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Willow Creek

Bringing Hut-to-Hut Travel
to Sonoma County

Tramping. Trekking. Hillwalking. Bushwalking

Jun 27, 2018

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By Emmett Hopkins

The world over, we use many different words to describe long distance walking. It’s an age-old tradition that roots all the way back to our ancient ancestors, who trekked across the land as a way of life, a simple exercise in survival.

Although modern technology has tended to push people away from long-distance walking, cultures on every continent have managed to preserve traditions of hospitality toward walkers. In some cases, these cultural traditions have created the foundation for a newer industry of recreational walking tourism.

Nowadays, adventurous travelers will plan entire vacations around a New Zealand hut route, an Italian walking tour, or a multi-day hike through the English Lakes district. Imagine if you could take one of these exciting trips right in your own backyard. It’s a concept that has gained traction in Sonoma County in recent years, and in fact you can now join multi-day walking trips within our beautiful open spaces. Momentum on creating a local trekking network continues to build with recent developments and efforts by local agencies.

Santa Rosa based non-profit LandPaths has spent several years developing its TrekSonoma program, which gives locals and visitors the opportunity to spend three days walking or paddling across our local landscape, experiencing the landscape as a connected whole. Just last month, LandPaths hosted a week-long series of events that brought hut systems advocate Sam Demas to Sonoma County to explore and evaluate our local trekking program.

Demas, a research fellow with the National Parks Service, is one of the world’s experts on hut-to-hut travel. Huts are basic four-walled shelters that support long-distance walking trips by giving walkers places to sleep and shelter from the weather, lightening their loads by eliminating the need to carry a tent. Demas joined LandPaths staff and local partners on three “mini treks” to give him a sense of the local terrain and trekking routes. He capped his visit with a dinner presentation and discussion with a group of partner organizations interested in working with LandPaths to create a new hut system.

According to Demas, “Virtually every culture has a tradition of hospitality for taking care of people who are out by foot—human powered travelers—because that’s what people have done for millenia.” The United States, on the other hand, does not have such a strong culture of hospitality towards walkers. “I found myself wondering,” he explained to a group of walkers, “why don’t we have [so many] huts in the United States? Why isn’t it such a big thing here? What roles might huts play in American culture? What role might huts play in supporting and also mitigating the potential damage and environmental impacts from adventure tourism?”

In his slide show, Demas shared photos and experiences from across the world. New Zealand is especially known for its world-class hut system, which gives trampers access to 950 cabins or shelters and allows them to walk for days without carrying a tent on their backs. Countries including Italy, England, Ireland, Australia, Chile, France, and Switzerland also boast a strong trekking culture and hut infrastructure. In North America, a handful of hut systems dot the landscape, focused mainly in Colorado, the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest.

But sadly, the strong American culture of private land ownership often bedevils efforts to create long-distance trails.

Some countries, such as England, follow “right to roam” laws—which give the general public right to walk across certain types of public and private lands for recreational purposes. The United States, on the other hand, gives private owners the right to exclude the public from any privately held land. “When I learned that 95 percent of the land in Sonoma is privately owned,” said Demas “I realized ‘oh wow, they’ve got some work to do, in figuring out how to work with land owners.’”

He pointed to the Irish experience as one case study to examine, because the Irish share a similarly fierce devotion to private land rights. The Irish were able to create walking paths across private property through a recipe of payments to property owners, legal indemnification for property owners, a collaboration of private land owners and government officials, and a staff liaison dedicated to communicating with land owners.

“If we were daunted by the matrix of private land in Sonoma County, we wouldn’t be able to call ourselves Land Partners Through Stewardship – the full name of LandPaths” said Craig Anderson, the group’s Executive Director. “Besides, the ability of people to experience their landscape in a truly profound and memorable way, and the potential of ‘green jobs’ and habitat and vistas preserved in perpetuity is an eventuality worth the effort.”

Here in Sonoma County, we do not yet have a public hut system, but our local trekking culture is growing. In 2009, LandPaths and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District piloted a multi-day trek starting at Shell Beach and traversing inland for three days to end in Freestone. Since then, LandPaths has grown its TreksSonoma program to offer 8-10 treks each year, ranging in geography from the oak grasslands of Sonoma Mountain to the redwoods of West County. Collaborators include local ranchers, timber companies, and friendly neighbors who welcome organized walks across parts of their land. LandPaths continues to work with local partners, such as Sonoma County Regional Parks, the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and private ranching and farming families.

TrekSonoma even offers aRussian River Trek, which follows the meandering path of the Russian River. Some journeys include fully catered meals, while others—such as the Stone Soup Trek—lower costs by inviting participants to bring with them some ingredients to make a communal meal.

LandPaths and Sam Demas share a common vision for using trekking and huts as a way to immerse people in nature. “I’ve come to see huts as a stewardship method,” says Demas. “If you can get [people] out into nature in a way that they feel safe and supported, and they’re able to open themselves up... nature will do the work and they will be changed forever. They will begin to see themselves as part of nature.”

Consider joining us on an upcoming trek or volunteering with the TrekSonoma program. Please visit LandPaths.org for more information.

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