By Karen Francis-McWhite
It looked like a whim. But when I decided to backpack the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile trek around the highest mountain in Washington state, it was actually a goal years in the making.
I started training in 2005 when I moved to Washington, but only a couple months in I learned I was expecting my first child. I put a pin in my plan, and set a new goal: backpack the Wonderland Trail by the time I turned 50 in 2023.
A few weeks ago, while massaging my latest unexplained (though probably age-related) ache in my hip, it hit me—50 is only three years away. I needed to start working on that goal that had been lingering. The real kick in the pants that made me start planning the trek was when I joined the growing BIPOC Brave Space community of women and was invited to participate in the writing and filming of Expedition Reclamation, a documentary seeking to redefine “outdoorsy” and reclaim belonging in the outdoors for Black, Indigenous and Women of Color.
The invitation came at a time in my pandemic introspection when I was becoming aware of how much the outdoors anchored me. But I was also lonely for connecting with women of color, since there were so few in my local community. The opportunity to combine my love for the outdoors with my need to connect with those with similar experiences as mine, was too good to pass up. Hearing their stories and sharing both our experiences and our goals, I began to think, “Well, what about the Wonderland Trail? Can I do it?”
By this point though, I had a few more responsibilities than when I was a childless 30-something with a big backpacking dream. I had too many family and work commitments to spend two weeks in the woods—the amount of time I would need to complete the trail in one trip. So I reasoned with myself. I’d segment hike the trail over the next three years.
Though there are two important things you should know about me and my backpacking journey:
1: When I made the commitment in 2009 to complete the 93 mile trek around the highest mountain in Washington state I had never been backpacking.
2: The first time I went backpacking was July of last year.
I had a long road ahead of me. But even though backpacking wasn’t part of my past, I had a long and varied history of recreating in the outdoors…pre-baby. I was a certified SCUBA diver at 14, had camped in the mountains and deserts of California with friends since high school, learned to sail in Australia in graduate school, and took my first solo camping trip in Mount Rainier National Park the year before I met my future co-parent. I wasn’t a “badass” outdoor adventurer in my mind. I was just a quirky Black woman who really liked exploring, playing and relaxing in the outdoors.
My daughter, Z, was 16 months old before I went camping again, after a nearly three year hiatus.
Our first family camping trip was with friends at Cougar Rock in Mount Rainier. It was clear parenting, especially single parenting, had changed my relationship with the outdoors. Watching my toddler savor the trails of Paradise lit something inside of me. Not only would I someday backpack the Wonderland Trail, but also hopefully with my wonderfully free-spirited nature child.
By the summer of 2020, my daughter was 10 years old and eager to go backpacking. Living in the Upper Wenatchee Valley, she was becoming accustomed to learning, playing, and exploring the mountains, trails and rivers near our home. She was ready, but I on the other hand wasn’t so sure if I was “fit enough” for a near-100-mile trek. Though I am a seasoned hiker, with decades of grueling day hikes ingrained in my treads, my body had come to reflect my current reality as a middle-aged, office-based, single parent, who had eaten all of her pandemic feelings by the time the summer backpacking season kicked off. I may not have contracted COVID-19 but I sure as rain had put on my covid 19. So I was nervous about taking up backpacking at all, much less resuscitating my 12-year-old goal to backpack the Wonderland Trail.
But three factors came together compelling me to dust off my unused four-year old Osprey backpack and start training:
- watching my daughter develop her confidence in outdoor recreation, and wanting to be able to keep up with her.
- being invited to be part of the Expedition Reclamation community
- the patient encouragement of another dear friend, who joined Z and I on our first backpacking trip to Spider Meadows.
Despite a silly misstep (thankfully without my backpack) that rolled my ankle and had me hobbling the nearly six miles back to the trailhead (Sidebar: trekking poles make great crutches), I was hooked. No matter how long it took my ankle to fully heal, I knew I was going to eventually segment hike the Wonderland Trail.
The Brave Space women I knew before the film, and have come to know thanks to it, have been gracious wayfinders, helping me find my path to that goal … and stay on it. As the oldest woman in the project, I was concerned I wouldn’t be fully welcomed. But the Expedition Reclamation film community has been a pleasant surprise, and the stories, examples, and friendship of the other women have been inspiring, welcoming, and lasting. Though filming wrapped in late 2020, we have continued to create ways for us to recreate together in the wilderness we all love and honor, like snowshoeing, a sport I have enjoyed since the 90s.
Looking ahead to the rest of this year, I cannot adequately express my gratitude to and for this community, for the ways they have welcomed, encouraged, and truly included both Z and me. They have helped me find the confidence to reclaim my sense of place in the outdoors.
It’s not too late and I’m not too old. I may not be as physically fit as I was twelve years ago when I put a diaper pin in my goal to backpack the Wonderland Trail. But I am absolutely fit enough to set my own pace, rediscover my own joys in Nature, and reboot my expedition pursuits. AND since I successfully secured a spot in the Mount Rainier Early Access Wilderness Permit Lottery, I look forward to doing the first of 3 segment hikes this summer, with a goal of completing the Wonderland Trail by my 50th birthday in 2023. And I suspect at least one of our fellow Brave Space Women, will join me and Z on the journey.
Follow Karen’s journey as she segment hikes the Wonderland Trail on Instagram at @hidefkaren.