Meet craig fowler. He's a rare breed. In fact he's the only person on the planet to have completed both the thru-hiking triple crown and the bikepacking triple crown. Sound amazing? read on and find out how a little seed planted early on in his childhood grew into a lifetime of adventure.
MK: What were adventures like for you as a child? Do you remember the role that food played in those excursions?
Craig: I really remember camping and cooking with my family on the old green Coleman stove, with that little three-sided thing that you can cook toast with, and also cooking pancakes on the griddle. I actually still partake in a family adventure – well, it's more of a family trip. When I was young, we would always go to a state park up in Maine to a camp called Kidney Pond Camp. It was a family-run camp that had about twenty cabins and one main mess hall, so they would ring a bell to tell you it was time to eat. Now it’s just the husband and wife that run it. The husband was the son of the owner of that camp and the wife, Elise, is the pastry chef. I’ve been going to the new place, The Pines, for some seventeen years and it’s the same thing: they still ring a bell in the morning to wake you up. They serve a simple breakfast menu, and lunch is always packed in an igloo cooler, so you can actually go out and fish during the day. Then there's a great fish dinner at night. That's been a big part of growing up for me. I’ve spent a big part of my life there.
MK: It’s nice to have one of those yearly trips to look forward to.
Craig: I can't wait for August to do it again!
MK: Do you remember what your first solo trip was like?
Craig: It was around the late nineties and I was just out of college. The bike shop that was close to me was a dealer of JanSport packs. They had this great big hiking pack that probably carried seventy-five litres. It went on special and I bought the thing. Of course, if you buy a big bag, you fill it, regardless of the size – that’s just a reality. I remember going up the Long Trail in Vermont and heading up to the David Logan shelter about eight miles in. I started out dressed in jeans and cotton. The pack weighed a ton and I was soaking with sweat. I started cooking my soup and realized that I forgot to bring a spoon, so there I was eating vegetable soup with a knife! The next day, on the way out, I thought I was going to die. My body was killing me. I didn't really eat much, and I had all the wrong clothes on and way too much weight on my back. It was a very sharp learning curve. After that, I thought I would never go out again. Somehow I stuck with it, and learned a lot since then. I think one of the best ways to learn is through trial and error.
MK: What was your inspiration for doing the 1/7 project? When did you begin to think about doing the Triple Crown not only for thru-hiking but for bikepacking as well?
Craig: Well, the moment came in 2015 after I finished the thru-hiking Triple Crown. I had just finished the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) in August, and a few months later, the movie The Martian, starring Matt Damon, came out. In the film, he is basically left on Mars, abandoned. They thought he was dead and he just spends two years alone. In the process of trying to get to the launch site, he has so many troubles. At one point along the way he says, “I realized one day [that] I’m the first person ever to be on a planet alone.” He’s the first person to go here, there, anywhere. That struck a chord with me. I thought to myself, “what could I do that would make me be the only person to ever do something?” After that, I had a friend who had been pushing me for a while, knowing me as a cyclist first and foremost, to do the bikepacking Triple Crown (the Tour Divide, the Colorado Trail Race, the Arizona Trail) as she had already done it that year. She just kept on saying, "you’ve got to go do it!" At that time, I believe there were only about seventeen people who had done it. So I just looked up the names of the cyclists and found out that none of those seventeen names were on the list of the three hundred or so people who had completed the thru-hiking Triple Crown. So I thought, there you go, there is me, one of seven billion: the only person on the planet to do both Triple Crowns. It all stemmed from that. I didn’t actually start it until the summer of 2016, so that’s when I made it happen.
MK: What exactly is it that pulls you in and attracts you to these ultra-endurance activities?
Craig: I think some of it, on a basic level, is the challenge of doing it. Finding out whether or not I can achieve that goal, because they are lofty goals. There’s also something about seeing what’s around the next corner, because there’s always something new to see and experience. I also love planning. I’ve brought this into more of a constructive way of knowing every detail, especially regarding where you can resupply. I love the planning almost as much as the whole adventure. Of all six trails I did, the end is usually pretty anti-climatic, because the build of it is so big, it’s hard to measure up to it. Then, when you look back at it as a whole, it's really cool to see the idea of the planning of it, setting everything in motion, doing it, and actually see it all come together. I love challenging myself and raising the bar – unfortunately, higher and higher every time.
MK: How many years passed between when you started the 1/7 project and when you finished it?
Craig: I was twenty six in 2001 when I started, and then I finished the last route two years ago, so I finished just before my 45th birthday, but the real answer to that question is a little bit longer. When I went to that camp that I mentioned earlier, it was near the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Mt. Katahdin was always looming around us. One year, there was a group of campers next to us that had two kids. One day, the father said they were going up to the summit and asked if I would want to go with them. So we hiked up to the top of the mountain and read a sign that says, “Mt. Katahdin: Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. A mountain footpath extending over 2000 miles to Springer Mtn. Georgia.” I was just a few weeks shy of thirteen and very impressionable. I couldn’t believe people could walk that far! Before I knew it, this guy with a big huge beard showed up and announced he had just completed it! My mind was blown. It was almost as if that guy tilted my head to the side and dropped a little seed into my thirteen-year-old brain. I went home and read all the books about the AT on our bookshelf. That seed matured until finally it just happened. It was almost a thirty-two-year journey from the time I learned about the Appalachian Trail concept, and it just kept growing to the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail.
