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Jan 05 2014

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Oct 31 2013

Hikers Imperil the Wilds They Love

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Guarding a third of the 504,000-acre John Muir Wilderness in the Inyo and Sierra Na­tional Forests (map, page 749), District Ranger Am Snyder pursues his work with as much love as Muir pursued his. For five days Meri­dith and I followed Arn on horseback among the bald granite peaks and timbered valleys of his district—one of the most splendid areas within the National Wilderness Preservation System. We saw him several times dismount, take a sack from his saddle, and, sighing, pack up garbage left by a thoughtless hiker. Menial work for a man with 20 years on the job? To Arn it’s part of the job.

 

Nature built in the Muir Wilderness a tem­ple to glorify herself. Where mountain meets sky, ancient glaciers polished the stone, grind­ing broken rock against soaring boulder. The smooth walls gleam in the alpenglow. Butter­cups gild the meadows beneath the temple, and in annual celebration of all this opulence shady bogs sprout fireworks of delicate shooting stars.

Some conservationists say the Muir Wil­derness is too magnificent for its own good.

Riders and hikers by the thousands pummel the John Muir Trail each summer, seeking beauty and solitude. The Forest Service be­lieves steps must be taken soon to limit traffic.

 

Arn tackled the problem a few years ago by providing rustic accommodations—pit toilets, log tables, stone fireplaces. He hoped the heavy use and litter would be confined. But wilderness management is a subject on which many disagree. The Forest Service now sees the building of even minimal facilities as in conflict with its mandate from Congress to maintain wilderness “with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

 

“Despite the traffic, you can still find soli­tude,” Arn said. “Off the main trails.” Erect in the saddle, as if sculptured there from a slab of Sierra granite, he led half a dozen of us to a route that appeared not to have known a footfall all summer. “Not many, anyway,” Am said. “I doubt if 200 people go up toward Seven Gables in a year.”

 

The horses trod gingerly over treacherous talus. When the trail became too rugged, we dismounted and hopscotched up a tumbling creek’s bed. The trees shrank to brushy stub­ble under many-spired Seven Gables. Arn finally stopped beside a crystal lake. “You can have all the solitude you want here,” he said. “But you have to work for it.”The six of us who followed him went our separate ways, urged by something within us to seek quiet communion. A marvelous thing, solitude. I was glad we had worked for it.

 

Ghost Towns Recall a Frenzy for Gold

To her sorrow, Meridith’s adventure was over now—school would start soon—but mine still had six weeks to run. I skipped northward 200 miles in Californiato keep com­pany with ghosts in Plumas National Forest.

 

Queen City, Poverty Hill, Grass Flat—the names of gold-rush towns leaped from my map. And the loveliest of all, Port Wine. Old-timers say that name originated the day a cask fell from a mule and burst in a creek, bringing miners in a rush with bottles and pans. Little remains now. Gibsonville is rubble, Onion Valley nothing more than a memory. A few dwellings stand yet in Poker Flat (whose name calls to mind Bret Harte’s tale of outcasts). LaPorte, once the home of 2,000 people, musters just 26 permanent residents. But who can resist ghost towns? Not I.

 

“Some of the early miners made $300 a pan,” Truman Gould told me in LaPorte. “I remem­ber my father saying he helped my granddad take $11,000 out of the Turkeytown Diggings in six weeks.” That was at the turn of the cen­tury. Mr. Gould’s grandfather arrived in 1855, five years after the region’s boom began.

 

The mines yielded gold worth $93,000,000. Many believe metal could be dug out today, if the price of gold made the work worthwhile. I spent a night with a man who nourishes such a belief. Ray Bittman passes solitary summers among the ghostly memories of Howland Flat, until driven out each fall by snow. His modern two-room cabin stands not far from stone walls that once held the Wells

Fargo office. Half a dozen old houses remain.

 

In the light of a gasoline lantern Ray’s hair showed streaks of gray and red as we talked into the night. “The old miners were plenty smart,” he said. “But they didn’t get it all. I’ve got gold on my two claims, and if the price ever goes up, you bet I’m going to mine it.”

