The Artist Couple
Business is going up and patience was running out; it was time for a break. When you come to Texas, whether it's just for a vacation or you're looking to relocate here along with what seems like the rest of the country, there is one thing that will inevitably come up, the Hill Country.
So what is the Hill Country anyways? Before I became a Texan I had no clue and simply pretended like I knew where it was, "oh yeah, the hill country. You know, that one place." Little did I realize that the Hill Country isn't simply a place, it is a whole region of places in Central Texas, that all have something in common; you guessed it, karst topography and tectonic uplift!
If you don't have a degree in geology that's okay, because neither do I, so let's first learn what that means, before I talk about this gem of a protected area, because learning is fun! I'm going to try and be as concise as possible, while also trying to make this easy to understand, let's see what happens.. First things first, what is a Karst and how does it make topography? I think the easiest way to understand a karst feature is to think of a limestone cavern, that has been made by a flowing underground stream. A large portion of Texas, especially in the Hill Country is one of two kinds of limestone. Limestone is a soft carbonate rock, that can be easily dissolved with a weak acid solution, such as slightly acidic rainwater. over millions of years this denudation of the earth by rainwater and other weathering and erosive processes, has helped carve out some of this topography, along with similar underground process creating caverns, some of which collapse, adding to the undulating landscape.
The second half of the equation, tectonic uplift, happens when two or more tectonic plates, which "float" on top of the Earths molten mantel collide or subduct. While the uplift in this region of the world is tens of millions of years old and is rather complicated to explain. In very basic terms, two plates crashed into each other about 80 million years ago. This collision pushed some of the rock up to form mountains and some was sub-ducted (pushed under the other plate), where it melted and in some cases formed domes of molten rock, which eventually cooled and formed what is called a Batholith. Enchanted Rock is a prime example of a Batholith formation. Put all that together and you have the Texas Hill Country!
While the Hill Country isn't one specific place as I came to learn, the Hill Country State Natural Area is. This incredible 5,369 acre preserve located in Bandera county, is in my opinion the definition of, "Texas Hill Country". It was opened to the public in 1984, after the land was donated to the State in parcels from 1976-1982. The beauty of this place is that it is NOT a state park, it is a state natural area. This means that the primary focus of the state is the preservation of the land in its current and natural state. If you are looking to drive up, pitch a tent and have a few beers with your buddies under the stars, while you peruse FaceBook and Instagram your "camping" excursion, this is not the place for you, because there is NOTHING out here and I LOVED it!
You won't find cell service, toilets, or electricity out here. You might be able to find water if you really know where to look and you don't mind drinking scummy hot water from a horse trough, but it's best to assume that if you need it, bring it, because they don't have it.
The topography starts off pretty easy and typical for central Texas, rocky and dry, with mixed flora, but with over 40 miles of trails and about 2,000 feet of elevation change, there is a trail for every personality and skill level. True to our personalities and general state of grumpiness, due to all the stress of getting busy with our business, Sara and I chose the "most difficult" trails. I should mention that the difficulty rating for the trails at Hill Country SNA are a bit different. The ratings start at, easiest, then go to, moderately difficult, and then MORE difficult to MOST difficult. It's important to pay attention to the last two, as there is a significant difference in difficulty between the two.
These two pictures are a good example of a "most difficult" trail. There is a couple hundred feet of elevation change from the bottom of this trail to the pass at the top.
The view at the top was well worth the extra effort though.
Because we at the Artist Couple are adventurers, we only backcountry camp. The HCSNA offers 3 sites for primitive backcountry camping. There is the "wilderness" area, which offers the highest elevation for camping in the area and a more Texas type experience. Then there is "butterfly Springs", which only has one site to camp, so if you want to be sure no one is going to cramp your style, this is the site for you. Last but not least, there is, "Hermit's Shack", which is where we stayed for the weekend. This natural area used to be a working Texas ranch and as such, there are several buildings, barns, and feeders scattered throughout the area. Hermit's Shack gets its name from a small tin building on the site, as evidence of days gone by.
One thing that should be on every good backpackers mind, when doing multi-day trips through the Hill Country in the spring, is flash flooding. The awesome power of water should never be underestimated and absolute respect for flash flooding in the Hill Country is paramount. If there are heavy rains in your forecast, I would highly recommend not camping at Butterfly springs or Hermit's Shack, as there are no less than 4 dry creek crossings and no alternative routes in a flash flood situation. Sara and I did encounter some rain at night, but we were very fortunate that the severe thunderstorms that brought flooding, hail and damaging winds were all around us and not on top of us. It did make for a spectacular symphony of aural sensations, with the gentle patter of rain against our thin vinyl tent laying down a hypnotically soothing rhythm, while epic displays of electrical discharge arrogantly touted their superior speed, as soul splitting cracks of superheated gas angrily roared in their wake.
