#OptOutside on the water: Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas

Cruising over the waters of Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas.

Another Black Friday came and went, and for the third straight year, a good chunk of the masses decided to forgo the sales and head outside. Kudos to REI for kickstarting the #OptOutside movement, and everything it symbolizes (specifically, what it must mean to its employees).

For me, it’s usually meant hiking or trail running. But this year it was different. A good chunk of my family met up at a lake house on the shores of Toledo Bend Reservoir in east Texas for the holiday, and anytime you’re at a lake like this one, time on the water trumps all.

My niece’s husband is definitely a lake guy. Fishing, water skiing or just cruising around, he loves the water. Back when Liz and Mitchel were dating, he picked up a boat for $300, with some wondering if it would ever be seaworthy. Mitchel had it on the water that day.

The boat has been nicknamed the Black Pearl. Great name for this vessel, as it may be a bit worn, but pulls its weight and has a bit of a legend. You can fish from it, pull a skier and, amazingly, get some work done. As it turns out, the Pearl has a history that goes beyond being a reclaimed wreckage.

Back when Hurricane Harvey was busy dumping a year’s worth of rain on Houston, many neighborhoods were flooded. Folks were trapped in their swamped homes, with nowhere to get food, water and decent shelter. A call went out for people with boats to help these folks out.

Enter the Black Pearl, with Mitchel and Liz helping some folk escape flooded homes to safety.

Flooded Houstonians get a lift to safety on the Black Pearl after Hurricane Harvey.

Over the weekend, we used it to pull of 50-foot log off a beach, haul it to boat ramp and eventually cut it into sections that were used to line the out ring of a now under-construction fire pit.

Reclaiming some driftwood for a project at my sister’s lake house. It took some doing, but Mitchel and his trusty boat got it back to shore and ready for the job.

As it turns out, the Pearl is a good working boat.

But Black Friday on the Black Pearl was more about fun. We took the girls out for a cruise, checking out flooded trees on the lake where eagles had their nests. The lake is lined with houses of varying sizes, but it also is dotted with islands and surrounded by the Sabine National Forest and state park land on the Louisiana side. Toledo Bend is a popular destination for bass fishing tournaments, and plenty of anglers were on the water.

We mixed up our cruise with full-throttled blasts and slower runs to see the sights. Sunny skies and cold beer mixed nicely with the tunes playing from on-board speakers in the bow. It was a great way to kill a couple of hours before dinner.

Mitchel in his element, piloting the Black Pearl.

My turn at the wheel. I haven’t driven a boat since I was a kid.

The next day featured some free time and calm waters. I’d been eating a ton, so some exercise seemed appropriate. Poking around the garage, I found a flatwater kayak and all the gear needed to go out on the water.

The kayak was hot pink. All that was missing were some My Little Pony decals to complete the picture, but I didn’t care. That sucker was going in the water with me in it.

Something to keep in mind: I’ve never been in a kayak. Canoe? Sure. Many times. And rafts. But never a kayak.

This was a good time with a good view.

It takes some getting used to. Since this was a shorter boat, keeping it straight was a bit of work, but manageable. Every now and then I got into a rhythm, paddling outside the main boating channels and staying relatively close to shore, never more than a few hundred feet from the beach.

At times, I’d stop paddling just to listen. If there weren’t any boats speeding by, the quiet was interrupted only by the water lapping against the side of the hull.

What I found is that type of gentle quiet is very similar to what I experience when I stop in the middle of a hike just to listen to the sounds of the woods or the breeze atop a summit. With so much noise around us at all times, we need those moments of quiet. Life has been pretty noisy lately, so those couple of hours on the kayak were a soothing balm.

Even though I live close to a number of lakes, I’m more of a trail guy. I don’t think that’s going to change. But mixing things up has its perks, and there’s plenty of good to be found on the water. And just like those #OptOutside days on the trail, Black Friday on the water was way better than fighting crowds looking for the next-best deal on the next-best doo-dad. Gimme a power boat or a kayak any time.

Bob Doucette

The Weekly Stoke: Bad news for Vibram, running nutrition, rad moms and murder and intrigue in Texas

Vibram Five Finger shoes. (wikipedia commons photo)

Vibram Five Finger shoes. (wikipedia commons photo)

We’re back for a more normal version of the Weekly Stoke, and I’ve got some good links for you. So sit tight and check these out…

First up is some big news from the world of running footwear. A recent study showed that people using Vibram minimalist shoes were more prone to foot injuries, and the company is working hard to get a legal settlement over disputed health claims of its Five Finger shoes.

