Monday, August 19, 2019

RIB Part 5: Grace to Kooskia

Note: This post is the fifth update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). Links to previous installments are below:
Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff
Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab

Part 3: Kanab to Torrey
Part 4: Torrey to Grace

Whew! So much has happened in the last month. Leaving Grace, I made the long, hot crossing of the Snake River Plain, climbed up into the Pioneer and Sawtooth ranges, and crossed the massive wilderness complex of central Idaho. Here are some of the highlights:

Second Stage Complete: As you may recall, the RIB consists of three distinct chunks: The Arizona Trail (AZT), my homemade route through Utah and southern Idaho called the Deseret Hiking Route (DHR), and the Idaho Centennial Trail (ICT). Really, the only "filler" section of the DHR is the lowlands that separate the Wasatch from the multitudinous mountain ranges of south-central Idaho. Of course, when I went through this hot and dry environment, temperatures reached triple digits and misery abounded. Water was scarce and my pack heavy, but I received some critical water information from the helpful local BLM office, which made my crossing possible. Although unpleasant, these sort of filler sections invariably pop up on any country-spanning hike - it's not dissimilar to, say, the Great Divide Basin on the CDT or the state of Pennsylvania on the AT. It's best to grit your teeth and make quick work of the crappy part, knowing that there's abundant beauty ahead.

Returning to the mountains, I traversed the underappreciated Pioneer range along with its more famous cousin, the Sawtooth Range. These ranges were a perfect finish to an amazing route - overall, the DHR is probably the best long route I've ever done. I'll have much more to say about it in some sort of wrapup after completing the whole RIB. In the Sawtooths, I joined the final stage of the RIB, the Idaho Centennial Trail.

An Orphan Trail: The Idaho Centennial Trail was designated by the state of Idaho in 1990, the year of, you guessed it, Idaho's statehood centennial celebration. Crucially though, it's only designated on a state level, and the state has little sway over the federal agencies that manage virtually all of the land the ICT passes through. Because the trail is unrecognized by its land managers, it has languished for years. Several sections of trail have been poorly maintained, abandoned entirely, or simply don't exist. The result is a hodgepodge of conditions - while a small minority is on good trail, most of the ICT is brushy, overgrown, covered in fallen trees, or an outright bushwhacky nightmare. This is particularly true in the wilderness areas, where trails are often unmaintained or maintained to a lower standard. These wilderness areas, though, are special in their own right.

The Frank Church and the Selway-Bitterroot are the two largest contiguous wilderness areas in the Lower 48 - and they're separated by a single dirt road. Taken together, they're nearly 300 miles of continuous wilderness. After my Sawtooths traverse, I left civilization behind for two full weeks, seeing people on only a couple of occasions. It was a deep, immersive experience - and one of the toughest bits of hiking I've ever done.

Ponderosa forests make for beautiful and easy travel. Unfortunately, they're few and far between
Take eight days of food and put it in your backpack and set off into the wilderness. Bushwhack your way through terribly overgrown brush, climb over and around massive fallen trees. Make less than half a mile an hour through a massive burn area. As if that's not enough, throw in five straight days of rain. Even when it's not actively raining, you're wearing your raincoat - because by brushing up against those overgrown, head-high plants, you knock all the raindrops off their leaves, drenching you. To top off this crap sundae (pun intended), throw in some lingering Giardia, so you feel miserable.

Remember the older-style tunnel car washes, where your car goes on the little track and moves through the foam-rubber washer arms and rotating bristle drums? Picture trudging through that, but 1) all day, 2) climbing over and under obstacles, 3) everything's prickly, and 4) your stomach is gurgling like a Yellowstone mudpot. Yeah, it wasn't fun. But at least there were wild raspberries!

