The North Coast, with its wealth of natural environments to explore, from mountains and marshes to river trails and redwood forests, is also rich in hiking groups. Recently I checked out one of the oldest: the Ramblers. We met promptly at 9 a.m. at the Ma-le'l Dunes south parking lot on a sunny Monday morning. For the next two hours, seven of us followed leader Gail Popham to tromp through coastal forest, steep sand dunes and beaches in what the Bureau of Land Management brochure calls "one of the most biologically diverse dune communities on the West Coast." Our group consisted of two men and five women, mostly single, all 60 and up.
As we walked in ones, twos and threes, masked or carefully separated, we were sometimes companionably silent, other times chatting about the pandemic, real estate prices, the marriage of two members last year, other local hiking groups and the breathtaking views. Noticeably — and to my relief — no one brought up politics or the election season.
The Ramblers was started in 2007 by Kathy Layton and Jenny Hanson, who met in a hiking class offered by Elderhostel (now Road Scholar). Afterward, they agreed they wanted to create an ongoing group for people who liked to walk. Layton was new in town and unfamiliar with the area, but was willing to create and manage the mailing list, while Hanson, a professional nature guide, knew the North Coast intimately. Though their members joined by word of mouth and never through advertising, at one point they had more than 200 on the list, with 10-15 people on a hike, occasionally up to 30. "The Ramblers was more than just a hiking group," Hanson says. "Over time we developed into a cohesive, close-knit group with anniversary parties and a culture of civility and inclusion, providing a safe place to be outside with other people."
For years, every Monday and Friday the group would hike all over Humboldt and Del Norte counties, from Jedediah Smith State Park near Crescent City to the Avenue of the Giants. Then came the pandemic. "When we found out that hiking was one of the exceptions to the shelter-in-place rule, we never missed an opportunity," says Popham. But since members are discouraged from carpooling, they choose trails closer to home. Recent scheduled hikes included Trillium Falls in the Redwood National Park, Patrick's Point, Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Fortuna Riverwalk, the Hammond Trail and the Hikshari' Trail. Most hikes are 3 to 4 miles, or about two hours. No dogs are allowed.
During COVID-19, some members continue to walk, while others temporarily dropped out, interpreting the shelter-in-place rules more strictly. Numbers now range from seven to 12 and hikers wear masks or maintain 6-foot separation.
Popham joined the Ramblers three years ago after retiring from her job as a Caltrans biologist. In her role as leader, she sends out the hiking schedule, choosing from a pool of around 50 hikes and alternating between northern and southern locations. During the hike, she keeps an eye on the slower walkers, making sure no one gets lost. (As someone who has gotten lost at Ma-le'l Dunes, I was grateful to be looked after.)
Photographer Gary Todoroff says, "I joined as a way to get past my doldrums after my wife's death." His friend Annie, who went to the same church, thought he should get out of the house more and go hiking, biking and camping. Eventually, as they spent more time together outdoors, their friendship deepened and last year they got married.
Karen Nessler, a widow from Blue Lake, began hiking with the Ramblers two years ago but had to pause when she broke her arm after tripping on a rock on a hike at Trinidad Head.
Nessler moved to Blue Lake when she was 10. "I spent most of my life here, worked as a clerk for the city of Blue Lake and raised a family," she says. "I had no idea there were so many beautiful areas to visit nearby. I just love being out in the fresh air with friendly people who enjoy exploring nature."
The Ramblers, like Coleridge, Wordsworth and others throughout history who've taken up this ancient practice, know that walking in areas of natural beauty is a balm for the spirit — even more so during this poignant era of isolation, fear and stress.