scouts, my brother and dad are Eagle Scouts, but it gets a little cacophonous when camping next to a scout group.

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    Forest is turning out to have a really good memory. The last time we were at the state park was back in October when we went for a hike. The education center was open and they have two baby/juvenile alligators in an aquarium there in addition to other small tanks, one with a coral snake and another with baby box turtles. After we set up camp we had planned to do a pre-lunch hike in which we would create a loop of a portion of the southern section of the Chinquapin Trail and the Coloneh Trail together and end up back in the trailhead parking lot near the visitors center. As we approached the visitors center Forest started pointing and exclaiming about alligators and it took both Chris and I a few seconds to realize he was remembering seeing them months ago! He would not let up about seeing alligators for about half of the hike and if you saw in the video he kept wanting us to turn around so we could go see the alligators. Of course we finally made it back and he got to see the alligators but not without some panic on his end!

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    Compared to this time last year, camping with Forest is getting quite a bit easier. Following directions (with plenty of testing boundaries in the mix) and an interest in playing with toys and self directed play has allowed us to be able to sit or do camp chores instead of constantly minding a toddler. It was so, so pleasant when Forest would play with his trucks in the dirt and I could just relax in the chair while I took in the wonderful spring sunshine and blue skies. It was also a lot of fun just exploring around the campsite with Forest. He has an interest in spiders and ants and when we were trekking back from the bathroom we spotted a line of leaf cutter ants. I went from hyperfocused on the few ants and zoomed out a bit until I saw a clear path of ants heading in one direction which lead me to look over and see several mounds about ten feet to our right. It was fascinating because I had been reading that book On Trails last month (soon to pick it back up) and in that book the author covers ants and the unique way they know to follow trails. When I zoomed out in the scene I realized these ants had worn a path in the grass just like humans wear paths into their environment. It was really awesome to see and I didn’t have my camera to try to document this but I hadn’t really been acutely aware of this until that moment.

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    So, we watched leaf cutter ants, looked at leaves, picked flowers, talked about birds in the sky; it is a whole lot different camping with an older toddler! Another change has been that Forest has been starting to want to eat at the table with us and that translated over to camping. We’ve been letting him sit in a chair at times, with him kneeling on his knees to reach the table—we’ve got to find the booster component to our highchair!—and he wanted to do the same while camping. He only sat in the highchair once, at dinner, because there were too many bowls and plates to deal with being spilled for that meal.

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    Hiking wise we had to piece together some trails because the far back trails were closed due to the work being done on the Lake Raven dam (see map here). Saturday afternoon we took the lower portion of the Prairie Branch loop out to the Chinquapin Trail and crossed over at the marsh on the north end of the lake to have a snack at the bench. It was a slow walk, to see what we could see and enjoy the afternoon. Sunday morning’s hike was via the Chinquapin trail starting at the nature center parking lot and continuing on about a mile beyond the marsh where we judged the contours of the map with where we were in real-time and then bushwhacked at the first instance where the trail dipped close to the Triple C trail, which follows the perimeter of the park boundary. We wanted to make some kind of loop but following the Chinquapin trail to the Triple C Cutoff and over to the Triple C trail would have made it too long of a day than we wanted so the bushwhack worked out well. It worked out well also in that the area we chose to cut through wasn’t thick with yaupon and instead was mostly navigable through grasses and other not-so-thick understory plants. The whole bushwhack couldn’t have been more than 500 feet but it was exhilarating to get off trail for once!

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    On our way across the marsh we had noticed the sky clouding up and thought we should have checked the radar on our way out, and of course on our way back on the Triple C trail we heard some suspicious rumblings in the distance. Luckily the rumblings did not evolve into any precipitation and we made it back to the campsite for lunch unscathed by bad weather.

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    We usually don’t do lunch at camp on the day we head back home because we usually have a long drive ahead of us. Being only an hour away we took a leisurely lunch at camp, dismantled the campsite, and then Chris fished at one of the docks for about an hour before we headed home. I’m looking forward to having a few more of these scenarios in the coming months—the no rush to get out and get back home; we still got home with plenty of time to unload and get everything ready for the week.

