By Patrick Keavney, Crew Leader, Trailkeepers of Oregon A lot of us see trails that rarely get a good brushing as we’re out hiking. At a recent TKO fundraiser, a hiker asked me the best way to…
By Michael McDowell, Newsletter Editor, Trailkeepers of Oregon
In early May, John Sparks and Michael McDowell sat down for a discussion with Connie Soper, author of Exploring the Oregon Coast Trail: 40 Consecutive Day Hikes from the Columbia River to the California Border, the first day-by-day guidebook to the trail running the length of the Oregon coast. First proposed in 1959 and under construction since 1971, the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) runs along beaches, over headlands, across sand dunes, and through coastal forests and beach towns. The trail is about 90 percent complete; a number of gaps, totaling over 40 miles, require walking alongside busy US Highway 101. To avoid highway hiking, Soper’s book arranges hikes in a series of day-long segments, from Fort Stevens in the north to Crissey Field State Recreation Site in the south.
How did you become interested in the outdoors and hiking?
I was born in Washington state but have lived in Oregon since I was four years old. I lived for a while in California, then moved back to Oregon. I’ve always loved the outdoors and hiking and the beaches. I got interested in the Oregon Coast Trail because a friend had an Oregon State Parks brochure about it and said, “Oh, we should do this.” One thing led to another. We said let’s just try it for a year and see how it turns out. We invited friends and family to join us. We stayed in various places—the first year in Manzanita and Neskowin—and from there we did day trips. So that’s how I structured the book.
You were always going one way?
Yes, we hiked north to south with car shuttles. I was most familiar with the north coast, having lived in Portland. I had hiked some of these sections before. The northern part of the Oregon Coast Trail is pretty much complete. There weren’t any gaps and there wasn’t much highway walking until we got to Neskowin. We hiked for two weeks, three years in a row. We averaged about ten miles a day. I made a decision early on that I did not want to walk along the highway, so I skipped those parts. Each spring before hiking, one friend and my brother and I—we were the organizers—would scout out the places to start and to stop, and where it is necessary to skip the highway. If you skip the highway, you don’t want it to throw off your day. You don’t want to stop your hiking in the middle of the day, or have two car shuttles.
What pleases you most about the book?
When I get feedback. Sometimes I’ve gotten e-mails out of the blue from people who I don’t even know who have said that they enjoyed the book and that it was helpful to them when they hiked the trail. That’s why I wrote it. There was no guide available to hike it the way we did it. And it’s not just a guidebook—it includes many historic photographs and present-day photographs, as well as feature stories about places passed through along the way. Or I hear from a bookstore, “People come in looking for your book.” Or just anecdotally, “I met somebody who’s doing the coast trail and they’re using your book.” People who I don’t even know. That’s one thing that makes me happy. Another thing is when I get orders for a book from other parts of the country. I just sent one yesterday to Massachusetts—I hope they’re going to come and hike it.
So you’re the publishing house, too.
The publisher, the distributor, the marketer, the warehouse—I’ve got boxes of books in my closet. I think I have about 400 left. I ordered 2,500. I’ve sold over two thousand. My goal was to recover the costs. It was expensive to publish this book. I paid somebody for creating the maps, for editing, for graphic layout, and for the printing. My goal was to make back those costs, which I have done. I’m not going to get rich on this book. I’ve spent a lot more money driving all over the coast to go to bookstores and gift shops and events marketing it. I’ll never get paid back for all those expenses. But it was a lot of fun. It was a labor of love.
Are you active these days in promoting the Oregon Coast Trail? What is your involvement now?
One of the e-mails out of the blue I got was from Dan Hilburn, who had read my book and had recently hiked the Camino de Santiago Trail in Spain. He said he was interested in helping to address some of the gaps. He had worked in state government and knew the legislative process. I had never thought of going the legislative route. One thing led to another and he got hold of legislation that had been produced a year or two before regarding the Salmonberry Trail. We used that as a model to introduce legislation to require Oregon State Parks at least to come up with a plan for what it would take to finish the trail. We had a number of people willing to sponsor it. The person who ended up taking the lead was Representative David Brock Smith, from Curry County. I certainly didn’t know what I was doing as far as the legislative process and hearings and letters of support go. But it passed. There was no funding associated with it, or it wouldn’t have passed.
State Parks has an ambiguous role for overseeing the trail. They clearly oversee the parts of the trail that are on State Parks property and the beaches, because State Parks manages the beaches. That’s most of the trail, but not all of it. They are not responsible for developing or maintaining new trail outside of the parks. They were concerned that the legislation would create a burden on their agency. But they have come around, to their credit. State Parks hired a trail manager, Robin Wilcox, about the same time the legislation passed. Half her time is devoted to the Oregon Coast Trail. She’s been terrific. I know that she just finished a week’s trip up and down the coast looking at some of the gaps, becoming familiar with the trail. She’s a professional trail designer, so she would be well suited to come up with recommendations and understand the options and potential of where new trail could be built. I think there’s a lot more momentum now.
One of the best things that came out of the legislation is that it’s drawn more attention to the trail. It has resulted in a collaboration between Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), State Parks, Oregon Coast Visitors Association, and the Association of Oregon Counties. They’re the leadership team and they’re working together to implement this legislation.
