SANDPOINT — When it comes down to a tough hike, it's the people you are with who make all the difference.
A.C. Woolnough, retired educator and former Sandpoint High School principal, found this out first-hand as he recently survived a 58-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, with the goal of bringing awareness and raising funds for Parkinson's research.
"It was much tougher than I expected," Woolnough said. "I don't know what I was thinking."
At 68 years old and living with Parkinson's, it was no light decision for Woolnough to take on the task of joining the Pass to Pass for Parkinson’s team. Between Aug. 26 and Sept. 3, the group of seven people and three llamas hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Rainy Pass to Suiattle River, Wash.
The downhill areas were rocky and steep, requiring sure-footing that Woolnough didn't always have, and the uphills "never quit," he said.
The first three days were the worst as he became physically tired. His feet hurt, he had a blister and, at one point, made the "rookie" mistake of leaving his tent unzipped. He ended with four stings on his back by hornets that slipped into the tent.
"To be honest, I was thinking about dropping out at one point," Woolnough said. "Then we had a rest day in Stehekin and something sort of clicked. From then on, it was hard work, but it was fantastic and fun hard work. The key really was the other hikers."
There were three support hikers, those without Parkinson's, as well as three others with Parkinson's, known as "Parkis." There were times when each of the "Parkis" has some issues, he said, but they pulled together as a team and completed the challenge.
"They were such an incredible and positive sense of community and support and encouragement," Woolnough said. "I didn't want to let myself down, I didn't want to let them down."
Taking it one step at a time, Woolnough said pretty soon, a few thousand steps had gone by. And he learned to love llamas, he said, because they carried about 200 pounds of gear, so the "Parkis" only had to carry about 20 pounds of gear.
The group saw a bear and its cub, lots of bear scat, and tons of huckleberries. He ate a lot of huckleberries and also learned to eat freeze-dried meals — although he tried one since he got home and said it was "awful."
At one point along the trail, he said, there was a standoff between one of the llamas and a rattlesnake. Unfortunately, the group had to "dispatch" the snake, Woolnough said. The group met some "amazing" people as thru-hikers, he said, who started their trek in southern California and were about 150 miles away from their destination. One woman even handed them a $20 cash donation on the trail.
Also, when coming across a long-distance hiker, they may only introduce themselves by their trail name, as each hiker is given one that represents their individuality. As a former educator, Woolnough was known as the "Professor." Some of the other hikers he met on the trail were known as "Craigslist," "Sleepy," and "Tent Chaser," and in his group, trail names included "Wizard" and the "Hulk."
Overall, Woolnough said he will not make the trek again — unless he changes his mind 10 months from now — but he does plan to stay involved by either helping the team get started next year or helping out during the layover.
Woolnough has what is called a “tremor-dominant” form of Parkinson’s. There are several motor and nonmotor symptoms associated with the disease, he said, so each person may exhibit different symptoms. The tremor-dominant form is theoretically the slowest progressing and the least likely to lead to dementia, which is very common, Woolnough said.
Before leaving Sandpoint to hike the trail, Woolnough told the Daily Bee he felt like he had an obligation to participate in the hike because he could. For some people with Parkinson's, a 58-mile hike would never be an option. One of the women he met along the trail, who was impressed with the group's dedication, gave him a quote along the same lines that stuck with him: "You do because you can, and you can because you do."
The team has raised nearly $8,000 of the $20,000 goal. One of the most important aspects of Parkinson’s research, Woolnough said, is that there is no definitive test to tell if a person has the disease or not; it is mostly observational. Research efforts are looking for a biomarker to tell if someone has the disease, which could also lead to quicker and more effective treatment. All of the funds raised go toward that research.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.