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Hiker weathers sea- to-sea expedition

Carrying a backpack bearing only food, water, camera and equipment, Andrew Skurka, Trinity '03, is staring down the trail with about 7,640 miles to go, but the weather is on his mind right now. A wintry mix is blowing into Ohio today and the snow will be arriving tomorrow and lasting a few days, so he will have to plow through the elements with his snowshoes in daytime temperatures hovering in the high twenties.

Although he has been practicing trudging through snow on the local golf courses while at home in Seekonk, Mass., over Christmas break, nothing can ever fully prepare the former track and cross country runner for the physical, mental and weather-related challenges he will face during the next nine months.

Skurka is on his third day of an effort to become the first person to attempt--let alone complete--the 7,700-mile journey on a sea-to-sea route spanning from Washington's Cape Alava to Quebec's Cape Gaspé, within one calendar year. The only other person with a feat nearing the magnitude of the December graduate's attempt is 42-year-old Brian Robinson, who in 2001 completed hiking's Triple Crown--the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails--in one year.

After crossing the Ohio border yesterday, Skurka is now looping around the state this month and will continue westward through the northern states until he gets to Washington by summer, at which point he will travel back to New York and hike to the coast of Quebec by Thanksgiving. To stay on pace, he will have to hike more than 27 miles per day.

It all began when Skurka received his February 2003 issue of Backpacker Magazine just a little over a year ago. Little did he know the four-page spread on sea-to-sea hiking routes that lay within its glossy covers would change his life. As a senior working toward a political science and economics double major, Skurka had just finished the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail the summer before. Although the trek made him interested in other long-distance trails such as the other two in the Triple Crown, he had no specific plans for the future.

But when he flipped through the magazine's pages and saw the article on the sea-to-sea route, a dream sparked.

"The article talked of trails I'd never heard of, and that's what really got me started. I tend to always think big, and I was immediately drawn to [the idea] right away," Skurka said. "There's definitely a romance of any trek, being outdoors and seeing all these cool places. And also for me, at least, there's also the challenge of it--mentally and physically, there haven't been many things that have been so challenging as this."

And challenging it will be--there are reasons why no one else has ever attempted this sea-to-sea route before. The major impediment will be the weather, as Skurka will have to cover southeastern Canada and the northern states in the continental U.S.--Ohio will be the southernmost part of his trek.

"The most difficult part is that it runs on an east/west axis, and it's so far north that there's no good place to be during the winter--we've been having a Pennsylvania high, and at the southernmost part it's a 15-degree high at night and 35-degree daytime high," he said. "So you have to do it between the winters. The max hiking window doesn't let you start earlier than February, but even still there's going to be a foot-and-a-half of snow."

Another difficulty is that there is no one route from one sea to the other, as the name "sea-to-sea route" implies; thus, one of Skurka's goals for this trip is to establish a transcontinental path linking the existing trails, including the Pacific Northwest Trail, Continental Divide, International Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail, as well as to encourage other hikers to utilize these routes.

"I want to draw attention to the national trails I'm using because they aren't well known even in the backpacking community and they're not used.... I might write a sea-to-sea planner creating a route for the section between the Continental Divide and the North Country Trail in central North Dakota," he said. "I also want to inspire and encourage people to seek their own outdoors experience. It doesn't have to be the Appalachian Trail, it can be going out on the weekend in a campsite in Raleigh and have a good time."

Skurka, however, may not be seeing much of other hikers out on weekend camping trips during his journey. In some places such as along the Continental Divide or on the "Green Corridor", named for its stretches of green and nothing else, he will be walking up to 150 miles without seeing a town or car. Apart from his two sisters and a former college teammate who may join him for bits of the journey, he will be traveling alone. This isolation and loneliness may prove to be the biggest personal challenge for the 22 year old.

"Someone once called me an adopted introvert, but I'm a people person. If I were like a hermit, this trail would be easy, but I'm not like that, so it's going to be difficult--even going 35 miles a day through ungodly conditions wouldn't be as hard as being by myself," he said. "Sometimes you start laughing because the conditions are so horrible, you think, 'Why are you here?'"

The answer, Skurka reveals, is actually what pulls him toward long distance treks in general, and this one in particular--he craves the solitude and beauty found while venturing into unimaginable places.

"I expect to be lonely a lot of the time, and wet and cold a lot of the time, but there's also those places that you come across something that you didn't expect or you expect it and it's way cooler than you thought it would be. One thing a day like that will keep you going, that's all you need," he said. "Like seeing a moose and it kind of gives you a stupid look, like, 'What are you doing here?' Or like you're on this ridge walk and you have a view of five or 10 miles straight and you're up there seeing it all. The romance part of it keeps me out there."

Skurka will be capturing these moments not just for a photo-journal for himself, but also for viewers to vicariously experience on the Internet. Through a program developed by Microsoft, family, friends and visitors will be able to see his location on a map, as well as his pictures. Every two weeks, Skurka will try to mail his memory cards to Microsoft, which will upload his pictures for him.

Whenever in civilization, Skurka will also visit the post office to pick up his shoes--Montrail, his shoe sponsor, will supply him with the 12 pairs of shoes he will go through during the trip. He will stock up on food at convenience stores, but because he is on a budget--after sponsors, the $7000 journey became a $4000 expense for which he has had to drain his assets to fund--he will live on candy and granola bars and instant noodles.

"I'll be burning about 6000 calories a day, three times the norm, so I'm going for anything with calories. I'll find the cheapest junk food I can that will also pack well," he said. "It's important that when I get into town that I go buy some peppers, oranges, bananas, but you can't bring that stuff out on the trail. Some mornings on the Appalachian Trail I had cookies for breakfast--there comes to a point [when] you don't really care."

What he really cares about is the experience--the challenge, the sights and the places. And for nine months, amidst all the obstacles, this is what he'll be doing and enjoying.

"My expectation is that it's going to be very difficult, but that it's also going to be very rewarding. These go hand in hand--you can't invest no time in anything and get a reward from it," Skurka said. "If you want a really good experience from something, you have to invest all your energy in it, and that's what I'm doing here."


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