Pathway of Pain

“Are you some kind of sicko that enjoys suffering?” “Why would you want to do that?” “Is that your idea of a vacation?” “What’s wrong with you?” Fielding these questions leading up to our trip led me to reflect on the Subaru commercial with Lance Armstrong where he explains that he is “driven by what’s inside” or the Gatorade commercial that asks, “is it in you?” I wanted to face the biggest physical and mental challenge of my life and see what I was made of.

 

I found four people willing to either assist or participate in my madness. Our voluntary suffer-fest was on the Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park in Ontario, around a three hour drive North from Sault Ste Marie, Canada. At 65 kilometers (39 miles) in length, the trail is rated as a “very difficult” 5 to 7 day backpacking trip. According to park officials, no one had ever hiked it all in one day. We were determined to be the first. The trail climbs and descends steep cliffs and hills as it follows the rugged Western shore of Lake Superior. It also crosses countless beaches of sand and various size rocks, boulders, and driftwood.

 

The beginning of the trail is literally in the middle of nowhere. You can’t just drive to the trailhead. To get there we left the main road and drove 40 minutes down a narrow, pothole-covered dirt road that tunnels through the woods and ends at Lake Superior. We then backpacked around 6 miles into the Northernmost point of the trail which dead ends at the often deserted Chalfant Cove. After setting up camp and downing several boxes of cous cous, we laid down for a few hours of sleep. Three of us awoke at 1 a.m. on Saturday, July 23rd, 2005, scarfed down some instant oatmeal, and started hiking by headlamp into the dark Canadian night. Our support crew, which consisted of Mt. Pleasant criminal defense attorney, William Antrobius, and Mattawan Village Manager, Heath Kaplan woke up several hours later, broke camp and packed out our gear. Then they met us at several predetermined locations where the trail comes out near the highway to resupply us with water, food, and much needed encouragement.

 

Throughout the hike, we each drank gallons of fluids and ate thousands of calories worth of energy bars and power gels. Our toes were blistered and bandaged. Steep ups and downs on the jagged rock wore us out. Every step on the loose rocky beaches sapped our momentum and energy. One particular beach, which held a million pea sized pebbles and stretched on for miles, inspired Isabella County Senior Assistant Prosecutor, Mark Kowalczyk, to utter in despair: “this is like a bad dream!”

 

During a break, when we were purifying water from Lake Superior to drink, a humming bird landed on one of our brightly colored backpacks we had laid down on the rocks. It caused us to smile and motivated us to push on. Periodically, I would shout out “I feel good!” to keep our spirits up. At our first checkpoint with the support crew, fourteen hours into it, Kowalczyk was reluctantly forced to abandon the hike. He had twisted his ankle countless times on the perpetually uneven terrain. Despite a valiant effort, he could not continue. Two of us pushed on, hiking through our second straight night of darkness. Navigation was difficult. Each step felt like someone was pounding my feet with hammers. I almost fell asleep while walking and even suffered from hallucinations.

 

On July 24, 2005, at 5:41 am, Beaverton Elementary school teacher, Brian Rise, and myself, Isabella County Chief Assistant Prosecutor, Roy Kranz, stumbled out of the woods at Agawa Bay campground, the Southernmost point of the trail nearly 28 hours after we started. Victorious but in no condition to celebrate, we were exhausted, nauseated, and in desperate need of showers. After cleaning up, we crawled into the tent. In the fleeting moments before surrendering to sleep, the only question running through my head was “how are we going to top this next year?”

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