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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Cold is cold, no matter if it's a week or months

by Bryan Hendricks | February 21, 2021 at 2:25 a.m.

Spread last week's weather across four months, with only a tent for shelter and campfires for heat.

That was life for Miss Laura and me during the winter of 1987-88, when we backpacked from Arkansas to Maine. We began the journey on Oct. 10, 1987, at the Ozark Highlands Trailhead at Fairview Recreation Area near Pelsor. There, we met David Allison, a "professional" hiker. Hearing our plans, he shook his head and said, "You'll have to be tough as boots!"

We meandered across northern Arkansas during a splendid autumn, working ourselves into shape under a 75-pound backpack for me and a 55-pounder for Laura. We shaved weight by sending unnecessary items home or giving them away.

My biggest weight was a sack of dog food I carried for our collie Bo, our good-natured sentry and public relations agent. A lot of people had no use for a couple of bohemian backpackers, but everybody wanted to pet "Lassie" and give him treats. Bo broke the ice with many people who became lifelong friends.

I usually bought 5- or 10-pound bags of kibble for Bo, but there were times when only 20-pounders were available. Walking 20-30 miles per day with that kind of load, my body became sculpted iron.

In early November 1987, we bought a canoe in Berryville and paddled the entire length of Table Rock Lake, whose shores were largely undeveloped. We sold the canoe at a trout Dock in Branson and continued walking. The year's first snowstorm hit the next day, and snow was our near constant companion until March 1988.

Our daily routine was simple. I always rose first, wedged my feet into frozen boots and built a campfire. When it roared, Miss Laura rose and prepared breakfast of toast and eggs. Bread and eggs pack very well. Bread compacts into a small square, like an accordion. Just peel off the slices. Eggs don't tolerate impact, but they bear weight. Laura packed them safely among her clothing. To keep our water from freezing, we slept with our canteens inside our sleeping bags.

After breakfast, Laura placed two servings of brown beans in a big Ziplock bag, immersed them in water, zipped the bag and placed it in her backpack.

Laura kept the Ziplock near her body to prevent its contents from freezing. At day's end, the beans were bloated and ready to cook. She boiled them in a kettle along with a bag of ramen noodles and two eggs. That was our supper every night for a year. When I learned how to make cornbread and cake over a campfire with two enamel plates and a forked stick, it was the taste of freedom.

The weather worsened as we traveled east. On one particularly bad night, the Black River jumped its banks in the middle of the night and sent us scrambling up a bridge embankment where we spent a miserable night trying to sleep on big rocks.

We stayed in our tent during rain to avoid illness. Even though the southern tip of Illinois is narrow, it took us 28 days to make it to the Ohio River ferry at Cave-In-Rock, Ill.

The worst was at Makanda, Ill., where a sleet and snow blizzard stranded us at Giant City State Park. A pavilion sheltered our tent from precipitation, but the temperature plunged to minus-10 for several days. A Jackson County, Ill., sheriff's deputy who had hiked the Appalachian Trail checked on us daily.

When it's that cold, you don't really ever go to sleep. It's your body's defense against freezing to death. You hover in a restless twilight sleep, waking periodically through the night. Even fully clothed with our sleeping bags zipped together and with the dog inside for warmth, it was bone-numbing cold.

We took refuge from another storm in an unlocked hunting cabin for three days. I split all the firewood as payment, even though our presence was unknown.

Finally, we couldn't stand it anymore. Instead of continuing north, we veered south to warmer weather in Tennessee and North Carolina. We followed springtime up the spine of the Appalachian, Allegheny, Adirondack, Green and White mountains to our terminus at Bar Harbor, Maine.

We endured two more snowstorms, including one in North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest. That day began so gloriously warm and sunny on the banks of the Pigeon River that Miss Laura declared that "Winter is over!" She cut the legs off her jeans as I anxiously watched an ominous cloud bank approaching from the north. Within two hours the temperature plummeted to freezing. It started snowing that evening and continued for two days.

That winter seemed to last forever. Our one week of modern winter feels that way, too.

Turkey seminar

Join us via Zoom on March 6 at 10:30 a.m. as we discuss turkey hunting in Arkansas. We will talk about turkey hunting strategies, best areas for turkey hunting, turkey calls and my new turkey hunting novel, "St. Tom's Cathedral." To register, visit or call (501) 378-3847.


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