In July-August 2017 I had a finely tuned plan to hike the International Appalachian Trail in Newfoundland. It was devised as a rather open, do-as-you-go idea from the moment I’d set foot on the trail but carefully designed to minimize travel time to the trail head. It all went down the drain when the St. John’s airport belt stopped and my pack didn’t show up. Then a whole new trip began.
It’s probably among the worst, most recurrent traveler wet dreams and of course it’s particularly serious when it happens to me! I’m no urban traveler, I have no planned address, there’s no easy way to replace anything. Thousands in currency units, years of fine-tuning, several months of preparations and excitement for this particular trip were in that backpack.
I have another connecting flight, then I need to buy gas, then a final bus ride and I should be hiking by morning the following day! The latter seemed unlikely at the time but I wasn’t aware the nightmare had just began.
In a best case scenario, my pack would be in St. John’s, Newfoundland with the following flight from Europe, 24 h later and it’d be delivered to me within the day so I’d only loose one hiking day. With that hope I grab the bookstore plastic bag that holds all my earthly possessions and hop onto the tiny plane that’ll take me across Newfoundland to the west coast, where my hiking will happen.
The pilot himself is trying to fix something outside and later announces that there’s a problem with the breaks and we cannot fly. There’s no stand-in plane. There’s no other possible connection within the day. Can something else go wrong? Can something actually go right at all?
It’s too many things going wrong at the same time but I try to keep calm and think. The airline offers me a bus ride on the day or a fly early next morning. It’s a Saturday, next day most shops outside of St. John’s will be closed and I still need to get gas so if I mean to have any chance of starting hiking as soon as my pack shows up, I’d rather get gas now that I still can. I draw a new plan: go downtown, find an outdoor store, get my gas and relax for the rest of the day.
Once I have a gas canister, I’ll not be able to fly anymore so I’ll take the bus across the island on Sunday. I’ll be in Port aux Basques on Sunday night and if the hiking gods are with me my pack might be flying over my own land ride and waiting for me in destination. I might still be able to start hiking on Monday, one only day behind schedule.
There’s nothing else I can do today so I force myself to relax. A local brew in a downtown St. John’s pub should help. Air Canada, as responsible for the missing flight, offers me a hotel room for the night. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.
A monster bus ride
It’s 1000+ km between St. John’s and Port aux Basques and the bus takes about 14 hours, 7.30 am to 9.00 pm. It’d look like a grinding prospect but I have bigger problems and hopes to keep my mind busy so I sit down and relax, ready to enjoy the old fashioned experience of road travel through the beautiful landscapes of the promised (newfound) land.
Once out of St. John’s, I loose roaming so I must rely on quick stop, petrol station wi-fi to browse for good news from West Jet about my pack. This adds some stress factor. It doesn’t help. I try to not worry too much. I keep repeating to myself I shouldn’t worry about things that are not in my hand.
The day before I’d ask myself many times whether anything else could go wrong. Today’s answer is yes, it can. Guess what: the bus breaks down, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. In a normal situation, I’d get so angry that I’d explode but this is getting so ridiculous that I feel somewhere beyond anger. Can something go right on this trip? Anything at all?
I’d have no idea about the mechanics of anything more complex than a bicycle, yet this is Newfoundland and everybody drives everywhere cars bigger than my apartment so it’s no surprise that a passenger goes out checking and comes back among a cheering crowd after declaring the problem solved. Apparently, yes, something can still go right.
We get to Port aux Basques in the dark. The bus stop is at the ferry terminal. If it’d be Europe, this would be just off and a short stroll from town but this is North America and apparently nobody thought passengers would need to get to town on foot. Nobody thought that bus passengers would need to get to town at all either. Town is actually about 300 m away but there’s no access through the fenced-off dockland area and I need to walk a 20 minute detour on a roadside with no pedestrian space and through a maze of layered roads. It all feels rather apocalyptic. Not ideal after a 14+ h road trip and not the most stylish way to get to this coveted destination: a town on the other side of the world named after my homeland.
Port aux Basques
For the next two days, life feels like an old-school office job: I sit down by the phone making calls to airlines, insurance companies, telephone companies and back to airlines. I even do a mid morning cigarette break.
Second half of the day is intentionally free so I can have a walk and some fresh air. I want to hang around town and I want to give myself the chance to think. I really need to think. I see one thing clear: no matter how valuable my gear is, the most precious thing I need to care for is my trip. I could replace my gear but I wouldn’t replace the experience of this trip and this is what I need to save. By mid morning, Port-aux-Basques-day-2 I have taken a decision: if my pack is not located today, I’m moving on.
