Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light

Carol Crooker's essay on enlightenment shows that Mother Nature can be a pushy broad, but she gets the job done.

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by Carol Crooker | 2009-02-10 00:00:00-07

Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light - 1
The mountains and rolling tundra plains of Adak Island, Alaska.

I'm not kidding. Mother Nature would not allow me to even begin a backpacking trip no matter how hard I tried until I "saw the light." Over the space of fourteen years Nature opened up her floodgates every time I tried to go backpacking. Miraculously, the first trip where I paid attention to the weight of my pack contents was gorgeous. Of course, she couldn't resist a reminder that I needed to stay on course by spitting some rain, snow, and sleet (in May) as I climbed out of the Grand Canyon on that first enlightened trip.

I grew up dreaming of outdoor adventures. My family car camped once or twice, but I longed to cut the ties with civilization and get deep into the backcountry. I finally got my first chance as a newly commissioned officer in the Navy. I was stationed on Adak, one of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The mountains in the center of the island are surrounded by undulating, tundra covered plains and beg for exploration. After a few months on the island, I decided to take my first ever backpacking trip. I cobbled together gear from the rental shop and through catalog orders. I paid no attention to the weight or volume of the gear. Consequently, I had trouble getting it all into - or lashed onto - a pack left over from a summer of traveling around Europe.

Adak is known as the "Birthplace of the Winds." I was used to near constant 20 knot winds, 40 knot winds were common, and even higher not unusual. I had expected my backpacking trip to be windy, so when I heard the Coast Guard's warnings of rain and gale force winds on the radio the morning I was to go, I wasn't dissuaded. There was so much gear lashed to the outside of my pack I had to take it off to get out my door. I splashed through puddles and threw my pack into the back of my old red "island" pickup truck. I had wanted to backpack all my life, and I was determined to do it now, during the few days I had off. I drove out to my starting point through sheeting rain, jumped out, and struggled into my pack, instantly soaked from the freezing downpour. I could only see about a yard in front of me. I finally got Mother Nature's message that this was not a good idea when I found I was so buffeted by the winds I couldn't walk a straight line. I reluctantly gave up on my backpacking dream for the time being and trundled back to my room in the bachelor officer's quarters.

I got another chance to go backpacking four years later. I was now in the Navy's graduate school in Monterey, California and a friend, Gail, invited me to go along on a backpacking trip to Yosemite during a school break. I was thrilled. Another friend Dave, offered to help me shop for gear. After a three-hour drive to the nearest REI, I grabbed a cart, and Dave and I swept through the store. I threw in whatever he felt I'd need, including a Jansport external frame pack, a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, and a huge green synthetic sleeping bag with no concern whatsoever for weight. Once my cart was piled high, I pulled out my credit card and paid a small fortune for my weighty gear.

Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light - 2
Three Yolla Bolly Wilderness adventurers smiling because we are finally dry after four days of hard rain.

Soon after, Gail and I and a couple of others set off from Monterey for Yosemite. We planned to hike to Tuolumne Meadows after spending our first night in a drive up camp ground. Gail had supplied me with a top of the line L.L. Bean Gore-Tex tent for the trip. It had started raining during the drive, so there was no shared camaraderie around the camp fire that night. We all just crawled into our tents as quickly as we could set them up. I spent a long uncomfortable night in the chill as condensation dripped down on me from the tent walls. My sleeping bag was soaked by morning and the forecast was for four more days of rain.

We decided to abandon Yosemite and find dry weather. Once again, Mother Nature thwarted my attempt to backpack heavy. We drove toward the coast and out of the rain to Point Reyes. The camping area there is a mile from the parking lot so I did get my first chance to hike with the huge load I had assembled. The backpack felt like a car tied to my back, and I was glad I didn't have to haul it any further. But I loved the experience: the views at the camp site were gorgeous and no other campers intruded upon us until a day and a half later. I became even more determined to get into the backcountry, despite the discomfort of hiking with a heavy pack. Mother Nature's rather strong hints had not sunk in yet - it still hadn't occurred to me to pack lighter.

I rarely took time off for vacation while I was in the Navy, but I made an exception ten years later at my final posting before retirement. I was stationed on Treasure Island, a man-made island that sits beneath the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland. I'd been within a few hours drive of some of the most beautiful forests in the U.S. for a year and a half but hadn't yet found time for anything other than a few day hikes. That coupled with the fact I knew I'd soon be moving east to the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, and I jumped at an invitation to join two acquaintances on an unusual backpacking trip.

Our trip would be guided by a licensed counselor who was also schooled in Native American rituals. I needed clarity on my imminent transition from a career in the Navy to civilian life. The idea of immersing myself in nature with someone trained to help me sort out any insights was appealing.

Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light - 3
Our guide and one of my friends in the back of our guide's truck - a dry sanctuary that all of us could fit into.

We three novice backpackers met with our guide and settled on a five-day trip into the Yolla Bolly Wilderness north of San Francisco. We would drive to the trailhead, backpack six miles to a nice spot by a stream and waterfall, and set up a base camp. Still clinging to my dream of backpacking one day, I had kept all the expensive gear from my aborted Yosemite trip and carted it from duty station to duty station over the last ten years. It was still in great shape, so I was set except for a tent. I rented a Clip Flashlight from a local store, and I was outfitted.

