The Girl Who Goes Alone

I recently discovered this incredible poem from Elizabeth Austen, read by her at Hedgebrook Rises! in 2013. The poem was published as part of her collection EVERY DRESS A DECISION (Blue Begonia Press, 2011). Elizabeth Austen is the Washington State Poet Laureate, 2014-2016.

I dedicate this to the Mighty Hiker Women of the world, especially those who are unsure, and perhaps fearful, but who feel the inexorable pull of the wild places.

Fifty Years of Backpacking with the San Diego Girl Scouts

Through a chance encounter on Facebook, I met Valerie Ross, of the San Diego Girl Scouts Council. SDGS has an incredible backpacking program, and Val is one of eight adult volunteers. This is the first time I’ve heard of a GS Council with this sort of program (please, somebody, prove me wrong). So I wanted to find out more about it. I’ll let Val take it from here.

“I started backpacking as a shy, gangly, fly-me-under-the-radar 16-year-old in 1976. My big brother led me into the Golden Trout Wilderness for my first-ever trip, and I walked out of the forest a week later standing 10 feet tall and confident that I could do anything. I never stopped backpacking, and never lost that feeling of exhilaration one gets from walking into the Sierras and feeling its power and grace. My two daughters grew up backpacking with me and their aunties, and as the years passed I noticed that I saw countless Boy Scouts in the wilderness but absolutely no Girl Scouts. (In fact, over the last 39 years, I’ve only come across one Girl Scout backpacking group that wasn’t associated with my Council). I wanted to change that.

“Eighteen years ago I took my Council’s (San Diego Girl Scouts) backpack training to meet the training requirement for taking my own troop backpacking. Some years after that, I became a Council trainer and helped develop the program we have today. SDGS currently trains 300-400 girls and adults each year in wilderness hiking and backpacking. We now have 8 trainers and every year we lead an average of 4 advanced trips (Sierras, CA central coast, AT, hut-to-huts, etc.).”

In 2013, a group of high school and college age girls from across the Council hiked the High Sierra Trail. They made a short video on top of Mt. Whitney. The best part of the video? “I can do anything!”

Again from Val: “This SDGS backpacking program actually goes back to the 1950s & 60s. It’s not new, but is a legacy that just keeps developing.

“One aspect of our program that I feel most responsible for (and proud of, to be honest) is our Youth Leadership program. After girls finish basic backpacking, we invite them to return to help train and lead our classes/trips. These girls are stunning – they train girls and adults right alongside the lead trainer, mentoring girls and demonstrating such confidence in public speaking, all outdoor skills & knowledge, and our wilderness ethic – that is, the way we have each other’s backs and look after our fellow hikers.

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On the John Muir Trail, at Island Pass. Mt. Banner is in the background.

“As for the backpack trainings & trips – my goal is that by time a girl leaves for college, I want to know that she’s capable of any backcountry adventure she dreams up. And we’ve had any number of girls go on to become JMT thru-hikers, a PCT thru-hiker (this year’s class), Peace Corps members, leaders in their university’s outdoor adventure programs…. Each of these girls has a story to tell, too. We’re teaching these awesome young women down here in SD, and it’s such a joy to help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to realize their dreams. And, they go on to inspire the current corps of Youth Leaders, which is pretty cool.”

This year, the girls hiked 34 miles, along the John Muir Trail, from Mammoth to Yosemite. They too put together a short video. Notice the ranger station section at the beginning; the girls were working with the rangers, and the adults pulled back. As with any successful outdoor program, the youth need to take charge.

“So I know you just asked for a blurb, not a book. I don’t know which great tale to tell (years & years of them – scary helicopter rescues, poignant moments, hilarious ‘you know you’re backpacking when you’re cleaning your bowl with your underpants’ moments). But I can tell you this — the moments I live for, when I’m most rewarded, go something like this one: I was descending Forester Pass with a group of my girls in August, 2011 – a huge snow year. After hours of carefully navigating the sun cups and snowfields over the top, we stopped to rest at a promontory with views extending north – snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see, truly a purple mountain’s majesty. ‘I never knew this existed!’ one of them whispered into the silence, and that’s it, in one sentence: the reason, the purpose and the joy of helping a girl discover something she will treasure for the rest of her life.

