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  • Ken Ilgunas

A comedy of errors: My plan to walk 2,000 miles with a broken toe

So far, this trip has been an absolute disaster. And it hasn’t even begun.

Although I’ve only just mentioned my intentions to hike 2,000 miles across North America, I’ve been thinking about this trip for a year, and have been intensively planning it for the past couple of months. I’d hoped to take off for Canada–where my starting point is–this Monday, but just this afternoon I tripped down the basement stairs and my pinkie toe got caught on the edge of a step.

I heard a snap, hobbled to my room, fell on my bed, broke out in a cold sweat, and silently hoped that I didn’t just break my foot. I was somewhat relieved to discover that it was just my pinkie toe, which instantly turned pink and swelled. The pain, as of now, is minimal, and I can walk around the house just fine, but when my toes are compressed inside a pair of shoes, the pain becomes extremely uncomfortable. Hiking for 20 miles a day with a big backpack, at this moment, is unthinkable.

This happened an hour after I’d been talking on the phone with a hunting guide who I’d found on the Internet, and who was familiar with an area I aimed to travel across.

First, he told me that I would probably be “thrown in jail” if I was found going through a military zone that is apparently on my route, and he also told me that I should expect to be “chin-high in muskeg,” adding, “Where you’re going, they usually take amphibious vehicles.” “And you better bring a gun or bear spray,” he said. I could tell from this guy’s tone of voice that he wasn’t just trying to scare me or put on an air of expertise and machismo. Rather, his voice was informative, serene, calm, which was all the more alarming because, from it, I could tell that he knew his stuff, and I knew I had to take him on his word.

On top of that, a postal worker here in Denver recently told me that she wasn’t confident Canada would accept my food packages because of some questionable foods I’d packed.

So now, just moments before my hike, I have serious questions about my route, my food, and my physical condition. Oh, and I have no idea how I’m even going to get to Canada.

This is merely the end–I hope “the end”–of a long line of blunders, mistakes, and just bad luck. The original plan was to hike with my pal Liam, who I’d worked with up in Deadhorse last summer. After months of discussion and brainstorming, we only recently learned that Liam is still banned from Canada for an offense committed in his wayward youth, leaving me to hike alone. And I’d originally hoped to take off on August 1st, but jobly obligations (an article and the book) have caused me to postpone the trip, making me lose out on precious summer warmth and daylight. Now, I’ll be hiking through Canada and the northern U.S. on the eve of winter.

The thought of quitting has no doubt flit through my mind, but it seems as if prudence and good judgment are losing out to my philosophy of “Fuck it, I’m going anyway.”

Besides, between the gear, the food, and packages, I have too much money invested in this project to quit…

Speaking of gear, here’s what I’m taking with me:

I’ll be carrying a (1 lbs 4 oz) tarp tent that’s light weight, largely because its design requires that the hiker’s trekking poles function as tent poles. (This way, I don’t have to carry trekking poles AND tent poles.)

Here it is set up in Josh’s backyard.

Not quite as roomy as I might like, but I think I’ll favor the daytime lightness over the nighttime comfort.

After I got my first check for the book, I went on a spending binge, updating all my gear, and buying some writing/blogging/photography toys that I’d looked forward to buying in my more destitute days. Below is a new ultra-light 32 degree sleeping bag (1 lbs 4 oz) from Western Mountaineering.

Collapsible Platypus bottles (3 oz)

8 oz Thermarest

Cooking supplies (6 oz, not including alcohol fuel)

Miscellaneous: Med kit, compass, sunscreen, headlamp, bear spray, cell phone, solar charger, cash, license, credit card, passport, knife, watch, notepad, pen, aquamira drops (water purification), lip balm.

Go Lite jacket.

Go Lite rain coat.

Hat, gloves, a nighttime pair of warm socks, and thermals, which I’ll sleep in. According to the average temperatures of the regions I’m heading through, it’ll get down to, on average, about 32 degrees, but of course it may get much colder.

I’m taking one pair of hiking clothes: a merino wool shirt, a baseball cap, and nylon pants. The pants and shirt were generous gifts from friend, Josh Spice.

I just bought this bag the other day–a Deuter Act Zero 50+15 (3 lbs 6 oz), meaning it holds 50 liters of stuff (making it a medium-sized pack) but the pack can be elongated and hold up to 65 liters. I’d wanted to carry something much lighter, but you’ll see below that I’m carrying hefty stuff.

I’ll be putting a trash bag inside, which will keep my contents waterproof.

My biggest indulgence was an iPad 3, which I bought for multiple reasons. I thought it would be a productivity-enhancing device because 1) It holds a charge for up to 10 hours, and 2) It would allow me to access the Internet with a cell phone reception. This made me think it would come in handy in remote parts of Alaska where I wouldn’t have electricity or Wi-Fi, or if I decided to continue vandwelling across the country. Plus, with the iPad, I could blog while on my hike. I’m taking it with me as much to blog as to fulfill yet more last-minute book duties, like doing page proofs, discussing cover design, and maintaining contact with my editor. (It can be charged by the solar charger–a Power Monkey Extreme–featured above.) To be able to comfortably write, I purchased a Bluetooth keyboard, all of which fits in a waterproof Pelican case specifically designed for the iPad. All in all, the iPad and accessories weigh a cumbersome 4.5 lbs. Add in the solar charger (1 lbs 6 oz), and I feel as if I’m canceling out all that weight I’d saved with my lighter gear by bringing this “unnecessity” along. But I’m bringing it anyway, since sharing my journey is just as important to me as being on the journey. The iPad will also function as a GPS device and a portable library with a variety of books bought for the Kindle application, which will make for good nighttime reading.

My final new toy is a Canon 60D camera (3lbs 10 oz with the bag, charger, and spare battery). I plan on bringing this, but have some serious reservations about taking, again, unneeded weight. I have another smaller camera that weighs only 8 oz, but the picture quality cannot compare to the Canon. I haven’t really made a decision on which to take quite yet.

Here’s my pack, with about 6-7 days worth of food crammed in, weighing in at 27 pounds. I’d originally aimed for the high teens in terms of weight, but job requirements and my desire to share have added an unfortunate 10 lbs.

I’m still finishing up a few writerly duties, and once they’re done, I will set off north, to Canada, and hope that my toe heals up along the way.

Gear and weight:

iPad, case, and accessories: 4 lbs 8 oz

Solar charger: 1 lbs 6 oz

Collapsible bottles: 3 oz

Camera and charger: 3 lbs 10 oz

Maps: 3 oz

Bear spray: 13 oz

Med kit: 5 oz

Misc: 1 lbs 1 oz

Stove: 6 oz

Clothes and jackets (not including what I’ll wear): 2 lbs 12 oz

Sleeping bag: 1 lbs 4 oz

Thermarest: 8 oz

Food for a week: 8 lbs 5 oz

Water purification: 2 oz

Trekking poles: 11 oz

Total: 27 pounds

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