Vegan Backpacking in the Deam Wilderness Area, Indiana
A guest post by Scott Spitz
Maybe life became too boring, or if not boring, then just too routine. Or if neither, then maybe I just needed to get into the forest, away from people, for the plethora of reasons that are out there for us to choose, namely Facebook, political yard signs, and the coming of pumpkin spice latte season. Then after a particularly physically strenuous week of work, I not only wanted to get into the forest, I NEEDED to. Sharing these thoughts with my girlfriend, I tenuously invited her along, but the idea of spending a couple days in the woods with me and me alone had her diving underneath the Saturday morning covers like someone buried treasure in there. I don’t blame her. I even feared being alone with myself. What might I tell myself? What stupid ideas would I have to explain to myself were stupid and shut up and can’t you see we’re trying to be alone out here? Alas, I found myself, with myself, at the trailhead in Deam Wilderness outside of Bloomington Indiana.
Having found my way down these trails twice before, I knew ticks and mosquitoes could be plentiful, and seeing as how it was late August they were probably at peak reproduction numbers. The fear of stripping naked in front of other hikers in order to pick ticks out of my ass sent me careening to REI to buy an ample supply of Deet 100, side effects be damned. After applying said chemical fortress to my legs and arms I stood at the Terrill Ridge trailhead ready for my hike in. The weather had miraculously broke for my trip and the mid-60 degree temps, cottony cloud sky, and zero percent chance of rain had me feeling all kinds of feels as I began my trek down the wide, rock strewn trail for a short descent to the beginning of Axsom trail. I quickly found a suitable hiking staff as is
customary for the beginning of each trek and tested out it’s wizarding, Orc destroying capabilities. It would suffice.
This specific overnight trip would take me approximately .4 miles on the Terrill Ridge trail to the Axsom trail for a bowing meander of 2.6 miles to Grub Ridge, which descends 2.1 miles to the Peninsula Trail split, that runs 2.6 miles all the way to the shoreline for a grand total of…umm…math. Hold on. The calculator says that’s a one way trip of 7.7 miles. And I’m here to be your guide for this beautiful trek in the wilderness of Southern Indiana should you get lost and find yourself in our state looking for something to do, or someone to escape.
The initial walk to Axsom, where the real fun begins, is a car-width road layered with golf ball sized angular rocks, which isn’t treacherous footing, but takes a bit of care for ankle stability when you’re kicking off this hike with a fully loaded and water heavy pack resting on your hips. Otherwise, it’s just a short descent to Axsom.
Plainly marked with a directional sign, you’ll turn left onto Axsom and begin hiking another widened trail, but this time without the ankle rolling rocks. Soon you’ll encounter the first pine stands, of which those invasive bastards will pop up from time to time along the route, deceiving you into thinking you’ve wandered off trail, out of state and into a territory much more beautiful and suitable for pine trees than Indiana. I kid. The pine stands, no matter how invasive and smothering to the indigenous flora, are beautiful, but so is our deciduous growth and you’ll have plenty opportunity to appreciate the variety along the route.
Another short trek down this widened, rocky path, and the trail will begin to close in on you like a Star Wars trash compactor until you find yourself entering a standard ribbon of single track and into what is hereby known as, because I’m officially naming it, THE WALL OF SPIDERS. Now, don’t let my naming scare you back to the car already. I started this trek at 10 am, on a Sunday, in late August, so not only was I the first one on the trail but I was also out there when the spiders had already made spider babies that grew up into orb spinning masters and were trying to fatten up before winter, so of course there were spiders and spider webs along the trail.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some spiders. And by love, I mean respect. And by respect, I mean fear. Ok, not really. I don’t actually fear spiders. But I do respect them and their highly conscious cunning killing abilities. Like, for instance, did you know some spiders hang by their back legs with their front two legs pinched together, holding a web, and when something tasty flys by, they SPREAD THEIR LEGS AND CATCH THE INSECT IN THE EXPANDED WEB?! Like, for real. And did you know other spiders lay a blanket of web with a funnel built in, and they scoot backwards in the funnel, out of sight, until something comes along to hang out, at which point they run out and grab dinner! Still others are straight up parasites, hanging out in the web that some other industrious spider spent hours making, and when a tasty morsel gets nabbed, they run out fast and grab it before the initial web making spider and are like, “Too slow sucka! This one’s mine! Thanks for the work!” Still others build their own webs, drag a bunch of shit into the middle of it to look like leaves and debris, then curl themselves into the mess to look just like a piece of the unkept web, so when something comes along and lands, they run out like, “Boom! You thought I was just dirt! Nope…now I’m gonna eat your face off!”
