Photos on Strava. We fast packed and had resupply caches approximately every 30 miles. We fastpacked NoBo relying on no one’s help but our own. Real-time tracking (Garmin InReach) was also used made publicly available.
Self supported time of the Ozark Trail (NoBo): 5 days 11 hours 44 minutes and 15 seconds
Been dreaming of this ever since I ran the whole Courtois section in 2010 with friends Kyle Gibbs and John Cash (Little known fact: John Cash around this time ran 160 miles of the OT with Kyle. Kyle stopped with John -Lots of rain in 40 deg weather-. Kyle came back the next day and finished it). That day, we swam for our lives across a very swollen Courtois knowing that one of our cars was only 4 miles away on the other side of the river.
So happy to have been able to realize this dream with my friend Brandon Vaughn. We knew it would be tremendously difficult. We put in A LOT of training on the OT as well. Even with that mental framework in mind beforehand we were blown away at what the journey threw at us: 100 degree temperatures and high humidity, overgrown weeds (what trail) for countless miles, hundreds of downed trees, countless times of saying to ourselves “where’s the trail”, not just ticks but nests of ticks that unleashed themselves on us, walking through stinging nettles (northern end of the CR section has at least 1 mile of trail in completely overgrown nettles). All this being said it was not a nightmare. There was so much beauty and wonderment of the forest, animals, birds, creeks. Nothing in Missouri can compare
Detailed report posted 6/5/2019:
Ozark Trail self supported FKT
5/23/2019 - 5/28/2019
5 days, 11 hours, 44 minutes & 15 seconds
David Stores & Brandon Vaughn
Ozark Trail FKT, Self Supported
By: Brandon Vaughn, 06/04/2019
Eleven Point River Section
Our journey North to Onandaga Cave State Park began from the Western trailhead on county road 4155 just a bit after 4:00 am on Thursday 5/23/19. Now, we never expected things to go perfectly, but we also didn’t plan to make our first mistake immediately upon our start. The Blue Ridge Trail and Ozark Trail begin at the same point at the Western trailhead. The Ozark Trail splits from the Blue Ridge trail maybe 100 - 150 yards into the trail. We immediately missed this turn, which after close inspection did not have a clear marker at the right hand turn over a small berm on the trail. The trail we were on quickly turned to waist high grass and weeds. We hiked almost 3/4 of a mile before realizing we were already off course. Frustrated to say the least, we had not even begun and already burned 30 - 40 minutes of which we could have been on the OT. After hiking back to the start, David made a very wise decision to go back to the car and pick up notes that he had for water sources along the trail, as our supply caches would not provide all of our needs. After resetting our devices and our minds, we set out right at 5:15am. Once on trail, we got in a groove and started running. It wasn’t long before the morning sun had taken effect and we could remove headlamps. It was around this time that we would discover what would be our greatest nemesis on the trail, ticks….. we each had at least a dozen ticks crawling up our legs, so we frantically started the process of tick plucking (I developed a real skill for this process over the next 5-½ days!).
We continued making good progress with a solid pace right on schedule with occasional overgrown sections that we’d have to bushwhack through, constantly removing ticks as we trudged forward. As early morning transitioned to late morning, the heat started to build (we’d been monitoring the weather prior to our start and realized we’d be in for a real challenge, not yet acclimated to the mid to upper 90’s real feel temps we would experience). The steep elevation gains / losses really begin a few miles from Hurricane Creek. It was during the last climb to the descent to Hurricane Creek that we’d both feel the effects of the heat. Feeling overheated and exhausted, we couldn’t wait for the first of many long cold water soaks to bring our temperature down and restore life to our run. After 15 minutes or so in Hurricane Creek, we gathered our packs and headed for the 1.5 mile climb out of valley to the end of the Eleven Point River section at 3152 trailhead to find our first supply cache.
Ok, a little information regarding our supply caches. We used a 5 gallon bucket with a screw on lid that we hoped animals couldn’t tamper with along with a separate gallon jug of water. The nutrition contents in the buckets were basically the same for each drop. 4 20oz. bottles of water, 2 Cokes, 2 Protein Shakes, 2 cans of pop-top Chef Boyardee Raviolis, lots of gels, tailwind, and bars (typical ultra foods). I also included toilet paper and some wet wipes in each container just in case. Some of the caches had extra socks and clothes as I knew how important it would be to try and keep feet dry as possible. We relied heavily on our Sawyer straws to supplement our water needs along the way refilling water bottles in the cold, clear, refreshing creeks along the trail.
