Our local Rogue River was one of the first in the nation to be recognized as a National Wild and Scenic River. The Viani clan hiked the 40 mile Rogue River National Trail May 22-26, and it was my first opportunity to experience the entire length of this wilderness on foot. In the early 90’s, I’d floated the “Wild & Scenic” section with a group of Ashland Middle School teachers and we paddled on rafts all day and slept comfortably in lodges along the route. Cocktails on decks overlooking the river, fabulous meals, and comfy accommodations. Lush. Sooney, on the other hand, hiked the entire section as a participant in a botany course offered through our local university. They had raft support and, like our recent trip, no one was required to carry camping gear—only snacks, water, and and sunscreen. But it was, nevertheless, a scant step above backpacking; she and her classmates were on their own for food and various sundries. We both loved our respective adventures. What we hadn’t done was cover the distance with Alicia, our favorite hiking companion. Done!
The Rogue Canyon is rich in flora, fauna, and human history and hiking the trail is a wonderful way to experience it. Accompanying our group of 14 were a couple staffers from KSWild who provided us a different glimpse of the journey. They pointed out spectacular wildflowers (dozens of species including Shooting Star, Scarlet Fritillary, 2 varieties of Wild Iris, and Seep-spring Monkey Flower) and introduced to us the how methodically a dragon fly emerges from its exoskeleton (the exuviae). And, of course, I can’t forget the most prolific plant on the trail, poison oak. Once in camp we enjoyed soaring raptors (Osprey and Bald Eagles were common) and en-route “heard” the silent stories of bygone miners and homesteaders. Even better, the chartered rafting company, ARTA donated $100 per participant to benefit KS Wild’s work to expand the Wild Rogue Wilderness. Our trip turned out to be the quintessential win-win.
An added bonus of traveling with such an established rafting company was their professionalism, familiarity with the route (and camping spots), and their congeniality. At the end of the day, we were met with food, circled chairs and all our gear bags neatly piled on the beach. From there, it was short work to set up our tents, change into bathing togs and head for the river to cool off. Being as how all our heavy gear was shuttled in one of three boats oared by Michael, Zoe, and Tess, we packed “boxed” wine that everyone happily shared during appetizers. Meals were substantial, healthy, and always benefited from a dollop of peanut butter—instant Thai!
Throughout the 40 miles of the Rogue Wilderness there are lodges that cater to both hikers, rafters, and even jet boats that ply the water from Gold Beach. The latter are only able to travel up to Blossom Bar due to serious rapids up-river from there on. These lodges are conveniently separated and have served travelers for years. There are some ancient homesteads that are only accessible by water, on foot, or by helicopter. One in particular was formerly owned by Zane Gray, author of dozens of western novels. In 1926, he bought a mining claim at Winkle Bar and built a crude one-room cabin of peeled logs and hand-split shingles. It was later purchased by the Haas family ( Levi Strauss fame). Several generations of Haas have used the property for fishing, relaxation, and interacting with the ever-present wildlife (black bears, lions, otters, raccoons, and a prolific bird population). Our dear friends, Larry and Trisha, spent many summers there as close friends and personal fishing guides and shared with us fascinating tales of life among the uberwealthy. The Haas family, never ostentatious, has taken a fancy to Montana and donated Winkle Bar to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who maintain the Zane Gray cabin for hikers like us.
I’ve posted dozens of photographs taken along the journey, and while they present a visual record of some highlights, they fail to capture the spirit of the trail—and the spirit within. Our days began with chilly, morning sunlight filtering through the forest, and 6-8 miles later concluded with gorgeous late-afternoons where, as John Muir wrote, “The sun shined not on on us but in us.” As we traveled west, every nuance of the 40 miles presented wonderment, beauty, and serenity—especially when walking quietly alone.
When hiking with 14 people and a couple guides over a 5-day stretch, I became astutely aware of a social dynamic pitting the desire for privacy (and the delicate act of distancing oneself) against being friendly and trudging along in a group. Social vs. solo. Ay, there’s the rub. I went so far as to sort social hikers into a couple subcategories. The interpretive types enjoy sharing observations and stop frequently to point out something of interest. Then there are the tellers. They have a lot to say and use the trail to corral their audience. It’s tough having a conversation with someone’s back, but tellers don’t seem to mind. Occasionally, the interpretive hiker notices something meriting a pause in the teller’s narrative. It’s at these junctures that the column dynamic adjusts; some moving forward, others dropping back. But only a wee bit back as there was a “sweep” guide who provided support for stragglers. Sigh.
Much of the time I opted to walk solo and one morning passed through an expansive meadow of oaks—the warm light shimmering in a carpet of dew-draped grasses. For some reason that scene generated past memories of exhilaration and mystery: hiking into Vernazza on Italy’s Cinque Terre coast for the first time, or meandering through a noisy asian outdoor market. Crazy connection and hardly a natural setting but, like the oak forest, everywhere sights and sounds pummeling the senses. A friend mentioned how, in 5 days, we barely enter the zone that Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers find transformational.
Years ago my ski coach taught us to look beyond the next slalom gate for the optimal spot to initiate our next turn. His training provided us the confidence to scan the course ahead without paying attention to the skis beneath our feet. Trust your skills. It’s the same when walking a forested trail—look up only if you’ve first scanned the trail ahead. Unlike a slalom ski course, hiking in a column blocks the trail visually, and following too closely may result in a surprise underfoot. Throw conversation into the mix and there’s an increased likelihood of an accident if you’re not paying attention. Sadly, it’s that tradeoff (social vs. solo) that determines the depth of one’s introspective experience: the trail, the light, being in the planet rather than simply being on it. And that’s tough if all you’re doing is focusing on your buddy’s boots.