Friday, September 28, 2007

Centennial Trail - 5-1/2 days of hiking, 120 miles

I do enjoy backpacking, but my trips in recent years have all been 3-4 day quick round tripper's. Day 1: Hike in and set up base camp. Day 2: Day hike. Day 3: Day hike and hike out. Day 4: Go home. As I was reaching a milestone this year (ordination in the Wesleyan church), I wanted to do something bigger... a thru hike! What better trail to try than South Dakota's own Centennial Trail (120 miles starting near Wind Cave, running through the heart of the Black Hills, up to Bear Butte)? And who better to do it with than Joel Molascon (a brother in Christ and hiking companion on my last five hikes) and Steve Swann (another brother in Christ, ordained the previous year, and an avid survivalist)? I only have so many vacation days, so we agreed to tackle the whole trail in 5-1/2 days. We selected late May in hopes that we'd avoid the sweltering heat and have a few more watering options.

Day One: We headed out after church on Sunday. A kind family from Rapid City agreed to shuttle us to the trail head AND pick us up at trail's end. They brought us down to Wind Cave (through thunder storms) and hit the trail with about an hour of daylight left. Like dunderheads, we trusted the map which showed a strong-flowing creek near the trail head. No dice! After about an hour of hiking, we climbed up to the top of a bluff and set up camp. The bugs were bad. About 3:00am, several Tatanka moved through the camp. It's a humbling experience to look our from our shelter and see the jet-black silhouette of a bison less than 100' away and knowing there's really nothing I could do about it. One passed by so close I could hear it chewing. Was able to get back to sleep.
Day Two: Wind Cave to Legion Lake. Came down from the ridge. My two hearty companions decided to harvest liquid from the somewhat murky flow we found near the trail. I tried but couldn't drink it straight. Too agricultural tasting and the ol' Adam's apple started jiggling every time I tried. Nothing a little Nestle Quick couldn't cover though. We proceeded. We missed our turn about three times - usually because we were off trail trying to give a lone bull bison plenty of room. The wildlife in Wind Cave Nat'l park is so plentiful. It's beautiful as well - definitely a highlight of the trip. As we crossed into Custer State park, there was a strong-flowing creek we watered at again. Soo good. Shortly after noon, we reached French Creek Horse Camp. There was a water spicket and flush toilets there - accommodations I would truly come to appreciate. We lost the trail awhile in the WildLife Loop but picked it up in time for an amazing climb. Caught the tail end of the thunderstorm. Steve proudly whipped out his Walmart umbrella (the ultimate waterproof yet breathable solution, right?), which lasted all of two seconds before crumpling in the wind. Oh well. We sped on to Legion Lk, set up camp, enjoyed our last hot meal at the restaurant and showered up just in time to get under cover before the rain hit. Rained through the night. (Side note, I dropped my foodbag at the restaurant on the way down to Wind Cave so I didn't have to carry it all Day 1. Very nice).

Day Three: Headed north. Crossed none of the facilities of Iron Creek Horse camp. Moved into Black Elk Wilderness area. This was the hardest part of the trail for me, because the trail was rocky and I was feeling the additional weight of my food drop pick up. Had a nice lunch with Mt. Rushmore for a view. Took a side trip to HorseThief Lake. Watered up and had supper along the lake there. Pressed on and made it several miles past Samalias Trail Head. It got real cold that night. I believe it got down to freezing. I have to say, by this time, I was in love with Steve's Shelter. It was a homemade creation using Ray Jardine's design. Quick set up. Tons of room! Light as a feather. Check it out at:
Day Four: She was a tad chilly in the morning. The only time I thought something warm would be especially nice (I had gone stoveless). We headed towards Sheridan Lk. We lost the trail just south of the lake for a while, but got back on at the Flume Trailhead. Watered at the spillway. Headed north to Pactola. Some wide open areas. By this time, we were on the Trails Illustrated: Black Hills North map, which is in metric and more of a frustration than an aid. Thankfully, Mr. Swann had brought his GPS which helped out. Brush Creek areas was beautiful. Passed through areas that had been logged and the trail was certainly a challenge to find. It was here I made my worst decision of the trip. As we were nearing Pactola (w/in about three miles), we could see the slope of the dike. We had planned to get on to check out the Visitor's Center at Pactola (and hopefully get some hot food). So I suggested we leave the trail and follow a logging road which looked like it should hit the highway (we could hear the traffic). No luck. Only several ups and downs to find we had still worked our way down to the base of the dike. We didn't water up because we were counting on watering up at the Visitor's Center. When we reached to top of the dike (and the highway), the Visitor's Center was w-a-y out of the way. And it didn't look open either. Dejected, we decided to head north. I think we all mumbled a little bit during the closing hours of the evening. Our feet were really starting to feel it too. Still, we set up camp on an overlook with an incredible view of Pactola as the sun set.

Day Five: Glorious morning. Quickly dropped down into what was a delightful hike towards Pilot Knob. No rocks. Trees, yet open. Hiking on a bed of pine needles. Our feet were saying, "Ahhhh". At Pilot Knob, we had lunch. A retired gentlemen came by who was volunteering for the Forest Service. He's covered some miles in his day and shared that he thought the hike from Deer Creek to Deerfield lake was the gem of the Black Hills. The Box Elder creek areas is beautiful. I wish we could have spent more time there, but we had miles to cover and the miles were going slower. The last few miles before Dalton Lake was again very difficult. A decent climb (which didn't feel bad) on jagged rock (which did feel bad). Missed our turn off down into the valley and probably added two miles onto the day. Got down to Dalton Lk and barely got setup before darkness fell. We went right to sleep. Spirits were pretty low by this point. Our feet were in bad shape and we'd gone a few days now from sun up to sun down. We dreaded the day ahead.

