Gurnee native makes trek along Appalachian trail
By Frank Abderholden firstname.lastname@example.org | @abderholden October 15, 2013 8:08PM
This is an obligatory photo opportunity for hikers on the Appalachian Trail at McAsee Knob in Virgina. Elizabeth Usborne, 30, who grew up in Gurnee, couldn't resist posing with her dog, Ursa, who also made the 7-month trek.| SUBMITTED PHOTO
Experiences on the hike
Elizabeth Usborne was not a city slicker heading out to the wilds of the Appalachian Trail on a whim. Well, it was sort a whim, but she had the experience of living near Fairbanks, Alaska, when she worked cataloguing plants on military land and she lived in a cabin with no plumbing or electricity.
The log cabin had been built with green logs, so they would shrink and leave gaps that she plugged with fiberglass insulation. Only the squirrels “figured out” how great the pink stuff was and stole it. “So there I am like a hillbilly shooting squirrels with my .22. But my neighbor down the road would trade me for fresh halibut. He was a trapper and used the squirrel for his trap line. I think I got the better deal,” she said.
“Daily life up there is just figuring out how to survive. I picked up some mountain man skills, for sure,” she said.
“That type of living prepared me for the trail. I realized I can live without the comforts of civilization,” she said. She got her camping skills while attending Colorado College in Colorado Springs where, as a biology major, she went on a lot of camping trips and learned from people who had been doing it awhile.
She decided on gear using “The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide” by Andrew Skurka, but she learned many people made their own, like the can from cat food she used with denatured alcohol, filling the can and using a wick for the flame to boil her water. The gas station lighter worked great and a old plastic gallon milk jug with part of it cut off was perfect for scooping water that she would then treat with Aquamira treatment drops. She had a small plastic shovel for digging holes to bury her and her dog’s waste. Yes, she packed toilet paper. Her full pack weighed between 40 and 50 pounds. Ursa carried her own food and rain gear. Food was freeze dried, but Pop Tarts and all their calories were a companion on the trail.
The trail is real community and you meet people and re-meet them. She and Ursa became known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, after the stars that form the constellations Great Bear and Little Bear. “At least they made me major,” she laughed.
Three days into the trek, she knew she was going to make it all the way. People she met included doctors, nurses, retired military, and corporate executives. “It was a hard life, but you woke up, walked, ate, and then slept. You don’t have to think,” she said, but the scenery and solitude were remarkable.
She attended Woodland Elementary School and Gurnee High School growing up. She worked at the McHenry County Conservation District and the Kenosha Zoo in Wisconsin as an intern. Next up on her agenda is helping out her parents to try and repay them for their help, and then probably in January she will start looking for a job. “Of course, there is always the Pacific Coast trail,” she said with a chuckle, “I’m just trying to get used to being back in civilization.”
Updated: November 17, 2013 6:21AM
Elizabeth Usborne, who grew up in Gurnee, was trying to push her dog Ursa out of the tent along the Appalachian Trail so Ursa would go the bathroom before turning in for the night. But the dog just stood in the entrance of the tent, on point (she doesn’t bark), unmoving.
“I was trying to push her out and finally I just shoved her out. As I got out and stood up, I saw a mamma bear and her cubs making their way up the ravine toward us,” she said. She grabbed her hiking poles and went to a spot the bears could see her and made herself as big as she could make herself.
“And I just said, in a calm, but assertive voice, ‘Heh!’ As soon as she saw me, she took her babies in the other direction,” said Usborne, who actually had some bear training when she was working in the wilds of Alaska before she decided to tackle the over 2,000-mile, 14-state Appalachian Trail that only has a few hundred hikers make it all the way nonstop every year.
But there is a funny thing about bear training.
“When you see a bear in person, your mind goes blank,” she said with a laugh. There’s no way to remember that if it’s a male black bear, you stand your ground, shout, and throw things, but if it’s a female and cubs, you back away slowly. If it’s a grizzly bear, you roll yourself into a ball because they are territorial and may just rough you up a little until they realize you are being submissive and they may walk away.
“We ran into bear, moose,” said Usborne, “Lots of cool wildlife from the big to the small. It was very good,” said the 30-year-old biology major at Colorado College who went on to graduate school at the University of Mississippi to get her master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries. It was after more than two years of graduate school working behind a computer and in the lab with fluorescent lights that she decided to take the trek of a lifetime.
“I just wanted to get back outdoors. Just go for a long walk with the dog,” Usborne said. The trail varies in length from year to year because of maintenance. The Appalachian Mountain Club says it was 2,168.1 miles in 2001. A through-hike takes between five and seven months and only 20 percent of those who start it are able to finish it (25 percent of the women finish), probably because of freezing rain and threat of hypothermia, a freak snowstorm that causes a white-out where you can’t see anything or the blazing sun that threatens dehydration to you and your companions.
Usborne encountered all three on her trip that started on March 12 at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and ended Sept. 28 at Mount Katahdin, Maine. “It was in Georgia, right after it had rained the day before. We woke up in the snow and everything was frozen,” she said. Another hiker had a thermometer and it read 12 degrees, in the south, in spring. Usbourne was happy to have Ursa to help keep her warm in the sleeping the bag.
“She was just playing in the snow, our eternal optimist,” she said laughing. But they had to continue hiking. It rained and froze, but they couldn’t stop because they needed to generate heat. “Hypothermia was a real threat,” she said.
Then there was the time it started snowing and she was looking for the bypass trail for a mountain when it turned into a white-out. She ended up seven miles off the trail. “I stumbled out onto a logging road and I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then a couple drove by in a truck, they were taking their baby for a ride to get it to fall asleep. They gave me a ride into town,” she said. Friends of hikers are often referred to as trail angels, an important part of the experience for nearly every trekker.
Usborne’s parents, Catherine and Bob, became trail angels themselves when making a few visits to see their daughter on her six-and-a-half-month journey of over 2,100 miles. It was a way of paying it forward, handing out food and water to hikers and offering rides into town if they needed it.
“Especially after she got lost in the snow,” she said. Her mother was worried about her going alone, but “she has an affinity for the outdoors, travel and being terribly independent,” she said, “but I know she’s intelligent ... , had a good internal compass. I’ve learned to trust her,” said Cathy.
“Now that she’s back, I worried more about her going into Chicago to meet some friends than I was for her months on the Appalachian trail,” she said. “When she left, she gave me five pages of notes of where to send boxes of goods along the way so she could refresh her supplies,” said her mother. “It was a good experience for all of us,” she said.