After hiking up the Lower Table Rock trail and across the flat top, Tish McFadden and Jeff Kloetzel made their way to the basalt rim overlooking the Rogue River carrying ukuleles and knowing exactly what to do with them.
“Let’s play ‘I’ve Got Peace like a River,’ ” McFadden says. “That’s a great song any time you’re standing over a river.”
With that, the pair launched into a rendition of the old church hymn, which showed why hiking with their little instruments can make for big enjoyment on these big Rogue Valley rocks.
“I call ukes the smile-makers,” McFadden says.
Come May 20, close to two dozen ukulele players will have fingers jumping like fleas on the frets as the musical language of Hawaii gets top billing atop Lower Table Rock.
McFadden and Kloetzel will lead the first-ever ukulele strum-along as part of the annual Table Rocks hiking series set for April and May at the valley’s signature mesas.
Mixing the natural world with some of the most distinctive musical sounds is the newest idea to spruce up this annual hike series sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and Bureau of Land Management, which in tandem manage the rocks.
Many of the free, guided spring hikes are centered around spring wildflowers. The 16 scheduled hikes begin April 7 with a wildflower walk on Upper Table Rock, an outing that has been a cornerstone of the series since it began in 1986.
Others include night hikes seeking shooting stars and owls, kid-friendly, story-telling hikes on the half-mile loop trail at Lower Table Rock, and specialty hikes exploring geology, insects and natural history.
Reservations are required on all the hikes, and space is limited to 20 people per group unless otherwise noted.
Other than the shorter loop-trail sessions, the hikes typically are 3 to 5 miles round trip, mainly on moderate-grade trails and typically last three to five hours, depending upon the topic.
Geologists believe the two rocks, named upper and lower based on their upstream and downstream position along the nearby Rogue River, are the last traces of a vast lava flow 7 million years ago from Olson Mountain, an extinct shield volcano just east of Lost Creek Lake.
Geologists believe the vast majority of the flows eroded, leaving only the two horseshoe-shaped plateaus.
The area is rich in wildflowers and vernal pools that contain federally threatened fairy shrimp. One plant — the dwarf woolly meadowfoam — is found only on Upper and Lower Table Rocks.
Each year, organizers tinker with the lineup, often veering away from some of the traditional hikes in favor of some experiments.
“We’ve been trying to keep it fresh and keep it new,” says Molly Allen, BLM’s environmental education coordinator who helps craft the series.
Last year the groups added a poetry hike that encouraged participants to bring original nature-inspired poems to share. They also added a yoga hike, during which an instructor held a session for hikers on the top of Lower Table Rock. Both will be repeated this spring.
During a planning discussion of what to try new this year, the idea percolated of bringing music to the rocks, Allen says.
“We realized right away that we needed to come up with something small,” Allen says. “You can’t have a hike with a big band up there.”
The conservancy’s Molly Morison brought up the growing ukulele craze, and that led to McFadden, a long-time Ashland music teacher who has seen interest in ukuleles skyrocket since Britt Festival’s first ukulele camp in 2013 led her to found the Southern Oregon Ukulele Players, who meet monthly at her Rum Tum Music studio.
A life-long backpacker, McFadden jumped at the chance to lead a hike with ukuleles, whose name is Hawaiian for “jumping fleas” for the fast finger movements on the frets.
“The thought of combining those two into an event sounded like a perfect storm for me,” McFadden says. “It’s my two passions coming together.”
During the hike, McFadden and Kloetzel plan to stop at strategic points and have all the hikers play the ukes they bring. They plan to provide a music book with easy, nature-based tunes to play.
All skill levels are welcome, even those who buy their first uke en route to the hike.
“If anything, they can flip the strings to their belly and play it like a drum,” she says.
A professional musician, Kloetzel is also a regular hiker well versed in the Table Rocks trails, flora and fauna.
“Fairy shrimp have nothing on jumping fleas,” Kloetzel says.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.