Connections. That’s how I got my latest story. And it’s a good story…
Last week a friend of mine from choir, Miss Nancy, emailed me that she had two guests staying with her. A former student of hers and a friend of a friend. This friend of a friend turned out to be a guy catching a ride from the Portland area to Glacier. His name is Kevin DeGraw and he was headed this way because he was about to begin hiking the Continental Divide Trail from Canada to Mexico. Nancy is pretty cool and she knew this is exactly the kind of thing that would interest me, so she gave me the heads up and got us connected.
I got to speak with Kevin a little, enough to tell him I work for the local paper and would love to do some photos of him. We traded numbers and made plans to meet at sunrise at Two Medicine in East Glacier. For me to get to Two Medicine at sunrise I have to leave my house at 2 a.m. I both love and hate sunrise for this reason. Anyhow…
Friday arrives. My first alarm goes off at midnight. I do this because I always ignore the first alarm and end up actually waking up about an hour later. At 1 a.m. it’s time to get out of bed, shower, get ready and get on the road. I’m always a little trepidatious traveling at this time day (or night). Pitch Black. Plus fog. Plus the ever present possibility of large wildlife wandering out onto the road I am speeding down.
I got to Two Medicine without incident. The thick fog did slow me down in sections, but I still got there well before first light. The wind was unbelievable. Violent. Enough that when I parked the Jeep the vehicle continued to rock and sway a bit. Enough that when I got out I was nearly blown over. Enough that I had serious issues keeping my tripod from tipping over. The only good out of all this wind was there was more than enough wind to make bug spray unnecessary. If I can barely walk, there is no way the mosquitoes can fly. Ha!
I love the blue hours before sunrise and after sunset. I had the whole place to myself and so I decided to play with long exposures and flash. This was my favorite picture from Two Medicine and we ran it in the next day’s paper.
Once the sun was up I headed for the camp ground to look for Kevin and the group he was with. This plan was far from perfect. Neither of us had cell service in Two Med. So basically I am going to drive/walk around the camp grounds looking for a guy without a car packing up at about 730 and preparing to hike to East Glacier. In retrospect this plan definitely could have used some more work.
I drove around the various lots. I’m sure the people sleeping in really loved me for that. Very few people were up and about at that time, but I knew to disregard anyone with a car. He’s walking the CDT. He won’t have a car parked near his tent. Finally I spotted a man slowly packing up and starting his day. No vehicle. So, I decided to stop and see if he knew the person I was looking for.
If you are going to dream of becoming a professional photographer keep in mind that one of the things you MUST possess is a willingness to look and sound like a complete idiot. Sometimes there really is nothing else you can do but walk up to a stranger and say “Hi. My name is Brenda Ahearn. I am the photographer from the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. I am looking for a group of guys who are hiking the Continental Divide Trail. One of them is named Kevin. I don’t suppose you have any idea where I might find these individuals do you?” It just sounds dumb. I also think that when I say things like this what ever I am suggesting sounds unreasonable and/or so unlikely as to be impossible to believe. I always expect the person I am saying this stuff to to look at me as if I have lost my marbles.
That wasn’t the what happened on Friday. “That’s us,” he says. “But Kevin isn’t with us.”
What do you mean he’s not here?
I convinced my boss to let me drive all the way out here to photograph this guy! Where else could he possibly be?!
Flop, the trail name of the guy I am speaking with tells me that Kevin had decided to hike on last night to East Glacier. Apparently Flop, Irish and Free Radical were going to be going a different route than Kevin so they had parted company the night before.
My irritation level at this point is pretty high. Fortunately, I also thought the whole incident was rather humorous so I was able to chuckle as I drove back from Two Med to East Glacier where hopefully I would have cell service and hopefully Kevin would have cell service and with any luck at all, I’d still manage to find him and do the story and photos. Ok. Here we go. Round Two.
East Glacier. It’s now 6:45 a.m. I have no idea where to look for this guy so in spite of the unforgivable hour of the morning I decide to call. Kevin answers. He wasn’t fully awake yet, but he also wasn’t completely asleep so I don’t feel too bad about rousing him before 7 in the morning. He needs to get ready so I tell him where I am parked and he joins me not too long after.
Kevin was absolutely fascinating to talk to. He’s living a life I can’t even wrap my brain around. That morning out on the lake, I had started to psych myself out wondering about the possible locations of grizzly bears, wondering if that day might be the day that I accidentally stumble upon one of the giant predators and end up dying rather than coming home with lovely shots of the park. Kevin was soon telling me that just the other day they had seen a mother grizzly with two cubs. She charged at them. A grizzly bear charged at them. That isn’t a life experience that I want. That’s the kind of life experience I prefer to avoid. But it’s also the kind of story that I love to hear.
