SH woman completes seven year, 3,054-mile trek

Scott Swanson

Susie Burns walked along a ridge in the Rocky Mountains as one of the summer thunderstorms that occur nearly daily in that region swept through.

She could see bolts of lighting ahead, striking right where her path led

Elk were bugling, “running all over the place.”

Just another day of hiking on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado.

“It’s rough but it’s absolutely beautiful,” said Burns, a longtime local resident, who just finished hiking the 3,054-mile length of the CDT. She was back in Sweet Home last week after completing the trail, which runs from the Mexican border in New Mexico up the spine of the Rocky Mountains to Canada.

One of the reasons, she said, that the CDT is less commonly known than the Pacific Crest Trail, which she completed in 1999-2009, or the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, is because it is still in development.

“It’s still in the making,” she said. “It’s a harsher trail. There are places where there are no markers or signs.”

Burns and her son Mathew started the CDT in the summer of 2010, hiking the state of Wyoming together. Then she did Colorado and New Mexico, finishing with Montana, the latter actually including a trek through the northern part of Idaho.

“It’s right on the border,” she said. “You could put one foot in Idaho and one foot in Montana.”

Now 62, Burns started hiking seriously in 1999, with her dad Frank McCubbins, who died earlier this year.

“My father wanted to walk across Oregon on the PCT,” she said.

“I was hooked. I liked long-distance hiking,” Burns said. “The difference between long distance and casual is that casual is more comfortable. You can go out if you want. You can postpone it. You can shower at night.

“When you’re doing long distance, you are out by yourself. You are living. I find myself walking real slow at the end of the trail.”

Since then, she’s also hiked most of the trails in Oregon.

The challenge presented by the hardships of long-distance hiking is obviously a lure for her.

“One thing I’ve learned, especially now with my age, is I prepare for three months. I train before I go.”

She follows a plan she got from a sports therapist “because I had bad knees – I kept having knee injuries.”

She starts out with just walking a few days a week, then moves up to as many as 18 miles a day for five days in a row. Then she starts adding weight in a pack until she reaches 24 – the magic number for many hikers, although, she said, some younger, stronger guys will carry only 18 because they can move faster and can reach destinations more quickly where they can get food.

“They’re almost running,” she said.

She and a hiking companion averaged 20 miles per day in Montana – 600 miles in 30 days.

“We got on a roll and just kept going. That’s probably the most miles I’ve ever done in 30 days.”

Food and water is the biggest concern for long-distance hikers, who burn 6,000 to 8,000 calories per day, she said.

“That’s a lot of food, but you can’t carry that amount of food. I carry three meals and three snacks a day. You only get one pound of food a day.”

Getting enough food is, therefore, a challenge.

On her last trip out, she said, she lost “too much weight.

“Usually, I lose 15 pounds if I go a month.”

So she has to plan carefully.

“You have to know how far you’re going to go before you leave.”

Generally, she plans to average 15 miles per day. Eating is a big incentive to putting in extra miles, getting an early start, she said.

And she takes Zero Days, in which she does nothing much.

“Everybody loves Zero Days. There’s no hiking. You get a shower. You clean all your gear. You repack your food. And then you eat, then you eat, then you eat. Trust me, I go into town and eat all day long. You can’t eat too much.”

She said two advances have made long-distance hiking more feasible: lightweight gear and GPS.

“I am a lightweight hiker,” she said. “I am a person who cuts off the handle of my toothbrush. If my hiking partner carries a phone, I don’t carry a phone. I have taken off three pounds just by doing little things like cutting the handle off my toothbrush. I’m really a fanatic.”

Burns learned all this the hard way.

“I did everything wrong you can do. I had water in my tent because I pitched it in the wrong place.”

Back to training: “Santiam Wagon Road is my favorite,” she said. “I have walked that thing a thousand times. I figure I have done 500 miles a year and hiked 8,500 miles just in training since 1999.

“But I will tell you what, when I get on that trail, I’m ready. I’m conditioned and ready. I don’t even think about my pack.”

Burns also loves the beauty and solitude she finds in places far from established roads.

There was plenty of that on the CDT, which has become more negotiable because it has been mapped for GPS users by Bear Creek Survey Service.

“You download the coordinates, look at that, and follow that. Anybody can do that.

“He has coordinates every half mile, so if you come to a junction and there are no markings, you know where to go,” Burns said, noting that the GPS has become a mandatory component of what she packs for a hike. “The problem with the CDT is that it is not a completed trail. There is no definite route. There are four different options and all along the way you have two or three options. Depending on what route you take, the total distance varies.

