My First Backpacking Adventure

| by Danielle Wolter Nolan |

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

I said yes to a “weekend in the woods” not even knowing the exact difference between camping, hiking, and backpacking. I knew I loved the outdoors and I was ready to try something new, but this trip was going to be a real adventure for me. What I didn’t realize was that this experience would become the catalyst for dedicating my life to living each day as a new adventure, and discovering a whole new realm of wilderness I never knew existed, especially in Indiana.

The air was cool and crisp when we woke that spring morning in Charles C. Deam Wilderness*, I was with my partner, Kate. After taking a few moments to greet the day huddled in our tent, we packed our belongings to fit precisely in our packs. We built a small fire, prepared our oatmeal, and double-checked our food and supplies before heading out on the trail. It was time to get moving on our 8-mile hike to the backcountry campsite.

The first section of our hike was Axsom Trail; it has the most elevation gain and loss, with several switch backs leading through the forest. Axsom Trail is challenging and serene with the creek bed running through the terrain. Crossing over the rustling water, Kate and I found a rock in the shape of a heart. We took a photo, and honoring Leave No Trace ethics we left it behind to be shared with others. We worked up a sweat with the inclined hike, after shedding some layers and stopping for a quick snack, we made it through the first section of our hike feeling peacefully energized and refreshed.

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We finally reached the top of the ridge, up ahead we could see our next turn, Grubb Ridge Trail. We were about midway, and it was the first time we had seen other hikers on the trail, but it was still very desolate. This was the perfect section to break in our fresh Keen® boots. Being a shared trail that accommodates those on horseback, and that was experiencing the spring thaw certainly made this a muddy, soppy stretch for us. Boots are made to get dirty, right? Well, we made sure of that after this portion of our hike! At one point it occurred to me how much I was enjoying not only the hike, but actual backpacking. It felt pretty liberating to know that everything I needed to survive for the weekend was on my back.

After a couple hours trekking through the mud we embarked upon the final stretch of our destination, the Peninsula Trail. The Peninsula trail is about 2.5 miles that leads you to the east side of breathtaking Lake Monroe. Weaving in and out along the shoreline, the trail narrowed before opening us up to a pristine pine forest. The juniper and sap smells filled the air as we wandered our way through the trees. The pine forest thinned, and as we approached a small hill the magnificent lake gleamed in front of us. We had made it! Our 4-hour hike was a stunning journey through some of Indiana’s most breathtaking backcountry.

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We turned west, following the trail along the shoreline and checked out our options for campsites. It was the first time I had ever seen backpackers use the natural surroundings to set up large limestone rocks for chairs, tables and fire pits. We picked a great spot and began to set up our camp.

We pitched our tent, took off our boots and relaxed for a moment on the rocky shoreline. The backcountry sites overlook the portion of the lake deemed a no-wake zone for boaters, because of it’s proximity to Deam Wilderness and Hoosier National Forest. I couldn’t believe how good it felt to finally make it to the backcountry camping area! Although, despite my newfound sense of outdoorsy accomplishment, I remember thinking, “I wish we were just beginning.” It was a feat to have reached this spot; a place unknown to us, surrounded by beautiful trees and a body of water. I didn’t want it to end.

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As the sun began to sink behind the trees beyond the water, the most outstanding sunset I’d ever seen (and Indiana has some great ones) began to form over Lake Monroe. We sipped red wine from our insulated canteen and devoured a surprisingly delicious meal of freeze-dried pasta over the fire as the radiant oranges, yellows, and bright reds filled the sky. We made our way closer to the water to fully experience the vast sky’s beauty. I was completely content as the big red ball sank below the horizon and night began to take over.

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As darkness enveloped us the crickets, toads and other nocturnal forest creatures began to come alive. A whole new world of nighttime backcountry camping began to reveal itself at our campsite. Throughout the edge of the forest we were surprised to see other fires glowing in the distance. We checked our map, searching for the trails that led to those areas but were perplexed; were people camping at sites off the trails? We decided on the next trip we would explore the trails more to the west and discover the other backcountry campsites along the limestone beach.

Time seemed to stand still as stars emerged from the night sky. The galaxy spread over us like an immense blanket, encompassing in all directions as far as our eyes could see. It wasn’t long before we saw not one, not two, but several shooting stars streak across the sky above us. We breathed a relaxed sigh as we enjoyed one of the many magical phenomenons of the wilderness that occurred that weekend.

Waking up early the next morning, the sun hadn’t yet risen behind us when we heard the morning birds chirping and the occasional fish leap out of the water. We started our morning fire, brewed some hot tea, and enjoyed a bandito scramble over our Jet Boil® stoves. Settling in our limestone rock chairs, we noted how perfectly comfortable they were after sitting our cushioned sleeping pads on them.

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After cleaning up our campsite and repacking our backpacks, we took in one last look at our accommodating but temporary outdoor home and made our way back to the trail. So much more full than an ordinary weekend, our exploration in the wilderness was a wild, surprising, marvelous adventure.

As we hiked out I reflected on my experience in the great outdoors. The first thing that struck me was that everything I needed to survive for the weekend including my food was on my back. It made me reevaluate all the “things” I have: the devices, apps, and the latest and greatest Apple products I “needed” for work or play. While fun and sometimes useful, they’re still just things. I learned I don’t actually require them and can be just as happy, if not more relaxed and less stressed without them.

The second realization was obvious, but still made an impression: hiking 8 miles to the backcountry site, everyone we encountered also arrived there by foot. No cars could drive to the point where we camped and no traffic could be heard while hiking in. Specifically, I knew that what I was experiencing could only occur when I was able to disconnect from technology and reconnect with myself in nature.

Lastly, I reflected on how quickly the minutes, hours, days, months and years can slip away from us. We all lead busy lives, but especially in the digital age we live in our brains are never able to completely “shut off.” “Relaxing” for me used to involve taking a few minutes to check Facebook or catch up on TV shows, with my face still connected to a screen. I noticed after unplugging from technology for just one weekend that minutes were counted by breaths, not from repeatedly checking the clock on my cell phone. I felt rejuvenated, energized, and fulfilled in a way I hadn’t in a long time.

Since I discovered the natural endorphins of exploring and connecting with the wilderness, I’ve been hooked. I’m at my best when I’m able to spend time outdoors in nature, whether it’s a challenging rock climbing adventure, mountain bike race, or walking the dogs through the neighborhood. With the perspective of finding the adventure in everything, Kate and I have made it a priority to get outside and enjoy nature on a regular basis. I can say without hesitation that it has significantly increased our quality of life, and we hope to encourage others to live a life filled with adventure. I hope this story encourages you to get out and try something for the first time, and maybe we’ll see you on your next adventure.

Our contributor this week is half of the DNK Presents team. SYS has gotten to know these two amazing women over the last few months, and we are thrilled to bring their mission to our community. Danielle and Kate Nolan founded DNK Presents in June of 2014, and began offering open signup adventures in April 2015. They know challenging, outdoor experiences and reconnecting with nature have transformed them both, personally and professionally. They have made it their mission to facilitate the same for others. Danielle and Kate customize adventure packages according to their clients’ goals and expected outcomes. They particularly enjoy working with groups in leadership development, empowerment activities, and educational experiential learning. To learn more, please visit their website.

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