So yeah, spiders are fuckin’ awesome. I mean, how do you get YOUR dinner? Walk your ass into the grocery store and see what box has the best advertising phrase? Yeah, don’t feel so special, k?
Back to the trail spiders, this is the problem with being the early bird. You don’t get the worm (if you’re a bird, of course). You get the face full of spider web, and in more dense, overgrown trail, probably the spider too. Nature’s catcher’s mitt. Axsom trail is definitely less traveled than most in the area, so if you are the first in, you can expect to encounter both new and old spider webs, which is exactly what I started doing. After getting a face full of web, and trying hard not to flail my arms like a frightened kid every time it happened, I wisely transferred my wizarding, Orc killing staff into a spider web destroying stick, holding it out in front of me to catch the web before my face did. Admittedly, I felt pretty horrible about doing this, knowing the spider, just trying to get a meal and stay alive, spent at least an hour meticulously threading this beautiful silken piecework together only to have some lumbering beast come through and rip all it’s work down with barely a second thought. I genuinely felt bad. At the very least, I took a couple photos to preserve some of their work, so that counts for something right? Or, maybe it just counts to appeasing my conscience about being a web destroying asshole.
And that’s how most of the Axsom trek went, descending down a trail sharp enough to warrant a few switchbacks, all the way to the forest floor, holding out my wizarding staff and taking down spider webs the whole way, which admittedly, only does so good of a job. I still had trailings of web tying up my arms, swinging into my face, and launching hobos onto the back of my pack as I moved through the forest. Along the way, I did manage to stop and take in some views from high up as I erased the elevation, where the webs decrease a bit and the forest opens enough to give you that feeling of smallness we seek against the expanse of wilderness. Once on the forest floor, you’ll continue to eat spider webs, even more believe it or not, while you wind along the single track and hit a few creek crossings. The creeks are lined by large, almost unbroken, pieces of bedrock, and wide enough to cause crossing problems should they become flooded, but I have yet to see enough water gather to make this an issue. If you can’t just stride over the water, there is always a rock or two as footing. You’ll have to be careful to look ahead during creek crossings as the entrance back onto the single track can be shielded or further up the creek bed than you’d imagine.
Most of Axsom follows the forest floor, but after 30 or 40 minutes of hiking, you’ll meet the law of physics that states what goes down must go back up, or something like that. I don’t know, I think I cheated my way through physics class. At some point, however, you will go up. And you’ll go all the way up to the end of the trail, where Axsom links up with Grub Ridge and all the hikers too lame to tack on the extra 2.6 miles…or too arachnophobic. But first, the hike up is a nice change of pace from the previous time spent on the forest floor. It can become mildly challenging with effort and the trail cuts into the hills with switchbacks to make it to the top. If, however, you’re feeling sorry for your lack of fitness going up, just remember this is a multi-use trail and, even with the sudden drops off the side of the trail, HORSES take this route. If only they could take out the spider webs before the hikers got there.
Continuing to climb, you’ll know you’re getting to the end of Axsom when you see increasing bits of trash periodically dropped along the trail by garbage ass humans. The intersection of Axsom and Grub Ridge is a stones throw (bottle throw?) from the parking lot trailhead, which means idiot humans that managed to drive that far into the wilderness were able to bring trash and drop along the way. On this hike I saw water bottles, a jar of olive oil (forgot my skillet or else I could have had stir fry?), a potato chip bag, packets of cigarettes (don’t worry, they were American Spirits, so at least someone was littering with responsibility?) and plenty of other crap strung along the way. Human animals are the worst. Just when I was wondering if I was losing my appreciation for spiders, I was quickly reminded that I’d rather hang out with web spinning, insect killing machines over sloppy, civilized humans any day.
Getting to the top of Axsom I took a deep breath, pulled webs from my arms and brushed off a hobo from my pack, knowing I had made it through THE WALL OF SPIDERS, the upside being not seeing any human animals along the way. Remounting my pack and stuffing my face full of Clif Shot Bloks, I started down the relatively short 2.1 mile stretch of the Grub Ridge trail towards the final link to the Peninsula trail.