Between the Rivers Section
After fueling up and re-supplying our packs, we set out from 3152 trailhead onto the Between the Rivers Section. Our goal for each segment was to cover about 42 miles in 14 hours. We ended up covering 43 miles in about 14 hours and 15 minutes, setting up our hammock camp about 14 miles into this trail section in a nice open pine forest section at 7:45 pm, just before nightfall. Our plan was to sleep until 1:00am, pack our stuff and be on our way by 2:00 am for day 2. I found it difficult to fall asleep the first night, as I laid in the hammock and listened to the sounds of the forest. The area we were in was extremely active for some reason. We could hear deer on several occasions near our camp as they would make a loud snorting sound and run off. Then, as I was just dozing off, I heard an animal come tearing down the hill and in very close proximity to our camp. It was moving very fast, probably in some sort of chase. By the sounds of the noises it was making as it went by and descended into the valley, I was almost certain that a coyote had passed by. Finally, after many cycles of waking up / falling asleep, the alarm went off and it was time to get back at it! Our pack up from camp proved to take longer than expected. I don’t believe we made our 2:00 am start time, but did the best we could.
We began the last half of the Between the Rivers Section in darkness and headed towards the hwy 60 trailhead for our second supply cache. I wish that I could say the night time segment was uneventful but a gear failure slowed us down and we quickly lost the trail at a valley stream crossing that cost us 35 - 40 minutes of precious time. The trail crosses the stream and makes a quick left turn, and crosses the stream again to begin the climb out of the valley. However, due to recent heavy rains there was a lot of debris in the creek bed area that made the trail unrecognizable and following the OT markers at night proved to be a major challenge in this area. We used some navigation tools to help us if we got off course. The Trail Run Project app proved to be a huge asset in this case to help us get back on course and headed in the right direction. I had also created a course of the entire Ozark Trail that I uploaded to my Garmin device which gave us a map and a directional arrow to help stay on course. This was not the only time we lost the trail but probably one of the most significant and discouraging mishaps.
The gear failure that I mentioned would prove to be a huge concern for us as we progressed. The strap on the right side of David’s Ultimate Direction FKT pack broke out of the grommet. Luckily there were two other grommets that he could attach the anchor to, but it was difficult and a drain on time to stretch and manipulate the anchor into the grommet. This connection would fail several times before something more had to be done.
We had hoped to make it to our supply cache at the hwy 60 trailhead by 7:30 am or so, but due to the navigation issues and late start, we were running behind schedule now by a couple of hours. Once daylight took effect, our confidence level improved and we anticipated we’d have less navigation errors. We soon, though, would be dealing with the heat and problems related to that. The remaining miles of this section were relatively uneventful, with exception to a blister that I could feel forming on my left pinky toe. Foot health was always one of my top concerns in regards to the success of this adventure. We made it to the hwy 60 trailhead about 9:30 am and we noticed how hot it had already become and yet it was still just early morning. We took about an hour at this cache, resting, eating, and re-supplying. I also made it a habit to remove my shoes and socks to give my feet some time to dry during this down time. I also had a sock swapping program where I would always have a pair of socks attached to the outside of my pack that could dry while we moved throughout the day. I would put the dry socks on at the supply cache and / or at camp, attaching my wet socks to the pack for drying.
Current River Section
We began the Current River Section with heat building into what would be a nasty, hot day for the miles of bushwhacking ahead. We’d be dealing with Pike Creek, and Peck Ranch. Two areas we knew would be some of the toughest ground to cover based on our scouting of the southern three sections back in late March. We could tell then which areas that would be overgrown, and knew there would be navigation issues around Peck Ranch as the trail was difficult to follow at that time.
The trail leading up Pike Creek was in pretty good shape, however things quickly diminished as we descended the fenceline trail down the creek. The brush quickly became very thick in the low section, growing waist high and higher in places. One can barely make out a trail, but the weeds we were trudging through were shrouded by thicker, heaver brush on both sides. We’d be pushing through the tall weeds to Pike Creek for a couple of hundred yards, each foot step was basically blind, with no clear ground under our feet. I just kept telling myself “I hope I don’t step on a snake”, over and over again. Once we arrived at Pike Creek, we were relieved that the water was not up as we had worried about for miles leading up to the crossing. We slid down the steep bank of the creek into nearly waist deep water with some brush and debris to navigate around. We made it across where there was a nice set of rapids about knee deep. We decided to take some time and cool ourselves off in the refreshing water.