That legislation passed a year ago. Since then, it’s been handed off to the agencies in charge. The Association of Oregon Counties has taken the lead, and they in turn have been working with Oregon Solutions. Their approach focuses on facilitation and getting the right people at the table to develop local champions to carry these things out. They’ve been doing a lot of background work, interviews, identifying who those champions might be. That’s the first phase, which they’re just about done with. The second phase, which is what I’m looking forward to, will be, “OK, where’s the new trail going to go?”
There are likely some sections that will be completed sooner than others. Where do you think the priorities are now?
One great option is to work with ODOT to develop trail within their right-of-way. I’m not saying that’s always the most aesthetically pleasing trail, because in some cases it’s just going to be parallel to the highway. There are places where it’s already been done, such as between Fogarty Creek State Park and Depoe Bay: There’s a stretch where you’re right next to the highway but you’re not on it and it meanders a bit. You can see and hear the highway, but it’s a lot better than being on it. A two-mile stretch just north of the Samuel Boardman Corridor, from the Pistol River south to where the Boardman Corridor starts, is ready-made for an ODOT solution. It would be nice if rather than reinventing the wheel for every segment, there could be some kind of umbrella cooperative agreement with ODOT to identify those places. Maybe there are other options better than the ODOT right-of-way, but there are some immediate fixes.
I’ve been working myself for five years and now I’m working with Steve [Kruger] on addressing a two-mile gap between Neahkahnie Mountain and Manzanita. When you’re hiking north to south, you come over Neahkahnie Mountain and end up at the south trailhead, and from there, there’s no trail. Technically you’re supposed to walk along the highway until reaching Manzanita. After eliminating other options, we got permission from ODOT to put a trail in through their right-of-way parallel to the east side of the highway. After we started work on it, a developer bought a large parcel of property adjacent to and just east of the Neahkahnie Mountain trailhead. That has resulted in some potential changes to the trail alignment, due to new landowners and managers. It’s very complicated and still a work in progress. That’s one trail gap I’ve been personally involved with.
I was surprised to read about the number of times you recommend taking a boat across a section of water. Was that very complicated?
Well, sometimes it was complicated and sometimes not at all. It’s not officially part of the Oregon Coast Trail. It would be nice if they would work on that and have ferries. The Nehalem ferry is really easy. Supposedly you can just call them on your cell phone when you get there and they’ll come across and get you. I always liked to make sure they were going to be there. I found a guy to take us over Netarts Bay. I haven’t been able to find him again, and I don’t know if you can take a boat there now. I didn’t personally take a ferry from Garibaldi to Ocean Bay Spit, but a carrier at the Garibaldi Marina does offer rides for a small fee. And then there was a really good one across the Umpqua River into Winchester Bay. It saves you a lot of road walking. That one was complicated because you end up at the end of the beach and there’s no town, there’s no nothing. We had to tell him what time we’d be there. Fortunately with cell phones we were able to confirm everything. We trusted him and he trusted us, that we’d be there at that time. Otherwise we’d have been stranded or he would have made his trip for nothing.
What’s your favorite section of the trail?
I do love the Samuel Boardman Corridor. That’s the very end of the trail, just north of Brookings. It’s eleven miles, very beautiful and diverse, with really different scenery. It’s not so much that I have favorite places. What I think is really fun is walking through towns that you ordinarily would just drive through. You have a chance to experience a lot of the coastal communities. Sometimes you end up walking across beautiful McCullough bridges, crossing streams and little rivers, and long stretches on the beach. I also really love the long segments of beach around Bandon, which are pretty remote once you get past the town.
What groups and individuals have been most supportive about building the trail? You’ve mentioned the Association of Oregon Counties, ODOT, and Oregon State Parks. Who else would you point out?
The Oregon Coast Visitors Association (OCVA) has really stepped up. It is the designated tourist association appointed by Travel Oregon for promoting tourism on the coast. And Travel Oregon loves the Oregon Coast Trail. OCVA and Travel Oregon have both helped fund the first phase of the project to develop the action plan required by the legislation. OCVA is also funding new online maps for the Oregon Coast Trail, and they’re considering supporting some local trail maintenance organizations. Both OCVA and Travel Oregon have been really engaged, supportive, and helpful and have made financial contributions.
And Trailkeepers of Oregon! I’m just beyond thrilled. I got introduced to Trailkeepers when a friend of mine told me about Paul Gerald, that he’s a trail guide writer. He and I met as I was working on my book, five years ago. He was really helpful to me because he’d been through the whole thing. He mentioned he was on the TKO board so I asked him to write a letter to the City of Manzanita in support of the grant to build the trail at Neahkahnie Mountain, which he did and we got the grant. And now Steve and Steph Knoll, they’ve been really proactive about seeing what Trailkeepers can do. One thing they’ve agreed to do is to assume stewardship for trail maintenance for this new trail at Neahkahnie for three years and during that time to build local capacity to carry on full-time trail maintenance. And according to Steve they’re interested in doing more of that along the coast. Very helpful.
Michael McDowell: firstname.lastname@example.org