Grub Ridge is also a multi-use trail, wide enough for horses, but with enough hoof pocked mud pockets that organic singletrack have formed next to the wider trails for hikers to navigate without getting into cankle high muck. Grub Ridge will likely have you encountering other hikers, hopefully the respectful ones, as it’s short enough from the parking lot trailhead to allow even young kids to make the trip. I’ve taken my 9 year old son down to the water’s edge without a problem and this specific hike had me encounter a group of dads sandwiching 6 kids all in single digit age, seemingly still in high spirits. That doesn’t mean the trail won’t wear you down, however.
There are, sprinkled throughout the hike, a number of humbling pine stands that will fill your nostrils with their Mr. Clean scent, leaving you energized and refreshed. The single track itself is easily navigated and meanders from wide and rocky to thin and groomed, only periodically rising and falling along the ridge line. It will, however, have to make it’s way down to water level, so be ready for some quickened drops.
In the meantime, you can see, this deep in the path is still reached by slack-jawed, mouth breathing, assholes who can manage to drag inappropriate camp chairs and sports drinks miles into the woods before giving up and throwing them to the side. Who lets these people breed? If you swallow your disgust you can save on food and make it further down the trail, which, in contrast to the adornments of the de-evolved, is legitimately beautiful as it breathes open and closed with stands of deciduous trees rolling down ravines before closing up into singletrack lined with ferns, stinging nettles, other tribes of green.
Of course, give it time and you’ll eventually end up encountering more offenses to nature, like this tree sliced with ego-frail humans leaving a record of existence in the bark. Let this be a lesson in the accumulative effect of permissive behavior. All it takes is one human animal to carve into a tree before the others see it and think, “This must be ok! I’ll do it too!” Let’s appreciate that this carving is only confined to one tree for the time being, lest someone find room on other bark and the whole trail becomes a wall of destructive, careless, human-centric graffiti. Leave No Trace is not just Leave No Trash. And hey, while were at it, just further down the trail, when you’re admiring one of the lookouts through the trees over Eastern lying water, you might come across a sleeping bag just tossed to the side of the trail like a discarded rag doll. Well, I did anyways. The absurdity of all this debris strewn along the trail leaves me imagining someone so drunk and angry about walking out of the trail carrying their belongings that they start tossing everything to the side in furious desperation.
“Screw this sleeping bag!…but I’m keeping the camp chair. Screw these bottles of water!…i’m still keeping this camping chair. How much further…oh screw it, fuck you camping chair!”
Again, what’s immoral about forced population control? But let’s not dwell any further on human offense, for the beauty of the wilderness and the intentional solitude of the hike far outshine the ugliness of behavior. For instance, take a look at these beauties. A mushroom, some greenery, and a spider. This here is a trifecta of awesome, any of which can be ingested, rubbed all over the body, and eaten without concern. I promise. Or… maybe not. Still, in their own self-defensive way, there is much beauty to be seen and pondered…and not touched. These mushrooms, by the way, show themselves throughout the trail in all their signaling beauty, some brighter than the red of a baboon’s ass. There are so many mushrooms at lower elevations it’s forgivable to imagine you’ve stumbled into a game of Mario Brothers.
After some time making your way along Grub Ridge you’ll encounter the Peninsula trail sign, after which you’ll continue straight ahead to complete the final 2.6 miles of descending trail to the water. Although this stretch is the same distance as Axsom, the anticipation of the water and downhill terrain makes the going seem quicker. You will, again, meander along single track, open into stands of pine, and step your way over pooled mud and sections of rocky terrain. Most of the trek is easy going, however, the most difficult sections involve quick descents that will mark the most severe drops of the hike. You’ll need to slow down to retain footing as you step over drainage logs, down exposed roots, and just keep balance with a fully weighted pack. I’ve found the downhill to be significant enough to strain the tendons behind my knees and put some work into my ankles.