Trail's under there. Good luck!
The Flip Side: Now that we've gotten the complaining out of the way, let's talk about the wonderful bits of the last few weeks. My resupply in the middle of the wilderness was a private residence - a homestead, really - that has been actively lived in for more than a century but a succession of owners. The current owners bought the property a couple years ago and beautifully restored the historic cabin. They offer tours of the place to the tiny handful of people who pass by - virtually all of them whitewater rafters floating the Salmon River. Not only did they accept and hold a box for me (no small thing, as the only vehicle access is via bush plane and the mail is delivered by said plane once a week), they generously fed me, let me take a shower, and even did laundry. The realities of life in the middle of nowhere is fascinating (everything is flown in; a gallon of milk ends up costing them twelve bucks when all is said and done), and the stories they told about the history of the homestead were riveting. 

There are four homesteads along that stretch of river, all similar in their remote nature. And of the four, I saw two of the homeowners as I passed by. Both invited me in for a cold drink. I was overwhelmed by their generosity, hearty spirit, and good will. 

Noah's Ark: The past month has yeilded an unprecedented number of cool animal interactions for me. Let's start with the important one: After six years, hundreds of nights in the backcountry, and close to ten thousand miles walked, I have finally, finally seen my first bear!  As a matter of fact, I saw two different bears within the course of a week. Sure, it required a crossing of the largest designated Wilderness area in the Lower 48, but still, I saw a bear. In both cases, the bears took off running as soon as they saw/heard me. Over the years, I've had dozens of encounters with off-leash dogs that were far more frightening than either of those bear encounters.

No bear encounter is complete without a terrible, grainy Sasquatch photo.
Speaking of apex predators, a couple days after the first bear sighting, I had another neat animal encounter. I was descending from a ridgetop into a river valley when I heard a faint howl of a wolf. A few minutes later, as I reached the valley floor, I saw him loping his way up the side of a ridgeline. I stood still and quiet, but he happened to look around and caught a glimpse of me. He regarded me with something like apathy for a split-second, then continued uphill with not a care in the world. As I passed by, I could hear him continuing his song - a remarkable baritone solo.

And as if that weren't enough, I saw one of the very rarest and most reclusive of critters - a wolverine. It happened in a flash, but I could see him running down the trail away from me - almost looking like a miniature bear, but with those distinct ring-like tail colorations, and shoulders lower than his hips. What a treat!

Finally, a coyote tailed me for about a half an hour through the sagebrush of southern Idaho. She kept her distance, barking like a dog every so often. When I first came across her, I saw at least one more coyote scamper into the bushes. She clearly wanted to know that she was there and meant business, but also clearly did not want to mess with me. I'm fairly confident that I came across her litter of pups and she was just trying to scare off the intruder. I tried blasting some heavy metal on my phone's speaker to get her to leave me alone, but to no avail. Apparently coyotes are more metal than Tom Araya's shrieks!

What's Next: I'm stuck in town for a couple days, as this last section completely destroyed my nearly brand-new shoes and a bunch of other gear. But as soon as my new stuff arrives, it's back at it - through a section I'm really looking forward to, the high mountain ridges of the Idaho-Montana border. And from there, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to Canada. Lord willing, I will be done by this time next month. See you then!

Friday, July 19, 2019

RIB Part 4: Torrey to Grace

Note: This post is the fourth update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Uah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). Links to previous installments are below:
Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff
Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab

Part 3: Kanab to Torrey

Utah is complete! When I planned out my route through Utah, I expected it to be beautiful. I expected it to be rewarding. But even my lofty expectations fell short. Simply put, the Utah section of the RIB is my favorite section of trail - ever. Sure, I'm almost certainly wearing rose-colored glasses, but nearly every step of the route featured something beautiful, meaningful, or challenging. I finished the high plateaus of southern and central Utah, walked the Wasatch through northern Utah, and followed the Bear River Range (the northernmost extent of the Wasatch) into southern Idaho.