I say “located”. Throughout these days I’m learning a lot about airline luggage Search & Rescue systems: when you file a request for missing luggage, your tag ID goes into a database. At the same time, unattended luggage IDs and locations are fed into the system. If there is a match, voilá, luggage located. My request shows no match so my pack has not even been located yet. This might suggest a missing or damaged tag, which makes SAR much more difficult. A match is also attempted through the Item Description fields but this is a far less reliable, rather random procedure, even if your pack is a distinctive white Cuben Hybrid wrapped in bubble wrap and packing tape.
I get a few false positives that only work to make me feel like they have no damn clue where my pack is. I see I can’t expect anything. This contributes to my decision to stop waiting and this means I need to go out there and get a new backpacking kit, everything, from scratch.
My whole kit was listed and described here. This is all that is left with me:
For a total Base Weight of 1177 gr. That’s ultralight! Pity it was not backpacking worthy.
Port aux Basques is too small for finding backpacking gear. I need to draw a new plan and this is it: I’ll move the hiking north to start in Stephenville, which was in my original hiking itinerary as my first town stop. Getting there on foot from Port aux Basques would have taken me the 4 days I’ll be missing and if I’m skipping anything from my original plan, let it be this less challenging stretch. There’s an early morning bus run from Port aux Basques to Stephenville and beyond.
Ideally, I’d shop in Stephenville but an internet search renders very poor results for backpacking gear. The next and last better bet in the whole of western Newfoundland lies just 80 km north: Corner Brook is the main town in the region and only second to the capital St. John’s, province wide. Whatever I need to buy, I must be able to find it in Corner Brook or forget about it.
The DRL bus makes one east-bound and one west-bound trip between Port aux Basques and St. John’s every day, starting early morning from each end. I’ll take the east-bound, early morning bus in Port aux Basques to Corner Brook and aim for the west-bound run from Corner Brook in the evening back down to Stephenville. If I make it, I can start hiking the following day. I’ll have 6 hours to do my shopping.
It bears mention the DRL bus is the only means of public transport available. If I miss the evening west-bound run to return to Stephenville, I need to wait for 24 h (or hitch a ride)
Meanwhile, in Port aux Basques I’ve been browsing through the town’s shops and I’ve found a few items that I’ll surely need and I can buy right away: a charger, micro-USB cables, a battery pack. My gear set starts growing.
Six hours to put together a complete backpacking kit. When I think about it, it sometimes looks like plenty of time, sometimes like an unlikely successful rush. Whatever it turns out, I feel like I’m doing the rightest thing and I’m sort of happy: I’m moving on. It’s not gonna be an easy day though. At least for the first 3 1/2 hours in the bus I need do nothing. Hard work will start at 11.30 am.
I’ve gathered a small list of 4 target stores. The best looking one is Barnes Sporting Goods and I head there right away. It turns out to be a hunting/fishing oriented store.
I go for the big 3 (pack, tent, sleeping bag) first and I start to feel like it’s not gonna be easy: I find a pack that might do but no suitable tent or sleeping bag. I browse around for anything else I might need before explaining the staff I need to concentrate on the big 3 first and asking for advice on where to go next and how to get there.
Next destination is Sport Check. It takes me a 40 minute walk under a blazing sun on a road that looks more like a motorway than a town street to get there. I start to feel like it’s not gonna be easy.
Sport Check is a big shop in a mall but they only have apparel. The staff tells me they used to carry backpacking specifics but not any longer. It’s definitely not gonna be easy.
My next shot in the list is Arthur James Clothing. I’m told it’s a proper outdoor store and despite the name they should have everything I need. I start feeling the pressure of time so I take a taxi to get there.
Arthur James has a very limited range of high-end, expensive gear: one Osprey pack, one 3 person Marmot tent and, oddly enough, only monster size, synthetic sleeping bags. It won’t work either.
There’s only one remaining chance in my list and it’s not even a good one so I ask the staff for advice. They send me to Canadian Tire. What, an auto part store? I’m told they have lots of other things, including an outdoors section. In fact, this might have been my best target from the very beginning as the most likely place to find low-end, cheap but hard wearing and workable gear. It was still a good move to check the more specialized stores first, if only to see what was available. I was thinking about Walmart next but apparently Canadian Tire is more focused on outdoors. They’re both together in the same mall anyway.
Time is running alarmingly short so I take another taxi. It’s not gonna be easy and it’s gonna be expensive before I’ve purchased anything.
It’s an oversized auto part and hardware store and pretty much my last hope. I set up priorities to organize the search with groups of gear items I need to fulfill before I go on to the next group: it wouldn’t make sense to look for a pot when I still don’t have a tent.
The big 3
For the first time in the day, I find a tent that might do: 2 person, nearly 3 kg and all the design features I’d run from as a lightweight hiker but it’d fucking do! Next and also for the first time today I find a sleeping bag that might actually fit inside a backpack without filling it completely and I grab this one too: it’s a hybrid down/synthetic mommy heavier than my winter quilt but it’d work.
