FKT Attempt: A Champion’s Story

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Witt flying through Beagle Gap.  Note the stove I used to make coffee.

Shenandoah National Park, August 5, 2019 — “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  Theodore Roosevelt

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Witt Wisebram is an Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner from Atlanta, GA.  His resume includes the hiking triple crown – the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.

Witt holds or has held the FKTs (Fastest Known Times) for the Arizona Trail, the AT’s 100-mile wilderness in Maine, and the AT’s Four-state Challenge.

You can look up and learn more about FKTs here:  FKT website

Yesterday Witt attempted to earn the record for the FKT on the AT in Shenandoah National Park.

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The course is 103.2 miles on the Appalachian Trail beginning at 2,220 feet in altitude at the south entry kiosk, rising to 3,837 ft. at Big Meadows, and ending at 2,334 ft. at the north boundary.  The elevation profile looks like saw teeth whose bite can sap a runner’s strength like a crosscut sunders logs.

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Sunday night prep.

While the planning began for this “supported” attempt began weeks ago.  It got serious Sunday night when Witt and his support team positioned themselves in Waynesboro, VA to launch a zero-dark-thirty assault.

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Final checks.

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Overnight rain meant slick trail, at least until the sun burned it off.  Lingering clouds delayed the BMNT (Beginning of Morning Nautical Twilight) start by nearly 20 minutes.  Five thirty a.m. was launch time.

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While Witt burned up the trail, the support team set up to wait.  The tote contains calorie-dense foods, spare clothing, blister treatment, and spare gear.  A cooler in the car chilled water.

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After set up, we’d wait until the man himself dashed into view.

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Water bottles exchanged.  Snacks delivered.

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Potassium-rich bananas help prevent muscle cramps.

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It’s always handy to have a physics professor friend document your record attempt.  The sheet marked mileage, aid stops, miles in between, expected pacing, actual time, and any variance.  Sabine even made a column for bears seen (6).

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Witt was on or ahead of pace even after the sun burned off the friendly cloud cover.  Here he is crossing the Skyline Drive bridge at Swift Run Gap at the the boundary between the park’s southern and central districts.

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Waiting quietly for Witt had its pleasures.

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The aid stops were plotted where we could get easy access to the AT, generally 3-5 miles apart.

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Reginald the snapping turtle was our mascot.  Sabine’s life-long friend, an astronomer from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, happened to be in town and joined us later in the day.

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Leave No Trace principles apply, especially when the athlete and his support crew are ridgerunners.  Witt exchanged is old wrappers for new snacks at each stop.

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As the day wore on, the mountains and the sun took their toll.  Mother nature is not sympathetic.

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As nightfall approached, we could tell Witt’s tank was emptying.  He had stumbled just prior to this stop and tweaked a muscle in his upper back.  His pace had been slowing since mid-afternoon.  When he sat down at this stop I knew his run was in grave danger.

We discussed ending the attempt.  Witt was concerned that continuing might but him in position for a long painful recovery.

We quickly planned another stop 1.5 miles up the trail at the Timber Hollow Overlook on Skyline Dr. where a final decision could be made.  Sabine joined Witt for safety and support.

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The thousand-yard stare tells the end of the story.

For safety’s sake and Witt’s health, he made the decision to stop his attempt, just short of the 70-mile mark.  Elapsed time:  15 hours, 21 minutes and 48 seconds.

Witt made a brave and intelligent decision.  This was his first defeat.  I hope it’s not his last.  Adversity helps us learn and grow.  It offers perspective and coaches empathy.

Note I did not say failure.  While the outcome on this day was not what Witt expected, he performed like the champion he is and will continue to be, only After this he’ll be a little bit better.

Sisu

 

 

 

A tale of two hikes on the Appalachian Trail

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Me, Mary and Joanne at Nutter’s Ice Cream, Sharpsburg, MD for a pre-hike treat.

Appalachian Trail, Maryland. June 27 – 28, 2019 — The Appalachian Trail is not all work.  Sometimes it’s a truckload of fun.  So it was this week with two different gravel-crunching adventures.

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Making a last gear check in the Penn-Mar Park parking lot.

