Love and Packrafts

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The Little Blue Boat on its first river excursion back in 2008. It didn’t end well…a shallow creek bed and deadfall led to a long, swampy walk out. 

My very first foray with the sport of packrafting was back in 2007. Sore-legged and weary after the Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, I found myself navigating a rental car through back alley streets of Anchorage on a clear, crisp fall day in search of Alpacka Packraft World Headquarters. I’d first learned about these rafts by reading magazine stories of a mystical, distant group of bike riders in Alaska who would ride along beaches and then paddle from inlet-to-inlet along the Alaskan sound, strapping their bikes to the front of the tiny rubber boats. Even then, the rawness and authenticity of these type adventures appealed to me, because it was like nothing I’d ever seen. They seemed like a warrior clan from another land. I wanted to be like them.

After scouring the internet I found the contact information for Sheri Tingey, the owner of Alpacka Rafts. Legend had it a few years earlier, Sheri built the first packraft because her son Thor needed something the cross the water-clad Alaskan tundra in the summer. Sheri sewed the boat in her garage and Alpacka was born. I traded a few phone calls with Sheri telling her I wanted one of her boats. With a wry chuckle she told me she had a factory second with a cosmetic defect at a discounted price that she could sell me.

Turns out the world headquarters of Alpacka was a cluttered garage in the home of middle-aged yet spry looking Sheri. When I arrived, Sheri was expecting me, and pulled out of a pile in the garage a shiny looking royal-blue rubber raft. She rummaged through another pile and pulled out a perfect fitting spray skirt, and had an old five-piece fiberglass paddle that she sold me for $10. Walking out of the garage with my new boat was exhilarating, a freedom similar to that felt by a child when he or she gets their first bike.

As I boarded the plane in Anchorage heading back home to Colorado, I felt a strong sense that big world of adventure had just opened up.

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The start of the 2007 Soggy Bottom 100 Bike Race and the reason I was in Alaska to pick-up that first packraft. This was simply an amazing 100-miler on the Kenai Peninsula out of the fun and quirky town of Hope, Alaska. I strongly remember the endless singletrack across the tundra and the never ending jingle of bear bells as I pedaled for 12 hours across the wilds of Alaska. Thus far, it’s is the last bike race I’ve done. 

Turns out I didn’t use that first packraft much. Winter hit early that year freezing the waterways and the next few years of my life were filled with enough chaos to make relaxing trips into the mountains to go rafting a rarity. I did do some exploring of high alpine lakes west of home, and enjoyed the novel idea of hiking to a lake and then paddling around it. I wondered if some if these lakes had ever had a boat on them. I even tried to raft a way-too-low creek connecting two alpine lakes and almost lost my neck to an overhanging tree strainer. I loosely formulated a plan to be the first person to packraft every single lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness during the next few years.

Alas, life had other plans. I ended up selling that packraft to a guy in Norway to fund a trip to meet my eventual wife in Ireland. It was a worthwhile sacrifice: we ended up getting engaged after a tipsy night in Gallway and have been life partners ever since. In a  weird way, that Alaskan born packraft made that possible. It was barter to get the girl.

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First paddle in the Blue Boat on Lake Isabelle. 

In the past few years Elaine and I have seen enough Banff Mountain Film Festival-style clips featuring packrafts to instill a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in us. Our adventures seem puny compared to the unique, irreverent and quirky hike/raft, bike/raft, ski/raft excursions done by Luc Mehl and Roman Dial. These are the people we look up to, the people who make us dream bigger, folks creating adventures that are incredibly unique and authentic.

When Elaine and I came back from Greenland we were flat broke. Fortunately we were able to find jobs immediately upon return at the old gear shop we used to work at, and were able to get ourselves past the Raman noodle stage and into the pasta-and-a-decent-sauce stage fairly quickly. A lot has changed at the shop since we worked there last: the Little Red Lighthouse grew into the Great Grey Bridge. Synchronously, through a major remodel, a mostly new staff and reinventing its image, the store quietly started selling Alpacka Packrafts.

Alpacka had left distant Anchorage years earlier for a more business friendly factory deep in southwestern Colorado. The business simply outgrew Sheri’s garage. Ten years ago, when I mentioned packrafts to people I would get blank stares back. In 2018, almost all outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with packrafts and many people own them. It’s still a relatively small, niche sport, but it’s getting more popular exponentially.

The boats changed too. Instead of an oval they now had some shape that helps them cut through water better. The old packrafts required a substantial pack load on the bow to prevent the front end from jutting out of the water. The new ones are more balanced and handle better. Whereas the old rafts basically did a 45° rotation on every paddle stoke, the new ones track better than expected for a one-person raft with no rudder or keel. Features like cargo fly storage, thigh straps and removable spray decks have turned the early simple models into a game of “Pimp My Packraft.”

On our first day back at the shop we stumbled upon a packraft clinic accompanied by a tempting offer designed to get poor gear shop employees into a boat. It was slightly irresponsible, but we took the plunge and ordered rafts, from none other than Sheri’s son Thor, the recipient of Sheri’s first sewn boat. I ordered the same (but quite different) model as my first boat I picked up at that Anchorage garage: the Yukon Yaak. Besides the fact that it’s the right size for my six-foot tall frame, I like the name…the Yukon and my time there evoke strong memories for me. Elaine, who is 5’6″, ordered the smaller Alpacka model.

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The yellow and red dreamboat pack rafts.  

And then we waited. Six weeks to be exact, while the boats were created per our specs. I ordered mine in a bright yellow color – I figure it will look good on blue and grey glacial rivers with snow capped peaks behind, while Elaine got a shiny bright red boat. Elaine looks good anywhere, but the red boat will certainly compliment her well! We waited and worked and waited. And then finally, we got a notice of “package shipped and delivered.”

When we got home the first thing we did was rip open the packages to examine our new boats. They looked better than we imagined, and the folks at Alpacka tossed a calendar and some hats into the box for good measure. We didn’t get to bed until 1 am that night – too excited – but when we did the dream of floating down arctic rivers danced in our heads. In a way, packrafts have played a big role in our relationship thus far, and as such I can’t help but think they will play a big role for us as our relationship and adventures continue to progress. It’s time to fulfill that giddy excitement felt walking out of Sheri’s garage more than a decade ago.

