Kari Hays is a 2022 Trail Sisters and The North Face Adventure Grant recipient. This is her adventure story!
Three strangers met in-person in early October in southern Oregon. The reason for coming together was complex, and simple, at the same time. They each sought connection, in a time of continued uncertainty, loss, and mental and physical exhaustion. The stated intent of the meeting was to adventure onto a trail winding through a designated Wild and Scenic River landscape and introduce two of the participants to the sport of fastpacking. Fastpacking is defined as trail running and ultralight backpacking, in which people attempt to include everything required for overnight camping into a pack and run/fast hike a trail.
I was one of those strangers to the other two participants. I had previous experience with the sport of fastpacking, when I attempted to fastpack the entirety of the Rogue River Trail and return to the start, in June of last year. Due to adverse weather conditions, that trip was cut short, and instead of the 80-mile total that had been planned, the trip totaled 60 miles of out and back. Although the trip was not completed as planned, I felt as if I had found one of the best ways to combine my passions, that of trail running and camping. After last year’s trip, I eagerly tried to enlist my friends, acquaintances and family in planning another fastpacking trip, and was unable to find anyone who was willing or able to submit to the training and time required to become prepared for such a trip.
Enter the announcement from Gina with Trail Sisters and the adventure grant opportunity presented by Trail Sisters and The North Face. I applied, thinking there was little chance I would be chosen, with the intent of utilizing the grant money to give to other mental health clinicians to prepare for a fastpacking trip. I was so pleased to find out I had been given the grant and promptly messaged folks within the trail running and mental health care communities, in order to solicit interest in the trip. I was contacted almost immediately by Kara, who lives in Oregon, and was familiar with the Rogue River Trail. She and I connected via phone call and she expressed her excitement at being able to connect to other mental health clinicians who also enjoyed “crazy adventures”. Kara and I seemed to mesh well in our outlooks on trail running and the understanding this trip would test limits.
Lindsay was another respondent and she was excited by the opportunity, as evidenced by the amount of exclamation points in her initial email introducing herself. When she and I spoke over the phone, she stated that while she lives in Washington state, she has considered a move to Oregon and was interested in the trip, as well as the opportunity to connect with Kara and I as possible friends and colleagues. Lindsay and I seemed to have an appreciation for the outdoors and the benefits on mental health that time in nature brings to each of us.
Over the next three months, we planned, encouraged and shared training pictures via text. We also video called in order to see each other’s gear and packs, to ensure we had necessary items for the trip. The trip was planned for a weekend in early October, with the hopes of avoiding the worst of what has become an annual wildfire season. However, while on a trip to the east coast in August, I received a text asking if I had heard about the newest of the multiple Oregon wildfires. The Rum Creek fire was started via lightning strike, right in the area of the Rogue River Trail. This fire eventually consumed 21,347 acres, led to evacuations of several small communities, air quality indexes (AQI) in the 500’s (anything above 300 AQI is hazardous), and the loss of one human life, that of Logan Taylor, who was a wildland firefighter from Talent, OR.
Amid this tragedy and uncertainty, we reconsidered the plans to fastpack the Rogue River Trail and pivoted to consider another trail for our trip. Eventually, though, due to favorable weather conditions and the extremely diligent work of the wildland firefighters and crews, the Rum Creek fire’s effect was lessened. The decision was reached among the three of us to forge ahead with the original plan of fastpacking the Rogue River Trail, although the normal road to the trailhead was closed by a landslide. Although there were risks, we felt confident that we would be safe enough to complete the trip on this trail, and stepped onto the trail at approximately 8 am on Saturday, October 8th. After a land acknowledgement and moment of silence for Logan and the effects of the wildfire, we began the first day of the fastpack, energized by the sunshine and thought that we would be the only humans on this section of the trail.
Highlights from the first day included the sound of the Rogue River flowing alongside the trail, the brief scare involved in coming around a bend of the trail and my mind believing a wolf was on the trail (it was a large Husky/Malamute dog, belonging to a river guide who was walking it while on a break from the river), trying to eat my Snickers bars quickly before they melted completely in the 80* heat, and the process of getting to know both Kara and Lindsay better through our conversations while moving through the landscape. We ended the day at the Tucker Flat Campground, with a total of 23 miles completed in approximately 8 hours, which included snack breaks and water refill stops. Kara immediately scouted a route from the campground down to the creek running alongside it, where we all slid down the hill to soak in the cold water, rinsing the sweat and dirt from the trail and attempting to calm sore and tired muscles. Kara and Lindsay then went on a mission to find a soda, which had been Lindsay’s trail daydream all day, from some people on a fishing trip who were occupying a site at the campground.
