Eating the Elephant

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Springer Mountain, Georgia, March 21 – 26, 2015 — My volunteer period is complete. I’ve hauled my last load of hiker trash out of the North Georgia hills.  It’s now up to someone else.  Some end of tour observations follow.

It’s a free country.  You can tell that from the range of people and their degree of respect for nature, the environment and the hard won Appalachian Trail infrastructure.  I just wish more hikers would come to the trail better prepared.

The overwhelming majority of people naturally do the right thing.  They practice “Leave No Trace” outdoor ethics by taking only photos and leaving only footprints.  Everything they truck in, they haul out from cigarette butts, Charmin flowers, and uneaten food to unwanted gear that’s unneeded or too heavy, excess clothing, or used dental floss.

My pleasure was being with these folks.  They’re plumbers, pipe fitters, surgeons, teachers, nurses and bus drivers.  They share a common love and respect for the outdoors and are excellent students of how to do well out here.  They love being outdoors and live to be one with nature.

A lot of hikers come to the AT overwhelmed.  They struggle to grasp all 2,189 miles at once.  It’s like the old aphorism about how you eat an elephant – one bite at a time.  The average AT hiker goes to town every five days.  If that’s so, hiking the AT is simply 35 consecutive five-day hikes.  Put that way, it’s much easier to get your arms around the magnitude of the task ahead.

My hope is that more hikers would better prepare themselves.  I follow a blogger from Colorado who wrote an interesting post this week about Colin Fletcher who wrote some of the seminal books on hiking including the all time favorite, The Complete Walker.  His post can be read at this link.  http://www.pmags.com/the-complete-walker-iii-colin-fletcher I just wish more people would read Fletcher, or at least check out the enormous amount of information available on line.

Here's a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills).  He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Here’s a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills). He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Others are far less attuned to ethical behavior in the back country.  They do what they do back home.  Twice hikers even tried to argue that I was hiding the trash cans from them.  These would-be-thru-hikers had a hard time appreciating that thru hiking is supposed to be a wilderness experience.  You pack it in.  You pack it out.  No trash cans.  End of story.  I was ignored more than once.

Food containers do not burn completely.

Food containers do not burn completely.

IMG_2368Nothing should go into the fire pits or privies that’s not supposed to be there.

Bill Bryson had it right in his book A Walk in the Woods.  It’s been made into a movie which will be in theaters later this summer. Bryson wryly observed the unprepared throwing their gear overboard and much more.  Why people come out here so poorly prepared is beyond me, and a hellova lot of others too. You don’t have to look far for classic examples. It’s a topic of continuing conversation among the properly prepared.

This was my final trash run.  The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food.  Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

This was my final trash run. The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food. Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

Considering how much excellent information is readily available on the internet or from recent books, there’s no excuse for being unprepared.  Some self-identify with so-called survivor show heroes and want to give it a whirl.  Others are just clueless.  Somehow almost all of them manage to learn one thing – that is to wind duct tape around their hiking poles.  A precious few don’t even find that out.

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There are two basic hiker types out here.  There are the thru hikers.  They are self-evident.  Only one in four will finish.  Still, this is their season.  They’ve got until mid-October to climb Maine’s Mt. Katahdin before it closes.  They’ve got to get going.

Some folks are old school.

Some folks are old school.

Then there are all the shorter distance hikers, sometimes called section hikers.  Of them, about half are on spring break – families and college students alike.  This is one of the only times during the year when they can come.  They identify with the AT brand and are in Georgia because it’s where the southern terminus of the trail is, it’s warm and the logistics are easy.  They’re not going away.

IMG_2296_2 IMG_2285_2There’s an interesting subculture among section hikers.  A significant number of these hikers want to share in the excitement of the great spring migration – to be there, to rub shoulders, to share the thrill and/or to relive their own adventure and reignite memories of years past.

Some come every year.  It’s muddy form of March Madness where they get to be on the court with the actual players themselves.  Later they will follow hikers they’ve met and root for them.  It’s hard to beat.

The challenge is that, in the first 30 miles of the trail, for every 10 thru hikers there are 8 section hikers.  The infrastructure is taxed to the max!  Even the privies fill up – ugh.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter.  These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter. These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

Overcrowding has its downsides.  Earlier in the week, the Georgia Health Department issued a noro virus warning.  A case had been reported in the state.  Funky hikers who don’t know how to stay clean in the wilderness, living in close proximity, form a perfect petri dish.  In spite of the beauty, it can get really ugly out here.  Nevertheless, it’s worth it.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning.  Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they'd collected.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning. Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they’d collected.

Many hikers are tuned in to Leave No Trace practices and collect trail trash as the hike.  I gave one hiker (from Brooklyn, NY no less) a “Trail Karma” award for carrying out discarded clothing and other trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award.

