Not many people visit the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Situated at the intersection of the Siskiyou and Klamath ranges, it is an inhospitable, almost unapproachable place. Most of its ridges rise just a few thousand feet, and many of its 180,000 acres remain scarred from a massive fire that burned through its scrubby forest of Douglas fir, Jeffrey pines and manzanita over a decade ago. It’s a brutal place, whipsawed by the seasons and still barricaded by deadfall from the fire. Only a handful of trails breach the wilderness border, and even fewer cut to its heart. The shortest backpacking trip becomes a thorny, prickly, dangerous endeavor.
But despite — or maybe because of — its challenges, Gabe and Jill Howe have built their lives around the Kalmiopsis. Their daughter, Azalea, is named for one of the area’s flowering plants, and their son, Carter, for one of its creeks. They spend their vacations clearing its brush and swimming in its rivers. They founded the Siskiyou Mountain Club, and with the help of a small trail crew, they have beaten back overgrowth and cut through thousands of fallen logs in order to reopen a few paths into the wilderness.
On a dry September day, I get my first taste of their oddball devotion. We’re five or so miles down one of the routes they’ve cleared, standing on a bare ridge at a fork in the trail. The right-hand trail will take us to the far side of the wilderness. The left cuts across the ridge and down to a defunct dude-mining operation known as Emily Camp. Pointing the way to Emily Camp is a freshly carved sign hung on a stump by one of the Siskiyou Mountain Club volunteers. To my eyes, it’s a helpful marker in a landscape almost devoid of them. But Gabe, a round and ruddy-faced man in his 30s, is enraged, kicking the stump and threatening to knock it down. Specifications, he tells me: In order for a trail sign to meet Forest Service standards, it needs to have a post four feet tall and a sturdy base made of piled rocks. This graying stump is liable to fall down as it decays, or be buried in snow when winter comes. He says it makes the already-scrappy Siskiyou Mountain Club look like an amateur outfit.
Gabe kicks the stump again to show its frailty. When Jill, a small, dark-haired woman with a capable air, tells him to knock it off, he mimes urinating on it.
His anger spent, he retreats to the side of the trail and pulls out a bag of Cheetos.
This isn’t my first time in the Kalmiopsis. I’ve experienced its brutality before, and every time I think of it, I get an odd, dusty taste of fear in my mouth. But I can’t forget about it, either. I’ve come back to understand why people like the Howes — and people like me — care about the Kalmiopsis, and whether it matters that we do.
My first trip here was inspired by a college professor, a native-plant enthusiast who pointed me to the work of Lilla Leach — the Oregon botanist who, in 1930, identified the elusive Kalmiopsis leachiana, the fragrant and secretive flowering shrub from which the wilderness draws its name. She spent weeks deep in the Kalmiopsis each year, botanizing while her husband, John, managed their burro team. In a speech at a garden club meeting, Leach described coming upon a patch of Kalmiopsis leachiana: “Before us, beside the trail, lay a patch of low evergreen bushlets, simply covered with deep rose flowers, vividly pink in the sunshine. Thrilled? We were!” She put that first specimen in a plant press and wrote next to it: “#2915. June 14, 1930. Gold Basin — the only flower on the whole ridge.”
The place had a long history of human habitation by the time the Leaches arrived. The Northwest tribes came first, leaving traces hikers have found along the high ridges, followed later by miners and homesteaders. John and Lilla Leach are part of a small tribe that knew the place’s nasty side and loved it anyway. In a 1966 Christmas letter, reproduced in the book The Botanist and Her Muleskinner, John Leach writes, “We worked Yellowstone, Yosemite, Death Valley, Crater Lake, Glacier and some other parks ... but Curry (County, home to the Kalmiopsis) is and has always been our love. At one time, we were looked upon as knowing that territory better than any other persons. (The locals) called us the mule people.”
