Triage on the Trail

One of the first things my dad and I packed for our hike across New Guinea was our medical supplies. To make sure that our trip wasn’t ruined by infection or illness, we put together a very thorough first aid kit. Our fellow hikers were just as well-equipped.  Among us, we had ointments and antibiotics, Ibuprofen, antihistamines, steroid creams, eye drops, bandages, splints, and more.

We had been informed there was minimal access to healthcare in PNG, and virtually no healthcare once we were on the trail. In fact, the villages we were hiking though were so remote that in order for people there to get to a clinic, they would have to hike for several days—often on treacherous trails.p1010232 2

Papua New Guinea, with a population nearing 7 million, has fewer than 400 doctors. And of those 400, only a handful work in rural areas—where 87% of the population resides. This absence of any kind of healthcare was made apparent to us while we were on a rest day in the village of Laronu. We were sitting around for the day, waiting for our re-supply helicopter, when a young boy approached Julie, a fellow trekker, held out his arm and asked her if she could “fix this.” Julie immediately grabbed her pack and dug out her first aid kit. She applied some antibiotic ointment on his infected cuts, wrapped his arm in a bandage and sent him on his way. But soon, word spread. An hour later we had a line of at least 30 villagers, all seeking treatment for their ailments, or for those of their family members. By then we all had our first aid kits out.

We treated a little boy who had tripped over a pot of boiling water and burned his arm, and another child with a tropical ulcer so big it looked as if he had taken a machete blow to the head. My dad offered up a dose of his antibiotic eye drops to a man with persistent pink eye, the same drops, it turns out, that I would need later in the hike. And the people kept coming, huddling close in the waning sunlight, waiting their turn.lrg_dsc01640

As we treated infected cuts and bandaged open sores, villagers went about their business. Children played soccer, running barefoot over rocks and dirt without even a grimace. Women carried buckets of water from a nearby mountain stream while others crouched around a cooking mumu filled with pig meat, sweet potatoes, and greens.

Despite the sickness and hunger and malaria outbreaks, life in the village goes on. The villagers seemed content. I, however, was not. That night, I told my dad that I wanted to figure out a way to get medical supplies to the villages along the trail. At the very least, antibiotic ointments for skin infections, but, ideally, antimalarial drugs and mosquito nets. Easier said than done. But having experienced the generosity and friendship of the villagers, I am determined.


In the Wildness of Alaska


alaskaIn Last Child in The Woods, Richard Louv writes, “Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses.” I know exactly what he means. Last summer, I participated in a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course in the Talkeetna Mountains. I thought I understood remoteness until I went to Alaska. My family and I spent a lot of time in the Mountain West and I grew up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin, outside of a town without even a stoplight. We have chickens and bees, a cat and dog, a garden, fruit trees, and fifteen acres.

IMG_5444 (2)I love home, but I found a different kind of bliss in the Alaskan wilderness. I found simplicity. I carried everything I needed in my backpack: food, hiking clothes, a sleeping bag and pad, a WhisperLite stove, and a poop trowel. And I loved the routine, too. After waking up and taking down my tent, I would trudge the 100 yards to the makeshift kitchen, cook, eat, and then clean up. Then I would repack my pack, and set out on the trail with the rest of the group for the next 6-7 hours. When we reached our destination, we would scout out the flattest, driest spot and set up camp. As soon as I could, I would take off my hiking boots and put on my camp shoes and a fresh pair of socks. Only then would I relax and read or write, and sometimes, we would sit around and talk about the food we missed and how nice it would be to have a hot shower and a real bed. Some nights, we would listen to our instructors read and recite poetry and around 11, with the sun still up, I would crawl into my sleeping bag. Often, in the middle of the night, I would wake up and peer out of my tent to see the mist filling the valleys. By morning I could see the Chugach Mountains again and I would sit outside my tent, enjoying the beauty. But I knew that soon I would have to put on my wet, stinky hiking clothes and prepare to trek across mud, rivers, and boggy tundra. We were in grizzly country, of course, and that scared me, but I loved the beauty and wildness of Alaska. It excited my senses.


Gritty Sis

My sister Aidan turned 202nd pic of girls for blog.JPG this summer and is working as a river guide in Gardiner, Montana. We just got back from visiting her there, where she treated us to a rafting trip down the Yellowstone River and to some hikes in Yellowstone National Park.

In many ways, Aidan is my role model. When she was my age (15), she made three, five-week trips to Arctic Alaska with my father and wrote about her experiences at her blog Growing up, Aidan and I attended the same small school, where, despite my admiration for her, I grew increasingly tired of being known as her younger sister. Occasionally her friends would even call me “Little Aidan”, not because we resembled each other, but because that’s how they saw me. I was proud to be Aidan’s sister, but I wanted to be known for my own accomplishments. But that seemed impossible because everybody knew Aidan as a star: as the girl who won state her freshman year in the 800m; as the girl who survived living on an island with a polar bear; as the girl who got into Yale.

For a long time I wrestled with being in Aidan’s shadow until I realized that I had to define my own path, using Aidan as my inspiration. Aidan had followed her dreams and became the person she wanted to be; I was determined to do the same. I started Thai kickboxing classes after school; I joined a sailing club and raced; and I took up phoaidan and rachel blog.JPGtography. These things were mine. But while struggling to define myself, I also needed to allow for the fact that Aidan and I had some of the same interests: Nordic skiing, Indie Folk music , and a love of travel–especially to remote places.

Last summer I took a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) trip to the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska and was as taken with the landscape as Aidan had been. Like Aidan, I am now inspired to write about my adventures–in Alaska, this summer in Papua New Guinea, and wherever else my dreams may take me.

I believe in following my bliss and this is the first in a series of blogs about that. I am hoping that some readers might be as inspired by me as they were by Aidan. I will try to blog as often as I can this summer from the jungles of New Guinea and this fall and winter from the woods of Wisconsin. I hope that you will follow me on my journeys.