This week I find out that a fellow boarder has discovered an alternate way into the Croatan that avoids most of the gravel. And once I hear this I am obsessed with finding out where the path is so I immediately plan a ride with her. We strike off around mid afternoon and take the usual route to the access point. The local farmers are kind enough to let us use their tractor paths to get to the woods. That's a huge help, otherwise we would have to take the shoulder of a main paved road. Once we're at the ranger gate I find out we DO have to take the shoulder of this main paved road for roughly 30-40 yards. I trust Razz with the traffic so I follow my friend and stay as far from the pavement as possible. The path cuts right into the thick forest, it's clear enough that we easily follow it but tight enough to be on constant tree limb guard. I am stoked as we walk along grabbing branches and discussing plans to come back with tools to clean the path up.
I moved my horse on August 11th for the sole purpose of riding this forest, and it's only my fourth trip in. Rain (lots of rain), insects, and my daughter's schedule have kept me from being able to ride in here as much as I would like. This new trail is making life much easier for my pony and I'm happy. The path hooks around to the right and ends on the gravel road we're trying to avoid. We only have to use a small stretch of the nasty, rocky road before we get to the fun stuff. The gravel ends at a grassy opening and the wilderness begins here.
|open, grassy area. This point of the forest is a little higher and doesn't tend to flood|
We see a hunter on the other side of the clearing. He has a rifle slung over his right shoulder and a dog on a leash in his left hand, and as soon as he sees us he turns around and disappears back into the thicket he came out of. He had just arrived for an evening hunt. But it's Sunday and there is no hunting in here on Sunday. Legally. I don't feel bad at all for ruining his plans. This time of year he gets six days a week to hunt, I get one day a week to ride safely. Go home dude. My trail buddy and I chuckle about how quickly he left and we make our way further into the forest. The weather is perfect and I can tell both ponies are enjoying themselves also.
|hacking along nicely|
Then we approach something strange on the trail. Now given all the miles I've hiked in the mountains I've seen my share of calling cards that previous hikers left to be admired or get you thinking. But something was different about this one. It instantly struck me as a symbol left by someone who follows a nature based religion. I have no idea what it is or who left it here. It could honestly be anything. But I can't imagine a hunter leaving this particular creation behind. My friend's horse spooked slightly when he saw it, Razz looked at it hard and snorted. We both rode by without disturbing it in any manner. It has bugged me all week as to what the hell this was.
We pass the symbol and continue on, getting into the thicker part of the trails. The land lays a little lower where the growth is thicker. There are four nice trail options from here. Each one is a great ride, and we find out one by one that each route is flooded. I can't believe this. We had 18 inches of rainfall in a storm almost two months back, but that should have been gone by now. Or so I thought. I am shocked by how long the standing water remains, and wondering how long it's gonna take to go away. We've been in the woods for maybe an hour before my riding buddy says she's ready to return to the barn. I was bummed that everything was wet but still glad to at least get in here. We turn around and head back toward the forest clearing.
|back where we started|
Not looking forward to the gravel, we decide to skirt the edge of the forest clearing just in case there's another trail hidden somewhere. And guess what? There was! In we go, the trail is rather dry and seems to be slowly looping back around to the original "new path" we took in. I'm hoping this is the case as it would mean a way in with no gravel at all, and (bonus) a much more scenic path. The trail just kinda fizzled out and we begin trucking along on no path at all. But it wasn't long before we did make our way back on to said "new path". Excellent!
|just before our newest path fizzles out, crossing some water|
|now we are completely off trail, trusting our sense of direction|
My friend's horse was anxious to get home, as he is soured to his pasture mate (same owner, the two have lived together for 15 years). We came out of the forest on a mission and got back to the barn rather quickly. The whole time I'm thinking about when I can get back in and clean up the new entrance, and connect it to the fizzled out trail. We stopped long enough to have a look at the pigs. Razz has finally learned that cows and pigs aren't scary horse-eating monsters.
Another trail ride on the books, I'm learning a little bit more about the area every time we go out. And enjoying every minute.