Someone creatively tried to hike the space blanket they no longer wanted.

Someone creatively tried to hide a space blanket they no longer wanted.

Still, hikers are excited to be on the AT whether the trail viscosity matches a hot fudge sundae on a summer day in Georgia or it’s frozen over.  In many cases they are living their dreams.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

During my stay the seasons changed – at least twice.

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This year the Appalachian Trail is 90 years old.  It was built by volunteers and is maintained by volunteers as originally envisioned by its founder Benton MacKaye.  It’s thrilling to play a small role in that legacy.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.

Sneak Peak

My gear set up in Woods Hole shelter in Georgia.

My gear set up in Woods Hole shelter in Georgia.

North Georgia, Friday March 30, 2015 — None of us who love being outdoors could ever be accused of living he lifestyles of the rich and famous.  We’re not even trying.  But, we are living life in the simple way we love.  A sneak peak into the way it is out here follows.

It’s always fun to write about the drama whether it’s snow, mud, rain, wind, heat, bears, snakes, and the like.  But reality is much more mundane.  So what it is that we really do? Here are a few questions and answers.

Where to we sleep?  Some people sleep in shelters.  These three-sided structures were part of the AT’s original vision.  A precious few of the original log structures still stand, though most are infested by field mice and the critters that eat them. (Read Jake No Shoulders: aka snakes.)

An original shelter from the 1930s.

An original shelter from the 1930s at Cable Gap.

Wood Hole, a more contemporary shelter.

Wood Hole, a more contemporary shelter.

Shelters offer safe haven in stormy weather and enable quick get-aways in the morning. The accommodate from six to 16 of your best friends, at least that’s what you become after sleeping cheek to cheek with people who were formerly perfect strangers. Corner locations offer privacy on at least one side.

Former strangers.  Friends now!

Former strangers. Friends now!

Tenting or sleeping in hammocks are alternatives to shelters.  Hikers tend to favor tents, at least until their need for speed trumps aversion to strangers.

A peak inside my mosquito netting.

A peak behind my mosquito netting.

Tents offer privacy and control of your gear.  Most makes are comfortable and weather tight.  They do add up to an hour each day to pitch and strike them.

Cooking?  There are as many ways to cook as there are hikers.  Some cook over an open fire.  This method has multiple disadvantages including sooty pots, the time spent gathering wood and building the fire, not to mention the extra weight of fresh food that’s much cheaper than branded dehydrated meals.

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Hikers tend to cook near their tents or in common areas associated with the shelters.

Hikers love high calorie, low volume foods.  Breakfast often consists of oatmeal, coffee, hot chocolate, pop tarts and granola bars.  Lunch can be tortillas and peanut butter, salami on bagels, or Snickers bars.  Many folks don’t stop long for lunch, if at all.  After all, time equals miles.

Almost everyone eats a hot dinner.  One all time favorite is Ramman noodles with peanut butter. That passes for haute Pad Thai in these parts.  Otherwise meals dehydrated at home or manufactured by companies such as Mountain House are luxurious at the end of a day harder than woodpecker lips.

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Some folks love a few creature comforts, especially at the onset of their hikes.  However these extras add weight and tend to disappear rather quickly as the reality of a 2,200 mile trek sets in.  It’s sometimes amazing what come out of the huge backpacks you see out here.

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After meals, we hang our bear canisters or food bags to keep them out of reach of critters.

Bear canisters are heavy and only required in one small area in Georgia.

Bears must think of this as a food bag tree.

Bears must think of this as a food bag tree.

"Mouse hangers" keep field mice away.

“Mouse hangers” keep field mice away.

After dinner, some folks like a camp fire where they wile away the stress of the day.

After dinner, some folks like a camp fire where they wile away the stress of the day.

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At the crack of dawn we reclaim our food from the bear cables or when in town (about every five days) go to the supper market to buy more.

Now you know a little bit more.

Fifty Shades



Neels Gap to Springer Mountain, GA, Saturday March 14 to Monday March 16, 2015 — This is a dirty story. In fact it’s going to be filthy!  But, it’s not about what you think it is. It’s about Georgia mud. 

When this patrol started, it had been raining nonstop for eight days. The trail is a sodden River of viscous mud. The hikers are coated with it. Their soggy tents have been pitched in it. They’re filthy and everybody needs a break. 





The aphorism on the AT is “No rain. No pain. No Maine.” Well, we’re breaking in the AT Thru Hiker Class of 2015 the right way. Between the epic snow, cold and endless rain, for sure they’ll have earned some bragging rights. 

