Dose of Awesome # 286

It’s been more than a month since we toasted champagne in the parking lot at Tuolumne Meadows, marking the end of our John Muir Trail. It’s been more than a month since the eleven of us – Bob, Ted, Henk, Lisa, Patrick, Aline, Emily, Randy, and our guides Jarette and Alwyne – parted ways and scattered between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, as we set off to enjoy the remainder of our time in California in our own ways, and made our way back to what waited for us.

As I try to rewind, I am thankful for the magic of the JMT that burns within just as strongly today as it did for the entire 350 kilometres of the trail. I call it magic because I don’t know how else to describe it. It comes from the experience of living day by day with nothing more than I carried on my back; from being totally immersed in nature, unspoiled by any of the distractions that comes from life in civilization; from unique group dynamics, shaped by each of our personalities, and evolving in light of our collective experiences on the trail; from all the aches, sweat, tears, bruises and blisters, but at the same time, the many beautiful and sometimes meditative hours spent hiking each day. It comes from a huge sense of accomplishment as I surprised myself both physically and mentally on a near-daily basis, and the sharing of that with a group of people who were, just a few weeks before, complete strangers. And it comes from something deeply personal and individual, influenced by the events of not only the previous half year, but of my entire life. It’s not only indescribable, it’s something that could never be replicated again, even if we were all to reunite and hike the JMT all over again. That’s how special this magic is.

One month and a bit later, I am thankful to have not lost this magic. I am thankful that it has not even faded. Even though a month doesn’t sound long, it has been busy enough to cause me to forget a little bit. Throwing myself back into work, with a new class of sixth grade students, a beading workshop to teach, meetings and committees, along with a personal life in Kuujjuaq complete with violin lessons, meetings, yoga classes and whatnot, it was easy to lose touch with the magic of the trail. But it doesn’t take much to find it again. Though I know that no matter what I write today, it will inadequately capture this magic, awesome is the fact that I still feel it.

“The Mountains Are Calling, And I Must Go” – John Muir

The actual JMT heading north toward Yosemite starts at the top of Mount Whitney, but we had no choice but to get there by foot. Due to strict trail permit regulations and construction complications at Whitney Portal, our JMT began at Chicken Springs Lake. Thus, we had approximately 50 kilometres of hiking ahead of us before technically starting the JMT itself.

Hiking northbound, we were faced with the highest elevations of the entire trek right from the get-go. With little time to acclimatize, the most strenuous days for us were at the beginning, complete with a 14 500 foot Mount Whitney summit just 4 days in. At the same time, we had to get used to carrying a heavy pack, and carried our largest resupply of the entire trip for the first 7 days.

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The first few days were humbling. Winded by the altitude, the steep terrain, and my pack, I was reminded of a time I was very overweight and very out of shape. In those first few days, I learned that I can always slow down more (as Henk would say “there are 50 shades of slow”). At times, even when I didn’t think I could move any more slowly, I forced myself to reduce my pace by half, as I’d prefer to keep moving even at a snail’s pace, than to stop frequently and lose momentum. I also learned that I can do far more than I ever thought physically possible.

Life on the trail was fairly similar from day to day. We’d wake up in the morning to hot water for tea or coffee, which we drank as we began to pack up camp (a process which worked like a well-oiled machine in no time, as packing became very systematic and fast). I’d found something satisfying in the fact that everything had a specific place in my pack. On a journey as nomadic as this one, this consistency felt comforting.

Then we’d have breakfast. After breakfast, we’d finish packing our tents, take care of personal business (usually entailing brushing teeth and scoping out a good place to bury poop). Just before setting off, we’d do morning yoga and a map briefing.

We typically hiked 8 to 10 hours in a day. We had a few shorter days, and we had a few longer days. But on average, they were 8 to 10 hours, with a few shorter breaks, and a longer lunch break interspersed throughout. In the beginning, as we acclimatized, and as we grew accustomed to the trail, we hiked together. However, after a few days, we were able to spread out more. I’d found a healthy balance of hiking with the group, hiking with one or two friends, and hiking alone.

Our evenings were what made our JMT so unique. Arriving at camp typically around 3 or 4 pm, we’d set up camp, take some time to wash (ourselves and our clothes) in the nearest lake or creek, eat dinner, read a book or write in a journal, and relax with hot drinks, great conversation, and sometimes a game of cribbage or cards. Again, I loved the consistency of setting up camp, and the feeling of it being done after a long, hard day of hiking. But what I loved even more was the fact that every campsite was so different from one to the next.

We were usually sleeping by 9 pm (hiker midnight), but on a few occasions I’d find it within myself to stay up late enough to watch the stars pop out – a truly magnificent sight in the Sierras. On one particular night (at Lake 1160) I’d decided not to set up my tent at all, but rather to sleep under the stars. Patrick and I played Crazy Eights atop a boulder under the golden sun set. When the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we went to bed. A few hours later, I woke up, wrapped entirely in my sleeping bag (save for my eyes), to the stars and the milky way glimmering above. It was so vibrant it didn’t even seem real.

On “Whitney Day”, we woke up at 2:30 am and left base camp at 3:00. The full moon rendered our headlamps unnecessary as we begin our hike to the summit and back. I was the second of the group to arrive at the summit after a challenging 6.5 hour day of seemingly endless switchbacks and steep ascent. Patrick was the first. We passed the time posing for photos and admiring the view as the others arrived one-by-one. It did not take long for the altitude sickness to start setting in, though. Nauseous and with a terrible headache before we’d even finished lunch, I questioned my ability to make the 5.5 hour descent back to camp. It’s true what they say, though – just going even 100 feet down can make all the difference. In no time, I was feeling back to normal and on my way. Interesting was hiking back along the same trail, but seeing almost half of it for the first time. Since we’d hiked halfway up the mountain in the dark, we’d missed much of the view on the way up (though hiking by moonlight is a whole other experience of awesome).

After Whitney, everything felt easier. We left base camp on our fifth day for a 15 kilometre uphill hike to Tyndell Creek, and I found that my pack felt infinitely lighter and the ascents easier. Awesome was getting through the toughest days of the trek!

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Dose of Awesome # 285

I need to interrupt my tales of the John Muir Trail to write about the awesome with which I’ve been blessed over the past few weeks since I returned to Kuujjuaq. I’ve not found much time to write, let alone even think about writing, so much has been going on. But, thanks to a long weekend and gloomy weather that goes oh so well with pj’s, coffee and my blog, I feel inspired to write.

I returned to Kuujjuaq on the 9th of August, and was swept away by all the beginning-of-a-new-school-year awesome. Potlucks and lunches allowed me to bond with colleagues, and meet new teachers. Kuujjuaq’s annual Aqpik Jam music festival allowed me to enjoy four nights of great live music from artists from all over the arctic. A birthday full of celebrations with close friends sent me into my 33rd year with so much love.

My return to work was rejuvenated and filled with the excitement of setting up a new classroom and getting ready for a year with new kids. This year I am teaching sixth grade – a lovely class of 11 students whom I’ve gotten to know quite well over the past few years since moving to Kuujjuaq. We’ve been back to school two weeks now, and we’re off to a great start.

Two weekends ago, I was given the opportunity to spend a few days hiking and camping in Pingualuit National Park. Pingualuit is a 1.5 million year old crater believed to have formed when a meteor hit the earth. It is also said to have the purest water in the world. I drank it, and it’s delicious.

In the spring, I’d put my name on the waiting list to take this trip, but I’d resigned to the fact that I probably wouldn’t get to go. The trip was full, and since I’d had the chance to go to Kuururjuaq last year, open spaces would be given to people who hadn’t gone before (as far as I understood). But, luck was on my side, a spot opened up at the last minute, and I received a phone call two days prior to departure.

Accepting the opportunity, a small group of us (7 teachers and 2 women who work elsewhere in the community) boarded a chartered Twin Otter bound for Kangiqsujuaq (a small village approximately 2 hours’ flight north of Kuujjuaq). There, we met Maali Tukirqi, who picked us up at the airport and gave us a tour of the village (which started at the Nunavik Parks office and Pingualuit Interpretive Centre, and included a drive around the village, a stop at the beach to see the iceburg, and shopping for snacks at the Northern Store).

An hour later, we were back in the plane and on our way into the park, and less than an hour after that, we’d made 3 gut-wrenching swoops over Manarsulik camp’s tiny landing strip (the landing strip is a short clearing in the tundra covered with gravel, which is not maintained so much as cleared by the swoops of the plane before it lands). Excited, we were settled into our charming little cabin on the lake before dinner and a little walk to an archaeological site not far from the camp showing where camps used to be.

The hike around the crater took 8 hours, much of which was sunny and with just enough wind to keep the bugs at bay. Hiking together in the beginning, we enjoyed great conversation and a picnic lunch at the halfway mark. Afterward, we spread out a bit more and hiked at our own pace, enjoying the quiet and solitude as it came.

We got back to camp just in time for an amazing sunset and a beautiful rainbow over our camp as we ate, chatted and played numerous rounds of Yahtzee together.

