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Backpacking in the Otter Creek Wilderness Area

The boys and I have been wanting to try backpacking for the last year or two, but we have been slow in getting it done.  The main reason for that was the cost of all of the necessary equipment. We had plenty of camping gear, but none of it was small and light enough for backpacking. But this year Landry’s school teacher invited all of the boys in the class and their fathers on a three day, two night backpacking trip.  So that was the motivation I needed to spend the money and get geared up.  Sometime in a future post I’ll give you a run-down of all the equipment I purchased.

A test run

Being new to backpacking, I decided to take a short one-night backpacking trip just to test my equipment in preparation for the longer trip.  I took all three of my sons on a 1.5 mile trip into the state forest near our house and we camped for one night.  My friend and his son also went along.

Everything went well, except that our 2-3 man tent was very cramped with myself and my three boys.  But that was to be expected.  Only Landry and I were going on the longer trip, so we knew tent space wouldn’t be a problem.

Day 1

About a week after our test backpacking trip, we arrived at the parking lot for Otter Creek Wilderness Area to start our three-day, two-night adventure.   The trail started by crossing Otter creek on a suspended bridge.  Then it was a rugged hike for a short distance until we got to what appeared to be an old railroad bed running along Otter creek.  The trail was relatively flat, but muddy in places and there were a few small streams to cross that flowed into Otter Creek.  When we reached the first creek crossing, I removed my Altra Lone Peak trail running shoes and wore my Crocs for the remainder of the day.  They were not the most comfortable shoes to walk in, but thankfully we had only planned to go 3.2 miles on the first day.

Our campsite was a flat, dry area on the banks of Otter Creek.  We reached it around lunchtime, so we had plenty of time to hang out and explore.

As far as scenery goes, Otter Creek was the highlight of the trip. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, except perhaps in some Montana trout fishing videos.  It was one waterfall or white-water area after another, with water crashing over huge boulders.  Some deep pools in-between looked like perfect places to hold trout. Several of our group who were under 16 (no fishing licenses needed) fished for a time, but we didn’t have any success.

Day 2

We packed up camp after breakfast and resumed our trek along Otter Creek.  The trail was a slight uphill grade and followed Otter Creek for about 6 miles.  There were several large waterfalls along the way. We forded the creek a total of four times.  One crossing was a little treacherous, and I wouldn’t have wanted the water to be any higher.

Somewhere around mile nine the trail left Otter Creek and headed up the mountain.  I was glad to finally be able to put on some dry socks and shoes and be able to keep them dry for a while.

The trail flattened out when we reached the top of the mountain, and we had an easy hike through the hemlocks to our campsite beside a spring at mile 12.

We hung-out for a couple of hours and had a good supper, and then escaped to our tents at dusk just in time to escape the rain that continued into the night.

Day 3

The rain stopped sometime during the night, and day three was another great day to hike.  It started with several miles of hiking a slight downgrade on the top of the mountain, so I assumed it would be reasonably dry in spite of the rain.  I was proven wrong when we slogged through mud again and again.  The thick rhododendron was nearly overgrowing the path and was wet from the rain.  Add in a few rocks and roots to trip over, and it made for some treacherous hiking.  It was especially difficult for the two younger boys.  For them much of the rhododendron was head level, making it difficult to watch for obstacles.  Landry fell at least five times, but thankfully didn’t have any injuries.  I was relieved when the trail opened up and then headed sharply downhill.

At around mile 16, we rejoined the trail along Otter Creek that we had started on, completing a loop.  From there we retraced our steps about four more miles to get back to the vehicle by early afternoon.

Lessons learned

Here are a few things we learned on our first multi-day backpacking trip

  • Blue jeans get really heavy when they are wet.
    For this trip I wore lightweight hiking pants that I was very happy with. Landry, on the other hand, wore blue jeans. Everything was OK until we crossed the creek a few times and he got wet up to his waist. At that point the denim got heavy and began to chaff his legs. Thankfully, we had an extra pair of pants for him. Next time, denim clothes will be left at home.
  • Paracord and carabiners are very handy for all sorts of things.
    Take some of both along when you go backpacking.
  • Take extra socks.
    An couple extra pairs of socks take up very little space and you will be glad for them if the trail is wet and muddy.
  • Bacon & Cheddar Cheez-it crackers are a very tasty trail snack

All-in-all, we had a great time.  Our equipment worked well, in spite of the fact that we were pretty frugal in the products we selected. Luke and Jared did a good job of planning the trip as well.  The hike was difficult and long enough to be an adventure, but not so much to cause many aching muscles.

A Night in the Igloo

Tent camping in cold weather never seemed very appealing to me, but for a long time I’ve wanted to spend a night in an Igloo.  Thanks to winter storm Jonas, I finally got that opportunity this year.

The 2010 Igloo

The 2010 Igloo

The first time I built an igloo was after the blizzard of 2010.  The snow was powdery and it took several hours of spraying down snow with water and packing it before I got it constructed.  That structure was too small for camping, but Landry and I were able to have a picnic inside.

When the forecast called for a blizzard this year, my boys started talking about building an igloo.  I told them I wouldn’t be doing it unless the snow was wet and packed easily.  But after Jonas dumped two feet of light, powdery snow, I changed my mind and built it anyway.  Igloo 4Like before, it took a lot of water and a lot of work.  This time I made it large enough for three people to spend the night. The end result was a bit odd-shaped; it wasn’t perfectly round like the igloos you see in a story book.

At first the igloo was not very sturdy, but as the week went on we got a few days of warmer weather that caused the snow to soften and then harden again at night.  I also took some opportunities to pack more wet snow onto the structure.  But the end of the week, the igloo was very sturdy.

