One of the first things I learned about hiking with the Parks and Recreation Adult Hike Program is: Never be late.
It was a muggy summer day in Southeast and I eyed the gray sky. With a shrug, I tugged on my rubber boots. It had been raining the last few days and there were sure to be muddy spots along the trail.
I checked my watch; it was now 9:37 a.m. I was sure I could catch the group, if I ran.
Seconds later, there I was in a full-strided jog down the trail. My camera bag flopped against my side, my jeans clung to my legs and my heavy foot attire slapped down the boardwalk like a beaver tail-slapping the water.
Minutes passed. Nothing. Sweat beaded on my brow. Still no sign of the group.
It was then I learned my second lesson of the day: This group hikes, and by that I mean they really hike.
You see, the men and women of the Parks and Rec hiking group, as they are casually called, are seasoned and tough. For more than 50 years this same group has travelled the Juneau area trails twice weekly, rain or shine.
Then, there they were. A red and black vest bobbed in the distance.
When I caught up to the rear group, I wasn’t greeted with the scolding I expected. Instead, I saw smiles all around and received some gentle ribbing from Mary Willson.
They waited while I caught my breath. Then, like a flock of busy sparrows, we all bustled down the boardwalk, chatting as we went.
This particular hike was a special one. Each year, the group holds a business meeting on one of the local trails to collect dues and discuss needs or requests of the exclusively volunteer-run program.
Kristi West, manager of Zach Gordon Youth Center who oversees the program, said it all began as a women’s hiking group. Over the years, it has morphed into a bi-weekly meeting of individuals who are as close as a high school sports team and as knowledgeable as experts on the trails, flora and fauna of the Juneau area.
West went on to describe a typical hike.
“You’ll have the leader in the front,” she said. “And they’ll kind of get a pace going. But, nobody’s ever left behind.”
West said the group is always very cognisant of the participants.
As if on cue, one of the hikers ducked into the bushes for a break, her hiking partners, a pair of women, paused a few steps down the trail, all the while continuing their conversation.
“Then you have your birders and your nature experts ...” West continued.
Earlier, West said she had listened to Willson give another hiker kayaking tips.
“You have all of this knowledge, this nature knowledge that is shared on these trips ... Where the different trails go, the best route, the best time of year to travel them, all that is trickling down and spread around ... and you know you can always contact these people and talk with them,” West said. “It’s just a really good nature-based group.”
Every Wednesday and Saturday the hikers head out onto the trails around Juneau. A few days in advance, West said, the hike leader for that day “calls in” location of the hike. When the sun is shining, the group heads up into the alpine or out along the beaches to take in the vistas. On rainy days, West said the group prefers to hike under the protective canopy of the rainforest.
Hiking with this group was like catching up with old friends, despite the fact I was meeting many for the first time.
“Oh hi, somebody new!”
One of the women held out her hand. “I’m Sharon.”
Sharon Baker is an energetic woman with smiling eyes and a strong handshake. She said she has hiked with the group for more than 20 years, and even though she recently moved away from Juneau in search of new, and drier, trails, she rarely misses a hike with this group when she is in town.
“(At first) it just was a way to get to know the trails and to meet people,” she said.
Now, it’s clear these hiking partners have grown as close as family for members like Baker. She said she always knows she can connect with her friends through the program.
The topic switched to a recent hike she led up Salmon Creek and I quickly learned the aging stairs had been replaced. Baker said she was pleased with the improvement and credited Willson with nudging “the powers that be” in the right direction.
The group marched on toward Windfall Lake with Denise Carroll in the lead.
Carroll, West said, leads a separate Friday hike that is geared toward more advanced hikers. Carroll said those hikes have been going strong for a few years now and that the group enjoys challenges, such as hiking to the top of Mount Jumbo or traversing the Juneau ridge.
As we moved through the forest, I listened to the laughter and chatter of the hiking group. Willson talked about the specifics and importance of nitrogen. Baker wondered who it was that built the new stairs up Salmon Creek. And long-time hiker Carolyn Gould laughed about past hikes where leaders led the group off-trail on a “short cut.”
In all, about 25 make up the regular hikers, West said.
But of the more than two dozen, West said, at 54, she is the “baby” of the group. She said she often wonders what the future holds for the program.
“The numbers have always been as strong as in the past,” she said. “But (that’s because) everybody keeps hiking. But if that were to slow down and we don’t’ have people continuing to come in ... We don’t want to see this program go.”
Yet, it’s a reality if the program doesn’t recruit new members.
“I really want to see people my age, as they are entering into retirement, continue to keep this program running,” West said. “And, hopefully, bring some younger people in.”
We paused at an overlook. Below the group, Windfall Lake stretched out below and everyone quietly took in the scene.
I’d only met many of these women an hour before. Already, they’d welcomed me with open arms, smiles and firm hand shakes.
“My tapeworm is hungry,” Willson said.
The group laughed and nodded. Indeed, it was time for lunch.
In this day and age, it’s easier than ever to stay connected to on another. For these hikers, they don’t need a Facebook or a Twitter account.
They know they can always count on the Wednesday/Saturday hikes to catch up with friends both old and new.
Just remember: be on time.
• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: The word "queue" was incorrectly used. It has now been corrected.