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.