Available packs look like being too small on the shelf but when I grab and unfold them I see two that might do. I choose the one that looks biggest.
I also find a decent looking, lightweight and cheap foam pad. I have a shelter and sleeping system now.
Rain gear can be ridiculously expensive in an outdoor store and dead cheap in a place like Canadian Tire. It is also a very critical item. I quite fancy the idea of rugged, non-breathable waterproofs for backpacking use and that’s what they’ve got. It takes a while to find something that’s not XL or bigger but I eventually get a jacket and pants combo in bright yellow.
Canadian Tire doesn’t do general clothing so I’m restricted to what I can find in the outdoors section. I need at least sleeping base layers plus some spare underwear and socks, maybe a puffy top. The selection is very limited and badly stocked so most remaining items are a big size but I eventually manage to find a polyester T shirt and tights. It’s starting to feel like I could make it.
The rest was a less focused wander for anything that I could need. I found a surprisingly nice, compact headlamp and an aluminium, backpacking specific kettle that would be great for heating water, not so much to eat out of. I unexpectedly found a shelf with some Mountain House freeze dried meals and I grabbed one so I could reuse the bag for cooking.
Oddly enough I couldn’t find a spoon that was not heavy metal. I got a plastic measuring cap instead.
I stepped out of Canadian Tire and started going through all my new gear, getting rid of extra packaging, re-using some of that packaging in the role of staff sacks and fitting everything in the new pack. By the time I finished, I wore my pack and something great happened: for the first time on this trip, I felt like a backpacker again! And for the first time on this day, I felt like I could make it, that I could be hiking again and that it could be tomorrow.
It was 4.30 pm, I hadn’t had any food or drink at all after early morning breakfast and I should be exhausted but for the first time in the day I was feeling hopeful. It was a great feeling.
I made a quick mental account of all the things I still needed, matching against what I had found in the already visited shops and decided to re-visit Barnes Sporting Goods, which was within walking distance. I grabbed there a butane burner that I had previewed and found some other important details such as a small knife, a beanie hut, a pair of gloves and a compass. I even got some paper maps that would cover most of my trip’s route if only in a lacking 1:100.000 scale but it was better than nothing.
When I stepped out of Barnes, I felt like a fully equipped hiker. I was still missing a few items from my original kit like hiking poles or a neck warmer but I could technically do without them. It felt great!!! For the first time since I arrived in Newfoundland, I was feeling fine.
It was 5.00 pm and I still had one hour to go. I made a second visit to Arthur James where I fetched some nice Smartwool socks and a simple softshell jacket, which I got to basically add top insulation as I didn’t find a suitable puffy. It was all. I headed for the DRL bus stop.
The uncertainty was over but the work wasn’t. I got to Stephenville at 7.30 pm, still needing to find accommodation which was not easy, only the third (and last) hotel in town had some room. Ideally, I’d have taken some dinner and go to bed but I decided to top the day off with a grocery shop load. It would help make the big effort of the whole day worthwhile because I could then start hiking next day in the morning.
Buying groceries shouldn’t be a big deal but it turned out so when I got to the only shop within walking distance just 1/2 hour before closing time, meaning to buy food for at least 5 days. This is some operation I’m really comfortable with though as I always favor on-trail resupply and I’m used to know what I need, how much and find it quickly: dehydrated rice, seasoning, powder cocoa, granola cereal, nuts, raisins, potato chips, bread crackers, cheese… all the usual stuff to which I added some more missing stuff like ziplocks and I was done.
I should have been beyond exhaustion at this point but I was so happy, in a relieved sort of way, that I still found time for proper food repackaging and overall packing. Then I was done.
It was a very tough, frustrating few days that set me out of my comfort zone as well as out of my area of control but it was also a lesson to myself in adaptation, focus and determination. It was certainly not the kind of challenge I was looking for but it was empowering to come out of it with perceived success. I’m thankful here for all the support and encouraging words I got from fellow hikers, friends & family. It helped a lot.
The whole process was also enlightening as far as putting things in perspective regarding gear and backpacking trips: at some point, I wouldn’t give a damn about which gear I’d use, I only wanted to start hiking. It was a good reminder that it’s not the gear what really matters.
This text was not about the actual gear but about the personal process that got me there. That said, I had got a new kit, I was forced to shift from the lightweight paradigms and it was an overall excellent test of the whole gear conundrum. I’ve now got a full review of the gear as it performed on the Newfoundland trip together with a comparison with my standard kit.
Lost & Found
My lost pack was eventually found 2 weeks later. I was certainly glad I didn’t keep waiting. The pack was just as I left it and there was nothing missing. I recovered it on my way back home. Here it is: