There is much to be impressed with in the Red Buttes Wilderness, including magnificent old growth trees such as this cedar.
I know a bit about backpacking (mild understatement). A few years back, in 1974 to be exact, I was working as the Executive Director of the American Lung Association in Sacramento. The organization needed a new source of funding; I needed an excuse to play in the woods. So I combined the two. I proposed to my Board of Directors that I lead a nine-day, hundred mile backpack trip across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range with the participants raising money to fight lung disease.
So what if my longest backpack trip ever had been 30 miles.
“You are crazy,” the board said. “You are crazy,” my friend in the backpacking industry said. It was like I had inherited a parrot.
And they were right. The only point they missed was just how crazy. Sixty-one people aged 11-71 showed up– many who had never worn a backpack in their lives. One immediately claimed she was a witch and would be over to bite me in the middle of the night. And how was I to know that my co-leader had participated in burning down a bank in Santa Barbara, or that my go-to guy in emergencies was a Columbian drug runner, or that the big fellow who got me through the toughest days was an explosive experts on the lam from the IRS. You can’t make these things up, folks! But this is a story for later this summer. It’s one you won’t want to miss.
Lets just say by the time I walked into the foothill town of Auburn, California nine days later on deeply blistered feet in 104-degree weather, I had persuaded myself that the money raised from Christmas Seals was more than adequate to support our organization, forever.
But then a strange thing happened. These people who I had almost killed and who had come close to killing me, started coming up one by one and demanding to know where we were going next year. I heard things ranging from, “This was the greatest experience in my life” to “I have lots of ideas for fundraising.” It took them several months to persuade me…
But persuade me they did. I would go on to add bike treks in Sacramento and eventually take the program nationwide where I became the national trek consultant for the American Lung Association. Millions of dollars were raised to prevent lung disease and thousands of people were introduced to long distant backpacking and bicycling as a result. More importantly, from my perspective, I got to play in the woods. For 30 years, I spent a part of each summer leading wilderness expeditions. And when I wasn’t leading treks, I was off backpacking by myself or with friends.
A much younger me gracing the front of the American Lung Association’s National Bulletin in my role as founder of ALA’s Trek Program.
Sadly, my last backpacking trip was seven years ago. Life happens, right? Peggy and I bought a small RV and decided to wander North America for three years; our kids started producing grand babies; we bought our property in Oregon and travelled to Europe and Alaska. I took up blogging and decided to write a book.
It was all good, but I missed backpacking– a lot. And there’s this thing. Our home looks out on the beautiful Red Buttes of the Siskiyou Mountains of Southern Oregon and Northern California. The mountains spoke to me, over and over and over. Finally I could no longer ignore their call. Peggy and I decided to hit the trail. So last week, we did.
The Red Butte Mountains as they appear from our house in spring through the lens of our camera. How could we not set out to explore them?
We planned a short trip: three days and 14 miles. It was to be something of a test to see how well we would do. After all, we had aged seven years. At 71, I couldn’t expect my body to behave the same way it had at 21, or 31, or 41, or 51, or 61. And even Peggy, a young woman of 64, was nervous.
I immediately pulled out maps and begin planning a route. I was like a little kid on Christmas morning (or Peggy at the chocolate store in Central Point). Had I been a dog, I would have been wagging my tail like my basset hound, Socrates, used to at the sight of a hotdog.
This forest service map shows the location of the Red Buttes Wilderness. The X marks the approximate location of our home.
I planned out our route on a US Forest Service Topo Map. We followed the Butte Creek Trail to Azalea Lake. I wrote in the small, circled numbers which I will refer back to.
A close up of the map shows the beginning of our hike. “T” marks the trailhead where we parked the truck. Topo lines reflect the steepness of the trail. The closer together, the steeper! We started by hiking down into the canyon following the well switch backed trail. Down in the beginning, meant up in the ending. (grin)
Next came the gear. It was hiding out on shelves, in drawers, and long ago packed boxes. Would my MSR white gas stove still cook? Would the Katadyn Filter still pump safe water? And possibly even more important, would our Therm-A-Rest air mattresses still be filled with air in the morning? When you are disappearing into the backcountry, you can’t be too careful.
Here’s my gear and backpack. The larger bags are tent, sleeping bag and pad, food, and clothes. Smaller bags are organized according to function: kitchen, bathroom, first aid, etc. Total weight with food, fuel and water: 35 pounds.
Go light is the mantra of anyone who carries his house on his back. Fortunately, the backpacking industry is constantly developing lighter equipment, such as this fully functional folding bucket.
