April 24, 2018
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Long hike a journey of spirit

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

No watch. No cell phone. No camera. No books. Just materials for writing and a backpack of basics. Lucy Leaf is on a journey — not just a long hike on the International Appalachian Trail, but also a journey of the spirit.

It began with five days in a remote cabin in a wilderness sanctuary where moose and bear acknowledged her as part of the landscape. She hiked and wrote and thought and discovered that this two-month walkabout (as she calls it) may be just a beginning.

I found her resting beside Route 1 just south of Presque Isle 130 miles into her trek. Clad in featherweight, quick-drying khaki shirt and shorts, she hefted her pack and pair of walking sticks into the back seat, apologizing for the possible scent of sweat.

She had interrupted her through-hike from Maine to Nova Scotia in order to visit me in Caribou, 15 miles north, before I left town. I agreed to return her to Presque Isle so she could continue on foot the next day. “Serious” hikers wouldn’t think of such an interlude, she explained, but Lucy’s journey is about friends, new and old, as well as covering distance. She is not out to prove something so she can brag about her achievements. Her walkabout, like other adventures in her life, leads to inner awareness as well as a geographic destination.

Our drive to Caribou attempted to follow the trail along the Aroostook River she would walk the next day. In and out we drove, from road to riverbank, spotting the trail here and there, matching our route to her map. My home overlooks the point where the river turns from its northern course east toward Fort Fairfield. Every day I look out the window to the opposite shore, but Lucy introduced me to the perspective of a pedestrian.

My yard was the perfect place for her to spread out her gear to dry in the sun and breeze. The contents of her pack are the result of months of planning and testing.

“I hiked in six types of underwear before I chose those I would pack,” she said. She narrowed down her attire to two sets of clothes, which she is used to putting on damp from rain or dew. They dry quickly, even under a lightweight jacket. We set the wash machine for a small load, dumped in her few belongings (after she changed into her swimsuit) and sat down for a chat.

“The longer I live, the more I realize I could not stay in one place very long,” says Lucy, who is in her 60s. When she was in her 20s, she spent five years riding her horse from Maine to California and back, traveling with a friend as far as Montana, then completing the 7,000-mile journey on her own, stopping to work long enough to earn the money needed to continue.

“My journey started out as a cross-country trip on horseback,” she wrote in an article about the trip. “It later became a journey with a horse. I continued on and on again because I had a good horse. But it would take a couple thousand miles for me to realize this.”

In the 1990s, she and her then husband, Sam Woodward, took two teams of sled dogs from their home in Surry, Maine, to Labrador and Quebec where they “pieced together” a 1,200-mile loop, similar to Alaska’s famous Iditarod sled dog race, starting from Havre St. Pierre on the Quebec north shore and ending at the interior mining communities of Labrador City and Wabush. Following old sled dog routes converted into snowmobile trails (some marked, others not) they stopped in villages along the way, making friends and picking up supplies they had sent ahead before leaving Maine.

The expedition generated so much excitement that the two provinces responded to the Woodwards’ suggestion (and assistance) and collaborated to organize a 400-mile sled-dog race, The Labrador 400, which became the finale of a triple-crown circuit between 1991 and 1997. In 1994, the couple and their dogs again set out on a journey, this time across ice instead of land, following Inuit routes 450 miles to the northernmost community of Nain and back.

“In Labrador, Sam and I had discovered a musher’s paradise and some of the friendliest people in the world,” Lucy wrote. And they had revived the tradition of sled-dog travel in the region.

By the 2000s, she had put mushing behind her, earned a degree in and practiced nursing and spent a year in Turkmenistan as a Peace Corps volunteer. She simplified her needs enough to live in a one-room cabin in Surry, where she studies and practices sustainable living, heating with an efficient wood stove and dining from her organic garden.

Her life is a conscious, continuous exploration and fulfillment of dreams — on a shoestring.

After three days in Caribou, she set out for Perth-Andover, New Brunswick, where she caught a bus to Prince Edward Island to hike the new IAT trails there. Then she hopped a ferry and continued her trek in Nova Scotia.

If all goes well, she says, “I hope to hike the ancient ways of Ireland next year.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a retired University of Maine associate dean and associate professor living in Aroostook County. She was the founding director of the Maine Center for Student Journalism at UMaine. Her columns will appear in this space twice monthly.

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