In early April a Northwest woman will set out to complete one of the continent’s most challenging hikes, the 2,900-kilometre Pacific Crest Trail. It’s more than a physical challenge for the Terrace resident, Janine Wilson, but a rediscovery of her strengths and abilities following a 140-pound weight loss.
The trek first caught Wilson’s attention in 2006 while working as an interpretive ranger at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. As she gave a talk on the local ecology, a man in filthy clothes wearing a large backpack stood out among the crisp, camera-gunning tourists. Afterwards, he asked for directions to a public shower. While giving him a ride to a facility 10 kilometres away, he told her about the trail and the 4,200-kilometre journey he was on.
“I thought that would be something that’s super cool to do before I was 40. It’s always been a bucket list item, but then my career took over. I gained a bunch of weight and then the family life took over. I just threw the dream aside.”
That changed in 2014 when Wilson set a goal to lose 60 pounds. On a dedicated regiment of walking, roughly 16 kilometres per day on a four-hour training schedule, she soon shattered her goal with a total weight loss of 140 pounds.
But as the weight dropped, her perception of her life also began to change. She started examining her choices of the past, and the options ahead. She stresses this thinking wasn’t about regrets with any person or any choice in her life, but a desire to be the best version of herself.
The dream of the Pacific Crest Trail crept back into her thoughts, not simply as the physical challenge it once was, but more like a six-month sabbatical to sort out her thoughts.
“What the trail made me think about is the ability to find yourself, to learn what you’re capable of and to depend less and less on technology and other people. To let that survival instinct kick in,” she said.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Wilson began training.
The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, is a rugged, volunteer-maintained path stretching 4,265 kilometres from Campo, California on the Mexico border to the edge of B.C.’s Manning Park on the 49th parallel. Crossing through 25 national forests and seven national parks in California, Oregon and Washington, the trail is carefully aligned with the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, avoiding all civilization along the way. The Pacific Crest Trail Association describes it romantically as something that “reveals the beauty of the desert, unfolds the glaciated expanses of the Sierra Nevada, travels deep forests, and provides commanding vistas of volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range.” However, with terrain peaking at more than 14,000 feet above sea level, the altitude, geography and unforgiving climates, from dry desert heat to alpine snowstorms, only 15 per cent of the thousands of hikers attempting the trail each year succeed.
Of greatest concern to Wilson is the Sierra Nevada snow melt and the notorious river crossings they affect. Last year two hikers died crossing rivers and creeks, 32-year old Rika Morita from Japan, and 30-year old Chaocui Wang of China.
“I don’t like water,” Wilson says. “It scares the crap out of me, but that’s just one more thing to overcome.”
To the obvious question, Wilson’s answer is a “yes” with an exaggerated eye roll: of course she has read the book Wild, the true story of a young woman who tackles the trail solo to find answers to some of life’s questions. But no, neither the book or Reece Witherspoon’s big-screen adaptation motivated her decision to try it herself.
“The trail is intriguing to me because I’ve spent most of my life taking care of other people: grandparents, parents, siblings, husbands. I hinged my happiness on other people. Even after losing 140 pounds, there was a part of me that felt guilty about it because I couldn’t be happy for me. I didn’t know who I was.”
To prepare, Wilson has spent the past two and half years pack training, in part by taking on three paper routes with the Terrace Standard, and heading into the forests almost every weekend for camping pursuits. Along the way, she’s fine-tuned her skills not only with the gear her life will depend upon, but even the food supplies. She’s prepared and dehydrated original recipes for her unique requirements of carbohydrates, fat and protein she’ll need to sustain a burn of up to 6,000-calories per day.
Those meals, 1,800 of them, sit in her basement ready for shipment to the designated re-supply points.
“The two main reasons people don’t finish the trail is preparation and cost,” she says. Packaging her own food has helped reduce those costs, along with a variety of fundraisers and odd jobs over the past two years, but Wilson is worried that despite her efforts the expenses will be her downfall. Unlike someone dropping off the grid, Wilson will still be responsible for the usual bill payments while away.
“It’s awful to know you’ve done all this planning and preparation, and the whole thing falls through because of money. I’ve never been one of those people who have a dependency on money, but I sure do today,” she says with a laugh. “I’m holding onto the faith and vision that things will work out.”
To help with costs Wilson has reached out to the community to sponsor her with the purchase of T-shirts and hoodies with custom-made emblem.
Wilson admits her plan has put a strain on her marriage. At first, her husband worried about the impact a six-month emotional with physical absence might have. On a pragmatic level, he also worried about losing half the household income.
“I don’t have answers for him and that’s one of the hardest parts. I don’t know what will happen during the hike, and I don’t even know who I’ll be after it. But he’s on board now and he’s the biggest supporter I’ve ever had. In fact, he’ll be the one sending me my re-supplies.
“The support from the entire town has been amazing. When I’m out walking my hand is constantly flying up to return a wave to someone. They’re incredible sources of support. I don’t necessarily want to be out there walking in the cold, but the support they give me in my life is something I look forward to.
“I have a new level of appreciation for what I’m capable of.”
To purchase one of Janine Wilson’s T-shirts visit janinepct.ca