Syracuse resident completes a 48-mile trail in the Grand Canyon in two days — with nephew in tow
By Aaron Gifford
Fifty-seven-year-old Dave Oja may very well be the most passionate walker in Central New York.
His true love, running, has evolved into something else. He once ran the Boston Marathon and is a long-time organizer of the Syracuse Festival of Races. But in the past decade, he’s slowed down his pace enough to hear the birds, smell the flowers and observe the region’s natural beauty.
“My knees just took too many miles on too hard of a surface with too much of a mass,” said Oja, of Syracuse. “Running was a great activity to be able to eat all you want and not gain weight. But you can do that with walking, too. It just takes a lot more time.”
Oja took up running after graduating from Syracuse University some 35 years ago. He still runs some, but avoids going downhill, limits himself to less than four miles per run and never runs two days in a row. But with walking, he often treks 12 miles a day.
To motivate himself to walk daily, even on the coldest days in winter, Oja needed a focal point. So he set his sights on the Grand Canyon, training hard in February, March and April in preparation for the mid-May adventure at one of the most gorgeous tourist attractions in the world.
Oja’s family, well aware of his competitive spirit, feared he might overdo it pushing himself for a personal best in an unfamiliar place. So his nephew, 42-year-old Jody Apap, was assigned to walk with him. Oja was thrilled to have company, but soon realized that his role would also be to help the much less fit Apap go the distance.
“He was assigned to keep me from turning it into a race,” Oja said. “He was my leash.”
Added Apap, “The shape he’s [Oja] is in, it’s beyond words.”
Before departing west, Oja and Apap, who lived downstate, completed a preparation walk at the hilly Highland Forest in Fabius. They covered 17 miles the first day and 21 miles the second day. Still, the Grand Canyon had significantly higher elevations that Highland Forest, with the toughest stretch increasing by 3,000 feet (to 8,000 feet above sea level) in less than five miles. There is also dramatic climate change, with temperatures varying from the mid-90s at the bottom of the canyon, to below freezing at high elevations.
“You have to be ready,” Oja said, “to face extremes.”
After May the canyon is dangerously hot for long-distance walking, and after October snow on the higher elevations makes the trek too treacherous.
In addition to his usual walking gear, Oja brought two T-shirts and two long sleeve shirts, one heavy and one light. Instead of gloves he brought an extra pair of socks to put over his hands just in case it got really cold. He also had a hat, sunscreen, a head lamp, energy bars, pretzel sticks, four ½-liter bottles for water, petroleum jelly for blisters along with skin tape and bandages. And, perhaps most importantly, both men brought cameras.
They stayed in a lodge overnight, waking up early to continue their journey. They covered 48 miles in two days, enjoying the wildlife, the solitude, the beautiful rock walls that are among the natural wonders of the world and the deep blue desert sky.
During the day, they saw lizards, rock squirrel and colorful birds not seen east of the Mississippi. At night, with the aid of head lamps, they saw sand-colored bats flying within a few inches of their faces to cobble up spiders, beetles, centipedes and other crawlers that come out after dark.
“At night you to have to worry about snakes and scorpions, tripping over a rock or falling off a ledge,” Oja said. “It is pitch black out there, but if you have a head lamp and you’re paying attention, it’s walkable. I learned just how doable nighttime hiking is.”
While resting along the trail, the pair met a 79-year-old man who was completing his fourth Grand Canyon rim walk, and planning to do his fifth at the age of 80. It was then that Oja decided that he’d return again within three years, and do it again at age 80 or beyond.
The downhill portions of the trek caused minor injuries to Oja’s feet, and he expects to lose both big toe nails. He scaled back his walking regimen slightly since returning in May but planned to return to his usual routine soon.
Apap said training for and completing the hike has put him in his best physical shape in over 20 years. He said the canyon is the most spectacular sight he’s ever seen.
“From the rim it’s so awesomely big, it’s really hard to get your brain around it. But the smaller canyons inside the larger canyon — and there are thousands of them — any one of them would be a monument in any other state in the country,” Apap said.
Oja is self-employed as the coordinator of the Syracuse Festival of Races, and he provides promotional and technical support for other foot race venues. Running has been good to Oja and he is still seen as the guy who is all things running in Central New York. But to anyone who wants to listen, Oja has more to say about walking these days.
His favorite places are Highland Forest and Green Lakes, both in Onondaga County; though this time of year his neighborhood on the east side of Syracuse near the DeWitt border is lovely. He noticed the first robin of the year in mid-February and the first goldfinch in late May.
“The thing about walking is you can do it wherever you live. There are a lot of things you can hear and see and smell that you wouldn’t notice if you’re stuck in your house or your car. It’s nice to see things in your neighborhood that you never noticed before. It’s absolutely lovely out there.”
His advice for aspiring walkers: For starters, just get out and walk. If you can’t set aside an hour a day, how about 30 minutes? But don’t limit the routine to nice weather. To get through miserable months like February, set your sights on preparing for organized walking events at city parks or Highland Forest, or organize your own spring, summer or fall family walking day at any of the state parks in the region.
The physical benefits: weight control or loss, lower blood pressure, stress reduction and cardio vascular improvement. Walking also give you a chance for some alone time to think, reflect, sort things out in your head and just enjoy some quiet time.
Oja won’t endorse any type of shoes or gear. He says if you’re comfortable in sneakers, loafers, Crocks or cheap flip-flops, go with what you like.
“Don’t waste your money on fancy crap,” he says. “And you don’t need pedometers or heart rate monitors,” he said. “That junk can keep you from wanting to get out and walk. The beauty of walking is, everybody walks. One-year-old babies walk; elderly people walk; People walked 50,000 years ago. It’s accessible to everyone. There are so many good things about walking.”