When I think about how I want to spend my sixties and seventies and after, it is certainly not sitting behind a desk or in a physician’s office getting diagnoses and medical treatments to ward off the results of sitting too much. Of course, maintaining health into one’s senior years does require addressing issues to prevent having to engage in the more invasive aspects of healthcare later. I work to balance strenuous exercise with relaxation in a relationship that I hope extends my ability to truly enjoy life.
When I turned 60, I have to admit, I was not enamored with the number, but I also found myself thinking more deeply about what I really wanted to do with my life. Like any other 60-year-old, I looked at others around me, thinking about how they enjoyed their lives and how they see themselves going forward. Many live actively, prioritizing doing and not watching others do. Others have health issues that curtail their daily activities, reminding me of how lucky I have been and underscoring how important it is to engage in the kinds of activities that I want to continue enjoying well into my senior years. To truly live, I must stay active.
The times I backpacked or hiked difficult trails bolster my sense of being capable, and they scaffold my knowledge that being active and strong creates the foundation for continuing to do so. Back when I was 45, I learned a few lessons about how to sustain health. Having spent so many years sitting behind a computer engaged in writing and research, I was feeling fat and uncomfortable, 30 lbs. heavier than I am now with blood pressure that bordered on needing medication. Were my vitals that poor at this time, I believe my physician would want to prescribe something to bring my numbers into a normal range.
At that time, though, my son challenged me to take up a popular bodybuilding program, urging me that I could do it. Frankly, I was not sure that I could. Still, I gave P90X a try. At first, I could do one or two of the exercises in each of the routines making up the program, but I stuck with it, echoing daily Tony Horton’s refrain, “just keep pressing play; just keep pressing play.” The tiny women in the videos barked my hide, to use an old term, but I persevered anyway, and I found incremental success, improving from one rep, to two, to five, to ten, to twenty, to keeping up with the pros. After about a year, I could do most of the exercises at the same rate as Tony and the others, and my blood pressure dropped from 145/90 to 108/70.
Other changes were more visible and in some ways more satisfying. Because I was building muscle, my weight did not drop as much as I wanted right away, but it did drop significantly and remained off over time. Most impressive was the change in my shape. My spine was straighter, my middle firmer, my back pain ceased, and I dropped four sizes in clothes.
These successes formed a foundation for daring to take up a lot of other challenges, one of which is to be able to bike for 20 miles every day during the summer and to snowshoe and cross country ski as often as possible in the winter months. Each of these activities brings together muscular and cardio strength in ways that support my stamina and endurance. And they support my competitive spirit which allows me to push my own limits and challenge others to exceed theirs, too. Ask Duane.
While these activities give me a floor of strength, none of them compares to the demands of running a guide service with Duane and actually backpacking Isle Royale.
Isle Royale requires a deep stamina to be able to traverse rugged terrain with sufficient endurance to carry 30 to 40 pounds for several hours over multiple and consecutive days. Sure, some of the legs of each excursion can be shorter, three or four hours of continuous hiking, but many hikes can extend between five and eight hours, or more, of carrying heavy packs, interspersed with taking breaks to rest, hydrate, and nourish myself so that I can pick up the pack and hike on. This duration requires me to dig down and persevere, and this level of endurance is not only about my personal fitness and ability. It is about my drive and mental stamina to make my 60+ years-old body continue and even thrive.
The stamina requires a can-do focus both physically and mentally. Further, for me, there must be a joy in it. If I am going to engage that level of exertion, I must acquire a feel-good in return that involves physical, mental, and aesthetic recompense. How I feel matters, but what I think and the free space to do it in are central.
The basic payback of endorphins comes naturally from working out hard for a sustained period of time over the long term. Because I have biked, snowshoed, skied, and swum to the level of acquiring that hormonal boost at every workout, this payback follows naturally during and following the activity of hiking. Without that base of fitness, the endorphins, and thereby their feel-good boost, would not be available. When I talk about the repeated movements that take on fluidity and routine, I am talking about this mastery of the thing that yields the physical reward from the strenuous activity.
The aesthetics of Upper Michigan and Isle Royale speak to me personally as well. I belong here. The vast expanses visible from the ridges on Isle Royale, both to the north and the south, mesmerize as diamonds sparkle across the open water, reflecting the brightness of the sun and of my own relationship with this space. I breath in the scents of purity, the mist off the water, the bliss of blooms coming to life in spring, the pungency of fall leaves and decomposing organic matter in swampy areas and beaver ponds, the bouquet of pine boughs all through the year.
