Mildew wafted through my senses, although, I was yet to officially acknowledge its presence. For the time being, it was simply a background distraction pouring into my olfactory system as I focused on escaping the swarm of sandflies, which were generating welts on my limbs. Once inside the appropriately named Sandfly Shelter, I let out a sigh, kicked back and closed my eyes for a moment of quietness before the rest of the hiking cluster arrived. We were to wait in this spot for a passenger ferry, which would be taking us back to Milford Sound, a small village on the other side of the water. As I drifted off into relaxation, my mind reflected on the journey.
It was day four, the last day, of our backpacking trip on the Milford Track. One of New Zealand’s Great Walks and one of the most popular hikes in the world. Other folks, like us, had chosen the independent walkers option as opposed to a guided trip, a choice which allowed us to navigate at our own pace to various backcountry huts through the deep scenic fjords, lofty porous waterfalls, neon jungle-laden rainforests and squawking, endemic birds.
We had been warned it would rain, after all, the Southern Alps of Fiordland National Park receive, on average, nearly twenty-three feet of precipitation a year making it one of the wettest places on earth. It’s truly a hike where, when it rains, the heavens up and out come deluges, squalls, torrents, surges and downpours which soak you from your Coronal suture to your metatarsals. Armed with this information, I’d packed my trusty Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Neoshell shoes and every other reliable waterproof article of clothing in my closet. This was a job fit for the best fabrics available and only the finest would pass the test.
Over the course of the four-day adventure, it became obvious that most independent walkers along the trail were newbies to backpacking and a few quick chats on day one revealed my suspicions. The deer-in-the-headlights looks, up with a twist of camp cooking befuddlement, and inappropriate gear, were telltale signs. Packs were loaded past the lid with oversized straight-from-the-kitchen saucepans, delicate ceramic bowls, metal cutlery and food coming out of heavy aluminum cans and thick glass bottles. Apparel ranged from dense, urban parkas to flimsy rain ponchos likely purchased on the shelves of a convenience store as an afterthought. Footwear, respectfully removed and lined up in a neat row outside of the sleeping hut the first night, consisted mostly of heavy, deep lugged, full leather upper backpacking boots with mottled laces. Each pair, I thought, more likely than the next to give birth to blisters and discomfort.
By day, we played leapfrog with folks from a variety of countries, most who spoke English and carried giant cameras. They stopped by the shelters to rest or grab a bite to eat, jogged over to various viewpoints to gawk at the rivers and waterfalls and, like us, drooled over the sights in all directions. They searched the gin-clear water and forest edges for unique creatures like Long-finned eels, Blue ducks, Tomtits, Fantails, Kiwi, Weka, and Rainbow trout so large they looked like they could eat whole chickens without missing a beat. They wandered through dripping moss-laden, beech tree forests, tree ferns and black pine, and tried to keep their feet dry in the swampy, muddy stretches.
By night, the dining and sleeping huts were buzzing with folks visiting, playing cards, reading, and listening to the rain on the metal roofs. As we moved up the valleys, boots were tied together and hung on porch hooks in an effort to keep the endemic Kea, an olive green, mischievous parrot nicknamed “the clown of the mountains” from stealing and destroying necessary footwear. Each night, folks lumbered into camp with teetering packs, aching feet, and blisters the size of quarters.
By the final day, hikers started to look like the walking wounded. Folks staggered along in heavy hiking boots dropping one foot down on the trail in front of the other like they were attached to concrete blocks. They staggered along the path as if tipsy, faces flushed while shouldering their monstrous loads. They winced occasionally, adjusted their loads by leaning forward and popping their packs off their hips and stuck their thumbs under their shoulder straps in an effort to distribute the weighty cargo. Grateful for the end of the trip and hence the end of the pain, it was all they could do to make it to the comfort of the Sandfly Shelter.
My eyes flew open when the door of the shelter opened. The first of the bunch of grinding zombies poured in, bee lining for a seat and succumbing to satisfied relief when they collapsed their carcasses onto the benches. Gaggle by gaggle they arrived until the whole lot was spread out, quietly assessing their physical distress. Packs came off along with boots and socks and it was only then, I saw the damage of the days of wet weather and ill-fitting boots. Each foot was blistered worse than the next, some had gaping wounds and others had bruising. Folks popped pain relievers by the handfuls and quietly looked around the room. When they spotted me, resting comfortably still wearing my Altras, they were taken aback. A bearded doctor from Australia couldn’t help himself. “What kind of shoes are you wearing?”. Up until this point, I’d been hesitant to share my backpacking prowess. After all, there is nothing worse than a know-it-all, told-ya-so, boasty-brandish-braggy display of, self-praising swagger. With invitation, I spilled the beans and explained why I was not worse for the wear.
The whole hut, roughly 30 weary hikers attended my impromptu clinic, as a captive, engaged, albeit exhausted, audience. I relayed that I hiked for a living and, as a professional hiker and writer of trail guides (or track guides to the Kiwis), I spent months out of the year on trails researching and photographing pathways. When I wasn’t spinning paragraphs from behind a flat screen, I was putting my body to the test by walking miles on miles each day in the name of a deadline. When it came to the Publisher’s crunch time, I traipsed through sopping wet trails, teetered on slippery logs, whacked brush with my trekking poles and admired high country mountain grandeur. I’d learned over the years, what gear and apparel I trusted to keep me comfortable and dry and was very picky about my gear.
Altras, I explained, had been my go-to trail shoes for years. Not only were the toe boxes shaped to keep my toes in a relaxed, natural position, but they allowed a bit of room for typical trail-day swelling. The cushioned zero drop, I demonstrated by walking around the room, helped me keep a more natural balance and aligned my body for less impact as I walked. Furthermore, I explained, the shoes are trail-friendly with sticky rubber exteriors, thick claw-like lugs, and forgiving rock protection. What’s more, my feet stayed dry thanks to the Neoshell® technology.
When I told them I’d hiked over 1500 miles last summer in Altras, their collective jaws dropped. In broken English, a Korean man asked if I would remove my shoes so he could see them. I explained that I’d just hiked for four days and removing them might be a risky proposition, but my foot funk joke was lost in translation. I watched as the Altras were passed around the room and cringed when people stuck their hands down to the lukewarm toe box. Then again, these were hikers coming off four days in the forest, how much dirtier could hands possibly be? A couple people took out phones snapping pictures and jotting notes so they could remember the name of the holy grail of trail footwear I described.
When the ferry finally arrived, the mob collected their things and tottered over to the boat. Sure, they were sore, but their camera cards, hearts, and souls were filled with the magic of the outdoors and the nonstop scenery that had won us all over. Despite their pain, they talked about their next adventure and couldn’t wait to plan another hike. I’d like to think that next time, they will do so with happy feet.