Ever find yourself in one of those "I don't care, I'm going anyway" situations? That's how I felt with finally having a weekend that I could get out and do some biking and camping. I have wanted to do an overnighter for over a year at this point and dammit I was determined to make it happen. Fortunately the weather had been dry for over a week leading up to the trip. Unfortunately, the heat index had been flirting with triple digits for several days, culminating on the day we had planned to go. Fuck it, no rain in the forecast until well into the following morning. Let's do this.
We didn't have any intentions of going over-the-top with the first trip of the year; just a short loop on the trails, spot out a good place to hang the hammocks and just enjoy being outside. With a heat index of 101 degrees, even if we wanted to log some miles it was definitely best that we didn't.
I had picked out a route that would be mostly downhill to the lakeshore and then follow a contour around. The trail route started at the Tater Knob Trailhead down Cave Run Trail (112), counterclockwise around to Buckskin Trail (113) and follow 113 to the Buckskin Trailhead. This didn't exactly happen... Did I mention there was a heat index of 101? After looking over the topo map and seeing that 112 was going to require us to hike up a few hundred vertical feet, we decided to swallow our pride. Once we got to the bottom of the creek bed where Trails 112 and Connector Trail 108 meet, we reluctantly decided to shortcut using 108 to get to Buckskin.
Although we didn't do the complete route I had planned, what we did ride (all 6.25 miles of it) was a heck of a time. The downhill section of 112 that we rode was so good (duh) that when we got to the creek bed we wanted to loop back around and try it again. That didn't happen, thankfully, but you get the idea. It's hard to beat some well thought out, old school natural trail. Apparently a lot of folks ride this section uphill, so I can imagine the hill that we decided not to hike-a-bike up would have been even better of a ride. Rocky, rooted singletrack that loses 500 vertical feet is hard to screw up.
What we hadn't planned on is how thick and overgrown the rest of the trail was going to be. While I admit that I am only slightly more in shape than the average slob, I was afraid that my tongue was going to get tangled in my front wheel by the end of the ride. The rest of the trail (from connector to the trailhead) was just weaving alongside the lake so the hundreds of feet of elevation loss was well behind us. The real trouble was in the coves that you have to navigate around along the way. Trees were blown down everywhere. Weeds and thickets had taken over the low lying areas. It was some tough going.
I know I have jokingly referenced the heat but by the second large cove we could really notice how much it was taking out of us. Up until this point I had only looked at my GPS once since we left Tater Knob but by the time we got to the second cove I was following the GPS inch-by-inch until we got out of there. These areas were completely unrideable and the humidity was just brutal. I carried an extra bottle of water in my pack but I didn't care, get me the hell out of these weeds.
I had ridden a couple of miles of this section of Buckskin a couple of years ago and this was where I wanted to scout out a camp spot. The problem at this point was that neither of us could even imagine getting to the truck, packing our bags and biking back in. I was 50/50 at best and I even threw it out there that I wouldn't be terribly upset to pack it up and try another time. We looked at getting a spot at the campground, finding some other area that would be easily accessed by truck (even though we had no idea where that would have been), or just walking away from the trailhead and throwing up the hammocks and calling it good.
After some debate we figured instead of packing our food and the Jet Boil in we'd just hop in the truck and get some food from the market and reevaluate from there. Apparently a double bacon cheeseburger, fries, Ale-8 and Gatorade is the unknown superfood combo that makes a man want to tackle Everest. We were fired up and ready to head back in the trails and find a spot for the night.
Armed with little more than a half pint of bourbon each, hammocks, and a long sleeve shirt "just in case", back into the hills we went. We found an incredible spot a half-mile or so in and decided to hang by the water and soak it all in. We could not have found a better place. It was gorgeous. We had planned to head up the hill away from the water when it was time to call it a night but that didn't happen. The spot was just too good.