MK: That’s such a great story. I love those moments when the seed gets planted and grows in the back of your mind. What was one of the most difficult moments on the trail over the course of all the Triple Crowns?
Craig: The CDT as a whole was the hardest in terms of hiking whereas the AZT (Arizona Trail) was probably the hardest biking. On the AZT, it was 97ºF in October. I had heatstroke, so the first 300 miles was difficult, really up and down. Then, in the Grand Canyon section, you have to walk with the bike on your back for twenty-one miles through the canyon. This was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Ironically, both trips that were the last of the Triple Crowns were the hardest in my mind, but it’s really hard to nail down one moment, because it’s a daily struggle of ups and downs to just keep at it.
MK: How has your packing and kit changed from when you started to when you finished?
Craig: I started with a sixty-five-litre pack that weighed six or seven pounds on its own, plus the weight of everything else in the pack. That was my idea of light in 2001! On the AT, my pack, loaded, was about twenty-five pounds dry, and then I went to about fourteen pounds dry on the PCT. Then, on the CDT, I was at about eleven pounds. My goal is to go below ten pounds. I got lighter because I realized I could go further with less. I like to call it trail confidence. It’s all about getting experience and knowing how to use your equipment efficiently.
MK: Can you give a rundown of what your messkit and cooking pantry looked like?
Craig: For bikepacking, it was easy: it was pretty much whatever I found at a gas station or restaurant! [Laughs.] Basically, I had a water filter and water bottles. Everything I had for food was something that I bought from a store and shoved in a bag or a pocket in my jersey. Generally, though, on my bikepacking and hiking trips, I take my soda-can stove that burns denatured alcohol, along with a homemade all-in-one windscreen and pot stand made from a dryer vent with holes. Along with that, I have a .9 litre Evernew pot and spoon. I don’t bring any secondary dishes; it’s just super low-key and simple. I generally don’t cook a lot, but if I do, it’s dehydrated meals.
MK: What do you crave on the trail?
Craig: That changes on a daily basis. For sweets, I crave a lot of chocolate, but one of the things I really get into are Flamin’ Hot Cheetos! There’s something about having a crunchy chip out in the woods. You would find me on the CDT with all my cuticles and nails stained with a red tint until I could shower! And my knuckles would get red reaching into the bag, which is so funny.
MK: Are you a big coffee person on the trail, or does that aspect fall to the side?
Craig: What’s coffee? [Laughs.] I’m actually not a coffee drinker. I’ve tried everything imaginable to make it taste good, but to me, nothing works: it just tastes like burnt water!
MK: What have you learned about yourself after doing all the Triple Crowns?
Craig: It really dawned on me just how much support there is – whether it’s from home, or from the people that you meet along on the trail, or in the towns. You realize that it’s not just you out there. The last core value of my 1/7 project is being the best version of myself that I can be, and part of that is treating others with respect. But to answer your question, I realized it’s more about being true to yourself – asking yourself: is this how you want to be treated? Are you living your life how you want? I think the trail really opened my eyes to ask these questions every day. It really taught me that there is so much more you can do than you think you ever could. They always say it’s ten percent physical and ninety percent mental, and it really is. There were days out there where I was constantly thinking I could never do certain things. I used to think that a forty-mile day hike was too much, and now I can do so much more than that. You really have to learn the mental aspect of being the best version of yourself. I also learned that you should never compare yourself to somebody else.
MK: Now that you are finished all the Triple Crowns, what are you most excited about in the upcoming year?
Craig: The next adventure is going to take me to Alaska in June and July. A friend and I will be bikepacking part of the Alaskan pipeline from Valdez to Glennallen with support from Outdoor Research, one of my sponsors. Then with support from Alpacka Packraft we’ll float south down the Copper River. I also hope to do many of the Hundred Highest Peaks (in the New England) as well. I only have 36 peaks left. I just have a hard time with the concept of smaller hikes now, because I look at it and ask, what’s the point? – unless it’s attached to a larger idea, like the Hundred Highest list. There’s so much more to see out there, so it’s hard for me to just go and sit in an office for the rest of my life. But I have my 1/7 project now, and it’s going well, along with writing pieces and working with my sponsors, too. The point of the whole project is to encourage people to know themselves and actually go out there and follow their passions and dreams. I’m actually building a series of online guides for the Triple Crown trails. The first one is an Arizona Trail guide where you can basically get all the information for everything from air travel to where to find water and food on the trail and everything else in-between.
MK: Sounds great! I appreciate your time. It has been a great pleasure getting to know you.
Check out Craig's thru-hiker burrito recipe.
Read more about Craig's 1/7 project and check out his in-depth trail guide for the AZT:
AZT trail guide: www.oneofsevenproject.com/arizona-trail-resupply-guide