I spent Saturday in East Texas checking out the The Davy Crockett National Forest. My hiking partner and I weren’t planning to hike the entire 20 miles of the Four C trail (map). That takes two days and it isn’t pleasant in 100 degree temperatures. Some would say that no amount of hiking is pleasant in 100 degree temperatures. Still, a short uncomfortable hike is better than sitting indoors so we planned accordingly and agreed that we would drink often and turn back before we exhausted half of our water supplies. It wasn’t a bad plan but the heat nearly claimed us anyway.
We started at Neches Bluff. It’s the end of the trail and it’s most scenic section. The start of the hike was pleasant despite a temperature in the 90′s that was climbing quickly to over a 100 degrees. I felt strong and thought we’d cover 10 or 12 miles before the day was out. The trees provided ample shade and there was a slight breeze. The trail, cut into the hillside with steep drop offs on the left and a steep rise to the right might be one of the best sections of trail in Texas. The trail is somewhat primitive compared to those in our state parks but it was fairly clearly marked with small white rectangles, on the trees or posts at eye level, about every 100 yards. There are quite a few trees down across the trail which force detours that if you’re not careful can send you off in the wrong direction. That would happen to us before the day was out.
The hike was going well until we reached the valley floor and the trail followed an old logging road that went off, fully exposed to the sun, as far as the eye could see. In cooler weather it would have made for a pleasant stroll but in this weather It had the look of a death march, we groaned, but both felt strong and decided to push on in the hope that the trail would move back into the lush forest that lined the road.
The road surface was fairly overgrown but not to the point where hiking was difficult. It had steep walls that rose very high on the Neches Bluff side but were only about six to ten feet high on the other side. A quick climb up the short bank revealed swampland, and in some places, the muddy Neches River.
The road was fairly easy to navigate with the exception of a few muddy sections that forced us to choose our steps carefully and in one case to climb up steep bank to bypass the mud and water. We pressed on, stopping regularly to drink water, still hoping that the trail would veer off into the forest. The steep hill on the right eventually gave way to this large pond that appeared to be drying up. I could see, and hear, clear streams flowing into it on the opposite bank so it’s doubtful that it will dry up completely.
Passing the pond reveals a sort of washed out footbridge that I now know is a notorious spot that’s sent more than one hiker well off trail. The bridge doesn’t look passable and there is a clear trail around it that descends down into a shaded and cool section of forest where you can jump over the clear tadpole-filled water of the fast moving stream. However, if you take the detour you risk missing the trail marker that will finally send you back into the forest. That is exactly what happened to us.
We took the small detour and stopped by the stream to drink and rest. We must have been quiet because as we started to leave we heard an explosion of noise from a very large, yet still unseen animal, in the brush just 15 feet away. Thoughts of the Texas bigfoot (which I don’t believe in but makes for great joke material) or black bear came to mind but it was just a large buck that was uncharacteristically active during the hottest part of the day. With all the noise it sounded like he was caught up in the brush but eventually jumped out only to run another 20 feet, stop, and watch us for a minute before moving on. I think we got about as close to one of those in the wild as is possible. We then pressed on down the road, which looked even more overgrown and blocked by fallen trees than the previous section. We’d completely missed the white arrow that directed hikers to enter the forest on the opposite side of the road. The deer was on the trail but we were not.
We pressed on and quickly became concerned by the absence of trail markers. However, we’d seen nothing that looked like a change in the trail route at any point so we pressed on. A few hundred yards down the road and we were almost positive that we were off trail but we gave ourselves five more minutes before deciding to backtrack which we eventually did. Arriving back at the bridge revealed the marker but we were pretty exhausted after the 3/4 mile detour. I snapped a photo of the marker when we returned.