Just in time for Mother’s Day: A list of eight of the most rad moms you’ll ever know.

Here is a post about some things to think about in terms of nutrition for your long run training days.

And finally, here’s a yarn about adventure, murder and intrigue in a small west Texas town.

Looking back on a rough week — and finding solace on the run


First we got the terrible news from Boston, where the finish line of the Boston Marathon was desecrated by a couple of men armed with bombs. Three killed, scores injured, and a bit of innocence lost.

Then something about ricin-laced letters.

Midweek, a huge explosion in West, Texas, where the death toll in that small town is being measured in the dozens.

We had tornadoes here in northeast Oklahoma that night. Thankfully, no one was killed. Just some damage and minor injuries, but a lot of frayed nerves.

And then, late Thursday, the second chapter of the Boston tragedy: The suspected bombers gunning down an MIT campus police officer, engaging in a shootout with police, and then the death of one of the men. As of this writing, police are looking for the deceased man’s younger brother.

And today, incidentally, is the 18th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

I think we all have an excuse to be down in the dumps right now. But I’ve found some really encouraging signs from people.

A fund was set up to help the victims of the bombings. Acts of kindness and courage abounded in Boston on Monday, and as police continue their pursuit, more bravery is on display.

It seemed the entire state of Texas showed up to help following the tragedy in West. Donations flooded local relief agencies.

Runners have also taken actions, both symbolic and concrete. Those who couldn’t finish the Boston Marathon because of the attacks are being offered a free entry fee to run in next week’s Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. Runners have been posting their support through social media. Local races and runs have been held in Boston’s honor.

In the midst of my own training, my intermediate and longer runs culminate on the same north-south street leading into downtown Tulsa: Boston Avenue. It’s a tougher stretch, almost all uphill, leading to the highrises of downtown and past some really beautiful art deco buildings.

Yesterday, as I was finishing up, the bells at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church chimed around 4 p.m. It was cloudy, cool and windy. Not the most ideal training conditions. But for about an hour, things were just right again. I felt a little normal again, especially trudging up that final leg.

My hope is that when you’re out training, racing, getting alone on a trail or doing whatever you do, you find that sense of “normal” again. Even if just for a brief moment in these extraordinarily abnormal times.

Keep your heads up, folks. These times are tough, but tough people outlast tough times.

Keep that in mind when you’re grinding out that last mile.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Texas hiking and camping: Big Bend National Park, West Texas

Note: Today’s post is a trip report from guest writer Matt Patterson, an Oklahoma City-based writer, journalist and hiker.

Looking down into Blue Creek Canyon after making the 2,000 foot ascent. (Matt Patterson photo)

With its scrub brush and desert mountains, Big Bend National Park conjures up images of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western films of the 1960s.

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Texas just miles from the Mexican border, Big Bend is 800,000 acres of beautiful isolation in the Chisos Mountains. The nearest city of any consequence is Fort Stockton (pop. 7,800), about two hours to the north. This is a prime jumping off spot for visitors to the park, and the region’s many oilfield workers.

The out-of-the-way nature of Big Bend adds to its allure. During our three days in the park we saw no hikers on the 5.5-mile outbound trek and non on the 8-mile return trip.

Our hike began at Homer Wilson Ranch along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The ranch was established in the late 1920s once encompassed 28,000 acres. It was abandoned in 1944 but the ranch house and a bunk house remain intact.

Leaving the ranch house, we moved about 4 miles along the canyon floor along the Blue Creek Canyon Trail. The dry creek bottom where most of the trail winds through is a mix of sand and gravel sized rock. This section of trail is very easy, however, with only about a 500 elevation gain over the first four miles. Also along this route are red rock formations that are worth stopping to check out.

The canyon gradually narrows as you progress along the trail. The final mile or so of this part of the trail picks up incline as the trail moves through a densely wooded area before the 2,000 foot ascent up Blue Creek Canyon.

A small black bear along the Blue Creek Canyon Trail in Big Bend National Park. (Matt Patterson photo)

There are some wild berries that grow in this area making it a good spot to see a bear. Sure enough, as the lead hiker in our group rounded a bend he spotted a small black bear on the trail. It scurried up and an embankment when it saw us, but didn’t retreat further as it watched us move out of sight.

The last 1.5 miles of this hike are fairly difficult with about 2,000 feet in elevation gain. One of my hiking partners who has made the trip several times describes it as “switchback hell” and that is certainly fitting. The trip up the ridge is narrow and while there is no true exposure, there are some spots that wouldn’t be great places to fall.

