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This Idaho couple thru-hiked Idaho’s wildest trail. They covered 982 miles in 51 days

Outdoors

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Jeremy and Lisa Johnson pose with the Nevada state line marker as they start their journey on the Idaho Centennial Trail on June 6. From the southern terminus at the Nevada border to the northern terminus at the Canadian border, the Johnsons hiked 982 miles over 51 days. | Courtesy Lisa Johnson

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — The Idaho Centennial Trail is easily Idaho’s most difficult hike. Parts of the trail, which stretches from Idaho’s southern border with Nevada to its northern border with Canada, have vanished completely. Other stretches of the route are marked by avalanche slides, dangerous creek crossings, rocky terrain and lack of water.

Boiseans Jeremy and Lisa Johnson are two of just a few dozen people who have successfully thru-hiked the trail — finishing the entirety of it in a single season. And Lisa likely became the first Idaho-born woman to thru-hike the Idaho Centennial Trail when she and her husband completed their 982-mile journey last month.

The Johnsons completed their trek in spite of the wild, perilous nature of Idaho’s longest trail, and they weren’t alone. The couple gathered advice from the handful of hikers who completed the trail before them, and made friends with other hikers they met on the trail, which officials said saw a boost in traffic this summer. As thru-hiking becomes more popular, could the Idaho Centennial Trail finally see some much-needed maintenance?

Jeremy Johnson carries a “deadhead” deer skull while hiking the Idaho Centennial Trail. He picked it up in Marble Creek to give as a gift at Campbell’s Ferry. “He carried it for about 50 or 60 miles including through this avalanche field in Monumental Creek,” his wife, Lisa, said. | Courtesy Lisa Johnson

BOISE COUPLE SPENT SUMMER THRU-HIKING TRAIL THANKS TO ICT COMMUNITY

For Jeremy Johnson, a long thru-hike was a “bucket list” item. A hunter, Jeremy was already used to spending long stretches of time in the outdoors. Lisa had been on multi-day backpacking trips, too, but she hadn’t experienced something like the Idaho Centennial Trail, which can take nearly two months to hike.

“Since we’re both from Idaho and, you know, this is our state and that’s our state trail it just seemed like a good place to start,” Jeremy said in a video interview.

The Idaho Centennial Trail was designated the state trail in 1990, during the state’s centennial. It cobbles together a string of existing trails and backcountry roads, but few people have traveled the route in its entirety, according to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, which coordinates management for the trail.

To tackle the daunting trail, the Johnsons began planning their trip last year. With few official resources available on the Idaho Centennial Trail, hopeful hikers like the Johnsons often turn to a few others who have become de facto experts — like Clay Jacobson, who ran a now-defunct website on the trail, and Dan Noakes who documented his 2018 thru-hike in a series of YouTube videos.

“When I did it, I definitely looked to people who did it before,” Noakes said in a phone interview. “(The group) is so small that everybody seems to be willing to help you.”

Noakes has tried to compile a list of people who have completed the trail, as no official record exists. He has tallied only 31 people including himself and the Johnsons. That leaves a small cadre of people to solicit advice from — but the Johnsons said that advice was crucial.

“Originally we were talking about going at the end of May and (Clay Jacobson) said, ‘Well, if you go too soon, you’re going to hit too much snow, and the creek crossings are really huge and dangerous. But if you go too late, it’s going to be really hot in the desert and you don’t want it to be 100 degrees in the desert,’ ” Lisa said.

Taking Jacobson’s advice, the couple started out at the southern terminus of the trail, located on the Idaho/Nevada border near Murphy Hot Springs, on June 6. The trail starts on Bureau of Land Management land in the high desert and heads north to Hammett, where the Johnsons met up with their children and had a few rest days before resuming the trail.

Lisa Johnson stands along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. | Courtesy Lisa Johnson

ROUGH TERRAIN MAKES IDAHO CENTENNIAL TRAIL A TOUGH HIKE

Initially, the Johnsons had planned to cover between 20 and 25 miles per day, which would have seen them finish their trip in about 48 trail days. But the rough terrain on the Idaho Centennial Trail threw a wrench in those plans before too long.

When the Johnsons reached the Sawtooths, they were confronted with avalanche slides and trail damage from the series of earthquakes originating near Stanley that continue to shake the state. As they traveled farther north into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, trail conditions got even worse.

