The Nature Corner: My 10 best hikes
By Ernie Marshall
Number one, hiking to Lake Dallas and back to complete my Hiking Merit Badge for my Eagle Scout.
What makes a “great hike”? There are many criteria. In this case it was to accomplish a goal. As I recall, the core of the requirements for the Merit Badge was to complete four 10-mile hikes and one 20-mile hike. My house in Denton, Texas to Lake Dallas and back was the 20-miler, so I made that my final hike. I was tired and sore the next day, but by no means discouraged about hiking.
Number two, climbing Mount Wheeler, New Mexico’s highest peak at 13,161 feet. I was working at Philmont Scout Ranch in the Sangre de Christo Mountains, a southern spur of the Rockies, and so already had several mountain peaks under my feet. But Wheeler was more of a challenge. It was my first time above timberline, in Alpine terrain. It was barren of trees but still had wildflowers, birds and mammals that were new species to me. The lichen-covered rocks were alive with squeaks and whistles that turned out to be marmots and pikas. The song of the high mountains. What a magical place.
Number three, Grand Canyon, to the bottom (a vertical mile down) and back. Absolutely one of the most astonishing places on Earth, and not really experienced until you’ve hiked it.
Number four, Gros Morne, the second highest peak in Newfoundland (but first most challenging). I fell in with a couple of other hikers, one from Ontario and the other from Quebec. When we reached the summit we were fogged in – complete “white out” – no view in any direction and difficult to keep to the trail and not literally walk off the edge of the mountain. (The trick was to walk from one rock cairn to the next, never letting it out of your sight.) Since Gros Morne stands pridefully apart of other mountains it gathers clouds – and is also a magnet for hikers.
Number five, hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail including Mt. Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak at 5,729 feet. I’ve always wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail, all 2,200 miles, but never mustered the time and logistics. I have, however, hiked various of its sections [An excellent read on hiking the trail is “A Walk in the Woods,” by Bill Bryson.] There were three of us hiking together for four days, backpacking everything required except water. [At over two pounds per liter and needing to drink a liter every two hours, you can’t carry sufficient water for four days of hiking. There are water sources on the trail but all of it must be treated to be safe. We carried a filtering devise for that.]
Number six, hikes at Sherando Lake in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains. My wife and I were for several summers Camp Hosts at a national forest recreation area in the beautiful Blue Ridge. For my days off my dog Dinah and I usually went hiking. There were hiking trails galore to explore. Our hikes ranged from about six to 12 miles, and seemingly all uphill. You have to keep your bearings because the Jefferson National Forest covers parts of two states and is crisscrossed with miles and miles of trails. Get lost and you could walk for weeks.
Number seven, hiking in the Alps near Innsbruck Austria. My wife was delivering a paper at a conference she was attending in Innsbruck, Austria. I tagged along and had several days on my hands while she was busy with her conference, and I discovered hikes in the surrounding mountains. They were provided by the tourist agency free of charge, complete with mountain guide, hiking boots and other gear, and bus ride to the trailhead. A hiker’s dream!
The legendary Alps are indeed beautiful. The day’s hiking I remember best was to a “hut” in the high Alps, where we could rest a bit before our return and get a cup of tea or glass of beer. On our final leg – apt expression here, as mine were aching with fatigue – to the hut, which we could see in the far distance due to the terrain and the crystal clear air. It seemed that mountain trolls kept moving it further away. But we did finally get there.
Number eight, helping with an osprey nesting survey on Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. This wasn’t intended to be a hike but I’ll call it that since I ended up walking – barefooted – across Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina’s largest natural lake – well, half its length, about six to eight miles. We would have used an airboat but it was in the shop, leaving us with a small boat and two paddles, too cramped for the refuge staff member and myself and our equipment. So we got out of the boat and towed it behind us.
My partner had lent me hip-waders that were too large hence were rubbing blisters, so I pulled them off and tossed them in the boat. Lake Mattamuskeet is quite shallow (the water was rarely above my knees) and the lake bottom mostly sandy rather than muddy, hence making for easy walking/wading. Being barefoot I could more easily tell whether it was a stick or a snake I had stepped on.
Number nine, hiking with dogs. I’ve had many a great hike with man’s best friend. A dog is probably the best hiking companion one can have. They are eager, indefatigable, have a nose for danger and adventure, and a better sense of direction that you do.
Number 10, hiking with kids. Hiking with kids is rewarding for both adults and youngsters. The curiosity of kids helps us experience the hike more fully, and we can help them learn and stay safe. The child’s encounter with nature does wonders to expand its minds, and the health benefits are myriad. [See my last month article in the July 5th issue of The Coastland Times, “Kids Encountering Nature,” for more on taking children hiking.]