The Pee Rag podcast ❤︎ Unfiltered Adventures of the Blissful Hiker
In a series of self-effacing essays, accompanied by her own original flute playing, the Blissful Hiker shares a journey of self-discovery as a middle-aged, female, long distance backpacker…
episode 26 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker learns that she actually misses the muddy, barely-there trail of New Zealand’s “advanced tramping” and longs for the allure of the unknown.
In this episode:
- Blissful walks from Marianne and Allan’s farm toward the Pureora Forest, all on road but happy to walk every step of the Te Araroa.
- She walks in on-again-off-again rain through farmland in a karst landscape of limestone outcroppings and cone-shaped hills. Kind Kiwis make the walk a pleasure.
- She meets other thru-hikers at the Ngaherenga campsite, all having skipped the last sections and call Blissful a “purist.”
- Blissful enters the Pureora Forest on the Timber Trail, a wide shared mountain biking trail, but longs for the side side trails back into the bush to the Bog Inn and Pureora’s summit, where she spies volcanic Mount Ruapehu.
- She crosses two enormous suspension bridges and camps by a Harrisons Creek, where a hunter shows up with a deer, sharing the tenderest morsels.
MUSIC: The music in this episode is Argentine composer Angel Lasala’s Poema del Pastor Coyaas played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
Available on iTunes
The sun angles through the bush of 1,000 year old native hardwood podocarp – rimu, totara, miro, mātai and kahikatea. The understory is thick with tree ferns and many of these coniferous trees are wrapped in a layer of moss, giving this forest a primeval feeling. The mud is thick, but I’m an expert now and on a sunny day, the fact that my feet are wet makes no difference to me.
These are old trees, at one time part of the super continent of Gondwana, before New Zealand broke away into remote island masses. This forest I am walking through is called Pureora – a massive park that was nearly clear-cut before tree sitters protested in the ‘70s saving it for the enjoyment of future outdoor enthusiasts including me. The main trail is popular with mountain bikers and is so wide and well maintained, I become the most blissful hiker yet in 40 days of my thru-hike.
And yet, here I am back on a wet, muddy slog, taking a slight detour just so I can check out the famous Bog Inn. And what a dump it is. It smells like pee and flies buzz everywhere, the table a trail of mouse droppings. A tell tale bit of tarp signals the hut is likely not rain proof. Why would anyone stay here?
Maybe a better question would be, why would any hiker go off trail – and such a lovely trail – just to come and take a peak? Maybe that thru-hiker getting used to hard tramping, was beginning to miss the mud.
Good socks and strong poles are a must on the advanced tramping tracks of New Zealand – ones where the shortest distance between two points is often simply straight up or straight down, on mud and over fallen trees, through deep bush and on barely-there track.
But for 20 miles, the Te Araroa is all road. Yup, that’s one of the biggest complaints about this long distance thru-hike. The track standard is all over the place – nearly impassable to nearly non-existent shoulder with drivers whizzing past, seemingly without a clue as to why someone would be hiking in the road.
At least this morning there is very little traffic and it’s said a cold snap is supposed to quell the rain, even if King Country is the wettest part of New Zealand.
Black clouds chase me and a half rainbow rises out of the bush arching towards the Mangoakewa Reserve, a deep canyon of bird song and solitude from two days ago. It is cold in the shade, but the rain continues on and off – and my raincoat is on, then off, on, and off again – like a bad relationship. Clouds and me, we’re co-dependent.
And then, just like that it clears. The air is cool and delicious up high looking out over this humpy landscape. A few days ago in Te Kuiti, a guy offered me a ride past all this, which I declined. Even Marianne from last night told me she saw me on the road and is usually the one to pick up hikers. This time though, she admitted she thought, “Walk on little hiker!” and was surprised when Alan had me in his car heading up the hill to their home.
But I didn’t let her drive me past this road walk. I mean, there’s something satisfying in walking every step. Admittedly, I sometimes feel like hell, especially when my feet are wet all day and the air is cold. But then again, there’s a sense of accomplishment and invariably, things will change. It can’t rain forever, can it?
Black and white cows look out at me over the fence. A herd of sheep graze amongst a swing set in someone’s backyard. Beyond are cone-shaped hills with rocky outcroppings. This entire landscape is ancient ash as well as “karst” or sandstone, creating stalactite filled caves and these wondrous cliffs. A guy drives by in a 4×4 plus four dogs and we both wave. I reach the highway and have lunch sitting against a sign.
Things are busier, but the verge is wider. And the sky clears, so at least I have that! I pass the abattoir. Oh, all those animal friends I made as I walked past their fields. Well, they have a pretty nice life in the meadows until that last day of their life.
I come to a section of road under maintenance and everyone says hi and urges me along. One follows me and pulls his truck to the side of the road. He doesn’t offer a ride, but asks if I might like a piece of chocolate cake and banana! Why yes! “That’ll get you to the end.” He says before hopping back in.
It’s almost festive as I scarf down the sugary richness and plod along, only about 3 miles or so to go before my turn off for the Pureora Forest. Just then, a car stops on the opposite side of the road, and Chloe jumps out! She skipped all of this walk, even the reserve and urges me to get in. Well, I’ve come this far, I’ll meet you ahead.
And as if the Maui, the trickster of Maori lore was intervening in my refusal to accept a kindness, the heavens immediately open up and it begins pouring again.
Was that really necessary?
Damp and grouchy, I reach Pa Harakeke, Chloe looking annoyed it took me so long to get there. And just as I get my body up on the covered porch, it rains even harder.
The woman at the front desk invites us in to dry out and offers us hot tea and a place to wait it out. A sign tells us the Timber Trail is 84 kilometers long, but only a few the Ngaharenga (nah-hah-rung-uh) campsite right at its edge. The rain stops long enough to allow us to set up our tents just as a car arrives delivering the Polish couple, Maciek and Renata along with Vera, the single Dutch tramper. They bring sunshine with them and a bit of attitude.
We crowd around a picnic table, each with our individual cook stoves and camp food. Maciek is limping. He probably pushed too hard and they decide they’ll need to take time off, maybe even skipping the forest ahead. Vera tells us that the trail notes frightened her from risking the reserve all alone and she too skipped it.
Chloe lost heart and skipped the reserve after a mouse chewed a hole in her tent and stole her food, forcing her to return to town. I commiserate with all of them, especially Chloe, telling her it’s a badge of honor to have repaired gear, a reminder of what she’s accomplished. But when I complain that the Te Araroa association is being irresponsible in not maintaining the track at least to a minimal standard, Chloe cuts me off, chastising me and saying I assume the risk and have a choice whether to walk it or not.
Well, ok, she has a point, though a bit of maintenance would make things more enjoyable and less dangerous. And I can’t help but feeling it’s not just about my complaint that the trail isn’t maintained. She’s criticizing because I walked all of it, calling me a “purist,” a label not meant as a compliment.
The rain starts up again in earnest and we all dive back in our tents. It’s only 7:30, but it’s been a long day and maybe this subject of what to hike and what to skip and what it all means can wait until another day. Besides, tomorrow, I’ll be walking into one of the most beautiful forests in all of New Zealand.
It’s cold this morning and my fingers hurt as I roll up a damp alicoop and stuff it away. I still feel a little irritated by the conversation last night, wishing my fellow thru-hikers could celebrate my having walked 35 miles even if they decided to skip it. Late last night, people showed up in trucks with their lights blaring on my tent. I yelled at them to turn them off. Chloe chastises me again this morning for waking her up. Ah, this is going to be a long walk if we end up camping together again.
It’s clear today and the sunshine lifts my spirits. Rare kakas fly through the campsite making a ratcheting sound. The coming days are on a shared bike track and will likely be well maintained and enjoyable. I’m happy to have made it here, surviving the reserve and river walk with no injuries.
A deep red Maori statue welcomes me to the path, his eyes made of iridescent paua, his ta moko or face tattoos a swirl of black. Without having to look at my feet every second, I can take in this gorgeous forest, one preserved because of tree huggers – or more accurately tree sitters – who protested unsustainable logging in the late 1970s. I’m out so early the sun is angling in sideways in frosty beams.
No bikes were available to rent, but I’m loving the freedom of walking, even if it’s going to take me three days to get through. Signage tells me more about this place, that the forest began it’s life 26,000 years ago when one of the world’s biggest volcanoes blew up. ‘Cruising Rangers’ were the first to venture into the bush to determine the amount of timber within a designated space.
They’d live in the virgin forest for ten days, then take four days off. One picture shows a man in boots, wool socks, shorts and a ‘Swannie’ – a heavy duty weatherproof woolen shirt – and lucky to have found a dry place to camp for the night. Don’t I know all about that. This region gets two meters of rain per year – or maybe that’s just this past week.
I learn the Maori orchestra is made right here in this forest! Matai, a kind of black pine, is used for flutes. Mist rises from the moss-covered trees. I can see my breath. The Toitoi track leads to the summit of Mount Pureora, a sign warning this is “tramping standard,” suitable shoes required. Two bicyclists catch up to me moaning about the mud. Gentlemen, this is strictly for amateurs.
At the trig, a large, pyramidal, black and white geographic reference beacon that marks the high point of 1,200 meters, the view opens to waves of bush covered hills, Lake Taupo beyond. The snow-capped giant of flat-topped Ruapehu, an active volcano in Tongariro National Park rests just below the light clouds. I’ll walk all of that bush, getting there in about a week.
I find a grassy spot and spread the alicoop out to dry, holding down her edges with rocks. Boy did I ever earn this spectacularly clear day. Chloe and Vera catch up and we snap pictures of each other grinning as we hang off the edge of the trig.
The bikers head back down the same way, but we take a shortcut, DOC posting a sign to tell us “this track no longer maintained.” An honest statement, as it’s straight down washed-out stairs and huge drops best maneuvered from a sitting position.
Back on the trail, I move fast, bikes easily passing me on the wide path. It’s built on historic bush tramways, old bulldozer and haul roads from the forestry era and is extremely well graded
Flood escapes and pipes send the rainwater to a long gully alongside the trail keeping it from washing away completely in the rain. Should the TA be maintained to this level? Perhaps it’s a bit much and that explains my desire to take a detour to the Bog Inn. The map tells me I won’t add much on this side trip, but it’s not just to see it. I guess in all my complaining about track standard, I started missing the challenge.
Muddy but happy to have had that bit of adventure all by myself, I return to the trail and cross the first of eight spectacular suspension bridges, two crossing the Bog Inn Creek. No ‘creek” makes its sound like something small, and yet it’s a massive gorge I cross. The incredible architecture of Orauwaka bridge shares its artistry with the bridges of Pureora’s forestry past, except in the olden days, there were no handrails.
Six boards wide, with a tightly woven fence up to my chest, the bridges look like the Golden Gate in miniature, suspended by wires attached to concrete blocks. There’s a bit of vibration, but I’m not afraid to lean over and look down into the water below hoping to see rare whio or blue ducks feeding in the rapids far below.
At a small grassy spot near Harrisons Creek , DOC built a small shelter and a long drop. Chloe is already here and I join her, setting the alicoop then lying down on dry grass in the last of the sun’s rays, Alan’s big coke bottle, a pillow for my head.
Chloe’s out of fuel, so I share some of mine and she gives me a few bits of chocolate in trade, our earlier tension a distant memory. It’s been such a lovely day but I’m nervous of what’s to come – a multi-day canoe trip and an Alpine crossing, but Chloe is not one to help calm me and I need to just manage the unknown factors of weather and timing.
Just then, a young man on an all-terrain vehicle drives up. Vera is riding sidesaddle and a recently gutted deer is tied down to the dash. Laughing and proud of their kill, they come to the creek for water and set up a spot to cook. Chloe is horrified. A vegan, she can’t believe people would delight in destroying an animal.
I explain to her that Europeans introduced deer and they’re a menace. Hunting them is an act of mercy for the bush. Nothing appeases her, so I suggest we move the operation out of site and Kiwi Tim gets to work frying up the tenderest bits. Tim tells me that he was having no luck until Vera came along and she was his lucky charm. I can tell you I have never had such delicious venison – a texture and taste like butter, the perfect addition to the tasteless ramen I cooked up earlier.
Marine biologist Sylvia Earle said, “I find the lure of the unknown irresistible.” It was an easy day today compared to most of the walk so far; nothing hard except for the side trips I chose to walk. No rain, very little mud, and only 16 miles walking over an entire day with plenty of time to linger and explore.
I don’t know what’s coming up next, and I can’t explain Chloe’s combative nature, though I’m certain I won’t be planning my days around hers. And perhaps that’s the lure of the unknown, in some sense, the faith one develops in letting go of what we know – especially if it’s something not really working for us – and then believing the unknown will offer us something else.
The air is chilly as the sun goes down and my belly is full. Vera takes off with the Tim and I can hear Chloe rustling about before she settles down. The stars come out and the dew falls, the creek babbling its song as it’s done for thousands of years.
episode 25 show notes ‘n transcript
- Blissful leaves Waitomo for Te Kuiti through slippery farmland, getting lost in fields of sheep poo and confusing orange triangle-shaped trail signs.
- The reserve begins as a Hobbit Forest in a sun shower, but soon becomes greasy sidling along the Mangaokewa Stream.
- All alone at the “cool campsite,” she muses on when she first started thru-hiking, she was too afraid to even close her eyes.
- It’s more sidling on the way back to farmland, where trail angels rescue her for an afternoon on a working farm.
MUSIC: Soliloquy by Bernard Rogers and Night Music by Antal Dorati as played by Alison Young, flute.
available on iTunes
I’m inching along over slick black mud, on a trail only as wide as my two feet. To my right is a thick wall of undergrowth including tree ferns like elegant filigreed umbrellas, papery-barked totara, and a kind of white pine called kahikatea. To my left is a drop of about 20 feet or so to the river below, shallow but burbling, its sound reaching me even at this height.
I’m in the Mangaokewa Reserve near Te Kuiti.
in the North Island of New Zealand. It’s a stunning, pest-free zone where native birds have returned and green grassy cliffs rise high above the crystal clear water, studded with overhanging limestone cliffs, ideal for climbing. Though my aim today is to keep hiking and get myself to what’s been called a “cool campsite,” one that’s deep in the reserve and far off the tourist trails. I’m pretty sure I can physically handle the distance, but just not sure if my daylight will last.
It is hard walking – slippery, overgrown, thorns-in-the-face, advanced tramping, and it’s here that I learn a new bit of terminology – to sidle. Now I know what the word means, to walk in a furtive or unobtrusive manner, sideways or obliquely, to creep, slink, skulk, prowl. But in the Kiwi context, it refers to the act of walking literally on the side of steep hill, to contour it in such a way, bit by bit, so as not to slide off, all the way to the bottom.
I’ve been working my way down the North Island for a little over a month. The trail notes tell me it’s mostly an easy day from Waitomo to Te Kuiti, walking on farmland with just a few slippery patches. I cross over a sturdily built stile – two boards with feet, one taller than the other and set in a cross. I grab the well-used pole, orange paint flaking off, and hoist myself over the fence directly into ankle deep mud. I’m told an intimidating bull is waiting for me in this field. I hear some grunting but don’t see him as I shuffle across the wet grass to another triangle on the far fence.
It’s a slippery banana peal of descent into bush just as the thunder begins it’s long drawn out rumbling. I cross a bouncy suspension bridge only wide enough for my feet and enter the Pehitawa peh-hee-tah-wah
Kahikatea forest, white pines that are some of the tallest in New Zealand. A primevil, eerie green lights up the ferns and epiphytes.
The forest is pitch dark at 8 am, rain hitting the canopy like a volley of bullets. At the next ascent, my feet slip back and I hit the mud face first. Why am I doing this again?
Only by wedging my feet against the fence posts can I get past that vertical nightmare. And just like that, the track changes to long strides. Wet to the hip, caked with mud, I walk towards a vista of enormous farms in a large bowl surrounded by the bright green hills.
It’s beautiful, but totally confounding – there’s no trail per se, and the orange triangle markers are so widely spaced I am pretty much lost. But, wait, here’s a marker nailed to a tree! I sit down under it just as it begins pouring, only slightly protected from the rain. I have a bit of lunch just as a guy comes out of the mist heading in the opposite direction.
Wait, where are you going? He keeps moving away and is swallowed up again in the cloud. Did I miss something? Is he headed my way?? I follow my marker up a slick slope of sheep poo that takes me nowhere. Then risk going in completely the opposite direction, as the other hiker had, just to see where it takes me.
Of course he was right, and I soon meet a farm road, just as the sky clears. Being damp does nothing to help my mood, but a stiff breeze dries me out and the views get better.
At the next triangle, some saint writes which way to turn next.
Hundreds of sheep are bleating loudly, the lambs being separated from their mamas. I wash off the mud in a tank before heading straight up hill to Pehitawa Mast. Pirongia is completely shrouded in cloud far in the distance. Te Kuiti tay-coo-eet-ee sprawls out below.
It’s yet one more straight down mudslide before town, but now that I’ve washed off, I’m determined not to fall. In town, I buy enough food for the coming six days and waddle like a drunk turtle, checking out the exhibit on the town stars Sir Colin and his brother Stanley, both lantern-jawed rugby stars of the All Blacks as well as a massive sculpture of a shearer and his sheep.
The trail squeezes past an industrial section, massive vehicles behind chain link fences. These people must be used to our getting lost and have posted signs everywhere ensuring the TA walker finds her way to the Mangaokewa Reserve without too many wrong turns.
Things start well on a well worn path, sweeping views of stalagtite filled caverns on brooding cliffs, the bush a hobbit home in a sun shower. A herd of goats, long beards and stinky, rise as one and bound up the hillside.
It’s late in the day when I decide to keep moving, foregoing a car campsite to find the ‘cool campsite.’ Almost immediately after crossing a swing bridge I leave the easy walking behind for greasy sidling that barely offers me purchase.
At one point the trail zigs, but I zag, heading straight up a nasty herd trail that leads to a pasture. Those poor cows get to hear multiple expletives as I unwind my gaffe.
Finally on the right path, I head into a small bit of kahikatea, tall and slender providing easy walking and a flat spot for a tent. It’s the cool campsite, a tiny bench in the river bend, lavished by someone with a table, chairs, a fire pit, a fully inflated inner tube and a shovel labeled ‘toilet, so far, dig deep.’
Except for the man coming out of the mist at just the right moment, showing me – without even knowing – the right path, I was alone all day. And now, having arrived an hour before sunset, I’m pretty sure I’ll be alone tonight.
Actress Ellen Burstyn said, “What a lovely surprise to finally discover how unlonely being alone can be.”
In the first days of solo hiking, I remember being so afraid when it got dark, I couldn’t close my eyes at night. Naturally I ensure I’m as safe as I can be by carrying a two-way GPS with locator beacon and SOS capability. But it’s not about disappearing, it’s about making my own decisions and trusting myself, enjoying this magical place on my own terms and my own schedule.
The air in this canyon is beginning to chill and it’s time to cuddle in the alicoop. It was a rough day, frustrating and long, but here, dirty and damp, I’m rewarded with the final rays of the sun on virgin forest across the river, its susurrant whisper a kind of bush berceuse.
It was an awesome night, even if my clothes never quite dried out. I linger for breakfast and use the poop shovel before heading back on the messy nightmare of trail, climbing over fallen trees on steep black clay, maybe bit less slippery since there was no rain last night.
My shoes are starting to shred and I have a hole in one of my socks, but I’m saving the dry pair for camp and sand fly protection
I feel like the star of a reality show carefully progressing on a crumbling balance-beam of a walking trail when added to the mix are thorns; big, juicy, grabby, shred-the-shirt-and-draw-blood thorns.
And just like that, I’m kicked out on a pasture, where kind souls offer an alternative to the briar path in mincing steps on a downed tree over the river. Back in the forest this time of pine and eucalyptus interspersed with dreadlocked palm, the rain a curtain outside of tall slender trunks.
I crawl through the understory in a tunnel of gorse, another well-intentioned transplant from the Old World that found no competition and steadily spread in an ugly, tangle of sharp edges.
I come upon a superb campsite – with shelter, water, even a clothesline. I sit at a picnic table with lunch and wonder if it’s too early to stop at 10 am. Now the trail is a country road and I feel like a little wind-up walking machine, the breeze drying my pants and my dampened spirits.
I stop a farmer in a huge truck loaded with sheep. “Your dog!” I yell seeing a wee head pop out from under the wheels. It turns out his animal is snug in his little house under there, right where he belongs. The farmer smiles, thanking me anyway, then offers me a ride, but I am happy to keep walking as the rain lets up and it should be easy now to a small turnout in the road ten miles or so ahead.
As I continue, I feel drips of water on the back of legs. Oh, man, I must have sprung a leak in my water bag. It seems everything is breaking down – shoes, socks, my phone which I dropped on a rock causing a spider web of cracks, my pot cozy hanging on with just one thin shred of tape, and now my water bag – am I next?
The trail notes warn that this road sees very few cars, a hiker underscoring the fact writing “zilch traffic.” I probably should have accepted that ride offered by the farmer with the sheep and dog. Just then, a truck appears and I wave him down. I tell him about my predicament with my water bag and ask if maybe he has some duct tape with him.
Allan says he does not have any in the car, but he lives just up the road and will head home and grab some and meet me back on the road. I follow him slowly as he drives ahead and wonder if maybe it might be nicer to camp here than in the bend in the road, with no water or really anything.
At the mailbox, Allan returns bringing tape but also an empty two-liter coke bottle that might make a more reliable water carrier. I thank him and then make the ask. Might I camp on your lawn tonight?
Maybe it’s because I’m alone or maybe I don’t seem aggressive, who knows, but Alan says c’mon up and I pile into his car with my sticks and pack as he drives to a neat farmhouse where two lambs press up next to a fence, unlike the ones in the field running out of my way any time I approached. Marianne meets us at the door not entirely sure about my being there and asking, “Do you know anything about farm work?”
I assure her I don’t, but I’d love to learn. She takes my dirty clothes and stuffs them in the wash, giving me something else to wear along with a pair of Wellingtons, a warm coat and work gloves. Allan and I head out on the Polaris, picking up two dogs from their kennel, lovingly called the hotel.
Finn is a huntaway, a muscular dog with a loud bark and fast running speed. Karen is a heading or eye dog, shorter and more at eye-level with the sheep, moving them with a bit less bombast and bit more finesse. These two absolutely live for farm work, running alongside us as we navigate up and down the huge spread of green hills. With one signal, Finn is off, corralling the sheep to a new pasture. He works so hard without letting up, he finally needs a little cooling off in a nearby trough.
My job today on the farm is simply to open gates, then close them after Allan drives the Polaris through.
Allan assures me I’m helping and “earning” my stay. I really like him. He’s gentle and answers all my questions, telling me that merino sheep live on the south island only and that these kind of sheep are raised to eat, not for their wool. But, they still need to be sheared and it’s just a break even with hiring shearers and selling the coarse wool.
I learn that paddocks are a more recent idea in New Zealand, to rotate the grasses being chewed. I learn most New Zealand beef – they raise cattle too – are grass fed. And I learn yearlings need molasses in big tubs.
Back at the house, Marianne hands me my clean clothes and tells me to get a shower and plan to stay in their caravan. She then asks if I eat meat and to plan to eat dinner with them. Allan tells me they’ve lived here sixteen years and are very involved volunteering in their community.
Marianne and I connect deeply in a kind of unspoken way. She’s my age, but using a walker and I know she must be suffering from arthritis like me. She pulls out a photo album. On one page are pictures showing a helicopter delivering building materials. Another is from their animal cam showing two possums deciding who will go first into the trap. I tell her how difficult and frustrating I find the trail and she shares that no one is really in charge, so parts like the reserve are not maintained.
I also tell her I came to see what would happen to my mind, body and spirit on a thru-hike and that I feel like cheating a little asking to stay the night when I really ought to just camp outside. She brushes that concern aside and tells me I’m still walking every step, and I did spend last night all alone in the bush.
I head into the caravan just as the rain returns, pounding hard on the metal roof. I meditate on being alone, how I love it and need it and take pride in it. But also how much I love being brought into this farm family’s life, to bask in their kindness and generosity for just a snapshot in time.
I know we all feel something – a connectedness for sure, but one with a shelf life and not meant to be more than it is. But when I leave the next morning to walk toward Pureora and the Timber Trail, we both have tears in our eyes.
episode 24 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker descends Mount Pirongia on the Te Araroa in a driving rain on an infamously muddy, root-filled trail and works her way to Waitomo, shown generous Kiwi hospitality all along the way.
In this episode:
- Blissful joins eight Te Araroa hikers in a storm for the descent of Mount Pirongia, the highest point in the Waikato region of New Zealand, happy to be sharing the difficulty of deep mud, a trail-as-river and slippery roots.
- Trail angels invite her to use their shower and laundry, and – after asking nicely – invite four solo women to stay inside out of the elements.
- The next day is wet and muddy across sheep pastures and bush, but when she gets lost, it leads to an easy crossing of the rain-swollen Moakurarua Stream.
- The Hamilton Tomo Caving Club invite her to use their group hut facilities before she takes in the famous Waitomo Caves to see glowworms like constellations on the limestone walls.
- While she understands that generosity can be its own reward, that doesn’t explain the tremendous kindness she’s benefited from and she leaves a nice koha (or donation) for the trail angels she’s met.
MUSIC Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino, Suite Argentina by Horacio Salgán and Soliloquy by Bernard Rogers as played by Alison Young, flute.
available on iTunes
The rain lashed at the windows all night, the wind shaking Pahautea Hut with a kind of anxious grip, but I’m snuggled in my bunk, warm and dry. This is my first hut stay on the Te Araroa, atop Mount Pirongia in the North Island of New Zealand and I’m grateful it’s here for my use.
The trail notes tell me “It is generally a good idea to stay overnight in this hut and continue south the following day.” That’s because fierce weather changes are notorious atop this extinct volcano, 3000 feet above the Waikato River plain below and the tallest mountain in the region.
There’s discussion amongst the nine of us TA walkers of staying put at the hut until it passes. Part of the reason, surely, is because we’re disappointed we have no view from our aerie perch except for the flowering Alpine Ti Kouka, shaking in the storm like a bouquet of Sideshow Bobs.
And isn’t that just the way it goes? We work hard to get to our goal of the summit and then come up short through no fault of our own, learning we have to make the best of things.
But that is not going to be easy. This weather system is forecasted to bring rain for days and to get off Mt. Pirongia is the hardest part of this trail. It’s only five kilometers, but so full of ups and downs over a tangle of Tawa roots and epic mud, it takes most people five hours to descend.
That thought alone makes me want to snuggle right back into my bunk.
It soon becomes obvious it’s just not going to be possible to wait out this weather system. I make it a bit of a mission, maybe selfishly, to convince those wavering that it might be more prudent to push on mostly because I’m not sure I want to go out in this all by myself.
We gather in the mudroom and put on our still damp shoes and socks, our raincoats and pants feeling a bit thin against the elements.
The Austrian man tells me he needs to hike every step of the trail to stay “in his head” and because he desperately needs a break from life. Others, too, say that they need to walk alone. I’m amazed that I share this need with them and I’m not all that weird. I teach them a few useful English words like ‘fearless’ and ‘intrepid’ as we head out singing the Ode to Joy.
Pirongia is one of the mountains of New Zealand associated in Maori lore with the patupairehe. These were fair-skinned supernatural beings living in the misty tops of mountains and were hostile to any intruders. It’s said that you know you’re near one, when you hear a kind of ghostly flute sound – all I hear now is rain lashing sideways as we quickly run up the beautifully built Noel Sandford boardwalk to Hihikiwi Peak, totally shrouded in mist.
The boardwalk stops just below the summit, delivering us in to the worst mud of my life, living up to its reputation. Pirongia in Maori means “like a bad smell” though I would characterize more as “like a bad (and endless) squish.” I have to admit, the first hour has the feeling of an adventure. We laugh as ‘fresh mud’ seeps into our shoes and oozes out our socks. It’s a challenge to stay upright as the muds gets deeper, the roots a maze, and the trail goes right back up steeply several times before heading down for good.
The rain gets heavier and the trail goes on and on, seemingly without end. I need my sticks and then need my hands up and over a rocky section. Our group begins to splinter as the Swiss boys and Austrian race ahead, the girls lagging behind and Floris and Marjelein and me pushing on. They’re wearing rain kilts and seem to be perfectly happy in this muck as my spirit starts to waver.
I think I’ve got this, but maybe I don’t. The mud above my ankles becomes mud above my knees. The rain hits my face sideways in waves and fills every inch of the trail, becoming a fast moving coffee-colored stream. Vines grab at my shoes, I drop a hiking pole in the mud and fall. Twice.
We’re all trail fit and move faster than estimated, but it’s still a long, frustrating and cold morning. When I finally reach stairs and move down fast, I’m shivering. They end at an empty road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
The men are gone, maybe having hitched a ride. The trail notes mention a man named Michael who lives about 10 kilometers away and allows hikers to camp on his lawn. Floris and Marjolein decide to wait for a hitch as the three solo women arrive and we move on towards Michael’s in a quartet of misery.
Walking on road has its perks as we stretch our legs in long strides. Absolutely silent, desperate and driven, we march along, the rain letting up for just a moment, even the sun peaking out, though not long enough to dry our clothes or spirits before it pours again.
We never find the elusive Michael. Instead, it’s Jon and Casey who arrive at the driveway with their Christmas tree just as we walk up and spy the universal camping and shower symbol nailed to a post above their mailbox.
They invite us to take over a covered porch and use the shower off their garage, our clothes, one shared load of laundry. Clean and dry, we cook meals as the rain pounds on the roof. A bit confused how things work, I wonder if I – we– are intrepid enough to sleep on the floor in this garage in this non-stop, cold rain?
We debate about what to do. Chloe wants to hitchhike to the next town, Vera is put off that they don’t invite us inside and Eline says she’ll make do. So it’s left to me – and I head inside the rambling farmhouse, snug and warm, the Christmas tree up now, lights and decorations ready to hang.
Can you, maybe. I mean, might we – could you allow us, possibly to – well, look, we’re really, really grateful for all your help, but we’re shivering cold. Jon looks at me like I’m a crazy woman and says, of course.
Vera and Elina head upstairs and Chloe and I share a huge bed just off the porch. The feeling of the carpet on my bare feet and the duvet warming my skin is pure heaven, absolute bliss.
I cook up oats on the covered porch as the rain gives way to mist. The girls plan to leave later than me and it will be a solo walk to Waitomo. Jon joins us in a bathrobe, rolling a cigarette and telling us how he ended up here from England. The trail notes warn me never to cross swollen rivers, then describes one that in “normal” conditions is knee-high. I ask Jon about the Moakurarua Stream, but he seems sanguine on the subject and urges me on with the advice not to do anything stupid.
It’s humid and warmer off the mountain. The sun peaks out for ten seconds over a hilly area of soft grass, nibbled low by sheep who watch me warily. The hills sweep away, terraced by many hooves. It’s clear below the cloud in the distance. Small windows of fields in bright green folds open up just as I reach…mud – so far, manageable.
I head back into bush, the trail a slow moving stream. Yesterday I managed the mud by telling myself that I’m warm and moving ok and this won’t last. The New Zealand grey warbler is a constant companion, its song sounding much like its Maori name riroriro. A tui sings a broken cuckoo clock tune right next to me as droplets tap at the ground from wet palms. Real mud returns at the Oamaru Reserve and I put on a good attitude to plow through. The trail notes tell me the part getting out of here on a downhill slope can be quite awful when wet. I try not to think about it too much since I’m not there yet.
I exit the bush into farmland, hills dotted with palms and rimu rise one after another towards Pirongia, poking its shy face out of shifting cloud. A lovely Kiwi without teeth arrives on a four wheeler, his working dog on board. He offers me a cuppa up at his house, and I thank him saying I’d rather move on before it rains harder. Later his eleven-year-old grandson passes me on the road driving the family car.
I hop the fence and it’s cross-country with the very vocal sheep. The land is a rollercoaster of steep ups and downs along the fence line. I’m below the cloud and can see into the valley far below, unusual rock outcroppings scattered amidst golf-course quality grass.
Another squall heads towards me making a huge, long, magnificent roll of thunder and I get totally off trail. It seems there’s an old Te Araroa trail through here. I do my best to contour and meet the correct trail, but that would take me into nearly impenetrable bush. So, I make up my own trail, triangulating towards the right one.
The clouds build and more thunder crackles but it’s far to the west, and this countryside looks like Middle Earth. The rock pressed in odd layers as if made by hand. I meet a trail near the dreaded Moakurarua Stream and find a spot to cross with water just past my knees. Two Kiwis in matching dredlocks walking the softest dog imaginable tell me it’s all downhill now.
Just outside of Waitomo is the Hamilton Tomo Caving Club’s group hut and I reach it as a group of spelunkers from Kaitaia College show up. They invite me to camp on the lawn and use the facilities while I’m here. Their leader, Dave, offers to keep an eye on my gear so I can head into the village to do one touristy thing.
I purchase a ticket to visit the Waitomo caves and see the famous glowworms. Even the Queen came here, so I’m in good company. I’m joined by a group of Chinese tourists who don’t really get most of the guide’s groan-worthy jokes.
We take a boat ride, my neck craning back as if viewing the Sistine chapel to marvel at the Christmas lights of bugs, little constellations – of maggot poop – their light attracting hatching flies believing it’s an exit to the sky, when in fact, it’s a sticky fishing line.
Earlier, the guide took us to the ‘cathedral,’ a large space of thirty-five million-year-old limestone stalagmites and stalactites in obscene shapes. To show off the acoustics, he asks if any of us sing and my hand shoots up followed by an a cappella rendition of ‘Hark, the herald angels sing.’ None of the Chinese tourists know quite what to do, so they simply clap in time to the chorus.
I hitch a ride back up the hill to the hut with a Kiwi named Rocky. As I enter his car, he immediately offers me a beer. Someone’s answering my prayer!
In the alicoop now, the rain starts up again in earnest and I think about the power of being with a group coming off Pirongia, the safety in numbers, and the comfort knowing we were all taking the same steps. I also think of how much I loved hiking alone today, not sure how I’d get across a swollen stream and that maybe, by getting lost, I actually placed myself in a better spot to cross it.
And then I think about Amanda Palmer and her book about asking for help. “Asking for help with shame says you have the power over me. Asking with condescension says I have the power over you. But asking for help with gratitude says we have the power to help each other.
I can’t say how I’ll help Jon and Casey or the Hamilton Tomo Caving Club, since it was their generosity helping me out. Though there is a ton of research about how generosity actually benefits the giver, sometimes more so than the receiver, activating a portion of the brain called the ventral striatum, giving people a feeling of satisfaction and happiness when they’re generous.
But that doesn’t exactly explain why the Kiwis I’ve met in the last few days were so hospitable. Maybe it’s just in their nature.
That being said, I leave a nice bit of koha – the Maori word for donation – for both my hosts.
episode 23 show notes ‘n transcript
Two mountains bookend Blissful Hiker‘s walk of the Te Araroa in the Waikato Region of New Zealand’s North Island – the Hakarimata Range and Mount Pirongia, and she discovers that a hiker is both spectator and participant.
In this episode:
- Blissful walks over slippery roots and deep pools of mud to reach the Hakarimata Trig before running down hundreds of stairs.
- It’s an easy walk to Hamilton where Blissful meets Irene, her partner from the first days of the Te Araroa, then another easy walk to Whatawhata, where she uses up all the good weather and faces a big challenge in rain.
- It’s a long walk over farmland and up on the Kapamahunga Range, then on to the giant extinct volcano, Mount Pirongia.
- In a storm, friends from around the world await at the Pahautea Hut on the summit, and she learns that she “actuates” her hike – and life – in every decision she makes.
