And then I sank into the swamp

On Saturday, with Julie ensconced in her studio all day, I decided to go for a walk in the woods at Mason Neck. This has recently become one of my favorite places to wander around – there’s a good view of the Potomac on one end and many lovely wooded trails going through the park.

Julie and I have gone on many walks there of late. But while we’ve wandered several of the paths, I’ve never managed to find the elusive Eagle’s Spur, a trail that supposedly leads to an overlook of Kane’s Creek. The trails near there are not well marked, and Julie is always resistant to striking off into the trees.  For some strange reason, she doesn’t much enjoy wandering off the path into unmarked woods. I just can’t figure out why.

I arrived at the park at around 3:30, complete with two apples, an orange, and a compass that Julie gave me for Christmas. I picked up a copy of the trail map (available from a link here, for those who care to play along at home), and I was off.

I missed one turning, wandered in a small loop, and finally found my way to the Eagle Spur trail. The joining point between it and Kane’s Creek Trail is hard to spot, which explains why we had never found it before. But once I wandered in the woods a little near where I thought it would be, the trees opened up into a neat little path, nicely blazed with white reflectors set every fifty feet or so.

The trail is a nice one, with several little hills, a number of small wooden bridges over marshy lowland, and lots of twists and turns through the woods. At the end it comes to a little stand overlooking a creek populated by several ducks. I quite enjoyed the walk.

But when I reached the end, the only marked route was to return the way I came, and I am not one to meekly retrace my own steps. So instead, I looked at the map, saw that the creek led to the Potomac, and the Potomac led to open parkland, and figured, hey, how hard can it be to find my way out? So, taking advantage of Julie’s absence (because she would not have approved this plan), I set out through the woods.

The sun was getting low in the sky, which was rather convenient, as my path was towards the southwest. At that time of day, at this time of year, it was a simple matter of walking straight at the sun. Well, simple if it weren’t for the swampy inlets that were in my way. I had to detour around them, staying to the hills overlooking the water.

After a while, the ground looked a lot dryer. So I came down off the ridge towards a little valley that led towards the southwest to another hill. Unfortunately, though, it turned out that the valley floor was covered with thick mud camouflaged by a layer of grass. I discovered this when, on taking my second step, both legs sunk down knee deep.

Standing there in the muck, I had a little thinking to do. Perhaps I had come down from the hill too soon. Perhaps, even, I should have stayed on the path, though since the trail was a good ten minutes behind me through unmarked woods, it was probably too late to have that thought. But in any event, it was time for a tactical retreat. So I lifted my leg and, with a little struggle against the suction, pulled my foot out of the mud.

Alas, while my foot came up, my shoe did not follow.  I stood there on one foot, and while I will admit that thoughts of quicksand crossed my mind, I did not dwell on them.  Instead, my mind filled with visions of a two mile barefoot hike through unmarked woods.  That didn’t seem like a terribly good option, so I reached down into the mud, into the hole left by my foot, and retrieved my rather mucky shoe with my now slightly less mucky arm.

After a little trouble getting my other foot and shoe up, I struck for high ground.  Once things were dry, I paused to put my shoes back on.  There was no real difficulty with that, though I did have the rather uncomfortable feeling of having decaying leaves surrounding my socks for the rest of the day.  But not being the sort to let a little thing like sludgy stockings bother me, I looked for a way around the bog back towards civilization.

It was now around 4:15, and the park gates were due to be locked at 5:30.  More importantly, the sun was getting low in the sky, and while my new compass includes a LED light, I did not relish the thought of a midnight stroll through unmarked paths.  And yet, I was not completely without resources.  One apple still remained, so I would not go hungry.  I had my compass and a map of the trails, though half of the map was decaying from where the mud splattered on it.  Most vital of all, I still had my native wits to guide me.

Of course, since it was my wits that had gotten me into this mess in the first place, some might say that they should not be counted as an asset.

After circling the muck some more, I found a spot that looked crossable. It was definitely moist, but there were tussocks that I might stand on.  At least, that’s how it appeared at first glance, but a closer examination, taken when I was halfway across, cast some doubts on that view.  In short, once again I was knee deep in bog.

I was tired of making like a frog (knee deep, get it?), so I decided to spread my weight a bit and ended up crawling out over the mud. I managed to avoid losing my shoes this time, though, so I felt I was doing well.I worked my way up the hill through some pretty thick underbrush, barely managing to avoid getting all scratched. The terrain was clearer at the top of the ridge, and I did my best to work in roughly the right direction. Before long, I noticed that there was a bit of a path through the trees. Soon after that, I spotted a white reflector blazing the way. Somehow, I had found my way back to the original trail. This time, I resisted the urge to avoid the beaten path.

I hiked back out to my car, covered with mud and grinning like a loon over my adventure. And thinking about Julie. I’m not quite ready to admit that she is right to always stay on the trail. But I will say that maybe, in some specific circumstances, she might have a point.

In any event, that was my weekend adventure.  Because while I went for a little walk on Sunday, it was in the tame environs of a shopping mall.

I had to, after all.  I needed a new pair of shoes.

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