There was the inevitable last-minute trip to REI. And Peggy and I even drove up to check out the trailhead on Mother’s Day. (Now, before all of you moms get excited, she got breakfast in bed first and we took a picnic lunch that we ate on a grassy knoll with a grand view. Peggy even managed to spot a hungry mountain lion disappearing into the forest. Maybe it was coming to join us for lunch. What more could a mom ask for?)
Peggy enjoying her Mother’s Day Picnic. We saw the mountain lion a couple of hundred yards down the road on our way out.
And how was the trip? Forget for the moment that it was cold and rained much of the time. Forget that we were dead tired and went to bed at 7:00 PM. Forget that the trail came close to disappearing in the brush and we spent a fair amount of energy crawling over and around downed trees that blocked the trail. And forget about the noise we heard in the middle of the night that sounded like Bigfoot pounding on a tree trunk with a large limb. And why should you forget? I just got out my thesaurus. The trip was wonderful, beautiful, invigorating, marvelous, educational, and stunning. We laughed our way through the whole adventure.
I’ll let our photos tell the story.
After following switch backs down the dry mountain side, we came upon the verdant canyon of the Butte Fork of the Applegate River with its almost rainforest feel. (This and the following three photos are located near #1 on the map.)
In 2012 the Ft. Goff fire had swept through the area. While the forest was relatively unharmed, some large trees had fallen across the trail and since been cleared to make way for hikers.
We loved this tree poking its limb up in the middle of the fire area. Peggy at first saw a unicorn but I saw Smokey the Bear… reminding people to be careful with fire.
We found this horse-tail fern growing in the canyon. Pioneers reputedly used this plant for scrubbing out pans.
An old cabin made out of red cedar shakes was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 30s and then used by the forest service for storing fire fighting tools. (Located at #2 on the map.)
The hand-hewn cedar shake roof.
Not far above the cabin, we came across a chinquapin forest. I had seen chinquapin bushes but never trees.
Chinquapin nuts, encased in these spine covered outer shells, are apparently quite tasty.
The trail at this elevation also featured beautiful flowering dogwood.
Here, Peggy poses under a bower of it. I was going to point out that her pack weighed 32.5 pounds. She quickly corrected me. It was 32.8 pounds.
We had been hiking across dry slopes for quite some time. It was getting late, we were tired, and I was beginning to feel a bit of a grump coming on when we heard this creek. “I hear camp,” I told Peggy. (#3 on the map)
There was barely room for our small North Face tent. But it was home. (Shortly after this photo it started raining.)
This was our view looking up from our campsite. The Red Butte Wilderness includes some of the most impressive old growth forest I have ever seen including pine, fir and cedar trees.
Peggy caught me standing next to one of the massive sugar pines. (Photo By Peggy Mekemson.)
This beautiful mound of rocks is found on my map at # 4. It’s a grave for three people buried here by family members after their plane crashed on July 28, 1945.
The grave marker shows that Sylvan Gosliner, Ruby May Gosliner and Alma Virgie Pratt are buried here. Remnants of the plane can still be found in the canyon below.
Someone had a grand time ripping this rotting tree apart for it bugs. Was it a bear? Or how about Bigfoot? We found a large pile of scat (poop) nearby.
Cedar Grove is aptly named for its magnificent cedars. (Found at #5 on the map.)
We also found corn lilies growing nearby in a meadow where the Goff Trail joins the Butte Fork Trail.
As we did this trillium.
Ever hear the phrase, “Where in the blazes are we?” Foresters, cowboys and other outdoors people used to mark their trails by cutting out this symbol in a tree, which is known as a blaze. I’ve followed them through forests from Maine to Alaska, often over trails that have long since grown over.
It was a tad wet in the cedars, as this photo by Peggy demonstrates. The bottle on the left is filled with wine, BTW. It helps assure that Peggy will follow me up the mountain. (grin)
The trail between the cedars and Lake Azalea almost disappeared on one occasion. Peggy is standing on it.
We finally reached Azalea Lake. Have I mentioned it was wet out?
We found a drier, more protected camp farther away from the lake and settled in. I’ve carried the coffee cup backpacking for 45 years. Once it spent the winter buried under 20 feet of snow. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The sun rewarded our trip the next morning by providing a lovely view of Lake Azalea. It was time to pack up and head back for civilization.
Selfie of two happy campers at trails end who have seen some beautiful country and proven to themselves that they can still put on backpacks and disappear into the wilderness.
46 thoughts on “Into the Red Butte Wilderness… Backpacking at 71”
What an inspiring post with beautiful photos. I did the 80km walk in this wilderness area of Australia many years ago. We had to carry enough food for five days, apart from tents, cold weather gear.