My ridgerunner friend Mary decided to hike the 47-mile four-state challenge to celebrate her 45th birthday.

Her plan:  Ridgerunner colleague Joanne would support her by car.  Roughly speaking she would hike the first quarter alone.  I would join her for the second quarter, and  her colleague Witt, the current speed record holder at 9 hours and change, would trot the last half with her.

The adventure begins on the AT in PA at the Mason-Dixon line, then passes through MD and a corner of WV at Harpers Ferry.  It terminates where the trail breaks into Virginia territory.  To be official, the hikers have 24 hours to git ‘er done.  The average successful hiker uses close to the entire time.

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It doesn’t count without the predawn selfie.

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Crack of dawn start.

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She’s a blur at Pen-Mar Park.

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She’s off!

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Joanne met Mary at road crossings along the way.  Staying hydrated on a hot day was paramount.

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Blister repair at the I-70 footbridge.  “Dr.” Joanne officiating.

Unfortunately, this is the last known photo.  After handing off Mary to Witt at Washington Monument State Park, about 8 miles later they encountered unforecast thunder, lightning and hail.  The tenderizing effects of head-banging hail caused Mary to call the game at 32 miles.

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Flash forward one day to the long-planned first hike of the season for the Gang of Four (minus one).  Our plan:  Annapolis Rock where Mary was on duty as ridgerunner/caretaker.

Green Briar Lake in the background.  Catherine with a Ninja pose and Tina photographing a camera-shy copperhead wedged in a crack in the rock.

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Mary, none the worse for wear, warns hikers of the copperhead.

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Best part of the day at Dan’s Tap House.  We missed you Alexis.

Sisu

 

Serendipity!

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Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, June 5, 2019 — My friend Karma is hiking the AT again this year and I have been following her blog.  In the past some of her blogs from previous hikes have been cross posted here to share her adventures.

Her blazing speed this time around is impressive.  You can do that when it’s your second rodeo.  On a repeat performance the B.S. is reduced to noise and the anxieties are taken in stride.  You can actually enjoy the experience.  That she’s having a good time was obvious at lunch.

The truth is that she’s a week ahead of schedule, not because she’s faster but because she’s hiking smarter by spending less time in town.  It just so happens I was in Harpers Ferry upstairs at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy when a friend there told me Karma was downstairs, fresh off the trail, wringing wet with sweat.  Serendipity!

I bounded down the stairs into the hiker lounge and gave my friend a soppy hug.  After finding out that it was too early to check into the motel where she could have showered, we decided to go to lunch anyway.  After all, it is a hiker town and we’re hikers.

Our plan always had been to meet for lunch in Harpers Ferry where Karma planned to take a day off known as a zero for zero miles hiked.  Now as it is, I always buy lunch when a friend hikes in from Georgia.  It doesn’t happen that often, so it’s a bet that won’t break the piggy bank. When it does happen, it’s special.

My first question was “Why are you doing this a second time”?  The answer was simple and complicated.  In the end, her reason is universal. She likes being out there.

Karma first hiked the AT in 2013.  Her blog “Karma on the Trail” is the most entertaining AT blog I’ve ever read.  You can find it here:  https://thumperwalk.wordpress.com/

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Karma’s half way photos from this 2013 and 2019.

You go girl!

Sisu

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Ten Glorious Days

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Hiking and Working on the Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah National Park, October 4 – 10, 2018 — Being busy beats boredom more often than not. It’s the same when work is pleasure and pleasure is work.

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Hike across Maryland hikers resting at the Ed Garvey shelter.

Road Scholars offers several hikes in our region.  The one in which we are normally involved is hiking legs of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia – in that order.  We have one more of these on schedule for this season.

The other offering is four days hiking the AT across Maryland’s 42 miles.  This is a gentle hike compared to rest of the AT with most of the miles spent running a ridgeline on an old logging road converted to trail.

We were asked to fill in for leaders who could not make it.  Good weather graced our participation and the hikers marched into Harpers Ferry in good spirits.

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The next day, my friend and colleague Mary Thurman, currently Blackburn Trail Center caretaker, offered to help with some trail maintenance on the AT in Shenandoah National Park.

