It is the rule we all remember from childhood “never talk to strangers”. Embedded in our brain is the idea that something horrific could happen if one chooses to talk to, or approach, a stranger. Yet, if you’re someone like me who believes people are generally kind-hearted, conversing with a stranger is a perfectly normal and innocent thing to do. There is something warmly intriguing about talking to someone who is a story untold; someone who has no preconceived notions of who I am or what I’m about.
I started hiking the East Coast Trail on July 1, 2014 and somewhere between then and year’s end, after getting a few trails under my belt, I decided I would complete all 24 trails; not as a thru-hiker or even a sectional hiker but rather a pick ’em off when time, money, weather, break from full-time single motherhood and a Monday to Friday 9-5 job, would permit. To be totally honest, it is the first time in my life I had ever set a personal goal. I’m not a Tely-10’r, I have never held a gym membership, nor have I competed in an organized sport or race. So hiking a 250+ km rugged, wilderness, coastal trail was going to be an immense physical and mental challenge for me, but one I was hell-bent on achieving. Upon completing 1/2 of the paths, it became evident that my gauntlet-running lifestyle wasn’t going to be my only obstacle. I had a bigger problem … finding someone, anyone, to hike with, as I had run out of options, rather, friends who were willing to take on that level of commitment, who shared my goal. Complicating matters more, my uncompleted trails were further down the Southern Shore, a 100+kilometers drive from the city; path lengths were longer, some in excess of 20 kilometers; and they were all rated difficult or strenuous, it seems I left the hardest ones til last. So how did I accomplish this without a hiking buddy, given that I did not have the resources or fitness level to hike them solo in both directions? I hiked with strangers.
Now, you might ask, “how does one hike with a stranger?” Well, it’s simple, you join groups … online social groups such as Meet-Up, East Coast Trail guided hikes, Outfitters Friday night snowshoe hikes and if you’re fortunate enough, as was I, be invited into a private hiking group who preferred not to see me hike alone. Basically, you seek like-minded adventurers and outdoor enthusiast who share common interests, that will take you beyond your inner circle of family and friends who have different wants, needs and schedules than yours. If you’re a social butterfly this will be a piece of cake. If you’re like me, and prefer a smaller, tight-knit circle of friends and, quite often, solitude, then you will have to let your guard down and open yourself up to new possibilities. This is exactly what I did and boy did I get lucky, for I met two very special individuals … whom I’ll refer to as “W” and “D”. They were in different groups and were unknown to each other, but each played an integral part in enabling me to finish what I started.
How I met “W”: Upon joining an adventure group in ‘Meet Up’, I signed myself up for a road-trip hike with 5 complete strangers. The details of the hike were sketchy; the weather, sketchier. It was in the death-grip of February and the so-called plan was to drive out to the closed Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve and hike to the sea stack. Six strangers, two cars, -20 degree temperatures and wind gusts of 100km/hour. Lunacy? You bet. Especially since we had to drive a total of 375 kms from St. John’s on an undecided, blustery winter day to a remote part of the island that lacked cell phone reception. Not to mention, a 13km drive down a closed, unplowed access road to the reserve. Reflecting back on it now, it was a wildly questionable thing to do. Anyway, with my Subaru Outback packed with myself and 3 complete strangers and another car of 2, we did make it safely to the interpretation centre but we all couldn’t help feel like we were in a barren wasteland, uninvited. While doubt and uncertainty crept over some, there was no question in my mind where I was going … to bird rock! I didn’t trudge all that way to turn around and go home, so with some umm’ing and ahh’ing among the other 5 adventurers, it was decided …. “if Diane is going, I’m going!” agreed 4 of 6, so off we trekked on our mulish, merry way. And I have to say, it was a wild ‘n’ woolly hike filled with laughter and amazement. Though I have frequented the ecological reserve many times in summer, with birds nesting by the tens of thousands and sheep grazing on the eeeekiest of cliff edges, I have to admit, experiencing it in a raw, teeth-chattering, eye-watering, winter-white, wave-crashing setting put this high on the most magical and breathtaking places I had ever laid my eyes on. So it came to pass, friendships were forged with some and others we never heard from again.
In many ways, hiking with a stranger is like going on a first date. You provide some basic information about yourself, agree to meet at a designated place and time and proceed from there. Like dating, you will probably know in the first few minutes if you’re going to click. If you feel the encounter was not a good match, you no longer add them to your hiking docket. If a positive connection was made, you stay in touch and start it all over again. Such was the case with me and W. As spring blended into summer and strangers flourished into friends, we pushed on to complete the lengthier ECT paths, including a full-day, 17km hike on Spurwink Path (see photo above) and a 24km overnight trek to The Spout (see photo below). I was the only Newfoundlander in a group of 8 adventurers (strangers) on both hikes.
