By Robert Downes
Hiking solo for more than 40 miles across Isle Royale in her first-ever
backpacking trip is the kind of thing you expect from Sara Cockrell, one
of the most energetic and upbeat persons you could hope to find in the
Grand Traverse fitness community.
Sara spends several months each year driving her Scamp camping trailer
around the country and backpacking some of Americas most breathtaking
locales: the Sierra Nevadas, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Tetons and
the Appalachian Trail to name a few. Her trips usually include solo hiking
and camping trips into the backcountry for up to two weeks at a time. In
recent years, shes added the trails of the Swiss Alps and Italian
Dolomites to her list of accomplishments.
At times this has meant hiking at elevations of more than 10,000 feet,
including her hike to the top of 14,484-foot Mt. Whitney in California. Or
paddling down rivers with Class V rapids. Or hiking all day with a pack
with little idea of a destination or a place to camp.
For Cockrell, an outdoor life filled with fitness and adventure is the
good life. She will share her inspiring tales at two slideshows this
month, including Hiking the John Muir Trail this Tuesday, Jan. 11, 7
p.m. at the Traverse Area District Library; and Alps Adventure on
Tuesday, Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m. at the Boardman River Nature Center on Cass
Road in TC.
I want to inspire others -- thats what I really want to do, she says.
If I can get a lot of people out to enjoy our beautiful lakes and forests
and trails and protect them, thats what means a lot to me.
Cockrell seems many years younger than her current age of 59, and she
projects an electrifying sense of energy that tends to light up the room.
Vibrant? Friendly? You bet. Everyone involved in the cycling, paddling and
ski-racing community seems to know Sara.
Its hard to believe, but she was something of a late bloomer when it came
to the fitness lifestyle -- she didnt take up the endurance sports she
now excels at until she was in her mid 40s.
Originally from Dallas, Texas, Cockrell says its an old story as to how
she moved to Northern Michigan: I met a man and got married.
That was in 1986 when she was 35. But the marriage, which included her
participation in two businesses, didnt last. I got divorced when I was
43 and decided I had to do something new with my life, so I started
biking, cross-country skiing, white water rafting, canoe racing and
mountain bike racing, she says.
Fitness pursuits can be a balm for the pain of divorce, or simply a new
lease on life. Cockrell took her new lifestyle to the limit, doing as
many as four mountain bike races each year, along with up to a dozen
XC-ski races and a dozen canoe races. I think I must have raced 30
weekends out of the year, she says.
It was excessive -- I went full steam. I worked and I trained. There was
no room for anything else. But I had no reason to go home to Texas, so I
had to find a reason to stay here, and I met all of these people who were
doing the same thing -- skiing, biking and paddling. Its always fun to
see everyone you know each week.
In fact, Cockrell is still friends with most of the people she met during
her first brush with the fitness lifestyle in the early 90s. Theyre
like a family -- theyre always there for you and are so supportive.
She, in turn, has become perhaps the most notable live-wire in the
regions fitness community, often volunteering with the Grand Traverse
Hiking Club, Cherry Capital Cycling Club, Traverse Area Paddle Club and
Vasa Ski Club, among others. Shes personally led some 20 hikes and
camp-outs, 20 paddling excursions and 20 or more XC ski outings. Thats
my biggest contribution. I really like to meet people and get outdoors.
Eventually, Cockrells fitness interests morphed into a desire to pursue
the adventure travel path. When I retired, I wanted to do something else
besides training and racing all the time, so I decided to start
Since then, life has been one continuing adventure. She drove around Lake
Superior her first summer of retirement and then joined friends for part
of the Appalachian Trail the summer thereafter. Then she made a
commitment to visiting 25 national parks during a three-month period and
backpacking through some of their wildest country for a month. All of
the time by myself.
I like to go backpacking in a place like Wyoming out in the middle of
nowhere for two weeks at a time, she says. When I went out to Rocky
Mountain National Park one summer, I realized I have a passion for being
out West. I got hooked and wanted to see more.
That passion has included hiking stretches of the 221-mile John Muir Trail
in the Sierra Nevadas for two weeks at a time in 2008, 09 and 10,
meeting up with kindred spirit Marilyn Kamp and other hiking friends.
Shes also hiked the Big Horn Mountains, the Canadian Rockies and Glacier
Over the past two summers, shes done the European Alps, hiking the Alta
Via One trail through the Italian Dolomites and the Swiss Haute Route from
Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland.
WHAT ABOUT BEARS?
Cockrell notes that while she has joined friends such as Marilyn Kamp on a
section of the Appalachian Trail, shes too antsy to make the whole trip
as a through-hiker. I like to do backpacking trips that last around two
weeks; then Im ready to move on to something else.
Shes had her share of adventures in the backcountry. Like the time she
hiked 10 hours down from the Adirondack Mountains in 2008, helping a
fellow hiker whod broken his ankle and needed a splint to walk.
What about bears? She takes them in stride -- even the grizzlies who roam
the parks of the far West.
I was walking down one trail out West and there was a sign at a bend in
the trail that said to watch out for bears, she recalls. And I looked
up and there was a bear right there in front of me. He was a two-year-old
sandy brown grizzly. And he just looked at me, crossed the trail, and went
down to a creek.
That particular grizzly was only about 15 feet from her, one of several
bear encounters shes had out in the wild. You just have to pay
attention, remember that this is their home youre intruding on, and give
them some space.
Cockrell is saving the easy stuff for when she gets old.
I want to do the most physically-challenging things that I can while Im
still in good shape, she says. I want to paddle the Everglades when Im
80, because I know that will be possible; but I cant hike the John Muir
Trail when Im 80.
She says the do it now approach to taking on the toughest challenges
while shes still able to go dovetails with her belief that life is a
fleeting gift for some -- even those who may be super healthy.
Theres no guarantee that well be here tomorrow. You can have a healthy
lifestyle and do all the right things, but thats no guarantee that youll
live a long life.
Thats why youll find Cockrell in the middle of Yellowstone Park this
January, lodging in a yurt camp 40 miles from anywhere and doing lengthy
XC-ski trips each day. Or why you may spot her driving around New Zealand
for a month this March, hiking that countrys legendary trails, bungi
jumping off its bridges and paddling its fjords. Or, be sure to wave
hello if you see her out West this summer, heading down some trail to a
new adventure. Sara Cockrell has a go for it spirit that drives her to
Sara Cockrell presents Hiking the John Muir Trail this Tuesday, Jan. 11,
7 p.m. at the Traverse Area District Library; and Alps Adventure on
Tuesday, Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m. at the Boardman River Nature Center on Cass
Road in TC. Both events are free of charge.