Enchanted Rock

Saturday, January 19th, I awoke at my usual hour and sometime thereafter I thought to text our Scoutmaster, Steve Kral, with wishes for a safe trip as our troop headed to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area to camp over the long weekend. I mean, if you cannot join them, you can at least wish them well. I sent my wishes for safe travels and mentioned that I was sorry not to be going since Karen would not be home and it was her expected presence that inclined me to forgo the trip.

Just a minute later, Steve called to tell me that there had been a few last-minute cancellations and that if I really wanted to join them, there would be room!

I had a couple of minor errands to accomplish before I left but by 11:00 am, I was ready to leave for Enchanted Rock. Or, so I thought until I remembered that I did not have my mess kit. As it turned out, I spent 20 minutes hunting for that because it was not in its usual place. When I finally did find it, it turned out to be very nearly where it should have been but just far enough away that I missed it - Argh!

Then, I hit the road, in my class A uniform, complete with campaign hat, headed for parts South. I made it all the way to Grapevine before I realized I had forgotten my sleeping cot - well, really, it is one of those so-called “zero gravity” camping recliners but, ever since I broke my back two years ago, I find the zero-g position far more conducive to a good night’s sleep than a flat cot or ground pad. Were I going for just one night, I’d have skipped it but knowing that I would have to drive home on Monday, I elected to ensure more restful repose. I turned around, adding nearly 30 minutes to my journey.

With my recliner in the van, I resumed my Southward trek. The trip to Enchanted Rock took me through many smaller routes - no Interstates - and I enjoyed a good look at smaller, more rural Texas than we usually see from Flower Mound and the Metroplex.

A view from the "back" side of the rock, across one of the large ponds that are found on that side.

Because I got rather a later start than I had intended, I arrived at the campsite just after 4:00 pm, just a few feet behind Alex Cobb, who also drove down late. We got checked in and braced for a chilly afternoon as the wind was quite stiff and cold but shortly after we began to pitch our tents, it died down and the high-50s temperature seemed downright balmy.

The highlight of Saturday’s activity was the “night hike” to the summit of the Enchanted Rock. This formation is reminiscent of Ayers Rock in the Australian outback. It is a huge dome of pink granite that rises 451 feet from the surrounding limestone karst of the Llano Uplift.

The ‘Rock’ is closed after sunset unless one is escorted by Park Rangers and we were lucky enough to be there for one of these night hikes. The way up to the summit is rather steep but the Moon was just shy of full and there was plenty of light to make the way visible. I, of course, moved slowly, both from being out of shape and from the pain in my left ankle. Fortunately, I had remembered to bring my hiking staff. The extra point of contact afforded me greater stability, especially when using my left ankle and also provided extra leverage when needed. While slow, I was not the slowest climber on the hke and I reached the summit not long after the rest of the troop after climbing the equivalent of about forty flights of stairs.

Being atop that great granite dome with the cold wind whipping past and the bright Moon shining down was fantastic. Recent rains had filled some of the ‘weathering pits’, depressions in the rock, creating the vernal pools for which the rock is justly famous. These fascinating features form fantastic ecosystems, each a microcosm of the large World about it.

The pools are home to ‘fairy shrimp’, tiny branchiopod crustaceans that hatch when the pools fill and lay eggs that can survive drying out until the next wet spell. They are also home to a rare species of quillwort (Isoetes lithophila), a primitive vascular plant related to clubmosses

A vernal pool, atop sthe summit, reflects to nearly-full Moon.

As the pools dry up, they host a series of succession communities, replaying in a single season the sort of dynamics usually requiring years or decades.

Dust and debris collect it the weathering pits and eventually, larger plants, such as prickly pear cacti, take root. Over time, these may give way to even larger plants as more and more organic matter accumulates. Eventually, scrubby trees may sprout - mostly the local live oaks. It seems quite odd to see an oak growing out of what looks to be solid granite.

The descent from the rock was, if anything, more arduous than the ascent but we all returned safely to our campsite and a hearty dinner sometime after 8:00 pm.

Usually, when I am camping with our troop, I have some specific responsibility, such as being grubmaster/cook for the adult patrol. This time, however, joining in at the last minute, I was free of such duties. The role of grubmaster was ably filled by David Woehler, who prepared a delicious chili-and-corn pone dinner. Having not eaten since breakfast, I found the food all the more delicious.

After clean-up we enjoyed some casual breeze-shooting.Earlier in the day, I had mentioned to Doug Madhak an unusual animal of which I had spotted three evidently road-killed but surprisingly intact specimens on a half-mile stretch of road not far from the Rock. I had said these critters looked like small raccoons but their tails were longer and bushier and their bodies were far more blonde than any raccoon I have ever known.

 As we were lounging around our small campfire, Doug came up and said, “You know that animal you were talking about earlier? There’s one over in the older Scout’s campsite.” He led the way and, with his flashlight, illuminated the beast on a limb above the mess area. I had never seen this animal alive for certain and had not been previously aware of its existence.

It was clearly a member of the procyonidae (the raccoon family); its gait was unmistakably plantigrade. Yet it was not a coati or a coatimundi, or other procyonids (e.g. potos, kinkajous, olingos; most of those are found in Central and South America anyway) I was familiar with. Dave Jansen whipped out his phone and quickly identified the animal as Bassariscus astutus - the Texas ringtail - also known as the miner’s cat. Its scientific name means “Little foxlike” (Bassariscus) and “clever/astute/sly (astutus). It does indeed look rather catlike save for its huge, fluffy tail.  It is also distinctly reminiscent of a fox. Its closest relative is the intriguingly-named “cactomistle” of Central America (Bassariscus sumichrasti). Together, their closest relatives are the raccoons (Procyon lotor, P. cancrivorous, and P. pygmaeus).

