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Originally published October 3, 2009 at 12:07 AM | Page modified October 3, 2009 at 7:13 AM

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A journey of thousands of steps

Bart Smith of Lakewood just finished his 17-year quest of hiking all 16,500 miles of the country's National Scenic Trails.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Bart Smith's journey

Years: 17

Pairs of boots: 19

Backpacks: 9

Tents: 4

Cameras: 3

Images taken: 100,000

Source: Bart Smith

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LAKE OZETTE, OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK —

On Wednesday afternoon, a trim, youthful-looking man of 50 hiked out the three miles from the Pacific Ocean to this campground. He was all smiles.

This is about as far west as you can drive on the continental U.S., and it was here that Bart Smith, a nature photographer, could finally say he had accomplished a quixotic mission that took 17 years and some 16,500 miles of hiking to complete.

He had walked every one of the 11 National Scenic Trails in this country, likely the only person to have done so.

Unless you're an avid hiker, you might not even know that in 1968, Congress enacted the National Trails System to promote our "open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources."

Steve Elkinton, program leader of the National Park Service's National Trails System, said that although a claim for hiking every mile of the scenic trails has to be "taken at faith," he also believes that Smith's claim "is legit." And, he adds, the distance Smith hiked was probably more like 17,500 miles because of difficulties measuring the trails.

Smith has documented his hikes in four photo coffee-table books and on a Web site with numerous photographs.

Meeting Smith on Wednesday was his wife, Bridgie Smith, who often drives her husband to the beginning of a trail, and then picks him up one or two or three weeks later, hundreds of miles away.

As always, Bridgie was very enthusiastic about her husband's endeavor.

"You gotta live passionately. There is no way I could be married to a guy who'd just go to a job at Microsoft and then come home," she said.

Bridgie is a critical-care nurse in Tacoma, and it's doubtful that Bart could have become a published nature photographer — or spend weeks on end on trails — without her support.

For example, Bart didn't know the price of the Nikon D300 digital camera that he was using (base price around $1,700); "Bridgie bought it."

How Bart Smith developed his passion for hiking goes back to his childhood, he said. His father, Dr. David W. Smith, was a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington who had a passion for the outdoors. The dad would take his four sons on wilderness hikes.

"I started out at a very young age. I can remember being in my dad's backpack as he hiked," said Smith. "He created a hiking monster."

To complete his mission of hiking every mile of scenic trail (there also are official historic and recreation trails), Smith had to hike the Pacific Northwest Trail.

It is 1,200 miles long and goes from Glacier National Park in Montana all the way to the Pacific Coast. It took him 78 days, which averages to around 15 miles a day.

He starts out with a backpack weighing some 75 pounds, about half his weight of 155. Smith said on a 1,000-mile hike, he'll lose 20 pounds of body weight.

Smith can remember great moments from all his treks.

In all his years of hiking from Florida to Arizona to New England to the Appalachians, he said, he's managed not to have any serious injuries and only had one serious encounter with wildlife.

On the latter, remembered Smith, he was sleeping when a black bear bit on the sleeping bag he was in and bit him on the rear end.

Smith yelled and the bear took off.

He said that he's often asked if he packs a gun for protection — not from wildlife; it's those who've watched slasher movies set in the outdoors who ask.

"I tell them, 'Yeah, I pack a 45,' " said Smith. "That would be a hat, sunglasses and 45 SPF sunscreen."

Great moments?

There was a sunset on the ocean in his latest hike.

"There was the sun, setting right through the waves, and the spray. It was just awesome," said Smith. "Or the sun this morning coming through the fog and the Sitka spruces. Just beautiful, really majestic."

He e-mails with the numerous friends he's made on hikes.

On this hike, Smith happened to be camping near a couple of retired Navy Trident submarine guys. They had food left over before heading back, and invited Smith to join them for steak fajitas.

"And so we had this big fire, cooking up the steaks, drinking some whiskey. The moon was starting to set right over the Pacific Ocean. I thought: 'Goddamnit, this is magical.' "

Of course, Smith then got his camera, waded out in low tide into the kelp, and began taking photos.

These also are the kinds of stories he shares with Bridgie, and which bond the couple.

The Lakewood couple met in 1990, when Smith had an audiovisual job at Tacoma General Hospital.

Bart was doing the visuals for a conference on electrolytes that was attended by some 200 nurses.

Bridgie noticed Bart.

"I said, 'Who's that guy?' " she remembered. "I'm gonna meet that guy and go out with him." They became a couple.

In 1991, having saved up $10,000, Bart quit his audiovisual job and decided to travel the world. For a couple of weeks in Thailand, Bridgie accompanied him, as they rented a boat and went from village to village on the Mekong River.

That's what she means about doing passionate, unusual stuff.

Said Bridgie Smith: "In my job in nursing I've learned that life is very tenuous. You're fine one day, and then you have a horrendous accident or a stroke while sleeping.

"So I'm not concerned about money. When you die and have $4 million, it doesn't do you any good. It's the journey, not the destination."

Bart's co-workers at the hospital had given him a Canon AE-1 as a going-away present.

The more photos he took, the more Bart fell in love with photography. He's color blind, but he learned to deal with it when taking pictures.

The two passions — photography and hiking — became one for Bart.

He'd work two or three months in construction, save up some money, and go off hiking, lugging 15 pounds of camera gear. Some years, he wears out three pairs of hiking boots.

He's taken more than 100,000 images, and gotten four photo coffee-table books published.

A coffee-table book doesn't bring in too much money. There might be 5,000 copies printed and he maybe earns $1 a book, Smith said.

Since about five years ago, the Smiths decided that Bart should devote his time entirely to his hiking quest and his nature photography. He's got a fifth coffee-table book coming out in January, about the Pony Express National Historic Trail.

Wrote Smith, in the foreword to his picture book on the Appalachian Trail:

"I can't keep a musical beat. I sing only in the car, alone, with the windows rolled up. Drawing stick figures is a challenge. And I had a dickens of a time writing this preface. But I have a crazy desire to express my awe and wonder at being alive on this great earth. That's why I love photography and hiking."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Bart Smith's journey

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