The first day of winter 2011-2012 was also the first day of my school’s winter break. I celebrated by heading south to Oklahoma’s Kiamichi Country. That’s tourism talk; we Okies really call it Little Dixie because of the strong southern accents there. Many southerners moved into the area after the Civil War, seeking cheap land.
I wanted to day hike in the Kiamichi and San Bois Mountains, both of which are subsets of the Ouachita Range, which I’ve explored on several day hikes. There are still bridle trails I can explore at Robbers Cave, but I wanted something fresh and the state parks website showed a Clayton Lake State Park about an hour south of there. I recognized Sardis Lake to the north, but had never heard of Clayton and Wikipedia reported there was a surviving fire tower nearby on Flagpole Mountain. That clinched it.
I arrived in Clayton a bit after 10 a.m. and found it to be economically depressed, which was no great surprise for Kiamichi Country. 39% of its inhabitants are below the poverty line, compared to 13% of the folks in oil-rich Bartlesville and our little city’s per capita income of $35,800 dwarfs Clayton’s $13,500. But while we have only the foothills of the Osage, Clayton is nestled between mountains which jut up 1,000 feet above the town. I was headed for Flagpole Road, which promised to wrap around Flagpole Mountain’s northeastern rim south of Sardis Lake and west of Clayton.
The road was dirt and water had rutted it badly in places. Slabs of sandstone often protruded from the road surface as I cautiously bounced my way upward, glad I’d put new struts on Princess (my 2001 Camry) a few weeks ago. Finally I could see my target, along with some other towers, on a nearby ridge.
I’d wondered why this Pushmataha County tower had survived, unlike its brethren. That mystery was solved when I found it festooned with antennas pointing this way and that. It was the typical Aermotor design, with a 7 foot square cab up top accessed by a trapdoor. The Forest Service put up about 250 of these towers across the nation between 1933 and 1942, and I’ve climbed ones at Sugar Camp, Hercules Glades, Piney Creek, and Flat Rock in Missouri. Sugar Camp is the one I know from childhood and its lower steps have been stripped away as the cab windows are all gone and the floor is decrepit and unsafe. I figured this tower was in better shape.
Sure enough, all of the steps were intact and I climbed for a nice view of my car far below and Sardis Lake in the background. Thankfully the trap door was unlocked and not only were the windows intact but even sported an I Smokey sticker. Even the table for the Osborne Fire Finder was still in place, painted forest green. The panoramas of the north and west were quite nice, and Flagpole Road led on south along the mountain ridge.
I opened the trapdoor and descended both the tower and the mountain, pausing along the empty road for a shot of the dam at Sardis Lake. The state defaulted on payments for this water reservoir, prompting a court case it lost. Then Oklahoma City purchased the rights and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations recently filed suit to block the water being piped 130 miles to the metropolis. Water fights will become more common as our lakes silt up even as demand increases.
My next stop was tiny Clayton Lake State Park. There was mention of a hiking trail, but the sketchy reports led me to speculate it would be very short or abandoned, and the maps showed a park boundary hugging the lake shore. I would indeed find only remnants of a trail, but that was compensated by some beautiful waterfalls at the spillway.
Pine trees surrounded the tiny lake as I explored, stymied in my rare decision to ask at the park office about a trail by a sign in the window saying the ranger was out in the park somewhere. I walked north toward the dam and spotted an eagle zipping past the trees along the western shore, but my photos of its flight were blurry and useless. The broad spillway was eroded and water was cascading into Peal Creek. Clambering all over this area snapping photos and videos of the falls was the highlight of my day.
I grabbed shots of the spillway edge and farther below, getting right up against the cascade. I would later struggle completely across the waterway, winding my way on jutting rocks and debris to make it to the far side of the spillway to shoot one of the waterfalls nestled among the rocks. Quite a treat!
I then returned to my car to grab my lunch pack and walked over to the park’s south end, where I found some reflections and a berm leading out into the water. I found the feeder stream and a big tilted ledge there made a nice lunch spot with a good view both upstream and downstream.
After my repast I clambered upstream, looking back at the lake now and again, until my trip was arrested by the property line, with a large private cabin butting up against the boundary. I had no choice but to shift uphill, discovering abandoned mossy picnic tables here and there. Here on a dirt road I was surprised to find blue tree blazes. The trail! But it led straight down a road blocked by barbed wire and private property notices. Something went wrong for this trail after it was built and blazed. How sad, both for it and for me.
So I wandered up another feeder stream, undoubtedly wandering a bit past an unmarked boundary this time. But then the trail I was following turned to ford the wide stream and clearly entered private land. Stymied again, I backtracked, having exhausted the park’s clearly accessible regions. But the afternoon sun was out and I decided to return to the spillway for some hopefully improved photos.
There I found an Asplundh truck with a fellow clearing logs from upper edge of the spillway. He was working alone but I then spotted three more Asplundh workers, bedecked in hunter orange tuques, who were exploring the other side of the spillway. They’d found a way across, so why not me?
That is when I struggled all of the way over, finding carved channels in the tilted bedding planes of the rocks and getting very close to the falls. I climbed up the dam and walked to the far shore, where I unexpectedly found another blue trail blaze. I hadn’t brought my iPhone or pack with me for this return to the spillway area, so I opted not to bushwhack the abandoned trail and instead reversed course. On my way down the dam by an alternate route I scrambled to a halt, gasping in surprise at a large snake sunning itself on a rock below me. Neither of us was pleased at the encounter and I returned to my car by a different route. I’d only hiked four miles and there were a few hours of light left, so my next stop would be Robbers Cave.
Since September 2009 I’d hiked several times at Robbers Cave and exhausted almost all of the pedestrian trails. While I want to explore part of the multi-use trail and bridle trails east of the highway, I’d need a full day outside of hunting season for that. So I opted to circumnavigate Lake Wayne Wallace using a bridle trail I’d only partially walked previously, rather than using the Mountain Trail shown on the park map.
I parked at Frank Glenn Bridge on Ash Creek Road and first walked northeast up Fourche Maline Creek to snap some distant small falls. Then I walked over to and across the long earthen dam, looking at empty tent camping sites along the eastern shore. I was following the yellow bridle trail as it wrapped up and around the high bluffs, emerging out on top for a sweeping view of the dam and the Frank Glenn Bridge below.
Checking the time I decided I could circumnavigate the lake before dusk, taking the Big John II portion of the yellow bridle trail. I zipped along the high trail and reached an unfamiliar section with a stern warning to follow the switchbacks and not erode the hillside. I dutifully wound my way downhill, startling a flock of geese as I reached the lake shore. Once again my camera failed to focus on them in flight. Steve Austin never had this kind of trouble with his bionic eye, but it cost over a million dollars back in 1974, so I shouldn’t complain.
The trail linked to the mountain trail and I followed it around the northwest end of the lake. I then followed the bridle trail along an abandoned road with a collapsed bridge back to Ash Creek Road and traipsed back to my car. I’d hiked another 3.5 miles, bringing my total for the day to 7.5 miles. Less than 4 miles to go to reach my 300 mile goal for the year!
I drove home and it was only fitting that on the first day of winter a light snow began as I headed north on US 75. The flakes were melting upon impact, but they did make the big vertical shaft light at the Ramona casino look like a snowblower. Next week I plan to trade the Ouachitas for the Wichitas.