Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

The Ouachita Trail: Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina State Park

The Ouachita Trail: Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina State Park

26.5 miles

2 days

Some rain, some sun and…

Many River Crossings

Winding Stair Shelter, Talimena State Park to Winding Stair

DAY 4

14 miles to a spot in the woods where we collapsed. (close to Mile Marker 39)

We woke up to a gorgeous fog covering the whole world around us.

Thankfully, it had stopped raining.

But all our gear was still wet.

I had an extra pair of dry socks to put on, which made it a tiny bit easier to pull on wet pants and boots.

8Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

I also had a dry stocking cap.

But I couldn’t bear the wet gloves, so I just tucked my hands inside of my jacket.

I used my trash bag to wrap up my wet things, deciding I would deal with them later.

After coffee and protein bars, we headed off into the foggy morning.

7Ouachita Trail Part 2

For two hours we hiked straight downhill, losing all the elevation we had gained the previous day.

It was wild how quickly we dropped.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

But it was also beautiful.

We were in the trees all morning, walking over more moss-covered rocks.

9Ouachita Trail Part 2

The fog was so thick that even the parts of me that weren’t wet began to feel wet again.

We had wet hair just from the mist.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

But still we were glad it wasn’t raining, yet.

10Ouachita Trail Part 2

After five miles we had descended low enough to reach a creek.

It was our first water stop of the day, but more significantly, we were beginning a 14 mile section of the trail during which (unbeknownst to us) we would make over 50 river and creek crossings.

12Ouachita Trail Part 2

Soon we reached our first big crossing.

I had not previously mentioned to Kandace that we would be crossing rivers, so she was a little surprised when we reached the rushing Big Cedar Creek.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina, Kiamichi River Crossing

According to the guidebooks and websites, most of the river crossings on the OT are “usually just rock hops,” but after a day and night of heavy rainfall, Big Cedar Creek was kind of raging.

Or at least that’s how it felt. It looked really deep. Well above the knees for sure. We bushwacked down the river a little bit to see if we could find a more shallow crossing. Nope. It looked even deeper further down.

Of course, since we didn’t know this would be the first of MANY CROSSINGS, we spent longer than we should have debating how to cross.

Should we take off our boots?
What about our pants?

Kandace was carrying sandals so she changed into them, and then crossed over the river.

I took a video so someone would believe me when I told them how deep it was.

After she got across, she threw her sandals back to me to wear.

When she was going through the water, we realized that the water was actually about waist deep, so I decided to take off my boots, my socks and my pants to get across.

This, naturally, took some time.

Standing around deliberating about what to do on a cold day just makes you colder.

It doesn’t take long to lose the heat you’ve built up walking as you stand still looking at the water. So at some point I finally just went for it. Using my poles to gauge how deep the water was on each step, I gradually made my way across the river.

I was squealing from the cold and holding onto my poles for dear life. As the water grew deeper, I was terrified that I was going to lose my footing, fall over and get my entire backpack wet. Plus be swept down river in the process.

But I made it across with my pack intact.

It took us a few minutes to get everything back on and get moving. It took us even longer to get warm again after being in the river.

But about the time I was moving enough to be warm again, we came to another crossing.

This one wasn’t as deep, but it was deep enough that we had to make a decision about boots. We each found a different place to cross. Since my boots were still wet from the rain the day before, I didn’t mind stepping in a little bit of water.

By little, I mean like an inch.

I reasoned that if I could find rocks that were just a little bit under the water to step on, I wouldn’t have to take off my boots. So that’s what I was looking for. Of course, I underestimated how much water was running over the rocks on one step and then I misstepped and slipped off a mossy rock on the next step, and into the water I went.

13Ouachita Trail Part 2

Water quickly poured into the tops of my boots. Now my boots were soaked. My socks were no longer even dry on the insides, and the bottom 10 inches of my pants were wet. Bummer.

I always begin a crossing so carefully. I take each step almost painfully slowly, but then once I misstep or slip, a strange thing happens. I’m so anxious to get out of the water that I just start stepping fast and sort of go willy nilly the rest of the way. A clown could not perfect a more ridiculous act.

But I needed that little bit of absurdity to make me laugh, because I was so mad at myself for getting wet.

Especially since I had taken such care to stay dry on the first crossing.

When you get wet, somehow it’s not just that moment that is frustrating, but it’s also an insult to all your previous efforts to stay dry.

It feels like wasted effort.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

There is the fall

Years ago on a hike with my dad, we were taking a big group of 8th graders up a trail that ran right along a creek bed.

Well, actually, the word “trail” in this scenario is generous. In fact, a lot of the time, the trail was the creek bed.

Early in the hike we were all trying to stay up on the side edges of the creek or in places where it was really narrow, we would straddle the creek in order to keep our feet dry.

