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.

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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

Baxter

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

 

Short Part of a Long Journey

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Appalachian Trail, New York, April 2017 — Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days hiking with my delightful friend Robin.  She is on a month-long trek to both close an unfinished gap she has between Georgia and Maine; and to get into shape for ridgerunning.

She parked her truck and stashed her extra gear at our house and then together we drove to New York where climbed up to the ridge that hosts the AT at the NJ/NY border on a very warm spring day.

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I met Robin, aka Miss America, when I was ridgerunning in Georgia in 2015.  The daughter of National Park Service rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, she’s a willy woodsman and a strong hiker.  She was a ridgerunner in Maryland last year and will serve in Northern Virginia this season.  All told, she’s a perfect hiking partner.

Speaking of what’s hot, I can’t remember the last time I hiked in temperatures under 80 degrees F.  Last September in Vermont, this March in Georgia and last week in New York it was hotter than Hades.  My socks have been so sweat-soaked that they make a squishy sound that squeaks like Crocks on a wet tile floor.  Talk about holding your feet to the fire.  Enough with the hot weather already!

Fortunately the water sources were plentiful and flowing.  In spite of that, I drank four liters of water and still didn’t urinate.  By the end of my journey, my clothes were so salt encrusted that they could stand by themselves unaided – you know, kind of crunchy like saltine crackers.

New York is the state where the AT angles a hard north eastern turn toward Maine.  The trail turns perpendicular to the north-south flowing ridge lines meaning it’s all day up and down for the hikers.  In other words, PUDS – pointless ups and downs.

Here rebar replaces an aluminum extension ladder that was too easy to steal.  Hey, it’s New York!

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The terrain is ugly for the most part.  This is hard work even when heat is turned down.

The gnats had recently hatched.  In NY they’re a feature, not a bug.

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Can you spell rugged?

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How ’bout them bears?  We properly hung our food every night.

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Casualty.

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We navigate using a guidebook that lists terrain features, elevation profile, campsites, springs and also has town maps and phone numbers.

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Miss America photo bomb!

We were out four days before it was my time to head home for chainsaw recertification, a trip to Annapolis Rocks to bring supplies up to Gene Anderson and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Flip Flop Festival this weekend where I’m a featured speaker.

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We tented rather than sleep in shelters.  This is at dawn, packing up before a big rain pending.  At first, Robin was worried about wearing a Red Sox cap in Yankee country, but people treated her as a novelty.  Not sure most of them had never seen a Sox fan before.

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Staying clean in the woods is critical to remaining healthy and avoid gastrointestinal ailments.  We were hiking along one afternoon when I got a message from the ATC asking me if I could take a photo of a hiker using soap and water to clean up in the field practicing leave No Trace principles.  We magically produced the goods.

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Hudson River Valley just south of West Point.

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Yes, the trail goes straight up that rock slab.

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Earning my trail legs.

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Sometimes you get surprised by trail magic.  This was just north of the aptly named “agony ridge.”  The sodas were cold too!  As a practice, leaving unattended food, trash and drink along the trail is not a good idea.  Too many opportunities to unintentionally feed animals and make a mess.  Some call this “trail tragic.”  We did appreciate it though.

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Old sign.  Can’t wait to rejoin Robin next week.  We’ll be hiking north until just before ridgerunner training starts in late May.  Then my spousal unit will come pick us up. There’s no doubt in my mind that Miss America will go far.

Sisu

Spring Cleaning.

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Appalachian Trail Maryland, April 2017 — It’s April on the AT and spring is when it all starts to happen around here.  First up is ridgerunner kick-off. Our long-season ridgerunner/Annapolis Rock caretaker in Maryland starts on April 1.  I often wonder whether or not any of them figure out how auspicious that day is by the October 31 end of their very long term.  I’ve just never seen one sign up for a second long-season tour, so I suspect they pick up on the hidden meaning.

Last year you may recall Kyle MacKay was our lucky pick to spend seven months in the woods.  I mean, that’s longer than the average 2,200-mile thru hike. Blog post about Kyle’s first day.

This year the duty falls on Gene Anderson.  Gene is a genial former thru hiker from Carolina who spent his career in the insurance adjusting industry.  Now that’s seems like excellent preparation for educating hikers who need to repair their behavior.  Everyone of us has scratches and dents that need attention.

I met Gene early on April 1 at the U.S. 40 AT trail head, just up the hill from Green Briar State Park.  We went to meet the Maryland Park Service rangers he’d be working with and to collect his radio and other equipment.  After that, we moved his gear into the small apartment he’ll share with Kyle who’ll be on the clock for the short season from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

It took two trips to schlep all the gear up to the caretaker’s site.  Since I paid attention to how the tent was pitched last year, the dome was up and secure in short order.