But before all that, we need to practice…a lot. As such, to the lakes we go…

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Practice time on Lost Lake, our neighborhood lake. 

Dealing with Disappointment

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Random fox tracks day four on the ice sheet. Made us wonder where the little guy was going.

They say you learn more from misadventures than from the ones that are smooth sailing the whole way. And you know, they’re probably right.

But that doesn’t make it easy. Not by a long shot.

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Safe inside the Red House as a piteraq rages off the ice sheet.

It’s actually taken me until just yesterday to realize that both Dan and myself are grieving. At first, it sounded ridiculous, but as I thought about it, I realized that it actually makes a lot of sense. We put everything we had this past winter into this trip. Between working several jobs spanning 60-70 hours a week, living as cheaply as possible, training every second we got, and spending all the other free seconds we could scrape together planning and preparing for this trip, we really had invested everything we had into skiing across Greenland.

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Roped glacier travel on skis with a 175lb pulk…

If you’re going to do it, you have to, I suppose. It’s a serious undertaking, one that can’t be done lightly, and we needed to do everything we did. We’d planned longer trips before, but nothing quite like this one, and the amount of dedication needed to get everything done on time before we left was huge.

And when you put that much into getting something done, you really, really hope that you do get it done, in fact, you can hardly allow yourself to entertain the idea that you might not. I’m not really sure when the idea first entered my head that this was a doomed expedition.

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Three km of skiing across frozen bay ice was enough to send my heart thumping

As we ran into insane baggage fees again and again, it certainly did not occur to me then, I just handed over the credit card (rather reluctantly, I suppose, but really, what was I supposed to do?) to pay the fees.

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Camped outside the Kulusuk airport, watching the dog teams take people and gear into town.

As we met more and more incredulous people over our lack of a shot gun, culminating in our taking the quickest ever lesson from a native on how to shoot an ancient shot gun and our camping the first night along the sea ice with another expedition of two, it certainly didn’t occur to me.

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Standing polar bear watch that first night.

As we heaved our outrageously heavy pulks up, up, ever up, sometimes having to remove our skis and wallow in the snow when the going was too steep to get good traction with our thin skins, it did not occur to me.

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Sometimes, it was so steep and the pulks so heavy that we had to take off our skis and boot up.

Even when night-time temperatures plummeted to -60ºC, wind ripping across the frozen wasteland that so resembled what I can only imagine the moon looks like, and my body quite clearly and in no uncertain terms knew that this was weather in which my fragile little body could easily die, it did not occur to me.

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It’s a crazy frozen wasteland out there.

When Dan began exhibiting signs of frostbite on his fingers and toes, it was a concern, for sure, but he showed that he was dealing well with it, and being extremely mindful of his slightly damaged appendages.

Perhaps, it filtered into my thoughts on that first day that we could not move, the wind buffeting the tent so hard that a tiny tear started in one of the strongest tents on the market, while Dan and I took shifts heading out into the gale to dig out the snow that was continuously piling up between our tent and our snow wall, threatening to cover our tent completely.

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I tell people there was nothing out there. I’m not lying!

But as the day got worse, and that tiny tear turned into something not so tiny and more along the lines of gigantic (and proved to me that super glue does indeed not set when it’s friggin’-cold-degrees out and also that my skill set with a needle and dental floss leaves much to be desired), and the forecast for the next few days was updated to 130mph winds and heavy snow (a particularly unpleasant combination, to be sure), I had a taste of death. It wasn’t quite there, it wasn’t knocking right on my door. But death was sniffing around; it had picked up our scent and was following hot on our trail.

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One of the times we could actually see the horizon!

There was a point in my life when I would have welcomed death, when I would have flung my arms open and brought it to me. There was a time when I even sought it. So perhaps, my biggest realization when I felt death drawing near us, was that I did NOT want to greet death. I wasn’t ready, no way, no how – and certainly dying with Dan, frozen to death on that great lonely ice sheet was not something I wanted. I could clearly see what would happen: the tent would fail, inevitably. Any sort of snow shelter stood a high chance of being destroyed as well. And then – the cold, cold process of the body slowing down, freezing, freezing, until we were nothing but two frozen bodies. Some (Romeo and Juliet come to mind) might find the thought of perishing in a frozen wasteland romantic, but the thought of watching Dan freeze before me – I definitely have better circulation – was horrifying. I didn’t want to die, and I certainly didn’t want to watch my partner die. My own hot, blood-pumping body recoiled dramatically at this vision, as a viscously strong realization slammed into me: I wanted to live.

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You’re walking a line out there – you create your own bubble of an environment that the human body can survive in; all while surrounded by an environment that could easily kill the human body.

There followed an extremely circuitous communication slog, in which we called via satellite phone Arctic Command in Nuuk, Greenland, our insurance company, and Fran.

Rasmus, with Arctic Command, got back to us with a weather forecast for our location very similar to what we had received, but with slightly stronger winds, and said “I’d like to see you guys get out of there. You do have two choices though: you could dig down, it’s the only way you have a possibility of surviving, but the Greenlandic snowpack is difficult to manage, and there’s a very high chance that it will collapse and you will still die. Or you get out of there.”

A few hours later, we were greeted by a helicopter pilot as he landed next to our destroyed tent by the words, “It’s nice to pick up actual humans and not bodies!”

That cemented in my mind that it was the right decision. It didn’t make it any easier though. As we rose up in the air, I watched our tent get smaller and smaller below us, feeling a hurricane of emotion threatening to implode me from within. Hot tears coursed down my cheeks, burning on my wind- and sun-burned cheeks.

