All’s Well that Ends (grin)… The Sierra Trek Series

Treks have always been about adventure. In addition to the physical and mental challenge, there is a more important element of experiencing nature on a very personal level, both the beauty and the wonder. Imagine, for example, coming on this Aspen that bears have climbed and used as a marking tree to establish their territory.

This is my last post on the first Sierra Trek series. Last week left us in the American River Canyon, waiting while the US Bureau of Reclamation blasted rocks off the hill sides in preparation for building the Auburn Dam. (The discovery of an earthquake fault zone under the dam would lead to its not being built.) Today I will take us on into Auburn, California where the 100 mile backpack trip ended.

As in the previous posts, I have selected photos from other Treks since I don’t have any from the first. There are several other areas in California I would lead Treks besides the Sierras. These photos are from the Trinity Alps. 

Another photo of a bear tree in the Trinity Alps of California. And yes, those are claw marks.

Early the next morning we had an important decision to make: whether to wade across the American River in water up to our belly buttons and then follow the river or climb up and along the steep canyon following alternative trails. I let the Trekkers vote and they voted to cross the river. One woman was deathly afraid, however, and broke down in hysterics. She was the same person who had, at first, refused to ride the Squaw Valley tram. We offered to carry all of her gear and even carry her, all to no avail. Finally, I decided we would all hike the canyon route. I was not about to split our group again. (It was the only time in my years of leading Treks that I ever allowed participants to vote while on the trail. Treks, I decided, were not a democracy.)

This shot of the Trinity Alps provides a great perspective on why the mountain range was given its name. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A view from farther away. These are rugged mountains that provide challenging, beautiful backpacking opportunities.

Our last night was fifty-fifty on the plus and minus scale. On the plus side, I knew that we had succeeded. Our Trekkers, except for the two or three who were now riding in the jeep, had made it— survived if you will. We had managed to solve each of the crises we had faced along the trail. I could say goodbye to the Trekkers the next day knowing that I had put everything I had into getting them through the nine days. On the minus side, Steve had taken a few of the ‘cool’ Trekkers to camp away from the main group. I hated seeing this, it was a really bad decision, but it was already a done deal by the time I came into camp as rear guard. I could have hiked up the canyon and insisted the group rejoin us, but I just didn’t have the energy to do it, physically or mentally.

The Trinity Alps includes a number of impressive waterfalls.

Another…

And another.

Sunday, we hiked into Auburn Fairgrounds as a group with the Trekkers in high spirits, singing the Ham Cheddarton song. They had a bar-b-que chicken feast to look forward to and then they were going home— home to hot showers, clean clothes and loved ones. They had enough tales to fill the next week and possibly their lifetime. As we approached the fairgrounds, our Auburn volunteers and several Board members were there to cheer our arrival.

I didn’t know how things would end. At best, I hoped our Trekkers would recognize that even though we had made enough mistakes to fill a book (or at least a long chapter), we had tried as hard as we humanly could to rectify them. And I had learned, boy had I learned. Mainly, I felt relief. I was going back to focus on our mail fundraising campaigns with a vengeance.

What took me by surprise was the response as Trekkers started to leave.

“Thanks, Curt, for the most incredible experience in my life. Where are we going next year?”

“You and Steve were great, Curt. I would like to help with next year’s planning.”

And on and on. People were excited about their experience. It was one of the most difficult things that they had ever done, and they had succeeded. They left feeling better about themselves, and that feeling translated over to us and the Lung Association. Instead of the negative comments I expected, and in some ways deserved, we were getting rave reviews. While not everyone was eager for next year’s adventure, most were asking, even demanding that we repeat it.

I left that day not quite convinced but leaning toward doing another Trek. One thing was for sure, my experience had matched that of the Trekkers. The event had been one of the most difficult things I had done in my life from both a physical and mental perspective. I came out of the Trek with a new confidence in myself and a new understanding of what I was capable of accomplishing— and an increased love of the wilderness.

One final amusing note: that night as I took my first shower in nine days, I reached around behind me to wash my fanny and it wasn’t there. It had disappeared. Between the trail review work, my trauma with Jo, and the Trek, I had lost 20 pounds in two weeks.

This is Sapphire Lake, one of a series of high alpine lakes in the Trinity Alps.

A reflection shot along a trail climbing up into the mountains.

Peggy caught this luscious scene along a small creek where we refilled our water bottles. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

While this rock caught my attention.

I am the fan of the small as well as the large when out in the woods. This is a shelf fungus.

A dandelion. Have you ever picked one of these and blew on it to watch the seeds go flying off?

And a butterfly on a Leopard Lillie.

EPILOGUE

The Sierra Trek turned out to be a success. We hadn’t raised a lot of money on our adventure, but special events rarely do the first time. What we had raised in abundance were new volunteers, the life blood of volunteer organizations. These were people who, because of their Trek experience, would develop a deep commitment to our organization.

I had several ideas on how to increase our returns and reduce our risks. In the future, we would set a pledge minimum and charge a registration fee. I would also set an age limit of 18 unless the minor was accompanied by a responsible adult. There would be no more 11-year-olds wandering in the woods by themselves. This wasn’t a negative comment on the Mouseketeers, they had been great, but the nature of the Trek made it much more of an adult kind of event. I would also limit group size to 20, and eventually 15, making the event much more manageable and reducing its environmental impact. And finally, our veterans would become the backbone of the program, providing advice and help in planning, organizing, and leading Treks.

