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News / Northwest

Oregon has been welcoming PCT hikers for decades. Despite fire closures, here they come again

By Janet Eastman, The Oregonian/Oregon.live
Published: August 8, 2022, 6:02am

Ashland’s stars of summer arrive slowly, on sturdy legs hefting carefully stuffed backpacks, and introducing themselves by their trail names like Butters and Giggles.

By the time northbound Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers cross into Oregon, they have forged 1,720 miles from the bottom of California, through deserts, over mountains and out of unexpected situations, despite years of planning.

The majority of hikers who depart from the trail’s southern terminus, near Campo, California, and move through steep, snowy, soggy, windy and hot conditions at about 25 miles a day, show up in Ashland in August.

This year, many of these hikers were stopped in their tracks by the 55,500-acre McKinney fire in California’s northern Siskiyou County.

On Saturday, July 30, around 60 hikers in the Red Buttes Wilderness were taken to safety by Oregon’s Jackson County sheriff search and rescue team and bus drivers with the Rogue Valley Transportation District.

Backpackers following in the faster hikers’ footsteps gathered 100 miles south in tiny Etna, where they camped in the Johnson-Joss Park and pondered their future.

Their goal of entering the green tunnel of Oregon on foot was over.

Many were shuttled 66 miles on Intestate 5 from Etna to Ashland in buses or by police driving vans, or in the back of cars driven by volunteers called trail angels.

The endurance hikers, who are miserly with their few days off the trail — called “zero days” — were greeted by smoke and ash, red flag fire risk conditions and lightning, and frantic innkeepers at booked hostels and budget motels.

Seventeen backpackers and three people evacuated from their home near Yreka stayed at the American Red Cross disaster shelter in Ashland on Monday, Aug. 1, watching a nighttime display of lightning out the window.

Thru-hikers Craig Marshall of upstate New York (trail name Butters) and Nadine Osterloh (trail name Giggles) of Bonn, Germany, said they had a mix of emotions.

They were grateful to be safe at the shelter, but they felt guilty taking one of the beds.

And like other long-distance hikers on a schedule to weave through the West Coast when the weather is in their favor, and who wish to celebrate at PCT Days, a free public festival Aug.19-20 in Cascade Locks along the Columbia Gorge, they were eager to get going.

“We are used to hiking and walking, and now we’re on hold,” said Osterloh.

Where to go?

On Tuesday, Aug. 2, the pack was ready to move again. But in which direction?

Dave “Floppy” Kim of Philadelphia started at Campo, steps north of the Mexican border, on May 4 and about 13 weeks later he was in Ashland, which is between exits 11 and 19 off of Interstate 5. Here, he heard options from other thru-hikers.

Return to the trail, either near Callahan’s Mountain Lodge at exit 6 or head east on Oregon route 66 for 20 miles to the Pacific Crest-Green Springs Mountain Connector Trail, or about 35 miles northeast to Fish Lake in the Cascade range to connect to OR-140 north to Crater Lake.

A trail north of Crater Lake is closed for roughly 60 miles due to the Windigo Pass and Tolo Mountain fires, and there was another closure near Mount Jefferson, which burned in the 2020 Lionshead fire.

The closures mean “this season’s thru-hikers will definitely get mixed up and even more spread out along the trail,” said Scott Wilkinson of the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

“Given climate change-driven drought, wildfires and other extreme weather events over the past few years, this could be characterized as the new normal and not unusual,” he added.

Trails closures are also caused by flooding and erosion, and used for habitat protection of endangered species, Wilkinson said.

COVID-19 restrictions caused hikers from foreign countries to postpone their epic adventure on the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT) until this year.

Uninterrupted end-to-end hikes “may continue to be more difficult,” Wilkinson said, but “the PCT is still a spectacular wild and scenic experience” for day outings, weekend trips and multi-day section trips.

Some thru-hikers in Ashland are throwing up their hands over the road blocks, and heading north on the Oregon Coast Trail. Or they are taking a Greyhound bus to Portland to cross the Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods and continue on the PCT to the Canadian border.

“This will affect us,” said Candy Boerwinkle of the Ashland Commons hostel on Tuesday. For days, she said her phone was ringing off the hook, with calls from stranded hikers.

Her hostel is typically booked all of July and August, and she didn’t know how she could accommodate everyone.

