Adventure Season 2016

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Kensington, MD, March 2, 2016 — It’s that time of year again when the call of the wild echos through the ether.  This is when we plan, pack, lace ’em up and get it on.

The year starts in Georgia on the AT.  For one, I’m anxious to see if all the planning we have done to manage the early crowds actually is beneficial. All I know is that a lot of time and energy have gone into the improvements.

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Next it’s the National Park Service’s centennial.  Shenandoah has challenged folks to celebrate by hiking a hundred miles in the park in return for a free patch. My friend and first hiking partner Mary and her son Ben will be hiking there on a 600 mile-long AT section hike in mid-April.  I plan to tag along for all 105 of Shenandoah’s miles.

From there it gets fuzzier.  I have my ridgerunner hikes and trail crew week – only one this year. I’m signed up for a Leave No Trace master educator course and a talk on backpacking at Sky Meadows State Park, Va. for National Trails Day.

We’ve hired two returning ridgerunners and four new folks for this season.  More on them at another time.

There’s an opportunity to hike the northern half (Oregon and Washington) of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and/or the Colorado Trail.  Lastly, once school is back in session, finishing the Long Trail in Vermont is carved in stone after having to miss it last year.

I’m learning not to predict too much.  Plans do not survive contact with reality, and this year reality is holding a lot of face cards.   I’ve taken on some executive responsibility with my trail club that’s going to eat time, and have been nominated for a professional lifetime career honor that, if selected, I will accept in person come hell or high water.

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Top of the first inning is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain, Georgia.  I’ve noted and written about my friend Denise’s plan to thru hike this year.  Well, she gets dropped off at the trailhead around noon on March 9.  I’ve made the arrangements to be there like a beacon to cheer her on and hike the first 80 miles of the AT with her. She will nail her hike to the wall.

The weather in Georgia has been all over the map.  Hey, it’s in the south you say; it’s bound to be warm.  Well considering that the entire AT in Georgia is above 4,000 ft., cold weather, sleet and snow are factors throughout March.

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I’m packing now.  My pack is going to weigh much more than normal.  For one, I’m carrying my food in a bear-proof container, not so much for the bears, but to set an example to others who don’t take bears seriously.

As for which sleeping bag, jackets and other clothing, I figured I’d split the difference between zero degrees F and 70F.

Stay tuned for dispatches.

Don’t practice being miserable!

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Forty liter pack. 

Appalachian Trail, January 5, 2016 — By now the 2016 thru hikers are deep into preparation.  A very small number have actually launched.  You go guys and gals!

Two years ago on this date I was thru hiking north of Damascus, VA.  The following day I was leaving the trail because one of my parents was going into hospice care.

That was cold hard news, but the weather was colder.

If you recall, the winter of 2013-14 was the year of the infamous polar vortex. When I woke up at dawn the morning of my departure, my thermometer read -15 F.  I had 21 miles to make for pickup.  That’s cause for pause for everyone planning to hike this or any year.

It had rained the entire previous day. Fortunately my rain kit kept my body and the contents of my pack bone dry.  That was a life saver under those circumstances, but my pack harness and pole straps were frozen hard as rock.  Pounding them into a pliable state generated much wanted body heat!

That icy morning I also took my all time thru hike favorite photo of a gorgeous white blaze framed in plump Virginia snow.

This year, as the seasons have switched from Indian summer to true winter, I’ve been following social media discussions on what gear thru hikers should carry.

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This March the temp on the AT in north Georgia fell to 4 F.

On the one extreme are the ultra light gram Nazis. Some of them won’t even carry a Bandaid for fear it will add too much weight.  On the other are extreme the Wally World folks who contemplate hauling camp chairs and elaborate cooking utensils.  Each of these approaches carries existential risks that aren’t for me. I can tell you stories …

Most everyone else is somewhere in the middle on pack weight. As I’ve followed the discussions and debate, I’ve contemplated what constructive information I might be able to add.  Afterall, I hiked 1,000 miles on the AT in winter conditions and was a ridgerunner in Georgia this past spring.  I saw and learned a lot of value from those experiences.

In that context I follow a blogger named Paul Magnanti (www.PMags.com).  Paul writes a very useful and entertaining hiker/backpacker blog from his home base in Colorado. His most recent is entitled “Snivel Gear.” Continue reading

On A “Blissful” Patrol

Lauralee Bliss may well be the dean of AT ridgerunners.

