Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hill Wanderung (Descente de la Helle) Trail Run

Today, my brother Arnulf is giving me a ride to Baraque Michel in the High Fen (Hohes Venn), a peat bog area between Eifel and Ardennes, surrounding the highest point of Belgium. From here, I am planning to run along the Hill, a creek descending from the highland fens and joining the Weser in Eupen. This is a classic day hike and there is much lore about the area, especially the fen.

Before motorized transportation, crossing the fen in winter on foot was a dangerous undertaking. Many wanderers lost their way in the fog or in driving snow, and many succumbed to exhaustion and exposure, even into the late 19th century. Small monuments and crosses attest to the locations where their remains were found, like those of the fiancées who on 21 January 1871 left Jalhay for the young woman's hometown Xhoffraix to retrieve their marriage license. They never made it and were found  after the snow melt kilometers apart.

My own family history is tied to crossing or rather not being able to cross the fen. When my great-grandfather Caspar Franken moved to the area from Cologne in 1878, he planned to check out Eupen and Malmedy and then decide where to set up his photography business. He visited Eupen and then took the stage coach for Malmedy. In the highlands, the coach could not pass due to deep snow and a storm and needed to return to Eupen. That sealed it, Caspar stayed, became a partner of the local photographer, married a local woman, eventually becoming a successful business man.

Even now every few years the odd group of hikers gets lost and triggers a search. In the early 1980s I had my dad drop me off at Baraque Michel at around 15:30 on Christmas Eve. That time, I did the trip on cross country skis. The start was eerie because the fresh snow cover and the thick fog created a  white backdrop, immaculate in its uniformity with the exception of my own tracks which vanished into whiteness a few steps behind me. It was an odd sensation, because I never quite knew whether my next step would be on level ground or down, because while the fen is quite flat, it is marbled with shallow creeks, old drainage ditches and peat pits. I knew that keeping a NE bearing, I would intersect with the edge of a forest. When the whiteness ahead turned first barely noticeably and then more strongly darker, I knew I had my landmark. The rest of the trip was pretty routine, and I made it back to town in about 4 hrs, mostly cutting my own track.

Today, thick snowflakes were falling out of a fog not as dense today as it had been during my xc-outing almost thirty years earlier.
Still smiling, just after being dropped off at Baraque Michel by my brother
The stretch across the fen is now covered with a boardwalk, to protect the bog from the feet of the thousands of hikers who come to enjoy this beautiful area. I recall that before, the trail was often badly eroded and flanked by almost bottomless bog holes. The boards were covered with 4-5 cm of snow, providing a soft running surface. Fortunately, it was not slick, the hazards came rather from missing boards or slanted sections, where the supports had sunk into the soft ground. I ran past the Cross of the Fiancées and past the officially marked spring of the Hill Creek. At a crossing, a sign indicated 20 km to Eupen.

At one point, a snow-covered sign indicated that the trail was blocked. A little farther down, a section of about 20 m of boardwalk was missing and I had to make my way gingerly through the bog.
Boardwalk to nowhere?
From then on, the Hill valley began to sink into the landscape, first very gradually, then more noticeably. Tree stands of birch and fir were now framing the creek.
Hill Creek, more clearly defined
The boardwalk ended and was replaced by a single track trail intermittently rocky and muddy. When the trail veered off river's edge, it was rather muddy.

When I crossed into a recently logged area, the trail turned into a morass which tried to cross as best as I could, hopping from half-submerged log to log. It did not help, after a few steps, there was nowhere to go but in. I promptly sank into the mire up to my right knee, but that was the only incident of this type. Whoever had questions on why every guide to the area recommends waterproof boots, here is the answer.
That's supposed to be the trail???
I put the wet stretch past me and was promptly  confronted with another challenge: the trail took a sharp left, up the steep slope of the river valley, by now at least 40 m deep. On top, a map explained that the creek-side trail was closed “for reasons of safety.” It did not specify if it was my safety or that of the landscape. I assume it was the latter's ...

To be kept safe? I agree.
On top of the slope, I followed the signs posted at regular intervals, crossing a beautiful oak grove and then another fen.

Oaks in the mist
Then the trail turned back to the valley. I had hoped for an end of the detour to oon, because when when I reached the intersection of various forestry roads and trails at the bridge near Porfays, new warnings of detours greeted me. On top of it, the directions were anything but easy to understand. I think I did not take the suggested route when I followed the forestry road towards Seveneiken. It was a pretty boring run and in hindsight I think I should have overruled the signs and stayed in the valley. Thus I ran on the long straight stretch towards Seveneiken. Very close to Seveneiken, after completing 15 km, I broke for a snack of an Eupen specialty, a raisin bread baked in the shape of a stylized human figure only at the time of St. Nicolas called Kloosman. This brought back the tale of a pair of siblings who got lost in the woods after heading home from a St. Nicolas party. They were sustained by their Kloosman until they were found cold, dirty and tired but otherwise  unharmed within a day or two.
Vaguely, behind the trees: Warrior's Bridge to the left
and Black Bridge to the right.
From Seveneiken it was only a short stretch to the confluence of Hill and Soor creeks, where the Black Bridge (Schwarze Bruecke) crosses Hill creek and Warrior Bridge (Kriegerbruecke) and . Instead of heading the rest of the road towards the public pool (Wetzlaerbad), I crossed the Hill and headed up my last climb, up towards Kanzel und Krone and then towards Binster Weg to my cousin Mark's house. All in all a great run!

No comments: