I sat down with the Willamette Week (a Portland weekly paper) yesterday for a short video interview about the Blue Mountains Trail, and got to share my unexpected challenge of having a lake freeze solid overnight…denying me my coffee water in the morning!
Over a year ago I started revamping ONDA’s independent stewards program. Traditionally our independent stewards took a self-directed approach to monitoring eastern Oregon public lands, helping us and the Bureau of Land Management with Wilderness Study Area monitoring. I was looking to streamline it and make it more effective all across the board, but then COVID hit.
Traditionally ONDA engages hundreds of volunteers each year on a variety of group stewardship projects (I always led the trail work portions), but this group volunteer model was just not prudent during a pandemic, so we canceled most of our trips last year.
What do we do in 2021? When we started planning for this year we had no idea if the virus would still be here, still be impacting how we gather, still limiting our activities, still changing how we spend time outside. So, it seemed the independent stewards model could be the answer…could we mobilize hundreds of volunteers to do projects on their own out the in desert? Well, we are going to find out.
We will need hundreds to do all the work we have lined out for the year, which includes stewarding almost 100 miles of trail along or near the Oregon Desert Trail…and much much more.
Did you miss our group presentation about the Blue Mountains Trail last week? Watch it here:
The next one is coming up tonight with the Oregon Outdoor Alliance. This will be a different type of presentation, more of a panel discussion where we cover such issues like: How do you think a long-distance trail is uniquely poised to make the connection between recreation and conservation?
I’ve had a long involvement in the Oregon Outdoor Alliance. In 2014 I joined the steering committee as the group was just getting started with some local Bend outdoor industry folks like Van Schoessler, Pam Stevenson, Gary Bracelin & Rob Little. I offered to design the first logos and website, and served on the board until a few years ago.
So join us! Should be a good time.
Next up: I’ll be giving the keynote presentation at the Greater Hells Canyon Council’s annual fundraiser: Hellraiser on May 8. This is a virtual event, and will focus on all the good work we’ve been doing to establish the Blue Mountains Trail.
Look for some great auction items you can bid on (and help us raise money to make the Blue Mountains Trail a reality)…there just might be an opportunity to bid on a hike with me on the BMT this fall…just saying!
More to come…the Blue Mountains Trail is taking off…there is lots of work to do, but lots of ways to get engaged, so sign up for the May 8 event and learn about all the ideas and plans we have in store.
Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are cold, wet, and hypothermic? Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are ensconced in layers of warm down with a mug of hot coffee in your hands? Enjoyment and delight in nature is so much easier if you are comfortable.
Read more about my cold-weather hiking tips on this blog post I wrote for Katabatic Gear:
Find Comfort in Cold-Weather Hiking
Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are cold, wet, and hypothermic? Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are ensconced in layers of warm down with a mug of hot coffee in your hands? Enjoyment and delight in nature is so much easier if you are comfortable.
I’ve spent many years as an outdoor professional hiking and adventuring in cold and wet weather, and have come to love the time I spend outside, even in the worst weather. Why? Because I’ve slowly evolved my systems so that I can be comfortable in just about any context. In fact, I think more folks will come to outdoor pursuits if we keep comfort at the top of the to-do list.
I outlined my “comfort in the cold” strategy for a month-long Blue Mountains Trail thru-hike in October of 2020. During the hike, temperatures ranged from 70 to 5 degrees. My general rule of thumb was to plan for the worst conditions I could imagine; if the worst never came I’d still be comfortable…or if the worst came every day of the trip, I would still be able to continue.
- Freestanding tent – I set out to hike almost 500 miles in a month, and knew that October would bring short daylight hours. Most days I would be hiking until dark and possibly pitching my shelter on snow or frozen ground. If I was cold and wet I would need to get into my shelter fast and change clothes to prevent hypothermia, so I choose to bring a free-standing double-walled shelter. A double-walled shelter, even though it is heavier, can save you and your gear from becoming soaked (have you ever brushed the inside of a single-walled tent when it’s wet?). I also used my tyvek groundsheet on the inside of the tent as an extra moisture barrier because I knew my body heat would melt the snow or ground beneath me.
- Two sleeping pads – I love sleeping on air and have used inflatable pads for years in all types of weather. In the winter hikers need to be aware of the law of thermal conduction. Simply stated, if you sleep on the ground and the ground is colder than you are, the ground will suck the warmth from your body until you are the same temperature as the ground. So to keep the air in my sleeping pad from becoming the same temperature as the ground, I take a closed-cell foam sleeping pad to use beneath the inflatable sleeping pad. It’s amazing how much warmer even an eighth-inch piece of foam will make you.
- Shelter storage – Your tent will get frosty at night, primarily from your breath freezing on the inside of the shelter. Bring a separate waterproof stuff sack for a wet tent (if you are storing the tent in your pack) or keep it on the outside of your pack. You can take it out to dry during the day, but realize it might not get warm or sunny enough for a drying session, so plan to manage the cold and wet as if you won’t get the opportunity.
I learned to wear my Katabatic quilt as a cape to stay warm while cooking dinner. Photo by Renee Patrick
- Down booties – Warm and dry down is the lightest and warmest insulation available, and wearing down booties at night does wonders to keep my appendages toasty warm even in the coldest temps.
- Sleeping quilt/bag – Take a quilt or sleeping bag that matches or is rated for colder temps than you expect to encounter. This was the first time I used a cold-weather quilt, and Katabatic’s version was amazing. I discovered on one very cold night that I could turn the quilt around, keep my legs in the bottom half, and wear the top as a cape. I buttoned the quilt around my neck, which left my arms free to cook and eat. So cozy! And during the night I slept with my hooded fleece layer and my hooded down coat on so that I had three layers of warmth on my head: hat, fleece hood, down hood. Yes, even with a hoodless quilt you can keep your head warm, use those hoods!
- Fill that empty space – if you find your sleeping quilt has a ton of extra space in it, try to fill that space with extra gear. Down works when your body heats the layer of air between you and the down. The more air your body needs to heat, the longer that space will take to get warm.
- Don’t wear wind-blocking/waterproof layers to bed– If you block your body’s ability to warm the air in the quilt, you will not get warm, so take those raincoats, wind coats, and rain pants off. They will only prevent you from getting as warm as you could have.
- Keep cold-vulnerable items warm at night – Electronics, medications (my epi pen), and wet wipes all come into the quilt with me at night. Think through all the things in your pack that could get damaged (or unusable) due to the cold, and throw them in your quilt with you.
- Damp in the bag– It’s true that you can sleep with damp clothing and dry it out overnight with your body heat, but there are limits. Simply tossing your wet socks into the bottom of your bag might not do the trick if they get wadded up and never are exposed to your body heat. So I put things like mittens and socks next to my body in my long johns. Seriously. It’s a little cold at first, but they are toasty dry by morning.
- Wear damp clothes to bed – Take the previous suggestion to the next level. The quickest way to dry a damp shirt is to wear it. Granted, this step should not be taken until you yourself are warm. Once your body has warmed up, you have eaten, and that internal furnace is stoked, take a deep breath and put that wet shirt on. It will suck, it will feel uncomfortable, but by morning your body will have dried it.
- Hot water bottle– You can take a hot water bottle to bed if you have the right kind of bottle (I’ve only been comfortable doing this with a Nalgene). Pour some boiling water into your bottle and throw it to the bottom of your sleeping bag, or cuddle it.
Read the rest over on the Katabatic website…
Our weekly newspaper in Bend featured the Oregon Desert Trail last week! Read all about it here:
By Damian Fagan in The Source Weekly
The Oregon Desert Trail, better known as the ODT, is a 751.7-route that traverses eastern Oregon, connecting the Badlands Wilderness to Lake Owyhee State Park. The trail slips through dense sagebrush steppe and ancient juniper forests, across lava flows and through canyons incised deep into an old land. There’s wild and wilderness and plenty of opportunities for solitude and solace.
“The story begins in 2010 when our former executive director Brent Fenty had the idea of connecting places where ONDA had been working in and to highlight some of the success such as the Badlands Wilderness and Steens Wilderness,” said Renee Patrick, Oregon Natural Desert Association program manager who oversees development and stewardship of the ODT. “In between those two areas, we have done a lot of conservation work and thought we could help people connect to this landscape through a trail or route and help them see these lands first hand.”
Descriptors such as the Oregon Outback, High Desert and Sagebrush Sea do justice to this desert landscape of sweeping vistas, rolling hills, fault-block escarpments and deep canyons.
As Patrick puts it, “You’ll see more pronghorn than people.” The concept of spending time exploring and getting to know this remote section of Oregon may be foreign to some more accustomed to exploring the Cascades, Oregon’s verdant spine. However, the desert landscape’s subtle beauty reveals itself to those who wander.
Author Ellen Waterston writes about living in and exploring the High Desert in “Walking the High Desert: Encounters with Rural America along the Oregon Desert Trail.” When asked about her experience, Waterston said, “The high desert is inscrutable at best, but during the winter especially so. I relish the palpable sense of all that’s brewing beneath the surface of the desert’s vast expanses. And while I’m waiting, nature puts on a show: hoarfrost exquisitely tracing the slimmest blade or branch, a coyote plowing its snout through the snow as it tries to rout a rodent out of hiding or pronghorn kicking up a wake of wintery glitter as they speed across an open savannah carpeted in white.”
The task of designing the route fell to Jeremy Fox, Patrick’s predecessor. He began the arduous task of sketching out the trail, utilizing existing resources such as trails, two-tracks, dirt and paved roads for most of the route. Private property and highly sensitive wildlife areas or habitats were skirted. Blank spots on the map were connected by cross-country travel; nearly 35% of the trail includes trailless sections where a hiker’s navigational skill will be challenged.
“Long-distance backpacking is not a traditional pastime in eastern Oregon in the desert,” said Patrick. “There’s a lot of curiosity and disbelief.” Patrick has worked hard at informing land and business owners about the trail that passes by their properties and towns. Now, landowners living in the outback have a different take for Patrick. “They don’t ask why; they tell me stories of hikers that have passed through—so it’s really rewarding to see that trail culture developing.”
Whitney LaRuffa hiked the ODT with a couple of friends in the fall of 2018. “I picked that trail because it’s a part of Oregon that I’ve visited and always wanted to see more of,” said LaRuffa, a seasoned long-distance trail hiker and vice-president of sales and marketing for Six Moon Design. “There was a true sense of adventure hiking the ODT compared to some of the more established long-distance trails that are more plug-and-play,” LaRuffa added.
For LaRuffa, it wasn’t just about being a thru hiker. “People we met along the way were all very friendly, making sure we had food and water and that we knew where we were going,” LaRuffa said. After his hike, LaRuffa spent time on an ONDA trail stewardship project, giving back to the area he had passed through.
Though the trail exists to hike in its entirety, day hiking or shorter overnighters are possible. ONDA provides excellent resources such as maps, GPS waypoints, information about water resources, and other trip-planning details on its website, along with information about the wildlife, geology and history of the region.
Central Oregon day hikers looking to go somewhere COVID-19 safe may enjoy exploring unique geologic features in the Christmas Valley and Fort Rock area or “the backside” Pine Mountain. ONDA also initiated the Badland Challenge to encourage exploration of over 50 miles of trails in the Badlands Wilderness, located just east of Bend, where the ODT starts or ends—depending upon your sense of direction.
2020 may have turned our worlds upside down, but all that screen time for my once field-based job turned into an opportunity to go back to my roots in multi-media production.
I spent about half the year developing this awesome new researched-based story map for the Oregon Natural Desert Association with my passionate and super smart colleague Jeremy Austin.
This project helped me connect my graphic design and multi-media interests that started at Bradley University (yes, photoshop existed in 1995!), continued in grad school at Goldsmiths College (my dissertation revolved around taking the museum out of the museum…and I think this definitely qualifies as a virtual exhibit), and has now found a greater purpose in advocating for protection of our home…planet earth.
Take a few minutes and soak in the Greater Hart-Sheldon: Sagebrush Stronghold!
The first written press about the Blue Mountains Trail came out! Check out this great article in the Baker City Herald:
Four Hikers Complete The New, 566-Mile Blue Mountains Trail
By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald
Renee Patrick started her epic walk through the Blue Mountains in the sweaty heat of July, and she finished it amid the nostril-freezing chill of an alpine autumn.
Along the 566 miles of hiking in between, Patrick was at turns challenged, enlightened and even awed by the eclectic landscapes of Northeast Oregon.
She also made history.
And now, a few months after she finished her trek, Patrick is helping to promote the Blue Mountains Trail, a route she and other proponents hope will join the ranks of America’s other long-distance wilderness paths.
“It’s fun to be at the beginning of an effort like this that people are excited about,” Patrick said in a Jan. 14 phone interview. “It’s exciting for the eastern half of the state to have more recreational opportunities. Northeast Oregon is not well-known, even by a lot of Oregonians.”
Although the current version of the Blue Mountains Trail is new, the concept dates back more than half a century.
Loren Hughes, a longtime La Grande jeweler who died on Jan. 29, 2016, envisioned a long hiking route through the Blue Mountains as far back as 1960.
Later, Hughes and Dick Hentze, who taught elementary school in Baker City from 1970 to 2000, conjured the idea of the Blue Mountain Heritage Trail.
Hentze, who moved from Baker City to the Eugene area in 2014, died on Aug. 8, 2020.
Mike Higgins of Halfway said in a Jan. 14 interview that he became involved with planning the trail in the 1990s along with Greg Dyson, director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.
(The organization, based in La Grande, was renamed as the Greater Hells Canyon Council in 2017, its 50th anniversary.)
“The route was much different then,” said Higgins, an advisory board member for the Greater Hells Canyon Council.
The previously proposed trail was a loop that covered about 870 miles.
Among the notable differences, the current route — the one that Patrick helped pioneer with her hike in the summer and fall of 2020 — is point to point rather than a loop, with Wallowa Lake State Park at the northern end and John Day at the southern.
“The current route to me is a lot more attractive,” Higgins said.
In particular, he appreciates that the Blue Mountains Trail passes through all seven of the federal wilderness areas in Northeast Oregon — Eagle Cap, Hells Canyon, Wenaha-Tucannon, North Fork Umatilla, North Fork John Day, Monument Rock and Strawberry Mountain.
Higgins said he believes this concept, so long in the making, finally has momentum.
“I think it’s going to go this time,” he said. “Jared is going to make sure it goes.”
Jared in this case is Jared Kennedy.
He’s the Blue Mountains Trail project leader for the Greater Hells Canyon Council, a task that includes maintaining the trail’s website, https://www.hellscanyon.org/blue-mountains-trail
“This is an opportunity for people to get a much better idea of the landscapes of the Blues,” Kennedy said in a Jan. 14 interview. “It really ties the region together.”
But when it comes to connections, no amount of conceptual planning or pondering of maps can replace the actual experience of hiking the route, Kennedy said.
That’s why the efforts of Patrick and a separate group of three hikers were so vital.
That trio — Whitney La Ruffa, Naomi Hudetz and Mike Unger — hiked the entire Blue Mountains Trail during September.
Patrick said she exchanged information with the three other hikers about their experiences, particularly any problems they encountered with navigation, distances between water sources and other matters important to future hikers.
Now that four people have negotiated the route, Kennedy said he has a much better idea of the trail’s attributes — and its problems.
Although it’s called a trail the route does include several sections on Forest Service roads, although most of those are little-traveled roads in remote areas, Kennedy said.
There are no plans to propose the construction of any new trail, he said.
With so much new data to digest — including GPS waypoints and other digital details — Kennedy is striving this winter to make the trail’s website more informative.
His goal is to have an online guide for hiker-ready sections of the Blue Mountains Trail, including maps, by spring, in time for the prime hiking season.
“Prime” not necessarily being a synonym for “perfect” in this case.
Kennedy points out that the window for hiking the entire Blue Mountains Trail is a relative small one, although he acknowledges that the vast majority of hikers will only attempt sections rather than trying to cover all 566 miles in a single trip or even a single year.
The reason is elevation.
The trail samples each of the higher ranges of the Blues, including the Strawberrys, Elkhorns, Greenhorns and Wallowas. Sections of the trail in those areas climb well above 7,000 feet, and in places are reliably free of snow only during August and September.
Yet the trail also descends into Hells Canyon, where summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees.
Given that even an experienced long-distance hiker is likely to need 30 to 45 days to complete the entire trail, a start in July or early August would be the most plausible, both to avoid deep lingering snowdrifts from the previous winter, and the first storms of the next.
But a midsummer start has its own potential challenges, as Patrick discovered.
She began her journey at John Day in August. The temperature was 99 degrees. And the first day included a stint on a freshly blacktopped road (a rare paved section) and a 4,000-foot climb over 7 miles, among the more difficult ascents of the entire route.
Patrick said she took a break during the hottest part of that day and finished the climb in the comparative cool of the evening.
Her schedule allowed her to hike for only a week in August. She covered the 110-mile section from John Day to Austin Junction, where Highways 26 and 7 meet, about 50 miles southwest of Baker City.
Although that’s a longer trek than most hikers will ever attempt in a single trip, it’s little more than a jaunt by Patrick’s standards.
Few people can match her hiking resumé.
Patrick has thru-hiked — completing an entire trail in one year — America’s “triple crown” of long-distance routes, the Pacific Crest, Appalachian and Continental Divide trails.
The cumulative mileage of that trio of epic trails is about 7,800 miles — 3,100 miles for the Continental Divide Trail, 2,610 for the Pacific Crest, and 2,100 for the Appalachian.
Patrick also helped to pioneer the Oregon Desert Trail in the state’s remote, sagebrush-dominated southeast corner. She hiked the 750-mile route in 2016, the year after she was hired as Oregon Desert Trail coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend, where she lives.
At 566 miles, the Blue Mountains Trail isn’t terribly daunting for a hiker with as many miles on her boots as Patrick.
But she said every route, regardless of distance, brings its unique challenges.
The Blue Mountains Trail, unlike the well-known and generally well-maintained Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails, includes several stretches that require hikers to “bushwhack” — find their own way across trailless (and roadless) stretches.
And although many of the trails and roads that comprise the Blue Mountains Trail are individually signed, there are no markers for this new trail itself.
“People need to be realistic about the challenges,” Patrick said. “It’s a great trail for section hiking, as a way to build your skills.”
Higgins, who helped La Ruffa, Hudetz and Unger during their thru-hike by meeting them at trailheads with boxes of food and other supplies, pointed out that the Blue Mountains Trail, because it is made up of so many existing trails and roads, has a multitude of access points.
And it features some sections that are easier to hike than others, such as the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail west of Baker City.
“You can select sections that match your skill level,” Higgins said.
Regardless of where you hike, though, you’ll be surrounded by some of Oregon’s most spectacular scenery, Patrick said.
Among the sections that especially entranced her is through the Eagle Cap Wilderness south of Wallowa Lake. That’s where she started her second and final stint on the trail, in early October.
The Blue Mountains Trail follows the West Fork of the Wallowa River to Frazier Lake, then crosses Hawkins Pass and descends to the headwaters of the South Fork of the Imnaha River.
“I absolutely loved hiking in the Eagle Cap,” Patrick said. “That’s really an awesome section.”
She also appreciated that the route allowed her to trace a major river — the Imnaha — nearly from its headwaters below Hawkins Pass to its mouth at the Snake River in Hells Canyon.
The Blue Mountains Trail affords the hiker a similar experience with the Grande Ronde River.
“When you see it from the start to where it ends you almost have a relationship with the river,” Patrick said. “I really enjoyed that.”
The Blue Mountains Trail is also enticing for both its geology, which includes rocks more than 200 million years old, as well as considerably more recent cultural history.
Patrick said that while she hiked through the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce tribe, including a section of the Nee-Me-Poo National Historic Trail, she listened to an audio version of “Thunder in the Mountains,” a historical account chronicling the Nez Perce being driven from the area in 1877 as white settlers moved into Wallowa County.
Patrick said the hike into and out of Joseph Canyon, named for Nez Perce Chief Joseph, was probably the hardest section of the Blue Mountains Trail.
Among the other difficult sections were those where wildfires have burned in the past decade or so. That includes what was otherwise one of Patrick’s favorite areas, the Wenaha River Canyon, which she describes as “amazing” and “beautiful.”
“Fire has affected a lot of the trails,” she said. “Every year more trees fall. It’s on ongoing maintenance issue.”
Nor is fire the only threat to some of the trail sections that make up the Blue Mountains Trail, Kennedy said.
“There are many, many sections of trail that are way behind in terms of maintenance,” he said.
Not long before Patrick finished her thru-hike in late October, she hiked the Elkhorn Crest Trail during an early preview of winter when temperatures plummeted into the single digits.
She wasn’t deterred — “I do a lot of cold weather and winter camping,” she said — but Patrick said the range of experiences, from her sweltering start to the frigid conclusion, was appropriate for a trail with so many moods.
Patrick, along with Kennedy and Higgins, hopes this newest addition to the West’s long-distance treks will not only enchant hikers, but also bring an economic benefit to the region.
The route comes close to several towns, including Baker City, La Grande and Enterprise, and Kennedy said local residents and businesses could earn extra money shuttling hikers between trailheads and providing other supplies and services that hikers would need.
Ultimately, though, she said the Blue Mountains Trail is a treasure for people who want to follow in her bootsteps.
“It’s a great opportunity for hikers,” Patrick said.
If you haven’t listened to The Trail Show before, it’s more about beer than gear, more about hiking shenanigans than not, more about the goofy trail culture of hiking long trails than a buttoned-up show that’s all miles and not smiles.
My interview starts at 13:10:
“What Lopez is after,” fellow Oregon author Robin Cody once said, “is nothing less than a fuller synthesis between humanity and place.”
We lost a poet, a dreamer, a believer, a curious citizen of the earth this weekend.
I learned about the composer Arvo Part by reading his work.
It seems very fitting to play this track and read this wonderful tribute to his life.