October 24, 2021

FTV: Wilderness Hiking


     The crew at the West Coast Bureau sent me a copy of one of William L. Sullivan’s numerous books about hiking the great Oregonian out-of-doors.  To best describe Sullivan’s passion for the topic of hiking in the wilderness, let me offer the following summary from the back cover of his 1988 opus Listening for Coyote (OSU Books – reprinted in 2000):  “The Spirit of the wilderness is an elusive quarry.  William Sullivan’s quest for it took him on a 1,361- mile solo backpacking trek across his native Oregon.  His remarkable route traversed four mountain ranges and eighteen designated Wilderness Areas.  It led through fogbound rain forests, windswept glacial cirques, and sunbaked desert canyons – from Oregon’s western shore at Cape Blanco to the state’s easternmost point at the bottom of Hells Canyon.”

     I read the above passage before cracking open the front cover and my first thought was, “He hiked with a 60 pound pack approximately the same distance that Lewis and Clark travelled by boat up the Missouri River in their first summer of travel.”  When Elizabeth from the WCB moved to Boulder, CO at the start of her MA program at UC Boulder, we covered the same distance in two days in the pick up I borrowed from my dad (packed to the gills with her college gear).   To hike 1,361 miles in 64 days (roughly 20 miles per day), to my way of thinking, is mind boggling to say the least.  The fact that he has authored eight books about hiking in Oregon and is known as ‘Oregon’s walking guidebook’ is hardly surprising.  Growing up in the Upper Peninsula means I spent my whole life in close proximity to, if not roaming in, wilderness areas, but I couldn’t hold a candle to the distances Sullivan covered each day on his trans-Oregon hike.

     Sullivan explained his rationale for this undertaking when it came to him as a wandering thought of being in the mountains:  “I knew the United States has set a world record for wilderness preservation – over eighty-five million acres in forty-three states – but I wondered, could the spirit of wilderness within us have flickered out in the meanwhile?”  He poured over maps and visualized a Wilderness Hiking Trail that would follow the “W” shaped Wilderness Areas that cut diagonally across Oregon from the southwest to the northeast.  It took more than six months of planning and training for him to realize his vision of the ‘New Oregon Trail’ which is now included in Oregon’s recreational trail plan.

     How does one pack for such a trek?  Sullivan gathered topographic maps showing the public right-of-way paths he would travel.  He sorted his two months of rations into packages and mailed them to selected friends, relatives and volunteers along the route so he could re-supply himself at intervals.  By the end of his training routine, he was knocking off eleven-mile hikes in two hours and twenty five minutes while toting a backpack containing fifty pounds of firewood.  With his preparations completed, he bid his wife Janelle and their two children goodbye and boarded a bus to Port Orford, Oregon.  This is the closest bastion of civilization to Oregon’s western most point, Cape Blanco.  His kit sported a patch his wife had made and attached to his backpack – Hell’s Canyon or Bust!

     Sullivan’s narrative about this hike isn’t just a blow by blow account of each step he took.  He weaves a lot of Oregon history into each geographical area he crossed.  He peppers the story with the random people he met along the way.  He doesn’t dwell on the effect the hike took on him physically, but he offers enough details to remind the casual day hiker this was no day trek on a chipped trail.  One of the more interesting elements of his book is hinted at in the title;  Listening for Coyote.  It seems there are multiple Native American origin tales that involve the prankster of their culture, Coyote.  Coyote is to Native culture what Loki is to Norse mythology and Sullivan relates his experiences with the real coyotes he encountered on his hike while searching for a connecting thread to the mythical Coyote.

     Near the end of his hike, Sullivan is literally picking them up and laying them down in a trance-like state induced by the longer than average distances he had been covering to keep him on schedule.  His final pick up point at Hat Point required a final hike into and out of Hell’s Canyon.  Hell’s Canyon is deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon and in his effort to cover the last miles on time, he had to cover forty miles on his third to the last day.  A mysterious bright light from above pulled him out of his trance-like march, so he pulled up for the night.  As he bedded down, he noticed a strange, flickering fire some distance away and he pondered whether or not he was too tired to investigate.   An eerie coyote howl reminded him of the tricks the mythical Coyote could play.  He went to bed that night disappointed he had not made the edge of Hell’s Canyon that day.  The next morning, he realized how lucky he was to have Coyote snap him out of his trance-like state.  Stopping when he did likely kept him from blindly hiking over the edge of the canyon in the dark, something that could easily have happened with him trekking in a state of near exhaustion.

     Most of the people Sullivan writes about are in some way or another conservationist worried about the state of Wilderness in the United States.  Where Sullivan expected to find hiking trails, he often found logging roads being constructed to allow remote wilderness forests to be cut.  The strange part, he found, was the Federal government was spending more money to prepare areas to be logged than would be gained from the logging rights.  If it sounds like the forest products industry has a strong lobby and some members of congress work diligently to make sure their home state industries can gain access to these lucrative wilderness forests, then you get the picture.

     As a lifelong resident of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I have spent my fair share of time in the woods.  With that said, I am not much of ‘wilderness hiking and camping’ type, yet have done both activities in small enough doses to make me appreciate ‘camping’ at our family camp on Huron Bay.  My version of ‘roughing it’ includes indoor plumbing, a fireplace, a sauna and central heat.  The older version of The Swamp was heated by a wood stove in the main room and a small oil heater in the back bunk room, but even that 1958 to 1986 version of our camp was a far cry from sleeping bags and tents.  Even the wild areas we hunted around Huron Bay were crisscrossed with old tote and logging roads.  Whether we were road hunting, bushwhacking cross country, or snowmobiling the foothills of the Huron Mountains, we weren’t far removed from signs of civilization.

     There were two cross country routes we would drive to get to Huron Bay.  One connected to the Triple A- a road that more or less connects Big Bay with either the hinterlands of Ishpeming and Negaunee or the area around Michigamme, depending which fork in the road one took.  The farthest northerly passage branched off at a locale known as Anderson Homestead and deposited us at Big Erik’s Bridge, not too far from the small village of Skanee at the northeastern end of Huron Bay.  The other route ran from the mouth of the Peshekee River at Lake Michigamme and followed the route of the old Michigamme and Huron Bay Railroad grade.  This wild railroad grade was hacked and blasted out of the rocky highlands separating Huron Bay from Lake Michigamme.  We never ventured into these wild areas on a whim – in the days before GPS and cell phones, a vehicle breakdown in one of these areas meant a long walk.  Had we not arrived on time, we at least knew someone would be coming to look for us before we had to contemplate walking out of the wilderness.

     During the three summers I worked in the kitchen at the Huron Mountain Club, I made the most of my time off to explore some of the trails in groups and on some occasions, alone.  By volunteering to deliver food caches for some of the kid’s program overnight campouts,  I got to see parts of the Huron Mountains some of the club members probably never visited.  With the club truck loaded and a key for the gates in hand (the roads to the interior of the club property were gated to bar unauthorized vehicles from restricted areas), I would set off to make my deliveries.  At times, the hiking group would want the truck left behind as an emergency vehicle and I would hike back to the club.  Other times, I would make my delivery, hike a new trail, and then drive back to the club.  On one occasion, I was parked below a trail that went to a rocky overlook on the west side of Pine Lake.  As I was taking in the view, I heard the truck I had parked down by the lake start up and drive away (one always left the keys in the club vehicles).  Having stopped for a short hike, I had to hustle a little to get back for my next shift in the kitchen as my return trip on foot took a little longer than I had planned.  It turned out that a day hiker had broken a bone and one of the club hiking guides just happened to find my truck on their way to get help.  They were happy I had followed protocol and left the keys in the ignition and I was glad I had stopped to hike to the lookout, otherwise they would have had to hoof it all the way back to the club compound.