Hooray, More Snow: When I got back on trail, I knew that I wasn't done with snow. Plenty had melted out, but I still expected to travel through a good amount of snowbound terrain. I wasn't wrong. My route through the central Utah followed Skyline Drive, a highly scenic dirt road that follows the crest of the Wasatch Plateau for more than a hundred miles. At least, that's the rumor. I didn't see too much of the road - just little glimpses here and there where the snow had already melted. Travel was slow, frustrating, and exceedingly beautiful. I was the only person up there. I traveled snow-covered ridges, made my way past massive cornices, and used every trick in the book to minimize the postholing. It was exhausting and exhilarating. With nobody up there and barely a trace of road to be seen, it felt like a vast, beautiful wilderness.

After six grueling days, I got to the road crossing and attempted to hitch down into town shortly before sunset. I'd been standing there for maybe fifteen minutes when a truck rolled by. And I recognized the faces! The truck slammed on the brakes and my friends Kyle and Kendra jumped out. They were headed down on a weekend foray to southern Utah and just happened to be driving by. After a brief moment of disbelief, we all piled into the truck and headed down the mountain to find a place to camp for the night. The next morning, they dropped me off in town. It really is a small world. Thank you guys!

The 2018-2019 snowpack smashed dozens of records and at least one unfortunate Jayco
Curveballs: Near Salt Lake City, I encountered more unique challenges. My route down into Spanish Fork Canyon passed through a massive, ugly burn area. The trail was completely obliterated. I did less than one mile per hour down the steep canyon, clambering over blackened fallen trees and leaping eroded stream beds. I knew this area had burned quite badly last fall, but the effects of the wildfire were so widespread that this was still the best way through, despite the misery. 

Near Ogden, the trail threw another curveball at me. I had planned to cross the Weber River and I-84 using the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, a trail system that runs just above the floor of the various Wasatch Front valleys. But, in my planning process, I failed to notice that this section of the BST hasn't actually been built yet. My only option was to walk the shoulder of another freeway through a full cloverleaf interchange. With bumper-to-bumper traffic and road construction in progress, this was a non-starter. So regretfully, I ended up taking an Uber across the bridge to where I could resume walking on not-a-freeway. I hated to break the line of continuous footsteps, but it's really not worth getting turned into paste on a busy freeway! Once the BST through this section is actually built, this won't be a problem. Someday.

Oh and I've walked a bunch of very faint, almost non-existent trail, but that's expected in this brave new world of underfunded public lands. 

Seems legit.
Riding the Roller-coaster: From Ogden northward, I faced a series of very long climbs. I dropped all the way from the crest of the Wasatch down to the valley floor - a five thousand foot continuous descent. From there, I climbed right back up to the crest again, followed by another drop, another climb, etc. While I excel at climbing, at least relative to my pace on the flats and downhills, this was still a lot. Add in triple digit heat, and the last few weeks made for some very tough miles. 

On one occasion, I planned to get up at 4am to beat the heat on a huge climb starting at very low elevation. But around 1:45am, I felt something on the foot of my sleeping bag. I instinctively kicked my feet upward, and a large rat flew four feet in the air! When the undissuaded critter returned a couple minutes later, I realized that sleep was a lost cause, I packed up and started hiking in the middle of the night. Not all was lost though, as I got to the top of Ogden Peak just as the sun was rising. What an amazing sight!

What's Next: This next section largely consists of "filler" miles. I am making my way through the hot and dry lowlands of southern Idaho to the Pioneer Range on the north side of the Snake River. And I get to do all of this in record-breaking heat. The challenges just keep coming. But this is exactly what I signed up for.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Oregon Coast Trail - Quick Tips

There's a relative lack of information out there on the Oregon Coast Trail. I did absolutely zero preparation for this hike (I went from "hey, maybe I should do the OCT" to boarding a Greyhound bus in about 36 hours), but even so, found very little information which is relevant to the experienced thru-hiker looking to bang out a quick and easy trail. Most of the information out there caters to day hikers and backpackers who have the luxury of planning for months. So, without further ado, a bunch of bullet points:

  • Location: Oregon Coast (Washington->California)
  • Length: 420ish miles
  • Surface: 40% beach, 40% pavement, 20% road
  • Difficulty: Easy-moderate
  • Land manager: Multiple, but spearheaded by Oregon State Parks 
When and How:
  • Although the trail is doable year-round, it's reputedly miserable during the rainy season (October-April). Most locals recommend doing it between Memorial Day and the end of September.
  • Southbound is the vastly superior choice. The coast is a very windy place in the summer, and the prevailing wind is northerly. The Coastal Sandblaster is much more tolerable when it's the back of your legs getting pounded, rather than your face. Plus the southern half is prettier and wilder, so things get better as you go. 
Purity: Almost nobody hikes every single step of the OCT, for the simple reason that it's sucky and dangerous sometimes. In particular, the tunnel near Haceta Head cannot be walked safely. Certain sections between Yachats and Florence should probably be hitched, as US 101 is full of blind curves and no shoulder. Same thing applies for a stretch between Humbug State Park and Sisters Rock. 

In addition to the safety concerns outlined above, most folks hitch some of the longer roadwalks - through Tillamook, Reedsport, and Coos Bay in particular. Boat ferry options are available for most of the major bays, but are often expensive for the solo hiker. I did all those long roadwalks because, I dunno, that's what I do. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that others follow in my footsteps unless it helps you sleep better at night.

Resupply: Don't worry about it. If you aren't picky, you can resupply in every single town. If you are picky, you may want to plan for the fact that Depoe Bay and Pacific City only have basic convenience stores. I never carried more than a day and a half of food. Do not plan your resupplies. Do not stress. When you're in town, just look up how far it is to the next town and double-check to make sure there's a grocery. Easy as that. There's a reason that nobody has published a resupply guide for the OCT.

Transportation: Transportation on the OCT is incredibly convenient, even if you're taking a flight/trail/Greyhound from out-of-state:
  • Northern terminus is near Warrenton, which is accessible via POINT bus. The POINT will drop you off at the Fred Meyer grocery store, from whence you will want to board the Sunset Empire Transportation District #15 bus and ride it to the KOA. From KOA, walk (or hitch) about 4 miles to the South Jetty of the Columbia in Ft Stevens State Park. 
  • Southern terminus is near Brookings, which is also accessible via POINT. The bus stop is about a 5 mile walk/hitch down from the trail's endpoint on the beach.
  • In addition, nearly every town along the OCT has at least sporadic bus service to surrounding communities. Useful if you need to get to a store/outfitter, or if you want to skip some of the longer roadwalks around the bays. There are multiple agencies and websites, depending on where you are, so just google it. One site I found particularly helpful is the NWConnector site, which provides unified resources for about the northern half of the trail. 
Navigation: There's really not "one map to rule them all" on this trail. You'll end up using a combination of the Oregon State Parks overview series, a random GPS track you found online, and probably Google Maps or similar. Certain segments of the trail are still being constructed, and sometimes you'll be pleasantly surprised with trail tread when you expected to have to walk a road or bushwhack. Generally, you are best off following the signs, when the signs conflict with your maps. I ended up at an airstrip way inland once when I trusted my maps rather than the signs on the ground. Follow the signs.
  • Oregon State Parks overview maps: insufficient for day-to-day navigation, but gives a good at-a-glance picture of when the trail is going to be like. Ten 11x17 printouts cover the entire trail and are available free on OSP's website.
  • I used a GPS track from DoingMiles. I loaded it onto my phone (Backcountry Navigator, though Gaia is similar). This GPS track is a decade old and is not perfect. But thanks to them for putting it together, as it's by far the best navigational resource out there. Check out their entire site; there's a lot of good information on there.
  • I repurposed James and Amy's GPS track onto a custom map overlay (topographical information + OpenStreetMap + trails track) and am pretty happy with the results - far better than USGS quads, which are horribly out-of-date, and just a street map, which doesn't have trails or topo information. Print to your heart's content! I downloaded them as PDFs and saved to my phone. They definitely saved my bacon a few times.
Camping: I never paid to camp, and never had a problem finding a place. A lot of people spend a lot of time worrying about the subject, as legal sites can be few and far between. Any state park campground will offer relatively cheap hiker/biker sites, with running water and showers and such if that's your thing. More up the long-distance hiker's alley, though, is dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is allowed on the beach and on federal (BLM/USFS) land unless specified. It is NOT permitted in state parks except in those designeted campgrounds. The beach is fair game except within city limits or state parks, but beware of tides and so-called "sneaker waves" - the near-shore equivalent of rogue waves. Your sleeping pad may float, but it's probably not designed for use as a life raft!

