A20-mile backpacking weekend in the rugged, sprawling 26,827-acre Zaleski State Forest in southeast Ohio is a fitting way to salute the end of autumn.
Like many weekenders, you arrive well after work and after dark Friday at the trailhead parking lot way down in Vinton County. The lot is almost full. Others are like-minded about taking in the last of the fall zest.
You don headlamps and 40-pound packs and begin a two-mile ascent in the dark forest, following a well-blazed trail to an overnight campsite. It is surreal, scrambling over the rocky, rooted trail in the pitch black, so far from city lights and hugged by steep hillsides.
The first campsites already are filled, cheery fires blazing – you smell them before you crest the last switchback. So you push on to an overflow site a mite further and make a cold camp at 9 p.m.
You waste no time setting up your little tents – three hikers, three little tents, each person having a little elbow room and privacy. It is cold already, heading for the mid 20s. The stars are so close and thick they could poke you in the eyes. Sleep comes at once in a snug bag and stocking cap.
During the night, a huge, dead forest giant c-c-ccracks! It crashes to earth with a resounding thump. Quite the wakeup call. From the ridgetop campsite you hear the chilling wails and cries of packs of wandering coyotes; their maniacal calling echoes back and forth through the hollows and valleys. You know you are back in a primitive world.
The early bird in camp hollers “good morning!” to wake up the crew, still well before dawn. A quick breakfast by headlamp. The idea is to get a headstart, get a leg up on other parties following the trail. Campsites are limited and you want Saturday night's to be a choice one, especially after a fireless cold camp to begin.
Your boots fall on damp, pungent oak-leaf duff so thick it is like walking on a sponge at times. Everywhere your boot-soles are crunching white acorns. It has been a bumper crop for the oaks this year. The deer and wild turkeys, along with loads of other wildlife, will go into winter well-fattened.
Presently the gray-dawn trail brightens with rising colors and the path winds along cliff faces that open to miles of scenic vistas. Pileated woodpeckers, seeking insect breakfasts, hammer trees in the forest that unfolds beneath your boot-tops. They may be miles apart, but from your kingly clifftop perch they seem to be neighbors, so loud are the slow rat-a-tats of their heavy bills.
Frost lies thick on manyhued leaves in a swampy bottomland as mists rise eerily from the water in the early sun. Flocks of wood ducks burst from the surface, “whoo-eeking” away on the wing. Several great blue herons flap slowly, pterodactyl-like above the primordial soup. The place feels ancient, prehistoric.
An abandoned railroad right-of-way edges the swamp and eventually the trail catches up to it in a notch at the town-site of Moonville, now just ruins with an attendant ghost story about the grisly death of a drunken brakeman. Lore has it that this stretch of track once was regarded as the loneliest in all of Ohio. One can barely fathom building an elevated roadbed with pick and shovel so long ago.
The trail at times traces old Indian paths, and passes by ancient mounds of the Adena culture, the mounds builders of more than a millennium past. Other times you find the remnants of long-abandoned farmsteads, mainly stone foundations, now sunken and fallen in. It had to have been a hardscrabble life. So this is a hike not just through Wild Ohio, but through the land's rugged cultural past as well.
During the day's 10-mile-plus hike, the Zaleski Trail drops and climbs 150-feet or more elevations multiple times. By the time you make camp in mid-afternoon, your legs have carried you and that 40 pounds of gear up and down the equivalent of a 90-story building. No wonder a pair of loose sandals feels good on the feet round the campfire.
Sunday morning dawns too soon after the previous night's campfire camaraderie. Fried, buttered bagels are a breakfast treat, and it is time to “rathole” the pack — stuffing the gear compactly, tightly, densely, for easier carry and balance. It is only six miles on the loop back to the trailhead lot, with far less up and down than Saturday.
It all is done too soon. After a little rest, body and soul want more of the trail.
Contact Steve Pollick at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.