It’s never too late to hit the trail, according to these women
When Inga Aksamit of Kenwood first decided to take up hiking, she was already in her mid-40s. But she wasn’t about to settle for what amounted to the backpacker’s equivalent of the bunny slopes.
The now-seasoned 63-year-old hiker quickly headed for the hard stuff. Her first big hike was the Chilkoot Trail, a stretch of 33 often-punishing miles from Skagway, Alaska, to Lake Bennett, British Columbia, that would-be prospectors including Jack London trekked in the late 1800s on their way to the gold fields of the Klondike. At the summit is the infamous Chilkoot Pass, a hard scramble over heavy boulders.
“Even though it was only five days, it was a real accomplishment at the time,” she said.
Aksamit has logged thousands of trail miles since then, from the Cordillera Blanca in the Andes of Peru to the Tour of Mont Blanc, a 103-mile mountainous circuit that crosses three European borders.
But you don’t have to crave high elevations or endure days in the wilderness to enjoy hiking or even walking through nature. Aksamit is one of 32 experienced outdoorswomen profiled in a new book, “Walk, Hike, Saunter: Seasoned Women Share Tales and Trails,” by Susan Alcorn. The book is aimed at encouraging older women to get out into nature, even if they just want to take it slow and easy. The book focuses on women, but it is filled with practical advice and tips for any hiker, new or experienced.
Alcorn is 80. Like Aksamit, she started backpacking in her 40s and was dismayed by the dearth of women on the trail.
“I was just not seeing many women, especially older women, out there. And I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ ”
So she began collecting names from the Sierra Club of other women backpackers. That led to her writing “We’re in the Mountains, Not Over the Hill: Tales and Tips from Seasoned Women Backpackers” in 2003. She began creating a community on Facebook and through a website aimed at encouraging women to keep backpacking even as they got older.
Alcorn, a retired teacher living in Oakland, said a lot of middle-aged and older people approach her, lamenting that they used to backpack often in their youth.
“It doesn’t have to stop. I didn’t start until I was 45, and it’s just been a wonderful way of life,” Alcorn said. “And more people should know they can get back to doing it. They may have to adapt but there is no reason many people can’t do it.”
Even once-in-a-lifetime treks aren’t necessarily out of reach for older hikers. There are many places in Europe, the Himalayas and Peru where you can hire help or porters to carry or transport your packs, such as sections of the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Every hiker has stories of mishaps on the trail. Alcorn joined the Sierra Club in the mid-1980s after a divorce, going on 8- to 10-mile treks on weekends. After meeting her second husband, she determined to take her first major hike — up Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States.
When she tried on her heavy pack for the first time, she groaned, “Oh my gosh. I’m going to carry this for how long to what elevation?” Fate intervened to lighten her load, but not in any way she would have chosen. On their first night out, a bear nosed through their packs, even though they had hung them up, and snatched a chunk of their provisions.
“We had to debate whether we had enough left over to make the trip or not,” she recalled. “We did an inventory and decided we could still go for it. So we continued on, with two bite marks on the dry milk (the bear) didn’t seem to like.”
It took about eight days to get to the summit and back. “I would have crawled up that mountain if I had to,” she said.
But mishaps make for better stories to share around the campfire. And they pale in comparison to the triumphs and moments of amazement at the wonders of nature found along the trail.
“I love the peacefulness of it, the fresh air and finding out about new things, using curiosity to find out about plants and animals that live in any ecosystem I’m going through,” said Lorie Florence. The 64-year-old backpacker from Santa Rosa also is featured in the book, which surveys each woman for her experiences, challenges and recommendations.
On her first long hike with husband Mark “Snickers” Florence along one section of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, she learned the value of taking initiative. She deferred all major decisions, from food to gear, to him and walked at his fast and nonstop pace. “It was really his hike, and I was along for the ride,” she said. But by the time they reached the end of the trail she didn’t want it to end. The next year she helped in the planning, selected her own gear and made it her own hike.