WHEN AGE DOES AND DOESN’T MATTER


“Hardesty Hardcore,” intrigued me: an annual loop race through 3 trails in the Cascade foothills, open to anybody, with a 4 hour time cut off.  The route is 14 miles and begins with a 3000 foot climb in the first 4.5 miles.  I had hiked it once in the opposite direction, without hurrying,  in 5 hours, with a lunch stop. I thought I could do it in four, so I went out to try.  I am in good hiking shape, having hiked nearly 40 times in Oregon the past 4 months and frequently climbing well over a thousand feet, occasionally over two thousand.

I started by walking fast—too fast— becoming slightly short of breath and uncomfortable.  I slowed, and finished the initial climb in 1 hour 36 minutes.  That is pretty good for a guy my age, but at that pace I wasn’t going to finish in 4 hours, either.

I came down Eula Ridge, much steeper, so I had to watch my foot placement.  I finished that stretch two 2 hours and 45 minutes in, averaging 3.1 miles per hour, well below 3.5 mph I needed to average to make the cutoff.  The last 5.5 miles was on a trail between the two, but not at all flat; it climbed another 1000 feet, difficult on a humid day, when I had finished my water and food.  I got in just under 4 1/2 hours.

With cooler weather, an earlier start, a lighter pack, and running shoes for the last part, I might be able to make the cut.  But I don’t want to race.  I’m not sure I want to subject myself again to that stress, despite being in excellent hiking shape.  I am good but not great.  The fact that I can walk uphill on a 30% grade at 2.5 mph is nice, but I need to average 4 mph for this race, and I am not likely to do it:  I’m too old, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter.

When I was in my 30s, I got in a canoe, bound for lakes and portages I had never seen.  I camped in some of the most beautiful country imaginable, woke early, paddled hard the whole day, camped late.  I could carry pack and canoe together, and I never got sore.  Seeing the country mattered.

In my 40s, I did the same, the only difference being that I took anti-inflammatories before and after each day’s paddle.   For the first time, however, I had a neck problem, a pinched nerve, but that subsided, and I was able to continue.

In my 50s, I stopped carrying a canoe and a pack simultaneously.  I had nothing to prove and a lot I could hurt.  I started base camping, which I liked, but I still enjoyed seeing new territory.  I didn’t go as far as formerly, but I enjoyed practically every mile.

 

Agnes Lake, on my last trip into Kawnipi Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005, age 56.

Agnes Lake, on my last trip into Kawnipi Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005, age 56.  I have not been back.  I do not expect to see Kawnipi again.  It mattered that I saw it that year.  Agnes?  Seeing this picture makes me wonder….

 

Kawnipi Lake, 2005.  The most beautiful lake in the Quetico to many people. I have been there six times.  That matters.

Kawnipi Lake, 2005. The most beautiful lake in the Quetico to many people. I have been there six times. That matters.

 

 

Lake Insula sunset.  Having spent more than 30 nights on this beautiful lake matters.

Lake Insula sunset. Having spent more than 30 nights on this beautiful lake matters.

In my 60s, things have changed.  Many tell me that age is a number.  Those people who do are always younger than I, where one believes that the world will continue unchanged.  I still can solo trip, but I do it and base camp.

Sunset on my bay campsite, September 2013, solo.  Age 64.

Sunset on my bay campsite, September 2013, solo. Age 64.

 

I can make the miles if I have to, but I don’t feel the pressure to do so, either.  It doesn’t matter.  The year I turned 60, my wife and I aborted the first day’s paddle into Lake Insula, one we could normally do in 7 hours, where 40 year-olds we had spoken to said they needed three days.  We aborted the paddle in because of heavy rain.  We stopped, pitched the tent and stayed comfortable. Making Insula that day in 7 hours didn’t matter.  We made it easily the next day.  It was a great trip.

Twenty years earlier, I would have bulled on through.  Indeed, over our 25th wedding anniversary, we paddled 110 miles in 11 days with a day of rest.  One day, I portaged a canoe 15 times, a record for me.  Those trips mattered.

What will happen the next decade, if I make it that far?  I don’t know.  Perhaps the distance may stay the same, if my arms and legs are still working well, but I suspect it will decrease, and it won’t matter.  I still hope to be in the woods, away from people, enjoying the quiet, the Pileated Woodpecker’s crossing the lake by the campsite, loons, sunrise, sunset, and full Moon.

What about backpacking?  There, the clock ticks louder.  As I write this, I will soon leave for my sixth multi-day trip to the Brooks Range.  On my fifth, I carried 75 pounds with difficulty, but I did it.  I wasn’t sure I would do a sixth.  But then you see there was this trip offered to the Wulik Mountains in the far west Brooks, country I hadn’t seen, wonderful, wild country, and maybe I had one more trip in me after all.  Or two more, since I want to see ANWR’s Sheenjek’s River drainage.  Each year, backpacking requires more training.  Six weeks prior, I start carrying 25 pounds around the neighborhood, then 35, the 50, and finally 60.  This year, after hiking a lot more in spring, I started at 50 pounds, and I’ve carried that weight the past month.  I can comfortably walk 3 miles with it, essential if I want to complete the trip and enjoy it.  Ten years ago, I didn’t need to train.  Now I do.

Arrigetch Peaks on my way out of the area, August 2007, age 58

Arrigetch Peaks on my way out of the area, August 2007, age 58.  It mattered that I see these peaks, which had fascinated me for decades.

Dall Sheep, Aichilik River, ANWR, June, 2009.  Age 60. This afternoon mattered.

Dall Sheep, Aichilik River, ANWR, June, 2009. Age 60. This afternoon mattered.

Cubs, Noatak River campsite, August 2010, age 61. This day mattered

Cubs, Noatak River campsite, August 2010, age 61. This day mattered

 

Fording the Noatak, August 8, 2010. Age 61.  My guide said that day, "I hope I can do this when I am 61."  He was 51.

Fording the Noatak, August 8, 2010. Age 61. My guide said that day, “I hope I can do this when I am 61.” He was 51.

Gates of the Arctic, 2012, carrying 75 pounds.  This trip mattered. Age 63

Gates of the Arctic, 2012, carrying 75 pounds. This trip mattered. Age 63

My body isn’t betraying me, but changing, and my brain with its desires is fortunately changing, too.  I rely more upon experience than brute strength.  I read the weather well, pack dry in a pouring rain without leaving the tent, then striking the tent and quickly finish, putting the pack cover on a dry pack.  Alaska just is, with a lot of rain, mosquitoes and tussocks.  Fortunately, I know how to hike there.  That itself is probably worth 25 years of age.

My guess is that I will slow down in the next decade but will still enjoy what I do.  I look back fondly on the times when I was really good, especially the difficult trips, for that is what one remembers.  Age does matter.  I am grateful for what I can do, hope I will like it just as much during the coming changes, as I add more to my wonderful wilderness portfolio.

You see, I feel blessed.  Not a lot of guys my age can hike the Hardesty Loop.  I did it for time.  That’s pretty cool.  The fact I tried did matter.

It only hurt a little that night.

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