Into the wilderness: Intrepid hiker, biologist blazes her own trail

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Sage Clegg gets up close and personal with a trailside reptile.
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Clegg takes a brief respite in between conquering yet another trail.

In the world of thru-hiking, Sage Clegg is something of a rock star.

The 34-year-old UC Santa Cruz alum was the first woman to complete the triple crown of long-distance, end-to-end trail hiking — hoofing 7,400 miles over the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail — in the space of only 18 months.

She also was the first person to travel the rugged 800-mile Oregon Desert Trail, debuted her own 1,200-mile route across California, spent one entire nine-month period in the backcountry, and lived a nomadic life in her truck for close to seven years. On top of that, she often defied convention by traversing well-known hiking routes in the opposite direction of everyone else — from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail, for instance — and works as a wildlife biologist studying the desert tortoise.

She is a maverick in hiking boots, an always curious adventurer who sees the world through the lens of plants, animals, and landscape.

“I just like being by myself in nature,” said Clegg (Merrill, ’01, environmental studies). “I feel really comfortable walking on a trail. The rhythm, the outdoors — it’s something my soul needs.”

Raised in the wooded landscape of Willits, California, Clegg arrived at UCSC with the dream of getting a job with Outward Bound, an outdoor education program. Working for UCSC’s Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports, she honed her leadership skills and got her dream job.

But in 2008, when Outward Bound closed the base where she worked, the devastated Clegg decided to challenge herself by hiking the 700-mile Grand Enchantment Trail in America’s Southwest. She has since covered more than 10,000 miles by foot.

Traveling light with a pack that typically weighs only 20 pounds, usually on her own, and often covering 25-30 miles a day, Clegg has been stalked by a mountain lion, encountered nine rattlesnakes on a single day’s walk, and once hiked a parched 15 miles in 105-degree heat in search of drinkable water.

One of her mentors, OPERS Senior Recreation Supervisor Matt Brower (Crown, ’91, environmental studies) described Clegg as a mentally and physically tough woman who is comfortable being by herself, highly organized, and able to problem solve in a calm and logical way.

“A big thing we do here (in OPERS) is encourage people to take appropriate risks and see mistakes as part of the learning process,” said Brower of Clegg. “Sage has obviously taken that to heart and has expanded her circle of comfort well beyond what most of us would consider normal.”

Speaking by phone from the Ivanpah Valley in Nevada where she is working as a wildlife biologist for a solar-power project, Clegg laughed and said she never set out to crack thru-hiking’s granite ceiling.

In July of 2009, she said, she embarked on the 2,654-mile Pacific Crest Trail, traveling north to south because of her work schedule and a desire to avoid crowds. After a hiatus to work in the Mojave with desert tortoises and earn some adventure money, she hit the 2,800-mile Continental Divide Trail, where the idea of completing all three of the U.S.’s major long-distance routes began to tickle her brain. She promised herself if she completed the CDT by August, she’d try the challenging 2,000-mile Appalachian Trial, traveling southbound in the fall. She finished that rugged Eastern U.S. hike on Dec. 24, 2010 — the first woman to bag all three trails in 18 months.

Part of the appeal of those long, lonely miles, “is that there is so much to be curious about,” Clegg said. “I get addicted to ‘what’s round the next bend?’”

It’s also what sets her apart from many of her peers. As a biologist, she said, she finds the natural world she encounters on her 12-hour-a-day treks to be both entertainment and a comfort. She’ll observe birds and study insects the way people watch TV. “I’ll learn the name of a plant and see it and think ‘oh cool, there’s a friend,’” Clegg said.

Said her friend, Travis Burdick (Cowell, ’01, literature and the environment) who works in Red Lodge, Montana, with survivors of domestic and sexual violence: “When Sage wants to learn or do something, she really does it. She's someone who takes her dreams and makes them come true.”

Some of Clegg’s stories would make a normal person head straight for a Holiday Inn — caught in an ice storm on the Appalachian Trail, Clegg awoke to find her wet jacket and boots were frozen solid — but the backcountry is a place where Clegg said she feels most at home.

There, her problems are difficult but simple — find water, don’t get lost, frighten off a stalking mountain lion — “and I know I have the resources to make it happen,” Clegg said. She feels confident.

In the “front country,” as she calls it, things like bills, car repairs, and the Internet leave her feeling distracted. “My confidence is kind of cloudy,” she said. “It’s hard to see what I’m capable of.”

Her faith in humanity is also restored on the trail, according to Clegg, who told stories of a woman sheltering her during that ice storm, of a truck full of rough-looking hunters in a desolate wilderness who fished a baggie of blueberries and cherries out of their cooler and wished her luck on her hike.

“It would be cool to figure out a way to bring that attitude out in people on a normal basis,” Clegg said.

Now a homeowner in Bend, Ore., Clegg confesses she misses some of the freedom she had between the ages of 25 and 33, when she spent more than 200 days outside each year and lived in her Tacoma truck. But she is also happy to be spending half the year working for her company, Fresh Tracks Consulting Inc., learning to do things like can vegetables, and setting down roots with her boyfriend Adam Drummer.

Still, her roots will probably always be surface deep.  This summer, Clegg plans to hike the strenuous and largely unmarked Bigfoot Trail in Northern California, which boasts 32 species of conifers along its 400 miles.

“I need to hike because I love it,” Clegg said. “It fuels me.”

For more information, visit sageclegg.com