Jelly donut, or not? When you read how far I hiked, you decide
All my friends know I'm a big history buff, and expect that when I go somewhere I will visit castles, ancient ruins, temples, churches -- you name it. I also am a huge fan of scenery, though, and like to get out and experience nature in person. So, I wanted to do some hiking in the Carpathian Mountains while I was in Ukraine. I found a company (www.inlviv.info) that booked one day hiking excursions from Lviv. They normally charge 400 Hrivna ($20) as part of a group, but they were apologetic they had no one else going during my four days in Lviv. I asked what the solo price would be. Only 700 Hrivna ($35) for a whole day, guided hike? Sign me up!
I met my guide Oleh in front of the train station where we'd be taking the 7am departure for Skole, about 2 hours away. From there, we'd hike to the top of Mt. Parashka. I had brought along my Keen hiking sandals because it rains a lot during the summer in the Carpathians. We had nothing to worry about with that today, though. It was perfect weather for a hike: high 70s, and clear, blue skies with no clouds. We set off at a fairly quick pace, and I trailed behind Oleh about 10-20 feet. That would be the standard for the day -- single file up the path, with Oleh ahead and setting the pace.
Carpathian Mountain scenery
The first hour and a half of the hike is through forested slopes. The path alternated between rocky, muddy, and a mix of dirt and grass. The hiking sandals were comfortable. They breathed well, and their solid rubber toecap saved me time and again from stubbing my toes on the rocks. The trail went mostly up, sometimes very steeply, other times on a more moderate slope. There were very few level sections. And since we were just hiking through woods, there really wasn't anything to stop and take pictures of in the beginning. It was pretty much an hour and half rapid slog uphill through the trees. Oleh doesn't do rest breaks, or he must have felt I was doing well enough, and did not need one.
Views like this are typical of the hike to the top of Mt. Parashka
On the steeper sections, I slowed down, plodding ahead one step at a time. I was huffing and puffing at those times. I could even hear my heart drumming in my ears. We began to break through into the beginnings of mountain meadows, and the trail teased me with a few snippets of nice views. When I stopped to take my first picture, Oleh promised we'd come to a good photo spot in 10 minutes. We could make a lunch stop there. I looked at my watch. It was about 10:30 and we had been hiking solidly for 2 hours. I considered asking Oleh how long to the top, but didn't want it to seem like I was tired ("Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"). The viewpoint arrived and it was nice. Forested slopes with cleared patches stretched away into the distance on both sides. We were ascending a wide ridge, and I could see deep drop offs and scenic views to either side.
The tour agency had reminded me to pack a lunch. The previous evening I had picked up some packaged peanuts and chips, also tossing two of my Power Bars in my backpack. As it turned out, Oleh's wife had packed him enough food for both of us! He handed me a sandwich, and urged me to eat the zucchini and apples he had, too. I guzzled about 2/3's of my first of two liters of water I'd brought. I was beginning to think I should have packed a third liter. This was tough going, and despite the shade and cooler temperatures, I was sweating freely.
Gorgeous mountain meadows and the only sign of habitation we saw on the hike
We started the second part of the hike after taking about 20-25 minutes for lunch. We were now ascending and descending various hills on our way to Mt. Parashka. About half of it was through mountain meadows, but the path ducked back under the trees from time to time. We began to see local villagers in the meadows, picking what Oleh called blackberries. These were different than our blackberries, though. They were individual balls a tad smaller than a pea, but dark black in color. Later, I tried searching the Internet to find what they're called in English, but was unsuccessful. Oleh would pick a few and pop them in his mouth as he walked. I was tempted to try them, but did not want to risk stomach troubles eating unwashed fruit. The view kept getting nicer as we climbed the ridge line. Far off in the distance to the north, we could see a river gleaming, and the sun flashing off windows or the metal in villages in the valleys.
We continued hiking up and up. Out of the shade of the trees more and more, I felt myself becoming soaked with sweat. I tried not to drink from my water. I remembered the scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" when Lawrence surprises Omar Sharif, telling him that he will drink only when he does. Oleh wasn't drinking as we hiked, so I would do as he did. As the hours wore on, I began to wonder if I'm getting too old for hiking like this. Then I remembered the two people in their 70s that I met on the Inca Trail -- a much more challenging hike than this! I told myself that I was just getting fat and whinny. A big jelly donut. Suck it up and soldier on, I told myself! I did idly wonder how much ground we were covering because we were still going at a good pace. On the steepest sections, I plodded along, taking short steps and watching my footing.