Checked out the site, Gerard. It does look beautiful… like some where I would love to see. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life to backpack in a wide range of wilderness areas. I am ever so thankful that i can continue to do so. And thanks for your comments. -Curt
OK, with this post it is official: You are one of my heroes. 🙂
So what are you reading while having your coffee?
🙂 Thanks Bill. The book was fun. SF and something of a satire on advertising, written way back in the 50s. –Curt
Hooray! What fun! Good for you both! Envy! But I did feel just a little bit like I was there with you. Somehow gotta persuade Don to try this. We’re headed to NZ early next year and there are some fabulous treks there. I haven’t done it for years , Don’s never done it (well maybe way back in Boy Scouts) and we don’t have the gear, but I say so what! We’ll figure out a way. – Alison
Go for it Alison! Many of the Treks in New Zealand also have shelters, making life easier. I’ve hiked and biked there… but not trekked. There is incredible beauty. I can’t believe Peggy and I went seven years without hitting the trail. We already have our next trip planned. 🙂 Curt
Umm… Is Peggy still talking to you since you told the whole world how young she is?! 😉
The scene from your home is just stupendous, sir. A bazillion times better than the asphalt and traffic signals down here. I am jealous…
And you mention following the blaze. Are you sure the guy who made it wasn’t lost in the first place? LOL
But honestly, sir, at your very young age of 71 and to be able to hike 14 miles… It is definite proof that life in the Peace Corps extends youthful years.
And that tree that was shredded apart…and the Bigfoot wailing away at something with a limb…
And SPLENDID photography!
Thanks Koji. Laughed at your blaze comment. I often used to think that in relation to ducks (stones piled on top on one another to show direction). It is too easy to pile up rocks. But cutting blazes into trees takes a lot more work. The question became whether I wanted to go wherever they were going. 🙂
Peggy is still the “younger woman” in my life.
Interesting about the booms in the night. We woke up, listened with interest, and went back to sleep. Something in camp gets more attention from me. Caught a bear with his head down in my pack once. He slobbered over everything I owned.
A great trip! And smiling in the end. The beauty of the area is inspiring. I’ll bet the quiet was wonderful and healing.
Thanks! The quiet of the wilderness has a unique quality that is indeed healing. America’s wilderness areas are both unique and beautiful… bits of nature captured for now and the future. And it is almost always a fight to set aside a wilderness area. Where we see beauty, others see dollar signs. A stately giant in one person’s eye, is board feet in another’s. –Curt
That’s it. I work outdoors and do physical labor, but I’m not in shape for something like this. In a year, I will be. By next fall, I’ll be on my way. I don’t know where I’m going, but that will be easy enough to figure out when the time comes.
Gorgeous country, and gorgeous photos. The whole thing is just admirable. And now I know where the expression “blazing a trail” comes from. I’d never heard stones piled atop one another referred to as “ducks”, though. Cairn, I know. Is “duck” a regional term?
Love the concept of “don’t know where I am going but that will be easy enough to figure out when the time comes.” It’s almost a mantra of mine Linda.
Ducks are a fairly common term for smaller cairns. They can tell you to go left, right, straight, or not at all. They look a little like a duck. Thus the name. I used them extensively when I was leading treks to help people avoid getting lost. I didn’t believe in making people hike together as a group. It worked. Occasionally, I would have to chase someone down, but overall, it worked. –Curt
Aside from the dry parts, these photos are so like the area I’m visiting now, in the valley below Mt. Rainier. I so enjoyed this adventure, Peggy and Curt! You put me to shame and I guess I’ll quit whining about how tired I am on our long walks through the forest. Wonderful post! Best of the past week!
Thanks Patti. We do love our adventures. I’ll be doing some hiking up around Rainier this summer with our son Tony who will be taking a break from piloting his helicopter on Kodiak for the Coastguard to do some training in Seattle. –Curt
What an adventurous family! Is Peggy coming to Rainier with you? My oldest sis lives in Homer, Ak, my folks in Eagle River and they have friends on Kodiak. I have a few Coastie friends in Westport…when I am in my social mode 🙂 My family is not all that adventurous, but we brush shoulders with many who are. 🙂
Would Peggy miss a chance to spend time with her son? Do birds fly? Do fish swim? Do bears poop in the woods? 🙂 Yep, Peggy will be with me. And we visited Tony in Kodiak last summer. Also, I worked in Anchorage for three years. –Curt
Silly me 🙂
Love all the connections with online friends!