Since the week-long formal ridgerunner training doesn’t start until May, the early bird gets OJT.  This year I spent four days with Gene rather than the two I spent with Kyle last season.  As luck would have it, we saw just about one of everything there is to see minus a major medical event.

I set my tent up behind the caretakers tent in close proximity to very recent bear activity.  Bears shred logs in very specific patterns.

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The claw marks leave no doubt.

I walked Gene around Annapolis Rock checking each campsite.  I showed him how to  “knock down” the privy “cone.” and where to find the wood chips users need to add as bulking material to aid the composting process.

IMG_0208The state felled 80 hazard trees over the winter making the area appear to be a no man’s land.  Two years ago a rotten tree fell and killed a hiker at another shelter in Maryland.  The response was to drop every possible tree than might come down in a high wind or in icy conditions.  The result:  Ugly, but safe.  As the trees decompose, the bears and birds are gonna love it.

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No fires are permitted at Annapolis Rock.  Alcohol isn’t allowed either.  Period.  Signs are everywhere.  Yet … people think the rules are for others.  We destroyed three fire rings like this one that had been created over the winter.  Later, we hit the mother lode when we caught five college students on spring break from Ohio with a fire.  Yes!!!  “Out damn fire!  Out!!!”  We let them keep their beer if they didn’t drink it.  Wink, wink.  Believe it or not, they were up and out by dawn.  My guess was that they would have been in a stupor at that hour.

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Part of the orientation is a tour of the rock.  I showed Gene how to get to the bottom of the cliff and a quick and safe way back up.

The second night, two scout troop leaders stopped by the caretaker tent to ask if their troop could build a fire.  We explained the rules and why they exist.  Fires can be built at Pogo campground, 30 minutes north or at Pine Knob shelter, 30 minutes south, just not at the rock due to environmental sensitivity.  “Well,” they said.  “There’s a roaring fire just off the AT 150 yards north of the AT-Annapolis Rock trail junction.”  Since neither fires nor camping is permitted in Maryland except in designated areas, we decided to check it out.

IMG_0218  I grabbed my headlamp.  It was black dark.  Sure enough we easily found a roaring fire about 25 yards off the trail.  There they were, three 50 somethings from Baltimore standing around an out of control fire in a high wind.  We asked them to put it out and explained where they could go if they wanted a fire.

The surprise was their age.  Usually the perps are between 20 and 40, young and immature men.  These were 50 + immature men….

The next morning we went back to check the area.  We found a set of tent poles and no sign of camping, so it appeared to us that they abandoned the site in the night and hiked to a place to where they could build a fire.  Unfortunately the fire was still hot.  Moreover, it had  been  built on duff (the dead leaf layer) rather than bare ground.  Luckily the area was saturated by recent rain.  Otherwise … how do you spell forest fire?

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We hiked five gallons of water from the Annapolis Rock spring to douse the fire – and put it out, cold.  Then we covered and camouflaged it to help prevent a permanent “stealth” campsite from forming.

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We found a small blowdown which Gene cleared.

Gene also is a ridgerunner who patrols the trail in Maryland in addition to his duties as Annapolis Rock caretaker.  So off we went to inspect other sites.

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I love the stone chairs around one of the fire pits at the Pogo campsite.

At Pine Knob I showed Gene how to inspect the area and where to find the trash.  Women could not walk 50 feet to the privy.  Not sure why this happens, but it happens everywhere.

Enough of the dark side.

One of the best part of being a PATC ridgerunner is leading hikes for the Road Scholar program. Road Scholar We play a role in their hike on the AT in four states offering.

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People do the weird things.

Sisu

A flat soufflé and limp noodles…

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Good ole white blaze serial number 00000001

North Georgia, Appalachian Trail miles zero through 69.6, March 3-10, 2017 — There I was, hiking the Appalachian Trail in Georgia for the third year in a row.  This time it was different, very different, but we will get to that in due course.

This adventure started with an invitation to present my talk on trail hygiene at the annual ATKO – Appalachian Trail Kick Off event at Amicalola Falls State Park. The kick off targets future hikers and serves as a reunion of sorts for many others.

The premise for the talk is that hikers neither have to get sick – Noro virus or gastroenteritis – nor smell like Oscar the Grouch’s trash can on a hot summer’s day.  All they have to do is make staying clean a priority. My talk tells them how.

My talk is entitled “What the Funk!” I blogged about the subject here: What the Funk!  My Power Point slides are here:  https://www.dropbox.com/s/zwxxfhmz96vhn42/What%20The%20Funk.2.pptx?dl=0

The ATKO is a well attended two-and-a-half day event featuring speakers, vendors and old friends like Mike Wingeart and Robin Hobbs who were representing ALDHA, the Appalachian Long Distance Hiking Association.