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On a grossly muggy day, we weeded a couple of miles worth of trail on two sections in the North District and removed seven blowdowns, two by handsaw; the rest with a chainsaw.

The long sleeves, gloves, face shield, and buff are to protect from poison ivy which is atomized by the string trimmer.  You can feel the spray as you go.

Soon Mary will be headed for her next gig at the Grand Canyon.  I’m going to miss her. This spring my wife and I are going to celebrate my 70th birthday in Colorado with my siblings and cousins.  Mary and I plan to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim on the way.

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Twelve hours later.  Here we go again.  Time for the White House Hiking Group’s planned hike up Old Rag, Shenandoah’s most popular hike – so popular that it was on Thomas Jefferson’s bucket list back in his day.

We rendezvoused literally at Zero-dark-thirty in order to get a jump on the crowds.  On a rare dry day in a rain soaked summer, you just knew people were gonna come, and they did.

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Dawn cracked with an unexpected overcast.  Since you hike Old Rag for the views we prepared for disappointment.  Imagine our delight, popping out of the gloomy clouds  into happy sunshine.

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Obligatory horsing around photos.

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We made it!

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Brick oven pizza and a brew in nearby Sperryville capped the day.

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No rest for the wicked.  Tuesday and Wednesday brought the Road Scholars again, this time hiking the AT in four states.

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This bunch was unique – a running group from Grand Rapids, MI.  They’ve been together for decades and were a hoot!

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Meanwhile Sophie endured surgery to remove a cancerous cyst. The bounce is returning to her step and the prognosis is good.

Not until the heavy exercise was over, did the weather turn toward autumn.  The humidity and temps are mercifully down just in time for the Hoodlums trail crew next weekend.  See you there.

Sisu

Winter is a Good Time to Prep for a Thru Hike

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This article  was prepared for the Appalachian Trail:  Expert Advice Facebook page to which I am a contributor.

Backpacking experience is a sure bet if you’re attempting a thru hike. Informal surveys suggest that for the vast majority of thru hikers, this 2,200-mile adventure will be their first serious backpacking trip.

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There’s art in the frost.

Especially with hikers starting earlier to avoid crowds, the winter months are an ideal time to develop hiking, camping and cooking skills. The trails and shelters see little traffic. The light angles are brilliant for photography. Best of all, if you make a mistake and have to bail, you’re generally close to home or your car.

If you follow social media, you learn many hikers hibernate during the cold and desolate winter months when they could be out on the trails honing their skills.

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In many places winter isn’t totally glacial. There are warm spells. After all, even black bears don’t truly hibernate. When it warms up a bit, they get out and about. So can you. You can also test nature’s most challenging elements if you want to.

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AT at New Found Gap in Nov.  Temperature 0F.

Winter experience is also valuable knowledge that might save someone’s hike. Nearly all NOBOs and many SOBOs endure harsh winter conditions in the Smokies , the Roan Highlands, and or on the Mt. Rogers massif. On the northern end, the 100-mile Wilderness can become a deepfreeze in late fall.

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Rain-soaked poles were hung on a peg and froze solid overnight on Mt. Rogers.

Here’s why it matters. While ridgerunning in a heavy March snowstorm, I met two couples from Florida on Blood Mountain who said they were overwhelmed by the snow and cold. Three and a half days into their hike, it was over.

These hikers were headed home with smashed dreams, casualties of not knowing how. Since it snowed, sleeted and/or rained on 18 of the first 20 days that March, they were destined to be toast no matter what, but they did not have to be.

Georgia in March.

Ready to try winter backpacking and improve your edge?

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Four layers you can see and two you can’t.  With my friend Denise Benson on a cold weather trip preparing for her thru hike.

The general concepts are simple. Wear loose and layered clothing. Keep your clothing, socks and sleeping bag as dry as possible. Keep your head and hands warm. Learn how to block the wind and manage body heat generated by heavy exercise. Learn how to stay warm at night. Know the techniques needed to avoid misery.

Here are some things to know before you go about clothing, layering, gloves and mittens, staying dry, treating water and keeping your water from freezing, dehydration and hypothermia, frostbite, staying warm at night, camp routine, cooking and electronics, and more. Let’s tackle them one at a time.

