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Posted on June 25, 2012
For more than four decades Seabury Blair Jr. has written about the outdoors. While he shies away from calling himself a trail “expert,” Blair demonstrates his knowledge through several outlets.
For one, he writes a column called “Mr. Outdoors” for the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Wash., where he talks about everything from Bear Grylls to bear spray. He has also published numerous guidebooks about hiking in the Washington and Oregon area.
We caught up with the author and adventurer to ask him a few questions of our own.
While I’m flattered by the title, I’m not certain even folks as old as me, which is older than most glacier ice, have enough experience on the trails to be considered an expert. I learn something new every time I hit the trail, which these days means actually HITTING the trail every so often. I’d say I want to become a trail expert because I love the out-of-doors and the wild places, and I want to feel at home there.
I started hiking around 1952 with a guy who used to rent a bus and cart a mess of kids to various trailheads around my hometown in Spokane, Wash. The bus and hike cost 75 cents every Saturday, and he’d march us out into the woods where we’d build campfires, shoot a rifle, scramble for candy and gather as much dirt as we could to track into our respective houses. I earned my hiking money by carrying rich kids’ packs.
I’ve been writing about hiking and the outdoors as a columnist for the old Bremerton Sun, a daily newspaper in Bremerton, Wash., since 1970. I became the outdoor and travel editor of the paper’s Sunday section, R&R, in 1989. I retired in 1998, although I still write an outdoors page and column for the Kitsap Sun every Tuesday.
I wrote my first guidebook Backcountry Ski! Washington in 1998 and have since written Day Hike! Olympic Peninsula; Day Hike! Columbia Gorge; The Creaky Knees Guide to Washington; The Creaky Knees Guide to Oregon; and co-wrote Day Hike! Mount Rainier. All were published by Sasquatch Books in Seattle, which is releasing my Wild Roads Washington guide in spring 2012.
Seabury Blair Jr. spotted in the wild.
More than 32 million people age 6 and older go hiking in the U.S., according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation. About 10 million of those hikers are between the ages of 6 and 24 years old. I’d guess that the “average” day hiker is a male Caucasian between the ages of 25 and 45 years old, closely mirrored by a female Caucasian in the same age group. Participation in day hiking declines after that, but not as rapidly as some other outdoor activities. It’s a wonderful activity at any age, and most of the folks I hike with are as old or older than me.
I think the biggest misconception about day hiking is a tendency to stereotype it as an “easy” outing. Of course, many day hikers choose easy trails and short hikes, but it’s as easy to challenge yourself on a day hike as it is on a multi-day backpack. For instance, I did two 50-mile day hikes when I was 50 and 51 years old and continue to hike 10 to 15 miles on day hikes on mountain trails.
Many hikers assume long-distance hiking is reserved for backpacking, but the truth is, you can take hikes of 15-25 miles and still not spend the entire day on your feet. These types of hikes are a more gentle way to treat the wilderness because you’re not camping overnight.
I usually carry a big pack, both because I like to tote a lot of food and often a bottle of wine, as well as extra clothing and the like. I pack as if I may have to spend the night outdoors, especially on long day hikes.
I carry what the Seattle Mountaineers consider the 10 Essentials: Extra food and clothing, a map of the area, a compass (although I carry a GPS, I worry about failed batteries), a flashlight and extra batteries, first aid kit, matches and fire starter, pocket knife, sunglasses and sun protection. In addition, I pack one of those foil “space blankets,” and of course, toilet paper.
My guess the answer to that would vary according to geography. Certainly here on the rainy side of the Cascades, you’re most likely to leave the rain gear at home on a sunny day. Big mistake, because even if the clouds don’t open, there’s nothing like a good rain parka to keep the biting flies away.
Blair on Mt. Spokane
If I’m backpacking, I’m a real fan of freeze-dried meals you can make by pouring boiling water into the bag. I’ve heard that food described as sawdust and worse, but I actually like it.
I like traditional Gorp as a trail food and dried cherries a favorite. On day hikes, I like to carry a baguette, a good cheese and summer sausage, a bottle of red wine, an apple or grapes and enough chocolate to feed the Seventh Army.
Although we’ve all broken it from time to time, the Cardinal Rule of hiking is:
Never hike alone. The biggest reason I can give for always following that rule? You may have to cut off your own arm.
Dozens—perhaps hundreds—of people are saved from injury and perhaps death on wilderness trails every year because their partners were there to call for help or come to their aid. Hike solo if you must, but be prepared to accept the worst consequences you can imagine.
I’m afraid I’m old-school when it comes to hiking boots. So I’d probably suggest a boot that is mid-height to protect the ankle with a good midsole and at least a half-shank and an aggressive tread. Find the lightest pair you can, and hit the trail.
If you can afford them, one-piece, all-leather boots with a waterproof breathable liner are still the most durable, long-lasting hiking boots you can buy. But they are usually the most costly and may not be the choice of a day hiker who hits the trail on the weekends and is looking to save money.
My favorite hike in Washington is the High Divide loop, which works both as a two- or three-day backpack or as a long day hike. Located in Olympic National Park, it’s an 18-mile trek with an elevation gain of about 3,000 vertical feet.
You begin and end at Sol Duc Hot Springs, which offers an excellent soak at the end of your trek. The trail begins in ancient forest and climbs to the source of the Sol Duc River in lingering snow and alpine meadows of the High Divide. You walk the high ridges above the Bogachiel and Hoh Rivers, looking down on the Seven Lakes Basin and across to the glaciers of 7.965-foot Mount Olympus, its 3-mile-long Blue Glacier so close you can hear it grumble.
If there’s a single downside to this hike, it would be the greater potential of poor weather. The Olympic Peninsula is one of the wettest spots in Washington State and Mount Olympus gets more than 240 inches of precipitation annually. Wait for the high pressure ridges of August and even September for sunny days on this hike.