Andes Mountain Glacier 


Like the local native Peruvian porters, I emulated their daily ritual of tucking coca leaves with small alkaline shavings of burnt quinoa root into my cheek. I wiped the sweat from my brow and looked ahead at the intimidating pitch to the Inca trail as it climbed even higher into the thinning Andean air.

Our local guide highly endorsed chewing coca to help assuage the pain of the climb. This is the same coca plant that has been given the evil status as it can be rendered into cocaine. For centuries the Andean people have chewed and brewed coca leaves to retard thirst, hunger, pain and fatigue. Like a cup of strong coffee, it also helps as a stimulant.

It is also the same plant that not only shares a title with one of the world’s most popular beverages, Coca Cola, but was an important ingredient to the original “real thing.” Incidentally the original brew, first produced in 1886, was described  as a ”brain tonic and intellectual beverage.” The original recipe included coca with cocaine, but the narcotic was removed just after the turn of the century.

While visiting the Museum of Sacred, Magical and Medicinal Plants in the old Inca capita of  Cusco, Peru, I learned that the uniquely familiar shape of a Coke bottle was in intentional design and was inspired by the similar shape of the coca plant seed. Peruvians will tell you  it was no accident that Coca Cola chose red and white as their brand colors.  These are the national colors of the Peruvian flag and Peru provides the bulk of coca leaves for the popular beverage.

I digress. Chewing a quid of coca leaves at least psychologically made me believe that it helps deal with exertion oneself at high elevations. Surrounded by high Andean mountains we slowly plodded in a rhythm of shuffle, rest, shuffle rest. Approximately 50 Andean peaks rise over 20,000 feet. Imagine trying to breathe while hiking up a steep gradient while breathing through a half inch diameter water line. They claim that when you climb Mt. Everest it’s like trying to breath through a drinking straw. No thanks.

The porters, with their large bulky  loads, always passed us, often with a smiling greeting. On the descent sections, some of them nearly vertical,the porters amazingly trotted down the irregular stone steps. Oh, did I mention that most of the natives wore rubber sandals or tennis shoes rather than vibram-soled hiking boots? As I trudged I attempted to sidetrack the nearly constant light hammering of a high-altitude headache with thoughts of becoming a porter when I grow up.

After four days of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, someone in our group asked if the trek was the toughest hike they had ever done. Most of us agreed it was right up there at the top of the list of “most rigorous.”

But it got me to thinking of other outdoor efforts that have rendered me to a state of quivering jelly. So during our bus ride back to Cusco, I mentally came up with my “Top Five” list of arduous outdoor recreational efforts. Certainly running Grandma’s marathon to Duluth, skiing the infamous Birkie cross country ski race to Hayward, Wisconsin or cycling in a race in the Coastal Mountains of Alaska would easily make my  list of physical challenges. But to qualify for this list I had to consider only human-powered recreational travel that included camping.  This would include canoeing, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing or backpacking.And to really make the list, the effort had to include multiple pains or discomforts.

1)   Canoeing the Caribou River

This northern Manitoba three week trip provided days of lining canoes down shallow rapids, running leaping rapids with heavily loaded canoes and then, most tiring, unloading the canoes and bypassing major rapids by striking off across through stunted spruce and muskeg with canoes and packs on our back and no trails to follow. At times we were knee deep in muck with clouds of blood-seeking mosquitoes and black flies accompanying us in the summer heat. I have had the good fortune to paddle several Canadian sub-arctic and arctic rivers but none had more days of relentless, exceedingly hungry insects. One of our party members fractured part of his foot and we had to come up with an innovative cast constructed of tupperware and. . . you guessed it. . . duct tape. With no other options but to continue downriver, this was no trip for whiners.

2)   Backpacking the Lake Superior Hiking Trail

This outing would not make most lists, but one day I will never forget was a hot fall day two years ago when we foolishly put in nearly 20 miles on the very first day. This is not a good strategy when your packs are at their heaviest. Besides the burdens on our backs, the October day was unseasonably warm and a drought had rendered many small creeks stoney dry. Sweating profusely resulted in our quickly depleting our water. The preceding months had been dry. Consequently,  the many small creeks we crossed were stoney dry. We were foreced to go further than planned so we could find a flow of water in which to filter water. Feet, backs and muscles all protested as we stumbled to the twilight campsite.

3) Winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW): Trip 1

It was early March, my preferred date to head on a winter outing in the boreal wilds. For several days, Nancy and I had enjoyed an enchanting and very quiet time on a remote lake. The daytime temperatures were pleasantly tolerable in the mid-20sF. Fishing for lake trout provided ample food and we dined for two days on a big rich pot of cheesy trout chowder. On the day we pulled out to begin the trek back to our truck, the weather had changed. The temperature dropped and we had to pull our gear into a stout headwind out of the northwest. It was a painful slog. Even with neoprene masks and scarves wrapped around our faces, we were constantly tearing up in the frigid cold. Luckily we had heated up the remaining trout chowder before breaking camp that morning and poured it into a thermos. When possible we would tuck behind a lake point or sit on the lake screened by  our “conestoga” sleds and sip the life-giving buttery chowder. For two days after finishing the trip we ached and dealt with peeling skin on our faces.

4) Winter camping in the BWCAW: Trip 2

Before I give details of this testy trip, I need to provide a disclaimer. I love winter camping in the BWCAW and have done so nearly every year for the past 20 years. As a naked ape, we are not designed to engage so fully with winter as Sasquatch or a polar bear. On this particular trip it wasn’t the cold that created problems. Instead it was a run of  unseasonable warm temperatures, in early March,  that created miles of slogging and pulling our sleds through deep slush and water that poured into our boots. The sleds plowed, rather than slide over the frozen lake surfaces. We could not consider stopping to rest for the night so we simply kept going with our wet and wrinkled feet sloshing in our boots.


5) Descending the North Branch of the Sunrise River

This was meant to be an educational, fact-finding outing. I was leading a group of local high school biology students on a three day  spring trip down a small river that is the namesake for their home community. The dozen or so students were divided into working teams. Some attended to water sampling and analysis, others helped with bird banding and others made wildlife inventory and observations. Part of the appeal of the trip was the fact that nobody paddles this stretch of river. It was to be a real adventure right in their home county. It soon became clear why no one paddles this sinuous creek.  For much of the trip we were wading and pulling the canoes over and around fallen trees that stretched across the river. In other sections, where tangles of alders grabbed at our progress, we pulled out bow saws and cut a channel through the maze. Oh and to make matters really testy was the first really gnarly mosquito hatch of the year. After a winter of dormancy, the nymphs emerged as ferociously hungry adults!  Cooking supper was an effort and no one wanted to sit around a campfire. In fact no one built a campfire. Wet and aching, we all sullenly crawled into our tents.

It’s funny how the passage of time has a way of lessening the ache of suffering. In fact you can almost count on a livelier increase of embellishments that make the trip sound worse and worse over the course of years. Consequently, I’m confident that the recent trek on the Inca trail will grow in stature and pain and will shoulder its way into my top five list.