ECT Day 134 – The Human Experience

Lac Beaulieu Shelter to Ruisseau Bascon Shelter
Platform Camp to Fart Massage Camp
ECT miles: 14.9
Total miles: 2653.3
Elevation change: 5062ft gain, 5072ft loss

Superimposed over a variety of glorious scenery and fluid conditions, hunger and gut issues created a parallel narrative for the day that colored the experience with comedic discomfort. Today wasn’t just about hiking through the mountains, it was also about surviving the human experience in an animal body that has urges and needs capable of transcending logic and the best laid plans. As SpiceRack and I were reminded today, there is no placating hunger with promises of future delicacies. It exists wholly in the present moment and does not cut any deals, dragging the consciousness of the afflicted onto the dance floor by the guts, with ever strengthening fingers in an ever tightening grip. However, unwittingly I also learned today that the urgency of hunger doesn’t hold a candle to that of needing to poop. Through decisions that were definitely the fault of my own, I was out of the frying pan and into the fire, both imploding and exploding at the same time. They competing urges did not cancel out, but short-circuited one another, turning the spotlight of my focus into a flickering lightbulb of all or nothing discomfort. And all this played out during my favorite section of the IAT so far. It was a wild ride, and almost all worked out.

The world looked much the same as it had last night, just brighter, when we awoke naturally at 6:30am. The air was filled with low cloud, but it was calm and unthreatening. While not truly comforting, the covering shielded us from needing to consider the endless sky above and our place in the universe. The world was smaller for the grayness, which was perfect for the tenderness of morning. We got our coffee and oatmeal cooking, then performed a quick food audit. I had three bars and two oatmeal packets left to fuel me to our resupply boxes 10 miles ahead. Obviously that was plenty. I wasn’t in danger of starving to death, but I wouldn’t have turned down a few scoops of peanut butter either. In a way, as a chronic over-packer of food, I was pleased that I would finally finish a section on fumes. That is every aspiring ultra-lighter’s dream, and although I don’t like to admit it, I am an aspiring ultra-lighter. Spice was in a similar situation, otherwise we would have helped one another out. Our bellies were far from full, and our packs felt nearly empty as well. Time to fly.

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A trail for our feet and minds to follow.

We finished the traverse along the shore of Lac Beaulieu, then climbed up into the mist. The trail cut a narrow, muddy track through the dense forest, which we followed unquestioning, our minds free to sink into the physical effort then distract themselves from that by noticing the bright splash of wildflowers brushing our ankles. Unexpectedly, we crested a flat shoulder where sat Lac Dor. Although the lake was small, I could barely see the far shore through the swirling cloud that touched the water. We filtered a gallon of water while sitting and watching the vapor blow and dance across the surface. As it lifted and thinned like a threadbare T-shirt, we were treated to a new birdsong, long and lilting, difficult to remember let alone mimic.

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Swirling mist and blobby leeches. #spicepic

As we crossed the outlet of Lac Dor, I gazed absentmindedly through the clear water to the brown silt below. Black shapes, no, leeches moved like slimy shadows, amorphous blobs of dread flapping elongated bodies to swim, then scrunching into headless balls and tucking into the darkness beneath the rocks. I shivered, though fascinated, and pointed them out to Spice. Freaky.

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Back down out of the clouds with leeches on the mind. #spicepic

Another round of angry grouse drama interrupted a pleasant ridge-top cruise. This one was more aggressive and persistent than any before, but I held onto the Clif Bar that I was eating and kept my feet this time. I backed my way up the trail, feeling ferocious, looking into the bird’s eyes which were full of loathing and betrayed not a shred of fear. This spunky creature lived with an intensity of purpose that I might never experience in my life, and I admired its uncompromising commitment. There was a lesson to be learned here, but I couldn’t extract it. Not yet.

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The clouds move on during the approach to Mont Nicol-Albert.

A squishy descent through an alpine bog followed, before a gooey hop across a soggy saddle put us at the bottom of the next climb. Mont Nicol-Albert promised to be brutally steep, but it was the final barrier between us and bountiful food so we set a sustainable pace and inched our way up, step by step. The clearing skies and intimate meadows revealed views of increasing width. The St. Lawrence River claimed more of the horizon today, and I delighted in spotting some big boats moving their cargo, seemingly motionless at this distance.

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From Nicol-Albert to the St. Lawrence and the mountains ahead.

The sight from the summit of Nicol-Albert was one to behold. The eastern slope dropped precipitously to a wide valley etched with a squiggling river in a wider channel of sandy gravel. The gray snake cut through the chain of green mountains, separating us from the next dune of carpeted stone. The slopes were so vertical and lush with life that I was reminded of the volcanic terrain of the Hawaiian Islands. It was an intimidating sight, and I tried not to dwell on the fact that after this mega descent there was surely an equally mega ascent waiting for us.

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So beautiful. So hungry. Our food is down there. I can almost see it.

