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.

img_1768

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!

img_2017

Advertisements

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 ❤️

image

Dose of Awesome # 281

I’ve been on summer vacation for two weeks. Like previous years, I decided to stay in Kuujjuaq to enjoy the beautiful (relatively bug-free) weather, finish up some projects, and relax before I travel to California and hike the John Muir Trail. My days have been full of playing violin, reading, drawing, biking, hiking, and just enjoying the land both alone and with friends. I could not have asked for a more rejuvenating and fulfilling time.

1. Awesome was finishing not one, but two new drawings.

image

 

Amaruq – Wolf

image

 

Kayuqtuq – Red Fox

2. Awesome was the opportunity to enjoy 7…yes 7…hikes on the land?

3. Awesome were picnics, and road trips and little walks past the end of the Road to Nowhere, where we found one of the most beautiful spots around Kuujjuaq, had a healing ceremony, and saw muskoxen. Further awesome are muskoxen – a symbol of strength and endurance, and their timely appearance.

 

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.

image

image

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

image

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!

image

Dose of Awesome # 272

Since September, I’d been working on the weekends as a waitress in the restaurant in town. Waiting tables is something that I enjoy. I enjoy the social aspect of it. I enjoy the way it feels at the end of a very busy night, when you can sit down and bask in the satisfaction of getting through a demanding night of nonstop running, with few-to-no mistakes. And, of course, I enjoy the tips.

But at a time in my life when self-care is a little extra important, a part-time job on top of a full-time teaching job is just a little too much. A few weeks ago, I decided to give up my waitressing job for the sake of having just that much more time to focus on resting and doing the things I love. I made sure to do tons of that this weekend

1. Awesome is having an entire weekend – yes, two whole days – to play my violin, make art, be with friends (for a dinner on Friday, and a brunch this morning), and go snowshoeing. I also took a wonderful nap.

image

A sunny Saturday afternoon of snowshoeing.

2. Awesome is having completed another class collection of 100 awesome things before the 100th day of school. Each year since moving to Kuujjuaq, I began a collection of 100 awesome things with my students on the 90th day of school. On the 100th, we put them up and celebrate being 100 days smarter with a pizza party and games. This is our collection this year:

image

3. Awesome is finding drawing inspiration after months of artist block. This one might take awhile, but so will everything it stands for. I am excited by the symbolism that this project holds.

Dose of Awesome # 234

I’m back in Kuujjuaq after an amazing vacation in Italy and Austria. Starting with two days in Venice, my vacation took me from the tourist-ridden canals of Italy, through the Dolomites and up into the Austrian Alps before returning back to Venice and flying to Montreal for a day of pampering, shopping and all you can eat sushi with a friend.

My vacation was relaxing, challenging, refreshing, productive and a lot of fun – everything I needed!

5Venice canal from the Rialto bridge.

1. Awesome are mountains, and the opportunity to hike approximately 160 kilometres on steep mountain terrain (think: 1000 metre ascents and just as crazy descents) over the course of the last 3 weeks.

After a few days in Venice (which I explored, but did not take very many photos of because I’d been there and done that already, two years ago), I went to the mountains.

First, I hiked alone on the trails of Domegge, to a rifugio where I drank a tiny, yet delicious caffe americano while watching cattle frollic in the fields surrounded by a panorama of the tallest, most rugged mountains I’d seen to date. I continued my hike to another rifugio where I had an amazing mountain lunch of meats and cheeses, and complimentary shots of grappa with the hosts.

11View from the dining room at Albergo Adelia – the albergo where I stayed during my solo time in Domegge.
9Trail marker showing the way to the rifugio, on my solo hike.10Rifugio Padova – where I drank coffee and watched cattle run on my mid-morning coffee break.

Then I hiked 120 kilometres – from Cortina to Bolzano – with a group of people I did not know. Like the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Camino Inca, I booked the trek through G Adventures, so as to enjoy the expertise of a mountain leader, and the ease of having all accommodations and most food taken care of for me.

For the duration of the trek, life was like this: wake up, pack up, eat delicious gourmet mountain rifugio breakfast, set out on a 7 to 10 hour day of hard, steep hiking, arrive at next rifugio, shower, relax over beer/wine/coffee with new friends, read, relax some more, eat fabulous 3- to 4-course mountain rifugio meals, sleep, repeat. It was wonderful.

16Lake at our first rifugio.19Rifugio Croda da Lago and its fantastic view – where we slept on our first night.24Foggy second day of hiking.15My favourite parts were the ascents (this was at a little flat bit of a big ascent).
29Amazing view at our second rifugio – Rifugio Scoiattoli.

33Beautiful view of the valley.40Another beautiful view of another beautiful valley.
43The group, trekkin’ away.
13Lunch break!
35The views just kept getting better and better.
44The group, just before the rain came.52The group at the summit – the highest point of our trek.

After the trek, I continued my trip with more solo hiking – once up the Alpe di Siusi, from Seis to Compach, and another time up one of the mountains in the Austrian Alps near Innsbruck.

2. Awesome was sightseeing in a new city.

I spent three full days at the end of my vacation in Innsbruck, Austria. For the first two days, it rained, and though I did go on a hike during one of the rainy days, I took this also as an opportunity to spend lots of times in museums – including the Alpine museum (a museum dedicated entirely to alpine mountain climbing and hiking).

57Part of the alpine museum in Innsbruck, Austria.
58Cool houses across the river in Innsbruck.
59Innsbruck’s old city.
62View of the city of Innsbruck from the top station of the Nordkettenbahnen cable car.

3. Awesome is a productive day of getting ready to return to the north, in Montreal. My list of things to do included getting a haircut (a priority, since my last one was last December and my hair was growing large and out of control), get a pedicure (after 3 weeks of trekking in the mountains, this was also a priority), buy some new clothes, and see a friend or two. I only had one day, and was very lucky, as it turned out to be a holiday and things very well could have been closed, but they weren’t.

In one day, I managed to cross everything off my list, and then some.

Dose of Awesome # 232

1. Awesome was surviving what was literally one of the most demanding endeavours I’ve ever involved myself in. And not only that, I did so with some great memories, a desire to do it again next year, and some ideas as to how I can help it run more smoothly if I do. Le Grand Dèfi Pierre Lavoie took myself, another teacher (from Kangiqsualuujjuaq), and 30 secondary students from 5 villages on the Ungava Coast of Nunavik to Quebec City this past weekend. From there, we ran the 270 kilometres to Montréal relay-style.

After an opening ceremony, we began our relay at approximately 8 AM Saturday. We ran constantly as a team until about 7 PM – when we took a 3-hour break in Trois-Rivières. Then we started up again and ran straight through the night, until approximately 5 PM the next day.

Kuujjuaq 116Team Nunavik in Quebec City

Kuujjuaq 119Team Nunavik on the news.

Kuujjuaq 113Team Kuujjuaq

Kuujjuaq 115The relay

2. Awesome was reaching a new record – running 20 kilometres in 2 days – thanks to Le Grand Dèfi.

3. Awesome was one last snowshoeing adventure of the season, before everything melted away literally within a couple of days. I’ve definitely found a new passion.
Kuujjuaq 108

4. Awesome was the end to that “too soggy to hike but no snow to snowshoe” phase of spring, and a 4-hour hike on the land yesterday afternoon.

Kuujjuaq 121