A few weeks ago, our friend Paul posted something about a young lady named Gabrielle who is doing her Master’s thesis on the impact of humans on the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area in the Refuge. When she is in the Refuge, she spends the weekend hiking with different people and interviewing them about their views on a variety of topics concerning the Refuge. I was intrigued and wanted to join Paul and Bill when they hiked with Gabrielle, but I woke up that morning not feeling so great. Fast forward a couple of weeks and Michelle and I ran into Gabrielle on Elk Mountain. However, we didn’t know it was her until later when her hiking partner posted pictures. I contacted her and set up a day that we could hike together and today was the day!
We planned to hike to Crab Eyes, with a pretty early start of 7:30. Last night, Gabrielle messaged me and said that Paul wanted to come along. “Awesome! We love Paul!”. We decided to enter through the Indiahoma gate this morning versus the Cache gate and that cost us some time since we had to avoid several groups of deer along the way. We arrived about 10 minutes late, greeted Paul, introduced ourselves to Gabrielle, and then met two other hikers, Nicole and Iryna. By the time we geared up, it was 7:50. Gratefully, the temperatures stayed fairly low today and there was a nice breeze at times. Even so, it was a 4.3 mile hike and was still rather warm.
Today’s hike was all about comfort levels. Right from the start, our comfort levels were tested. As we headed past the bathrooms toward the second bridge, someone spotted a buffalo on the upper trail. He has been hanging around Sunset lately and I had seen him on Friday. He doesn’t seem very concerned with the presence of humans, but better safe than sorry. We diverted across the bridge to the south trail and entered the wilderness area from there.
I was in front, with Gabrielle behind me, then Paul and Iryna, Michelle and Nicole. Apparently, Gabrielle and I set a pretty fast pace, and we were fairly absorbed in conversation. This was a perfect comfort level for us, but not so much for Nicole. We quickly learned that this was only her second hike ever, which is really not optimal. Besides being a long hike, there is quite a bit of climbing and bouldering. Definitely not Nicole’s comfort level, but she managed it quite well with a few breaks along the way.
At the place where the trail starts to climb to Crab Eyes, Paul went ahead of us so he could get pictures of us climbing. We took a break to be interviewed by Gabrielle and rest. A group of 4 hikers passed us and started their assent. Little did we know that one of the guys was Todd C. Todd is member of Lets Hike 2 and takes great pictures of the adventures he and his friends have in the Refuge. He is not only an experienced hiker, but also a great climber and boulderer. We would soon be glad that he had chosen to hike to Crab Eyes today too.
We started our ascent, pausing periodically for pictures and rest breaks.
As we climbed, Michelle asked Gabrielle if she wanted to climb all the way up to Crab Eyes. Gabrielle quickly agreed. I was happy for Michelle because she has wanted to climb Crab Eyes for a while, but I was also envious because I knew it was not within my comfort level. We finally caught up to Paul, who was perched on a rock waiting for his “harem” of hikers.
We finally reached the base of Crab Eyes at the same time as Todd C. and his hiking companions. We still didn’t know who he was (he and Michelle would introduce themselves on top of Crab Eyes), but I quickly became grateful that he was there. Todd went up first, followed by his daughter (who gave a few humorous comments that I won’t repeat), and then his friend J.B. Michelle started up next.
We spent quite a bit of time at Crab Eyes and then headed around the back of it, where we joined up with Paul, Iryna, and Nicole for our descent. I was so proud of Michelle, but I feeling pretty bummed because I didn’t even try it. I want to climb it because I want to experience it and I want to be able to photograph the views, but I’m just not comfortable with it. I’m afraid of falling. I’m afraid of panicking and not being able to move, which puts everybody assisting me in jeopardy. I’m afraid of getting stuck in that crack. I want to be brave and adventurous like Michelle, but that’s not my comfort level. She totally owned it though, and I’m really proud of her!
We moved through some boulders on the back side of Crab Eyes, and finally reached what is often referred to as Clamshell. It’s similar to the Rock Rooms and is very cool, so we took a snack break and then did another round of interviews. While Gabrielle interviewed Michelle and me, Paul left with Iryna and Nicole to give them a head start back to the cars. After we finished the interview, we did a quick photo op with the menagerie and headed out.
After picking our way through woods, tall grass, fallen trees, and boulders, we finally emerged into the open and headed for the trail. Then Michelle announced that she had lost her cell phone! It would have been one thing to lose it on the trail, but in the woods? We hiked back to Clamshell and started retracing our steps to the trail. After a few very tense moments, Gabrielle found it. Thank goodness! Back to the trail and headed back to the car. After a few minutes, I spotted Paul, Iryna, and Nicole, and they were WAY ahead of us. Gabrielle and I still had a pretty good amount of energy, but Michelle was starting to struggle, so the hike back was pretty challenging.
As we crested the hill that leads into the meadow, what I suspected we would find was what we did find: two buffalo lying in the grass to the left of the trail. Once again, this was not within our comfort level, so we moved off to the right until we were safely past them.
I feel certain we could have stayed on the trail and they wouldn’t have bothered us, but again, not in the comfort zone. We eventually reached the trail head and turned right onto the south trail. As we approached the bathrooms, Gabrielle tried to point something out to me. I thought she was pointing to the two guys taking pictures until I quickly saw that the bison that had been on the north trail when we left was now on the south trail right behind the women’s bathroom. Suddenly, the urge to relieve ourselves didn’t seem so strong!
Finally, we reached the cars, five hours and 12 minutes after starting the hike. Gratefully, Paul had frozen bottles of water, which I quickly applied to my neck and beet-red face. We regaled Gabrielle’s boyfriend with a few quick stories, exchanged phone numbers, and then began the tedious task of removing a million little stickers from our hiking pants. We turned up the A/C, grabbed the snack that smiles back (4 bags were consumed today!), and headed to the visitor center. When we arrived, a herd of longhorn greeted us from the treeline that borders the parking lot to the south. Again, not in everybody’s comfort zone, although we weren’t phased by them or them by us.
We hung out with Donna for a while, assisted a few hikers with directions, told a guy that it’s illegal to fly drones over the Refuge, and met a very sweet therapy dog named Luke. Randy eventually showed up and I informed him that his stuffed namesake had been very bad today by jumping out of my pocket three times. I’m going to have to find a better way to carry Randy the River Otter!
Despite comfort issues, today was a great hike and I hope we helped Gabrielle with her research. I look forward to hiking with everyone again and I hope that I will some day find the strength to step outside my comfort zone and climb to the top of Crab Eyes. I need to Face Everything And Rise. We will see.
Remember to follow your own path but be prepared to change your path temporarily to avoid something that isn’t in your comfort zone. See you on the trail!