MUSIC Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
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BACKCOUNTRY FOODIE A partner in healthy, ultralight and inexpensive thru-hiker meal planning, Backcountry Foodie is a game changer!
The air feels electric today, threatening gray clouds hang just above the long blue hump of the Hakarimata Range in the distance, a range I crossed two days ago. The farmer who owns this field locked the gate with a strong padlock so I’m forced to climb over into a field of black cow and ivory sheep, complaining bleats and moos in all timbers. A lot of drama on the farm today.
There are no orange triangles showing me the way in this part of the Te Araroa, but I move quickly over short grass, eaten all the way down to the ground and pass weird stacks-of-pancakes shaped rocks.
This is the Kapamahunga Range, more of a plateau high above Hamilton and the Waikato River where I spent time with Irene, the friend who hiked the first week on the TA with me.
It’s not the best day to be out, nor the best to traverse the highest peak in the area, one that sees wild and rapid weather changes.
I hop over a poorly constructed stile directly into sheep poo central, a bit leery that maybe I’ve come upon yet another diversion for the sake of ‘adventure.’ When I expressed frustration for the track standard to Bindie, Irene’s husband, he suggested we rename the nasty bits of the Te Aroroa to give ourselves a more substantial sense of accomplishment. Names like ‘Road Warrior Way’ or ‘The Temple of Doom’.
This section is more “Slip, Tumble and Slide” as I squish through muck of mixed origin hoping I can climb to the 3,000 foot summit where my first backcountry hut in New Zealand awaits me. And just like that, a ridge in the distance appears and under a tablecloth of mist is Mount Pirongia. Mount Pirongia nagged at me over the weeks it would take to walk deep into the center of the North Island, ever since Irene and I walked the Raetea Forest on day 5 – some of the worst mud I’d ever waded through in my life and all on steep inclines. We had a sunny day nearly five months ago when Irene told me this was amateur compared to the mire that awaited me on Pirongia.
I would visit Irene after spending the night alone up in the Hakarimata Range, muddy bush dotted with Rimu and Kauri and its fair share of long, exposed arms of slippery roots amidst mud puddles. An overgrown tangle of dew-heavy plants whip at me, even gorse scratches across my face, the odd spider web sticking to my eyelashes. A tui greets the morning and I wonder if Messiaen knew their oddball robotic song – squawk, flute, computer.
I reach the trig and it’s crowded with chuffed – and spotlessly clean – runners, because on this side, it’s stairs all the way down. I do what any self-respecting thru-hiker would do – I run, 373 meters to the bottom.
I stop long enough to read a sign with a quote from Fred deVito, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you,” just as a sweaty Kiwi in a Houston Rockets T passes me asking if I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy. He tells me he’s walking the TA bit by bit to get in shape and has lost over 100 pounds. “Kia Kaha!” I tell him – be strong!
The mud dries to my pants and shoes on the ten miles of easy tramping to Hamilton along the Te Awa Cycleway. I cross a stunning green suspension bridge and meet a kiwi spraying gorse, an invasive introduced from Scotland.
In town, Irene picks up my filthy self and takes me to their gorgeous farm on the outskirts of town, promising me beer, a hot tub, ice cream, dinner, laundry, and conversation – in no particular order.
In a lull, I read a note from a follower named Tom who tells me, “You and your hiking odysseys personify today’s word.”
The word is ‘actuate,’ To put into motion or action; to activate; to motivate. [to hike] Tom’s message goes on to quote New Zealand poet Lauris Edmond.
“It’s true you can’t live here by chance, you have to do and be, not simply watch or even describe. This is the city of action, the world headquarters of the verb.” Edmond lived in Wellington, NZ, but any place can be your own headquarters of the verb. It has to be. There’s no other choice — life is not about being a spectator but a participator.
I guess I have actuated some things thus far, not just in having the vision to head out on this walk of a country, and the requisite planning, but also the little things like what I’ll carry from town and how far I’ll go each day – and today, it won’t be far.
The cows have moved this morning and are grazing literally in Irene and Bindie’s backyard. I strip down and take a soak in the hot tub, the sky a watercolor brush of grays and blues.
A sale is on in town at the tramping store and I purchase a merino T-shirt, one that won’t carry odors. Irene eats way smarter than I while hiking advises me at the local Countdown, organizing in little packets, nutritional yeast, LSA power-blend and protein powder, along with tuna, couscous and mash.
Hamilton industry gives way quickly to countryside, where I pass the 800 kilometer mark from Cape Reinga (just about 500 miles) Someone has helpfully whited out one zero, but leaves “Bluff this way, only 2200 kilometers” intact.
It’s hot in this bowl between mountains. New Zealand lives under a hole in the ozone and that explains my long sleeves, trousers and hat for protection. I look longingly at the trees in Taitua arboretum, its air conditioned cool already reaching me. The park is filled with roosters, their crows echoing up and down the winding tree-lined paths and I get a little lost.
The trail cuts into an easement between two fields, overgrown with huge spiky arms snaking through the fence to snag. Black clouds build on the mountains, more mud in the making. Beautiful countryside but hard walking the chewed up path of thousands of cow hooves.
Santana is cranked at the Backyard Bar and Eatery in Whatawhata, located in a tiny triangle of commerce where several busy roads meet. I order a beer from the barkeep, who invites me to set up the alicoop next to the sound stage. “We’re not allowed to have you camp here,” she tells me. “But we do it anyway because we like to know you guys are safe.” A tattooed couple – one, purple hair and halter top, the other long gray ponytail, beard – wave as I set up my tent, and soon we’re sharing a few beers and solving all the world’s problems.
As the sun sets, things wind down, revelers needing to get home to make dinner. I share my Facebook handle with my new friends and promise to keep in touch before I crawl into the alicoop to rest up tomorrow’s big climb.
What a fantastic place to sleep at the Backyard Bar in Whatawhata, dead quiet until about 4 am when the trucks revved up again in this safe, grassy nook between highways.
We toasted to birthdays last night – mine is actually in two weeks but everyone got special treatment. What a sunny, warm and carefree day it was. In stark contrast to this gray, drizzly morning.
Five minutes in and the orange triangular markers lead to a dead end. But I spot Tracy ahead as she ducks into a cutoff in deep grass. Within seconds, I’m up to my knees in a swamp, nettles sting and I move like a sloth. A farmer’s field is blocked by an electric fence and a nearly impassible stile spills me out to a road.
Sheep graze on the oddly treeless, humpy hills. A couple of chatty cyclists pass me in slow motion; a trail runner, all smiles, comes downhill in pinks and purples. I think of a comment I received in the Lake District at a summit in a complete whiteout. “If you wait for the rain to stop, you’d never go out.”
A cow, a horse and a goat follow me along the fence – and their pal the pony comes round too just to say ‘hi.’ Birds with dandelion-yellow heads flit forward on post after post as I approach. A pond ribbits as one organism and a big gust sends several honeybees right at my face. Fortunately, I keep my mouth closed.
In an instant, I’m back in bush and scare off a trio of parrots – rear ends in red, blue, and fluorescent green. At the next junction there’s no sign and I feel like an idiot trying to figure out where to go. It certainly proves the argument that tramping signs are erected by non-trampers.
Far ahead, I see a bit of orange on a fence and head for it, finally entering Pirongia Forest Park. Well, here I am at the base of that massive extinct volcano, and the tallest mountain in this region, a mountain that’s been hounding me since the beginning.
At first things are easy next to Kāniwhaniwha stream in a forest filled with birds.
I take a detour to a rustic campground for lunch and meet a Kiwi who built the boardwalk and tower on the mountain. He gives me a blow-by-blow of what to expect, saying, “Everyone complains about the mud, we had to build something.” But warns me the boardwalks don’t exactly cover the entire track.
He also mentions a huge storm is blowing in tonight. Staying at a hut on the summit sure sounds nice right now.
There’s something of life in backpacking. You’re never entirely sure what’s ahead. Of course you can read blogs and do your research, but to know just the right site in which to set camp is usually a mystery. Do I camp here and wait out the storm or do I climb the mountain now in mist and gray skies?
That type of a question is one I often wrestle with. And even once I decide to stay put somewhere, I find I have to turn off that nagging wondering if I’m missing out on something better.
American artist Mary Caroline Richards said, “Let no one be deluded that a knowledge of the path can substitute for putting one foot in front of the other.”
I’m going to have to climb this mountain one way of another and the weather is only going to get worse. Besides, it’s only 2:00 and the trail notes tell me it shouldn’t take more than 4-5 hours.
Better get crackin!
I head back into to bush on the Tahuanui Track, dark already in the gloom, the wind swaying the canopy of Tawa. I get lost momentarily down a rough path of overgrown fern, but doubleback, walking now with more vigilance. So far, it’s a super-highway, but the friendly trail worker assured me the worst of the mud is just below the summit and my pace slows to a crawl.
I get one view out toward folds of Kaikawaka-covered mountains, the mist a heavy gray blanket. No wonder the kamahi trees wear moss like a goblin forest.
Boardwalks appear on a ridge and I understand now what he meant by ‘not covering the track.’ Built like boxes with chicken wire to keep trampers from slipping, they work well for the 10 feet they cover, keeping me out of the epic mud before redelivery.
Suddenly, it’s a super speedway to the summit at 959 meters, but absolutely no view. It’s cold and so I squish down to the Pahautea Hut, my poles sinking in an arm’s length.
Rain lashes the windows, pattering loudly on the metal roof and I enter first a mudroom for my wet gear and then a large common area lit by candlelight. Eight people bundled up in down coats are already here surprised to see me this late in the day and all by myself. Most I’ve met – the two Swiss boys who taught me the importance of Znuipauses along with a Swiss woman named Chloe, the Dutch couple Floris and Marjolein I kayaked with back in Northland, beautiful Vera and Elina, plus a chatty Austrian with hair so blond it’s nearly white.
We laugh, share stories and even sing a little before choosing our bunks, mine next to the window and a “view” of one Dr. Seussian Tawari shaking in the wind.
It’s still light, but I begin to fade quickly and think on something a follower sent me earlier this week, writing, “As the old rock and roll poet once advised, “Keep on walkin’, don’t look back”. That said, I will borrow this thought from Alcoholics Anonymous: during a long, tough, steep, mountainous climb, it is alright, once in a great while, to turn around and look back, just to see how far you have come. Then, get on with it.”
What a great few days walking from one mountain range to the next, deciding to just to forge ahead even as the weather moved in. I suppose I could have pushed harder in order to place myself at Pirongia’s summit in beautiful weather, but that would have meant missing out in a different way, possibly not seeing friends in Hamilton or camping at the Backyard Bar and mingling with the locals.
Walking long distance trail allows us to be both spectator and participant as the world moves by at a walking pace. I had good weather and bad weather, I had decent track and horrible track and if I actuated anything in these past days, it was to make a choice to act with conviction and confidence, and maybe even a bit of faith that at the top of the mountain, there’d be a gang of really nice people seemingly waiting for me to arrive.
episode 22 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker is back on New Zealand’s Te Araroa walking through the Waikato Region in the center of the North Island. She learns to face her fear – as well as ambivalence and irritation – and muscle through the bad parts so she can be open to surprise.
In this episode:
- Blissful skips a trail detour and starts her hike in muddy wetlands and electric-fenced pastureland.
- She arranges for a whole group to camp at Cathy’s Pies and learns that whatever answers she’s looking for on the trail, is likely already inside her.
- Her hiking friends share many of her same feelings about the trail and remind her this is all building “character.”
- Once she moves past fear and gets her rhythm, she camps alone high up in the Hakarimata Range with an incredible sunset and a morepork (owl) for company.
KULA CLOTH “pee rag”! Intentionally designed for all the places you ‘go,’ the Kula Cloth is one of the most important pieces of gear a women should have attached to her pack.
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MUSIC: Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
The sun is out this morning as I return to the trail alone working my way down the center of New Zealand’s North Island. The trail notes tell me it’s easy tramping for the coming days, mostly on a river walk, but it’s been raining so much, it’s more of a hellscape of overgrown grass soaking me to the skin, their tiny seeds clinging to my pants, slippery mud ascents and descents, and bogs up to my knees.
And look here, storm clouds are building. They’re huge, gray and white puffballs and beautiful in a certain kind of way, but my mind is totally focused on hard and slow walking.
I’m nervous getting back on the trail. I bought way too much food and the next section requires carrying water – which adds more than two pounds per liter. What makes me so nervous? The unknown, my abilities, getting lost or hurt?
It’s funny though, how anticipation builds the fear and moving focuses the mind.
I’ve entered a region called The Waikato, named for New Zealand’s longest river. Meaning “flowing water” for the early Māori inhabitants, this fertile land was a source of nourishment and life. They regarded the Waikato as an ancestor, one of “a hundred taniwha – those mythical creatures who live in the deep river pools – every bend a taniwha.”
I’ll walk to its source near Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park, but that’s still a few weeks away and right now, I’m in the thick of it, heading steeply up an overgrown hill to Whangamarino redoubt, high above the river. You can see why there was a major battle here due to the good sight lines.
But then it’s all doubling back confusion because the TA signs are invariably placed after the turn. I walk under graffitied bridges, a homeless man sleeps in his car next to a rotting possum. I wonder about my sanity walking this trail. My GPS says I am on the route, but it’s a heinous overgrown shitshow next to the freeway. Do they even want people hiking in their country, I wonder. Feels like a nightmare of tall weeds and loud traffic.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind hard hiking, but this area is overgrown, ugly and dangerous. Perhaps one day of weed whacking, or a reroute not on the central north-south freeway littered with garbage might be a thought. It’s actually insulting how awful this is.
I take a deep breath and stop muttering to myself, remembering how much fun I had in Auckland. I pop open my phone and look at the selfies I took with Sarah and Susie at the top of the Sky Tower, one smiling, the other sticking our tongues out for a haka.
Because of storm damage and kauri die-back, the Hunua Ranges Regional Park just north of where I am now – one of high ridge lines, waterfalls, and native forest – is closed. The TA trail has been rerouted through suburbs. When Susie offered to drive me past this 30-kilometer road-walk, I quickly agreed – even though I really wanted to walk every step of the Te Araroa.
I guess it’s not just fear, nervousness and irritation I’m managing this morning. It’s also ambivalence.
And then, just like that, a trail turns into the countryside – with terrific signage. I struggle to open a gate and give myself a shock. Dammit! No touching the fences. They’re electrified!
I spy a farmhouse just in case this storm building in front of me hits. And right on cue it begins to thunder. I see a minefield of electric fences one after another along my path. Some are so high, I throw my pack over and try not to roll in sheep poo while shimmying under. Some too low, I straddle them very carefully, missing the skin and not touching with my sticks.
At a sprawling tree, I make a wrap with meat and cheese, sitting against the trunk to keep my pack out of the cow pies. The trail is quiet, solitary, next to the Waikato River. A few raindrops hit me, but it’s mostly birds and sunshine now.
A Polish couple arrives just as I finish, so I share a ginger candy and give them the tree. The trail leaves cows and heads right to the grassy riverbank making me think of the cult film “Night of the Hunter” when the children escape Robert Mitchum down the Ohio River.
It’s back to uneven muddy walking, yellow irises above my head centimeters from another shock as I follow the fence-line. But the puffy cumulus sail by without letting go off their wet cargo, tiny lizards scurry out of the way from my foot fall.
A grassy area opens up and I walk without needing to look down at my feet. And suddenly, it’s sublime. I’m walking through the New Zealand Game Bird Habitat Trust Wetland Project. Bulky willows kiss the water’s edge; a shady cottonwood crackles with the breeze.
It’s still a long way but it’s easy on an empty road, an entire avenue of cottonwoods wave in the breeze, seeming to cheer me on. In no time, I’m in Rangariri with people I haven’t met yet – Dutch and Swiss– sitting around an octagonal picnic table at the local pub. The trail notes are a bit off in that there is no camping at the pub, so we order drinks and try to figure out next steps.
Another option is Cathy’s Pie Shop, but it’s closed. The solo Dutch tramper, Vera, hands me her phone I guess assuming my English is better – but maybe more so that I might talk our way into camping somewhere.
Cathy answers on the first ring, and it works. She invites us to set up on her lawn and will have pies ready for breakfast in the morning. The two Polish trampers join us and we’re an army of tents and drying clothes on the line.
My dinner choice is a total disaster. The vermicelli feels like nylon twine and the spices are extremely hot. We share a laugh and commiserate on the frustrations of today. I am surprised and delighted to be ‘normal.’
The entire sky is pink and I put on my orange puffy just as Cathy offers me a glass of wine.
I slept well behind Cathy’s Pie Shop in Rangariri even though we shared nearly an entire bottle of chardonnay. She’s a well off Kiwi who lost most of her wealth, but has found her own ‘trail’ after leaving a cheating husband and buying up property to rent.
And she is fascinated by us trail walkers, ones she describes as looking for answers as we walk day after day. What is it I’m seeking? I tell her mostly I feel nervous about the future – and ambivalence about walking every step.
Cathy has this way of making me feel like everything is going to work out and that – like Dorothy – the answers are probably already inside me.
Breakfast is steak pie with hot chocolate and steamed milk. The morning is cool, the fog lifting on the Waikato River. Rain is forecasted in this, the wettest region of the North Island. Irene told me to prepare my self for the upcoming forests, which make Raetea look like a walk in the park.
Right now, the trail is road walk, all the way to Huntly. I suppose I could walk in the fields but it’s really wet and bumpy. The Swiss catch up to me and pull me off the road into the wet grass and the proper trail, and I’m surprised it’s bliss for the feet. I whistle a little bit of the Saint Paul Suite by Gustav Holst and one of the boys joins in.
The other is silent in his Vikings cap, saying he likes the idea of football. And just like that, they stop telling me it’s 9 am, time for a Znünipause, time for a mid-morning pause – even if we’ve only gone a little over three kilometers.
Not really needing a Znünipause, I head on with Cyril telling me “The Te Araroa is not for fun. It is for the character.”
Ahead is beautiful grass and loads of camping under huge magnolia trees – I’m really beginning to think like a thru-hiker. No camping allowed here, though. This is a golf course. Up ahead are mountains, frothy cotton candy clouds pasted to the summits. Before them the massive twin towers of Huntly’s power station.
I told Cathy last night that the first month of this tramp pulled out all the emotions, the old gunk of the past that I needed to deal with. It feels now after some of the dark corners have been scoured of their cobweb, as if this second month is about discovering who I am and deciphering what exactly I’d like to bring into my space.
On the edge of town, I stop at a dairy, or convenience store, to purchase a Jolly soda. It tastes like hard candy. Maybe I’ll take another for the road.
Huntly is busy with trucks hauling two separate quarry cargoes. Houses press in right up on the main drag; wild roses, junked cars and lawn ornaments commingling. Two friendly Kiwis stop to talk with me.
Everyone I shared camp with last night plans to cross the Tainui Bridge, a 7-span bowstring-arch over the Waikato River, and get some real food. But I’m finding my stride and feeling the nerves, the fear, even the ambivalence beginning to wane.
It’s funny how once I move, I care less about the unknown. I seem to reside in the present moment and allow the future to take care of itself. If I keep following this sidewalk, which soon turns into road, the future will include entering the Hakarimata Reserve. It’s easy at first, up stairs into the bush and I stop for lunch at a giant 1,000 year old kauri that somehow escaped the ax. I learn only redwoods have trunks this massive, that this tree is as old as the dinosaurs and its resin was prized for making jewelry, right as I back into it for a little a resin sample on my shirt.
About twenty raindrops hit me. If the weatherman says 60% chance of rain, did that count? A giant rimu peaks out from the Kauri grove, gnarly and shaggy, taller and more slender. Captain Cook made beer from the Rimu’s bitter gum.
At the first lookout looking towards the river valley and rain in the distance, I leave the easy track behind for steeper-than-you-can-believe ups and down over roots and mud. I think of my friend Brenda when we hiked the Border Route wishing for ‘100 feet of joy.’ But I’m a professional at this now and move fast.
And it’s a wonderful feeling, almost out of body. My mind totally focused but my legs and arms floating over obstacles like someone else is pulling the strings to make me move.
I lose the GPS briefly likely due to the thick tree canopy and heavy clouds. It’s weird not knowing where you are, though there is only one path and I’m all alone. And I do know where I am. I’m here.
It’s more up and down on thick roots through the bush to a second lookout and finally a sort of wide grassy spot where I pick up the GPS signal again. I can see it’s not far at all to the summit and its lookout tower, maybe an hour, but I decide I’ve gone far enough for today and I’ll camp right here.
Writer Judy Blume said “Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it.”
Yesterday, I cursed the boggy trail and then cried after getting shocked by the multitude of electric fences. Cathy, the Swiss boys and the camaraderie of our tent city in such contrast to sleeping here all by myself gave me strength and courage to press on and by curious rather than anxious. I learned that grass walking is more fun than road walking, that eating an entire bag of candy per day on a thru-hike is the normal thing to do, that falling in the mud is not a sign of weakness and that every step takes me to something new.
Maybe when everything isn’t absolute bliss, that’s ok, because it won’t last. I was afraid starting this next section, but it turns out I had it in me to figure things out and deal with the less pleasant portions of the trail.
And as I sit on my mat looking out on fields and hills, a few tree ferns framing the view, the sky turns orange-pink, the clouds a deep lilac, as a morepork sings me to sleep.
episode 21 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker is back on New Zealand’s Te Araroa thru-hike, “slackpacking” through Auckland then celebrating Thanksgiving with her Kiwi hosts, discovering she has a lot to be grateful for.
In this episode:
- “Slackpacking” means hiking on a thru-hike with only what’s needed for the day, leaving overnight gear at a friend’s where the hiker sleeps.
- Blissful hikes in rain and sunshine through parks, up blown out volcanoes, into museums and along busy roads.
- She learns about another hiker dying on the trail and considers how easy it is to make a dumb decision, wondering if risking everything to come on this hike was a good one.
- And at a Thanksgiving meal she realizes she feels gratitude for her decision, dumb or not.
MUSIC: Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
It’s raining. A lot. And expected to all day long – with a little lightning on the side.
But I have good rain gear – and I’m only slackpacking my way through Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.
Slackpacking has that word “slack” in it – as in slacking off. That’s just about right. I’m walking the Te Araroa “trail” but using far less energy because I left most of my things – my tent, my sleeping bag, stove and fuel – with my hosts. I’ll walk as far as I can over the next three days and then get to sleep in a bed at night, eating a proper meal sitting in a chair at a table.
In fact, it’s Thanksgiving and I’ll be celebrating in Kiwi style with my hosts.
There’s a lot to be thankful for – their hospitality for one, but also all the lucky, serendipitous, accidents of fate that have happened in this first month of my first thru-hike.
Come along now on my walk through Auckland, where for two solid days, it’s been pouring rain. It’s not cold as I enter Cornwall Park and duck into the Acacia cottage built by an influential settler. For a moment I feel like these people, happy to have a solid roof over my head against the elements.
It’s definitely a full-on case of ‘because it is there’ as I summit the volcanic cone, of One Tree Hill, so named after a settler chopped down a sacred tree to the local Maori. I’m in almost complete whiteout, though not alone as a few runners and old folks with walking sticks touch the top before heading right back down.
There are more cottages to visit in Jellicoe Park, one a scavenger’s dream in piles of junk including five vintage vacuum cleaners, a collection of ‘cocks, taps and valves’ and an organ with sheet music for Christmas in New Zealand with no snow or wooly hats. I’m told the owner’s wife warned her collector husband if he brought home any more, they’d need a bigger house.
Through the tiny pocket of Taumanu reserve I meet two Americans also walking the trail in small bites, one of whom you’ll meet much later in the story.
I stop at a fruit and vege though at this point all I want to eat is junk food. Two friends-of-friends, Paula and Mike meet me to cross Manukau Bay on a pedestrian walkway under the highway better known as “mugger’s alley.” Because the beautiful old Mangere Bridge is sinking into the estuary, we chance our luck on this alternative, moving fast toward Ambury Park, a wide grassy area dotted with sheep oblivious to the inclement weather.
We part at the Insect Garden filled with nettles poisonous to the touch. I continue towards the stinky sewage plant and reclaimed wetlands crowded with black swans and their goslings, swallows diving, and ducks new to me honking crankily. It’s a migratory bird oasis, this combination black sand and oyster shell beach thick with pale pink morning glories, the long grass pressed down in a field of combovers.
And it’s right there that I run into cool the-trail-will-provide Nathan and we walk and talk together on a long road walk to the airport where he’ll spend the night sleeping on a bench. The sky goes black as we part and I seek refuge at the Butterfly Creek children’s party venue just as an evil breeze presses in, lightning and absolute, full-on, no holds barred downpour. But I am totally safe with about thirty screaming children.
The rain lets up and I’m back on a narrow shoulder of road right under the incoming flight path as cars whizz past. At the Puhinui reserve, curious heifers follow me down the trail before I enter my first public toilet in New Zealand. A helpful recorded voice gives me ten minutes alone and if it’s too hard to figure the time, some jazzy Burt Bacharach counts down for me.
It’s office parks, scruffy neighborhoods and finally the botanic gardens filled with Totara and Norfolk Pine, the rain slacking off. Susie and Sarah are waiting for me in their car to take me back to their home in Mount Eden.
On our drive, Susie tells me a tramper died today on the Tongariro Alpine crossing, a part of the trail I’ll come to in another month. The contrast with slackpacking through Auckland with plenty of places to escape the elements and my hosts just a phone call away – couldn’t be more stark.
As Susie speaks, I finger my hut pass in my wallet, the one I purchased for backcountry stays as I move further south in New Zealand. On the front of the pass, there’s a safety code with solid advice: Plan your trip, Tell someone, Be aware of weather, Know your limits, Take sufficient supplies.
The deceased wasn’t a Te Araroa hiker. He did not heed any of that advice and was totally unprepared when the weather turned ugly, splitting up from his group and getting lost.
Once we return, I take a hot shower, fill up on nutritious food and drink a beer that Sarah picked up for me especially knowing how much I crave one after walking. I feel bad for that poor hiker and for his family. He made dumb decisions for sure, but we’re all capable of making dumb decisions and it’s easy to judge clean and dry and safe.
All I can do is take it as a reminder – a kind of warning – to try not to make any of my own dumb decisions. I make a pact with myself to stay alert as I graciously accept one more beer and enjoy the company of my lovely hosts.
It’s Auckland in glorious sunshine. I look more like a tourist than a backpacker as I join a free walking tour and learn of a statue made in the 1960s to honor the Maori, one made by a woman – all sorts of impossible awarenesses converging.
At Queen and Customs Streets, the signal stops all traffic and people casually pour into the street like a slow motion dance choreographed for some in choppy straight lines, others striding diagonally.
Krispy Kreme just opened a café in the Central Business District celebrates with disco blaring and free donuts for everyone in a line snaking out onto the square.
I love Auckland’s walkability and with a visa, I am considered a temporary resident so I can enter the art museum for free housing works by Maori from Aotearoa and Moana.
I’m stopped in my tracks at a mural made by Ralph Hotere. Originally meant for the airport, it’s called Godwit, named for the long billed, long legged wader who fly 7,000 miles non-stop on their annual migrations, the ‘can do and go anywhere’ bird I saw often on my long beach walking. I try to absorb some of that bird’s pluck into my blissful hiking soul.
One hundred women build sand mounds and celebrate creation; regional artists see land as metaphor. Finally it’s a long hallway of extraordinary Maori portraits from the 1870s made by Gottfried Lindauer not from life, but from photographs. The men have rangi pahuri or full-face tattoos, that signify their mana or influence and some are in European dress with handlebar mustaches, although I find the women more powerful with tattoos around their mouths, on their lips and chin.
Up the hill at the Wintergardens I encounter a fragrant and humid world under glass. Massive pitcher plants yawn obscenely yet invitingly to unsuspecting passersby. In the shade, the temperature is mild on the verge of chilly, I sip a green drink and rest my legs. I am actually on the Te Araroa now, but my pack is only carrying my phone charger.
I head into the museum and find an extraordinary exhibit of Maori artifacts including a 25-meter long war canoe made of one totara log. Large figures look on through abalone eyes, most with their tongues stuck out at me.
And then it’s ‘Hot Words, Bold Retorts,’ a celebration of 125 years of women’s suffrage – New Zealand being the first country in the world to give women the vote, but not including any sort of equality for the sexes in the bargain. These were tough broads, one portrait prominently displays a woman from my host’s family.
Upstairs is natural history, giant wingless moa, giant ‘ponderous heavy diving’ penguins, giant ammonite fossils stagger the imagination.
I skip the curiosities of the odd, dusty collections from around the world and head back into the sunshine where the bay greets me turquoise and glistening. Up Mt. Eden the wind dries my sweat. It’s crowded, everyone tippy- tapping on their phones. A blown out volcano, there’s a huge grassy pit in front of the summit marker.
It’s only a few blocks and I’m back at Susie and Mark’s house where they tell me to make myself at home. This Kiwi Thanksgiving potluck meal is not much different from home, though it’s sliced turkey and ham rather than an entire bird, plus salads and potatoes, heaps of deserts and wine.
We gather in the living room, standing in a circle, each taking a few kernels of corn to represent our blessings. As we share our individual thoughts, the themes are similar – we’re grateful for family, for friends, and for being buoyed by the holy spirit.
To top it off, one family friend named Mike offers up a Maori greeting especially for me as a newcomer.
Ellen DeGeneres said, “When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.”
It’s funny writing and voicing this podcast right now as I cross the two-year anniversary of my first steps on the Te Araroa. Facebook sending me “memories” of my thru-hike preparation is mostly how I’m reminded of this fact.
Things didn’t quite work out when I came home after finishing the Te Araroa, and it would be easy to say I made a dumb decision to risk it all just to walk a bunch of roads in the rain and visit a few museums.
As we go around the circle sharing our joys and sorrows, I realize wouldn’t have known any of this at the time. Nor would I know that I’d be where I am today, unable to walk and awaiting two surgeries to fix my deteriorating hips.
But that’s why I went, to walk while I could and live fully with what I had available to me.
It’s interesting that the Maori use the term “sacred feet” to explain a visitor transforming from a stranger to family. My decision to take my feet to a new place was based on wanting to experience it first hand and to know it in as intimate a way as possible.
I’m grateful for that decision to walk the length of an entire country. It was one of the best decisions of my life.
episode 20 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker learns that not knowing what comes next in our lives can be difficult to handle and nearly intolerable. The power is in choosing between accepting limited circumstances with grace.
In this episode:
- Blissful learns her arthritis has progressed the point where she’ll need to have both hips replaced, but that doesn’t stop her from hiking one more short thru-hike at peak autumn colors.
- The Kekekabic is part of the North Country Trail and is the most remote and rugged trails in Minnesota running through boreal forest and the Boundary Waters.
- She takes two big falls, not hurting herself, but realizing her body is breaking down and gets “kekked” (lost) accidentally walking down two portages instead of on the main trail.
- Rain comes and goes the entire way, but crossing the incredible architecture of beaver dams, and witnessing a stunning moonrise make up for it.
MUSIC: Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
What strikes me at first – especially at this time of year in peak fall colors – is how quiet it is. Quiet except for the wind that sets the Aspen leaves quaking, a deep gold against the soft blue sky, gray clouds hanging near the summits, a mosaic of yellow and dark green.
I work my way between a series of lakes – Miner, Bingshik, Honker, Glee, Fay, Warclub – and I momentarily get lost, shooting confidently right down a portage that ends at the water’s edge then having to shoot right back up. When I return to the intersection and see the blue ribbons pointing the way, I realize everything looks the same, making it near impossible to tell which way to go even when I’m pretty sure it’s right. Fortunately I thought to pack a compass and compasses don’t lie, assuring me I’m heading west again.
Established in the 1930s as a route to a fire tower, the Kekekabic Trail – or the “Kek” – is a 41-mile portion of the North Country Trail and runs through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a unique environment of thousands upon thousands of glacier-created lakes deep in the boreal forest.
With the start and end on the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais and off Fernberg Road, near Ely, I put off walking the Kek for years because it’s incredibly inconvenient to get to. Around five hours from my home in Saint Paul, then about a 4 ½ hours drive between trailheads.
Because it’s part of the BW, you need a permit to hike in this wilderness of moose, wolf, bear and beaver habitat and it’s notoriously difficult to follow mostly because its remoteness makes it’s difficult to maintain. After the Keks heyday in the ‘70s, the trail fell into disrepair until volunteers established a club twenty years later. But severe blowdowns as recent as 2016 with 100 mph straight-line winds took down millions of trees and left the trail a jumble of impassible limbs. Only last year was the trail cleared end to end and I feel pretty confident I can manage it – though I’ve got some other issues to manage that could make this short thru-hike a difficult one.
Richard and I drove up to Grand Marais on the North Shore of Lake Superior in bumper-to-bumper leaf peeping traffic only made more annoying by a heavy downpour. But this morning, it’s clear skies, the fall colors so intense, the air seems to glow.
The western third of the Kek was burned to the ground by the Ham Lake Fire and opportunistic herbaceous plants regenerating the undulating landscape include Aspen, bright yellow now and a bit of Maple in such a deep red, it could almost be called purple. Richard walks me in a few miles before we kiss goodbye, turn around and walk in opposite directions.
It’s always unsettling to turn my back and move away into the unknown. What awaits me ahead? Fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin writes “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” Of course, I have a rough idea of what I’ll encounter in these four days – and even have a rough plan of distances, best camp spots, the weather.
What I don’t know is how I’ll manage. Earlier this week, I learned that my right hip joint is worn down to the nubs – and the left is not far behind. I got a cortisone shot but that’s only going to buy me time. I’m going to have to get them both replaced – soon.
I’m moving well even if my gait is wobbly and I rely on my sticks to stay upright as I negotiate rocky and uneven surface. Osteoarthritis runs in my genes and I knew this day would come, just not quite this soon. That’s the reason I requested a leave of absence from my job two years ago to walk my first long distance thru-hike, the Te Araroa in New Zealand. I count myself incredibly lucky that I managed not just one, but two thru-hikes pain free.
Well, I guess I’ll be known as the blissful bionic hiker and I pop in a few more ibuprofen before I waddle along, flushing two ruffed grouse, who flap their wings in a spastic panic that lifts their bodies just enough to clear one side of the trail to the other.
I pass open mine pits from the nineteenth century, fences in place to keep people from slipping in. At aptly named Mine Lake, trail crews cut a steep detour straight up, then straight down to avoid a notoriously wet section. A yellow bellied flycatcher comes closer when I call, “psh-psh-psh-psh,” but he makes no sound back to me as the wind shakes the limb he perches on, leaves falling like gilt snow.
I soon enter the Boundary Waters Wilderness, stopping for a drink at the stunning campsite on Bingshik Lake with views on three sides.
Seven hikers come my way, with big smiles and even bigger pruning loppers. It’s the trail crew! I gush with gratitude for the work they do as I coax them into a photo looking fierce with their tools. “I didn’t realize we were celebrities!” one comments. Indeed you are.
I come to a section of moss-covered rocks in sun dappled light, massive erratics isolated right where they were dropped by ice sheets thousands of years ago. Views lead to waves of golden aspen surrounding chains of azure lakes and a banditry of black-capped chickadees, whirring as they flit from tree to tree.
I’m on a ridge, but out of views for a moment and I suddenly have a hankering for a handful of mango I dehydrated before leaving. Just like on all my hikes, I keep walking as I shove my sticks under my left armpit and reach into my right pocket, when my foot grabs a stump hidden beneath the grass.
It’s true that accidents often seem to go in slow motion. I try valiantly to right myself but instead I flail about landing with a thud on my shoulder followed by a kind of afterthought of a face-plant.
