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 # 284

You don’t realize how much you don’t actually need until you have to fit it all into a 75 litre backpack and carry it over mountains for days on end. You can get by with a lot less than you think, even in extreme circumstances.

As I packed for the John Muir Trail, I tried to keep it to a minimum. Learning from past experiences on smaller treks, I knew that there was always room to make things smaller and lighter, but that how to do it might not always be obvious. I just never put much thought into it before, because I never had to.

In the past, the most food I had to carry was a few snacks, and maybe a lunch for the day. On the Inca Trail, my food (and most of my gear) was carried by porters; on the Tour du Mont Blanc and in the Dolomites, I hiked hut-to-hut, where multiple course meals were provided almost on arrival; on the Laugavegur Trail, food and camp gear was transported from one camp to the next in a van (though, at the time, I knew I’d be hiking the John Muir Trail and had opted to carry most of my own gear as I hiked, in preparation). Still, compared to all my past experiences, this trek was a whole other animal – it was time for me to start thinking about ounces.

I meticulously considered each and every item I had in my pack. I had:

-A lightweight Therma-Rest and sleeping bag
-Two pairs of pants
-Two t-shirts
-Two pairs of underwear (one of each to wear, and one of each to wash)
-Three pairs of socks (one to wear, one to wash, and an extra in case my washed ones didn’t dry in time – I figured it would be worth it to splurge on dry feet for this one)
-Long johns and a thermal base layer
-One long sleeve shirt
-A fleece sweater
-A rain coat, rain pants and a rain cover for my pack
-A pair of running shoes to wear at camp each night
-Such essentials as water bottles (two one-litre Nalgene bottles), sunglasses, a Swiss Army knife, a headlamp with spare batteries, a pack towel, a spork, and collapsable cup and bowl.
-My toiletries consisted of my toothbrush and a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, and the smallest bottle of bug repellent, sun screen, hand sanitizer and first aid kit I could justify.
-My luxury items included my camera and a spare battery, my iPod, and a pair of tweezers and a travel-sized mirror.
-I also had a book to read, and my journal for writing.

Keeping in mind that I’d still be carrying several days worth of food, a bear can, part of a tent and group gear, I wanted to keep it light. For a 23 day trek, I thought I’d done alright.

The morning I was to begin my trek, I picked up my beautifully organized pack and experienced the mélange of feelings that I would imagine many through-hikers experience as they lift their pack for the first time. I was both shocked and disappointed by its weight. I was also a bit intimidated. How would I carry this, for 23 days?

As I took another mental inventory of the contents of my pack, I was stumped and overwhelmed. The only thing I felt  willing and able to sacrifice was my book. I had solid reasons for keeping everything else (not to mention, everything in their was on the packing list provided by my guides). As much as I looked forward to reading the book, I figured I’d be busy enough either living the magic of the trail, or writing about it in my journal that I could do without it (I found myself bored enough in the mountains, I could pluck my eyebrows).

I knew, though, that I needed to get rid of more than a book to save weight.

One of the perks of staying in hostels is the people you meet. Hostels are full of people from all over the world, and time spent in hostels are full of fleeting conversations with them about their varying travels and experiences. In Mammoth Lakes, my hostel was full of hikers – day hikers, section hikers, and through-hikers of both the John Muir and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Awesome were these people.

Awesome are not only the stories they shared, but also the encouragement they offered as I picked their brains over the course of my 3 days in Mammoth Lakes.

Especially awesome is the woman, whose name I never did actually catch, who took time that morning to help me pare down the contents of my pack. With her help, I was able to do so without sacrificing anything. She suggested I cut my pack towel in thirds and bring only one third, that I mail things to myself in resupplies (like that extra t-shirt and pair of socks) that I wouldn’t need right away, and convinced me to bring a pair of flip flops rather than my running shoes. Without her help, I probably would have never thought to cut the handle off my tooth brush, leave the deodorant behind (it’s futile, anyway), or tear my book into sections (each to be sent in a resupply along the way). These things that might seem insignificant, but do add up to make an enormous difference in weight. Without her help, I probably would have found myself trudging along the John Muir Trail with a monster of a pack that not only would have held me back, but probably would have put a damper on my experience.

To all the hikers I met in Mammoth Lakes: nakurmiik for your stories, help, and encouragement!

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All organized and ready to pack!

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My pack, which didn’t normally have things dangling from it, but it was laundry day in the wild.

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 # 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.

Dose of Awesome # 276

My favourite time of the year has arrived in Nunavik. It’s spring, but it still feels like winter. It’s -30 degrees, we have tonnes of snow, and there’s more coming. I love it because after enduring an average of approximately -45 for seemingly forever, -30 feels mild. I love it because it stays light out longer – long enough that I feel a notable boost in energy each day, but not so long that it causes you to miss the northern lights. I love it because I know it’s only a matter of weeks before the snow melts – and it will melt fast. Then I’ll be able to go hiking, and biking. But in the meantime, I appreciate the snow and cold all the more because I know it will soon be gone.

I love it because it’s the perfect time for snowshoeing.

1. Awesome was 2.5 hours of snowshoeing yesterday, by myself. It’s been a long time – since my third year in Tasiujaq, in fact – since I’ve been out on the land by myself. I forgot how peaceful it is. I forgot how liberating it is to just drop everything and go (my plan for the morning involved doing laundry and reading, until the sun started beaming through my living room window), without having to wait for, or answer to anybody.

Yes, company is nice. But, every once in awhile, so is this…

Yesterday, I went through Nuuvuk Bay and then toward the marina – making a huge loop up and down the hills and back the way I came. Further awesome was finding my own tracks again as I neared the start of my loops – a definite boost to my confidence in my own navigational skills.

2. Awesome was another 3 hours of snowshoeing today. Only this time it was with friends. Today’s route took us through Nuuvuk Bay toward the marina, and on a loop back down to the Koksoak River, which we followed back to where we started.

3. Awesome was time to catch up with friends this weekend, through phone conversations and dinners. It’s crazy how busy life can be – time can really slip by if you let it!