One by one, kids misstepped and got their feet wet.

After they got wet, they would just start tromping through the middle of the creek. Once you had wet shoes, you could go faster because you weren’t spending each step trying to find a dry place to put your feet.

But I kept my shoes dry for a long time. I was going out of my way and tromping through brush on the side of the creek in order to stay dry. I was one of the last people to still have dry shoes as the hike wore on.

But then, inevitably, I misstepped. I stepped on a rock that was wet and slipped and fell flat in the water on my chest. It was a horrible fall. Embarrassing and ridiculous. And painful.

And of course, now my shoes were wet.

So for the rest of the hike, I berated myself for not just going ahead and getting my shoes wet earlier. I reasoned that if I had just been stepping straight in and not trying to avoid the water, I would never have had such a bad fall.

Of course all this kind of reasoning is unhelpful when you’re hiking (or doing anything else, come to think of it).

Now on the Ouachita Trail, on our first day of river crossings, I got wet on our second crossing.

It was only one crossing I had stayed dry for. I hadn’t wasted that much trail time trying to stay dry.

But I was still mad that I fell.

We had hiked 8 miles so far, and we had 6 left.

I was exhausted and tired and cold and wet. And mad.

Such a bad combination.

This might be a good time to mention that one of the things about me that makes me perhaps not the greatest backpacker is that I fall down often. It’s actually alarming how much I fall down. And it happens out of nowhere. I blink and I just hit the ground.

I really like to go through life without falling. Both physically and metaphorically.

I like for everything to be perfect (which doesn’t exist). And I like to do everything right (also not possible).

Because in real life, people fall down, both on the ground and in work and in parenting and in pretty much everything we try,

I have come to adopt a favorite quote about falls.

It’s something that a 14th century mystic named Julian of Norwich said,

and it goes like this:

There is the fall.

And there is the recovery from the fall.

And both are the mercy of God.

And so, as I stomped up the trail in wet clothes and boots, I began to say these words to myself.

Out loud.

And through clenched teeth.

Over and over again.

There is the fall.

And there is the recovery from the fall.

And both are the mercy of God.

Again.

There is the fall.

And there is the recovery from the fall.

And both are the mercy of God.

I don’t even understand why this works for me, but after a while, I began to feel just a tiny bit lighter.

I was still tired and wet, but the anger and frustration lessened a little.

I was grateful to find that repeating these words helped me cope with a fall, because I would have many more opportunities to use them on this rocky, steep trail.

Soon we came to yet another river crossing. The water was deep again. And it was rushing by again. It was cold and fast, and I stepped right in without even stopping to weigh if this was the best place or if I should take off my boots or if this hike was the worst idea I’ve ever had.

I just went on in.

Mercy of God, I said.

And then it happened 7 more times.

7 more places where deep water crossed the trail.

7 more times I didn’t stop and take off my boots and try to stay dry as I crossed the water.

7 more times I stomped through the water and didn’t fall down trying to hop across rocks.

Mercy of God.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

In between crossings, my boots made a squishy sloshy noise with every step.

My feet were icy cold and I could feel my toes turning into little mushy raisins inside of my wet socks.

Finally we started gaining enough elevation to leave the water, for today.

Tomorrow we would cross the river and it’s tributaries again over 40 more times, but today we were nearing the end. Only three miles left to go before we could peel off wet clothes and go to sleep.

And then it started raining.

We climbed up for another hour in the rain.

I kept reminding myself that the day would end eventually. I only had to take this one more step.

And then this one.

And on and on.

We were losing daylight, so Kandace pushed ahead and got the tent set up as I hobbled through the last mile.

I couldn’t hurry or I would surely fall again. So I slowed down instead. I hadn’t taken any pictures since putting away my phone for the river crossings, so I dug it out and paused to catch the water dripping off the pine needles.

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I told God how much I loved seeing this beauty, even though my entire body was hurting and cold.

We hadn’t seen anyone for miles, so it felt like we had all the woods and trees and creeks to ourselves.

This was what I came for, this being away.

Being in the woods.

Being.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

I was already grateful for how my sleeping bag was going to feel.

And for how fast two people can get a tiny tent warm. We ate our dinner inside our sleeping bags, and laughed at how tired we were. We could hear the water rushing in the Kiamichi River not far away, our first crossing the next day would be early.

But the sun was going to be shining. The clouds of the last two days were going to part and we would see blue sky again as we made our way the 13 miles to the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge. Hot showers and beds tomorrow, we told ourselves as we went to sleep.

DAY 5

13 miles to Queen Wilhelmina Lodge. (Mile Marker 51.5)

The sky was clear when we peeked out of our tent. We drank coffee that Kandace made in the tent vestibule.