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Watching the ice flow below

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Dangerous and deadly, yet captivating and breathtaking

Now, Dan and I have been home for a little over a month. I’m still working on processing this whole trip, the decision, the failure. It doesn’t help that I finally went to the doctor a few days after getting back to have my foot checked out. Several months ago, I had had a crash while skiing that had left me unable to bear weight for a few days, and that seconds after it happened, I told Dan that I had broken my foot. A minute later I said it wasn’t and walked out. When, three months later, I finally went in, it was to discover that I had fractured my calcaneus. I was ordered into a boot and on crutches for a month, which left me with very few coping mechanisms. My typical form of self medication is to beat the crap out of my inner demons until they’re so tired they no longer rear their ugly heads – that and a gigantic helping of good old fashioned sunshine to top it off.

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Two full pulks, one winding pulk trail.

For a month, while I reeled in turmoil  from our Greenland trip, I couldn’t even deal with the craziness in my head. I was reduced to sitting on our porch, which I will grant is actually quite nice, but did very little to help me heal. I don’t think I even realized I needed to heal.

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Every second is filled to bursting out there.

But now, as we’re settling back into being home, as the massive fight or flight response is finally winding down and my body’s chemistry goes back to normal, my X-Rays are coming back normal, and I’m allowed to walk without crutches, I’m realizing that it’s ok. We are grieving. It was a rather traumatic experience. We went through a lot in the space of a very small time frame.

But most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s ok.

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The crazy thing is…we’re planning on going back

Greenland Ski Traverse Gear List

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Sometimes it’s hot, but you still gotta wear your new boots!

Here’s a quick and dirty gear list of what all we’re taking to Greenland. This isn’t a nice write up like the one I did for the Continental Divide Trail, but it gets the point across. The format is also what I generally use for our backpacking trips, where I really care about weight. And while I care about weight for this trip, I’m not sure I want to be alarmed by just how heavy everything is! It’s enough for me to know that it’s standard for a month long polar-style expedition sled to weigh 165lbs. So I’m going to say I’m in that range!

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Food is gear, too 🙂

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I got organized! Each separate colour of stuff sack is for four days of food. We still have to buy some in Greenland.

This list is my personal gear – Dan’s gear is pretty similar, although without things like the Freshette, Diva Cup, and sports bra, obviously

Gear Item Specific Weight (lb.) Have Packed!
Sled w/harness & poles Acalpulka Expedition Tour 135 ✔︎ ✔︎
Arctic Bedding Piteraq XL ✔︎ ✔︎
Sleeping Pad Closed-cell foam ✔︎ ✔︎
Sleeping Pad Therm-A-Rest X-Therm ✔︎
Sleeping Bag WM Puma 5’6” ✔︎ ✔︎
Ski Poles Asnes Fram 140 ✔︎ ✔︎
Skis w/bindings Asnes Ceclie 185 ✔︎ ✔︎
Skins x2 Asnes full length, nylon & mohair ✔︎
Kicker Skins x2 Asnes 45mm mohair ✔︎
Ski Boots Alfa Polar ✔︎
Warm Boots Steger Arctic Mukluks ✔︎
Shell Jacket Bergans Ceclie ✔︎
Shell Pants Arcteryx Alfa ✔︎
Softshell Jacket Arcteryx Gamma ✔︎
Light Pants Fjallraven Bergtagen ✔︎
Big Insulation RAB Positron ✔︎
Light Insulation Fjallraven Bergtagen ✔︎
Vest
Light Thermal Top Kari Traa Tikse ✔︎
Light Thermal Bottom Kari Traa Tikse ✔︎
Heavy Thermal Top Kari Traa Rose ✔︎
Heavy Thermal Bottom Kari Traa Rose ✔︎
Sleep Thermal Top Kari Traa Ulla ✔︎
Sleep Thermal Bottom Kari Traa Ulla ✔︎
Wool Tank Top Icebreaker 200 ✔︎
Underwear x2 Icebreaker Siren
Bra Kari Traa Ness ✔︎
Liner Socks Bridgedale Race ✔︎
VBL Socks Plastic bags
Thick Socks Darn Tough
Sleep Socks Darn Tough
Compression Socks Feetures
Mid Layer Top Melanzana Fleece ✔︎
Mid Layer Bottom Melanzana Fleece ✔︎
Light Gloves Hestra Touch Point Wool ✔︎
Light Mitts Hestra Winter Tour ✔︎
Warm Mitts BD Mercury ✔︎
Bomber Mitts Steger Arctic ✔︎
Windproof Cap EXA Lowe ✔︎
Ski Cap
Ball Cap
Headlamp Black Diamond Spot
Sunglasses Julbo MonteRosa ✔︎
Goggles Smith ✔︎
Facemask Cold Avengers ✔︎
Buff
Shovel Camp ✔︎ ✔︎
Hairties
Facewipes  Yes to primRose
Spoon Orange Plastic
Cup GSI plastic ✔︎
Bowl Nalgene Jar ✔︎
Knife Benchmade ✔︎
Thermos HydroFlask 32oz ✔︎
Large Thermos 45° Latitude 64oz ✔︎
Food Thermos HydroFlask 18oz ✔︎
Watch Suunto Ambit 3 ✔︎
Feminine Hygiene Diva Cup ✔︎
Urinary device Freshette ✔︎
Inhaler ✔︎
Toothbrush Oral B ✔︎
Lip Balm Ski Naked
Phone iphone SE w/Otterbox ✔︎
HandiSani
Cards ID/debt/insurance/passport/Global Rescue, etc.
External Battery Anker PowerCore 26800
Cords/Earbuds iphone charger, earbuds
Shoes La Sportiva Ultra Raptor GTX                      
Crevasse Rescue Kit Black Diamond Couloir, Black Diamond ATC Guide, Camp Corsa axe, 4 locking carabiners, 4 non-locking carabiners, Petzl Tibloc, varying prusiks axe
Funfun! Little Kitty toy
Total

0

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The “soft clothes” I’m bringing. The others are shells and puffies pretty much

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My big bag of shtuff! Note the kitty ❤ 

I think Bjorn approves of the kitty!