 

Picking up the trail again in California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, 60 miles north of Ray Bittman’s claims (map, page 759), I strolled with Bea Telfer to a denuded valley floor called Devils Kitchen. Bea has passed ten summers and autumns putting Lassen’s sun-splashed meadows and handsome coni­fers on canvas; the park boasts orthodox beauty as well as nether-world manifesta­tions of volcanic and hydrothermal activity. We peered into fissures where mud bubbled and water boiled. The exhaled steam as­saulted our nostrils; the devil in the kitchen cooks with brimstone from porcelain crown smartybook insurance.

 

Volcanoes Spike the Horizon

Southernmost great peak of the Cascades, Lassen anchors a procession of volcanic cones studding that range: Shasta in California;Three Sisters, Jefferson, and Hood in Oregon; St. Helens, Adams, Rainier, Glacier Peak, and Baker in Washington (map, page 765).

At an estimated 12,000 feet, Oregon’s. Mount Mazama stood as tall as some of these until its top collapsed-17 cubic miles of vol­canic rock tumbling with a horrendous roar into the maw that birthed it. What now re­mains of Mazama, rising to a mere 8,156 feet, holds Crater Lake (above).

Volcanoes excepted, the Cascades cannot boast the height of the Sierra Nevada. “But who’s to say which range is more beautiful?”

 

challenged Sam Frear of Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. We flew in a helicopter over the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, part of which lies in the Willamette. I tracked the Pacific Crest Trail•as it transited broad flats of grass and touched glassy lakes. As we landed, I told Sam I wouldn’t attempt to say one range possessed greater beauty than the other.

Both man and nature left lasting marks in McKenzie Pass in central Oregon, 25 serpen­tine highway miles into the mountains from the McKenzie River Valley. From an observ­atory at the crest I looked out on a sea of sharp-edged lava. When I left the trail, the rock lacerated my boots.

 

Dream of a Road Becomes an Obsession

I often heard stories of pioneer grit along the Pacific Crest, but none so poignant as the story of John Templeton Craig, who lies at peace on a hummock above the lava. In 1862 he found work building a wagon road across the Cascades, not far from McKenzie Pass. But that first route was so laborious and de­manding that hardly any freighters traveled it. Craig had found his task in life.

For 11 years, sometimes working alone, he cleared rock and felled trees to make a better road uniting eastern and western Oregon. So intense was his dedication that some people thought him demented. But finally wagons rumbled across McKenzie Pass.

 

Later Craig was hired to deliver mail over his route. Around Christmas in 1877 he set out on his first trip. Weeks passed; he neither reached his destination nor returned. Search­ers ventured out. They found Craig’s body in a cabin at the summit, in the ashes of the fire­place. Matches littered the earth floor; when the searchers tried them, they would not strike. No one knows exactly what happened. The searchers surmised this:

Fighting a blizzard, the 56-year-old road builder reached the cabin exhausted. He lit a fire, then fell asleep, neglecting to restore his matches to their container. Awakening later, he discovered the blaze was out and his matches were damp. He sought the warmth of the ashes—in vain—and froze near the route he’d labored to build.

 

From John Craig’s final resting place I wandered north again in my car. I stopped 6,000 feet up the slope of snow-mantled Mount Hood, just 200 yards from the Pacific Crest pathway, to visit Timberline Lodge.

 

Crew-cut Dick Buscher looks after that unique resort hotel—unlikely duty for a Forest Service district ranger, but a job Dick relishes. “After a while, you get to love this old barn,” he said with mock irreverence. His gaze swept the Bunyanesque proportions of Timberline’s hexagonal central hall: iron gates weighing half a ton, massive timbers, a stone chimney soaring 92 feet.

Timberline is a monument to the depres­sion of the 1930′s; the Works Progress Ad­ministration built it to create jobs for the unemployed. For $94 a month, 450 men la­bored to raise it; more than a hundred artists and artisans embellished it with paintings, panels of wood marquetry, carvings, mosaics, woven draperies, and hooked rugs.