Finding the trail on the North bank of Pike Creek proved to be a challenge as we could not find any markers, and the overgrowth made it difficult to make out any trail. With the assistance of the trail run project app and some patience we were able to get back on course and make our way towards Peck Ranch. The next notable area of difficulty was shortly ahead. There was a logging area that we remembered from our earlier scouting that would prove difficult as there were very few makers, a whole hillside of downed trees, and lots of sun exposure. We navigated this section of trail mainly by the phone app, and course waypoint navigation on my Garmin Fenix 3. Upon making it through most of the logging area, there was a final descent into the valley that would be our bushwhack through Peck Ranch. This hillside was littered with down trees, and so by our earlier scouting, we stayed high on the ridge, parallel with the trail until we got past most of the down trees, then descended straight down the hill to meet up with the trail.
It was at this point that we realized this last 2 or 3 miles of trail had been re-routed, which answered lots of questions regarding lack of trail markers! If you are heading Southbound on the trail, there is a sign posted on a tree noting the re-routed section (a note that we must have missed back in late March or that simply did not exist). We did not see any such sign during our travel Northbound. From this point is was a couple miles of lowland bushwhacking to find our way out onto a gravel road at Peck Ranch, where we could then set our sites towards Stegall Mountain. But before making our way to Stegall Mountain, we had some serious tick business to attend to. That’s right! A couple of miles back during a brush crossing to a creek, while searching to get back on trail, we hit the tick “motherload”! David yells out, “oh S*%t! Ticks everywhere!”. Upon looking down I noticed dozens and dozens of ticks on my knees, and shins, very quickly making their way up north! These were mainly the small seed ticks, so they are difficult to see, pick and remove. We frantically picked, scratched and swiped for nearly 10 minutes in this one place in order to get them under control. So back out on the gravel road, we sat for another 30 to 45 minutes, removing shoes and socks only to find them completely infested with ticks. Our solution was to use some of the last remaining deet spray we had with us to spray our shoes, socks, and David’s calf sleeves. This did help to kill most of the ticks in the material. Then we gave our legs a healthy dousing of deet as well to get things under control. At this point, I made another sock change putting on the socks that had been drying on my pack.
Here we set out down the gravel road to connect back to the OT single track in the forest, but since we were running the road at a decent pace, we didn’t realize that we had missed the turn until around 1/2 mile too late when we met a gate at an intersection. Realizing our mistake, we backtracked down the gravel road, then finding the trail on the left side of the road. Here, we jumped back on trail and looked forward to Rogers Creek just before Stegall Mountain for some cooling and water supply. It was a several mile trudge to Rogers Creek that felt like forever! Both of us feeling the effects of all the days obstacles. With a short stop at Rogers, we took care of business and set out for the climb up Stegall, where we decided that we’d stop for the night. We had hoped to make it so our supply cache at the end of the Current River Section for camp but that’d mean another 12 miles or so after Stegall, which neither one of us felt spry enough to tackle. After about 15 minutes of hiking through chest tall grass, we made a very efficient climb up Stegall, neither of us saying much, just eager to set up camp and get off our feet.
We took a few minutes to admire the views from atop Stegall Mountain. You get a very beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding hills and forest from up there, not to mention some great LTE cellular coverage!!. We crossed the glades and made our way to the start of the descent from Stegall, found a pretty clear area and set up the camp for the night. We had just enough time to set up before nightfall set in. Our plan was again, to get some sleep, and try to be out of trail again by around 2:00 am. Unlike our first camp, where I found it slightly difficult to sleep, I was asleep within a minute of two of crawling into my hammock.
