Tag Archives: Chris Townsend

Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, a review

Rattlesnakes_and_bald_eagles

Chris Townsend’s latest book is an account of his 2,650 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982. It made a rattlin’ good read for a dismal Boxing Day. It’s no mean feat to write a book of a trip that was over thirty years ago.

While not as detailed with anecdotes and observations as his other books (a function of time, I guess), it’s still a gripping read. I had to force myself to take breaks between chapters in order to savour the experience.

Although the immediacy of the trip has dulled with time, the passing of the years has enabled Chris to give an interesting perspective on both what has changed and what has stayed the same. In the intervening years, Chris has revisited some of the areas that the PCT passes through, giving an additional viewpoint.

From today’s perspective it is easy to underestimate what an achievement completing the PCT was. In 1982, 120 thru-hiker permits were issued for the PCT. Out of those that started, only eleven, including Chris, finished. Nowadays, 1000+ start each year and the PCT Association reckon about 50% complete the trail. Incredibly, more people have climbed Everest than have completed the PCT.

Today, there’s a wealth of information on the Internet, books and trail diaries, as well as apps and GPS way points available for anyone intending to do the PCT. Back in 1982, there was very little info. Fortunately for Chris, Warren Rogers, one of the PCT pioneers took Chris under his wing and helped him with planning and logistics.

Nevertheless, this was a huge step into the unknown for Chris. He had no experience of the terrain, especially desert walking. He had to learn quickly about how to cope with conditions, especially water and foot care.

In 1982, there was a lot of snow cover in the High Sierras, which made conditions even more arduous than normal. This is where the PCT turns into a very serious adventure. Any accidents here could have been fatal, and there were a few close calls. Nonetheless, the reward was a true pioneering experience and a deep appreciation of the wonders of nature.

These days, with so many hikers, the PCT can be quite a social walk. Keith Foskett’s book, The Last Englishman about his PCT hike is full of slightly eccentric characters. Back in 1982, the PCT could be a more solitary experience. Chris was fortunate, though, in having some good companions in the High Sierras, without whom it would have been even tougher and more dangerous. I found the traverse of the High Sierras a gripping read.

Once into Oregon and Washington, the walk becomes more solitary as the companions separate and go at different speeds. Inevitably, some sections in Oregon are not particularly scenic, but once into Washington, the majesty of the mountains return. Unlike Keith, Chris had reasonable weather to finish the PCT, even though a few days were rainy.

In these days of ultralight gear with cuben fibre and silnylon, it’s easy to forget how heavy the gear could be back then. Chris’ base weight was over 20kg. With food on the long stretches, he was carrying more than double that, often in heavy boots and with no trekking poles.

Another big difference is photography. Using film, meant rationing shots and not knowing whether the picture was any good until it was developed. The pictures are all taken from the slide pictures that Chris took on the trip. While they don’t have the sharpness of modern day digital pictures, they actually enhance the book. It’s like looking through a slightly misty window into the past.

The quality of printing and photographic reproduction is excellent. Unlike many modern books, it has been well edited too. I only spotted one very minor typo.

In summary, if you like Chris’ previous work, then you’ll like this. If you’ve not read anything by Chris, then this is a good place to start. His later trail books on the Yukon, Arizona and the Pacific North West are treasures waiting to be found. Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles is like the hors d’oeuvre, the entrée into Chris’ long distance hiking memoirs.

Disclosure: this was a Christmas present

Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams

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 🙂