Firsts / Taking the Plunge

Written by: Stephanie Baker of The Dancing Wind
Stephanie is the Office Manager at Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center and an phenomenal artist. Reflected in her photography is her love of the wilderness, wildlife, backpacking, skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, reading, peace and quiet.


My first backpacking trip was the Agate Creek Trail in Yellowstone National Park. I enjoyed hiking so much that I really wanted to experience the temporary autonomous zone of being in the wild for a longer period of time without having to worry about getting back home by dark, or any of the demands of civilization. I wanted to get out there and just be for at least a full weekend. The Agate Creek Trail promised just that – it was a short (but steep) trip that would be a good introduction to backpacking. Two days, one night.  

The biggest obstacle to getting started with backpacking for me was carrying the weight. I remembered my brother having to carry a 45-pound backpack for a Boy Scout backpacking trip that he went on, and that just seemed so insurmountable. Backpacking must not be for small people, I thought. How am I supposed to carry a pack that is nearly half my body weight? It didn’t sound possible, and it didn’t sound fun.

In researching how to make carrying my pack possible, I discovered the world of ultralight backpacking. What a brilliant idea! It would take me some time to be able to afford a full set of ultralight gear, but I was able to start off by purchasing a backpack that weighed only 2 lbs, 6 oz to use for my first trip. I had to make do with the heavier standard camping gear that I already owned for everything else, but an ultralight backpack helped. I also pared down my list of what I intended to bring to only the pure essentials to keep my pack weight down. My husband did the same, and also purchased an ultralight tent, which he carried.

The trip itself was an experience I’ll never forget, and one that had me planning my next trip as soon as I got back. The views were stunning. The trail was sometimes hard to follow, with bison trails branching off here and there, adding to the adventure. When we stopped for lunch, a herd of pronghorn with their fawns appeared in the distance. They galloped across the vast open range in a line, which was amazing to witness.


Later that day some biting flies joined us for the hike, and I learned that carrying bug spray would have been worth the weight. I also learned that my organic, non-toxic roll-on bug repellent was unfortunately not effective. The final portion of our hike to camp was very steep, dropping over 1,200 feet in 1.8 miles, with some of the trail covered in loose rocks during this descent. As I found my feet flying out from underneath me and landed on my butt, I wondered how I was ever going to get out of there the next day
But once I was at our stunningly beautiful campsite next to the Yellowstone River, the struggle and the sore shoulders were all worth it. This wasn’t a place that I would just be stopping at for a quick break to enjoy the view before needing to get back to the trailhead again; I would get to sink in and enjoy this place overnight.

Mother Nature decided to test that sentiment by sending an ominous-looking thunderstorm our way quite promptly. We had just enough time to set up the tent before the torrential rain began. Fortunately, we were too tired from our day of exertion in the July heat to eat dinner anyway. There was something soothing about the sound of the rain on the tent and the roaring of the river next to us. And something that made us both have to wake up to pee in the middle of the night. Nervous about stepping out into bear country in the pitch darkness, we stuck together with headlamps furtively beaming around, and made haste of the situation. Note to self: less hydration before bed next time.

In the morning we were treated to a magical misty sunrise. The hike back up that 1,200 vertical feet in 1.8 miles was steep, but I didn’t fall again, and I felt a huge sense of achievement at the top. The rest of the hike back seemed like a breeze in comparison, and we were treated to a visit from some bighorn sheep and another pronghorn on the final leg of our journey. After this trip I was hooked, and couldn’t wait to backpack again.

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Firsts / My Journey Into the Unknown

Written by: Susanne Menge
Susanne is a coach, writer, and speaker. She writes for HuffPo and loves playing in the outdoors. She loves laughing with her girls, witnessing transformation from fear to joy, and embarking on wild new adventures.

I have backpacked many times, with him. I’m strong, fit and highly capable, but in backpacking (and many other areas of my life) I had decided to defer to others.

Until the summer of 2014.  

I put dates on the calendar for me. I had 4 nights and 5 days to play, children were with my ex-husband, and I could do anything. I planned to return to the Maroon Bells but as the dates got closer I knew I didn’t need to go far from home. I knew I needed to trust myself right now, I knew I needed to stay open and move, from my center, not someone else’s knowing.  And, that was all I knew.

Summer was busy and by the fourth week in July I did not know anything more than the dates, July 30-August 3rd. I could have freaked out. I did at times, but a small voice inside reminded me I would find my way. I live in Boulder, Colorado and can walk 15 blocks to be in the foothills. All was well. 