Alarm goes off! We’re back up, taping and prepping our feet, packing up our camp and making tracks for highway 106 bridge where we’d find our next supply cache in about 12 miles. We quickly descended Stegall Mountain, things looking good, spirits up, and moving well. We passed the first person that we’d see on the trail, but he or she was fast asleep at their camp near the Rocky Creek crossing. We enjoyed these early miles, looking forward to Klepzig Mill and the great trails / scenery surrounding. Then it was off to Indian Creek area where the trail crosses the Indian Creek about 3 times. With Indian Creek behind us, it was time to get some elevation as we entered the bluff areas where we’d get our first views of the Current River. These miles ticked away quickly, getting closer and closer to the cache. Finally we emerged out on to a gravel road and campground area where we’d be just a couple of miles from the finish of this section. These final miles though, would prove to have probably the single worst area of overgrowth that we’d encounter thus far. After diving off of the road back to single track, it was just business as usual, trudging through thick tall weeds and brush, with occasional slightly clearer sections. Then it happened, when things couldn’t be any worse, came the stinging nettles. Not just a few, but every step we took came along with the painful sting of the nettles against our legs and arms. We’d move 50 yards, stop, look at each other, itch ourselves like never before, then continue. We thought we’d be able to just force our way through it, but after close to a 1/4 mile of these stinging bastards, we couldn’t take it anymore. The pain, itching and stinging were so intense that I felt like a was just about to go into full panic mode. I scratched my legs and arms so vigorously, that I kept thinking that it’d feel better if I could just scratch til it bleeds! This is where we gave up on the stinging nettles. We spotted a field just to our left, some 30 - 40 yards away. We made our way up to the field relieved to just find tall grass. Not only tall grass, tall wet grass. The wet grass on our legs was surprisingly a relief to the itching and burning. We made our way out to a gravel road, which the trail spills out onto and follows for a 1/2 mile or so before ending the Current River Section in another 1 - 1.5 miles of trail, coming out at the highway 106 bridge where we’d find our cache on the other side.
Blair Creek Section
With the Current River Section very happily behind us, we set out on the Blair Creek Section, the only section that we didn’t have a chance to scout during the previous winter leading up to our adventure. We were excited about seeing fresh trail, and also making it to highway 72 & P, which is our mid-way drop with more supply refreshments to look forward to. But, it was Saturday now, and according to the weather outlook it was shaping up to be the hottest day yet.
During our climb out of the 106 valley to the bluffs overlooking the Current River, it occurred to me that David was not feeling at his best. The climbing was slow, not much was said. I knew he was having a low point, but also wanted to keep moving. After watching him hike, I was more concerned that he may have injured himself, but David was adamant he was just feeling low and it was due to the hot weather. After a short stop on the bluffs for a picture or two and to admire the view, we made our first descent to the valley. It wasn’t long before we were climbing again, but I found myself stopping to wait and being concerned about how David was feeling. I asked David to take over the lead so he could do the pacing and I would just stay right there and be supportive. During the next couple of miles up and down steep climbs, we encountered our first feral hogs. We could hear them just off trail in the brush, then they would scatter, running way from us just ask quickly as they could. Sometimes you’d get a view of them, but they were very elusive and ran away very fast. We could hear them in the creek beds. It sounded like there was a lot of them but then again, running through a creek does make quite a bit of noise and could be deceiving. Over the next couple of miles, we encountered a couple of more groups of them.
We moved slowly through the late morning and into the midpoint of the day where we first encountered Little Blair Creek. Little Blair Creek provided much relief from the heat as we used the many crossings to cool ourselves down and drink lots of water. We followed the gravel road through this section, thankful for the relief from lots of climbing and descending from the miles before. We made it down past Harper Springs, taking a couple of minutes for some photos, then continuing to push on. We started discussing our plan for the remaining half of the day. The heat was intense, and we were considering taking a 2 - 3 hour break while the remaining part of the heat of day passed. After a couple of miles and our last cross through Little Blair Creek, we headed up a hill and into some open pine forest, where we decided to set up for a short camp. We decided to let our feet dry and maybe have a short nap just to recharge a bit before we continued to the end of the Blair Creek Section. While we were settling into our hammocks, David shouts over to me “holy s*^t!”. He had approximately one dozen ticks imbedded in various areas. He worked on plucking embedded ticks from himself for the next half an hour or more while I rested. I provided David with a small mirror that I brought along so I could change out my contact lenses. He used the mirror to help check the “difficult areas”. After some assistance, David felt confident that he had removed all of the ticks. We stayed at this camp from about 3:30 pm until about 6:30 pm, then packed up and headed out for the final push of our Blair Creek Section finish. We set out moving well for a while, only to find ourselves making a big mistake just before dark. We found ourselves on a spur trail that we had inadvertently jumped on a little ways back. Frustrated and backtracking, daytime transitioned over to darkness, we turned on the headlamps in preparation for a long night ahead. One very notable section of trail was an area call Barton Hollow around mile 10 in this section (according to section map when traveling N - S). Barton hollow has a nice little waterfall down into a deep, cold pool. The source of the waterfall is a spring just up in the rocks a bit. This would have been a great place to stop during the day, but we were on a mission and got moving again quickly. Our climb out of Barton Hollow provided us with a showing of a beautiful large black snake hanging just over head height in a tree on the right side of the trail. We stopped for a moment to admire the snake and get a photo or two, then moving on to the task at hand.