Once you find your way down the steepest descent you’ll begin to level out before encountering yet another Ewok-village, Lothlorien-like stretch of pines that will tempt you to stop and set up camp, but resist the temptation as the best is just ahead. Not too far past the pines you’ll notice the trail has completely stabilized and leveled, low enough to necessitate wooden rails that create something of a thin land bridge to traverse over pools of standing water and flood plain. When you hit the rails, you’re almost there. For those fortunate enough to arrive early, there is a stand of pine trees to the right of the rails that hides a campsite. If you want a little more privacy and can do without the water views, this is the place to set up. During an April trip with my son and girlfriend, this was our campsite, allowing enough room to play “speeder bikes” and “eagle eye” until his excitement outlasted my stamina. It will likely be too overgrown in late summer, however, and you’ll have to make do with views of the reservoir. How horrible, right?
Past the pine stands the trail abruptly turns and opens into a view of the water, and as this photo shows, one gleaming white butt crack from a boater who came over from the marina. Hopefully your trip will be sans crack. The
view really is wonderful though. After the comforting confinement of so much green, there is a certain freedom in breathing in an open space. This reservoir gives you just that. At this point you have reached a string of makeshift campsites all along the shore. A trail winds through the sites and if you have arrived early enough, you have your pick. I tend to favor isolation and so work my way away from the bigger initial sites and try to find something tucked down the shore and back into the woods a little bit. Every site has, at least, a view of the water through the trees, while others are exposed to the water completely. During early spring or late fall, the rocky shoreline is completely exposed and you can explore openly, sifting through various shapes of sandstone and skippers or breaking open the countless number of golfball sized geodes. During the summer there is significant plant growth, but the shore is still mostly walkable.
Finding my way down the trail on a Sunday, I was more than overjoyed to both have ZERO human animals at any of the campsites and a perfect weather day complete with a mosquito ridding breeze. And I mean perfect. You know how some people say, “The weather was just perfect”, and they really mean, “it didn’t rain.” I don’t mean that. I mean, it was PERFECT. I can’t imagine what would have made the weather any better. It was in the 60’s, 70’s tops, with a cloud spotted sky, the most wonderful water breeze, and temps that dropped into the 50’s at night. I set up my tent without giving second thought to a rain fly and immediately found a spot by the water to eat my peanut butter and blueberry sandwich to start replenishing from the hike in.
Speaking of food, I started the morning with a bowl of my signature post-trail run oatmeal (oats, bananas, cinnamon, blueberries, almond slivers, peanut butter and a mixture of flax meal, chia seeds and cocoa powder), washed down with a healthy dose of coffee, then found my way down the trails taking in only water and Cran-Raspberry Clif Bloks (the ones with caffeine, duh). The hike coupled with the hour of trail running left me significantly hungry at the campsite, so I took my time eating a sandwich I made at home the night before using natural peanut butter, whole blueberries, then pressed and toasted in the amazing piece of machinery known as a Snackwich, which both seals and halves your sandwich for you. Brilliant! Soon after that I sat along the shore watching the boats that peppered the reservoir, eating two apples and one of the new Clif Nut Butter filled bars, which I whole heartedly endorse, even though, I promise, this isn’t a paid endorsement. But hey, get at me Clif Bars, I’ll sell my soul for some peanut butter and sugar.
It had taken me approximately 3 hours to get from the first trailhead to the campsite, so arriving at…shit…math again. Um, carry the 2, or something, and it was 1:00. That gave me the whole day to explore, pilfer left over wood from other campsites, set up camp, find some bark to make tinder, boat watch, bird watch, and nap. Which I did just that. Now, it should be known that it’s a 5 minute (at most) boat ride from the marina to shore if you wanted to camp, and plenty of those slack-jawed yokels have done just that, evidenced by the plethora of shit they left strewn about the campsites. Honestly, the trail and campsites aren’t ever as littered as I describe, except for this time. It was an honest mess. From left behind tents and broken poles, to rolls of toilet paper, food trash, cut up pool noodles, bags of twist ties, cans of beans, etc. I’m not even kidding, those boaters are straight up sloppy assholes and I had to stop from letting the disrespect overcome the joy I was having in complete solitude and silence. Unfortunately, it’s not just the boaters disrespecting the area as I’ve even seen hikers take hatchets and axes to live standing trees around the campsites for firewood, despite the signs posted saying to, hey, DON’T DO THAT. The remnants of trees cut a couple feet above their base are everywhere. After setting up my tent, I wanted to do some firewood collecting in order to test out my bow drill skills, and so went in search of firewood, in the appropriate, respectable, leave no trace manner.