And then we packed up.

Of course everything was still wet, including the tent. We packed it all up in trash bags again, laughing at how bad our room at the lodge was going to smell that night.

I put on wet socks, wet boots and wet pants. I prayed that the sun would reach us quickly.

Then we set off. We quickly reached the Kiamichi River and had to cross over.

Kandace changed into her sandals and tucked her boots into the top of her pack, and I just walked across in my wet boots.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

On our second crossing, Kandace crossed under a tree branch that knocked the top of her pack loose.

The impact knocked her boots out of her pack. She started yelling to me that her boots were floating downstream.

I was already on the other side, so I ran down the river bank but the boots quickly floated past me. I thought they were gone for sure, but then they got hung in a spot on some rocks back on the other side of the river.

So Kandace had to go back in for her boots. She had to cross a deeper section of the river and collect her (now wet) boots.

We knew we had several more crossings so she secured her boots onto her pack hoping they would dry in the sun, while she hiked in her sandals.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

On and on we tromped in the river. We were so grateful for the sun.

Even though I was still wet and cold (if we stopped for too long, we would start shivering), I knew that eventually the sun would dry everything.

At Mile Marker 43.5, we made our last crossing and then the trail turned toward Rich Mountain and away from the river.

Up, up, up we climbed.

And finally I got warm.

It turns out that even if you are wet, you can warm up if you’re hiking uphill enough.

I stumbled a bit over the rocky trails, tripping just from being weary.

We were trying to get to the top of the mountain, to the State Line Shelter before we stopped for lunch, but we were hungry and tired, so Kandace found a sunny log and we faced the sun and ate our tuna.

It was glorious.

Probably the best lunch I’ve ever had.

After lunch and a good rest, we walked the rest of the way up to the State Line Shelter. There was a guy camping in the shelter. He had reached it yesterday. Like us, his stuff was all wet, so he was drying out for the day. He was the first person we had seen since our first night on the OT.

We had not seen another human being for over 40 miles. Wild.

He took our picture at the state line between Arkansas and Oklahoma. (His sweet dog photo bombed.)

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

We had just over four miles left to the lodge, and it was all along the top of the ridge, so it would be pretty flat.

Onward we went.

We were so excited. I couldn’t wait to peel off my boots and wet socks.

But just a little while after leaving the state line, I twisted my ankle and fell all the way to the ground. Hard.

Such a bummer.

Another fall. Another falling.

This time I cried through Julien of Norwich’s words as I slowed my pace to a hobble for the rest of the way to the lodge.

There is the fall.

And there is the recovery from the fall.

Both are the mercy of God.

After a mile or so, I stopped and tied my bandana around my ankle, and then tightened my boots to hold it in place. I drank the rest of my water. And then I pulled myself up.

Ok, I can make it. I can take one more step.

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We reached the 50 mile mark, a big milestone. Only a mile and a half to go.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

Finally, we made it! The Queen Wilhelmina Lodge!!

We immediately dumped out all our wet stuff and spread it all over the room.

Kandace showered while I iced my ankle. Then I showered.

We rinsed out what we could and left everything to dry.

Then we went to eat dinner.

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We both ordered the catfish dinner with hush puppies, okra, fries and green beans.

And beer.

And then hummingbird cake.

And whiskey to finish.

It was divine.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

Then we went back to our room and watched Hallmark Christmas movies in bed while I iced my ankle again.

I wasn’t really sure how I was going to walk the rest of the trail, but there was no point in worrying about that when I had a bed and four pillows all to myself.

For the moment, I was blissfully warm and dry. And I would face tomorrow, well tomorrow.

Ouachita Trail Part 2, Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina

Trail Notes:
This 26.5-mile section of the Ouachita Trail from Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina Lodge could easily be done in a weekend.
Possible Itinerary:
Friday afternoon: Drop a car at Queen Wilhelmina State Park and drive back in a second car to Winding Stair Campground. Hike 2 miles (east) to Winding Stair Shelter (Mile Marker 25). Spend the night.
Saturday: Walk 9 miles east from Winding Stair Mountain to Pashubbe Shelter at Mile Marker 34.
Sunday: Hike 17.5 miles to Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Celebrate with dinner at the restaurant. Stay the night if you have an extra day or head home.
If you’re going to hike this section and it’s been raining, I highly recommend checking the Kiamichi River levels before you go. (They say to avoid it if the water is above 4 feet.) More info about the Ouachita Trail can be found on the Friends of the OT website.
If you need to shave a few miles off of the Sunday hike, you could either bring a tent and camp somewhere closer to the middle (which s what we did) or you could have someone meet you at the state line (Mile Marker 46.5) which would cut it down by 4 miles.
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