I’ve just finished Chris Townsend’s latest book, Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams, which recounts his trek on the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT). I enjoyed Chris’ two previous books on his walks in the Yukon and Arizona. This one is in the same vein, perhaps a bit more like “Crossing Arizona” as it follows an established trail, albeit a sketchy one.
The PNT is the inspiration of Ron Strickland. The trail association was started way back in 1977. Even so, the trail is somewhat ill-defined in a number of places and Chris diverted from it in some places.
Starting in Glacier National Park at Chief Mountain on the Canadian border, it traverses the mountains westwards close to the US/Canadian border, passing through three National Parks and three wilderness areas and ends at Cape Alava on the Pacific coast.
It’s a lot less developed than the big three national trails, posing significant navigational and logistical challenges. The quality of the paths varied greatly as did the quality of the trail itself.
Because the trail cuts across the “grain” of the mountains, days of wilderness experience are interspersed with less agreeable walks across valleys, often along roads. Extensive logging also impinged on the wilderness experience and the associated roads made navigation more difficult.
Nonetheless, the overall impression is one of magnificent scenery and forests, with the occasional highlight of wildlife, most notably bears. The weather, particularly in the second half of the trek also posed a challenge, being abnormally wet, although living in Scotland, Chris should be used to that!
What is really fabulous about this book is its format. Being “landscape” rather than “portrait” means that photos are integrated with the text. There’s plenty of superb photos, giving a real feel for the landscape (and weather!).
I found this format more engaging than the more traditional one of chapters of text with a few sections of collected photos. The publishers and Chris are to be commended for this structure. I’d love to see the Yukon and Arizona books re-formatted like this.
It was really helpful to have decent maps at the start of each chapter and an overview map at the beginning, although I hankered after a bit more detail at times. The overall style is easy to read with descriptive writing interspersed with a few thoughts.
At times sections are skipped through quickly and I would have liked a bit more detail. I guess the number of pictures limits the text to keep the book down to a reasonable length (186 pages). By way of comparison, “Crossing Arizona” is 250 pages and, for me, remains Chris’s best work.
Good travel writers have a knack of transporting you into their journey, making you feel like you are participating in their adventure. Chris does this well with pithy descriptions of landscape, flora, fauna and his own feelings and emotions. While he doesn’t skip some of the less enjoyable aspects of the trail, like Highway 20(!), he doesn’t dwell on them and the overall impression is one of enjoyment and appreciation.
For the gearheads (like me), there’s a good section at the back on what Chris took, what worked and what didn’t. It’s good to have some background info on navigation and the trail itself, to give it context. Overall, it’s a very enjoyable read and gives a few hours escapism into a part of the world that few of us are likely to see and even fewer likely to hike.
One last thought is that, although our small island lacks the drama and true wildness of places like the Northwest USA, we are lucky in the freedom that we have to roam where we like and, generally, to camp where we like in our hills, especially in Scotland. Hiking in the US in many places is quite constrained, following trails, requiring permits and camping in designated spots.
While this is understandable to protect fragile ecosystems, it does impinge on the feeling of freedom. The ability to go where you like and camp where you like in places like Scotland gives a real feeling of freedom that is not to be underestimated. Perhaps the best of both worlds might be found in somewhere like Norway, where the scenery is more spectacular and there is the freedom to roam and camp.
Disclosure: this was bought with my own money :)