‘Go take a hike,’ say former Navy veterans

Gary Lahnsteiner, Dan Lahnsteiner, Paul Helston and Mike Knippel at the trailhead on the first day of their hike.

Gary Lahnsteiner, Dan Lahnsteiner, Paul Helston and Mike Knippel at the trailhead on the first day of their hike.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer –

High above the Chilkoot Pass three retired sailors looked upon the breathtaking panorama laid out before them.

Captain (Navy) Mike Knippel, Chief Petty Officer First Class Paul Helston, and Lieutenant Commander Gary Lahnsteiner, all retirees from the Royal Canadian Navy, had conquered the often barren and harsh landscape that is the high mountain pass through the Boundary Ranges of the Coast Mountains in Alaska and British Columbia.

Their three-day hiking journey had brought them to this vista, and to a fresh way to live their retirement: exercise, adventure, and friendship.

“When we got up there, we thought what a great experience and who would have thought three ex-navy buddies would ever do something like this,” said Lahnsteiner.

Also on the August trip was Lahnsteiner’s brother Dan, a 52-year-old civilian.

To get their boots on the rugged ground they flew from Victoria to Whitehorse, then took a bus to Carcross before boarding a train to the beginning of the trail in Skagway.

They each carried a backpack stuffed with food, safety equipment, and supplies, about the weight of a toddler.

On the first day of their journey they hiked from the coastal rainforest zone near the Klondike ghost town Dyea, Alaska, and then up a steep incline known as the Golden Stairs before arriving at the Chilkoot Pass near the Canada-United States border.

The trail was well marked with rest stops, camp grounds and park rangers, lessening the danger of a wilderness trek. But Knippel had a close encounter with a black bear outside his tent, and a massive porcupine in a defensive posture blocked their path for several minutes.

“I would put it up there as one of the best outdoor experiences I’ve had because it was more complex logistically and the scenery and wildlife was amazing,” said Knippel, 58.

He is a former MARPAC Chief of Staff, and is currently employed as a Strategy Manager at Fleet Maintenance Facility Cape Breton. He began hiking six years ago and was soon joined by Helston, 57, a former MARPAC Formation Chief who enjoyed a 33-year career in the navy, and former Pacific Fleet Chief Dave Bliss.

They started a closed Facebook Page called The Old Military Fat Guys Group (OMFG) encouraging others to get active. The group currently has about 10 members who hike regularly with the group and 40 members who join them for hikes occasionally. They stay in touch about future hikes through their social media posts.

The page is also is a sounding board to encourage each other to stick with their personal exercise goals.

“We needed to get this message out to people to encourage them: Do some activity outdoors instead of doing nothing,” said Lahnsteiner. “When you get outdoors don’t stop doing your activity; do it daily. Stay active and stay young.”

Lahnsteiner, 54, is fully convinced about the benefits of hiking. He believes the sport is not only beneficial to physical health but is also mentally uplifting. He retired from the military in 2007 after a 24-year career as a Mechanical Systems Engineering Officer and says hiking helped fill a void in his life.

“I hike to clear my mind and for physical fitness; it’s quite a challenge to climb a mountain as you get older. But mainly it’s the comradeship. When you get out of the military you lose that tight-knit group element in your life and hiking allows me to hang with people and get some of that back.”

The benefits for Helston has been losing nearly 70 pounds. Now the great outdoors is a daily passion; he spends up to six hours a day jogging, hiking or walking, normally covering distances of approximately 40 kilometres.

“From a retirement perspective, after you retire some people never figure out what comes after that,” said Helston. “Part of what’s after is learning how to take care of yourself and I think hiking provides a great healthy lifestyle. Just get outdoors whenever you are able.”

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