Most nights, I frankly didn't know whether my campsite was legal or not - who knows where the city limits are anyways? Most days I made camp as it was getting dark and got up at first light, and never had a problem. I'm frankly more concerned with being respectful of others, leaving no trace, and being a good ambassador of the trail community than I am with the strict legality of my campsite. I will offer no specific suggestions, other than to say - stay out of sight, go to bed late, get up early, and don't camp anywhere you wouldn't want other people to camp in your hometown.

Western Snowy Plover: A little white lively bird called the Western Snowy Plover nests on the dry sand March-September and is endangered. You are permitted to walk the wet sand through the closure areas, but you may not walk on the dry sand, camp, and or bring a dog. Respect these closures! And enjoy - they're fascinating little birds and fifty of them peck a tiny spot of beach is just so cool.

Gear: This summary is designed for experienced long-distance hikers who probably have a gear system they're happy with. Just a couple tips for the OCT specifically:
  • You can go incredibly light on the OCT. During the summer months, temps never get below 50, so your summer sleep system and layers should be sufficient. You'll never carry more than a couple days of food or liters of water.
  • Everything will get full of sand. Maybe replace your zippers beforehand as a bit of prophylaxis.
  • Do not skimp on the raingear or shelter. It's a wet environment, with frequent rain. Heavy dew is a near-daily occurence, especially when you're camped close to the water. I bought a semi-freestanding shelter to make camping on the beach a more attractive option. In the end, it was probably unnecessary since I only ended up sleeping on the beach 5ish times, but those times were remarkably beautiful.
Some favorites: I particularly enjoyed the Ecola State Park area (map 1). The Sam Boardman Scenic Corridor (map 10) is probably the most scenic single stretch of the OCT. If I were to hike just a portion of the OCT, I would spend most of my time in the southern stretch. It is more remote and scenic than the more populous areas to the north. Favorite towns included Manzanita (the general store's deli counter is quite yummy) and the historic downtown of Bandon. After you finish, there's a wonderful greasy spoon on the southern outskirts of Brookings called Fely's. The atmosphere is great and they don't skimp on the fries.

Some downers: The long stretch between Garibaldi and Lincoln City is mostly on roads and, aside from Cape Lookout, hardly worth doing in my opinion. While 90% of the beach makes for fast and easy walking, there are a couple stretches of soft, slow, frustrating sand on either side of Bandon. Just treat it as you would postholing (grit your teeth and bear it, don't worry about the pace you're keeping), and it'll be a lot easier, mentally. 


Monday, June 17, 2019

Long Walks On The Beach

Throughout my college years, I worked a summer job as a lifeguard on Lake Michigan's beautiful shores. I lived about 100 yards from the beach. While the campground was a wonderful place to live and work, sometimes I needed some quiet time away from friends and coworkers. I took to walking on the beach - sometimes north, sometimes south. These journeys gradually became longer - sometimes over fifteen miles walking the water's edge. On one occasion, I was forced off the beach onto a paved road because of a jetty protruding into the lake - and ended up burning the bottoms of my bare feet on the black asphalt. Ah, good times.

"Dating Service", via xkcd
Over the course of those summers, I grew more comfortable hiking longer distances. I dreamed of someday walking the entire shoreline of Lake Michigan - from the Straits of Mackinac all the way around. That hasn't happened (yet), but from the get-go, even before I hiked the Appalachian Trail or headed out to Utah, beachwalking was integral to my hiking DNA.