“No one has ever hiked the CDT and has not been misplaced. You can’t have a GPS on all the time. Everyone that does the CDT just accepts the fact that it happens sometimes. You aren’t really lost. But you have to go back.”

Another reality about the Continental Divide Trail is that it is true to its name: It is literally at the crest of the nation.

“There are signs on the CDT that indicate which way the water flows – toward the Atlantic or toward the Pacific,” Burns said.

The scenery and experiences were incredible – and varied, she said.

Her hike in New Mexico started early – at the end of April, but even then heat was an issue.

“You still have to dig out under the sagebrush during the heat of the day and you have to carry water,” she said.

But she got to hike through Gila National Park and swim in hot springs.

“Plateaus. That’s what northern New Mexico is. It’s really pretty if you like painted hills, colored rock, different shapes and colors.

Colorado was the toughest – Colorado – 730 miles, all at altitude.

“All of it is above 10,000 feet and it goes to 14,000,” she said. “I had altitude sickness twice and it really slows you down. All mature hikers who have done long trails say Colorado kicks their butt. It’s the toughest thing they’ve ever done – altitude, climbing, snow packs. And the worse thing in Colorado is the lightbing storms. It hails and you’re freezing.

“It’s rough, but it’s absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t wait to get into the Rockies, but you pay. It’s a big ticket.”

The path through Wyoming led right through Yellowstone National Park, Burns’ first visit there.

“I’d never seen a geyser in person and here I was, up front,” she said. “The CDT trail walks right by Old Faithful. You get to see a lot of geysers most tourists never get to see.”

Wyoming had the greatest amount of diversity of any state on the trail, she said.

The Continental Divide runs the length of the Wind River Mountain Range, which includes 40 named peaks over 13,000 feet.

“The Winds are just like the Sierras in California – beautiful,” Burns said. “Then you drop into the high desert basin where there’s a lot of history – the Oregon Trail, the Immigrant Trail, native American history, wild horses.

“There’s a restored mining town, Atlantic City, in the Great Basin that’s really neat. It’s free for hikers. You walk right down Main Street. There’s one surprise right after another in Wyoming.”

There’s also lightning, as in Colorado.

“You always have to plan for lightning,” she said. “You lay down on your stomach and slide down the hill if you have to.”

The route through Montana included the “crown jewel,” Glacier National Park.

“Even day hiking, it’s incredible,” she said. “But I have never seen so many bears.”

Bears are a big concern for hikers and there are some “laws we go by that are absolutes:

“Never cook near your tent.

“Always use bear-proof food containers.

“Never, ever, take food into your tent.

“Make a lot of noise when in the brush or water so you don’t surprise a bear.

“Go with two or three other people. I was with four other people through Glacier because of the bears. Everybody unanimously agreed because nobody wanted to walk through there alone.”

Over the years, she’s seen many, Burns said.

“I’ve had a bear cub push on my tent. I’ve been charged by a bear. I’ve had a bear spend half the night trying to get into my food. But I’ve never had any injuries or attacks.”

Burns said she never hiked alone. After the first couple of years, she was slowing down, which made it difficult for her son. Then, when Mathew moved to Minneapolis and got married, she knew it was time to find other hiking companions.

“It just came to the point that I needed somebody my age.”

She visited a website that hosts hikers forums and posted that she was looking for hiking partners.

“I told them my age and speed and I found two different women who were only a few months different in age than I am, one from Colorado and one from Rochester, Minn. I alternatively hiked with them on the Continental Divide. We became very good friends.”

For safety’s sake, she always carries a Spot device, which sends a 9-1-1 signal if she were to be injured and hit the button, and also can tell her family her location each evening if they log on to the Internet.

So now that she’s finished with the CDT, what’s next?

“A lot of people ask me about the Appalachian, but it’s not my style of trail because it’s too close to civilization,” Burns said. “I like to get far, remote. That’s what’s great about Sweet Home. We have the Santiam Wagon Road. I’ve hiked out there many times and seen nobody.”

She’s got her eye on the Superior Hiking Trail, which runs 310 miles along Lake Superior between Duluth, Minn. and the Ontario, Canada border.

“It’s supposed to be beautiful and well-maintained,” Burns said.

“My plan now is to be a cherrypicker – to pick out beautiful sections, the cream of the crop, instead of trying to get from one end to the other, doing the whole thing.

“You have to take the good with the bad when you’re doing long-distance hiking – heat, altitude, burns.

“I’m just going to go around places in the U.S. that are beautiful places and hike there.”