Exploring the Outdoors During Quarantine with Tom Handel

Image from Canyon Creek Meadows, at the base of craggy Three-Fingered Jack

Torben Karl

This week I got the chance to speak with Tom Handel, OES’s Experiential Learning Coordinator and adventure guru, about his mindset around exploring during COVID and how has been getting out into the great outdoors over these past seven months, as well as some of his tips and recommendations for the coming fall and winter season.

In July, I set out on a backpacking trip into the Jefferson National Forest. Having driven past this area a thousand times on the way to Bend, it had always piqued my interest, and with an extra boost of pent-up quarantine energy, I decided to head out for a four-day trip with a friend on a loop around Three-Fingered Jack. It was beautiful and indeed a well needed and – though physically tiring –  mentally rejuvenating experience. With the inability to access normal modes of travel and the cabin-fever-like lull of being under lockdown, there has never been a better time to turn our attention towards the power of the outdoors. 

This week I got the chance to speak with Tom Handel, OES’s Experiential Learning Coordinator and adventure guru, about his mindset around exploring during COVID and how has been getting out into the great outdoors over these past seven months, as well as some of his tips and recommendations for the coming fall and winter season. 

Here are some excerpts from the interview: 

Torben: How has COVID changed the way you’re getting outside and impacted the activities you would normally be getting into? 

Tom: Fortunately, I haven’t heard a ton of need for emergency response in Oregon, but with the increase in people out on the trails and up in the mountains, especially those who might be less experienced or haven’t put on their hiking boots on 20 years, it makes you pause and go, ‘Okay, maybe my pursuit should be a little bit more conservative.’ 

Sometimes it can be really tempting to reach a little higher and push the boundaries. All the stars start to align: I’ve always wanted to ski that line, I’ve got the right friend and I have the right gear, the conditions are perfect, it always made my heart you know go out to think about certain things that I like to do that are on my bucket list and right now I kind of like set that list to side during COVID. I’ve decided to scale back on my adventures recently; I haven’t been doing the higher-end whitewater adventures, I haven’t been doing the higher-end ski lines, and I haven’t been climbing hardly at all. Even though I love those and they’re my soul sports, I can definitely find enough juice to keep me going during the week by slowing it all down and just taking a hike, busting out the paddleboards on some flat water, or cruising my mountain bike.

Torben: When looking for a destination or outing how do you recommend that we best-set ourselves up for a successful trip? And, what are some important things to consider before heading out, especially for those that are just starting to find interest in camping, backpacking, rafting, etc. now with the lockdown? 

Tom: You know, I can’t help but review the seven principles of ‘Leave No Trace’ and especially that first one of the planning and preparing. When people ask for recommendations on where to go, I spend most of my energy with people who are looking for data on that planning and preparing stage and really like giving them all the tools they need. There are so many little details that we are not necessarily obvious right off the top of the head but can be so influential in making sure a trip is a success. You know, I want to be there beforehand and be able to say ‘Oh by the way you need a parking permit, oh by the way here’s the phone number for the Ranger Station, oh by the way here’s the map.’ As a parent, if you’re taking your family out, you want to make sure you’ve had these conversations with your 12-year-old about how to not trash the place and what you do if someone gets lost.  

It is crucial to know how to take care of this place you’re going to. You’re going to leave some mark, but how do we make that minimal. So, I usually end up sending people the 7 principles [of Leave no Trace] because it really does help people think about their impact on the environment, not just their natural surroundings but with the living beings, human or not, that they are sharing these spaces with. I find that they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought about how bringing my Bluetooth stereo as I go into the backcountry is really going to affect people as I’m walking by them…’ There are all these different things that until you’re really out there with nature you simply don’t realize. I think it’s important to make this experience their own and not take away from others’.

Torben: What have been your favorite trips you’ve taken over the past several months of lockdown?

Tom: I’ve been getting more time to explore the nooks and crannies of my own backyard that I didn’t really know about. Looking at trailheads online when in the planning stage means that it’s already been discovered, so I love looking at a map and really blowing it up and thinking about what there is well wonder what that’s like what Google Maps has been great for that and there’s a certain joy in zooming in on a map and going, ‘Oh, wow! Look, I found a waterfall right there on the map and then going to see if I can find it in real life.’ So exploring the geography of our backyard on more of a microscopic level has been really awesome. 

I also love going out to the beach and I’ve been getting the opportunity to really explore some of the Coastal Trails. Just smaller trips like going up water drainages and doing some creek hikes. Talking about this, I get a flashback to my last couple of weeks with the salmon running and just going up in the Gorge, getting on a paddleboard at one of the tributaries, and paddling up just a little bit and seeing these giant fish swimming under paddleboards. It was such a great reminder to myself that, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a this is part of this ecosystem I live in. There’s a bunch of dead fish everywhere and how important that is for the nutrients to decompose.’ It’s awesome that we can still do these things. I’m choosing to do these things on app off-peak hours so it feels a little bit more like I’m on my own out there. I’ll maybe go with a buddy and on a less busy day these little trips are just epic. 

One thing I’m really excited about is that I just got a new mountain bike so I guess my next chapter – before it snows is to just go ahead and do a super casual ride out there. I mean mountain biking just exploded in the Portland area so there are parks all over with super fun terrain and then there’s just really great logging roads and nobody’s out there so those are always available to check out. 

Circling back to old hobbies, such as mountain biking, and exploring have been some of the highlights recently. 

Tom’s recommendations for this fall: 

Plan, plan, plan. Conditions are much more variable which means making sure your ready for anything the weather throws at you and you have done enough proper scouting to make sure the route is clear and safe to travel, as well as having a backup plan ready if need be. 

Find time to explore that isn’t just during peak-hours. ‘If we’re all just weekend warriors then we really do start to wreak havoc on these really cool places – give yourself the green light to take a mental health day during the week to go check out these beautiful landscapes when there are not as many people around.’

The season for snow sports is also quickly approaching. I personally cannot wait to get out on the slopes again, but there is still a huge amount of uncertainty as to how this season will play out. Whether it be finding a pair of good fitting ski boots or pulling the trigger on a lift pass, there are usually a lot of substantial investments that people make during this time of year in preparation for snowfall in the mountains. 

Right now, a lot of the resorts are focusing their efforts on customer service and while there is no guarantee, if there is an interruption in the season, there will be some sort of compensation for whatever people buy for this year (either the passes will be refunded or will get rolled-over to next year). Purchasing passes is a relatively safe choice. 

Renting or borrowing gear is a great choice, (especially this year) and the OES Basecamp is currently open for use. PSU also has an extensive gear rental system that covers all of the basics. For more specific and fine-tuned equipment, such as skis/snowboards or boots, many of the local rental shops, such as Next Adventure, would be a most likely good bet.

For hiking spots, Tom reports that the Gorge is amazing right now. If you have not spent any time up there and are looking for a low investment, high reward, easily accessible, view oriented excursion to take in Oregon’s autumn beauty, it is highly recommended that you consider that. Hikes such as Beacon Rock, or any of the loops around Wakheena Falls look great right now and for more of a leg-burner try checking out the Dog Mountain Trail.