The mountains and rolling tundra plains of Adak Island, Alaska.
I’m not kidding. Mother Nature would not allow me to even begin a backpacking trip no matter how hard I tried until I "saw the light." Over the space of fourteen years Nature opened up her floodgates every time I tried to go backpacking. Miraculously, the first trip where I paid attention to the weight of my pack contents was gorgeous. Of course, she couldn’t resist a reminder that I needed to stay on course by spitting some rain, snow, and sleet (in May) as I climbed out of the Grand Canyon on that first enlightened trip.
I grew up dreaming of outdoor adventures. My family car camped once or twice, but I longed to cut the ties with civilization and get deep into the backcountry. I finally got my first chance as a newly commissioned officer in the Navy. I was stationed on Adak, one of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The mountains in the center of the island are surrounded by undulating, tundra covered plains and beg for exploration. After a few months on the island, I decided to take my first ever backpacking trip. I cobbled together gear from the rental shop and through catalog orders. I paid no attention to the weight or volume of the gear. Consequently, I had trouble getting it all into – or lashed onto – a pack left over from a summer of traveling around Europe.
Adak is known as the "Birthplace of the Winds." I was used to near constant 20 knot winds, 40 knot winds were common, and even higher not unusual. I had expected my backpacking trip to be windy, so when I heard the Coast Guard’s warnings of rain and gale force winds on the radio the morning I was to go, I wasn’t dissuaded. There was so much gear lashed to the outside of my pack I had to take it off to get out my door. I splashed through puddles and threw my pack into the back of my old red "island" pickup truck. I had wanted to backpack all my life, and I was determined to do it now, during the few days I had off. I drove out to my starting point through sheeting rain, jumped out, and struggled into my pack, instantly soaked from the freezing downpour. I could only see about a yard in front of me. I finally got Mother Nature’s message that this was not a good idea when I found I was so buffeted by the winds I couldn’t walk a straight line. I reluctantly gave up on my backpacking dream for the time being and trundled back to my room in the bachelor officer’s quarters.
I got another chance to go backpacking four years later. I was now in the Navy’s graduate school in Monterey, California and a friend, Gail, invited me to go along on a backpacking trip to Yosemite during a school break. I was thrilled. Another friend Dave, offered to help me shop for gear. After a three-hour drive to the nearest REI, I grabbed a cart, and Dave and I swept through the store. I threw in whatever he felt I’d need, including a Jansport external frame pack, a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, and a huge green synthetic sleeping bag with no concern whatsoever for weight. Once my cart was piled high, I pulled out my credit card and paid a small fortune for my weighty gear.
Three Yolla Bolly Wilderness adventurers smiling because we are finally dry after four days of hard rain.
Soon after, Gail and I and a couple of others set off from Monterey for Yosemite. We planned to hike to Tuolumne Meadows after spending our first night in a drive up camp ground. Gail had supplied me with a top of the line L.L. Bean Gore-Tex tent for the trip. It had started raining during the drive, so there was no shared camaraderie around the camp fire that night. We all just crawled into our tents as quickly as we could set them up. I spent a long uncomfortable night in the chill as condensation dripped down on me from the tent walls. My sleeping bag was soaked by morning and the forecast was for four more days of rain.
We decided to abandon Yosemite and find dry weather. Once again, Mother Nature thwarted my attempt to backpack heavy. We drove toward the coast and out of the rain to Point Reyes. The camping area there is a mile from the parking lot so I did get my first chance to hike with the huge load I had assembled. The backpack felt like a car tied to my back, and I was glad I didn’t have to haul it any further. But I loved the experience: the views at the camp site were gorgeous and no other campers intruded upon us until a day and a half later. I became even more determined to get into the backcountry, despite the discomfort of hiking with a heavy pack. Mother Nature’s rather strong hints had not sunk in yet – it still hadn’t occurred to me to pack lighter.
I rarely took time off for vacation while I was in the Navy, but I made an exception ten years later at my final posting before retirement. I was stationed on Treasure Island, a man-made island that sits beneath the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland. I’d been within a few hours drive of some of the most beautiful forests in the U.S. for a year and a half but hadn’t yet found time for anything other than a few day hikes. That coupled with the fact I knew I’d soon be moving east to the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, and I jumped at an invitation to join two acquaintances on an unusual backpacking trip.
Our trip would be guided by a licensed counselor who was also schooled in Native American rituals. I needed clarity on my imminent transition from a career in the Navy to civilian life. The idea of immersing myself in nature with someone trained to help me sort out any insights was appealing.
Our guide and one of my friends in the back of our guide’s truck – a dry sanctuary that all of us could fit into.
