It’s a wrap for the last ridgerunner standing.

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Annapolis Rock, Maryland, October 18, 2019 — It’s that time again.  Our longest ridgerunner season is running out of altitude and airspeed.  The sprint to the finish line is underway.

Friday, Mary Thurman and I struck the caretaker tent, packed it up and hiked it down the mountain to the ridgerunners rustic apartment at Washington Monument State Park. There it is interred in a closet for a long winter’s rest.

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At first we thought something had gone terribly wrong. The tarp protecting the tent from UV rays was in shreds.

Had a bear attacked it?  Vandals?  Actually high winds the previous night destroyed the sun-weakened tarp which had valiantly done its duty.  Now dead, its dumpster-destined remains are nothing more than worthless weight on the hike out.

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Mary was relieved to find the tent intact.

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Packing up.

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Tool box locked.  Site secure.

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It was a brilliant day on the rock.

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Farewell visit to the viewpoint.

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Reflecting on how the season opened last April with Sabine Pelton who patrolled Shenandoah National Park.

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Out-a-here!  The final two weeks will be spent on patrol or tenting in one of the Annapolis Rock tents sites.

Until next year.

Sisu

Educating Hikers

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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.

September 12, 2019 — There’s a popular website/blog/resource for hikers called the Trek.  It was originated by my friend Zach Davis who wrote an excellent book about psychologically preparing for an AT thru hike called “Appalachian Trials.”

Recently a writer for the Trek interviewed me and others about educating hikers.  Here’s the result.

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Link to Trek Article

Sisu

An Ugly Start to the Summer

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Bucky

Appalachian Trail, Maryland and Northern Virginia, May 20-24, 2019 — Usually the trail is an undramatic place.  Hikers come and go.  Some even dig cat holes to go in.

This week opened uneventfully and hopeful of good times to come.  I met the short-season Maryland ridgerunner at the Greenbriar State Park visitor center where the rangers with whom we work have their offices.  Bucky was issued his radio, parking permit, apartment key and other such stuff.

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Bucky’s room.  Packs explode when you open them.

We met Mary, his ridgerunner partner, at the apartment.  We drove around pointing out landmarks and key areas.  Then we adjourned to Dan’s Tap House for juicy gourmet burgers before bounding up the mountain to Annapolis Rock where Bucky will spend his first shift as caretaker.  Mary will be patrolling in Maryland.

The sundown faded toward black as Bucky and I arrived at Annapolis Rock.  As the last of the sunset peepers were sliding down the hill towards home, we stowed our gear and made the rounds.  We found only one camper, a thru hiker.  He actually properly hung his food bag on the bear pole.  Score!  After securing the sagging tarp over the picnic table, we called it a day and dove head first into our respective dream worlds.

We woke to the thunderous snoring of Jake brakes and the throbbing pulse of commerce rushing along I-70.  The interstate is invisible from the view point, tucked in behind a low ridge.  When the wind is quiet, its presence is as undeniable as is the drag strip across the valley.

With the crack of dawn piercing the tent walls, we raked the sand out of our eyes and adjourned to the ridgerunner office/picnic table for breakfast.  Two packs of instant oatmeal and a Jet Boil coffee later, it was time to inspect the rock.

Following orientation, we hiked to the Pogo campsite about two miles up the trail.  First we stopped at the Black Rock overlook and scoured the area for trash.

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The desecration of Black Rock and other places is a pastime for local high school kids.  I’m certain Shawna wasn’t present when the perp misogynistically memorialized his conquest.

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The good news is that it didn’t last long.  Mary followed up the next day with a bottle of Elephant Snot and a scrub brush.  Bingo.  Like it never happened.

We also checked out Fox Gap where a Civil War skirmish was fought.  New graffiti topped the old.

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Once again, Mary and her trusty Elephant Snot to the rescue.  (Learn more about Elephant Snot here.)  All in a day’s work for a ridgerunner, right?

Now it’s time to interrupt this friendly story for a  brief trip to the dark side.

This hiking season has already been marred by a tragic event.  One hiker was murdered and another maimed and nearly killed when someone who was deranged stabbed them.  Click here for details: (How safe is the Appalachian Trail).

The AT attracts 3 million visitors annually.  They represent a cross section of society with all that entails.  Normally hikers are pretty mellow, but this tragedy elevated concern within the hiking community, especially for unbalanced and misogynistic behavior which was reportedly exhibited by the accused killer.

Earlier in the day, a hiker complained to us about another hiker variously called “Yogi Beer,” “Renegade,” or “Air Quotes.”  Bad actors often change their trail names to avoid authorities.  Judging from reports of his behavior, Yogi Beer appears to be a raging alcoholic and possibly bipolar.  He had been aggressively harassing women.

With this in mind, Bucky and I were enjoying the brilliant weather while hiking to the trailhead — Bucky to pick up a bale of wood chips for the Annapolis Rock composting privies and me to my car so I could meet the Northern Virginia ridgerunner for his orientation hike the next day.

Three hikers stopped us to complain about a guy called, you guessed it:  Yogi Beer.  They had first-hand knowledge.  One of them had been concerned enough to snap Yogi Beer’s photo.  We immediately filed an incident report and shared the photo with law enforcement rangers, trail officials and the other ridgerunners.  (Details not shared here to protect the innocent because some of it may be hearsay.) With that, we thought we were done with the dark side.

In the interest of chronology, let’s put the dark side on hold for a minute because we’re not done.  It will be right back after a bit more of our friendly story.