Now, here’s our group gear:

Gear Item Specific Weight (lb.) Have Packed!
Shelter Hilleberg Namatge3 ✔︎ ✔︎
Sled Bag Hilleberg ✔︎ ✔︎
Stove MSR XGK x2 ✔︎
Wind screen MSR ✔︎
Box for Cook kit w/lid for stove Plastic ✔︎
Cookware GSI 4L ✔︎
Trash Bags Lopsak Opsak, 12.25” x 20” x2 ✔︎
Fuel
Matches & Lighters
Candles
Food Sacks
Compass
Probe ✔︎ ✔︎
Snow Saw Black Diamond Snow Saw Pro ✔︎ ✔︎
1st Aid Kit

second skin, neosporin, band aids, liquid bandage, Advil, Tylenol, Advil PM, Benadryl, Peptobismol, needle, athletic tape, wound closure strips, safety pins, tweezers, nail clippers, arnica, athletic tape, Ace bandage, Dr. Braunners, Tenacious Tape

✔︎
Repair Kit

Leatherman Juice CS4, therm-a-rest repair kit, Tenacious Tape, spare pole basket, stove repair kit, bailing wire, zip ties, duct tape, tent zippers, spare pole section for tent, super glue, allen key for sleds, bungee for sleds

✔︎
Spare Binding

binding, screws, steel wool, binding buddy with drill bit

Bootfitting Supplies

Heel lifts, various wedges, bontex boards, foam, carpet tape

Spare Pole Set

BD Traverse

✔︎ ✔︎
Brush for Ice ✔︎
Container for scraping ice/condensation
Extra Batteries
Wax Kit

Polar, green, Blue extra, cork, glop stopper, kick scraper

✔︎
Camera Cannon a6000 ✔︎
Camera Battery
Drone DJI Mavic Pro, 3x batteries ✔︎
POV Camera GoPro Hero 5
Memory Cards
InReach Delorme Explorer ✔︎
GPS Garmin etrex 30x ✔︎
GPS Garmin 60CSx ✔︎
PLB McMurdo Fast Find 220 ✔︎
Marine Radio Cobra Marine ✔︎
Sat Phone iridium
Weather reader Kestrel 2500 ✔︎
Chargers ✔︎
Maps Garmin Greenland ✔︎
Food
Tea
Toothpaste Lush Toothy Tabs ✔︎
Floss Glide ✔︎
Solar Charger Suntactics S-14 ✔︎
Sunscreen Dermatone Z-cote ✔︎
Funfun Deck of cards (Harry Potter for more fun!) ✔︎
Group Crevasse Rescue Kit Black Diamond 7.0 dry, snow picket, ice screws x2 snow picket
Emergency Bivy Terra Nova Superlite Bothy 2
Total

0

 

 

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A bit of our repair kit

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our sleds all packed up! No messing around with cardboard boxes this time

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Maps! Because who doesn’t love maps?

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Cards for those tent-bound days. Ima have to up my game – can’t tell the difference between black and red on this deck. But Harry Potter!

Mostly a pictures post, but time is of the essence. What would you pack?

The Big Question

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Training up high with the storm clouds rolling in.

More than any other adventure that Dan and I have embarked on, we’ve received that big question: Why?

So far, most of what we’ve done kind of makes sense to most people – even those who are not inclined towards launching themselves wholeheartedly at type-two kinds of adventures. Even if someone’s idea of a good time is not trekking across the United States for months-on-end along the spine of the Continental Divide, it seems like most can comprehend why somebody else might want to do that. The same thing goes for skiing across the Hardangervidda multiple times, or entering races, or really anything else that we’ve done. But with Greenland I’ve received the question of “Why?” astronomically more times than ever before.

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Sometimes, we’re being generous when we say type two fun!

Let’s be honest: it’s actually a fair enough question. We want to go to one of two icecaps in the whole world. A place with no life. And to be honest – once you’re up on a the icecap, there’s really nothing much at all except me and Dan and a vast white horizon. I know: I’ve watched videos, seen pictures. It’s a vast, non-undulating mass of white. It’s what I imagine being at sea would be like. Just on-going, never-ending, flat horizon. There are no resupply points, so we have to have everything that we might need for a month – including all of our food and fuel. This means that I’m willingly volunteering to drag a sled behind me that most likely is going to end up weighing more than I do myself. According to what I’ve seen – temperatures at freezing are the highest we might expect. To that end, -28°C is definitely a possibility. Added to that is windchill, a very real thing, as it’s not uncommon to encounter quite intense windstorms – and even though we live in a place that we somewhat-lovingly dub “Windora”, the wind there is on a whole other level, if only because there is nothing, absolutely nothing to protect us out there from the wind.

My knee-jerk reaction when someone asks me why is the in-famous, and fully incomplete answer “because it is there”. It’s a cop-out answer, to be honest. So I’ve been thinking about it. What actually draws me to this particular adventure?

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Can you fly over this and NOT want to go there?

I think maybe it might have started the first time I ever traveled to Europe – in 2010 I took a trip to England and Ireland, and as every plane does, we flew over Greenland. At that point, I don’t think I thought I’d ever see it up close. But something about it triggered a longing inside me. It might be impossible to look at that place out a plane window and nor wonder – what if? That feeling has not subsided the more I’ve flown over it – in fact, every time builds a stronger desire to be there, to experience it. Every adventure that Dan and I do – well, it makes me wonder…

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Enjoying the serenity of camp on the Hardangervidda.

This life is short, right? Honestly, we don’t get a whole heck of a lot of time. And maybe something I’ve learned in my short time so far is that I don’t want to let an experience slip away. I don’t want to give up on the chance to learn something else about myself. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to see what is possible. Greenland is like one of those magical lands of opportunities – and obviously I don’t mean that in the obvious sense. Since talking about Greenland, people always make the joke about how Greenland is not green and Iceland has no ice. Obviously not talking about those kinds of possibilities. I’m talking about more…

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Enjoy that cup of tea!

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Yes, you can be cozy when it’s howling wind, snowing, and freezing cold out!

