The setting sun in the Pine Barrens should have been an ominous sign for me. Instead, the fading light on a beautiful fall day only accentuated the calm and beauty of the quiet woods around me. The chill of the coming evening invigorated me, pushing me onward into the waiting pines.
Little did I know that a scant hour later I would be lost and bleeding, running blindly through the night woods, hiding from a man with a gun. OK, maybe not all of that at once...but let me get to that in a minute.
I had discovered the Michael Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve by accident, after spotting some photos of its trails on Google Maps. Always on the lookout for new places to hike, I eagerly downloaded a map and saw a network of trails going for miles. I was excited to check this place out.
So last Sunday I drove over to the preserve, parking on the shoulder of a quiet road, near a billboard posted with info about the place. Unfortunately I had gotten a late start, so I decided to just do a short in-and-out hike to see what it was like.
As soon as I started hiking, I fell in love with it. It was perfect! Wide trails with no overgrowth, clear blazes, varied terrain. I took a bunch of pictures. It was nearing sunset, and the dim glow of coming dusk made it even more peaceful and beautiful. It was getting very cool with the approach of evening, but it was the perfect temperature for a fall hike.
I should mention that I'm no hiking novice. I've done quite a lot of backpacking and camping over the years. I was not worried about the waning sunlight, especially since the trails were so wide and clearly blazed.
My path joined a sand road, where I skirted around a gate and crossed a bridge, still following blazes. It was so nice I just didn't want to stop hiking. I looked at my map and saw that, if I went just a bit farther than I had planned, I could catch a connecting trail and return to my car along a different path. That way I wouldn't have to backtrack. I hate backtracking. So I picked up my pace.
Then I saw the pickup truck. It was parked on the side of the sand road, tucked into the underbrush. It had a gun rack. Great, I thought. Hunters. Then it occurred to me that it was not yet deer hunting season. So these must be poachers. Terrific.
I was torn between turning back or continuing to my loop trail. I didn't want to get shot, but neither did I like the idea of fleeing just because I saw a truck. It could, after all, just be a bird watcher. Or someone doing trail maintenance. Or a really, really lazy hiker who just wanted to skip the first part of the hike.
I decided to start making a lot of noise as I hiked—coughing and whistling, with an occasional outburst of singing—so they knew there was a person here, not a deer. Still, I was more than a little nervous thinking about these invisible poachers. Would they try to take me out anyway, so I wouldn't turn them in? Were my melodious renditions of "Iron Man" simply helping them zero in on me?
As I walked, I heard rustling in the woods, either a deer or a person scurrying away from me. But since I was moving farther away too, I felt less and less threatened. Besides, I reminded myself, I was now getting closer to my car.
By now the sun had been down for a while and the sky was a deep blue. I could still see fine, but I knew I couldn't afford to dawdle. I walked faster. The trail crossed a flooded area where a river flowed through. I found a frail wooden "bridge" off to the side and crossed. Then I turned down the yellow trail, which would connect me with the green trail, which would take me back to my car. And since all the previous trails had been wide with well-marked blazes, it would be an easy stroll back.
I reached another river, this one spanned by a very old metal bridge. It was slanted sideways and not very sturdy. I made it across and saw a green blaze, with an arrow pointing left. But there was no sign of a trail. I walked a little bit, crashing through the underbrush, then backtracked, certain I had misread the blaze. No, it pointed left, into the brambles. I pulled out my map. I could no longer read it in the dying light. I used the screen on my cell phone to light it up. It showed the green trail turning left and following the river. So once I again I went left, alongside the river, looking everywhere for a blaze or some sign of a trail. I walked back and forth, covering a wide area. Nothing. No hint of a trail.
I started to panic a little. If I couldn't find this trail, I would have to backtrack. There was NO WAY I was going to do that now. I'd walked 3 miles to get here. It was almost night. I had to find that trail. I dashed through the underbrush, branches scraping me, looking madly around for a trail or blaze. Dusk was quickly fading into darkness. Suddenly I had a very real vision of myself lost back here in the Pine Barrens, blundering around in the swamp, with no idea where I was.
I gave myself one more minute, racing around, looking frantically. Nothing. With a sick feeling I realized I had no choice. I had to turn back. Cursing, I headed back the way I'd come. But my steps were not easy to retrace in the gloom. I realized with renewed panic that I might not find that bridge I'd crossed. There was hardly any light at all now. So I ran, needing every remaining second of light. I reached the river and followed it, looking for that bridge. A minute later I found it. A flood of relief hit me. I crossed back over and started down the trail.
The 3/4 moon provided the only light now as I walked through the cold pines. I started to run. And run. I had already gone for a run that morning, so I didn't need another one, but I wanted out of there as fast as possible. 3 miles! It made me sick. I stopped periodically to walk, then ran again, finding each new trail I needed.
Then something happened that tripled my anxiety level. About 100 feet ahead of me, the poachers' truck roared to life. Had I gone a little faster, I might have run into them. Unsure of who they were, I ducked into the trees and crouched there, panting, sweating, heart racing, watching. I noticed a pain in my elbow and touched it. Blood. I must have gotten scraped while dashing around in the undergrowth. Another pain flared up in my knee where a branch had gouged me. From my hiding place, I watched the truck back slowly out, then start driving down the sand road.
Was this a ruse, my paranoid mind wondered? Had they heard me? Was one of them now waiting in the bushes for me to pass, gun in hand? Anxiety and exhaustion bring strange thoughts to one's mind.
Nervously I moved forward and past the place. No ambush. I ran onward. But a minute later I caught up to the truck. It had stopped to open the gate I had earlier passed. I hid again and waited. They took forever to go through. Finally they drove off. I hurried on.
The glow of the moon through the tall pines was my only light, as I peered through the darkness, looking for a fork in the trail. My map showed a shorter way back, a different way than I'd come--and a different way than the truck had gone. I found the double white blaze and turned onto the new path. Just 0.7 miles to go.
I plodded onward into that cold night, sore, exhausted but determined. My jacket and sweatshirt were off, leaving only my drenched T-shirt shielding me against the cold night air. Finally, after forever, I saw the light of a car driving down the road. I'd made it! I staggered out of the woods and up to my car.
So that was my first experience with the Huber reserve. Needless to say, I wish it had gone better. I have since read other accounts by hikers who had the exact same problem finding that green trail. It appears not to exist. Still, its my own fault for going into a strange place so late in the day--and placing all my trust in a map.