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Witt

Each of our ridgerunners is an expert backpacker.  Occasionally a resume stands out.  Witt has thru-hiked the triple crown – Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.  He also as held the FKT (fastest known time) for the Arizona Trail and is the FKT holder in Maine’s 100-mile Wilderness.  ( Info on the National Scenic Trails System)

Unfortunately for Witt, ridgerunners are more commonly evaluated by the number of contacts they make and the amount of trash they pick up.  That’s slow going for a guy who’s used to moving in the fast lane.

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Along the way we noticed an unusual arrow made of sticks pointing to a path in the woods.

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Somebody wants us to follow the yellow brick road, right?  Naturally we did.

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About 100 yards in we discovered a sign for a hiker hostel.  Unfortunately it’s on National Park Service land, about 20 feet inside the boundary according to the marked trees.  We informed the folks who deal with these issues.  The owner only has to move it off park service property and it’s good.  Commercial ads/promotion isn’t allowed on federal land.

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Stacking rocks has been a thing for awhile.  Cairns and rock art are inconsistent with Leave No Trace principles.  In short:  Leave only foot prints (not rock stacks, painted rocks or graffiti) and take only photos (not flowers, feathers and antlers). Leave those for others to see.

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Boom.  The rocks were widely scattered.

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We hiked 12 miles.  The trash collected was moderate.  Best highlight:  We opened the tool cache at David Lessor shelter.  We immediately noticed a field mouse.  A second later a juvenile Black Snake became obvious.  We left mother nature to her business.  If they could get in, they could get out.

Now we’ll return to the dark side. When we left we were dealing with Yogi Beer.

Turns out Witt and I may have passed a hiker who turned up in an incident report for threats and sexual harassment.  His photo was familiar.  Not long after learning that, a report came in about an abusive hiker at a nearby hostel.

Believe me.  This volume is highly unusual.  Unfortunately, there’s more!

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So, there I was at home in my favorite chair, quietly sipping coffee while reading the New York Times early Saturday morning. The phone rings.  It’s Mary at the Ed Garvey shelter in Maryland.

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She’s found a mess.  The guy in the tent won’t get up.  He doesn’t appear to be under the influence.  She wants to educate him to pack out his trash, not to mention properly hanging his food and not to make the mess in the first place.

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Raw chicken is in the mix.  This could attract animals including bears.  Then we’re dealing with a different problem.

Since the camper rolled over and would not get up, she moved a distance away to observe, radioed the Maryland Park Service and waited for the ranger.  Before the ranger could arrive, the guy packed up and left.  She cleaned up the area.

Enough already?  Damn right!

Of note.  Sexual harassment on the trail isn’t a universal experience, but its frequency is way too high.  Sometimes it’s subtle as when one of our women ridgerunners quipped that all she needed was another septuagenarian man-splaining how she should hike.  Other times males go out of their way to tell women they don’t belong on the trail alone or they aren’t strong enough to hike long distances.  Sometimes it’s much more sexually suggestive or worse as when someone attempted to rape a hiker I know.

This is shameful.  Men need to step up and stop this behavior.  We need to own it and step in when we see or hear it.

Incident Reporting:   http://appalachiantrail.org/home/explore-the-trail/report-an-incident?fbclid=IwAR2dlPHezWWPQy17qyRHUBqR21UWz-GyyrA7xtHD9FgXgZmrtxGLhZ7l73U

Sisu

 

 

The 2019 Ridgerunner Season Begins

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Sabine and Mary at Annapolis Rock, Maryland with Greenbriar Lake in background.

Appalachian Trail, Maryland and Shenandoah National Park, April 1 – 14, 2019 — Dawn cracked to reveal a chilly drizzle like the warmth a Sunday school teacher might project showing a little leg through clouds of petticoats.  Right place.  Wrong idea.  Can’t see that much, so up the mountain we marched. 

Mary is a veteran ridgerunner some readers will recall from last year’s blog entries about her service in Shenandoah.  This season her Maryland tour is seven-months long.  She will be reinforced by another ridgerunner from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  She started on the auspicious First of April. No joke.

Sabine will be in Shenandoah National Park through early September.  She arrived a tad early to observe and get to know Mary before launching her own long march toward autumn on her 102 miles of the AT she’ll be patrolling some 55 miles southward.

20190401_1845221Earlier Mary had kicked down winter’s door, Hoovering up the off-season detritus like a caretaker opening a musty summer house long dormant.  That’s bags of trash to the uninitiated. 

On her first morning sweep of the Pine Knob shelter she found two backpacks apparently  abandoned on the floor.  No note.  That’s more common than one may imagine.  People get tired, wet, quit, and abandon their gear all the time.  Regardless, they were available for animals to rummage.  She decided to wait and see. 

On her evening swing they were still there, so she packed them out tandem style to the Greenbriar State Park visitor center. 

The knuckleheads called the park looking for them late in the evening.  They’d been day hiking from the Pennsylvania border.  Unfortunately the packs weren’t available til morning.  Sorry guys.

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Off we marched to begin patrolling the area between Annapolis Rock and the Pogo campsite.  Trash picking was easy.

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Pogo, where a tree fell atop one of the iconic fire pits.

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Ridgerunning is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to find – tent poles, plastic container and a rubber band slingshot.

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Painted rocks have become a trend in the hiking world.  We found one at Black Rock that seems to advertise a lake front development in Maryland.  There will be follow up with the developer.

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Drying out.  Caretaker tent graciously donated by REI.

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Senseless vandalism.