Lauralee Bliss may well be the dean of AT ridgerunners.

Shenandoah National Park, VA, August 15-17, 2015 — I now coordinate five ridgerunners who patrol the 240 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) for which the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) is responsible.  While I am a volunteer, they are paid a modest stipend for their summer work.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be walking a bit with each of the five.  My objective is to know them better and learn what I can from them about the issues on their respective sections of the trail.  Afterall, we’re expecting many more hikers next year. http://appalachiantrials.com/a-walk-in-the-woods-and-its-impact-on-the-appalachian-trail/

Last weekend I walked a section with Lauralee Bliss who is the sole ridgerunner for all 105 miles of the AT in Shenandoah.  That’s a lot of territory to cover.  To say her hiking resume is strong is an understatement.  A former orthopedic nurse, she has thru hiked the AT both northbound and southbound.  Her memoir of those hikes, Mountains, Madness, & Miracles: 4,000 Miles Along the Appalachian Trail sells well. She also has published more than 20 books. http://www.amazon.com/Lauralee-Bliss/e/B001JPCEBI

Lauralee’s multi-year tenure and the volume of unsolicited praise from hikers pretty much says it all.  I’d heard a lot of good things about her long before actually making her acquaintance at a National Trail Day event earlier this summer.

Last Saturday, after completing my work with PATC’s North District Hoodlums trail crew, I hiked in to meet Lauralee at Black Rock hut located at northbound mile 882.3 on the AT.  From there we would hike to McCormick Gap at mile 865.3 with a second overnight stop at the Calf Mountain hut in between.

A very nice couple, former thru hikers, joined us at Black Rock.

A very nice couple, former thru hikers, joined us at Black Rock. Lauralee tents. I hung my hammock.

Along the way we swapped ridgerunning stories and performed minor trail maintenance including clearing some minor blowdowns and picking up micro trash.

Our first adventure happened bright and early the first morning.  We stopped to snag the TP someone had left next to the deposit they’d plopped just a couple of feet off the trail.  As Lauralee shed her pack with intentions of parking it, I noticed a copperhead lolling in the leafy landing zone, perfectly camouflaged as they are.  When ole “Jake No Shoulders” slid into a new residence amongst the discarded TP we decided let it be and wait for another time, discretion is the better part of valor you know. That’s the only mess we didn’t clean up.

Lauralee checking in with Shenandoah dispatch. Many ridgerunners are issued radios that connect them to the various forms of support they need.

Lauralee checking in with Shenandoah dispatch. Many ridgerunners are issued radios that connect them to the various forms of support they need. She’s standing next to Skyline Drive which is the primary front country feature of Shenandoah National Park.

The first day was a hot one.  Toward the end, my IT band was talking back loudly and with authority, but what the hey, it’s all in a day’s work.  At one point I saw a branch strangely sticking out of the ground and partially blocking the trail.  I judged it to be a tripping hazard.  Wrong!  It was plugging a yellow jacket nest.

I got lucky.  When I yanked it out only a few of the evil little critters buzzed about to take a gander.  Rather than luck, it could have been professional courtesy since I used to work at Georgia Tech.  Whatever the reason, I’ll take it. (The Georgia Tech mascot is “Buzz” the Yellow Jacket.)

Along the way we heard about a boisterous southbound Boy Scout troop which had camped at the Calf Mountain hut.  Negative reputations travel fast on the AT.   We didn’t know what to expect, but experience has taught each of us not to hope for much.  We weren’t disappointed, though it could have been much worse.

Trash left by the Boy Scout troop. We only wish they had signed the shelter register. We love return addresses when we find trash.

Trash left by the Boy Scout troop. We only wish they had signed the shelter register. We love return addresses when we find trash.  The pot was full of uneaten food.

Of course the trash was right next to this sign.

Of course the trash was right next to this sign.

Lauralee’s purpose for bringing me to this section was for me to see where maintenance is needed. Some parts of this section are overdue for weeding.  Weeding is important because weeds are the vector for Lyme disease-bearing deer ticks.  http://distancehiking.com/blog/lyme-disease-appalachian-trail/

A contractor mows parts of this section since its distance from population centers makes recruiting overseers difficult.

