The US Forest Service (USFS) has seen the light when it comes to backcountry trail reconnaissance - the ‘ultra’ light, that is. USFS managers in the Los Padres National Forest have chosen a group of veteran ultralight hikers and trail builders, the Litehikers, to complete difficult post-disaster backcountry wilderness patrols or recons.
Ultralight backpackers can move faster, covering more ground in a shorter time than traditional backcountry rangers on horses or those with heavy packs and boots. In dangerous post-disaster conditions, ultralighters can negotiate washed out or snag-ridden trails more safely because of their lower center of gravity and lower profiles. The information gathered by the ultralight crew enables the officials to quickly determine which trails to open, close, or repair. For the public, this speeds the possibility of trail access, rather than typical district-wide closures following a disaster such as a fire or flood.
In the past, this task would have been assigned to paid backcountry rangers who lived in stations throughout the forest, but due to funding issues, the Los Padres Forest Service has partnered with volunteers known as Volunteer Wilderness Rangers (VWRs). VWRs are trained by the Forest Service and operate as non-paid employees. Not all VWRs in this area practice ultralight backpacking, though many are converting after seeing the distances covered by the ultralight crew.
In July of 2007, a wildfire began near Zaca Lake, California and raged for four months, burning over 240,000 acres of forest and declared wilderness areas. Many of the acres burned included the major trail systems of the San Rafael Wilderness, a heavily used backcountry recreation area. Strike one for the trails. The local USFS needed information on the state of these closed trail systems and ordered a recon.
In February of 2008, I was privileged to participate in this wilderness patrol with the elite VWRs who call themselves the Litehikers. Our task was to scout some of the major trail systems (all closed to the public) running through the San Rafael Wilderness and report our findings to the local district office. It was going to be tough - reports from fire crews and fly-overs indicated massive damage in erosion, slides, and tree-falls.
To back up a bit, in the two months leading up to our trip, the area to be scouted had received record rainfall totaling over nineteen inches. The barren hills, literally shaved smooth from the fire, lacked any erosion control such as chaparral or trees. Strike two for the trails. The final blow would come in the form of hurricane force winds following the torrential rains. To be sure, we did not know what to expect, but we had an ominous feeling that there would be serious damage.
The Litehiker Recon Team
Our itinerary was to cover a segment of high use trails in the damaged areas, and we would be out for two nights and three days in good weather. The Litehiker crew consisted of VWR Paul Cronshaw, honorary VWR Rik Christensen, and me, the comparative rookie with twenty years of backpacking experience. The other two gentlemen are veterans of the ultralight scene and Santa Barbara backcountry experts.
Both Paul and Rik are friends with Glen Van Peski (founder of Gossamer Gear, who bowed out of this trip due to illness) and have been his customers since the early days of GVP Gear. Paul has been scouting and hiking the Santa Barbara backcountry for years and has helped build many of my favorite trails with Rik and Ray Ford (the great trail building politician and author of many local hiking books). Rik has just about every GVP and GG pack ever made, including an original silnylon G5 with over 5,000 miles on it! He is also one of the co-creators of GG’s The One tent, with another creation, a ten ounce floorless tent, in the works.
Just the Beginning
As we headed up the Upper Oso trailhead on the first day, one would never know what lurks behind the frontcountry ranges. The fire crews made it a first priority to protect structures, so there were three solid fire breaks between us and the burn zone. At that point, the ticks were the only source of trouble, as they had migrated in droves to the frontcountry in search of food, and we were handy. Every bush I brushed against left my trailside arm and lower leg with three or four ticks scrambling for a hiding place under my clothing (curiously, on our way back after three days in the woods, not one tick made the leap onto my body…we must have lost our city funk).
It was fire road, then singletrack up to Alexander Saddle, where we left the frontcountry. Cresting over the saddle one could see for the first time the magnitude of the damage. I was stunned and speechless, not depressed or upset, but fully awestruck by the power and force of nature. Heading down to Little Pine Springs from the saddle we encountered our first taste of what the future would hold: washed out tread on steep side walls with loose gravel and very little purchase, with plenty of snags. It was clearly not going to be a high mileage day.
I was running point, with Rik behind me, then Paul, who was in charge of documentation. He was snapping pictures and taking notes on the damage for his report. I soon realized why they put me up front. As I climbed over an oak snag and tried to place my foot in the v-bottom of a gully, I heard a rumble. “Rock!” I yelled and dove back over the snag towards Rik, who had huddled up under an overhang right quick. Seconds later we watched as the bowling alley I had just been in was swept clean by a very large hospital ball (as they call it in soccer). I would have caught it right in the gut and been a newspaper headline. It was close, and we agreed we were all thankful that I wore earplugs to all those punk rock concerts as a youngster. The lack of trees and chaparral increase the danger of falling rocks, another reason these trails are closed. I was still alive, which I considered good start.