That was not pretty, and I do find it humorous that my first instinct is to look behind me to see if I had an audience. Brushing off bits of dried grass stuck to my blouse I realize I am not the same person I was on the Te Araroa or PCT. I’m not hurt, this time.
A squall fogs my view as I gingerly cross a beaver dam of stacked logs, their teeth sharpened points cemented together with mud. Then I work my way to Agamok Bridge spanning a cataract cut through ancient magma. The campsite here has two verandas on opposite lakes and it’s deserted.
The air is chilly as a gibbous moon peeks out from behind a cloud. As if it wasn’t enough to give this thru-hike a try on worn out hips, I experiment with cold-soak meals, dispensing entirely with my stove. Talk about not knowing precisely what comes next, I take my first bite of a noodle recipe rom a company I’m reviewing.
And friends, nothing ever tasted so good.
Rain, rain, rain, All night long. The trail leaves the lakes behind and heads directly into forest, dark, wet and slippery, the rocky path hard to negotiate. But now my sticks are firmly in hand and stab bright red maple leaves, stacking them like an old- fashioned receipt spindle.
The brush acts as a carwash and I sweat under my jacket, out of breath on a steep undulating track. I’m supposed to come to a view, but every time I ascend to what looks like a clearing, I go right back down again. The trail is obvious, but it’s hard walking and starting to look, as my friend Neil in Christchurch would say, “samey.”
I unwisely put my foot directly on a root and wipe out fast like I’m wearing roller skates, my face up close and personal with a moist slab of leaves. It’s undignified but I kind of love the pungent spiciness mixed with a thick but fleeting balsam that seems to portend life rather than decay.
Ahead is a pond with a giant beaver house, so old, half of it is sporting grass and I cross his dam as it begins to rain. I’m warm heading up steeply now though it’s hard to know how far I go before I need to turn southwest. Judging from my map, it’s up, down then up again. But the trail is not as clean as topographical lines and after an hour – even on this ankle twisting, Blissful tripping terrain – I’m fairly certain I’ve walked the two miles to the junction.
But I never see it and begin heading steeply down. A bit of view to a massive lake opens to my left, and then to an even bigger lake to my right. Wait a minute, this trail is heading down to that lake – and the two lakes are actually one and the same.
A flurry of F-bombs fly from my mouth as I head back up, but even crippled, I’m naturally gifted at up. You wipe out less often.
I come upon a few blue ribbons I hadn’t noticed before, so I guess I’m back on trail. But why am I not seeing a junction? This is a job for the compass to sort out. In the gloom everything is samey – I could be walking right back where I started, like a scene from Groundhog Day.
I set the dial to north, then spin the baseplate so my direction of travel is heading southwest and hold it up to the map. Yup, this is the right way. But I ask again speaking to absolutely no one in this thick boreal forest, how in God’s green earth did I miss the intersection, not just coming, but going?!
The answer to that question is never forthcoming, and maybe it doesn’t matter. I pass a tree completely overtaken by white fungus. There’s no way I would have passed this without stopping for a picture. In a few more minutes and I come to a blue triangle nailed to a tree reading, “Kek” with arrows pointing east and west. Nice, guys, but I really could have used that sign back a few yards,
My path is overtaken with massive ferns, dried tan and crumbling. A few white pines survived the Cavity Lake fire, which must have burned hot, leaving several towering sentinels, blackened and solitary. But the fire opened the view of sprawling blue lakes below cliffs of gold, Aspen in showy yellow flutter like thousands of jazz hands. A woodpecker pounds into one of the towering trunks.
It rains all night at Strup Lake petering out to a drizzle the following day on a long, mostly flat trail through woods. My hip protests less and I move along smoothly on a wet carpet of yellow, orange and red. I pass a beaver pond misty in the drizzle, black stumps reaching into the gloom.
I cross a spectacular beaver dam of mud and humpy grass. I am exactly at the level of the water with a healthy drop to my right. I can’t see a house but I hear a huge warning splash. A vole peaks out of the sticks as I pass.
The trail heads on through alder turning yellowish-green and spruce in perfect Christmas-tree shapes. A man comes towards me. “James!” I yell. “Bliss!” It’s the young trail worker from two days ago now starting his journey.
He tells me about campsites ahead on a spur trail, ones not listed on canoeists’ maps. The sun comes out just as I reach the cutoff marked by a pink ribbon and I find an ideal spot with a rock veranda on Benezie Lake, mirroring puffy white clouds in its tranquil surface.
A few rain droplets fall disturbing the water in silent rings. I stay for the show until they pelt down harder in a ricochet of ‘plinks’ and ‘plunks’ causing me to dive into the alicoop.
But it doesn’t last long and I return to Maxfield Parrish colors, the clouds seemingly lit from inside. To the south, an enormous thunderhead in the shape of a wise woman in a billowing blouse glows orangey-pink, jagged zigzags of lightning are followed by menacing thunder.
I spy the first twinkle star of the night, though I’m pretty sure it’s orange brightness means it’s Mars. And just then, as if to cap off all I’ve seen, a gold orb sneaks out of hiding and I realize I’m facing east and don’t even need to turn my head to see the full moon rise.
The rain returns, so I crawl in for my final night on the Kek, knowing that even if I can’t see the moon just now, she’s always there. As is the sun which I wake up to, not exactly brilliant but keeping the rain at bay for now. It’s a short walk to the road over a beaver dam and steeply up to viewpoints of Snowbank Lake amidst a carpet of gold.
About a mile or so from the end, I come around a bend and there’s Richard, followed by two of my best friends. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be met on the other side by such happy faces ready to let me tell them every last detail as we move quickly back to our cars, making it just in time before it begins raining again.
Spiritual leader Marianne Williamson urges us that, “The key to abundance is meeting limited circumstances with unlimited thoughts.”
When I told my big brother Eric that I had to have two hip surgeries and was feeling pretty depressed about the whole thing, he promptly messaged back, “DON’T BE DEPRESSED!” in all caps. “Life is a stokeathon. It’s a bag of blessings.” I guess I should point here that out Eric is a surfer living in Southern California.
Eric’s right. Not knowing what comes next can often feel intolerable and it’s hard to bring unlimited thoughts to limited circumstances.
Hiking in rain, falling down (twice!) and getting kekked (also twice!) all while father time is knocking urgently at the door of my life, I possess power to choose whether I accept with grace what I encounter or kick and scream in protest. The challenge is to keep saying yes to whatever I can wring out of life in spite of its hardships and uncertainty.
And now, off trail and full of good food and good conversation, the stokeathon bag of blessings enters my life as I take my sore body into the sauna.
episode 19 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker is reminded that backpacking is her favorite activity because she is at her most mindful and feels closest to the Goddess, a spirit guiding her to see the beauty in all things, even rain and leeches!
In this episode:
- Blissful wakes up on her final morning on the island at Lane Cove, the wind up and wonders if her plane will be delayed.
- She crosses a narrow bridge with a bee hive below.
- A moose crashes through the forest when she arrives and a black fox leads her up to the ridge and fabulous views of Canada.
- The trail is easy going to Rock Harbor and eventually departs, seeing the humpy green backbone of the island rising right out of the big lake and so grateful for all she saw.
MUSIC: Surveyors – Eagle Flies Away for horn and mixed media by Eric McIntyre(used by permission)
My final night. My final morning. The rain stopped at some point as it got light and the then, the wind picked up. There’s something to be said for not having to pack a wet tent, but from my little rock seat at Lane Cove, I see “charging white horses” in row upon row of waves.
Today is a rewind and it’s always curious to me that things are never quite the same on repeat. Distances are fluid and pace, deceiving, almost always causing me to wonder if I’d walked this way before. Moving backwards, as it were, I notice different things, ones I might have walked right past since they were behind me on my way here.
There’s that great Rashida Rowe quote where she says, “Rewinding time is not possible, but do-overs are, sometimes we get another chance to do something right the second time that we got wrong the first time.”
Cedar gives away to birch, mud, and planks over mud. A pileated woodpecker lets out its hysterical laugh, and as though a punch-line, a massive moose frightened off by little ole me, crashes through the undergrowth in a hasty exit deeper into the woods.
There’s one long boardwalk above a stream of unknown depth. Some kind soul has left a note inside plastic bag affixed to a branch with a twist tie presumably to keep it dry. It reads, “BEES UNDER BRIDGE!” in all caps. Underneath someone adds the comment, “no joke, where (w-h-e-r-e) long pants.”
Already dressed in long pants and long sleeves, I shuffle across, reminded of some good advice I read recently “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast: if you move slowly, you’ll likely make the right decision and it will ultimately make you faster.”
I hardly see any buzzing about as the wind seems to have kept them close to their hive, a hive well hidden below the boards. Emily Dickinson wrote, “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, One clover, and a bee, And reverie. The reverie alone will do, If bees are few.”
I feel in a reverie as I push up the steep switchbacks, following a black fox who popped out of the brush and onto the trail just above me a few dozen feet, his paws light in the dirt as he trots up. I wonder if he’d agree it’s always easier to go up, even if breathing quickens. You just hurl yourself forward, the chances of slipping practically nil.
I was warned about the tricky beaver dam to cross and it’s made obvious by a completely wiped out boardwalk. A herd trail circles around into the brush towards its muddy wall.
Finally, I’m back at the top and my backtracking is over since I can simply head straight down to Rock Harbor from this junction. But it’s only a third of a mile to Mount Franklin and it does seem a little ridiculous to miss looking out one last time towards Canada and the basalt cliffs towering above Gitchee Gumee.
And I’m not disappointed. Millions of trees stretch out below, the water a bright blue to massive Sleeping Giant and Thunder Bay beyond. The wind pushes back at me on this boulder I’ve chosen to stand on and I realize in that moment, my tiny, single engine plane is going to have a rough time landing in bumpy waves.
The descent is easy through forest, though I catch glimpses of myriad islands and long peninsulas, Isle Royale like a huge creature that decided to lay face down in Superior, her backbone and arms exposed.
I come to the “lake” described by the couple I met yesterday who were chased by a moose. It’s more of a pond and no moose are milling about at the moment. When I meet Tobin Harbor, I remember what the ranger warned me about eight days ago, that the Rock Harbor trail was one of the hardest on the island with over 150 downed trees.
Nobody wants to deal with downed trees, so I turn right to follow the harbor paralleling that “worst trail in the park” on an incredibly easy trail of soft pine needles, mushrooms and fungus keeping me company.
At an intersection, I notice a sign for Susie’s Cave. I’ve had quite enough of this easy trail and just gotta take a look at that cave. It’s up a little, through a bit of forest and there it is. Yep, a cave alright. A nice big, ordinary cave.
What’s extraordinary, is the view. I’m right on the water, looking out to small rocky islands covered in spruce and bright orange lichen. Loons bob in the water. Oyster mushrooms in stacks cling to a tree.
Did I mis-hear because this is not a hard trail by any measure. I climb over a few downed trees, but the going is good as I pass a cute couple in identical brand new boots, sharing their first night out.
Soon I come to more shelters and a young hiker tells me the plane’s are delayed. Just as I thought. But it gives me time to explore a little. The ranger station is situated in tiny Snug Harbor in a beautiful little crescent. It’s here that the plan to create a national park out of the island was hatched. Quaint cottages used to line this semicircle, luring repeat visitors for the summer, mostly ones escaping rampant hay fever on the mainland. They were brought here by a steamer called “The American.”
So many people created memories of boating, swimming, picking berries and presumably singing around the campfire, they were instrumental in saving this idyllic place as a wilderness.
But it’s a strange year. Quiet with only ten of us waiting for our planes to return us to Michigan or Minnesota. The hotel is closed and the restaurant promising beer, burgers and bliss also shuttered. So I dig deep and find one more scoop of bullion a to cook up for lunch.
Just then, the ranger tells a small group their plane is on the way. Coming from Hancock, they fly a Cessna, which can take a few more chances on these waves. From Grand Marais, it’s a tiny Beaver. There’s still no word of one heading my way.
One of the guys on his way out hands me two Clif bars he won’t be needing anymore. Score! Their plane unloads a group of backpackers, clean and fresh with lots of new gear. I get the Leave No Trace lecture again happening next to me and afterwards, I offer a bit of my own beta on campsites since not only did I snag the best, but I also checked out the rest.
As they leave, the ranger comes towards me and gives me the good news to head on back to Tobin Harbor, your plane is on the way. It’s Thomas again and this time we fly over the island, all its intricacies of bays and coves, exposed balds and sharp ridges on full display
The plane pitches and bucks as we lift off and I just breathe deeply trusting the pilot wants to get home as much as I do. It’s beautiful, a long humpy mass of green rising from the vast blue.
What happened on this mini thru-hike? I fell on day one, but I didn’t hurt myself enough to have to stop. Still, I took it pretty easy and was in camp by noon each day, finding the best sites every night. I had clear days warm enough to swim and thunderstorms that had me scurrying into a blessed shelter. I saw moose close up, wolf tracks, beaver’s work, black sox foxes, families of mergansers and two fat otters. Singing to me in their own language were loons, a barred owl, pileated woodpeckers, sandhill cranes, swans, chickadees and a hawk inviting me to share in this grand wilderness they call home. I broke bread with trail angels and learned how to listen to my body and my intuition. I ate handful after handful of berries – blue, thimble, and rasp and saw sunrises and sunsets to take my breath away. On top of the ridge, the views were obscured, but millions of spider webs suspended in the gloom, tiny dew droplets catching the morning light. In the green tunnel of forest, a plethora of mushrooms, fungus, and lichen decorated my path, oftentimes a path over one thin plank where I managed to remain upright.
But maybe most important, after nearly nine months off from backpacking, I was reminded why I love this activity more than any other. I feel most alive when walking a thru-hike, carrying all I need in my pack and managing the elements. And that’s quite possibly because it’s while backpacking that I come the closest to living fully in the moment. It’s when I feel as though I’m taking to God – or the Goddess as I call her – and, in the words of John Denver, listening to her casual reply.
And she tells me – just let go and allow things to happen, pay attention and discover the beauty around you and the wonder in all things.
And that includes rain and leeches!
episode 18 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker learns to recognize and savor joy, not so much that joy is fleeting, but to remember when times are tough, that joy will return.
In this episode:
- Blissful forgets her water filter at the dock, but in finding it, she sees a stunning sunrise she might have missed.
- She wades slowly into Moskey Basin and is attacked by a swarm of leaches and learns the best way to go in the water is fast.
- Bothered by too much noise, she explores and comes upon two otters at the dock.
- The rain holds off for her to see a view of the entire spine of Isle Royale.
- Her final night she’s serenaded by loons at secluded Lane Cove.
available on iTunes
I’m up early as the sky begins to lighten. I eat as I pack and wonder if maybe going forward in my backpacking ‘career,’ I forego a stove altogether. I really don’t need it and it adds bulk and weight.
Stuffing the kitchen in Blueberry (my new Granite Gear pack) I realize I left my pot, filter and water bottle down on the rocks by the dock. The foxes are such thieves, I hope they’re still there.
It’s dead quiet, even on the dive boat. I see a bit of bright blue tucked into the rocks, and the kit is right where I left it. And what a gift to come down here in this moment – something I would have missed had I not left the filter – a magical sunrise at the end of the long cove, perfect reflections of the boreal forest in still water turning orangey-yellow.
I’m walking the length of Isle Royale, a national park and wilderness surrounded by the icy water of Lake Superior. It’s one of the most pristine places I’ve visited even though it’s accessible by boat, plane and there are shelters in some camp sites to sleep in. But I have seen more wildlife in a few short days than many longer trips I’ve taken – including seven moose so far!
Like a lot of the trails, though, it’s a green tunnel for miles, and I walk in and out of swampy, mosquito-infested, brackish wetlands along usually sturdy boardwalks. Frogs leap out of my way A swan lets out a car-horn honk that would make Gershwin proud. A rabbit jumps through the path. How on earth did a rabbit get here?
I walk close to the western shore of Chickenbone Lake. Long and L-shaped, it was obviously not named by the natives. The sites are lovely right on the water, but I continue, passing portages on steep, rocky grade.
At Lake Ritchie, a sign tells me there’s an algae bloom here so not to drink or wash – apparently no filter can clean water with an algae bloom. It’s a shame since beautiful campsites line the shore on exposed Canadian Shield rock.
I meet people, one who tells me she has my exact same buff. Another asks if I’ve seen moose yet. I hold back telling him I’ve seen seven already – “you will,” I tell him with a hopeful smile, “I promise!”
This hike is not fast, it’s not hard, and I really don’t walk that many miles. It’s likely due to this weird summer and Covid closing things down, but when I arrive at Moskey Basin, it’s totally deserted and the best shelter – number two – is available.
I think of that line from Sally Koslow, the editor of Mademoiselle, “Learn to recognize good luck when it’s waving at you, hoping to get your attention.” I take the shelter grateful for the good luck that’s been waving at me this whole hike.
Moskey Basin is at the western end of Rock Harbor and part of Lake Superior, but the water is a teensy bit warmer. I sit on the rock shelf with my feet soaking. A brown toad lies next to me in the sun before shimmying towards cooler moss. Brown and green crickets hop with loud clicks. Butterflies land in my drying socks, their long tongues uncoiling to suck out the salt.
I take advantage of no one being here and strip down. I’ve never been much of a diver right in – and it’s a slow process, my bottom on the sloping algae covered rock with one foot in a crack below the surface holding me steady so I don’t slide all the way down before I’m good and ready. Finally I dunk under with a scream and scratch my scalp clean with my nails.
I was tentative at first to go in, but glad I did feeling so refreshed. But what’s this on my legs? Pine needles? Pine needles that are moving. Oh my god, leeches! Hundreds of tiny, wriggling strips of mucus suctioned tightly to my legs.
I try to pull one off and he suctions directly to my fingers. Argh! I try to scrape them off with my nails then try to remove them on the rock. I can feel their little bite as they dig in. It’s a nightmare of African Queen proportions, even if they’re only the size of rice.
I purposely don’t take all that much with me when I backpack – but I do have a mini Swiss Army knife with tweezers. It’s a two step operation: pulling each one off as they stretch out still suctioned to me, then taking a small piece of wood to remove them from the tweezers.
I think I have them all off my legs but let’s just make sure. I check between my toes one after another. Had I mentioned these little nasties are green? Not when they’re full of blood. On my right foot, between my pinkie and fourth tie, it’s a war zone, a pile of red bloated leaches squirming in that tiny crevice. I pick them off one at a time and each one bursts with my fresh blood.
Ok, so now I think I’ve gotten all of them. Ugh! There’s only one thing to do, take the rest of the afternoon off, lie in the sun and read my book. The book I brought is one of the best I’ve ever read – Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” Listen to this graph:
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
I’m dressed when the two guys in shelter three return and take their swim. I warn them about the leech swarm, but they jump in fast and not one leech latches on. And I just have to laugh – and for my second swim? I jump right in.
More hikers arrive – boisterous, door slammers – you can’t blame em, they’re excited to be here. But it does cause me to need a little space – our shelters are all right up at the water’s edge and close together. So rather than complain, I get up and move, walking over towards the dock and the huge exposed Canadian shield, bright yellow goldenrod bursting out of fissures, sage colored lichen holding fast to the granite.
Funny, it’s a better view from here as I mosey out on the concrete dock where a picnic table sits at the end. A plastic orange netting is placed beyond the table, keeping people from the end which has been cracked and damaged by ice.
Something black is on the end. I move closer to the table and see it’s an animal – an otter.
He’s a fat fellow, his fur slick and lustrous as he busily cleans himself – of leeches, I wonder? – biting and scratching, followed by rubbing his blubbery belly on the concrete. He doesn’t seem to mind my sitting here watching, looking up every so often out of squinty eyes in a silver, be-whiskered face, his nose turned up and in his mouth in a sort of permanent scowl.
A jumbo bright green dragonfly comes close to me, then close to him as if to introduce us. A loon tremolos, her mate flying across to meet her. A huge silver fish launches out of the water and I see another otter swimming quickly towards the dock.
Just when I think how on earth does he get up here? In one motion, he just flops all that body right up on and the two shimmy into a cuddle, then get right back to cleaning, the new one’s fur spiky.
I don’t know if he sees me, but the new arrival doesn’t stick around long and flops right back in the water, swimming fast to shore, his butt and enormous tail in the air momentarily before he dunks under. Then my otter leaves too, a bit slower but spending even more time underwater.
I eventually leave, walking back up to the rocks above the dock and startle a snake who slithers directly towards me. My view is three-sided of a magenta sunset, its afterglow and the waxing gibbous moon reflected in the ripples. A pileated laughs, sandhills clack and wolves yip far in distance.
The magic of this place is that it’s a living world where we’re just visitors. Interesting fun fact is Isle Royale is the only national park that closes in the winter and I imagine the residents are just fine with that. I have never seen such abundance and feel privileged and humbled to be a guest here as I tuck in, loons’ calls echoing over the water and someone swimming nearby.
When I wake, it’s as though the sky had never gone to sleep.
Orange, magenta, lavender and pink in a swirl of color, so present and overwhelming, I feel bathed in its glow. I suddenly remember that the wise old saying about red skies in the morning, sailors take warning. This glorious morning will be followed by rain.
I’m back on wooden planks over leatherleaf and Labrador tea threatening to overtake the bog leading me to dense forest and Daisy Farm, a massive campground of sixteen shelters abutting a cove where two sailboats of different sizes await their sailors. I get briefly lost, but soon find the trail heading up to Mount Ojibwe and its fire tower.
The trail winds around steeply finally meeting the Greenstone Ridge, and the views are spectacular, even more so from the tower, where 59 steps take me to a walkway where I can look straight down the island’s spine thick with balsam fir and white spruce. Inland lakes lay below the ridge, and a carpet of green, the big lake beyond.
The wind picks up and the sky feels heavy with moisture. I throw Blueberry on my back and continue along the trail towards Mount Franklin. No rain, no creatures, just forest, bearberry thick with red berries growing into my path.
At the mountain, I meet a couple having a snack at the view, which looks down to where I’ll sleep tonight. They shock me with their story that a moose charged them, splashing through a lake to get to them. “What did you do?” They tell me, they ran and when the moose got to shore he seemed to have changed his mind.
I’m extra vigilant as I head toward the turn off for Lane Cove, a steep, oftentimes washed out set of switchbacks heading back deep into forest of paper birch and aspen. It’s an undulating trail, much like what I’ve seen already, so my mind wanders thinking about this being my final night on the trail and that I can’t possibly expect to bat 1000 and yet again sleep in the very best site.
But here I am and the place is deserted. Site two is right on the cove, a tiny set of stairs taking me to the water’s edge and a perfectly placed sitting rock. I dive into the alicoop as it begins to rain. But it doesn’t last too long, just long enough for a nap before it tapers off and I emerge in rain gear, only a few droplets making rings in the placid lake. A family of mergansers swim by as smoothly as Saint-Saens’ Swan. My dragonflies are back. Loons call across the cove.
A wise person told me once to recognize when things are wonderful and enjoy them fully, because it won’t last. The point was not so much that joy is fleeting as to remember when times are tough, that joy will return.
As the sun slips below the spruce covered finger of land in front of me, I savor these past days and the light shows at sunrise and sunset, some dramatic, some quiet like now in cantaloupe and silver. I breathe it in and in the dark, head to my tent.
episode 17 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker meets trail angels who share food, beer and good advice, learning to be flexible at times and not hold too tightly to plans, because sometimes that can lead to a dangerous situation.
In this episode:
- The trail is a Monty Python “Knights who say ‘Ni.'”
- Blissful crosses huge beaver dams, one with a sinking plank she just has to test, dumping right into the murky water.
- She meets trail angels at Todd Harbor.
- Thunderstorms follow Blissful all the way to McCargoe Cove where she snags the best shelter.
- Technical scuba divers arrive and give her good advice as the loons wail and beavers cannonball.
MUSIC: Surveyor’s island – Eagle Flies Away for horn and mixed media by Eric McIntyre
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The day starts with loons calling across the lake, mournful, then in that hysterical yodeling which sounds, frankly, loony. I don’t bother packing quickly since the sky is clear and I feel no pressure to move.
But I’m out before the boys – one of which wanders into my camp accidentally after using the outhouse, apologetic and embarrassed as he shined his light directly into my tent – and then the father and son on the other side, who I walked in on as they were changing clothes, but fortunately for all of us, strategically placed overgrown ferns hid any private bits.
I’m in the middle of Isle Royale – crossing in a kind of thru-hike of my own devising. This morning I woke up next to Lake Desor and head straight back in the woods.
They’re dense and dark, layered with tall, straight trunks. All I can think of are the Knights who say ‘ni’ from Monty Python. No one is here in my green tunnel except a bull moose quietly eating, 20 feet off the path. His head follows me as I pass, but he never takes a step.
I come to an open area of rock and climb to the top with views of Superior and in front the jigsaw shape of Lake Desor where I happily swam twice. Back into the forest I go, up and down, through mud and over planks. There are fewer mushrooms here and no berries as I simply move forward, thinking this must be what much of the Appalachian Trail is like.
The ranger in Windigo warned me about Ishpeming Point, a kind of island joke. The tower sits above the trail about a story-and-a-half with trees towering above it. I don’t bother climbing the stairs for a ‘better look’, and take a pass on the left behind mattress and T-shirt.
I walk over bare rock with obstructed views to water beyond, but mostly clouds building then clearing. The wind is up and refreshing. Walking on and on, mostly easy until a muddy patch slows me down.
Finally, views open to a magnificent inland lake, the big lake beyond. Two men are coming up and tell me they swam in Todd Harbor and someone was using the one shelter as a base from their boat.
That’s ok. It’s still a lovely day and I really have no need for a shelter. I just always hope to find a super campsite, so I press on, walking steeply down now to the north side of the island and another inland lake.
I don’t bother checking the campsites at Hatchett Lake and instead move on, walking a long way through thick green forest. Soon, I come to a beaver dam holding back a pond above me with the crossing below on one rickety board, the other submerged. I was warned about this and carefully cross, knowing the one will hold me.
But of course, I just have to test the other board and sink right in, my shoe suddenly full of murky water. Serves you right, Ms. Curiosity!
This area is lovely and open, mostly huge birch trees with thick trunks or thin tall ones high into the bluebird sky – and the vegetation is dryer with more autumn reds and yellows. The trail undulates up and down, over a washout before reaching an area marked by pink ribbons. It’s a new dam and these beavers were busy! I can’t imagine how they constructed this marvel, one long enough to stop a river and flood a small forest.
The ribbons take me on top of it, logs packed tight with mud and finally let me out on Minong Ridge. Going east is open, but the other rugged 20 miles is closed for safety. I am clearly on the easy part and quickly arrive at the harbor, a couple assuring me I should camp at the first spot.
Of course, I like to explore first, so leave my pack to see what else is available. I take a wrong turn and start hiking the trail I’ll walk tomorrow. Not a bad thing since I run into a man who just got off a fishing boat and ask him the obligatory, “Do you have a beer I can buy?”
He says no, but he has one he can give me. Hooray! Four guys and a boat – one just returning to brag about the best shit he’s ever taken – invite me for dinner when they return with today’s catch.
But first, I need to find the group sites. He sets me straight and I land on fabulous site one with it’s superb view of outer islands with Sleeping Giant and other cliffs in Canada behind.
I literally snag the best site seconds before two other hikers walk up. What a place it is! A private rocky beach to climb down to on cedar roots and soak my feet and filter water, plus myriad mossy cliffs to park myself and read my book all afternoon.
As I set up, a stunning snake slithers through, large and bright but too fast for my camera. Mergansers swim past, their heads bent over in the water. They suddenly speed along, beaks agape scooping up fish. A black spider with long dainty legs pulls herself expertly along a filament upside down then disappears into a tree.
I keep moving spots for the best view, the softest moss and a bit of shade. I see the guys fishing near the small islands. A ranger’s boat built like a pipe whizzes past just as a search and rescue helicopter flies by low.
A glorious nap in the alicoop is disturbed by that very ranger coming to check my permit. It’s hard to be too mad at Corey who’s friendly and earnest and happy to answer all my questions like what’s in all those cases on your belt? Handcuffs and ammo. Better not piss him off!
He loves it here, telling me it was Lake Mead last year and the Nez Perce in Idaho before that. I’m up now, so head back to my perch and read. The waves burble and hoot like an organ pipe against the rocks, the sunset is bright pink before covered in cloud, turning the water a silver blue. Thunderstorms are expected tonight and I hope I chose my tent spot well.
More people arrive, three couples in all, one bringing foraged chanterelles. We talk and laugh, drink, eat and some pass a pipe around the fire. One couple lost their water filter and boat owner Andy loans them his. Another lost his tent and Andy suggests sleeping under his tarp.
Jake brought a smoker and makes the most tender beef I’ve tasted in a long time. They ensure I’m ok and tell me to ask for anything if I need it.
Turns out I forgot a light, so Frank gives me his for the night to get back to the alicoop. The air is finally dry and cool, the waves b’plooping against the rocks. Well fed by my generous and kind trail angels, I am feeling beyond good.
Rolling thunder wakes me with flashes of light like so many strobes. I feel scared as the wind picks up and wonder if the enormous birch behind my head with branches only at the top will stay standing. I pop out to poop and pee before it rains.
No rain hits until it’s light and it’s only a sprinkle, so I pack up and get started on the short walk to a bay with shelters. I liberate three spiders with bulbous bodies and stringy legs who spent the night huddled under my pack’s lid. A slender black fox with a bushy striped tail visits for handouts.
The trail heads up through dense woods. My rain pants protect me from the wet overgrowth. I catch glimpses of small islands off this main island, all uninhabited except for their native creatures.
I walk straight into a refreshing wind and think about the pipe passed around last night. I’m not against smoking, but like headphones on the trail, I don’t see a need to alter my mental state while hiking and prefer to be completely alert and in tune with my surroundings.
Right now, my surroundings are threatening and expectant. I hear thunder to the north and south, growling like a warning. It’s so dark when I walk through forest, I can barely see where to put my feet to avoid the mud.
But I feel good and it’s not far today, just shy of seven miles. The sky suddenly lights up. 1-2-3-4-kaboooooooom-boom-boom. The storm is still far and the thunder sounds like it’s in the clouds rather than hitting the ground.
I pass a huge pond created by beavers and it begins to rain. It’s still light, so I forge ahead without stopping. From the ridge I can see the Sleeping Giant a dark slate blue, the clouds heavy gun metal gray.
Light flashes and I count this time to 13. Surely I’m safe from being hit, but usually rain follows lightning. On cue, it begins raining harder and I stop to put on my rain coat and cinch the hood. It’s not cold, and I feel safe and swaddled in my cocoon as I push on, up on exposed lichen-covered rock, small inland lakes below.
The sky is angry but the rain stops long enough for me to catch the views from above and find the trail which seems to disappear any time I walk on rock.
It’s a long way on this exposed ridge and I’m happy not to have lightning as I move along quickly, using my sticks to negotiate the steep downs. Finally I am going down for good just as the heavens really open up and it pours.
I pass the sign for the Minong Mine, the oldest in the United States, a copper mine used for at least 4,000 years by Native Americans. This is hardly the time for a visit and I skip it, sloshing my way towards the cove and hopefully a free shelter.
There’s never any knowing for sure what awaits a hiker at the end of the trail. I’m sodden and hoping for a place to spread out, but I tell myself I will be fine in my tent if need be, to hope for the best – and be open to it – while planning for the worst.
The campsite is deserted, so I make my way to shelter four as recommended. I can’t possibly express how welcome this structure is in a rainstorm. But before I spread every last thing out on the wooden floor and hang my things, I head to the water to filter two liters.
Of course, it immediately stops raining. The moment alone here on the rock, one lone seagull sitting on the dock, is magical. Quiet, mysterious, the long, thin bay reaching out into the mist, it’s entrance obscured.
I haul my water back up and make lunch. Someone left a can of tuna in oil and the guys gave me a beer ‘for the road,’ so it’s a feast on the floor of my shelter. I put on my dry camp clothes and crawl into Big Greenie to read and take a nap.
As I said, a hiker never knows what to expect and have to learn acceptance and to take things as they come. It would be easy to be angry because the day was so wet, but it feels better to be elated that I snagged the best shelter, that it’s absolutely quiet, that I have a bonus beer and tuna.
The sky is gray but getting lighter. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Graffiti on my walls tell a good story, especially what it must be like in a more usual summer, one hiker wanting to kill boaters who race into harbor to claim all the shelters, another wondering if a person has the ability to keep their voice (and laugh) to a low bellow.
Soon, other hikers arrive and claim all the shelters. The two from last night, one who lost his tent, end up sharing with a single guy. The rain starts up, but doesn’t last long and I head back down to the dock.
Black bugs flutter above the water, their reflection a perfect dance partner. Water bugs with legs like oars, pull forward then let the current drag them back. A loon sounds its mournful call as a fish jumps. A large snail slowly makes progress along an algae-covered rock. A white throated sparrow sings its ascending melody and light raindrops create rings on the placid water.
Four hikers wade into the ice cold water as a boat slowly makes its way towards us, slowly as to cause no wake and disturb the loons. It’s moving so slowly, we can’t figure out what kind of boat it is. Black. Big. The ranger?
No, it’s a dive boat with dozens of tanks and compressors. Six men jump off and unload their gear on the dock to clean it, then refill it for the next dive. This is serious business; technical diving to 250 feet in the icy water of Lake Superior. Regular air doesn’t work at these depths, so the men breathe a mixture of helium.
Of course I have to ask if that makes their voices sound funny and indeed it does. I’m surprised to learn helium is not renewable and there is a limited supply. Jeff, a Canadian I talk to the most, fills me in on this risky hobby.
He’s been honing his skills for 30 years and has many redundancies for any possible equipment failure. The gas they expel from their lungs is captured and reused since it takes 90 minutes of decompression to return to the surface after only 30 minutes at depth.
And why do this activity, one expensive and dangerous? Because Great Lakes wrecks are preserved in pristine condition and are absolutely fascinating. None of these guys have a death wish or appear out to prove something. From my vantage, they appear genuinely curious and highly trained.
What really catches my attention is the mantra ‘three strikes, you’re out.’ When they dive, if three things go wrong – even minor things – they stay on the surface.
It reminds me of Richard’s feelings the day we kayaked near Grand portage and we had a few minor problems – launching in the wrong place, forgetting our lunch, bringing the wrong hat. They added up in his mind so say that particular day was not our day. The waves weren’t huge, but the wind was weird and the sky was black on a day that was forecast as calm. Jeff would say they’re messages to give up and try another time.
Expectation and driving towards a goal is good up to a point. Even in the lower risk world of hiking, being able to know when to stop or change plans is extremely important. Being flexible and allowing the day to unfold brings possibility when hanging on tightly can at best, make one unsatisfied or at worst, in danger.
It’s quiet now except for crickets and beaver tails splashing cannonball warnings. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and I’ve been given suggestions on the best sites, but I’ll practice what I preach and let tomorrow take care of tomorrow.
episode 16 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker continues her magical thru-hike of the very special island national park, Isle Royale. She discovers that the animal she would most want to be in another life is the busy beaver, a creature with the grit to swim fifteen miles to make this eden its home.
In this episode:
- Feldtmann Tower is shrouded in mist and there are no views whatsoever, but other surprises await including thousands of spider webs glistening in tiny droplets of dew.
- Seven Sandhill Cranes lift as one as Blissful arrives
- She spends the her first night in one of the historic shelters built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and laughs at the historic graffiti.
- Her hike towards the Greenstone Ridge is a New Zealand flashback of mud and water, but soon heads high onto easy track.
- The sky clears, but there are no views from the highest point, Mount Desor.
- At Lake Desor, Blissful enjoys loons and a private, sandy beach looking right to the sunset.
