Hiking with a purpose

MARQUETTE – How many people over age 60 take on a 4,600-mile hike? Or for that matter, age 30…or age 20…or even younger?

Gail Lowe, an incredibly fit 64-year-old from Lowell, is tackling a “through-hike” on the North Country Trail, which runs from New York to North Dakota, with Marquette and the Upper Peninsula along the way.

Lowe spent her stop in Marquette with a “trail angel,” Lorana Jinkerson, president of the North Country Trail Hikers Chapter of the North Country Trail Association. Lowe is trying to be the first woman to make the through-hike on the NCT, which means completing the trek in one hiking season. (The season, she explained, begins in early spring and goes through late fall or early winter in one calendar year.)

Lowe, who left on her journey March 16, arrived in Marquette Tuesday for a “resupply stop” to organize for the next weeks, which involve a remote section of the trail in the western U.P.

How in shape does a person have to be for this endeavor?

“Well, I never start out in shape, but I get in shape,” Lowe said. “I never stop training, because I’m at an age now where if I’m not constantly training, then my body just doesn’t rise to the occasion. So even when I’m off trail, I’m wearing weights around my waist and my ankles, and I’m backpacking roughly 4 to 4 1/2 hours a day, all year round, and staying in shape for the weight of the pack.

“But nothing puts you in shape for hiking 15 hours a day, out in the woods.”

Lowe said although five men have completed an NCT through-hike, she would be the first woman. However, there’s another reason she’s making the effort: hiking in memory of her daughter, Rebecca, who died last year of breast cancer at age 46. So, “Becka’s Hike” has some meaning for her.

“Her biggest fear was that she’d be forgotten,” Lowe said, “so if I do something in her memory and I go down in history and it’s in her name, as long as I’m remembered, she’ll be remembered.”

How’s hiking been in Michigan the last few days?

“Mosquitoes,” she said. “My own personal locust is the way I describe it, from morning to night.”

To combat this mini-plague, Lowe said she wears a head net and reapplies bug spray about 12 times a day, and is in full rain gear for full body armor.

Lowe, a retired intensive care unit nurse and is a registered respiratory therapist, is self-sufficient, although she said she relies on trail angels to drive her to stores and help with laundry and meals.

(Marquette recently was designated a Trail Town, which has as one of its purposes helping NCT hikers coming through the area.)

Lowe said she marches almost continuously on her NCT hike, from 5:30 to 6 in the morning until 8:30 to 9 at night, sleeping in a tent along the way.

And Lowe enjoys hiking alone, although she acknowledges she enjoys social time with fellow hikers in the evening. However, there aren’t any other trekkers on this trip, which has really tested her.

“Like, enough solitude already,” Lowe said. “Give me some other people, and they’re just not out here.”

Safety is not a big issue for her, she noted.

“I feel much safer on the trail than I do in any city because humans are the most dangerous animal,” Lowe said.

One bonus for Lowe was that she did get to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

“I was just overjoyed to be back there again,” she said. “I’ve hiked Pictured Rocks about six times, but I have never hiked the entire length of the park, and that’s a requirement of this trail. So, it was quite fun for me to see the rest of it that I hadn’t hiked yet.”

Lowe said she expects to finish in Logan, Ohio “before the snow flies.”

Jinkerson said hikers such as Lowe help raise awareness of the North Country Trail, which still is unknown to many people in the area.

“Those of who us work on the trail and build it and maintain it and promote it, we love these long-distance hikers because part of it is that they’re helping us promote the trail,” she said.

Lowe said she has experienced many hardships in her past hikes, with each hike posing different issues. She’s survived lightning strikes, a near drowning, a broken ankle and other medical issues.

Yet, she said she won’t quit, no matter what.

“Hiking is my passion,” Lowe said. “The outdoors is my church, and I feel closer to any spiritual being in the outdoors than I do in any manmade building.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.