Local hiker goes border to border

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

Susie Burns sits in an armchair, but she’s not relaxing.

She leans forward, hands chopping the air as she talks, eyes concentrated intensely, she describes her latest hike – the one that completed her journey the length of the West Coast.

That was 2,650 miles of walking, following the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Canada, a trip that took her eight years and wore out six pairs of boots.

Burns, 54, a teacher at Little Promises Preschool for 20 years, finished the final segment in August with her friend Laura Killian, also of Sweet Home, who has served as a “trail angel” for Burns – mailing supplies, driving her to starting points, picking her up and acting as “a complete support team for me.”

Burns’ journey started eight years ago when her father, Frank McCubbins, suggested they hike the length of Oregon.

Burns said she’s always liked hiking since arriving in Oregon as a 15-year-old from Orange County, Calif., in 1969.

Her dad bought a ranch on the upper end of Ames Creek Drive where he raised exotic animals. The mountains were a stone’s throw away.

“It was gorgeous,” Burns said. “I just took off out the back door and wouldn’t come back till dark. I felt very at home in the woods.”

She and her father spent four summers hiking the PCT through Oregon, starting in 2001.

“Dad was 68 at the time and didn’t want to carry a backpack so we used pack animals,” she said. They covered the 480 miles by “section hiking” the state in four segments, about 120 miles per year, trying a different animal each year – llamas, goats, a camel and a pair of “beautiful mules.”

The goats worked out best, Burns said, because they were easiest to transport and manage.

Having finished Oregon, she got hooked on doing the whole stretch of the PCT.

“I was real jazzed about it,” she said. “I decided it was a very good trail through some of the best parts in the country. It was well-maintained and there were a lot of people using it.”

So she decided to do Washington and, after she completed that in sections as she had Oregon, she took on the “big challenge”: California.

Burns said she enlisted her son Mathew last year to hike with her for the three months she figured it would take her to cover the 1,200-mile length of the state.

Her husband, Gary Burns, is a truck driver and, although he has hiked with her, his job didn’t allow him to do it this time. She also has an older son, Abraham.

Mathew, then 30, was planning a job switch and agreed to go, she said. They did two months, covering some 1,000 miles last year, starting in the Mojave Desert in the spring because it’s too hot to hike there later in the year.

“It was still in the 100s in the spring,” Burns said. During one two-week stretch it was 115 during the first week and snowed on her and Mathew the second.

Taking on the Pacific Coast Trail is clearly not your average, everyday hike.

Burns said it takes planning and preparation to make it.

“After three weeks you lose all of your body fat,” she said. “You have to start replacing it seriously. You burn about 7,000 calories a day.”

On the trail, she said, she eats every two hours to keep her energy level up.

“Three big meals, two snacks. Then, every four or five days we go in for supply and then we load up. We go out to eat, go to the store and buy a gallon of ice cream, cottage cheese, all these things we can’t carry.

“In mountain towns the big joke is ‘here come the PCT’ers. They’ll go into a restaurant three times before they leave.”

Candy bars are important because they’re relatively light and pack a lot of calories.

“Snickers is the hiker’s bar,” Burns said. “You see them everywhere.”

Burns said she and Mathew dried most of their own food, packed supply boxes, collected and studied maps and planned before they headed out.

She said most supplies are mailed ahead to general delivery at post offices along the route. Hikers also will mail ahead items they don’t think they will need at a particular point of the trail, such as rain gear.

“You send extra Band-aids, pieces of equipment that might wear out on you like your water filter, and propane. You don’t want to carry a three-month supply of propane.”

Burns said she’s learned how to hike over the years.

“When I first started, before I knew what I was doing, I carried 45 pounds,” she said. “Now I carry 20. When people throw stuff together they don’t have lightweight equipment.”

She does. Her tent weighs 1 pound, her sleeping bag 3.

“Those things alone, you can see how you can keep the weight down,” Burns said. “Long-distance hikers become more and more efficient with what they carry on their backs. There isn’t any room for ‘extras.'”

She carries food, cooking utensils, water, her tent and sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, extra clothes and a small stove.

Hikers also have to plan to keep themselves hydrated.

“You have to know where you’re going to find water,” she said. “You can’t just say you’re going to hike 15 miles and stop. You could be at a bad place. You have to figure all that out.

“Then, you have to have supplies. You have to go out to the highway and stick your thumb out and get a ride to the Post Office. All those things you have to calculate. You sure don’t want to get stuck out there.”