Our first night was spent at Little Pine Springs camp, and cutting edge gear was flying out of spinnaker packs faster than I could keep up. Rik was setting up his new ten ounce tent (based on The One design). He had swapped out the bug netting and floor and replaced them with a GG Polycro groundsheet to lower the weight. He also used silnylon instead of spinnaker, which is heavier but more economical for the do-it-yourself person.
Rik’s design was impressive for its roominess and refinement. With two apex poles, the interior head room is impressive in comparison to single pole shelters. Rik tied his groundsheet to the four corner tie-outs of his tent, negating the need for rocks on the corners of the fragile Polycro film, keeping the tent/groundcloth unit together and providing a gauge for staking the four corners of the tent. He set up his homemade pack at the foot and his wine bladder blowup pillow in a Cuben Fiber stuff sack at his head. I kidded Rick about drinking the wine before leaving the trailhead so as not to throw off his thirteen pound trailhead weigh-in, in true ultralight fashion. Paul decided to cowboy camp near Rik, and I searched for a tree hang for my Gatewood Cape.
We finished our duties that evening with a quick recon up to Happy Hollow just before dark. It is hard to convey the dramatic change the land underwent between pre- and post-disaster. Due to a Forest Service no-burn policy, the Zaca Fire had an unusual amount of fuel and therefore burned especially hot. Because of this, many of the root bulbs and shoots that might otherwise have survived were roasted instead. The result was that, months after the fire, there were few signs of life. Of particular note was the feeling of walking in a lava field, the ground covered in two inches of black ash and thousands of sandstone shards that had exploded into gravel from the heat. The coastal live oak bark looked like shiny black ceramic glaze, and manzanita bush skeletons were staring at us from all directions.
One boon for me was the absolute lack of poison oak. As someone who is very susceptible to it, I was glad it was gone! Rik and Paul did not care too much, as they have developed their own method for dealing with the menace. Once a week during peak season (about six months of the year), they eat one small budding leaf. Rik chews his up, while Paul places it in the back of his throat and rinses it down with water. To this day neither of them manifests an allergic reaction after contact with poison oak, but I will stick with steering clear of it.
On the second day, we headed out to recon an area of the Santa Cruz Trail known as the Fortymile Wall (not really that long), with the goal of reaching Santa Cruz Station by the end of the day. The Wall had some bad spots before the fire, and we knew they had likely become worse. As we headed down into the drainage and up onto the Wall, it was not long before we knew trouble was ahead. We encountered everything we had seen before: snags, washes, gullies, rock slides - only much worse. We went as far as we could until Rik and Paul decided that, at the rate we were moving, we would not make it to Santa Cruz Station by nightfall, and picking our way along this particular trail with a headlamp would end in a helicopter ride out…if we were lucky. We decided to double back and try the Jeep road down into the station. Our tortuously negotiated backtrack made it clear to me that ultralight is the way to go when it comes to agility.
By evening we had made it to Santa Cruz Station, a beautiful and historically significant cabin built in the 1930s and home to the backcountry rangers of old. As we walked into the oak flats where the cabin is located, Paul and Rik were on the verge of weeping. Two and three hundred year old oak trees had been ripped apart by the hurricane force winds (some say it was snow weight). It looked as though a bomb had gone off. Luckily, the cabin, stables, and outhouse were spared, though only within inches. The picnic tables were not so lucky.
That night Paul hiked up a ridge to check out with the Forest Service via satellite phone, while Rik and I tended to the cabin, fixing a broken rear window and sweeping up the thick coating of ash that had built up inside. Rik and a friend’s score sheet from a card game was still laying on the table from the last time he had been here. He spends over one hundred days a year backpacking and counts this cabin as one of his favorite spots.
Rik and Paul are literally full of historical and anecdotal wisdom regarding the Santa Barbara backcountry, and my evening was spent sitting around the pot-bellied stove listening to amazing and entertaining stories flow from these two hiking buddies (they met after hiking past each other one day and recognizing the trademark blue Gossamer Gear packs each was wearing). Rik showed me the register from the cabin and pointed out an entry that sent chills up my spine. To this day, I recall it with a shiver. It read:
Thank God for this place. It saved my life! I was stranded here Oct 4 - Oct 7 [year omitted]. I got lost on my mountain bike and ended up here. Extremely dehydrated, vomiting, shaking violently. Boiled water from the creek, tried to eat. Tried to get out on Oct 5, couldn’t make it. I came back here. I’m trying again to go up trail on Sunday morning Oct 7. If nobody sees me, please tell my wife [contact details omitted]. Tell her there is a note for her in my backpack if they find me!
I don’t know if he ever made it out.