Thursday, June 16, 2011

My (unintentional) Off-trail Adventure

A perfect day for a hike!

It’s been gorgeous this week, with cool nights and slowly warming days, temps peaking barely in the mid 80s. I visited Lake Frank on both Monday and Tuesday. The first day I focused on some blooming milkweed and their attendant butterflies (more on that in a later post). But the next day I came back with a specific goal: I wanted to hike all the way around the lake-- none of this hiking part way and turning back.  In order to do this, I had to bypass my normal “stop and look at everything” philosophy.  Usually I let myself get distracted by things like tiny wildflowers, odd fungi or that secretive Ovenbird I just KNOW is around here somewhere. This time I wanted to explore beyond just my few favorite spots.

Map courtesy Montgomery County Department of Parks,

Lake Frank has a somewhat confusing network of trails. There’s the formal park trails, usually well-kept, well-trodden and clearly marked. One section of the Lakeside trail is even paved. Then there are unmarked “connector” trails between the formal trails and nearby neighborhoods.  Both of these types of trail are indicated on the map.  But there are also unmarked fishermen’s access trails down to the water’s edge, plus the usual wildlife trails where deer have trodden recognizable if faint pathways.  Some of the fishermen’s trails are nearly as wide and well-used as the formal trails, while others are barely as wide as the deer trails.  So there’s a somewhat helter-skelter aspect to finding the trail at times. 

One of the semi-official connector trails.

The first and last third of my intended route are quite familiar to me, but I had never hiked the middle section. I had a copy of the map in my pack and thought my route would be straightforward.  Well, not quite.  The trails near a spot I’ve nicknamed the owl grove get hopelessly criss-crossed, and of course most of them are the unofficial or wildlife kinds.  I came to one fork where both paths looked well-trodden.  The right hand trail headed toward where I thought the owl grove was, so that’s the one I took. I followed it through the forest, up and down hills that overlooked the lake, and somehow completely bypassed the owl grove.

One of the nest boxes in the owl grove.

I’ve spent time in the grove before, but not recently, and apparently have forgotten the exact path to get there. After cresting a final hill I descended into a meadow that borders a stream.  I think I entered that meadow once a few months ago while searching for the year’s first spring peepers, but the grasses are now waist-high or taller and I was very disoriented.

I found several spots where I could be on the map.  My intended trail crossed a small stream, then followed a larger one, dancing between the stream’s edge and a meadow, finally crossing the large stream before heading back to the lake shore.  If I was at the big stream, I should keep the river on my right in order to go the correct direction.  But if I was at the small stream instead, I should keep the stream on my left until I reached the crossing.  I could hear children’s distant laughter to my left. Perhaps they were near the nature center and I should head that way, or instead they could be in one of the neighborhoods that border the park and thus be of no use for navigation. It wasn’t much help. I eventually concluded I was at the small stream since I hadn’t crossed any stream yet, or so I thought. I decided to continue to my right, after first checking out the meadow a bit.  I briefly followed the trail upstream, finding yet more milkweed and lots of neat bugs and birds.

Red Milkweed Beetle-- on milkweed, naturally.

Then I resumed hiking through the forest.  Suddenly the trail disappeared in scraggly underbrush.  Huh? I climbed a hill and discovered below me a section of lake shore that I recognized from two hours ago! I must have backtracked on yet another one of the deer trails. Arrgh. I returned to the meadow again. It was looking less and less like I would make a successful circumnavigation of the lake.

I tried once more to figure out where I was on the map.  It was just about noon, so I couldn’t use the sun to determine north.  (Apparently I need to add a compass to my hiking gear!) Finally I realized I could figure out my position and direction by just observing the stream. It seems so obvious now.  The way the streambed curved in front of me seemed on closer inspection to match one part of the map’s big stream. If I were there instead of at the small stream, then walking upstream would keep the river on my right and would put me on the right trail. Aha! I should have just kept going after my initial upstream exploration.  When I reentered the forest by hiking upstream I even found proper trail blazes again, the first I’d seen since way back at the initial trail fork. I’ve never been so relieved to see a simple trail marker before!

Hooray for trail blazes!

Knowing for sure where I was really cheered me up. I felt better with each recognizable landmark and especially the labeled trail intersections.  But then as I continued along, I noticed dark clouds starting to build.  Even if I knew exactly where I was on the map, I’d still be just as soaked if a storm caught me on the trail. I picked up my pace, and soon found myself on the paved part of the trail, right next to one of yesterday’s milkweed patches.  I knew I could make good time from here as long as I ignored the temptations of the milkweed. 

I don't like the looks of this...

When I finally made it back to the dam at the south end of the lake, I realized the dark clouds weren’t actually moving very fast.  I relaxed and took a slower pace the rest of the way to the car.  It didn’t even start raining until long after I made it home. Although I took more time than I’d hoped, and I walked quite a bit farther than intended with all the detours and backtracking, I still achieved my goal! I feel like overcoming my lack of navigation skills made it a bigger accomplishment than following the correct trail would have been. Plus, if I hadn’t done all the detours and backtracks, I wouldn’t have been in the right place at the right time to have these wonderful little encounters:

I found this Common Yellowthroat after my first upstream exploration.

This Wood Duck family explored the lake only briefly.

A  Hummingbird Moth joined the butterflies the second time I walked upstream.

I guess it’s like they say, the journey can be more important than the destination.  Of course the eventual destination is pretty crucial, like getting back to my car, but the quirks and mistakes in my route probably made the hike more fun than if I’d stayed on the correct trail the whole way.  Now to get me that compass, and try following the trail loop again soon!

Today’s park: Lake Frank, Rock Creek Regional Park, Derwood, MD

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