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MailTribune.com
  • Smoke-season hiking

    Hiking enthusiasts try to keep their schedules despite haze from wildfires
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  • Larry Smith is hiking up the Panorama Point trail in his beloved Jacksonville Woodlands, sneaking in a little Tuesday afternoon cardio while he can.
    When he walked the final steps to the view spot, the panorama was anything but. A shroud of brown smoke hung like a drapery between the point and its normal visage.
    “Normally, you can see the rim of Crater Lake from here,” Smith says. “Today, you can't even see Mount McLoughlin. It's completely gone. It's even worse toward Ashland.”
    So Smith had to settle for a hazy outline of Roxy Ann Peak. But that's the way it works for hikers such as Smith who won't let the smoke from wildfires ringing the Rogue Valley knock them off the trail.
    Those who can't or won't wait to resume hiking until the smoke clears this fall have options to get in their requisite miles, provided they take a few extra precautions and stay fluid on when and where they hit the trail despite pockets of the poorest air quality in the West.
    “It's never been this bad,” says Marie Jewett of the Rogue Valley Walkers, which leads regular 10-kilometer walks throughout the valley. “You can't walk in the evening, and a mask doesn't really help. My husband's been going to the mall to get in his walking time.”
    The club did the unthinkable last week and canceled its planned Sunday walk in Central Point, the first time in 26 years they've ever canned an event, Jewett says.
    Jewett hopes the club's walk set for Saturday, Aug. 24, which begins at Bear Creek Park in Medford, will not become the second casualty.
    “We'll just see what the air looks like (next week) and figure it out from there,” Jewett says.
    Hiking in smoke country is a new paradigm, from top to bottom.
    Instead of first identifying your free time and then looking for a place to go, hikers need to do the opposite. Wind patterns determine where the smoke is thickest, and it changes not just daily, but hourly, so hikers need to ferret out the better air.
    A quick look at the state Department of Environmental Quality's air-quality index at www.deq.state.or.us/aqi/index.aspx will take care of that.
    The site lists air-quality readings that are updated hourly, with a color-coated warning system that will show you how bad is bad at any particular spot.
    For instance, a check of the website at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday showed Medford's air quality was “moderate,” while the skies around Shady Cove were flagged as slightly unhealthy and Cave Junction's air quality was “good,” with half the smoke amount of Medford.
    That would mean a hike along the Illinois River would have been a far better choice Wednesday than the Boundary Springs hike off the Rogue River Trail near Union Creek.
    Since lightning ignited the region's fires three weeks ago, one pattern that has become common is that smoke levels can be poor in the mornings and evenings, but better in the late mornings and mid-afternoons. That's opposite the time frame usually followed by August hikers, who eschew the midday sun whenever possible.
    That creates problems for hike planners such as David Calahan of the Applegate Trails Association, who put great forethought into planning this Saturday's hike — but all pre-smoke.
    The 4-mile trek will end with lunch at the Red Lily Vineyard, the site of a new riparian restoration project aimed at helping Rogue River Basin salmon and steelhead.
    Calahan says the ATA expects to lead the hike, smoke be damned ... but they will re-evaluate everything if Saturday morning proves to be especially smoky.
    “We'll evaluate the intensity and let each person make their own decision,” Calahan says.
    “Frankly, people who love the outdoors may be pretty doggone frustrated about all this smoke,” he says. “It's maybe even more depressing than persistent fog. But you gotta get outside and get moving.”
    Higher-elevation areas have generally had better air during this fire season than low-elevation lands where the smoke tends to get trapped.
    That's one of the reasons why Smith hits places like Panorama Point with its 1,932-foot elevation. He's noticed that in the afternoon the wind blows up the hill, and it tends to be cleaner. But almost nightly, at about 6 p.m., the air starts blowing down the slopes, and that's what carries the smoke downward, he says.
    You can smell it before it descends on you, so hikers who start smelling fresh smoke should turn around and head back to the trailhead instead of waiting for the air quality to get poor.
    Because once it hits, you don't want to be there.
    “When it gets bad, it's bad,” Smith says. “It just kills your eyes. That's when you need to be inside.”
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman
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