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 # 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 # 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.

Daily Dose of Awesome – Day 192

1. Awesome was cooking for today’s hike – whole wheat bow tie pasta with red kidney beans, sharp cheddar cheese, red pepper, mushroom, arugula, cherry tomatoes, shredded carrot and zucchini, with roasted red pepper and parmesan vinaigrette.

Pasta

2. Awesome was realizing, again, that I can do more than I think I can at the gym. I’ve begun to supplement my stair climber challenge with 10 minutes of rowing, 3 times a week (it’s my way of incorporating upper body strength training into my workout while staying away from the weight machines because, frankly, they don’t inspire me). The first time I did it, I rowed just over 2000 metres in 10 minutes; the second, just over 2150. Yesterday, I rowed 2330.

3. Awesome was another person’s openness, and the possibilities that come with it.

Daily Dose of Awesome – Day 166

1. Awesome was writing a positive letter.

Like most people, often, if I’m writing to a letter to anybody other than a friend, it’s to a company for the purpose of complaining or arguing my point. However, yesterday, I chose to write a letter commending the driver of the bus on which I was a passenger when another passenger got off the bus, ran in front of the bus and into oncoming traffic and was hit by a car coming from behind the bus. This passenger was fine, save for some minor injuries, but still, I felt that the driver deserved acknowledgement for his attentiveness and professionalism.

2. Awesome was spending the evening with an old friend.

3. Awesome was a driving lesson that took me out of my comfort zone and around the back streets of Dieppe at 60 to 80 kilometres per hour. As nervous as I was, I survived, and coming back at 60 felt like nothing after going 80 (up until then, I’d only had experience going 50 on wide, quiet residential back streets.

100 Days of Awesome – Day 57

1. Awesome was celebrating International Women’s Day with many of the ladies of Tasiujaq at a potluck at the village’s culture centre. Four generations, three languages and two cultures brought together by one gender. Pretty cool.

2. Awesomely fun was the game we played after dinner. All the woman sat on the floor in a circle around the supplies needed to hand-sew the inner lining of pualuuk (Inuit-style leather and fur mittens). Each player took turns rolling a die. When someone rolled a one, they had to go to the centre and start tracing the pattern. When someone else rolled a one, they took over and the first person went back to their spot in the circle to roll again when the die came back to them. This went on through the entire process – tracing, cutting, and sewing. The person who sewed the final stitch won a prize (50$, I believe).

3. Awesome was winning a large piece of nice black leather from the hunter support store (worth 50$) – perfect for me to sew next winter’s pualuuk.