“And for those who are ready to try backpacking, my advice is to get out and do it. You can’t learn to backpack by reading about it. You have to get your feet dirty, be humble enough to make mistakes, and have the confidence to laugh when you’re learning. It’s important to be humble: realize that you’ll never know it all, and that there’s no room for arrogance in the backcountry. Be Safe is the other half of the motto Be Prepared, and both are essential. By accruing experience, and being patient with the process, you’ll gain an acumen that can never be achieved by just reading others’ accounts. So yes – absolutely – read articles, books, blogs and posts. But there’s no substitute for experience. Go with a buddy/group that you trust to teach you properly (or at least, give you a start); someone who will have your back (and you’ll have theirs). Then keep building – the more time you spend outside the more familiar you’ll be with nature’s rhythms and your own rhythms and needs, as well. Never stop observing, and never stop learning.”

For those of you who are youth leaders, whether in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or a similar group, SDGS has some terrific resources www.sdgirlscouts.org/backpacking . Check out their flyers for the three levels of classes offered to girls and leaders (Wilderness Hiking, Basic Backpacking & Advanced trips). This site also contains the training handbooks which go along with the courses; they have a wealth of information.

Programs like this for girls are shockingly rare. Please share this info, and this post. We need to grow a generation of strong, capable women. And if you know of similar programs, please let me know so that I can share your stories. Mighty Hiker Women, unite!

Becoming Hikers

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Liz, Anna, Julieanne, and Jennifer, on top of the Tooth of Time at Philmont Scout Ranch

When my son was in early elementary school, he asked us if he could join Cub Scouts. It was a no-brainer for us, and in that moment we became a Scouting family.

Fast forward several years, through Cubs, and into Boy Scouts. By this time, I had helped organize several campouts, day hikes, and backpacking trips; frankly, I was getting a bit jealous. I started leading trips myself. But the question in the back of my mind was, “what about the girls?” Long story short, in 2010 we formed a Venturing Crew, and my friend Jennifer and I signed up as advisors.

Venturing is an arm of the BSA. It’s designed for older teens, and is coed. Our crew was always predominately girls, and our focus was on hiking, backpacking, and going to Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico for two eleven-day backpacking trips in the Sangre de Cristos.

Prior to our time at Philmont, none of the girls had much experience on the trail. We worked with the entire crew on basic backpacking skills: cooking, first aid, navigation, you name it. When we got to Philmont for our 2011 trek, our Ranger was impressed with how much our crew already knew.

Even with all the skills in place, several of the crew members didn’t have a lot of miles under their boots. But they persevered, through heat, challenging weather and rough terrain.

We were given the opportunity to return to Philmont two years later.  By now, our girls were experienced backpackers, and one of them, Julieanne, was chosen to be the crew leader for the trip. The crew leader is in charge of everything, from navigation to conflict resolution. The adult advisors are there to backstop the crew leader, but only as a last resort.

Julieanne and Anna were veterans of our 2011 trek, and their experience was invaluable in 2013. For the advisors, it was great to be able to rely on them.

I love seeing women adopt the backcountry as their own. For Julieanne and Anna, they earned the moniker Mighty Hiker Women of Philmont. I’d happily go hiking with them any day.

Answers from the Trail

Long distance hiking is never a race. Hopefully, everyone is out on the trail to seek their own experiences. Some enjoy photography. Some are recharged by sharing the journey with other hikers. Some prefer to go it alone as much as possible. It’s called “Hike Your Own Hike,” and that diversity is one of the things that make trail life so awesome.

A handful of years ago, one woman discovered that her hike involves crushing long distances, with speeds that leave the rest of us in the dust. Her trail name is Anish, and in 2013, she set the Self-Supported Fastest Known Time for the PCT, at 60 days 17 hours 12 minutes.  That’s for 2650 miles. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s an average of nearly 44 miles per day.

“Self-Supported” means just that. Nobody’s carrying your gear for you, so that all you need on your back is water and a few snacks. It’s all up to you…setting up camp, making your food, you name it. And “Fastest Known Time” is also just that. There’s no record book for the long trails. You don’t get a gold medal. Sure, people are impressed, and maybe you get an interview or two. But you do it for you. Hike your own hike.