Then she started receiving cancellations from hikers who decided to skip Oregon.

“There are 27 people checking out today, and only four are checking in,” she said.

The iconic Callahan’s Lodge, in the shadow of Mount Ashland and a short walk from the Pacific Crest Trail, is forwarding some thru-hikers’ mailed care packages to their new destination, said employee Forrest Eldred.

“We’re sending the care packages to towns near Crater Lake or to Bend, or returning them to the sender,” said Eldred on Tuesday. “Some hikers hope to circle back here.”

Callahan’s is still offering lodging, all-you-can eat pancake and egg breakfasts and spaghetti dinners, as well as $16-a-night camping; $25 for backpackers who want to shower and use the laundry.

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“Floppy” Kim hopes to come back, to hike the 170-mile gap from Shasta to Ashland.

On Tuesday afternoon, he and Johannes “Coach” Popp of Frankfurt, Germany, returned to hiking at the Pacific Crest-Green Springs Mountain Connector Trail, elevation 4,940 feet.

“This hike is 90% mental and 10% physical,” said Kim, who averages 22 miles a day and has worn out two pairs of boots.

More than boots needed

Hiking 2,663 miles on narrow dirt trails from California to Canada takes more than stamina. Success relies on strategizing and adapting when reality dashes best laid plans, said Lauren “Grandpa” Schuster, 24, of Atlanta.

She made it from Campo to Etna before forest infernos instantly upended her goal to complete the entire Pacific Crest Trail on foot.

On Sunday, Schuster rode into Ashland and confessed she has been “obsessed” with the PCT even before she read Portland author Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”

Schuster’s months-long trek was made possible by another dashed dream. She was unable to travel in the Peace Corps after she graduated from college in 2020 because of COVID-19. Hiking the PCT became her Plan B.

Two zero days in Ashland had Schuster and a dozen of her closest trail friends pacing around the city and their Airbnb rental, and considering their rerouting options.

Their decision: to reach Crater Lake in four days, then hitch past the Windigo Pass and Tolo Mountain fires closure and keep going north.

“It’s up in the air” how the group will eventually reach Washington state, Schuster said. Then she paused and added the traditional PCT mantra: “The trail provides.”

On Tuesday morning, she and Steve “Funfact” Jacobs of Salt Lake City, waited for the rest of their trail family, who started on this journey as strangers on April 5.

Jacobs will celebrate his 35th birthday on the trail Thursday and the tradition for this group is to receive a pastry with a candle, a golden paper crown and a Happy Birthday card drawn by Schuster.

The trail is about give and take, said Jacobs, who contributes “fun facts” to conversation such as mayonnaise can’t emulsify in a lightning storm.

Before he dedicated half a year to traversing the west side of the continental United States, Jacobs was the digital mock up project manager for the $1.89 billion Silver Line commuter rail line for Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

He said he went from working nonstop to hiking nonstop. When he finishes the PCT, he plans to reunite with his girlfriend in San Diego, and find a way to balance work and play.

PCT hikers’ star appeal

By the time northbound PCT hikers reach Oregon, they have faced daunting challenges and have succeeded, said John Kerr, who is one of the leaders of day hikes organized by the all-volunteer Ashland Hiking Group.

“PCT hikers know by now they will complete the journey of a lifetime,” he continued. “They are full of smiles despite what lies ahead of them, another 900 miles. And they are universally friendly, even when we break their stride as they step aside.”

The Ashland Hiking Group covers seven-mile segments of the PCT, from Mount Eddy in California to Crater Lake National Park. Many of the day hikers are senior citizens, with some in their 80s and one woman who’s 90.

PCT thru-hikers are mostly in their 20s and 30s.

“What I love most is seeing people, especially the young, who have gained the confidence in themselves to succeed in whatever else they may dream of doing,” said Kerr, who lives outside of Ashland. “They have no fear of what lies ahead. Last week we met a hiker who had done the journey wearing a prosthesis. Now that was inspiring.”

To Ashland residents, thru-hikers represent hard-earned athleticism, a deep appreciation of nature and the value of taking time off.

People often give thru-hikers a place to stay and rides to the trailhead, and even offer to pick up the tab for a meal or beer.

“They treat us like we’re heroes,” said “Coach” Popp. “But we’re just hikers.”