Homer's Travels: Walking With Poles At Indian Cave State Park

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Walking With Poles At Indian Cave State Park

One thing I did not do on my last Camino was walk with trekking poles.  When I hike at home I usually carry a single pole.  That pole, a long, straight tree cutting I picked up on the way to the punch bowls in 2003 or 2004 (before Homer's Travels) has been carried on every nature hike since then.  When I decided to do the Camino I seriously considered taking it with me but I decided is would be a hassle to ship, and I would've hated to lose it, so it stayed behind and I walked the Camino pole-less.  I think my knees and ankles have never forgiven me.

For Camino 2013 I will be taking my trekking poles.  I originally bought a cheap pair of SwissGear poles (made buy the Swiss Army Knife people) for snowshoeing.  They haven't had much use but that will change.

Why use trekking poles?  That's a question I asked myself for a while.  After walking the Camino pole-less I now realize that they have a place in my hiking inventory.  Here's why:

  • Increased stability.  When you use trekking poles they turn your arms into a third and fourth leg.  I discovered this early on with my wooden hiking pole.  I used it to help me balance as I crossed a river and was amazed how much more stable and easy it was to step from stone to stone.  This not only adds stability while crossing streams but also over rough, uneven terrain.  There were a few places along the Camino when you go down steep, gravel covered inclines where some poles would have been a godsend.
  • Decreased stress on the legs.  When used properly, poles can reduce the strain you put on your legs, specifically the knees and ankles, by taking some of the weight off your legs and transferring it to your arms and upper body.  This is what your legs will thank you for.
  • Upper body participation.  When hiking what are your arms doing?  Usually they are swinging at your side and bloating up from the blood settling into your hands and fingers.  In other words, they are not contributing anything to your hike.  When you use poles your arms and upper body take some of the weight off your legs and participate in the hike.  They also don't bloat up and get stiff.  A fully participating body is a happy body.
As I hinted above, there is a proper way to use trekking poles and, after watching a few YouTube tutorials, I went out to train with my poles.  I adjusted the length of the poles per the tutorials (your elbows should be bent at a 90° angle).  To train properly I needed some elevation change so I went to the nearest park with both distance and elevation, Indian Cave State Park.

I've been to Indian Cave quite a few times - at least once a year since I moved back to Nebraska (You can check out my mentions of Indian Cave here).   The past few times I have tried to do a twelve mile loop but I have never been successful.  I wasn't successful this time either but I did manage to make it to a trail that I've kept missing on my prior attempts.  (I didn't take pictures on this hike but you can see pictures of Indian Cake State Park from my other hikes here.)

It was a cold morning when I reached the start of the trail #5.  Temperatures were around 9°F (-13°C). I started down the trail using the poles as the tutorials instructed. Then I took a wrong turn.  The park map has gotten less and less accurate as time has gone by.  Every time I go hiking there I run into a new, unmarked, unmapped junction.  Usually I have figured out the right way but this time I made a mistake and ended up bypassing a mile or two of trail.

Missing this trail turned out to be a good and bad thing.  The bad was that the trail I bypassed passes by a campsite that I plan to camp in someday and I wanted to check it out.  No real biggy since I will have many chances to check it out before I start my camping training.  The good was I had enough energy to add another small loop at the end.  I'd wanted to do this loop for a while but was usually too wiped to do it and the loop had always been sacrificed.   This time I felt up to it and my legs felt great (thank you poles).

The loop (stating at the junction of trails #2, #3, #6, and #8, heading up trail #2 before circling back to the junction on trail #3) passes by the "Half-Breed" cemetery.  The park once housed a trading post/fort.  Land in the area was set aside to house the homeless offspring of the French traders and their Native American wives.  The now defunct town of St. Deroin was established there in 1853.  There are two cemeteries in Indian Cave State Park.  The larger, well maintained one is surround by grass and farm land.  The other cemetery, the half-breed cemetery is overgrown and located on the top of a ridge surrounded by forest with an awesome view of the Missouri River.  There is only evidence of two stones (one broken in three pieces and repaired by the park service, the other only the base remaining) but I assume that vandalism and theft did away with many others.  If I had to be buried in the park, I would pick the half-breed cemetery for the beautiful location.

I followed the trail past the cemetery to some reconstructed buildings of old St. Deroin.  I looked for another trail marked on the map but couldn't find it so I followed a road instead to a lookout platform and trailhead #3.  Trail #3 took me back to the junction and I took trail #6 back to the car.  After I-don't-know-how-many-tries I finally finished that loop.

The poles performed as advertised   My knees and ankles felt a bit better (and still do a couple days later).  My arms are a little rough but they are not as bad as I expected. I was able to get in the proper rhythm very easily.  It felt natural.  The only adjustment I had to make was to shorten the poles slightly.  The hike was a good test of the poles.  I ended up doing 10.59 miles (17 km) with 3,193 feet of vertical (973 m).  This vertical, of course, was not a continuous climb but a series of ups and downs totaling 3,193 ft.  It was still a good test.

I'll be doing more training hikes with my poles ... but I don't think I'll walk in the city with them.  I think walking with poles in the city would get too many weird stares.

Now I just need to figure out how to get the poles to France.  They can not be take as carry-on (unless you are invalid and need them to walk - not sure I meet that criteria).  How I get them there will have to wait for a future post ... when I figure out how it will be done.


  1. I'll admit, I love my hiking poles. Obviously, they're a life-saver on downhills, but I was also surprised as to how much they help going uphill. As I've often described it to people: it'd the difference between going up a staircase, and going up a staircase using the handrail.

    Do you think you'll stick with the inexpensive pair, or upgrade to something more advanced?

    1. GH: I'll be sticking witht he inexpensive ones for the Camino (expensive ones have been known to walk away on their own). For the AT I will likely look into a better pair.

  2. I wanted to do carry-on on my last Camino, so I bought poles when I started in Leon, and gave them to a pilgrim/personal trainer I met in Santiago. It cost me about 20 Euros, and since I was taking 6 different planes on this trip, I thought it was worth it. My blog from that trip is www.caminowanderings.blogspot.ca
    Darlene in toronto

    1. Darlene: Welcome to Homer's Travels. I too want to carry on my bag (My bag was lost on my first Camino). I have a few other items besides poles that the TSA are not happy about (scissors, knife, nail clippers) so I am looking at other options like mailing the offending objects to the start of my Camino. Checking them seperately is a backup. I'm still in the information gathering stage.

  3. I used to watch nature videos of people hiking with poles and found it confusing. Thanks for sharing why they're so helpful! It would be worth it for avoiding that painful hand bloat alone!

    1. Autumn: They are helpful ... if not a little confusing looking. Glad I was able to teach you something new :-)

  4. When I was new to trekking and camping, I thought hiking poles are just aesthetic accessories. Little did I know that i was making a big mistake. I was introduced to hiking poles when my sister gave me one for my birthday. She's an avid backpacker and she knows I'm not keen on owning these sticks. Just to please her, I brought her gift with me and tried using it. Wow! It was incredible! It seems I had someone to lean on to. Those poles were lightweight and kept me balanced since my backpack was so heavy. Now, i can't leave without my trekking poles and you shouldn't, too! For more here's the link http://myoutdoorslife.com/gear/camping-and-hiking/best-hiking-poles.html