Sunshine on the trail

Salem 13-year-old becomes youngest to hike Triple Crown, covering 7,925 miles
Salem 13-year-old Reed “Sunshine” Gjonnes became the youngest person to complete the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail.Courtesy Zach Urness

It's likely that your average kindergartener doesn't spend much time thinking about the Pacific Crest Trail. The idea of hiking from Mexico to Canada is something normally left to adults.

Unless you happen to be Reed Gjonnes.

Born and raised in Salem, Reed took her first backpacking trip at 4 years old and already was bugging her father, Eric Gjonnes, about a trip on the 2,652-mile PCT before setting foot in kindergarten.

"Hiking has been part of my life for as long as I can remember," said Reed, who is now in eighth grade. "When I was a little kid, it was because I wanted to spend time with my dad and go camping. Now I love everything about it — the beautiful scenery, the wild animals and meeting other people on the trail. It's all pretty great."

She's known on the trail as Sunshine, a nickname inspired by her bright red hair and bubbly personality. But behind that smile is the quiet determination of a girl who during the past three years has accomplished something few people in the world, and nobody near her age, has managed to pull off.

Over the past three years, at ages 11, 12 and 13, Reed and her father have conquered the three longest trails in the United States — the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail (2,181 miles) and the Continental Divide Trail (3,092 miles) — to claim what's known as the Triple Crown of hiking.

Reed is the youngest known person — at 13 years, 4 months and 3 days — to have finished a task that requires more than 7,900 miles of hiking. Only about 200 people have completed the Triple Crown, according to the American Long Distance Hiking Association — West, a nonprofit that presents awards to each person who completes all three trails.

In many ways, Reed is your average teenager. She loathes snakes and waking up in the morning, is a self-described klutz and gets heartsick missing her mother, little sister and friends during hikes that required months away from home.

In other ways she's an elite athlete, capable of covering 40 miles in a day.

"It has really been her desire that motivated me," said Eric Gjonnes, a weekly columnist for the Statesman Journal. "I've never had to force her to do anything ... she has always really wanted to go.

"At no point was she the little girl just coming along. She carried her own gear and portion of food. She knows how to cook and set up camp and took part in the decision-making. In every sense she's my hiking partner — and a very skilled one."


The making of a thru-hiker

The evolution from precocious kindergartner to skilled hiker began with a four-mile backpacking trip to Pamelia Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness at 4 years old.

"I remember having a butterfly sleeping bag and a Barbie fishing pole," Reed said.

With each family day-hike and backpacking trip, she became increasingly ambitious.

"Every time we did a trip, she wanted to beat her previous record for miles," Eric Gjonnes said. "By the time she was 6 or 7, she was doing 10- to 12-mile days."

Much of the inspiration came from her father. Eric Gjonnes moved to Salem 20 years ago after leaving the Army and began hiking local trails to ease painful back spasms. He was an experienced hiker by the time Reed was born, and during her early childhood, she would sit in the car seat while her mother, Teresa Gjonnes, dropped Eric at trailheads for 100-mile segments of the PCT.

It wasn't long before his daughter wanted in. Soon she was joining her dad on trips of 60 miles, then 100 miles, then 140 miles.

But it ended up being potential tragedy that kick-started the Triple Crown quest.

In December 2010, Eric Gjonnes was laid-off from his job as an electrician after 17 years. He'd already promised his daughter a PCT thru-hike by the time she graduated high school, but opportunity came early.

"I was totally devastated, but instead of coming home crying, I walked in the door and said, 'This is it, we're thru-hiking the PCT,' " he said.


Snow and blisters on PCT

The father-daughter team began the PCT on April 29, heading north, and reached California's Sierra Nevada during a spring of record snowpack. Although the snow presented challenges, Reed, who turned 11 on the trail, also missed her mother and little sister.

To help ease separation, her mother and younger sister Annika drove out and met the team at points along the PCT in Northern California and Oregon. Eric and Reed would spend the day hiking, while Teresa and Annika set up camps along the roads that crossed the trail.

The going still was difficult, especially when one of her blisters became infected. They exited the trail at Lolo Pass north of Mount Hood and returned to Salem Clinic for treatment with their family doctor. After five days, they got permission to return to the trail.

