Hiker’s club on the move

Another of the casualties of COVID-19 is the Ouachita Mountain Hikers — but certainly not for long. The club’s Fall Hike Season was delayed, but hopes to begin Oct. 1.

According to the club’s website, omhikers.club, the board will meet later in September to consider COVID case numbers in Arkansas and decide how to go forward. But whenever the hikes resume, people will be ready. “Our big mission, first, is to have fun and be outdoors,” said Joy Linker, the club president. “Number two is to give back. We’ve adopted a 10-mile stretch of the Ouachita Trail, which goes from Pinnacle Mountain to Oklahoma, and we keep that 10-mile stretch groomed.”

The Ouachita Mountain Hikers group includes those of many different levels of hiking abilities. “We try to have something for everybody,” Linker said. “It becomes a wonderful group of friends. We’re some of the nicest people.”

Taking a break from the trail, the OMH club swings their legs from the porch at “Granny’s House” near Ponca (Newton County) along the Buffalo River.

The club began in Hot Springs in 1986. Paula Wallace is the only one of the 20 founding members still active. Linker has been involved for 14 years. “I was an active runner, but those days went by, and I saw in the newspaper that the group was meeting that Saturday,” she said, explaining how she got involved. “I just love the people and the organization. The club goes everywhere.”

Generally, from September until June, the club sponsors hikes of 10-12 miles on Thursdays and five-to-six miles on Saturdays. In addition to those regular hikes, there are three-day overnight events and week-long spring and summer getaways. Linker said the overnight hikes are very popular with 20-40 participants. Other hikes draw from 15-30 of the approximately 300 members. “Lots of people join for the two picnics and the Christmas party, events where we just get together,” Linker said. “Lots of the older hikers will still be members even though they don’t still hike.”

The membership fee is $5 per year, which helps provide food for the social gatherings and T-shirts. COVID-19 has provided at least some good news. Because of the shortened spring and fall hike seasons, the 2019-20 memberships will be carried forward to 2020-21. According to the website, “It is important that we get out for some exercise during this time … We are looking forward to the day our hiking family is back on the trails hiking together again. Until then, stay safe, stay healthy.”

Linker said the club’s membership has expanded from Hot Springs, Arkansas and beyond, with several members coming from Louisiana and Texas, especially for those extended hikes to places such as the Smoky Mountains. “Our club is a resource for anybody that enjoys hiking,” she said, adding that the website is a treasure trove of tools and information. 

Members range in age from the 50s and beyond. “We’ve got hikers hiking on their own in their 70s, and we’ve got one that’s 80 and still hunts and hikes in Colorado,” Linker said.

According to Linker, the best time to hike is the dead of winter when the leaves are off the trees. One of the group’s ways to give back is by helping with First Day Hikes on New Year’s Day at Lake Ouachita. The season ends, she joked, “when people say they’re getting chigger-bit and the snakes are out and it’s too hot.”

Most of the hard-core members have served in every capacity among the club’s leadership. Linker, 69, originally from San Francisco, spent most of her life in Northern California and Connecticut before visiting friends in Hot Springs Village in 2005. “Our first night here we said, ‘This is where we want to be,’” she recalled. “I bought a house the next day and we moved here in December 2006 when we fully retired.” After the move, she got involved in the hiking club pretty quickly.

“The first couple of years, you show up, get in a car, go someplace, get out and hike,” she said. “You didn’t know where you were–you just enjoyed the beauty. We go to every nook and cranny of Arkansas and surrounding states and it becomes an adventure. Then you become a leader.”

She delights in telling the story of one of the group’s hikes at Petit Jean Mountain. “A Boy Scout group was coming up behind us and asked us, very politely, ‘Do you mind us going ahead of you?’ thinking that we’d be slow,” she said. “We just smiled and said, ‘Go ahead.’ A quarter-mile up the trail, the little kids are falling off and we passed them. “We may be slow, but we get there.” 

Visit omhikers.club or their facebook page, Ouachita Mountain Hikers, and ask to join the group for updates on upcoming hikes.

Donna Stephens