In celebration of our 34th Saint Patrick’s Day wedding anniversary, my husband, Kyle, and I dressed up. Sporting our unfashionable wool ski pants, we loaded Suzie Q (our Subaru) with antiquated cross-country skis and headed up Highway 138E towards Diamond Lake. We never made it to our destination.
As we drove, the Umpqua River promenaded by flashing white frills over her gorgeous jade green underskirt. Trailheads marking sections of the North Umpqua Trail zipped by at regular intervals. At Apple Creek Campground, Suzie Q turned off and stopped. Kyle and I looked at the Panther Trailhead map, looked at our skis, reread the trailhead info, looked at our skis, then pulled out our satellite phone and notified our son of our change in destination.
The Calf segment of the North Umpqua Trail does not seem to be commonly hiked, but it should be. During eight miles of hiking we encountered ... no one. The fading trailhead information sign warns that this stretch of trail runs through an area where the Apple Fire burned ... sure, 15 years ago and mostly well above the trail. Last summer’s fire burned a bit as well, but nothing significant, only enough to leave some interesting artifacts.
Our almost-spring hike boasted a half dozen species of flowers in bloom, plenty of seasonal waterfalls, snowy trees above us, the roar of rapids, and through bare branches adorned with sprouting catkins — almost continuous views of the emerald racing river.
The Calf trail segment is rated as “more difficult” for hikers and mountain bikers even though the total elevation gain from one end the other is only 120 feet. Possibly, the more difficult rating is due to the roller coaster effect of the trail working its way along, over, and under drop-offs bordering the river.
Because we are always looking for trails suitable for horses, we noted with interest that the trail is rated “easy” for horses. Really? Either the person doing the rating has nerves of steel, or he has never ridden a horse along that trail.
Much of the trail is perched 50-100 feet above river hugging cliffs. The Calf segment is the Umpqua’s equivalent to the Columbia Gorge’s famous cliff-hanging Eagle Creek Trail — which burned when a firecracker was carelessly tossed last summer. Every horse I have ever ridden insists on tight-rope walking on the outer edge of the trail, leaving nothing below the outside stirrup but thin air and a rocky river far below. Every horse I have ever ridden, stumbles periodically, shies at imagined objects, and in general scares the tar out of me on trails like that. Maybe the trail is easy for a horse, but not so much for timid riders. Especially since most self-respecting horses will balk at the pedestrian-width bridge spanning a substantial stream on the west end, complain about no place to turn their horse trailers around at the Panther Trailhead, and insist on shiny new shoes to deal with the abundance of shale.
However, this day we were not riding, we were hiking, so danger for us was only skin deep. Much of the lower North Umpqua Trail comes outfitted with my nemesis, poison-oak. Just because the distinctive shiny leaves of three are missing in the late winter, does not lessen the danger for sensitive people like myself. I watched carefully for bumpy tan stems with candelabra shaped branching topped by bitten off looking buds. I froze when my feared foe reached out and tried to hold my hand. At the first possible opportunity, I scrambled hastily down a steep creek bank, crouched, and scrubbed feverishly and long in freezing water.
Another trifling trail danger in the spring — ticks. Fortunately, it was too early for ticks. Unfortunately, no one passed that information on to the tick that hitched a ride on my husband.
All in all, it was an enchanting hike. So many uncommon delights forced us to pause: A cave yawned across the river. An assortment of mosses lined dripping grottos. A tree burned into narrow a spire at the top and the bottom suspending a hefty log high in the air. A boulder midstream juggled a sizeable log way above normal river levels. And moisture turning rocks vibrant colors: lots of reds and yellows, some greens, and even blue. Blue rocks ... really? Yep, blue rocks.
If you have not yet hiked the Calf section of the North Umpqua trail, you are missing a treat. And if you do it on a horse, hearing your story would be a treat.