A few days before my trip the skies let out the biggest rains we had seen in ages. I went to the Wilderness Permit office in Boulder the day before departure and she told me not to go out, the forecast was pure rain on all of her favorite forecasting sites. I listened. I adjusted. I said yes to the James Peak Wilderness where no permits are needed. I had a plan and an open mind. I bought a map of that area. I didn’t give up.

The next morning, rain poured. I was packed and ready yet decided to stay home. All dressed up and nowhere to go rang through me. I settled in to my quiet house. I listened to my heart, slowed wayyyy down. I was on vacation even though I wasn’t yet on the trail. I had permission to accomplish nothing; I rested, got a haircut, even got some work done!

By the end of the day on the 30th, there were breaks in the rain and I got clear, I was going the next morning, rain or shine. I was worth it.

Everything was already packed, so just after sunrise on July 31, I loaded the car and headed for Moffat Tunnel, 30 minutes away. I would stop at the hardware store in Nederland to buy a water bottle and rain poncho.  

I arrived at the trailhead, donned my pack, changed from flip-flops to running shoes and headed up the trail. Rain sprinkled my head. A smile crossed my face in combination with my eyes watering. I was so excited I could scream and so scared I was making a mistake. Could I really do this? Would it be ok? Could I trust myself this far to set out in the rain, to stay open to stopping if needed, to make decisions about my own safety in this weather, to be ok, even with all these unknowns?

Since I am sharing this now. You already know the answer. I ascended the South Boulder Creek Trail to the Continental Divide. Amongst low clouds and limited visibility I traversed the Divide, which has no trail but rather intermittent signposts. In sunny weather (I’ve been back since) one can often see the next signpost, but on this day, I didn’t have that luxury. I had to leave one signpost behind, not yet seeing the next.  

Along the Divide, thunder began cracking and I dropped off the ridge for a time while it passed, returning when if felt safe. Then, just when I thought I could take no more cold, wet, windy weather, the clouds broke enough for me to see Dead Man and Pump House Lakes. I was close to my destination.

I dropped down off the ridge toward the lakes and my ultimate destination, Corona Lake, as the sun started to warm my whole body (and mind).  I was in the home stretch, in awe of this day, and almost to my home for the next three nights.

I could tell a million stories about this adventure.

I have written pages about the fears I had to walk through to get myself through this. About the challenge of having a basic plan but no one to rely on but me. About the last day on my walk out when I missed the direct ‘social’ trail and walked in sobbing terrified tears over two long train trusses that felt like they were a million miles off the ground. (I thought they would collapse under me, yet in reality they held, well, trains!)

But those stories are the fuel for me to say it’s all worth it. I am worth it. You are worth it! 

Facing into the unknown and testing all of these edges gave me a strength, courage and capacity I had never known before.

Photos courtesy of Susanne Menge.

Firsts / A painful and marvelous secret

Written by: Alisa Awtry, avid backpacker, cycle tourist, and medical doctor based in Northern California. (Liz & Alisa met on the John Muir Trail, Summer of 2011.)

Rae Lakes, Photo by Alisa Awtry

Officially, my first attempt at backpacking was a trip to Yosemite with my dad the summer between my junior and senior years of college. He did all of the prep work, found me gear to borrow (and even packed my pack!) and got us to Happy Isles without any to-dos on my part. The plan was to spend three nights out, conquer Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest and, most excitingly for my dad, get his daughter out into the wilderness and see if she, too, loved it as much as he did. Everything went great until we got to the top of Nevada Fall, about four hours and 2000 ft in elevation gain into our expedition. We were greeted by the smell of smoke, helicopters overhead, and a park ranger informing us that the whole Yosemite backcountry had been shut down for the first time in 14 years due to a forest fire. I don’t remember much after that except my sweet dad’s quiet tears as we trudged back down the granite steps of the Mist Trail we had conquered just moments before.

With that failure behind us, we were more than eager for our next chance to get out on the trail together. That brief taste of the wilderness told me I would love it, so I saved up to invest in the bare minimum gear I would need. But, it was another three years before my dad and I created space to get back to the Sierras together. It was the week before I was starting grad school. 

My dad planned for us to spend five days on the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings’ Canyon. This time, no natural disasters were going to get in our way. I was filled with anxiety the night before and barely slept a wink at our trailhead campsite—would I actually love it and this investment be worth it? Would I let my dad down if I didn’t? What if the backcountry was actually miserable or, worse, I couldn’t stand being in the same space as my dad for so long? (The fact that it was pouring rain, my tent had a hole, and I hadn’t camped in the rain since I was a young kid didn’t help said sleeplessness.)

