Into the Red Butte Wilderness… Backpacking at 71

Old Growth Cedar in Red Buttes Wilderness of Northern California and Southern Oregon.

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.

Founder of the American Lung Association Trek Program, Curtis Mekemson.

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.

Red Butte mountains of the Siskiyou Range.

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.

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 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Butte Creek trail in the Red Butte Wilderness.

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.)

Butte Creek trail in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

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.

Smokey the Bear tree in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

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.

Horsetail fern growing in the Red Butte Wilderness.

We found this horse-tail fern growing in the canyon. Pioneers reputedly used this plant for scrubbing out pans.

CCC Cabin in the Red Buttes Wilderness area of Northern California and Southern Oregon.

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.)

Roof of cedar shake cabin in Red Butte Wilderness area.

The hand-hewn cedar shake roof.

Chinquapin forest in Red Butte Wilderness.

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 shells, are apparently quite tasty.

Chinquapin nuts, encased in these spine covered outer shells, are apparently quite tasty.

Flowering dogwood in the Red Butte Wilderness.

The trail at this elevation also featured beautiful flowering dogwood.

Peggy Mekemson hikes along the Butte Fork Trail through the Red Buttes Wilderness of Northern California.

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.

Small creek in Red Butte Wilderness area.

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)

Camping out in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

There was barely room for our small North Face tent. But it was home. (Shortly after this photo it started raining.)

Old growth forest in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

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.

Massive sugar pine tree in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

Peggy caught me standing next to one of the massive sugar pines. (Photo By Peggy Mekemson.)

Gravesite in Red Butte Wilderness.

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.

Burial site of airplane crash victims in Red Butte Wilderness.

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.

Tree torn apart for bugs in Red Butte Wilderness.

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 in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

Cedar Grove is aptly named for its magnificent cedars. (Found at #5 on the map.)

Corn Lilies in red Butte Wilderness.

We also found corn lilies growing nearby in a meadow where the Goff Trail joins the Butte Fork Trail.

Trillium growing in Red Buttes Wilderness.

As we did this trillium.

Tree blaze carved into a cedar tree in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

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.

Curt Mekemson backpacking in the Red Butte Wilderness.

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)

Peggy Mekemson stands on trail in Red Buttes Wilderness.

The trail between the cedars and Lake Azalea almost disappeared on one occasion. Peggy is standing on it.

Azalea Lake in Red Buttes Wilderness.

We finally reached Azalea Lake. Have I mentioned it was wet out?

Curtis Mekemson camping in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

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.)

Azalea Lake in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

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.

Curtis and Peggy Mekemson in Red Buttes Wilderness.

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

    • 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

  1. 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

  2. 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.


    • 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

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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!!

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.
    Happy trails!

    • 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

  9. 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

  10. 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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. 🙂

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