“We were thinking, ‘OK, 20 to 25 miles a day, we’ve been doing great,’ ” Lisa said. “But then … we were really struggling to get those miles. I mean, we were up at 5 (a.m.) hiking 14 hours a day. And with every creek crossing and downed trees, and all of a sudden there’s no trail and so you’re bushwhacking … it was so much worse than even we were expecting. And we were expecting it to be really bad.”

In the Frank Church, the trail crosses Marble Creek several times. For Lisa, who is 5 feet, 4 inches tall, the waist-high water was a major challenge. Another hiker whom they’d met (and who would’ve been the first woman from Idaho to complete the Centennial Trail) was swept downstream there and broke a foot days earlier.

At times they even had to forge their own route as the trail completely vanished.

“I had a few moments where I was super frustrated with the condition of the trail, you know, losing the trail,” Jeremy said.

“It really is impossible to follow that exact trail, because with natural disasters or creek crossings that are too hard to get across, you do have to veer off a little bit on two different trails and then make your way back onto the trail,” Lisa added.

The Idaho Centennial Trail has been notorious for its challenging conditions essentially since its inception. In 2016, Jacobson described the trail to the Statesman as “more of an idea than a trail.” He began working with groups like the Idaho Trails Association and Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation to lead volunteer trail maintenance trips to try to clear parts of the path in the Frank Church. Major trail maintenance backlogs persist statewide, in addition to those on the Idaho Centennial Trail, but there are still plenty of Idahoans pushing for its restoration.

Tom Helmer, the nonmotorized trails coordinator for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, has been tasked with coordinating maintenance across the trail. With the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, a congressional bill funding conservation and maintenance on public lands, the Idaho Centennial Trail could see a new infusion of funds. But Helmer said it’s too soon to know what that would look like, or even whether it will happen. And because the trail stretches across so many parcels of Idaho land — the vast majority of them not belonging to the state — a cleanup effort will require cooperation from multiple agencies, including the Forest Service and BLM.

Helmer said he sees the Idaho Centennial Trail as a rallying point for trail maintenance funding, something he’s strongly advocated for since taking over the nonmotorized trails program in recent years.

“My goal is to raise awareness for the trail, find funding for it and identify which portions need the most maintenance,” Helmer said in a phone interview.

Earlier this year, Helmer helped launch the department’s Idaho Trails Supporter sticker campaign, the proceeds of which go to trail maintenance. He also plans to revive the agency’s Idaho Centennial Trail blog, a trail journal of sorts that was run by his predecessor, Leo Hennessy.

Jeremy said maintenance is preventing more people from using the trail, but higher traffic could in turn make maintenance easier.

“I think my hope would be that it becomes a little more accessible, and I think that if it does, that more people might use it, and as more people use it, it’s kind of like a snowball effect,” he said. “It’ll be a better trail, because having a well-maintained trail isn’t just due to maintenance. A lot of it has do to with use, you know, just foot traffic on the trail.”

CHALLENGES OF IDAHO’S STATE TRAIL BROUGHT BOISE COUPLE CLOSER

Slowed by the difficult trail, the Johnsons’ trek stretched to 51 trail days, and they ended their journey at the route’s northern terminus near the Canadian border on Aug. 6 — their wedding anniversary. Lisa said it was the perfect anniversary gift.

“I was over it,” she said.

Looking back, the Johnsons agreed that the rewards of the trail outweighed its challenges.

“Every single day I got to cross off things on my list of things I’ve never done before,” Lisa said.

Jeremy said he enjoyed the simplicity of their lifestyle on the trail.

“(We would) basically get up, break camp, have some coffee and breakfast, hike until you’re hungry or sleepy or sore and stop and take care of it and keep walking until you’re ready to set up camp and go to bed,” he said.

They said the community of the Idaho Centennial Trail was a highlight, too — the hikers they met on the trail, the ones who helped them plan their trip, the Idahoans who helped coordinate their resupply pickups and even those they just happened to talk to in their travels.

They were also amazed by the beautiful wilderness of Idaho and its resident wildlife, including a female bear and her cubs who startled the Johnsons when she stood up on her back legs before scampering away. Those experiences helped reframe the struggles on the trail.

“On the State Line Trail (on the Idaho/Montana border), we were just stopped taking a picture of Pearl Lake,” Lisa said. “And there’s some snow and a rocky outcropping and just out popped a mountain goat with her baby. It’s the things like that where you kind of forget about the hard parts of the trail.”

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