The secret lives of ridgerunners

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Blackburn Trail Center

Blackburn Trail Center, Round Hill, VA, July 18, 2019 — Once a month in June and July we bring our Appalachian Trail ridgerunners to Blackburn for a little R&R and a short business meeting.  Outside guests from the Conservancy, NPS and our trail club are often invited.  In August they travel to the Scott Farm training center outside Carlisle, PA where they rejoin their mid-Atlantic peers for an official seasonal debrief and a personal comparing of notes.

Our MO is pretty standard.  We show up Thursday afternoon for some social time, prepare a meal and have some beer.  Friday morning we do cook-your-own pancakes with a 9 o’clock hard start for our meeting which varies between 90 minutes and three hours. Lunch is leftovers if there are any.

Ridgerunners are usually fairly stoic people.  They are selected for their maturity, judgment, commitment and intelligence. But what are they really like when they let their hair down and no one else is looking?  Here’s a snapshot of the dinner hour last night.

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Food prep was pretty standard.  The main course was grilled burgers.  Catherine, our PATC intern, was our slicer and dicer for the fixin’s.

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Seems like gender neutral nail painting is a thing with hikers this year.  I appears to have started with hikers painting their black toenails to cover up the grossness of it all.

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Next thing I know, they’re all doing it.

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Checking for purity?

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Stylin’.

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That was hard work.

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Ok.  Everybody outside to cook.  We were joined by Gary Seizer, host of the podcast “Stories from the Trail.”  He recorded an episode after dinner that will air in two to three weeks.

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What’s this?  The food was yummy.

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A good time was had by all.

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

 

 

Oh! The things we see.

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Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA to Harpers Ferry, WV, June 30 – July 6,, 2016 — My annual hikes with our ridgerunners have begun.  This year my muffin top needs shrinking so I decided to walk all 240 miles of the PATC section in hopes of burning some of it off.  I’d like to do it nonstop, but schedules, theirs and mine, dictate otherwise.

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After dropping my car at the Harpers Ferry National Park long term parking, Robin Hobbs schlepped me up to meet Mitch Mitchell at the store where hikers traditionally eat a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate reaching the halfway point which is just down the trail.  From here the math for them changes from counting up the miles to counting them down.

Prospective ridgerunners think the job is about hiking.  Readers of this blog know from last year in Georgia and other missives that the opposite is true.  It mostly about picking up trash, coaching hikers in Leave No Trace outdoor ethics, counting and interacting with hikers.  The miles per day are generally slow and short.

This trip was no different, but here’s fair warning.  I’m going to let you in on some ridgerunner reality show secrets and it’s gonna get gross…

We were also out over the July 4th holiday weekend, meaning more people in general, more nubes, and the laggard thru hiker party crowd which is not known for its trail decorum.  In fact, they openly admit to yellow blazing (hitch hiking) and to using booze and drugs in excess.

The rule of thumb is that if a hiker isn’t at Harpers Ferry by the Fourth of July, they need to “flip” to Maine and hike south or risk winter weather shutting them out of Mt. Katahdin in October.  These folks are walking on the bleeding edge of that axiom.

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Selfie at the official half way marker.

Our start was leisurely enough.  We got about a half gallon (by volume) worth of trash out of the fire pit at Toms Run shelter and pressed on.  Before the day’s end Mitch’s pack reminded me of a colonial tinker plying his trade along the rutted byways that traced the very region we were trekking.

As we moved along, trash of all kinds accumulated.

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I don’t know what it is with me and finding pots and pans.  Since hiking with Hal and Lauralee last year, I’ve found enough to open my own store.

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Any more trash and he won’t have a place to put it.  It’s the second pair of new (cheap) boots I’ve found this year alone.

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Taking inventory before feeding the friendly dumpster at New Caledonia State Park, PA.  We’re not showing you the snack bar just out of the photo.  I packed out some of their tasty treats for  dinner for that night.

Homeless camp on state park property.  It was a family that appeared to have left in a hurry.  Some toys and a pink blanket were in one of the tents along with clothing.  The food in the cooler was rotten.  The park rangers cleaned it up.  Too big for us to haul out on our backs.

After spending the night at Birch Run shelter with a noisy crowd of hikers, we press on.

Ridgerunners see a lot of gross stuff on the trail including unburied human waste, used feminine hygiene products,  wipes and toilet paper (Charmin blossoms) and the like.  We fish it out of privies, pick it up and pack it out or bury it as appropriate.  What comes next  is a first for me.  Why I was surprised, I don’t know.

You’d think after more than 1,000 miles on the trail, hikers would learn a thing or three, especially about hygiene.  Maybe not.  We found the young woman who owns this food dish improperly camped too close to a stream and illegally camped in the vicinity of a PATC rental cabin.  I’d met her previously while hiking with Denise the week prior in Virginia.  The embedded dirt on her skin reminded me of a character made up to be in a movie about peasants in the middle ages.  My stinky gym socks smell better.  Small wonder hikers get sick on the trail.

There were fewer flies on this pile of human scat I buried than on our hiker’s food plate.  These videos will go into every presentation I will ever give from now forward on backpacking.

Approaching Deer Lick shelter, we bumped into a PATC trail crew hiking out their tools.  They were nice enough to invite us to dinner with the North Chapter group, so we grabbed some of their tools and Chris Ferme’s chainsaw and tagged along for some chicken pot pie, green salad and fresh backed blueberry and lemon pie for dessert.  Yum!  Chris hauled us back to the trail in time to reach Deer Lick before dark.  The next day we hiked over their handiwork.  Nice job guys!

The following morning Mitch dropped off to participate in a PATC North Chapter hiker feed back at Pine Grove Furnace.  I pushed on to Raven Rock shelter in Maryland to rendezvous with Robin.

People love to steal this sign.  I was lucky it was there this trip.

Removed a small blowdown obstructing the trail using a folding saw.

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Evidence of the party crowd.  Scattered the sticks.

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The last of the rhododendron blooms.

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Bear activity has been unusually high this season.  The good news is that most hikers have found religion when it comes to bears and are hanging their food and toiletries rather than sleeping with them.  Yogi and Boo Boo have been working overtime.  Bears have entered shelters and stolen packs in search of food and destroyed tents.  Shenandoah has closed a section to camping and bear sightings in the PATC’s 240 mile section have been frequent.

While at Raven Rock shelter, MD, Robin and I hiked down to the old Devil’s Race Course shelter location (now torn down) and dismantled the fire ring.  That will help make it less inviting for high school drinking parties that caused the new shelter to be built up a steep hill from there.

Now, it didn’t happen by accident that I timed my hike to be at Annapolis Rock for July Fourth ’cause guess what?  You can see fireworks from that lofty perch.  Unfortunately the rain was falling in buckets with heavy fog.  We saw zip, but the campground was nearly full in spite of the forecast.

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The clouds were clearing the next morning when I set off for Crampton Gap after a quick photo op with Robin.  It was Kyle’s day off (the other Maryland ridgerunner), but I’ve been out with him before and we intercepted him along the way.  He’ll be there through Oct. 31, so we’ve got plenty of time.

The AT foot bridge over I-70.

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The original Washington Monument outside Boonsboro, MD.  My camera lens was foggy with sweat!

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C&O Canal lock # 33 just outside Harpers Ferry.  I’m standing on the tow path.

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Back to Virginia and Shenandoah soon.  Sisu

Karma Comes to the Back Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unburnt trash.

Unburnt trash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now back to the reason for this story.

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

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

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

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

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

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

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