On the Oregon Coast, about twenty minutes inland from the Pacific Ocean, is a trail that could turn almost any indoor kid into an all-caps HIKER. Drift Creek Falls, located in the Siuslaw National Forest (ancestral lands of the Siletz, Tillamook, Salmon River and possibly other tribes), is a three-mile out-and-back trail. Through mossy, lichen-covered, first and second growth forest, it culminates at a 100-foot waterfall in a stunning, basalt gorge. That’s not all.
To get a good look at the falls, you have to cross a 240-foot suspension bridge across the gorge. The bridge might not be for the faint of heart, but you definitely won’t want to miss the view. From here, you can choose your own adventure: sit on giant logs directly across from the falls, or climb down over slippery rocks to get up close to its powerful mist. There are no wrong choices here.
This trail, among its hundreds of varieties of the brightest green undergrowth and chest-high sword ferns, calls me back over and over. I love taking first timers and seeing the magic through their eyes while knowing another beautiful something is about to blow their minds again and again.
Last month, I finally got to take my hiking group, Unlikely Hikers, out on it. Unlikely Hikers is a diverse and inclusive social media community featuring those generally not represented in outdoor media or advertising. We are people of size, people of color, queer, trans and gender nonconforming. We are people with disabilities and people who utilize the outdoors to aid our mental health. We talk about access, politics and conservation while we honor the land and its Indigenous stewards. I lead at least two hikes a month, one somewhere in Northwest Oregon or Southwest Washington and another nationally. Best job ever!
At nearly two-hours from Portland, this was a day-long commitment, making the adventure extra special. It was such a gift witnessing this place with my group of regular hikers and first timers of all genders, ages five to late 60s.
After crossing the suspension bridge, two to three people at a time for safety, we all picked a spot to watch Drift Creek Falls plunge down below and eat snacks. I started asking folks about their experiences in National Forests.
The National Forests represent pure nature, what the land could be without cities. They represent peace and oneness, a place to clear my mind and accept who I am.
Teresa, a regular with us said, “as a kid, my family’s vacation motto was, ‘If you can’t camp and fish, we’re not going!’ We camped in the Olympic, Wallowa, Nez Perce, Lewis & Clark, Helena, Custer and Teton National Forests. Every year, we made the 9-hour drive to the Olympic National Forest for a week of camping, clamming, smelt netting and playing on the beach. The ancient cedars were natural ‘jungle gyms.’ Being outdoors reminds me I am a small part of something much larger than the daily routine.”
I asked everyone what the words, It’s All Yours conjured for them. Sam, another regular explained that for him, “shared ownership means we all have a stake in keeping our outdoors clean and preserve them as best we can so everyone can continue to enjoy them as we do. Pack it in, pack it out and leave things the way you found them.”
This sparked a fascinating conversation about stewardship and shared ownership, but it also brought up issues of colonization and the displacement of Indigenous people. Kristin, also a regular with us, had a different take, “coming from a European-American focused education system, we need to stop writing history as though the people we stole this land from are gone and any stewardship efforts and boards need to include the people from whom the land was taken.”
Devra, another first time hiker with us offered, “stolen and federally-maintained land does not feel ‘all yours’ to people who've been dispossessed of its stewardship. Outside of that context, good stewardship varies from leaving no trace, carrying your garbage out, and sticking to trails; to cleaning up and volunteering for restoration projects; to taking care of plant cycles, controlled burns, and responsible fish and wildlife hunting.”
For myself, an important part of my relationship with the outdoors is decolonizing what I’ve been taught about “public” lands. The words It’s All Yours conjure possession to me. I don’t want to possess the land. I’m of the land and this informs my strong sense of personal responsibility to promote good stewardship.
This felt like a good time to ask about barriers to the outdoors. My partner, Brie––as in, life partner and hiking partner––had this to say, “I think of my childhood and how the lack of financial resources was a barrier. I was often excluded from trips to ski, snowboard or camp because my family could not afford the price of passes or equipment and our car was unreliable.”
Devra added, “for me, the most challenging barriers to the outdoors have been in my own abilities and injuries. I'm grateful for crowd-sourcing in helping to identify places that feel more accessible. Other barriers have been psychological, from so many years of exercise-as-weight-loss. I've been focusing on exercise as pleasure.”
My favorite part of this experience was being able to hold and create space for critical conversation about the outdoors, while also sharing in the reverence of what nature does for us. This is Unlikely Hikers’ North Star. Hiking gave me a new and improved relationship with embodiment, something I struggle with as a plus-size person. It also reignited my sense of curiosity. I learned to play again, which inspired my creativity.
Brie had a beautiful offering on this, “my connection to the earth is incredibly important to me and I love experiencing it through hiking, camping, backpacking, and kayaking. The outdoors let me drop into a deeper, truer sense of being as a human. I am able to feel my biological connectivity to this planet, my truest reality and a sense of ecological belonging I don’t get anywhere else.”
About the Author
Jenny Bruso is a plus-size, queer, writer, hiker, group hike leader and founder of Unlikely Hikers on Instagram. She lives and adventures in Portland, Oregon.