 

Today many persons speak reverently of Timberline as a museum of vanishing crafts­manship—some even call it the world’s most magnificent wooden building—and legions of skiers, mountain climbers, and hikers reckon make-work a laudatory concept.

 

It was not always so. “When World War II began, this building was virtually forgotten,” Dick said. Water pipes froze and burst, the roof sprang leaks, and the rugs and draperies were damaged. Concessionaires could not breathe life into the hotel after the war. Tim­berline was, in short, a turkey—neglected, disintegrating.

 

Luckily the Forest Service found in Richard L. Kohnstamm a hotelier determined to see Timberline succeed.* Now a four-and-a-half­million-dollar program is planned to enlarge the lodge and add other facilities to serve the ever-growing number of outdoor enthusiasts.

 

Thunderstorm Triggers a Retreat

Crossing the Columbia River into Wash­ington, I drove to Chinook Pass, strapped on my pack, and hiked to a rocky knoll that looked toward the eastern face of Mount Rainier. That night I went to sleep contem­plating the sight awaiting me when dawn broke against glaciers on the Northwest’s highest peak.

 

I awoke at 4 a.m.—greeted not by dawn’s early light but by a rumble like the tattoo of muffled drums. Blobs of fire glowed eerily through the nylon of my tent.Emerging, I beheld the horizon: a seething caldron of mountain and cloud, now pur­pled by violent explosion, now creased by jagged tongues of lightning. Sometimes not one but two bolts flicked down, joining peaks in a fiery parabola. The thunder roared with heightened fury. The wind came on with a sinister whine. I collapsed my tent and struck off for the valley below.

 

An hour later it was over and I climbed back to the knoll. Rainier floated high over her sister peaks in a sea of golden light, her glacial raiment gleaming like lacquered metal. If there is a sight more glorious on the Pacific Crest Trail, I don’t know it (pages 742-3).

Foresters dread such storms as had chased me down. One morning I arrived at the headquarters of the Wenatchee National Forest, invited to accompany rangers on a leisurely horseback trip through alpine mead­ows. Instead I found myself following 25 hard-hatted men furiously clearing a fire line through a thicket of lodgepole.

 

Only a few hours before my arrival, a lightning storm had rolled over the peaks on the eastern tier of the Washington Cascades. Ninety-one fires burned (page 772).

The next day camps sprang up for the 8,600 men who would try to control the blazes. I got to such a base as it took shape; soon it would teem with 1,400 fighters massed to halt the Slide Ridge-Entiat fire.*

 

Under a tree, maps spread out, Fire Boss William Knechtel conferred with his staff. Around them carpenters hammered and sawed, piecing together a headquarters and a kitchen. Sleeping bags, canteens, hard hats, shovels, saws—all the tools of the fire fighter’s trade poured out of trucks. Helicopters—the seven-league boots of forest-fire fighters—hauled men to the battle lines as quickly as buses brought them to the mushrooming camp.

 

By the third day the Slide Ridge fire had consumed 5,000 acres. I climbed into a helicopter to join the men trying to contain it. We landed in a cloud of smoke on a mountaintop strewn with fallen timber.

 

Down a steep ridge, Maurice Chavez’s crew cleared a wide lane through trees, undergrowth, and grass. Smoke rolled up from below; the men chopped and shoveled in sight of flames leaping into tree canopies. The pall overhead dimmed the sun into a dull orange disk. A helicopter whirled low, Fire Boss Knechtel’s arm waving frantical­ly from the canopy. The chopper veered off, returned, and dropped a mes­sage, hastily scribbled on the softest bomb available, a roll of toilet tissue: Get your men out of there. They’re about to be trapped. The fire has crossed the canyon below you. Build your line down the next ridge.We would have been trapped by flames had there been no warning. The crew worked until dark to build a new fire line.

 

Nineteen days after the lightning storms, the last fire was controlled. The blazes, among the worst the Northwest had ever known, devas­tated 177 square miles of land; suppression efforts cost $13,000,000; one fire fighter lost his life.

