I've hiked in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness a lot over the last 11 years. In my early 20s, the area came alive in my imagination, sparking a deep curiosity that hasn't faded.

In topographic maps, I could see sharp river canyons connected by an infinite complex of rugged ridges. I became fascinated by how the area's massive watersheds were connected by a mountain range without any pattern, rhyme or reason.

The way the North Fork Smith, Chetco and Illinois drainages appeared distinct, but sort of vertically integrated, almost stacked on top of each other, really caught my eye. So at 22, naive and unprepared, off I went into the Kalmiopsis's recesses for the first time.

Lots of people go to the Kalmiopsis once, maybe twice, come home, and never go back. They get run off by its unforgiving terrain and crumbling trail systems. They get a little lost. Some get really lost. They don't care for the influence of fire on the area's surface. They get a little scared and drive away uninspired.

Not me. Boy, did I get a beating that summer. But I drove home inspired.

Since then I have come back more prepared and discovered a lot of really amazing places in and around the Kalmiopsis, a lot of which I keep secret. But through it all, my favorite route there is still the 27-mile Trans-Kalmiopsis Route.

The route was the first trail-clearing project the Siskiyou Mountain Club took on. This was back when we had no board of directors, no status and were just an ad hoc group of scrappy volunteers. So the Trans-Kalmiopsis route is a source of my nostalgia for the good ole' days. And it's nothing short of spectacular.

The route uses portions of eight or nine U.S. Forest Service trails to pierce through the Wild and Scenic Chetco River's upper reaches via two mountain lakes at either entry. It traverses explosive botanical areas and brings long, complicated and unadulterated views.

Climate change, fire and a dynamic ecology make it a place always in flux, and it's always evolving in the shadow of a recent wildfire, or posturing to be burned by the next.

The Trans-Kalmiopsis Route comes at a price, with over 6,000 feet of elevation relief, acute exposure, missing trail signage and other challenges hikers must face to discover the most remote, beautiful and dreadful slice of the Pacific Coast.

Take them out there

I set out from July 29 to Aug. 1 with a group of backpackers new to the area, interns from Siskiyou Mountain Club's class of 2017. The trek was part of a 10-day summer retreat from work, a chance to reflect, connect and hide out from the year's hottest days.

We departed the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead at 7:30 p.m. and hiked to the lake and around its backside via Babyfoot Lake Trail 1124A, then onto the Kalmiopsis Rim Trail 1124 and headed south.

By the time it got dark, we had views of the Chetco Bar fire's flames rising from an indistinct drainage to the north.

Eventually we reached Bailey Cabin Trail 1131 and rose to the barren peak of a small summit. We watched the fire grow and diminish with the evening's winds, consuming a tree top here, a tree top there.

I could feel hot air blowing from the east. Locally, they call this the Chetco effect, when hot air from the valleys mixes and blows at high speeds toward the coast. As I watched the fire flare up, I had to ask myself: Was this a good idea?

Sure there was no trail closure, but we were heading north, straight as an arrow for a growing fire in wild terrain just a few miles away as a crow flies. And sometimes things happen fast, especially in the Kalmiopsis.

Into the night

By about 12:30 a.m. we were on Bailey Mountain Trail 1109 descending north. Headlamps on, we crept along and reached Carter Creek Camp at 2:30 a.m.

The next day we waited for the sun to hit and slowly made our way north. A mile or so north of there, the Bailey Mountain Trail brought a respectable ford of the Chetco River.

"Meet me at Taggart's Bar," I told them after crossing, moving at a tortoise pace as we approached the Slide Creek confluence. "They're a pack of hares," I thought, as they lounged on a soft beach along the Chetco.

"Where's that?" asked John Maglinao, a recent Willamette University grad.

"You have the map."

I moved on as the afternoon faded with the temperature and made it to Taggart's Bar. As I reached the river banks, the fire flared up with the winds, and it looked less than a mile away. I watched large pieces of burning litter roll down a steep slope across the river from me, but the fire appeared to grow less than the night before.

I found myself alone that evening. The sun fell and I wondered about them, where they were, how long they'd take. Would they figure it out? It got pitch dark. Then, one by one they showed up, a few minutes behind each other.

Karly White, 19, of Pennsylvania showed up first.

"Should I be worried about them?" I asked.

"Oh, no. They're fine. Rynn is right behind me."

Jenna Comstock arrived with a tense look on her face, headlamp on. I asked her if the fire made her nervous.

"Well, yeah, a little," she said. "Lots of my friends' homes have burned down," she said as we watched the fire roll down slopes that were so close. We watched meteors drop behind the Milky Way, and the fire made the meteor shower seem closer.