By the time they reached northern Oregon, the duo figured this would be their last multi-thousand-mile hike.

"Coming into Washington from Oregon, it seemed like we had a week of uphill climbing," Reed said. "It was pretty hard."

They finished the PCT on Sept. 24 — four months and 26 days from when they started — at Manning Park on the Canadian border.

"We really thought that was our last big hike," Eric Gjonnes said. "But when we got home, it was like, 'OK, what do we do with ourselves now?' We need another hike."


Snakes and injured arm

In almost all things, Reed lives up to her trail name of Sunshine. But not when it comes to snakes.

"I hate them, absolutely hate them," she said. "They're creepy creatures that sneak up on you and bite. Even the ones that aren't poisonous are awful. ... And there were hundreds of them on the AT."

The duo began hiking the Appalachian Trail on April 2, 2012, in an environment that took some getting used to.

Not only were there more snakes and fewer mountain views, but the weather was humid and muggy in the South, and the trail that runs 2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine was forever crowded with people.

"You can see the city lights on both sides of the trail at night," Eric Gjonnes said. "While the PCT is full of long stretches of wilderness, on the AT you're in town every third day. It's a much different experience, and we didn't enjoy it nearly as much."

The most dramatic moment of the Triple Crown took place while the duo was hiking through Pennsylvania.

"I just tripped," Reed said. "I was talking to my dad and not paying attention. When I went down, I had my hand in the strap of my trekking pole. My arm swelled up really bad."

Eric splinted and stabilized the arm and called to arrange a ride to Hershey Hospital in Hershey, Pa. An X-ray showed a fractured arm, but the doctor, impressed by the 12-year-old's determination, put on a Gore-Tex cast and gave his blessing for them to get back on the trail.

For the next six weeks, the one-armed Sunshine and her father did shorter days.

"I got used to hiking with one arm pretty quick," she said. "The worst part was that it was hard to eat and do things like email my mom."

Teresa and Annika came out and hiked with the team through much of Vermont. But by that time, Eric and Reed were already looking ahead to their next adventure — on the wildest and most difficult leg of the Triple Crown.


Continental challenge

In southern New Mexico, on the opening stretch of the Continental Divide Trail, Reed and Eric Gjonnes trekked through a desert where the only sign of trail was a series of stacked rock cairns and water was almost nonexistent.

"In some places the only water was at cow tanks," Eric Gjonnes said. "We'd scoop out this greenish-brown water and boil it, treat it and filter it, and even then we were still pretty skeptical.

"But we never got sick."

Thus began the final leg of the Triple Crown, on a trail with a reputation for being tough, wild and difficult to follow.

Beginning in New Mexico and following the Rocky Mountains, the trail is only 70 percent completed and attempted by just a handful of people each year.

Eric and Reed began last April 15, and after trekking through New Mexico entered Colorado in early June. The snow was so deep they continued on snowshoes, trekking above 10,000 feet and reaching a high point of 14,278-feet at Grays Peak in Colorado.

Although the price of admission was high, the spectacular views, solitude and wildlife stunned them. They saw more animals in a week than during the rest of their hikes combined. Reed recorded elk, deer, moose, buffalo, bears, mountain goats, antelope, big horn sheep, badgers, porcupines, one wolf and even wild horses.

"There was so much incredible wildlife," she said. "It was so cool."

But there was plenty of frustration, primarily centered on staying on the correct route. The trail is not well marked, and they'd waste hours hiking down the wrong trails.

But they continued on, making their way below the geysers of Yellowstone National Park, into Montana and finally into Glacier National Park and the finishing point on the Canadian border Sept. 5.


"It's really hard to explain how I felt about it," said Reed. "It was a big sense of accomplishment, but it was also kind of sad. Just knowing it was done and that there's nothing like it left."

After hiking 7,925 miles, crossing 22 states and wearing out six pairs of shoes, what could she possibly do for an encore?

"I really don't know what I'll do next summer," she said. "I've tried to plan it out, tried to remember what I used to do during the summer, but I haven't been able to.

"Right now I'm just concentrating on homework."


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