Three years ago, Brent Fenty spent a sleepless night trying to envision a trail that would encompass all the hidden jewels of the Eastern Oregon High Desert.
Months later, Fenty, director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, had worked up a rough map of the route and had volunteers scouting the area to confirm accessibility and water sources.
“I realized there were a lot of areas that were very much unknown to Oregonians,” Fenty said. “We wanted to connect all these wilderness-quality lands together with a trail ... and open people's eyes to some really amazing places.”
Once the basic route was established via GPS, Fenty had many hikers approach him to be the first to thru-hike (hike from end to end) the 800-mile Oregon Desert Trail.
But Sage Clegg was the clear choice. The 33-year-old from Bend had completed hiking's triple crown — the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail — in a mere 18 months from July 2009 to December 2010. And as a seasonal wildlife biologist who researches tortoises in Southern California's Mojave Desert, she was familiar with the terrain.
“We needed someone who could help us understand what we know and what we don't know,” Fenty said. “Someone who understands the potential conservation value of a trail corridor like this.”
Clegg jumped at the opportunity. She left the western terminus of the trail in the Badlands, east of Bend, June 5. On July 11, she reached Lake Owyhee State Park, the eastern end of the trail. She hiked about 600 miles of the trail and biked about 200 miles.
The Oregon Desert Trail is not a continuous piece of singletrack trail. It is merely a GPS route over existing trail, dirt roads and areas where walking cross-country through the desert is possible.
“Most of the time you're just cruising along through the sagebrush,” Clegg said.
Clegg, who followed the route using a handheld GPS but had to veer off when it became unnavigable, was back in Bend last week to tell her story of 37 days in some of the most remote areas of the state.
“I feel like hiking's usually kind of selfish,” Clegg said. “It was nice to know that maybe I'm helping create a trail for other people to come out and enjoy someday, too ... bigger than myself, and that was nice to know.”
The highlights of the trip included the Diablo Rim just east of Summer Lake, the Fremont and Abert Loop, Steens Mountain, the Pueblo Mountains south of Steens, and most spectacular, the West Little Owyhee River Canyonlands in Oregon's far southeast corner.
“Mind-blowing,” Clegg said of the canyon lands, pointing to a large map of Oregon on the wall of her living room. “That was a great grand finale. That was the place I felt the most lonely.”
Clegg hiked about 30 of the days by herself, and the other seven either with her boyfriend, Adam Drummer, or other friends. She says she averaged about 23 miles per day, taking one day off. She saw about five parties of hikers in the Steens, she recalls, the most people she saw along the way, except for when she passed through tiny outposts of Field and Rome.
The Pueblos were crawling with wildlife, she says, including bighorn sheep, pronghorn and deer.
“It's really rugged and super steep and up and down,” Clegg said.
She maintained her own track log on her GPS, and plans to balance it with ONDA's route to refine the trail. No doubt the route will change as more hikers take it on, but the idea is to identify a route that will take its followers to some of the region's most breathtaking places.
“Oregon's High Desert doesn't really get the attention and care that it deserves,” Fenty said.
Clegg loves the desert, but she knew going in what the constant challenges would be: finding water and not overheating. As expected, she encountered temperatures over 100 degrees, but she also got rain — and even snow near Hart Mountain, east of Lakeview.
“It was dumping rain on me on my way into the Pueblos, and by the time I exited them (the temperature) was in the high 80s,” Clegg recalled. “And then it just got hotter and hotter and hotter. Whenever I knew it was going to be hot, I would try and do early-morning, early-evening hiking. But I still needed to get somewhere, and there's not that much shade. I had an umbrella; it's a reflective umbrella that's silver on top. I had my own little portable shade unit. But I would have to hide out every now and then.”
Clegg got most of her water out of cow ponds, treating it with a water purification system called SweetWater.
“I treated every bit of water I drank,” Clegg said. “On cold days, I drank 3 liters and on hot days I drank almost 10. It was hard to plan and predict.”
Clegg kept her camping gear minimal. Without food or water in it, she says her backpack weighed just 15 pounds. It included a ground sheet made of window insulation film, a sleep pad and a prop-up tarp. She would use the umbrella to block any wind or rain.
In small towns where Drummer or other friends were not meeting her with supplies, Clegg had prepacked boxes of supplies shipped to post offices or stores before the trip.
Drummer hiked with Clegg for six days. He says he was not surprised how quickly she completed the thru-hike, and that he never had a doubt she would make it.
“Well, it's the shortest trail she's ever done,” Drummer said, smiling. “It's just that when she left, it was 100-and-some degrees. I knew weeks of that would wear her down. But physically, I knew she could do it.”
The trail along the West Little Owyhee, from Anderson Crossing to Three Forks, was deep in the river canyon — a canyon so narrow that Clegg was forced to swim in certain spots. Much of the way along the river also was choked with beaver dams. She called it the most challenging section of the 800-mile route.
“It was really hard, but it was really beautiful,” Clegg said. “Being in that kind of canyon country is just ... I kept having to remind myself I was in Oregon. It felt like I was in the Southwest canyoneering. You're definitely canyoneering. There's 500- to 1,500-foot cliffs just rising right beside you, cracks and pillars. I saw nine rattlesnakes. It was stressful and intense, but super-rewarding.”
Three Forks is a popular put-in location for rafters who dare to take on the Class V rapids of the Middle Fork of the Owyhee. In that area, Clegg was able to hike out of the canyon and up onto the rim. She hiked along the rim from Three Forks into Rome.
“It gets crazy narrow in spots,” she said. “It seemed like I could stand on the rim that I was on and throw something to the other side. Each canyon has its own flavor.”
Clegg says the feeling was anticlimactic when she reached the eastern end of the trail at Indian Creek Campground in Lake Owyhee State Park.
“But that's how it always is,” she said.
The savvy hiker notes that the Oregon Desert Trail is quite similar to the Grand Enchantment Trail, another 800-mile route, which runs from Albuquerque, N.M., and through Arizona to Phoenix. Yes, Clegg has also thru-hiked that one.
Now back in Bend and recovering from her desert adventure, Clegg is planning to return to Southern California and the tortoises in the winter.
She hopes that her effort will spark the interest of other thru-hikers to consider taking on the Oregon Desert Trail, or at least day hikers who want to see one of the many natural wonders through which she walked.
“I'll feel really successful if somebody else wants to thru-hike it,” Clegg said. “I hope that happens.”