The Appalachian Trail runs 2,180 miles, from Springer Mountain, GA to Katahdin, ME. Each year, up to 2,000 people attempt to “thru-hike” the entire length of the AT (hike the entire trail in one, continuous outing) – a trek that on average takes five to seven months. This year, one of those attempting to thru-hike the AT is Maija, a photographer from Minnesota. Joining Maija are her two loyal companions, Griffin and Little Bear.
Today (March 31, 2015), Maija, Griffin and Little Bear start their long journey north, taking their first steps on the AT in Springer Mountain, GA. Last night, from a hotel room in Dahlonega, GA Maija took some time to reflect on everything she has done to prepare herself and the unknowns that lie ahead. Her note to us below is honest, reflective and genuine. We can’t wait to hear updates from the trio throughout the summer of their journey. Happy Hiking Maija, Little Bear and Griffin!
If you are a long distance hiker, or aspiring to become one, you’ve certainly heard the phrase, hike your own hike. These words are key to understanding that everyone out there is a culmination of knowledge based upon advice given to them as well their own life experience out on the trail. As you heed the advice of others, you must also take into consideration that your life, situation, body, mind, and purpose, are potentially all different from theirs. What is right for one is not right for another in terms of gear, food, mileage covered in a day, and just about everything else. In deciding to HYOH, you are hiking in your own way, at your own pace and with your own purpose. As a result you will have an experience that is infinitely more enjoyable and fulfilling. My own advice for you is to acquire as much knowledge from others as you can, get out on the trail to test it out to see if and how it applies to you, and use what you discover to adapt it and make it your own.
For me, personally, HYOH means hiking with my dogs at my sides as we attempt a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. With both of them in all their furry, slobbery, wiggly, wide-eyed, curiosity hasn’t killed the dog yet, kind of glory. It’s my dream. For some it would be a nightmare, and I anticipate there may be times while I’m hiking that my mind may wander towards those dark, meandering thoughts. The reason being that although attempting a thru hike with a dog (or two) is amazing in and of itself, it is also incredibly challenging. It means that instead of hiking your own hike you will be hiking your dog’s own hike. Their needs will come before yours and their needs will be plentiful. It means tenting out in the rain because a shelter is full or heading back out on the trail instead of staying in towns because there isn’t anywhere to stay that allows dogs. I just spoke with a 2014 AT thru hiker who completed the hike with his dog, CatFox, and one simple piece of advice he gave me stuck with me more than anything else I’ve found during months of searching:
“When it comes to thru hiking with a dog, the best you can do is your best. A lot of things are going to be out of your control, so a lot of it comes down to luck. The best advice I can give is to stay positive, because having two dogs is going to be crazy. The three of you aren’t always going to be having a good day on the same days.”
I’ve spent hours, days, weeks, and months preparing for this hike. Preparing myself, but also preparing to have the dogs along. I’ve taken first aid courses for dogs, I’ve scoured the internet for resources, I’ve researched and tested out gear, I’ve prepared a multitude of mail drop packages to accommodate the diet of the pups, I’ve considered every awful scenario on the trail ranging from bears & poisonous snakes to giardia & Lyme disease. In addition, I’ve spent so much time preparing myself, making lists of reasons I want to hike, lists I’ll look back on during the hardest days. I’ve prepared myself mentally for the challenges ahead, for dealing with whatever unexpected roadblocks we hit, for toughing it out when things get hard. I have focused so intensely on how to mentally stay tough when I’m feeling weak that I haven’t given as much thought to the days that my dogs might be feeling weak and tired. Though I am well aware of the love they have for backpacking, I have no way to explain to them what we are about to do, to ask their opinion on what we are about to attempt. I have no way to mentally prepare them ahead of time to get through the hardest of days. Staying positive, supportive, and being aware of my dogs every day is going to be a necessity.
Even though I have realized that bringing my dogs along would mean putting their needs ahead of my own, and despite the fact that I have planned how to keep them safe and healthy throughout the hike, I’d in fact forgotten what all of that meant in the very essence of actually being out on the trail. On the days that I’m moving slow, that I can’t cover as many miles, they’ll need to slow their pace to match mine, to stick by my side, and I know that they will without hesitation. In the same sense I need to be acutely aware of my dogs. On the days that they need to move slowly, I need to move slowly also. These two dogs are relying on me every day to guide them, to keep them safe and healthy, and I need to be deserving of that kind of trust. Our hike of the Appalachian Trail will be the ultimate adventure for Griffin, Little Bear, and myself. It will also be an enormous challenge during which our minds, our bodies and our spirits will be pushed to the limits. We will rely on each other to stay positive, and our relationships to one another will be tested in a whole new way.