A Rocky Proposal: One Man's Valentine

  • Heather and Ken backpacking Allegheny National Forest in 1993, with Lilly the Wunderhund.

Romance and the outdoors have gone together since -- well, since Adam and Eve. Here's a tale of a romance sealed on a wind-swept mountaintop. At least, that's one version of Ken Chiacchia's story.

People generally aren't surprised to hear that I proposed to my wife, Heather, on a mountaintop. At a deeper level, though, this story says even more about us than meets the eye. The proposal came about two or three days behind schedule. And it was nobody’s fault but hers.

Every backpacker has one trip that is the gold standard, against which every other trip is measured. For us, that’s the through-hike we made of Isle Royale National Park in 1991.

Isle Royale is a 45-mile long island in Lake Superior, just off Thunder Bay in Canada. Its ferocious weather helped inspire the Algonquin legends of the Windigo, a malevolent winter spirit that turned hungry men into cannibals. The island is also known for its wolf packs.

So Isle Royale’s wild, rugged remoteness makes it a great place to spend the better part of two weeks alone. Or alone with somebody special.

Which kind of gets us to the “nobody’s fault but her own” part. Heather is better than special — she’s unique. She has a child’s sense of wonder at the natural world. Getting her moving in the woods can sometimes be a trial; every berry, every piece of wolf scat, every lizard is worthy of stopping for intense examination.

Which, given the limited food supply we were carrying, was an issue.

OK, maybe it was partly my fault — I’m a little less goal-oriented in the outdoors today.  And I hadn’t yet learned how to pace myself to Heather's rhythm. When I was in the lead, she’d lag behind. When I stopped so she could catch up, she’d complain that I’d gotten a longer rest break. When I followed her, I’d tread on her heels.

The upshot is, by the time we bagged our first summit — just a hill, but in Isle Royale’s harsh climate above the treeline nevertheless — I was too irritated with the girl to propose to her. Same thing at the second summit. And the third.

We settled into a rhythm, finally, and the irritation waned and even turned into something like the warm glow I’d had before the trip began. But by then, the weight of our packs and the rockiness and steepness of the trails -- not to mention the thick clouds of mosquitoes in the lowlands -- had worn us to a nub.

Mount Desor, Isle Royale's high point, became our spot of destiny. We’d plodded a good three quarters of the island's length by then, emerging from the rim of slim, white-barked beeches that marked the treeline into the open, rocky, grassy summit. When we collapsed on a nice, cool boulder, I figured it was time. But neither of us had much energy to commit to romantic banter. Our conversation, amidst decidedly unromantic panting, went something like:

“So you wanna get married?”

“OK.”

Hardly the stuff of romance novels. But at least she didn't say "no."

The story has a coda. Sugar Mountain was the last peak of our trip.

As we crested the hill, brushing dangling caterpillars from our faces at nearly every step, an almost imperceptible rumble gently forced its way into our awareness. It surrounded us, blanketing the woods. A few minutes passed before we realized what it was: the sound of millions of little caterpillars, munching on maple leaves.

It was understated, and yet awesome. It was a little scary. And it defined our world. Not unlike marriage.