The Sandstone Blog

‘A work of inspiration’. Andy Howell reviews Chris Townsend’s Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams

Posted by RLD on 14th July 2012

Andy Howell, on his interesting and useful web site Must Be This Way, has published this glowing appreciation of Chris Townsend’s Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams.


This fine — and accessible — book charts Chris Townsend’s walk along the Pacific NorthWest Trail (PNT), which runs for over 1,800 kilometres west from the North American watershed of the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean.

Many of us know Chris Townsend as the dedicated gear expert of TGO Magazine, a man who can often be seen climbing hills in odd shoes and odd socks in order to properly review and compare gear. But Chris is also one of the UK’s foremost long distant hikers. He likes nothing better than to take up his walking poles and walk through wilderness for several months on end. Chris’ favoured tramping ground seems to be North America and previous hikes here have seen him walk new or often uncompleted trails. With each trail comes a new book each of them better than the last. When Chris completed the PNT a couple of years ago I aced when the book would be publicised. I am writing it at the moment he replied; he just had to find a publisher. Well, luckily for the rest of us the publisher was found — Highlands publisher Sandstone Press — and now the rest of us can just sit back and enjoy the ride!

For me, one of the great things about Chris’ books is that they are incredibly accessible for anyone who has backpacked, trekked or wild camped. I’ve read a lot of high drama outdoor books , you know the kind, where parties die on Himalayan slopes, climbers hack of limbs in order to free themselves from being trapped or groups resort to cannibalism and such things. While many of these books are superb they are describing something that is very much out of my own experience. Not so this book.

Chris’ walks involve all of the things that exercise the rest of us when backpacking. There’s the worry about finding water in dry and hot climates, camping grounds — good and bad, making do with a barely adequate pitch in dense undergrowth, rest days and trail towns, trail food (both good and bad) and getting lost in forests. Yes, it is good to now that someone as experienced as Chris gets lost along the way as well. He reminds us that all of these are more or less everyday experiences on a long walk. Of course, there is more to the book than this!

Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams follows a reasonably straightforward structure and we follow Chris as his walk unfolds day-by-day. We share with him the highs of the dramatic back country and the necessary lows of connecting parts of the walk which follow non scenic routes and highways. As every long distance walker knows these connection stretches are part of the price to be paid for linking together wonderful areas of wild country.

It would be wrong to see the book as a simple journal. As Chis walks he talks us through the history of each other and describes the groggy and the topography. We meet the communities of the tiny trail towns that work as rest stops and re-supply points. But, most of all Chris captures beautifully the relationship that a walker develops that the land that he or she is hiking through.

I’m also fascinated by the relationship of the walker to the land. It seems to me whenever you walk across wild land for more than just a couple of days you experience it in a different way that is more intense, more intimate and more wondrous. There is the wildlife of course and here you’ll find a lot of it including encounters with both black and grizzly bears (and razor clams). You also go with Chris as he seeks to make sense of the land he walks through. Not all of it is stunning wild country. For example, the walk took Chris through miles and miles of forest plantations, some dense and barrier-like and others raised to the ground or destroyed in fire. Chris’ insights in the plight of the natural environment can be quite profound but never are they preaching. They seem to come a log at the right pace, which seems to match they would occur to you when you are out on the trail.

Grizzly Bears works on a number of different levels. Firstly, it is an easy and entertaining read about a wonderful trip —the kind that many of us will just get round to. Secondly, it is a work of inspiration for anyone planning their first long backpacking trip, whether in the wilderness or in somewhere more accessible. Read this book and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect!

Finally, Grizzly Bears will work well as a guide for anyone contemplating walking this trail in the near future. Although the PNT only gained national trail status a few years ago the trail has existed for quite a while and the only guide book to the trail — by Ron Strickland the trail’s originator — was published back in 2001 and is a little out of date. A new and revised guide is currently in preparation but in the meantime Grizzlys will provide a lot of practical assistance for anyone planning their walk. Trail towns are described in full and, importantly, temporary accommodation, food and re-supply points are spotlighted — comments such as supplies just adequate for backpackers is often all you need when planning your route!

As you can see I really enjoyed this route and I read it through in one setting. Not only is the text fine and gentle on the eye and the mind but the photographs here are stunning and give you a real feel for what you are missing out on! And, as gear fanatic, Chris also understands the importance of including a fair number of photos with tents and packs in the foreground!

This book will appeal to any long distant hiker or anyone who has ever walked even the most modest of long distance footpaths. I defy you not to find this a thoroughly fulfilling read. If for some reason it doesn’t grab you I can only say one thing — think hard about going and getting a life!

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