By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
Usually, if I’m hiking a trail, it’s because one of my fat tires went flat. Not this time.
I’m ready to try something new this summer, so I’m trading in my mountain bike for hiking boots and a backpack.
What’s it like to hike every step of a trail, no shock absorbers or knobby tires to ease my way through the woods? Will it feel tranquil or torturous to be totally self-contained, schlepping my tent, sleeping bag and half a dozen down pillows? (OK, I’ll leave the pillows at home.)
I haven’t hoisted a backpack for 23 years, so I’ll be moving at a banana slug’s pace instead of bombing downhill. And the only thing I know for certain is that I will never abandon my beloved bicycle — and my bike column.
So what prompted me to climb off the saddle and into boots? Curiosity.
For years, friends have breezily announced, “I’m going backpacking in the Sierras this summer.” Then they would disappear for weeks at a time. I only knew they had resurfaced when their spectacular panoramic photos appeared on Facebook, showing their happy smiles, tanned legs, spry companions and mountaintop picnics. I thought, I have to try this.
At the same time, the California State Parks initiated its Naturalist-Led Backpacking Adventures. The program officially launched this summer and is designed to showcase the beauty of our parks and also introduce beginners to backpacking. There are five trips, ranging from one to three nights, between June and September. Each excursion has 10 guests plus two park guides, one of whom is a naturalist. All the trips sold out within hours of the opening of online registration.
Luckily, I acted fast and signed up for two guided overnight excursions. I call them “baby backpacking trips” because I’m toddling into brand new territory.
One is “Waddell to Waterfalls,” a loop from Waddell State Beach to Berry Creek Falls on July 23-24. The other is “One Night, Three Waterfalls,” from Big Basin Redwoods State Park to Waddell State Beach. Both hikes average 10 miles a day.
By the time I have completed both treks, I expect to be far more familiar with some of the glorious 18,000 acres of Big Basin, which stretch from sea level to 2,000 feet elevation. The park is famed for its ancient redwoods, some measuring more than 300 feet tall and 50 feet in circumference. It’s the oldest state park in California and headquartered in Santa Cruz County. After living next to this gem for 23 years, I’m finally going to explore it more thoroughly.
But first, there’s a lot of preparation — and time is flying.
Last week, I attended a pre-trip meeting at the visitor center at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton. As I drove up the winding, wooded Highway 9, I felt both nervous and excited. (Aren’t hikers and bikers different species? Would I fit in?) The gathering was billed as an opportunity to meet some of the other backpackers, connect with the guides and talk about gear and training. In truth, I went for just one reason: To size up the “competition.” I wanted to assess the fitness level of my fellow hikers and see how I might stack up. In particular, I was hoping to meet others who might hike at my pace.
There was another pressing matter: What would I eat? I don’t even cook at home!
The quartet of young state park guides who will pair off to lead the different trips assured me that I would not go hungry, though we do need to bring all our own food for three meals, plus snacks. I can manage cereal and powdered milk for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch. Dinner might put my taste buds to the test since that meal will need to be something freeze dried.
There was some very good news on the hydration front, however. They will provide two water filters (and will teach us how to use them) as well as supply us with water during both the morning and evening meals. I realized that would be a huge relief not to have to carry so much water on my back. Thank you, merciful State Parks people!
GEAR AND TRAINING
Assured I would be fed adequately, I could focus on less urgent matters like acquiring gear and training for the longer distances.
After confirming that the guides were friendly, and my fellow hikers ranged from novice to veteran, I piped up and confessed I was concerned about my fitness. As a mountain biker, I have strong legs but not much upper body strength. State Parks’ Elizabeth Hammack, who was the one inspired to create this series of trips after attending one of Yosemite’s interpretive guided outings, homed in on one thing. She asked, “Have you been breaking in your boots and going on hikes?” I told the truth: No, I haven’t even bought my boots or my pack yet.
VISIT TO OUTDOORS STORE
I paid a visit to an outdoor outfitter a few weeks ago. I started first in the backpack section, where I felt like an alien. The last time I had shopped for a backpack, in 1993, they were all attached to big metal frames. How times had changed! I tried on an extra small women’s backpack and strapped myself in with help adjusting the waist and chest buckles. It felt like body armor. At least no bear could mess with me.
The salesman suggested I put some weight in the pack, so we loaded me up with three 10-pound bean bags to simulate the amount I would carry on the trip. I tried to pick up the pack, to no avail. Sheepishly, I asked him to help me put it on. Then I lurched around the store.
Like fast-moving storm clouds, grave doubts moved in about my fate on the upcoming trip. I was too tired to look at boots so I returned home, still boot and pack free.
TALK TO THE EXPERTS
It was clear that I needed a backpacking pep talk. So I turned to my Santa Cruz friend Perry for tips. He’s one of those people who goes off into the Sierras, enjoys hiking fast and prides himself on getting the best lightweight stuff. He said I could borrow his titanium cup, “spork,” and pot. I also learned that UC Santa Cruz rents camping equipment.
While talking to my kind friend and the naturalists, I also realized that if I can let go of my competitive nature, I can sink into the beauty of my surroundings. And if I don’t get started walking with my pack soon, yes, I may sink to my knees from the weight.
Fortunately, the naturalist on the trip will make frequent stops to point out flowers and trees. Will I feel like a pack mule slogging along? Possibly. But mules are content in their own way and are strong and stubborn. The main challenge is to let go of my inner backpacking perfectionist and get going.
Just one thing is standing in my way: I need to get on my bike and go buy some hiking boots.
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.