The ATKO featured a tent city, gear vendors and even a slew of visiting owls.  This is a great horned owl.  His pals included a tiny screech owl named Goliath and a barred owl which remained amazingly quiet.  Trail Dames is a women’s hiking organization I try and promote as often as possible.  Love those gals, most of whom I’ve met on my various trail journeys.  Check out Trail Dames here:  Trail Dames

Now, let’s get down to business.  We’ll open with a brief confession.  I did not come to the trail with “trail legs.”  In other words, I was not in shape.  My excuse:  I injured my hip lifting weights in early October and have not run since then.  Throughout the hike, my hip and cardio were fine, but my legs had all the strength and authority of limp spaghetti noodles.  That’s definitely not a recipe for a fluffy soufflé in the nasty hills of Georgia. (Lovin’ mixed metaphors!)

The anointed know that launching from the Amicalola Lodge nets the upper five miles of the infamously steep “approach trail” that leads to the AT’s southern terminus on Springer Mountain.  I did it three years ago when I  had to spell the caretaker on Springer Mountain.  That year my gazelle-like bounds magically crushed the steepest hills.  This year I huffed and puffed like the little engine that barely could. I was delighted to summit, albeit about 90 minutes slower than before.

While on Springer, I took a look around.  I was saddened to see that two trees I’ve been tracking for the past three years had finally been done in.  The number of people on the trail continues to increase along with their relentless degradation of the environment.

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A bit hard to see, but campers have moved south of the lower bear cables on Springer Mountain shelter and much closer to the water source; and have established a new fire pit.

The good news is that previous recommendations have been implemented.  The increased presence on the trail has remarkably reduced trash.  Vegetation recovery projects have begun.  Extra campsites and privies have been added.  My observations from that time are here:  Georgia 2015

Old fire pit at Hawk Mountain shelter cleaned up.

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Improvements since last year to the new Hawk Mountain campsite.

As always the newly minted hikers were delightful.  I saw Lynne, the Trail Ambassador on the right, twice on my journey as she expanded her patrol coverage.  I saw several other ambassadors too.

Ambition has never been lacking for me.  Since this was my very first time to hike Georgia alone, I decided to pace myself in accordance with the legend in my own mind, versus the reality of my current physical condition.  Mind over matter was a good strategy, or so I thought.  That worked about as well as one might expect.

After pitching my tent the first night and on my way to fetch water, I met a young man who asked me if it was okay for his dog to be off leash.  Never ask a Leave No Trace zealot that question.  I convinced him that every snake, skunk, raccoon and porcupine in the woods would eat his dog for lunch, not to mention any stray bears.  How ’bout them Lyme disease bearing ticks ole fido is going to bring back to your tent?  Oh boy!!!

This fellow also decided to cowboy camp that night (no tent).  Guess what, it rained unexpectedly.  I awoke to his thrashing as he hurried to pitch is tent while dodging rain spatter.  “Grasshopper, you’re going to learn a lot,” I smiled as a hiked past his tent in the morning. He was sawing zzzzzzs.

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I have finally perfected pitching and striking this tent in high wind.  I failed at that miserably in Maine last summer. Hint:  Up-wind pegs first…

The plan for Monday was to make it about 15 miles either to the Justus Mt. campsite or on to Gooch Gap.  The forecast included rain and high winds for Tuesday, so I wanted to get as far as possible.

Moving with the speed to cold flowing molasses helped me realize that I wasn’t going to make either of my targeted locations, so I parked at Cooper Gap where, this year, the Army has been leaving its 500 gallon “water buffalo” unlocked for hikers. Now I was a half day behind with a cold, heavy rain in the forecast.

Very good news:  ALL water sources in Georgia were flowing with the exception of the spring at Blue Mountain shelter which is just short of Unicoi Gap.

Fortunately the heavenly watering of the Georgia hills didn’t begin until after I’d packed up.  I sopped off with a dry tent at least, headed for the Woods Hole shelter half way up the infamous Blood Mountain; about another 15 miles away.  Woods Hole has a covered picnic table and is located where bear proof food containers are required.  The odds were good that I’d get a spot, and I’d be back on schedule given that very few people want to carry the 3 1/2 extra pounds the canisters weigh.

Along the way, sometimes you see weird stuff.  Who would set the stump on fire at Gooch Mountain?  Just past there, somebody used a machete to hack up a dead tree.  For what?  The dead tree bark is good insect habitat for birds and bears.  Why ruin it?  Ignorance lives.