For a century, logging and mining had nibbled at the edges of the area. The Leaches’ botanizing helped prove that its desolate-looking hills harbored some remarkable habitat: On maps of the Pacific Coast, it is one of the most significant swaths of protected land between Olympic National Park and the Mexican border, a rare intact area of lowland forest that offers a potential safe haven to plant and animal species whose habitat is threatened by the warming climate. It is also part of one of the most diverse ecoregions in the Lower 48 states, home to one of the most diverse temperate conifer forests in the world, and a continental hotspot for, of all things, snail species. The rivers that flow out of it help provide clean water to towns like Gasquet, California, and Brookings, Oregon, as well as to the salmon that draw fishermen.
Because of these virtues, the Forest Service set aside a portion of the Kalmiopsis as a “wild area” in the 1940s. In 1978, Congress expanded that protected area, designating a total of 179,817 acres as wilderness. This fell far short of some advocates’ hopes; at the time, as many as a half-million acres were without roads, meaning they could potentially be designated as wilderness. Many of those acres remain roadless, and in the decades since, both advocacy groups and the Department of Agriculture have proposed designating some or all of them as wilderness.
But the Kalmiopsis Wilderness has remained at its originally designated size, in part because of the Biscuit Fire. When it raced through here in July of 2002, it was the largest recorded wildland fire in the continental United States; nearly a half-million acres burned, much of it within the bounds of the wilderness and surrounding roadless areas. Following the burn, the Forest Service, nudged by President George W. Bush, planned salvage logging and associated road building in areas that advocates had hoped would be added to the wilderness. Years of fierce controversy and environmental pushback ensued. Eventually, the promise of revenue from logging sales evaporated, curtailing much of the planned logging and road building. The Kalmiopsis largely receded from the national dispute over land use.
Visitor numbers, which had never been high, dropped even lower, and the trails, built by previous generations of miners, loggers and Forest Service employees, continued their slow slide into impassibility. The wilderness, left alone, slowly recovered from the Biscuit burn.
When I graduated college with a degree in plant biology, my partner, Ethan Linck, and I followed in Leach’s footsteps, heading south from Portland, Oregon, to the Kalmiopsis. The days that followed were remarkable for their isolation: We saw no other cars at the trailhead, and only one other person in five days of backpacking. On the second afternoon, we followed a trail to the banks of the Illinois River. Here, near an abandoned homestead, the water pooled in a white stone bowl rimmed with submerged green plants, providing a home to water snakes and salamanders. For two glorious hours, we swam in the cold water, diving off the rocks again and again, watching these creatures wriggle in the verdant growth, and waiting for the heat to dissipate. But this moment of pure enjoyment was followed by several days of bushwhacking, mostly uphill, through peeling manzanita bushes, fallen trees and poison ivy. After three days, we turned tail and made for home. But I carried the pleasurable memory of that pool with me, and, far from the wilderness, more enjoyable recollections began to outshine those of the bushwhacking and the heat.
After that trip, we gradually entered the small crowd of Kalmiopsis devotees. I learned that emails about trail conditions, treasured spots and damage done to the wilderness circulated among a dozen or so “Friends of the Kalmiopsis,” the name of both an advocacy group and an informal collection of interested parties. These include Gabe Howe; Steve Marsden, a former Forest Service employee and activist who now spends weeks travelling off-trail along the wilderness’ bare ridges; and Barbara Ullian, the daughter of a fisherman who chanced upon the clear waters that flow out of the Kalmiopsis and moved his family from California to southern Oregon.
The relationship between the Kalmiopsis and the people that surround the wilderness is far from straightforward.
“It isn’t a place for the faint of heart,” Ullian says. “It’s a place you’ll go and scratch your head and ask why you’re here.”
It’s a place that tends to draw people on the edge: people who go seeking rare flowers, carrying just enough in their packs to survive a few nights of sleeping under bushes; people who commandeer a forgotten corner to grow pot; people who head for the harsh, serpentine hillsides to escape the troubles of the human world. Gabe Howe tells a story of a man, clad only in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, who took a left where he should have gone right and ended up spending eight nights wandering the wilderness. Months after he was rescued, one of Howe’s crew leaders, deep in the wilderness, happened across the fruitless “HELP” he had spelled out in stones.
