Quest to Document the Crest

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Written by Justin West

A couple of years ago, and just prior to my coming to ERG, I made a decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  Being a botanist and naturalist my first bit of research was to find out what kind of field guides exist for the trail.  My research into the subject, however, quickly revealed that there is no field guide yet written.  What started as a plan to hike quickly turned into (and continues to be) a saga to write that book.  I thought it a shame that even though several hundred people hike the entire way each year, and untold thousands more hike portions of it, that there exists no field guide for the route.  There is a two volume guidebook series which will walk you through the route itself and provides basic information on the geology and wildlife, but offers nothing in the way of actually enabling ecoliteracy to any great depth.  Because my background is in plants, and because they are a relatively easy entry point into ecoliteracy (they don’t run away or only come out at night), I decided to focus the guidebook on the vegetation of the PCT.

After all, the landscape patterns, temporally and spatially scaled from geologic events to microscopic plant/fungi symbioses, are a veritable biophilic feast laid out along this 2,660 mile long banquet hall table extending from Mexico to Canada and passing through desert, chaparral, montane forests, temperate rain forests, alpine peaks, wetlands, high meadows, and snow fields.  To document the botanical diversity along the trail from El Campo, California to Manning Park at the Canadian border, I spent the last two summers walking the trail and collecting over 1,900 specimens, 18,000 photographs, and approximately 80 hours of audio notes (wasn’t that a joy to transcribe this winter!)  

Using an early version of the second edition of The Jepson Manual, I made determinations along the way and have since followed up with something like a couple hundred hours in the Jepson herbarium as well as in consultation with botanists at UC/JEPS (John L. Strother, Margreit Wetherwax, Bruce G. Baldwin, and Alan Smith) and botanists around the state, Andy Sanders (UCR), Lawrence Janeway (CSU Chico), Debra Trock (CAS), and John Bair (riparian specialist, Humboldt Co.)  The draft species list is currently at about 1,450 taxa. 

In order to carry out research of this kind I gladly borrowed from several schools of thought. I combined my knowledge of long distance hiking (gained in 1999 during a 5 month thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail), my background in vegetation ecology and field botany, as well as recent developments in ultra-light gear manufacturing. I ended up modifying some traditional field research methods in order to accommodate what became a 20-30 mile/day pace. Along the way I went through several iterations on a design for a lightweight plant press, eventually coming up with something I can imagine myself using for the rest of my life.  

I was never able to go ‘ultralight’ per se, as the project required that I carry certain otherwise unnecessary pieces of gear.  However, there were ways to make even that load lighter such as finagling an electronic beta version of the new Jepson Manual onto my kindle and thereby reducing a 5+lb book down to 8 ounces.  Ultimately I had my pack weight down to about 10lbs of core gear, 10lbs of project/research gear, and about 12lbs of food and water.  

In order to fuel myself I needed to consume about 4-5,000 calories a day of energy bars, nuts, dried fruit, and home prepared venison…as well as basically anything I could get my hands on whenever I got into a town.  I wore through five pairs of trail runners, a couple shirts, a tent, and a pack.  The shoe bill alone put me at about $.23/ mile.  Compare that to the roughly $.01/ mile we currently spend on tires (all four of them).  As for my fuel I was probably spending about $.30/mile or $10.50/gallon if I were a fuel “efficient” (let’s pretend we even know what that word means in this country) midsize car getting 35 mpg.  Put another way, I figure I’m about as fuel efficient as a 1986 Ford Econoline Van riding on bologna skins and sagging in the rear from shot struts and too much gear.  There’s nothing like a good long walk to get you reconsidering the value of what you have at your disposal when you finally get home.

In order to fund this project I raised money through the online platform Kickstarter as well as through generous gear sponsorship from several companies including Gossamer Gear, Cliff Bar, and Salomon. If you’d like to find out more about the trip check out my blog.

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