MUSIC: Poema del Pastor Coya by Angel Lasala as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
It drizzled last night and my lake is now shrouded in dense fog. In this mist I notice for the first time witch hair draped over branches of the big cedar, the same cedar that I slung up Blueberry my backpack, hopefully high enough and out reach of the long black-socks-fox.
No swimming this morning as I put on rain gear, mostly for the shrubbery car wash to come. The wind is high as I make tea and eat bars. Here’s hoping it gives me views from the Feldtmann fire tower.
Almost immediately, I cross an oily wetland on boards, one broken and sunken. A few days ago, the ranger told me to take it slow on these crossings, some of which are high up on stilts with nothing to grab hold should I lose balance. After falling once already and nursing a bruised foot, I tell myself it is absolutely forbidden to fall again and carefully – oh, so carefully – shuffle across.
Last year, I walked two long distance thru-hikes – New Zealand’ Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail in the western United States. My plan this year was to hike two shorter trails close to home – the Kekekabic, a continuation of the Superior Hiking and Border Route Trails and part of the 4,600 mile North Country Trail – one I am definitely section hiking – and then Isle Royale, a National Park in the far northwest corner of Lake Superior and part of Michigan.
When the pandemic hit, it all seemed a bit nonsensical and I set the plans aside – until the opportunity came in the form of an offer to stay at a friend’s empty house in Grand Marais, just a short flight from the island.
I hiked a small loop when my plane was delayed to magical Hugginin Cove, then continued to Lake Feldtmann at the urging of hiker pal from my radio days. It’s so quiet, it feels expectant as though I need to walk gently and observantly – in an odd sense, I feel even more a visitor to this natural setting of wolves and moose, beaver and loons then anywhere I’ve ever hiked.
The forest is dark and wet and I walk well all alone this early morning in spite of my foot being bruised, hopefully not anything worse. I know the ridge comes soon and it suddenly appears as expertly built stairs heading straight up to pines. The sun pushes through, silver and bright. Crickets with fancy wings leap out of my way as my feet walk on large stones in a kind of concrete emulsion.
I pass a large pile of shredded hair and wonder what struggle happened here. There’s no view whatsoever only twisted branches eerily reaching up through the white out.
But there’s another surprise, one only possible to see in the dampness – thousands upon thousands of spider webs outlined in glistening water droplets. Oddly, long filaments as much as 20 feet long string from branch to branch.
A Sand Hill crane sounds her clackety metal noisemaker alarm as I pass, every note echoing in the canyon below. Seven lift at once on magnificent wings. They circle as I stand transfixed only to return and see me still there, so again fly off, this time, so close I can hear the whoosh of their wings.
I walk in and out of trees, imagining the view I might have seen. A large beaver dam holds a pond above the trail and I maneuver just below. How many beaver live in this community – and maybe more intriguing, how did beaver find their way here at all, fifteen miles off the mainland?
The fire tower floats into view. Crows cackle and I decide to take a break sitting down on my tiny therm-a-rest. There’s no improvement after 48 steps, so with a laugh, and whistling a few lines from “Misty,” I decide to head down.
Moose tracks are everywhere in cloven V’s, some sliding on the muddy slope. I come upon fresh piles of poop and wonder if I’ll see them today. A couple comes towards me, and say I’m the first person they’ve seen in days, likely because the planes haven’t been flying. They advise me to claim the shelter with a view at the bay and I tell them to nab site two at the lake.
Let’s pause here for a second – shelters? you might ask. I was kind of surprised myself, imagining large three-sided buildings with platforms for a multitude of sleeping bags. While not the self-contained style of New Zealand huts with water tank, oftentimes fireplace and fully enclosed, Isle Royale shelters are enclosed on three sides with wood and one with screen, including a loud, bang-ey door if you don’t set it gently.
They’re also intended for individual use. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930’s, they’re erected by docks and in locations where it was easy to haul and manipulate building materials. It doesn’t really occur to me to use a shelter, but my tent and myself are damp from the dew and maybe spreading out on a wooden floor will be pretty nice.
I’m on a long, straight, flat section with raspberry bushes over my head. Along the way I see beaten down areas where moose bed down for the night. I notice wolf tracks in the mud as big as my fist. Dragonflies hover in the grass, one a bright red with blue wings.
It’s clearing and getting hot. The heat and humidity take me by surprise as I expected the refrigerator effects of the Big Lake to keep the temperatures low. The bay feels close as more cedar appear as well as a new type of meadow, the grass a burnt sienna. Two pale sherbet butterflies flutter in harmony.
At the turnoff for Siskiwit, I come to a huge dock with five bulldozers ready for work the beginning of the coming week, which is thankfully tomorrow. The bay is a giant horseshoe facing east with the campsite on the south flank. Massive bright yellow floats keep the building waves from eroding the unfinished worksite.
The place is deserted now and I have the pick of shelters, taking the one with a view as directed looking straight down to the work site. I hang up the alicoop to dry and organize my things, filter a little water, then head inside for a nap.
What luxury! Sure it’s just a bare floor with the ceiling sloping slightly, but it’s all mine tonight. The ranger told me two days ago in Windigo not to deface the walls, which are plenty defaced already – lots of bragging, a few pictures and a good share of vulgarity, some quite clever. I laugh the hardest with the simple statement, “We farted here.”
I change out of my wet clothes and hang them up, dump everything out of Blueberry and set my mattress in a corner so I can cozy into Big Greenie and watch the sun peak out showing off the mountains I’ll climb over tomorrow. Butterflies land on my drying clothes, their coiled tongues sucking the damp and I drift right off.
Two hikers arrive named Christian and Jamie and take the other shelter. We chat at the beach where I filter water and discover it’s only us tonight as it was last night too as Feldtmann Lake. They’re carrying a weather radio and tell me to expect scattered thunderstorms tomorrow. A scrawny black fox leaps up onto the picnic table and poses for handouts, but I disappoint him by banging a pot instead.
Well, it might rain and it might not. That’s tomorrow and right now the air is finally crisp and I’m comfortably spread out in this massive structure all my own. The fog returns, then lifts for a sunset in a deep magenta only seen at these latitudes. I close my eyes and prepare for whatever tomorrow brings.
Maybe Christian was right about the rain. It’s drizzling and the clothes I hang up to dry inside are damp from the dew. The good news is that in spite of the gloom, the ridge I’ll walk today is visible, double humps of tall trees.
Drizzle, rain, thunderstorms – they’re not going to stop my forward progress as I immediately meet sloppy, black mud. But I’m wearing rain pants which serve double duty for actual rain and for the wet bushwhacking nightmare I’ve been warned about. Apparently not so many walk the Feldtmann Loop to begin with, and this year, the trail has seen fewer hikers and even less maintenance.
The beach is flat, red rocks gleaming in the morning light. I lean down careful not to tip over with my pack on and send one skipping. I can see out to the islands all in a row at the point, then frighten a flock of mergansers, running on the water and flapping wildly just to get out of range.
The trail ducks on and off the beach, entering a confusing bit of grass matted down with dark coffee colored water below in unknown depths. Why not just send me on the beach, I query the air, in a particularly nasty section.
I backtrack out of this mess, my shoes and socks completely soaked already and not willing to get more of my body wet. Picking my way along the sand, I notice moose tracks. Look here, even the locals don’t bother with this crappy trail!
For a brief moment, it feels a bit like New Zealand, a kind of déjà-vu all over again of epic mud and thick, overgrown wetlands with just one tiny plank to cross them before depositing me right into the thick of it. I laugh out loud thinking of my friends from Whanganui who suggested using the code word ‘high grass’ to their Te Araroa visitors just in case they got into trouble or were about to lose their minds and want to quit.
The tall grass here gets tangled on the boards, causing me to trip, though I manage to stay upright. A big, beautiful frog leaps in my path and I try to get his photo before he leaps away. When I fail, I grab his leg and return him to his ‘sitting,’ but he will have none of that, thank you very much! and hops out of my reach.
I cross a large creek on a bridge and eventually find my way through a boggy area and back on another beach, this time of pebbles sinking under my steps. At the end, a sign points to Island Mine and I say goodbye to the beach, and hello to mud, moose and wolf tracks leading the way.
The trail changes almost immediately, heading up a gradual slope through maple, oak and birch, widening as the deep brush disappears completely – and most noticeable, the mud. My stride is long and full, as I fly up the hill, my breath rhythmic.
I come to a small wooden fence protecting a deep hole, remnants of a mine. It’s lined with boulders and I want a photo, but am very careful not to lose my camera because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get it back. A few steps later I come to a pile of tailings, then it’s up and up some more, before heading down steeply.
I know I should be coming to the next campsite soon – one I have no intention in staying in – but first hit a small stream. People complained on forums that the water source at this site was poor and I see someone has tried to remedy that by creating a boulder dam. Now it’s easy to collect water and I quickly down an entire liter.
Up the hill I reach the campsite junction and continue on to the famous and highest trail on the Greenstone Ridge. A better name might be Green Tunnel Ridge since it’s all forest with very few views. Still, it’s incredibly easy walking after the past few days and I cruise through noticing the sky clearing to a robin egg blue.
At my feet are thousands of mushrooms, nearly all in bold bright yellow or stoplight red like clown noses. I pass a couple and a single man are headed my way and it feels like I’ve finally arrived on a trail as cruisey as the PCT. I skip past them to get to the summit of Mount Desor and finally some views.
I reach rock outcroppings and see bright blue water below. But it’s obscured by trees and I just assume I must not be at the top yet. I walk on and on, up and down, in and out of dense forest until I finally realize that spot where I could see a small corner of blue water was the summit.
Not exactly dramatic for the highest point of the island but I’m certainly happy to be in bright sunshine with the air dry and the wind blowing. I guess the thunderstorms died out. I even consider moving on since it’s so early, but decide to at least check out South Lake Desor.
The sites are crowded and far above the water. I set my pack in one thinking I guess I could stay here, but maybe I’ll take just a second to check things out. No shelters in this out of the way place, but since this is a weird year with Covid, the ranger told me I am welcome to take a group site. I didn’t give it much thought, but now I’m curious as the sign for the sites points in the opposite direction of the single sites.
It’s a fair distance, down and across a bridge then back up again. I hear two young men talking to each other, and I see through the trees they’re wading in the water, very close to the trail. It seems beautiful stairs have been built to an exquisite beach. Perfect! Their site is across from the access but the next site is all mine, precisely 100 steps away.
I set the alicoop and then head to our shared beach to filter water and wade in. They’re nice guys just about to enter nursing school and here on their very first backpack trip. It seems they’re sharing a two-man tent so things are a bit crowded, but they’re loving the adventure anyway and tell me all about what’s ahead, especially that the next lake is not so great. I made a very good choice to stay here tonight.
They leave me alone to swim in crystal clear water with a sandy bottom. Not much swimming, to be honest, as the water is only up to my hips, but so refreshing to dunk. I nap and read under quaking aspens, then swim again, dinner at the beach on a log, my feet crushed into the sand as waves gently touch my toes.
Dragonflies hunt for bugs, one not afraid to buzz close to my face. The sunset show is directly in front of me, the clouds spelling a giant A and an arrow, pointing where, I wonder. It’s absolutely quiet and I have the beach all to myself. I hate to leave the magic, but mosquitos send me off. Just as I pack up, a beaver starts swimming across the lake, a deep mauve-purple now.
Years ago, someone asked me if I was an animal, which one would I want to be. I think a beaver. They always have projects, they have a lovely home and community and they’re very much in charge. Have you ever heard the slap of a beaver tail?
The wind is gentle in the trees, crickets chirping and waves lapping. The stars are brilliant and I am all cuddled in. And just how did the beaver get to Isle Royale, 15 miles off the mainland, you might ask. No one knows for sure, but talk bout grit. My guess is, they swam.
episode 15 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker visits a very special island national park, Isle Royale, a boreal forest and Canadian Shield “balds” wonderland in the far Northwest corner of Lake Superior that moose and wolves call home.
In this episode:
- A weather delay sets Blissful up for a magical hike off her itinerary to Hugginin Bay.
- Her hike takes her past an embarrassment of thimbleberries and blueberries.
- Some-thing(one) protects her from a hike-stopping injury.
- She sees beaver, loons, red squirrels, a black fox and several moose, including one giant bull with a huge rack.
- She enjoys two beautiful sunsets on the Big Lake, including at enchanted Rainbow Cove, a beach of water-worn stones.
MUSIC: Over Wild Solitude by Katherine Bergmanas played by the St. Olaf Norseman Band (used by permission)
The setting sun pancakes into the clouds, orange and pink. Fog that hung over the water this morning and delayed my trip is gone now, only a memory in washed-out haze on the horizon fading into slate blue cliffs of Canada.
A beaver swims towards me, crossing the cove in a half submerged brown fuzz of determination. He leaves a ripply v-shaped wake in the mostly calm water, the gentle surge as though someone has given just one light tap to the Big Lake and set it in motion, thoomping and fizzing in the crevices beneath me.
A loon wails in the distance for his mate. I’m here, where are you? Dragonflies hover next to me, feasting on gnats as the resident beaver slaps the water like a cannonball.
A sliver moon hangs in the sky gradually sliding from white to orange as it follows the sun over the horizon. What a perfect site I have – a flat tent spot, a board bench for tea in the morning and this private rock veranda.
This is my first night on Isle Royale, at a place out of my way, not in the direction of my hike at all, and really an accidental landing pad. What force set things in motion to create the ideal circumstances to get me here? Whoever, whatever, you are – thank you.
I launched The Pee Rag podcast in late May and spent the first 14 episodes sharing the sounds and emotions of my thru-hike on the Te Araroa, New Zealand’s long distance trail. We got as far as Auckland and then I went on another actual backpack trip and decided to put New Zealand on pause for a few weeks, and bring you to this other very special place.
Last year, I walked two long distance thru-hikes and since coming home, have spent most of my time getting set up in a new career including building a professional recording studio. I had only two hikes on the agenda and then the pandemic hit. We stayed pretty close to home until one of my friends offered us her house for a week in Grand Marais, Minnesota, right on the shore of Lake Superior.
And also, just a short flight away from Isle Royale National Park, one of America’s least visited parks. At 206 square miles, Isle Royale sits at the far northwest corner of Lake Superior, like a long, squinty eye of a beast. It is the fourth largest lake island in the world and the second biggest in all of the Great Lakes – and it’s a backpacker’s paradise.
Made up of long ridges running southwest-to-northeast, Isle Royale is a tilted strata of volcanic rock.
Because it’s a 15-mile swim or a bitterly cold ice-crossing, there are no bears on the island, or porcupines, skunks or raccoons. But there are beaver, otters, black foxes, red squirrels, snakes, and frogs – though no one is entirely sure how they got there. In addition, Isle Royale has been the subject of the longest predator-prey research study in the world – between the island’s moose and wolves.
Over the past two years, the National Park Service has reintroduced wolves as their numbers have dwindled due to inbreeding. I’ve been promised to at least hear them at night.
Because of Covid, many of the docks and all island amenities are closed and no ferries are running. There are only two flights a day on tiny planes, taking hardy backpackers like me who long for the quiet solitude in boreal forest and “balds” of Canadian Shield.
This may very well be the best year to hike this enchanted place. But my flight was not going anywhere the day of departure. Thick sea fog had developed on the lake creating white out conditions at a very low ceiling. There’s nothing to do but wait, which we do at the iconic Java Moose on the harbor, Artists Point reflected in the stillness, the air chilly without the sun. I surprise myself feeling so sanguine in this moment. The paper is filled with analysis of the Democratic convention with Facebook chatter at a high pitch. I read and snack and wait as the sun slowly peeks out, a silvery burst of light breaking into the mist.
Finally, five hours later, Jon at Seaplane Central calls saying get back up the hill, the plane’s coming in to get you.
She’s a sleek de Havilland single-engine Beaver rocking slightly as she steadies to land rather quickly on miniature wheels under massive pontoons, like a grand piano being rolled on stage.
It’s just a pit stop for gas, and two big steps for this solo hiker and solo passenger. Thomas takes my temperature and asks me a few questions about my health, and, even though we’re both masked, reminds me smoking is not allowed on board.
High above spruce bogs and undulating forests, the flight path leaves the shore near Grand Portage. The island’s mountains pop up through one low leftover blanket of clouds and I barely feel our landing on deep and protected Washington Harbor.
Four backpackers are overjoyed when we arrive, stranded for a few days because of fog. Thomas hands me a fuel canister from a locked cage at the dock and then I check in with Ranger Jenna for my Leave No Trace lecture. Communicating with our eyes and eyebrows behind masks, I learn that moose are far more dangerous than wolves and to practice the “rule of thumb.” If I put my thumb up when I see one and can’t cover the moose, I am too close. I should always know where a good tree is to hide behind should they decide to charge.
Though unlikely now as it’s too early for rut or the mating season.
I also learn that of the dozen wolves on the island, many have lost their tracking collars, so the howls I hear might actually be rangers calling to the wolves. It is a distinct pattern, so I should be able to tell the difference.
She then covers packing out my garbage, camping only in designated sites (due to Covid and a small staff, cross-country camping is forbidden this season) leaving everything as is (except for berries!) putting out my fire completely and being considerate. Imagine this for a second: Isle Royale actually has designated quiet hours!
It’s getting late and I don’t have time for my original plan to begin walking south then east to cross the island. Both the pilot and Jenna suggest I walk five miles in the opposite direction toward Hugginin Cove, assuring me it’s a magical spot.
No time to waste, I get started right away taking the longer eastern side of the loop on beautifully built narrow wooden walkways over wetlands teaming with insects. There’s a tiny bit of up and down in a green tunnel of loaded thimbleberry bushes – plump explosions of sweet and tart.
The air is perfect – not too warm or too cold, though humid and I’m already sweating. I graze as I go arriving at the cut off for the Minong Trail, closed this year due to Covid. The most remote and strenuous of the trails, a search and rescue can take up to 16 hours and could be further complicated should the team need respirators. I was disappointed not to walk it this time, but where I am now – wet and bushy – challenges me enough.
I pass a turnout for an abandoned mine, but only see remains of a log building. Minong is the Ojibwe word for this island and has been mined for its pure copper since the pre-contact era. Long, thick boards take me past a marsh of light brown grasses, the water spilling out below me. More thimbleberries reach as high as my thighs offering their fruit in embarrassing quantities.
Birch and spruce change to cedar as I approach the lake, sidling the shore over rocks and roots. A fishing boat bobs in the water nearby and the sun burns hot in reflection. Thimbleberries give way to blueberries bunched close to the ground, plump and juicy. Canada’s ridges in dark blue seem to rise from the shimmer.
I come to a mossy boulder a bit high to climb up, but I notice a smaller rock next to it and decide to use it as, quite literally, a stepping stone. I step up, using my stick to balance, but the stick fails to make purchase and my foot slips down fast in the crevice between the rocks, folding on itself in a wedge.
Yow! That did not feel good at all. I put my weight on the foot, recalling the time in New Zealand I wiped and thought I’d broken the bone. I’m fine, but I can feel a bruise swelling under the skin.
The campsites are close and I know I can soak my foot in the frigid water, so I move along carefully, chiding myself for not being more careful. An injury is absolutely out of the question, I simply cannot fall.
As I approach the tiny bay, I see tents set up with a few people staring out into the view, motionless and absolutely silent as though at a religious service. Coming around the curve, a sign shows me the five sites and, more important, the whereabouts of the outhouse.
I cross a bubbling stream as crows flap noisily past and a squirrel chatters above. Sites four and five are empty, but awful, tucked deep back into the woods with poor water access.
Wait a minute, the tents were next to these, that means they must have been in sites two and three. Where is site one?
I head back, crossing the stream and passing the tents to see the small sign for site one that I must have missed coming in. The thin trail takes me along the water on crunchy pebbles and over some downed trees. I see a bench through the curtain of trees, and, glory halleluia, no tents!
It’s a perfect site and I set fast with just enough time to grab some bars and head to my rocky veranda and submerge my injured foot, cooling the half-dollar sized bruise as the sun sets.
Maybe it’s not by design that I got a late start and could only hike to this heavenly place, but that was some luck in not being too late, or too injured, a magical coming together of things. And the secret, I think, is being open enough to notice, and equally, alert enough to be full of gratitude.
All night, the sky lit up like a strobe light, thunder rumbling long and menacing, but not one drop of rain reaching me. I packed everything inside the tent including my muddy shoes, afraid a creature would make off with something vital.
The sunset was so perfect last night from my private rock outcropping, but this morning is socked in with fog. I pack up quickly, noticing one fat slug curled up under the alicoop’s tarp. I have neighbors, but I only see one quietly emerge to grab water. I leave before their tents come down.
It’s a boggy, thimbleberry zone with ups and downs over fallen birch, their bark pealing into tight scrolls. Mostly, I ‘walk the plank’ expertly arranged over wetlands, a thin trickle moving the coffee-stained water. They’re hardly just nailed together planks. Often, trail workers built short stairs to accommodate the undulating land.
I hear a loud crack of a twig in the brush, the only creature able to accomplish that would be a moose. Through the brush, I see her massive body, a dark brown blur pushing deeper into the forest. Moose Number One!
I press on over roots and rocks, damp and slippery with algae. Beaver have been hard at work here as the evidence shows massive trunks delicately chewed into a triangular point like a sharpened pencil. The air is humid and I’m sweating, but thankfully, there’s no car wash (yet) from the plants as high as my chest leaning over the trail. I could really use a machete, I think, when I suddenly hear heavy splashing below followed by a large moosey sneeze above.
I can’t see either of these besides a brown blur, but their gigantic presence is palpable. I slip past, looking for trees should I need to dart behind one. Two more today! Is that three moose or three mooses? Meese?
Soon I return to the cut off I took last night, completing the loop and heading back towards Windigo. I cross several streams on wide boards, now extra vigilant to stay upright. Near the visitor center, I meet the father and son I saw last night, impressed I plan to walk to Rock Harbor. I smile and thank them for their well wishes, hoping I’ve got what it takes.
I was warned these are not fast miles because of the rocks and overgrowth. I’m inclined to agree, already feeling a bit spent with nearly nine miles to go today. I pass about twenty hikers, all anxious to get off the island but with no idea when the planes will begin flying today. A father tells me he and his sons camped at Feldtmann Lake and suggest site two, so I aim myself in that direction and begin the loop.
Rain was predicted all day, but aside from the fog, it’s dry and very quiet. The trail follows massive Washington Harbor, long and deep and nearly always calm. Across is an island with a small house and a sailboat.
I drink a liter of water with watermelon flavored electrolytes, then head up towards the ridge through thick birch. A small spur takes me to an overlook with views to a pond and Superior beyond. I open a bag of mangos I dried at home, and they are pure nectar out here.
The sun is bright now and I hear the plane coming in. A bit of wind dries me out. Huge crickets with wings leap out of my path with a sprinkler’s clackety hiss.
I am nearly certain no moose hang out on a ridge, but when I enter the forest, I am surprised by one just next to the trail. I back up and hide behind a tree, holding up my thumb as instructed to see if he disappears and I am far enough away. He has an enormous rack and beard, but seems uninterested in me, continuing to graze on stemmy plants.
I take a few pictures of his narrow backside which slopes to a camel-like hump then joins his large, lovely head, mostly nose and antlers. He appears so calm as I gently walk past, watching me almost quizzically, a cartoon character with little interest in coming closer.
The path is high above any water, but is covered in smoothed stones, an ancient shoreline crunching under my feet. I again am welcomed by an abundance of thimbleberries, which I gobble up leaving red stains on my thumb and index fingers. The only improvement possible is the addition of raspberries to the mix, sweeter and crunchier.
I join a stream and filter water and it’s nonstop bushwhacking for miles, mostly flat, but I have to watch where I put my feet in a green tunnel of mud and mosquitos. I stop briefly for a drink and arrive to find my pick of the sites. Score! Site two is right on the shore of Feltdmann Lake. I set the alicoop and hang my sweaty clothes in the breeze, making an early dinner before heading to Rainbow Cove, about a mile’s walk to Lake Superior.
This shore is water-smoothed stones, tumbling with a tinkly sound as the waves lift them and gently set them back down. The sun hides behind a cloud before exploding below as it reaches the horizon in magenta and purple.
It’s not the best skipping stone beach, but Richard would be proud I make three hops with a few flat ones. Better yet, there are long finger-like stones I lob in without a splash, just a ‘thoop.’
As the sun disappears, I walk back the flat path above the stream, the bees out earlier on the purple aster are all asleep now. I hold my puffy above my head so it won’t pick up dew.
A few steps from the turn off for my site, a fox greets me on the path, long black socks and a wily expression. I snap his picture and walk on, but he appears ready to play, bending forward then jumping from side to side.
Eventually he trots to a clearing under cedar, scratching his back with his hind leg. ‘Little fox, you better not be stealing anything from me tonight!’
All is well when I return, the wind up and the waves crashing. I dip in the lake to my knees before turning in – and then tie my shoes to one pole just in case.
episode 14 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker times the tides to kayak down the Puhoi River, rock hop then cross an estuary before walking down the North Shore to Auckland. Her young friend, Lydie, teaches her about the infinity loop and the circle inside it that represents our grounded selves.
In this episode:
- Blissful is invited to stay as long as she likes at the Puhoi Pub and Hotel, then joins her young European friends to paddle down the river toward the coast.
- The ranger invites them to camp on his lawn in Wenderholm.
- A rock hop and a long road walk takes Blissful to Stillwater where another lawn camp is offered.
- Another estuary with a deep river cross takes Blissful to the North Shore with on and off rain all the way to Devenport where the ferry shows up just as she walks down the pier.
MUSIC: Suite Argentina: Malambo by Horacio Salgán as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
The barkeep named Sean asks if I met the ghost in room 7. He tells me this ghost carries his head in his hands and has a bad case of flatulence. Whoever my ghost visitor was, he was friendly and I never heard, or smelled, a thing.
The tide won’t go out until 4:30, so I just relax on my private covered porch, resting from having walked around 300 miles on tough trails. I watch the puffy clouds drift by with my feet up, thinking I still have a bit of time until we meet the rental company to pick up kayaks and float down the river to the sea.
Just as I get ready to leave, it begins pouring rain.
So much generosity in this country. Sean the barkeep tells me not to rush and enjoy my stay. It works for them as there are no other guests in the hotel – except the ghost – but still, his kindness brings me to the point of tears. Even Judy the housekeeper who walked in on me early this morning when I took my third long soak in the big claw-footed bathtub, told me, no worries, eh, I’ll get to your room later.
A few years ago I walked the GR5, the traverse of the French Alps. One day rain was predicted for the entire day and that was my cue to take a rest day. It’s no fun to hike in rain, and you can’t see anything anyway. Camping the night before, I had no intention of waiting out the weather in my tent. There was a village, just 45 minutes walk ahead, and there was bound to be a place to stay.
I arrived at a beautiful chalet at 8:30 in the morning asking for a room. Not only did the owner set me up, but he allowed me into the room right at that moment – and like today, invited me to just relax all day on the covered porch as rain fell over the mist-shrouded mountains. I recall the dinner that night with a large group of French families included the finest cheese course I’ve had in my life.
Sure, the room wasn’t occupied and it was no trouble to let me take it early, but he could have been strict with a specified check in time and he chose to be a gracious host instead. Contrast that with a gîte owner further south who threw me off his property when a guest invited me to have a bath in her room. No dinner for me even after offering to pay for the hot water I used. It was such a mean and arbitrary act, I was shaken to the core, really, for years.
Puhoi Pub in New Zealand, where I eat mussel fritters washed down with a local cider, has erased that awful moment of being told, “We don’t like your kind here.”
There’s another lesson for me. We all have options to be generous or to be stingy, to see abundance or to see scarcity. And this is not a judgment I’m making of the world; this goes for me too. Rather than dismiss the nasty French experience and celebrate the wonderful one, I chose to put my attention on figuring out the nasty one. It’s almost as though I believe kindness is a fluke and unkindness what I deserve.
Having my feelings of anger, confusion and hurt is not the problem; those are appropriate responses. The problem is in staying with those feelings and puzzling over what I could have done differently. Or worse, asking, “Why me?” It turns the blame for poor behavior on me rather than where it belongs, on the one who behaved badly.
The rain stops suddenly and it’s sunny again, just in time to leave. I pick up some of the famous Puhoi stinky, washed-rind cheese before launching. A third Dutchman named Koen joins us, Floris, Marjolein, Lydie and Stefan – all just barely in their twenties. We bump along in fat sit on top kayaks, laughing and splashing our way from muddy and narrow to wide open and turquoise, s-shaped necked herons pumping oversized wings as we approach.
I mostly paddle with Stefan who tells me he’s built his own wooden kayaks then complains that Lydie walks too slow and hitches too much. It’s late when we arrive at Wenderholm, chilled by the dropping temperature and still a walk to a camping area. It’s busy with teenagers, likely from a school throwing, kicking and whacking balls of varying shapes and sizes. Even for my twenty-something friends, it’s not exactly paradise by the sea.
And just then, the ranger drives up. Ross seems to read our minds and invites us to to camp on his lawn with a long drop and running water, free of charge. Boy did we score.
He even has a picnic table where we share cheese and beer and laughs before it starts raining again and we all take cover in our tents.
It’s a cold night, and damp. The sandflies are active, a nuisance that is rarely discussed in the “Pure New Zealand” ad campaign. There are actually nineteen sandfly species found in New Zealand, but only three bite humans. The one I’m dealing with is a black fly that are prolific in areas near water and humid bush, including beaches, lakes, rivers and swamps, essentially everywhere I’m walking.
The good news is they don’t appear to carry any diseases, and, unlike our mosquito, they don’t bite while you’re moving. So away I go, up the headlands to extraordinary views of chalky turquoise sea, squalls traveling down the coast. This spot was a private estate at one time. A sign informs me that water collection was a challenge, and the family that settled here needed a lot for their tennis courts, lawns and gardens. They would place eels and crayfish in the tanks to eat mosquito larvae and keep the water fresh. A quote reads, “All water has perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
Do you know who wrote that?
Toni Morrison. I smile with pride.
Epiphytes called kowharawhara perch in trees’ arm pits. Trippers-of-the-forest called kareao, snake up the ground to all the way into the canopy where the rain dances but I stay dry below.
The high point is a pa, a fortress from the 16th century when iwis fought one another for territory. They cleared forest and used trenches as traps, all must feeling justified politically or religiously for their land grab. I come down to Waiwera Road where I meet the others who skipped the last section. A little store sells L&P soda (lemon and paeora) I ask the clerk what is paeroa and she says that’s just where it’s made. Not bad, refreshing as we’re told to expect thunderstorms as two more hikers show up from Sweden.
And then, it’s a rock hop at low tide, a playground of shifted ancient molten layers, tide pools, seaweed and oysters clinging tightly. The rain stops and the sun gleams on the wind-rippled water. Tiny purple snails huddle in cracks and depressions like plump berries. My feet love the clingy feel of the drying rock. The sand is course, crushed shells, jagged edges, slabs of rock spitting out in long tongues, whimsically eroded like sliced bread here, a dinosaur’s backbone there.
The trail provides as the rain returns right as I reach Otanarua Hatsfield beach, the town of Orewa in view. A leafy promenade called Marine Parade takes me along the beach. Unusual homes look out to sea.
I come to a sign explaining the significance of te ara tahina estuary, a safe anchorage for canoes and abundant with food, a place deeply revered.
I’m carrying a wet tent and my clothes are dirty, but I am dry and this breeze is cool. I feel wonderful, everything on my back and in my pockets. But now, I’m in a town, cows next to the roundabout, Christmas decorations up.
A nice Kiwi with bright red hair and an out of place Roatan t-shirt helps me find the poorly signed underpass for a crowded four lane highway, offers me a ride but I tell her I’d rather walk.
I really wish I’d accepted. There’s no verge and crazy fast driving. Really, at the very least the TA Association should create sidewalks on the road sections. It’s dangerous not to mention ugly. Maybe this whole ‘long walk’ idea is a joke and the expectation is that we’ll hitch.
Once I’m off the main road, it’s quiet and scenic; I don’t mind it at all. Oh no, I took a wrong turn! I was supposed to stay in that awful busy road. Damn it! Right now, I’m not liking New Zealand at all.
A whole string of bad words come out of my mouth as a lovely Kiwi pulls up to tell me I’m going the wrong way. No kidding, dude. I’m just about to cry as he piles me and Olive Oyl in his car for the half k back to the main road. He tells me he’s complained to the council that the trail really shouldn’t be on busy roads. All the steam comes out of me with his words and I burst out laughing when we pull up to the intersection and there’s Koen limping along with a giant walking stick he found.
We share the rest of the walk to beautiful Stillwater where the others await, and just as I expected, hitched. Another lovely Kiwi welcomes us to the caravan park, hands us tokens for a five minute shower and gives us the run of the game room, no charge. Lydie has the Animals cranked, Koen sings off key at the top of his lungs, Stefan is getting beer and we’re all relaxed in overstuffed chairs, the alicoop and my clean underwear drying in the sun.
And that’s just it with this trail; the most irritating, hair-pulling-out, f-bomb-dropping road walking contrasted with the most lovely and generous people you’ll ever meet.
I wouldn’t miss it for the world, well ok, maybe the road walking bit….
Another day, another tide-timing estuary to cross, this time at 12:36. Even so the Okura River will come up above our hips so we have to be prompt
In the lull, I ponder the juxtaposition of Lydie and me. She tells me she is the old soul and me the young one. So true, that. At 25, she knows herself well and is happy with who she is, taking life as it comes.
She encourages me to think about all the superb luck so far – like just now staying for free in a quiet, friendly caravan park and having the run of this huge game room rather than sit it out in the elements. I feel gratitude for all that’s come my way and yet – is it just human nature? – I dwell on past hurts.
When I took the wrong road yesterday I thought of my dad, whom I haven’t spoken to in years. I feel like such a jerk saying that. My only explanation is years and years – nearly a lifetime – of his making me feel not enough. And not in a direct way like demanding better grades or more success out of life, but in subtle ways like ignoring and dismissing me.
It takes my breath away as we pack to leave in the pouring rain how desperately I wanted his attention, just to tell me I’m ok as I am. I don’t know if he knows I’m in New Zealand right now.
We start just as the rain stops and the sun comes out. Off go the rain pants and rain skirts, but the pack protectors stay on, bouncing along the Orewa nature reserve.
This estuary is different, much larger with a huge expanse of wave-carved sand. The rock is more slippery with piles of shells pressed into every nook. At the river, we organize packs and walking sticks and whether to take off our clothes or not. Tiny crabs in beautiful shell-homes crawl on the dry ridges, kite-shaped holes tell me stingrays were here.
The others carry their packs on their heads and strip to their underwear. I dispense with formalities and just plunge right in with shoes, pants, backpack. Yes, I’m soaked, but it’s easier, doable, and I laugh the entire way as the water comes over the lady bits to my belly button, then one more short and deeper section before the end. It’s over in no time as the wind picks up, drying my legs into a salty white ring.
The coastal walk takes me up on the cliffs with expansive fields of grasses rippling in the breeze. Light raindrops tap my hat, the water a milky blue.
After the beach comes a quiet residential enclave reminding me of La Jolla, trail marker on the street signs. I’m ready for some take-away.
I forgot to mention when walking into Puhoi how much the Te Araroa reminds me of hiking in France, the wilder tramp giving way to farm track then spilling directly into town. I love that feeling I have again today as a small sidewalk cuts through backyards to the beach – and the hope of lunch.
Two older Kiwis ask how long I’ve been walking. “Well, I walk too,” one says. “But not that far!” They direct me to a commercial street with shops and burgers and thick shakes.
The trail meanders on public cliff walks and through bays and villages. A woman pops out of her house to tell me her son did the TA two years ago and how someone quit after six days, “But he was in his fifties!”
