As a resident of Portland Oregon’s east side I often find myself gazing across the Willamette River towards downtown with it’s skyscrapers set in stark contrast against the backdrop of the Tualatin Mountains and their evergreen canopy. Within the northwest corner of those mountains lies Forest Park – encompassing over 5,100 wooded acres making it the largest, forested natural area within any city limits in the United States . Running the entire length of Forest Park is the storied Wildwood trail, a 30.2 mile long National Recreation Trail that sends you weaving through second growth forest and bobbing over moss covered creeks that feed into Portland’s Willamette River.
Every year as winter turns to spring and the land begins to thaw out I get the desire to hike. This spring, as it always does that perennial urge came over me again and I started to hunt for a new adventure to tackle. It was a Wednesday afternoon when I began my search for a trail I could do that weekend. I had known about Forest Park since I moved to Portland, but what I didn’t know was that it contained a long distance trail spanning its entire length. The trail officially runs south to north from trail marker zero in Washington Park to Northwest Newberry Road, just beyond trail marker 30 on the ridge above the southeastern end of Sauvie Island. The straight-line distance from beginning to end is about 9 miles (14 km), but because the trail includes many switchbacks and hairpin turns, it is 30.2 miles (48.6 km) long .
As I continued my research I quickly realized there was no camping allowed within Forest Park, meaning I could not break my 30.2 mile hike into a 2 day trip as I was originally planning to do. From past backpacking experience I knew that I could hike about 3 to 3.5 miles; per hour and given that I was only wearing a day pack with water and light snacks, I might be able to go even faster. Some quick calculations had me completing the trail in 10 hours. With the short spring days it was going to be a race against the sun and I was confident I would win. Perhaps too confident? It was Wildwood or bust.
At 7am that Saturday morning in mid-March, My wife Ali dropped me off in front of the Wildwood trailhead on Newberry road. After a quick .2 I found myself looking at mile marker 30. During that time of year early mornings in the woods can be creepy with fog hanging in the air and a chill all around that felt more like October. I was wearing a light jacket, thin running pants over shorts, my mountain hard wear day pack, and my Asolo boots – which I would later come to believe to be my undoing. The trail conditions were muddy in places, but it was well maintained and didn’t warrant the kind of rough stiffness that my Asolo boots provided. However, in the early morning I was glad to have them on as I stomped through puddles of mud on my way back towards Portland.
The day wore on as I hiked mile after mile with subtle changes in the air as the elevations rose and fell. The sun moved across the sky, constantly changing the light and color of the forest. The time continued to pass and like the subtle changes in the environment around me the people I came across began to change, as well. Early on in the further reaches of the park I saw only solo trail runners out on their early morning work outs. The hard core trail runners seemed to give way to another breed of trail runner more interested in pairs. I would hear their talking as it grew slowly louder until they shot past and their voices slowly faded away ahead leaving me alone again in the forest. Later in the day I saw the occasional family and couples out on a hike of their own with an old overweigh beagle or grey faced lab. The trail runners continued to be a theme through out and I couldn’t help but be glad that I was walking.
At mile marker 15 I felt the first pain in my foot. By mile marker 10 I was in a full blown hobble with my pace greatly reduced and the sun solidly in the afternoon sky. (Remember I started at 30!) The last 10 of my hike contained the greatest changes in elevation starting with the slow descent into Lower Macleay park. I made it down across the creek and began my steady limping climb up to Pittock Mansion. Once I had made it to the top and started to descend down the other side towards Burnside road I realized a shooting pain in my right knee. No doubt caused by me trying to compassionate for my now worthless left foot. I staggered a few hundred more yards and even though I had gone 27.25 miles and was so close to finishing I realized I was done for. Attempting to cross Burnisde like this would have been pathetic, like a wounded animal on its last leg – the pain was too great. I bailed off the trail onto Valle Vista road literally crawling to the curb I laid down on the side of the road and waited to be picked up. Wildwood had bested me that son of a bitch.