Clothing:

In dead winter you’ll need to pack more clothing than normal, at least a complete change or more depending on conditions. The keys are to stay dry and have enough layers to keep warm.

Extra layers may be needed depending on expected temperatures. During my thru hike, I experienced -15 degrees F on Mt. Rogers following a day of hard near-freezing rain. These were ultra high-risk conditions. But, that night and the next day were special in a good way. I was warm and dry. It wasn’t luck. It was know-how.

Everybody says wear layers. Exactly what does that mean?

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Wind layer over base layer.

Layers trap air that acts as insulation. Usually a snug wicking base layer is complimented by a loose, windproof, baggy outer layer. The wicking property keeps your skin dry and warmer. Rain gear, pants and jacket, can serve as a wind-proof outer layer, but so can other forms of technical clothing available from outfitters. In a word, two thin fleeces will be warmer than one heavy one. In camp wearing a rain jacket over a puffy is much warmer than the puffy alone, especially if it is windy.

For example, even at temperatures around -35 F in Alaska, Colorado and northern Minnesota, a tight fitting wicking base layer surrounded by a baggy windproof layer on the bottom has been enough during exertion. On top a base layer and a second loose layer, say a light fleece under the wind layer is usually sufficient while hiking, snow shoeing or skiing in the extreme cold. It doesn’t take that much to stay warm while you are moving.

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Most serious winter backpackers don’t use multipurpose clothing such as fleece-lined outer shells. Their outer layers are separate to ease building the right number of layers. If using a rain jacket, it should be designed like a mountain parka with a high hooded collar, pit zips to reduce heat build up, and an inside pocket to carry water bottles.

The key when moving is just enough clothing to keep warm to reduce sweating. Add or subtract light, lose layers as needed.

In cold weather, everything changes the minute you stop. Your body generates far less heat and the moisture in damp clothing quickens the transfer of heat away from your body. Keep your warm jacket handy so you can put it on right away when you stop.

In camp you can add down pants to help keep your legs warm during chores, and to sleep in as well. Wearing down pants and puffies to bed adds insulation that increases the temperature range on sleeping bags. Down booties keep cold feet warm. High quality down garments offer outstanding warmth at a light weight.

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The down jackets, pants and booties extend the range of the 20-degree bag to 0F.

Bonus. Think about it. If nature calls on a freezing night, popping out of your sleeping bag wearing down pants and a jacket make the experience much more tolerable.

Gloves, Mittens and Socks:

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Mittens are always warmer than gloves. They are handy to have for those prone to colder extremities – older hikers, women, or someone with Renaud’s disease.

Mittens with a waterproof shell helps keep hands dry and block the wind. On my thru, a cold snap (0 degrees F) drove me into Gatlinburg to buy mittens because my gloves were woefully insufficient. The outfitter didn’t carry them, so I waited in town two days for warmer temperatures. That was two town days not in the budget because my winter gear was waiting for me in Hot Springs.

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Gloves, and especially mittens, make performing tasks much more difficult such as manipulating snaps, buckles, zippers and any task requiring fine motor skills. Wearing thin glove liners adds an inner layer and improves motor skills and reduces frostbite risk when gloves or mittens must be removed.

Dry wool socks/warm feet are a necessity, not a luxury. Some carry up to five pair of socks, including their sleeping socks. At night I put my socks between my sleeping bag and air mattress. Usually they dry out.

Water:

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Water sources can freeze solid.

In subfreezing temperatures, having drinkable water is challenging. Water sources can freeze solid requiring hikers to expend precious fuel melting ice or snow. Filters easily freeze. To prevent freezing, they can be packed deep within one’s pack during the day and reside inside your sleeping bag at night. That’s a pain.

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In freezing weather, chemical purification generally is more convenient, either Aqua Mira or iodine tabs. Fortunately iodine now comes with a neutralizer that removes its peculiar color and unpleasant taste.

Treated water must be kept liquid. During a bitterly cold day, carry water containers in an insulated sleeve and inside your outer layer where body heat helps prevent freezing. Extra water can be insulated inside your pack using extra clothing.

Wide mouth bottles are almost impossible to open if the water at the opening freezes due to the extra friction caused by their large surface area.

