Every year, my sister Bria and I take a trip together. This little tradition has been an annual spot of joy, and in the last two years has taken the form of a backpacking trip. We’ve now hiked about 80 miles of the North Country Trail in Pennsylvania, and hope to cover the remaining 200 miles over the next few years. After last year’s trip, I chronicled some of my learnings, and after this most recent trip decided to add to the list. So, picking up where we left off…
7. The nights are long in October
I had checked the daylight charts to plan our mileage and campsites. I knew that we would have daylight around 7, and that we needed to be cleaned up from dinner by 6:30. I knew how much sunlight there would be, but overlooked the inverse reality and completely underestimated how dark it would be, for how very long.
Deep in the old growth forests of central Pennsylvania we lost the light early and waited through many hours to see it again. Some nights I was very afraid, and I longed for the sun. My fear surprised and bothered me—I’m brave, I’m the tough one. My sleepless panic didn’t match the narrative of fearlessness I’ve built in these years of adventuring. When we got home I scoured the internet for a tonic to these sleepless nights in the backcountry, but only found this consistent, two-part answer: 1) Fear is a part of it. 2) Do it afraid.
When I reflect and am honest with myself, it’s easy to see that all of my best adventures have been laced with this kind of fear. That whole first year of sailing was pure terror. Being evaluated for ski patrol gave me the shakes. I cried before competing in my first rodeo. Doing it anyway is what makes it an adventure, and the adventure is very nearly always worth it. See: Type II Fun.
We’ve already looked into options for better camp lighting, and we’re going to download movies to our phones to watch in the tent. We might go a few weeks earlier to grab more daylight. On the other side of fear there are so often solutions—we just have to keep pushing ourselves to find the other end of night.
8. Porcupines are real
Through most nights, my fear was of the nameless unknown, the quintessential fear of “the dark.” But one night, at the Queen’s Creek Shelter, my fear was very specific, and it took the form of a spiky rodent. Upon arriving at the shelter, we quickly noted a laminated sign stating, “Please do not remove the mothballs. They are here to deter a resident Porcupine.”
I had a couple of challenges with this sign—mostly with the use of the word “resident.” If these mothballs were effective, it would suggest the use of another word (evictee?), or maybe eliminate the need for the sign at all. My second challenge was being thrust into painful awareness of my total lack of knowledge about porcupines. Long stretches in nature without the help of Google will do this to you: you will realize exactly how little you know about the world.
So that night, I lay awake wondering what sound a porcupine makes, and what their nocturnal habits are, and whether they are a rabies vector, and why they don’t like mothballs, and how someone ever managed to figure that out. I was fairly confident that fatal porcupine encounters are rare, but still really didn’t want to meet one in the middle of the night.
Thankfully, we weren’t visited by a porcupine or any other animal that night, but I thought you all might like to know that they are real, they make a wide range of vocalizations, they can contract rabies, and interestingly, they are not especially deterred by mothballs (which I am glad I only learned when I was back in my apartment).
9. Your hand is not a cutting board, especially in the backcountry
Rule number one of the backcountry is to be extra careful, because even minor injuries can have an outsized impact. As a ski patroller and reasonably experienced outdoorswoman, I thought of this as I was cutting the salami for our “backpacking charcuterie” lunch. Thinking, it turns out, was not enough as I decided to cut one more chunk of soppressata in my hand rather than on the log we were using as a table. My recently sharpened leatherman happily made it through the salami and into my index finger, which immediately began dripping blood on the forest floor. I popped my finger into my mouth and went for the pack of first aid supplies, shaking my head at my own stupidity and reflecting on a recent lesson I taught the new ski patrol candidates on, you guessed it: bandaging fingers.
A few minutes and a bit of roller gauze later we were back in business, though the throbbing and inconvenience were enough to move this textbook knowledge solidly into practice.
10. Look for the blazes
Maybe a little on the nose, but I’ll share it anyway. Bria led for much of this trip, which is good practice for me in releasing control and trusting others. Leading on the leaf-covered single track requires careful attention to the blue blazes painted on trees at roughly 20-yard intervals. Once, as we navigated a rocky, root studded-area near a shallow brook, Bria said “every time, just as I think I’ve made a wrong turn or missed a blaze, I see the next one and know we’re on the right track.”
I thought how often life is like that, and as I enter my own season of big transitions and changes, I meditated on the importance of just finding the next blaze. It’s not the trailhead, or the campsite, or a vista, it’s the next blue paint on a tree, and you only find it if you keep walking.
11. Be a troop leader
On this particular stretch of trail we were fortunate to stay in a series of three-sided, wooden backpacking shelters that kept us off the ground and out of the rain. These cozy little hovels seem positively palatial when you’re out in the woods, and I felt deep joy and gratitude when we found them each night. At most of the shelters, there were plaques sharing information about the builders, including one about a boy scout troop from Ashtabula.
As we set camp, I reflected on my gratitude for the troop leader who drove a van-load of boys three hours into Pennsylvania and then hauled lumber and tools deep into the woods to build that shelter. That person probably gave up an entire weekend and then went back to work on Monday morning, weary from the effort of giving young men an adventure.
As I move more solidly into adulthood and transition from being the beneficiary of such generosity to the facilitator, I want to be like that troop leader. The service that we give to others through our time and effort makes the world an infinitely more beautiful place and gives our life the purpose for which we so long. As we consider the deteriorating ties of community, I believe that this kind of service can be a powerful remedy for our placelessness and alienation.
So when I got back to Buffalo and was asked to be on the race committee for a high school regatta, I said yes. I don’t know any of the high school sailors, and it was 40 degrees on the water, and I didn’t particularly want to give up my Sunday, but people who give up their Sundays tend to make an awful lot of magic for others. People who give up their Sundays build shelters in the woods for sisters on an adventure. People who give up their Sundays know that we need each other, and I want to be one of them.
12. Find the little magic
Perhaps my favorite thing about backpacking, aside from the wonder, and imagination, and quiet time with my sister, is that when you come back to your life, everything feels charged with new wonder. The faucet with clean, hot water, the light switch, the toilet, the warmth. Of course we buzz through our days with so little awareness of these conveniences, but after living without them for five days, they suddenly spark a profound enjoyment and gratitude.
So through fear, and long nights, and questions about porcupines, we’ll keep pushing deeper into the woods, hoping that the “little magic” will last just a little longer each time we come home.
Ansley Kelly (’16) makes her home in Buffalo, NY, where she delights in short, sweet summers spent sailing and long winters spent skiing at her favorite mountain. Between outdoor adventures, you can find her buying books more quickly than she can read them and indulging in mid-morning naps. She works for Wegmans Food Markets where she finds purpose and joy in feeding her community and the wider world.