Friday, August 16, 2002
Tense Moments On The Trek
Friday, August 16, 2002
Public land supporters making trek from Glacier to Salt Lake
By JARED MILLER
Tribune Staff Writer
Bob VanDeven was getting worried.
A 5 p.m. rendezvous with four hikers and a forest ranger at Rogers Pass hadn't happened. Four miles of scouting on foot and attempts to raise the party by satellite phone had yielded nothing on a brisk Wednesday evening.
VanDeven's watch said 7:30 p.m., and the sunlight was beginning to fade.
"Maybe they just came out some other way," said VanDeven, picking his way over a thin thread of the Continental Divide Trail north of the pass.
The hikers, called trekkers, had been on horseback for eight days but were supposed to start the five-mile trudge toward the pass on foot at about 3 p.m.
The trip began in Glacier National Park 16 days ago. The goal: walk, float and ride from the Canadian border to Salt Lake City, Utah, touching only public lands and waterways along the way.
A similar group, called the South Team, left Mexico headed north the same day.
The groups hope to rendezvous in Salt Lake to celebrate Public Lands Awareness Day on Sept. 28.
The pilgrimage, under the name American Frontiers a Public Lands Journey, is designed to raise awareness about public lands in America. The teams will traverse some of the most spectacular mountain country in the West by foot, horseback, boat, ATV and motorcycle.
National Geographic, Honda, Coleman, Hewlett Packard and others are backing the expedition.
After four miles of hiking Wednesday, VanDeven was standing on U.S. Highway 200 at Rogers Pass.
The time was 8 p.m., but the trekkers had not yet emerged.
Team physician Ravi Gupta volunteered to remain at the pass to meet the trekkers if they showed.
VanDeven drove a ?-ton pickup west to the Lincoln Ranger Station. The rest of the support crew -- about 10 members -- was waiting at the home of U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Deina Bambe, and VanDeven informed them of the delay.
Nobody seemed concerned; scheduling problems were inevitable on an expedition of such magnitude.
At Bambe's house, Robert Ashley, a teacher from Illinois and Michelle Williams, an EMT from New York City, were among those absorbed in a detailed presentation about the Corps of Discovery.
Others were hovering in the kitchen, picking over chips and veggies. Supper -- seasoned elk burgers, salad and potato wedges -- had been put off until the trekkers could join in. Stomachs were growling.
By 9 p.m. the sun was down and there was still no word.
Alternates on hand
Both the north and south trek support teams are traveling with three 4WD vehicles -- donated by Honda -- a motorhome on loan from Cruise America, two trucks and two trailers topped with supplies.
Each team includes four alternate trekkers, in case someone falters.
A National Geographic videographer is also accompanying the journey, though trek organizers are still unsure what plans National Geographic has for the footage.
"There's talk about a documentary," VanDeven said. "But we don't know where they would put that or even if it's going to happen."
GPS there, too
Earth Analytic, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based company has provided two trailers packed with computers, Global Positioning System equipment and a state-of-the-art satellite system for mapping and communications.
The trailers can handle eight Internet connections. Trekkers and support-crew members submit daily journals on the Web.
Drew Stephens of Allpoints GIS of Boulder, Colo., was at camp Wednesday night tweaking the equipment. Allpoints is coordinating GIS mapping of the trek.
Stephens is responsible for making sure the team stays on public lands as it muscles its way through miles and miles of wild country.
"After the trek is over, we will be able to do all sorts of analysis as far as how many miles were traveled and how close they came to stepping on any private land," Stephens said.
Is there enough gear?
By 9:30 p.m. some members of the support crew were beginning to wonder openly if the trekkers were lost. If so, did they have gear enough to stay overnight?
Did they have headlamps? Could someone be hurt? Why had their forest ranger escort not made radio contact?
Team Leader Charlie Thorpe, a semi-retired aerospace systems engineer from Alabama, headed for the pass.
Meanwhile, Trek Manager Dave Mensing, a Bureau of Land Management outdoor recreation planner from Santa Fe, N.M., explained that the 3,000-mile cross-country trek was initially the brainchild of a man named Stephen Maurer.
Maurer, publications and Web director for the Albuquerque-based Public Lands Interpretive Association, brainstormed the idea three years ago over coffee with a friend.
"It was a question, more or less: whether you could hike this country from border to border on public lands," Mensing said.
Looking for participants
Maurer soon involved the BLM and National Geographic. Mensing suggested that government agencies might run with the idea if Maurer adopted an educational theme.
With some seed money from BLM and Mensing assigned to the project full time, Maurer did just that.
Land management agencies were invited to nominate volunteers for the project and corporations were asked to donate money.
Still, the trek had an uphill start.
While in-kind contributions were coming in, the corporations weren't stepping up with cash. And only about 35 applications had arrived from potential trekkers.
"Six months ago, this project was still up in the air," Mensing said.
Everyday men, women
Eventually, the Coleman company donated gear to the expedition and Honda stepped up with cash. Mensing discovered that trekker applications were packed with credentials.
Yet even with their backcountry experience, nearly all applicants were what Mensing called everyday Americans. The goal had been to select a cross-section of the American public to show that everyone can enjoy public property.
"These people out there are not professional athletes," Mensing said. "They are not celebrities. They are not in tremendous physical shape."
They are also not getting paid.
All members of the trek team and the support team are volunteers. Three team members gave up jobs to join. Others forfeited paychecks.
Trekker Charlotte Talley, 24, of West Columbia, S.C., gave up a job as a park ranger-interpreter for the South Carolina State Park Service.
Rob Carlo, 38, of Queens New York took leave from his job as a New York City firefighter. Carlo lost his younger brother, also a firefighter, in the World Trade Center attacks.
Involved with the BLM for more than 20 years, Mensing is passionate about the public's voice in land decisions. He is also concerned about how much the average Americans knows about the decision-making procedures on public lands. It's almost nothing, he said.
Mensing hopes that through the trek Americans will get interested in public lands, get educated and get involved.
At exactly 10 p.m. a somber voice came crackling over the two-way radio at the ranger station. It was Mari Schramm, the ranger accompanying the trekkers through the backcountry.
"Everyone is in good condition," she reported.
The mood was jubilant among support crews members, although a small group did eventually walk up the trail about a mile to help guide the exhausted hikers off the mountain.
Ranger Bambe finally gave the order to put burgers on the grill.
Punching a trail
Trekkers later reported that they hadn't started hiking until about 7 p.m. Itineraries had been off somehow. And the path they had followed required miles of bushwhacking through dense trees and scrub.
"We weren't lost," Schramm said Thursday. "It was just a matter of running out of daylight. It was truly an adventure. I know it is truly a hike I will never forget. That's for sure."
The teams made it to Aspen Creek Campground at about 1 a.m. Trekkers made it to bed by about 3 p.m.
They were up at 8 a.m. Thursday morning.
Massaging sore feet
After coffee and breakfast of pancakes and eggs, trekker Dana Bell of California sat near her tent rubbing salve into her feet. Bell is the project coordinator for the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council.
"I knew as long as we were together we were fine," said Bell, recalling the previous night. "We were yelling 'Yo bear' and clapping our hands.
"It just took time and we ran out of daylight," Bell added.
Trekker Mike Murphy, a 48-year-old elementary school teacher from California, said he was "never in any fear for (his) life, ever."
Tired but pumped from the previous night's adventure Murphy, Bell and the other team members prepared for the next leg of their trip: a 20-mile ride by horseback down the spine of the continent to Stemple Pass.
They got on the trail a little late Thursday, about 9 a.m.
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