Greenland is a place that has captured my imagination: the vast openness, the wildness, the starkness that is the icecap – all of it speaks to my soul. It’s an opportunity to see and feel and experience a place that so few humans have. And the opportunity to cross it is a chance to explore myself even further than I ever have before – a chance to explore my own personal human boundaries, both the physical and the mental ones. I’m under no delusions that it will be easy. But perhaps that lack of ease is partially what attracts me. Maybe this is truly at the heart of what we consider type-two adventures: there are those of us that are strongly, inexplicably drawn to what many would deem “suffer-fests”.

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Potentially genetically pre-disposed to love the suffer-fest?

I’ve read some articles that touch on the subject. Apparently there are some people that do not actually get rewarded for exercise – they for real do not get the “runner’s high”. Their bodies simply do not reward them. And then there are others – others whose bodies reward them higher than average. That’s right: some people’s bodies reward them very highly for doing things involving strenuous physical activities. My suspicion is that I fall in the later category. And so does Dan.

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The pulks after a cold night out.

That’s another part of this: I want to experience absolutely everything. I want to grab this life by the horns and really feel and experience whatever it is that is waiting out there and I want nothing more than to go through it all with Dan. I’m beyond lucky to find this in a partner, but it works so well. It’s true – that feeling of strength and power and all those little reward chemicals that pump through your body when you complete something challenging are incredible. But to get to share them with the love of my life? Well, that’s just plain special.

And as I think of it more, my only real response to the Big Question is: Why would I not?

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Also – I want to thank everyone who has been so supportive of us as we’ve trained and worked towards this goal! You all mean so much to us. And if you would like to support us monetarily (because, let’s face it, this expedition is hella expensive!) we have a Go Fund Me at https://www.gofundme.com/expedition-greenland-team-vardami. Also, under the Donations tab here, the link is at the bottom. We plan to really share this experience via words, photos, and video when we get back!

Once again, thank you so much!

Staying Sane in a Worrisome World

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Heading out of the Wind Rivers in Wyoming.

I’m not a cocky person. Usually, I have a myriad of little things running through my head, putting me in my place, so to speak. When I do have confidence, it’s usually for a good reason. When Dan and I finished the Continental Divide Trail last fall, I actually had confidence that I could transition back to a normal life, and that honestly, it wouldn’t be that challenging. I figured, how hard can it be? We have carved out a life that is pretty good. We live in an old cabin in a small town – 150 people in the summer time, and significantly less in the winter – with wilderness and forest service lands literally right outside our door. Whatever it is that we want to do – be it mountain biking, running, roller skiing, groomed nordic skiing, backcountry nordic skiing, AT skiing, telemark skiing – we can either do it directly from our door, or drive five minutes to Eldora. I’d have to say that we’re pretty darn lucky. And it’s always been good enough – until now.

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Home is pretty good.

There’s a lot of literature out there about thru-hiking – and in almost every single one, you’ll also read about a phenomenon called “post-trail depression”. There’s also a phrase used very regularly after people get off a trail: “thru-hiking will ruin your life”. I saw these, read about them, acknowledged them, and honestly, disregarded them. It’s not that I think I’m any better and any better adjusted (heaven knows I’m not) than any other hiker out there. It’s that I knew we were coming back to something that was pretty darn good. I know other hikers often end up back in cities – and I definitely recognized how hard it would be to go from living in the wilderness for five months to constantly being surrounded by the horrid hustle, bustle, noise, and stress of the city. Heck, I’ve never been able to stand it. I grew up in a town of 1,600 people, and it’s the largest place I’ve lived.

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Thru-hiking might just ruin your life…

I didn’t expect that deep, deep melancholy that settled over us after we got off the trail. Everything seemed so…tame. It seemed like nothing was worthwhile. On the trail, if we were trying to meet up with someone, it was within a several day time window. Or, as hikers coordinating a ride from town, even that would have an hour time frame.

“We’ll meet to ride back up to the pass around 9 or 10.”

“I expect we’ll be in Helena sometime between Wednesday and Friday.”

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Not usually a horse person, but after 80 miles of road walking, I’ll take the distraction!

The trail life invites freedom – in its most free form – into your life. It breathes in your very lungs, it is your heartbeat, it is the blood pulsing through your veins.

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Freedom is the name of the game during a thru-hike

But you can’t very well tell your boss that you’ll be at work around 9 or 10 – let alone that it might be between Wednesday and Friday that you’ll actually show up. There are things, simple things really, that you are expected to show up to in everyday life with. And this is true on the trail, but they’re different. If you forgot your rain shell, well you’d be a very unhappy hiker if the winds picked up, the sky opened up, and the rain cascaded down. In real life, it’s frowned upon if you walk out of the house without your wallet and phone – items I failed to bring with me for the first several weeks back.

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Everything I need is on my back

People are intense, too. Angry, even. They stand in line, glaring, sit in their cars, impatient. It was challenging. I wanted to be alone, to process whatever was happening inside me, but we had to go to work. It was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. There was too much and too little.

Heck, it was even the little things. I couldn’t just drop trou whenever I needed to pee, no matter where I was. I had to, gasp, find a restroom. It’s weird, but even those little things add up.

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Peace and freedom reign in Glacier National Park

Where freedom and peace of mind came so easily on the trail, I found myself fighting for it every moment back in the “real world”. In the middle of November, I realized that it just wasn’t going to come easy, and started making an effort. I tried to approach it like we would a challenge on the trail – slowly, steadfast, with single-minded determination.

fire

Every night, I incorporated a mindfulness meditation into my routine. I would make a cup of tea, drink it, and then let the calming voice of the woman who lead the meditation wash over me. I cried every night, even though I wasn’t sure why. Things got a little worse before they got better. I began crying at random times – driving down the canyon, I’d see something that trigged me, in the market I couldn’t focus on my groceries and became overwhelmed – anywhere and everywhere I became susceptible to the fountain of tears. But it slowly got a bit better: I began to be able to sort through the raging emotions locked inside my chest. When work was slammed and I was working with six people at once with more staring at me, waiting, I could breathe in and out, focusing on nothing but the breath, and come at my situation with a bit more clarity.

