Thursday, December 08, 2005

Cold weather memories

The recent cold weather precipitation brings back the memories of growing up in Arkansas. I lived along the fringe of St. Francis National Forest, the smallest national forest in America. Yet, I can vouch for the fact that it's still a large forest nonetheless. When the leaves fell off the trees and most of the reptiles had found their nest, I spent every afternoon after school "hiking" the Forest. I knew nothing of the term "hiking" until I was older, but in hindsight, I was a hiker.

The Forest was a wonderful place to hike because of the hills of Crowley's Ridge which stretched from Piggott (famous as a short-term residence of Ernest Hemingway) south to Phillips County. St. Francis National Forest sets on the ridge at the confluence of the St. Francis River and the Mississippi. I have hunted frogs on the St. Francis during a terrible thunderstorm and we barely got the boat pulled from the river at the muddy launch and the truck labored to climb the hill rising from the river. As a kid, my neighbor's trusty dog and I would head to the woods and stay past dark most days. The weekends allowed me to stay in the Forest all day and cover some ground. The Forest hills seemed endless all the way to the Mississippi River from my house. Walk up the hill, walk down the hill. Usually I traveled along deer runs through thickets.

Years before my family occupied their property, an old wagon road still lingered and squatters were located throughout the Forest back when. Small burial plots can be found along with an old gun emplacement cleared by the Yankees to guard the old wagon road. Loggers had long since harvested practically every tree. I've never heard of virgin stands of trees in the Forest. Deeper into the Forest, remains of the old squatter's camps were never cleared away and old tins and bottles and other products from the Depression era and sooner rotted with the years. The headstones at one particular plot I remember were treasure. One stone read the name and the exact age to the day of the child who died of pneumonia. The headstone made quite an impression on me. I was probably one of few people who happened upon the plot over the past 50 years. Most of the stones that were upright were broken by tree debris falling on them. The best stones were the ones set parallel to the ground. Sad way to live and die. Too young, this child.

My trusty neighbor's dog was named Honky by his owners, but I never called the dog by that name. He was "Dog" to me when we were hiking. He was a tough dog; half Doberman, half Setter with a short red coat. No stray dog in the Forest lasted for very long when he had his defenses raised. Usually, if I encountered people, they wouldn't see me because "Dog" would properly greet them. I normally tried to avoid people, but wasn't always successful. The folks I encountered that seemed dubious never saw me. I tried to spend less time on main trails and vehicle paths(these weren't legitimate roads into the Forest). They could be very difficult in a 4 x 4 to negotiate during when wet. I loved the Forest and spent more time there than socializing with other kids. When I bought a real mountain bike,years later, I traveled along a logger's path all the way to the man-made lake just a few miles from my parents' house.

After snows melted, the Forest still had some rather slick hills to sled and some wonderful moments were spent trying to kill myself. I wore my old motorcycle helmet on the more hazardous hills. Trees were in abundance along the slopes and they could always cause great harm as I flew down the hills. Sledding caused me to bash my nose once and I bled like a stuck pig until I applied enough pressure to stop it. I played "hockey" with some kids in the Forest at a cattle pond and always enjoyed pushing opponents into the thorns that surrounded most of the pond.

The Forest was filled mostly with deciduous trees and a number of the glorious beeches could be found through the Forest and the carvings of folks who had happened past the tree as early as the 1920s on one tree. I love the beech trees. They grow so tall down in the ridge valleys of the Forest and always have evidence within the cavity at the base of the tree of creatures that hide out in the less-than-secure hiding place. Oaks are rife within the Forest. We cut a number of white and red oak trees on our property for firewood and those trees were plentiful. The latest logging in the Forest scarred the landscape with the evidence of clear-cutting. I haven't been back in some time to check progress of new trees along the barren ridges. The log road is overgrown by now and others have bought properties on the fringe of the Forest who might be troublesome.

I have my memories of the Forest and I will treasure the moments hiking for hours each day. Luckily, I never got shot by hunters. I usually avoided first days of seasons for safety sake. I trust legitimate hiking trails, but I did a lot more trailblazing than following paths and I feared some jackass in a tree stand overlooking valleys who might shoot at a sound. There has been one reported hunter killing by a jackass who fired at a sound so far this year. A hunter could find some amazing perches to cover a lot of ground in the Forest. There were many places where several ridges converged on one point and, at times, a 360 degree firing area could be found for the best view for prey.

Arkansas is blessed with a number of great forest and wilderness areas. I'm glad I've had a chance to enjoy forests of several parts of Arkansas. East Arkansas forests certainly are worth exploring. Unfortunately, a number of undesirable humans can be encountered in the East Arkansas forest, so be careful if you are ever priveleged with a visit. The waters of the Mississippi River valley are another draw of East Arkansas forests. Bogs, creeks,oxbow lakes, bayous, and a number of beautiful rivers are rife in the region. I hope you can enjoy the forests of Arkansas as I have in the past ; you'll be glad you took the time.

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