We three novice backpackers met with our guide and settled on a five-day trip into the Yolla Bolly Wilderness north of San Francisco. We would drive to the trailhead, backpack six miles to a nice spot by a stream and waterfall, and set up a base camp. Still clinging to my dream of backpacking one day, I had kept all the expensive gear from my aborted Yosemite trip and carted it from duty station to duty station over the last ten years. It was still in great shape, so I was set except for a tent. I rented a Clip Flashlight from a local store, and I was outfitted.
It should be obvious by now that I am a pack rat. I hold onto things because I feel they will keep me safe during any eventuality. This same psychology applied to what I put in a backpack. I wanted to have the gear that would make me ready for any and all challenges. It is probably easy to imagine it might take both a licensed counselor and an act of God to break me of my insecurities.
The sky was overcast as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to rendezvous with the rest of my group. It began to sprinkle as we drove north. After a few hours of driving, it was raining steadily. By the time we entered the forest an hour later, the dirt road was muddy and slippery, but we pressed on to the trail head.
We decided to camp near our cars the first night, since by now the rain was heavy. We’d re-evaluate in the morning. Once again I had paid no attention whatsoever to my pack weight and Mother Nature showed her displeasure with my slow learning curve. Rain pounded our tents all night and didn’t let up when the sun rose. Our guide was concerned that the steep, rocky trails to our intended camp site might wash out and that the site itself might be flooded. We agreed to remain camped at the cars.
The sign warns of "Extreme Heat" but we experienced beautiful, mild weather until our climb to the rim on the last day when it rained, snowed, and sleeted. Note those heavy leather boots. The Grand Canyon Field Institute instructor insisted on light packs but sturdy boots.
It rained hard for the next two days. We kept ourselves busy with rain drenched walks, journaling, naps, and meetings in the back of our guide’s pickup to interpret our dreams. On the morning of the fourth day, the other two women approached me and said they had had it with camping. I agreed. We went to the guide to discuss cutting our trip short. He listened closely with his counselor’s attitude. When we were done, he had a suggestion: would we consider staying and observing 24 hours of silence and solitude instead? Oddly, that sounded like a good idea to us and we agreed. The rain was still coming down hard and steady.
We spent the next 24 hours alone and in silence. Not talking kept me from complaining about the continued rain. It made me become more observant of my surroundings and at the same time drew me inward to contemplate the deeper issues of my life. I took a long walk in the down pour. For the first time, the rain became a magnifier of the beauty around me rather than an irritant. Standing on a knoll in the center of a clearing I looked up to see a buck eyeing me from one hundred yards. After four days, I felt a part of the forest, and I sensed a connection with the buck I would have been blind to a day before.
The fifth and last day dawned clear, crisp and sunny. We broke our silence in a medicine circle by passing a talking stick. I shared that I felt a new feeling of oneness with all creation. We closed our circle with a ritual of gratitude and headed home, happy with our adventure.
Our spiritual ceremony that last morning in the Yolla Bolly Wilderness must have appeased the Big Mother. Or maybe she realized this last trip had finally broken through my civilized preconception of what it meant to be "prepared for anything," and I was now ready to listen to a subtler message about what it meant to truly be prepared. For what ever reason, she steered me to the guidance of a consummate lightweight backpacker.
My Jansport external frame pack on a trip soon after my first "real" backpacking trip (and just before I retired it), eleven years after I bought it in a frenzy of heavy gear buying.
A year later as a new resident of Arizona, I wanted to experience more of my state – and finally backpack after fifteen years of disaster. I signed up for a four-day Grand Canyon Field Institute trip to Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon. The instructor sent an eleven page document covering what gear to bring. He said we’d be carrying 24 pounds of water down a steep trail and emphasized repeatedly that we needed to make everything else light. I heeded his advice closely, once again outfitting myself from scratch (except for my old Jansport external frame pack), but this time paying close attention to weight. I bought a tarp and a Pocket Rocket canister stove and replaced the Therm-a-Rest with a 3/8 inch closed cell foam pad. My total starting pack weight with food but minus the three gallons of water was 26 pounds. Mother Nature must have approved because the weather was gorgeous – clear and sunny and mild. She couldn’t resist driving home a reminder of what was important in the backcountry though, and the skies spit freezing rain, snow, and sleet as we ended our trip by climbing back out of the canyon.
It has been ten years since that first "real" backpacking trip. I’ve become a passionate lightweight backpacker. I still like to be prepared, but now I reach my comfort zone more through acquired skills and experience than by carrying all sorts of heavy gear I "might" need. The longing I felt for nearly forty years to get into the backcountry has not diminished. I feel it anew if I haven’t been out in more than a couple of months. I am renewed on each trip and those experiences are tremendously more enjoyable because Mother Nature insisted I carry a light pack.