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Photo:  Mary Thurman.

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Please pad your anchors and save the trees.

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Somebody actually tried a bear hang instead of hooking their food bag on one of the tines.  This method actually makes it much easier for the bear to get the food. 😦

Sabine’s OJT at Annapolis Rock was complete.  On to Shenandoah.

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Shenandoah day one starts in the backcountry office for orientation, paperwork and equipment issue.  Then it’s a hike to check the north boundary kiosk.

We made a side trip to hike the cult-like Piney Memorial Trail and paid our respects to the fallen.  While there, the ridgerunner janitorial instinct kicked in.

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The first overnight is at the luxurious Indian Run Maintenance Hut which is available to the ridgerunners when in the area.

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First showdown with a hanging tangle.  She drew her clippers faster than Gary Cooper in “High Noon” and cut that sucker down.  Note the full trash bag.

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Foundation of what was once intended to be a restroom for a “colored” picnic area that never was built.

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Taking a break on a handy rock.

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Second night at Gravel Spring.  Not sure if the tree is apple, cherry or otherwise.

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Sabine’s trail name is “Foureyes.”  Not what you’d think for a hiker who’s done the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail while in between earning a PhD in physics.

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Some people come to the trail ignorant, thoughtless and unprepared.  Yes, it’s what it appears to be.  Digging cat holes to bury other people’s feces is one of the more unappealing aspects of the job.  You have to want to protect the trail with all of your heart to do this work.

Third night at Pass Mountain.  The tree blew down on a campsite before the camper was there.  It was a dark and stormy night.  Really!

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Watching the hawks atop Mary’s Rock on a brilliant day.

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Final night.  Rock Spring.

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Final day.  Welcome to Jurassic Park. Come right in.  Ummm, I mean Shenandoah National Park …  May your hike toward autumn be a pleasant one.

Susu

 

New Ridgerunning Season Coming Soon.

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Kensington, MD, March 12, 2019 — The snow drops are up!  As sure as daylight savings time, snow drops are a natural alarm clock announcing it’s time to get ready for a new season on the Appalachian Trail.

Here’s the starting line up.  Our first Shenandoah National Park Hoodlums trail crew work trip is this weekend.  As reported here, there’s still plenty of storm damage to clear.

No fooling, our first ridgerunner starts in Maryland April first.  The second ridgerunner begins patrolling in Shenandoah on April 8.  The remaining four are scheduled for mid-May.  Project ahead two weeks and we’re there. So, let’s get ready to rock and roll!

We’ve been getting ready for awhile.  The budget was submitted last year.  The application deadline was January 31.  Hiring occurred in February.  The last of the supplies and equipment arrived last week.

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First to arrive was six Bear Vault BV 450 bear canisters.  These are the half-size canisters with a four-day capacity.  They are very difficult for a bear to open or break.  I’m certain Yogi and Boo Boo hate them, but I can all but guarantee that Mr. Ranger loves them.

Why bear canisters?  The number of human-bear encounters is increasing each year.  The 2018 reported incidents are at this link:  ATC 2018 Bear Incident List

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Some of these incidents included stolen food bags and damaged tents.  Fortunately there were no injuries though there have been nasty injuries and even a death in previous years.

Bears become food conditioned because careless backpackers, day hikers and others leave food or food trash at or near shelter areas and campsites.  Ultimately bears learn to identify shelters, tents and backpacks with food.

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Camera studies by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service show the first place bears go in camp is the fire pit because people toss food trash thinking it will burn.  It does not burn completely so the residue continues to attract bears long after the fire is out.

Once bears associate humans or places where human’s congregate with food, the potential for trouble compounds when bears lose their natural fear of people.

Bear canisters make it difficult for a bear to get a food reward.  Ridgerunners uniformed presence on the trail affords them visibility.  The weight of the example they set by carrying bear canisters complements the educational component of their mission.

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We experimented last season by having some of our ridgerunners carry BV 500 canisters loaned to us by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  They voted unanimously for the smaller version.  Comparison of a BV 450 and the larger BV 500 on the right.  The stickers help tell them apart.  The reflective tape helps find them of an animal decides to bat one around.

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Additional equipment includes 12-inch folding saws, clippers, SAM splints, and work gloves.  The rope and tarps help cover the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.

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Meanwhile I have recovered from off-season Dupuytren’s release surgery.  I have two more impacted fingers on my other hand and hope they can wait until September.

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Next stop.  Setting up the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.  Can’t wait.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

Widowmakers

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Would you camp under this tree?

The Appalachian Trail, November 9, 2018 — It’s been a hellova year.  Shenandoah National Park normally receives 55 inches of annual rainfall.  To date the park has measured 85 inches with seven weeks remaining in the year.  That’s 30 inches above normal so far.

That’s not the only weather pattern that’s off.  We usually enjoy magnificent indian summers here in the mid-Atlantic region.  This year it stayed hot and muggy right up to the bitter end.  In less than a week, the temperatures turned raw with cold winds and a freeze warning in the immediate forecast. Oh, not to mention that it’s still raining.

If traffic on Facebook is any judge, the AT thru-hiker class of 2019 is hard at work getting ready to go. These intrepid hikers are buying gear, planning hard, and doing as many training hikes as possible.

For those who will be planning trips from now until their start day, there are a lot of things to think about. Here’s one more.

Campsite selection is pretty much straight forward. The first thing to know is the rules of the jurisdiction you’re in. You should know that some places have strict rules on camping while others do not.

I manage the ridgerunner program for 240 miles of the AT in the mid-Atlantic region. That’s four states and five different sets of rules for camping.

For example, Shenandoah National Park allows dispersed camping with a few reasonable limitations. In contrast Maryland requires everyone to camp at official campsites with no dispersed camping allowed whatsoever. Maryland rules do not allow fires except in designated fire pits. The rules for the area you’re in will usually be posted on the trailhead kiosks or your guidebook, map or app; if in doubt check the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s web site at http://www.appalachiantrail.org/camping.

Using already existing campsites helps reduce environmental impact. Look for tent sites with good drainage and that are sheltered from wind and heavy weather if that applies.

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Standing dead trees.

Here’s the ‘one more thing.’ Check overhead for widowmakers. They are sometimes called fool killers and are anything that has the potential to injure or kill someone below. In a more specific sense, they are dead or weakened branches caught precariously high in trees, ready to fall on unsuspecting individuals underneath.

These hazards are not trivial.

In August 2018 a hiker was hit by a falling branch while hiking on the AT just north of US route 50. A 15 – 18 inch waterlogged tree limb snapped and fell to the ground without warning. It struck and killed the hiker instantly.

Not that far away, a tree near Maryland’s Ed Garvey Shelter fell, fatally striking a hiker as he was heading for the Trail one fateful morning in March 2015.

It’s not always easy to spot hazard branches, but it’s always worth the look. Most importantly, it’s not worth the risk camping or hanging out under or too close to such a risk.

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The brown substances at the base of the black opening is rotted tree material.

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Healthy-looking crown of the same tree.  This is a tree of concern.

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Stump of a rotting tree preemptively felled at the Annapolis Rock caretaker site.

Trees that might fall are another potential risk. They may be dead or diseased. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. If the ground is highly saturated; high winds can push trees over because the roots can’t hold in waterlogged soils. This year’s heavy rains saturated soil and fallen trees increased the number of down trees maintainers had to remove from the trail.  After a March storm, 700 blowdowns were removed from the 102 miles of AT in Shenandoah National Park alone.

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Healthy trees rooted in rain-saturated soil, blown down by light winds.

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Removing a hazard tree near Bears Den hostel.

Tree bent by ice storm

Storm damage.

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Storm damage.

Don’t assume that, because you’re in a preexisting campsite or in the area of a shelter, there is no danger. Maintainers, rangers and forest biologists watch for trees of concern, but they can’t find them all.

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Nuff said.

Trees of concern aren’t a huge risk, but it always pays to be prudent and add them to your checklist when you’re in the backcountry.

A version of this blog was originally published by the author on the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page.

Sisu

Last Ridgerunner Hike of the Season

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Appalachian Trail in Maryland, August 24 – 26, 2018 — In spite of the horrible heat, smothering humidity and the drenching rains we’ve enjoyed all summer, autumn is skulking on the next calendar page and that signals the time when the clock expires for all but one of our ridgerunners.

The last man standing remains on duty in Maryland until Halloween hoarfrost beards the pumpkin patch.

Still, the season’s not over until it’s over.  We made time to celebrate the season’s finale with a final jaunt across Maryland’s 42 AT miles.

Kiki and I cinched up our hip belts and headed southward from the Mason-Dixon line, to Harpers Ferry.  I always forget this route is a little more challenging than hiking the other way around.  People say the trail in Maryland isn’t rocky.  Not so, as my blistered boots will gladly attest.  Best of all, hiking southbound front loads the best of the abrasive boulder fields.

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Kiki carried a hoe to clear clogged waterbars (drains) on what proved to be a waterlogged trail.

Initially we didn’t set a goal for the day because we got a late start which was the result of stashing my car in Harpers Ferry. We decided to see how the day would unfold.

Of note, Maryland is one of the most hiked portions of the AT with millions of people from the greater metro areas between Philadelphia and Washington living within a two-hour drive.  Consequently,  no dispersed camping is allowed to help protect the environment.  To compensate, there are shelters and campgrounds conveniently spaced along the way. We suffered no worries about finding a place to camp.

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We made excellent time in spite of finding several gallons of trash.  We measure trash by estimated volume rather rather than estimated weight for closer accuracy.  Occasionally, we stopped to enjoy the views after breaking up an illegal fire ring or two.

Penultimately we thought we’d drop anchor at Pogo campground.  (Yes, it’s that “the enemy is us” Pogo.)  But, long before we reached Pogo, we remembered Annapolis Rock is just a couple of miles further, and there our colleague Harry would be in residence as caretaker.

At our pace, we’d arrive slightly at the end of evening nautical twilight, but having the company and hanging out at the caretaker’s picnic table was worth the energy expenditure.

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Caretaker’s tent.

As it happened, we literally stumbled in, tripping over stones because we weren’t using our headlamps with the intent of pranking Harry.  In the gloom, Harry didn’t recognize us as we pretended to be thoughtless hikers intent on breaking all the Annapolis Rock rules like building a fire and camping on the overlook.  Ya had to have been there to appreciate the dialog before we ended the charade.

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Two years ago, in a one in a million tragedy, a dead tree fell and killed a camper at Maryland’s Ed Garvey shelter.  Since then trees of concern are quickly removed.  Recently, we traded safety for aesthetics in the caretaker’s area.

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Insects had invaded the wounded area and hollowing was present in the trunk.

From Annapolis Rock, a reasonably strong hiker can comfortably reach Harper’s Ferry the next day.  However there was a risk of arriving too late to catch the shuttle to the National Park Service’s remote lot and my car.