Narrow mouth bottles, carried upside down, fare better. The reason for carrying bottles upside down is that no bottle is completely full and the water near the air bubble at the top freezes first.

Know the forecast before relying on a water bladder. Even insulated hoses freeze at relatively high temperatures.

At night water goes inside your sleeping bag if you don’t want a block of ice in the morning that might not thaw out. Put the bottle in a sock or at the end of your bag if you’re worried about it making you cold. Heating the water first acts like a hot water bottle and adds comfort, but it comes with the cost of burning extra fuel.

Above all, make certain the container lid is on tight. Do not use flip lids unless you want to chance flooding your sleeping bag. It happens more than you think.

Dehydration:

Fake fact: When it’s cold outside and you don’t sweat as much, so you don’t need to drink as much.

In winter the colder air is generally dryer, sweat evaporates more efficiently, and you exhale a lot of water vapor. Thirst is not as intense, yet your body eliminates nearly the same amount of water as it does in other seasons.

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Monitor how much you are drinking to ensure you get enough. You should urinate about once every hour or two and the color of your urine should match lemonade. If it looks dark yellow or like weak tea, you’re headed for trouble. If the color darkens to the color of cola, you are at risk.

Hypothermia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothermia

This condition occurs when your body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees. That’s only 3.6 degrees below normal. Symptoms include shivering, rapid hear rate, rapid breathing, lose of coordination and confusion. Dehydration can be a factor, as can wet clothing.

Wear clothes made of artificial fiber that retain insulating ability when wet. Cotton loses its insulating properties when wet. Hence the aphorism: Cotton kills.

Staying as dry as possible is the Holy Grail in hypothermia prevention. Moisture reduces the insulating value of your clothes, hats, gloves and socks. You have to get out of damp or wet garments as soon as you get to camp. You might need to change earlier if you get soaked in a cold rain or slip and fall into a creek. Regardless, heat can dissipate rapidly leading to hypothermia or frostbite.

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Tricorner Knob Shelter where a hiker died of hypothermia.

An experienced hiker, who was properly equipped, died at a shelter in the Smokies just a few years ago. He was found dead next to his sleeping bag having been robbed of his judgment by the cold. https://appalachiantrailnoir.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/hiker-succumbs-to-hypothermia-in-the-smokies/

If you start to shiver, it may be time to add layers, especially a windproof outer layer.

Frostbite:

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Frostbite happens when your skin freezes. The vulnerable parts of your body are toes, feet, hands, face and ears. For AT purposes, the likely danger lies mostly in wet feet and hands. Wind chill can endanger noses, cheeks and ears. Properly fitting boots, gaiters, and dry socks are your friends. Also mittens protect the hands much more than gloves. Knit and fleece hats protect ears. In extreme conditions balaclavas cover cheeks and noses.

In Camp:

When you role into camp the sun will probably be dropping like a stone along with the temperature. At a minimum, your back and socks will be damp, requiring a change. You’ll need water and to eat, and a place to sleep. What do you do first?

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Camp routine is personal preference. The key is to be organized and prioritized both in the way your gear is packed (say clothes on top) and the order of your camp chores.

Since I treat my winter water with iodine, which takes 30 minutes to work, that’s the first thing I do. Pitching my tent or preparing my bedroll follows; then changing clothes. When the water is purified, I cook and clean up. Then I dive into bed and listen to pod casts rather than lose more valuable body heat.

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These tents belong to ill-prepared spring break hikers.  I slept in between.  Had one more hiker arrived, the tents would have had to come down.

Sleeping in a tent is warmer than a shelter. It’s bad form to pitch tents in shelters, but hikers do it if they need to keep warm. It becomes a problem if too many hikers show up.

When pitching tents, scrape away the snow from under the area of your tent. During the night body heat melts the snow turning it into ice after you get up. If you don’t act quickly, the ice freezes tents to the ground like super glue. Striking tents immediately after waking helps prevent this. Using a footprint either from the manufacturer or homemade from Tyvek might just save your tent floor.

