In response to the movie Wild being released, I featured some Wild Women who are going against the norm when it comes to people’s perception of what a hiker should be. The women featured are some of the most badass hikers, male or female, out there! There are so many amazing women that we needed a part 2 of the series!
Sirena Dufault is the Gateway Community Liaison for the Arizona Trail Association, fostering a relationship between trail users and the 33 towns along the Arizona Trail. She organizes Trail Day events, does public outreach, guides hikes, and promotes area tourism to stimulate local economies. She has been involved with the Arizona Trail Association since 2007, helping to build many miles of trail near Tucson and is a Trail Steward, responsible for maintaining a 5.5 mile stretch along the Gila River. She spends her “vacation time” (ok, how does her job even count as a job!?) exploring beautiful areas such as the Grand Canyon and Grand Enchantment Trail!
You are extremely passionate about the Arizona Trail. What made you fall in love with this trail?
I really didn’t understand how diverse and spectacular my adopted state was until I hiked the AZT. In 2007 I went on a dayhike and at the trailhead was a big sign with a map of the Arizona Trail and it connected all these places I’d heard about and wanted to visit. Soon after when I began planning my section hike of the AZT I found out that there were still many miles of trail to be built to connect it across the state. I volunteered on a crew, the Crazies, that met every other week for years until we finally finished the trail in 2011. Being a part of creating the trail and then hiking it gives you a special connection with it and I’ve been involved with the Arizona Trail Association ever since.
Many people have the misconception that Arizona is all hot, flat desert and the Arizona Trail is a perfect way of showcasing the varied environments that exist here. Sky Island mountain ranges that take you from saguaro cactus up to aspen groves in a day, the Sonoran Desert with its magnificent cacti, rock formations and rugged canyons, the Mogollon Rim- home to the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the world, the high-altitude forests of the Kaibab Plateau and the crown jewel of them all, the Grand Canyon.
How and when did you first get into backpacking? Did you have a mentor or someone you looked up to?
My first backpacking trip was to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in 2002 and it was extremely tough for me. Not only because it’s a strenuous trip for a first-timer and I was carrying way too much stuff, but also because I was still quite ill with Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition which I developed after being hit by a car while walking across the street in 1997. Despite having to limp into the canyon and drag myself out of it, the experience made a huge impression on me and the Grand Canyon remains my favorite place in the world.
In 2008, when I began my section-hike of the AZT, I had only done one solo 5-mile overnighter since my Canyon trip. I did a lot of research online and asked a million questions at Summit Hut, my local outdoor store. I also got a lot of help from people who I met through volunteering with the ATA. It was a definite learning experience being out there solo for days and days, figuring out what worked and what didn’t.
What did you do to prepare for the AZT?
The first time I hiked the AZT, I started planning 8 months in advance. There wasn’t a whole lot of information available back then, hardly any trail journals and the only guidebook available had giant chunks of missing information because the trail wasn’t finished. There were over 60 miles of trail in various stages of planning and I had to figure out how I was going to deal with each of those gaps. I also planned water caches and trained by hiking the local trails in Tucson with a weighted pack. My health was a great concern because at the time I didn’t know if hiking the AZT would throw me into a Fibromyalgia flare. The good news is that it didn’t and I haven’t had a flare since 2006, something that I attribute to staying active.
When I thru-hiked the AZT in 2014, I did it as a promotion for the new guidebook and the trail. The planning for my Arizona Trail Trek was very different- I had 12 fundraisers in the Gateway Communities, all with music, food and beer that had to be booked and confirmed before I started my hike. I also had 7 dayhikes and 5 backpacking trips where people could sign up to join me on the trail, so I had to plan shuttles, logistics, etc. for all of those, plus two Arizona Trail Day events during my thru-hike and an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Whew! makes me tired just typing it. Needless to say, I didn’t have much time on the trails beforehand or even much time to plan my resupply, but it all worked out better than I could have imagined.
You section hiked the AZT and then thru hiked it. Was there a big difference in your experience?
