No telling how many hundreds of miles Wade Colwell has logged backpacking along trails in Arkansas, Missouri and beyond. He has the award to show for it.
Colwell of Fayetteville is the first hiker to obtain the new Sassafras Hiking Award from the Ozark Society. The award recognizes hikers who complete the entire length of four epic trails.
Trails are the Ouachita Trail, Talimena State Park in Oklahoma to Pinnacle Mountain State Park (223 miles); Ozark Highlands Trail, Lake Fort Smith State Park to Woolum (165) and Spring Creek to Matney Nob (30); Buffalo River Trail, Boxley to Pruitt (36.5 miles) and Woolum to Dillards Ferry (42.5); Ozark Trail in Missouri, western trailhead of Eleven Point River section to Onondaga trailhead (230).
Total distance 727 miles.
Hikes may be completed as through hikes or section hikes. Trips may be conducted on different trails at different times and in any direction. Previously completed hikes qualify for the award, reads the Ozark Society website.
So, if a hiker has completed, say, all of the Ozark Highlands Trail and Ouachita Trail years ago, as Colwell has, those hikes count toward the award. In addition, Colwell has backpacked all of Missouri’s Ozark Trail and had that in his lengthy portfolio of hiking adventures.
All he lacked was the 30-mile stretch of Ozark Highlands Trail, Spring Creek to Matney Nob. Colwell knocked that out and is listed by the Ozark Society as the first hiker to win the Sassafras Hiking Award, qualifying on Jan. 30.
Christina Bethalee of Clinton is the second hiker, who qualified on Feb. 6.
Colwell’s treks have been in blazing heat and through snow a foot deep. “One time on the Ouachita Trail I felt like I was in a hotel ice machine,” the backpacker said.
On another trek, Colwell, who is 61, endured 12 inches of rain in 10 days.
An average trail day covers around 15 miles, but Colwell has backpacked as much as 26 miles in a day carrying a pack that weighs around 40 pounds. To get ready for his long-distance treks, Colwell trains by filling his backpack with 35 pounds of weight and hiking up to 15 miles a session on trails around Fayetteville. Finishing a 200-mile hike takes a couple of weeks or more, depending on weather and conditions.
Many of those miles have been with his pals Jim Meinecke of Fayetteville and Karl Van Scoyc, formerly of Fayetteville who now lives in Texas. The three just finished on Sunday hiking 207 miles from the Ohio River to the Mississippi on the River to River Trail in southern Illinois.
Meinecke said the three started biking, running and floating rivers together about 30 years ago. Later they started tackling long-distance hikes. Backpacking for days on end is a spiritual experience, Meinecke testified.
“After a few days on the trail, everything else just melts away. Worries of everyday life just disappear. You see things along the way you’ve never seen before.”
The men carry five days worth of food at the most, Colwell noted. Before departure, they drive to different spots on the trail and hide food caches along the route, picking them up as they hike, feeling the days drift by.
“After the first week, you’re just kind of floating through the woods,” Colwell said.
On multiday hikes a little rain, or lots of it, is likely to fall.
“The best way to dry your clothes is to put them on wet and your body heat dries them out,” Colwell said.
Friends sometimes join the trip along the way bringing bountiful feasts other than typical trail fare. Some pals showed up one time with thick ribeye steaks they grilled on the spot.
“Trail angels,” Colwell and other hikers call these friends.
One trail angel is their friend Stewart Noland of the Ozark Society. He oversees the new Sassafrass Hiking Award.
The trio enjoys scenery, adventure and camaraderie on the trail. When it’s finished, adjusting back to home life can be tough.
“Reentry is hard,” Colwell said. “It’s good to come home, but you miss being on the trail.”
Memories of a grand adventure and a feeling of accomplishment keep the three going until they’re off on another long-distance adventure.