We took off our packs to grab a snack and drank a lot of water. Thirty minutes later we both felt rested and ready to move on. However, we were both surprised to discover that we’d lost almost all energy and stamina within 2 minutes of resuming the hike. It was clear that the heat was just too much but something else had happened. Scanning the treetops revealed no movement. The wind had stopped – completely. We were facing record high temperatures, a cloudless sky, high humidity, and absolutely no air movement whatsoever. We decided to make our way back immediately.
We’d only covered about 3 miles on the logging road, thanks to the detour, but it was a draining and difficult three miles. Much more so than we’d expected. The heat was quickly sapping our energy and were not looking forward to the hike back. Still, we weren’t really worried at that point. We were more surprised that we’d tired so quickly since we’ve both covered distances greater than 10 miles during summer day hikes before. However, we weren’t willing to take any chances given the heat, the remote location, and the low margin for error in those conditions. We started back down the road.
We knew, almost immediately. that it was going to be difficult to reach our starting point but we had no idea just how difficult it would finally turn out to be. The two mile hike down the remaining length of logging road, with no shade or wind, was unbearable. Nothing seemed to lower our body temperatures at all. Stopping to drink only made the heat seem worse since the air stopped moving when we did. I was forced to take tiny amounts of my drinking water and splash it on my face to get the cooling process started. The trek took a turn for the worse when my partner stumbled into thick knee deep mud.
Near the end of the road we scrambled up the steep bank into the trees, removed our packs, and collapsed. We stayed there for another half hour, lying on the 45 degree pine needle covered slope, trying to cool off and regain some strength for the final push up the bluff. I’ve never been as worn out as I was at that moment. I grabbed my cell phone, luckily got a signal, and let my family know where we were and what the conditions that we were facing. I didn’t really think we’d have trouble making it out but I wanted them to know where to send help if they didn’t hear from me in an hour. I don’t think they were thrilled by that call, it wasn’t good news, and I sound less coherent than I really was due to the exhaustion, but I wanted to play it safe.
Near the end of our rest it was clear that we’d have to move on quickly since our bodies were not cooling down in that environment and our muscles were seizing up a bit. The shade helped a little, so did the water, but neither helped enough and the water wouldn’t last indefinitely. I was actually a little worried at this point even though we were only a mile away from our truck with it’s air conditioning and supply of cold water. I grew even more concerned as we moved on. We were both losing steam quickly and we had another section of road, and an uphill climb ahead of us. We were in full death march mode, silently putting one foot in front of the other, slowly moving forward. We couldn’t really speak. Talking was pretty much reserved for ordering drink stops since staying hydrated was critical. We reached the bottom of the bluff fifteen minutes later and started our uphill climb.
Initially, the climb wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. The direct exposure to the sun on the road was far worse than hiking uphill. It didn’t bother me much until the halfway point. That’s where we sat for a brief rest and finished the last of the water. The GPS indicated that the truck was just over a third of a mile away. I didn’t check the elevation but I think we still had another 300 vertical feet to climb as well. That section would prove to be the most challenging of all. When we moved on I took the lead and pressed on hard knowing that another stop to rest wasn’t going to help. About halfway into the last section it became clear that we had to get to air conditioning and cold water quickly, within five or ten minutes at most, or heat stroke was going to set in. I honestly wasn’t sure that we were going to make it until I saw the start of the trail and the truck ahead of me. Looking back I don’t know how I kept going during the last five minutes.
Had we not prepared as well as we did it might have turned out far worse. We made some lifesaving decisions along the way – we turned around before it was too late and we took enough water to keep us hydrated throughout the entire ordeal. However, one factor not included in our pre-hike decision making was wind speed. I will never hike in 90+ degree windless weather again. That minor change, at the furthest point of our hike, made a significant difference in our status. Our bodies just couldn’t transfer heat once that slight breeze abated. When your body can’t transfer heat things go downhill very quickly. I also tend to think that I’m over-preparing when I pack for day hikes. On this trip every piece of gear and every ounce of water was required. This was a good reminder that extreme environments require extreme preparation.