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Sometimes being on the trail was tough

I then brought a gratitude journal into my life. It seemed hokey, but the rate I was going, I needed something. The meditation opened me up to being grateful, and the gratitude journal allowed me to tap into all the little things I could be grateful for. Slowly, I began to heal. Ten people standing around me didn’t cause a panic stirring within me. I could shop for my groceries. I could be on time somewhere – and I’d even have my wallet and my phone. And gradually, the happiness came back as well.

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Made it to Canada – but now what?

I still miss the trail life with such a deep persistent ache the when I think about it, it’s actually painful. Thru-hiking might have ruined me, I’ll be honest, but in the most beautiful way possible.

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The fire-raved sky of Montana rages in the evenings.

Continental Divide Trail Gear List

by Elaine Vardamis

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The right gear makes map reading in mosquito-infested lands more enjoyable!

When preparing for such a long trip, a lot of thought goes into what you are willing to carry on your back. Gear choices are going to be a little different for everybody. That being said, here is the gear that, after much deliberating, I decided to go with.

A lot of our decisions that we made for this trip were strongly influenced by past trips. Two major ones, our most recent ones, had involved hiking through cold, almost hyperthermic conditions for most of the time, while also in pouring rain. We were also coming off a ski trip to Norway in which we encountered conditions with strong winds and -30 degree Celsius tempertures. So, our packs ended up being a bit heavier than they should have been. We most definitely could (and should) have done an overhaul of this list, taking into consideration the facts of where we were, and what time of year.

Items with an * next to them went through reiterations while we were out on the trail!

The Big Things:

  • Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 (lined with trash compactor bag*1)
  • *Sleeping Bag: Western Mountaineering UltraLite 5’6” (also has a trash bag to line the stuff sack – don’t want it wet!!)
  • Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Neo Air XLite short

*1 The fabric is said to be waterproof, but after having significant leaking during a heavy downpour a few years ago, I always line my backpack.

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Full on sun protection

The Things on the Body:

  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • *Shoes: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
  • Insoles: Custom from Bob Egeland with Boulder Orthotics
  • Gaiters: Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • *Skort:  Lululemon Final Lap Skirt
  • Sports Bra: Ibex Balance Bralette
  • *Shirt: Arcteryx Fernie LS Shirt
  • *Sunglasses: Julbo Megeve
  • *Sunhat: Arcteryx
  • Sungloves: OR Chroma
  • *Trekking Poles: BD Distance Carbon
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While dealing with infections in both heels, I hiked in Chacos for a while.

The Other Clothing Things:

  • Warm Hat: Swix
  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • Sleep Socks: Zpacks PossumDown
  • Compression Socks: 2XU
  • Long John Top: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Long John Bottom: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Warm Layer: Ibex Hooded Indie
  • Tights: Fjallraven Abisko Trekking Tights
  • Down Jacket: Western Mountaineering Flash
  • Rain Pants: Arcteryx Beta SL
  • Rain Jacket: Patagonia M10
  • *Mitts: Zpacks Rain Mitt & Zpacks Fleece Mitt
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When you have to wear all your layers!

The Things of a Personal Nature:

  • Food Consumption: Snowpeak Spork
  • Cup: GSI plastic cup
  • Feminine Products: Diva Cup
  • Hairties 
  • Toothbrush: Oral B Travel
  • Lip Balm: Ski Naked
  • *Water Bottles: 1 Poweraid bottle and 1 Smartwater bottle (can buy new ones when they become gunky!) and 2 Platypus soft bottles (1 liter)
  • Journal: Write in the Rain, Write in the Rain pen
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Hiking with umbrella from the Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wy. Hey, when it’s the only way you get shade!

The Things with the Batteries or in Need Of and of Course, Accessorizing! : 

  • Headlamp: Petzl Zipka
  • Watch: Suunto Ambit 3
  • Phone: iPhone SE w/Lifeproof case
  • Battery: Goal Zero Flip 20
  • Earbuds: Apple
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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest and the Tenkara USA Rhodo – at home in the Wind River Range in Wyoming

The Things that We Shared (Because Sharing is Caring):

  • *Shelter: Hilleberg Anjan 2
  • Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket
  • Cookware: Snowpeak 9000
  • Coozy: Handmade
  • Lighter: Bic
  • Stuff Sacks: Assorted sizes from Sea to Summit
  • Water Treatment: Aquamira Drops and Tablets
  • 1st Aid/ Repair Kit: second skin, neosporin, band aids, liquid bandage, Advil, Tylenol, Advil PM, Benadryl, Peptobismol, needle, athletic tape, safety pins, Leatherman Squirt ps4, tweezers, nail clippers, arnica, Therm-A-Rest repair kit, Trail Toes, sunscreen, Dr. Braunners, Tenacious Tape
  • Extra Batteries: AAA x6
  • Sharpie
  • *Camera: Sony a6000
  • Camera Battery
  • Communication Devise: Garmin Explorer
  • Cords: Watch charger, phone charger
  • Maps: Ley Maps
  • Toothpaste: Lush Toothy Tabs
  • Floss
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • *Solar Charger: Suntactics
gear2

She’s a real nowhere (wo)man, living in her nowhere land

 

The Things That Were Changed:

  • Sleeping Bag: Through New Mexico to our home in Colorado, we carried the Western Mountaineering Ultralite, where we switched to the Western Mountaineering Summerlite. We then carried the Summerlite through Montana until Augusta, MT, where we picked up the Ultralites again (it was snowing!)
  • Shoes: When I was buying my shoes (we bought all of our shoes before hand), La Sportiva did not have enough of my size shoe. So I decided to use the Altra Lone Peak 3 to start off with. That shoe did not work for me, but I know it works for a lot of hikers out there!
  • Skort: I used the Icebreak Comet through to our home, but was having terrible durability problems with it. It is not sewn along the sides (I can’t tell if they were glued or welded seams) and was constantly falling apart. At home, I picked up a Lululemon Final Lap Skirt. That thing was amazing!
  • Shirt: I wore the long sleeved shirt through Grants, New Mexico, but ended up switching out to an Icebreaker Cool-lite shirt. I had never hiked in a long sleeved shirt before, and it was worth a try. I did not like it, I definitely prefer to hike in a T shit.
  • Sunglasses: I wore the Julbo Megeve sunglasses from the start until Chama, New Mexico. There, because I knew I would be on a lot of snow, all day long (and I know my poor eyes are very sensitive), I switched to the Julbo Tensing sunglasses. They have a very dark lens that was very protective.
  • Sunhat: I wore a large, full brimmed sunhat from our start at the border of Mexico through the Great Divide basin. It was great for sun protection, but annoying, and I switched to a normal ballcap.
  • Trekking Poles: Dan and I skied the San Juans, and I used a pair of the Black Diamond Traverse poles while skiing. Extremely strong and also adjustable, they fit my needs better than the lightweight, fixed length pole I used on the rest of the trip.
  • Mitts: I hated the Zpacks mitts, both the rain mitts and the fleece mitts. In Grants, New Mexico, I switched both. I used the Hestra XC fleece mitt and the Outdoor Research Shuksan Rain Mitt for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, they were overkill for most of the rest of the trip, but this system was much more functional when I actually needed warm hands.
  • Water Bottles: When we started in New Mexico, we were carrying seven liters of water. (Also, I think too much, but there it is.) So I was carrying the Smartwater and the Poweraid bottles, one 2 liter Platypus bottle, and three 1 liter Platypus bottles.
  • Shelter: We started with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear DuoMid. We switched to the Hilleberg in Grants, New Mexico after sleeping on mud (and this was the mud of nightmares) during a snowstorm between Pie Town and Grants. Once again, in retrospect, I might have stuck with the Mid, as it is significantly lighter, but the Hilleberg did provide great protection, good warmth, and a mosquito free area!
  • Camera: We started with the Canon PowerShot G9X, which is a great little camera. We did switch to the Sony a6000. This was definitely a bigger camera, but we felt like the quality of picture produced was a great trade off for the weight.
  • Solar Charger: We started carrying the solar charger, but after it broke, we did not replace it. As on our previous, month long trips, we have never gone into town, the solar charger was valuable. But on this trip, we were in town often enough that the solar charger was unneeded.
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The standard procedure in every town: dump out the pack, reorganize, repack!

A note on socks: I started with too many socks, and somehow acquired even more as the hike went on. I love to wear compression socks at night, as I feel it helps me with feet swelling. But when I had massive infections in my heels in New Mexico, I stopped wearing them. I did, however, continue carrying them the whole way, which I was annoyed at myself for until Dan got tendinitis in Montana, and he had some relief from the pain when wearing them. 

The Things that Were Special:

For the San Juans, Dan and I decided to ski, so our snow gear list looked a bit different from others

  • Skis & Bindings: Ski Trab World Cup & La Sportiva RT bindings
  • Boots: Scarpa Alien
  • Skins: Pomoca Race Pro Climbing Skins
  • Ski Crampons: Dynafit
  • Traction: Kahtoola MICROspikes
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Because: skiing! I developed a whole new appreciation for this ski set up in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado

We will definitely do a write up on how the skiing portion went, that will also touch on gear. However, that will be a whole other blog post!

The Things for the Bugs:

  • Bug Repellant: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellant
  • Headnet: Sea to Summit
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Head nets are sanity saviors!

The Randoms: 

  • Sandals: Chacos 
  • Umbrella: Picked up from Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wyoming
  • Fly Rod: Tenkara USA Rhodo
  • Kid’s skis: Lucky Bums*I used Chacos for a significant portion of the time while I was letting the infections in my heel heal. The umbrella was a $1 addition to our packs through the Great Divide basin. It was my first experience with hiking with an umbrella for shade, and if we do something in desert style environment again, I will definitely consider it more strongly! We took the fly rod through the Wind River Range in Wyoming and into Montana. As far as the Lucky Bums skis went, Dan and I had had a strong streak of skiing every month going before we started the hike. We wanted to keep that streak alive and well, even during a five month thru hike. By skiing the San Juans, and then shipping these little skis to ourselves along the way, we succeeded, and finished our hike with 84 months straight of skiing at least once a month!
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The Lucky Bums skis after their debut skiing Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range, Wyoming

 

Snow’s (Elaine) CDT Wrap & Impressions

The final wrap up for Team ThunderSnow!

first_foray

We did not hike the CDT on a whim. This was first our first thru hike, back in 2012, on the Colorado Trail, where we first uttered the words, “I want to hike the whole CDT.”

The Continental Divide Trail. I grew up in the shadow of the Continental Divide; as a kid, it blew my mind. I was micro-focused. I was captivated by the little things, fascinated by them, as I think most kids are, and the idea of this ridge of mountains stretching all the way from South America, through the whole United States, up through Canada to Alaska? It was something my mind couldn’t comprehend, and so it took on a mystical quality. I’m not the first, either – the Blackfeet called it the Backbone of the World. As I learned about trails, and then longs trails, and then learned about the Continental Divide Trail, my whole being swelled at the concept. Something about it tugged at me. Since I first understood the concept, it became something I wanted to do. And then, in 2012, Dan and I hiked the Colorado Trail, where I said it for the first time:

“I want to hike the Continental Divide Trail.”

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Our 2015 CDT prep hike, a fast 500-mile September jaunt from Wolf Creek Pass to Eldora. All that was left was to quit our jobs and commit to making it happen. That took another 18 months.

Five years later, I sit here, having done it. And I can’t even begin to process what just happened. Some people say they aren’t really changed by their hikes. Some people say that thru hiking will ruin your life.

For me, I have no idea where to start. I know I miss the trail – I miss it with a deep, painful throbbing that encompasses my whole being. It’s a constant flicker in my mind, a prickle in my eyes, a desire in my gut, an ache in my feet. A few days after being back home, Dan and I drove over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we went into the visitors center and watched the movie. It was longer than normal, and people came and left throughout the film – nobody else stayed for the whole time. And I cried. I cried that desperate, gut-wrenching, unrestrained cry that I usually associate with loss. Even now, just typing this, I finally make the connection. Because I am grieving. I have, even if temporarily, lost the Continental Divide Trail, the trail life, and I desperately want it back.

dividebasin

The sun drops as we take our last steps out of the southern Rockies and into the Red Desert of Wyoming.