While sleeping, the majority of heat is lost through the bottom, transferring to the colder ground underneath. Thus, bottom insulation is far more important than on top. If you’re cold and have an extra blanket, put it underneath you, not over you, and you’ll be warmer. My preference is an insulated air mattress over closed cell foam sleeping pads because these air mattresses offer higher insulation values.

As a general rule, plan to sleep in your dry spare set of clothes. Don’t expect your damp sweaty hiking outfit to dry out overnight. You put that back on in the morning and quickly get moving to warm up.

In much colder temperatures, putting on damp clothing in the morning may not be practical or safe, depending. On a good day, I don’t change anything but socks when I get to camp. My back is usually only slightly damp. I add layers and am usually dry before bedtime.

Cooking:

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Cooking in cold weather requires much more fuel.

What’s on the menu is a matter of personal preference. Most people don’t like to eat cold meals in the winter. Preparing a warm meal in winter is a function the laws of physics. Needless to say, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around within the hiking community.

Warm meal(s) and or hot chocolate are comforting to say the least. The choices for creating heat are basically two: fire and stoves. Fire is dirty and difficult for some. Alcohol stoves sometimes don’t generate enough heat to boil water in very cold temperatures. If you use iso butane, you need special winter mix fuel canisters. Pressurized stoves such as the MSR Wisperlite are heavy in comparison to other choices. Experience can help you pick your poison.

Electronics:

Cold is the enemy of all batteries, especially the lithium-ion batteries used in phones and iPods. Whip out your phone in winter to take a photo and it may die before you can even turn the camera on. If a lithium-ion battery freezes, nano wires inside may break, severely degrading its life and capacity.

Keeping your phone in your pocket helps keep the battery warm. Electronics including storage batteries also follow your water bottle into your sleeping bag at night. Electronics including your headlamp, unneeded during the day, can be packed inside sleeping bags to insulate them from the severe cold.

One more thing:

snow goggles

Snow blindness is rare at the lower altitude in the lower 48, but it’s a risk nevertheless. Sun reflecting off white snow plays hell with your eyesight. The Eskimos invented slitted eye covers to protect them from the glare. Always bring sunglasses or wear polychromatic lenses in prescription glasses.

 

Of note:

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My shoulder-season pack, set up for five days, weighs about 32 lbs., all included. That’s a tent, 20-degree sleeping bag, a down puffy, down pants and booties, a complete change of clothing, rain gear, wind jacket, two hats, and gloves plus stove, food and water.

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My thru hike pack at the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center.  The month is March.

In contrast, my summer pack weighs around 18 lbs. – far fewer clothes, lighter sleeping bag, and modified rain gear if it’s there at all.

My full on winter pack weighs around 40 lbs. with all the basics plus gaiters, extra hats, mittens, zero-degree sleeping bag, and extra clothing. My boots change from high-top trail runners to an insulated and waterproof boot. Sometimes I bring micro spikes and/or show shoes.

Summary:

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The hiker is from Vermont and knew how to take good care of his dog in harsh conditions.  Many hikers do not and their dogs suffer.

Winter is time you can use to your advantage. Mostly it’s an enchanting environment where the animal tracks tell remarkable stories and nature’s awesome beauty is visible in a way few seldom see. Occasionally it’s an adventure. Check it out!

Two excellent sources:

MOUNTAINEERING, The Freedom of the Hills. Edited by Ronald C. Eng. Part 1, Outdoor Fundamentals, eighth edition, 2015. The Mountaineers Books.

98.6 Degrees, The art of keeping YOUR ASS ALIVE, Cody Lundin. 2003. Gibbs Smith Publisher.

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Gaiters help keep feet dry.

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Pearisburg, VA is where the AT’s altitude drops below 5,000 ft. and it’s normally safe to send winter gear home.

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Central Virginia in March.

 

AT Expert Advice.

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The 80-mile mark is not the optimal time to be studying this subject.

Kensington, Maryland, September 11, 2017 — Within the culture of the Appalachian Trail there are various camps with strong views on how the trail should be hiked.  In some cases one way is as good as another.  But advice from the ignorant and uninformed can be detrimental to both hikers and the trail itself.

Given the plethora of good and bad advice along with rumors and the need to get factual information to hikers quickly, a group of experts associated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy created a Facebook page that would provide unbiased, rock-solid, informed advice, and accurate information to the AT community.

Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook Page

This is my latest addition, written in hopes of helping aspiring hikers improve their odds of successfully thru hiking a trail where between three of four or four of five thru hiking attempts fail in any given year.

IT’S SHAKEDOWN SEASON

In the beginning there is Georgia for NOBOs. Unfortunately, the relatively easy hills of Georgia are also the ending for far too many aspiring thru hikers. A few thoughts follow on what you could be doing now to improve your odds of success next season no matter how you’re planning to hike the AT.

If you’re planning to thru hike next season, the year prior can be an anxious and exciting time. You read the blogs and memoirs. You vicariously hitch rides with the class ahead of you by following hikers to see what you can learn from their experience. You obsess over gear. Above all, you plan, plan, plan.

The trail register is in the metal box on the side of the southern terminus monument.

Now that NOBO season is winding down, what’s left to do until it’s your turn to toe the starting line? You could obsess all the more, or you could get out in the woods and test your gear, work on organizing your pack, and learn if your boots cause blisters.

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This guy is the definition of poorly prepared.

Experience suggests this is a good idea. Ridgerunners report poorly prepared hikers year after year. Many have never used their equipment in the field. A few show up with a pack full of gear still in it’s original packaging (yes they do). Nearly nine out of 10 report that they are on their first backcountry experience. Remember the joke, How to get to Carnegie Hall/Katahdin? “Practice, practice, practice.” Small wonder the drop out rate is so high.

Why let Springer be your first time in the primitive backcountry? Why let Georgia kick your butt?  Fall is an ideal time for a few shakedown hikes. The weather is generally good. The humidity low. Fewer people are on the trails and the leaves are turning.

Most importantly you don’t have to hike on the AT. Any trail near where you live will do. In fact the idea for this blog was born while hiking the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in western Pennsylvania. There are great trails just about everywhere.

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Resupplying at the Ingles supermarket in Hiawassee, GA.

The amount of free time you have doesn’t matter either. Since most thru hikers resupply every five days on average, practicing five-day hikes would seem to be ideal. But, if you are busy working hard to save up for your adventure and don’t have five days, even a few overnight trips can improve your skills and your odds.

Shakedown hikes allow you to experiment, answer questions, challenge your fears, and test the keys to your success. You also can challenge yourself in different scenarios including rain, cold, snow, strenuous terrain or any thing else you’re worried about. Most importantly, you have time to make corrections before it gets real down south where adjustments can be expensive.

Think about it. An overnighter in rainy weather is where you learn your rain gear doesn’t work right or your pack isn’t water tight or whether your footwear is going to generate blisters. It is far better making that discovery now rather than half way through Georgia at a time when the wrong mistake could send you home with smashed dreams.

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Georgia mid-March 2015.

The weather record in Georgia is instructive. Three years ago, it snowed, rained and/or sleeted 18 of the first 20 days in March. The next year March was mild and sunny, but the weather in the Smokies was atrocious. Last year split the difference.

Staying organized help keep your gear from becoming mixed up with others or losing it along the trail.

Here are a few things practice hikes could tell you:

  1. Does your gear fit properly and work the way you want it to work?
  2. Are you in adequate physical condition?
  3. Do your boots/trail runners fit and grip the right way?
  4. Got the right socks?
  5. What clothing combos work best?
  6. Is your sleep system adequate and comfortable?
  7. How much food do you need to carry?
  8. What do you like to eat – and not like?
  9. What’s the ideal weight of your pack?
  10. How to organize your pack so that your gear fits; and you can find what you need when you need it. Hint: When you need rain gear, you’ll need it pronto.
  11. Develop a routine in camp that works for you. What do you habitually do first, second and third both in the evening and morning?
  12. Can you deal with bad weather? Plan to practice hike when it’s unpleasant – cold, rain and snow.
  13. Does your water treatment method work for you?
  14. Practice your Leave No Trace principles. Pooping properly is paramount. So is protecting your food from bears, raccoons, mice and other critters.
  15. Maybe more importantly, what didn’t you think of?

The choices are endless – old or hot meals, types of stoves, pots, hanging food or using a bar canister.  Canisters are recommended for the southern half of the trail.

