Southern Oregon University’s Outdoor Adventure Leadership Undergraduate Degree just wrapped up it’s first ever Spring Immersion Term. Not only was this SOU’s first Spring Immersion Term, this was the first time a Field Immersion had ever taken place in a University setting. From April to June, 22 Outdoor Adventure Leadership students spent a total of 40 days in the field on 6 different expeditions. Expeditions varied each week consisting of backcountry skiing and mountaineering on Mount McLoughlin and Mount Thielsen, snowshoeing at Crater Lake, whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Umpqua and Klamath Rivers, sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands, and rock climbing in Central and Eastern Oregon. The purpose of Spring Immersion is to broaden student’s skills well beyond the confines of a classroom and build technical, interpersonal, and leadership skills essential for being an outdoor leader. Outdoor Adventure Leadership instructors Adam Elson, Erik Sol and Chad Thatcher facilitated the Spring Immersion Term and served as invaluable mentors to their students in the field. As a culmination of the first ever Spring Immersion, students were required to break into small groups to plan and organize a 9-day “group solo” backpacking trip without their instructors. This was a chance for students to put their new skills to the test.
Brainstorming ideas for the final adventure of Spring Term, Mikey Bell, Outdoor Adventure Leadership Major and Ashland Outdoor Store Team Member, was determined to push the limits with a more challenging trek. With the Rogue River Trail being 40 miles and the Illinois River Trail only 28 miles, both trails were too short for a 9-day thru-hike. Then the thought of connecting the two trails in one thru-hike came about. The idea began with Cole Berg, Ashland Outdoor Store Team Member and local Trail Runner, who had ran the 40-mile Rogue River Trail in just 2 days a few weeks prior. Mikey took this idea to the trip briefing and rallied up a group that was ready for a challenge and an epic adventure. The trek was planned to begin at the start of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River Trail at Briggs Creek Trailhead in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The 28-mile trail ends at Oak Flat Trailhead in Agness,Oregon just 10 miles away from the Foster Bar Trailhead of the Wild and Scenic Rogue River Trail. The crew’s extraction point was set 40 miles from Foster Bar at Grave Creek Trailhead. The group was equip with a SPOT beacon to send daily “OK” messages to instructors with the option to send a contingency plan, extraction required message, or an S.O.S. message which would notify local rescue services that immediate extraction was required.
After a full day of trip planning and food shopping, the group of 7 Outdoor Adventure Leadership students were ready for the expedition. After a 2 hour drive from Ashland, Oregon the group arrived at Briggs Creek Trailhead near the town of Selma. The team began the trek with a high stoke and a positive attitude, ready for an epic adventure. The hike started with an exciting section of trail following the beautiful Illinois River, offering spectacular views of the fire-scarred trees of the Kalmopsis and refreshing springs to filter water from. After just 6 miles of hiking, the decision was made to descend 1,000’ down from the Illinois River Trail to find a campsite at Pine Flat. A beautiful campsite in a lush, green meadow along the clear-turquoise waters of the Illinois was well worth the added 2 miles of hiking.
Soon after departing Pine Flat on day 2, the trail changed dramatically. Fallen trees and significant elevation gain proved to be challenging obstacles for the group still carrying 8 days of food on their backs. The vistas from the ridge of Bald Mountain supplied breathtaking shots of the Illinois and re-energized the group with optimism that trail conditions would improve on the descent down to Silver Creek. Needless to say, conditions only got worse. Extreme overgrowth caused the group to lose the trail twice, backtracking and bushwhacking to reconnect with the illusive Illinois River Trail. After experiencing miles of unmaintained trail, Zach Nall, Outdoor Adventure Leadership Major and Kentucky Crawfishman said, “I understand why it’s called the WILD and Scenic!”. This trail is indeed wild. As the sun dipped below the horizon the crew whipped out their headlamps and trekked well into the night. Finally, after 13 and a half hours of rugged hiking, bushwhacking, tick extractions, poison oak exposer and tree-crossings, an exhausted team reached their campsite at Silver Creek to get some much needed rest. Despite a rough day, the team remained positive with only 8 miles between them and Oak Flat Trailhead where the crew would then be traveling on paved road.