I started by finding pieces of cottonwood bark I could use to peel away for a tinder bundle. After a successful haul from dead and dried pieces, I started seeking out dead branches on the ground for pencil-lead twigs that snapped from the ends for a tinder tee pee. That’s always pretty easy. Next was grabbing finger width sticks to add to the small pieces once they light. Then it was on to the large pieces of wood that would be both already dead, but also dried, which proved to be more difficult. Fortunately, being the only one at camp, I managed to grab all the chunks of wood that sat only partially charred or completely unused in other campfires abandoned that morning. Soon enough I had a full set of wood gathered and ready to burn once the sun gave up it’s spot in the sky.
With so much time to kill and feeling pretty exhausted from an early rise and the morning’s pre-hike trail run I did what any grown ass man without responsibilities should do…and napped. It was awesome. The breeze came
through the exposed tent and I went out quick. Upon waking, the rest of the day was spent in solitude along the shore, dictated by the corresponding photos – rock hunting, mushroom investigating, and exploring the shoreline, but most of it was spent using my binoculars to bird watch and boater watch. The birds were doing their best to get full on mouth grabs of fish while the boats were doing their best to act fools and do what human animals on boats do – smoke, drink and have sex when they think no one is watching. Yeah, I saw you two.
As the day wore on, I felt the distinct hunger that comes with backpacking hit me without warning. Dinner time. I fired up my Jetboil, heated up water from my pack bladder, and poured that over the cous cous I brought along. Dinner was a sizable pot of cous cous flavored with a nutritional yeast and lemon pepper concoction I had gathered up the night before. Mixing those two together, I was set until bed time, admittedly taking my chances with lost motivation and a headache by not boiling anymore water to mix in with the packets of Starbucks Via I had brought as well. Regarding water, I filled my 3 liter pack bladder to the top and that was more than enough for drinking along the hike, rinsing my hands, boiling for dinner, breakfast, coffee and rinsing dishes. I didn’t even bring a filter, though you could pull water from the silty reservoir if you prefer.
After dinner I waited for the sunset viewing party by doing some more rock hunting, but mostly watching the birds insult the kayakers by flying back and forth across the reservoir without effort, looking for dinner and enjoying the aid of the wind as much as I was. The hours ticked away and the sun started touching the horizon, at which point I noticed the wind slowing down. As I took photos, and the sun dropped, it was as if the wind was being controlled by the sun, for with each descent, the wind died more and more, until at the same time the light went out, the wind stopped. Just like that, as if someone flipped the wind switch.
I instantly turned toward my campsite, readied my bow drill kit and started sawing the spindle back and forth to get a coal going for my pre-built tinder bundle and tee pee. As the light continued it’s slow burn, I sawed and sawed and sawed, wearing out my arm and only getting sweet smelling smoke and wood dust, which I poured onto my tinder bundle as each effort failed to create a coal. I tried again and again, but had wore out my upper body muscles and lost rhythm and stamina to keep going until a coal ignited. Only dust. I took a break, got my strength back and tried one more time, only to fail quickly and give up, finally resorting to a single match fire in dejection. Crap, one day. I shoved the tinder bundle into the tee pee, lit a match, and everything burst into flames almost immediately. Well, at least I’ve mastered that. As the fire grew I added the sticks I gathered in order of increasing size, until the fire was large enough to add the biggest pieces. I sat back and rewarded myself with small bites of dark chocolate I had brought along for dessert.
Then the fire died. Not like, a normal, slow death, but more like a gun to the head suicide. It just died, immediately, after about 10 minutes of burning. I took that as a sign to just go to bed. After brushing my teeth and spitting the frothy water out onto a steaming pile of coals, I stripped down to boxer briefs and enjoyed the air coming into the exposed tent as I lay on a Thermarest and 20 degree North Face bag. It was too perfect to get into the bag, so I laid on my back looking at the stars unmarred by the light pollution too far away to have any discernible effect. At some point I fell asleep lightly, awoken only by the noise of some night fishermen and snapping twigs deeper into the woods.
But then I heard a sharper snap and woke a little stronger, at which point I realized my tent was glowing. The fire had restarted! I looked at my watch and after 30 minutes of a dead fire, it organically restarted. Water those coals kids!