Day 6: Overcast morning. It rained over the area we were hiking into. We plodded along. Trail was slick and muddy. Our feet were wet and we were constantly trying to kick the mud off. Sun came out as we were heading into Elk Creek. What can I say about Elk Creek? I was truly surprised. My attitude was sub par at the time, but I still was struck by what I feel is the most scenic area on the trail north of Pactola. Watered at Elk Creek. As we headed north of the trail head, I think Joel hit his low point. What added to the frustration was that we were in a logging area again and really had no clue if we were on the right track. But before we could sink too low, God intervened via Mother Nature. As we took a break on top of a knoll, a storm moved in real quick. Heavy winds and lightning striking to ground. We boogied right along. The tension increased as we knew we should be turning at some point, but still weren't sure we were even on the right trail (you can see my review of the Trails Illustrated map at Mr. Swann had his trusty GPS out and working. I'll never forget as we counted down the distance to our way point, hearing Steve say, "And our turn should be right about... here!" We stopped we turned and looked. A beautiful trail turned off the road into the wood. We could see trail markers again. What joy! What elation. Our hearts were light for miles as we skipped down the long descent to Alkali Creek. The sun broke out again, just as we left the trees. It was a strange feeling, being glad to see the interstate. We made it to Alkalai Creek with an hour or so of daylight to spare. This is a Nat'l Forest Svc campground - and a nice one two. This was the first flush toilet and water spicket we'd seen since Legion Lake back at Custer State Park. The kind campground host gave us some Alieve. While there, there was a young couple camping there. The young man was Native American and seemed to be in very good shape. They asked what we were doing. With puffed out chests, we explained that the reason we were hobbling about was because we had just hiked over 100 miles in the last five days. He nodded. We asked him what he was doing this summer. He said he ran ultra-marathons for charity. We asked him how far you run in a day. He paused, smiled, and said, "75 miles." I have to admit that, "You liar!" was the first thought that ran through my mind. We bedded down rather deflated after that. (I have since learned that there are people who are crazy enough to run over 100 miles without breaking. Check out a real interesting article @

Day 7: We woke up to rain. Here's where Steve and I hit our low points. "Do you want to hike in the rain? I don't think my feet can stand being soaked all day. It would be so easy to come back and hit this last stretch from Ft. Meade to Bear Butte." Joel was just outside the shelter putting his shoes on. "What do you think, Joel?" Joel - "I can't believe what I'm hearing." Both Steve's and my head dropped. Enough said. The rain moved out quickly and we began plodding northward. It's awesome seeing Bear Butte from a distance, but discouraging when it's appears no closer after 2 hours of hiking towards it. We hiked past several fancy spreads with row after row of 10X12 windowless shacks with A/C units - all dedicated to the Sturgis Bike Rally. What desperate indulgences must go on during that week for many who attend. We finally reached Bear Butte visitor's center. We took a break for a good hour, sucking down water and airing out the feet. We wondered if we could do it until we saw a troop of elementary-aged girls coming down from the hike. Time for the last lap! The hike up wasn't bad at all and the view is amazing. What a feeling to reach the summit. How rewarding it was to look southwards and realize we'd cut through the heart of "them there Hills!" There was a little grunting. Maybe a tear of two. We'd done it. The hike down was agonizing. Our ride was waiting for us with chocolate cake and mile in hand. I didn't know if my system could take it, but we stuffed it down. We set up at the Rapid City KOA. Few showers have felt so good. Then it was off to Outback Steakhouse for what was the most enjoyable ribeye of my life. We got back in time to hit the hot tub.

The next morning we woke up early, breakfasted at Perkins (Eggs Benedict baby!). Having a little time before church started, I introduced my buddies to the Chapel in the Hills. This offered us some of the tranquility we had hoped to enjoy more on the trail. After a great worship service at South Canyon Baptist, it was finally time to head... HOME!

Best Equipment on the Trail?
  • Steve's Tarp (see above).
  • My Seattle Sombrero.
  • The good ol' Z-Rest sleeping pad.
  • Gold Bond Powder (not going to explain).
Lessons Learned

Better footwear! Going more the ultralight route, we all thought we'd get by with some running shoes. Huge mistake. By day two, I was feeling every rock on the trail. It took about two weeks for the swelling to go down. Next time, I'll get a waterproof, mid-weight hiker.
  • The Ian's Knot rocks! This is an awesome way to lace up the footwear. Easier to undo than a double knot and guaranteed not to come untied. See:

  • I wouldn't hike 20-24 miles per day again. It didn't leave enough time for relaxation and solitude I was yearning for. I hope for these trips to be physically exhilarating and spiritually refreshing. This might be different if I had better footware, for I could have hiked faster, but I'm still thinking 15-18 miles per day would be fine. How do some guys put in 40+ miles per day? Amazing.
  • Aqua Mira works just fine.
  • Bring a better blister kit (including hand sanitizer, safety pins and Krazy Glue).
Well, we all had our fill of hiking for awhile. At least that's what we thought. Within two weeks, we were all itchin' to hit the trail again - eager to apply what we learned. What's next? Perhaps the Superior Hiking Trail. Anyway, this trip was one for the books. Thanks Joel and Steve for making the journey with me. It's such a joy to have you as brothers.