Day 3; the most treacherous and dangerous section of trial on the Illinois River. In the course of 6 hours, the team only covered a grueling 4.89 miles of “trail”, which really wasn’t much of a trail at all. Massive fallen trees, extended stretches of dense bushwhacking, and large sections of trail missing due to landslide made for a daunting and mentally exhausting hike. There was no flow, there was no laughter, the trek had turned to pure misery and morale was low. Outdoor Adventure Leadership Major and R.O.T.C. trainee Mason Alfaro said, “Embrace the Suck”. And the suck was truly embraced. The first signs of poison oak was presenting itself on the skin of a few group members, tick extractions were abundant, and the mosquitos were incessant. Most of the crew was deep in the pain cave and the likelihood of the original contingency plan of returning to Briggs Creek Trailhead was beginning to seem like unreasonable option. After traversing a massive landslide on a 50 degree slope ending with a cliff plunging hundreds of feet down to the river, Canan Garner, Outdoor Adventure Leadership and Clinical First Responder said, “We are finishing this hike if it’s the last thing we do!”. There was no turning back at this point. The team set up camp at Indian Flat along Indigo Creek. Indigo Creek hosted beautiful pristine water to soak sore muscles and provide some much needed extra protein. Kentucky Crawfishman Zach Nall and Outdoor Adventure Leadership Major Jordan Nesbitt rounded up 35 crawfish in less than an hour to make for an epic freshwater feast. The team was dreading a 4th day on the Illinois, anticipating more ticks, oak, trees, landslides, and other unknown obstacles.
As the team began the final push for the trailhead in Agness on Day 4, trail conditions miraculously improved. Fewer downed trees and less overgrowth made for some of the easiest miles on the Illinois River Trail with more amazing views from Buzzard’s Roost. Despite brushing off literally hundreds of ticks on the descent down to Oak Flat, the team happily celebrated upon arrival at the trailhead. For the entire 28-mile length of the Illinois River Trail which took 4 days to complete, not once did the team see another a human outside of their own party. Spirits were soaring high knowing we had made it safely through a wild and untamed trail and were finally cruising on paved road. Only about a mile into the walk an angel came into their lives. An Oregon Native by the name of Travis accompanied by his wife Alissa stopped and offered the group a ride to Foster Bar in the back of his truck, stocked with a Yeti Cooler full of beer. All 7 backpackers piled into the bed of his red Toyota Tacoma and enjoyed a cold one on the way to the Rogue. After a quick stop at Cougar Lane Lodge for a snack the group was at Foster Bar ready to tackle the Rogue. The team was beyond grateful for the ride and felt close to our objective with 5 days left to hike the remaining 40 miles.
Coming from the primitive and harsh Illinois River Trail, the Rogue River Trail was luxurious. Well-maintained trail, signage, and foot bridges were things that had been taken for granted in the past and were now greatly appreciated. The team made it to the stunning pools and waterfalls of Flora Dell Creek and set up camp along the banks of the Rogue River. Each day of hiking on the Rogue seemed to get better and better. Dozens of picturesque creek crossings, narrow sections of trail along steep cliffs towering over the Mighty Rogue River, and many other hikers, backpackers, and boaters floating down the river. By day 7, the team had reached Whisky Creek which was only 3 miles from their extraction point at Grave Creek. Whisky Creek was the perfect spot to have a lay over day with options to day-hike to Whisky Creek Cabin National Historical Site, boulder hop up Whisky Creek, and fantastic fishing holes on the Rogue. Day 9 made for an easy hike out. In fact, most of the group ran the final 3 miles full of excitement for completing this epic journey.
For anyone interested in doing a backpacking trip in Southern Oregon, highly consider the Rogue River Trail and the Illinois River Trail. Those looking for a challenging, wild adventure, the Illinois River Trail is the trip for you. Come prepared with long sleeves and pants, knowledge of how to extract ticks and identify poison oak, and be ready to bushwhack! Despite its relentless nature, the Illinois River Trail truly is a Wild and Scenic adventure with beautiful views, solitude, amazing swimming holes, and an abundance of wildflowers and wildlife. Hopefully in coming years, Siskiyou Mountain Club can gather the proper resources to do some much needed maintenance on the Illinois River Trail. Those looking for an enjoyable straight-forward backpacking trip with an option for lodge to lodge hiking should consider Rogue River Trail. Providing beautiful views close to the river, dense forest, abundance of pristine creeks, wildlife, and a very well-traveled trail, the Rogue is a fantastic destination for all backpackers. Before adventuring into the wilderness on either of these two trails, visit The Ashland Outdoor Store for in-depth information, maps, and gear to get prepare you for your expedition. Happy trails!
-by Mikey Bell
5/31/17 – 6/8/17