Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Dark Horse Region

The Dark Horse Region
A View into the center of the Milky Way

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mammoth Cave Backcountry - A Beyond the Campfire Moment

The pack felt heavier than I remember…a good kind of heavy…a heavy that signaled the start of a two day adventure that was a long time in waiting for renewal. It had been several years since my last backpacking trip, but today, I was on my own once again. The fall air wrapped itself around my lungs filling them with a recharged vigor and my steps soon found their rhythm. I began with a too fast pace that soon slowed to a more scenic tempo. Kentucky is not known for a lot of wind, but today a stiff breeze served as a cooling agent on a unseasonably warm November day, and cut across the tops of the trees shaking loose showers of falling leaves that floated like golden raindrops. A cobalt blue sky cheered me onward and the Mammoth Cave backcountry awaited my arrival.

Backpacking is one of those adventure activities that I’ve done enough of to consider myself experienced, but not nearly enough of to have satisfied that inner desire for adventure.  Over the years I’ve done countless more multi-day canoeing adventures than hiking adventures, but even those outings have slowed in recent years.  Call it age…call it complacency, call it whatever you may…this simple fact remains; I’ve just not taken the time to get out as much. There are times I have felt like I’ve lost my identity. It’s sad in a way as I’ve always craved adventure…that’s why I joined the U.S. Coast Guard back ’73…and man was that ever an adventure.  It was during that time I discovered the joys hiking along the ancient and rugged beaches of the Oregon coast and was first introduced to the concept of backpacking…although it took several years before I followed through with pursuing it.

1980's Edition
 In 1974 I purchased one of the first editions of ‘Backpacking – One Step at a Time’…although a bit dated now it is considered a classic on the sport…I still have that book…with its tattered, dog-eared pages…I’ve read it cover to cover several times.  Although the equipment has improved in quality and variety over the years, the basic concepts contained within that classic introduction still hold true nearly forty years later. Each time I remove it from the bookshelf and thumb through the pages, memories from past adventures come to life….

The mountain lakes of Rawah Wilderness in northern Colorado proved a difficult if not rewarding hike back in ‘95.  It took me three attempts to make it into the area having been stymied twice by snow pack. On one of those attempts I almost became a permanent part of the wilderness as I hiked off the trail a ways in the snow, then managed to clumsily  fall (slide) off a twenty foot drop to the bottom of a snow packed ravine…twisting my ankle in the process.  All attempts to climb out and retrace my steps back to the trail proved impossible.  My only recourse was to walk cross country downhill until I crossed the trail again…you probably guessed by now that I eventually did find the trail some distance later and managed to hobble back to the trial head…worn and tattered, but not deterred. A month later, on my third attempt, I finally made it all the way to the lakes and spent an afternoon, night, and morning at 10,000 feet. I can still feel the power of that mountain storm when it exploded across the peaks…

My destination on this day inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave backcountry was only a pedestrian somewhat less than a four mile hike to an area called ‘The Bluffs’. Those four miles seemed much longer… a softer than preferred mid-section along with not used often enough legs and calves bore the brunt of the up and down hiking that followed. Even so, using my terrain dictated unhurried walking pace it took maybe two hours or so to find my way to what turned out to be an excitingly nice destination. The side trail leading to the campsite dropped into a ravine with steeply sloping sides on opposite flanks.  Some distance into the drop, a series of bluffs began to line the walls of the north side flanks and near the base of those bluffs was the campsite. Two other hikers were there when I arrived…having hiked in the day before...they were starting to pack up and head out leaving me to myself and the backcountry.

Most of the afternoon, I simply explored around the area checking out the bluffs and looking for photo opportunities. I managed to capture about 200 photographs. With the approach of evening the fire pit was reignited and I spent the last hour or so at the end of the day until after sundown fixing supper and enjoying the alone time. It was a feeling I’ve not felt in a long time…a kind of warmth surrounded by the cold of night. A feeling of fullness and satisfaction embraced with a sense of well being. A chill set in as the temperature dropped when the light of the setting sun faded behind the western ridge.  A few more logs on the fire helped…but the day’s exertion began to catch up with my tired legs and mind.  I called it an early evening.

I awoke at first light the next morning after a somewhat restful sleep …peaked out the front of my packer tent and discovered a pink sky greeting the new backcountry dawn.  I knew moments of light such as this would not last long, so I reluctantly climbed out of the warm sleeping bag, grabbed my camera and tripod and captured the first light of the morning as it hovered over the ravine.  I threw a few logs on the still warm fire and with a few dried leaves for kindling it was soon ablaze and filled the camp area with a golden red light that combined with the light from the pink sky. I spent the first hour or so of the morning sitting on a nearby rock and watched the backcountry sky change colors.

By late mid-morning I was packed up and climbing out. My legs were still tired from the previous day so I took my time on the way up stopping several times to simply enjoy being there. It was during one of those stops I noticed that my old hiking boots were coming apart…the soles separating from the uppers…time for a retirement ceremony.

Sometimes adventures like this, as simple as they are, are most enjoyable after all is done and you take time to reflect on the moment. I rediscovered something about myself on this trip…a lost younger identity resurfaced and reacquainted its rusty memories with my older self. It was a most enjoyable experience…an experience where underused muscles were once again called into service, where old emotions were once again stirred, and where new emotions found an outlet. It was a time of reflection where that desire for adventure became important once again…it was a time well spent in the backcountry…sitting around the campfire…and just maybe…beyond the campfire as well.


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