So, expecting unusually good weather for this sopping wet year, and therefore a busy Saturday, we decided to hike to the Crampton Gap shelter.  That would leave an easy 10 miles for Sunday morning.  It proved to be a solid decision when we coached a large group of young men on how to party without ruining the evening for everyone else.

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On the way to Crampton, we stopped to inspect and clean up the shelter at Rocky
Run.  We found a supermarket bag with a week’s worth of hiker food hanging on the bear pole.

Why would someone leave that much food where it was?  We checked with some campers.  It wasn’t theirs.  It was there when they came.

The food could have been leftover from an individual hiker or one of the many college freshman orientation groups currently on the trail.  It also might have been a misguided attempt by a trail angel.  Regardless, it’s irresponsible behavior to leave food anywhere in the woods.  The good news:  Kiki didn’t have to buy supplies for his final week on trail.

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Speaking of college freshman orientation groups, we met students from Loyola University of Maryland (Baltimore) on the trail and stopped briefly to chat.  They seemed like an agreeable group.  Only at Ed Garvey, where they’d camped the previous evening, did we discover the present they’d left for us in the privy’s wood chip barrel.

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Thanks Loyola for more trash then we could pack out.  Then we wonder why the number of problem bears is increasing.  I’ll be sending a letter to the university with an offer of free Leave No Trace education this spring when they train rising seniors to be student leaders.

But, there’s more …

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Survivalists and preppers are among the many subcultures on the trail.  They are sometimes called camosexuals, a label that is a twist on the Hipster lumbersexual subculture. Unfortunately, if everyone strip mined live vegetation like this, the shelter and camping areas would look like moonscapes.  This was within sight of the shelter.

This makeshift shelter would have been worthless in wet weather.  Moreover, nowhere on the Appalachian trail is this appropriate.  If you really want to do this, the national forests and some state forests are happy to oblige.

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We found this fire ring and grill half way between Ed Garvey and Harpers Ferry.  Not a bad field expedient attempt at making a grill from green wood and wire. Again, fires and dispersed camping are verboten in Maryland. But if you are willing to risk an expensive ticket, why not clean up your mess?  Please!  Leave No Trace.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trail Magic: Leapfrog Cafe

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Old Forge Picnic Area, Michaux State Forest, PA, May 2, 2018 — Trail magic in the hiking world is thought of as an unexpected act of kindness, generosity or discovery, or finding exactly what you need most when you least expect it.

Trail magic can make your day or your hike.  It can move you to tears, restore your faith in humanity, or stimulate extreme gratitude; sometimes all three.

As you can imagine, hikers love trail magic, but not all of it is welcome. Unattended trail magic can food condition animals and litter the forest with heaps of trash.

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This trail magic in Maine attempted to get it right but failed because it was unattended.  Animals could easily open these containers or a careless hiker could fail to close them.  Moreover, it’s personal property left on public lands and helps create expectations of free food for hikers.

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Those who bestow trail magic are known as trail angels.  Tim Davis is one. That’s about an eight-pound omelet he’s making for me in that frying pan.

Following a thru hike attempt where his ill-tempered knees failed to cooperate, the generous-hearted electrician wanted to stay involved and turned to cooking which is his second love after hiking.  Tim’s trail name is Fresh Ground for the beans he ground up and the fresh coffee he brewed with them each morning of his hike.

He invented the Leapfrog Cafe as the means to deliver his love to hikers. He sets up the Leapfrog Cafe for a few days, then moves up the trail to find new hikers.

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The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe was a welcome discovery in 2015 when, as a ridgerunner, I splashed out of an icy rain into Gooch Gap, GA.  The freshly grilled banana pancakes and steaming coffee were simply divine and exactly what I needed. If I was crying out of thanks, no one could tell if it was rain or tears running down my freezing red cheeks.

Later, I enticed several hikers, who had been dodging the rain for several days at the Gooch Mountain Shelter, to move on with the promise of fresh pancakes and hot coffee at the bottom of the soppy mountain.

Then, it was my duty to discuss Leave No Trace principles with Fresh Ground.  For one, he didn’t lock up his trash at night in bear country.  Since, he’s refined his methodology to be truly compliant.

This trip, since the Cafe was only slightly more than an hour away from home, I spent most of the day hanging out at the Cafe.  I brought cases of Coke, grape and root beer sodas plus a cash donation as a small payback for the priceless kindness I received not that long ago.

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Hand washing station for filthy-handed hikers.  The water has bleach in it.  He properly disposes of his gray water afterward.

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A clean towel covers the picnic table in the food prep area. Sanitation is paramount.

Hiker feeds like this are not allowed to charge money or accept donations.  Fresh Ground has a Facebook page and Go Fund Me page for that. Initially he saved and used his own money.  Now he does that, but accepts donations, 100 percent of which go towards feeding the hikers.

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Stopping at the Leapfrog Cafe can be like a fine dining experience with the owner doing double duty as the server.  Pancakes, omelets, hot dogs, taco bowls, fresh fruit, cookies and lemonade are on the menu.  He now packs up every night and operates out of picnic and off trail areas.

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Even the hikers need photographic souvenirs.

The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe, featuring live entertainment by “Strummy String.”  He says his instrument is a reformulated mountain dulcimer.

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Trail magic is criticized for causing hikers to congregate.  But, whenever hikers stop for a bit, there’s always an opportunity to talk and sometimes make a difference.

