Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hill Creek Run

I traveled to Belgium for a sad occasion, my dad's funeral, and helping my brother sort through the associated formalities. I decided even before boarding my flight that I would use my jogs to revisit some of the places with happy memories associated with my dad, many of which involved hikes around my old neighborhood and the forests south of town. While I could easily reach many of the places, the High Fen (Hohes Venn, Hautes Fagnes) required some transportation. I toyed with the idea of repeating a trail run I had done in November 2010 starting at Baraque Michel and following the Hill Creek valley back to Eupen and which I had done quite a few times as a hike. Some segments I had done in the company of my parents, too. It requires a ride to Baraque Michel, which my brother Arnulf provided last time around and 2-3 hours for the run.

This time, I did not want to impose on Arnulf and looked into taking the St. Vith bus (TEC 394). The first bus leaves at 7:05 and gets to Baraque Michel only 20 minutes later, that way I would be back in town around 10:00, ready for another day of working through funeral preparations, estate questions and a visit to my mom.

I was at the bus station just as the bus pulled in and boarded along with a mixed bag of students heading to school ("where?" I thought since when I attended high school, kids from the south of the German-speaking region came north to go to school) and folks heading for work and paid €3.40 for my fare. By the time we were out of town, the bus was about 2/3 full. 15 minutes later I signaled for a stop at Baraque Michel, the only passenger to get off at this currently unpopulated place.
As the bus rolled to a stop I had noticed the red flag hanging limply from its pole, indicating that access to the fen was barred due to high fire danger. Disregarding the warning I climbed the fence next to the padlocked gate. After only a couple of minutes of jogging I came across another barrier, this time prohibiting access to the board walk crossing the bogs. Again, I ignored the prohibition and continued. Soon, the boardwalk was in very poor shape, much rougher than when I had proceeded 20 months earlier. I thought to myself that I could not understand how the park management would not maintain such a resource to the tourism industry of the area, as the park attracts thousands of visitors from near and far. Only when I got to the southern end of the board walk did a sign opposite to the one I had ignored at the beginning of this section reveal the reason for the dramatic deterioration: last year's fire had finished off the already compromised structure. Since the living vegetation left and right of the trail had been left mostly unscathed I had not paid too much attention to the marks of fire on what was left of the boards. I now also remembered big stacks of lumber and a backhoe near the start of my run, likely to be used to rebuild the structure.

"No Trespassing" 
Right at the beginning I came past one of the spots I had visited several times with my dad and of which he had told us stories, the Kreuz der Verlobten (“Cross of the Fiancees”). The location epitomizes past dangers of the area, especially during the long and dark winter months.

Hiking the fen in 1965 and 2012

As it was, the initial 4 km of the run were slow going. The impossibility of using the boardwalk made me follow the ruts left by the backhoe track right next to it and within less than ten minutes of starting I had wet feet. The ground was extremely uneven, with grassy humps on spongy bog ground. To avoid sinking in, I hopped from hump to hump, occasionally crossing Hill Creek. Gradually I descended along with the valley that had been carved into the plateau. The bog grasses became interspersed with copses of trees and bushes, some showing signs of the fire that had raged here during the previous spring. I recall reading about it in the online version of my hometown newspaper and thinking at that time that the reporting sounded over-hyped. Indeed, judging from the cover of yellowed grass which must have grown after the blaze, the fire had not managed to kill the plants and even the shrubs and trees looked like they had survived.

The trail followed the creek and surviving pieces of boardwalk as well as the bog landscape had a slight coat of frost. I finally reached the end of the blocked area and was welcomed by better trodden trails and actual newly constructed and freshly overhauled sections of boardwalk. My pace quickened considerably from this point on. Still, I needed to keep watching my step as the trail started to become a jumbled mess of roots of the adjacent trees and jagged rocks protruding from them. I did not want to take a tumble and have my head, elbow or knew make an acquaintance with those.

I'd rather not stumble and tumble coming down this trail

Hill Creek began to resemble a real stream with boulders of all sizes and the sound of rushing water became the soundtrack for my trip as soon as the trail moved closer to the creek. However, as soon as the trail veered away from the stream, the rushing was swallowed by the trees and replaced by bird songs.

I ran through sections of coniferous and deciduous woods or rather forests. I recall that when I took Lynn on our first trip to Belgium, she commented on the fact that the woods had been planted and trees were standing in neat rows. Here, the firs and beech and oak trees did not give that impression any longer but this may have been only because I was traversing stands of mature trees. In fact, some of the firs at the bottom of the valley must have been measuring 40-50 m. They reminded me of the majestic conifers I traversed near Portland, OR a few years back. Still, numbered white cornerstones divided what I believe to be forestry plots and they contained trees of the same species giving them definitely a cultivated feel.

Eventually, the single track trail turned into a forestry road. I tried to keep to areas where leaf or needle litter dampened my step. About three quarters through my run I came past the Hill Creek dam and tunnel. Part of the water is being diverted to help fill Eupen's Weser Reservoir (Wesertalsperre). During the construction in the 1950s, several workers perished because of a flash flood.
Hill dam to the left and entry to Hill tunnel to the right

Clear cut just south of the Hill dam. The swimming hole may be straight
ahead by the small group of trees.

Just past the dam I had a bad surprise: the entire bottom of the valley had been clear-cut. Just a couple hundred meters below the dam is a nice bathing hole where the creek eddies around some huge boulders. It used to be hidden under some crippled firs. The water was really too cold to stay in for very long and horse flies and mosquitoes made lounging on the boulders difficult but when on a long hike on a hot summer day it promised relief. I guess now in the absence of trees it would be inviting sun bathers …

I noticed that about two thirds of the stretch between the dam and a favorite destination for Sunday walks, Schwarze Brücke (“Black Bridge”) had been logged. I checked in with a forester friend of mine who oversees another district in the area and he thought that the area had been logged because the trees were staring to be overly mature.

Die Schwarze Brücke, 1964 and 2012

I quickly covered the remaining short stretch to Eupen Kabel's pipe division, Wetzlaer Bad (the outdoor pool), and the edge of town and promptly ran into a familiar face. My cousin Christoph's wife Christiane. We exchanged a quick hello and promised to catch up after my dad's funeral.

During the entire run I dropped from a maximum elevation of 676 m at Baraque Michel to 264 m when crossing the Weser river in Eupen, climbing only about 96 m but now after 23 km I was facing the longest uphill of the trip, the steep climb to Bergkapelle, after which I had only about 500 m left, which were all downhill. Glad I decided to do this, awesome weather in gorgeous landscape with a lot of good memories.

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