What the Chilkoot Trail Taught Me about Leadership – Pt. 3

EPSON MFP imageThe first day on the trail – August 2006.
We had spent the night at the Dyea campground just south of the Chilkoot trailhead. I was very excited and a little anxious about starting the hike and consequently didn’t sleep very well. I tossed and turned, going through all of my lists in my head, wondering if we had everything we needed for our journey. I also wondered would I be able to do this? Would we be able to do this?
I was also thinking about all of the unknowns: What would the paths be like? Would any parts of the hike be washed out? Would we have to hike through creeks and rivers? …

As it turned out my two travelling companions – Lucille, my youngest sister and her friend Michelle – had not slept very well either.

After a huge breakfast prepared by my brother-in-law, we did our final checks, going through our itemized list for the umpteenth time. “Food – check; Tent – check; sleeping bag – check, first aid kit – check.” Ready!
It was quite an amazing feeling to be at the trail head just 1 km North of Dyea – this historical spot where thousands of gold-hungry miners had also stood over 100 years before us.

EPSON MFP imageWe signed into the registration log, took some photos, said our goodbyes to my sister’s partner and her two-year-old daughter, Sophie, exclaiming that we would see them in five days, and started our trek.
We hiked through spectacular scenery of the Pacific northwest coastal forest in Alaska. Dense stands of alder, cottonwood, aspen, and spruce trees with mosses and ferns, at their feet. Amidst the rugged northern wilderness, we saw historical artefacts that told the story of the Klondike Gold Rush.
We crossed narrow swinging bridges made out of wood and cabling; we hiked over gravel paths with exposed roots, and up and down slippery and muddy natural “rock stairs” more than likely carved out by the thousands of Stampeders throughout the Gold Rush and of course our contemporary counterparts.
It was these natural rock stairs where I encountered trouble early on in the hike. Some of these steps were more than a foot high and the one trekking pole that I had brought with me broke, so I was not able to use it for support when going down. Stepping down the stairs without support caused me to overextend my right knee to the point of injuring it.
Our original itinerary for the day was to stay at Pleasant Camp – 16.9 km (10.5 miles) from the trailhead. When we arrived, however, it was relatively early. We checked in with one another and decided that, since we still had some energy and light, we would hike another three kilometres to the next camp, called Sheep Camp.
This was probably a mistake for me to hike the extra three kms, but I let my ego decide what was best for me. If my fellow hikers wanted to keep going, then I had to keep up. After walking a total of 18.9 km (11.8 miles) for an elevation of almost 1000 feet with a 25 pound pack (see blog #2), my legs were very shaky and knees were quite sore. Unfortunately, my right knee was also starting to swell. This was not a good sign. This first part of the trail was supposed to be relatively easy compared to the next day. We were planning to hike what was expected to be the most difficult part of the trail – the scales and the summit.
I needed to act fast to stop the swelling, so I took a couple of Ibuprofen and soaked my knees in the river (yes it was very cold) with eyes looking out for hungry bears.

Despite the injury, it had been a glorious day – an exhilarating hike in this majestic coastal forest –the natural environment was so green, lush, exposed, and raw. My body also felt raw and I collapsed into my sleeping bag and slept soundly.

EPSON MFP imageSo what did I learn?

• Sometimes it’s better to stick to the plan – the plan had been made with lots of thinking and there were good reasons why we made that plan.

• Do a check-in with yourself and be honest about how you’re feeling. Don’t allow your ego to push you into doing something you might not be ready for or want to do. Telling others you don’t want to, can’t or would rather not do something is not a sign of weakness. It’s an opportunity for dialogue. If I had been honest with myself and not let my ego make the decision, I am quite sure my travelling companions would have been fine with not going to the next camp. I would not have pushed myself beyond my physical limits that day and I would have had more time to rest.

• Don’t let fear of the unknown rush the experience. I remember wanting to push forward so badly so that we could get on with it and climb the summit! Looking back and thinking about this, I now think that this was because I did not know what we were going to encounter. This fear made me want to rush through it.

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