On our only full day in the HCSNA, we got in as much therapy as we could. Some people pay to talk to people, others take medication, Sara and I require a healthy dose of fresh air in an analog state and I don't think I could have picked a better place to go. The area was pristine; cell service and roads, nonexistent; topography, challenging; views, expansive; it was everything we could have asked for and the weather was perfect to boot!
In case you didn't know, the Prickly Pear Cactus is the official plant of the State of Texas, and there were no shortages of them throughout the SNA. Spring is a special time of year in Texas I'm coming to discover, as everything blooms into a spectacular display of budding color!
The Prickly Pear wasn't the only thing blooming. Several other species of Cacti along with a plethora of wildflowers were on display for your viewing pleasure. Those pink flowers have the most spectacular coloration and designs, don't they!
Here's Sara drawing a super cute cactus I found. Sometimes you just need, ME time, and that's perfectly okay.
One thing I have never encountered in the wild, while backpacking or hiking is succulents! These little guys were only about 1-1.5" tall, but sooo supple and cute! They were definitely one of the highlights of my weekend, because I'm from the land of everything frozen for what seems like almost all the time and don't get anything even close to this growing outside back in Wisconsin.
The trails in this park are in my opinion, are some of the best I've ever hiked. Not because of their quality, but because of their purity and commitment to the ideology behind the creation of the SNA. There is everything from single -track hiking only trails, to double-track hike, bike, ride, trails, but how they cut through the landscape and wind through it, is a testament to the commitment the rangers have to the land for it, “to be kept far removed and untouched by modern civilization, where everything is preserved intact, yet put to a useful purpose.” - Louise Merrick (land donator)
One last thing that I am absolutely fascinated with in Texas, is the dramatic biotype changes in what I feel is such a small change in elevation. Can you believe that this lush green picture above, is from the same exact area as all the other pictures?!? What was once arid, rocky and dry is now, rich, lush and green. Absolutely fascinating. I can't wait for our backpacking trip to Big Bend, to experience one of the only places in the world where you can find flora from northern temperate and southern subtropical regions along with eastern and western plants all cohabiting.
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The Artist Couple
Tuesday's are no work, no school day in this relationship and you know what that means, hiking day! On our last hike, we had ended where the trail crossed over a County highway, so picking up where we left off was easy-peasy. The trail-head started out in the lowlands and prairie of the Eagle segment and had been lightly dusted with snow the night before. I was surprised that the only tracks on the trail were from field mice and the coyote's that pursued them, and with these tracks as our guide, we set off for, "Site 2."
Right around the time that the last Coyote tracks wandered off the trail and into the distance, the trail transitioned from vast prairie to dense wooded forest. I love the diversity of terrain that the Ice Age Trail has to offer and it's always a treat when we transition from one environment to another.
We were a little more than halfway through our hike when the forest was abruptly torn in half by a set of railroad tracks. It's kinda fun finding random stuff like this in the middle of nowhere, there was even a tiny little railroad crossing for snowmobiles and hikers. It was not something I was expecting to find, but it did offer a nice element to the photo's we took of the scenery. I've noticed my S100 renders color very different than my D700 and as such it almost gives a hand-colored look to the train tracks photo.
It was about a mile or so after the train tracks, that we started encountering some decent sized Kettles, which is always a good time when there is solid ice under a light dusting of snow, hahah. Luckily we have some good gear that has never let us down and it came through for us yet again. Right before you get to site 2 if you are heading West on the trail, you will pass through a beautiful low lying Oak Savanna. Once on the other side, climb up the drumlin and follow the sign to your left that says, "Site 2." The site sits atop the drumlin and offers a spectacular view of a low-lying area complete with stream running through it!
The view was so spectacular, that we decided to put off more miles and simply slow down to enjoy life. Few things in life are this great, an amazing trail that offers spectacular views and a challenging life goal, having the time to dedicate to being out hiking, being able to start a fire in the dead of winter and cook a meal in the middle of nowhere, and most importantly being able to do all this with a person who shares the same passion about it, as I do.
We ended up losing track of time and stayed a little too late, but as luck would have it, the overcast sky dissolved into the night and a bright winter moon illuminated our path back through the sleeping prairie, to the trailhead whence we came.
See more photos from this hike and others in the Gallery and please check out our Etsy store!