Please pack out your trash!  The fire pits and the trail in general was far cleaner than I’ve ever seen it at this time of year.  Thank you ridgerunners and trail ambassadors!

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I arrived at Woods Hole just prior to dusk.  I ate and then crashed between these two tents.

The morning dawned cold and windy.  The rain had passed. Of the three campers at Woods Hole, nobody had a bear canister. Surprise, surprise, surprise!  Where’s the ranger when you need ’em.

A father and son had pitched their tent in the shelter.  They were were woefully underprepared with summer sleeping bags and sported wet cotton clothes from the previous day’s rain.  The other tent belonged to a new thru hiker who didn’t know better.  I made it clear.  If more hikers came during the night, the tents would have to come down.  Fortunately, none did.

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It dawned cold and clear as I waited form my coffee water to boil. Note the two hats. After breakfast I was off for Low Gap, another 15 miles or so away.

Walking over Blood Mountain has its aesthetic pleasures.

Wind at Neel’s Gap

The trail to Low Gap is a relatively easy hike with the exception of a nasty climb at Tesnatee Gap.  My right hip flexor was swelling.  Time for a reality check.

Dawn at Low Gap.  Fortunately, from there it’s an easy 10 miles to Uniqoi Gap where I decided to bail.  The noodles were still limp and the soufflé was pretty flat.  Reached Unicoi about 12:30 p.m. and shuttled to the Top of Georgia Hostel.

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Bought a thru hiker lunch.  How do you spell bankruptcy?

Breakfast at Top of Georgia where Bob Gabrielsen offers the morning pep talk before the hopeful sea of humanity rides the tide northward in search of adventure and the state of Maine.  Time for me to saddle up the Subaru and ride north.

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Toxic waste bag.

It ain’t over until everything’s cleaned up.

Sisu

Walking the Line

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Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia, November 9 -12, 2016 — While it is self evident that the Appalachian Trail itself requires frequent maintenance.  After all, an estimated three million hikers tread on some part of it annually.  That’s a lot of wear and tear.

What few hikers may realize is that the trail itself is one thing.  The land through which it flows is another.  That land can be federal, state, or local.  In some cases it belongs to private conservation groups or other entities.  All of those land parcels have borders, borders that are surveyed and marked.  They must be checked from time to time to ensure the markers are still there and no encroachment or other illegal activity is underway.

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Checking the AT corridor boundary is what I’ve been doing in northern Virginia for the past several days.  I was on a corridor monitoring trip organized by the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA).  Over time 30 some folks dove in, some for the whole time; others for a day or two.  Together we were able to check and remark several miles of boundary.

The boundary has no trail.  Crews edge their way along the border, bushwhacking through thickets and briars.

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Sometimes monitors have to get down into the weeds to find the survey monuments.

Once a monument is found, it is recorded and the brush is lopped away.

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Witness trees get refreshed.

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The boundary is marked in mustard yellow.  The paint, from bottles, is squeezed on brushes toothpaste style.  Bottles are refreshed daily.

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Sometimes monuments can only be found using the surveyor’s measurements.

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Brush trimming is not as fun as it appears to be. 🙂

The threats to trail lands and by extension to hikers are real.  People dump trash, extend their fences, or hunt illegally on these lands.

Who knows what led to this tragic scene.

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One thing for certain.  The former residents were unhappy with the government as other graffiti attested.

Later we decided to bushwhack our way to the AT for an easier hike out.  I found an illegal trail built by a hunter the previous year as noted in this blog post about my hike with ridgerunner Hal Evans. Vegetable Territory  The hunter had put up an illegal deer stand which was supposed to have been removed. Of special interest, it faced the hiking trail which was less than 100 yards away. This was an intolerable situation regardless of other circumstances.

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Note the odd-colored green paint the hunter used to blaze his trail.  The bottom part of the ladder was removed.  Standard procedure.

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Our intrepid crew cut the bicycle lock with bolt cutters and carried out the offending tree stand.  Some disassembly was required before it would fit into the ATC’s van for disposal.  The Appalachian Trail is a national park and a note and business card from the park’s chief ranger was substituted on the tree to account for the missing stand.  In a sign of the times, monitors were concerned that face recognition software might identify them to a revengeful hunter, so faces are not visible.

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The ATC crew has a van donated by Toyota.

 

We stayed at the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Blackburn Trail Center.  It features three bunk rooms and a large commercial kitchen.  It is rentable for group events and weddings.  Otherwise it is used by trail crews, ridgerunners and others working on the trail.

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Accommodations are rustic.  The plumbing is outside.

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Blackburn features a hiker cabin, tent pads and a covered eating area.

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Unfortunately the solar shower wasn’t working this late into autumn.

Gorgeous stone work at Blackburn.

Sisu