     The first college summer I did not work at the Huron Mountain Club, I found myself living in a different kind of wilderness south of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore east of Munising.  The glacial flatlands and swamps in the area surrounding NMU’s Field Study Station at Cusino Lake may have only been 100 miles from the Huron Mountains, but the landscape seemed to be worlds away.  We spent the better part of our Field Geography class using the tools of the trade to trek through and map some extremely remote areas.   While GPS and Google Maps were years in the future, we did have excellent topographic maps and aerial photographs to guide us.  Some of my fellow students from more urban areas put on a brave face when we contemplated how far out in the toolies we were on some of these mapping expeditions.  Even with our location pinpointed on an aerial photograph, they were visibly relieved when we finally stepped out onto a road at the end of our mapping day.  Going into the wilderness with the proper mapping tools made it hard to get lost and luckily for us, we never had to go looking for any wayward groups.

     The closest I came to getting lost at Cusino Lake was on an evening fishing trip.  My boss and advisor Pat Farrell suggested I take a couple of high school students brook trout fishing on a short leg of a creek.  I was familiar with our entry and exit points to the creek.  We started at the end of a short logging road which we hiked a quarter mile to get to the creek.  There was a bridge just down the main road and this is where we were supposed to come out of the woods.  Apparently I didn’t question Pat enough on exactly how long the fishing would take us to get from point A to point B.  With the creek’s many twists and turns, the half mile between these two points ended up being a lot farther than we expected.  This meant it  took us a lot longer to navigate than we figured it would.  Of course, being absorbed in fishing didn’t help matters.  When my companions started ruminating about us having to spend a night in the woods, I sat down and sketched out where I thought we were in the dirt on the creek bank.  No sooner had I told them, “We can’t be more than a couple of hundred feet from the road,” a vehicle of some kind whizzed by us on the gravel road.  We were no more than thirty feet from the bridge we were heading for.  Suffice to say, we stumbled back to the road in the pitch black and felt our way back down the road to where we had parked the truck.  Pat laughed and assured me he would have come looking for us had we not returned by morning.  I should have thought something was fishy when we were leaving after dinner – Pat made it a point to ask me if I had matches with me ‘just in case’.

     There are so many truck trails, old railroad grades, and logging roads in the area south of Pictured Rocks National Park, I was extremely glad Pat had taken me on a tour of the different ways one could get from one location to another.  During my second summer session at the Field Station, there was a Biology professor leading the group of high school teachers and students who were taking a four week outdoor education class.  I was auditing the class for a directed study (tagging along and journaling our exploits) because I needed a certain amount of credits to get a reduced tuition.  The prof was not at all familiar with the area so on the first day, Pat told him, “Ask Ken how to get to where you want to go.  When he worked here before, I gave him the grand tour and it will save you a lot of time.”  Needless to say, he was not the type to admit he didn’t know how to do something so we spent many hours eating dust as we bumped along this road and that road in the open back of the university truck.  When he finally got fed up, he would (reluctantly) ask me how to get here or there and I would tell him.  I even managed to NOT say, “Well, why didn’t you ask sooner?” 

      The students did not mind because a) I was able to tell them where we were and b) they got to see a lot of areas most people wouldn’t be exposed to when sticking to paved roads.  On the last outing, we were sitting at the intersection in Melstrand where the road to the Field Station meets the paved Pictured Rocks southern boundary road, H-58.  The prof opened the rear cab window and asked, “What is the easiest way to get to Miners Beach?”  He probably thought I was yanking his chain, but I had to confess it was the one place in the National Lakeshore I had not been to.  He drove off and his teaching assistant glared at me through the rear window.  We were on a paved road, there was no dust to eat, and before long we arrived at a very large Park Service sign directing us to Miners Beach.  It just goes to show – driving down a paved road through a wilderness area isn’t exactly the same as hiking, but one can still experience wilderness by car.  In Upper Michigan, whether you are in a town or on a paved road, you are never far from some pretty wild country.


Top Piece Video:  Hiking songs are hard to find, but one does find Trees aplenty in the wilderness!  Rush proves it!