BLUE HILL — A few months ago, Chek Wingo didn’t consider himself much of a hiker. But 26 days, 26 peaks, 86 miles, 23 hours and a few scrapes and falls later, he has seen a great deal more than many people exploring Acadia National Park.
Thirty-five years old, the Blue Hill man spent most of the month of February hiking one peak in the park per day.
Starting with the Flying Mountain Loop (286 feet in elevation) and ascending Cadillac Mountain (1,530 feet) at the end of his 26-day challenge, that meant daily pre-dawn wakeups, extensive advance planning and prepping and, fortuitously, weather windows to head outside the month before the COVID-19 coronavirus struck and staying indoors became the norm in Maine.
Wingo grew up in Steuben, attending The Bay School in Blue Hill, then Proctor Academy in New Hampshire and Colgate University in New York. He eventually returned to Maine, where he now works as a dorm parent at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill. GSA’s student body includes some U.S. and international boarding students.
In addition, Wingo works as a photographer and filmmaker, largely for Maine’s Sunlight Media Collective, which documents and highlights the Wabanaki people of what is now called Maine, and related issues such as tribal rights.
Since his childhood in Maine Wingo hadn’t spent much time in Acadia National Park, but in late January he found himself spending a lot of time indoors and was looking for something to spark his energy and inspiration in the new year.
“I know myself enough to know that my activity level and my level of inspiration go hand in hand. So, one Thursday, I told my partner ‘I’m going to see how quickly I can do Blue Hill [Mountain]. That took me about 20 minutes,” he recalled. “That’s not a lot of time, but it’s enough to give me a jump start physically and in other areas of my life.”
Less than a week into his daily treks up Blue Hill Mountain, he stumbled across a website detailing the 26 peaks of Acadia National Park.
“I thought, ‘I have Acadia in my backyard, why not just do it?’ And if I start tomorrow, I can be done by March 1,” he related. “And that was it. The next day, I just got up and went.”
Wingo’s goal was to complete each hike as quickly as possible. In the thick of winter — amid snow and ice — that meant focusing on each step, one in front of the other.
“There’s an interesting dynamic between ego and humility. Ego dictates speed, and humility dictates prudence and taking your time,” Wingo reflected. “When you’re exerting yourself to that extent, you have to be in the moment. If you’re not focused on that next step, accidents can happen.”
A typical morning started before dawn. Throwing four eggs in the pan, some broccoli sprouts, “fuel,” as Wingo put it. “You’re not going to get to Eastport on a quarter tank of gas, right?”
Well before daybreak, the roads leading from Blue Hill to Acadia were almost always empty, as was the park itself. With the Park Loop Road closed, it would sometimes be a three- or four-mile walk just to get to the trail head. Avoiding any ladder climbing out of safety concerns also meant not always taking the shortest route.
Wingo traveled light — a T-shirt and shell jacket, 8 to 10 pounds of camera equipment, a compass, fully charged phone, a headlamp and creepers (snow-ice grips).
To accompany him on his solitary ascents, Wingo listened to the same song, “Looped,” by Kiasmos.
“It’s six minutes, there’s no lyrics. It’s kind of a rhythm that was helpful to keep pace,” he said.
Keeping that rhythm, Wingo focused closely on the decision about where his “next footstep lands.”
He was usually drenched in sweat by the time he reached each of the 26 summits. Sometimes, it was the weather that drenched him.
“I went up Pemetic [Mountain] this day it was just pouring rain, the wind was blowing,” he remembered. “I got up above the tree line and everything was soaked. I hadn’t worn my thermals that day and my legs were frozen. I saw what I thought was the summit marker, and it was just a sign telling me I had another six-tenths of a mile to go. Man, I almost turned around right there.”
Given the February weather, though, rarely was there time at the top for more than a picture of the summit marker and a moment to take in the view before heading back down.
“Down was just blistering,” Wingo said, making whooshing noises. “Totally different vibe than going up. Different muscles, different focus. You’ve got to be aware that you’re going faster so you don’t lose your center of gravity.”
Hiking in February also afforded Wingo the chance to experience Acadia in the winter, with snow blanketing the treetops and frozen streams on hillsides,
“You’re talking about water in varying degrees of being suspended in time and it’s just amazing,” he said. “In the winter, because the conditions can change so quickly, it’s such a singular experience of the landscape. That window when you’re up there, you may be the only person to experience the landscape as it was at that moment. There’s an aura to the experience you can’t get through a photo.”
As the hikes progressed, Wingo had what he described as the “evolution of preparedness.” As the hikes got progressively longer, the more serious the prep work got — both mentally and physically. That meant spending the night before looking at a map to familiarize himself with the terrain and figuring out when he would have to leave in order to reach the summit at a certain time.
“If you have to do five miles a day, all of a sudden you’re thinking about inputs,” he explained. “You have to make all these deliberate decisions. Everything you do is important, because one misstep and you won’t be able to finish the project.”
Soon enough, the pack was starting to feel lighter on his back, and his legs stronger. He dropped almost 15 pounds. And the focus required carried over off the trail.
“It’s humbling. It shows you where you need to be more conscious and I think that carries over into other areas.”
Wingo completed his final hike — Cadillac Mountain — on March 1, right on schedule. Perhaps a bit sore, Wingo came away with a newfound appreciation for Acadia’s natural beauty and the physical force needed to complete all 26 hikes.
“My sense is that a lot of people don’t get the chance to fully utilize their bodies for what they are fully capable of. We just kind of inhabit them,” he said. “But when you’re pushing yourself to that limit, everything becomes more meaningful.”
A month after Wingo completed his 26 hikes, Mainers are finding themselves increasingly indoors, as the world grapples with social distancing and other measures taken to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. For those who can still get out, though, the chance to experience a solitary hike rather than just a solitary day may be more important than ever.
“This was the first time I’d ever really explored Acadia, and I grew up here. It was an opportunity to be appreciative of where I live,” Wingo said. “And just being active, being outdoors can be like a short circuit to what we have to do on a daily basis.”