Sara and Topher
The past few weeks have been brutal here in Wisconsin. With windchills as low as -60*F, no one has even considered going outside for a considerable amount of time. The deep freeze has finally broken and Sara and I have been eager to get out on the trail, so the other day we did just that. It was a beautiful day and at a balmy 30*F, it felt like the tropics compared to what it had been (funny how relative temp is). We decided to pick up where we had left off and this brought us to the southern part of the Scoopernog section of the Ice Age Trail, heading south. It had snowed just a few days before and what a treat it was hiking through the forest. It was picturesque and beautiful; a perfect day to be in the woods. A few miles in we found a campsite for backpackers and decided to make a fire, cook lunch, and just enjoy what the day had to offer.
It's been a while since I started a fire out on trail and to be honest, I really haven't had to deal with starting a fire in the winter time, but I've learned a few things since the last hike and this time I made sure to collect a tinder bundle along the way, before I was going to need to start a fire. Sara helped out a ton and while I am usually teaching her little tricks I've learned from my time in the outdoors, we both are learning along the way.
I enjoy using only natural items for starting fires, it's a bit more challenging than using man-made objects and it's good practice incase you don't have anything else and you need to get a fire going. My only cheater item I always have with me besides my knife, is my trusty magnesium block and "flint." The Mg block is my go to, simply because it works and its reliable. you don't have to worry about it getting wet or breaking and as long as you don't lose it, it will work all the time, every time.
As it turns out, Sara is quite good at directing the spark onto the Magnesium and we had ourselves a nice hot fire in no time. After that, we put the food on to cook, warmed ourselves, and simply enjoyed the afternoon together. It was a wonderful and special time and I can't wait for the next one! More pictures of our adventures will be in the gallery. Thanks for reading!
This past Sunday Sara and I once again got out on the trail for an afternoon hike, on the Ice Age Trail. We had finished the Scuppernog segment on our last hike and it was now time for the Eagle segment, which took us through mostly low-lands and beautiful prairie. It was a nice day and thankfully wasn't too cold. Since this segment was mostly prairie we were able to cover a lot more ground than we had been previously. Overall, we completed about 10 miles in three hours, which is about double what we had been doing; hooray for progress! I was surprised at how much color and beauty the prairie had to offer, even in the dead of winter. The beautiful and vibrant Red-Osier Dogwood against a hazy blue winter's sky was quite the treat for our eyes during our hike. Right when I didn't think it could get any better it started snowing some of the biggest and fluffiest snowflakes I've seen all year! It really was a magical experience. Unfortunately, we only had our phones with us to attempt to capture the beauty, but it was more an exercise in futility than anything. I'll be uploading a few pictures to the gallery page anyways, just for documentation and for anyone who might be interested, but I apologize in advance for the low-quality images from this segment of the Ice Age Trail! As always, thanks for reading and check back often, as I will updating the site often!
*DISCLAIMER* consuming wild edibles can be extremely dangerous and potentially deadly. This post is not intended to give anyone the knowledge to consume wild edibles in any way shape or form. Now that we have that out of the way, Let's continue! :)
Lately, we have been on a big nature kick, even more so than usual and in the past two months we have casually completed about 20 miles of Wisconsin's amazing Ice Age Trail. During this time, we have both become more and more interested in what the world has to offer, while we are out on the trail. I (Topher), spent most of my life living in the countryside of rural Wisconsin and have always had an intimate relationship with nature. Over the years, I've collected a decent knowledge base pertaining to surviving in the wild, but my knowledge of wild edibles has always been lacking. Sara, being the awesome woman that she is, decided to surprise me with, Thomas S. Elias & Peter A. Dykeman's, "Edible Wild Plants." This is a good book in my opinion for anyone who is interested in learning about what plants are and aren't okay to eat in the wild. Seeing as how it is winter in Wisconsin right now, almost nothing is available to eat as far as wild edibles is concerned, but there was one plant that held out for us to try. The Staghorn Sumac is a small tree or shrub, that is common around the part of the state where we live now. It is easily identified when fruiting, by its fuzzy red fruit clusters at the ends of most branches. hidden inside of these dense fuzzy clusters, are dozens of small red fruits.
We decided to brew them into a tea after removing all of the individual seeds from the buds. Using a French press, we steeped the seeds in almost boiling water for about 15 minutes, before serving and enjoying. Staghorn Sumac has a bright lemony tartness with a mildly bitter finish, especially as it cools down from what I noticed. Sara says she didn't notice much bitterness, so I guess taste is subjective, but overall we both enjoyed the brew very much and we can't wait to try some fresh fall fruits this year!
Sara & Topher
We are a working artist couple based out of Austin, TX. This blog chronicles our life and artistic ventures, as we work to make the world and environment a little better every day.