A contractor mows parts of this section since its distance from population centers makes recruiting overseers difficult.  The vegetation alongside the trail is an invasive species called Japanese stilth grass. Stealth grass would be more like it.  The stuff sneaks right up on you with overwhelming force!

Other sections need work.

Other sections need work.

Lauralee, whose trail name is

Lauralee, whose trail name is “Blissful,” trims briars.

We stashed our trash at Beagle Gap for pick up later. That's about three gallons worth.

We stashed our trash at Beagle Gap for pick up later. That’s about three gallons worth.

Many hikers want to become ridgerunners because they think the job is about hiking.  It’s actually about education.  The purpose of ridgerunning is to help hikers do the right things to take care of the trail and its surrounding environment.

ridgerunners break up illegal fire rings.

Among other duties, ridgerunners break up illegal fire rings.

Ridgerunners help hikers understand how to Leave No Trace that they've ever been in the wilderness.

Ridgerunners help hikers understand how to “Leave No Trace” that they’ve ever been in the wilderness. https://Int.org .

Ridgerunners pack out other people's trash. It's one of the distasteful parts of the job.

Ridgerunners pack out other people’s trash. It’s one of the distasteful parts of the job.

Best of all, ridgerunners help hikers. Here Lauralee helped this young novice with a back shakedown that eliminated eight excess pounds of equipment she did not need.

Best of all, ridgerunners help hikers. Here Lauralee helped this young college student with a pack shakedown that eliminated eight excess pounds of equipment that she did not need.

One thing I learned about Lauralee is that she is a bear whisperer.  On our last morning we found a young bear ambling in the forest.  It probably is his rookie year away from his mother.

When Lauralee talked to the bear in her soft blissful voice, his head cocked from side to side while his ears twitched in every direction like radar searching for UFOs.  Maybe to him that’s what we were.

I just know this: He left us with a gentle heartbeat and in the good spirits that reflected the extraordinary person with whom I was fortunate enough to share the weekend.

Flash Forward One Year

Aug. 6, 2014.  I took summit photos in two different shirts.

Aug. 6, 2014. I took summit photos in two different shirts.

Home Sweet Home, August 6, 2015 — I wasn’t going to write a one-year-retrospective.  Most of them are boring and trite.  As I have often said, being a successful thru-hiker doesn’t make you special.  It only means that you were fortunate enough to have a special experience.

Okay, so what happens when it’s over?  You go home and then what?  Post hike depression is well documented.  Of course, I thought it could not happen to me.

When your hike is over, if you’re lucky, you have to get back to work.  That’s true for most hikers.  If you have something lined up – say going to grad school – you’ve got it made.  But even if you have to job search, you’ve got a defined focus for your time and a purpose to pursue.

If you’re retired, that’s another story.  Recently retired people are the second largest, albeit, small category of thru hikers.  A lot of them shut the door to their offices and open the front door to the AT with little transition time. I met a hiker in Georgia this year whose time lapse was four days!

I prepared for ten months, but it’s almost the same.  I’d done nothing to prepare for retirement itself other than to know that I’d have to “keep busy.”

Boom!  The hike ends.  You take a victory lap. The the crowds stop clapping.  For months on end you’ve had a routine.  Wake up, eat and hike.  Following the white blazes was my job.  Where is the next white blaze?

Aside from the daily trail routine, hiking is heavy exercise that bathes your brain in a heavy flow of endorphins all day long.  Like distance running, the craving doesn’t stop when you end your journey.

Endorphins act like opiates.  These chemicals, manufactured by your body, make you feel really good.  When they go away, the funk can get very deep indeed.

I thought that returning to a strenuous exercise routine and increasing my volunteer activities would help me avoid endorphin withdrawal and the mental depression that goes with it.  NOT SO!

I did all these things, but in between, I sat in my easy chair and stared out the window or zoned out with ESPN on the idiot box.  My reading habit evaporated.  In the past year I have completed exactly one book; that compares to my 3 to 4 per month lifetime average.  My motivation meter was pegged at zero.

There’s more.  My weight began to creep up.  I did switch back to healthy foods from the ultra high calorie trail junk, but I ate a lot and drank more beer.  I’ve regained about 75 percent of my lost weight.

After my voluntary stint as a ridgerunner in Georgia this spring, my mind began to get a grip.  Maybe returning to the scene of the crime helped.

I remembered why I retired in the first place. My retirement routine couldn’t replace my previous career as an adrenalin junkie.  The 60-hour plus work weeks needed to be left to history.  The new normal needed to be new.

Now my volunteer time is structured around specific goals.  I’ve found opportunities with much more responsibility – to the point where I supervise five paid employees in one of the gigs.  Best of all, I’m beginning to have a lot of fun.

For now, one year after my hike, retirement has become a never-ending process.  I’m contemplating more hiking adventures, but I’ll tackle them differently.  For example, I’d love to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. (“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed is set there.)  But if I do, it will be over three years in sections rather than all at once.

If I learned one take-away from hiking the Appalachian Tail it is that thru hiking takes a long time.  While I loved my hike and would do it again, I got tired of being out there “forever.” Moreover, making “forever” so is not a reasonable expectation.

Looking ahead, I’m hoping to better use my time because at this stage of life, you truly have to do more with less.

Post card I sent to those who helped along the way.

Post card I sent to those who helped along the way.

One of the best parts of my final day on the trail was to share it with my friend Karen (Tie) Edwards.

One of the best parts of my final day on the trail was to share it with my friend Karen (Tie) Edwards.

Here’s a link to a one of several videos I’ve made in support of speeches I’ve made this past year.

https://www.sugarsync.com/pf/D3624411_94596663_12582

On the Road

Chainsaw sculpture at Bears Den Hostel, Va.

Chainsaw sculpture at Bears Den Hostel, Va.

Northern Virginia, July 17 – 28, 2015 — In deference to Garrison Keillor, it wasn’t a quiet week anywhere around my town.  It was busy as could be.

We had the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) biannual meeting at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. where I led two hikes – more to come on that, followed by a trail construction day with an environmentally oriented youth group from Yonkers, NY called Groundwork.

In between a small group of North District Hoodlum sawyers schlepped our chainsaws up to Bears Den on Saturday to buck two large dead trees that were felled by professional arborists.

Did I mention that the daytime temps averaged over 90 F with high humidity the whole time?  So there I was, producing infinite amounts of sweaty washing while our still-under-warrenty washing machine awaits a new motor.  No, I have not sublet any space at our house to anyone named Murphy.

The first hike was a strenuous 16-miler from the Reno Monument on Maryland's South Mountain south to Harpers Ferry, WV.  The heat took its toll.

The first hike was a strenuous 16-miler on the AT  from the Reno Monument on Maryland’s South Mountain south to Harpers Ferry, WV. The heat took its toll.

Monument to Civil War journalists at Maryland's Gathland State Park.

Monument to Civil War journalists at Maryland’s Gathland State Park.

The second hike was a five-miler on the First Manassas civil war battlefield on the 153rd anniversary of the battle to the day.  It was hard to imagine what it was like for the soldiers who wore woolen uniforms in suffocating heat and humidity.

The second hike was a five-miler on the First Manassas civil war battlefield on the 153rd anniversary of the battle to the day. It was hard to imagine what it was like for the soldiers who wore woolen uniforms in suffocating heat and humidity.  This is at the “stone bridge” for those familiar with the battle.

We started the morning with a preview of the battle in the visitors center.

We started the morning with a preview of the battle in the visitors center.

This stone house and former tavern served as a hospital during the battle.  The battle's culmination point on Henry Hill is just above this structure.

This stone house and former tavern served as a hospital during the battle. The battle’s culmination point on Henry Hill is just above this structure.

The sawyer was approximately 80 feet in the air.  Couldn't pay me to do that.

At Bears Den.  The sawyer was approximately 80 feet in the air. Couldn’t pay me to do that.  This dead tree plus another threatened to block the access road if blown down in a storm.  The need to preempt that is self evident.

Boom.

A severed branch smacks the road with a big boom!

Wearing my sawyer hat.

Wearing my sawyer hat.  I need to iron my neck and maybe use some spray starch.

Head Hoodlum Janice Cessna briefs the young folks from Groundwork.

Head Hoodlum Janice Cessna briefs the young folks from Groundwork.

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Working Hard!  It's important to make the experience hands-on.