I know that mostly, it’s chemical. When the last of the aspen leaves rustle around on the ground, when the sky is tinted that brilliant morning hue, when the elk down valley from us bugle, when the sound of a chattering creek makes me break down – I know I can tell myself this is chemical. All summer I was in the sun, all day, every day. I’m not getting the endorphins of hiking a marathon every day. I know myself to be sensitive to chemical imbalances – heck, chemical imbalances were the story of my life for many years. I know it will come around, that if I do the things that I know work, I can rebalance my internal chemistry. But for now, while I’m deep in the mourning process, it feels devastating. (And I feel silly that it does.)

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One of those moments that makes you feel so alive. A ski traverse of the San Juan Mountains. Just north of Wolf Creek Pass

I am not sure I can explain it. Were there so many terrible, horrible times? Yes. I bruised my heels in New Mexico; those bruises turned to pockets of infected pus. I dealt with that for two weeks by ignoring it and eating pain killers like Skittles before going into the emergency room when I saw a streak of dark red running up the outside of my leg. We stood by a river in the San Juans in Colorado, pantless at 8pm, debating a crossing of a raging river that we backed out of and then yelled ourselves hoarse because we’d scared ourselves so bad. In Wyoming I dealt with two more infections in my feet, so painful that ibuprofen hardly touched it and I cut massive holes in my shoes so that I could still walk. In Montana Dan got tendonitis  and we had to road walk many miles around fires. In Glacier National Park, there was a night I got chilled, and found myself shivering uncontrollable and temporarily lost the ability to think clearly. I spent every day in pain; some days more manageable than others. My level of exhaustion climbed past what I ever thought possible. The Continental Divide Trail was ruthless.

beatdown

The hills on the Montana/Idaho border are almost inhumane in their steepness and endless dishing out of pain. 800 miles from the Montana border and feeling every inch.

Yet, I miss it.

I miss it.

I miss those moments: those moments of strength, when you’re body is aching, so tired, and yet you realize, simply putting one foot in front of the other is not that hard, and it turns out that you can do it indefinitely (or so it seems). It’s the moment of the sun rising up above the trees, filtering its golden beams onto the earth below. It’s trudging through 8″ of fresh snow, feet safely encased in gallon-sized ziplock baggies, enchanted by the cold beauty around you. It’s camping beneath the stars, no tent up, just a few miles from the Mexico border, the Milky Way a great glittering banner in the sky above you as the coyotes serenade you to sleep. It’s hiking down a massive, glacier-carved valley for an hour with elk bundling all around. It’s finding a water source in the Red Desert that isn’t terrible. It’s watching a herd of 150 wild horses thunder across the ground, feeling the pounding of their hooves shudder up your legs. It’s slogging for 14 hours a day through the San Juan mountains in Colorado, being exhausted, but knowing that you can’t let your guard down for a second, that you have to always be paying attention perfectly, and finding that you can. It’s putting your frozen shoes in the sleeping bag with you the moment you wake up so that you can actually put them on when you want to.

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We were warned Knapsack Col was uncrossable because of a huge cornice on top. The doomsayers are many out there. They are almost never, ever right. It went with a smile and a fist pump. – Knapsack Col, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

While I am still processing what the CDT means to me now, and what it is that I am taking from this experience, I do have two things that really stand out to me about what I learned while hiking the Continental Divide Trail this summer. The first is that being stubborn is not always a bad thing. I have had my stubbornness pointed out to me many times as a fault, and I will concede that stubbornness can be a detrimental quality. I will also fully claim that one needs a high level of stubbornnes (I would go as far as to say pure mule-headedness) to finish a long trail like this. There are a million and one reasons to not finish. In fact, most of them make a heck of a lot more sense than continuing. The second thing I learned is that flexibility is just as important. When I finally allowed these two traits to coexist (it seems like an oxymoron to say to be stubborn and flexible at the same moment), I felt like I was finally able to experience the trail in all that it was, and not try to force it to mold to my expectations – because the Continental Divide Trail is fierce and unpredictable and unyielding and uncaring. With these two traits combined, it felt like the obstacles the trail threw at me were manageable. I also think that maybe, just maybe, the right combination of these traits (one pinch stubbornness, two dashes flexibility) might be a good way to approach life in general.

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There will be many more campfires, starting with the Great Divide Trail in 2018. Snake River, Wyoming

This life – I suppose it’s “reality”. I’ve realized I want so much more out of it; maybe it is that I want less. All I know is that when I embarked this summer, I think I was maybe looking for answers, for some sort of epiphany. I had no epiphany. What did happen is I’m more thirsty than ever. I wish to drink from that endless fountain of adventure. And maybe that’s ok.

The Earth, our Mother, she breathes
She pulses, pulses with the breath of life
In, out
In, out
In, out
Ground swelling beneath my feet, heave
Heaving me forward, ever onward
In, out
In, out
In, out
She cradles me to her bosom,
Hold me close, close, closer
In, out
In, out
In, out
Scarlet, golden sky, explosionÂ
Basking me in her glory
In, out
In, out
In, out
Rivers flow, flow, flowing
Rushing, tumbling, chattering
In, out
In, out
In, out
Trees, leaves bursting with color
Rustle in the gentle breeze
In, out
In, out
In, out
The Earth, our Mother, she breathes
Pulse, pulse, pulsing with life
Breathing that life into me

Fireburnrogers

I’m friends with the trees, don’t you know
And the trees, I believe, are friends with me
Tree-ish love is not wild and passionate –
As the love of the sun is want to be –
Tree-ish love is strong and steady
They spread their boughs overhead, protecting
They offer their strength, soft and mighty
Quiet, unassuming, but consistently steady
The love of a tree is a thing of beauty
So I’m friends with the trees, (and so should you be!)
And the trees, I believe, are friends with me

winner

This summer’s end will be next summer’s beginning. – Chief Mountain, Glacier, Montana