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Travelin' light

Simplicity reaps rewards in the rainforest

Portland Business Journal - by Brian J. Back, Business Journal Staff Writer

Date: Sunday, May 27, 2001, 9:00pm PDT

Most seasoned backpackers know that when it comes to walking several miles in the mountains with a monkey-load of supplies on their back, packing should hinge on logical simplicity.

Yet in the age of a booming recreation economy, retailers are wooing outdoor enthusiasts with such "essentials" as global positioning systems, portable showers, headlamps, foldable tables and chairs, backpacks for dogs, baking kits, deluxe sleeping mats, fleece mittens, platypus water bags, trekking poles, heart-rate monitors, double-burner stoves and espresso grinders.

And even though national forests contain more miles of road than the entire federal highway system, unwitting consumers might believe they need a behemoth sport utility vehicle to navigate a national park parking lot.

Whatever happened to the Old West cowboy who required nothing more than a 6-inch blade and a pouch of beans?

While all of backpacking's bells and whistles can make life easier--often at the expense of making the outdoors less ... outdoorsy--more stuff means more weight. More weight means less mobility, of course, and most old-school backpackers don't like waiting around for someone to pack up their bean grinder when the summit must be reached by nightfall.

As the Cascade Mountain snow lines melt a few feet higher each day, how does a novice backpacker sort out the bare essentials from the frivolous extras? On a recent four-day trek with four friends in upstate Washington's Olympic National Forest, I was determined to answer that question.

Though I've had the good fortune to backpack over the years in mountain ranges spanning North Carolina to California, I've found packing gear to be a constant learning process. Just ask my buddy Doug about the time in Georgia's Cohutta Wilderness when I strapped a frying pan to my pack.

Lately, I've erred on the side of simplicity--yet I always seem to bring along one or two items that never make it out of my pack.

This time, I was determined to find out why.

DAY ONE: A poncho beats an SUV

Even in heavy rains, the visibility driving through Olympic National Forest is fine. Sadly, that's because most of the landscape is barren from unsightly clear-cutting. The most significant driving danger is evading the logging trucks that constantly barrel down Highway 101.

It wasn't until we reached Olympic National Park that the towering Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees canvassed our group in a green, mossy fantasy land. As soon as we stepped stiffly out of the car, fat raindrops were coming down full force, sopping our backpacks and seeping into every open pocket of our gear.

It was already 6 p.m. and we had 5 miles to go before setting camp. The suede rancher hat I love to wear on summer hikes (because it blocks sun and scoops up cold river water) proved futile in the downpour. It was soaked through in minutes, leaving me to my rain jacket hood, which was already wet inside and out.

A park ranger buried in a pea-green rain jacket approached us to check our back-country permits. After joking about how our group seemed to all be wearing blue, the woman offered a few back-handed quips.

"You guys are crazy for hiking in with this rain," she said. "But then again, I guess I have the luxury to hike in there whenever I want to."

As we furiously dressed into rain shells and strapped on our backpacks, my 2-pound REI Thinsulate sleeping bag took on some water as it sat vulnerable on the trailhead parking lot pavement. That snafu landed me a few unwelcome moist surprises in the tent later that night.

But, entering an ancient forest once described to me by a friend as one that breathes with life, we were in great spirits. And there were two crucial lifesavers in my backpack that would prove paramount to my spirits in the coming days: dry bags.

Normally gear I use solely on kayaking or canoe-camping trips, the relatively lightweight waterproof bags contained dry socks, T-shirts, long pants, a fleece jacket and, eventually, my sleeping bag. I've found in recent years that the bags fit snug in my backpack and actually allow me to "compartmentalize" my gear.

For further protection from the rain, I stored my camera in a plastic bag in my fanny pack and tucked items such as matches and dry food into individual plastic freezer bags. Gore-Tex aqua socks and water-sealed boots kept my feet dry, even through puddles and creeks. And in its apparent wisdom, Powell's Travel Store in Pioneer Courthouse Square sells topographic Hoh River trail maps on waterproof, tear-proof plastic paper.

Even as I scurried to prop up my Kelty Zen tent on the banks of the Hoh that night, I knew I had dry reserves in spite of being soaked to the bone. Yet while large tarps are crucial in rainy weather to provide a layer underneath the tents, I was the only camper who brought one. I could hear the park ranger laugh as I rolled my one small tarp underneath the tent. It was blue.

After a makeshift camp was set, our group of five huddled under a drippy fir tree to cook black bean burritos with cheddar cheese and diced tomatoes on a small, collapsible isobutane stove. A few sips of bourbon kept our bellies warm.

There was nothing left to do after dinner but seek shelter in our tents, which had been collecting moisture inside and out. Were it not for my full-length Thermarest Camplite sleeping pad, sleep would have been a wash. Later that night, when it sounded as if the rain had tapered off slightly, I called out to Joe, who apparently was still indulging in the bourbon under the fir tree.

"Is it still raining?" I asked.

"This is a rainforest," he called back with laughter. "What do you think?"

Throughout the night, as the Hoh River roared with melting spring glacier water, the rainforest lived up to its name in manners both magical and merciless.

DAY TWO: The power of fire

Morning passed in a soggy haze as heavy rains continued well past 9 a.m. Sleeping in, however well it could be pulled off, was a natural.

When the downpour finally ceased, we sat by the river and boiled water for hot tea to drink with a breakfast of dried fruit and peanut butter bars. The clouds rose slowly to reveal the deep canyon walls of the Hoh River valley. Throughout the night, snow had thoroughly dusted the canyon's highest peaks.

Joe and his wife Lisa, in a courteous but determined morning mood, suggested we stay put at this picturesque campsite another full day and night. Without dry bags and Gore-Tex aqua socks, all of their clothes and gear were soaked through.