Working Hard! It’s important to make the experience hands-on.  Here the kids are building a check dam which is a structure designed to slow water.

Completed waterbar - a structure designed to direct water off the trail.

Completed waterbar – a structure designed to direct water off the trail.

A Romp in the Woods?

Harpers Ferry, WV, July 7, 2015 — I was privileged to see a sneak preview of “A Walk in the Woods,” a knockabout comedy staring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.  The show opens in 1,800 theaters on Sept. 2.

Redford.  Slapstick.  No way!!!  Indeed, it’s true.  The movie was a delightful midnight snack adding a light touch to Redford’s rich acting career.  If you recall, Redford and Paul Newman always had a comedic touch.

To my delight, the humor was practically nonstop.  The jokes kept coming.  Anyone would get them, but there was enough hiker and AT double entandre to evoke knowing nods and smiles from the audience.

From a potty trowel Christmas ornament available on line at www.appalachiantrail.com

Potty trowel Christmas ornaments are available on line at http://www.appalachiantrail.com

Potty humor on the trail isn’t new and this movie doesn’t disappoint.  The ubiquitous and sometimes maligned potty trowel makes more than a cameo appearance.

Redford with toilet paper in hand may have been added for shock value, but more likely, the potty trowel scenes are subliminal Leave No Trace messages using a subject not much discussed in polite, read the non-hiking, society.

Yup.  Bears aren’t the only ones who do it in the woods and wanna be’s need to know that and prepare to pull their pants down around that and other deeply personal subjects in advance.

To recap for the unfamiliar, author Bill Bryson penned a  best-seller in the late 1990s entitled, A Walk in the Woods.  It was a semi-fictional and somewhat autobiographical story based on chunks of the Appalachian Trail that Bryson sampled in preparation to write his story.  His sidekick, Steven Katz – played by Nolte in the movie –  is the foil and comedic counterpoint as their adventures unfold.

This New York Times best seller is credited with driving up the number of AT thru hike attempts by logarithmic factors since.

The screenplay differs a fair amount from Bryson’s original story, but the essence is there.  Two old comrades with diametrically opposite personalities reunite after decades of estrangement for one last adventure.

Neither this film, nor the recent movie “Wild” (based on Cheryl Strayed’s best selling memoir) are about hiking per se.  In each, hiking is the means to the end.  In this case, Bryson confronts career burnout and the remedy is a romp in the woods with his old buddy Katz.  Our treat is to go along for the ride and enjoy the laughs.

Kristen Schaal.

Kristen Schaal.

The cast is fantastic, especially Longmont, Colorado’s own Kristen Schaal who is brilliant.  Her character plays off a classic AT stereotype and the reappearance of her character could have been a hilarious punctuation point near the end of the movie when Bryson and Katz have to be rescued.  In stead, the dynamic duo are saved by other stereotypes they first hate but come to love. In reality, it doesn’t happen that way on the AT.  No spoiler alert here.

As with any movie about subjects we know intimately and love dearly, this movie has its share of nits to pick and quibble about.  Among them, in the movie: Gooch Gap comes after Neels Gap. McAfee Knob appears after Shenandoah National Park.  The duo has trekking poles strapped to their obviously empty packs, but never use them. The social aspects of the AT experience are mostly AWOL. The bears that steal Bryson and Katz’s food are grizzlies, not black bears.  (We know bears will do almost anything for food, but hitchhike from Montana?  That’s a bit much.)  Much of the movie was not shot on the AT. That’s dramatic license. So what?

The $64 dollar question is how “A Walk in the Woods” will affect the number of hikers in the future.  History is clear.  Major media events drive numbers up.

Given that most Millennials barely know who Redford and Nolte are, it may not have much effect on that demographic. Large numbers of Boomers, on the other hand, missed out when they were in their 20s.  Like me, they had to wait until retirement to find the time.  Could be that this will remind them to get off the bench and out in the woods.

More likely, we may expect the number of weekenders and short-distance backpackers to increase along the trail.  After all, Bryson himself didn’t hike the whole thing.  For those without the where with all or inclination to thru hike, sampling chunks of the trail is a viable alternative.

