Felled like a tree at age six, Steve Ghan leads logouts in the North Cascades

By Mary Anne Chute Lynch

Carrying a backpack through a sudden hailstorm, 6-year-old Steve Ghan got his first taste of trail dirt. Blown over by the wind, he face-planted on the beach during a storm so powerful it knocked out a canal bridge.

Unable to get up, Steve lay like a turtle as his father marched ahead. “I called out to him, but he didn’t hear me,” Steve said.

Now retired, Steve planned to hike the northern 1,270 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail this summer. He was not thinking about the PCT during that storm in 1963, hiking with his twin brother and parents on Cape Alava, the westernmost point in the lower 48 states. No one had thru-hiked the PCT at that time, but Boy Scouts and a magazine article planted that dream he still nurtures.

Scouting embedded another deep conviction. “In scouts we were taught to always leave your campsite in as good shape as you found it,” Steve said. He does this everywhere he ventures, and he has expanded that commitment to volunteering for trail maintenance projects and through climate advocacy.

When Steve was 14, he read in “National Geographic” about the first man to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Eric Ryback.

“Let’s do Washington state,” Steve said to a scouting friend.

(Left to right) Ken Cook, John Heinz and Steve Ghan on the PCT at the Canadian border, 1973. All photos courtesy of Steve Ghan.

They did a 50-miler every year with the scouts, so they were well prepared, he said, but back then, the gear was heavy. “I was 123 pounds carrying a 55-pound pack,” he said.
They did 10-day stretches before resupplying, following the PCT through Washington for six weeks. “It gave me a lot of confidence.”

After college, Steve migrated to the East Coast to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees in atmosphere science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory pulled him back west after he graduated, but he was soon drawn to his native state to work at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where he utilized global climate models to study the response of the climate to increasing greenhouse gases and aerosols.

“I was more involved in modeling future change, forecasting,” Steve said.

He continued backpacking but never had the time to pursue a PCT thru-hike. Seven years ago, he began setting aside time to get closer to the epic trail by volunteering to do trail work in the northern Cascades. He took classes at PCTA’s Trail Skill Colleges to become a certified crosscut sawyer, and after working on logouts, became a volunteer crew leader and steward of eight miles of the trail. He’s also taken trail tread and rockwork courses, “but the biggest issue is the logs, at least in the Cascades,” near Steve’s home in Richland, Washington.

“I really enjoy the logouts,” he said. “You have to plan. Where’s the log going to go once it’s cut? Sometimes we use ropes. It takes a lot of skill.”

Steve on the PCT at milepost 300, October 2018.

Logouts range from cutting up a three-foot-wide tree that has fallen on the trail to clearing a pile of smaller logs, but they never cut anything as complex as a tree that has fallen and is suspended on other trees. For those, sawyers often reach out for help from the U.S. Forest Service or the PCTA. Sawyers are encouraged to walk away if they are uncomfortable or if a situation feels unsafe.

In 2018, at age 61, Steve retired and began his long-awaited PCT excursion. He took an Amtrak train to Northern California and walked to Mexico, building up his daily treks from 15 to 25 miles.

“I wanted to savor it,” doing one half at a time, Steve said. “The downside is that very few people go south.”

He found that wearing a hat from his friends that said “Make Earth Cool Again” was a conversation starter. Steve hoped to take the train back to his starting point in California and hike north to Canada this summer, but that has been tabled because of the COVID-19 shutdown. When the opportunity comes, he will be ready with updated, ultralight gear. “My pack rarely gets over 25 pounds.”

Steve’s an exemplary volunteer. He volunteered to take on a leadership role in the PCTA’s White Pass Chapter, which maintains 73 miles of the PCT ranging from forest to the Knife’s Edge, the famous ridge above timberline that drops 2,000 feet on either side. Last April, Steve helped lead a sawyer training project, taking volunteers out in the rain to cut logs off the trail.

“Steve is a leader,” said Michael DeCramer, the North Cascades Region Representative for the PCTA. “He brings on new volunteers and he supports folks trying to increase their stewardship. I really enjoy working with him.”

Steve and fellow trail worker James Fort near Tieton Pass on the PCT, July 2018.

Steve has been active in new ways during the shutdown, donating blood platelets, doing intake at a service center for the homeless and through his ongoing advocacy work for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which he joined seven years ago. He is the chapter leader for Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, and has been an organizer and speaker on effective solutions to climate change.

“We don’t need more science. What we need is to teach people,” show them solutions, Steve said.

His career and volunteer work trace back to that basic lesson from scouting, about leaving things — from his tent site, to the Pacific Crest Trail, to the planet — at least as good or better than he found it. “I have taken that to heart. It is what drives me in my climate advocacy,” he said.

“Steve is an incredible thoughtful steward of public land and taking care of the trail,” DeCramer said.

Steve looks forward to backpacking again with his son, two daughters, granddaughter and friends, and he will be prepared with an accurate weather forecast.