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By Karen Kefauver, Spin City

Karen Kefauver got off her bike and into hiking boots to tackle her first backpacking overnight trip in 23 years. She joined the new California State Parks adventure trip, a guided loop from Waddell State Beach to Berry Creek Falls. (Karen Kefauver — Contributed)

For weeks I had worried about my upcoming backpacking trip. Last time I hoisted a bulging, 50-pound backpack, I was 23 years old. Fast forward two decades and I had to face the indignities of my aging body. Despite my fears, I knew I would be in good hands during California State Parks’ “Waddell to Waterfalls” trip. After all, it wasn’t a trek to Mount Everest — it was a two-day, one-night excursion.

Nevertheless, it felt epic. And, for a cyclist, backpacking was going to be a different beast.

While I had some fitness training from bike riding, I had intended to do some preparation specifically for my hiking trip. Suddenly it was time to go and I hadn’t broken in my boots or practiced schlepping a full pack. In fact, I didn’t even have a pack until two days before the trip when my friend loaned me hers. I dreaded being the slowest hiker in the group — the one who held everyone up.

Tossing and turning the night before the trip, I thought of a quick fix: ditch my tent! I’d lighten my load and be able to move faster. I could sleep out under the stars! While I was on a roll, I gobbled down a bag of trail mix to further lighten my pack. I went back to bed confident that I wouldn’t need a tent for just one night.

The next morning, I drove an hour north of Santa Cruz to our group’s meeting place at Big Basin’s Rancho Del Oso Visitor Center, near Waddell Beach. I felt lucky that I had snagged a spot on a trip organized by the California State Parks. This summer marked the launch of their new program, California State Parks Backpacking Adventures. It included five trips that were open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis. All the trips, ranging from one to three nights in nearby state parks, sold out quickly.

I didn’t know who else who had signed up for my trip, “Waddell to Waterfalls,” but I did know that state parks had specifically designed the trip for backpacking newbies and for those who enjoyed a more relaxed pace. Plus, we would be led by a pair of naturalists who would teach us about the rich history of the region along the way.

At the visitors center, our round of introductions was fun and friendly even though I felt goofy sporting my mismatched — yet moisture-wicking — hiking outfit instead of my cool, Lycra bicycling kit. Our group of seven included: John, 49, an engineer from Santa Cruz (and a fellow cyclist); Mike, 41, a communications manager from Palo Alto; Dana, 27, a physician’s assistant from Santa Cruz; Greg, 59, an engineer from Aptos; and Maxim and Vanessa, a 30-something couple of scientists from San Jose.

It turned out that all of us were especially stoked to have a pair of highly trained naturalists to guide us. Our California State Parks guides, Jeremy, 28, and Erik, 22, greeted us and immediately their intelligence and humor signaled a great trip ahead. They reviewed our route:

We’d follow the Skyline to the Sea trail up to Berry Creek Falls and then continue up to Sunset Trail Camp for our overnight. The next day, we would climb from camp up Howard King Trail to Mt. McAbee Overlook for one of the best panoramic views in the Santa Cruz Mountains — and the highest point of our trip at 1,739 feet. Then we’d head back down to the ocean. The estimated distance was seven miles the first day and nine miles the second. It didn’t sound like a lot at first.

We got started around 10 a.m. at what I considered a brisk pace. Soon enough, I was trailing the group, accompanied by Eric. In the back, just like I had feared.

The first few miles I wondered what I had gotten myself into. As I trudged along, gradually, my discomfort with the pack eased and I listened to Eric’s description of the Ohlone people. I realized how little I knew. For instance, the Ohlone was a complex association of approximately 50 different nations or tribes with about 50 to 500 members each, not just one monolithic group.

I imagined what it must have been like to live among the towering redwoods, and realized that in my day-to-day life I often take these treasures for granted.

It’s amazing that some of the ancient coastal redwoods are 1,000 to 2,500 years old, far predating the 1902 establishment of Big Basin Redwoods — California’s oldest state park. In the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains, some of these redwoods are 50 feet in diameter and as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

We stopped at the lush Berry Creek Falls to eat our lunches. We brought all our own food. The guides carried water filters and provided hot water in the morning and evening, making it much easier for us since we didn’t have to carry water for the whole two days. As I munched my sandwich, I discovered that one of my fellow hikers, Mike Kahn, knew Big Basin like the back of his hand and worked at the Sempervirens Fund. He explained that the nonprofit organization (originally a club) launched the movement in 1900 to create Big Basin Park. It was a powerful reminder to me that political activism and land conservation play critical roles in creating and maintaining beautiful places like Big Basin.

After a leisurely break, soaking our feet in the water, hopping across rocks and admiring the cascading falls, we were on our way again. I was in good spirits and was assured that there was no rush at all. I relaxed about my pace, though I was still humbled that I was even slower than Vanessa, who was in the third trimester of her pregnancy.

On our way to Sunset camp that afternoon, I really started to notice my tired back and shoulders aching. But I was grateful that my pack fit perfectly. I was also delighted that I had purchased a pair of hiking poles on a whim at the last minute. They helped me distribute my weight better, gave some relief to my quads and hamstrings and kept my arms active, too.

By the time we set up camp, I had avoided the worst perils of the day: poison oak and stinging nettles. The day’s highlight was the thrill of jumping beneath one of the Berry Creek waterfalls. Nothing beats a powerful, gushing jet of freezing water on your head to put you right smack in the moment. What a way to connect with nature and wash away some grime at the same time.

As it got dark, we prepared our dinners. I was pleasantly surprised that the bag of dehydrated powder I had purchased actually did taste a little like lasagna after I added boiling water to the package. (Another backpacking first!). Later, the guides prepared hot tea with Manzanita leaves they had collected earlier that day and surprised us afterward with dried fruit and chocolate sauce.

Finally, the moment of truth: After a long day hiking, I could settle into my — nope, no tent! I laid out my inflated sleeping pad on the dirt and discovered I had forgotten to bring a ground cloth during my haste to downsize my pack. I managed to borrow one. I snuggled into my sleeping bag to camp beneath the stars. But within moments, I was covered by a blanket — not the warm fuzzy kind, but a blanket of mosquitos! I had to laugh. I had considered a tent a shelter from the weather, larger animals and prying eyes. I hadn’t considered mosquitos. Turned out I was lucky again, my friend had also loaned me a mosquito net to wear on my head. I tied on the green mesh hoodie and looked like a beekeeper. I went to sleep safe from the blood-sucking pests.

The next morning, I awoke and discovered sore muscles I never even knew I had. But it didn’t matter. I was backpacking! Yep, there I was, a bicyclist having a blast in the woods, camping out, no wheels in sight. I confess, I did indeed dream once or twice about riding some of those trails (which are off limits to cyclists).

As I strapped on my backpack, now lighter, for the remaining nine-mile hike back to Waddell Beach, I felt flush with pride. I was trying something new, making new friends and learning a lot about the land I love. And, believe it or not, I was not even on my bicycle!

Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer and avid cyclist who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009. For more information on backpacking with California State Parks, visit: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=28503


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