The two experiences were very different, because both the trail and I had changed a lot in the intervening years. The first hike, a lot of concerns came from my inexperience with backpacking solo and the difficulty of navigating a trail that was still in the process of being built and signed. I rarely ever saw anyone on the trail and hardly anyone I talked to knew about the existence of the AZT. It was also a time of intense discovery- each passage revealed a new corner of Arizona I’d never seen before and I reveled in the excitement of it all. Finishing the trail the first time, it made me feel like I could do anything, which was the exact opposite of how I’d felt all those years when I was sick. My section-hike of the trail was done to raise awareness for Fibromyalgia and I finished in 2009 on May 12, Fibromyalgia awareness day.
By the time I did my Arizona Trail Trek in 2014, I had been playing and working on the trail for 7 years. I’d re-hiked many parts of the trail, helped to build many miles that connected the trail across the state, and helped write the new guidebook. I’d spent the last three years working with the Gateway Communities to promote the trail and done countless speaking engagements to help spread the word. The trail had become my office and home and instead of being dazzled by new scenery, it was like visiting an old friend. From the very start, it was different from my section-hike- I had 28 people join me for my first piece of the trail, then went into the Gateway Community of Sierra Vista to have an event.
It was so much fun to see how the trail had grown up as well- the gaps I’d had to bushwhack were complete, there was more signage, and reroutes around several particularly nasty pieces. I connected with so many wonderful people, both on the trail and off, but also got the kind of solo time on the trail that feeds my soul.
Can you tell us a little about your role as the Gateway Community Liaison for the Arizona Trail? What does your day typically look like?
Well, a typical day may vary widely, depending on what’s happening with the trail. But my day often starts as many people’s do- catching up on email- whether I wake up at home or on the road. We do six Arizona Trail Day events with all sorts of fun activities throughout the year and those take a lot of planning to make sure all goes well. I also travel doing speaking engagements for the trail as well as education and outreach in the Gateway Communities with town councils, chambers of commerce and bureaus of tourism. I do fundraising and work with our Business Partners who donate goods or services to support the ATA. And to top it all off, I’m also on our social media team.
One of my recent favorite projects was to help the Warrior Hike program, which helps veterans “Walk off the War” on the National Scenic Trails. They had two veterans thru-hike this spring and I got to assist with planning and logistics, as well as get out on the trail with them from time to time.
What advice would you give to other women looking to go backpacking?
Get out there!! But seriously- as women we’re often told that we need to fear the world and that around every corner is someone or something lurking to hurt or take advantage of us. Sounds like an awful way to live. Women as much as anyone are a part of nature, it’s just that the modern world tries to make it “other” and “out there”. Do your research on trail conditions, water, and environmental concerns before you head out and you’ll feel a lot more confident about what to expect once you get out on the trail.
What was the worst backpacking advice you’ve ever received? What about the best?
Worst- all the people who think they’re helping me by telling me that as a woman, I should never go solo. Some of my most wonderful experiences have been a result of me striking out on my own and proving to myself that I can be self-sufficient in the wilderness. The best? The people who told me to ignore those who told me I don’t belong outdoors solo.
What do you cherish most about hiking?
So many fantastic things- it’s tough to choose just one! The views that make me appreciate the beauty of the world around me, the exquisite all-encompassing freedom that comes from exploring solo, the feeling of accomplishment and strength when I bag a peak or complete a route.
Do you have any upcoming hikes or adventures planned?
I get three months off in the summer from my Arizona Trail job to work on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as a river guide, which is quite the adventure in itself! My favorite part of the job is that I get to take folks hiking to archaeological sites, waterfalls, and swimming holes and tell fun facts and stories to help people appreciate my favorite place. After river season, I’ll be doing a speaking engagement at the ALDHA-West Gathering in September and will most likely do some backpacking in the NW while I’m in the area.
To keep up with Sirena, you can visit her blog at Sirena’s Wanderings!
Looking for more inspiration? Check out these other wild interviews: Jennifer Pharr Davis, Liz “Snorkel” Thomas, Helen “Cat” Beckers, Heather “Anish” Anderson, Kristin Gates, and Trish, Alex, and Sage!
Last modified: September 1, 2017