As am I, I tell her. But I don’t think she hears me.
It starts pouring rain as I walk around the cliffs, but the sun peaks out on Milford beach, a whole flotilla of sailboats, colorful spinnakers filled, lead me down the sand, the tide pressing in.
Next it’s crazy Black Rock. I think this is a public through-way, but it disappears into a slippery jumble. People come my way, so I guess I can get around, so happy that Olive Oyl is light now with no food.
The sun comes out again and conjures a rainbow against the slate sky, my sailboats still bobbing in the chalky-green sea.
I go over and around North Head and catch my first full-on glimpse of Auckland as the sun sets. Devonport is filled with Victorian homes, a long tree lined promenade for me to walk as I pass shops.
Like in the movies, the ferry arrives just as I arrive and it’s a short ride across Shoal Bay to the twinkling lights of New Zealand’s largest city, the sky tower reaching to a peach sky turning lapis.
On the ride I think about what Lydie showed me this morning in Stillwater. She has a tattoo on her finger of the infinity symbol with a circle in the center. It represents the decisions that keep coming back time and again, no matter if the circumstances change.
Unless we change, we will continue to travel the same figure-eight track over and over. But when we come into our own, we are the circle in the center, able to stop traveling that well-grooved path and become grounded and whole.
I have the crazy idea I can walk tonight all the way to Susie’s house, the daughter of my mother-in-law’s neighbor who married a Kiwi, but I go about 1 kilometer before I call her to come and pick me up and bring me to her warm home. She promises me a few zero days, Auckland exploration and Kiwi-style, Thanksgiving dinner.
episode 13 show notes ‘n transcript
- Blissful heads into the bush for a few days and is now an expert at slogging through epic mud.
- She instructs two slower hikers to just walk through it, and is invited to go first.
- They camp together and offer Blissful a beer at the end of a hard day.
- Breakfast is at the Dome Cafe where two more join in, also wise for their years, telling Blissful not to worry about anything and take each day as it comes.
- They all meet up again at the Puhoi Pub where Blissful gets a well-deserved room fro the night.
MUSIC: Poema del Pastor Coya by Angel Lasalaas played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
Sunrise over the South Pacific, not a bad way to wake up in my camp spot in dunes on Pakiri Beach. I delay in the warmth, hoping the sun will dry the dew. No such luck. Once I open the thermarest valve, game is on wet or not, and it means time to pack and get going.
I take a selfie as a way to look in a mirror I don’t have with me. I don’t like the face I see, wrinkled and saggy, but I console myself with what my body can do.
I am now on stage two of ten and I’m ready for a break to repair gear and repair myself, but that’s still days away. I try to focus on just one step at a time, to be present in this moment without an eye towards the zero day – or days – awaiting me.
The beach is pristine and empty except for a bit of harestail grass I carry out on my shoe and one awaiting surf board. Mist rises in the distance, ghostly white in the hot sun.
It’s been a steady diet of beach and bush and I’ll be away from beach for a few days now – but just as I go I see a public toilet – ah! and water and soap. Ah! The small pleasures of life. A couple asks me what I’m doing and ensures that I’m taking lots of pictures along the way. They’re surprised it’ll take five months to walk all of this and wish me well.
A beautiful marine biologist named Lucy comes to her gate to fill my water bottle adding big weight to my pack before a big hill. She warns me it’s steep up Te Hikoi Ote Kir towards Mt. Tamahunga and there’s lots of mud. That’s ok, I’m an expert with mud now. So it’s steady and slow I go, up mostly on slippery grass.
Going slow makes me think of life and its seasons, how nothing can be rushed. You can’t pull on the shoots to make them grow faster. I stop and have some of the water I carried here. The Tamahunga trail takes me along a ridge with a view to my camp spot far below on one very long beach.
My mind, then my body, wanders right off the track, so I rewind to a narrow, mud filled slope that looks best walked while doing the splits. A saddle lined with sharp gorse takes me into the Omaha Forest, and everything immediately changes to bush and bird song, silver ferns daintily revealing their undersides – and ten chatty weekend hikers more interested in arriving than seeing this stupendous view. But they’re friendly and excited to be here, taking my picture before heading back.
A solo Tasmanian hiker who has to be in her 70’s is also hiking the Te Araroa all alone. Sadly, we don’t click as she pontificates more than listens, so I walk on into the bush, climbing hand over hand up a muddy and slippery section that opens to a helicopter pad and views for miles.
The trail is steep and slick, up and down through bush. Furry fiddleheads, larger than my fist, spring up out of the fecund ground. I’m thrilled it’s not raining. Two hikers pick their way carefully down through a particularly awkward section and I see one is trying to avoid the worst of the mud. “Aw, you just gotta go through it!”
The long haired blonde turns around and smiles at me, urging me to go first. She’s French, named Lydie and has the cutest, dimpled grin that makes her appear up to no good. Her partner is a red headed German named Stefan, his head and beard shaved close, his backpack enormous. As I pass, I notice in the side pockets two bottles of Heineken. I like them already.
The trail spits us out onto a road which I dutifully walk facing traffic on the right. Lydie leads the way catching up to me, but refusing to walk with me, seemingly not out of spite, but more because she simply doesn’t want to be inconvenienced to cross the road. I take their picture marching along, self sufficient and content. Behind them is the huge hump of beautiful Kawau Island gleaming in the Hauraki Gulf, a prized bit of real estate that was fought over by Maori for centuries.
Lydie is only 24 but wise for her years. She knows herself well. I’m impressed that she wants to give this hike a try while here on a working/tourist visa. She tells me she hitches the boring parts and moves extremely fast, so we’ll likely lose each other soon, but I admire that she is comfortable with who she is and with what she wants, refusing to be afraid of anything.
We pass a house of barking dogs and a fence festooned with dozens of discarded boots, then leave the road for the Dome Forest, another slip-n-slide advanced tramping track. The sign tells us it’s 2,435 kilometers to Bluff and I decide then and there that these last days of solitude have been special, but I’m going to bring it to an end and walk with these two. I feel affection towards them and besides they intend to push all the way to the famous Dome Café before it closes at 5:00. I can almost taste that burger with everything and a large thick shake.
We move fast through the bush. Let me tell you, this is really hard walking. Steep up and steep down in the deep gumbo, huge twisting exposed roots, a vine-and-downed-trees obstacle course. We leap from boulder to boulder over Waiwhiu Stream then meet a forest track that takes us up again to another muddy trail.
We fly through the bush and I’m amazed not only that I seem to have mastered epic mud and wildly steep trails, but that my ankle is fine and I can move as well as two hikers less than half my age. But no matter our speed, there is absolutely no chance we’ll make it to the café.
So we decide to set up camp here in a wide grassy spot right on the track, with non-biting house flies just a nuisance, and no view whatsoever. There’s no water here, but it’s just a half kilometer back to the rocky river crossing where I clean off the mud from my shoes, splash my hair and body and give my tired feet a chilly soak.
I lope up the hill in my fake crocks, Lydie and Stefan set up and a small flat place reserved for me. Lydie gives me her dimply smile, looking at me sideways. At first I wonder if they spied me stripping bare to take my bath in the stream.
“We waited for you to have a beer.” I nod and smile back. “We waited, because we didn’t carry two bottles, we carried three!
Friends, let me tell you, no beer ever tasted better.
I’m up and out early. Exotic birds becoming friends wake me. It will be a very big day to get all the way to Puhoi, a tiny settlement on the Puhoi River, a word that means slow and sluggish and an apt name. Maybe if I get a burger after this big mountain climb, I can make that happen.
The tent is damp – I’m damp – but I feel relatively clean, the feet still managing to move well. Not fast, but fast enough.
Why is it that a kind act, like sharing a beer, gets me all panicky? All the upset of my life bubbles of my pores as I use the thru-hike to work whatever it is I need to work out. It’s hardly an escape, more a coming to terms.
I leave before the others, knowing they’ll catch me as I walk slow savoring the morning sun, fuzzy in the mist through remu, kanuka, hinau, and pigeon wood not to mention so many tree ferns.
I’m overcome by the compactness of all I need on my back and that my legs keep taking me where I want to go. I’m entranced by the morning. I come to a young kauri forest, tall and straight, a jigsaw puzzle of gray/brown bark, opaque green lichen and vines creeping to the canopy.
The two Finnish pass cold as ice and don’t acknowledge me as they move quickly past. Are they enjoying this, I wonder? Trail runners bound by in bright colors, with bright smiles. I spy the dome ahead as well as the highway, raucous even on an early Sunday morning.
A wooden platform is set up to keep walkers off the roots of the kauri giants. I say a greeting to these lovelies from our California redwoods. When I get to the next summit, I can’t help but think of Bill Bryson describing the Appalachian trail through Georgia of just forest as far as the eye can see with no variation, just green wave upon green wave, forest I’ll walk through eventually.
A Dutch couple crashes in on me and tells me ‘real’ view is actually further along. It’s beautifully cleared with a wooden platform landing. Here the track changes immediately from advanced to easy tramping track on stairs. A sign warns those coming up that the next section should only be attempted by people in good physical condition and with good footwear.
In contrast, the stairs can be managed in heels. I skip down two at a time, blissfully taking full strides that lead me to high calorie food
Signs ask us to remove our muddy shoes before entering, but everyone is cheery and I order the deluxe lamb burger, with egg, bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato and beet root, plus chips and an extra large thick shake. Breakfast of champions.
Floris and Marjolein left their jobs in Utrecht to hike the TA. They’re laid back, taking things as they come. We stuff ourselves and try to figure out the plan from Puhoi. The official “trail” goes down the river to the ocean and requires renting kayaks. But the tides are not on our side. I call one rental company, and they’re out of business. Another is too busy and the final one, closed.
But being around these two, mellows me out and I relax and enjoy my burger, figuring the trail will provide. Floris gives me good advice that he received from another Dutch Te Araroa walker – simply enjoy each day, no rush – and don’t worry since things do tend to come together.
Stefan and Lydie show up and we crowd around a table on the veranda. Just as I’m ready to leave, I get a text from one of the rental places. Meet tomorrow at 4:30 sharp at the Puhoi car park. I text them back that it’s five going now and that seems to be just fine.
It’s up and over and back in farmland. Cows come when I whistle a complicated, atonal piece of music. A man pops his head over a fence to offer more water before I walk through a Get Smart series of gates.
The weather changes as clouds move in. I can see rain off in the distance but nothing on me yet. A NOBO, or northbound walker, passes me all smiles. Over this top, the view opens back to the sea, then right back into bush, huge ferns layering the path.
I come to an area controlled not only for die-back, but also for goats, though I see none so they must be well in hand.
It’s down and down between farm fields giving way to homes, but nowhere near town. Instead, after 20 miles walking, it’s back up – and up – stairs, thankfully, but my thighs are burning, my feet ready to give up. But these stairs take me into some of the finest bush I’ve seen yet. It’s a well tended and easy tramping track through palms, kauri and all I’ve come to know up close.
And it’s not the mud of the Raetea forest, not the winding up and down tripping hazard of every other forest I’ve walked this far for kilometers’s on end, rather it’s a soft landing to this wonderful day just to breathe in. It’s me – the blissful hiker – tramping in New Zealand bush.
My new friends are all here already waving to me from the pub having hitched the last part. I spoil myself by taking a room in the 1879 Puhoi Pub and Hotel. I’m their only guest and they give me the run of the second floor.
What a good day and full of surprises – and a little education about letting things happen from people much younger than me. I take a long soak in a old tub until I prune, then put on a fluffy terrycloth robe provided by the hotel and sit on the covered porch as the rain comes down. I order a beautiful tart, effervescent local brew and homemade clam chowder the music seeping up to my perch from the bar below, it’s hits from my the decade of my birth the 1960’s – and, curiously, all American.
episode 12 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker learns that her subconscious needed this journey of thousands of steps on the Te Araroa as well as important lessons about taking measured leaps of faith and letting go of the need to control to allow the trail itself to provide.
In this episode:
- Blissful is awakened in Ruakaka by a bird with a microphone, then heads back on the beach.
- She meets interesting characters at Dragonspell who tell her how important it is to take the long walk, and that the trail will provide.
- The resident kiwi sings to her before a long day of road walking.
- Just when she loses hope, she’s back at the beach and surfers convince her to camp in the dunes, permission given by the residents.
MUSIC: Poema del Pastor Coya by Angel Lasala as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
Note to self: no more setting up on a slope. It was wonderful staying at Betty’s – and to be fair, she offered me a bed inside her home. But I stubbornly set up the alicoop on her lawn, never really finding a flat spot. I slid off my thermarest and woke up over and over to readjust until one strip of equilibrium materialized and I dropped to sleep. Only to be awakened by an overly eager bird on a branch just above my head. He’s been cranked up since before sunrise. I love the exotic but this guy’s got a mic!
I’ve been sharing the story of my thru-hike of New Zealand’s Te Araroa with you on The Pee Rag. Today, I am in Ruakaka near Whangerei in Northland, only an hour’s drive out of Auckland – but still, many days walking for me. Betty invited me to camp on her lawn last night then calls me back insdie to watch the sunrise over the ocean. From this angle, I can see all of Bream Head, the Mt. Lion and the coves and beaches I visited as I walked. The Te Araroa cuts back out to civilization right after the summit, but I followed the longer circular path, and I’m glad I did, getting the chance to have a private cove all to myself.
I’m right back on the beach this morning, the clouds mirrored in the low tide’s shellacked surface. I see a backpacker far ahead of me carrying low weight and seemingly walking each step.
So let me tally up how I’ve progressed thus far. I’ve used boats three times – into the Waikare Inlet from Pahia, across the Ngunguru River and finally, yesterday, across Whangerei Harbor. Sure, there are ways to avoid crossings, but they involve long, convoluted road walks and hitching. A long thru-hike with water crossings is part of the fun.
Twice, I’ve accepted rides for short distances, one past a closed section of forest between Ahipara and Kaitaia when Peter walked with me, and, just last night, when Betty ferried me from the store to her house. But I don’t want to skip anything. I want to walk the entire length of this country and take it all in, the good, the bad and the ugly. But other hikers who don’t walk it all are using a pejorative term for people like me – “purist” I think a better term would be thru-hiker and those who skip, hitch-hikers, but I’m pretty sure they would not appreciate that.
Shells are everywhere on the windswept beach, sand dollars broken in triangle pie servings, flattened scallops that look like bare feet, and delicately fluted spirals. I polish off a bag of chips as a hiker marches past, head down, earbuds jammed in. She barely notices me – or anything, it would seem.
I can’t help but wonder as I slowly follow her, who I’ll pair up with when I’ll need to canoe down the Whanganui River. That’s a month away at least, and, if I’ve learned anything, best left there in the future.
A kiwi sets up a long-line shot out by torpedo two kilometers into the ocean. He tells me he sends it out, takes a two hour walk, and then has enough snapper for family and friends. Too bad I’m walking on. He also tells me where to get coffee ahead. I’m too polite to tell him I’m off caffeine, but appreciate knowing there is nothing after Waipo.
And it is a sweet little place I come to, Little Red Coffee where I order a Beetroot Black Currant Ginger Almighty and unload all my trash. I remember meeting an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker in the White Mountains who told me he loves trash cans. I understand what he means now, not wanting to lug it around. A sand blister develops on my heel, but I still have plenty of bandages in the pack. It’s just a small bit of road walk and I wave at every car politely, which somehow keeps them from passing too closely.
Ah, a separated walking track. Kiwis I’ve met have told me that New Zealand is slowly building bike and hike trails and here is a beautiful example.
But it’s only two kilometers, ugh, and I’m right back on the road. Dangerous curves, fast drivers, it’s nerve-wracking. A truck whizzes past and my hat flies off in a cloud of dust.
Finally, I peal off and go uphill to views far back to Bream Head. Now I see how high Mt. Lion is. No wonder I’m so hungry! There are no cars on this road as it winds up and up. Logging scars are everywhere and there’s no shade, but a cooling wind refreshes me as I drink a can of Marlborough blush, and break open cheese and sausage and a wee bit of melting Whitaker’s chocolate.
I have a small sugar and alcohol buzz as I continue still higher, looking out towards humpy islands. Signs begin to appear; red hearts and arrows. Trail angels lead the way.
They lead me to DragonSpell, a kind of hippy commune meets backpacker paradise. The sign at the end of the drive indicates “long walkers welcome.” That would be me, so I head up for a look, even though it’s far too early in the day to stop.
At first, it appears deserted, so I wander around taking in the ramshackle buildings with attention paid to detail – and fulfilling hikers’ needs, including comfortable bunks, a well stocked kitchen with free veggies and eggs, a hot shower, spring water, a clothes line and an awesome hang out area.
The caretaker Johnny finally shows up after I see that I need to ring the bell. He’s husky, dressed in a tee shirt and shorts, crew socks but no shoes, a full beard, bright blue eyes and the most generous nature. He offers me a cup of tea right away on his balcony, rolls a cigarette and it’s as though we’re old friends just picking up from wherever it was we left off. I tell him about all the good fortune that has come my way over the past few days, that even though I twisted my ankle and had to slow down, I met amazing people at just the right moment, camped and swam in exquisite places I had all to myself.
An American hiker named Nate shows up not intending to stay, but just asking for some water. He walked another thru-hike last year, the Arizona Trail, and when I tell him what we’re talking about, he says he’s not surprised at all. It’s the trail itself, the trail always provides.
Johnny rolls another cigarette and Nate takes off. I decide I’m loving it here too much to leave, so I set the alicoop next to a picnic table in a field looking past bush to the ocean. I return with food to cook for dinner when a neighbor shows up, a man who renamed himself Omra, a name that means the personification of divine energy.
Omra is a German immigrant, a psychologist who studied with a guru in India and specializes in astrology and numerology. No subject is off-limits and we talk non-stop and laugh about life, love, and how badly I need this trail to sort out myself just now.
I am the only guest until one young man shows up and tucks in under a tree without a view and without so much as a hello. Which is just fine by me, because I have the balcony, Omra and Johnny all to myself.
The shadows get longer and after covering every subject imaginable, Omra bids us adieu and it’s time to make some food. I suggest we make it a date and combine resources. Now how is it that a backpacker has more stuff to share then Dragonspell’s caretaker? I offer up pasta, salami and cheese and Johnny contributes fresh veg for a dinner creation only a hiker – and a bachelor – could stomach.
Johnny tells me Venus is in retrograde which means it’s time to develop self-love. Omra earlier mentions the same; without self-love, we have no identity. No one else can fulfill this most basic need. The stars come out competing with the half moon and it’s time for me to sleep, completely bowled over by today’s beauty, friendship and all the serendipitous moments.
A grand sleep with the resident kiwi singing through the night accompanied by waves rumbling far below. I dream about a person who hasn’t been in my life a long time, feeling that familiar out-of-control reaction to him, but in sleep, I rewrite the ending.
Omra and Johnny let me speak about not fitting in, wanting a group of friends, but finding being alone is working for me, even if I have to weigh all decisions myself. I do have contact with Richard, so I’m not completely alone, but we’re 19 hours apart.
My confidence is building – and so is my trust – that it will all work out. This doesn’t come easily to this control freak. I traded the (mostly) known but beginning to be routine life I was living for a long trail that, even with so much information, remains to be revealed. Omra would say my subconscious needed this, even if it’s hard for me.
The trail begins in sun-dappled bush, Johnny heads to town ahead of me and puts up a ‘keep out’ sign at the end of the driveway. I arrived just in time.
Traps and poison are set all along the track for stoats, weasels, possums and rats – all introduced species that have wreaked havoc on the bird population. It’s a gruesome business, possums have to be trapped live then clubbed. But if they’re skinned immediately, the prized soft pelt can be blended with merino.
I ponder why I dreamed about that sad chapter from so long ago, a man who told me I’d need to quit my beloved job and sell my house to be with him. I was so in his thrall, I would have done anything he said.
To this day, I thank the goddess she broke the spell and I was set free. Next to my dystonia diagnosis, that was the saddest period of my life, but one that forced me to claim my life back and take full responsibility for it.
This path reminds me of Colorado, steep with loose ball-bearing-like stones. Soon I reach a road, but the trail turns off, twists around and lets me out up the road, which I have to walk right back down again.
I could have just crossed it! Damn purist!
I meet a grumpy man wearing a Bernie Sanders t-shirt who became a New Zealand citizen 27 years ago. I can’t make out if he supports social democrats or that was all he had to wear.
The young ultra-minimalist Kiwi who stayed under the trees last night passes me, his thin legs supporting a day pack walk him ahead to the Mangawhai cliffs.
I stop to eat two kiwis, succulent and tangy. For a good portion of my life, I maintained a rescue fantasy. Fiercely defiant about my independence, though secretly longing for the princely kiss to awaken me to my true self.
If Omra’s philosophy is to be believed, the natural conclusion to my life script was that relationship I dreamed about, one where I gave away my power and lost myself.
I’m pretty sure I’m not looking for anyone here, but I’m confused how disconnected I feel from other hikers, and that forces me to look squarely at what expectations I bring with me.
Am I ‘hiking my own hike’ or am I hoping friends appear – thus lessening the challenge and possible serendipitous encounters along the way?
Just when you thought the view couldn’t improve, it gets even more spectacular; azure sea expands towards rocky islands, gnarled trees covered with orchids. Soon I join the tiny ant people I see far below on the beach. Scallops flat, heavy, colorful, pressed in by the tide.
It’s a sizeable detour around the harbor, through the quiet villages and now loud, seemingly never-ending road walk. I’m hugely grateful for a dedicated path that crosses the estuary where herons stalk, but desperate for the beach and bush.
I spy a pizza place, not busy but the man behind the counter is impatient and sighs when I ask for a variation on the toppings. I give up and go to the supermarket instead. I realize that I’ve officially arrived in the region of Auckland. I’m still days away from the largest city in New Zealand. This just means I need to go to a different section in my trail notes. I also realize it’s way too far to the camp spot I had in mind for tonight, so I sit down on the sidewalk in a thin strip of shade to sort things out, not at all in love with this noisy town of Mangawhai.
A Finnish couple with big backpacks come out of the store and I say hello and ask them where they’re headed. To the caravan park they tell me. It’s too hot to keep walking. Yes, it is hot and this kinda sucks. I follow them on and on up the road to a tidy park with RV’s and tents in rows facing the massive harbor I spent most of my day walking around.
They set up under the only tree and even though I decide to press on, they lovely owners off me a chance to fill my water bottle before heading to the beach again.
The trail will provide, I tell myself when a car passing too fast kicks up a cloud of dust practically choking me. The trail will provide – but what?
I hear the ocean first, then spy deep blue surrounded by peach colored dunes. I walk over jellyfish like gelatinous magnifying glasses randomly dropped. Surfers ply the waves in thick neoprene. Three of them hang out by their cars and offer me an IPA aghast to discover the TA trail veers to the center of the country after Auckland, missing all the spots they love. One of them encourages me to go for it tonight and camp on the beach.
The sand is compact under my tired feet. Late in the day, the sun now behind me sets off little diamond specks of light on and off as I walk, leading the way – somewhere. I smile with a small beer and trail angel buzz.
This part of the beach all the way to Pakiri, I’m told by Angel Surfer #1, is deserted. His uncle’s is the only house on the way and he’s never there. But that isn’t exactly the case. There are others on the beach. One just finishing up fishing in the waves, another too far away, moving wood across a path.
I then run into a guy with two dogs and a beer in hand. I don’t ask for a beer this time rather I ask if I might camp on his lawn. He says he’ll be out for three hours, but to search out the little house with no roof; no one minds if you camp in the dunes, he promises me.
The little house with no roof is on spongy dune grasses, not at all conducive to a good night’s rest. But ahead I see a flat bit with mostly pingao and hairstail grass, something a bit less spiky. It’s idyllic here, with the setting sun behind me and crashing waves amidst a pink glow
I lope on over just as a couple comes out on the beach to fish. “Excuse me, might you let a weary and very quiet TA hiker to camp on your lawn?”
Praise all believers in trail magic, they say yes! And in a flash, the alicoop is up, my pegs going in easily not so much into sand, but heftier dirt. There’s an abandoned brick oven I use as a seat, bright yellow evening primrose crawling along the crumbling walls. I eat dinner with the ocean as my partner.
Not every moment of today’s long k’s was perfect, but it was all mine, including deciding to go for it when I felt the nudge to move. I knew if worse came to worse, I had all I needed with me. I also knew I could keep walking under the light of a bright half moon. But here is delight of all delights, the surprise, the unexpected, the gift I was open to receiving.
episode 11 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker walks the Taiharuru estuary with a Te Araroa veteran, then heads to the summit of Bream Head where meeting people at just the right moment open pathways she hadn’t noticed.
In this episode:
- Ros grabs Olive Oyl and leads the way across the estuary barefoot.
- Blissful walks across Ocean Beach, then up Bream Head and meets people who show her the way to the view and isolated Peach Cove.
- She arrives at just the right moment to cross Whangarei Harbour, then walks to Ruakaka.
- She meet Betty in the store and shares a meal, a song and a spot to set up the alicoop.
MUSIC: Pastoral Calchaqui by Hector Gallac as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
The tree house at Tidesong faces east looking out over the estuary, pink streaks reflected in the receding water, seemingly preparing just for me since my feet will cross it in a few hours. My sleep here was quiet and deep. I hate to leave, but feel prepared for what today brings, even if my ankle is more ‘cankle’ at the moment.
Just like home, it’s not easy to get up out of a warm, snuggly nest especially since I stayed up late sewing up the huge tear in my trousers – and watching Australian Ninja with Hugh.
Ros makes me a huge breakfast and there’s lots of conversation around the table comparing Northland, New Zealand ecology to my home of Minnesota. Her neighbors hate the mangroves, “They bring the mud and ruin my sand beach!”
The fact is, when the native wetland was drained for farming, the mangrove and their spreading snorkels, took the opportunity to move in and take over. So it’s more mud for my cross, but it must be the good kind because Ros takes off without any shoes – throwing Olive Oyl on her back and heading out barefoot.
It looks like it was worth the wait for the tide, because I not only have an experienced guide walking me across the Taiharuru River, but a porter too.
I am taking you on my thru-hike of the Te Araroa, New Zealand’s long pathway – and at the moment, I’m still in Northland in the North Island, now timing the tides to cross several estuaries as I work down the east coast to Auckland.
Hugh apologizes if he’s being a bit bullying, but our timing is limited before the tide will come racing back in and he sends us across, planning to meet us on the other side with his van. There are no other hikers crossing, most using the road to hitch around, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
It’s squishy, but we don’t sink much into the cockleshell-covered mud. Ros points out newly dug stingray puddles next to a few posts marking the trail with orange triangles. I take loads of pictures and Ros flashes her beautiful smile, telling me she likes my attitude. I wonder if she’d feel the same way knowing how insecure I am out here, how easily hurt I get and how long it takes me to let things go.
I tell Ros it’s hard to find a group, and she says she too loved hiking the Te Araroa alone – a feat she accomplished the previous year at the age of 66, but admits she sometimes longed for a partner to help strategize.
The last part is a stinky, slippery section and she puts her arms straight out for balance. Hugh hands me a bag of granola bars before they both hug me, wishing “God watch over you” blessings.
Immediately, I’m inland on rolling farmland, the deep azure of the Pacific to my left. When I enter the Kauri Mountain track, I think about how lucky I was to meet Ros and Hugh and stay at Tidesong. It meant for a short day yesterday, but I needed it and the ankle is already less swollen. There was also an obvious spirituality about these two, Ros essentially prolonging Hugh’s life by giving up one of her own kidneys for him and an obvious mindset of gratitude towards the blessings of their lives.
I muse on my struggle to trust and believe things will work out. Something that never comes easy for me.
I get to the top and view is wondrous. Looking back to the estuary, I see the water filling in fast now. In front of me are islands far out into the Pacific under heavy gray-accented cumulus clouds. And where I’m headed is down to a long strip of white sand leading all the way to the massive lump of Bream Head. Thundering waves reach my ears even at this height. I’m in no hurry since my plan is to stay the night at the end of the sand, so I stop for a snack on one of Hugh’s granola bar, Oaty Slices, dry and fibrous as their name.
James called last night to check on my progress. I was touched and then a bit skeptical because I found him so uber efficient to the point of being rude. Now I think he was just overloaded with details, and it surprises me he takes the time to call since sixteen Te Araroa walkers stayed with him last night.
I enjoy the quiet solitude I have now, fully expecting a swarm of hikers later. But I have to laugh, since truly it’s this balance I struggle with to protect my solo hiking but also desperately desiring friends. At least a group will help in two days time, when I’ll need to hire a boat to cross Whangerei Bay to Marsden Point. And it ain’t cheap.
Back on the beach I marvel at the unimaginably brilliant turquoise water. A sign informs me that the bar-tailed godwits fly non-stop from Alaska to this beach in eight days, a relatively short legged wader, with an upturned bill and oversized wings. I guess that the only way they can work out those sorts of distances. The waves crash over my ankles exchanging salty sand for mud. A flock of shorebirds, stilted legs on backwards knees, take off as one in zigzag flight.
The beach is totally deserted but oyster catchers two-by-two with long curved orange beaks against midnight black, sending me furtive glances as I lumber past.
I forego the high tide reroute and climb up and over grippy volcanic rock to a private horseshoe shaped beach and finally see people. I find a bench overlooking young surfers heading out and take it all in.
A woman from Winnipeg living here 30 years comes by to say hello, her children curious about my backpack and camp food. She urges them to give me a granola bar and I take a picture of them dressed in wetsuits with boogie boards. At that moment, I change my mind about camping here and push on, straight up the head. I have no plan whatsoever, but the day is delicious and I want more of it.
A gaggle of school kids take over the picnic table about half way up at the WWII radar station. A sign tells me those who worked here found the stunning view boring .I tiptoe from exposed root to exposed root through the thick bush, out of breathe in the steep climb, made more manageable later with beautiful steps.
At 430 meters above the beach, I stop for a selfie looking back to Ocean Beach and my little friends somewhere in the water below. Just then three young people arrive. They’re all from Europe and living here for the year to work and travel. Talk about timing. I completely missed seeing the little scramble to the top of the head and they coax me up it to an even better view. 360 degrees along the ridge of the head to Mt. Lion and Urquats Bay beyond as well as out to sea where huge ships ply the waves, working their way towards Auckland.
We chat, then fall silent in this perch above the bush above the beach. They race on and I plod along, up and down, the beautiful stairs disappearing and root filled tramping track taking over.
It’s eight hundred and nine steps down to Peach Cove hut. I think I might go down there and give camping a shot. But it 809 steps – and I have no idea who’s down there or if it’s even feasible to camp. If I go down and it doesn’t work out, I’ll have to come right back up.
Oh, hell, I’ll have to come back up them anyway, let’s check it out. They’re beautifully built stairs, wooden with a handrail as I go down and down into the bush. I see a bay below, but the stairs take a sharp left and go around it. Down and down, and then, I’m there. A brown corrugated metal hut with yellow trim is completely deserted. I set up the alicoop in a clearing under trees, clean some gear in collected rain water at the tank, and take over the massive deck. The beach is rocky, and I collect a few shells to add to the hut collection.
Suddenly I hear voices. Well, I guess I’ll be sharing tonight. Wait, it’s the trio of hikers from Bream Head! They’ve been swimming in the ocean at the real beach, another side trail I appear to have missed. They have no intention of staying and head back up the stairs, leaving me this perfect horseshoe of sand to myself. The sun is still warming a small bit of my private cove, coaxing me under the gentle waves, huge scallop shells within reach.
I stay out on my private beach until the shadows get long then disappear altogether, roosting cormorants like midnight black vases hunker in the trees, their heads tucked all the way under their wings.
This paradise is all mine and I can’t imagine how I missed the turn. It makes no sense to put a hut at rocky shore. Even the map indicates sand. I simply didn’t follow through, like somehow not thinking through all that’s possible – and probable.
But I’m happy to have pulled away momentarily from the crowd, it would seem, and for me, anyway, the expected.
My Peach Cove sleep all alone may have been the best yet, kiwis whistle-hooting in the dark, lots of spatter-pats of ‘avian fecal matter’ all night on the alicoop. I sleep late luxuriating in my private bay, and of course, swim again.
I’m sufficiently cooled down before the ascent of 76 flights as mist gathers around the Mt. Lion, where I’m headed.
The trail heads straight up now, hand over hand to a perch where it looks a lot like Northern England’s Lake District, but a particularly R2D2-esque Tui definitely not from the motherland.
Then it’s a thousand steps down to Smugglers Bay and another private beach, a larger one with crashing waves. I make brunch. My hair is still wet and briny from the dip at Peach Cove and it feels a bit too cold now for a swim as the wind picks up and I put on my jacket.
Just then, an older gentlemen in trunks up over his navel arrives and dives right into the surf. Oh man, I feel like a wimp not going into that turquoise, but I’ll have to go in my underpants and bra now that I have an audience.
He plays in the waves for a few moments letting them knock him around. And then, he leaves.
With the beach deserted, I decide to keep my clothes dry and skinny dip into the bracing chop, sun in and out of cloud. The salt tastes sweet on my lips.
Wet and sandy, I quickly dress and head towards a spur track to Busby Point. I come across some kids, hiphop cranked, testing out attitude on me. Kids are universal. But it’s a good thing I was clothed.
I pass more breath taking views and then the gun battery, built in 1942. It was made to look like a farmhouse and only shot three test rounds, one – accidentally – traveling twelve miles. I enter the charming village of Urquharts Bay, cloud-shrouded mountains surround but the view is of industry.
So here’s a total New Zealand Te Araroa switcheroo, right-place-at-the-right-time kinda thing – I have to hire a boat to get across to Marsden Head, or walk and hitchhike a long way around. I’ve been assuming since yesterday that there are so many walkers coming along, I’ll join up with them – somewhere, sometime.
A man named Blair is listed in the trail notes with his phone number. He charges $100 per ride, not per person, so it’s better to have a group. But it’s deserted here at this lovely little shady spot at the picnic table. Maybe he’ll consider a discount.
I dial Blair’s number and he picks up on the first ring. I introduce myself and tell him I’d like a ride, but I’m all alone. He interrupts me to ask if I’m near the jetty. Jetty? To your left. I wheel around and sure, enough, there’s a jetty to my left.
“I’ll get you now” he says. “For $20.”
How about that! It turns out the family’s just coming back from snorkeling and it’s only a small detour to pick me up. I throw my sticks over, hand Olive Oyl to Kim and like that, the Ocean Diversity is off, one hand on the camera, the other holding tight as we tilt up for a bumpy ride, splashing and laughing all the way to a refinery set on few gorgeous kilometers of beach looking back to the Mt. Lion and my private bay.
My feet search out concrete-quality sand as the tide comes in. I go well for a bit then sink in, drastically slowing down. Pizza and beer are at the next community, but that’s too far off away. I pop up off the beach to Ruakaka and wander down a sidewalk in a neighborhood of houses. A woman with two lovely school age daughters tells me there’s no restaurants really, but I might try the supermarket.
Perfect! I fit Olive Oyl into a cart and balance my sticks, wandering the aisles. I pause for a moment to study the bar offering when a gray-haired woman asks me if I’m enjoying my walk. “Why yes!” She tells me she often invites hikers to camp on her lawn, would I like to join her for dinner. “Why yes!”
I accept a ride, giving up a few kilometers of the Te Araroa for a home cooked meal at her modest home looking right back to beautiful Bream Head.
Betty is religious and has a glowing spirituality and gratitude for all the gifts in her life. Around her, I can’t help but feel blessed. A woman named Natasha joins us who just happens to be best friends with Peta, my high school friend Rachel’s friend who introduced me to Peter and Ange way back on the Ninety Mile Beach. The coincidence is mind boggling.
