By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
The plan was to hike the 9.1 mile Rockcastle-Cumberland Confluence. Taking Ned Branch Trail off Kentucky 1193 would be an easy loop with a lot of level walking to where the Rockcastle River becomes Lake Cumberland.
I plotted the trek the night before and gathered everything I would need to for easy hike, plus everything I would need should things go wrong – food, water, fire, and shelter. I also had a map, compass, and GPS. No way to get lost, right?
It took less than a mile for me to lose my bearing. I walked right past a switchback. In my defense, the path I took was more clear and obvious than the one I missed. When the trail I followed turned into a mangled mass of rhododendrons and brush, I backtracked and easily found my way.
There were a couple more places where I had to backtrack until I found the familiar white trail blaze on a tree that signified the correct trail. There were also a lot of orange ribbons hanging from trees. Although I had never seen this as a trail marker before, my guess is this showed where they were clearing the trail. When I ran out of ribbons, I ran out of trail.
I don’t know if you would call it lost because Ned’s Branch creek was on my left. When Ned’s Branch became the Rockastle River, I still knew I could trace it back. But when I found myself scrambling over boulders looking for the trail it felt a lot like lost. When I headed straight up what felt like Everest looking for where the trail would intersect, it felt desperate. Honestly a night in the woods wasn’t what I feared. I would have shelter and fire. Supper would have been beef jerky and granola bars. I feared seeing the faces of the people that would panic when I didn’t show up.
I had left my itinerary with a friend that could have organized a rescue by himself. He’s so computer savvy he could have found me with a Google search.
According to the GPS, my last position was only a couple of miles from the car. Of course, this is as the crow flies and not accounting for all the twists and turns. I had been hiking over two hours, which should have been at least six miles.
Since I do not have a true report on Ned Branch Trail, I will amaze you with the stories of what I thought about while trying not to think about my possible demise.
I thought about gravity. The story goes that Sir Isaac Newton’s theory evolved from getting plopped on the head with an apple. He could have discovered the same by hiking. Try walking up a hill as compared to down a hill. It is gravity that is pulling you back with a firm hand.
I should know more about the effects of gravity, but I made a C in college physics. The average grade wasn’t my fault, it was Bobby Chavis. The course was graded on a curve and everyone was average except Bobby. In my defense, I probably made an A+ on the equations I answered; there just wasn’t enough time in the class for my slow mind to work them all. Bobby would work all the questions and then build a spaceship or laser from spare parts.
My other brilliant observation is that maybe I watch too many action movies. As I crossed a creek and started to step onto the opposite bank I stopped abruptly. Stretched across the path was a trip wire that could have set off an explosion or an Indiana Jones- style spear through the sternum. I backed up and followed the wire to the end expecting to find a hand grenade.
The wire stretched for over 50 yards and I gave up finding its origin in either direction. It had too much slack from branches falling over it to be any type of trigger. On closer inspection, it appeared to be braided fishing line. Still not sure what it would be doing there because it was stretched in a way that would make it impossible to be a product of fishing.
I will be back on this trail, but will try hiking from the other direction. I will also pack a little extra supper.