It should be obvious by now that I am a pack rat. I hold onto things because I feel they will keep me safe during any eventuality. This same psychology applied to what I put in a backpack. I wanted to have the gear that would make me ready for any and all challenges. It is probably easy to imagine it might take both a licensed counselor and an act of God to break me of my insecurities.

The sky was overcast as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to rendezvous with the rest of my group. It began to sprinkle as we drove north. After a few hours of driving, it was raining steadily. By the time we entered the forest an hour later, the dirt road was muddy and slippery, but we pressed on to the trail head.

We decided to camp near our cars the first night, since by now the rain was heavy. We'd re-evaluate in the morning. Once again I had paid no attention whatsoever to my pack weight and Mother Nature showed her displeasure with my slow learning curve. Rain pounded our tents all night and didn't let up when the sun rose. Our guide was concerned that the steep, rocky trails to our intended camp site might wash out and that the site itself might be flooded. We agreed to remain camped at the cars.

Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light - 4
The sign warns of "Extreme Heat" but we experienced beautiful, mild weather until our climb to the rim on the last day when it rained, snowed, and sleeted. Note those heavy leather boots. The Grand Canyon Field Institute instructor insisted on light packs but sturdy boots.

It rained hard for the next two days. We kept ourselves busy with rain drenched walks, journaling, naps, and meetings in the back of our guide's pickup to interpret our dreams. On the morning of the fourth day, the other two women approached me and said they had had it with camping. I agreed. We went to the guide to discuss cutting our trip short. He listened closely with his counselor's attitude. When we were done, he had a suggestion: would we consider staying and observing 24 hours of silence and solitude instead? Oddly, that sounded like a good idea to us and we agreed. The rain was still coming down hard and steady.

We spent the next 24 hours alone and in silence. Not talking kept me from complaining about the continued rain. It made me become more observant of my surroundings and at the same time drew me inward to contemplate the deeper issues of my life. I took a long walk in the down pour. For the first time, the rain became a magnifier of the beauty around me rather than an irritant. Standing on a knoll in the center of a clearing I looked up to see a buck eyeing me from one hundred yards. After four days, I felt a part of the forest, and I sensed a connection with the buck I would have been blind to a day before.

The fifth and last day dawned clear, crisp and sunny. We broke our silence in a medicine circle by passing a talking stick. I shared that I felt a new feeling of oneness with all creation. We closed our circle with a ritual of gratitude and headed home, happy with our adventure.

Our spiritual ceremony that last morning in the Yolla Bolly Wilderness must have appeased the Big Mother. Or maybe she realized this last trip had finally broken through my civilized preconception of what it meant to be "prepared for anything," and I was now ready to listen to a subtler message about what it meant to truly be prepared. For what ever reason, she steered me to the guidance of a consummate lightweight backpacker.

Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light - 5
My Jansport external frame pack on a trip soon after my first "real" backpacking trip (and just before I retired it), eleven years after I bought it in a frenzy of heavy gear buying.

A year later as a new resident of Arizona, I wanted to experience more of my state - and finally backpack after fifteen years of disaster. I signed up for a four-day Grand Canyon Field Institute trip to Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon. The instructor sent an eleven page document covering what gear to bring. He said we'd be carrying 24 pounds of water down a steep trail and emphasized repeatedly that we needed to make everything else light. I heeded his advice closely, once again outfitting myself from scratch (except for my old Jansport external frame pack), but this time paying close attention to weight. I bought a tarp and a Pocket Rocket canister stove and replaced the Therm-a-Rest with a 3/8 inch closed cell foam pad. My total starting pack weight with food but minus the three gallons of water was 26 pounds. Mother Nature must have approved because the weather was gorgeous - clear and sunny and mild. She couldn't resist driving home a reminder of what was important in the backcountry though, and the skies spit freezing rain, snow, and sleet as we ended our trip by climbing back out of the canyon.

It has been ten years since that first "real" backpacking trip. I've become a passionate lightweight backpacker. I still like to be prepared, but now I reach my comfort zone more through acquired skills and experience than by carrying all sorts of heavy gear I "might" need. The longing I felt for nearly forty years to get into the backcountry has not diminished. I feel it anew if I haven't been out in more than a couple of months. I am renewed on each trip and those experiences are tremendously more enjoyable because Mother Nature insisted I carry a light pack.


Citation

"Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light," by Carol Crooker. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/lw_testimony_mother_nature_insisted.html, 2009-02-10 00:00:00-07.

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Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light on 02/10/2009 14:38:28 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light on 02/10/2009 19:19:02 MST Print View

Interesting and enjoyable story.

Really liked the concept of Navy officer goes backpacking!

(a long time ago, I was a snipe on a birdfarm)

Paul Davis
(pdavis) - M

Locale: Yukon, 60N 135W
Journeys both internal and external! on 02/11/2009 17:31:25 MST Print View

Carol: What a generous article! I think many of us make both journeys to places on the 'outside' which are simultaneously journeys of an internal nature.

