This story is featured in the October issue of Seattle Magazine. Subscribe here to access the print edition.
David Birkner was an economics student at Wharton, a Navy officer stationed at Pearl Harbor, a travel agent, freelance writer, pioneering environmental activist, outdoor guide, elementary school teacher, and successful entrepreneur.
Above all, however, the 86-year-old hikes on all five continents, from the southernmost tip of South America via North Africa and New Zealand to Nepal. Each year he devotes three weeks to international destinations and seven weeks to domestic hiking trips.
The Chicago native was instantly drawn to Seattle, but it was nothing compared to his first glimpse of Mount Rainier in 1959.
It had been cloudy for several days and suddenly the weather cleared. It took my breath away, says Birkner, who finally moved to Seattle in 1963 after serving in the US Navy. I gripped the girl I was with’s arm so tight I feared I’d cut off her circulation. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I was banned. It was a magical moment that has never left my memory. It’s like an old dear friend.
Since then he has scaled Mount Rainier hundreds of times. He estimates that he ran all 300 miles of his trails during the months of the year when the snow was cleared. He has hiked almost all 423 national parks in the USA. He has climbed countless mountains in America, Asia, Africa and Europe.
Birkner is his own beast of burden. In Hannibal fashion, he went through the Jungfrau (the top of Europe), the Eiger and the Mönch in the Bernese Alps, but didn’t need elephants. He let others ride camels on a Sahara trek with Tuaregs. While hiking in the northwest, he bumped into a mother bear and kept track.
He kicked the tires of a leper colony on a Pacific island. A long hike through the Himalayas successively brought him into close contact with three homogeneous cultures: Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. He founded the Heritage Institute, an experiential school for teachers to learn more about the Pacific Northwest’s national parks. He sold it in 1994 and used the proceeds for travel.
He doesn’t always walk alone. In the early 1960’s he organized a successful walk-in against Kennecott’s proposed mining operation in the North Cascades with William O. Douglas, a Washington native and polio survivor.
In his early 30s, Birkner testified before the US Senate in favor of establishing North Cascades National Park. His comments would anticipate his own life.
I hope I can dispel, once and for all, the old misconception that the wilderness is for the elite and that only the young and able get into it.
Since then, Birkner has put his feet where his mouth is. He does 100 push-ups every morning and walks 30 miles a week between stops to stay in shape. Doctors tell him that he has the physical condition for a man half his age.
His No. 1 tip for hikers? If it’s obvious you’re lost, don’t push ahead blindly. Retreat to the last point you know for sure you were on the path.
Whenever possible, he plans to hike in good weather. I think the world is more beautiful when the sun is shining, he says.
Birkner has an encyclopedic memory of his collection of more than 100 hiking guidebooks. Here are some of his favorite tours.
MAGNOLIA: Birkner lives in this Seattle enclave, which he calls the most beautiful neighborhood in America, maybe even the world. Lots of beaches and incredible views. When I go for a walk I see maybe three or four people when I should see hundreds.
DEATH VALLEY: In the summer, the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth was recorded here, but for five months of the year, starting in November, the weather is wonderful and there are many interesting hikes.
SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS: Great hiking at 1,000ft overlooking the ocean. Hard to believe you are so close to Los Angeles.
PALM SPRINGS: One of the world’s great hiking centers and five daily non-stop flights from Seattle. At 10,500 feet, Mt. San Jacinto is one of the tallest escarpments on earth.
CANARY ISLANDS: I had planned this as a stopover but it was so nice I stayed five weeks. It’s a special world unto itself, virtually unknown to Americans.
Southeast Oregon: This vast region has made Birkner’s pick the undiscovered gem of the Northwest. It’s one of the most sparsely populated areas in the Lower 48. Make sure your tank is full.
Birkner’s niece, Nancy Goldfarb, calls him colorful and quirky and likens him to the itinerant character Waldo. You never know where in the world he’ll turn up, says Goldfarb. But I can always count on getting a photo of him somewhere on a summit.
Would you like to do your own hike? Here are some local resources:
The Washington Trails Association provides a comprehensive list of resources in the Puget Sound area for those looking for trail clubs and information. WTA is a non-profit organization that helps hikers explore, manage, and defend trails and public lands. This list is compiled as a resource and WTA does not endorse any of the groups listed.
ISSAQUAH ALPS TRAILS CLUB: Offers several free guided hikes each week to educate and engage the public (Issaquahalps.org).
NEPAL SEATTLE HIKING COMMUNITY: Connects people with nature by organizing hikes (Facebook.com/pg/nepalseattlehikingcommunity).
ADVENTURE CENTER NORTHWEST: Outdoor organization for military families near Joint Base Lewis-McChord (Jblm.armymwr.com).
COMPANIES: Outdoor recreation organization for the LGBT community (Outventures.org).
SEATTLE MOUNTAIN RUNNING GROUP: A group of long-distance runners teaming up
Group runs in the mountains near Seattle (Facebook.com/groups/seattlemountainrunners).
BLACK GIRLS RUN! SEATTLE/TACOMA: Provides resources for new and experienced African American female runners, including trail runners. (Facebook.com/groups/seattle.tacoma)
Outdoor AFRO SEATTLE: A community that reconnects African Americans with natural spaces and each other through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, bird watching, fishing, gardening, and skiing (Meetup.com/Outdoor-Afro-Seattle).
SOUND STEPS HIKING PROGRAM: Seattle Parks and Recreation-sponsored program of transportation and monthly guided walks for active older adults (Seattle.gov/parks/find/sound-steps-(50).
THE CLIMBER: Non-profit outdoor recreation organization with volunteer-led classes and activities
Bellingham branch: mountaineers.org/bellingham
Everett branch: mountaineers.org/everett
foothill branch: mountaineers.org/foothills
Kitsap branch: mountaineers.org/kitsap
Olympia branch: mountaineers.org/olympia
Seattle office: mountaineers.org/seattle
Tacoma branch: mountaineers.org/tacoma
NORTH SHORE SENIOR CENTER HIKER: Hiking group that meets regularly in summer and fall (Sites.google.com/site/nsschikers/home).
SEATTLE OUTDOOR ADVENTURER MEETINGS: A community with diverse backgrounds and a common interest in outdoor adventures (Meetup.com/SeattleOutdoorAdventurers/).
SNOQUALMIE VALLEY TRAILS CLUB: Located in Issaquah, offers hiking, snowshoeing, and other outings for members (Snoqualmievalleytrailsclub.org).
WASHINGTON ALPINE CLUB: A volunteer-run organization offering rock climbing and snow travel courses. In addition to teaching, the members organize climbing tours, hikes and ski trips with each other. The WAC also owns the Guye Cabin at Snoqualmie Pass which is available to all members
CASCADES MOUNTAIN ADVENTURES: A Seattle-based hiking and outdoor skills company focused on providing women with outdoor adventures by offering women guided day hikes, backpacking skills sessions, and overnight backpacking adventures (Cascademountainaadventures.org).
ASIAN OUTDOORS: Outdoor Asian’s vision is to create a diverse and inclusive community
of Asian and Pacific Islanders outdoors. The group conducts local hikes and workshops, among other activities (Outdoorasian.com).
PENINSULA WILDERNESS CLUB: An active club to find partners for hiking, backpacking, kayaking, skiing and more (Pwckitsap.org).