Trails for everyone, forever

Home News Magazine Features When You Give a Stranger a Canoe

When You Give a Stranger a Canoe

Three stories of exceptional generosity on trail | by Cassandra Overby

Sarah Lange and her husband were on the fifth day of their trek along the Pacific Northwest Trail when they exchanged pleasantries with two hikers walking in the opposite direction. The hikers were coming from Bowman Lake, where Sarah and her husband planned to spend the night. Despite having just met them, the hikers made Sarah and her husband, Jeremy Lange, an unexpected offer.

“They said, ‘We left a canoe down there and you guys should take it out,’” Sarah said. “It was this random thing, just hikers encountering other hikers and saying, ‘Take our canoe.’ They didn’t really know us; we didn’t really talk. They just offered us their canoe.”

By the time Sarah and her husband reached Bowman Lake—hot, exhausted and completely overwhelmed by the crowds after having been alone in the backcountry for several days—there was nothing Sarah wanted more than a quiet ride on the water.

A small gesture helped create lasting memories for Sarah Lange as she hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail with her husband. Photo by Jeremy Lange.

“We took the canoe out, and it was just the most incredible thing ever, to be able to experience where we were in a really different way, to take off the backpack and get off (our) feet,” Sarah said. “I still remember feeling this surge of energy. It was sunset and we got away from the people and there were loons everywhere. We could see Brown’s Pass and all of the peaks we had just hiked through above us, catching the light. It was incredible.”

The hikers who let Sarah and her husband borrow their canoe didn’t have white wings, but they were “trail angels,” people who provide “trail magic,” or unexpected acts of kindness, to hikers on trail.

If you’ve never heard of trail angels, you’re not alone. That’s because trail angels most often help out thru-hikers, those who appreciate small kindnesses—such as a shower, a ride or a meal—the most. There’s nothing formal about being a trail angel— it’s a loose community of hikers helping hikers with everything from a hot meal to a warm, dry place to sleep.

Not all trail angels set out to help strangers—some, like Bruce Burger, WTA’s board president, are simply trying to be a good friend.

“Last summer, a friend of mine was hiking the Washington section of the PCT,” Bruce said. “My first thought was that I wanted to meet him for a day and hike with him. And then, once I realized that I was going to be seeing him at one of the rare points he was going to be hitting civilization, the obvious thought was to bring him a meal.”
As Bruce thought about what his friend would be craving after a long time on the Pacific Crest Trail, he knew fresh food would be the best.

Bruce ended up making a flank steak salad, smoked salmon on crackers and a peach and strawberry shortcake with whipped cream, all set on a white tablecloth. He and another friend even added in some candles and The New York Times. Bruce knew that for the fancy meal to be a success, it also needed to be quick.

“Even though I wanted to do this nice meal for him, I knew that he had a goal of a certain number of miles per day, so we needed to be efficient. The meal needed to be ready when he got there, and once he was done eating, since we were hiking with him, it needed to be packed up in a couple of minutes and thrown into the truck.”

"Once I realized that I was going to be seeing him at one of the rare points he was going to be hitting civilization, the obvious thought was to bring him a meal” —Bruce Burger

With a little planning, it all came together. And then it was time for the big reveal.

“He was surprised and very happy. In his eventual write-up blog of his PCT experience, he wrote that this was not just the best meal he had on his hike, but he thought it was the best meal anyone had on the PCT that summer.”

Bruce enjoyed the experience just as much as his friend.

“I know how much food can pick up your spirits, and it was fun to do that for him, especially when he didn’t expect it.”

PCT hiker Jan Miksovsky (right) enjoys a meal with his trail angels and friends Bruce Burger (left) and Chuck Nordhoff.

Doing something nice for a stranger can feel just as good as doing something nice for a close friend. Carolyn “Ravensong” Burkhart enjoys creating trail magic so much that she’s dedicated a significant portion of her time and resources to it. In 1976, Carolyn became the first woman to solo hike the Pacific Crest Trail (although she didn’t know it at the time) and went on to raise five children, four of whom are avid thru-hikers. Several years ago, she sold her house in Winthrop and bought a cabin and some land near the PCT in Mazama. With the help of others in the community, she created a hiker hut so thru-hikers could escape the cold and have a good night’s sleep.

Carolyn provides much-appreciated creature comforts for 200 to 250 thruhikers a season, but her real goal is to share her extensive knowledge about hiking in adverse conditions. Once northbound thru-hikers get back on the PCT at Hart’s Pass, they face one of the most challenging sections of the trail. Winter often hits that section before everyone has made it to Canada. Hikers have to be prepared for cold weather, snow and avalanche conditions. Often they’re not, Carolyn says.

“In early October last year, I hiked from Hart’s Pass to the border to celebrate 40 years since I’d thru-hiked the PCT,” Carolyn said. “I hiked back out and showed some other hikers an alternate route to Mazama. There was snow the next day, and those hikers were very poorly dressed for mixed snow and rain and hypothermia weather. They were just shivering and shaking, and they hiked out into the wee hours. It just showed me how these guys, even those that have reached the border, are really not prepared.”

When thru-hikers stay in Carolyn’s hut, they get a free education in winter hiking.

Carolyn "Ravensong" Burkhart is a trail angel on the PCT. She welcomes hikes to Ravensong's Roost to warm up and get ready for the final section of trail.

“I get out the maps, show them alternate routes, talk to them and assess what their knowledge is about mountaineering and avalanches,” she said. “That’s been my really strong focal point.”

It’s also what keeps Carolyn a trail angel season after season, and she plans to continue on indefinitely.

“I love to be with the hikers and share stories, share in the celebration of their completion of the trail,” she said. “I enjoy helping those who are finishing in rough weather. It’s a pleasure to be mentoring them in a way.”

“I enjoy helping those who are finishing in rough weather. It’s a pleasure to be mentoring them in a way” —Carolyn Burkhart

Whether you want to help a friend or create trail magic for strangers, it’s easy to become a trail angel. You can do a random act of kindness once or provide more organized assistance every day; it’s up to you. Hikers will appreciate whatever you have to offer, whether that’s an ice-cold lemonade or an encouraging word on a tough section of trail.

Remember, thru-hikers aren’t the only ones who could use an act of kindness— any hiker will appreciate a kind gesture. Most of us don’t hike just because we love trails; we also love being part of the hiking community. At its most basic level, being a trail angel is about giving back to that community.

You never know when a small act of kindness will make a big difference for someone—even if it’s just lending a canoe.

Sarah and her husband ended up having to cut their trip short because of an injury, so they cherish the memory of that spontaneous canoe ride — and the unexpected kindness of two strangers. 

This article originally appeared in the November+December 2017 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.