Igloo 1On Friday night we decided it was time to put it to use.  The nighttime temperature was forecasted to get down to about 15 degrees, so the challenge was going to be staying warm.  Our sleeping bags were cheap ones, not rated for winter weather, so I wasn’t sure they’d keep us warm with each of us in separate bag and not benefiting from each other’s body heat.  So we used blankets instead. I covered the floor of the igloo with a piece of plastic, and then put a piece of egg-crate foam and a blanket on top of that.  Landry, Camden, and I laid on that and used three more heavy blankets on top.  I also draped a folded blanket over the doorway tunnel to help keep the cold air from coming in.  Cullen, our youngest son, wanted to join us, but there wasn’t enough room, and I wasn’t sure if he’d stay still enough to stay under the blankets.

It turned out to be a reasonably comfortable night.  Our body heat warmed up the interior to the point that a few drops of water fell from the ceiling. Igloo 3 A more perfectly shaped ceiling would have caused the water to run down the walls instead of dripping, but it wasn’t enough to cause a problem.  But by the middle of the night the dripping stopped, meaning that the interior temperature had fallen some, but as morning came it started again as it began to warm up.

Igloo 5I’m not sure I’m ready to strike out into the wilderness to go igloo camping, but as long as I’m a short distance from a warm house, I’ll be ready to do it again the next time winter sends us a bunch of snow to work with.

 

Steelhead Fishing in Erie, PA

Bicentennial Tower in Erie, PA

Bicentennial Tower in Erie, PA

Each of the past two years I have traveled to Erie, PA with some fishing buddies to fish for steelhead.  This year, Crystal and I decided to change things up a little and take the whole family.  We have three sons ages four, six, and eight who love to fish; and I wanted them to have  chance to hook into a steelhead.  I went into this knowing that it would be challenging.  Steelhead fishing is something that can require a good bit of patience.  I’ve fished as long as two days straight without catching anything, and with the family along I knew fishing time would be much more limited.  So we went on the trip hoping to have some family fun with a chance of a bonus fish or two.

Day 1

We traveled up in the early morning hours of Wednesday, December 16.  We arrived in Erie around 8 am and started the day with a trip to Poor Richard’s Bait and Tackle, which is always our first stop.  The guys there can give you some general advice about where to look for fish and what they are likely to bite on.

Next we did some scouting to find some good fishing spots.  We first went down to Trout Run to show the boys the steelhead that are typically stacked up in the creek near the mouth.  We hoped to do a bit of fishing in the lake there (trout run itself is off-limits for fishing), but there were probably 20 anglers already standing in the lake and nobody seem to be catching, so we moved on.

Our next stop was at Elk Creek.  We hiked over the ridge and down to the mouth of the creek.  I did some fishing while the boys looked for sea shells and other treasures along the shoreline.  The water was low and clear and there were no fish to be found.

Raccoon Park

Raccoon Park

From there we checked out Crooked Creek and Raccoon Creek. There were some anglers fishing the riffles upstream from the no-fishing area in Crooked Creek and reportedly were catching a few. However, the terrain was not family-friendly at all so I decided it was as spot for me to try later by myself.  We ate a picnic lunch at Raccoon creek and was surprised to find a few fish in the creek near the mouth.  However, they didn’t seem to be hungry for anything I threw at them.

Boys with SteelheadAfter lunch we headed to Homewood Suites at the Millcreek Mall complex where we had reserved a room.   I left Crystal and our four-year-old son there and left with the older two boys to check out spots on Elk and Walnut.   We found some fish and Landry and Camden each were able to pull in a steelhead by the time the day was over.  Both fish were caught on egg sacks.

Day 2

The weather was unseasonably warm the next day just as it had been the day before.   I took the whole family down to the creek and by lunchtime Crystal and Landry each were able to land a steelhead.  Four-year-old Cullen had one on as well, but had to hand the rod off to me when his arms got tired.  All three fish were caught on skein.

Tom Ridge Environmental CtrAfter lunch we headed down to the Tom Ridge Environmental Center for some educational time.  We watched a video about Presque Isle and climbed the tower to have a better look at the area.  We then drove out on the peninsula to get some views of the bay and Lake Erie.

Day 3

steelhead on the fly rodThe weather turned colder on day three.  I took the older two boys out in the morning.  By 9 o’clock they each had caught one fish and were ready to get out of the cold.  I dropped them at the hotel and fished myself until just after lunch, landing two more, one of those on the fly rod.

In the evening we spent a few hours at the Splash Lagoon indoor water park.  It was a great experience for the whole family that we won’t forget anytime soon.

Day 4

Steelhead fishing in the snowBy morning some lake-effect squalls had blanketed the ground with 2-4 inches of snow.  I got to the creek just as it got light and never saw another angler.  It’s hard to remember when I had a more enjoyable time fishing.  I fished until 9:30, landing six fish and losing several more.   After landing four on single eggs, I switched to the fly rod and landed two more on a nymph.

After lunch we made a very cold and windy visit to the top of the Bicentennial Tower before heading for home.

Equipment Used

Rod: Okuma Connoisseur CQ-S-862M-1 Steelhead Rod
Reel: Quantum Optix 20 Spinning Reel
Line: 6 lb. Berkley Vanish Fluorocarbon

Fly fishing outfit: Wild Water 5/6 Starter Package

Shout-outs

Rarely is a fishing trip successful without help from others, and this time was no exception.  As usual, the guys at Poor Richard’s Bait and Tackle were helpful in deciding what to use for bait.  Jack York’s web site and video channel contain great information for anybody trying to learn more about steelhead fishing.  Last but not least, thanks to the fly fisherman who gave us the tip to look for fish farther upstream, and also the one who shared a nymph and some fly fishing tips.  You made our trip a great one!