Kevin and the story of his hike are going to be this week’s Montana Life. Since I was leaving at O dark thirty in the morning and since Kevin wasn’t going to have much cell service the only logical thing to do was for me to write the story. I don’t do this very often for the paper, but when the right story comes along I genuinely enjoy doing both the photos and quotes.
We talked as Kevin made his plans, checked his maps, gathered supplies, and packed his bag. I can’t remember now, but I think it was after noon or after 1 p.m. that we parted company. There is so much to tell, but rather than going into all of that I have decided to publish the story I wrote for the paper here.
So here it is: Going for the Triple Crown. Story and photos by Brenda Ahearn.
It’s a lazy Friday morning in the lobby of the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier.
Guests are starting to wander, getting breakfast, packing their cars, checking out the hotel gift shops and finally checking out. The pace of the morning is leisurely.
That is not the case for Kevin DeGraw.
DeGraw is a 31-year-old thru-hiker from Vancouver, Wash. He has taken over a table in the lobby which he fills with maps. He is making notations and plans for the days to come. This summer DeGraw is making an attempt to complete the “Triple Crown” of thru-hiking as he walks from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide Trail.
DeGraw began his hike Saturday, July 2. As of July 8 he had covered roughly 94 miles. If his estimates are correct that leaves just over 2,600 miles to go.
Now he’s facing a long stretch through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Six days straight. Maybe eight depending on conditions.
No hotels. No showers. No grocery stores. And probably no cell phone service.
A woman stops as she watches DeGraw concentrating on his maps. She kindly and curiously asks, “Do you know where you are?”
“I know where we are, but I don’t know where I should be,” he says.
“Well, that’s two different things altogether, isn’t it?” the woman said smiling, and tells him to have a good time.
This random encounter is nothing unusual for DeGraw.
“People are attracted to the trip,” he says. “It can be really helpful, the way people come up to you. You can meet people, make connections, sometimes vital connections with someone who can help you on your way.”
“Actually, my trail name is ‘Freebie.’ I got that name partly because I’ve been pretty good at making those kind of connections.”
DeGraw is using a variety of maps for his trek. But the ones he seemed to study the most intently were created by fellow thru-hiker Jonathan Ley of Portland, Ore., who completed the Continental Divide Trail in 2001. The Continental Divide Trail is one of the U.S. National Scenic Trails, following close to the Continental Divide through the Rocky Mountains.
DeGraw became interested in long-distance hikes in 2002.
“My first real trail was the Wonderland Trail,” DeGraw said, referring to a trail 93 miles long encircling Mount Rainier. “I did all the wrong things. I had a 60-pound pack, I wore jeans, I was not prepared. After that I realized if I wanted to do this I needed a different approach.”
“My base weight for this hike is 14 pounds, but that will drop to around 11 once I am out of the winter conditions which I’m hoping will happen near southern Montana.”
His basic setup includes: shorts and a T-shirt for hiking, shorts and a T-shirt for camp, a wool shirt, rain gear, insulated jacket, three pairs of socks, one pair of shoes, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, miscellaneous electronics including an iPod, cell phone, and camera. He also carries an ice ax, crampons and bear spray.
DeGraw has learned a lot as he’s taken on other major thru-hikes. He completed the Appalachian Trail in 2008 and the Pacific Crest Trail in 2009. The Appalachian, the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide trails are considered the Triple Crown.
“These trails are all about camping, being in the wilderness,” DeGraw said. “They fall into one category because of their length and the nature of the hike.”
DeGraw plans to leave East Glacier and make his way south through the Bob Marshall Wilderness to Benchmark Wilderness Guest Ranch in Fairfield. The ranch serves as a mail-drop location for hikers on the Continental Divide.
“If you go to a town along a major trail and want to see thru-hikers you go to the post office, the library or the cheapest grocery store,” said DeGraw. Thru-hikers will frequently mail themselves supplies. DeGraw could mail a package to his next stop, but that is not part of his plan. “My style is much less structured than some other thru-hikers, which may prove to be a strength on this hike, or completely disastrous.”
At the Glacier Park Trading Company DeGraw picks up a basket and begins to hunt through the aisles. He tends to eat about two pounds of food per day. “I have a horrendous diet out on the trail, but I justify it with how many calories I’m burning.”