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    A week ago Sunday, before lunch, we took off for a morning hike. We were cantering down the Chinquapin trail, perhaps a quarter or half mile from the trailhead, when we saw an older gentleman pop up out of the shrubs and back onto the trail. At first I thought we’d interrupted his tree watering moment but he had just stood up from sniffing a flower. The flower in question was lilac and situated just a few feet off trail; he said it was extremely fragrant so we stopped and sniffed too. In chatting with the man we came to find out he was a frequent visitor to the park and often came to check on the plants, which he thought were phlox as someone had told him that’s what they were. Apparently over the years he has seen the population shrink as the forest was burned less and other plants suppressed the growth of the more herbaceous plants.

    Our new plant acquaintance mentioned there was another patch around the bend so onward we walked. Earlier in the weekend I had been thinking that this state park could be a nice stand-by for an old Florida favorite, Johnathan Dickinson State Park, mostly in that it is a large state park with decent hiking trails and some interesting habitats but the next step was finding interesting plants, which JD is full of. Running into this man was fortunate as it gave us something else to look for the next times we came hiking.

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    We found more plants at the next site, with four or five blooming. The three of us (with Forest in the backpack) stood in the trail for a few minutes talking, mostly of our plant friend telling some history of the state park back when it was built by the CCC in the 30s. Apparently the dam had broke on Lake Raven back in the late 30s and the lake was dry until it sounded like the 60s. It was appropriate because the park is once again working on the dam; let’s hope it doesn’t break this time!

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    Chris and I said goodbye and continued on our way down the trail where we spotted a couple more plants along the way before we deviated to cut up across the marsh at the north end of the lake.

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    Phlox and verbena always throw me off, and apparently it throws other people off, too. Turns out our phlox is actually a verbena, but which one is the question. I was set for awhile on it being rose vervain, Glandularia canadensis but something felt not quite right so I took another spin through the Lady Bird Wildflower Center plant database and found Verbena x goodmanii. See it here. The photo there shows a growth habit of much more like what we found. Also, the habitat of that photo look more like what we were in—but that means nothing because rose vervain is quite a common plant and found in many parts of the country, including the county we were in. USDA Plants Database says it is a cross between V. halei and V. stricta and Google gets me all of nowhere because it seems there’s not really information on this plant.

    Plant identity aside, the chat with the man was great because it reminded me of our plant explorations in Florida. We haven’t really made that connection with anyone here yet (outside of work) and life currently isn’t situated for cross-country bushwhacking to look for weird plants (though, we did do a short bushwhack on another hiker, story soon!), so the chance meeting and brief encounter to talk with someone knowledgable about the state park was awesome.

    If you happen to know which verbena this is, let me know!

    I’ve got photos and stories to write up, but in the meantime I processed the videos and put them into one giant video (18 minutes!) for y’all to enjoy. Lots of cute toddler talk!

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    Once Chris was off work last Saturday he met Forest and me at the hotel in Clute and we drove down to Bryan Beach located in the tiny beach hamlet of Quintana. To get there we drove through Freeport and past a maze of various chemical plants, common in this region. Chris commented on a large fenced parking lot full of new car—he’d seen the cars being offloaded from a cargo ship that he’d sent me a video of when it cruised by him (as he was fishing on the jetties) as it headed for the port.

    It was not a great day for being on the beach; clouds and a strong north wind made it rather blustery. The three of us meandered along the shore as we looked for shells and it took Forest no time at all to figure out that he could stash shells in his jacket pockets once Chris showed him how. The trip was kept short and when it was time to go Forest cried “My beach!” and threw a small tantrum. Chris and I looked at each other and were sad he was upset but glad that he liked the beach enough to be upset he had to leave. I think we’re going to have to strive to get down here more this year, especially in the summer.