My own frustrating experience gradually softened in my memory. Ethan and I talked often of going back, and argued about whether any other wildernesses came close to its oddly alluring rigor. We daydreamed about moving to a town nearby and spending more time with the Kalmiopsis. Several times we skirted its edges on trips to more hospitable places. Finally, Gabe Howe invited us to join him on a winding trip, from one edge of the wilderness to the other on the 26-mile Trans-Kalmiopsis Trail, newly cleared by the Siskiyou Mountain Club.
It was a proposal we couldn’t resist. But once we hit the trail, the romance was over.
Our group consists of Ethan and me, Gabe and Jill Howe, and Tom Piel, a volunteer and donor for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Piel, a local kayaker, is scoping out a route to the Chetco River. After Gabe’s battle with the trail marker, we take a right turn and head up a breezy ridgeline of serpentine soil. This red-tinged, nutrient-deficient layer creates the wilderness’ characteristic bare slopes, but it also nurtures a group of rare plants uniquely adapted to it. Earlier, we were shielded from the full sweep of the wilderness by the ridge. Now we can see, in every direction, the dreary, sunburned planes of the Kalmiopsis’ low mountains. The ridge is dotted with Jeffrey pines, recognizably coniferous but exotically warped and twisted. A characteristic species of the Kalmiopsis, they were untouched by the fire. Though they provide something to look at, they do little to block the sun.
Still, I miss them as we descend the ridge’s north face, through what the Howes call “the moonscape.” We are back amid burnt widowmakers, the occasional low-growing laurel the only groundcover. I see a single wildflower, a small purple-blooming creeper a few centimeters wide. I dawdle in this barrenness, watching the others crawl over logs and pick their way toward a wide bowl carved by a long-gone glacier where, Gabe says, a homestead once stood. There, we regroup by a spring nearly filled with Darlingtonia californicum, a rare plant native to southwest Oregon and the California mountains, which resembles a curved jade scepter.
Comforted by the water and greenery, we smile, joke, wade in the water, fill our bottles and head back up towards another ridge. I’m the caboose again. A few yards down the trail, I see Jill’s backpack leaning against a log. Bathroom stop, I think, and move on. I catch Gabe and Ethan and fall into conversation. But Jill, the fastest hiker among us, doesn’t reappear. I tell Gabe that I saw her backpack some distance back, but he seems unconcerned. She knows this place better than most. We slow down anyway. Then we pause, call her name, walk. Wait, call her name, then move on.
Finally, we reach a high point. Below us is the bowl that holds the Darlingtonia spring, and we can see the trail as it twists down the slope. Jill is nowhere in sight. Dark possibilities creep into my mind: Did she head downhill from the stream, deep into the trackless valley? Did she trip over deadfall and knock herself out? Did she stop, thinking I’d appear soon, and start looking for me just as I started looking for her?
Gabe tells us to stay put, and runs back down the trail. We watch him walking back and forth in the bowl, calling her name. He turns the corner out of sight, and his calls fade. When he doesn’t return, Ethan and I discuss contingency plans. Unsure if there’s an emergency underway, we’re paralyzed, our dilemma made worse by the menace of this empty place. The sun bakes the bushes around us; we retreat as far into the shade as we can and wait.
And then I see Jill, walking briskly in our direction with Gabe in tow, and my fears ebb as they make their way up the hill. When Jill reaches our packs, she says she went the wrong way, tricked by the moonscape. She retraced her steps nearly back to the crest of the last ridge before she realized her mistake. A half-hour and a mile’s diversion, but unnerving for all nonetheless.
As we begin to walk again, I stay close on Ethan’s heels. Like Gabe and Jill, we have a love of this place entwined in the fibers of our shared life, but neither of us can say why — especially right now. “I’ve spent five years of my life thinking about this place,” Ethan says as we walk through sun-beaten brush. “But I can’t think of a single person I’d recommend it to.” He thinks for a moment. “Except if they were really into plants.”