Hordes of uninitiated hikers can have a disproportionate impact on the environment.  That’s why the potty trowel metaphor is an effective vehicle to communicate the larger Leave No Trace message.  It creates awareness and opens the door to a broader discussion of appropriate behavior and practices.

Viewers come to movies like this with a truck load of preconceptions.  They’ve read the book, tramped around on the AT or other trails, and have their own inventory of intrepid experiences.  Hikers want a hiking movie with which they can self-identify and reinforce the attributes of the hiking experience as they understand it.

In other words, hikers will tend to want a certain label and vintage of fine red wine, e.g. perfection.  For some, this won’t that movie, and I’ll submit that there’ll never be one.  So, this flick may not be what you hope for, but it will still make you laugh because if you haven’t been there and done that, at least you’ve seen it.

As a feature film, this treat is tasty, but definitely lo-cal.  It never intended or tried to be an opulent double Dutch chocolate delight. In other words, here’s little to satiate the uncontrollable urge known as hiker hunger in “A Walk in the Woods” the movie, and unfortunately the lack of high caloric content may be unfulfilling to a few of the usual suspects out there in hiker land who never seem to be satisfied anyway.

By its end, “A Walk in the Woods” is a light comedy based on our favorite pass time with a sprig of deeply personal revitalization for the two main characters garnishing the end.  They all lived happily ever after.

When you think about it, isn’t that a big chunk of why any of us lace ’em up and grab our trekking poles?

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Ridgerunner Coordinator

Yours truly with the 2015 Potomac Appalachian Trail Club ridgerunners.

Yours truly with the 2015 Potomac Appalachian Trail Club ridgerunners.

Blue Ridge Summit, PA — No good deed goes unpunished.  In my case, the “punishment” is really a delightful reward.  Last month I was asked to manage the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s (PATC) ridgerunner program. I couldn’t wait to be thrown into that briar patch!

Although I love being a grunt on the Hoodlums trail crew and overseeing my AT section, I’ve been searching to expand into a leadership role within PATC and this one is perfect for me.

These ridgerunners are highly trained, independent, experienced and motivated.  Serving them is a high honor.  If you could meet them in person, you’d know exactly why.  You’d break your pick for any one of them.

The Ridgerunner’s primary role is to be an ambassador from the trail to those who use it.  They are there to help and encourage, especially desired behaviors such as practicing the Leave No Trace ethic.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ridgerunner for more. Ridgerunning is a rewarding experience as readers know who recall the blogs I wrote while ridgerunning in Georgia this past March.

Each ridgerunner patrols a defined section of the PATC’s 240 miles of the AT.  The length of their service is dependent on the where their patrol section is and the funding provided by the partner agency responsible for that section.  They aren’t paid a lot, but that’s not really the point.

As for the good deed — I prepared a report for various senior AT leaders about my experiences and observations in Georgia. The report was widely circulated, and I think someone thought, “Okay wiseguy.  You brought it up.  Now step up!” I accepted in a nanosecond.

Here is a link to that report:  https://www.sugarsync.com/pf/D3624411_94596663_20574  Those who read it will learn a bit about what I leave out of my family-friendly blogs.

Looking ahead to upcoming challenges, the number of AT thru hikers and visits to the trail is expected to dramatically increase next year in response to two Hollywood movies — Reece Witherspoon’s “Wild” which involves hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail and Robert Redford’s “A Walk in the Woods” which is based on Bill Bryson’s popular book about hiking the AT.  “A Walk in the Woods” opens Labor Day weekend.

Historical data tells us to buckle up and  expect a huge increase in the number of inexperienced and inadequately prepared hikers. For my part, I’d rather be part of the solution than be part of the problem.

Meanwhile, I look forward to hiking with these great ridgerunners on patrol in, what for us, is the real world.

Several friends and acquaintances have congratulated me on my pencil drawings lately.  I can draw, but not nearly that well.  The featured image for this post was taken with my iPhone and processed by an app called Pencil Sketch.  I’ve used this artful feature for more than a year and absolutely love it.  I created the renderings that follow just to show you some of the tricks it has up its sleeve.

This is the original photograph.  The various renderings follow.

This is the original photograph. The various renderings follow.

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A Soggy Weekend

  Shenandoah National Park, VA, Saturday and Sunday May 16 – 17, 2015 — The Hoodlums trail work weekend was pro forma until it wasn’t.  I came up Friday to jumpstart the week and work on the section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) for which I am responsible as an overseer. 

