One clue to understanding Chet Anderson’s success as a long-distance backpacker can be found in his toothbrush.
Or rather what’s left of it. Anderson sawed off the handle to save weight. He also eschews the weight of toothpaste. That deletion came after consulting a dental hygienist, who assured him that using his half-brush and floss would check decay temporarily.
His minimalist dental care illustrates two things about this 76-year-old from St. Croix Falls, Wis., who has logged an astounding 9,966 miles of backpacking in 10 years of retirement. That includes the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, two legs of long-distance backpacking’s triple crown. (Anderson expects to pass 10,000 miles next week during an eight-day hike on Isle Royale — his third trip to the island this summer.)
“He’s probably the most organized person I’ve ever met,” said Paul Kuhlmann, also a resident of St. Croix Falls, who hiked the Superior Hiking Trail with Anderson. Daniel Harrington, of Oklahoma City, Okla., who shared the second half of the Appalachian sojourn, recalled his grandfather having his trail menu of energy bars, trail mix and dried fruit bagged and sorted for shipping to each pickup point months before their hike.
Anderson also hates to lug extra ounces. His pack weight with clothing and footwear, tent and sleeping gear, tallies a mere 16 to 17 pounds. Food for five to seven days adds six to 12 pounds. “He gets down to the micro-ounces,” said Patti Mattson, who joined him for part of the Superior Hiking Trail.
Anderson describes that as a survival strategy for sparing his 6-foot-3 frame the rigors of the trail, especially on rugged downhills. He subtracted the half-pound hip belt from his pack for the same reason.
“To me, it’s doing everything I can to cut weight,” the former night-shift machinist said. His goal is to make his hike feel more like a walk in the park.
There are two Chet Andersons on the trail. One is the solitary thru-hiker, rising at first light and hiking until nearly dark, packing on the miles, thriving on a no-cook menu that saves the weight of stove and cookware, sleeping under the stars if it’s dry, doing it all over the next day and the next week and next month. That’s mostly how he spent his first five years of hiking, including the Appalachian, where he came to be known by the trail name Gray Ghost as he glided through mist and foliage.
He also looked wraithlike halfway through the Appalachian jaunt, after losing 35 pounds, six inches off his waist and two from his thighs. He’s lost even bigger percentages of his normal 200-pound body on other hikes. He staved off further Appalachian shrinkage by consuming a jar of peanut butter every other day with Harrington just for the calories.
But he recognizes the limited appeal of such hard-core hiking. “I don’t expect anybody to want to go on a hike again, if they do my style,” he said.
So in recent years his trips have grown shorter but more numerous, with up to three companions, some like Mattson with less backpacking experience. He’ll accommodate those who need coffee and at least one cooked meal a day. He knows that few people enjoy hiking at his pace on long-distance trails, where he once logged 41 miles in a day. His flexibility shows up on one of his favorites, the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail on the California-Nevada border. He’s completed the circular trail in as few as nine days and as many as 17, depending on whether he’s alone or with a companion. He was just there again last month.
In theory, he’d love to hike the third leg of the triple crown, the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. But that seems increasingly unlikely. One reason is his shift to more short hikes of a week or two as he introduces companions to his favorites, such as Isle Royale. Plus, he’s reserving time for working on Wisconsin’s 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail, which traverses his hometown. He’s donated more than 4,000 hours to building and maintaining that trail. He loves the teamwork of cobbling the area’s basaltic rocks into stairways or stream crossings. He thrives on constructing boardwalks across low spots, his farm-boy roots showing as he outperforms companions several decades his junior with a posthole digger. He also crafts Ice Age Trail-themed cribbage boards to sell, raising money for the Ice Age Trail Alliance and its local Indianhead chapter.
Anderson also recognizes that aging will affect his stamina. Although still confident he can handle 15- to 20-mile days on the trail, he also knows there are no guarantees for how long he can keep that up.
Then there are the usual aches of hiking with a pack. A hiker once asked him on the Pacific Crest Trail how long it took for the pain to quit. “I said, ‘It doesn’t quit. It just rotates.’ ” Sometimes, it’s his shoulders. Sometimes, he gets heel blisters. Sometimes, the toes of his wide feet chafe each other, so he tapes them early on during a trip. He’s already suffered such trail afflictions as the intestinal infection giardia, and the tick-borne bacterial illness ehrlichiosis.
Still, his wife, Eloise, said she doesn’t worry while he’s hiking and she’s back home, mailing his food packages as directed. “He’s tough and he’s smart, and he can handle whatever comes his way,” she said. They share a passion for birding. Their hillside home and wooded lot overlook the dam reservoir at St. Croix Falls; it’s visible when leaves are down.
Anderson can be hard to pin down on two crucial questions.
Which trail is his favorite? “It’s the one I’m on,” he responded. But he’s hiked Isle Royale a dozen times, covering its entire trail network. While there, he also helps to preserve some of the private homes grandfathered into the park.
How long does he expect to keep hiking? “I just can’t judge. I feel by age I’m out there already.”
But he maintains a sense of humor about it. Mattson recalled Anderson’s long chuckle when another trail companion told of seeing a hiker get off the boat from Isle Royale and chuck her backpack and its contents into a trash barrel.
Anderson is hanging on to his backpack. And he’s keeping it light.
Steve Brandt is a retired Star Tribune reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.