Not for far from Barton Hollow, we crossed a gravel road, then continued on the trail but not before a quick “Hey, hold on a minute”, being shouted from David behind me. I turned around to ask what was wrong. Apparently, the many embedded ticks from earlier in the day was weighing heavily on David’s mind. He wondered if the lethargic feeling he has felt all day, or the heat sickness, wasn’t actually a tick related illness. He started talking about shutting this adventure down, in worry that if it was a tick illness, he’d become worse or completely unable to move forward while in the deep forest. I told him that I supported him no matter what his decision was. We sat back on that gravel road for about 30 minutes pondering what to do. I also stated my concern with our ability to finish based on the slow pace we had thus far, due to the trail conditions and heat. I thought if things don’t improve quickly, allowing our pace to pick up, there’s no way to finish this in time since I was scheduled to be back to work on Wednesday.
We had a very candid conversation on the road about not continuing. I was in complete support of David and him as well for me. We were prepared to call it off if needed. We had to make a decision regarding David’s health. After discussing who we could contact, it was decided we’d try and call Johnnie Stevens. We barely had a bar or two of service that was in or out but it was enough to make a call. We knew Johnnie had suffered a tick related illness not once before, but two times so we really trusted his opinion on the matter. Johnnie felt that as long as David could get on some antibiotics within a week of the tick bites, he’d have a solid chance of not feeling the effects. This was just the reassurance that David needed. Before long spirits were up, and we were back on the trail with our mid-way drop just miles ahead. It was along this next stretch of trail that we’d encounter our first Copperhead snake. During the day these guys can really blend into the leaves, making them difficult to spot and very dangerous. Luckily, at night, however the headlamps really makes them “pop” out and can easily be seen. We viewed the snake for a couple of minutes then moved ahead. Our pace improved and we were able to run the next several miles at a really good pace including the few miles of tram bed section leading up to the highway 72 trailhead. This trailhead came in the early morning hours. We gathered our cache, set up camp, and quickly turned in for the day for a few hours of sleep.
With the Southern half of the OT behind us, we began the northern half of the trail with a renewed sense of optimism as we knew the trails would be in better shape, allowing us to pick up our pace and hopefully make up some lost time. We set our sights high for this early Sunday morning, planning to tackle both the Karkaghne and Middle Fork Sections of trail, totaling about 52 miles for the day. Both of which we had run in early winter. We knew there was a lot of very runnable terrain and that our goal of finishing around 5 days should be in reach.
As planned, the miles ticked off quickly and smoothly as the morning progressed. We’d be setting small mileage goals just to give us some boxes to check as we moved along, but our eyes were truly set on making it to Sutton Bluff, where we’d get some great bluff views and a nice cooldown in the Black River. The heat built steadily through the morning just as the previous three days had done. Eventually, the poorly designed hook and grommet which held David’s pack tight had come apart several times and finally breaking another grommet. We had devised a way to hopefully repair the pack, but we’d have to stop and spend some precious time making the repair. Luckily, I decided to carry a small box of safety pins in my pack, so we were able to use about six safety pins to re-attach the strap to the side of the pack, securely holding it in place, and hopefully ending this on and off again struggle with the pack.
Our final couple of climbs approaching the Sutton Bluff recreation area met us with some of the most refreshing shaded breezes. Just what we needed to lift our spirits from the previous 17 miles of run / hike / sweat / repeat. We reached the bluff tops and enjoyed some great views of the Black River as we descended the bluff into the recreation area somewhere around 1:00 pm. Our first stop was straight down to the nearest gravel bar. We dropped our packs and took a few dives in the river! It really was refreshing to get out of the heat and just relax in the cold water for 15 or 20 minutes. The recreation area was busy that day. Lots of people out cruising around in their side-by-sides and partying along the river. We wrapped up our swim, then decided to head up the paved road where we were pretty sure to find some decent cellular service. We made it up the hill and hung out in a shaded area, checking in with family and friends before hitting the trail for the final 11 miles of the Karkaghne Section.
