It was 7:58 a.m. Sunday morning when I drove my red truck into the parking lot of the Visitor’s Center at Hobbs State Park. I pulled my hiking boots out of the back seat, sat down on the tailgate and started lacing them up. These boots are old friends. For the last 10 years they have carried me to lots of interesting places. The leather is starting to crack just like me, but they still have sole. (I couldn’t help myself on that one!) Our goal for the day was simple, to put in some mileage! With 31 miles of hiking trails, Hobbs is a perfect place to do just that.
Several years ago, a group of us were training for a climb on Mt. Rainier in Washington. Rainier is roughly 14,500 feet above sea level. The “standard route” up Rainier starts at the Paradise Lodge at roughly 5,000 feet. Climbing crews leave late morning and hike up to Camp Muir at just above 10,000 feet. The first half mile or so of the climb is on a developed trail. Beyond that, it’s uphill through deep snow, even in late July. Once crews reach Camp Muir, they find a spot in the snow and make camp. Then they spend the night and lounge around the next day acclimating to the altitude and waiting on evening. Around midnight the crew puts on the alpine gear, ropes up and heads out across the glacier toward the summit. If you climb steadily, you reach the summit right at sunrise. The view is spectacular. Then you descend all 9,500 feet back to Paradise picking up your camping gear along the way.
Training for Rainier in Arkansas is difficult. A person could run five miles a day and lift weights every night and still not be fit for Rainier. Alpine mountaineering just uses a different set of muscles than anything else. With your share of the crew gear, your crampons, carabiners, ice screws, helmet, storm gear, food, ice axe etc., it is nearly impossible to get your pack down below 65 lbs. Then you walk uphill. After reaching the summit, you walk downhill, a long way down. Each step pounds your knees. The only way to train is to put a bunch of heavy stuff on your back and then walk up and down hills.
A difficulty of training for Rainier in the Ozarks was finding hikes that replicated the 4,500-foot daily climbs that we would be doing on Rainier. One approach was to climb Pinnacle Mountain seven times in one day. That does get kind of boring after around the forth climb. So we looked for other alternatives. One of us figured out that if you counted all the climbs on the 20 miles of the Ozark Highland Trail (OHT) between the Cherry Bend trailhead on Highway 23 and White Rock Mountain, the total elevation gain was just over 4,000 feet. Hence, the White Rock Death March was born.
The first death march occurred in late January 2001. Days are short in January so we planned on meeting at Cherry Bend at eight in the morning. There were 10 of us in the crew. The guys that had camped the night before at White Rock were late so we were on the trail promptly at 9:30. Snow had fallen earlier in the week and some was still on the ground. The temperature was just below freezing. It was a grueling day. We placed cars at intermediate trailheads in case someone came up lame. By the time we left from Potato Knob for the last decent into Salt Fork Creek and the final climb up White Rock Mountain, there were only three of us left — Charlie, David and me. It was pitch dark when we forded Salt Fork. Then we started the climb. We were cold, tired and out of snacks. David swore that I spoke in tongues during the climb. He was right. Charlie and David had walked me into the ground.
Since 2001, occasionally one or the other of us will challenge the others to a repeat of the Death March. Last January David, who is semi-retired, was lounging around in Florida. Every few days I would get an email with a photo of a different fish that he had caught. One afternoon I got to thinking that David would be getting soft after all that lounging around. I on the other hand was dealing with the rigors of a hard Arkansas winter. My chance to get even had arrived. I issued the challenge. To my surprise, David accepted. The death march was on for the first weekend of spring. There was no backing out. And that explains why I was sitting on my red truck pulling on my boots Sunday morning.
Going into woods alone, you never know what you will find. But it is almost guaranteed that you will find something interesting. On this trip it was fire!
Before Europeans “settled” the Ozarks in the early 1800s, forest fires were a regular event. A little bit less often than once per decade, low intensity fires burned through the forest. Mature, resilient trees survived the fire but underbrush tended to be killed back. The result of the fire was a forest that was much more open than the one we have today. During the 1820s and ‘30s, the General Land Office surveyed the country. The surveyors marked all of the section and township lines and described the landscape. The description that you see most often in North Arkansas is “open forest.” Some references speak of being able to see a quarter of a mile through the forest.
Many of these fires were ignited by Native Americans who were managing the land for game. The idea was simple. Burn off the underbrush, let lush grasses and bushes grow up, and soon deer and elk move to eat the grass and you live fat and happy for years. White Oak, Hickory and Shortleaf Pine are also more resistant to fire than other native trees so their shoots survived while the others were suppressed by the fire. This additional resistance to fire led to the Oak-Hickory forest that we have become accustomed to in the Ozark mountains. The fires, along with other occasional disturbances such as blow downs or tornados, led to multi-aged stands. The multi-aged forest was more resistant to infestations and thus was very resilient. On the forest floor, the thick duff of leaves and twigs was controlled to a much thinner layer, allowing the emergence of grasses, forbs and herbs. Biodiversity actually increased.
As Europeans moved in, they continued the practice of burning through the 1800s. Then starting in the 1920s and ’30s forest managers, using the best science they had at the time, started suppressing fire. It took about 50 years for managers to realize that the increase of understory and deadfall caused by the suppression of fire was actually increasing the potential for a catastrophic fire. During the 1970s and 1980s, experimentation with prescribed burns started. Today, prescribed burn is a standard practice for forest management.
The crew out at Hobbs has implemented an aggressive prescribed fire program. That is what I walked into on Sunday morning. It wasn’t entirely a surprise, since on Friday afternoon, smoke was billowing up on the east side of Beaver Lake indicating a large fire in the area. As I walked into Van Hollow, smoke was in the air, the ground became charred, and small fires continued to burn here and there. It was a surreal experience walking through miles of burnt forest. The Hobbs crew has been at this for several years; in Van Hollow the open forest is actually starting to become a reality.
Some controversy still remains regarding the environmental impact of prescribed burn. Obviously, burning releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But the consensus of the science seems to be that the luxuriant growth that occurs after the burn more than compensates for the carbon released during the burn. Similarly, the impact of water quality is a mix. An intense storm occurring shortly after the burn would cause excessive erosion. But the impact is short-lived. Within a few weeks new growth covers the landscape reducing the potential for erosion. All in all, it seems the short-term impact of a prescribed burn is more than made up for by the long-term improvements.
I walked on through Van Hollow and around the Bashore loop. At the far end of Bashore loop there is an overlook with a view of Blackburn Hollow on Beaver Lake. I made a vow to come back in my kayak later in the spring. Then I returned to the Visitor’s Center via the south side of the Clifty Creek loop. Along the way I met a young man headed the opposite direction. He greeted me with “Hello Sir.” It’s a horrible thing to be called “Sir” on the trail. What he really meant was, “look at this old coot, he must be older than my father-in-law’s uncle.” The next thing you know, I will meet some girl who took one of my classes and she will greet me with “Dr. Morgan, you sure are looking good!” Oh well, it is what it is. At least I am still out on the trail.
The death march came off without a hitch. OK, there was that episode of head-to-toe cramps during the return shuttle from White Rock. But that only lasted 10 minutes or so. The challenge has been issued for next year, first weekend of spring.