I set in the alicoop next to Betty’s caravan on the lawn and cuddle in thinking about on how all the different pieces pulled together these past two days, how trust and letting go of outcomes allowed for all this synchronicity. I like to plan and prepare and I’ve always been a firm believer in that old adage – good fortune comes to those who are prepared or something like that.
But I tend to dwell too much on the negative and, in trying to control everything and avoid more bad things happening, I hold on tightly and miss out on what’s possible. Maybe a rephrasing of that wise advice might be something like, good fortune comes to those who are open to it and let it happen.
All I know now is my belly is full – and so is my heart.
episode 10 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker is tripped by a branch, rolling her ankle and falling down hard. But miraculously, she can still walk and is offered many chances to start over on this hike, move on and forgive.
In this episode:
- The day starts crossing the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere over the Whananaki Estuary.
- A local moves her along, as does a big black cow.
- At Tane Moana, she sees a massive kauri and then wipes out and sprains her ankle.
- A trail angel named Cheryl gives her ice, arnica and an Ace bandage.
- Estuaries, beaches and bush take her finally to Tidesong, where she sees the “kayak boys” and a second chance to forgive and let go.
MUSIC: Movin’ On by Rhonda Larson as played by Alison Young.
On day fourteen of the Te Araroa, I wake up to an estuary reflecting sherbet colors – lemon, peach, raspberry. I’m in Whananaki, a Maori word that means “kicking,” the kind of restless kicking one does in the middle of the night to keep mosquitos and sand flies from biting. But I slept ok, in spite of a long night of partying across the road from my free camping.
But now, before the sun’s up, it’s absolutely quiet accept for the shore birds and it’s the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere to be crossed. Built on wooden stilts and covered with wire mesh, it crosses the Te Wairahi Stream, a tidal estuary separating Whananaki North from Whananaki South.
As soon as I reach the beach, I realize I’ve missed the trail so attempt an overland shortcut. A man pokes out of his house and yells, “Hey, where do you think you’re going?!” I tell him I’m just a bit lost and he points to the gate urging me to get a move on. I smile, apologize and wish him a great day to which he says, “No one wants to get lost!”
Ain’t that the truth.
To be honest, I am not a fast walker – just someone willing to walk for many, many hours. I set goals, I “get there,’ but I like to see things, take photos, write while I walk, and talk to people.
No one’s out now, just me and the surf and the birds. A sign tells me to help protect shore birds by not letting dogs roam – also that the New Zealand dotterel is the largest dotterel in the world. The sand is more mud than sand, squishing under my feet. Dinghies rest at the water’s edge as heron’s stalk their prey on long stilts.
At Sheltered Bay, there are no tracks in the sand but mine. And the smell is so different from the pungency and almost menthol-like cleansing odor of bush. Here it’s briny, I can practically taste it.
The trail turns away from the beach up a hill. Right before I leave, I notice a farmer has left bottles of water for us TA trampers to transfer into our own bottles. I wonder what they think watching us pass each day. There are about a 800 of us walking the Te Araroa this year, I guess that includes section hikers and those who skip the roads.
I gain altitude on easy track, looking down through gnarly pohutukawa toward private beaches. In a month, these will live up to their common name as New Zealand’s Christmas Tree when they’re covered with frothy red blossoms. The trail bends in a U-shape for a stream filled with masses of Arum lilies. The white funnels are actually a leaf. The flower is that proud stiff yellow sausage poking out.
Eucalyptus trees spill down the gullies. Native to Australia, they take off here in ideal conditions. Cows block the path. One big black matriarch has a growly contralto, not at all happy to share her space. Others just can’t be bothered, leaving large pats as fast as they graze. A fantail dances in front of my path, opening and closing its feathers in a kind of bird form of twerking. Insectivores, those fans work to their advantage, and they can catch their meals mid-flight. Right now, she’s working to attract the ones I’ve flushed while moving my feet.
I pass lots of private property with “no beach access” signs. This is how the rich live, but no one owns this view and it’s all mine this morning, past bush to the Poor Knights Islands, an uninhabited marine reserve.
Big Blackie follows me up the road her brow furrowed. Guard Cow, I now call her, is sending a message to stop looking and move on. And I do, arriving at a flat spot above Sandy Bay where I set up Olive Oyl to lean against a gate and eat my 70-cent Fantastic Noodles with a view of turquoise waves on white sand, bush growing on humpy headlands. Have I mentioned I am happy as can be with long sleeves and long pants. No “Whanananki” for me as the sand flies start coming out. Now where is that little fantail when I need her?
A trio comes past me on their way for a day hike of what I’ve just walked and ask if I’m hiking the Te Araroa. “All of it?! Good on you. Enjoy each day, then.” I promise I will.
It’s one bay after another today, up and over, then back onto the beach, this one full of people on SUPs. There’s also free camping here and I think how maybe California was fifty years ago. The tide’s coming in over my squishy steps, but the air is silky and cool, even in the sunshine. I meet lovely Kiwis who take my picture and then burst out laughing at my endeavor to walk New Zealand end to end. They invite me to stay with them tonight, far off trail.
At Whale Bay signs ask if I have a plan in case of Tsunami. I consider it as I turn down the Morrison Track. I pass the pretty, boxy houses of Matapouri and swampland before heading back up into the bush and a kiwi sanctuary. They’re nocturnal, so all tucked in just now. Someone thoughtfully cut stairs into the clay bank down the ravine. Likewise back up into a forest of kauri. Still, I’m sweating.
The forest is so dark and peaceful. I wonder why not every kauri was taken down in the last century. Perhaps it’s too steep. I hear rustling near a fallen tree ahead and meet another solo female TA thru-hiker from Hong Kong with a towering backpack. Tracy smiles and toddles on, clearly on a mission since she passes Tane Moana, a short spur that takes me to the largest Kauri I have ever seem. Tall and fat with large branches high up as though out of shape arms, ones that seem to reach over me with a blessing.
It feels so good, the air, the birds, this magnificent tree and I have only a few more kilometers until I will meet a boat at the next estuary and stay the night on the other side.
Oh no!Out of nowhere, my left ankle rolls over my foot and I am down on the ground. As a person who loves sound, that was one superb, bone-crushing crack. Was that my bone? My trip is over! Maybe. I reach down to touch the foot and there’s no visible break. Very gently, I stand up, putting the smallest amount of pressure on the foot. It hurts, a lot. But, miraculously, I can walk. So, what was that sound?
It turns out a branch went up my pants, caught hold and ripped clean through front and back, sending me flying down fast like I was on roller skates.
Well, there’s not much I can do I’m but keep walking. Carefully, easy. Down the hill towards a road, then just a little bit of road to Ngunguru, where a whole array of gnome lawn ornaments welcomes me and a little store sells me ice cream. I meet Tracy again and we walk down the street to stairs, an orange trail triangle helpfully pointing to the water’s edge. My foot is swelling up and feels bruised. Maybe I should just stay here, I think.
Right across the road is a place advertised in the trail notes for accommodation. I knock on the door and Cheryl answers telling me they no longer take in guests. But after one look at my ankle, she follows me out with an ice pack, and Ace bandage and a jar of arnica.
James arrives in his boat and we roll up our pants to walk in the mud for the short, fast ride to Nikau Bay Camp. I take an outdoor shower and wonder what to do next with my foot getting fat and uncomfortable. Fastidious and controlling, James refuses to discuss anything until his briefing at 8:00. So I wait, putting my foot up, rubbing arnica on it and finally wrapping it tightly, hoping it doesn’t get too puffy.
There’s about five of us here, no one particularly concerned about my ankle. Bram and the kayak boys are here too, but we don’t talk at all and I feel sad remembering how bad they made me feel racing ahead and never looking back as we kayaked the Waikare Inlet.
There’s really not much to the briefing at all. We gather around James’ map and he shows us the alternate trail through private Maori land – at a charge of $5 each – followed by wading a waist deep river. When the briefing ends, James makes a quick exit and I’m forced to hobble after him. “Say, James, on account of my injury and all, can I stay here tomorrow?”
The answer is an unequivocal, “no.”
OK, then. But he quickly assures me it’s not a long walk at all to Tidesong, where another family takes in hikers in their garden.
It’s been two weeks and I’ve gotten conjunctivitis and, well, a minor sprain. Here’s hoping – hobbling? – that the new week is a better one.
I’m not better, by any means, but I’m no worse and I have to move on, so I pick my way slowly and deliberately through scrubby lowland and lots of invasive prickly gorse. The track is wide and thankfully, they stay on their side.
In no time I reach the wide Horahora River near its mouth into the Pacific. I crunch over pipis and tuatua shells following sunken looping v-step tracks, until they disappear into the estuary.
The water is cold and soon up to my crotch, the tide pulling me upstream. Bram and the kayak boys catch up and I’m surprised how timid they are picking their way across, seemingly afraid to get wet or yanked under by the current. We pass without speaking and I think of what the couple said to me yesterday when I told them about it. “I’m a man and even I know there are a lot of guys who are jerks!”
The fact is I should have just spoken up – and probably been nicer last night rather than expecting them to approach me. It’s actually one of my worst faults, that rather than confront directly, I triangulate, seeking validation for my feelings from people who aren’t involved. Rather than relieving my feelings, I relive them.
Just as I come out of the water, the path goes directly through mangrove swamp, mud way over my clean ankles and shoes, and a lot like the Raetea Forest only deeper and smellier. It’s up and over towards another estuary, timing my cross for the tide. It’s too deep now, so it won’t be until tomorrow morning that I can get over. This is the awkward part of Northland, that the tides are specific to each place, varying greatly even when only a few kilometers apart.
Here, the tide is out and I need to walk closer to breaking waves in order to walk on hard as concrete sand. Oyster catchers and a symphony of screeches greet my arrival on the wave scarred sand. Millions of pipi shells give a lovely crunch to my step.
A few years ago, I joined a friend for a week of scuba diving in Roatan, Central America. I am inexperienced and was very nervous, but my friend has hundreds of hours of diving so stayed close as we would let the air out of our buoyancy compensating devices and slowly sink below the surge into a different world.
In time, and with his help, I became more comfortable and started to really enjoy this Caribbean idyll. One morning, before setting out for a long day of diving – and in front a boat full of divers – the divemaster told me people had complained about me, saying I was hogging the ocean and not letting them see enough.
I was devastated. My friend said it was bullshit and it turned out to be one very sour woman who complained who wasn’t enjoying herself as much as me. But my mistake was in not immediately addressing the issue. I didn’t fight. I didn’t flee. Instead, I froze, trapped in the unfairness and my hurt. I tried not to let it color the rest of my adventure, but I failed and just wallowed in my feelings.
I arrive at Pataua North and spy a picnic table under a spreading tree next to the bay. For brunch it’s more 70-cent “Fantastic Noodle” mixed with a packet of tuna. Lisa and Don walk by and chat me up curious about this trail and telling me they see loads of backpackers come through.
I phone Hugh at Tidesong to come and pick me up at the reserve just out of town, where I’ll continue the trail tomorrow across the estuary. He finds me on the road in his van. I go to open the side door to put my backpack in, and who’s inside but Bram, Tracy and the kayak boys. I just have to laugh. I guess it’s time to give it a rest, Al!
All five of us head to Tidesong, a rambling house and gardens overlooking the estuary out to the Pacific. Ros brings us tea and Christmas cake and tells us about her own adventures walking the trail last year. I finally relax in to the warmth of this lovely moment. One of the kayak boys, who calls himself “River,” shows me that he’s wrenched his knee and it’s wrapped tightly now. Tracy lifts her pant legs and reveals a constellation of nasty sand fly bites scratched to bleeding. I hobble in closer to share my swollen ankle in this trio of casualties of the Te Araroa. Ros takes our picture, smiling like old friends.
The four of the hop back into Hugh’s van and he takes them back to the estuary and across in his boat since they plan to move on today. But I stay in this magical place. The only guest sleeping in a little tree house with an outdoor shower, my clothes rinsed out now hanging in the sun on a fence, even the inside of my sneakers rinsed of their gumbo.
We share a huge meal of leftovers from their daughter’s birthday party and talk late into the night. Ros tells me she walked the trail to raise awareness for kidney donations, since she herself gave hers to her husband Hugh when he fell ill. I’m impressed, and doubly so when she tells me she walked it at the age 66.
Transformation coach Barbara De Angelis says, “The journey between what you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place.” I didn’t arrive on this trail whole and perfect, I came “as I am” and that means everything that happens is filtered from that perspective. My goal was to find out what would happen to my body, mind and spirit on a long distance thru-hike.
Well, body is hurt, but really just a bad bruise. The mind made a good choice to walk a short day and rest. And, the spirit? Funny, how seeing the boys again was like a second chance to make a different choice, to forgive a little for perhaps just dumb behavior from lack of experience rather than something personal, and to start over again on a different foot.
Oh, maybe I shouldn’t put it quite like that. Anyway, you know what I mean.
episode 9 show notes ‘n transcript
- The Blissful Hiker walks into the song-filled Russell Forest on the Papakauti Stream-as-trail.
- She swims in a refreshing pool with a friend and feels baptized in its refreshing coolness.
- She doesn’t skip the road and ends up in splendid Helena Bay, where two local trail angels take her in.
- The walk gets much harder on “advanced tramping track” through the Morepork and Onekainga tracks.
- She camps with another fellow hiker next to the Whananaki estuary and falls asleep knowing she will never pass this way again, so best to stay alert, present and fully alive where she is.
MUSIC: Introduccion y Allegro by Carlos Guastavino as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
It’s overcast, just as like it, but not raining and the birds are singly loudly in the fields as I walk towards the bush. Today a stream is the trail and I hear is a mystical place.
I make it an early start to avoid having to face the kayak boys. They sped off and left me alone in bumpy waves yesterday as we paddled rented kayaks into the Waikare inlet. I was cold, annoyed, well, actually, depressed, when we got to Sheryl’s place, unable to speak my mind. When they claimed the only picnic table in her yard for themselves, I kinda snapped and suggested they share.
Lots of tears, then lots of stars finally put me to sleep and here I am starting a new day. Funny how thru-hiking does that – simply erases things like an Etch-a-Sketch and you get a do over. I really know of nothing more cleansing than walking for a chance to redeem oneself.
My Lekis are like limb extensions as I walk, mostly ultra-light, though food, my rain gear and the audio tools I use to capture the sound you’re hearing add some weight. It’s easy walking through farmland with horses and cows. Someone’s got his weed whacker set on high this morning. I wonder if he’s the same guy who played his music to all hours?
I come to the Papakauti Stream. An extra large bull watches me through a screen of trees and leaves loud patties as he chews, his jaw circling sideways. I’m already a bit lost. Nothing is marked and it’s a weedy, wet, barbed wire nightmare. Is it too much to put up just a few signs?
This area is pretty much off the grid. Bashed in cars parked at odd angles have all their windows shot out. Rusting farm implements are left where they died. A swingbridge, three boards across and no hand rails spans the stream in a lazy curve to someone’s freshly mowed back yard. Their house is repaired with corrugated metal of various colors.
Someone tells me trail angels live here, but maybe I’m too early. I follow the stream and finally see a sign that tells me I’ve entered the Russell Forest. At that exact moment, Ondi lopes by in her ankle-high boots that appear too large for her feet and a man’s long sleeved dress shirt. Her backpack looks bigger than mine, but she moves along fast and I follow, knowing she didn’t get lost.
We pass a very old caravan, the knocked out window boarded over and a crooked chimney blowing out tiny plumes of smoke. “Someone lives in there?” I ask, rather stupidly. Ondi tells me that most Kiwis have a caravan next to their main house for guests or relatives. I like the idea of allowing guests their own space.
Sheryl told us this forest had collapsed last night, and then amended that to ask that if we do hear any birds, to let her know. It’s loud and alive with song, which is no mean feat. New Zealand has a nearly insurmountable problem with invasive species that are destroying the habitat. Bush possums, a marsupial introduced in the late 19th century might be the worst culprit. Brought in for the fur trade, these cute little mammals have large Disney-esque eyes and a button nose with whiskers. But don’t let that fool you. They are a menace and eat everything in the bush – leaves, buds, flowers, fruit, insects, snails and yup, eggs and birds, too.
The birds have no defense since they’ve evolved without predators. And of course, that means possums have no predators either, except man, who spend a good deal of time trapping, poisoning and shooting them, Still, it’s estimated there are 30 million possums on New Zealand, about six times the number of human inhabitants.
But someone’s worked very hard in here to clear out the invasives and the birds are back, at least as far as I can tell. I go up and down through curtains of giant ferns growing into the trail. I pass a downed tree with bright orange toadstools in a neat row.
Soon, I’m in the water walking on soft, reddish-brown stone. The water is cool and clean, every last vestige of mud and sand comes off my La Sportivas. I splash through like a kid, kicking up the freshness above my shins. It’s a fairyland of dappled light, massive fronds that trace their lineage to the Carboniferous period stroking the banks and gurgling music. Each step I take, heals whatever darkness took over yesterday with an audible plunk and kaspoosh.
We spy a swimming hole, moss curling over the edge of ground, ferns reflected in it’s mysteriously lapis surface. Of course, we strip bare and dive in. Well, Ondi dives in and I gradually work my way into the soul restoring coolness.
Ondi gives me a gift. She lets me talk. I need to. Badly. I need reassurance, validation, to just unload. I didn’t know it at the time, but this moment of trail angel kindness would be fleeting. I never really see Ondi again on my entire five-month walk. Thinking back to that perfect metaphor of a kind of baptism in the Papakauti stream, one that removed my sorrow and confusion from the previous day, I wonder if I acknowledged how much it mattered to me, how powerful her small act of kindness was in that enchanted setting.
We dress and walk on and soon leave this heavenly forest of sunlight glistening on the thick vegetation.
Ondi stops at a small campsite in the forest, the stream behind us now and I head on up and up over a ridge that will take me down to Helena Bay. Signs on this forest track warn no trespassing, poison is being used and that all dogs will be shot, no excuses. I am not entirely sure why dogs should be shot, but my guess is it has something to do with the poison.
Soon I leave the forest altogether come to a road and stop at a Maori marae to have a snack in the wind, the hot sun moving in and out of cloud. As if to honor this primeval forest I’ve just walked through, I eat some gummy dinosaurs and remember that Bram gave me the rest of his gummies last night when I felt so bad. I hope I remembered to thank him.
Ondi lumbers past and I see her at the main road putting her thumb out for a ride. The moment of truth, do I walk the next nine kilometers of road – or do I skip it? It’s not like anyone will care what I do. Funny trail, this one. You go from ‘Conjuctivitis Coast’ of blowing sand beach to epic mud to kayaking to a stream walk to tarmac.
I took a leave of absence from my job for this? I think to myself. Well, not really that much. The air is cool and the day is clear. I’m here and I’m just going to walk it. It actually reminds me of this weird bike route I rode one summer – Bike Route 41 from Saint Paul to Canada. It is not a trail per se, though it uses trails. It’s a route, so sometimes you’re in traffic and ride into the less attractive parts of towns and sometimes you’re on a two lane highway with barely any shoulder with cars whizzing past at 55+. So, no, walking on road doesn’t bother me that much and besides, I see how people live.
Along here are interesting homesteads of cobbled together bits and pieces; always a few comfy chairs out front, a rain barrel, lovingly placed plants and a caravan permanently parked, I know now, for unexpected guests. Flowering tee trees work all the way up the hillside. Three tough guys talk animatedly at the mailbox. A tiny girl stands close by and returns my wave.
I come across a field of pigs rooting. They take one look at me with their intelligent gaze and scamper off in a burst of snorts.
Finally, I come down a hill and I see the ocean open up in front of me. A trail angel named Ross lives in a converted container and invites TA walkers to camp on his lawn. There’s already a small group set up, all people new to me.
The walk on road is long and I soon discover I’m the only one of the group who walked it. Ross’s green lawn is so inviting, soft on my feet as I change into my camp shirt and set up the alicoop.
I make a quick dinner of tuna and couscous plus cheese then head to the beach, a horseshoe of sand hemmed in by steep, bush-covered hills jutting straight up from the ocean. The sand is also soft, the bay’s waves gently caressing my bare feet. A dog comes to play with her stick, which she fetches for me over and over in the surf. It’s only 6:30, but I’m exhausted.
I put my feet up at a picnic table and think about how I felt guilty getting upset yesterday, but now think what good does that do, as though I punish myself for having feelings. The truth is, I’m insecure about what I’m doing here, and the slightest dismissiveness rattles me.
But right now is so nice and I make a deal with myself to take things as they come and – at least try – to let go of the things that don’t work.
I turn to leave saying goodnight to this lovely place and head back onto the grass where all the little houses sit in rows as though sharing a giant lawn.
A woman about my age crosses my path and I smile and say hello. She is surprised by my accent and smiles back. I ask here the standard question if she might have a beer I could buy.
Her smile turns to a frown and a furrowed brow, “You need one?”
Yes, in fact I do after all those hot kilometers on road.
She tells me no beer at her house and I thank her, thinking she might be a teetotaler, and continue walking back to the tent.
“Wait!” she says. “What I meant was I don’t like beer. I prefer champagne!”
And that, my friends, was the beginning – of the end – of a beautiful day.
And here I had just promised myself that I’d take things as they come and Tracy walks into my path. She’s a midwife and her husband Ben is a carpenter. Their dad and cousin all have places here in the bay and they were just getting ready for cocktails. I’m invited right into the center of this family, Tracy holding court in the corner surrounded by picture windows looking out to the beach. I begin to learn Maori pronunciation – such as wh is a ‘f’ sound, as in he city they are from, Whangerei. Also that their little beach home is called a “bach” spelled like Bach.
Of course, I’m invited for a second dinner of lamb chop from their farm and vegetables from their garden. They then offer me a bed, pronounced “beed,” but I decide to thank them and stumble back to the alicoop, full of nutrition and good feelings.
I’m snuggled in for only a few moments when suddenly the heavens let loose with torrential rain, just pounding on the taffeta-like dynamee tarp of the alicoop. No flooding, nothing leaks, but what a sound it makes.
I pack up wet in the morning, but well rested in the lullaby of white noise, the bay covered in low fog as I head straight up a steep ridge with a chance to look down at all the little baches. Thanks Ross, for a cozy night on your lawn and fresh water for my bottles. Thanks Tracy and Ben for welcoming me to dinner and sharing your evening with me.
The sun peaks out of its shroud and my pants are soaked up to my waist from the thick undergrowth, a car wash thwacking me as I walk past with last night’s downpour still on their leaves. I follow the ridge before ducking into forest on a narrow track of just my two feet in width, then notice a tiny spur going up.
I always make many demands for where I stop – out of the wind, shade, a view, something to lean on, no mud, and I find it amidst Kauri, though I am careful not to step too close, leaning on a Rimu instead and watching the branches swaying in the breeze. I’m almost two weeks in on this adventure and being alone in this out of the way spot for my brunch is absolute bliss.
I continue on, walking along a trail with very little mud, no river, no blowing sand, but some of the hardest up and down steep terrain I’ve ever encountered in my life. Just then, a fit Austrian I met last night named Leonhardt – or Leo – catches up to me and I walk with him for a few k.
He talks non-stop and about as fast as he walks, nearly running in here. But he pauses long enough for me to tell him about the kayak debacle and how upset I was. He stops for a moment, as if to drive the point home, and exclaims in his thick accented English, “Oh my gawd, that’s totally a guy thing!” which instantly cracks me up and causes me to forget feeling sorry for myself.
We push on up and down and over roots, slipping a little as we move and Leo gives me the quick story of his life. He quit his job to travel, and will do so until the money runs out. He refuses to walk any roads whatsoever, and actually hitched her from Pahia, two days ago for me. I realize I’ll likely not see him again once he moves on. Too bad, because I like him already.
Leo talk and talks and finally I have to slow down. I watch him disappear behind ferns as the trail dives down into the forest. I wonder when he’ll notice I’m not behind him anymore?
Out of the forest now and about to cross open fields under clear skies with views far back to the mountains and bays, I come to a Kauri die-back cleaning station. It’s empty. I try as hard as I can to scrape off the mud, but it’s a fool’s errand and I’m sure to be carrying bad stuff everywhere I walk.
The first days of the Te Araroa feel so long ago and I remember feeling like I couldn’t connect to anyone. But now, these last days, as I figure it out and find my pace, I love my solitude, especially high on this open ridge where sheep safely graze next to million dollar views.
But that doesn’t last long as I take a turn right back into deep bush on the Morepork Track towards Whananaki. Mud confronts me immediately and it’s the Raetea Forest déjà vu all over again.
Another cleaning station is tended and I disinfect my shoes, scraping them on the plastic brushes. I follow a stream that cresendoes as it hits rocks feeding into a deep green pool partially hidden by ferns.
The name of the track changes to Onekainga and the real “advanced tramping track” begins. It’s up and down, seemingly for no reason, and a direct line since why build switchbacks when you can just hurl yourself forward?
At this point in the walk, I’m starved all the time. I haven’t seemed to have lost weight yet, and happily not lost my appetite either, which tends to happen when I backpack. All I can think about in this extremely tough section is if I get down this track before 5:30, take-away awaits.
Just before a killer, heart attack of up, I come upon a magic camp spot in ferns and kauri at a bend of a babbling brook. I look at it longingly, wondering if I should stay here in this idyllic place. It’s really too early to stop somehow and I take a mental photograph and hoof up the hill, spitting out of the forest onto a field and happy buzzing Manuka honey bees.
The trail winds through farmland. I have to negotiate one really squishy fen and a few electric fences before arriving at an estuary, mangroves and their knees pushing through the muck. Birds flute in the trees as the path widens to a vast sandy expanse, houses tucked in looking down from a small rise towards the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere – one I’ll walk tomorrow.
At the cafe, I order the biggest burger on the menu, bacon and egg, cheese, veggies and a side of squid rings. While I stock up on camp food and chill under the canopy Cathy charges my battery and directs me to some free camping up the road.
And what do you know, Bram shows up right after me. After three attempts, we get our tents snuggled next to a building out of the wind on soft grass. A live band plays Reggae across the street and we sit looking out as the sun pinkens the estuary.
I present Bram with a bag of gummies to settle up after the other night and he pulls out of his bag a 750 ml bottle of Steinlager – to share.
The Raggae doesn’t stop until the wee hours, but I brought ear plugs and soon I’m asleep, thinking of all the magic in these last two days, the trail angels who showed up just when I needed them like Leo and Ondi, Ross and Tracy and now Bram. I don’t see any of them again, and there’s never another moment, even with Bram who’s walking the entire trail too. I don’t know that at in the moment and it teaches me that we never know for sure when it will be the last time we have with someone, when a special moment of generosity and shared experience will be all there is. That of course, goes for bad stuff too. All of it passes eventually.
Nothing illustrates that more clearly than a long distance thru-hike, this idea that we will never pass this way again. So the best thing to do is to stay alert, stay present, stay fully alive in where we are.
episode 8 show notes ‘n transcript
- The Blissful Hiker takes her first “zero” day – walking no miles – in Kaeo and tries green-lipped mussels and Whangaroa oysters for the first time.
- She gets care for her infected pink eye picked up on “Conjunctivitis Coast,” the Ninety Mile Beach in straight line winds.
- Nervous on her first day hiking alone, she immediately loses her trail notes.
- In Pahia, she rents a kayak and paddles with four hikers who take off, leaving her behind and bereft.
- A night of star-filled wonder and new creatures humming and buzzing in the bush remind her she came here to challenge herself and that includes being vulnerable to fear and rejection.
Sure on this shining night
Of starmade shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
MUSIC: Suite by Ernst Krenek as played by Alison Young, flute and the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic and Charles Johnson
available on iTunes
I wake up with soft South Pacific breezes gently fluttering the curtain at my window. It’s a night in a soft bed after a glorious meal and I feel terribly spoiled by Kiwi hospitality. Wandering downstairs to see who might be awake, I see coffee, cereals and baked goods left out for us, our bottomless appetites already humongous and any vestige of manners, like not talking while your mouth is full, nearly eradicated from our thru-hiker selves.
I take a moment to organize the confusing coming days. Confusing, you ask. Well, the Te Araroa thru-hiker is offered their first set of trail options. Would you prefer a road walk, a ferry ride or to paddle on your own steam? If you know, me even a little, “thru-kayaking” sounds awfully adventurous and I go ahead and tic that box. Although there’s one problem – the tides are all wrong and I’d need to wait until late in the day, then have to paddle as fast as I can before the sun goes down to take advantage of the incoming rush of water and get pushed up the Waikare Inlet.
I can hardly understand a word Dan at Bay Beach Hire says on the phone in his thick accent, but I somehow make a deal to meet him after I walk to the beautiful beach town of Pahia in the Bay of Islands. Game is on!
Recently, in the Blissful Hiker hike blog, a backpacker friend of mine, who just happens to also be named Alison, wrote about a weeklong backpack trip on the Colorado Trail. She pointed out a universal truth – that day two always sucks. I am actually doing pretty well especially on one of the hardest starts of any trail I’ve walked. So it wasn’t day two that sucked, but week two.
Cam loads our washed up and well-fed selves into his SUV and drive us back to Kerikeri, where Irene hops on a flight back home to Hamilton. Vern and Bryce, Irene’s dad, pick me up for a day off in Kaeo, spending the night at their converted container atop a hill above the light turquoise bay. Before we leave Kerikeri, Bryce finds me an inexpensive T-shirt at a massive culture-shock-inducing discount box store, and Vern takes one look at my bright red right eye and insists I get it checked out before moving on.
Concerned as always about cost, I reluctantly head over to the Waipapa Clinic where a pharmacist examines my eye, asks a few questions, ensures me it was the blowing sand on Ninety Mile Beach that’s the culprit and sends me out the door within ten minutes, with drops costing less than ten bucks. Excuse me while I pause here to consider if I can move to this country, one that prioritizes affordable health care for all.
The remainder of the day is beyond relaxing. I didn’t realize I was so tired until I take an extra long snooze in their cozy guest caravan before we put on snazzy hats to head to the local pub to watch the Melbourne Open and eat green-lipped mussels and Whangaroa Bay oysters, lots of “No worries, mate!” and “Good on ya, eh’s!” all night long with friends who are all very interested in my hike.
Why is it that no amount of carousing with caring friends and lively locals rid me of this anxiety I feel now that Irene is gone. It’s as though I’ve survived this much on luck, not on my own ability to plan, make good decisions and listen to my body. I tell myself – and seem to understand intellectually – that I can manage, that I have the strength, the supplies and gear, and the sheer nerve to figure things out. But my lizard brain won’t buy it and the stress that’s followed me here all the way from Laurel Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota keeps repeating the refrain, “You’re way over your head.”
Vern and I chat about our families and careers as we fly along the winding rollercoaster of road back to where I left off at the Stone House in Kerikeri. I so enjoy her company, wise and caring, she’s the one who taught me how to say the trail I’m walking properly and sound, maybe just a bit, like a local. We hug and I throw Olive Oyl on my back, bang my sticks twice and begin walking by myself on a cool, sun-filled morning.
Tuis flute in the trees as my pants get soaked by dew. A few roosters announce a new day. The flowers are ridiculously fragrant. I pull out my trail notes and read over and over which way to turn, realizing I must look ridiculous carrying an overstuffed pack, walking with sticks and needing to double check every turn inside a city. I pass a cluster of Māori pou whenua or “land posts” topped by creatures with sharp beaks and paua or abalone shell eyes. Those eyes follow me as I pass. Critical birds? I don’t know. I feel so distracted by my nervousness.
I’m covered head to toe, gloves, buff, long sleeves and pants, hat, sunglasses. My eye is much better already, only dry and stingy. I hit a sidewalk and pass houses with some unusual found object art works on the lawns, one a mannequin head within a metal cage, her eyes also paua. I take a picture, then reach into my pocket to ensure I’m going the right way.
Dammit! I lost my trail notes. It’s not as though I don’t have a backup of the map on my phone, but it only serves as a reminder that I’m just not cut out for this. Well, it’s only forest walk after this sidewalk. It can’t be too hard to find.
I walk down the steep road, past views through puriri towards the bay surrounded by mountains. Here it is, the Waitangi forest. A soft “g,” I’m told, so the name sounds like describing the reason I might love a tasty morsel. “Why, tangy!” It’s just me in here this morning, on cool fern-lined track. The pines of this working forest are American imports and I hear machinery chopping away in the distance. Mountain bike trails with names like “Kiwi Flow,” “Magic Carpet,” and “Dead Possum” snake through and the birds don’t seem to mind the monoculture.
Richard says, “My wife is always smiling when she’s moving her body.” Walking has served me well all my life. When I’m blue or obsessing, he usually sends me out the door. A funny story is about the last time I spent any quality time with my dad. We met in Manhattan. He was tired, so I took in a play in Soho while he napped. He made me promise not to walk back to midtown, but how could I not walk those fifty or so blocks back to our hotel on a late winter’s night. It was glorious.
Everywhere I’ve been has felt too small for my feet. Like my dad, Richard suggested I walk the Te Araroa in stages, mainly to preserve my career. But I just had to see what it feels like to do it all in one go.
Up Tu Puke road, I dodge massive dust-producing logging rigs for a short detour to a sculpture memorializing the start of the Te Araroa. I walk right past it, thinking this ‘artistic’ lump is a dead palm tree. Not exactly beautiful, but this monument made of local volcanic rock is important stuff.
Another short spur takes me up Mount Bledisloe and the view opens toward today’s destination. Water turquoise against mountains and islands, I see the bridge I’ll soon cross. I wear my new T-shirt, striped with the word “smile” on big red lips. It’s getting really hot.
The forest opens onto a road and golf course, then the treaty ground, where New Zealand’s Declaration of Independence was signed, though its proposed aim was to protect the rights of Maori and allow them keep their land, forests, and fishing grounds while at the same time, handing sovereignty to the British. I cross the bridge and a splendid cool breeze greets me. Three Maori girls share raw cockles with me, slimy as they go down the throat, but delicious.
Along the beach, signs teach me about the birds in this seabird capital of the world. Terns, herons, even gulls are protected, the latter clever buggers stamping the ground to imitate rain and lure worms to their waiting beaks.
Paihia is a total tourist town with coaches crowding the streets, American accents, an obnoxious cross signal, and every food imaginable. I set the alicoop at a backpackers’ hostel, the Pickled Parrot, with a huge shared kitchen, flat lawn for tents, , awesomely comfy couches and a huge area to just hang– ah, and Caroline from the Netherlands has offered me a glass of Pinot Grigio just now. Life is good.
The morning comes damp and chilly on the coast here in Pahia, Northland, New Zealand. Soon, our tent city at the Pickled Parrot spreads out over couches and picnic tables to dry, most everyone on their phones, others making choices about whether to move on or stay a here for few more days after nursing swollen feet, oozing blisters, and a Rorschach test of sandfly bites scratched to bleeding.
I feel amazingly fine, with only a red right eye, a souvenir of conjunctivitis coast, the last day of Ninety Mile Beach when the wind blew sand straight into my face on the final day. It’s beginning to heal and my wound up nerves are settling into this beautiful, lazy backpackers or hostel. Everyone is really lovely and we share Bluff, another 1,800 km ahead, as our goal – Dutch, Australian, French, Belgian, Polish, but no Americans besides me yet. Three of us will kayak the four hours to Waikare later today, meeting at the beach at 3:30 sharp to take advantage of the tide.
So there’s nothing to do but, shave the legs, share Burts Bees with the other girls, write postcards and strategize for coming days deciding exactly how much food to carry.
Most walkers of the Te Araroa are not thru-hikers. They’re in New Zealand to travel – and work too in some cases – so they try this trail out, backpacking maybe for the first time. The trail is – so far – not the Sierras or the Rockies, but it still requires humping a pack.
