August 13, 2020

Into the WILD-erness

userBy Steve Dildine user0 Comment

Grab your pack, load it with the essentials (navigation, shelter, clothing, water, and food), and venture out into the wild for a weekend trip. Seems simple, right, but it’s not always easy. I’ve gone camping for 30 years–tent and RV, at campgrounds and dispersed along forest roads, with family and friends. This camping trip was different. This was a solo trip into the wilderness. Wander the web of trails, carry enough supplies to get through the weekend, and rely on your thoughts to keep you company. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, but enjoyed the freedom to explore where the day took me. Camp is where you make it; choose your own adventure.

The Plan

For many years I have wanted to explore the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, but with a young family that is quite active it can be difficult to get consecutive days to yourself. When the stars aligned I grabbed my pack and made a run for the Blues. I had a 20 mile or so route in mind for my inaugural outing, not a long trip for three days but I was bringing our 10-year-old German Shepherd, Seren, and knew she would need to break up the mileage. As a personal trainer and former athlete, I tend to have a habit of treating hikes as a physical challenge. How fast can I get from A to B, or can I make this climb without taking a break? The dog was going to make me slow down and really get a sense of where I was and enjoy my surroundings.

The Trip

The first day began on a Friday evening. I left our home in Walla Walla a little after 5 pm and arrived at the trailhead around 7 pm. The first leg of the trip was a three mile hike to the Oregon Butte Lookout to make camp before dropping further into the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness via the Smooth Ridge Trail. There were a few other camps already established by the time I made my summit, but I was able to snag a great site just off the trail. As I ate a late dinner of beef jerky while watching the sunset, I was greeted by the host stationed at the lookout.

We talked about my plan for the weekend to seek input, such as trail conditions and to know if the springs listed on the map were actually flowing. Not only did I get some great tips and pointers for my route, I was informed of some other great trails for future trips. There are a plethora of trails listed on the map, but not all are maintained or even still exist. Having the tools to navigate (map, compass, GPS device) and the knowledge of how to apply those tools to real life situations can be a life saver.

Photo Credit: Steve Dildine

Do you see what I see? The Oregon Butte Lookout perched high on the ridge is a great point of reference, watching over my adventure as I explore deeper and deeper into the wilderness.

The next day I received an unexpected wake up call quite early. A pair of owls, which sounded like they were perched atop my tent, were enjoying one heck of a conversation. A slight cat nap later, and I was reawakened by bright morning light as the sun began to rise. After packing up camp and grabbing a quick bite my dog and I made our way down the ridge. We covered roughly seven miles that day, taking time to find McBain Spring and Lodgepole Spring to refill water bottles and scout campsites.

The plan was to get to the Wenaha River several more miles down the trail, but Seren was slowing down. I didn’t want to push her too hard knowing we still had to climb our way back up the mountain the next day. We made camp at Lodgepole Spring early that afternoon and while the dog grabbed some needed rest I realized that I had eight more hours of daylight and nothing to pass the time. A book will be added to the pack next trip. Sure I explored the area around camp, looked for big game, and did some birdwatching. I still had several hours until the sun went down and nobody to talk to. No complaints, though, as it was a rare occurrence. Day gradually turned to night and although I had planned a little star gazing, I fell fast asleep.

Photo Credit: Steve Dildine

This trip was a heck of a way to enter retirement. Seren has explored the Pacific Northwest with our family for a decade. She now measures the success of her days not by the miles she puts in but by the number of belly rubs she receives.

The Plan vs Reality

The last day required another early start. We had a ten mile hike back to the truck followed by another couple hours of driving back home. It was recommended by the lookout host that I do an out and back on the Smooth Ridge Trail because the view coming back up would paint the full picture of the trail. It also helps to gauge time and distance passing familiar reference points from the hike in. The first four miles went great–cool morning air, the aroma of wildflowers, and crisp water from McBain Spring.

It was time to climb back up to the Oregon Butte Lookout. By this point my aging shepherd was slowing down again and began to limp. She made her way to the top but was in a lot of pain. I almost stayed another night to give her time to rest, but figured we could just finish the last three miles one step at a time. Worst case, I would just carry her if needed, and I did. Not to put a damper on the trip, but I carried that dog the final two miles to the truck. A trip to the vet for a check-up and VIP treatment at home made for a quick recovery. Seren is officially retired from backpacking–it was a mutual decision.

Photo Credit: Steve Dildine

Something to keep in mind as we all explore the great outdoors is that we are mere guests in a precious landscape supporting diverse and unique flora and fauna. Be prepared for weather changes, animal encounters, and above all make sure to leave no trace.

Time to Reflect

My wife and I are often asked about the wildlife we see while hiking. Bear questions top the leaderboard. I came across birds, bumblebees, and squirrels this trip. I had hoped to see a bear, possibly a cougar, or even better–Sasquatch! Plenty of tracks and scat, but I didn’t lay eyes on any large game. I know having the dog with me acts as a deterrent, and we definitely weren’t quiet. Conversely, I was most surprised by how quiet it was at night. Other than my early morning hoot and holler, it was absolutely silent.

Despite the hard reality of losing my hiking buddy to retirement, I had a great time venturing into the wild for my first solo backpacking trip. Plans are in the works for the next trip. The Outside Walla Walla team is working on creating a backpacking section to share with everyone, but before we can do that we have a lot of scouting to do.

Go Prepared

On a final note, if you have a backpacking trip in mind or even just a day hike in a new-to-you-area, go prepared. Take a map and compass, and spend some time learning how to use them. Cell service is not reliable. We carry a Garmin inReach Mini. It lets us communicate with family and friends through text messages via satellite, but also sends our location and has an emergency SOS feature if the situation were dire.

Creeks reflected on the map might be dry, and springs can sometimes be difficult to find. A first aid kit for those unexpected accidents and layers for when the weather takes a turn are also essential. It should go without saying, but do your part and be a good steward of the land by leaving no trace. If you can pack it in, you most certainly can pack it out.