Jill and Gabe Howe both grew up on the east side of Portland, Jill out in the triple-digit streets at the edge of the city and Gabe in the town of Boring, just outside Portland’s city limits. They were both drawn south to Ashland, where they met as students at Southern Oregon University. Initially, the region didn’t take; after their first year, they dropped out and returned to Portland for what they both describe as “having a good time.” But they ultimately sought a way back to the woods. Gabe worked as a cook for an Appalachian Mountain Club family camp in New Hampshire, while Jill stayed in Portland. They returned to southern Oregon to visit and, one summer, took a job caring for an isolated ranch on the Rogue River. One evening, Gabe turned over a map of the region and saw that a single diamond-shaped wilderness filled nearly the entire other side. He was drawn to the Kalmiopsis, captivated by the notion that it was an unconquered frontier. “Some people still have that explorer in them,” Jill says.
In 2009, after their first few forays were thwarted by bad trails, Jill and Gabe decided to try to get as far as Carter Creek, where we eat lunch the first day. They started at Babyfoot Lake, one of the few obvious entry points. They skirted the lake on a relatively well-maintained trail. But within a couple of miles, they encountered a forbidding wall of manzanita and other shrubs. What happened next helps explain why Gabe and Jill are so well-suited to the Kalmiopsis (and probably each other): When faced with miles of bushwhacking, they did not turn back, but crawled ahead, their feet only rarely touching the ground. When they headed back the next morning, they began clearing the trail, work that would come to dominate their lives.
“Everything grew from this trail,” Jill says.
Gabe and Jill founded the Siskiyou Mountain Club the following year with a half-dozen volunteers, mostly friends and family. Neither had ever built trails before. They thought it might take them two seasons to clear a path from Babyfoot Lake to Vulcan Lake, 10 miles as the crow flies on the other side of the wilderness. The first summer, they got as far as the confluence of Slide Creek and the Chetco River, where we camp on our first day. It was only in 2014, five years after they started, that they finally broke through at a place called Box Creek Canyon, which we reach by sunset on the second day.
Those early trips gave them momentum. “At first, there was an imperative to clear,” Gabe says. “We made mistakes. But out here, there’s no one to see them.” He points them out to me, whacking roughly trimmed manzanita stumps and stomping on poorly graded stretches of trail.
When Gabe first filed the paperwork required to do trail work in the wilderness, Brian Long, who oversees recreation in the Forest Service districts encompassing the Kalmiopsis, was taken aback. “It’s rugged and remote and hot, and there are rattlesnakes and all manner of things out there,” he says. “I was worried about them being out in the backcountry if an emergency situation arose.” But he says the Siskiyou Mountain Club has become a reliable and much-needed partner. Long believes the number of people visiting the wilderness has grown since Gabe and Jill began their work, although there’s no official count. “I’ve definitely seen an increase in people coming into the office or giving me a call asking me about going into the wilderness,” he says. Long used to discourage people from visiting the Kalmiopsis when they called his office. These days, he points them to the trails Gabe has cleared.
For Gabe, the Siskiyou Mountain Club’s work marks a return to the Kalmiopsis’ history as a logging region. When his crew began operating, few local trail crews knew how to run a crosscut saw or do the other handwork required for wilderness trail maintenance. The Forest Service lacked the staff: The agency’s budget for trail work nationwide has atrophied over the years, as wildfire spending has increased and other issues, like permitting, have drawn the agency’s limited funds. With little knowledge of his own and few teachers to turn to, Gabe took trail-skills classes, and sought out old-timers and crewmembers from other areas to learn what he needed.
When Gabe started the club, he felt a class divide between himself and many local environmental groups: “I’m white trash,” he says. “East Portland white trash.” He has focused on the physical work of trail maintenance rather than the politics of wilderness expansion or roadless-area protection, and his trail crew is populated with logging types as well as young environmentalists. His right-hand man is a logger named Luke Brandy, whose motto is “red meat and board-feet.”
These days, Gabe fields a dozen or so trail crewmembers, as well as a few dozen volunteers, in a professional trail-clearing and maintenance operation. They’re funded in part through donations and grants and partly through work with the Forest Service throughout southwestern Oregon. Jill, who has had her hand in every part of the organization, has stepped back to care for their kids, Azalea and Carter, 3 and 5, and hold down the family’s steady job. Gabe, meanwhile, after five years spent working to clear the Trans-Kalmiopsis trail, now dreams of creating an enormous loop that connects all the spots where Kalmiopsis leachiana can be seen.