In the midst of a winter North of 60 in Canada's North West, I face similar dilemmas about how much is enough in a vast landscape with few town resources other than those which we carry between our ears...

Still, for ultra-long-range cycling I take many of the tips I learn here to lighten my load, both in weight and in internal heaviness as well...



Well done!
Paul Davis
Whitehorse
Yukon
Canada

Kendall Clement
(socalpacker) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light on 02/12/2009 13:12:22 MST Print View

Carol,

What a great read! Your story is VERY inspiring to me! I was worried that I was starting too late in life (47 years old) and with too little experience. In fact, the only camping experiences I had were a couple of summer camp/ boyscout weekenders as a kid. I've read a lot of the articles and reviews you've written and I want you to know that this one spoke to me the most. Like you I have always had an inner calling to explore the outdoors. It wasn't until now that I made a firm commitment to having my backpacking adventures. I think going backpacking is the ultimate way to really experience nature and appreciate the beauty of it all. It's the best way to feel the oneness of everything.

I was an OS from 1981 to 1982 and an OT from 1982 to 1985. Since you were at Adak, I'm sure you know what an OT was. The last couple of months of my enlistment the detailer made me an offer to go to Adak, after which he said I could have any duty station I wanted. I decided to get out and go to college instead. I've always regretted that decision.

I'd heard such wonderful things about Adak from friends who were stationed there, I wish I would have signed up for one more hitch to have the experience of serving there. I guess you could say in a way that "mother nature insisted I go light," because of my late age at starting backpacking and several sports injuries that never quite healed properly. I bought all this heavy gear before I read "Lightweight Backpacking and Camping," and before reading this site for the last 2 years. I am totally sold on the concepts of UL backpacking! So, now I have been in the process of replacing all of that previously purchased "heavy" gear with lightweight gear and I'm almost there.

Anyway, I just wanted you to know that it's nice to hear someone else share a story that I can very much relate to. Thank you also for all of your other work on Backpackinglight.com. Your experiences and your guidance in your articles and reviews are greatly appreciated and have helped me immensely in my gear buying decisions as well as learning UL skills.

Thanks again,

Kendall

Edited by socalpacker on 02/12/2009 14:30:07 MST.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: Lightweight Testimony: Mother Nature Insisted I Go Light on 02/12/2009 18:34:20 MST Print View

Carol,
Good to read more of your inspiring story. I'm not sure why I am still surprised to hear about a UL or SUL guru that went through a similar transformation. It seems we all are initially influenced by traditions/fears, and it takes time to reach a better way of doing things.

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
Navy lingo on 02/13/2009 06:40:25 MST Print View

Thanks for all the nice comments everyone!

George,
"Snipe on a birdfarm" made me laugh. I'm surprised an acronym hasn't been made up for that. Or has one - SNOBF ?

Kendall,
Where were you stationed as an OT? I was at Navfac Adak in 82 and then went to COSL (now CUS I think). I was EMO, then OPSO at NOPF a few years later. Did you master the art of gram reading? (Just trying to throw around some more Navy lingo :)
Carol

Edited by cmcrooker on 02/13/2009 06:41:25 MST.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Navy lingo on 02/13/2009 14:05:43 MST Print View

Carol,

Where else could I've had 70,000 horsepower at my finger tips before I was 20 years old?

Ahead Flank!

Kendall Clement
(socalpacker) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Navy Lingo on 02/13/2009 14:56:25 MST Print View

Carol,

Wow! I haven't heard "COSL" or "NOPF" in 23 years! I was stationed at NavFac Centerville Beach in northern California as an OT from '82-'85. I periodically have dreams about squiggly AND straight lines all of which I can identify except for that ONE that comes online for just a few minutes and I have NO idea what it is. Or, I wake up expecting to see reader rot (carbon dust) covering the right side of my palm and I can still feel the red pencil in my hand. My favorite is getting ready for an inspection and my dixie cup is missing, their's a problem with my belt buckle or my uniform is a wrinkled mess - LOL... But, I suppose I had it easy compared to the people serving today. I almost went back in after 911 but my life had changed too much by then.

George,

I was an OS on the USS Roanoke out of Alameda, CA. for about a year before going to OT A-School in Norfolk Virginia. Which carrier were you on?

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Re: Re: Navy Lingo on 02/13/2009 19:37:10 MST Print View

USS Independence
(Med cruises in '73 and '74)

Decommissioned I believe in late 90's

Kathy A Handyside
(earlymusicus) - M

Locale: Southeastern Michigan
Wonderful Read! on 02/13/2009 22:01:20 MST Print View

Carol -
I really enjoyed your story. Is Adak Island only for military personnel, or is it a place that civilians can go to? The picture you have of it is just beautiful.

Thanks for a wonderful read!

Kathy

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
Adak on 02/14/2009 07:45:09 MST Print View

Kathy,
Adak was only military when I was there, but has since been "decomissioned." It is a pretty unique place compared to the lower 48. I don't know what its status is now.
Carol