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Emily Brine has always answered the call of the wild. The Washington native grew up backpacking and exploring the woods and national parks of the Pacific Northwest. After graduating from UM on a Saturday in May with a double major in parks, tourism, and recreation management and resource conservation, this twenty-two-year-old set out the following Tuesday to conquer the Pacific Crest Trail—a wilderness expanse stretching nearly 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. The Montanan asked Brine to describe her 149 days traversing deserts, mountain passes, forests, canyons, and lakes along the trail.
What made you decide to hike the trail?
Another UM alumna, who also graduated from the PTRM program and was a very good friend of mine, did it in 2014. She came back and told me that I was really missing out if I didn’t go on the trail myself. I had absolutely never heard of it before. I was so intrigued and hooked that I decided I was going.
How did you prepare mentally and physically?
To get in shape, I went out on long day hikes on the weekend and when I could get breaks between classes, I climbed the M or did a quick hike up to the top of Mount Sentinel. I’d wear my pack and put stuff in it to replicate the amount of weight I’d be carrying. It was the closest I could get for physical training. Mentally there’s just no way to prep yourself for what’s coming at you. The PCT is everything you expect and nothing you expect. I tried to wrap my head around the idea of being in the woods for five months and being dirty and sweaty and uncomfortable almost constantly and, at the same time, tried to really get excited. That’s half of the adventure—to be knocked off your feet by the new experience.
What were the reactions of your family when you told them you were going on the trail?
My family at first was taken aback and they asked me, “You’re doing what? Why would you do that?” But eventually and rather quickly, my family became extremely supportive and I couldn’t have gone on the PCT without my parents. They were my rock throughout the whole experience—from the day I decided I was going to when I bought my plane tickets to when I was sobbing in the middle of the desert to when I got to the end and they picked me up in Canada.
Did you learn anything at UM that helped you on your journey?
Oh absolutely. A lot of my studies focused on recreation behavior, recreation conflicts, the science behind why people get outside and do what they choose to do. And so when I’m hiking, it’s hard to turn that off. I’m constantly looking at signs, evaluating them, listening to why people are out there, hearing them talking about their adventures. So it wasn’t necessarily helping me get from Mexico to Canada, but it made the trail a lot more meaningful and special.
Could you describe a typical day on the trail for you?
Every day brought some new challenge or discovery. I walked anywhere from 20 to 30 miles a day. I would get up in the morning, eat my breakfast, take down the tent, and just start walking. And I wouldn’t take very many stops; I would just cruise on along. No two days were average. I was constantly dealing with blisters, with gear problems, and with the actual trail itself. The trail sometimes would be really relaxing and forgiving and other days it would just beat you down, and you’d feel like you couldn’t walk anymore, but then you’d wake up and do the same thing the next day.
What were some things you brought that you wish you hadn’t?
I for the most part had everything I needed. I sent home my GoPro and I’m really disappointed that I did that because, looking back, I just want to share every single mile with everyone. There are entire sections where I don’t have pictures, and that’s really sad. I think I would have carried a very small musical instrument of some sort, like a ukulele or harmonica. It was a bummer sometimes not to have some sort of creative musical outlet.
What were your favorite and least favorite things to eat?
A favorite of mine was bacon jerky. It’s basically bacon, but it comes in the Oberto jerky packets, and I would put that in everything or just eat it on its own. And the freeze-dried backpacker meals we broke out on special occasions, like somebody’s birthday or hitting a milestone, were really special meals as well. Some of my least favorite things that of course didn’t start off as my least favorite were: Cliff bars, oatmeal and pop tarts. I can’t eat pop tarts anymore. They make me queasy just thinking about them.
Whom did you hike with? Did you have a hiking partner?
I did. I hiked with Shelly Bruecken. We met working at Giant Springs State Park in Great Falls. She was an Ameri-Corp ranger; I was an intern ranger. And Shelly had never been backpacking before, but she took on the PCT adventure with me. We kept up a blog together and her friend Nathan came along as well, so I was traveling with two kids who had never really gone backpacking before. But they just embraced it and were amazing at it.
Did you travel with certain groups of people?
Yeah, some people on the trail will start traveling together in what we in the “hiker trash” community call “trail families,” and I had a very large trail family called the Wolfpack. We were all really close, and every day we hiked from point A to point B together and spent the evenings in camp. We were just one big happy, dirty, family. The reason we were called the Wolfpack was because, when I was trying to figure out where my group was or just acknowledge someone else on the trail, I would howl, and then people began to howl back to me. It evolved into whenever we were excited or wanted to know where the other person was, we’d howl and started calling ourselves the Wolfpack.
How do you give someone a trail nickname?
Okay, so trail nicknames happen fairly organically. For example, my trail name is “Smokey,” like Smokey Bear. Day one I was wearing a junior ranger hat as a sunhat. And a man came up and said, “Be careful, you’re going to get a trail name that way, Smokey,” which is I think ironic because I was wearing a National Park Service ranger hat, not a Forest Service Smokey Bear ranger hat. I liked that name and I kept it.
I read that only half of those who start on the hike actually finish. What made you keep going on the trail?
What kept me going…there are a lot of things. One was this expectation from people that I was going to finish. People kept saying, “I can’t wait to see you reach Canada,” and it puts some pressure on you in a way. Another reason why I pushed all the way through was Shelly. She dragged me up every day, she made sure I always got to camp, and she was really supportive, really encouraging. She got me to Canada, even when she wasn’t there. And there’s some point when it clicks where you realize that you can go all the way, that you are physically and mentally capable of getting to Canada. Once that clicked for me, it was just a matter of getting up and putting in the miles each day.