But as the sun burned through the noontime clouds, the rest of us persuaded Joe and Lisa to hike farther in. After seeking the advice of two other passing backpackers, we decided to hike upriver another five miles to the base camp for Mount Olympus.

It turns out a Christian group of 20 young backpackers was hoping to summit Mount Olympus that same day. They started out from the base camp in the morning but backed off when they saw how low the snow level was. Another lone backpacker, a tall man from New Zealand, told us the next day that he made it all the way to a lake basin below Mount Olympus' glaciers, where the snow was already knee-deep.

At any rate, we hiked that day past the 20 friendly Christian backpackers, spread out in groups of two or three for several miles. I noticed they all sported rain shells that covered the entirety of their individual backpacks. Though it's unclear how those contraptions fared the night before, the bright rain-shell colors shouted pure brilliance as we passed them on the muddy trail.

The five-mile hike past gushing waterfalls and grassy prairies was glorious, as shafts of sun poked through the towering Sitka spruce and Douglas fir trees. Under sunlight, the bright green forest took on an entirely new personae, and fragrant springtime smells filled the air.

After setting up camp that afternoon, this time with ample daylight left to burn, we spent a full hour nursing to life a campfire from soggy alder tree branches and candles. Our efforts paid off, and for several hours the slow-roasting fire dried us out while providing a social roundtable under the moonlight that night. Thanks to the fire, even a drenched bag of mixed nuts was transformed into a roasted treat.

Finally, our group had time to enjoy those camping accessories that add a little weight to the backpack but somehow seem worth it: a deck of cards, a frisbee, a book of Native American myths (one of which was curiously titled "The Boy Who Ate Too Many Heads") and, of course, s'mores.

After all, tossing rocks into the river is fun--for maybe five minutes tops.

Before turning in, we washed our sets of small cooking pots and plastic ware. A nearby hoisting rope allowed us to tie up a backpack full of food and other scented items to keep away bears waking from winter hibernation.

A few of us also packed "bear canisters" which can be rented from forest service information centers for a donation of a few bucks. Though bulky and a few pounds of extra weight, the canisters can be tossed around like playthings but can't be penetrated. I think we all slept better that night knowing our breakfast of oatmeal and honey would be a sure thing.

To save weight and keep scented items to a minimum, hard-core backpackers use Dr. Bronner's liquid soap for washing their faces, washing their dishes and even brushing their teeth. It's purely biodegradable, but the strong eucalyptus-flavored Dr. Bronner's often makes me gag if it drips into the back of my throat. This night was no exception.

The Hoh River canyon was deeper and more majestic than the night before, a point made clear by the nearly full moon. Joe and Lisa thanked the rest of us for pushing them on.

DAY THREE: The easy way out

With an agreed-upon goal to hike 10 miles back to the Jeep on day three and drive an hour to the Olympic National Forest coast where we could catch the sunset and a completely full moonrise, our group awoke early. We decided to make time by foregoing lunch until we arrived back at the trailhead.

To prepare, a few of us used a compact water filter to pump full Nalgene bottles from the Hoh. Powdered lemon-lime Gatorade was mixed in a few bottles for flavor and bonus electrolytes.

The day was warmer than the two previous, and no clouds veiled what looked like a turquoise blue sky behind polarized sunglasses. It was a perfect day to master the art of "layering"--wearing clothes that can be readily peeled both off to combat heavy sweat and on to avoid chills. Long-sleeve T-shirts are integral in this mix.

And lest it go unmentioned, polyester-lycra undies go a long way toward whisking away sweat and providing comfort on a long hike. As many a backpacker knows, when spending a few days away from hot showers and cold beer, the simple pleasures can matter most.

Even though our packs were lighter from two days of eating and drinking away weight, we had 10 miles to hike in what we hoped would be four hours. Nimble yet sturdy Merrell hiking boots treated my feet well, though the Gore-Tex aqua socks--still necessary for creek crossings--gave my feet some nice blisters.

One little treat I always save for the end of a long hike is a small bag of clean dry clothes and some comfortable sandals. That afternoon, I was not disappointed.

Sweaty and intoxicated by the forest's aromatic foliage, we ambled into what was now a crowded parking lot by 2 p.m. Dropping the packs off our weary backs, we felt light and slow, like astronauts striding across a paved moonscape. Under the afternoon sun, we ate peanut butter- and honey-laced bagels, listened to the Rolling Stones "The London Years" and spoke proudly of our accomplishments.

It was a short drive to the far western stretches of the Olympic Peninsula, where we stopped at a roadside gas station for a six-pack of hoppy Northwest microbrews. In all of our rugged glory, we made the call that authentic old-school backpackers detest most. As humbled as I am to admit it, we decided to "site camp."

No more hard labor in the untamed wilderness. No more hiking in soggy socks. No more inclines with 40-pound backpacks. No more scrubbing pots, pumping water straight from the river or hoisting bear canisters above the forest floor. Instead, we settled a spot where we could park the Jeep a few feet from our tents and watch tidepools from a sea cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Gear was no longer an issue as we threw a frisbee on the beach and watched the sun set while a full moon rose simultaneously from the east. And while I'm now dizzy with excitement for another summer season of Northwest backpacking, a site camping finale to our adventure in Olympic National Forest was nothing short of spectacular. So what did I find out about what gear makes the cut for a "primitive" Northwest backpacking trip? Only that it's all situational.

Outside of a few essentials, there is no absolute formula for backpacking. At the same time, I no longer walk through the woods with a frying pan on my back. Backpacking is a constant learning process, and determining what is needed for each trip is a big part of the fun.