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If you saw a woman with a 43-pound backpack strapped to her back and two walking sticks in southern Oakland County during the last few months, it was likely Cass Harris of Ferndale. She’s a woman on a mission.

And it’s a daunting one – to conquer one of the nation’s newest national scenic trails, the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs along our nation’s northern border with Canada, and to hike the entire trail over a three-month period. Alone.

Her journey, which started on the Fourth of July, required massive amounts of training – thus the 16-mile round-trip hikes to her job in Troy, along with boot camp and weight training – and planning. In fact, Harris has been planning her trip for more than 18 months. She mapped out the itinerary alone in January.

So why do this? The 43-year-old who works in research and development for a telecommunications company isn’t facing a divorce or existential crisis. Harris, who got permission from her bosses to take a three-month leave of absence, says the better question is why not? It’s about pushing herself to the limits.

“My biggest enjoyment is (being) outdoors,” Harris says. “...This is all me. Why would you not (do this)? Who doesn’t want to challenge themselves in such a way?”

Fifteen years ago, Harris wouldn’t have been able to push herself this far. Out of shape and overweight at 220 pounds, she really couldn’t enjoy the outdoors as much as she would’ve liked.

“I was very unhealthy and very overweight,” Harris remembers.

Then, inspired by a co-worker, she joined the Atkins diet plan and started getting fit. She loves bike riding and started doing endurance riding. Today, she’s lean and muscular. She actually gained weight for her hike because she estimates she’ll lose about 30 pounds on the trail.

Harris chose the Pacific Northwest Trail, which former President Barack Obama named a scenic trail in 2009, because it’s much less traveled than more popular trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. People often ask if she’s doing the “Reese Witherspoon” trail – she starred in the movie adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s hugely popular “Wild” memoir – but that was the Pacific Crest Trail.

Instead, she’ll hike the entire Pacific Northwest Trail from beginning to end, starting at Montana’s Glacier National Park and ending at at Cape Alava in Washington’s Olympic National Park.

“I’m actually doing Point A to Point B. It’s the full trail,” says Harris.

Just days before her departure, sitting on her sofa in her Ferndale home, Harris studied details maps of elevations and snow levels. She’d already created an exhaustive Excel spreadsheet, detailing every leg of her trip. Her sister, Dedina, will mail her supplies and ready-to-eat meals at stops along the trail.

Harris isn’t worried about hiking the trail alone (her sister, her regular hiking partner, couldn’t get away for three months). She knows she’ll meet fellow hikers along the way. Bears are a bigger concern (she plans to buy bear spray when she arrives in Wyoming’s Glacier Park and will hike with a small gun and a GPS tracker). She’s also worried about eating properly along the way.

“The hardest part is going to be not pushing myself beyond my limit,” says Harris, who should finish by Sept. 17.

It’ll also be weird for Harris, a news junkie, to check out of the world for 74 days. But for her, the journey is about boiling down her existence and survival to basic necessities – one foot, in front of another.

“It’ll be day after day after day of earning my sleep, earning my food, earning that next day,” says Harris. “...This is a once in a lifetime thing.”

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4686

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