I started my new patrol from Neels Gap (mile 30). So far I’ve run into many hikers I met earlier in the week on Springer Mountain. They were a cheerful lot having come this far. But, to a person, they want to dry out. 

Ditto for the hikers who dragged themselves into the Top of Georgia hostel where I’ve set up my base camp. At least hostels are a safe haven from the elements. 

Some people are damp because the don’t know how to stay dry. Rain gear alone isn’t enough. 

For example, tent pitching is a good place to start. There are ways to pitch tents in the rain that minimizes the opportunity for water to wet the sleeping compartment. The secret is getting the fly up first, then ducking under it to hang the sleeping compartment. Reverse the process when striking the tent. 

I’ve demonstrated this technique several times. I love it when you can see that little flash bulb go off when the hikers get it. It doesn’t eliminate all dampness, but it’s a huge improvement over the alternative where rain pools on your tent floor after beating its way through your mosquito netting while you struggle with the rain fly. 

Unfortunately after a week of nonstop sop the damp infiltrates everything no matter what you do. 

The rain finally quit on day two. The viscosity of the treadway morphed from soup to solid in just hours.  It was almost as if a miracle occurred right under my muddy clodhoppers. 

Without rain to lubricate the trail, the hikers joy returned. The thousand yard stare yielded to the warmth of days 30 degrees warmer than what they’d been experiencing. 



From rain soaked to salt stained. 

Of course the heat cooked up its own challenges. Dehydration eats you from the inside out. Thirst is a hard master, so be careful what you’re wishing for. 

Late middle age can be unforgiving in these conditions. I encountered a proud former Philidelphia cop struggling up hill. His burdens were typical for early hikers – too much gear, out of shape (but not overweight), serious dehydration and mental doubts. He was thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” 

This is when the unfit begin to realize how far their apple can fall from the tree of success. They begin thinking of the comforts of home, and some succumb. 

I stayed with this hiker until he consumed enough water and refined sugar products to get a mental grip. Then I moved on. 

The day ended atop Springer, that perpetual well spring of hope and optimism. The sun was shining and the Warrior Hikers were present to start their long healing march the next morning. It doesn’t get better than that out here. 

Hope



Springer Mountain, GA, Tuesday March 10, 2015 — It’s raining with liquid sunshine dominating  the forecast for eight out of the next ten days. Yet on Springer, hope is not dampened. Hope is eternal.  

This is the beginning of the great spring migration to Maine, that’s 14 states to the north of here. It’s five million steps, but what the hey!  

On the first day everyone has a more or less equal shot, or so they think. It’s all about optimism and the anticipation of dreams long in the making. 

For the next couple of days I’m spelling one of my colleagues who is the caretaker here. My job is to educate hikers on Leave No Trace, gather data and help the hikers. 

On the first night I helped a woman who was setting up her ultralight tent for the first time outside of her living room floor. I asked how well she thought it would withstand high winds. The tremendous amount of slack in her rain fly and the obvious swayback in the middle was my prompt. 



Later we learned how to hang food bags on the bear cables. Within that context, the opportunity was right, so we learned to throw a bear line and hang food without tying it off to a tree. That way a smart Yogi or Booboo wanna be can’t break the rope and score a meal. She survived the night intact. 



Springer is a place of optimism and farewells. Fathers and mothers, grand parents, husbands, wives, even sisters and brothers trundle to the summit from US Forest Service road 42, just 9 tenths of a mile down the hill. 



The nonhikers gaze deeply into their loved one’s eyes in search of doubt. You can catch them furtively glancing about for danger as they hug their dears and even blink back tears. Then they mug for photos, sometimes even asking the caretaker to be their shutterbug. 



At the trailhead parking lot come the final hugs and tears. Then, with an adrenaline rush, the hikers are off on one of life’s great adventures while the loved ones return home to quietly worry and hope for success.



The hikers come by ones, twos and small clusters. It’s sometimes the first time they meet their fellow thru hikers. No matter where they’re from, their age or reason for hiking, they bond instantaneously in common cause. 

Me. After introductions, bears are my first topic, followed by a bit on Leave No Trace. 

I specifically mention “pack it in. Pack it out.” But I’ve learned to mention cigarette butts, cat holes and for the women, packing out their TP after taking a pee. I’ll mention pee rags, Diva Cups and Go Girls if appropriate. Believe me, most of them need to hear it.  Charmin flowers are not appreciated. 



My last mention is the large number of hikers on the trail. Crowding in shelters and at camp sites is to be expected.



Last I ask who participated in the voluntary registration program, the purpose of which is to help hikers self disperse. Almost everyone who’s heard about it registered. Only a small minority thinks it’s a bad idea. 

At the end of the day I am humbled and reminded that a journey of 2,189 miles begins first with hope; and it’s launched with that first step on Springer Mountain. 