They are proud of the crew’s progress, of course, but still, that sign — that sign! — sticks in Gabe’s craw. We’re miles away, and he’s still cursing the volunteer who installed it. “How far have we fucking come?” he grumbles, as we descend a slippery hillside.
It’s lunchtime on the second day when we reach Taggarts Bar, hot, sore and scratched from the bushes that still encroach on some stretches of trail. There’s a wide flat bench that’s home to a pile of old dishes, an old bulldozer head and a rusting metal barrel, topped with a sun-cracked leather boot. A little trail goes down to a rocky back and a narrow beach, where the Chetco widens out into a pool a dozen feet deep and perfectly clear. Across from us, the opposite bank drops into the water, but the cliff has a narrow ledge and a nub to climb up and jump off.
(The rivers of the Kalmiopsis really are its oases. The creeks are welcome, too — scrubby breaks from the burned-out hillsides — but the rivers are perfect. Bordered by smooth river rocks, gravel beaches and unburned forest, their cool shallows and colder depths distract me at my desk months later.)
We ditch our packs gratefully. We swim, bask on the rocks, and swim again. We nap and read and eat. It turns out that Jill and Gabe have another bag of Cheetos, and they offer some to Ethan and me. Tom reads and dozes in the shade.
The fact that so few people come here, some say, makes it an ideal wilderness. In the early years of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, Gabe says, he “got pushback from people who said, ‘No humans in the wilderness.’ ” The Kalmiopsis’ intrinsic ecological value was enough to satisfy them. On the other hand, there’s a cost to letting this corner of the world lapse into inaccessible hillsides of manzanita and burned stumps. Since a legal wilderness designation can be undone by a simple act of Congress, even formally protected wilderness needs a constituency. And wilderness offers something to human visitors: not only recreation but also an opportunity for scientific research and discovery, as the Leaches found, as well as access to places where we cannot help but be reminded of our smallness. Howard Zahniser, architect of the Wilderness Act and former head of The Wilderness Society, wrote that wilderness was intended to serve “a need to maintain an awareness of our human relationships to all life, the need to guard ourselves against a false sense of our own self sufficiency.” Places humans never visit do not meet that need.
The Kalmiopsis will probably never provide the kind of blissful recreational experiences portrayed in outdoor-equipment catalogs. Zach Collier, a river guide who occasionally runs trips on the Illinois and the Chetco, told me that he grills his prospective clients. “When people call me to book it, I actively try to talk them out of it,” he says. “It’s physically demanding and not much fun.”
But Peter Landres, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and an expert in wilderness studies, says the very difficulty of visiting the Kalmiopsis helps it fulfill the more abstract needs that Zahniser described. “It’s exactly what we need in the age of the Anthropocene,” Landres says. “We can feel we’re a small part of this larger universe. That reinforces the feelings of humility and restraint,” feelings, he says, we need now more than ever.
The Kalmiopsis is also a superlative example of wilderness’ role as an ecological safe harbor. “Wilderness is the best place and maybe the only place that evolution can go on its merry way,” Landres says. As the climate changes, disrupting ecosystems along with it, those pockets of intact landscape where non-human life can adapt are increasingly precious. The Kalmiopsis, he says, is a perfect example of such a place. It’s rare to find a swath of low-lying hills as intact and protected as these among the alpine and desert areas that make up most legally designated wilderness areas. And the region’s plant diversity is off the charts.
The boundaries of the Kalmiopsis may shift. A group of organizations, including the Friends of the Kalmiopsis, is advocating for a mining exploration and development withdrawal on more than 100,000 acres around the wilderness, which would temporarily halt two proposed nickel mines and prevent further mining development around its fringes. Although the mineral withdrawal would not affect the extent of the wilderness, it would protect intact roadless land around its edges. Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced several bills that would extend more permanent protections and halt mining on a 17-mile stretch of the Chetco River. And there are whispers about expanding the wilderness, of realizing the dream early defenders had of a half-million acres of relatively untouched landscape away from the sprawl of the Willamette Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Meanwhile, Gabe crankily straddles two visions of wilderness, objecting to both human-free wilderness and industrial tourism. The Kalmiopsis is not an untouched ecological preserve: The scars of the Biscuit Fire prevent purist thinking, as do caches of old mining equipment and the old road cuts built for mining and logging that sometimes form the basis for today’s hiking trails.
