A Walk on the Not-So-Wild Side

Writer KATHY CHIN LEONG celebrates her fiftieth birthday with a (relatively) cushy lodge-to-lodge hike … and earns a rainbow of Band-Aids to boot.

The Rogue River tumbles from the Cascades of southwestern Oregon to the Pacific, plunging through a diverse mix of conifers, broadleaf evergreens, and deciduous trees.


agenta. Purple. Neon green. Sunshine yellow. These weren’t crayons, but the colors of the Band-Aids wrapped around my blistered toes. This was a collective badge of courage after four days of hiking 33 miles along the rugged Rogue River in Southern Oregon. While I’ve never competed in a marathon, for me, finishing this lodge-to-lodge trek with Rogue Wilderness Adventures was tantamount to achieving my personal Olympic gold, the ideal way to commemorate my fiftieth year living on this planet.

While I lust for the outdoors, I must admit, I like getting pampered. Most attractive was this outfitter’s wimp-escape clause—at any time, for any reason, customers could dodge into the company river raft, which follows every hiker on the trail. The promise of tasty meals with local, organic ingredients beckoned me. Some may call this glamour hiking. Hard core athletes may deride it as hiking for sissies. I call it paradise.

Trekking poles are optional on the 33-mile hike. A “wimp-escape” clause allows tired hikers to hop a ride in Rogue Wilderness Adventures’ raft, and gourmet meals appear on the trail like magic come lunchtime.

Not wanting to go solo, I asked good buddy Ellen Haas, a mom of three, to ride shotgun. And good thing I did because she was the one prepared with those neon bandages. And so, leaving behind our kids and husbands, we tackled this journey together in the fall and flew to Medford, Oregon, a relatively short trip from Ventura County or anywhere in California.

According to tour operator and owner Brad Niva, most customers on his hikes are women in their forties and higher. The cost for the four-day excursion runs $1,050, which covers lodging, food, and a guide. Each day you average about ten miles, hoofing it from one lodge to the next. Niva’s outfit also touts rafting and fishing, attracting more manly testosterone. Additional gourmet getaways feature endearing titles such as Pints and Paddles, a rafting tour with a brewmaster and beer tasting; Hopolicious, combo hiking and camping that also comes with a beer master extolling the virtues of Oregon beers at dinnertime; and, of course, the Wiking excursion, which weds hiking with wine tasting under the tutelage of the in-house sommelier.

With its main house converted into a museum, the Rogue River Ranch offers a historical interlude.

Throughout his years in business, Niva has entertained many notable figures. The week before our arrival, Laura Bush, the wife of our former prez, embarked upon a women-only rafting expedition with the Midland 5, her childhood friends from Midland, Texas. “She was very gracious,” he says. “She took pictures with everybody.” As a side note, she allegedly made the secret service guys get out of her raft so she could brave the rapids with her gal pals. “Five ladies and 14 secret service agents made it an interesting group dynamic, but we had fun,” recalls Niva.

While we don’t possess celebrity status, Niva’s staff took great measures to ensure our safety and enjoyment. A newlywed couple from Seattle, Jackie and Jim, completed our foursome on this group hike. Jackie found out about this adventure after she read about it in an airline magazine.

Though hikers stay in lodges instead of sleeping under the stars, they’re never more than steps away from Oregon’s jaw-dropping wilderness.

Before each day unfolded, our twenty-something guide, Josh Kelleher, gave us an overview of the route. He then he rafted with our luggage, keeping us within view as we took on the trail above. We needed only to carry water. For assistance, we could contact him via walkie-talkie. With the Rogue on our left as our compass, the single trail was easy to follow. “Stay by the river, always,” he reminded. “Tap the top of your head if you are okay; wave your arms if you need help. I will see you.”

The first day we logged ten miles. Ellen and I executed long, fast strides with cocky confidence, and marveled at the majesty of the Siskyou Mountains, the Class 3 rapids, and the animal scat. Right. The poop. Ellen found the scat utterly fascinating. “Is it a bobcat? A deer? A bear?” We would stare at the brown or black pile of dung and estimate how long it had been there, what the animal probably ate, and what kind of creature it was. By week’s end, we were very familiar with bear poop, a large black mound often filled with berries.

Even through its narrowest sections, the trail is always hikeable.

For most of the trip, our honeymooners lagged in the back, regaling us with show tunes from their wedding. They were a talkative and upbeat duo, enthusiastic about everything from the monarch butterflies to the chameleons that cut across our path.

The trail held out surprises as we plunged deeper into the guts of the wilderness. Waterfalls. Fern grottoes. We monkey-climbed over moss-covered trunks and ducked under moss hair dangling from branches. Leaves in the forest thickets were now turning crimson and yellow.

The author and her hiking partner take a break from walking to float the Rogue.

Meanwhile, dining was just as thrilling as the hiking. Like clockwork, Josh would leave a yellow backpack on the trail to signal that lunch was ready at the next turn. The gourmet spread included beverages, appetizers, main course, and dessert, all presented in the plating fashion of a four-star restaurant.

During the week, we joined forces with Niva’s fishing group and they shared their fresh catch. Their guide whipped up a delectable lunch of herb-crusted barbequed salmon and trout as we got acquainted with our new companions.

Our hiking days concluded at individually owned lodges, each with picturesque views of the river and mountains. The rustic cabins were small and clean, with private bathrooms and hot showers. At night the cooks prepared tasty home-style meals.

At each inn, lights and generators for electricity went out promptly at 10 p.m. Exhausted, we routinely fell into our beds after dinner and barely moved until we woke up the next morning.

Over the course of the week, Ellen and I bonded over memories we would never have in the suburbs. We learned to pee in the woods without blushing. We felt the reverberation of our own voices echoing off cascading layers of mountains bordering the river. We identified and scarfed up wild blackberries and gooseberries. On one scorching hot afternoon, both of us filled our baseball caps with stream water and doused our heads in sheer delight.

On the last night at Paradise Bar Lodge I encountered the Milky Way for the first time. There it was—a gauzy explosion of twinkling diamonds. We found a picnic table and lay on our backs, speechless at the shimmering points that blinked at us as if they wanted to make a human connection.

The next morning we bolted out of bed, ready to finish our trek. Day Four was a sizzling 104 degrees and the ice in our water bottles vanished as our sandwiches morphed into mush.

When we finally reached the pickup van, we formed a circle of celebration, chanting in unison, “We did it! We did it!” We hugged and high-fived and hopped into the van, and on the two-hour ride, while slurping my mashed turkey sandwich, I contemplated the highlights of the week: smelling warm wood in a forest glade, napping in a hammock, watching deer playfully buck horns. To be shouting over the roar of the rapids one second and then hearing nothing but my own breathing the next was surreal.

A feat I thought I could never accomplish was realized. Now I am braver and more prepared than ever to embark on any guide-supported, organic meal-provided, lodge-to-lodge hike. All I have to do is bring my own fluorescent bandages.


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