Above: First-day of Tour Divide with Dad.
By Dave Kraus
Skyler Johnson is speeding down the road to outdoor adventure, and she has no plans to slow down any time soon. That road has so far taken her from her birthplace in Florida to the western US, Canada and Europe, but she always comes home to the Adirondacks, where she takes advantage of everything the area has to offer for an outdoor fitness enthusiast.
She credits her dad, Brian, with stoking her love of all things outdoors. In Florida they lived on a large piece of property, where she and her sister spent time outside from dawn till dusk. She also started horseback riding at age five, and though she stopped pursuing it seriously in 2012, she still loves to get out for an occasional ride.
- Age: 26
- Hometown: Adirondack
- Family: Parents, Tracy and Brian; Sister, Kele
- Occupation: Construction; Building and Renovating Houses
- Primary Sports: Hiking, Trail Running, Road and Mountain Biking
- Secondary Sports: Snowboarding, Kayaking, Snowshoeing, Horseback Riding
Then, when she was 11, the family moved back to her Dad’s hometown of Adirondack, a small hamlet on the east shore of Schroon Lake. The village is only a stone’s throw from the Pharaoh Mountain Wilderness, and she says her outdoor sports life truly started with the move north. Since then she has taken up hiking, running, kayaking, and cycling in the summer. In winter, it’s snowboarding and snowshoeing. “Mostly everything that you could do up here, I’ve tried,” she said.
Her outdoors adventures started with hiking with her grandparents, and she remembers that she was not an instant fan. “At that time I really did not like hiking, but I’ve gone back to some of the places they took me and re-hiked them, and they were the coolest places ever so I wonder how I didn’t like it.”
But she eventually warmed up to the wealth of possibilities to get outside in the mountains. Her parents took the girls snowboarding at Gore Mountain, and in warmer weather they would go out with their father on his daily morning run.
But eventually it was time to head off to college, and she enrolled in equine studies at Cazenovia College, a small private school near Syracuse. She was there for a year, and then went to several other schools before graduating from Florida State with a degree in English.
It was just after graduation, in August 2015, that her outdoors pursuits shifted into high gear. Her dad called to congratulate her, and during the conversation he mentioned, “I saw this race out west.” It was the Tour Divide, an annual ultra-mountain biking challenge along the Great Divide route that hugs the Continental Divide. Starting in Banff, Alberta, riders head south along dirt roads, jeep tracks, and off-road trails to finish in Antelope Wells, NM, after nearly 2,750 miles and almost 200,000 vertical feet of climbing.
They made it a family affair, with Skyler and Brian riding, while Tracy drove the family van and met them at campgrounds. They started in September, and the adventures started on the very first day. “We got in ten miles and hit blizzard conditions,” she remembered. “We ended up hiding out in an outhouse until our toes thawed out, but then we had to keep going because we were only 14 miles in.”
In the four weeks that followed they made it 1,900 miles into New Mexico, hitting repeated snowstorms and finally deciding to head home. Despite the hardships, the trip whetted her appetite for more. So she set her sights on tackling the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile hiking trail that winds from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. “I really liked being on the road, but I kind of wanted to do it alone, and do it a different way. I love biking, but there was something about hiking, and carrying everything on your back that appealed to me so much more.”
A winter spent bartending in Florida netted her enough savings to fund the trip, and in April 2016, she and her best friend Melissa headed north with full packs from Campo, Calif. In the first six weeks, they put over 400 miles under their boots before Melissa headed home, leaving Skyler to forge ahead, sometimes accompanied by the various friends she had made along the trail.
Things went well until just south of Bishop, Calif., where she contracted giardiasis, a parasitic infection that causes diarrhea, dehydration, fatigue and cramps. But she continued on with help from several other hikers, finally reaching Lone Pine, after hiking a 45-mile stretch of trail that varied from 4,000 to 12,000 feet elevation. “I lost a lot of weight,” she remembered. “One car came by. It was a dad and his son and they gave me a ride down to Lone Pine, and we did not see a single person on the way down there. It was NOT a good situation. I was really lucky. I made it down to Lone Pine and it was really nice to have a bed!”
After a week of rest and recovery, she hiked to Mammoth, before taking the first of several breaks to make side trips. Eventually she ended up at Yosemite National Park, where she ended her adventure with new wisdom. “I learned that I really cannot sit still very long. I’m very capable of taking care of myself, and I’ve never really been a people person. But I met so many good people when there weren’t many, it showed me that I need to open my eyes a little bit, because there are so many good people in the world.”
Back in the Adirondacks, it didn’t take long for Skyler to start thinking about another adventure by becoming a 46’er in one season. In April 2017, she and her friend Annie began bagging peaks between days working construction for her dad and bartending part-time. “When I wasn’t working we were usually hiking,” she said, and eventually they were on the trail three times a week.
They eventually finished their challenge on the summit of Mount Marcy in November after some hard days, including one weekend spent on the Great Range Traverse, which includes Lower and Upper Wolf Jaw, Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, Basin, Haystack and Sawteeth. “That was a VERY tough weekend,” she remembered.
So far in 2018, Skyler has finished a five-country trip to Europe and a three-week rafting expedition through the Grand Canyon with a group of fellow rafters from the Adirondacks. She said the trips left her awestruck by the beauty of the world, and with many new friends.
What’s next? By the time this story is published, she will be in New Hampshire with her dad, hiking the Appalachian Mountain Club’s list of the state’s 48 peaks above 4,000 feet. Skyler said her fitness adventures have brought her maturity, new friends, and the knowledge that there is so much more ahead. “It makes me feel a little bit more alive. I have a hard time sitting still. It’s not about the outcome. It’s about having something to focus on and enjoying it.”
Dave Kraus (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Schenectady is a longtime area cyclist, photographer, and writer who wishes he had half of Skyler’s energy. Visit his website at krausgrafik.com.