Our first night campsite was nestled in a wooded area at the top of the ridge. It’s not much, but it is relatively flat and close to Laguna Meadows, one of the park’s attractions. Laguna Meadows is just as it sounds — several acres of tall grass that would be common in an alpine setting, but becomes interesting in an area with little rainfall.

Our first night campsite provided fairly easy access to the Emory Peak Trail which leads to the summit (7,825) the highest spot in the Chisos Mountains. The summit offers sweeping 360-degree views of the Chisos and into Mexico.

A rocky outcropping at the South Rim. The views extend all the way into Mexico and the rim sits 7,000 feet above the desert floor. (Matt Patterson photo)

The famous South Rim was about 3.5 miles from our first night camp, and the site of our second night’s stay. The South Rim is the signature attraction in Big Bend and the most likely spot to see fellow hikers.

The view is worth any pain traveling in Big Bend entails. Some call it “The Big Drop” and that, too, is fitting as the desert floor is 7,000 feet below. On a clear day, views from the South Rim are breathtaking as the desert floor unfolds below. Getting close to the edge for pictures requires steady legs.

Sunset at SW 3 campsite on the edge of the rim at Big Bend National Park. (Matt Patterson photo)

There are several campsites in this area. SW 4 is closest to the rim, but not on the rim. The ranger who checked us in recommended SW 3 because it sits on the rim, meaning you don’t have to leave your campsite to see a spectacular sunset. For that reason it’s hard not to recommend this site, but you can’t go wrong either way. This camp also featured a bear box and a wind break.

Boot shaped rock formation at Boot Springs. This is how the area got its name. (Matt Patterson photo)

Also see: Boot Spring is another popular spot in Big Bend. This area features a rock formation shaped like an upside down cowboy boot. It’s unique and worth seeing.

B.Y.O.W.: The water situation in Big Bend is actually pretty simple — there isn’t much of it. Hikers must pack in their own, meaning you can leave the water filter at home. Planning for water needs can be tricky when trying to keep your pack as light as possible. The six-liter dromedary bag I took weighed in at about 14 pounds, give or take. The good news is the weight drops as you consume this precious resource. The mantra in Big Bend is sips, not gulps when it comes to the h20.

Water needs vary from person to person based on fitness level and other factors, but in Big Bend it’s always a good idea to err on the side of taking a little more. One of my hiking partners, who is in excellent physical shape, took just four liters. By the end of the trip he was filtering water from one of the few springs in the park which he described as “sump water” and very unappealing.

Weather: In the fall and winter months nighttime weather can be in the low to mid 30s or 40s. Daytime temperatures during our mid-November trip were in the 60s and 70s. Still, hot days in the fall and winter months are not unheard of.

Summer hiking in Big Bend is for more experienced, extremely fit hikers who aren’t afraid of 100-degree daytime temperatures. Hikers who embark on the long outer mountain loop trail will cache water at locations around the park, including Homer Wilson Ranch.

What to bring: As Big Bend is a mountain desert, there isn’t much of a need for tents. Hikers can save some weight in their pack by leaving it at home. And that’s a good thing because sleeping out under the stars is quite a show in this isolated park.

A good 20-degree bag will work fine on most fall nights in Big Bend. Some might opt for a 0-degree bag, or lower, depending on preference. My 20-degree bag worked great, though I did add liner that helped keep me toasty.

Big Bend is bear country, but bear cans are optional as most campsites have fixed bear boxes.

Because of water limitations, it’s best to pack food that doesn’t require water to prepare. This can limit the satisfaction of sitting down to a hot meal after a long day on the trail, but hot meals usually require water, and water adds to pack weight.

A tree growing out of the rock on the South Rim. (Matt Patterson photo)

Red tape: Camping in Big Bend requires an overnight permit from the National Park Service. The cost is $10 plus your $20 per vehicle entry fee into the park. Fires are strictly prohibited in Big Bend, as is smoking on trails and campsites. On return trips, cars will have to stop at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint for inspection.

Post hike meal: There’s nothing better than wolfing down a greasy meal after three days in the mountains. Nearby Fort Stockton has very limited options. If there’s extra time, and it fits your route, consider a trip to Buddy’s Drive In in Andrews, Texas. Buddy’s is known for their steak fingers, which are like butter, but the hole in the wall also serves burgers and other greasy spoon items.

— Matt Patterson