After finally falling completely asleep, I was thrown awake by the sound of howling far off in the distance. For the second time in this area, I experienced the incredible sounds of coyotes calling to each other. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard coyotes in a song of call and response, but it’s initially pretty harrowing. The howls called out are met with almost frantic screams in response, a second pack affirming the first. After the initial realization that a pack of sorority girls aren’t being slaughtered just a few sites over, the midnight soundtrack is pretty incredible and a great sound to both fall back asleep and remind you that you’re in foreign territory.
The morning woke with a fog covered lake that gently revealed itself, peeling away the layer of fog like pushing sleep from it’s eyes as I drank the Via I mixed into my Jetboiled water. Can we take a moment to praise the awesomeness that is a Jetboil and it’s incredibly fast water boiling capabilities? If I had to boil water over a fire for my coffee, I don’t know if I’d ever make it out of the woods. After filling my coffee thermos with liquid hiking and taking in the view, I took to boiling water for my oatmeal breakfast consisting of oats, raisins, cinnamon, almond slivers, peanut butter and my “proprietary blend” of flax meal, chia seeds and cocoa. Adding nothing more during the hike than mouth boredom curing Clif Shot Bloks (get at me about that sponsorship!) I found my way back out of the trail. But before I left camp, I had to do that one final piece of business that makes an almost 8 mile hike as enjoyable as it can possibly be. Nature calls, right?
The trip out could be told in reverse, reading the previous paragraphs backwards, but one notable change should be made. Feeling a bit apprehensive about going through THE WALL OF SPIDERS yet again, when I hit the beginning of the Axsom trail and knew I’d be the solo hiker and therefore designated web breaker, I immediately grabbed a second stick with multiple extending branches to act as a trail sweep. Yesterday I had accumulated enough wayward webs to make spiderman feel naked in his suit, and I wasn’t really feeling that sort of adornment today. My second sweeper made all the difference. For 2.6 miles I held that sucker out in front of me and caught almost every single orb web of face grabbing frustration before it plastered my mouth shut. Still feeling pangs of guilt for ruining
hours of the instinctual predation work of each tiny little spider, I did my best to duck under the webs I saw shimmering in the morning sun. The rest…well…sorry little guys.
After the final ascent out of Axsom, I spit out onto Terrill Ridge, hiked the wide rocky path upwards, feeling the strain of the days efforts in my back, legs and ankles, then crested the final climb to the easy portion that brought me to the trail head. It was only then I realized that I didn’t pass a single human animal on the way out, which has never happened on this path. Getting into the car to drive the six miles out of the Wilderness, I turned on the radio, but immediately turned the volume off. The radio interface read, “B97 EXCLAMATION POINT! Today’s Best Music EXCLAMATION POINT!” Suddenly nothing sounded better than silence. I wasn’t ready to be yelled at again, with today’s best music, all the latest politics, and the crush of humanity that is civilization. It will come, but for now, I wanted to hold onto any piece of the previous two days I could.
If you find yourself in the Southern portion of the Hoosier State for a couple days, you could do worse than drive to the trailhead at the fire tower in Deam Wilderness and go backpacking, even if just a day hike. Actually, it might take some effort to do better. WALL OF SPIDERS and slack jawed yokels Leave All Trash ethic aside, it’s still a beautiful, challenging set of trails for backpacking.
LINKS for amenities in town:
The Owlery Restaurant (95% vegan)
Rainbow Bakery (100% vegan donuts and other goods)
The Chocolate Moose
(vegan ice cream)
Scott Spitz has spent most of his time in the woods as a trail runner, but is currently trying to change that ratio with more backpacking adventures. A vegan for 22 years, Spitz is an activist, writer, and artist, continuously using his recreational interests to impact the lives of animals for the better. He cut his teeth backpacking on weekend trips along the AT, exploring the wooded areas of Southern Indiana and is looking forward to finding more areas in which to get lost. Spitz is financially confined to the backpacking gear he currently owns, but would like to pursue fast packing adventures should he free up the funds for more suitable products. He can be contacted via email – firstname.lastname@example.org – and on his blog – www.runvegan.wordpress.com – but would prefer you buy him a cup of coffee in person, should you find yourself in the Midwest…Indianapolis to be specific.