We made it to the Highway J trailhead near Oats Mo. around 6:00 pm. We were both nearly exhausted from the pile up of miles, little sleep, and hot weather. However, we were determined to conquer the Middle Fork Section of trail coming up next before calling it a day. We took our usual hour to hour-fifteen minutes at the supply cache, eating slowly and just trying to relax a bit before the next push. Our motivation came from the fact that we really loved the Middle Fork section - it was one of our favorite winter runs. We knew it had the potential to be friendly to us, plus the cool night time temperatures would be a welcome companion for the next 24 miles of trail.
Middle Fork Section
We began the Middle Fork Section somewhere around 7:00 pm or shortly after. We hiked up the gravel road, crossed highway J and headed straight up the hill where we remembered just blasting down in a flat out sprint just months before. This section of switchbacks is long and gentle, allowing for some really fast running when your fresh and not carrying a 20 lb. pack!
Our first good water source for the section would have been at Strothers Creek, but reading the documentation for our water sources, it was recommended to NOT take water from this creek as it is downstream from a lead plant. Just for good measure, we also decided to exclude the next two creeks as water sources ;). We moved well until somewhere around Gunstock Hollow (best I can recall!), then the late night and long day crept up on both of us like a heavy weight. I started feeling the effects of extreme sleepiness. I began to Zombie walk, just staring at the ground illuminated by my headlamp. Occasionally, I’d look back and see David’s light a little ways behind but still making progress. I’d started to feel a bit dizzy and loopy. Stopping was worse. Every time I’d stop, I’d have trouble standing still, staggering around and not really able to keep my balance.
Eventually, during one of my look backs to David, I could no longer see his light. I stopped and waited….. finally deciding to backtrack to see what the problem is. When I reached David, he had found a bit of good cellular service along the ridge, so decided to stop and check in. I’ll admit that I was a little miffed by the stop, as I just wanted to keep making forward progress and get to our cache sooner than later. Finally, we started moving again. I asked David if he’d like to lead just to change things up a bit. After a few minutes, he tried singing out loud (in Spanish of course!). Anything to try and wake up and get going again but that was short lived. Next, fire up the iPhone and get a playlist going. Great idea David!! This certainly helped as we tried to maintain some sort of pace over the next couple of hours. With about 7 more miles to go in the section, as we were descending a hill, David breaks into full sprint! So what else do I do but follow. We ran the next half - three quarters of a mile at break-neck speeds, pack just bouncing all over the place but we were moving! I couldn’t believe that my legs actually had that much life in them, but here we were flying down this hill and having a blast!
The sprint was short-lived as what goes down must come back up! David was explaining to me that sometimes you have to just try many things when you are feeling down and out, sometimes one of them may help you snap out. The sprint surely did the trick. We felt pretty good over the next few miles, but the “sprint high” eventually wore off and it was back to the Zombie hike over the last few miles up to the 32 & DD trailhead. I think that I was most happy to see this trailhead than any others previously. Our day finished out at about 19 hours of moving time and 53 miles. We were finally starting to smell the finish line as we were now into pretty familiar territory.
Trace Creek Section
I woke from the hammock somewhere after the 7:00 am hour, a bit chilled with the cool air and a nagging need to relieve a full bladder! I mustered enough motivation to roll out an put my tender, swollen feet on the forest floor and stand up. I decided not to waste any time, but to go ahead and begin my daily foot prep. That entailed wrapping each pinky toe in tape, wrapping each heel in tape, nursing blisters in both areas. It wasn’t long before David started to stir over in his camp. We discussed two options. We could push the next 66 miles and just finish, or make a push to Highway 8 and take a rest, then finish this thing out. We both agreed it would be best to just make it 30 miles to Highway 8. We wanted to get some rest and finish the final 36 miles with a strong effort that we could both be proud of.