Wait, You're Doing WHAT? When last we spoke, I had reached Torrey, Utah on the RIB. Not only was the snow not melting - the result of an abnormally cool and wet spring - but more of it was on the way. In the month of May, many sites across Utah actually added to their snow depth totals. Clearly, I needed to take some time and let it melt out. But what to do in the meantime? This sabbatical is temporary, unlikely to be repeated, and therefore extremely precious. I need to use my time wisely. Three weeks of sitting on the couch is hardly a worthwhile endeavor.

But what to do? June is a tough month even in a normal snow year. The desert is too hot, the mountains are snowed in - where do I go? My answer was the coast - an ecosystem I had never really explored outside of my college beach forays. I settled on the 410-mile Oregon Coast Trail, running the length of the Pacific coastline through the state.

Thank You, Sixties Legislators: Unlike, Michigan, where the limits of public property are defined as the "ordinary high water mark" - e.g. your feet need to be on the wet sand (ish - lawyers can nuance as needed), Oregon in 1967 passed the "Beach Bill", which grants public access to the entirety of the beach up and down the Oregon coastline. Before roads were built paralleling the coast, the beach itself was often the easiest north-south travel route through the area. On my walk through Oregon, about 40% of my miles were on the beach - the same travel corridor that Lewis & Clark used on their 1803-1805 exploration and by the Indians for centuries before them. The beach is beautiful and generally makes for easy travel.

The Flip Side: When the Oregon Coast Trail isn't on the beach, it generally follows US 101. Everyone knows what Route 101 is - it's the worst road in the world. About 40% of the OCT is on pavement - mostly on 101 - and there's no way to whitewash this - it just plain stinks. Most of the time there's a decent shoulder to walk on, but not always, and when you throw blind curves into the mix, the result can be a bit terrifying. I bought a day-glow vest to make myself more visible to distracted drivers, and I did hitchhike a couple short sections (including through a tunnel) where I judged that walking the road was simply too dangerous.

Leftovers are the Best: If you're keeping track, we've accounted for 80% of the OCT miles. The other 20% were trail miles - honest-to-goodness trail miles. Most of those miles are found in the network of state parks that dot the Oregon coastline - and many are extraordinarily beautiful. In my mind, those miles made all the terrible miles on 101 worth it. The trail often climbs a beautiful trail from the beach, travel over a cape or rocky headland, and then return to the beach. These trails were the quintessence of "Pacific Northwest" - green, rocky, and cliffy.

On the OCT, the surface type (beach, road, or trail) determined almost everything. Roadwalk days were largely unpleasant, beach days were great, trail days were slow but exceedingly beautiful. Sometimes I hit soft sand, overgrown and terrible trail, or desolate and pretty road - but those were the exception rather than the rule.

How Thru-hikers Take Vacation: Sure the OCT was 400+ miles of walking. But it was also a vacation. You know there's something wrong with you when your "beach vacation" involves more walking that most people will total in a year. But a vacation it was, and as such, I had the opportunity to visit my uncle Paul & aunt Cathi. I had never been to Oregon before and it was a cool opportunity to see them and get a taste of their lives. I also saw my friends Corona and Debbie - fellow Utahns who recently moved to the Oregon coast. I now understand why.

In addition to social time, my vacation involved a lot of eating. I passed through at least one town every single day, and never carried more than a day and a half of food. I consumed at least one 55-gallon drum of diner coffee, along with deli chicken (which, pro-tip, packs out very nicely in a ziplock bag). While I wouldn't ordinarily trade in my wilderness for town convenience, it's certainly nice as a break from a demanding route like the RIB.

What's next: I'm itching to get back to the RIB - just as soon as I can figure out how to get a ride to Middle-Of-Nowhere, Utah I know that there will be snow left. Hopefully, it will be a little more manageable this time around. Stay tuned!