Hiking To Hut Hut

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Let someone else do the cooking and the carrying while you explore the wilds of Oregon

As he makes his way along the narrow path hovering hundreds of feet above a rush of white water, David Chesluk recites the contents of his fanny pack, a veritable miracle of supply.
"Duct tape. Pain relievers. Bandages. Insect repellent. Sunscreen. An extra water bottle. Antibiotics. Batteries. Windbreaker-poncho. Plastic bags. And a medical kit. I could take out your appendix, if needed," says the retired psychiatrist, only half in jest.
But what's more impressive is what Chesluk and six companions aren't packing on this four-day hike into one of the United States' most serene and remote wilderness areas. Absent are cook stoves and pots, sleeping bags and pads, tents and ground covers and any sustenance beyond a few energy bars. By day, they're enjoying an unburdened walk in the woods, relishing riverside lunches prepared for them while seated comfortably in roomy canvas chairs. At day's end, they're indulging in hot showers, hearty dinners and snug beds in backcountry lodges where their personal gear, floated in via raft, awaits them.
Hut-to-hut hiking, long a favourite among robust travellers seeking an immersive back-to-nature experience - short of sleeping on the ground, that is - is less prevalent on this side of the Atlantic, where overnight outdoor adventures tend to teeter between extremes: hardcore wilderness backpacking and the fully wired RV park.
But the experience is catching on as more tour operators and organizations offer walking itineraries between accommodations that range from rustic backcountry huts with shared facilities to deluxe inns serving gourmet fare.
Brad Niva, owner of Rogue Wilderness Adventures, operator of this raft-supported hike, chalks up the popularity to a glut of active baby boomers whose roughing-it years are behind them.
"People want to feel like they're getting out of the hubbub. But they don't want to sleep in a tent and eat freeze-dried food," says Niva. "On this trip, you can bring the kitchen sink - or a case of wine. We'll carry it down the river for you."
Late spring and early fall raft-supported hikes (summer is too hot for trekking here) now make up almost half his company's business, which previously dealt almost exclusively in raft trips.
These four-day hikes typically cover about 60 kilometres, cutting through dense forests of pine, scrub oak and madrone trees.
In late spring, the mostly gentle terrain harbours a crazy quilt of wild iris, Indian paintbrush and scarlet larkspur.
This stretch of the Rogue, one of the first rivers to come under U.S. federal protection when 135 kilometres were designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1968, lies off the grid. So do the four small commercial lodges - former homesteads that are far from luxurious (think battered mini-blinds, faded linoleum and dim lighting) but exude a funky charm. There are few, if any, rudimentary roads leading to them, and it's lights out at 10 p. m. - literally - when the generators shut down.
In this realm, the constant roar comes from the torrent of jade-green river water, not traffic. The non-stop twittering emanates from songbirds, not cyberspace.
Not that there aren't potential dangers. As the guides load the hikers' gear and coolers stocked with food and drink onto the rafts, Niva enumerates some of them. There's the Pacific timber rattlesnake, capable of leaping twice its body length. "Don't poke it with a walking stick," he warns.
And black bears, regarded as the cockroaches of the canyon, given their indiscriminate appetites. (Happily, those appetites thus far exclude hikers; there has never been a mauling here, Niva assures.) The most common hazards are less exotic: namely poison oak and sore muscles at the end of a vigorous day.
The hikes attract a slightly older demographic than his raft trips, Niva notes. This group is in their 50s and 60s - which actually skews young compared with other trips. Most are experienced hikers. They wear well-worn boots and clutch hand-carved walking sticks or trekking poles.
Chesluk and his wife, Penny, of Santa Cruz, Calif., are veterans of inn-to-inn hikes from France to New Zealand. Attorneys Ric Day and Suzanne Rawlings of Sonoma, Calif., are typical of many couples looking to tread common ground: He's an avid wilderness backpacker; she prefers a hot shower and a warm bed.
Ahmad Moghaddas of Berkeley, Calif., here with his wife, Ann, ascends the steep trail at the start of the trek, saying "I don't think I've ever walked more than eight miles in my life."
He does today, arriving in late afternoon at Black Bar Lodge, a 1930s-era fishing lodge 16 kilometres beyond the trailhead. There's time for a shower and some downtime before the dinner bell clangs.
And thanks to 35-year river veteran Bob Rafalovich and fellow guide Scott Malone, personal gear has already been deposited at the cabins.
As the former owner of Rogue Wilderness Adventures (he sold it to spend more time on the river), Rafalovich first offered raft-supported hikes in 1979. Since then, the hiking business has grown "exponentially," he says, settling into a wisteria-shrouded swing with a gin and tonic.
"This is one of the few places in the United States where you can hike lodge to lodge and get a sit-down dinner and raft support so you don't have to carry things," he says. "If you can do 18 holes of golf, you can do this."
Indeed, it doesn't take long to surrender to the Zen of wilderness hiking.
Pat and Lori Cameron, the 26-year owners of Mariel Lodge, one of the trailside accommodations, have witnessed the sort of emotional downshift that naturally occurs in the backcountry. "People start reading. They take walks. They play games," says Lori Cameron. "When you're down here, everything is left behind."
That is, until they get wind that the outside world might be closer than they imagined.
At Paradise Lodge, a place so remote it's accessible only by boat or small plane (after the cows are shooed off the airstrip), manager Bill Benavente is preparing an evening feast of barbecued ribs, roast chicken, asparagus and green salad, when the conversation turns to computers.
"Sure, we have high-speed Internet," he says with a laugh. "Every lodge along the river does."
You mean, asks an incredulous guest, there's e-mail access?
"How do you think we communicate?" Benavente responds. "Of course, we don't advertise it. We're selling the off-the-grid experience."

Rogue Wilderness Adventures offers single and multi-day white-water rafting, fishing and hiking trips. Go online to wildrogue.com for details.

Geographic location: United States, Oregon, Atlantic Scenic River Santa Cruz, Calif. France New Zealand Sonoma, Calif. Berkeley, Calif.

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