Ellen Stekert: Trailblazer

A version of this story appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Uncommon Path

One summer in the 1960s, Ellen Stekert planned a backpacking trip with a friend. Then an English professor in her 30s working in Detroit, she had little backcountry experience, but she sought to hike the entire 40 miles of the Greenstone Ridge, which traverses Michigan’s Isle Royale from end to end. And she needed gear.

A survivor of polio, Stekert looked for items that wouldn’t make the task of walking long distances much more cumbersome than it already was. Friends suggested REI, so in 1968, she became a co-op member to check out the catalog. She remembers ordering a red backpack and a collapsible fishing rod, among other odds and ends.

And, like many new to the backcountry, she overpacked. When they started their journey, Stekert’s hiking buddy asked if she had seen the sign in the ranger’s cabin that encouraged hikers to climb the nearest tree if they encountered a moose in heat. They realized that might be difficult. “We could hardly move one step after the other,” Stekert says with a laugh.

They did happen upon numerous moose along the way—the first that Stekert had ever seen. Fortunately, none showed signs of aggression. At one point, the backpackers came across a herd of them diving in a river to feed. “They looked just like whales,” Stekert remembers. She and her friend finished the trail in just over a week, their packs lightening as the days rolled past.

Now in her mid-80s, retired and living in Minneapolis, Stekert enjoys sharing recollections of the trek. Along with her memories, she still has one other thing from that trailblazing trip: the red backpack she carried for every step.