Silence was only broken by some constant rolls of thunder way off in the distance. Eventually the thunder stopped but the clouds were lighting up like fireworks. Lightning flickered the entire evening and night but we were far away from a very distinguishable frontal boundary - a false sense of security, I suppose. The radar and the hourly forecast was holding on to 0% to 10% chance of rain - I repeat zero to ten percent - until 6 or 7am. We planned to head back out before daylight anyway and try to watch the sunrise at the fire tower, so rain at 6 or 7 wouldn't be an issue.
Nighttime came and I was still in awe of the lightning show I was being treated to. Around midnight I started hearing a little thunder again. The radar still showed the storm several miles northeast and tracking away, 10% chance of scattered showers where we were. Hourly still holding off until 6am. Around 1:00 the thunder and lightning was still getting closer and closer. Radar still good.
Around 1:15 we started getting some sprinkles but the forecast remained unchanged (or it just hadn't updated yet...). 10 minutes later we were in an all out storm. The radar had us right in the red, the forecast jumped up to thunderstorms all night at the flip of a switch.
Now all of the sudden we are both in our respective hammocks at the edge of the water in the widest part of the lake just getting hammered with brutal winds (NOAA said 40mph, it felt like 70), torrential downpours, and lightning all around us. No rain tarps or really shelter of any kind. It was storming so hard we couldn't even communicate with one another, 10 feet away.
We were just riding it out - literally, in hammocks. Trees were cracking and creaking all around us. It was definitely an uneasy feeling for a while and just so surreal. I've ridden dirt bikes in storms before; we've dodge storms while watching them come directly at us from the top of strip jobs; I've ridden a dirt bike off a mountain (not in a crashing way) in a 2am storm using the headlights from the 4wheeler behind me. I've been caught in storms before but this was just a whole different thing.
Surprisingly enough I was able to cocoon myself in my hammock and kept relatively dry until the real harsh weather hit us. Even in the driving rain I was shielded from just being totally dumped on, which I was very surprised by.
Maybe I'm a little bit delusional but it felt like my own little John Muir moment: "For on such occasions Nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof."
Somewhere during the storm I went from being uneasy at best to literally laughing and thinking, "this is some crazy, weird, fun shit." At one point, right in the midst of it, I poked my head out of my cocoon and just soaked it all in, no pun intended. A houseboat had anchored down a couple hundred yards offshore and flipped their outside lights on to watch the storm (and two idiots in hammocks). With the boat's lights on I could see quite a bit around me. The lightning show we were enjoying at our leisure earlier that evening was awe-inspiring but this was an order of magnitude beyond that. To put it simply, it was really cool.
"We hear much nowadays concerning the universal struggle for existence, but no struggle in the common meaning of the word was manifest here; no recognition of danger by any tree; no deprecation; but rather an invincible gladness as remote from exultation as from fear."
After the winds and heavy rain subsided (and we were able to effectively communicate) it was time to get the hell out of dodge. It was after 2am when the rain slowed and we started to retreat back to the trucks. We had one flashlight and one headlamp between the two of us. I have no clue how he navigated out of the trails half biking, half hiking with a pack and carrying a flashlight but I could barely keep up.
"When the storm began to abate, I dismounted and sauntered down through the calming woods."
It continued raining way up to daylight. I know because it's really damn hard to sleep across the seats of a single cab truck.
I pulled out of the trailhead around seven that morning with the intention of scoping out the fire tower on the way out. The trail was mangled. Trees had fallen across the 2 lane road out of Zilpo. Apparently the storm we had been watching all night just about washed the two counties north of us off the map...
To say this trip didn't go exactly as planned is a gross understatement. We cut out four or five miles of singletrack during the ride, definitely flirted with heat exhaustion, almost ditched out of camping altogether (thankfully I had somebody there who said fuck that, we're camping), ate store cooked food instead of deer steak and wild turkey breast over a fire, was caught out in a storm with no rain tarp (which wouldn't have helped a damn bit anyway), hiked back to the trailhead in the rain at 3am, and tried but failed to sleep in the truck. If trips like these always went as planned there wouldn't be any fun in it.
All this to say it was one of the most fun weekends I've had in a long damn time.
Raw GoPro Footage