The New Northwest Passage

To Build a Trail: Q&A with Ron Strickland
By Heidi A. Schuessler
  |  Gorp.com

There was a time when Ron Strickland almost gave up on the Pacific Northwest Trail. In 1976 Congress had passed a bill to examine the feasibility of adding a new 1,200-mile trail to the national trails system. The study took place over the following years, but in 1981, the report recommended against the project, which already stretched a considerable length of the way from the Rocky Mountains to the Olympic coast. The reasons, he recalls, were mostly political.

"At that point I had to decide whether or not to continue," says Strickland."The goal was so big and I was trying to do this by myself with only a few friends to help. Basically, we were winging it."

They had also made one fundamental mistake. Strickland, a graduate student and wilderness lobbyist at Georgetown University who knew how to work the political system, had gone straight to the top with only the appearance of grass-roots support. "In retrospect, I should have started from the ground up," Strickland says.

So he did. By the late seventies he was living in the Pacific Northwest and had started recruiting new allies, such as Max Eckenburg, one of the founders of Mountain Rescue who had a lifetime of trail-building expertise. Strickland and his friends talked up their vision of the trail with anyone who would listen.

As a native New Englander, Strickland may have seemed an unlikely champion for a Northwest passage. He first fell in love with the region as a student after hiking the northernmost part of the Pacific Crest Trail for a month in 1968. "That totally hooked me on Northwest hiking," he recalls. "The next summer I wanted to come back, but I was looking for something new to hike." He started to dream about hiking the country from east to west, instead of north to south. Bored with school, Strickland became so fascinated by the wilderness that he requested, and received, special permission to switch his dissertation from international affairs to congressional politics and wilderness.

"I spent a lot of time in the library reading about how official wildernesses and trails were being created, and thought that I could create my own trail from scratch," he says.

Even after his hard lesson in Congressional politics, Strickland was undeterred. When he moved West he began building the trail alongside a group of loyal friends and supporters, facing new challenges along the way. The government9s report to Congress stated that building a trail across Skagit County, Washington, would cost $100 million, but "I said we could build it for free, and we did," Strickland says. "I'd always end the days covered with cuts and scratches. We had to literally blaze this trail with help from the local Boy Scouts."

One September weekend in 1983, as Strickland and a friend were on their first PNT thru-hike, they arrived in Skagit County. "It was dusk and pouring down rain, and we saw fires burning up ahead of us in the dark forest. It was the Scouts working on Blanchard Hill," says Strickland. "At that point I really knew we were going to succeed because we could actually see the progress."

Eventually, he also realized this trail was taking on a much larger significance: The PNT could be the backbone of the nation's trail system. "The goal of the old Northwest Passage explorers was to discover a way from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Today hikers have what I call the Sea-to-Sea Trail," he says. By connecting the International Appalachian Trail, the AT, Long Path, North Country Trail, Lewis & Clark Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and finally, the Pacific Northwest Trail to Cape Alava, hikers can essentially walk from coast to coast. Says Strickland, "The PNT is the final link in the 21st century9s Northwest Passage."

The Pacific Northwest Trail still lacks an official trail imprimatur from Congress, so Strickland's work is far from over. "My goal continues to be the same as it was in the beginning—to get this trail into the national trails system," Strickland says. Until then, he remains the quintessential nomad, splitting his time between Vermont and Seattle and his energy among many ongoing book projects. He has already published seven, and is working on five more, including a memoir of the trail, a novel about Seattle, and a new version of the PNT guidebook to be published in 2001. Strickland also plans to hike the trail again this summer, and is looking for a hiking partner.

It"s been more than 30 years since the Pacific Northwest Trail was first conceived in a Georgetown library, but it still appeals to Strickland's adventurous spirit. "I persist because it's always intrigued me. I'm not a quitter. I like to see things through to the end."


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 21 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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