I can’t believe it is finally here! I start my hike in less than a week. I am a 55 year old working pro photographer who’s been backpacking, hiking, skiing and doing long distance whitewater river trips pretty much all my adult life. I do several commercial assignments a year, teach a few workshops and do a few private mentoring and professional development sessions. What I’ve mainly been doing since 1992 is self assigned stock photo productions where are content is represented by several agencies. 

– Photographer Michael DeYoung working in Zion National Park carrying his custom made McHale Pack and F-stop Gear Navin case.

Photographer Michael DeYoung working in Zion National Park carrying his custom made McHale Pack and F-stop Gear Navin case.

The initial plan was for this thru hike to be a shared experience with my wife, best friend, business partner, photo assistant and frequent subject of the photo, Lauri. After all, we have over two decades of long distance shared wilderness experiences. She is recovering from a broken leg and likely won’t be hiking until September. We are remaining optimistic that she will join me through the Sierra. In the mean time, she has encouraged me to go solo while she provides trail support until she can join me upon recovery.

Sunset from section hike of the Pacific Crest Trail 2012

Sunset scene from section hike of the PCT from 2012

The plan is to start at Harts Pass, Washington, the northern most direct road access point to the trail on July 7. From there I hike north to the PCT border monument. To save time, I will continue to Manning Park, 9 miles from the border where Lauri will pick me up and return me to Harts Pass where I begin going south. Yes I am a SOBO, a thru hiker who is going southbound, from Canada to Mexico, part of the so called “wrong way gang”, as 90% of thru hike attempts are northbound. The NOBO starts as the U.S./Mexico border at Campo, California in April and hikes north. Apparently, the trail and it’s signage were designed to be traveled northbound. Every guidebook I have is written from a northbound traveler’s perspective. Work obligations, timing and crowd avoidance were my main motivators for choosing a southbound trek. I also get to hit the ground running and start in what I feel will be the most scenic part of the trail, the North Cascades! In 2012, We did a week long section hike, partly on the PCT in the Pasayten Wilderness.

One of the biggest challenges has been answering what would be my top priority for the trail. What is my main motivation for staying the course? Like most people my top priority was and basically still is, completing the trail in one season. But I also want to return with the best imagery possible. I would like to create salable images as well as document trail life and what it is like to live out of a pack for 5 months, as a personal photo project. 

When you know what it takes to get the best landscape and trail travel imagery it challenges your initial priority of having to go as far as you can each day. It is inevitable that I will pass by idyllic locations in the middle of the afternoon, knowing that I can create potentially great images there when the light is at it’s best near sunset, or even sunrise the next morning. Do I stay to photograph? Do I keep going to meet my 20 miles a day average only to camp down in the woods and away from a great scene when the light is screaming at sunset? I can see there will be sections of the trail where this will create a daily dilemma. On the other hand, the hallmark of a great photographer is finding beauty anywhere and seeing and capturing what many miss. Contrary to popular belief, aspirational imagery is not about the camera. It is about your creative vision, design skills and understanding of lighting. This trip will certainly challenge my creative skills as a photographer and I am looking forward to that. 

Though I will try my hardest to complete the trail this calendar year, in the end it is all about finding a balance of your priorities and recognizing that how you immerse yourself in the journey can be just as important as reaching the destination and having that feather in your cap. Making the trail in one season, come hell or high water would inhibit my creativity. Personally, I don’t understand the “make it in record time” mentality that many hikers seem to have. Sure, you cover the distance but there is a lot you don’t see doing that. I also know myself and the agony of being a perfectionist. I know from past experience, that in the aftermath, I will regret not making great images of locations I might only see once more than I will regret not having the title of completing the trail in one season. 

Camp from section hike of Continental Divide Trail

Lauri at camp with Hyperlite Mountain Gear DuoMid tent on section hike of the Continental Divide Trail (2015)

As with all hikers, there are financial realities to face as well. I will have to leave the trail for up to 2 weeks to teach a workshop at Rocky Mountain School of Photography and do a possible agricultural assignment. This time off trail will challenge the time I need to complete the trail in one season but the income is important. 

Barring injury or disaster, I plan on being out there for 5 months, immersing myself in everything PCT, camping and hiking as much as a successful thru hiker. I just may not make it as far because my perfectionism for the best possible imagery may prevent me from prioritizing the must make 20 miles a day average. I foresee having to push my hike through the Sierra as late in the season as possible. It has been done before. I have read blogs of thru hikers on Forester Pass and even Mt. Whitney in mid-October. It is possible, but risky. May mother nature be kind to us.

A detailed description of my camera ensemble will appear in the next blog.