Dose of Awesome # 287

A trail name is a nickname that’s either self-assigned, or given to one hiker by another based on a particular event, quirk, or a personality trait. Said to have started on the Appalachian Trail, the use of trail names not only made it easier to keep track of hikers, but also to remember them, as trail names can be much more unique and individual than one’s birth name.

In the three days I’d spent in Mammoth Lakes prior to beginning the John Muir Trail, I’d met a number of Pacific Crest, and John Muir Trail thru-hikers – some of whom had introduced themselves by their trail name. Coming and going so quickly from the hostel (many just long enough for a shower, feast, take advantage of laundromat services, and enjoy a good night’s sleep or a good party), that’s all I ever got to know about some of them. At the time, I found many of my interactions with thru-hikers to be quite impersonal. For many, I never learned their real names, where they’re from or what they do off the trail – they came and went so quickly. As intriguing as these people were, there wasn’t time to really learn much about them.

But later, on the trail, I found myself thinking about the people I’d met at the hostel, and considering the possible stories behind their trail names. As I experienced being a thru-hiker myself, learned the culture of the trail, encountered countless characters, and learned the trail names of some of the people I’d met along the way, I was able to imagine the stories of the people I’d met at the hostel that were far more interesting than knowing just their birth names would have allowed.

On the JMT, I spent a lot of time hiking by myself. Some of this time, I’d spent pondering potential trail names for myself, and for the people in my group. Emily, I would have called “Lolly”, as most nights after dinner, she’d pull out her bag of candies (which she called “lollies”) and offer them to a grateful group of people, most of whom were tired of their own resupplies. Catherine, I would have called “Sunshine” to honour the passion and enthusiasm with which she woke up with each and every day as we prepared for another day of hiking. For Randy, I searched for a name that captured his unfailing ability to find a spot to put his feet up whenever we stopped to rest. For Ted, perhaps something to capture his quiet elusiveness, his awesome storytelling ability and the fact that when Ted spoke, everyone listened. For Jarette, I wanted to honour his ability to say and do just about anything with an unforgettable degree of comedy.

I thought long and hard about what might describe me as a hiker. I looked for something that might capture my endurance and my ability to keep a strong pace for hours. I wanted to capture the momentum I can keep as I take on even steep ascents, and the way it feels to fly along the trail when it’s a little more tame. I wanted to capture my ability to quickly make my way to the front of a group, even when I started at the back. This is something that I’m proud of, and hoped someone would recognize. After a conversation with someone else, I’d decided that I liked the trail name “Rocket”.

But as aptly as I feel that “Rocket” might describe me as a hiker, I’d yearned for a trail name to be given to me. The way I saw it, being given a trail name meant that someone noticed me. It would have signified a connection made between myself and someone else – something I craved as I set out on this adventure, and shared this experience with so many people with whom I shared a passion for hiking. As silly and playful as they may be, it was for this reason that I saw a trail name to mean something in a way significant.

I don’t remember the first time I met Turtle, but I do remember the first time I noticed him. We were at the top of Muir Pass, 14 days into our trek. Caught between the desire to savour the satisfaction of completing another challenging summit and the urge to run as far down the other side before I got struck by lightning, I saw Turtle with his pack off and his feet up, totally unfazed by the impending thunder storm.

We chatted for a few minutes, and he told me that this was not his first time hiking the JMT (though he didn’t specify how many times he did hike it), and that he was hiking solo. He shared some stories about his trek so far, and told me that his trail name is Turtle because, when he’s hiking, he takes it so slow and steady, but always makes it to his destination.

Between Muir Pass and Reds Meadow, I’d seen Turtle every day. Waking up far before us, Turtle always got a head start, but we always caught up to him along the trail – we leapfrogged for several days. Each time I passed him, we’d stop and talk for a few minutes, about our hike that day so far, about the weather, and about trail names that he’d thought of for one or another member of my group. Henk, he’d named “Freight Train” for his tendency to barrel down steep descents and the fact that he never stopped. Lisa, he’d named “Butterfly” after the way she swam. Each time I caught sight of the back of his pack growing closer as I gained on him, I found myself in eager anticipation – in the hopes that it would be my turn to get a trail name.

My turn came on day 17. We were hiking from Lake Italy Trail Junction to Silver Pass Lake via Bear Ridge (the “Pre-Lunch Ass Kicker”) – a gruelling 1000 foot ascent over a short 2.4 kilometres followed by a 1700 foot plunge into the valley on the other side. I caught up with Turtle near the river crossing, where our group had planned to meet for lunch. We stopped to chat, celebrating finishing a tough first half of the day.

As we wrapped up the brief conversation, he said “You know, I see lots of women wearing earrings on the trail. When I hike with my wife, she likes to wear earrings, too. But never have I seen, on the trail, earrings as impressive as yours. I think your trail name should be ‘Bangles’”. He was referring to a cheap pair of leaf-shaped earrings I’d worn partly to keep my piercings from closing, and partly because I felt that a 23 day sans shower or deodorant warranted this one luxury item – which I’d chosen specifically because, out of all the earrings I own, I felt these ones best suited the trail.

Awesome is this fun tradition of giving and receiving trail names, and awesomely fun was receiving my very first own.

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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 # 282

My time in San Francisco is drawing to a close. I arrived on the afternoon of the 7th, exhausted from a 3:30 am wake-up call and landing in a time zone that was 3 hours earlier. But after a hot shower and a cup of coffee, I was ready to go.

My first day in San Francisco took me walking to Telegraph Hill and up the Coit Tower for a panoramic view of the city, then to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I wandered the piers and had chili in a sourdough bread bowl at famous Boudin’s Bakery.

My second day took me to Grace Cathedral, Lombard Street (the famous “crookedest” street in the world), then to the Hollywood Café for eggs benedict. Afterward, I walked along the bay all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. I enjoyed a windy walk across the bridge and back, then all the way back along the bay into Chinatown.

I walked 24 km that day.

My third day entailed a guided tour with Incredible Adventures  into Muir Woods to wander among the giant redwood trees, and to Sonoma for wine and beer tasting.

We finished the day at the look-off for an excellent view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

My fourth day took me to Haight-Ashbury and all through Golden Gate Park. Then back up Market Street and into Chinatown again for a bit of shopping.

And today, my fifth day, took me to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and on a mini shopping spree at REI, Target and City Lights Books.

There’s still so much I want to do and see, but there just wasn’t enough time. Nevertheless, awesome is the opportunity to experience a new city, and awesome is San Francisco!

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.

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Amaruq – Wolf

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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.

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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 # 277

The community of Kuujjuaq came together yesterday to welcome the competitors in this year’s Ivakkak dogsled race at the finish line. The race began in Quaqtaq, and went through Kangirsuk, Aupaluk, Tasiujaq, before finishing here.

1. Awesome was an early school closure that allowed everybody to head to Stewart Lake to welcome the Ivakkak teams. Team 10 was the first to arrive in Kuujjuaq, but team 7 won the race.

Waiting for the first team to arrive.

Team 10, from Puvirnituq.

2. Awesome was a mid-week afternoon of snowshoeing, thanks to the early school closure. Since I’d gone in early to get some work done in my classroom before school began, I decided to take advantage of some amazing weather and get a few more hours of snowshoeing in. I went for a beautiful 3 hour loop through Nuuvuk Bay and by the marina. What I love about that loop is that every time, it can be so different, as the land is so vast.

Snow drifts and tree shadows inspired me.

3. Awesome was progress made with a challenging student – thanks to an awesome and dedicated team of people and their support. Sometimes things take time, and sometimes lots of it, but this, I hope, goes to show that if you don’t give up, great things can happen.