I choose the Te Araroa because somehow I thought taking off the winter would be easier at my job – and it’s far away, exotic and nothing like home. I got the second part right anyway.
I buy fresh vegetables in town at the local “veg” and put my bare feet in the South Pacific on the way. I come back and make a gigantic stirfry for Ondi and Bram with added hippie dust found in the bulk bins in Kaitaia, that tastes like cheese as it melts. Hiking resumes tomorrow, so a wee nap in a hammock before kayaking. It’s absolute bliss.
But now it’s time to go and we walk to the beach to meet Dan. Two men join us, one Kiwi who’s already given himself a ‘trail name.’ I laugh since we’ve hardly walked anything like trail in the last few days. They’re cool and unfriendly, I think, though maybe it’s nerves, because once Dan hands me the emergency radio and directs us to stick together at all times, they push their tandem into the choppy surf and begin paddling as fast as they can. Bram and Ondi take a tandem too and push out at a furious pace, their stable and fast boat moving far out into the bay before I can into mine.
I guess we’re not staying together.
My little boat has a rudder operated by foot pedals, and handles precisely the opposite of my sea kayak at home. When I make try to edge, it throws me to the other side, threatening to tip.
The water is a rich turquoise, light green fields pushing up to bush-covered mountains rising high above us, white puffy clouds serene. I’m anything but serene, with no spray skirt since that would “require more training,” waves come up and over the gunwales as I try to stay upright and catch up to the two pairs like dots now far ahead.
Following waves push me forward into a whooshing rinse of white froth. I enter the tiny opening between Opua and Okiato and turn west up the inlet into the wind. The waves are confused here, and paddling takes everything out of me. I’m a strong paddler, too. What is happening?
I begin to panic. I can’t control this damn boat. I can’t keep up. No one is even looking back to see if I’m still here.
C’mon Al, you’ve paddled the Big Lake, Lake Superior, in three to four foot seas. You can do this. Do you really think you’re going to swamp? Or is it the fact that they just don’t give a damn?
I push and push into the wind, seeing the island up ahead, the midway point where Dan asked us to take a break and call him to let him know we are ok – and help him time his pickup with our backpacks. The headwind begins to subside as we get closer to land and I begin to wonder if it would have been better to just ride with those backpacks to the other side.
Don’t be ridiculous. You’re paddling in the Bay of Islands, the air is fresh, the sea birds are flying above you and you are strong and independent. I steer the kayak onto a carpet of broken shells and hop out. The sun is getting lower on the horizon and I’m only wearing shorts, a wool top with my feet bare. I’m cold. I’m lonely. I can’t bring myself to talk to anyone.
Yeah, that’s it. I would be ok if I tipped. It’s their complete lack of concern that leaves me speechless, confused a little angry, and frankly, bereft. Do they behave this way because of something I did or do they simply not give a shit?
We leave the beach in silence, the boys again pulling forward like they have to prove something. The water is the color of milk tea signaling we’ve entered the estuary. Sand bars beach us and we have to get out to push our kayaks off. But there’s no more waves; no more fear. The wind and current push us now into mangrove swamps and oyster beds and we finally land at a tiny, busted dock in sucking mud.
It’s one thing that always trips me up, this idea that if I’m kind to people, they’ll be kind to me. But life is not transactional. People do as they please regardless of our actions. The only thing that keeps me balanced is to know I act a certain way for my own integrity and it’s best to sort out who’s worth the effort and who’s not as quickly as possible.
The boys roll cigarettes and we just stand there staring out at the highway waiting for Dan to come. I tell Ondi and Bram why I’m so upset, but they don’t understand why staying together is so important. I tell them I feel disrespected like I can’t possibly know what I’m doing or have any skills since I’m a middle-aged woman. But I don’t feel better putting a name to what hurts me. It just makes me feel powerless.
The sun is down now and I’m shivering when Dan finally arrives. There’re no high fives, no celebration. We just grab our packs and go. It’s a few kilometers walk through farmland. We pass horses at the gate and large trees with gnarly roots before arriving at Sheryl’s home, her mailbox welcoming TA Hikers but “no others.” We pay to camp on her lawn. There’s a long drop with a fancy toilet seat and a hose of cold water for my salty legs. She brings hot water for my soup and tries to sell me a tee tree and kawakawa leaf lotion for my sore muscles.
A couple of hikers come out of their tents and complain about how loud we are. Sheryl ignores them completely and keeps talking to us as we huddle at the lone picnic table. A Chinese water torture backbeat thrums through the fields and I finally crawl into my tent, unable to sleep. Ondi suggests I let it go until tomorrow.
I know I’m annoying. Why is it I feel so bad, react – ok, over-react – and then feel guilty for feeling anything in the first place? I’m trapped inside my emotions, unable to express myself effectively, unable to shake off how hollowed out I feel. I’ve been walking for ten days and now I’m certain I can’t do this alone. Did I make a huge mistake coming here?
The music finally stops and delightfully strange night sounds fill the air. I poke outside and see the Milky Way brighten the sky. A poem by James Agee pops into my head.
Sure on this shining nigh
Of starmade shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
I wonder if I’m too trusting – or maybe it’s that I expect too much.
I’ll have to contend with all sorts of people on this trail; ones like Ondi who give me sound advice to let things sort themselves out in the morning, and ones like these boys who appear self-centered and totally uninterested in being supportive or caring.
There are really dangerous parts ahead on this trail. Will it be sink or swim then as well?
The poem goes on.
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder
wandering far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
Truth is, I came here to do this alone. I came here to see what would happen to my mind, body and spirit if I walked a long-distance thru-hike. I risked a whole lot, to find out if I have what it takes.
It was kind of a shitty day and doing what I’ve set out to do, walk the full length of New Zealand alone, is scary. I gave away my heart out there on the bay, and left myself vulnerable to rejection and it didn’t feel good.
I don’t know if kindness must watch for me, but I do know that in this moment of twinkling diamonds on black velvet and creatures new to my ears humming and buzzing in the bush, I’m safe and, even if sad and confused, I’m fully alive. Maybe, too, as James Agee writes, on this beautiful star made high summer night, at least a little, all is healed.
episode 7 show notes ‘n transcript
A selfie reveals a face battered by a week of long distance backpacking and the Blissful Hiker considers her mortality and how to keep her hike – and her life – from being a bore.
In this episode:
- The Blissful Hiker considers her mortality after taking a selfie of her backpack-beaten face then seeing a row of wild boar carcasses.
- She considers how carefully chosen gear protects her body, and how a change of attitude keeps a thru-hike – and life too –from becoming a bore.
- She starts to miss mud on an “easy tramping track” through sheep poo, and is warned to be careful what you wish for.
- She helps rescue an orphaned duckling before the day ends with a swim under waterfalls chased by a cold beer.
If ever there was a metaphor to illustrate the importance of the journey over the destination, it is life itself. For everyone who departs from birth is destined for death, so the journey IS life. Savor it! – Michele Jennae
MUSIC: Poema del Pastor Coya by Angel Lasala as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
Who ever said backpacking was glamorous? Maybe after a day or two, you can still pull off the Patagonia ad look, but I tossed and turned all night as my sore muscles seized up after so many miles. And now I wake up to this really odd bird. It’s gotta be a tui, mimicking something extremely annoying.
My first mistake was to take a selfie here in the Puketi Forest. My eyes have check-on bags. Talk about Miss Crinkles when I smile. The only thing I have going for me is my naturally curly hair, wild in this humidity, and lookie here, going gray.
It’s not that I’m especially vain, but only eight days into the Te Araroa and I look like hell. Tell me, is this worth it?
You’re listening to The Pee Rag, Unfiltered Adventures of the Blissful Hiker.
I am the Blissful Hiker, sometime-professional flutist, sometime-voice artist and full-time pedestrian. The Pee Rag is a small accessory with a big job. Mine is a bandana tied to the back of my pack and keeps me moving along without fuss or muss.
I’ve been taking you along on my first long distance thru hike of the Te Araroa or long pathway, a trail opened only in 2011. It’s 3,000 kilometers long from Cape Reinga in Northland to Bluff, in Southland. I started by walking the beach next to the Tasman Sea and then through the bush towards the Pacific Ocean.
The going has been pretty interesting, like no other trail I’ve ever walked. You just start on 100 kilometers of beach, which sounds all fun and games until you realize there’s no protection from the elements – burning sun, wind, squalls blowing in every hour and inconvenient tides, not to mention hard as concrete sand.
Then, it’s straight into famous Northland Forests of deep New Zealand bush. Because of Kauri dieback, a fungus carried on the shoes of trampers like myself, only one was open still, the Raeatea Forest, but it was an experience I will never forget of mud up to mid-calf, treacherous blowdowns and roots seemingly designed to trip me. I even got briefly lost, and had to camp inside the forest in a wide space in the trail. One thing that was amazing, the birdsong, though right now, I need to press the pause button.
I want to thank Leki trekking poles for supporting The Pee Rag podcast. If you want to be a blissful hiker, Lekis should be in your hands.
And thank you, too, for listening. If you enjoy the storytelling – please subscribe – and go ahead and rate it and better yet, write a review at Apple Podcasts. This helps others find the podcast.
This podcast is dedicated to all the bad ass women out there who don’t need permission to tie a pee rag to their backpack as they walk through this journey of life. And yet, I started this episode revealing my insecurity with my looks.
I guess I have a few rules of protecting my body while backpacking that seem to work, starting with covering up the body wearing long pants and long sleeves. Is it warmer that way than in shorts and a tee? I like to think of Bedouins or Arabs. I realize it’s part of their religion to be modest, but loose fitting clothing protects the body, mainly from sun, but also invasive gorse – a prickly shrub introduced by the Scottish, which has practically taken over the North Island. My outfit also protects me from sandflies, but that’s a story for a future episode. Right now, it’s too early in the spring for sandflies.
I wear a goofy fisherman’s hat called a Chilba made by Kavu. It’s like a Hawaiian shirt for the head, brightly colored with an outlandish design. People either compliment it, calling me The Mad Hatter or something like that – or they avert their eyes. I have not yet seen another hiker wearing anything quite like it.
I also wear gloves for my hands, which are sporting a constellation of brown spots already in my early 50’s. And I discovered a lip balm with SPF protection and color! Blistex Lip Vibrance. The main selling point besides the fact that it gives me an air of middle aged lady heading to the shops, is that I can carry it my pocket all day and it won’t melt or come off in a clump when I put it on my lips.
Other than that, I blend right in.
At Puketi Forest Camp, I set my tent near Irene and Bram from Belgium just in time to jump in it as the rain poured down briefly. I got out to explore and take an ice cold shower and when I returned, a small group had set up with ukuleles. I don’t mind a good old fashioned sing along, but they didn’t offer up any of their own music. Instead they turned their phone up to 11 and set the mood for the camp.
Oh, I’m really getting old. I just don’t have the patience for leaky music into my personal space. So I unstake the alicoop and march over to where Ondi has found a more isolated spot. She’s pretty prickly, and seems to prefer her solitude, so I ask if I can set nearby. We have the same tarptents made here in the US; lightweight and really easy to set up.
I hang around, listen to the birds, then explore the boot cleaning station, a metal open sort of booth above grates for draining the spray at little kiosks holding bristly brushes to get every last bit of dirt out of the boots – or sneakers, in my case. It seems the forests are open to tourists, but not to TA thru-hikers. I mean, it’s not as if they can close them down, but we were advised to use an alternative route likely because it would have been difficult to clean our boots before entering from the north.
I feel disappointed I missed the other forests – Herekino and Puketi, walking instead “through” them, on forest tracks. But Irene needs to catch a plane home to Hamilton tomorrow, so I’m not about to head back just to say I did. Besides, more epic mud and bush await me, except not as many Kauri as I move south.
The morning is humid, but the sun out as the ranger comes by to collect fees. He assures me the next section isn’t ‘flash’ but I will get good views.
Flash is such a great word and I begin to hear it a lot from Kiwis – also rickken, as in “I reckon we’ll need to get moving if we’re going to share a beer in Kerikeri.”
Ondi and I both pack fast and quietly, eyeing each other’s little routines. I tell her what the ranger said and that friends thought I’d find thru-hiking boring. I guess that all comes down to your attitude. I mean, life can be a bore if you get caught in a rut and don’t see what’s around you. At least with thru hiking, there’s the promise that, no matter what, each day will bring something new. Not necessarily wonderful, life-changing or “flash,” but for sure, different.
I think about this wonderful quote by creativity coach, Michele Jennae –
“If ever there was a metaphor to illustrate the importance of the journey over the destination, it is life itself. For everyone who departs from birth is destined for death, so the journey IS life. Savor it!”
Boy, am I reminded of death being just that much closer with my saggy eye bags and graying hair. But on goes Olive Oyl, the backpack and off I go, starting on a road! Irene and Bram soon join me, walking in step as Ondi bolts ahead.
Everyone seems so confident and easy going and here I am thinking about my mortality and nothing but mud, blowing sand and roads on repeat ahead when we come upon a fence with one gutted wild pig after another lined up in a row, eyes closed like they’re only sleeping, their huge tusky snouts appearing to smile at us in a hideous grimace.
What the hell? Irene tells us that boars were brought over by Europeans missing home. It’s open season all season. It’s grim, like something out of Lord of the Flies.
I get a little lost in my thoughts as we move along, only one car passing us in an hour, stopping to pick up the French ukulele-non-player from last night hitching a ride. Her backpack is so huge, she looks like a giant bag with legs from behind, and it’s no wonder her feet are trashed and she needs a ride.
But I shouldn’t judge since I have this vexing fear that I’m not going to be able to manage this all on my own. The anxiety manifests in my upper chest, like I can’t quite take a full breath. I wouldn’t say I’m overwhelmed by the feeling, but it never quite leaves me, and on easy walking, there’s no way to stop thinking about it.
I tell myself to calm down and only plan a few days ahead, which is truthfully about all anyone can do anyway but it doesn’t help knowing Irene will leave tomorrow.
Suddenly I hear my name being called. I turn around, realizing I was far ahead and I missed the turn, through knee-deep water and up a muddy embankment onto the fields. I thank everyone, telling them I’d assumed we just followed the road all the way to town.
“Assumptions,” Irene tells me. “Is the mother of a fuck ups.” I laugh and squish through in my until recently dry sneakers up onto a place that looks like an exotic Yorkshire, grass like velvet under my feet, especially when I step in the sheep poo.
“I was just starting to miss the mud.” I say, to which Bram replies. “Careful what you wish for!”
You’re listening to The Pee Rag, Unfiltered Adventures of the Blissful Hiker.
I’m Alison Young, the Blissful Hiker, sometime-professional flutist, sometime-voice artist and full-time pedestrian.
A thank you to Leki trekking poles for their support of show. Let me tell you, whether on road, sand, mud or scree, Lekis held me up and kept me going. If you want to be a Blissful Hiker, Lekis should be in your hands.
If you enjoy the story telling of walking the Te Araroa, New Zealand’s long pathway, subscribe and leave a comment at Apple Podcasts. It helps other find me.
We’re very close to the town of town of Kerikeri – or kittykitty, as pronounced by locals in that wonderfully nasal Kiwi accent that sounds as though spoken while smiling. And that’s true even when someone was angry with me, but that’s a story for much later.
Kerikeri is the place where I landed. It’s full circle in a way, coming back to the start. It’s the largest town in Northland, and the Cradle of the Nation, where the first permanent Mission was established. We’ll follow the Kerikeri river as it makes its way slowly towards the Bay of Islands, and the Pacific Ocean.
Passion fruit, avocados and grapevines were introduced here and started a trend. The oldest pear tree in the country planted in 1819 is still bearing fruit to this day.
But we have a ways to go yet, across fields, over stiles and through gates much like on England’s Coast to Coast.
Wild turkeys huddle at the next opening. One wisely leaps over as five shove under, barely squishing through before running away, feet flying to the side in ungainly gobbling.
It’s easy walking. And, just as promised, it’s not flash but glorious views out to the Bay of Island, green stretching out towards endless blue horizon.
At another stile, a sign welcomes us. “TA Fruit!” it says, with a black sharpie tied to a string so we can add our thoughts, most of them filled with gratitude at the bucket of oranges left for us. Trail angels rock, especially Kiwi brand trail angels.
Ahead is Ondi stopped in the field. When we get closer, we see she’s holding a tiny gray and white duckling separated from its family. I learn at that moment that Ondi is a bird biologist and she packs the little peeping creature into her fanny pack to take to a local rescue which she’s already phoned. An efficient person, that Ondi.
We work our way down the hill toward the Kerikeri River and a grove of Totara, a lot like cedar and I use one as a backrest and sit on the soft needles to eat tomato soup and the last of the cheese.
I hope I find a charity shop in Kerikeri to buy a throw away blouse. I swear by merino wool because it’s soft, stays cool in the heat and warm in the cold and, most important, does not hold body odor. But the one I picked is too thick for this heat and I need to make a change.
We head on and I cross my very first swing bridge. Made of metal and lined with something that looks like cyclone fencing, it’s very narrow, only big enough for one to pass. Bram shows up with loquats he found nearby and we pucker at their sourness.
The river is lined with wild flowers.. I stop briefly to rinse my hands and finger some coolness through my hair. I find a rhythm of pulling out my hat from my hip belt, lowering my balaclava – which acts as a headband – back to my neck when in the sun, then reversing in the trees. I do this without breaking stride.
It’s a gorgeous bush walk, but now on a wide and, thankfully, dry trail. We’re joined by joggers, high schoolers, and middle aged ladies like me walking briskly. Finally, the beautiful river finds its way to a massive set of falls. Welcome to New Zealand! Come in, the water’s wonderful.
Down the stairs to a little rock shelf, we strip to our panties and bras and jump into its cold embrace.
And only a few more minutes walk, dripping wet and happy, to the Stone Store near Kemp House, the oldest building in New Zealand. Happy Hour is on and the promise of a night staying with Irene’s friends far out on one of the arms of land into the Pacific, a hot tub, laundry, far too much food and wine – and another night in a bed.
I feel very, very, well loved.
If you enjoy the storytelling, consider subscribing to The Pee Rag wherever you get your podcasts – and if you listen on Apple – consider giving me a review as that will help others find The Pee Rag.
Like this one from Susan, “Your podcasts in your reassuring voice set me at ease as you give snippets of your hikes I followed diligently. Reading your daily hiking comments brought angst to me, but now that you calmly summarize high and low points, I look forward to the next episodes of Pee Rag. Thank you so much for your new endeavor.”
Of course, I now know how this thing ends! And I’m looking at things with the perspective of time and experience, since right after the Te Araroa, I walked the Pacific Crest Trail. Kind of badass!
Thanks to Leki trekking poles for their support of The Pee Rag.
Next week, I’ll take you past the Waitangi ceremonial grounds to the beautiful Bay of Islands town of Pahia. That’s where the trail becomes a waterway, and I kayak up the Waikare Inlet. Until next week, happy trails!
episode 6 show notes ‘n transcript
In this episode:
- The Blissful Hiker awakens to a cacophonous symphony of birdsong, puts on her muddy socks and shoes and walks right back into soul-sucking mud.
- A walk across a farm and road walk take her to a hamburger.
- A rainy night at Apple Dam teaches her how to pack up a damp campsite.
- Trail angels and curious sites keep her company on an easy walk.
- A sidetrip to see magnificent Kauri remind her that she is exactly where she needs to be – walking the Te Araroa.
available on iTunes
A symphony of birdsong awakens me in the Raetea Forest, a cushion of grass my mattress and just enough water left for breakfast. My shoes and socks are caked with the stuff and I’m putting off placing my feet in them for as long as possible. Out of the forest, through a farm, then onto road. This is one of the major complaints about the Te Araroa.
It’s really not that bad as the road slowly climbs up, the Mangamuka Dairy right at the top of this hill. Apple Dam Camp is another wide grassy spot in the bush and it rained all night long. Waking up in rain is absolutely depleting. Ask any thru-hiker and they will likely tell you that it’s not the rain itself that’s the problem – it’s packing in rain.
I pass pastel colored bee boxes in uneven stacks, buzzing workers swarming the white flowered manuka nearby. A slow moving vehicle crawls closer and two hunters lean out to ensure I take the right turn at the next fork. Even though it’s midday, I pose my standard question, “Do you have a beer you could sell me?”
Only moments to the end, I break off from the rest and take a detour to Manginangina. This moment here, right now is magic, holy, like walking into a cathedral. Muir Woods of Australasia.
Aside from needing to find water and places to camp, the “getting there” aspect was pretty much absent. My walking became an act for its own sake. The continuous, rhythmic perambulation, and my own company and observations, brought me to the present moment of my feet very simply walking on this earth.
And you know what? That’s precisely why I came here.
A symphony of birdsong awakens me in the Raetea Forest, a cushion of grass my matress and just enough water left for breakfast. We spent the night below the summit of Umaumokaroo, not able to make it out of the forest before dark. The views were few and far between, closed in by the lush, overgrown bush. Before I went to bed, I used nearly every wet wipes in my possession to get the mud off my body before crawling into my sleeping bag for what turned out to be a chilly night. But my shoes and socks are caked with the stuff and I’m putting off placing my feet in them for as long as possible.
Ultralighters turn their noses up at any luxury, but there’s no way I’d skimp on camp shoes. Mine are a pair of fake crocs I found at Goodwill. I think there was actually a lawsuit surrounding this brand of gardening clog, as if rubber slip-ons can be trademarked.
They’re slightly too small, and I had the bright idea I could stretch them just by wearing them around the house. What I found out was 1. That doesn’t work and 2. You actually can stretch them by putting them in the dryer for three minutes and then putting them on, boiling hot, after you’ve put on two pairs of thick socks. It worked like a dream, and I have these Frankenstein stretched out clogs on now as I eat breakfast and pack up Olive Oyl, my drab-colored backpack.
I did one other smart thing I realize on this glorious, sunny morning. I quit drinking coffee before the trip. I’m one of those people who’s easily addicted to caffeine and will suffer headaches should I miss my morning joe. Without the addiction, there’s no need to fuss with a cooked breakfast and I can simply grab a few bars and be on my way.
But yes, I’m stalling. I just can’t face my shoes and socks. Sure, I could put on my spare socks, but then I’d have two sodden pair and it’s kind of nice to have a fresh pair to sleep in.
The Nike ad runs through my head, ‘Just do it!’ Irene pokes out of her tent, surprised I’m up so early, reminding me we still have a few hours to walk with a whole lot more mud ahead.
Ha! And you thought I was having a nice walk in the forest?
She also reminds me that when we come out, a burger awaits, at the Dairy – or convenient store – but it’s only open until noon, so we gotta get going. Food, the greatest motivator of this Blissful Hiker and perhaps any long distance hiker and the socks go on, cold and clammy and then the shoes, only five days, but they’re already getting broken in.
And I’m off, slowly working my way towards farmland. It’s no less muddy here – and slow going – but fences appear, a stile, four abalone shells nailed to a tree and a giant, random, cast iron kettle hanging on a nail.
Irene is right, there’s still mud, and it’s worse this morning. A halfway-up-calves soul-destroying indignity of ooze. Then, I fall down flat on my bum with a loud “Noooooo!” Mud and wet oozes into my panties. Will this forest ever end?
Invasive gorse lines the trail reaching out to scratch me. I’m proud of choosing to hike in long sleeves and long pants, even though wet and muddy. And then, all of a sudden, the forest ends. Opening to fields and hills beyond. A trail of dried cow-pies welcome me to a gentle slope, their recent owners returning my “moo!” A horse lets me stroke her soft, redolent face.
Soon a farm track appears, and the heavy caked mud falls off my feet with every step. About a dozen dogs begin barking when I’m still 10 minutes up the hill. It’s long strides now to the sweet camping area I’d hoped to reach last night, asking only for koha, or donations. I work my way down the riverbank and step gingerly into the gentle current. The mud is as thick as gumbo, so I sit down, fully clothed to scrape it off.
Out of the forest, through a farm, then onto road. This is one of the major complaints about the Te Araroa. There’s not too much that can be done about it in some areas, as it’s the only way through. The trouble is the roads have very little verge, leaving little margin for error. And it also seems the drivers either have no idea what we’re doing here – or don’t care.
Really? You needed to pass that guy right there only centimeters from flattening me? Nice. Thank a lot! OK, calm down. Only a few more k to a hamburger, and don’t forget to face traffic. Walk on the right.
It’s really not that bad as the road slowly climbs up, the Mangamuka Dairy right at the top of this hill. I make it just in time. Richard and Jane who also crowded into the grassy area last night along with Rowan and Rebecca and Irene all catching up, our phones charging on top of a freezer of frozen pizzas
The owners are not crazy about us visiting even though we all eat extra large burgers and “thick shakes” – something we might call milk shakes in the U.S. When I ask to fill my water bottle, I’m told to use a hose out back and I decide instead to push on ahead and find a stream.
Irene and I walk together up lovely Omuhatu Road towards more forest. We clambor down under a bridge to fill our bottles and take a swim in the deep pool. A farmer comes to the gate with a dog perched on back of his 4×4. He tells me she’s called Penelope. When I say her name, she leaps off to come for a hello, until he whistles her back to work, bringing in the cows for milking. Another fellow comes by in a motorbike; muddy boots, long gators and shorts. He’s a Milk Sharer, owns the cattle but borrows the land. Woofers, he explains, would be those working the land for a room and board.
Soon we turn back into the forest. Signs everywhere tell us to stay on the track to avoid spreading Kauri Dieback. Irene talks to me about her relationships with family members, some controlling, some impossible. She says she has broad shoulders. Some see her cool and aloof, but she doesn’t feel that. She’s just too busy with own life to get drawn into drama. I wish I had some of Irene in me.
Up and up we go through magnificent Kauri, but on this forest track we can walk and talk and see our next foot placement. This peaceful forest at 4:00 is quite the contrast from last night’s panic to find a suitable grassy bit as the sun went down.
A sign points to “the giant stump” which is a bit of a let down. I can’t tell if what I see is blocking the true giant stump, but one look past into the muddy darkness brings on a kind of muddy forest PTSD and sends me back to the track and towards tonight’s camp spot.
Apple Dam Camp is another wide grassy spot in the bush. Belgium Bram and Aussie Ondi are camping here already and I set close by before heading to the perfect little washing stream, cool on my tired feet as I scrub out the last of the thick pasty mud in my socks. It’s just after 5:00 and still light, but I’m so tired, I’m out like a light.
The morning at Apple Dam was not a good one. My gear worked splendidly, keeping me dry and warm, but it rained all night long. Waking up in rain is absolutely depleting. Ask any thru-hiker and they will likely tell you that it’s not the rain itself that’s the problem – it’s packing in rain.
It’s an intricate dance of putting on rain gear and trying to keep everything dry as I slowly pack it up, my sleeping quilt and clothes in water proof bags and myself in water proof rain gear. But honestly, it’s more the getting up that’s the problem, that initial sitting up and committing to moving ahead with my day.
What works for me is to first let the air out of the mattress. It sends a signal to my subconscious that there’s no going back. And the next steps become inevitable – rolling up and stuffing the mattress with my tiny blowup pillow, stuffing the quilt and placing every small item I’ve taken out of bags through the night back into their compartments. I really take so little with me on a thru-hike, it’s not hard to keep track. That being said, a thru-hiker needs to be cognizant of the whereabouts of all things, since each item serves a purpose and is hardly extraneous. To lose something could be mildly catastrophic.
I crawl out of the tent backwards, rump first, my head last trying to keep my hands dry. Once I’m up, it’s not so hard to keep the momentum going. I feel ok since the distance is only about 13 miles today. But then Irene spills out of her tent and says we got that wrong, it’s actually over 20.
Buck up buttercup, the bush walk is closed and the whole day is on a forest track. This will not be hard walking.
And it’s not. It’s more like a long walk up Summit Avenue in Saint Paul where I live. One foot in front of the other, forward motion from point A to point B. Wait, didn’t I say that about the Ninety Mile Beach?
Of course, when it’s just a walk without much challenge, my mind wanders and I begin ruminating about home and work and the life I’ve left behind. I wanted and needed so much to see what would happen to my mind, body and spirit if I gave a long distance thru-hike a try. Was it worth it? I feel sort of silly traveling to the other side of the earth just to skirt the bush by walking a road, even if it’s nearly completely void of traffic.
I pass pastel colored bee boxes in uneven stacks, buzzing workers swarming the white flowered manuka nearby. A slow moving vehicle crawls closer and two hunters lean out to ensure I take the right turn at the next fork. Even though it’s midday, I pose my standard question, “Do you have a beer you could sell me?” They hunt around in the backseat and offer me a wild turkey. I grimace, fearing a hunk of meat will be handed to me. Instead it’s a bottled cocktail of real Kentucky bourbon and soda. I thank my trail angel friends and wave as they depart in a cloud of dust.
So now with a drink in hand, I look for a place to have lunch, sending out to the universe three wishes for shade, a backrest and a view. Within ten minutes, a perfect spot appears under palms looking out across rolling green mountains dotted with forest. I drink my Wild Turkey with a lunch of salami and cheese just as Irene rounds the corner singing ‘Funky Town’ at the top of her lungs.
The four of us leapfrog all afternoon towards the Puketi Forest and good camping. Slowly descending the ridge, the shadows get longer, and tuis, drunk on fermented berries, chortle from the Kauris.
Only moments to the end, I break off from the rest and take a detour to Manginangina. It’s one of the only remaining subtropical rainforests in Taitokerau or Northland. Since the time of the colonists, only 3% of this vast forest remains, a place that kiwi, bats and kauri snails call home.
Keeping the trees safe, I have a boardwalk, a blessed boardwalk above the mud and roots, allowing me to take it all in. The cool and fresh pungency overwhelm me as I come upon a giant Kauri, hundreds of years old. A fat trunk in soft gray holds huge arms aloft creating a kind of crown. It would take 12 blissful hikers arms outstretched to hug this beast.
She grew solo, her family just below in a circular cluster, living, as they are wont to do, right in the heart of a swamp. Vines creep up their leathery, moss-covered bark with protruding Dr. Seussian heads.
Nearby a sign explains how hard foresters work to eradicate invasives – rats, stoats and – as cute as they might be – possums. I’ve heard and seen their prey – tui, kereru – a type of pigeon, tirairaka – the fantail and miromiro or tomtit.
An ecosystem of 200 species, one of the most diverse in the world. Kauri are conifers so no wonder it feels like Jurassic Park in here. They came of age with dinosaurs. This moment here, right now is magic, holy, like walking into a cathedral. Muir Woods of Austral-Asia.
It’s hard to say goodbye, but the coolness and birdsong as well as my own sense of wonder follow me the final kilometer to camp.
The alicoop is up fast, right before a brief downpour moves in, then quickly dries up in brilliant sunshine.
I know I promised last week that I’d take you as far as the Bay of Islands. But I didn’t quite make it. The trail, if you can even call it a trail, was easy mostly on mud-free farm track and I really should have just gotten ahead. But what surprised me was that even when moving seemed effortless, the nourishing work of my soul still happened – and actually caused me to savor this section, a lot. I saw beautiful things. And mostly, except for the final forest, on a more subtle level. Aside from needing to find water and places to camp, the “getting there” aspect was pretty much absent. My walking became an act for its own sake. The continuous, rhythmic perambulation, and my own company and observations, brought me to the present moment of my feet very simply walking on this earth.
And you know what? That’s precisely why I came here.
episode 5 show notes ‘n transcript
In this episode:
- On only day 5, the Blissful Hiker cheats and allows her friend of a friend of a friend Peter to drive her past the road walk section.
- She enters real New Zealand bush, the Raetea Forest, which begins easily, but then plunges her straight into epic mud.
- She hears the R2D2 squawk song of a Tui for the first time
- She gets lost for a moment, but soon finds a wide grassy part of the trail to set her tent.
- She learns about plunging straight through difficult passages, never making assumptions and always looking for the beauty around her.
MUSIC: Impresiones de la Puna by Alberto Ginastera as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
Does it count if cheating wasn’t my idea? Peter wonders if I’d “betray the mission” by having him drive me to the next town because the Te Araroa Trust had to divert the trail due to Kauri dieback.
The Ninety Mile Beach felt deserted, remote and lonely, and it’s not an understatement to say I feel culture shock pulling into the massive parking lot of an equally massive box store called Pak’nSav to pick up a few items for the coming days.
We bump and lurch up the Takahue Saddle Road to the Mangamuka Route. The air is cool and fresh, the smell so different now – sweetly pungent, earthy and moist.
But then he points to my left, to a tiny opening in the thick foliage. That’s the way? In there? It’s a trail about a meter wide aggressively cutting up the mountain now; straight up.
The mud is thick and sticky, wet and slippery. Roots crisscross the path and I learn quickly not to try and balance on them as a means to avoid the mud, because they’re worse than the mud, greasy and unstable.
Irene and I are quiet in our thoughts and then she says, “A tui!” I hear a few bell-like sounds amidst clicks, cackles, creaks, groans and wheezes more like R2D2 than any bird I’d ever heard. I learn later tuis can sound like two birds because of their bifurcated sound-producing organ called a syrinx.
The afternoon gives way and the light begins to change, warming to a deep orange the tall Rimu covered in Dr. Seussian epicytes and long, black tendrilly, supplejack. A wooden sign points to Makene Road one way and TA SOBO (or southbound) the other with the encouraging words, “Only 2,850 kilometers to go!”
We press on, knowing we’ll have to spend the night in this forest and no matter what, it’s got to be that grassy area. “This doesn’t feel right.” Irene says, checking her app to see if there’s any indication of the right way.
Best idea of the day because just beyond the blowdown, hidden by branches and ferns fanning out is an orange triangle pointing down. What about this day, I think. What has it taught me? To just plow through the tough stuff and not care if you get dirty. To never assume and to look and listen for all the beauty around you, even if you’re tired and uncertain you’ll find a flat place to camp.
That’s the wonder of hiking, that you really, truly have to let go – of expectations, of being hard on yourself, of having to do things in the right way because sometimes the day just gets away from you and you have to improvise.
I admit it. I cheated.
Yup, right at the very beginning, on day five.
I’m attempting to walk the entire length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa, a thru-hike that should take me five months to complete, and I’ve already skipped a section.
But let’s be fair, everyone cheats at least a little on this massive trail, one that’s less an actual trail than an idea, and the part I skipped is all on road.
Does it count if cheating wasn’t my idea? I’m staying with a friend of a friend of a friend, a lovely retired doctor who is beloved up here in the far, far north. Peter’s home overlooks Ahipara Bay, and it was a quiet evening just for two drinking wine under the olive trees, my tent, the alicoop drying on his lush lawn in between rain showers, a pork belly dinner, lots of conversation and finally singing for one another.
He wondered last night if I’d “betray the mission” by having him drive me to the next town because the Te Araroa Trust had to divert the trail onto nearly 28 kilometers – or 17 miles – of hot tarmac, five k of which they suggest – or rather, require – the hiker hitch a ride because it’s all too dangerous.
Other issues have intruded too, like I already need to resupply at the store in the next town, Kaitaia and Irene, my Kiwi friend who brought me from the airport to the start of the trail and with whom I’ve walked with so far, already hitched a ride to town. If I insist up on being resolute in walking this “section” – in big air quotes – I’d likely be walking on my own.
A bit of background here: the route has been diverted because the first of four Northland forests has been closed. The reason is the trees are dying. Kauris are massive conifers with a girth to rival American Sequoias. They’re ancient, dating back to the Jurassic period, with a beautiful, flaky bark that hinders parasitic plants, and massive branches – though tiny leaves – that dominate the forest canopy.