Darkness came quickly in the canyon and we ate our various trail meals, while comparing preferred styles of staying warm while camping. During the night, the temperatures plunged to below 40*, testing our abilities to sleep and stay warm in our separate bivy sacks. The ongoing effects of the lack of moisture meant we were unable to start a campfire, so we woke up to the cold, pre-dawn and tried to move sore limbs toward the goal of eating breakfast and packing up in order to complete our day’s mileage. The goal was to reach the Foster Bar parking lot, 17 trail miles away, by the early afternoon and drive to our hotel rooms in Gold Beach, where the promise of a hot tub and restaurant food awaited.
As the sun came up over the valley, we began our second day shuffling along the trail, hoping to warm up our muscles and dry out the parts of our running clothes that had not dried from yesterday’s jump in the creek. We probably would have made a sight to anyone who saw us, as we were mostly dressed in what we had slept in, base layers, sweaters, and gloves usually better suited to winter adventures. The temperature did eventually warm up, as did we, and we reveled in the difference in the trail on today’s section. The Rogue River Trail from the Graves Creek Boat Ramp is rocky and is the highest elevation of the trail, with some parts of the trail requiring us to pick our way through rock washouts on cliff sides, crawl over or under downed trees, and listen and look very carefully while crossing rock fields, for that telltale buzzing sound that would indicate a disturbed rattlesnake. Luckily, the only animals that scared us were the dog on trail, a few chipmunks dashing through the trees and one tiny garter snake making an appearance on the trail, quickly slithering off-trail because of the shriek it provoked from one of the trip members. The second day of the trail brought sightings of several river boats, whose occupants often shouted up the canyon at us, or waved cheerfully, as we alternated hiking and running the trail above them. This section of the trail was wider and while portions opened up to wide vistas of the valley and river, it was obvious we were getting closer to the coast. The vegetation mirrored that and ferns started making more of an appearance along the trail, as the humidity started making itself noticeable.
We encountered a hiking party that was traveling the trail in four days, alternating between hiking and riding the hired rafts, and we jokingly challenged them to a race to the end of the trail. We passed them twice along the trail, as we stopped to appreciate and spend moments in gratitude when we encountered the Flora Dell Falls, which became a highlight of the second day. The folks in the group expressed their admiration for our mode of transportation and the ability to carry all we needed for the mileage on our backs. It is my hope that this encounter leads to more folks becoming interested in traveling light along the trails and in the sport of fastpacking in general.
The completion of the trail was logged at approximately 2pm, with a total 17 miles in just over 6 hours of trail. We dropped our packs at the vehicle waiting for us at the parking lot and went to soak ourselves in the Rogue River. This was the first opportunity during the trip to get into the river, so we sat in the water at the boat ramp, watching various rafts and boats pulling up at the end of their trips. We soaked up the sun, clear water and camaraderie for a while, before turning our attention to eating all of the food at the nearest restaurant.
I asked Kara and Lindsay to provide their favorite moment from the trail and their most challenging moment. Kara stated, “my favorite part was getting to know you both, and all of our great conversations on the trail…as well as the feeling of accomplishment at the end! The most challenging part was my broken sleeping pad and freezing at night, lol!” Lindsay stated, “my most challenging part was getting sick and worrying about all that went along with that, the doubt, worry, and fear. My favorite moments were: 1) starting out on a beautiful morning and seeing the gorgeous canyon that lay ahead. 2) scoring Pepsi and water from the campers at Tucker Flat. 3)the feeling of complete self-sufficiency on the trail carrying all I needed to survive (and more!) on my back.” As for me, my favorite moments were all of the trail miles, the laughter, the ability to share a favorite trail and sport with other people, and the continued contact with Kara and Lindsay after this adventure (we’re trying to plan another trip together). The most challenging part was the logistics of getting to the trailhead amid the effects of the wildfire, which closed the road that is normally used to access that part of the trail. Thank you, Trail Sisters and The North Face, for the generosity and spirit of adventure that enabled us to make this trip!