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    Saturday morning we got out for a bit to do a little hiking at WG Jones State Forest. We’ve been there many times but this time we opted to park in the eastern parking lot on the south side of FM 1488 instead of the usual parking lot on the western boundary. This entrance was hopping with trucks towing horse trailers entering through a locked gate to park about a half mile down the dirt road at the horse parking lot. There were a lot of riders out that morning!

    We crossed over Rice Branch, seen in the photo above, and I think both Chris and I wished we had boots on to go exploring down the creek. He wanted to scout for mussels and I wanted to scope out scenic photo opportunities. Forest would have loved splashing in puddles!

    Down the trail we walked through several red-cockaded woodpecker clusters—thinned out woodland areas that support the habitat needed for the woodpecker to forage and nest. There were a few nest cavities and sap wells on the trees and on our way out we even spotted a woodpecker, though we were unable to get a good photo or video to share with y’all.

    The trail system at the state forest is set up on a logging road grid with some smaller single-track trails that weave through the woods in various locations. Those single-tracks aren’t usually on the maps so you just have to stumble upon them. Forest enjoyed seeing all of the horses coming by! It was a great morning to get out and stretch our legs without having to drive too far for a hike. I will be looking forward to spring when plants are blooming again!

    The last week has been quite the lazy one around here. Chris and I were off work and the first half of the holiday week was warm and pleasant and we spent a lot of time outside playing. However, by Wednesday Forest’s cough that had started developing last Monday grew worse and we had a camping trip planned for New Years weekend and I didn’t want to go without getting him checked out. So, off to the pediatrician we went. She prescribed some cough medicine—so nice that we’re finally getting into the ages where more medicine can be prescribed for him!—and thought it was RSV or some similar virus and said there wasn’t much we could do but alleviate some of the symptoms with the cough medicine, Zyrtec, and an inhaler. But Thursday came and his appetite started plummeting and a cold front blew through. By Friday morning we knew it wasn’t going to be good to trek to the Hill Country for a camping trip with iffy weather and a sick kid, so we stayed home.

    It’s been a mostly grey weekend with some rain sessions which meant we’ve been inside bouncing between upstairs and downstairs toys and watching a lot of television. I’ve tried to do some of the items I wanted to get done this week but they’ve mostly been the inside goals. My gardening goals have mostly been on hold. But now I’m starting to sneeze and I felt little wonky this morning so I’m just crossing my fingers that I’m not getting sick just in time to return to work! In all, it is probably good that we’ve just been homebodies this week.

    I’ve done a little looking forward to 2017, planning and goal-wise. I settled on my word last week, Peace. In 2015 I chose mindful which was a good start and I learned quite a bit about the word but I think peace could be a good one to grab hold of this year. Another thing I’m using for 2017 is Elise’s Daily Goal Tracker. I’ve loved this goal tracker since she introduced it a few years ago but never bought it. When she sent her November newsletter announcing it was going to be free for December readers I was excited! I modified mine to print small enough to fit into my Moleskine Bullet Journal and washi taped it inside. I actually made four different ones to keep track of various things.

    One thing I worked on over the break was putting my podcasts on YouTube as another outlet for listening. My goal is to also start incoporating gardening videos over there once or twice a week. If you are a regular YouTube user please subscribe! My brother is also planning to do more on YouTube this year so you can check out his site as well. We recently chatted about gardening on the podcast to wrap up our gardening year.

    I got out for a few minutes yesterday evening to pick collards for dinner and took some photos of the vegetable garden. Here’s what is going on out there!

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    Recent rain brought up the Clathrus fungi!

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    Forest got two sets of gardening tools for Christmas so one is now out in the vegetable garden in his very own digging plot!

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    The okra were in this section over the summer and down below I kept seeing a weed pop up that I would try and pull. Well, the okra have been gone for a month now and I haven’t done much maintenence. Turns out the weed is a lawn orchid, a plant that is not native and usually spread by mulch.

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    We have a serious abundance of greens!

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    Collards | Chinese Cabbage

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    We planted onions on Christmas day as well as the snow peas.

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    Happy 2017, friends!

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