We were hit by stormy weather the next day, which put a damper on our plans to qajak on the lake and go on a smaller hike. Our flight also got cancelled, giving us another day at the camp. I took the opportunity to work on my sewing project and read almost an entire book (something I don’t get to do in one day very often). We were running out of food, but our guides were generous and brought out all kids of country food – tuttuvinik (caribou), nikkuk (dried caribou) and mattaq (beluga) filled our stomachs that night.

The wind was strong and shook our cabin all through the night, and, though the fog lifted, it still gusted well into the next day. Fortunately, for the sake of work, a classroom that needed to be set up by the following afternoon, a grocery order full of frozen food that was scheduled to be delivered to my house in Kuujjuaq that afternoon, and a few things I had planned over the next few days, we were able to fly out. Our plane arrived at Manarsulik around 3 pm. It was bumpy, but we arrived in Kuujjuaq 2.5 hours later safe and sound.

Awesome was the opportunity, the adventure, and the fact that everything works out, even when they don’t go as planned.

Dose of Awesome # 283

There were only two times I’d really questioned my decision to hike the John Muir Trail. The first time, I was clinging to a boulder in the middle of a waterfall a few hundred feet up a mountain. We were ten days, and almost 100 miles into our trek. Forced to take a zero day by delayed arrival of the mule train that carried our resupplies, some of us decided to take advantage of the extra time and attempt to summit the insurmountable Giraud Peak, which overlooked our camp. Though technically we weren’t on the John Muir Trail at that point, I was on an adventure of a lifetime and part of that, I felt, called for doing it all.

The second time was the very next day. Almost 11,000 feet above sea level, in a tent I was only able to half set up before panic got the best of me, I sat huddled atop both my pack and my Therma-Rest for insulation in case lightning struck (and inside my sleeping bag for good measure), as a thunder storm exploded all around me – an experience made all the more harrowing as thunder echoed off the mountains with an inescapable fervor.

Sure, there were other times throughout my 23 days on the trail that I would have given anything for a foot massage and a hot shower (a gallon of ice cream wouldn’t have hurt, either). There were times (near-whole days, even) that the straps of the 38 pound pack I’d carried felt like knives slicing into my shoulder blades, and I fought the urge to eat the entire contents of my bear can just to find a little relief. There were other times, between blisters and a sprained ankle (the result of a mishap involving an inconveniently-placed rock, a swarm of mosquitoes and a steep descent out of camp at Bench Lake), that I’d wondered whether I’d ever walk with grace or ease again.

But stronger than any discomfort endured on the John Muir Trail (even stronger than armpits smellier than I’d ever imagined possible), was an insatiable hunger for more – more mountains, more wilderness, and more of all the challenges along the way. It was this insatiable hunger that pushed me to keep going as I hiked the 350 kilometers between Cottonwood Pass and Tuolumne Meadows. It all but carried me as I climbed more than a cumulative 37,000 feet up mountains, ridges and passes along the way (which, for a matter of perspective, is as high as planes fly).

Awesome was the journey, which, try as I might, I will probably never adequately put into words, and awesome is celebrating the single-most challenging physical feat I’d ever completed. I’m still processing it. Awesome was reminding myself several times a day, every day, that I am capable of more, both physically and mentally, than I sometimes think possible. Awesome are all the small things – describable and not – that I will take from my experiences on the trail and carry into my day-to-day life.

And awesome was sharing this experience with a group of strangers – each and every one of whom had something to teach me about the world, about hiking, and about myself – and awesome was the magic of an experience that can never be replicated, even if we were all to do it again together. Emily, Aline, Henk, Lisa, Catherine, Sam, Patrick, Bob, Randy, Ted, and especially our guides, Alwyne and Jarrette, thank you for being part of this magic. As I try to capture the essence of our trek over the next few blog posts, I dedicate my efforts to your courage, strength, and little bits of uniqueness that I found so inspirational.

Nakurmiimairaaluk ❤️

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Dose of Awesome # 278

Snowshoeing season has rapidly melted away with this week’s rain and high temperatures. There is still a bit of snow on the land, but I’d imagine its texture is an unenjoyable mix of slush and ice. At the moment, I am taking advantage of the extra time to read, draw and play the violin as I await bicycle season.

1. Awesome was one last beautiful weekend of snowshoeing, two weeks ago. The weekend was full of sunshine, light wind and hours on my own enjoying the land.

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2. Awesome was finishing a new drawing – sled dogs, inspired by the recent Ivakkak dog sled race.

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3. Awesome was finalizing some of the biggest details of my upcoming summer adventure. This summer, I will be hiking the John Muir Trail, after spending a few days in San Francisco and Mammoth Lakes. With my flight booked and my trek organized, I can start looking into accommodations and plan some ideas for the rest of my time there. It’s starting to feel real!

