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Hiking for a Higher Cause 

Could a desert trek save Oregon's wilderness?


It's 9 a.m. and Sage Clegg is already worried about where her water is going to come from.

She's worried because she's in the Central Oregon desert, it's hot and, later in the day, she plans to walk across an extended section of dusty, exposed flats.

The day before, at Sand Springs, she enjoyed refreshingly cool water from a "puddle that looked like cow pee," but was actually a year-round spring used by both wildlife and recreationalists.

"Water is constantly on my mind out here," says Clegg, an experienced through-hiker who is taking on the newly designated 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail—solo. The Oregon Natural Desert Association is behind the new trail and it has worked to string together pre-existing singletrack, doubletrack and jeep roads in an effort to create an endurance path that will both highlight Oregon's desert beauty and bring attention to areas that, it says, deserve wilderness designations.

When I caught up with Clegg, a fit 33-year-old Nor-Cal transplant with light brown braids and a big smile, she was hunkered down under the shade of towering ponderosas munching on trail mix and fretting about water. But not too much; she was just starting Day Three of what she expects will be a 45-to 50-day trek through Central and Southeastern Oregon. At mile 46 (of 750 or so), morale seemed high.

"It's so neat to hike for a bigger purpose," Clegg says. "I hope other people adventure from their front door."

Clegg, who, starting in 2009, through-hiked what's known as America's triple crown—the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail—in an impressive 18 months. Now she's psyched to take on this new adventure, which involves off-road bike touring and hiking, from her house in Bend to the Snake River on the Oregon/Idaho border. Along the way she'll cross Hart Mountain, the Steens and the Owyhee Canyonlands—some of Oregon's most breathtaking, though lesser-known, natural treasures. Already she's seen gopher snakes, red-tailed hawks and desert songbirds as well as purple and pink sunsets, craggy bluffs and lots and lots of sage (note: Sage is Clegg's real name, not some hippie trail name).

What is crazy is the desert-scape Clegg is trekking through, while all public land, is not all protected. Some of it, most notably Owyhee Canyonlands' majestic and remote wilds, lack the permanent protection of a wilderness designation. In fact, according to ONDA Executive Director Brent Fenty, the Owyhee Canyon is the largest unprotected roadless area in the lower 48, and at 2.2 million acres, it rivals Yellowstone in size. ONDA hopes Clegg's trip helps relieve what Fenty calls "Oregon's wilderness deficit." While neighboring Idaho, California and Washington all boast between 9 and 15 percent lands that are protected wilderness, only 4 percent of the Beaver State is designated as such.

Clegg is the first to take on ONDA's new endurance trail. She's acting as a scout, taking note of water sources and terrain and proofing ONDA's guidebook while collecting data, like wildlife notes and water samples, for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, an accessible science-based nonprofit for outdoor folk. And because there are a couple extended jeep road sections, Clegg opted to travel those by bike—a Salsa Fargo 29er, a drop-bar, adventure travel mountain bike loaded with gear. Her boyfriend is working logistics, picking up and dropping of the bike as needed.

"I'm over my road walks," says Clegg, noting that she put in her fair share while ticking off America's three long trails. "Biking is a new activity for me." All told, she'll only ride about 150 of the ODT's 750 miles. For the rest, she'll walk.

Her gear setup is smart and no doubt relies on her lightweight backpacking days. Her Osprey Exos 34 pack fits neatly inside her bike's panniers. Her ground sheet is simply winter window film, and she has a custom-made Bedrock Bags bike frame pack that holds most of her water. Her iPhone, which she's using to update her blog ( and folks at ONDA, is charged by a small solar cell made by SoL.

"I'm somewhere between an ultralight and lightweight backpacker," says Clegg, noting that her pack weighs a mere 15 pounds. "My new sleeping bag is 1 pound, 2 ounces, but I'm not sure it was worth the swap," she jokes. "It's not the cozy warmth I'm used to—maybe I've just been sleeping inside too long."

Clegg appears unflappable and not easily deterred by gear shortcomings or even long distances between watering holes. But the land she's traversing, while rugged, is fragile and hangs in the balance. While Congress has named portions of the region Wilderness Study Areas—a nonpermanent designation—it has yet to grant it full recognition, leaving nearly 3 million WSA acres of Oregon desert in limbo.

"ONDA works its ass off to preserve this desert," Clegg explains. "And I get to see why." SW

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