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While talking to “Research” who is a psych professor on sabbatical from a college in Macon, GA, I learned she had hiked within a shout of the half-way point and didn’t know how to hang her food bag. She thought she couldn’t throw the line high enough.  “Never fear!” I offered.  “There’s a way even you can throw like Tom Brady.”

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After loading a sock with a rock and knotting it to her bear line, Research learned to fling the sock over a tall branch by swinging it underhand.

The next step in the PCT hang is threading the rope through a carabiner, then hoisting the food bag up to the branch level.  Here she’s tying a clove hitch on a stick that will prevent the bag from sliding back into bear reach.  Reverse process to retrieve the food.

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Success!!!  I love it when someone is excited about learning something new.

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Fresh Ground planning his next move while Research destroys a taco bowl.

At dusk, the Leapfrog Cafe disappeared into the sunset headed for its next surprise location.  With luck, that will be near you.

Sisu

 

Planning Your On-trail Budget

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Where the budget starts for most hikers.

From and article I prepared for the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page, January 5, 2018.

Running out of money is one of the primary reasons hikers do not finish their thru hikes. A realistic budget, understanding where the money goes, and a little self-discipline can help ensure your hike goes all the way.

What a previous hike may have cost any single individual is relevant to your planning, but not definitive because everybody is unique. But, if you know what drives costs, you can develop a budget that will help you succeed at a price you can afford.

So, this post isn’t going to tell you now much money you need. Instead, it seeks to help you think through how to develop your budget by looking at where costs come from and offering a sense of what average hikers spend.

The irony is that while you’re actually hiking, you aren’t spending money. You may be eating, wearing or carrying what money bought, but unless you’re shopping on line from mountaintops, you’re not actually burning cash while you are on the trail itself.

Being that we’re discussing on-trail expenses, we will not include the cost of gear or equipment purchased prior departure or your transportation home.

Towns are money sumps. Some expenses are undeniably necessary while others are optional, but for the most part, how much you spend is purely up to you.

At this point human nature is worth noting. By the time a thru hiker gets to town, s/he has been on the trail for approximately five days. In addition to the big four: groceries, laundry, fuel, and a shower, most hikers want to sleep in a bed. Those five usually cost less than number six.

Number six. Being people, we’re hungry for restaurant food and maybe a beer or two. You guessed right. That’s where the real money goes. A restaurant/bar stop can cost more than the big five all together. Stay for a zero and a second night and you can easily double that.

So let’s talk about town stops.

First, how do you get to town?

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Some hostels shuttle for free and some do not.

With the exception of the few times the trail actually runs down Main Street, you’ll need to hitch or shuttle. Hitching is free, but sometimes difficult or sketchy. It’s also against the law in New York, New Jersey, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, in and around Harpers Ferry, and possibly more places. Weather and time of year also can be factors in this decision.

Shuttles usually cost around $2 per mile. Be sure you understand the cost before asking the driver to meet you at the trailhead. Shuttle drivers also expect cash payment.

With a growing number of hikers attempting to duck payment, some drivers are asking for payment up front, so be prepared.

Some hostels shuttle for free; some don’t. Sometimes you can spit costs with other hikers or get a group discount. If the guidebook doesn’t say, be sure and ask up front.

The average one-way shuttle cost is around $10 – $20 or $20 – $40 per town stop.

Once in town, expect to walk where you need to go. Hostels located outside a nearby town generally will offer free daily shuttles to town at designated times.

The big five:

Grocery costs depend on menu. The menu includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Also, most hikers change tastes over the course of their hike. So, that energy bar you love today may be the one you gag on three months in.

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Shopping at Ingles in Hiawassee, GA.  Taken from the in-store Starbucks.

As for entrées, on the high end is freeze dried food. You can save a little by buying freeze dry food in bulk, and use resupply boxes, but your tastes may change. On trail, freeze dry meals are available at Walmart and at most outfitters. Depending where they’re bought and the specific meal, freeze dry food costs, on average, between $6 and $10 per meal, bending toward the higher number.

Among the more affordable prepared foods are Knorr sides and Ramen which can be supplemented with tuna or chicken packets and much more. Hikers also favor instant oatmeal, granola bars, energy bars, candy bars, jerky, instant coffee, cured sausage, cream and block cheese, hardboiled eggs, crackers of all kinds, olive oil, peanut butter, tortillas, snack cakes, sticky buns, and cookies just to mention a few. Consider taking a multivitamin if you eat too much of your diet in refined sugar and salt.

Of course there are vegan diets and those who love fresh food. Also, some cook and some don’t. Choosing not to cook can save $3 – $8 per week in fuel costs depending on fuel type.

Your menu choices will determine food costs.

Don’t forget you’ll not be very hungry but will transition to eating much more after hiker hunger kicks in.

Your grocery bill will depend on what you eat. Between $30 – $50 per resupply stop seems to be around average.

Your trip to town subtotal is now $50 – $90 and you still have to shower and do laundry. There’s also a place to stay.

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No two hostels are the same.  Costs can vary dramatically.

Let’s say you’re sleeping in town. Hostels are cheaper than motels. The cost of hostels can vary widely depending on amenities – platform bunks vs. mattresses and pillows, tenting, private rooms, etc. Some hostels include laundry in their total price while others offer a la carte pricing for laundry, showers, snacks, meals or offer use of a kitchen to cook your own meals and save money.

Laundry and showers, without stay, at most hostels average around $5 each.

The cost of a hostel stay can vary a lot. The prices have been recently increasing due to supply and demand, the short season, and growing overhead costs. While one may be as low as $25, another can be more than $50, with some considerably more. An up to date guidebook will have the details.