 

Nature Provides the Perfect Antidote for a Chill Trek

While the Wenatchee forest suffered drought and fire, mountains and valleys on the western side of the Cascades soaked up rain wafted from the Pacific. Following the trail that threads that moist terrain to Glacier Peak, I trekked a forest unimaginably luxuriant. High as fac­tory smokestacks, the trees made my route a shadowless tunnel. Ferns, berrybushes, and fledgling evergreens wove a lush trailside carpet.

 

From a meadow daubed blue by gentian I watched three mountain goats, then five more, wander across a streak of green under Glacier Peak’s ice-crusted summit.Then it began to rain. All night the drops pattered on my tent, and all the next morning on me as I broke camp and started down the trail. By noon I was shivering, soaked to the skin.

But relief—ah, such relief!—awaited me a mile off the Pacific Crest route. No doubt the forester who built a five-foot-deep pool around the bubbling fountain of Kennedy Hot Springs had in mind the refresh­ment of rain-chilled travelers. Stripping, I soaked for half an hour in the 96° F. waters.

 

Two days later I drove east across the mountains and turned north once more. A biting wind whistled as I took the narrow gravel road spiraling up to Harts Pass on the southern edge of the Pasayten Wilder­ness.* Ahead of me, the last 32 miles of trail struck out through virgin fastness to the Canadian border.

 

A young hiker, out for a stroll, joined me as I shouldered my pack. We walked together to a meadow and then said goodbye. I felt a twinge of loneliness as he turned back.

An hour later all loneliness vanished. From a ridge I looked back­ward on the path I had traveled and ahead to the switchbacks that would lower me into a valley’s dense forest. Not a soul in sight. I had the joyous sensation that the Pasayten was mine alone.

 

It was. I met no other person until I reached Canada two days later. From the crests I gazed at peaks rising like breakers in a stormy sea. Somber under scudding clouds, they shone with glaciers and autumn’s first snow as the sun reappeared. Massive towers frowned down darkly as I passed below—great slabs of rock made 135 million years ago from small rocks, cemented together on an ocean floor, hoisted up, set rakishly atilt. Stunted conifers strove for a foothold on these heights, playing a game of king of the mountain, the game boys play. Rock usually wins.

I watched an eagle, graceful in flight; heard the shrill cry of hawks; was surprised by a doe and her fawn clopping past as snowflakes glazed the trees. With mixed emotions I crossed the border: happy to finish my journey on the Pacific Crest, sad to leave Pasayten’s solitude (left).

 

Vision of High Trail Ahead of Its Time

Far from these mountains, I had one more stop to make. I wanted to know more about Clinton C. Clarke, the father of the Pacific Crest Trail. So I went to the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Ana to look up Warren Rogers, a graying, affable outdoor type who worked with Mr. Clarke in the 1930′s.

 

Warren Rogers was a young YMCA sec­retary at that time. Mr. Clarke prevailed up­on YMCA’s to send their youngsters in relays to explore the route he’d mapped, each group walking a few days, then handing a canvas-bound logbook over to the next. To provide continuity, Warren Rogers went along as trail guide. During four summers, he backpacked more than 2,000 miles.

We talked of Clarke, dead these 14 years. “He wasn’t a hiker himself,” Warren said. “But he wanted to make it easy for others to get into the high country. He envisioned a ten-mile-wide corridor set aside for hikers and horsemen.”

 

Why didn’t his grand scheme take hold in the America of the 1930′s? Perhaps the an­swer lies in the era itself—an era dominated by rural values, a simpler life-style, and hard times. Few men could foresee the enormous complications that would attend the mass movement to cities.

But man’s values change as his life changes. The deeper he plunges into the whirlpool of modern living, with its speeding transport, vexing problems, and harassing pressures, the more he prizes the escape of an adven­ture as old as mankind itself—a solitary walk in the wilds. Mr. Clarke’s idea has reached its time at last.