Burns said she and Mathew met a professional bicycle racer in California who was hiking the trail and had become disoriented because he hadn’t been eating enough.

“He wasn’t loading up,” she said. “He was a vegetarian and he wasn’t eating the calories he should.”

She said the “mother in me took over” and she made the young man sit down and eat three meals before they parted, at which point he was much more coherent and had regained his mental equilibrium.

“You have to eat. You have to replace.”

Burns said she hikes an average of 15 to 20 miles a day. If the terrain is “easy” she can go up to 30.

“If we have extreme climbs – we’ve climbed 4,000 feet in one day, over passes – we won’t go as many miles,” she said.

If the weather looks to be hot, she’ll try to be on the trail by 6 a.m., hike to about noon and then take a “siesta” until about 4 p.m., then hike again till late evening.

The actual hike is only a fraction of the actual walking required to complete a challenge like the PCT. Burns said she had to get in shape to be able to do the hike, which required hiking about as far as she did on the PCT.

“You can’t get into condition to carry a pack up and down hills all day, every day, without hiking, she said. “Not everybody my age can get into condition to do something like this.”

She said she started in January, on snowshoes if necessary, and would do three or four days of hiking on local trails, such as the Santiam Mountain Road, then add weight.

Mathew took off work a month early and started hiking “all day long” to get in shape, she said.

Burns said she has covered about 5,000 miles over the past eight years, without serious injury.

The PCT has a culture of its own, including trail names assigned to hikers by others.

Burns’ was Snapshot, probably “derived from my ever-present camera and the constant taking of pictures,” she said. Mathew’s was Hawk Eye.

“Mathew seldom misses anything on the trail, be it a small lizard, a bird’s nest or an unusual formation,” she said.

“These names may seem juvenile but this tradition is taken very seriously on the trail.”

Some of her favorites are Billy Goat, an elderly man who hikes the trail every year, Gotta Go, a woman who was always in a hurry, and So Far, a man who had bicycled across the United States to hike the trail.

Along the various legs she’s hiked, Burns has met doctors, teachers, stewardesses, a scientist, professional athletes, chiefs and farmers from all over the U.S. and many other countries. There are the day hikers and the “through hikers” – those who start on one end of the trail and go until they reach the other.

She said she met one man, Scott Robinson, who was the first to hike from Mexico to Canada and back to Mexico in one season, a remarkable feat called a “yo-yo.”

“I particularly enjoyed a chat with a man from Scotland as he leaned on his walking stick, crossed his leg just as the leprechauns do in the movies, and told me about a bear that had come into his camp and stolen his ‘porridge,'” she said.

The camaraderie is high on the trail.

“It is not uncommon when you stop at a water hole for a rest and a short nap to wake up to find a dozen hikers sharing your camp and acting as though you have been friends for years, always ready and willing to help if you have a need,” Burns said.

Mathew was able to sew up a ripped pack for a hiker from Kentucky one time, for example, Burns said and a doctor performed some surgery on a fellow hiker’s ingrown toe nail “right on the trail.” Sharing of food and equipment is “continual.”

“It is like you are on a team and everyone works together to help each other reach their goal,” she said.

This summer, Burns and Killian finished the 130-mile section in the Big Bear area of Southern California that she was unable to hike last year because it was blocked by snow.

“That’s very common,” she said. “There might be a fire, or the snow is too high. Hikers skip it and go back sometime and finish it.”

She said she tells her students at Little Promises, where she teaches after-school classes, about her plans each year before she leaves for the summer because she has to take time off to go hiking.

This year one elementary school student, Bryce Nichols, was very persistent in wanting to know all the particulars.

“He wanted to know where I was going, he wanted me to show him on the map, and how long I was going to be gone. He wanted to know exactly what day I’d be back,” she said. “If I wasn’t back, he said, ‘we’re going to come looking for you.'”

Now that her hike is over, she’s planning more, shorter, jaunts.

“I have seen a lot of beautiful places, but not had all the time I wanted to spend there,” she said. She’s already visited some that are within driving range in Oregon and Washington.

“A lot of people found out I like to hike, so they’re going with me,” she said.

She said she can’t really say where the most beautiful sights she saw were.

“That’s a really hard question,” she said. “There are different types of beauty. There are absolutely beautiful places in the desert, the Mojave in spring when all the flowers are in bloom. The Sisters Wilderness is beautiful. So are the Goat Rocks, with their meadows and herds of mountain goats. The High Sierras was a gorgeous walk for me.

“In each state there was a favorite place I liked. I can’t say I could pick one.”

Burns said she wants to develop her photography skills