What was the most challenging part of your journey physically?
The most challenging place physically was Yosemite. The trail is very old because Yosemite is one of America’s first national parks and it was designated very early on. The trail in Yosemite goes over very large mountains and straight down to water. It’s outrageously exhausting.
What was the most challenging part mentally?
There were a lot of days where it was really mentally challenging. One day I just ended up having this mental breakdown in the middle of the desert. I stood there sobbing in the burning heat of the afternoon because there are only so many things you can think about on the trail. At some point the PCT is going to make you come to terms with whatever issues you are dealing with. The trail, for me at least, breaks you down and builds you back up again in a stronger, better way.
What were some dangerous situations you were in?
The most dangerous, or the most unsafe, I ever felt was in Washington. I had an encounter with a mountain lion. It was very interested in me in a way that I did not appreciate and I had to actually scare it off a few times. Once it comes back a second time, that’s when you get really concerned.
What were your favorite landmarks to travel through?
Since I grew up hiking in the Cascades—they stole my heart when I was five—walking through my home country was just a dream come true. It was so cool to get to camp there again on this epic journey. And to me, it felt like it was coming full circle. The Sierras though really rivaled the Cascades. The high Sierra was just astoundingly beautiful. It’s the greenest of greens and the tallest of mountains and wildflowers everywhere.
What is your most vivid memory on the trail?
Every moment is really vivid. I can recall landscapes just as they looked for most parts of the trail. I can remember exact conversations and feelings. When I hear certain songs on the radio that I listened to on the trail, I can recall exactly where I was. But the most vivid has to be, and probably always will be, seeing the monuments in Canada for the first time. There’s this point where you round a switchback and you catch a glimpse of the monument down a hill because you’re looking through this tree cut. Right there it hits you like a slap in the face—that you’ve done it and you’ve made it. And, all of a sudden, every emotion you’ve been dealing with on the trail hurtles at you at once and you get so excited.
What was the first thing you did once you finished it?
At the monument, we all—because I crossed with the Wolfpack—walked up to the monument howling at the top of our lungs and the first thing we did was set down our packs and just stare at it. I opened up the trail log and I read some of the entries of the people who had made it earlier. And then I climbed all over the monument. You just have to touch it; you still don’t quite get it that you’re there.
How do you feel to be done with the hike?
It’s a bittersweet feeling. It’s really nice to be back home surrounded by friends and family because, when you’re on the trail, you miss everyone like crazy. It’s nice to be comfortable. It’s nice to have a shower close at hand, sleep in your own bed, and know that you don’t have to worry about finding your own water and making your food last. I do have this sense of loss and grief because I don’t have my trail family with me anymore, and those people know me best. It’s really hard when you spend every waking moment with a certain group of people to all of a sudden have them absent from your life. I miss the trail. I miss not having to worry about so many things and physically being out in the woods where I feel more peaceful than in the city. But at the same time, I’m so fortunate to have gone on the adventure because it turned me into a better person.
Did it change your outlook?
Yes, absolutely. The trail teaches you a lot of things. It taught me to be grateful for the things that I have. It’s taught me that relationships are more important than material things. You don’t really understand how important people are in life until they are your everything—until all you’re carrying is the stuff on your back and all you do is just spend time with people and nature. The trail really taught me to embrace other people for who they are and to embrace life for what it is. Things don’t always work out all the time, but somehow in the end they will. So the trail has changed me. I feel more confident, more outgoing, more happy in general.
What advice would you give to someone starting out on the trail?
This is the advice that everyone says on the trail: hike your own hike. You don’t have to have the same gear as everyone else or walk at the same pace. It’s all about how you do the PCT. Another big thing I like to emphasize is: the trail will provide. There’s some weird, mystic thing happening on the PCT where the trail is alive in a way, and it knows when you’re in need.
What is next for you?
Well, adventure’s out there. I am currently applying to graduate school. I’m going to hopefully get into a program with the North Cascades Institute. Then I’m going to grad school to soak up all the knowledge I can that will help me with my career. I want to be a National Park Service interpretive ranger. I want to be the person in the Smokey Bear hat, teaching people about their public land and their natural resources because I think it’s the coolest thing in the world that we’re all the owners of some of the most prime real estate in the United States. But, if I’m entirely honest, I’m doing a lot of research on my next hike.
Other hobbies that you enjoy?
I like to sit down in front of a drum every now and then. In the winter, it’s mainly about skiing or snowshoeing. Most of my hobbies are just actually getting outside and hiking. Biking is also a big thing I like to do, especially with my parents; it’s kind of our family activity.
Is hiking the PCT the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Yeah, by far it’s the craziest thing I have ever done and by far the smartest and best thing I’ve ever done.
Best place to hike in Missoula?
My personal favorite hike is up in Pattee Canyon. You can do a 7-mile out and back hike to the top of the north summit of Sentinel, which gives you this amazing view of Missoula Valley. It’s super quick, it’s right there and I think everyone should do it.
Most interesting place you’ve been in Missoula?
I have to say campus because there was always something different going on, always some event taking place on the Oval. And to me especially, the College of Forestry, the actual forestry building, was so full of history I could’ve wandered around there forever.
Most interesting place you’ve been outside Missoula?
I did a study abroad program with University of Montana to Chile and Patagonia. That was an amazing adventure, really just a beautiful, rugged landscape.
Interview by Courtney Brockman '17