How I met “D”: I met my hiking bestie in March 2015, through a private hiking group I had recently joined. It was a Saturday morning and we pulled up early in our vehicles at the Father Troy Trailhead in Flatrock, awaiting a 9km snowshoe hike. As we were both fresh out of the wrapper with the gang, we gelled instantly and in no time were concocting plans to hike again. Besides our mutual love for hiking and anything outdoors, it seemed we had the same goal … to complete the East Coast Trail! Not to mention, we shared a profound yearning for off the beaten track adventures. And over the course of our 2 year friendship, there were quite a few. There is one in particular that we won’t forget any time soon; but I will leave the telling of that towering tale for another day.
On July 8th, 2015, just a week over of my 1 year start date, D accompanied me as I hiked my final leg of the ECT, completing the 265kms trail system. It was a long-winded 20km trek from Shoal Bay Road to Petty Harbour; the ever so beautiful Motion Path (rated difficult). Our morning began by dropping a car at the Petty Harbour trailhead and doubling back to start our journey on the infamous 6.4km wet and rocky Shoal Bay Road. Setting out to walk at 7:45am, SBR was in the same gawd-awful condition I left it in six weeks prior when I hiked The Spout. It was mind-boggling to navigate the path while attempting to keep our feet dry and avoid injury. Upon reaching the Motion and Spout trailheads, with 13.5kms remaining, we set a decent pace heading north. But little did we know there was a wonderful surprise waiting for us at Lower Cove Head that would delay our last 7kms to the finish line. It was time for lunch and we planked our arses down near a cliffs edge … below, pairs of humpback whales swimming lazily by, spouting and waving their tails as if to say ‘hello’. While scarfing down our fruit & trail mix, we watched as they swam out to sea to join a larger group of whales corralling and feeding on capelin that had yet to “roll” (make landfall). The feeding frenzy, though much further away, had us completely and utterly mesmerized. We estimated between 30-40 humpbacks (and that’s probably an understatement) as we could count 5-10 spouts at one time; what lied beneath … God only knows. Ironically, the hike to Petty Harbour was one of delight and difficulty, as we were like owls with our heads turned 180 degrees, awe-struck by the whales that continued to spout like lawn sprinklers. How I didn’t roll an ankle is beyond me, for it was impossible to watch where my feet were going, lest I miss the show. To say that this final hike was a captivating experience is putting it mildly, for it will be etched in our hearts and memory forever. We finished in Petty Harbour at exactly 4:00pm and off to the general store we went for the biggest soft serve ice cream we could eat.
Though I have made it sound glamorous, hiking with a stranger can sometimes come with challenges. And rightly so, as no two people are alike. I speak only from personal experience as I highlight some suggestions and misconceptions that have come up along the way.
- If you decide to hike with a stranger, start with a short day hike so you can get to know them before you head out on lengthier trails, overnight outings or multi-day treks. This will give you a feel for what’s expected on longer jaunts.
- Don’t come across as the all superior hiking guru; nobody wants to hike with a know-it-all and be basically given the impression from the first step that you won’t measure up to their standards or fitness level. You may not like another’s hiking style, level of preparedness, inadequate gear, pace or stamina but be courteous and stick it out, as anything can happen on the trail. If you click, by all means offer suggestions to enhance your next hike together. If it’s not a positive experience, then you don’t go again. It’s that simple.
- Now, this is the one that really grinds my gears … if you are not interested in having company and you leave your newly made acquaintances in the dust, then you need to revert to a solo hiking plan, where there is plenty of space for you and your over-inflated ego. If “Hike Your Own Hike” is your motto and how you like to roll on the trail, then chances are that you will be so caught up in your own aura that you will have no genuine concern for others or how they are doing, which can ultimately impact anothers hiking experience. So, if you want to “hike your own hike” then do it on your own time, alone.
- Don’t be an ass and show up late. Reliability is a key element to hiking successfully with others.
- Get out there! Expose yourself to new opportunities and get away from daily routine. The benefits of hiking with strangers far outweigh the risks.
- Criminals: Criminals don’t hike! They are simply too lazy. Those of a criminal mind don’t want to expend that much energy to commit a crime, it’s simply too far from their comfort zone. Besides, a hiker is not going to be a source of money or riches because most are minimalist, low maintenance weekend warriors that carry everything they need but require very little.
- Safety: You have a better chance of being attacked by a squirrel than a stranger. And speaking of wildlife, I’ve had moose, caribou, fox and coyotes cross my path while on the trail, and the most that I have been threatened with is a curious stare or a nostril flaring sniff. For the most part, I don’t even know they are there, yet they are most certainly aware of my presence by sight, scent and sound. Regardless of awareness, I am as prepared as I can be for that out of the ordinary encounter with said ‘animal’ or ‘human’, branding my steal-tip pointed trekking pole, a swiss army knife, bear spray, a whistle or if fall else fails … a punch in the throat!
- Introverts: If you’re an introvert, who better to meet than a stranger. You have a clean slate and you simply get out of it what you put into it. A stranger can sometimes be more understanding than close friends or family members and there are often spin-offs that may arise as you may have more in common than you think.
So, get out there. Hike with a stranger. Be safe. Have fun. Life is too short to be lived without adventure.
Below are photos from 4 hikes that I could never have completed alone. Spout Path / Spurwink Path / Cape Broyle Head Path / Motion Path.