But even though he is proud of his trail work, Gabe says he’d be fine if the wilderness had no signs, and people had to rely on experience and old-fashioned route-finding to navigate its trails. He favors a bit of a Goldilocks approach: Just enough trail to get in, but not enough to get around easily.
“It’s kind of a birthright as an American to be able to see frontier,” he says. In the Kalmiopsis, he has found a place that defies domestication and clings to its frontier essence; this, he says, is the wilderness quality he values the most.
“There’s a boundary around it, a wilderness boundary,” he says. “That’s political but that doesn’t make it wilderness. It’s wilderness because it’s ugly, rugged and remote.”
As the day drags on and the midday heat leaves the air, we load up and begin the 1,500-foot climb out of the river canyon. We can see hillsides with live trees still growing on them. We can also see rocky outcroppings and landslides high on some of the slopes, rather than just flat planes. The trails are loose and covered in charred bark, fire-touched branches and other blackened tree bits. By the river, I fell in love with this place anew. Now, I’m backpedaling. It’s so plain, so unappealing, so scarred. I’m tired and discouraged. I wonder if I’m just a fool, drawn to this place by Gabe’s tall tales and passion. Is there any point in caring about a landscape like this? I ask Tom what he thinks of it. “Not enough trees,” he says. He wishes he’d gotten here before the fire, when the trees were still standing.
I mention my doubts to Ethan as well. The son of two conservationists, he chides me, pointing to the Kalmiopsis’ vastness and ecological uniqueness.
I mull his response as we trudge up towards the ridge above Taggarts Bar. A few hundred yards from the top, Gabe passes me. I trail along behind him. Then I walk through an aromatic cloud of sweet peppermint. Ceonothus, Gabe says. These bushes grow throughout the wilderness, germinating after the fire, many thousands of bushes that shade my meandering course across the landscape. For me, it’s a breath of fresh air, a rebuke to my dark musings.
The next day, we pack up camp for the last time and begin the final climb, up to the complex of ridges that will take us to Vulcan Lake on the wilderness’ western side. For days, we’ve been weaving up and down burnt ridgelines. Our camps have been tucked by springs, out of the wind and as far away from widow-makers as possible. It’s been a game of evading the lingering effects of the burn. But as we climb, we get a glimpse of what the Kalmiopsis might have been like before the Biscuit Fire. We pass through small gullies that avoided the worst of the burn. Tiny sapling conifers share the undergrowth with happy-looking shrubs. The plants are all green, not red and oxidized from the sun. Leaves and twigs litter the trail, rather than charcoal and fallen logs. From the woods come the sound of bird trills and chatter, whose absence I’d registered but not understood in the past days. I feel relief, at ease for the first time since we entered the wilderness.
And then we break treeline, walking out on to one of the Kalmiopsis’ serpentine spines where almost nothing grows. Here, the land falls away in wide, flat planes, and I can see for miles into the heart of the wilderness and beyond to its edges. It’s very like the view I saw on the first day but only now, refreshed from the greenery, do I appreciate it. Here, before me, are the plain, ugly pyramids of the wilderness, and trees or no trees, I decide: I do love this place. I’m reminded of the value of loving wild things that can’t love you back — the elk that passed our tent on my first trip, the bears whose spoor Ethan and I followed then, and the mountain lions whose traces we never saw, the salamanders and the warblers and snails, and all those who share these scarred hills and valleys. There, in the unrelenting sun, with the bare soil at my feet, I stand humbled — just one of the many beasts to have passed this way.
Kate Schimel is the deputy editor-digital at High Country News. Follow @kateschimel
This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.
Note: This article has been updated to clarify that mineral withdrawal would not affect the extent of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. It would protect intact roadless land around its edges.