This just wonderful, from start to rainy finish.. You & Peggy Inspire me (I may not hike due to a bad knee) to get out there and see all of this beauty we are surrounded by.. I love the wine bottle (you get 2 points for that clever move 😉
This was a great read and the pictures are wonderful..Thank you both for sharing this with us all!!
You are very welcome, Lynne. I am ever so glad that Peggy and I could still get out there. As for the wine bottle, I learned early on it is very important to incorporate a little “spoiling” of Peggy into our outdoor adventures. 🙂 Curt
You have learned well then Mr Grasshopper 🙂
So, you log fundraising career in the wilderness almost ended as soon as it began! Phew, thank goodness it didn’t or we’d be denied some grand fireside stories. Glad you had a great time this time round, if a little damp. Lovely photos of some stately trees too.
It was touch and go. 🙂 The stories of that first adventure go on an on. Best seen from a distant perspective. LOL And thanks for your thoughts. –Curt
Looks like fun Curt. You both made it back, and lived to blog about it. The rainy part of this story sounds like our last (and I mean last) backpacking trip. It takes a hardy soul to backpack in the rain and stay cheerful (and married). Good on you an Peggy. ~James
Years of practice, James. Your last, and you mean last, backpacking trip sounds like a doozy. Peggy and I are normally even keeled. Watch out world when we aren’t. But we were so happy to be back in the woods that it would have taken buckets of rain to dampen our enthusiasm. –Curt
Oh this is so cool! I love backpacking and hiking and I read this post with great interest. Your photos are gorgeous. I was hiking in the High Country in Yosemite two days ago and the dogwoods were also in full bloom. Your photo is much better than mine.
Glad you enjoyed it Evelyne, and thanks. Hiking in the backcountry of Yosemite at this time of the year speaks to the lack of snow in the Sierras! I’ve wandered through there many times, and always loved it. –Curt
Lovely! Love the story leading up to this big event, and congratulations on doing something simple, yet, not so simple and beautiful! 😀
Thanks Lani. And it is pretty simple, once you’ve done it a few (or few hundred) times. The outside world recedes quickly when you are hiking up a mountain surrounded by nature. 🙂 –Curt
And still looking young! Must be all the hiking. (I should take it up, shouldn’t I?)
A good walk in the woods is good for everyone. Not that I am prejudice. 🙂 –Curt
I should report that we have 5 katadyne water filters, 3 MSRs, 15 water bottles, one thermo rest that does not hold the air all night, two very warm sleeping bags, etc. So we are still well stocked for backpacking, esp after shopping in REI…grin. Seriously, it was a fabulous trip with incredible old growth; forests as they should look. I think we hit the peak of wild flowers in bloom, no other hikers, and a trail that appears to be a well kept secret! Believe it or not, we did NOT drink all of the wine this time. Hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and hot coffee and hot tea were the beverage of choice this time, as long as it was HOT. Seriously, It was a GREAT trip. Peggy
Which of course serves to remind me of what a great trail companion I have. It takes a serious sense of humor to go wandering with me in the woods. 🙂 –Curt
What a fantastic upbeat post (especially for us other oldies). I hope that once the Liberia history is out, you will write the story of that first great trek in all its crazy detail. I will look forward to it.
That I will, Hilary. it is quite the story. –Curt
Thanks for crafting a wonderful account of your backpacking trip! I haven’t done one in years and suddenly I have the urge to call my backpacking buddy and plan one! We managed to survive a bike ride in the hail this past weekend, so we can handle any weather, I believe! The sounds of the forest are calling me!
Glad to hear it.:) I’ve also inspired myself to start planning another trip. –Curt
What a great trip that looks like. At 64, my backpacking days are over, so thanks for letting me come along on your trip.
You are welcome to travel along anytime, Toni. Thanks for joining us. –Curt
Fascinating post! Looks like a fun trip too!
Thanks… and it was fascinating. Welcome back to the world of blogging. –Curt
Thanks, the winter is over and I am ready to get outside again:)
Hi. Looks like you had a great hike! Thank you for sharing your photos. As the paternal granddaughter of Sylvan Gosliner , I am especially touched to see the grave and marker photos. Thank You for posting them. I plan to hike to that spot myself someday. But for now, I can be satisfied with the photos you’ve shared. 🙂
Hi Shannon, Your grandparents rest in a very beautiful location. it is definitely worth a journey at some time. Glad you found my blog. –Curt
Loved it. Thanks for sharing. I wish I wasn’t so afraid of bears, cougars and big foot!
They worry a lot more about us (normally:)) than we do about them Kayla. Thanks. –Curt