Anish tackled the John Muir Trail (JMT) last year, hoping for a FKT. She didn’t meet her goal. And like many of us who deal with low self-esteem, it haunted her.

This year, on August 1st, Anish set out to test herself again. She headed for Mt. Katahdin, Maine, to attempt the Self Supported FKT for the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Katahdin to Springer Mountain, Georgia, a distance of 2185 miles.

This her post from today, on the “Anish Hikes” Facebook page.

The trail has a way of answering the questions you most need answered, even if you are afraid to ask.

Those that have followed me for a while know that I have struggled with self-esteem my entire life. You would think setting the PCT speed record would change that.

Yet it only gave the negative thoughts an even more insidious way to demoralize me, especially after I failed to set the JMT record last year.

“The PCT was a fluke. You were only the benefactor of lucky circumstances. You aren’t athletic. You aren’t able. You’re a charlatan.”

On and on the whispers go.

I had to come here, to the AT, where my quest to find myself began 12 years ago and face those voices once and for all, alone.

I was to afraid to ask, but the trail knew the question in my heart:

“Was the PCT a fluke?”

The AT answered with a resounding, “NO!”

I wrestled not against the trail or external forces, but with them. If it were easy the whispers of inadequacy would continue. Instead I was challenged every single minute.

In the dark hours when I was tired, lonely, and hungry, that is when the demons came, “Why didn’t you stop with the PCT record? It will be your greatest achievement in life. You won’t ever do anything else. Now you’re out here and you’re in over your head. You will fail. You can’t do this. And everyone is going to know that you are nothing.”

But, every footstep I took was a choice. A choice to face my own perceived inadequacies.

Every footstep was a commitment. A commitment to deny that there was any truth to the words of the internal foes.

As the miles dwindled into the double digits I became aware that I was crushing more than miles. I was crushing a lifetime of self defeating beliefs.

So now, I walk off of Springer Mountain, alone just as I came. My pack, my feet, and my heart are light, unburdened at last.

And, I am aware that the end of every journey is simply the beginning of the next and that, far from being behind me, the greatest achievements of my life lie ahead.

New Appalachian Trail self-supported speed record: 54:7:48

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Congratulations, Anish. I am so very happy for you.

To follow Anish, check out her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AnishHikes, and her blog: http://runhikelivelove.blogspot.com/

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54!

Mighty Hiker Women

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As a female hiker, it gives me great joy to meet other women on the trail. I love talking with them all. I learn a lot from the experienced hikers, and I gain a fresh perspective from those who are brand new to the trail. But I refer to all of them as Mighty Hiker Women.

Many of our friends and family don’t understand why we go into the backcountry. They tend to be concerned for our safety. That’s fine, up to a point. But when the fear of the unknown keeps us from hitting the trail (or, frankly, going on any new adventure), we need to rethink that fear. When we’re not sure exactly how to hike, or what gear is helpful, we need to learn what works. And one of the best ways to understand what the trail is really like is to talk with the women who are out there on a regular basis.

I’ve met, and in some cases mentored, women of all ages, who were headed to the backcountry for the first time. I’ll be sharing some of these stories.

I’d also like to share the stories of women who have been at it for awhile. I’m not necessarily talking about elite athletes (although I’ll talk about them too); the focus will be Everywoman, hiking her own hike, and learning and growing along the way.

And I’ll post hiking resources, especially woman-centric.

The trail belongs to all of us. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Note: If you are a women or girl who loves to hike, or know someone with an interesting hiking story, let me know. My aim isn’t necessarily to re-tell stories, but rather to point people in the direction of new friends.

Monday, August 24, 2015, Mile 2457: Final Push

At Lake Susan Jane, Mile 2457

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Today was the push to Lake Susan Jane, 13 miles, 3700 gain. There were three full ridges to climb. The first, to Pieper Pass, was probably only 1000 ft, so just a warmup. On my way there, I met a father and his two elementary-age kids. They were heading south from Stevens to Snoqualmie. The kids looked a little unsure, so I told them that there was a pancake restaurant at the end of their hike. This got their attention, and the dad gave me a grateful grin as they headed on their way.

I did take the time to enjoy the views * along the way, though. The smoke was visible off and on, throughout the entire section.

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Trap Pass was a real attention-getter, and I definitely got to use my namesake hiking maneuver. On the way up to Trap Pass, I met two very cool women, Colleen and Lexie, from Skykomish. They were out for a few days, doing their first solo backpack, with brand-new gear and everything. I introduced myself, and we fell into conversation. I told them how cool it was that they were out doing this, and that it totally rocks my world when I see women (especially above a certain age) out here, going for it. I gave them a few pointers, such as how to hold trekking poles, etc. They were going very slowly, but they were going, and that’s the cool part. They also shared trail mix, and a couple of sticks of pepperoni. The latter was a surprise to me. I gobbled it down, and suddenly felt that post-protein clearheadedness. Guess what I’m buying in Skykomish?

I crested the pass and headed down the other side. There were quite a few people out there, as has been the case the entire section. I doubt I’ve gone 20 minutes at any time without seeing somebody.

Trap Lake was sparkling a gorgeous blue as I descended the ridge. I took the side trail to get water and have a quick snack. I also managed to get turned around in the tangled rabbit warren of trails around the lake, so by the time I got straightened around, and I fixed a problem with my hydration system, it was close to 4:00.

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Trap Lake
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Lexie and Colleen, mighty hiker women

So, 4:00. I had six more miles and 1500 feet to go, before Lake Susan Jane. I needed to be there no later than 7:30, because (skipping the details) I hike in my sunglasses, and the sun is setting earlier each day. Needless to say, I needed to step on the gas. I went faster than I am generally comfortable with (not too fast, though). I climbed a short ridge, did a long descent to Hope and Mig Lakes, climbed a more enthusiastic ridge to Lake Susan Jane, and swapped out my sunglasses just before hitting my campsite. Whew. I got camp set up in record time.

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow. Not only is this a familiar section of trail, but I should be seeing Brendan and Alex around 10, taking them to lunch (BURGER! SHAKE!) and heading to the Dinsmores’!

*Photo credits for the scenery: Eric Aalto

Wednesday, August 19, 2015, Mile 2398: Mighty Hiker Women

At Ridge Lake, Mile 2398

Predictably, this morning started with an enormous breakfast, probably the biggest combo on the menu. While making a dent in it, I met a whole group of hikers, some of which were about to hit the trail, and some of whom were taking a zero or two. Little Brown, about my age, and a local as well. Wormwood, a young guy with an REI shirt, modded to say PCT. Blue Sky, a thru from central Asia; he’s the one who gave Thermometer his name. Country Mouse and her SO Shadow. And Samson, who is celebrating his birthday today.

I was definitely ready to go. After Steve and Patrick left, it just wasn’t the same, so I skedaddled right after breakfast. I stopped at the Chevron to pick up a little cash, and to grab a Powerade, which I drank while walking to the TH.

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The last time I crossed under I-90 was when our Venturing Crew went snowshoeing, in 2012. That was a great day. I remember the ranger saying, “You guys are really fast.” Well, several of us had done Philmont a few short months prior, so that probably explained it.

I’m not feeling very fast these days, with my miles per day maxing out in the mid teens. We were talking about this over breakfast, and Blue Sky just looked at me. He said, “I usually hike 15-17 miles per day, and sometimes I don’t even get out of camp until 10:30.”

I said, “Wow, that sounds exactly like me!”

And Samson said, “Well, my son met me for a section in northern Oregon, and he just couldn’t keep up with me. But like you said, I’ve got a couple of thousand miles of conditioning, and that’s just the way it is.”

That really helped me feel better. Sometimes I feel like a poser because my mileage is relatively low, and because it takes me longer than average to break camp in the morning. But this is my own hike, and I’m incredibly grateful to be out here.

The weather today is gorgeous, with less smoke than there has been lately. I’ve been using my inhaler regularly, because there’s a lot of smoke coming from the Cougar Creek fire to the south. There’s a chance of rain on Friday 8/21, which should help. And the weather will be drying out for my birthday on Saturday.

I get to do the Kendall Katwalk again today! I’ll always remember meeting Acorn the Elder on the far side of the Katwalk, last year. We had met briefly at Mosquito Creek, on my first section.

I’m looking forward to the second half of my hike, even though according to this year’s mileage it’s not even half: I’m starting at roughly mile 150 out of roughly 400. I’m really, really grateful. I’ve felt ups, I’ve felt downs, I know I’m not the only one with “hiker brain,” who can’t spit out her words to save her life. I’ve met so many awesome people. And the best part is being able to introduce my guys to this incredible community.

When I arrived, I took my picture by the TH sign. Just a bit up from the TH, there’s a picnic table, and somebody had put out a cooler of drinks and a trail register. I was one of the first ones to sign.

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Hitting the trail again!

I made a tactical error, and only put a liter of water in my Platy. Turns out it was far hotter, drier, and more exposed than I had remembered. Oops.

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The fall colors were mighty early this year

On the way up, I met a group of women in their 60s-70s. They were out for a day hike, and when they asked me how far I was going, I said, “Well, actually, Canada.” Then I said, “I’m going to be 51 this week, and it’s my mission to show women that they can get out there, hike by themselves, and ain’t nobody gonna stop us.” I got some serious high fives. And one of the women asked if I needed anything, so I said I was a bit short of water. She very graciously gave me half a liter, which was just exactly enough to take me over the Katwalk and across to Ridge Lake. Magic is everywhere.

The Kendall Katwalk itself is a 150 yard section of the trail which was literally blasted out of the mountain, saving 2-3 days of hiking. Very interesting story, and well worth a read.  The trail is wide and safe enough for stock. And the views are stunning.

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Looking back at the south side of the Katwalk
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Northbound across the Katwalk, headed toward Ridge Lake

One of the cool things for me today was seeing Mt. Stuart for the first time. I’ve spent a lot of time hiking in the Teanaway, and seeing Stuart was like old home week. I’m finally back in my neck of the woods! And the whole trail is much more familiar to me. Not that I’ve hiked it all, but it feels like the trails that I know.

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Mt. Stuart is visible in the distance (center). You can also see the smoke from the Chelan Complex fire.
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One more view, looking south *

I arrived at Ridge Lake around 4.  I was actually thinking of going farther, but in retrospect it was a good thing I didn’t. I learned that there was no water for nine miles past this point, but I didn’t get this info until well after I’d set up camp. So I’ll grab a good load tomorrow.

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Ridge Lake
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A snug camp, staked out against the wind
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It was good to be back on the trail

When I went to collect water down at a little beach area, I met a Girl Scout troop from my neck of the woods. There were two adults, a junior leader, and about half a dozen girls. They’re doing Section J. I’ve never come across a Girl Scout troop who backpacks like this, and it was wonderful to meet them.

One of the adults invited me down to the beach to join them, and I introduced myself as a Venturing Crew advisor. When they learned what I was doing, they were tickled pink, and all kinds of questions ensued. The leaders in particular were very interested in my gear list, so I talked about most of it, and the rationales behind choosing each piece. I also talked specifically with the young adult leader, Katherine, and it was very clear that she was able to do the whole trail. She was thinking seriously about it, after returning from an extended trip overseas. I love encouraging people to hike the trail, as it’s such a life changing experience.

They offered to let me camp with them, but I said I was looking for something a bit more protected from the wind. So they headed back to their campsite.

And then a woman, Lady Rose, and her dog, came down to the beach. Her trail name is after the Lady Rose, a cargo and passenger vessel which until recently plied the waters of Barkley Sound in BC. Lady Rose and her pup were heading up to Stevens, until morning nausea became debilitating. She decided to return, and see if perhaps she was expecting…and she was pretty excited about that.

I love having all these random conversations! It’s one of the really awesome things about long distance hiking.

As I mentioned, the water tomorrow is further than expected. The Park Lakes are about 9 miles and 2700 gain from Ridge Lake. They’re off the trail, so I’ll take enough to see me through Delate Creek, about 10 miles from here.

I was just mulling/wishing for a zero in my own house. That’s probably mostly because I miss my guys. I always miss my guys. I just wish I could show them what it’s like out here, because it’s part of who I am, and I want them to see it.

*Photo credit: Eric Aalto

Footnote: Jennifer was at the trailhead within the next several days, and she found my name in the register!