Swift Camp Creek

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Swift Camp Creek, Red River Gorge
July 10-12, 1999

Every backpacking trip is an experiment to a certain extent, but this one was more so than most others. It was the first time that I took my whole family, including the German Shepherd, Lucky, out on the trail. For a destination, we selected the Swift Camp Creek Trail in the Clifty Wilderness section of Red River Gorge.

My 12-year-old, Daniel, had never been on a backpacking trip before, nor had my 18-month-old German Shepherd Dog. Although I expected them both to do well, I had a bit of anxiety about how it would go. We were packing a lot of new gear as well--a new Kelty tent, two new Jansport packs, a new MSR Dragonfly stove, and a new (to the trail) camera.

The Red River Gorge is a two-hour drive from our home, and it was raining Saturday morning as we got on the road. The rain got heavier as we neared the gorge. Twenty miles west of Slade, I had to reduce speed significantly because of the rain water standing on the highway. It was misty and the clouds seemed to be stuck in the tops of the low hills. I became more upset about the weather as I drove along. We stopped at the most unfriendly rest area in the world, at Slade (they wouldn’t let us stand under the eaves outside in pouring rain because we had the dog with us), and waited for a while as the worst of the storm front moved past us. By the time we reached the trail head in Red River Gorge, the rain had stopped and we enjoyed almost supernaturally good weather for the rest of the trip.

We left the van at the Swift Camp Creek trail head parking area at about 2 PM. From this access to the creek, the trail is all downhill and we took it easy, reaching Swift Camp Creek in about 45 minutes. Lucky carried his canine backpack which is shaped like a saddle bag for horses and rides on his shoulders. Daniel carried his new Jansport Scout backpack and Alex carried his new Jansport Rainier pack. I carried my old Jansport external frame pack which is nearly twenty years old at this point and is still completely serviceable despite a few burn holes and scrapes. Yes, I'm still partial to external frame packs. I don't climb or ski and I like the way the externals carry the weight and organize.

I wasn't terribly concerned about my two greenhorns. I figured that they would do all right and they did because they were conditioned well. We take Lucky for long, vigorous walks every night and we had been doing practice hikes with the boys for several weeks leading up to the trip. Conditioning is important if you want to enjoy wilderness foot travel. This means that every component of the package should be tested and broken-in. Prior to the trip, a hiker should be training with long walks, incorporating as much of the gear that will be used and terrain that will be faced as is possible. Bicycle riding is another good conditioning activity. Some people feel funny walking down a city street with a full backpack on, but the closer you can get to what you will actually be doing, the more comfortable you will be when you get out on the trail. I would rather find out at home that a piece of gear doesn't work or that I'm not quite up to speed physically than to discover such things far out in the wilderness. When you're in condition and your gear fits well and does its job, you can relax and enjoy the experience of traveling in the back country.

The downhill hike to the creek was relatively easy but I thought as we walked along that the return trip would be considerably more demanding. There are some nice campsites where the trail meets the creek. Since the sky was still a bit threatening, we decided to pitch camp at this point in case the rain commenced again. There is a grove of pines and hemlocks on the eastern side of the stream. The ground is flat and there is a well established fire ring. The camping pressure is obvious on the site. It was very hard to find any dead fall wood for a fire and it appeared that several small trees had been cut down with saws and hatchets. Cutting down live trees in a wilderness area is always the wrong thing to do. I have never understood this particular phenomenon, unless it is simply a matter of someone playing with a saw or hatchet in the way that children can be playfully destructive.

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campsite at the northern junction of the trail and the creek

As soon as we unsaddled from the packs, Alex had his fishing rig out and was off to try his luck on the trout in Swift Camp Creek. It wasn't long before he was catching small trout and some little fish I guessed to be carp.

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Alex fishing

The campsite was scoured clean of firewood and the fire ring even included stone "easy chairs" embedded in the earth near the ring. I have mixed feelings about established campsites. In one way, I like them because in the eastern parts of the U.S. the woods can often be so dense or hilly that it can be difficult to find enough clear and level space to set up even a small tent. Conversely, you lose that feeling of being in the wilderness when you're camping in a spot that shows a lot of camper impact. On this particular evening, with the weather still menacing, the smoothed out and pre-cleared campsite was all right with me.

