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'Meet me on the trail'

The biggest barrier to getting out on the trails can be finding hiking partners. For many, balancing solitary trail time with a more social outing is the ticket.

"I like getting outdoors," says Chris Wagenet, a Central Point hiker, "but I'll be by myself and ... I won't know of other people who are interested in what I'm doing."

Wagenet is one of 1,349 locals who have solved this problem by joining Southern Oregon Happy Trails, the largest of dozens of Southern Oregon interest groups on the social networking site meetup.com.

"You just post a hike and a description and where people can meet, and a lot of times we'll shuttle," Wagenet explains, of the method for assembling a group hike. "And we just enjoy the time together."

From parenting to programming to paragliding, there are 142,319 meetup.com groups in 196 countries worldwide, totaling 15.92 million users, according to meetup's website. For those who grow tired of merely posting and tweeting about their favorite pastimes, meetup provides a forum for connecting in person — quickly.

The Happy Trails group can minimize social research time in order to maximize the trail time, and this is especially appealing to the many new residents in the Rogue Valley.

"When people move into the area, they're looking for a way to connect," says Wagenet. "It's a great way for people to get connected immediately into our community and be around people they're comfortable with because they have a common interest in exploring the outdoors. What I'm learning is that in Southern Oregon we're a transient community in the sense that there are a lot of people moving into the area."

When Wagenet joined the Happy Trails group in 2010, there were 250 members. Since then, that total has more than quintupled.

Along the way, he was tapped to be the group organizer. To manage the demand for hikes for this throng, he has 30 assistant organizers who have site permissions to organize and post events.

"If the weather cooperates, I will usually do two or sometimes three hikes a week," says David Lewin, an assistant organizer who orchestrates the lion's share of the group's hikes.

One of Lewin's biggest challenges is to offer hikes that appeal to a variety of interests.

He's found a formula for accommodating all three groups.

"My approach on the hike is that folks are adults, as long as they stay in view or hearing of the rest of the group, if they want to spread out over 100 yards, they're free to do that, and that's frequently what happens."

One size does not fit all hikes, so Lewin will often target a degree of difficulty for his hikes.

"There is a core or cadre of folks who like to do long distances like 10 to 12, 14 miles," Lewin explains. "The majority are more what I would label recreational hikers and are comfortable in the 3- to 6-mile range and don't want something strenuous."

On the strenuous side, a 10+ miler with a significant elevation gain on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Red Buttes is perennially popular. The best attended hike Lewin recalls was at Squaw Lakes in the Applegate Valley, with 40 people.

In Lewin's five years in the group, the majority of hikers he's seen are in their 40s and 50s, though the group does attract plenty of folks in the 20 to 40 and 60-plus demographics.

Though most of the group's 440 outings to date have been hikes, they've branched out this year. In May, members camped together for two nights at Harris Beach in Brookings. Earlier this month, they rented canoes and paddled the canoe trail on Upper Klamath Lake.

One of the canoeists was Debbie Ogden, an Ashland resident whose meetup.com resume extends far beyond hiking.

"I've certainly made a lot of friends on these hikes, and a lot of friends in this hiking group might also be part of wine groups I'm part of," says Ogden. "A few years ago, I was part of a singles (meetup) group, and that kind of broke up and became something else. Everything kind of evolves over time, too."

The hike listings on meetup.com are clear about the distance, difficulty, time, directions to the start, and who is invited. Ogden and her four-legged friend Max appreciate this.

The listings, she says, specify if dogs are allowed.

"I have a nice little Westie that I bring with me."

Over her four years as a meetup.com member, says Ogden, "I've discovered so many wonderful places in Oregon I never would have known about."

Socially speaking, meetup.com is the antithesis of speed dating. You're joining a ready-make network of people with whom you already have something in common, with plenty of time to share. It's more about finding your tribe than finding your mate.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

'Meet me on the trail'