The Fellowship of the Trail

Whether it be the intervention of fate or mere chance, the unintended encounter with would-be strangers in the wilderness can undeniably alter your day, your path, or even your life.

By: Mike Quine
September 27, 2016

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Imagine yourself, for a moment, experiencing the not-so-subtle stillness of the forests as you hike through the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest. Likewise, picture yourself marching through a disorienting snowstorm as your confidence escapes you while you witness the trail disappear beneath your feet. Envision yourself, yet, as an inexperienced solo-backpacker, burdened by the weight of an overpacked bag as your boots feel heavier and heavier with each lumbering step. Whether you find yourself alone enjoying nature’s quiet and simple peace, in a state of looming fear, or gradually approaching a sense of hopeless frustration, experience has shown that it is at these times when would-be strangers make an unexpected, yet profound, appearance into your life.

If anyone happened to read my first Journal entry about my Year Alone in the Wilderness of the National Parks, I would like to expand upon a theme that ran through the course of my year long sojourn – Friends with Strangers. No this is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of taking candy, nor is it a Kumbaya - lets hold hands- narrative.  Instead, I would like to immortalize the importance of the human bonds that were forged by the wilderness – in times often unsought,  at times otherwise wanted, and in other moments drastically needed. Make no mistake about the original intent of my journey, as it was never designed as anything other than a self-serving adventure through the US National Parks. However, what it had become, in many instances, was a personal journey strengthened by deep, unbreakable connections with the people I met along the way.

As I like to begin most stories, I’ll start…from the beginning. You know...to add a little context. The first National Park on my so-called warpath, was Isle Royale National Park – a 50+ mile stretch of unforgiving land in the northern limits of Michigan's Lake Superior. Simply reaching the island requires visitors to board sea-faring vessels to ferry them across the vastness of the Great Lakes. My aquatic steed was the Voyageur II. Unnavigable, if based on looks alone, however, its steadfastness brought me, and fellow (unknown) adventurers, Don and Andy Williams, across the cold waters unscathed. For the next four days I would traverse the spans of rugged mountains, and inspiring terrain from Windigo Port to Rock Harbor. Along the way I was threatened by wildlife, water shortages, fatigue, and seemingly insurmountable mental hurdles. That’s right, I was a self-described rookie back then – not always the ruggedly experienced backpacking guru that someone might know today. My pack was wildly overpacked with enough food to feed a family of six for three weeks (at least by the ration standard by the journey’s end). My boots could barely contain my bulging, swollen feet. Coupled with the relentless rain, and the ever present awareness of thoughts like, “What have I gotten myself into?,” my mind easily bounced back and forth from the temptation to abandon this hike along the way. While plagued by these defeatist thoughts, and almost as if divine intervention…intervened, I would hear the quiet mumblings of two people just ahead of me along the trail. Don and Andy! Simply seeing them and chatting about peanut butter for ten minutes was the morale boost I needed to convince me to keep fighting the good fight and muster onward. It would seem that for the next three days, I would bump into them when the pain and hopelessness were seizing their strongest grip on my motivation. Though they may have no idea how impactful our burgeoning bond would be for me, for the next year, whenever I would be alone in the wilderness (95% of the time) and needed a mental push to keep going forward, I would remind myself of Don and Andy…and peanut butter.

Though, throughout the year, I would have many run-ins with strangers who would become my trail companions, not all of these chance encounters would be under stressful circumstances. Take Michael and Fern for instance. After having cut my teeth on a few more parks since Isle Royale, my boots took me to North Cascades National Park, where I would spend many a day wandering the still, yet dominating landscape of the Pacific Northwest’s finest. The sensations of being alone in the wild were becoming commonplace, and the chance run-in with another human being was quickly becoming the exception rather than the rule. Sure enough, after making the fateful decision to "audible" my route by taking the right fork in the trail instead of the left, I found myself in a clump of trees surrounded by the Cascade peaks. It was this last minute, spontaneous decision that afforded me the opportunity to make the acquaintance of Portland-natives, Michael and Fern. With the certainty that no other human beings were within a day or two’s march, we all took the risk of both inviting and accepting an invitation to join one another for a backcountry dinner. Are you kidding me?! They hadn’t even gotten a decent look at my dirty mug before offering me a place at their dinner…stump? 

The three of us had an instant connection. Perhaps it’s the safe assumption that those who run into each other in the wilderness are likely to share a common bond before they even speak to one another. Anyway, for the next 3 days, we would share unforgettable stories, food, and, footsteps. The bonds that we forged in those mountains were not left on the rocky peaks or in the pristine forests, instead several times over, and several months apart, my path led my through Portland. Often, and with no forewarning, Michael (and Crofton) and Fern had offered me a roof, a bed, a warm meal, and most importantly – much needed company.