I was craving some coffee so I got out my two backpacking stoves to heat up water for drinks. This was also an excellent opportunity to compare the brand new MSR Dragon Fly against the 18-year-old Optimus 8R. I bought the Optimus stove in Colorado after a Coleman Peak 1 failed on me at high altitude. Since then the Optimus has accompanied me on every back country trip, and has endured some serious torture testing, including such things as being dropped from helicopters and swept over waterfalls. The Russian army even copied this stove for their infantry. By way of contrast, the MSR Dragon Fly is brand new, high tech, and reminds me vaguely of a space probe. It is very light and burns just about every kind of liquid fuel. The fuel bottle on the MSR is the fuel tank, and this reduces weight. It requires pumping and it seemed to me that it would lose pressure if simmered at too low a heat. The MSR performed well, but I remain more comfortable with the old Optimus. It is heavier than the MSR, but this is because the Optimus is all metal, including the case which doubles as base and windscreen, and it has a brass internal fuel tank. Even though it would add some weight, I would prefer metal construction for the MSR's fuel pump rather than the plastic it uses. The MSR is considerably more fuel efficient and Marian and Alex both feel that it is easier to light than the Optimus 8R.

Camping with and 85-pound German Shepherd

It was a kick to watch Lucky prowl and prance around. He was sniffing and hunting and picking up thousands of new scents, the likes of which he had not experienced in the city. It wasn't more than a few minutes until he was in the creek and wet. The dog loves water. It was worth the additional inconvenience and effort to see the sheer enjoyment the dog had in being with his family out in a beautiful and wild place.

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everybody fishing

We did end up with a small hole in the no-see-um netting of both tents. This was not destructive behavior. It was the result of a particular circumstance in which one of us was inside a tent with the door zipped closed and Lucky was on the outside wanting in. He scratched with his paw the way he does on the doors at home to communicate his desire to come in, and this ripped the netting. We learned to avoid this situation and no more holes were made in the tents. I make it a habit to carry a little bag of tent repair material—Kenyon adhesive patching material, super glue, and seam sealer—and I would highly recommend these things to anyone making a back country trip with a dog. I would also suggest carrying a couple of extra towels.

Lucky is a sweet and mellow animal as German Shepherds go. He has all the kinetic energy one would expect from an 85 lb. puppy of 18-months. In our planning, the question arose of where the dog would sleep. There were two possibilities: outside in the camp or inside one of the tents. The problem with leaving him outside is that, while I have never seen any large animals like bears or cats in Red River Gorge, I have seen a lot of varmints like skunks, coons, snakes and possums. I was concerned that one might come up into the camp and Lucky would chase it out into the woods in the dark. The Gorge is not a good place to go blasting around in the dark since it is very vertical with many hidden drop-offs. Unfortunately, scarcely a year goes by that someone isn’t killed by falling in the Gorge. Consequently, we decided that the best course was to try to keep Lucky in one of the tents while we slept. My wife didn’t want him in our tent, so the boys got him by default, although they didn’t protest too much. It struck them as kind of cool to have their pet and protector in the tent with them while they slept.

Talk about comedy—we could hardly contain ourselves listening to the boys trying to get the dog to settle down in the tent. He wasn’t used to being enclosed in such a small space and kept getting up and walking around every time he heard a sound in the woods. Finally, he settled down and everyone got a good night’s sleep.

The Trail

Swift Camp Creek takes its name from the legend of Jonathan Swift who is said to have left a journal describing a large treasure of silver which he had buried in the gorge. Silver Mine Arch also takes its name from the same legend. No existing copies of Swift’s journal exist nor is there any evidence that Jonathan Swift ever existed or set foot in Red River Gorge. Nevertheless, the legend has been the cause of much needless destruction by treasure hunters who have dug into the rock houses hoping to find the lost silver.

There are three accesses to Swift Camp Creek Trail. At the southern end, it can be accessed from the Rock Bridge Loop Trail. Midway, Wildcat Trail runs from Highway 715 down to join Swift Camp Creek. The northern trail head is on Highway 715. There is a parking area there on the western side of the highway. We parked our van there and walked down to the creek from the northern access.

The Swift Camp Creek Trail is rated strenuous. The trail heads are on the ridges, and you descend into the Gorge. The Gorge itself is a densely wooded canyon formed by the Red River and several creeks which feed into it. Swift Camp forms its own canyon and is one of the Red River’s tributaries. The streams have cut deeply into the soft strata of sandstone and limestone, creating vertical walls in many places and very steep descents in others. It's beautiful and a bit dangerous for the careless.

I really think of the trail as having two sections: the nice northern half and the rougher southern half, that area between Dog Branch Creek and Rock Bridge. While we camped both nights north of Dog Branch, we walked south nearly to Hell’s Kitchen. This section of the trail was fairly rough. We had to climb over fallen timber in several spots. On the first night we camped on the eastern side of the creek where the trail meets the creek from the northern access. We had planned to go further on the second day, but after walking about a half hour we found a second campsite which had everything we wanted—a nice pool for fishing, a smooth, sandy area for pitching tents, and good rocks and views for photography. We went further down the trail but turned around and went back to the campsite we liked.

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The guys caught a lot of fish, small trout, bass and carp, but no keepers. They had fun. Lucky tried some paw fishing but didn’t do any good. Marian and I drank coffee, shot pictures and simply enjoyed one of the prettiest wilderness areas in the world.