Backpacking. Everyone has a different take on it. Technically, it is walking through the woods with a backpack filled with food, sleeping gear, tent and all you need to survive. For some, this is the definition of insanity.
For me, backpacking strips life down to the essence. What do you really need in life? Food. Water. Shelter. Backpacking takes away all the extra stuff that we load ourselves down with: computers, televisions, volunteer commitments, homes, pets and the omnipresent cellphone.
What's left when you take those things away is who you really are, buried beneath the loads of things we add to our lives. Who would you be if you take away the veneer of civilization? What would you do to keep your mind occupied? How would you amuse yourself?
Backpacking takes you into places you might never see otherwise.
In some magical way, the weight of a backpack on my shoulders seems to take a load off my shoulders and chest at the same time. Backpacking creates a space of freedom where there are no responsibilities, no agendas, no big worries. While backpacking, I leave my life behind a little more with every step. Walking with a trail ahead of me and no particular destination in mind makes the whole world an adventure.
Logs become jungle gyms. Creeks become rivers to explore. Rocks become places to stop and climb and check out the view.
On one of my favorite backpacking trips, my wife and I hiked into the forest near the old growth forest in Tionesta, Pa. We camped near a creek out in the middle of nowhere. There were no campgrounds, no people. It was just the two of us and the porcupines.
By day, we explored into the ancient forest, staring in awe at giant trees that were already growing when Pennsylvania was first called Pennsylvania. Many of these giants had already fallen, leaving a criss-crossing network of 3-foot wide logs 100 feet long laying across the ground. The fallen trees provided a natural highway that we scampered across like squirrels.
By night, a young porcupine came to visit the camp. It was not used to people and sat quietly munching on some fallen Hemlock branches at the edge of our campsite.
It's hard to believe now, but my family was not big into camping and never into backpacking. My dad always said that he slept in a tent enough in the Army and didn't need to again for fun. Camping trips were to big cabins with a huge old station wagon full of stuff.
My first backpacking trip and my first tent camping happened on the same trip, on an ancient trail through the Andes created by the Inca. One night, while camped beside a tiny lake on the other side of a mountain pass far from anything, I slipped out of the tent. A rock by the lake was the perfect place to consider the future as the moon rose over the mountains and lit a brown, barren landscape. It was in those moments that my decision to become a naturalist was made.
Every backpacking trip has a different character, depending on the company and your mood. The longest trek I have ever made was a 70-some-mile hike on the Laurel Highlands trail in central Pennsylvania.
It was a five- or six-day hike with weather that went from hot to muggy to raining to chilly. Walking eight hours up and down hills on a trail that had turned into a creek could have been a miserable experience. Hiking with good friends and laughing through Rhododendron jungles and ankle deep water while stuffing our shirts with old yellow birch bark and hemlock to start a fire with at the end of the day was terrific fun on a day that could have been anything but.
It's worth a try if you have the time. Backpacking brings out the best in people as well as things that are less expected. Backpacking trips are filled with unexpected adversity, bursts of crazy creativity, adrenaline rushes and the unrelenting peace of the forest. It's a journey into the wilderness as well as a journey into yourself, where you find out exactly what you are capable of and what things in life you truly value.
We are lucky to live in an area with abundant opportunities for backpacking. There are some amazing places in the Allegheny National Forest to hike, including the North Country Trail. That trail runs through Allegany State Park, along the reservoir and all the way to Cook's Forest and beyond and has some wonderful campgrounds along the water.
Chautauqua County has the overland trails, east side and west side, that go through some of the most beautiful parts of the county. This area is filled with opportunities for backpacking. All you have to do is load up your pack and go.
If you don't have the gear, there are stores that specialize in backpacking in both Warren and Chautauqua counties, such as Evergreen Outfitters in Ashville and Allegheny Outfitters in Warren. There are also many groups of people out there backpacking all the time.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist with the Audubon Center and Sanctuary, located at 1600 Riverside Road, Jamestown. For more information on Audubon and links to other outdoor organizations, go to www.jamestownaudubon.org.