However, I had more immediate issues to contend with. During the climb, my hunger had sharpened to a painful twist, and a packet of oatmeal and a bar only added fuel to the fire. Spice must have been feeling it too because she was long gone by the time I had finished up with the viewpoint. I raced after her, noticing with much gratitude that the trail on this side of the mountain was both gradual and smooth. It contoured around the mountain, rather than connecting the bottom and top via the shortest route possible. What is this, the PCT?

I flew downhill, letting gravity propel my steps, using my poles to slow and redirect my momentum when needed. Still, I couldn’t catch Spice, always spying little more than a glimpse of her a hundred yards ahead of me before a turn in the trail carried her behind the trees. Eventually I gave up trying, and settled into a natural pace, working hard to ignore my growling stomach.

A new, more urgent sensation, both unexpected and unwanted, helped me in this quest. Out of nowhere, I now really needed to poop, and with forward progress coming quickly and a thickening stream of day hikers, there was no way that I was going to stop before the impending privy. My painful hunger seemed like a small issue by comparison and faded into the background as a new siren began to wail in my control center. Hunger was a relatively small issue. I would eat, and it would go away. Poop drama, on the other hand, might not have such a clean ending.

The trail took a big U-turn to follow Ruisseau Beaulieu on its tumultuous tumble to the valley below. The gorge narrowed between rocky cliffs, and the water turned white as it cascaded over an endless stream of rapids and huge waterfalls. Deep pools invited me to take a dip and stay for a while, but I was beyond seeking pleasure at this point. All I wanted was to preserve my dignity and not explode in the process.

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Fun hiking even during the worst of times.

The final two miles to liberation took forever as the PCT smoothness gave way to rocky steeps with dangling ropes. Still, as frustrating as this change was, I couldn’t help becoming enchanted. The power of the water was relentless, and by following a similar path I was able to feel a shred of this in myself. Much more slowly yet no less consistent, I launched into the abyss with each step, moving from one to the next in a fluid motion of bending joints and contracting muscles. I flowed in my own way over the rocks, proud of my strength and coordination, not taking either for granted.

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Water on a mission, hikers on a mission.

I felt the same way about Spice after she sat to let me catch up. It was awesome to see her stepping with conviction and power again after such a brutal and extended break-in period. Now even though we were together, we hiked in silence. She was swallowing her hunger, and I was using all my mental energy to stay clenched. Then finally, the trail flattened out as we reached the bottom. Across that big river on a big bridge and into the densely dappled shade of a forest of beech. Then there they were, the privy and the food cache at Petit Sault. Spice went for the withdrawal while I went for the deposit.

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Everything we’d ever wanted. Digging in.

I was so backed up that the payoff was unsatisfying, but the crisis had passed. I settled with relief next to Spice on the tent platform as she dug into our food boxes, immediately eating a bar while she pulled out the packets of various delicacies that we’d packed ourself for immediate consumption. She groaned with the first bite of chana masala then passed me the pot. I was right there with her in flavor country, and my hunger came roaring back with that first spoonful.

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Curving with the river back to the cliffy face of Mont Nicol-Albert. If only I could warn myself about what is about to happen. #spicepic

As deep as our hunger had been, a single sitting could not untie the knots in our bellies. So we were still kinda hungry when we packed our resupplies and hefted our now much heavier loads. However, the edge was dulled, and the extra weight on our backs provided reassurance that the sharpness would not return for a few days, if ever. The cliffy face of Nicol-Albert looked bonkers ahead of us as we followed a winding dirt road for a mile to the next trailhead. No wonder they didn’t build the trail straight up there. It was an epic face, dramatic and intimidating in a range of uniform tameness.

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What other surprises wait around the next bend?

Upon turning up the trail, my worst fears were realized when I trusted a fart too much and crapped my shorts. I laughed, because it was all that I could do, and told Spice that I’d catch up. I cleaned up as best I could, shaking my head the whole time in surprised disbelief as I returned to the trail. Spice was filtering water a quarter mile ahead, and didn’t give me any grief when I sheepishly wandered up.

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Gradual, my ass. Who wrote this thing?

The final miles of the day were up a long, ascending valley. Gradual climbs have been rare on this hike, so I made sure to enjoy the easy elevation gain as it carried us higher, extending the sunset by a few minutes as the orange orb seemed to pause on the mountains behind us. The experience reminded me of many similar ascents up the glacier-carved valleys between soaring passes in the Sierra, and that did something to sooth my battered ego.

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Toot tooooot.

An hour later, we were pleased to find the Ruisseau Bascon Shelter empty and so spread out on the wooden benches. After dinner, I was still feeling discomfort in my gut, with nary a toot to relieve the pressure, and so employed Spice’s trained hands to massage my abdomen and set things right. Her gentle manipulations released the blockages, and the wooden bed hummed with sonorous petards as I deflated like a balloon. We both laughed like fiends, and I chuckled myself to sleep, exhausted after such a mentally and physically challenging day. Fart massages are awesome.

This post was originally published on my blog Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.

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