Rain was threatening but I still managed to muck out and repair six waterbars. They are structures placed at a 45 degree angle to the trail that direct water off the trail, thus preventing erosion. I’ll write in more detail about infrastructure and how it is built at another time. 

  Friday evening was uneventful as several members of the gang gathered at the Indian Run Hut to camp and save a long early Satursay morning drive. 

With rain in the forecast we were hoping to get our projects done. A ton of chainsaw work was on the list. My team was assigned to rebuild a troublesome chunk of a popular side trail in the park. 

  Luck favored us and everyone got ‘er done and we retired to the Elk Wallow picnic area for our Cajun themed pot luck. 

   

 Well, we almost finished our dinners before the sunshine changed to its liquid form. We hustled into our rain gear and continued to chow down. There are no covered pavilions under which to shelter so we noshed in a light rain – another delight I remember from my Army career. 

  Just as we were about finished, the sky opened up. It was over.  We broke for our cars, most of us sopped through to the skin. A few of us returned to Indian Run where we have an awning to continue in front of the fire. 

Dry clothes beat a hot shower that night. I was sleeping in my hammock for the first time in the rain too with prayers that I would stay dry.  I did in spite of a heavy barrage of thunder and buckets of rain. Yea!!!

Sunday was penance day. The most onerous task for maintainers is weeding. Since vegetation is the vector for Lyme disease bearing ticks, this task is the most important thing we do for those using our trails.  Sweat stung my eyes for seven hours. Finally exhaustion and the swing blade won. Most of my section got done the rest will have to wait. 

Tomorrow starts crew week. Our first task: breaking big rocks into little ones. There is some doubt about it.  Rain continues in the forecast and you don’t swing slick-handled sharp tools and heavy rock mauls in the rain, that is unless you have a death wish. Time will tell. Stay tuned…

Karma Comes to the Back Country

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award for picking up other people's trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award for picking up other people’s trash.

Appalachian Trail, Sunday May 10, 2015 — People are loving our national hiking trails to death.  The Appalachian Trail (AT) alone is estimated to see up to three million visitors per year.

Looking at it one way, that’s enough boots on the ground to bruise the rocks rather than the rocks having the opposite effect on the hikers’ feet.  It’s sort of like hammer vs. nail in role reversal isn’t it?

The collective environmental impact generated by all these people is enormous.  They generate human waste, leave trash, trample vegetation, erode trails and mark their passage in many other unwelcome ways.  There are many means to mitigate this impact, but before we talk about that, here’s the back story.

Most people experience our national parks and forests in what is known as front country.  Front country is civilized, distinguished by infrastructure such as roads, picnic tables, flush toilets, trash cans, concessions and parking.

You know about more about front country than you may think.  That’s where Yogi, Boo boo and Mr. Ranger did their Jellystone schtick.  You get the idea.

The back country is a very different animal.  In contrast to front country, about the only evidence of civilization are the marked hiking trails.  The AT’s primitive shelters and privies are a notable exception. Otherwise it’s supposed to be a “wilderness” experience.  (Not to be confused with designated wilderness areas.  That’s a separate matter.)

Most people never see the back country and hardly realize it’s even there.  The primary reason may be that a lot of muscle power is usually required to get into the back country.  In other words, you have to sweat.

Been to the mall lately?  Observations suggest that fewer and fewer Americans are up for back country excursions. Supersize soft drinks aside, nevertheless there’s no shortage of back country hikers.

The problem comes when people show up in the back country and don’t know how to limit their impact.  Within my experience, they fall into two primary groups.

One group fancies themselves as romantic throwbacks applying their survival skills and living off the land in ways promoted by Jack London, the Boy Scout Handbooks prior to the 1970s, or the Bear Grylls TV series today.

If everyone behaved this way in the back country, it wouldn’t be long before they’d turn paradise into a denuded moonscape.  When you spy someone with a axe, hatchet, machete or (the very heavy) Bear Grylls brand gear on a national hiking trail, you might be looking at one of these folks.

Machete damage.  Green trees don't burn by the way.

Machete damage. Green wood doesn’t burn by the way.

