Cross-Country Hiker


(This 711th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 14, 2004.)


Andrew Skurka is a distance hiker who has taken on one of those ultimate challenges.


Skurka is hiking across North America.


His trek is not in the mold of Peter Jenkins or "Gramma" Doris Haddock whose cross-country walks followed highways. Instead, Skurka's trek is along hiking trails twisting through the wild lands of our nation's northern tier of states.


When he completes his walk next August, he will be the first to hike the entire 7700 mile Sea-to-Sea Route from Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula to Olympic National Park on the west coast of Washington. He will have crossed two Canadian provinces and thirteen states. His route follows the Canadian extension of the Appalachian Trail and a northern part of AT as well, then the North Country Trail which joins and follows the Finger Lakes Trail across New York, next a northern section of the Continental Divide Trail and finally the Pacific Northwest Trail. Some of these trails are not yet connected, including a 700-mile section across North Dakota and Montana, and he will have to find his own way there.


I met this bright, 23-year-old, recent Duke University graduate in Swain in late October. He paced down out of the woods southeast of the ski resort, continued across a meadow and along a lane to our Sierra Inn meeting place, the ski poles he walks with clattering on the road surface.


Thank goodness I didn't plan to hike with him. I would have had to trot to keep up. And he keeps up this pace for 25 to 30 miles every day. His longest day so far, he told me, was 34 miles, about the length of the Niagara River.


Skurka's physical appearance wasn't what I expected. At Duke he ran cross-country but he doesn't have that spindly look of many track athletes. Although he had already lost almost twenty pounds when we met, his physique communicated strength rather than lightness. When asked about weight loss, he told me that he bulked up before he began his trip and does so on the rare breaks he takes from the trail. He recently stopped to attend his sister's wedding and will interrupt his hiking again for a few days at Christmastime. Even with those pauses, he will complete the hike in twelve months.


Skurka bulked up at our lunch as well. I jealously watched him down a big hamburger and then a giant slice of peanut butter pie surrounded by several scoops of ice cream. I'd have gained five pounds on the spot.


Most impressive to me was his light pack. He's well into one of the 250-mile sections between drops (post offices to which his family sends food and clean clothing) and it now weighs only about eleven pounds.


I couldn't believe it. We've had a history of decline in pack weight from the time when the Voyageurs carried one and sometimes two 90-pound packs. When I began guiding canoe trips fifty years ago, our canvas boats weighed about 100 pounds and boxes called Wannigans weighed at least as much. Canoes now weigh 40 to 60 pounds and the last pack I carried was 35. But eleven?


Skurka's nylon ground cloth and tarp/poncho are paper thin but still strong. His ski poles hold up his tarp at night. His down sleeping bag is a quarter the size of mine. He carries only dried food, which he occasionally supplements at stores along the way. But easily his most striking weight saver is his stove, a tiny cup in which an ounce of alcohol heats his meals.


The trip has already been eventful. A cow moose feeding quietly ten yards from the trail. Rain from the tail end of a hurricane swamping the trail in Canada and making him wade for several days. Beautiful views from the Presidential Range.


Soon Andy Skurka will face winter hiking through the intense cold of the Midwest. It doesn't faze him.


I wish him well.-- Gerry Rising