As he makes his selections he says “This isn’t how I eat, this is how Freebie eats.”
Decisions are made based on the weight of the food and the price. Health is not a factor.
Two loaves honey whole grain bread. Two boxes of doughnuts. Two bags of corn chips which he ruthlessly crushes — when you are trying to pack 8 days worth of food there is no room for bags full of air. Grape jelly. Creamy peanut butter. Two blocks of Monterey Jack cheese. Two cans of peanuts. Snack backs of sunflower seeds, roasted peanuts and crackers and cheese. Two Snickers bars. One large bag of peanut M&Ms. Four bags of dehydrated potatoes and a couple packs of Raman noodles.
Once he picks up the basics he heads to a table at the back of the store. He spreads out his items and then begins to more closely comparison shop. When all is said and done he types the weight into his phone and comes up with 263 ounces. That’s 16.4 pounds and just where he wanted to be for the eight day hike. Grand total: $71.54. Now for the hard part, making it all fit into his backpack.
“My favorite saying on the trail is from Ray Jardine’s book ‘Beyond Backpacking.’ ‘If I need it, and I don’t have it, then I don’t need it.’”
“I like that saying a lot and I use it in my own life off the trail as well as on,” said DeGraw. “I think it’s a great motto. It fits with my whole simplicity goal.”
“After you’ve hiked for a while you know what you like and what you don’t,” said DeGraw. “Everything with you must have a purpose. The longer the hike the less a person brings. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but you’ve thought about every single item you bring with you knowing you’ll have to carry it.”
“I tend to be a bit of a minimalist. I don’t like to plan too far ahead because I don’t know exactly where I’ll be or what I’ll want when I’m there.”
One of the unique challenges of this hike is isolation. DeGraw expects the Continental Divide Trail to be more of a solo hike.
“I think this is going to be a trail that offers me the chance for more personal growth. I’m going to see how I handle being alone,” said DeGraw. “There is a chance I won’t see any other thru-hikers for most of the four months. With this trail the challenge isn’t how to get time to yourself, the challenge is connecting with other thru-hikers.”
He found that in East Glacier.
As he began organizing his food supplies a fellow thru-hiker comes in, takes one look at DeGraw and his gear and says “Are you Freebie?” And just like that he has met up with “Money Shot” Mark Dupray of Denver, Colo,. and “Abear” Drew Herbert of Shreveport, La.
“I knew Money Shot and Abear were in the area. They were the ones I was hoping to catch. In thru-hiking you always have at least a vague sense of who is around you. Thru-hiking is a pretty close community,” said DeGraw. “I didn’t personally know these guys, but I knew of them. Abear and Trainwreck hiked the Pacific Crest Trail the same year I did. We know a lot of the same people.”
DeGraw has to finish packing, but he asks if he can join them today as they head for Marias Pass. They are on their way to breakfast and they make plans to meet up when everyone is ready to go.
DeGraw finishes packing his food, and finds Abear outside talking with “Free Radical,” Wade Koech of East Berlin, Pa., one of the hikers with whom DeGraw came down from Canada. Free Radical is also heading to Marias Pass, but he is catching a ride. DeGraw asks if he can take his food for him and Free Radical agrees. They’ll meet up at Marias that night. For DeGraw, Friday becomes a day of “slack-packing.” He’s still hiking, but it’s at least one day where he’ll walk lighter without his food.
The group is joined by “E-Blanket” and “Trainwreck,” Emily Aston of San Diego, Calf., and Stephanie White of Crested Butte, Colo. With that the five set off back into Glacier.
“In thru-hiking, part of the appeal is usually to get away from everyone,” DeGraw said. “On the other trails you have to work to find a way to be alone. On this trail you have to find a way to be with other people. Even though I’ll be hiking ‘with them’ we may not see each other more than an hour or so per day.”
The five hikers take one last look at their map. The day is going to be clear and bright. They head into the park looking forward to the day of travel and the shared life experience.
“Thru-hiking fits in with the simplicity I seek in life. I enjoy it,” said DeGraw. “There is nothing else to think about when you are in a river up to your waist, you are only thinking of how to cross that river. It’s very in the present moment. And even when you do start to make plans for the future, they are close plans. You are looking for the next meal, the next place to get water, the next camp site, the next store.” All of life gets simplified. And the simplicity is my favorite thing.”
“This life is uncomplicated. I find myself in a better place when I’m out here, I’m better as a whole, when I’m living this way” said DeGraw. “Out here, I find, it all comes together.”