We got started for the day around 8:30 am, with our sights set on Hazel Creek campground, about 19 miles away. We started slow as usual, letting our sore feet ease into the trail until we could settle into a pace that would take us to our goal. Along the way, a few miles from our start we came up on two hikers. These were the first hikers (2 older men from Quincy, Illinois) that we had met on the trail since our start some 170 miles ago. We stopped to chat for a minute. We told them about our adventure and learned that they were day hiking part of the Trace Creek Section, ending at the 32 & DD trailhead where we had just left. It was nice to actually see other people out using the trail and to mingle for a few minutes, but it was time we said our goodbyes and continued forward. We strolled into Hazel Creek sometime early afternoon, during the heat of the day. Both of us very tired, we decided to take a break on a gravel bar. David found a nice sloped area of gravel bar, put his pack down in a position to lay a head on it and got comfortable. I figured, well, I guess we are staying here for a while so I did the same. The sun was beating directly down on us, so I used a towel that I was carrying to cover my legs and avoid sunburn. It was only a matter of a few minutes before I drifted off to sleep on that gravel bar, but it wasn’t too long before the heat and sun were baking me to a crisp. A quick 20 minute nap or so felt refreshing. I crawled to my feet only to realize how sore they were. I staggered on the gravel bar for a few minutes, each step tender and painful. I said to myself “This is why I don’t like stopping. Every time we stop, it’s harder and harder to get going again”. I finally convinced David to stop playing with the rocks and to head on out towards Highway 8, just 11 miles to go.
Our departure from the Hazel Creek campground signified the start of the final section of Ozark Trail heading north, the Courtois Section. The Courtois Section is the longest section with a little over 47 miles of trail stretching from Hazel Creek to Onandaga Cave State Park. We’d planned to make it to the Highway 8 crossing just before dark. It was always nice to set up camp during the daylight hours, so we tried to work things out to accommodate. We covered the next 11 miles to our camp and final supply cache with the motivation of having our final day just right around the corner. Just like the other days, we planned to sleep until 1:00am, and be back on the trail by 2:30 am.
Since we had 36 miles to go and would be finishing in the afternoon we decided that we’d travel light on the last day, so we both left our hammock gear behind with the supply cache as well as other items that we’d be sure not to need. Lighter is faster and we were motivated to finish! Once on the trail we looked forward to crawling out of the hole at Highway 8 and meeting up with the Berryman Trail which we’d follow for 12.5 miles, a trail that both David and I have quite a bit of experience with and we knew we’d make good time here. We cruised the first 6.5 miles or so of the Berryman section to the artesian well where we’d top off our water. While at the well, I told David “Hey, I’ll be back. Got a little business to take care of!” I hiked just a short distance up the hill on a trail and dove into the woods for a quick moment. Upon returning to the artesian well, David had moved on. So I said “ok, I’ll catch up”, except for some reason, without giving it any thought, I had gone back up the hill, the way I had gone earlier. I continued up the hill for about 1/3 - 1/2 of a mile before reality set in that I’m going the wrong way! Dammit! I can’t believe it. All of a sudden, an adrenaline rush set in and I ran down that hill like I was at mile 0. Back to the well and made the right turn to continue on trail. I have no idea how I made such a silly mistake, after all, I’d been to that location many times. Either my brain wasn’t working or I just chose not to use it. Either way, I was pissed at myself and had to catch up. I ran hard for the next 5 minutes until the climb out of the valley. I hiked the climb out of the valley knowing at the top would be several miles of easy beautiful flowing trail that I’d run and catch up. Part of me thought at some point David would be backtracking or waiting just around the next turn. Once up the hill, I ran for another mile before finally getting pretty concerned. I started throwing out all of these “what if” scenarios. Like “What if he’s not ahead of me but behind me due to some odd circumstance I may not have thought of”. At this point, I recalled that I’m on a ridge and may have cellular service so I turned my phone on and gave it a try. Call David….. “Hello”, awesome, he answered. Once establishing our locations, I realized he was about a mile ahead of me. I hung up and I ran to catch up.
