Life is mostly a sinusoidal wave. Sometimes you hit a plateau and keep going until you either take a deep plunge or opt for a steep uphill climb. That way, plateau also is a fun place to be in. At least it leads you to something more exciting. But what happens when you find yourself in a – how do I say it without sounding dull – Plain?
I live in Bloomington, South Indiana – relatively the most hilly part of Indiana state. One would imagine hills rolling away into horizon or something of that sort when I say that. At least those accustomed to the majestic Himalayan heights or the rugged beauty of Sahyadris would do so. But all those folks will be in for a disappointment; because this part of the United States just does not know what real mountains are like. May be folks in Denver know better. Alas, I can’t be there right now.
But fear not, for every place has its own charm and it would be idiotic to miss out on the same just because you could not find your 18000 feet high snow clad peaks here. Bloomington, the county seat of Monroe County, happens to be only 30 minutes away from an eponymous lake. This lake is the biggest one in the state and is surrounded by forests on all sides. The whole forested area has been divided into various wilderness zones and one fine weekend in September , we decided to camp in one of those. Charles C. Deam Wilderness, which was to become our destination, encompasses 13000 acres of Hoosier National Forest and plays hosts to multiple hiking and horse riding trails.
We parked the car at Hickory Ridge the Fire Tower – one of the 3 designated parking areas in the wilderness. The 110 feet tall structure was once a lookout post and was used to protect the forest from wildfire. The tower used to be manned until the 1970’s. It now acts as a tribute to its builders and affords beautiful panoramic views of the forest after you climb its 123 stairs and reach the top.The climb up the steep stairs is a little scary in the first go but views are worth the effort. Sunrise and sunset would be the ideal times to be at the top of the fire tower.
After stuffing some snacks in the mouth, we felt ready for the hike to the lake shore, where we wanted to camp for the night. Abhi had already been in the area and had a considerable idea about the route, although we relied majorly on the free printed map that we had collected at the entry point to the forest. GPS on the smartphone was a big help too.
Trails emanating from the fire tower seemed a bit tricky to us and since it was just the two of us, we had no intention of getting lost so early in the trip. So we walked back to reach Grubb Ridge Trailhead, and started walking up a trail that would lead us to Lake Monroe in a couple of hours’ time. Our intention was to take the Peninsula trail and come back the same way the next day. But adventures seldom happen when you stick to the traditional route 😉
It was a sunny day and lots of people were hanging about in the wilderness. We met two or three sets of campers after starting our walk on the trail. I was hiking for the first time after landing in US and it felt good! A big rucksack on the bag, pleasantly cool weather and a beautiful forest around me. We were not far away from the civilization and yet, were close enough to nature. It was a little before the onset of the fall and leaves had just begun to change their colors. Having Abhi as my camping buddy made the whole experience enormously more fun. We passed a couple of camping grounds on the way and it made me wonder just how organized even an activity like hiking in the wild can become in the states. I am not sure if I appreciate it being so neat and planned but that day, it felt good. We were following GPS on the phone and after about 2.5 miles, started feeling like it was turning out to be a very plain walk. Peninsula trail lay quite some distance ahead and we started contemplating taking a shorter route to reach the shore of the lake. Abhi had done something similar in his last camping trip here; that helped build our confidence and we finally decided to ditch the trail and climb down the hillside that would lead us to the lake below.
5 minutes after we started descending down the hill side, we realized that it’s not going be a cake walk. Ground beneath our feet was quite steep. Additionally, rain and slush had made some areas very slippery. We were trying to follow a dry stream as it would surely lead us to the lake. But the stones were wet and algae ridden; This meant we would have to take another path. Although going down in any direction would ultimately have led us to the lake anyway; there was this particular point that we had marked earlier on the map and were trying to reach because it appeared to be good for camping. It was therefore important to not lose direction towards that spot from where we wanted to emerge from the forest on to the lake shore.
