Winter weary and itching to get on the trail on the first weekend of April, a group of 22 hikers from Eastern Washington and North Idaho connected in cyberspace.
Then they met for the real dirt, mud and snow experience at a trailhead in the Colville National Forest.
They were proof the Internet can work at lightning speed, even for a group that ambles at 2 mph.
Founded by a few leaders 10 months ago, the web-based Inland Northwest Hikers Meetup group has grown to 250 members who’ve already organized more than 100 outings.
About 70 members are regulars that hike virtually every week.
Ethan Craft, a web designer for Community Colleges of Spokane was looking for active groups to join when he recently moved to Spokane. Being familiar with Meetup.com, he simply had to search the Internet for “Meetup groups Spokane.” Instantly he was presented with a list of 76 groups with something for everyone – South Hill Moms, Tarot Readers, Witches, Elvis fans, Poetry, Pugs … it’s all here.
He scrolled down. The Spokane Women’s Walk & Talk group might have caught his eye, but he didn’t qualify.
Then he scored with Inland Northwest Hikers. He signed up and soon was on the trail with a ready-made group and experienced leaders who knew the route.
“It’s an instant network,” he said.
He bagged the 11-mile round trip on the Bead Lake Trail north of Newport on April 3. With encouragement on that trip from leader Mark Turner, he rented snowshoes and bagged Scotchman Peak north of Lake Pend Oreille last weekend.
Kathy Kalich, an elementary school librarian who didn’t contemplate hiking as recreation until she was 29, has led more than 70 trips in 18 months with Meetup groups. She co-founded IN Hikers after breaking off from another local Meetup hiking group, Burning Boots Trail Club.
Spin-off groups are typical in any organization as personality conflicts or different goals emerge.
The Spokane Mountaineers is the oldest and largest outdoor hiking-related group in Spokane. Founded in 1910 as the Spokane Hiking Club, it bloomed over the decades to include sub-groups – as well as schools, clinics and outings – for climbing, road biking, mountain biking, backpacking, paddling and conservation.
Mountaineers have split over the years to form groups such as the Hobnailers and The Backpacking Club.
Some members in the more loosely organized IN Hikers Meetup are Spokane Mountaineers or former Mountaineers.
“It’s just another group to hike with,” said Turner, a leader and member of several organizations.
The Mountaineers have learned outdoor lessons in their long history and club rules require participants to carry “13 essentials” in their daypacks to be prepared for situations that can occur far from a road.
IN Hikers, so far, are less rigid, even though the trips have had a few trials.
For example, a hiker got lost on one trip. On another trek a hiker wearing sneakers and no socks developed blisters so bad she almost couldn’t walk the last few miles back to the trailhead.
“How do we prevent things like that?” said Turner, repeating the question. “We turn this into a bowling club. Short of that, there’s no way to take groups deep into the outdoors without something going wrong occasionally.”
Still, there are limits, he said.
“I had a person show up in jeans to hike in wet weather up Scotchman Peak. You won’t see that in the Mountaineers.”
The Spokane Mountaineers charge a membership fee and use the funds for outdoor skills schools as well as for trail and conservation projects.
IN Hikers has no fees.
“Meetup gets a bigger tent of people involved in the outdoors,” Turner said.
“I don’t think half of the people on this trip would be hiking if it weren’t for Meetup. They’d be watching TV or something. Yet almost all of our trips go off without a hitch – even in bad weather.
“And when we organized for a trail work party Meetup, we had 10 show up. That’s getting people involved who otherwise wouldn’t be.”
Kalich said she simply enjoys being around hikers.
Introduced to hiking in a previous relationship, she found herself alone and without partners after a divorce.
“I decided instead of waiting for fun to come to me, I’d go looking for fun,” she said. “I’m really into hiking, so Meetup was the perfect start.”
Although she prefers dayhiking, IN Hikers already has bloomed with leaders for trips that range from wandering to “multiday backpacking trips in the middle-of-nowhere Idaho,” she said.
New members must be accepted into the group by Kalich and other organizers. Meetups are announced to members via email and the Web. Members are expected to stay involved, or they’ll eventually be dropped.
Kahlich said about 120 members have been deleted in the past 10 months.
“You don’t have to hike with us each month, but you need to stay connected and show interest online,” she said.
Meetup leaders have posted as many as six activities in a week.
“I think that’s why most people join,” Kalich said. “People like choices.”
Gradually, the group is evolving as leaders try to balance the free-to-all concept with accepted outdoor awareness.
“We’re getting better at asking people to come back for a different trip if they show up at the parking lot with inappropriate gear,” Kalich said.
“We’re looking for middle ground. The Mountaineers are a wonderful, very organized group. But it can be very intimidating for a newcomer to build up the ‘13 essentials.’
“A woman in her 40s who hasn’t been in the woods since she was a kid can join our group and start getting out right away.
“We’re very social. We form this environment that’s not intimidating.
“Our belief is the less rigid we are with rules and not charging fees, the more people we can get out in the woods.
“Whatever they do beyond that? Who knows. They might become a Mountaineer, or maybe go on to climbing Mount Rainer and Everest. But at least they got their foot out the door and into the woods with us.”
• See photos of hiking Bead Lake at spokesman.com/outdoors