Winter blues and blue skies in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

Winter blues and blue skies in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

for The Siskiyou Hiker
by Karolyn White, deputy director

14 DECEMBER 2018 | BABYFOOT LAKE, OR — Winter is hard for me. Short days, cold weather, dry skin: it has never been my favorite time of the year. I find it easy to get caught up in the dark mornings and darker evenings, to get lost in dark thoughts and even darker moods. I’ve been feeling out of sorts.

But I can’t live like that. So I decided the best way to find myself was to get lost in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. I woke up at 5:30am and was on the road shortly after.

Highway 199 was blanketed in a dense morning fog. Totally socked in. I made my way toward Eight Dollar Mountain Road outside of Selma, OR and slowly made the crawl up the gravel grade toward Babyfoot Lake.

I couldn’t see a thing. The fog was so thick, I followed the curves carved into the gravel because I couldn’t see the edge of the road more than a few feet ahead of me. I know the grade banks off into a steep canyon – my car would never survive the drop – I tried not to think about it.

And then, almost instantaneously, the fog cleared and the air grew warmer. I made it out of the inversion. The sky above was sunny and blue, the valley below filled with an opaque cloud cover. Trapped in the fog, that’s how I felt these last few weeks. Cold and clammy, unsure of what direction to go, blindly trying to make it around curves without falling off the edge. But now the clouds were just a memory. It’s crazy how quickly the sky clears.

Time to keep climbing upward.

I quickly made my way up the road, driving FAST. Skidding around corners, dodging potholes, I laughed maniacally the whole way to the trailhead. I rolled the windows down and screamed until my voice cracked. There was nobody else here.

And that’s important. I had never been to the Kalmiopsis by myself before. Always loaded down with tools with my crew, or hiking with executive director Gabe Howe, I never tried to brave the Wilderness on my own. Today was the day.

It was windy at the Babyfoot Lake trailhead. It’s always windy there. I looked across the valley toward Pearsoll Peak, Whetstone Butte, Eagle Mountain – places that I remember so vividly. Places that I walked with my friends. I was all alone now.

“This will be good for me,” I whispered to myself.

I stepped onto the Babyfoot Rim Trail and immediately fell on my ass. Snow.

“Goddamn winter….” I grumbled along for the next few miles.

My goal was to hike the Little Chetco Loop – a 16 mile circuit beginning at Babyfoot Lake, following the Kalmiopsis Rim, descending into a canyon to a branch of the Chetco River, climbing around Canyon Peak, and ending with a final ridge-walk back to the trailhead. It’s a route with historical significance for SMC.

“That old road is where all of this started,” says Gabe Howe.

And it’s true. The Kalmiopsis Rim was one of the first trails Gabe and his wife, Jill, walked in the early 2000s, when Siskiyou Mountain Club was just an idea. I hiked this loop with them back in October and listened as they swapped stories along the way. Logs sawed here. Campsites there. Animal sightings over there. I pass by those landmarks and can almost hear their voices. I may be by myself, but those memories walk with me.

As I make my way down the canyon, the air starts to get warmer and warmer. Burnt to a crisp from decades of fire, these slopes are completely exposed. South-facing, the rocks are baked by the sun all day, radiating heat from the ground up.

Shedding my hat and jacket, I can’t help but think of summertime. It was at least seventy degrees, and this is December. I wonder how hot it gets in July.

Hopping down the rocky path, I made it to the Little Chetco. The water was flowing bright blue and fast. I stripped my clothes and jumped in, not giving myself a chance to think about it. This wasn’t the time for second-guessing.

“THIS IS GOOD FOR ME,” I yelled. Or, I tried to. The chilly water knocked all of the air out of my lungs. The day may have been warm, the river was not.

I crawled out of the water, and sat in the sun for a while to warm up. I snacked on tortillas and cheese for lunch and listened to the birds hop between the trees. The Kalmiopsis is different when I’m by myself. The sounds are louder, the details more vivid.

I don’t listen for sounds of striking tools or distant footsteps like I do during the field season. I focus on bubbles in the water – some deep bass tones, some high-pitched little pops. I hear how the wind touches the brush. Sing-song creaks cruise through the trunks of burnt snags. Knobcone pine needles brush against each other, like a broom sweeping the floor.

I can’t sit here forever. The days are short in December, and the sun is already hanging low in the sky. It’s a long ascent back to the Rim Trail. I set a steady pace and made my way up, one foot in front of the other.

“Slow is steady and steady is fast,” said my crew leader during my internship season. That it is.

As the trail climbs out of the canyon, the Siskiyous start to take shape across the horizon. I work on my peak-identification.

Preston Peak. Josephine Mountain. Kirby Peak. The Red Buttes. Grayback.

I make it to the summit after a couple hours. My heart is thump, thump, thumping deep in my chest. My face is sunburned. My eyes are wide-open.I look out across the vast Wilderness, and see all of my familiar landmarks. Trails that I worked criss-crossing across the ridges, mountains I climbed with a 50lb pack, rivers where I scrubbed off days of charcoal and grime.

I’ve spent a lot of days in this place, some with my crew, and now some by myself. It’s a tough place. It’s burned and rugged and steep. It’s something you have to work for.

I let out a big bellow, for the whole Wilderness to hear, “THIS WILL ALWAYS BE WORTH IT.”

Worth every bruised knee and cut finger. Every mosquito buzzing in my ear. Every long day of work. It will always be worth it.

I strolled along the Babyfoot Rim back to the trailhead just as the sun was settling below the horizon. The pink colors lit up the white snags, as they always do. And the wind started up full force as I made it back to my car. It’s always windy here.

I drove home, and descended back into the fog bank as I twisted down the gravel road. But the uncertainty didn’t seem so scary anymore. The sky is clear somewhere, I just have to look for it.

Karolyn White is deputy director at Siskiyou Mountain Club. When she’s not on the trail you can find her at the Siskiyou Hiking Center in downtown Ashland. Feel free to stop by, she loves visitors. Bring snacks