Adventures of Josh Jack
Our beloved guide, Josh Jack recently walked from Mexico to Canada…He is an amazing person. He is now back sharing stories and guiding kayak tours with us in New Orleans. This is an article written about his travels.
Triple Crown Trails
by: Andrew Bellacomo
In whiteout conditions on a 7,500-foot ridge in Glacier National Park, Joshua Jack had almost reached the Canadian border and the end of the Continental Divide Trail. Over the previous five months, Jack had walked roughly 3,000 miles across deserts, through forests, and over mountains with the goal of “getting to Canada.” His clothes, boots, and beard frozen solid, he was now just days from accomplishing a feat most backpacking enthusiasts only ever dream of: the completion of the Triple Crown of Hiking.
More people have reached the summit of Mt. Everest than have completed the Triple Crown. To have completed it means to have hiked the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail, the 2,700 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail. That’s a total of nearly 8,000 miles across a massive range of terrain, altitude, and weather conditions.
Jack had dreamed of accomplishing something like this for the greater part of his life. Along the way, he had experienced a full gamut of extremes, from ice crystals forming in his beard to scorching days in the desert that made physical exertion close to impossible. And on that day, high on a mountain in Montana, he was just days away from achieving his boyhood goal.
Born in Utah, Jack moved to Albany as a child but fondly recalls trips to the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, and how he became enamored by the wild places he saw there. Later, he became an enthusiastic Boy Scout traveling to the renowned Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, which offered him some of his first long-distance backpacking experiences.
As a teenager, on shorter trips that covered portions of the Appalachian Trail, Jack recalls reading inspiring entries in shelter logs by people who had walked nearly its entire length.
“I just remember being really captivated and thinking ‘Ah that’s so cool. I’d like to do that one day.’”
After graduating from Westover High School in Albany, Jack attended college at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore where he graduated with a BFA in Illustration in 2012. The following year, Jack tackled the Appalachian Trail.
For most backpacking enthusiasts, completing the Appalachian Trail would mark the pinnacle of achievement, but Jack had loftier goals in mind.
“I heard about the other two trails, the Pacific Crest, and the Continental Divide, from Backpacker Magazine. I had wanted to hike those since I was 11 or 12.’”
So, two years later, in April of 2015, Jack set off on the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the United States-Mexico border just south of Campo, California, to the Canada-United States border on the edge of Manning Park in British Colombia.
One especially memorable birthday stands out in Jack’s mind from that trip. He, along with some friends, began hiking up Mt. Shasta that morning at 2 a.m.
“Mt. Shasta, is one of my favorites spots-a big volcano in Northern California. It’s just beautiful.”
Jack had packed a frozen cheesecake in his bag, so when the group reached the top of the mountain 12 hours later, Jack celebrated by eating his birthday cake on Shasta’s summit.
But most days, of course, weren’t quite as exciting.
“When you start out on any long hike, you have a goal in the back of your mind like ‘I want get to Canada’ but you try not to think about that, especially in the beginning, because it’s so far away that it can be disheartening. Instead, you set goals for the day, like ‘I cannot wait to see the next cool thing that’s coming up.’”
A normal day on the trail generally started around 5:30 am. After a light breakfast of granola bars or pop-tarts, which he claims to despise, Jack was usually hiking by 6:30 am.
“I tried to cover 25 miles a day on average,” he says. “It could be as many as 30 or as few as 15, depending on terrain. The most miles I ever walked in a day was about forty.”
Lunch was around 1:00 pm, when he was faced with rather limited choices, like cheese, summer sausage, or bagels pan-fried in olive oil. And when he wanted to change up the menu, he says, sometimes he’d eat ramen.
The one food he says he never got tired of? Annie’s Mac and Cheese with bacon bits and hot sauce.
But all that trail food really started to get old after a while, especially for Jack who says he has a special appreciation for good food.
“I like to cook. That’s one real big thing that I miss on the trail. All the junk food starts to feel truly gross after a while. The smell of salami actually makes me gag now.”
Three years after completing the Pacific Crest Trail, Jack decided in May of 2018 that it was time to take on the third and final leg of the Triple Crown, the Continental Divide Trail.
The longest of the three, the 3,000-mile Continental Divide trail follows the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to the Canadian border, traversing five U.S. states and reaching altitudes of over 14,000 feet along the way.
Near the end of that trek, in September of this year, Jack found himself near the trail’s northern terminus at Glacier National Park, with severe winter weather rapidly closing in. Conditions were worsening by the minute, and soon he couldn’t see his hand held out at arms length.
“My beard was frozen to my scarf,” he recalls.
After realizing there was a treacherous precipice nearby, the level of danger became too great for Jack to justify finishing out the trail.
“That drop-off could have been 10 feet or 30 feet or 100 feet, but I thought, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to wander off a cliff.’”
Disappointed, he turned back just 80 miles from the Canadian border.
“It still counts for the Triple Crown if a section is closed or impassable due to severe weather or fire or anything like that and there is no way to walk around — it doesn’t count against you — but it was just really anticlimactic because I had been thinking about getting to Canada for months.”
For now, Jack plans to return to life as usual in New Orleans, as both an illustrator and a swamp kayak guide. There, he has also combined his artistic talent and his love for the outdoors, forming an activist art collective, The Gulf Revolutionary Artist Formation (GRAF), as well as a press, JP Press, with friends from college.
As for his next expedition, first he wants to head back and finish the last bit of trail he missed in Glacier National Park. Then his sights are set on the trail that lies on the other side of the Canadian border, Canada’s Great Divide Trail, which spans 700 miles through the Canadian Rockies.
As he puts one foot in front of the other on his expeditions, Jack has plenty of time for contemplation.
“When you’re walking, you’re in your head a lot. It definitely teaches patience and perspective. When you get back in the real world, you might have a bad day, but you think ‘at least I’m not out there freezing in the snow.’”
Despite the challenges and hardships of trail life, Jack is grateful for all the help and kindness he experienced along the way. And, he says, he draws his inspiration from the people he’s met along the trails more than from any famous figures.
“There’s so much vitriol in the world these days, but on the trail you see another side of people. Peploe help you out all along the way. It really teaches you that most folks are pretty good when it comes right down to it.”