At this point your plan may be to stay only at the least expensive hostels, and at that tent whenever possible to save money. Unfortunately no plan ever survives contact with reality.

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Severe weather can change your plans.  Photo by Warren Fewtrell

Your spreadsheet may say so many miles per day and specify town stops. However, weather, illness, frame of mind, trail family companions, injury, fatigue and a host of other issues may alter that planning and add considerable unexpected expense.

For planning purposes, it’s generally safer to round up. So let’s average $50 per hostel stay even though that may be slightly on the high side.

Your bare bones town stop is now up to $100 – $140 and you haven’t even had a hamburger yet.

Remember the reference to human nature. It takes a strong will to forego at least one restaurant stop while you’re in town.

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Some restaurants are part of the trail tradition and are difficult to avoid.

Run into some trail friends you haven’t seen in awhile, here’s betting you can’t avoid the temptation to find a place to eat, grab at least one beer and catch up. What about if you’re hiking out of town after a zero and just happen to run into these same friends you haven’t seen in awhile? Bet you take a second zero. Kerching! It’s like lighting twenty dollar bills on fire.

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Trail families form and dissolve.  You’ll want to catch up with people you haven’t seen in awhile.

Beer and burgers/pizza cost more or less depending on where you are. Realistially, you probably won’t get out of most restaurant/bars, with the exception of fast food, for under $40 – $50. The cost of alcohol is expensive and most hikers don’t drink just one beer or eat one hamburger.

Restaurant food and alcohol can cost as much or more than the big five.

If you eat breakfast and lunch in restaurants, add more. The good news is that AT towns are so rural that there are only a couple of Starbucks on the trail, so your coffee habit won’t beak the bank!

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There are excellent and not inexpensive coffee shops/restaurants along the way.  Dalton, MA.

Subtotal: $140 – $190 per town stop. If you use resupply boxes, add around $15 for a medium size flat rate box, two-day delivery. A medium size Express Mail box will hold four days food.

Since town stops are so expensive, how many should you expect?

The average hiker goes to town every fifth or sixth day. The reason is that food is the single heaviest item – and one of the bulkiest – in their pack. Think weight and space. Five days is about what fits (in a bear canister, food bag or pack) at a weight hikers feel comfortable carrying. There are exceptions, but again we’re talking averages.

Divide the average time it takes for a thru hike, 180 days, by five and you get 36 before zeros. Believe it. You’ll want to zero from time to time. Let’s say you plan for 15, but due to circumstances actually take 20 under the round up principle. That’s 40 five-day hikes and 40 town stops.

Estimated rounded-up cost on the trail ranges between $6,000 and $7,200. Add $15 for each resupply box you expect to use. The author used about 15 of them, all in the north.

Resupply by mail is common.  You can leave boxes open so the contents can be adjusted if necessary.

Can you thru hike for less? Absolutely.

Start with fewer zeros. If your body holds up, you may only need one zero per month. That’s six, not 15. Unfortunately, that’s not what most people need or do.

By increasing days between resupply you need fewer town stops at the price of a heavier pack. You can use the NERO (near zero) option to minimize your overnight stays in town. Above all, decrease eating in restaurants and alcohol consumption.

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Hitch more if you’re comfortable doing that.

Work for stay also can reduce hostel costs. But remember that you won’t be the only one who wants work for stay and the opportunities are limited. There just isn’t enough work for everyone.

Be aware that hostel owners complain that a lot of work-for-stay hikers aren’t willing to work hard and do a good job. They have a list serve and communicate with one another. All the other hostels up the trail will know about shirkers or problem hikers. Do a good job and you’ll stand out from your competition.

One successful hiker was very smart about work for stay. He was a decent handyman who was able to do very useful work for hostel owners. When he completed his assignment, he’d ask the hostel owner to refer him up the trail. His lodging budget was $0 and he was successful. He even earned real money from time to time. The keys were his willingness to work very hard, do an excellent job, his useful skills, and being savvy enough to ask for help landing a gig at his next stop.

Of note.

You’ll need a budget contingency for equipment you may have to replace. Whether a bear tears up your tent, you fall and bend your trekking poles, a boot fails, or you lose weight and need new pants, you may have to replace something along the way.

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Gear breaks and hasty repairs don’t always hold.

Bear Damage.

Be aware that the southern end of the trail is very good at separating hikers from their money. The trail towns are friendly, the festivals frequent, and the hikers really want to be social.

You really have to watch your spend rate on the first half of your hike. Too many hikers spend way too much money in the south and have to go home early because they are dead broke.

Hiker feeds are found primarily in the southern half of the trail.  Do not depend upon them to reduce costs.

Many hikers don’t realize how much more expensive the northern half of the trail is compared to the southern half. There also are far fewer hiker feeds that sometimes off set food costs in the south. Consider adding 15 percent to what you think the southern half will cost.

New England accounts for part of the northern cost increase. The area is unique with its fragile ecosystems that require management of very popular overnight sites. Trail/infrastructure costs are higher because human waste has to helicoptered out at the end of the season. The warm weather season is too short for it to compost. Caretakers must be paid. Campsite fees cover these extra expenses. They are listed in the trail guidebooks.

The huts in the White Mountains take only the first two thru hikers for work for stay requiring most hikers to either find a scarce place to stealth or go to a pay-for-stay campsite.

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The crowding in New England at popular sites requires expensive management.