The First Patrol

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This tree was snapped off like a match stick

Hiawassee, GA, Top of Georgia Hostel, Sunday March 8, 2015 — My first patrol was over late Friday night.  The hiking was energy intensive at times, especially in the snow early on.  The ice and wind inflicted some serious damage on the trees, especially along the expose saddles between mountains.

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Overall, the trail treadway is in good shape.  The water is draining properly and the mud is minimal under the conditions although my clothes were covered with it by the time I’d reached the summit of Springer Mountain.

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Along the way I was able to clear several blowdowns that impeded navigation.

The hikers seemed strong and determined for the most part.  I did notice a propensity for them to hold at shelters or dive into town when it rained.  I can’t say I didn’t do some of that during my hike.  Hiking in the rain is miserable.

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My patrol pattern will be changing for the rest of the time I’m here.  From now on, I’ll be hiking south from Neels Gap to Springer where I’ll spend two days while the caretaker there is off.  This makes sense since most of the need to help hikers occurs in the first 30 miles.

Naturally, Murphy was lurking over my shoulder.  I didn’t get back to Hiawassee until 11:30 p.m. Friday evening.  I was so tired that I locked my car keys in the trunk.  I had to go to Atlanta to get a new one.  Lesson learned!

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This weekend was spent at the Appalachian Trail Kickoff.  It’s a hiking seminar at Amicalola State Park.  The presentations ranged wide and far from bears, to hostels, to lightweight gear.  It’s designed to help hikers learn what would be helpful for them to know prior to starting their hikes.

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It was a special privilege to meet and talk with Gene Espy, the second person ever (1953) to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.

Next week we do it again.

Ghosts of Hikers Past



Neels Gap, GA, Sunday March 8, 2015 — Neels Gap is where a lot of hikers go to die, that is if they make it that far. Around a third of the erstwhile starters give up at this spot, just under 40 miles from the start point. 

Hikers quit for a range of reasons. This early it’s usually because they are so out of shape that they can’t continue or they realize that they are totally unprepared for the weather conditions – either low temperatures, snow or rain. Many are carrying very heavy packs stuffed with irrelevant gear or the wrong gear. 

I met a young married couple and the husband’s brother last week near Neels Gap. They seemed fit enough, but said they were postponing their thru hike until they learned more about functioning winter weather. They realized they weren’t prepared. They made an intelligent decision. They also became a statistic. 



If they make it to Neels Gap, the heavies have an option. The trail actually passes through the breezeway of a building in which a conveniently located outfitter just happens to be. 

The staff at Mountain Crossings are all former thru hikers who perform pack shakedowns upon request. In this way hikers can dump their frying pans, coffee pots, axes, outsized gear and the like. Of course they can replace their iron with titanium or other miracles of modern materials science, all for a price of course.

My favorite part of Mountain Crossing is the boot tree.  Ill-fitting blistering boots get tossed over its branches like Halloween decorations serving as a goulish reminders of painfully dashed hopes. 

The trail from White Blaze serial number 1 on Springer Mountain to Neels Gap is well maintained and rather gentle compared to the AT over all. It’s primary terrain feature is Blood Mountain. It’s a well-switch backed trail but challenging to anyone in less than top shape humping a heavy pack. Blood Mountain is aptly named. The notches on it’s gotcha stick are many. 



Trail magic helps a lot of folks get over the hump. Trail Angels cook hot dogs, pancakes and coffee at various road crossings. Bless them all!

Garbage Man

Neel Gap, GA, Saturday March 1, 2015 — Beep – beep – beep – beep. That’s the sound of your friendly hiker garbage man backing out of a shelter with his pack full of detritus others have left behind.

When I staggered into the hostel at Neel Gap with ten pounds of junk. The most galling was the four liters of frozen water.

Seems some folks didn’t realize that you take your water bottle to bed with you when it’s freezing outside at night. So they left the frozen water behind for yours truly to haul thirty miles to the nearest trash receptacle. That’s not to mention the other junk in the photo.

This really isn’t a complaint. That’s why we are here, to help the hikers understand how to do the right thing. When they don’t, we remove the trash before it can serve as a bad example to others.

We also remove blowdown. Sawing keeps you warm, believe me.

In the morning the snow reminds me of a stiff starched white shirt. Sort of crunchy when you put it on. The weather is turning so by noon the snow is as limp as that same starched white shirt on a Georgia summer day. Today the slush was three inches deep with about an inch of water as a top coat.

Tomorrow the forecast is for rain. That’ll remove the snow and slush, but only by turning the trail into a river in the process.

Throughout all of this, the hikers seem intrepid. After all, they’ve come 50 miles. Maine can’t be far ahead.

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