Still hiking after all these years

Eighteen years ago, Bill Myers and David Chalk met in a docent training workshop with Valley of the Moon Natural History Association. One was from Michigan, the other from Ohio – sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart when they speak over one another on the phone – so the two Midwesterners struck up a friendship and thought they might like to lead hikes together.

“We asked a ranger if he thought that was a good idea, and he laughed,” said Chalk. “He said we’d be lucky to get six people.”

At last month’s Bill & Dave’s Hike, a total of 92 others joined them hiking across the headwaters of both Santa Rosa and Sonoma creeks, in a fundraiser for Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. But that wasn’t even their most well-attended hike: one 4th of July a couple years ago, they had 216 people join them in a hike to the top of Bald Mountain, from where they watched over 20 fireworks shows from the valleys and towns below.

“Bill and Dave aren’t exactly cult leaders. They’re more like grassroots organizers who deftly manage to get tens and sometimes hundreds of people up early on a weekend morning,” said Richard Dale of the Sonoma Ecology Center, a frequent fellow traveler on the trails of Sonoma Valley.

This Saturday, Myers and Chalk will be celebrating their longevity with a repeat of their very first hike, 18 years ago. “We’re planning to retrace the steps of our first hike and have a party afterward,” said Myers. He admitted that first hike description (currently reposed on their website) was “a little wordy.”

“The Bald Mountain, Vista, Headwaters, Gray Pine, Red Mountain and Meadows trails on this hike encompass a wide variety of terrain and scenery,” he wrote then. “The two distinct ecological systems are chaparral-covered ridges, and oak/fir forestland along the open meadows. Trees include big-leaf maple, madrone, California laurel, gray pine, Douglas-fir, alder, California buckeye, and several varieties of live and deciduous oaks.”

In other words, it’s a typical – perhaps archetypical – Bill & Dave’s hike, a 7-mile long leg-stretcher with an elevation gain of about 1,500 feet through the landscape of Sugarloaf Ridge, still their favorite hiking location.

That hike was May 20, 2000 – and it will be replicated this weekend, on May 5. As usual, attendees are asked to arrive 15 minutes early for the 10 a.m. departure – no stragglers are allowed on a Bill & Dave hike, although novices are welcome. Chalk usually takes the lead, and Myers brings up the rear, to make sure everyone stays on the trail and more or less in a group.

“Our goal has always been to provide free monthly hikes in the Sonoma Valley,” said Chalk. They’ve trekked the trails of Sugarloaf Ridge, Jack London and Trione-Annadel state parks, as well as Hood Mountain, Shiloh Ranch and Spring Lake Regional Parks. Except for one or two hikes outside of the county each year, all their hikes are in Sonoma Valley.

When asked if his hiking groups have seen any widlife, his answer is apt. “We’ve captured photos of both mountain lions and bears on park game cams. But it’s tough to see the elusive creatures while leading a group of 40 people.”

Myers and Chalk have found that they frequently provide novice hikers with their first real outdoor experience. “Our goal is to introduce people to the beauty of nature,” said Myers. “Lots of people aren’t even very good at reading maps.” Every month they ask people to raise their hands if it’s their first hike – and typically about half a dozen people do, they said.

“It’s a very social group. We have a core of about 24 or 30 who come every month, rain or shine,” said Chalk. “But some don’t come back after their first hike – they say, thank you very much, and go off on their own. And that’s fine.”

With 10 hikes a year over 18 years, that’s a lot of miles on the trails, not just for Bill and Dave but their loyal fellow-hikers. In all that time, they only had to cancel hikes once – last fall, during and in the immediate aftermath of the fires.

Chalk and his wife Joan live in Oakmont, but travel back to Michigan frequently to see thier children and grandchildren. Myers lives outside of Kenwood with his high school sweetheart, after spending 30 years apart. Myers also helped start the Funky Friday fundraisers, first for Sugarloaf and now for Regional Parks, from its venue at Hood Mountain’s mansion.

But as they approach their 20th year leading hikes, Myers and Chalk (it’s hard not to just call them Bill and Dave) admit they might be slowing down a bit. Both are in their 70s now, with Chalk a bit older than his hiking buddy. “We’d like to find someone to take over Bill & Dave’s Hikes,” said Myers. “Let the next generation take this over, to provide this service to the community.”

“They can even change the name if they want,” said Chalk. “We’ll still be there to cheer everyone along, but we’ll let someone else do the organizing.”

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