Up, up, and up the trail goes...
Finally, I saw a peak ahead with a cross on it. I assumed that was Mt. Parashka. Yikes, the last ascent looked steep! Sure enough, we crept closer and closer to the mountaintop. On that last section, my mind went back to the Inca Trail. I thought, "I made that trek, so I can do this!" I could hear my Inca Trail guide Casiano, calling out, "You can do it! Super hikers!" And I did. Two hours after our last rest stop, I stumbled up beside Oleh, dropping my backpack and camera bag. The wind cooled the sweat on my back, refreshing me. I guzzled some precious water and looked around. A 360 degree view rewarded us as the other peaks fell away below. The sunshine flashed bright green from the grassy slopes beneath us, while the deeper green of the trees made a speckled pattern on them. In the distance, the mountain peaks blurred to a blue color. Somewhere below us, an eagle or hawk cried into the wind. I sat down on a flat stone and soaked it all in.
Oleh relaxes by the base of the cross atop Mt. Parashka
What is it about mountains that make us want to climb them? Is enjoying a spectacular view unique to us humans? Or do other animals, when presented with a panorama, also pause and chirp/squeak/growl the equivalent of "Wow!"...? Oleh reminded me how lucky we were with the weather. Many times, he said, the people he guides are rewarded only with clouds for a view. As I looked into the distance in all directions, I sighed. My friends and I often joke how unlucky I can be, at times. However, I have learned that when it comes to the things that truly count -- family, friends, the opportunities I have been given in my life -- God has been very, very kind to me. I sent another silent prayer Heavenward, and enjoyed the amazing view.
Looking down from the top of the mountain
After about 20 minutes, we shouldered our backpacks and began the long descent. Halfway back, we stopped for "second lunch," when Oleh brought out even more food. He pushed hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and another sandwich on me. When he brought out the sweets, I rebelled. I was full, and was hoping to lose weight on this hike -- not gain it! He told me his wife would be mad if he brought any food back. In Ukraine, when you host, you are expected to put on a huge spread of food -- more than everyone can possibly eat. He laughed and said it is even worse in the countryside. They put out tables of food that are even more massive. Either way, our lunch made me determined to work off Oleh's feast. I idly wondered just how far our hike was today, but figured I'd have plenty of time to ask later.
It is a truism of hiking: climbing is the worst part...except for going downhill. Even Oleh mentioned hiking down on rocky paths can be harder on the body than going up. I looked at it this way, though. Ascending is harder on your thighs and lungs, descending hurts you knees and spine more. By the time we finished, I was worn out, sweaty, sore, and ready for a long hot shower. Oleh had the next best thing lined up, though. We hiked another 15 minutes to the village's favorite swimming hole! It was a river shallows beneath a bridge. There were several dozen people in the water or sunning on the rocks when we arrived. Oleh said most were actually people from out of town who come for a cheap getaway. We saw tents in a field, and Oleh said a room at the local guest house costs only 75 Hrivna ($3). Even to a Ukrainian, that is cheap!
Skole's swimming holes is a shallow section of river rapids
The only problem was no one had warned me to pack my swimming trunks. Luckily, I'd worn my lightest pair of zip off trousers. So, I zipped the legs off, took off my shirt, and I was ready for the water! The river bed was all rocks, and both of us slipped and stumbled on our way out into the stream. The water was cool at first, but I got used to it quickly. It was a wonderful feeling, letting the rushing water scrub away the sweat and grime of the hike. After a few minutes, I clambered onto a large, flat and dry rock in the stream, and stretched out in the sunshine. Coming down off the mountain, I had felt like one ball of stench draped in sweat-drenched clothes. Here on the rock, the sun's rays drying my clean skin, I felt human again. I complimented Oleh on a truly great end to a hike. After awhile, I sat up and watched the Ukrainians play in the water. The kids got a thrill riding the rapids while clutching onto an inner tube. They'd get to the end then rush back to ride it again, over and over.
As a final treat, Oleh and I walked to the village convenience store and each bought a beer. We sat on a bench in the shade and savored them. Finally, we made the short hike back to the train station. As we were getting ready to board the train, I asked Oleh what the distance was that we hiked. Not counting to the river and back, he said we hiked about 24 kilometers. My eyes widened as I did the quick math: 15 miles! No wonder I had felt like a flabby, jelly donut on the way back! A 15-mile hike on flat ground would be tiring...not to mention climbing to a mountaintop almost 1,300 meters high! Well, I had wanted to hike in the Carpathian Mountains, and Oleh certainly granted my wish!