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Dose of Awesome # 268

With the music turned up, we concluded our day on Sólheimajökull glacier with a two hour drive back to the city of Reykjavik. Upon being dropped off at Hlemmur Square, we all went our separate ways, for the first time since the start of the trek, to do our respective things. I chose a solo walk around the city, a quiet dinner, and a bit of souvenir shopping.

Walking from the restaurant along Laugavegur (the main shopping street), I saw a familiar face. As we passed, we each did a double-take, followed by a loud, dramatic greeting as we realized we knew each other. It was Krisha, a woman with whom I’d trekked in the Dolomites in Italy last summer. She was in Reykjavik and beginning the Laugavegur trek the following morning. What are the odds?

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Krisha and I in the Dolomites last year.

The following morning, Krisha and I had breakfast together before she departed for her first day of the trek, and I met my group for our last. It was so nice to catch up, despite how little time we had together.

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Gulli picked us up at 10:00 am for a short drive to the town of Hveragerði, where we spent the morning and afternoon hiking in the Hellisheiði mountain range and soaking in the volcanic water running from Hellisheiði. It felt amazing on our tired, aching muscles.

Refreshed and smelling like sulfur, we ate our last picnic-style lunch together in the field at the foot of the mountain before driving back to Reykjavik, where I spent the rest of the afternoon souvenir shopping and eating Icelandic ice cream with Vlad, the Polish-Torontonian member of our group.

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I topped off my last day in Iceland with a farewell dinner with the group at Þrír Frakkar Hjá Úlfari – the restaurant where I tried my first fermented shark, smoked puffin breast, and fin whale. Several courses and lots of laughs later, I walked the quiet streets of Reykjavik back to Hlemmur Square to finish packing and rest up for my early flight back to Montréal.

Dose of Awesome # 267

We woke up in the morning at Básar and packed up our camp one last time. We were finished the Laugavegur trail, and were on our way to do different things.

Surrounded by mountains of gear, we stood watching the bus slowly bumping over the lava and splash through streams as it approached us. The bus took us a scenic hour’s drive to a nearby town where we met up with Ævar, who would drive us the rest of the way in a private jeep, and help guide us on a walk on Sólheimajökull glacier.

At the foot of the glacier, we strapped on helmets, harnesses and crampons and set out with our ice axes on a slow and informative walk through the icy landscape. Caves, crevices and beautiful ice formations spread out around us as far as the eye could see.

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After some time, Gulli and Ævar scouted around for a good crevice to set up ropes and show us some basics of ice climbing. We each got to try. I have to say, they made it look so easy.

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I lowered myself down into the crevice, and posed for a photo that made it look like I knew I was doing. Then I began the not-so-graceful scramble back up. Though I had no trouble with the ice axes, the biggest challenge for me was kicking the teeth of my crampons into the ice well enough to hold me up without using every last ounce of upper body strength. My biggest fear was losing all grip, smashing my face into the icy side of the crevice, and pulling Gulli down into the dark and ice-watery depths. Fortunately that didn’t happen.

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After each of us had tried our hand at ice climbing, we continued our walk and eventually concluded at the same place we’d started, where we removed our gear and enjoyed a quick lunch at Sólheimajökull Café before a 2 hour drive back to Reykjavik (with a stop at Skógafoss).

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Though our adventure was not over, we would finish our second-last day with dinner in a restaurant and relatively luxurious sleep at Hlemmur Square hostel.

Dose of Awesome # 266

Our next day was supposed to entail a 24 kilometer trek between Þórsmörk and Skogar, passing by the foothills of Eyjafjallajökull glacier and Fimmvöruháls. We were to end the day’s hike and camp at Þórsmörk. However, due to dangerous weather conditions over the route, we had decided to spend one more night at Básar, and hike a different route for the day.

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Though I was disappointed to have lost some mileage, I’d only gained in every other way. Afterall, I’d hiked the better part of the Þórsmörk hike (from the other direction) with Otti just before beginning the Laugavegur trek. Therefore, I’d seen much of it all already, and it was on a much more beautiful day. The change in plan gave me the opportunity to see something different.

While a few members of our group opted to relax at the camp, the rest of us enjoyed the day together.

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The majority of our hike was steep, narrow path lined with pink and purple flowers, and vivid green foliage. We ate our lunch inside a cave (Trollskirkja – troll church) overlooking the valley and the glaciers.

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The sun shone strong, but off in the distance, clouds loomed over the glaciers, giving the nature a power you can only appreciate all the more. Though the weather stayed gorgeous throughout our entire hike, we could see we would have been cold, wet and miserable on the passes into Skogar. I wonder if even the sturdiest of rain gear would have held up.