Over the proceeding year, this level of generosity and open kindness would present itself time and time again...and often in the most unassuming of characters.

If I were to expand upon every fellowship that was shaped whilst on this journey, my fingers would be numb from typing. It would take an immeasurable amount of time to highlight the inseparable companionship tempered in a shared cup of whiskey at Theodore Roosevelt National Park on a 30th wedding anniversary anniversary (below) and my birthday.

It would take a lifetime (or perhaps a long sit-down story sesh), to recount the tales of...the Family that rescued me from the cold boundary waters…

...the rest of the Isle Royale family and the Stargazing Crew...

...my tree sleeping/canoe shepherding companion, the backpacking virgins/Christopher Walken enthusiasts along Capitol Reef’s waterfold (Top Picture), my Alaskan refuge providers (you know who you are), my National Parks brother from another mother atop Guadalupe Peak, the ferry boat crew, the Teddy Roosevelt's buttes marathoner, the girl, the Sequoia Four…



...the "Breathing-Monk" on Telescope Peak…

…my spirit guide of the Denali backcountry – who I’m still not convinced isn’t a ghost…

...the good Shepard's who ushered me 300 miles to Denali on a whim...

...my fellow nomad who reminded me what it is like to see snow for the first time...

...a retired Marine seeking solace among John Muir's masterpiece (once a Marine always a Marine, ooorah!)...

...Across-the-Ponders mutually discovering America's past...

...a man who has cheated death, teaching me lessons in selflessness and gratitude...

...vagabonds who kept the fire lit in dark times...

...the one who taught me the importance of the unplanned "side adventure"...

...those who kept spirits dry when all else was flooded...

...old friends trying new things...

...and new friends doing things the old way...

...and of course, my 85 year old future-self, Gene’o (who will be getting his OWN journal entry)

Yes, I am still only scratching the surface. Even the people whose names I never discovered, still have left an inerasable mark in the folds of my mind, and have not only played a part in my life but have, in fact, shaped it.

Now I mentioned that many people were met under unexpected terms, though those terms were either mutually amazing or awful conditions. Well, then there were the people, who if our paths did not cross, my life would have been undeniably held forfeit. 

To help set this stage: At this point in the journey, I had been hiking alone in the wilderness for several months and the seasons were shifting from winter to spring in the majestic Yosemite National Park and its High Sierras. Well, having my pre-backpacking routine down to a science, I had loaded my (now much lighter) backpack and marched out of the valley and up into the unforgiving mountains. Well, when I started this 100+ mile trek, the Valley floor was without snow, however once having reached the high elevations, the snow levels began to pile up by feet rather than inches. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to bring snowshoes, however, I forgot one critical piece of snow hiking gear…sunglasses. Go ahead...bash me and my backpacking intelligence all you want here…it would be well deserved. 

About 30-40 miles into the trail-less High Sierras, my eyesight was beginning to wane due to the sun reflecting off the snow. By day 5, my vision was nearly all gone (severe snowblindness)…only being able to differentiate between light and dark. Reaching a point of no return, it was even too late to retrace my footsteps back several days – not that I could see them anyway. Knowing I had several days of food left, provided me only the minimal amount of comfort, in an otherwise rapidly approaching sense of hopelessness. As I think this story deserves its own entry, I will give you the abridged version here…

On the same day where my vision had disappeared, I had dug a hole in the snow to bury myself to escape the sun's harsh rays. To my luck (putting it lightly), two backcountry skiers by the names, Don and Bruce, rescued me from the sun and ushered me back to health in their backcountry ski hut. To illustrate my fortune very clearly...these two guys were probably the only other people within some many odd miles radius. For three days, I spent the days inside the hut, away from the sun. For three days they fed me. And for three days they kept me company. I was too grateful for their kindness to be ashamed of my carelessness. Though the experience was humbling, in the most real sense, I owe them a debt for my life I can never pay back. 

Now when I think back to before embarking on this journey, I remember thinking how lonely I would be out there all by myself. Its true, the vast majority of the time I was alone, and certainly loneliness was ironically present very often. However, the would-be strangers who became unforgettable humans, were a part of the journey that I never previously accounted for in my (admittedly haphazard) planning. The word "friend" does not accurately, or fully capture the true importance all these people, and as such, I still struggle to justly articulate their characterization. What I can say, however, is that the quest had indeed become less and less a personal journey, and rather a shared experience with the people who have improved, influenced, shaped, and even saved my life along the way.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.