I taste the sour of the chokecherries, the tart of the pin cherries, the tang of the apples, the sweet-tart of the thimbleberries, the sweetness of the sugar plums. The strawberries are tiny smears of sweet; blueberries are even smaller smears and blue. The earth’s tastes burst forth.
The Lake Superior shoreline with its pebbly beaches and rocky cliffs engages my senses. The scent of the freshwater ocean permeates my being. I am one with the water as I immerse in its icy depths from which all life must truly come.
Still, for all the energy generated and expended, for all that teems with exquisiteness and flavor, the space it affords matters most. In that space, my mind is free to contemplate whatever comes to fore, to follow avenues for thinking that open when I am no longer bound by the discipline required by my day job.
As I hike, I daydream and contemplate. My thoughts are liberated to entertain the novel, the unbounded, the fanciful. As my movements repeat and I climb or trudge or scamper, my brain soars, liberated in the recurring and comforting movements. At those moments, thoughts are born. Knowledge coalesces. I discover what cannot be revealed by using a concentrated laser focus. What I learn is revealed by letting go.
As I hike Isle Royale, I am filled with energy. Amid a group of backpackers, the drive flows from myself, sending energy outward, and I hope it infuses others’ experiences in a way that lingers. I share the views, the tastes, the smells, the sounds, and the blessed peace. We prepare and hike together, and surely the memory of it should sustain long after the experience is over.
In practical terms, though, my energy is patient. New backpackers who are unsure of how to set up a tent or operate a stove get support as they first attempt these tasks. Those who doubt their ability to hike six or ten miles, or more, learn how to moderate their pace to be sure they make it to the next campground by having the right gear, an appropriate pace, enough water, sufficient nourishment, and time to rest along the way.
City dwellers discover the beauty of the small things that surround them, blueberries, lady slippers, varieties of lichens, bunchberries in bloom, fungi in many colors and shapes, beaver lodges and ponds, trees, including spruce, cedar, and pine, as well as maples, birch, aspen, alder, oak, and others, each with its own shape and scent. Together, we breathe in the pungency of the forest dampness and the cool mist of the freshwater ocean that surrounds Isle Royale. Eyes that would see only sidewalks learn to follow the faint trail markings over the exposed and rocky ridges.
For the competitors, I offer the challenges of the longer trails, the Minong or Greenstone Ridge trails, the Feldtmann or the hike out of Malone Bay into Chippewa Harbor and on into Rock Harbor. It’s possible to tuck the Feldtmann Loop on the end of the Greenstone or Minong. We can also hike out the Greenstone and take the Minong Ridge Trail back after a resupply in Windigo. These long trails demand endurance and stamina, the right food in sufficient quantities, the right light gear, and a plan for the long haul to preempt injury. We moderate so we neither under- or over-shoot the mark. The sustained effort results in the rush of success.
At the end of each long day, I draw the overworked and overstressed toward a dock to see the sunset and the stars emerge or to a fire ring where we nurse a small blaze in the dusk. We listen to loons echoing across the near shore or hear the trickle of spring nearby that oozes from a crack in the rock upstream. Sitting together with them, I see the weight of work lift from their shoulders and the solitude of the island surround them in its embrace. They fairly glow.
To those weary of others’ demands and unceasing chatter, I offer peace. I speak silence, letting the spaces and vistas of the island share their quiet stories. From the rocky faces over which the trail crosses, we find wordless comfort in the scrape of heel and boot. The screeches of herring gulls and grey jays sound across the campsite without a demand for response, and we relax. Our eyes meet, approving of communion that does not need words.
To my hiking companions, I give the best I have of my energy, knowledge, patience, strength, moderation, challenge, and conversation, and sometimes, most importantly, my silence. I wish for them infusion with the peace of the natural world that permeates Isle Royale.
At the end of the day as I relax and immerse myself slowly in the frigid water of Lake Superior, dropping my own body temperature as I do, my thoughts rest for a moment with the aspirations we have for our hike, but soon they fly toward fleeting and nebulous ideas that exist on the fringes of conscious thought. I reach for them. I find space for myself in the larger notions of the universe. I am one with myself and it. Then I am home. I hope others who hike with me are home, too, at least for the times we share this island together.