Once I caught back up we laughed at our little ordeal and made our way to the exit of the OT from the Berryman Trail. We started thinking of how little ground we had to cover, now setting sights on the “Three sisters”, three notable climbs that would take us into Bass River Resort. We covered the next few miles uneventfully and quietly, David checking in while he had cellular service and me thinking about how I was starting to feel crappy, and not crappy like I’ve just covered over 200 miles, but crappy like “what is happening” crappy! The heat was building and fatigue was setting in for sure. We hiked the Three Sisters as quickly as we could but David was pulling away from me as the terrible feeling that I had wasn’t getting any better. I just kept telling him “let’s get to Bass Resort”, so we marched on until we finally broke out of the forest and onto the gravel road leading up to Bass. I was overjoyed to be this far into our day, we broke into a run and continued for the next mile until we arrived at Bass Resort. We’d been discussing during the miles leading up to the resort just exactly what we’d be eating when we arrived. Would it be a pizza, sandwich, beer, soda, or all of the above?
We arrived at Bass, dropped our packs and went to the bathroom first to wash up a bit. We went up to the store and browsed the food and cooler section, deciding on a 16” Pepperoni Pizza, Mountain Dew, and a chocolate milk. We went out and sat down at a picnic table where we’d wait on the pizza and just relax for a bit. I was still feeling bad, but had written it off to being hungry and thirsty. I devoured the chocolate milk first and it hit the spot just as I thought it would. I sipped the Mountain Dew and out came the pizza. We were making quick work of the pizza when I realized we’d been there for 30 minutes at least and my heart rate felt really high. I took a pulse and just sitting at the table was at 168 bpm. This was concerning as we’d not been running for a while now. I decided to lay down on the bench thinking maybe that would help to lay down and get my feet elevated. After 10 minutes of this, HR was not better. I sat up and proceeded to help David finish the pizza and also my Mountain Dew. Luckily after another 20 minutes or so, my HR finally did recover into the 80’s. I felt slightly better and we decided to pack up and make a run at our final 12.5 miles of the Ozark Trail.
I monitored my health as we left the parking lot of Bass Resort and headed for the trail. We started the ascent up the hill and just hiked at a reasonable pace. I definitely felt better, stronger than prior to our stop but I still felt far from peak. It only took a couple of miles into the trail before I started feeling bad again. After going over all of the symptoms, we were pretty sure it was heat related illness. So our treatment was to find any and all water sources and submerge ourselves in the water to stay cool. We moved slow over the next several miles, stopping at any water sources that we could find. Once we made it to the climb to the overlook area that is about 7 miles from Onandaga, I got a second wind and some renewed motivation to get going. We made it to the top, enjoyed a quick view of the Courtois River and the valley below, then headed towards our destination. The next couple of miles was spent running more than hiking as we were quickly nearing the end of this journey. We descended to the Courtois Creek crossing, one that we had been concerned about flooding this entire trip. On the Wednesday prior to our start, during our day of dropping supply caches, we had scouted several river crossings and found them to be completely flooded, a warning sign of what we may be dealing with on the trail (a woman at the Bixby, Missouri, gas station/store had told us that 4 inches of rain had fallen in some surrounding areas during a storm a day before we began our adventure). As we approached the Courtois River, there were two men wading in the water and fishing (that’s a great sign). Once we reached the crossing point, there was a couple hanging out on the gravel bar and relaxing. This was also a welcome sight as our crossing would be easy and we’d planned to spend some time swimming and cooling off for a bit. We made conversation with the people at the river, then moved on after about a ten minutes break. Now we had less than 5 miles to go and we were pumped!! We made our way along the campground and trail skirting the Courtois River, then just before climbing out of the valley some people out floating asked us how far we were going today. When we told them what we were doing they just all started cheering and motivated us to go! It’s amazing how some encouragement from others can lift you up and make you go! I could feel the energy from the people cheering us, so we made good use of it and made a brisk hike out of the valley and to the top where we would meet some jeep road sections that would definitely be a great place to do some running.
Once we got going, we didn’t stop for much, a few hills to hike but for the most part we ran the last 4 miles. We didn’t just run it but we ran it hard, fueled by the feeling and emotions you might imagine would be present near the end of such a long journey. We relished our time on trail in the final 3/4 mile, taking a photo at the foot bridge of the Cave Road crossing and walking in the final stretch until my car and the sign signifying the end of our journey came into view. For me, it was an unbelievable feeling that we’d actually accomplished what we did. With all of the things that stood in our way, all the problems, and challenges, here we were at Onandaga Cave State park a long, long way from the Western Trailhead just North of Thomasville, Missouri and we had made it here on our own two feet! We could finally stop. Stop and reflect on what we’d just accomplished.