Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
A new long distance trail for the adventurous | By Andrea Laughery
With a thunderstorm threatening, Ras and Kathy Vaughan stared down at 700 feet of crumbling rock. They were on day four of their 2,634-mile thru-hike linking together lesser-known trails to create a massive loop in the Pacific Northwest. Now, they weren’t sure if the route was going to go.
Despite an encounter with a large rattlesnake, the pair ultimately scrambled into the canyon and up the other side. It was the first of many trials on their 174-day journey connecting parts of the Idaho Centennial Trail, Oregon Desert Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail. They had to contend with fire reroutes, snow, traversing unknown land and stretches without reliable water. The trek was wild and raw, just how they like it.
A tenacious attitude and gentle spirit carried the adventurous duo among remote and untouched wilderness throughout Oregon, Washington and Idaho to create a route that they call the UP North Loop.
Ras and Kathy got their first taste of thru-hiking almost 20 years ago, when they set off with their 7-year-old daughter on the 93-mile loop around Mount Rainier. A trail runner they encountered provided the first glimpse of how much a human is capable of achieving. It took the two of them many years before they started running longer distances and testing their limits.
“We became fascinated with the question marks,” Ras said.
While some elite athletes compete for fastest known times and the number of hikers on popular long -distance trails continues to grow, Ras and Kathy took a different path. They set out to create new routes or new variations on classic routes.
“The genesis was being able to experience the trail in a unique way. In lesser-known trails there are a lot of question marks,” Ras said.
Those question marks and isolated landscapes attracted the explorers to venture deep into the deserts, ancient groves, river valleys and mountains of the Pacific Northwest.
“That remote feeling is what attracted me to these lesser-known trails,” Kathy said. “In one stretch of 750 miles we saw maybe three other people. We really felt like we had the entire wilderness to ourselves.”
Ras and Kathy — known more commonly in social circles as Team UltraPedestrian — set out on May 14, 2018, from the small town of Hammett, Idaho, and headed south on the Idaho Centennial Trail. Much of their hike was trial and error, with water sources often dictating their plans. Due to their extensive experience with wilderness navigation and long-distance endurance, they knew how much they could push their bodies, and had lots of tricks for dealing with issues.
When the duo first looked at the route on paper, they thought the trails were an interesting way to define the Pacific Northwest. Once they actually hiked the land, the cohesion between geographic features along the journey became obvious.
“It gave us this amazing understanding of the inland northwest ... until you actually have that experience of essentially hiking that big perimeter and seeing how it’s all unique but similar and stays in transition and connected, you can’t fully comprehend it,” Ras said.
Kathy and Ras have learned over the years that things rarely go according to plan, but they enjoyed the alternatives they improvised along the way.
“One of the high points for me was the Burgdorf Hot Springs in Idaho. It was a really magical experience,” Kathy said. “We had been hiking in cold temperatures for days. We had to climb about 4,000 feet to get there, and I was really struggling mentally. It was so healing, surrounded by the mountains and thick forest.”
The Vaughans are excited to see how new people take on the loop in their own way. Kathy prompts hikers to take challenges and embrace long-distance hikes that fit their natural abilities, rather than feeling pressure to take a traditional route. That may mean a literal different route, or just a different way of hiking. For instance, Kathy and Ras enjoyed hiking at night by headlamp, experiencing the trail in ways few people do, while marveling at giant toads, salamanders, porcupines and deer.
After 5.5 months on the trail, the couple feels they have barely scratched the surface of what the Northwest has to offer.
“If someone wants to hike the exact footsteps of thousands of other people, they can download an app and follow the PCT from Mexico to Canada,” Ras said. “But taking on the UP North Loop requires an amount of research, routefinding, navigation and creativity that harkens back to the early days of thru-hiking.”
Spending 174 days, 22 hours and 25 minutes close together could be tough on a relationship. But Kathy said the adventures she and Ras have together in the wild are the most special times in their relationship.
“It might surprise people to know that for most of that time we are just quiet,” Kathy said. “We are super in tune with one another. You become so aware of your connection to the other person and how important it is to allow one another the space to experience the hike on your own terms.”
On top of the challenges of the UP North Loop, Kathy was managing a recent diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. Ten years after Kathy had 40 percent of her pancreas removed due to a growth, the remainder of her pancreas stopped producing insulin. In 2017, she was diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic. Once diagnosed, she began insulin therapy and continued her hiking adventures.
“From the get-go I decided, with the support of my doctor, I was just going to keep living the best I can while I can,” Kathy said.
Throughout the remote landscape Kathy and Ras hiked, she stayed calm and in tune with her blood sugar numbers and how she was feeling physically and mentally. She carefully wrapped the insulin in bubble wrap, and kept it within her extra clothing, deep in her pack, to keep the temperature regulated.
“It’s something I manage on a daily basis no matter where I am, but to do it on the trail I just had to look at it in a different way,” Kathy said. “I really encourage people to not let a health condition dictate the kind of decisions you make about what you are capable of doing. With flexibility, patience and attention to detail, you can figure out how to do it on the trail.”
While hiking, Kathy had to focus on keeping everything sterile, ration her blood sugar test strips and keep Ras in the loop about how she was doing, especially on longer stretches.
“Diabetes was one more thing to consider, but didn’t substantially change the experience of our hike. Our whole thing is working as a team. Part of what we enjoy is seeing how we can take on these adventures as a team,” Ras said.