'Backpacker Bill' still hitting trail at 91

Backpacker magazine founder may have slowed, but he hasn't stopped his hobby

By Olivia Harlow
oharlow@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 9/18/19

Rounding a corner of the El Nogal Nature Trail, William Kemsley - better known as "Backpacker Bill" - steadies himself with his hiking poles, taking care to …

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'Backpacker Bill' still hitting trail at 91

Backpacker magazine founder may have slowed, but he hasn't stopped his hobby

Posted

Rounding a corner of the El Nogal Nature Trail, William Kemsley - better known as "Backpacker Bill" - steadies himself with his hiking poles, taking care to step with caution over tree roots and rocks along the path.

He takes note of wildflower clusters, looks wide-eyed at tree limbs swaying with the wind and comments on the day's fresh air and filtered sunlight.

Kemsley could be almost any outdoorsman. But he's not.

At 91 years old, the avid hiker and founder of Backpacker magazine continues to pursue his life's hobby - or more accurately, his calling. Even on a simple one-mile trek, it's clear Kemsley remains the Yoda of the outdoors, still determined to do what he loves.

"I know today could be my last day, and I want to get as much pleasure out of it as I can," he said.

Kemsley's pleasure has become a nation's passion. He was among the first to fully understand and tap into baby boomers' desire to explore the backcountry, and Backpacker helped feed the rush outdoors. And that push, reflected in heavily used trails and national parks nearly a half-century after he started the magazine, has never been stronger.

"He literally was a pioneer," said Craig Saum, a trail and wilderness specialist with the Carson National Forest.

Kemsley first fell in love with the outdoors at an age so young he can't remember exactly when it happened. Some of his earliest memories are of long walks with his family outside his hometown of Detroit. He, his parents and sister would lay down a picnic blanket, anchor it with rocks and spend hours lounging in grass or swimming in a lake.

"A walk in the woods, we'd call it," Kemsley recalled, noting that in those days, backcountry areas were just beyond city limits.

On these journeys, his dad, William Kemsley Sr., would often say poetic things like "this cathedral of pines," pausing to observe the trees' limbs and feel the breeze ripple through the forest. That mentality stuck with his son his entire life.

At 12 years old, Kemsley said he went on his first backpacking trip with the Boy Scouts: a 12-mile, out-and-back route, including a one-night camp on the outskirts of Detroit.

"It was my initiation into 'real hiking' with quotation marks," he said, noting he had to overcome fears of the dark and being alone. "It was a signal of my coming into manhood."

This love of backpacking didn't resurface until adulthood. In the meantime, Kemsley joined the Sea Scouts and entered the Navy at age 17 during World War II. Though he was sent into a combat area somewhere off the coast of Japan - "It was all secret. ... I had no idea where we were" - Kemsley said he did not have to fight. The war ended while he was offshore, he said, and his ship was one of the first to land in Tokyo Bay following Japan's defeat.

Upon returning home from the Navy a year and a half later, Kemsley said, he "had no idea what I was going to do with my life."

One thing, however, was certain: He wanted to reignite his love of backpacking.

After graduating from Wayne State University, he moved to New York, where he said he practically memorized every mile of the Catskill Mountains and ventured outside any chance he could get.

On the trails, Kemsley took notice of significant changes from when he was a boy: more hikers, more climbers, more trash, more trail abuse. Although he was happy to see a surge of people spending time outdoors, he said, he also was greatly concerned for the natural spaces he loved.

After about 15 years working for corporations across New York, writing annual reports and letters to shareholders, Kemsley started brainstorming the idea of launching an outdoors magazine - a way, he said, to create community among the growing number of trail users, and hopefully raise awareness on outdoor ethics. About five years later, in 1973, Kemsley founded Backpacker.

The publication, he said, was an immediate success, with more than 80,000 subscribers in its first year. By 1980, the staff had grown from about 10 people to 20, and there were more than 125,000 subscribers. Today, Backpacker's circulation is over 353,000.

"That magazine really pushed the message. ... Bill was one of the forerunners in teaching outdoor ethics, and that's enormous," Saum said.

Since the magazine's inception, the number of American outdoor enthusiasts has grown consistently.

Between 2007 and 2017 alone, the percentage of hikers ages 6 and up increased from 10.8 percent to 15.1 percent, according to a 2018 report from the Outdoor Industry Association. Today, the American Hiking Society, which Kemsley also co-founded in the '70s, reports that at least 35 million Americans hike. And compared to the 6.6 million Americans in 2007 who went backpacking - hiking with at least one overnight camp -- now nearly 11 million participate in the activity.

In 1976, Kemsley co-founded the American Hiking Society - among the most influential forums for outdoors ethics and trail advocacy. Two years later, he helped push for the Appalachian Trail bill, which authorized federal government to spend $90 million to extend the iconic 2,000-mile pathway from Maine to Georgia.

Today, Kemsley said he spends most of his free time writing for his personal blog and contributing to the Taos News, almost always to promote trails. His main goal, he said, is to help promote the need to close gaps on all incomplete National Scenic Trails.

"On a cellular level, he is the greatest trail advocate ... locally and nationally," Saum said of Kemsley's efforts.

Though he sold Backpacker in 1980 - Kemsley later partnered with an energy conservation business, AMG, until his retirement in the early 1990s - Kemsley's mission has remained consistent: get outdoors, and inspire others to do the same.

Despite having Type 2 diabetes and a history of health complications, including a recently aggravated sciatic nerve that causes his right leg to go numb, Kemsley said hiking keeps him going.

"I think that if you're out hiking ... you're seeing things in life totally differently than you do in four walls," said Kemsley, who moved to Taos when he retired so he could access some of his favorite trails.

In nature, "you can be fully present ... I can't walk 150 feet from a trailhead and not forget what I was worrying about before that," he said. "You're coming into a different world."

Approaching a turnaround point on the El Nogal trail, Kemsley's younger friend Erik Steinberg points to a bench atop a steep section of stones that form a staircase.

"It's like his throne," Steinberg said with a laugh, noting Kemsley will sometimes sit at the bench for hours, looking out over the Devisadero Mountain.

Once seated, Kemsley's 3-year-old poodle Stanzi greets him, a crow coos in the ponderosas and clouds gather over the Río Grande Gorge.

"Just coming up here is a thrill," he said. "There's just a feeling ... it's something you just can't explain."

Although he admits he's had "some disappointments" that come with age - he can no longer hike the Grand Canyon or summit 14ers in Colorado, and he said a four-day backpacking trip near Questa in June likely was his last - Kemsley said he's decided to "relish in the giving up of these things" and be grateful for each day he can continue doing what he loves most.

"My wife thinks I should die on the trail," he said with a hearty laugh, referring to his wife of 30 years.

"Why not do what you love if it's good for [you]? I wake up every day happy," he said. "I'd like people to be able to feel the joy I feel in the outdoors."

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