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White Mountain Hut (Madison)

Hikers can avoid some of these sites by doing long (and hard) miles in tough terrain and unpredictable weather.

The Appalachian Mountain Club has tried to help hikers save money with this recently announced campsite deal: https://www.outdoors.org/articles/issues/2017/may-june-2017/amc-rolls-out-overnight-camping-deal-for-appalachian-trail-thru-hikers

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Once you reach Baxter, there’s a $10 fee to camp at the Birches. After you’ve summited, the hitch to Millinocket is easy. There’s only one road in and out of Baxter State Park and it goes straight to Millinocket. Millinocket is usually another town stay to celebrate and recover before you head for home.

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Last hostel in Millinocket, ME.

Your last budget item is off trail – the cost of transportation home.

Good luck. Sisu

 

 

Searching for the Edge of Spring

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Appalachian Trail, Massachusetts, April 27 – May 6, 2017 — Just outside Great Barrington, Mass., Robin “Miss America” Hobbs gave me a shout.

“How far away are you?”

“An hour,” I guessed.

Actually I wheeled into town less than a half hour later.  I’d been stopped for gas in Connecticut and didn’t realize how close I was.  After minor confusion I found Robin and her new friend Sonia “Soho” Horschitz, a 33-year-old German hiker she serendipitously met a couple of days after I left her back in New York.

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These two were amazing together.  They meshed like Mercedes and Benz and could finish each other’s sentences as they delighted nearly nonstop over the merits of cream cheese and other hiker treats.  Being along for the ride with these two charming people was pure delight.

After lunch in Great Barrington, we dropped my Subaru at the local hostel in Sheffield.  Its owner, Jessica Treat, shuttled us to the trail and we were off.  She would shuttle us back at the end of the hike from as far as we could get toward the Vermont border some 76 miles northward.

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Miss America and Jessica Treat.  Wonderful ladies.  Jessica teaches English at a junior college.

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The first couple of days toasted us like summer.  Here the lunch menu features cream cheese and Triscuits slathered in honey. The delight is obvious.  It took me awhile, but I eventually became a convert.

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The Massachusetts countryside features classic New England scenery.

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Trillium.

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I’d never seen so many Trout Lilies.  This plant ultimately became the bellwether in our quest for the edge of spring.

Just outside Tyringham we found this kiosk.  A young entrepreneur had established a trail magic business.  Cold drinks and snacks at a very fair price!  Smart.  Hope he does well.

However, for us, Tyringham is where our weather luck expired.

After topping off at this much appreciated kiosk, we faced a respectable climb to the cabin at  Upper Goose Pond where Miss America and Soho had planned a rest day (zero) in the field.  Along the way we hoped to dodge the forecasted rain.

No luck.  The rain began to spatter shortly after we started our climb.  Soaked in sweat, we decided to minimize on rain gear, even opening our pit zips to shed the extra heat we expected to be generating while climbing in the warmish rain.

Boom!!! The first lighting strike was “danger close.” Link to DANGER CLOSE artillery And so were dozens more.  With nowhere to safely hide, we pushed on as close to double time as we could safely manage.  The lightning exploded all around as the cold rain drenched us and the ambient air temperature crashed to the low 40s (F).  Not at all what we had anticipated.

We stumbled onto the cabin’s porch frozen and shaking from the icy rain. Camping on the porch is allowed, so we got into warm dry clothing and made camp.  It would rain almost all night and the next day.

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We shared some firewater for medicinal purposes.  Soho shared, but make it plain.  She likes bier besser.

After Upper Goose Pond, the warm weather disappeared, but reducing the mount you sweat is really a benefit when you’re making miles.

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Rock hopping.

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Appreciating a view.

Crossing the Mass Pike.

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We bought hard boiled eggs from the “cookie lady.”  Soho’s philosophy was moderate miles.  Good sleep.  Fresh food.  I learned to like it.

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Camping at the cookie lady’s.  Looks warm, but it was 40F.

On the way to Dalton for a shower and resupply.

After Dalton we faced a pending storm that eventually dumped 1.5 inches of rain on the trail, turning it into an endless series of streams and mud pits.

Knowing what was coming, we pushed past Cheshire, Mass. to the Mark Noepel shelter where we planned to ride out the rain high and dry, less than a full day from the Vermont border.  The hike into Upper Goose Pond had taught us a lesson.

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The Massachusetts shelters are mostly of the same design with a loft.  Up there, we were out of the wind and slightly warmer than if we’d stayed below.  The windows are plexiglass.

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We tucked into our sleeping bags to spend the day thankful we weren’t hiking in the cold and rainy weather.  We could see our breath.  Note the cookie lady’s eggs atop the orange and tan stuff sack.

Shot this while the wind was relatively still.

With three days of rain in the forecast Robin and I decided to exit.  She’s within sight of Vermont.  She only has a few miles in Vermont to finish this fall before she completes the AT.

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We bid Soho farewell on Mt. Graylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts. This gentle and genial soul hiked on into Vermont. We hiked to the bottom of the mountain because the road to the summit had not yet opened for the season.

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Mt. Graylock. Massachusetts WWI memorial.

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An inch-and-a-half of rain produces boot top mud.

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The Graylock summit was windy, wet and bitter cold. I looked down only to spy trout lilies whose flowers had not yet bloomed.  A day later Soho phoned to say that the thermometer and snow in Vermont were forcing her off the trail.  Without doubt we had found the edge of spring; and on that edge the cold wind sliced through our hearts and blew us in new directions.  Our journey had ended.

Sisu