For this dendrologist wannabe tree enthusiast, Kauris are magnificent. So it’s with great sorrow that they are being brought down by a microscopic fungus. Phytophthora agathidicida or Kauri dieback moves through soil from tree to tree, carried on the bottom of a tramper’s shoes. It only takes a pinhead’s worth to spread the fungus, so why take a chance?
The Herekino Forest is closed to all, yet the Raetea Forest is still open and that’s where I’m headed this morning in Peter’s Range Rover. He throws my pack in the boot, then heaves his own pack in after lacing up his boots, planning to join us for at least the first few hours in completely new terrain.
The road is narrow and winding as we head inland, away from the blowing sand on Ninety Mile Beach, and in towards vivid green pastureland, cows lining up on the verge to cross when there’s a break in traffic. Kiwis drive fast and always seem delighted to be out in their beautiful country, Peter shouting over the whine of the SUV to point out a Marae or meeting house of local Maori.
The Ninety Mile Beach felt deserted, remote and lonely, and it’s not an understatement to say I feel culture shock pulling into the massive parking lot of an equally massive box store called Pak’nSav to pick up a few items for the coming days. Peter grabs his own trolley as we synchronize shop, the bulk section of nuts and candy as delightfully decadent as walking into Willy Wonka’s factory.
We settle up and get moving again to pick up Irene at her friend’s house and Peter tells me with a grin that the shop keepers gave him a bit a sideways look wondering who his “young woman friend” is shopping so early in the morning. Ha! Let ‘em talk! Peter lost his wife about a year and a half ago and is just about ready to try dating again. He tells me there’s a kind of “Tinder for People over Seventy” in the community. He’s such a lovely person, they’ll be fightin’ over him.
We find Irene high up on a hill, a cluster of homes nestled in with a few barnyard creatures roaming about and views to the surrounding mountains. I’m so glad we’ll continue together as she tells me that Amelia and Jean-Christophe kept walking on the road after the beach and are now a full day ahead.
We bump and lurch up the Takahue Saddle Road to the Mangamuka Route. The air is cool and fresh, the smell so different now – sweetly pungent, earthy and moist. Peter names the plants as we pass them on what is more a four-wheel drive road than trail, wide enough that we can walk abreast. The light is dappled in a checkered pattern through massive tree ferns, with fiddleheads larger than my fist.
We pass driveways with curious metal gates, decorated with masks, sculptures and keep out signs. It’s easy walking slowly uphill and we talk the entire way before Peter slows down to tell us he’s heading back now. It seems arbitrary to me since it’s still early and the going’s good. But then he points to my left, to a tiny opening in the thick foliage.
That’s the way? In there? It’s a trail about a meter wide. People have been here recently, I see, and have left footprints squished into deep mud already filled with coffee-colored water. They trail off and are lost in the bush, the track no longer a gradually ascending road on long switchbacks, but rather one aggressively cutting up the mountain now; straight up.
Up until this point in the day, my Lekis were pretty much window dressing. The “trail,” if you can call it a trail, was really more of a road, or forest track. What Irene and I were walking on now was the opposite extreme and it gave a whole new meaning to the term “tramping track.”
The mud is thick and sticky, wet and slippery. Roots crisscross the path and I learn quickly not to try and balance on them as a means to avoid the mud, because they’re worse than the mud, greasy and unstable . The bush presses in on us in a fecund jungle, not allowing any side-stepping of the thickest patches. And it’s not just up, but down and back up again, no views at all giving us even the least hint where we are.
The truth is, there’s only one way to get through and that’s to simply plunge directly through it. I know there’s a lesson hidden in this moment, one about persevering and pressing forward, facing obstacles straight on. But at this point, the sun streaming through and a friend bonding over slip-n-slide squishiness with me, I’m having fun.
In the first minutes, I’m muddy up to my knees, the soft muck oozing through my running shoes, the rainwater cooling my feet. And Irene just keeps nattering the whole way, since we dare not split up in this thick maze. She reminds me of Hiker B, my friend Brenda who hiked with me on similarly rough conditions one rainy fall on the Border Route Trail in Northern Minnesota.
We saw practically no one in that wet overgrown wilderness, but saw loads of tracks from resident creatures – moose, bear, wolf – though never having the chance to actually see them, since they could hear us coming from miles away.
This forest, too, is thick with blow down and mud, uphill to Mangamuke Saddle. Slip-n-slide is all fun and games until you’re hauling up a fully re-supplied pack straight up-hill in it. Hiker B often would say she longed for just “a hundred feet of joy.” Here it’s more like a meter here and a meter there, and you never really want to take your eyes off where you’re putting your feet.
My Lekis save me from a muddy bum, and I walk with an animal gait, reaching forward and sort of crawling through. We take one brief look out at a view of bush covered mountains undulating towards the horizon, then back in towards the summit and radio towers, a sign telling us they’re one minute off the trail.
It’s too early to camp, but what a perfect blanket of grass in the sun. It’s tomato soup and Hungarian salami for lunch, neither of us feeling particularly eager to move on. The trail goes up, and down, and up again. I think I already said that, didn’t I? The fun is wearing off a little and it’s getting tiring – and late. Camping by a river, and a chance to rinse is a long way off.
Irene and I are quiet in our thoughts and then she says, “A tui!”
It’s not that I hadn’t noticed the birds until now. There was a pretty steady racket of birds. But I was so focused on the mud, my eyes and ears aimed down, it took Irene’s pointing out this fanciful creature for me to stop and listen.
A tui is a passerine, or perching bird. Their plumage is an oily purple and blue, but from my vantage, this one appeared all black except for the tuft of white at its throat, like a minister, that waddled and throbbed as he would sing. But is sing the correct term? I hear a few bell-like sounds amidst clicks, cackles, creaks, groans and wheezes more like R2D2 than any bird I’d ever heard. I learn later tuis can sound like two birds because of their bifurcated sound-producing organ called a syrinx.
Mine let the silence grow, then sing a song so loud like he’d never heard of using his inside voice. My tui follows us for a few steps before I say goodbye and Irene assures me I’d hear more, and many, like parrots, mimicking precisely voices and sounds, sometimes to the utter annoyance of anyone close by.
The trail plays tricks on me. Blue sky opens up and a summit appears near, but the orange triangles point down, then around. I brought three liters of water to last the day with the intention of making it to a lovely stream just beyond the forest. But the afternoon gives way and the light begins to change, warming to a deep orange the tall Rimu covered in Dr. Seussian epicytes and long, black tendrilly, supplejack.
This has got to be the hardest trail I’ve walked and this is not my first rodeo. Epic mud and I have become personally acquainted in the Peru’s Vilcabamba, Chile’s Torres del Paine and England’s Pennines, but this is all three – on steroids. A turn-you-around-on-trail mass of overgrowth, suck-off-your-shoe mud, obscure-the-tripping-hazards giant ferns you’d ever seen – and most of it on a slope.
It begins to occur to me that we’ve been far too laid back about the day. Lingering over breakfast, strolling through the Pak’nSav, sauntering with Peter up the first part while he identified trees, and finally lounging by the radio towers for a long, leisurely lunch – it’s all left us far behind schedule.
Not that I’m much of a scheduled kind of backpacker, but there is no flat space – let alone clear space – to set our tents. And even though it doesn’t seem that way today, this is a rain forest. We need to be under some sort of shelter. In here is nothing but a wisp of a trail marked by a series of orange triangles hammered to trees. In the dark, there’s no telling where the trail goes.
Later in my hike, I hear of a solo female hiker who got so turned around in here, she kept walking and walking after dark, fell down a waterfall and somehow not only managed to survive the fall, but managed just enough cell service to call for help. I thankfully have my GPS, but under so much tree cover, the reception is spotty.
We go up and up and come to a wide spot in the trail where it appears another trail joins in. A wooden sign points to Makene Road one way and TA SOBO (or southbound) the other with the encouraging words, “Only 2,850 kilometers to go!”
It’s not really flat enough to pitch on all these roots. We both use an oddly named crowd-sourced trail app on our phones called “Guthook,” one that most thru-hikers use instead of paper maps, something practically useless in this clag.
An entry from a recent hiker tells us there is a spot to camp just below the summit. Is this the summit? I wonder.
The description is even more vague. “A grassy area with some flat spots for a tent or two between kilometer mark 148 and 150.” Considering we’ve been averaging one kilometer per hour, that’s some spread.
We press on, knowing we’ll have to spend the night in this forest and no matter what, it’s got to be that grassy area. But as we pass what we think might be the summit, the trail comes to a dead end of blowdown in a tangled mass. We climb over hugging a steep ridge until the trail completely peters out. “This doesn’t feel right.” Irene says, checking her app to see if there’s any indication of the right way. “Let’s go back to that blowdown and just see.”
Best idea of the day because just beyond the blowdown, hidden by branches and ferns fanning out is an orange triangle pointing down. What we were walking on is called a herd trail. Everyone made the same mistake, and you get enough people walking that way, the wrong way begins to look like the right way.
So we broke out of the pack and head down, where instantly the real trail becomes more obvious. “We’re going down!” I tell Irene who gives me a “No shit!” look. Down doesn’t take your breath away, but it’s slippery and hard to negotiate. On and on we go, down and down, over roots and through mud as the sun begins to disappear and the air cools.
What about this day, I think. What has it taught me? To just plow through the tough stuff and not care if you get dirty. To never assume and to look and listen for all the beauty around you, even if you’re tired and uncertain you’ll find a flat place to camp.
That’s the wonder of hiking, that you really, truly have to let go – of expectations, of being hard on yourself, of having to do things in the right way because sometimes the day just gets away from you and you have to improvise.
I’m tired and ready to stop. Just as I think that I notice there’s grass under my feet. The trail widens slightly into a small flat area, no bigger than the width of a tent.
“We’re here!” No water, no view, nothing to write home about, but it is perfect for our two single tents set one after another, nearly blocking the trail. The alicoop is up fast and I set about peeling off my muddy clothes and using every disposal wipe in my arsenal to clean off the mud so I can crawl inside.
Dinner is a luxury, though quick as Irene and I share her rain cape as a seat. Just then, two hikers crash out of the bush, their headlamps lighting up the gloaming. Rowan and Rebecca arrive, newlyweds who thought hiking nearly 2,000 miles might be a good way to start a marriage. They charm us with their English accents and understated style, too restrained to ever admit they thought they’d never get out of the forest tonight.
Tuis and birds exotic to my ears pipe up as we all begin to settle in for the night. Rowan chatters on with energy and self-assuredness of a man on his honeymoon. He brags about the number of sweets they carry and how many they eat per day, which instantly makes me feel better since thru-hiking brings out the “candy grabber” in me.
And before long, the night goes pitch black and we all fall asleep to a jumbled melody of Raetea Forest’s wild lullaby.
Until next week when we’ll push through more forest to the Bay of Islands, happy trails!
episode 4 show notes ‘n transcript
In this episode:
- The Blissful Hiker starts walking the Ninety Mile Beach, a long strip of sand that will take three days to complete, a baptism by fire for causing injury, boredom and many hikers to quit the Te Araroa.
- She learns that thru-hiking is a lesson in patience.
- Her tent, the alicoop, crashes down in the ferocious wind, but the TA goddess stops the rain, and she reorients it under a blanket of stars.
- On the final day, the wind changes, coming directly in her face, but she rises to the challenge, met in Ahipara by a new friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend.
MUSIC: Pastorale Calchaqui by Hector Gallac as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
The Te Araroa – or long pathway – dispenses with formalities, taking any hiker who dares onto an exposed start of drenching squalls, inconvenient tides and a never-ending roar of sound that begins as a curious lullaby, but in time, crescendos to a scream.
Fortunately, I’ve been warned about the beach, mostly told not to underestimate how difficult it is even though a simple point A to point B, on flat ground. Even young and healthy hikers manage to injure themselves with painful tendonitis, shin splints or shred their tender city-feet in a mass of blisters. Total exposure to the elements of wind, rain, and sun, no water and loud monotony make this one of the most difficult starts of any thru-hike in the world. It’s a baptism by fire – or more accurately, water.
Beautiful, lovingly built stairs with rubber grips take us steeply down through the bush. Little did I know this would be one of only a handful of well-built and maintained portions of the 3,000 kilometer trail.
It looks like it was my turn for my tent – the alicoop – to crash down on me. It’s no one’s fault, really, certainly not the gear, just that I set behind a wind screen that only protected me for the half of the night before the wind changed directions.
To survive today’s, I make a plan to divide it into thirds. I’ll use each 10k section to consider some ‘deep thoughts.’
1. What causes a person to make the decision to walk for five months?
2. Why does said person need a plan to get through a particularly long, hard day?
3. What must it feel like to be free, like one of these wild horses?
In no time, the wind picks up to dry me off. But this time, it’s straight in my face. At Ahipara, Peter treats me like his own daughter, looking at me with concern when he remarks that I have sand on my cheeks and in the corners of my eyes.
Joining me for a glass of wine he wonders if it would be considered cheating to skip the long, dangerous road walk to Kaitaia and allow him to drive me to the next section.
I tell him not if I don’t tell anyone!
I wake up with a start in the middle of the night. It’s so dark I can’t see my hands in front of my face. The constant roar of the ocean and wind I’d been hearing since I started walking the Te Araroa yesterday, has changed in pitch. Have the waves stopped? It’s not raining, but the wind makes up for it.
A light shines into the alicoop, my “tint.” Not the moon, it’s Irene, coming closer, carrying her tent and sleeping bag in a huge swaddled wad against her chest. She organizes herself under the cabana, in a nook behind a wall. When I ask her if she’s ok, she tells me she was just trying save weight in her pack, and only brought two tent pigs. Of course her tent was blown down, falling on top of her in an uncontrollable, smothering blanket.
At this point, I was only about a dozen miles into a thru-hike that would take me about five months to complete. I’d walked on sand and over rocks, up cliffs and even got lost for a few moments. The start was sudden, after a seemingly endless succession of flights, then a long drive to Cape Reinga. The Te Araroa – or long pathway – dispenses with formalities, taking any hiker who dares onto an exposed start of drenching squalls, inconvenient tides and a never-ending roar of sound that begins as a curious lullaby, but in time, crescendos to a scream.
The eight of us huddle in the cabana, trying to light stoves behind the protective walls, choosing to eat the heaviest of our food for our first breakfast out. We share stories of restless sleep and tired limbs, but talk little about what’s ahead in the long stretch of sand called The Ninety Mile Beach, a stretch that will take the better part of three days to walk.
Fortunately, I’ve been warned about the beach, mostly told not to underestimate how difficult it is even though a simple point A to point B, on flat ground.
Many a walker quits after waking the beach in Northland. Charging into the start, people often walk too far and without break on deceptively hard concrete-like sand that goes on and on for over 100 kilometers. Even young and healthy hikers manage to injure themselves with painful tendonitis, shin splints or shred their tender city-feet in a mass of blisters. Total exposure to the elements of wind, rain, and sun, no water and loud monotony make this one of the most difficult starts of any thru-hike in the world. It’s a baptism by fire – or more accurately, water.
I vow to myself to not let it beat me. I’ll take my time and go gently – and maybe more importantly, I’ll see it not as an endurance test, but find its beauty too.
Clouds clear revealing a pink sky as the waves keep up their plaintive song and Irene and I go up for the last time to Scott Point. It’s here where the view opens up to the huge expanse, like an oversized sand bar, reaching far off to a horizon lost in misty sea breeze. Scrubby dunes on the left give way to crumbling cliffs of sand and finally the sea in rows of foamy waves.
Beautiful, lovingly built stairs with rubber grips take us steeply down through the bush. Little did I know this would be one of only a handful of well-built and maintained portions of the 3,000 kilometer trail. We spy a tiny island ahead, though the distance is hard to judge, though we know from our map that it’s directly across from tonight’s campsite, about 15 miles up the beach.
I find that hard to digest since I’ve never walked so far on a strip of sand. It begins to rain and we quickly descend. The sand is wet with puddles as the tide slowly comes in. A shag fishes in the surf. A half-submerged blowfish gives me skeletal smile. We walk together for a while, then split up as I begin to find my rhythm and pace. Thru-hiking is so different from backpacking or day hiking. Sure, you’ve got to get somewhere to get water, to sleep, but you can’t walk with the same urgency. You learn to develop patience in your progress, knowing you have all day to get to that island far up the sand.
Patience with progress, and patience with the terrain. This is not a shell-collecting beach. Aside from flotsam cast off far away ships, a green wine bottle covered with hitchhiking cockles, bits of net and floats, a flattened bird, legs akimbo, it’s monotonous. Nothing catches the eye but rain clouds racing across the sea and dunes like waves themselves cresting above me.
There’s a shallow, gradual slope, that causes the waves to churn like a washing machine before one might break free and send its fingers of saltiness towards me. High tide is at an extremely inconvenient 1:30 in the afternoon making walking even more difficult in the soft, mushiness.
Eventually, I scamper up on the dunes, following other awkward footsteps of Amelia and Jean-Christophe who got an early start. Irene catches me just as I decide to find a spot out of the wind for a snack and to fix a hot spot on my toe. The minute I take off my shoe, sand pours out and I realize why hikers developed blisters so bad, they could hardly walk. It’s a good thing I’m bandaging it up now.
I brush off the sand as the tide reaches its peak and recedes. I can see Irene’s tiny figure far ahead, her pace matching mine exactly like we’re attached by strings. Now I can fathom the enormous distance I have to go and settle into it, the wind fortunately at my back.
The rocky island gets bigger and bigger, a speck from Scott Point, it’s a mammoth island inhabited by birds. Directly across is the manicured lawn of Maunganui Bluff beautiful appointed with a cooking shelter and a long drop. Amelia and Jean-Christoph are here, Irene already set up, and it seems I’ve arrived at cocktail hour as a local arrives in his beat up truck, dog barking in the back and a cold beer put in my hands. Only a stone’s throw away, wild horses, only a stone’s throw away, look upon us in this perfect paradise next to the sea.
I may have had a gorgeous sunset, soft grass for my tired feet and a cold beer for my weary self – after only two days of hiking, but payback came in the form of all night rain. OK, that’s not accurate. Rain, then wind, then rain and wind.
It looks like it was my turn for my tent – the alicoop – to crash down on me. It’s no one’s fault, really, certainly not the gear, just that I set behind a wind screen that only protected me for the half of the night before the wind changed directions.
But I must say, the Te Araroa goddess smiled – ok, she snickered a little when my side peg ripped out and the one of the Leki poles fell down on my face. Not enogh to injure, but I knew I had to get it set back up. In her benevolence, the TA goddess stopped the rain at that moment and cleared the sky so I could reorient the alicoop under a shining array of southern stars.
The wild horses snort and whinny, watching my struggle. I settle back into the tiny chrysalis of my tent, warm under down, my mattress crinkly but no match for the wind and waves.
The miles ratchet up as I continue down the Ninety Mile Beach, 30 kilometers to Utea today, about 18 miles. To survive today’s, I make a plan to divide it into thirds. I’ll use each 10k section to consider some ‘deep thoughts.’
1. What causes a person to make the decision to walk for five months?
2. Why does said person need a plan to get through a particularly long, hard day?
3. What must it feel like to be free like one of these wild horses?
And off I go, over a bit of dune and back on the flat expanse of beach, a small shower giving way to a rainbow as the sun begins to peak over the dunes, my long legged shadow coming off then meeting the ground in an andante beat.
At 10 kilometers, I reach spot somewhat out of the wind, against a 25-foot dune casting a sliver of shadow. I see evidence of tide reaching all the way up here and I know this stop needs to be brief.
I find some cashews at the top of my pack and ponder question number one, why walk for five months? Years ago, I took a shot at walking up Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere’s highest peak. I was fit enough for the mountaineering, but not for the altitude, and I developed a life-threatening condition called High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or HAPE. There’s only one thing to do in a situation like that: go down, as fast as possible. I was stuck in a snowstorm overnight, doing my best to stay awake and alive before the morning broke clear and I could was evacuated, the helicopter I eventually met at base camp, flying so close to the summit I could practically touch it.
I was sick for weeks afterward with bronchitis and broken hearted I had to come down. Nonetheless, we visited my family, who showed little interest in what happened. It just magnified my grief and anger. As I complained about the lack of care, Richard gave me some of the best advice of my life. “If you do this so other people notice, you deserve to fail.”
Whoa. I deserve to fail? That was harsh. But he had a point. The truth is, all of the things I do, like mountaineering or thru-hiking, need to be my own gig. While I love to share, the desire to strive for something difficult needs to come from somewhere deep inside. Sure, it helps to have support, and I don’t want to be met with indifference. No one does. But outside validation only goes so far and expecting or needing it isn’t going to get me down this long, endless, unvaried stretch of sand.
I’m back up, packing up my backpack, Olve Oyl, and slinging her on my shoulder. I always bang my sticks together twice before taking off as a little good luck charm and it’s back out onto the super highway of sand.
That’s actually a funny thing. The Ninety Mile Beach is in fact a designated roadway. I likely won’t see anyone today because ahead I’ll cross a knee-deep estuary, but soon I’ll encounter tour busses and dune buggies with single-minded drivers not expecting a lone figure to emerge from the sea spray directly in their path.
At 20 k, I pause for a snack of dehydrated honey crisp apples I made before leaving Minnesota. I pause on a massive log, half submerged in sandand and ponder the next question:
How do we balance planning and control with taking things as they come and allowing for serendipity?
I always used to hike with little safety net. That meant four weeks in the French Alps with Richard awaiting my finding wifi. Pardon, est-ce que vous avez wee-fee? Non!
For a while there he received lots of messages from total strangers with loads of errors because they were typed out on a French keyboard, but clearly indicating I was ok. This time around, he’s tracking my every move via a two-way GPS.
My brother plans his work life to the a letter, and when he hike, he likes to allow the day to unfold. That got us nearly benighted on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in San Diego county, where we got back to his truck moments before a blizzard hit dumping a few feet of snow. I too have walked and walked and walked until I went so far it was too dangerous to retrace my steps and all I could do was keep going forward.
Right now, I’m free to do exactly as I please. Although it occurs to me that unless I want to camp in the blowing sand next to a seasonal seep, I better get a move on. Chopping it up, of course, gets me there, and focuses the mind. But it also tests my legs. My gps tells me precisely where I’ve walked, no cheating, and it allows how I feel to determine when I’ll take a break. I also discover that a brisk pace on packed sand for 10k is just about my limit. That’s nothing to feel proud or ashamed of, only facts that help me to slowly conquer the whole of this walk.
Finally I see the green flag, shredded from the breeze and marking the entrance to Utea Park. Tanya sells me a fresh fruit shake and I wash off as much of the sand that’s found its way into every crevice in a communal shower, that, lucky for me, is all mine for the moment.
I’m sore, tired, and pop one nasty blister, but overall, ok. So the final question, to be free. Hmmm. Don’t we all long to be unencumbered and enjoy anything we like at any moment?
But then we wouldn’t have family, friends, our vocation, our community. It’s all a balance, right? And maybe I wouldn’t feel this philosophical right now, except that I don’t think I’m fitting in. I know it’s only day three, but I feel old and weird like I’m not such good company.
I love to hike and I’m going to walk this thing one way or another, but all of a sudden those words I said earlier about being inner-directed and not depending on others all the time aren’t working for me. Lonely is not when you’re alone. Rather it’s when you’re surrounded by people and can’t connect.
Maybe it just takes time and look her, everyone is hanging out in the kitchen area and inviting me to come over and hang out.
We all have to hike our own hike and I’ll be doing that. Scratch that. I am doing that.
Tomorrow is even further than today and a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend has invited me to spend the night at the end of the beach, in Ahipara.
In the morning, pink touches heavy clouds and pack quickly to get in a few k’s before the sun is up. A few stray drops hit me then morph into a heavy downpour, but it’s far too late to put on rain pants and I’m sodden waist to toes.
In no time, the wind picks up to dry me off. But this time, it’s straight in my face, picking up speed as I march along. I tie my silly Kavu fisherman’s hat over the bill of my raincoat and press on to the 100 kilometer mark.
At Waipapakauri Ramp, I turn up a street to visit a friend thrice removed who offers me breakfast chased by a beer at 11:00 in the morning. I ask her if people swim in this torrent and she assures me they do, but mostly people venture no further than water up to their waist due to the strong “rips” and undertow.
The sun is hot, but the air is chilly, so I have no intention of going in even up to my toes. The waves crash at me, frothy foam bubbling up before releasing tiny dirty white balls to tumble across the sand. Ribbons of sand fly at ankle-level, screaming past as I try to keep my mouth covered with my balaklava.
A tour bus drives fast towards me and parks in such a way people can disembark out of the wind. Only two people get off the bus, one looking at me wide-eyed wondering where I came from. When I tell her I walked here from the Cape, she offers me some chocolate and gets back on the bus. Maybe she should have offered me a ride.
The terrain begins to change, opening out toward estuaries visited by inky black Oystercatchers, orange billed and furtive. Three-wheeled sail cars called “blow carts” fly past me one after another, tipping up on one side as they turn around a post. Ahipara is tucked into a curve at the end of the beach, houses perched on a cliff. I check my phone for signal and see that Irene plowed ahead and was so done in by the beach, she hitched a ride to a friend in the next town and will meet me for the bush walk tomorrow.
I too am running on empty and know from two days ago that distances can be deceptive. But of course, I reach the strip of pavement that takes me into the village.
Peter is a retired transplant surgeon who recently lost his wife of forty-six years. He treats me like his own daughter, looking at me with concern when he remarks that I have sand on my cheeks and in the corners of my eyes.
He gathers fresh thyme from his garden for a home-cooked meal as I place my showered self in the soft grass. Joining me for a glass of wine he wonders if it would be considered cheating to skip the long, dangerous road walk to Kaitaia and allow him to drive me to the next section.
I look up from my eyes now free of sand and tell him not if I don’t tell anyone!
Until next week when we’ll head into the New Zealand bush and hear a Tui for the first time, happy trails!
episode 3 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker flies to New Zealand and joins a Kiwi named Irene and her family to drive to the Meeting Place of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean at Cape Reinga. Within thirty-six hours of leaving Minnesota, she begins to walk the Te Araroa towards Bluff.
In this episode:
- The Blissful Hiker has her first encounter with authentic Kiwi “trail angel” hospitality.
- She’s taken up the winding, roller-coaster roads of Northland to Cape Reinga.
- She learns security is just an illusion and we have to take risks to truly live.
- She immediately begins hiking and just as immediately takes a wrong turn.
- Rain, hail, hot sun, tides and the constant sound of waves are her companions for the first 100 kilometers.
The MUSIC: The Horizon from Owhiro Bay by Gareth Farr (used by permission)
The Pee Rag by Stacia Bennett
I found out what a pee rag is right around the same time I met Irene on Facebook. She’s a Kiwi from Hamilton, planning to walk the TA in sections. She planned to start from Cape Reinga on October 29, my start date.
I fly over puffy clouds above crystalline bays abutting sandy beaches fed by winding streams and estuaries. Hilly bright green pastures and dark bush see rain falling in the distance, and the ocean beyond that to infinity. If all goes as planned, to walk back to Auckland, will take me a month.
I’m out of my comfort zone, having reckoned with what really matters in my life and putting to the test risking security for something intangible. Helen Keller wrote “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Security is an illusion. You have to risk a bit of adventure to really live.
This part of the country is called Northland or the far, far, north. The sky clears above a wide track through flax and yucca, azure waves in long rows crashing beneath us as we rise up on high cliffs. We spot our first trail sign, a plastic orange triangle nailed onto a wooden post. It leads us away from the beach up onto a sandy bluff dotted with bright yellow lupine.
“I sure hope we’re not lost,” Irene says, just as I realize, we most surely are.
Irene and I were never really lost, just misguided.
Oyster Catchers peep at us as we pass, their eyes looking askance. Sponges, jellyfish and small piles of broken shells fan out at the water’s edge. It all seems a bit unreal, the route taking us under the curve of a rainbow towards another squall line and tonight’s destination.
The Tasman Sea pounds on the beach way at the northernmost tip of New Zealand. It’s constant, unceasing, inexorable and insistent. A white noise that’s present enough to force me to raise my voice to be heard, while at the same time, a soothing balm guiding my footsteps as I discover what it means to be a full time pedestrian.
I’m alison young. And this is the The Pee Rag, Unfiltered Adventures of the Blissful Hiker. I am the Blissful Hiker, sometime-professional flutist, sometime-voice artist and full-time pedestrian.
Every week, I share with you what it’s like on the trail, why anyone would want to walk that far, and, while it may not be a glamorous life, why it’s one of the most fulfilling. A big shout out to Leki trekking poles for supporting The Pee Rag podcast. Leki supports my body, holds me upright, holds my tent upright, and gives me the strength to walk the length of two countries. If you want to be a blissful hiker, Lekis should be in your hands
Don’t laugh, but it was only a few days before I left Saint Paul for New Zealand, when I learned what a pee rag is. I found out right around the same time I met Irene on Facebook. I had booked a flight to get me as close to the start of the trail as I could, the furthest city north. A place named KeriKeri, pronounced Kitty-Kitty by the locals. It’s still 200 kilometers to the start of the trail at Cape Reinga.
I followed the Te Araroa page for tips, information, trail closures, etc. I don’t always like to post on these pages “looking for a ride! Mainly because I want to ensure I’ve done my research first and not look like a desperate newbie, even if, in reality, I was desperate newbie. They did offer lots of advice on how to get to the start, including hitchhiking, definitely not hitchhiking, arranging a ride or joining a tour group.
But the group was a bit heavy on drama with a side of fear mongering for the thru-hiker newbie, so I tried my luck with a private group just for female hikers. It might have been the same day that I learned about the pee rag – more on that in a bit – and met Irene. She’s a Kiwi from Hamilton, planning to walk the TA in sections. She planned to start from Cape Reinga on October 29.
Well, that’s mystart date, or at least, that’s the day my plane would land in New Zealand. We start messaging and I experience my first encounter with genuine Kiwi hospitality, a kind of trail magic that’s ingrained in the culture. Irene not only suggests we start together, she arranges to meet me at the airport with her family, and drive to the Cape together.
It was magic. And only required that I start walking the very same day I arrive.
What does anyone remember about their flight to get to the other side of the world – or in my case – flights? Richard calculates I would be nineteen hours ahead, or he would be five hours ahead, yesterday. I sleep, eat, watch movie after movie and think about all the kind, generous pearls of wisdom sent my way before I left.
Every so often, I lift the shade to look out over the vast, empty expanse of the Pacific. A waning gibbous moon chases me all the way until Aotearoa – New Zealand – appears, the land of the long white cloud. We bank over the water, flying low before touching down in a drizzly paradise. It’s a sprint of a half mile in my brand new La Sportivas to customs, where I surrender my tent and stakes – or “tint” and “pigs” – to a friendly Auckland biosecurity agent, who ensures it’s clean and free of any predators, flora or fauna.
To get to the domestic terminal, I drag a throwaway suitcase filled with my backpack, gear and bounce boxes along a painted walkway, feeling the humidity like a second skin and, even here, smelling a loamy freshness that foreshadows things to come. There’s only enough time to snag a new SIM card for my phone before I board a tiny prop plane for the short flight to the Bay of Islands. It reminds me of a ski race in Northern Wisconsin, where I was taken by bus from the finish to start and watched thirty miles of hilly forest pass by, knowing I’d soon be skiing all of that.
Here, I’m suspended in puffy clouds above crystalline bays abutting sandy beaches fed by winding streams and estuaries. Hilly bright green pastures and dark bush see rain falling in the distance, and the ocean beyond that to infinity.
It’s a lot further than thirty miles. If all goes as planned, to walk back to Auckland, will take me a month.
It’s raining when we land, our small group disembarks outside before rushing to meet friends and family at the tiny terminal. Only international flights require security. People crowd in and that’s when I spot Irene. Half Italian, she wears her long black hair with bangs, and is already dressed for hiking.
I’ve arrived alone in so many places, and often where people spoke languages I only managed to understand a little after cramming with language tapes. I am so touched that she comes inside to wait for me, waving as though we are already friends.
I’m out of my comfort zone, having reckoned with what really matters in my life and putting to the test risking security for something intangible. Helen Keller wrote “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Security is an illusion and bravery, courage, get-up-and-go, embracing adventure, is simply a way of accepting that we can’t hang on tightly and expect we’ll be safe. You have to risk a bit of adventure – daring or not – to really live.
Irene’s relaxed nature gives me little time to concern myself with maudlin questions. She introduces me to her father, Bryce and I take the back seat next to his partner Vern. Hugging the non-existent left shoulder on a wild, curvy, rollercoaster of road, we shove off, fast and furious.
Right around the time I met Irene on the Te Aroroa womens group on Facebook, something caught my eye on that page. An American hiker posted this question to the group, “Are any of you taking a pee rag?”
Not wanting to look clueless, I went to Dr. Google and plugged in “what is a pee rag?” and up came an article written by Stacia Bennett for the Trek. She offers the most cogent reasons to tie a bandana to your pack and designate its use as a pee rag, a small accessory with a big job.
This part of the country is called Northland or the far, far, north. Vern and Bryce live in Kaeo where we stop for lunch, and I send forward my bounce box of things I might not be able to find in New Zealand, like the specific shoes and socks I like to wear. We pack my backpack and Vern offers to take the huge throwaway suitcase and clothes to a local charity shop.
Then we hop back in the car and continue north on Highway 1, pastureland giving way to drier, sandier scrubland. They chat the entire way in their charming, clipped, and nasal Kiwi accent, one that sounds as if every sentence were said with a toothy smile. It’s an accent, I pretty much can’t understand yet.
And then it begins to rain, then hail, then more rain, before clearing to bright sunshine nearly as fast it began. Dark clouds ahead tell me this sequence is pretty much on rinse and repeat.
I’m running on adrenaline and apprehension, not quite settling into the fact that we plan to start without so much as a moment for me to catch my breath. To be honest, this isn’t my first rodeo. When I hiked the spine of the Alps on the GR5, I also took three flights, landed in Geneva, then traveled by train and bus to a wee country road heading straight uphill towards Nice, 21 days away. It also rained that day as I huddled in a meadow high above Lake Geneva, slugs working their way into my sodden hiking boots.
Humor columnist Dave Barry writes, “It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.” All I could do as we sped further and further north is give into what’s to come – and trust my full suit of Columbia rain gear would keep me dry. But still, there’s nothing more disconcerting than starting a trail, the biggest of your life, in rain.
Of course, this is something I’ll soon learn about New Zealand. It’s called the land of the long white cloud for a reason. It rains – a lot. But the sun shines too and often at the same time it rains. Like most things, you can’t control the weather and if you want to be out in it, you gotta take the good with the bad.
All at once, we’re there. The end of the road, the northwestern-most tip of the Aupouri Peninsula, the northern end of the North Island of New Zealand, the Meeting Place, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean in a swirl of currents.
We have little time to dawdle, since it’ll be dark in only a few hours, and the first campsite, called Twilight, is eight miles away. Vern shoots video of the two of us walking to the lighthouse at the end of a long spit of land. A pole of myriad signs point in all directions and we stand on opposite sides, a hand on the post, and a leg kicked out. Tokyo, Sydney, Los Angeles, the South Pole – and Bluff, my destination, one I’ll reach in five months.
It’s time to say goodbye before retracing our steps from the lighthouse back up towards the Te Paki Coastal Track, another sign warning us the track is hard to follow at high tide, and that it’ll likely take us four-and-a-half hours to get to Twilight.
The sky clears above a wide track through flax and yucca, azure waves in long rows crashing beneath us as we rise up on high cliffs. Black clouds move along the shoreline; the sun in this ozone-free part of the world, baking hot. My feet sink into soft sand before we cross on sharp rock, timing the tides just right to pass over myriad tide pools.
The rain is back and Irene puts on an