From a personal perspective, my “far-out excuse for escaping to the woods” succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. I happily spent the next 25 years of my life leading wilderness adventures. When I worked it right, I could spend most of my summers out in the woods, especially when I supplemented official Lung events with personal outings. Treks also became an important annual event for many of the participants. Eighteen years after I had told Orvis he might be too old to Trek, he was still backpacking. He did his last trip with us when he was 88 years old. Altogether, he had raised the organization well over $100,000. That Trek also happened to be Peggy’s first long distance backpack experience. “How can I complain with Orvis out here?” she had told me with a grin, and hiked up another mountain.

I went on to create bike treks, winter treks, and canoe treks. I also pushed the Trek Program nationwide with the American Lung Association, persuading the organization that the events were valid fundraisers, and becoming the national consultant on Treks. For a while, Treks became one of the top special events for ALA. Charlie had been right that night we had laid our sleeping bags out under the stars at our Last Chance campground and he had declared: “What an experience. I can’t believe I am out here. Someday, people will be doing these Treks all over the nation!”

Having created the Sierra Trek in 1974, I had turned trekking into a national fund-raising  event for the American Lung Association by 1981. This is a photo of me on the cover of the American Lung Association’s national magazine.

24 comments on “All’s Well that Ends (grin)… The Sierra Trek Series

  1. What you wrote about your response, and that of the other trekkers, at the end reminded me of the general spirit after my trans-Pacific voyage on Alaska Eagle. I don’t think it’s possible to fairly judge any kind of experience like this while you’re in the middle of it, but on the other hand, impressions and judgments are taking place, and the sense of accomplishment almost always leads to deeper commitments of various sorts.

    • The highs and lows of the adventure stuck in my mind like no other Trek I was ever to lead Linda. There is no way I could repeat it, or would want to. It will always have its own unique place up in my memory banks. Tell me more about your trans-Pacific journey. Have you blogged about it? –Curt

    • The 20 pounds are close to guaranteed (if you have 20 pounds to lose) Peggy, but I don’t think I would recommend the program. (Laughing) And Sapphire Lake is a jewel, so to speak. 🙂 –Curt

  2. This was as enjoyable to read as it is impressive to contemplate all you accomplished. What a gift to be able to combine two things you care about in such a fun and meaningful way. Awesome!

    • Thanks, Lex. The experience made me a life-long fan of the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s philosophy: follow your bliss. If you do what you are passionate about, doors will open. –Curt

    • Thanks. As far as I know, Alison, the only remaining treks are three day bike treks. The reality from a non-profit organization perspective is that shorter bike treks can involve many more people and thus raise more money, which is their bottom line. The Sacramento organization, for example, has now been running it’s three day bike trek, The Emigrant-Trails Bike Trek, that I set up in 1987, for 30 years. 300 or so people participate in each annual event raising over $100,000.
      I always had four objectives (beyond getting me out in the woods): Raising money for the organization, of course, making friends for the organization, giving people a significant, potentially life-changing experience, and building support for and appreciation of and protection of wild areas. The three day bike treks are great fundraisers, involve more people, provide a bit of a challenge, and help build loyalty to the organization. They’ve also allowed for the development of strong corporate teams. I like them, but I could never become as passionate about them with the same level of passion I had for longer treks. Because of the wilderness experience, I’ve always preferred backpacking over bicycling, too. –Curt

  3. It ended well… imagine if you didn’t weather challenges and teething problems, and decided not to go or continue? History favours the brave. Kudos to all involved.

  4. Great end to your story, Curt. What a remarkable thing you did for the ALA. You’re probably something of a legend around the halls these days, “Did you know there used to be treks? Yeah, there was this guy…”

  5. Curt, I believe I went on two of your treks: one from Kennedy Meadows to Yosemite Valley floor (about 1978) and another the following year, that was a little less than 100 miles, where we followed parallel to Lake Tahoe. I still have my Northface jacket from those times, (still fits, though a little snug). Gave the Kelty pack to a boy scout who was in need; it was never comfortable anyway). I would have never gone backpacking except for the experience and opportunity that you and the American Heart Assoc. provided. I am still an avid hiker, and live in Florence, Montana, having left California in 2004. Kept in touch with Tom Lovering through the early 80’s but lost touch. Your blog is fabulous! Hello to Peggy! Thanks. Diane Medeiros Russell

    • Hi Diane. And thanks for commenting. I remember you and that particular Trek ever so long ago. That would have been our first trip into Yosemite. I still hang out with Tom on occasion. We’ve made several trips to Burning Man together and a few years ago I rafted down the Colorado with him through the Grand Canyon. Glad to hear you are still out there hiking. My goal is to do several backpacking trips this summer. –Curt

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed this series, Curt, and seeing the photo of you at the end. This, in a small way, reminds me of our Habitat adventures — we don’t raise a ton of money, but we do some good and challenge ourselves. Just having those positive comments from your fellow trekkers may have been reward enough. Just having done it truly is a reward. Thanks for the series! (And your close-up shots are quite good!)

    • “…we do some good and challenge ourselves.” And that says a lot. If we can also have some fun along the way, learn something, plus make sure that our basic needs are met, I’m not sure we can ask much more of life. –Curt

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