The other group is simply clueless.  Finding no back country trash cans, they just drop their garbage where they stand because they don’t come prepared to carry it out.  They befoul water sources with human waste.  They trample vegetation.  Overall, their practices put the back country environment at risk.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits.  It doesn't burn completely.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits. It doesn’t burn completely.

Unburnt trash.

Unburnt trash.

 When the backpacking craze developed as boomers came of age in the late 1960s, it threatened to overwhelm the environment.  Minimal impact techniques emerged as ways to mitigate the damage generated by the hiking hoards of that era.***

In time, minimum impact morphed into the Leave No Trace ethic.  Leave No Trace is based on seven principles designed to help not only to minimize human impact, but also to maintain the highest quality wilderness experience possible.

Principles were developed for both the front and back country.  Much more at:  https://lnt.org/  These are the back country principles:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Poorly prepared people, when presented with unexpected situations, often resort to high-impact solutions that degrade the outdoors or put themselves at risk. Proper planning leads to less impact.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Damage to land occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond repair. The resulting barren area leads to unusable trails, campsites and soil erosion.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Though most trash and litter in the backcountry is not significant in terms of the long term ecological health of an area, it does rank high as a problem in the minds of many backcountry visitors. Trash and litter are primarily social impacts which can greatly detract from the naturalness of an area.[5] Further, backcountry users create body waste and waste water which requires proper disposal according to Leave No Trace.
  4. Leave What You Find: Leave No Trace directs people to minimize site alterations, such as digging tent trenches, hammering nails into trees, permanently clearing an area of rocks or twigs, and removing items.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: Because the naturalness of many areas has been degraded by overuse of fires, Leave No Trace teaches to seek alternatives to fires or use low-impact fires.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Minimizing impact on wildlife and ecosystems.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Following hiking etiquette and maintaining quiet allows visitors to go through the wilderness with minimal impact on other users. (Wikipedia)
Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right.

Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Fortunately most hikers are aware of Leave No Trace.  It’s promoted everywhere.  Unfortunately these principles are practiced selectively and conveniently.  In other words, hikers reason their one insignificant transgression won’t have any harmful effect.

The reality is the opposite.  The impact of small Leave No Trace lapses grows exponentially when “everybody” does it.

Now back to the reason for this story.

Too many younger hikers were not following Leave No Trace ethics, yet hikers 18-24 make up the majority of AT thru hikers.  More challenging, the traditional messages and delivery means were not working with this group.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Enter Trail Karma as a new outreach program: http://www.trailkarma.com.  It is a website targeting younger hikers.  The Trail Karma awards component of this program allows ridgerunners and trail ambassadors to reward good behavior on the trail when it happens in real time.

The Trail Karma Award is a nice AT medallion with a serial number on the back.  Hikers can register the award on the Trail Karma website and even pass it along when another good turn is observed.

The idea is to reinforce the positive.  I thought the two Trail Karma Awards I was able to present during my time in Georgia had a positive impact, both on the hikers who received them and those who observed the presentation.

Yesterday’s mail brought a CARE package of new Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.  I can’t wait to find good behavior to reward.

***The trails weren’t pristine before the boomers showed up.  In the earlier era, hikers and campers built lean-tos, cut pine bows to make beds, chopped tent stakes every night, disposed of food cans willy nilly and practiced a multitude of other sins.  Their smaller numbers helped limit the damage which was was eventually cleared up.

Rembrandt I’m Not

  

Shenandoah National Park, Sunday April 19, 2015 — Patomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) North District Hoodlums Trail Crew gathered Saturday for its monthly outing. As usual, we divided into several work groups to clear, clean, repair and improve the trails in the park. We got a lot done. 

A few of us camped in the park in order to get early starts on our individual trail sections this morning. 

Trail maintenance can be pretty mundane. Today was painting day, but not just painting any old thing. 

No sir. Today I was painting almighty white blazes. These are the very symbol of the AT and the center of attention for hikers. Miss the wrong one, and you could wind up in Rhode Island sometime. 

Some blazes have faded over the years.

   

   

I thought this spot needs a white blaze.

 

  

A blaze had once been there, but its host tree died after a 2011 fire burned through the area.

   

So I picked a close neighbor to be its new forwarding address.

 

Now nobody gets lost.

Could Rembrandt have done it better?  I’m not so sure of that. 😊