Above: Photo courtesy of Tom Beck

Tom Beck and his fellow Arctic hikers didn’t think twice about cooking a fresh fish dinner out in the open over a campfire — until company arrived.

“A huge grizzly bear came into our camp area and raised up on his haunches and just looked at us,” the 72-year-old hiking enthusiast and longtime Sandy Springs resident recalled. Fortunately, “we made a lot of noise, and he turned around and walked off.”

Beck and two companions had been flown from an Alaskan Eskimo village named Bettles to a point about 250 miles into the bush, where they began their trek. Heading northwest through the Atlanata Valley, they hiked for two weeks to a rendezvous with a supply plane bearing kayaks. After six days of paddling along the Noatac River, they were picked up and returned to civilization.

“It was an awesome trip and a jaw-dropping experience as well,” Beck said. “We had caribou running through our camp, too.”

Over the past five decades, the retired insurance executive figures he’s walked about 8,000 miles, including hikes at “just about every major mountain in the U.S.”

Three years ago, he completed his fourth journey along the Camino de Santiago — The Way of St. James — a 1,200-year-old route followed by early Christians making a pilgrimage to the burial site of the apostle James at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the coastal town of Galicia, Spain.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Camino de Santiago is the collective name for a number of pathways that all converge at Galicia. Beck favors the 500-mile route starting in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, and continues over the Pyrennes Mountains and across the width of Spain to the coast. This popular route draws about 200,000 hikers and cyclists a year.

“You walk through a lot of tiny and medium-size Spanish towns on a paved surface, but about 70 percent of the trail is through woodlands, eucalyptus groves and vineyards,” said Beck, who first hiked the Camino in 2011, then again in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

“It’s a moderate hike,” he continued. “It’s definitely not strenuous like the Appalachian Trail, but some parts are a little tougher than others.

“If you’re relatively fit and don’t mind getting up in the morning and walking 12 or 15 miles a day for 35 days, you can do the Camino,” he added. “I’ve hiked with people in their nineties, and I remember walking with a lady pushing a carriage with her eight-month-old son inside. She was walking the whole trail.”

Hostels along the way provide places to eat, socialize and spend the night.

“After a long day of hiking, it’s great to get to your hostel in the late afternoon and sit and drink beer and wine with interesting people from all over the world,” he said.

Beck started serious hiking more than 50 years ago when he and his best friend and co-worker, David Adams, decided on a whim to walk the 2,190-mile-long Appalachian Trail. They completed all but the final 250 miles.

“I don’t know why I haven’t walked the rest of it,” Beck said, “except that it’s strenuous and I’m getting older, and I no longer feel the need to say I’ve hiked the whole thing.”

Beck teaches a class on international hiking every other month at the REI at Perimeter Mall, where he’s affectionately known as “Camino Tom.” His classes draw anywhere from 25 to 150 experienced and would-be hikers, with more than 1,000 having attended since Beck began the lectures five years ago.

For long-distance hikes like the Camino, Beck recommends placing 25 pounds of sugar or flour — they’re compact and easy to load — in a backpack and wearing it for a 30-minute walk every day or every other day for a month prior to the hike.

“This helps prepare your back, but otherwise there’s not much else you can do to get ready for walking several miles every day for weeks,” noted Beck, who also works part-time in REI’s shoe department.

Beck stays in hiking shape by walking around his neighborhood and jogging about a mile and a half a day, but he’s not necessarily preparing for another Camino hike.

“I’ve had a little bit of heart problems, and I don’t know if my legs would allow me to do that again, so I don’t know,” he said. “But I’d like to do it again, definitely.”

For more information on the Camino de Santiago, call Camino Tom at 404-680-2325.

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