Within the first couple miles of our trip, my fears were far behind me. Though my hips were aching and my shoulders were getting progressively more tender, the breeze against my face, the smell of pine and the sounds of running water were enamoring. I quickly discovered that, though being in great shape is nice and certainly makes the experience easier to enjoy, successful backpacking is the result not of physical strength, but of mental endurance, willingness and eagerness, to find joy. 

I so vividly remember laying my eyes on the Rae Lakes for the first time. I was overcome with awe of the beauty laying before me and with a sense of accomplishment unlike anything else—there is something fundamentally magical about being in a place accessible only by your own two feet. Since then, I have backpacked through myriad breathtaking terrains, but Rae Lakes will always be the place that first captured my spirit.  Still, when I dream of my next wilderness adventure, it is that feeling of sitting on the edge of the third Rae Lake, exhausted and sweaty, with Glen Pass hovering behind me, that I find myself chasing.

But, as much as being in the wilderness is about exploration and freedom for me, it is equally about relationships.  Far from counting down the moments until we were back in civilization with other people, on that first trip to Rae Lakes, I saw so clearly, and began to newly admire and appreciate, my dad’s strengths. We were able to delight in a shared accomplishment and the collaboration it took to achieve it. We got to focus on being outside of our comfort zones together and allowing our differences to work together toward a common goal instead of fixating on the ways we’re similar, the ways we drive each other crazy. Without the daily distractions of to-do lists and cell phones, the backcountry allowed for meaningful, deep, and uninterrupted conversation and thought unparalleled. It was the first time I saw my dad not just as a good parent, but as a very dear friend.

Alisa & her dad, Scott, Photo provided by Alisa Awtry

The cumulative months we’ve spent together backpacking and bike touring since that first trip have formed the most cherished, inexplicable bond between us, one for which I will be eternally grateful. I have shared similar experiences with friends and now with my husband after partaking in backpacking journeys, the deepening of relationships because of the tiring, painful, marvelous secret you carry together of a far-off place. As much as than any of those relationships, it is the one with my Creator that is deepened in the backcountry. It is in those unadulterated lands with such vivid sights, fresh scents, and clear, uninterrupted sounds that I am always left in awe that this world was created to be so beautiful and that humans were given the capacity to enjoy it. The most incredible gift.

Firsts / Ten years later, the same feeling returned

Written by: Sasha Cox, Founder of Trail Mavens

My first experience backpacking was as a twelve-year-old on a school trip. Each year, my (very fancy) all-girls private school in Washington, DC sent the entire seventh grade class on a three day adventure in the Shenandoah Valley, in the hopes it would toughen up us, building character a la Calvin's dad, and break down the incredibly rigid cliques that defined our class by subdividing us into twelve-person units.

That trip was twenty (!) years ago and my memories of it come in flashes, rather than in a steady stream. I remember the clunky brown hiking boots my mom and I bought and brushed waterproofing onto the day before the trip; belaying off a cliff on the last day, my palms damp with fear; and sweet, sweet Little Debbie Oatmeal pies for dessert. I remember spending much of each day walking at the head of my unit beside our guide, feeling strong, like I could go faster, like it was fun.

What stands out most, however, was about five seconds of a conversation my unit had around the campfire our first night. Each girl was asked to share an experience or reflection from the day, and a classmate - not someone from my group of friends - spoke about how challenging the day was for her, adding: "Not like Sasha, all 'Ten miles and going strong!'"

I didn't know quite how to feel in that moment. The self-conscious, awkward part of my pre-adolescent psyche was embarrassed at having been called out in this backhanded-ish way. Had I done something wrong? Another part of me thought, "Huh! Maybe I'm kind of good at this? Weird. Who knew?"

I didn't follow up on the second feeling until almost ten years later. Almost everything about my next backpacking trip was different: I was in the Cordillera Blanca range in Peru; there was no guide, just a boyfriend and me; and sadly, there were no Little Debbie snacks, though we made up for it by sucking on foil packets of manjar, a Peruvian caramel sauce. The only constant? That feeling of strength, of pushing my body and finding it capable, of trying something new and succeeding (or even better, screwing up and then fixing it).

It's that feeling that keeps me exploring outdoors. Natural beauty is a powerful motivator, too - think absurdly turquoise glacial lakes in Montana, fields of wildflowers around Mt. Rainier in late July - but nothing beats the feeling of 'I got this' that comes from stepping outside your comfort zone, into the canyons, the mountains, and the forests.