The Chetco Bar fire went to sleep that night, and it almost seemed out. Benign, I thought. I believed the fire was going to be an ecological cleaning service for the Kalmiopsis. I thought in a couple months, late summer rains would wash it away and we'd all point to the Chetco Bar fire as a reason to let it burn, a success story of sorts.

A majestic walrus

The next morning I spent my time exploring the Chetco. I walked down its channel, around some bends, to find a small spot burning right before my eyes on the river's north bank. I watched smoke plumes light up, as low-lying flames crackled and took gulps of a brush field.

The fire was burning in the shadow of the 2002 Biscuit fire, creeping through partially burned terrain impossible to travel in. Fighting it here on the ground would be impossible, no escape routes, no way to move. And it was in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I watched it waltz around at a slow pace, leaving a few brown crowns in its place, but mostly torching brush.

I dove down to the bottom of the Chetco's deepest pools that morning, 20 feet at the deepest, I'd estimate. I let the air out of my lungs to ditch some buoyancy and kicked straight down until I reached the bottom. I'm good for about 30 seconds, and in those spurts I've found another world, inside of another world. The Chetco and its depths are a layer of the Kalmiopsis's Pandora's box.

"A majestic walrus," Rynn Hamilton, an incoming freshman at Rogue Community College, called me as I rose to the surface and took a genuine gasp of air.

'Upper Mosquito Bog'

Monday evening, the crew started the hike out, but I'd rather have waited until the next morning. But I huffed along, up and over Upper Chetco Trail 1102 to Box Canyon Creek. Then the trail ascends at an unsavory clip, sustaining 50-percent grades for unbearable durations.

"The whole trail back is like this!" I yelled at them, still wanting to sleep at Box Creek. I slipped behind. The group passed.

After about 3 miles and about 2,400 feet of elevation gain from Taggart's Bar, I reached a spring we call Upper Mosquito Bog. It was 9:30 p.m. Dark, alone, and with ailing batteries on my headlamp, I pitched my tent and crashed.

At 12:30 a.m., I heard voices and received the flicker of headlamps. The crew had hiked up about another mile beyond Upper Mosquito Bog, waited for me until midnight, then turned around to look for me.

They turned back around, and that night four of the interns hiked all the way to the Vulcan Lake Trailhead, arriving at 5:30 a.m. That's when I woke up and started the trudge out. I see the others on my way, and we picked huckleberries and chatted.

Always enchanting

The hike along Johnson Butte Trail 1110 from its intersection with Upper Chetco Trail 1102, where I intercepted the other three interns, was an enchanting way to close out this backpacking trip.

The views open up, presenting the sweeping southwest aspect of Dry Butte, a commanding peak rising from granite cliffs that fall into Valen Lake, a product of landslides, another violent gesture the area is well known for.

Valen's west slope slips away into the massive Boulder Creek drainage, which later the Chetco Bar fire used as an escape route from the wilderness into the Brookings front country.

The trail is lined with huckleberries and a suite of trees that rarely grow next to each other: Jeffrey, sugar, knobcone, lodgepole and whitebark pines; true firs, Douglas firs, Port Orford and incense cedars, and my favorite, the weeping spruce. A hemlock here and there.

The surf breaking to the west, the fire smoking gently to the north, these mountains seem to be an abrupt entry to the North American continent. They're the start and end of something, where ancient volcanoes uplift into a vacuum, a black hole. The geologists say the formation is an anomaly, somewhere that doesn't belong.

Rebirth

I've worked hard to redefine the perception of this wilderness over the last decade. It started with the rebirth of a handful of backpacking loops that had been lost, which is fueling a renaissance of interest in the area's backwoods.

I've learned a lot from the Kalmiopsis, and it has left its mark on me, too. It goes on by itself no matter what people say about it, defiantly, and always in an unexpected direction.

The Kalmiopsis has become my religion and my place of worship. It taught me that things change fast, and that facts are hard, but even the worst circumstances are maneuverable. Failures are so abundant out there that you can't just write them off and forget. Failure here is never an excuse to stop, but always a reason to change.

It teaches you that when the weight of failure inevitably shows itself, always work harder and longer.

Walking out that morning, I was overcome with a sense of purpose and connection with the Kalmiopsis. But this place, as well as I know it, always sets me back and shocks me. It shocked me a couple weeks later, when the Chetco Bar fire jumped the river and blew up. I had watched it from a few hundred feet away and thought it was benign.

But that's another story coming this fall.

— Gabriel Howe is the founder and executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.