A Texas ringtail (Bassariscus astutus).

The creature is nocturnal and despite its retiring ways, it seemed nonplussed by the presence of a gathering crowd. In fact, it ‘haunted’ the older Scouts’ campsite all night long, making things a bit tense for anyone sleeping in a hammock, even though the ringtails weigh only 2-3 lbs at adulthood.

After viewing this fine specimen of nature’s magnificent diversity, we repaired to our tents for a cold night’s sleep. The overnight low was slated for the high 20s and I was snug in my reclining chair with two pads and a comforter under my sleeping bag and two more comforters over me. Then, lying in the tent, brightly lit by the nearly-full Moon, my thoughts returned to my dreams of the night before.

Sunday started off with a cup of fresh-perked coffee followed by a hearty breakfast, ably prepared by Mr. Woehler. Later, Mr. Lee and I ran into Fredericksburg to pick up some dish soap at the local market. When we returned, it was time for our midday hike around the rock. As is my wont, I brought up the rear owing to my low speed, imposed by, among other limitations, my bum ankle. Although it is far better off than it was prior to being fused five years ago, the vigorous activity of the night before and morning left it complaining of overuse.

The Hill Country is beautiful in its own unique way and the great pink granite mountains add their own special touches. The trail, was mostly fairly smooth and comfortable, being cut from the decomposed granite that naturally surrounds the Rock. Elsewhere, they truck the stuff in to make trails, so suitable a surface is it. We saw much flora but hardly any fauna, save a hawk and a vulture or two.

There was a surprising amount of surface water - many springs and ponds - probably because the water cannot soak in far before it hits solid granite, putting the water table quite near the surface.The water, in turn, supports a distinctive flora not found widely throughout the Hill Country, as well as much that is, such as Texas, live oaks (Quercus fusiformis; aka the escarpment live oak) and prickly pears (Opuntia spp.; hard to discriminate which is which when they are not in flower). There were also specimens of tasajillo cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis), which is unusual in having woody stems along with its more obvious succulent parts.

A specimen of Cylindropuntia leptocaulis, also known as "Christmas cactus."

To wrap up our circuit of the Rock, we scaled to summit from the opposite way as we did the night before. This involved hiking a ways up a dry creek bed/trail and then picking our way through a boulder field before hitting the windswept granite of the face of the Rock By daylight, the vernal pools were more apparent and their unique ecosystems more easily appreciated.

The higher we rose, the windier and cooler it became. While the weather was perfect for hiking - neither too warm nor too cool, hovering in the mid-60s, the windy summit made one glad of extra layers or a carried-along jacket. While Messrs Kral, Madhak, and company went with the older Scouts to view the caves on the back of the rock, several others, including Messrs Lee, Jansen, and me, stayed at the summit, enjoying the view.
Some of our Scouts and Scouters, surmounting the summit of Enchanted Rock.

Again, the hike down was more challenging to creaking joints than the hike up - predictably, our youth seemed unfazed by the declivity. Then it was time for dinner, a roasted chicken dish courtesy of Mr. Kral, who roasted the meat over the wood campfire. For dessert, there was Dutch oven cobbler that was reported to be fully cooked. Having filled myself on the chicken, I had to forgo firsthand data collection.

Another highlight was a sort of Iron-Chef competition between the three patrols in attendance. The 'secret ingredient' for the contest was chicken. Alex Cobb, Chad Kral, and I had the honor to judge this event. On offer were chicken burgers, chicken tacos, and grilled strips of chicken breast. After carefully evaluating each entry, the judges conferred and agreed upon the rankings. The chicken burgers won the Cordon Bleu for being innovative (they included spinach, which worked surprisingly well) and well-seasoned. The Cordon Rouge went to the chicken tacos. These were a fully-palatable option that lacked only a certain seasoning to be truly outstanding. The Cordon Blanc went to the chicken strips which were roasted to near jerky-like consistency.

The judges advocate running such a contest at every campout to inspire our Scouts to ever-greater culinary accomplishment!

Climbers on the back face of Enchanted Rock.

The night, while quite cool, was warmer than the previous one and almost completely clear. This made for exquisite viewing of the full lunar eclipse at 9:30 pm. Being some 70-or-so miles away from both Austin and San Antonio, the night sky was much freer of extraneous light than we modern urban dwellers typically expect. The fullness of the Moon initially made this distinction moot, the Moon being so bright itself, but as the eclipse progressed, the darkness became increasingly significant. Messrs. Cobb, Rutherford, and Kral the younger each borough telescopes of increasing sophistication which afforded all who wished a close up look at the night sky and the disappearing lunar sphere. At totality, the darkness was nearly absolute, in striking contrast to the brightly lit night of mere minutes before.

The eclipse at totality, seen through Mr. Ritherford's large reflector telescope.

Because the temperature barely dipped below freezing Sunday night, I slept more comfortably, at least as far as my ears and nose were concerned. Tired as I was by this point, it was fairly easy to ignore most of the nocturnal coyote conversation. I awoke around 4:00 am, thinking it must be dawn, so bright was my tent. The eclipse having fully passed, the Moon was once more shedding its abundant light.

Despite the best intentions, we slept until sunrise Monday morning, rising to more fresh-perked coffee and a Mountain Man-style breakfast created, again, by Mr. Woehler. Striking camp took rather longer than we had hoped but, as always, we get that done too. When they were done with their own gear, the older Scouts assisted the younger ones.

The drive home was delightfully uneventful and I was home by 4:00 pm.

I am grateful for my association with Troop 451 and for the friends I have made through that connection. We cannot know how our lives will turn out; we do not even know what the next moment brings, let alone the next hour, day, or year. Whatever the future has in store, we can face it more confidently, secure in the company and loving support of family and friends.


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