The walk down the hill felt like a little adventure, what with us going off the main route and trying find a path on tricky ground. But both of us were seasoned hikers and felt comfortable doing this. It was, actually, a lot of fun. Forest was a little denser since we were no longer on any marked trail and we had to shove away twigs and branches every now and then. On Abhi’s insistence, we tried sticking to a direction that was opposite the sun, which was behind us. According to him, that direction aligned with the direction map was telling us to take. I was a little skeptical about this approach but wanted to try it and it actually turned out to be a successful one. Within half an hour, we were able to see water in the distance and with both of us covered in spider webs, we finally landed on the lake front.
It was magical. The moment I came out of the forest and landed on the shore, I found myself staring at a serene water body stretched across on three sides, with beautiful trees lined along its borders. There was nobody but us and a lone fishing boat, with an old couple trying their fish luck on its deck. They threw a curious glance at the two people who came out of the blue; but they must be habituated to seeing hikers and campers for they turned back to their activity very soon.
Abhi and I sat there for a while, breathless from our little excursion down the hill and the scenic views. After about 20 minutes of basking in the sun, we picked up our rucksacks again, in search of a camping site. It was not so difficult to find it.
Just after a walk of 500m along circumference of the lake, we hit some plain surface where our tent could be pitched. We found multiple camping sites and we moved back and forth before narrowing down on one of them. View from that whole side of the lake was mesmerizing. Quietude & a mild breeze made it perfect. I was living my fantasy!
We had spent about 3 hours since parking our car. Hunger was catching up. But priority was to get our temporary abode up in case it starts raining. The tent, borrowed from University’s adventure club, was in good condition and within 20 minutes, it was set up and ready to take us in. Abhi was the stove & cooking expert and he performed that job very well. Lunch for the day was hot soup and roasted hot dogs! It tasted amazingly delicious and I was thankful for the stove ( and the cook!)
Wind was catching up and it then started to get a little colder. Jackets were put on and we started dreaming of a campfire. Abhi wanted to do a Bear Grylls. So, using damp twigs and wooden logs left to us by the previous occupants of the campsite, he tried for next half an hour to get the fire up. Alas, without any fuel, fire was not easy to make and we finally accepted that there was not going to be any of it in this camp.
I was living my dream – of setting up a camp by the lake side with forest on one side, nobody but us campers and may be only birds & some wildlife for company. The last boat moved away from our sight before the Sun had set completely. In our previous visit to the lake, we had seen cops/forest rangers patrolling the areas at different times of the day. I kept hoping that they would pay us a visit this time too. But that did not happen. Soon after the sunset, I had begun to hope that the wildlife part of my dream would not realize. It had become eerily quiet by that time. To save on batteries and also because it was a little scary to stay outside in the darkness, we cleaned the surroundings, rid it of any open foodstuff ( we were seriously worried about bears :p) and got inside our sleeping bags in the warm tent. The next few minutes were occupied by talking about all possible ways in which bears can attack a camp and what to do if that happens. It was – scary. The dark, the silence, the sounds of birds – My ears would twitch every time the birdie made a sound. The scary feeling did not last long though.
Fatigue was catching up and we both slept off through the night. But not before Abhi was able to brew some nice hot chocolate for both of us!
Morning saw us up and about by 7 a.m. The moment I came out of my tent, I saw another sight that would make me feel like I am part of some mystery movie. Half the lake was covered under a heavy layer of fog and a boat carrying two people was passing slowly in front of our campsite. The guys were fishing early in the morning and it must have been lovely to be in water that early, with Sun still not entirely out. The boat, with its slow speed, passed ahead of us and then disappeared in the fog. It was like being in a beautiful dream. The darkness had gone and the camping trip once again seemed perfect.
We knew that a hard climb up the slope we had descended lay ahead of us. We had contemplated again on whether to follow a trail that was longer but more straightforward to take us back to Fire tower or to just go back up the slope. We had finally agreed that we didn’t want to walk for a long time and would prefer taking the shorter route as it seemed feasible to do so. The hike up was not easy and took double the time it had taken us for coming down. But we made it. We followed the GPS route, slid off at a few places but always gathered ourselves and walked ahead. Finally, we found ourselves at the point on the main trail head from where we had veered off.
From there on, it was another hour long walk back to the parking site , back to the car.
We both felt happy! We had been talking about such a camping trip for a long time and finally we had been able to do it.
There will be more such trips in the future, with more photographs and of course, with lots of fuel for the campfire!