Lost in the Woods… but not for Long

This morning I added an emergency blanket and flint to my running pack. I had been meaning to do this for the last three months and out on the trail yesterday I would have been much less concerned being lost at night in the woods if I would have had those two items.

One of my best friends from high school was visiting from California and wanted to go on a scenic hike in Tennessee. We decided to check out the Mullens-cove-loop on the Cumberland Trail because a large group of trail runners were pre-viewing the course that day for an upcoming race. Since I have never run or hiked that trail I thought we would feel safer being in a remote area with other runners. Unfortunately, we got a late start to the day and after our 2 ½ hour drive we arrived as the last 2 runners were coming in and preparing to head-out. The trail-head is in a very remote part of the park. We had a printed copy of the map as well as a turn by turn description of the course and felt well prepared to complete the hike. I asked the runners which trail head (there were two entrances since it was a loop) was the starting point for the trail. They were very nice and told us where to start and gave us a few tips about sections of the trail where the markings might be confusing. They said as long as we followed the muddy foot prints of the 50 trail runners who were out there this morning we would be just fine. He also noted that there was cell service the entire length of the trail…. which was not the case for us.

We started off on an easy trail and enjoyed a stone door, rock gardens, stream crossing (lots of stream crossings), and what we assumed would be beautiful views of the Cumberland river if it wasn’t a cloudy day on the brink of rain, etc. My companion is a road runner (not a trail runner) and has been rehabbing a knee/IT Band issue for several months so we planned on taking it nice and slow to avoid aggravating or re-injuring her knee. I even gave her a set of poles to use. The poles helped her tremendously! Even though it wasn’t raining, the ground was wet, muddy, and often slippery, the threat of rain loomed over us the entire day and what sounded like thunder threatened off in the distance.

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Monica’s first “stone door” experience.
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Monica at one of many stream crossings. She is now an expert!

Looking back, the advice we were given about which trail head to start at was the opposite route from the 5-page print out describing each mile of the trail. This became a liability when we got lost. Also – DON’T always follow muddy foot prints when you are trying to find the trail…. Sometimes those muddy foot prints will bring you over HUGE trail obstacles like fallen trees, fallen trees, fallen trees and get you off course!
Also, if you are looking for solitude, this trail is for you. Aside from the 2 runners and hikers leaving as we started, and 2 sets of city folk checking out the view from a drive up over look, we never saw another human in the nearly 7 hours we were on the 10.5-mile loop. Yes! It took us nearly 7 hours to complete the 10.5 miles. It wasn’t strenuous and my heart rate stayed so low it barely registered on my Garmin; however, the technical nature of the trail for someone with a knee injury who is to used to running on flat pavement was a bit too much. When we finally made it to a sign stating we were only 3.5 miles from the trail head, I looked at my watch, looked at the position of the sun (which we couldn’t see through the clouds), did a quick calculation in my head and realized we would be hard pressed to get out off this trail before sunset. We increased our pace as much as possible without risking injury to my friend, but we weren’t fast enough. There were several points along the trail where we were walking through fields of rocks and it was easy to lose sight of trail markings so we would look for the muddy tracks when trail met rock to try to get a clue for which way to go. The directions we had made absolutely no sense in relation to the landmarks around us so the map became useless, our cell phones had no service and night, it started sprinkling and night was quickly approaching. I’ll be honest, when it got dark at 5:30pm and we were down at the river in what felt like imminent rain and potential of not finding the trail out, I got a little nervous. I had gloves, a rain jacket, a head lamp, a way to filter water and a few other first aid supplies in my back but I knew it was going to get cold and we had wet ground, no way to make a fire or stay warm. I also knew my friend had a flight to catch early the next day. Needless to say, we needed to get out of this forest! With my headlamp and flashlight from my cell phone we kept our calm, back tracked and thankfully found a blaze of white on a tree. At this point, we knew we had found the trail, but in the dark it was impossible to really know if we were headed in the direction of our car or ten miles back the other way. The rocks were even more slippery because the air was filled with moisture so we carefully picked our way out of the gorge and slowly heard the sounds of the river fade more and more into the back ground.

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Monica maneuvering through one of the less treacherous rock gardens. 

The second I had cell phone service on my phone I sent my location to both my daughter and my husband, called them and told them that if they did not hear from me in an hour to call the ranger and give my location because it meant we were not headed in the direction of the car. They agreed to wait 20 minutes before calling the ranger but we found out later my husband was already trying to call the ranger before that time and thankfully did not get through. I have never been so happy to see the end of a trail and my car as the only car sitting in a pitch-black parking lot. We let our husbands know we were safe and drove as quickly as we could out of the park. By the time we reached the park gate, the sign said, “You are trespassing if you are here after sunset. Next time plan better.” Then the bottom fell out of the sky and a heavy down pour of rain pelted my car.

I have never been so worried about being lost in the woods as I was yesterday, especially because I felt responsible for my friend who did not have a pack, a head lamp or gloves because she was just visiting. Aside from the end of the hike, we had a great time (I think), got in a lot of stream crossing practice and a reminder to always be prepared. I will definitely be thinking about how to improve my safety supplies in my day pack. If you have a must-have go to item that you don’t see pictured in my pack photo let me know!

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My pack contents with the addition of the emergency blanket and the fire starter.
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Monica and me at the Indian Rock House.

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Links to the trail if you decide to visit it:
http://www.cumberlandtrail.org/maps-and-guides/trail-segments/tn-river-gorge/mullens-cove-loop/

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