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Bear damage in Shenandoah National Park 2017.  The hiker did nothing wrong.  Someone who came before him taught the bear a bad habit.

Knowing to use a plastic bag to get water from a nearly dry spring can be a life saver.

Hygiene – cleanliness, pooping properly and keeping wounds clean prevents disease.

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Being in good physical condition helps on rugged terrain.

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Wearing gaiters in the mud and rain helps keep footware and socks dry – preventing blisters.

For example, on this author’s shakedown, 160 miles over 13 days on the AT, I learned my boots were wrong, I like an air mattress more than a foam pad, my pack didn’t fit right, I wasn’t going to cook or for that matter even eat three full meals a day, and was packing a bunch of stuff I did not need. I also learned that I was in better shape than I thought, and my pack was properly and functionally organized. Good to know. Changes made.

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Please follow Leave No Trace outdoor ethics and leave the trail pristine for those yet to come.

A successful thru hike requires a combination of will, mental and physical toughness, trail knowledge, gear, and luck. Some hikers prefer the school of hard knocks. On the other hand, why leave anything to chance if you don’t have to?

Good luck and good hiking. 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

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

Personal Recognition

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Standing near the old apple orchard. The saw is for cutting logs used to construct waterbars and check dams. The red pants are Kevlar chainsaw chaps.

Recently the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) honored me as the volunteer of the month.  As personally gratifying as that is, it is important to remember that I am but one of thousands of people in the trail community working hard to protect and preserve this national treasure and all the other trails and parks.

Some of these wonderful people are trail angels who help out individual hikers, others perform a limitless range of activities then help keep the trail alive.

Last year alone volunteers contributed more than a quarter million hours of maintenance on the Appalachian Trail.  Even that is not enough.  If you love your parks, please contribute as much time, talent and/or treasure as you can.  Above all, enjoy your hikes.

Jim Fetig – Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Jim Fetig is a man with a mission—to do everything he can to protect and preserve the Appalachian Trail.

Jim began volunteering with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) in 2012, in part to prepare for a thru-hike, which he accomplished in 2014.

Besides overseeing a Trail section in Shenandoah National Park and working with PATC’s Hoodlums trail crew, he coordinates the club’s ridgerunner program, serves as public affairs chair, and helps with fundraising. He also volunteers at the ATC visitor center in Harpers Ferry and does presentations and workshops on various aspects of hiking.

According to ATC Information Services Manager Laurie Potteiger, Jim is a powerhouse. “Few volunteers are involved with the A.T. from such a variety of perspectives,” she says. “You might find him using a chainsaw to clear blowdowns on his Trail section, swinging a pick on a trail crew, greeting visitors at ATC HQ, supervising ridgerunners anywhere along PATC’s 240 miles of the A.T., or writing blog posts that promote new initiatives that benefit the Trail.”

Last year, Jim helped pioneer the Trail Ambassador program, working as a volunteer ridgerunner with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club to greet and encourage hikers heading north from Springer Mountain. That section is heavily used, particularly in March and April, not only by prospective A.T. thru-hikers, but by even larger numbers of students on spring breaks and other groups.

As many as 150 of those hikers per day may want to stay at the same overnight site. They are often ill-prepared—many of them on their first backpacking trip. Besides educating hikers on Leave No Trace principles, backcountry sanitation, protecting food from wildlife, and much more, Trail Ambassadors also perform minor trail work and pack out trash. Jim found it very rewarding, particularly motivating hikers and giving them confidence in what they can accomplish. He has received notes from hikers who have completed A.T. thru-hikes thanking him for his encouragement and advice that helped them accomplish their goal.

Jim’s work on the Trail makes him appreciate the complexities of managing it, describing it is a system with many parts that all need to work together. Volunteers are one of those parts, and he says there is a role for everyone. “Whether giving back or paying forward, the volunteer experience is an intrinsic reward in and of itself. Whatever you do, it will be deeply appreciated by everyone concerned including your fellow volunteers.”

Information on contacting Trail maintaining clubs and ATC volunteer opportunities can be found at www.appalachiantrail.org/volunteer.

http://www.appalachiantrail.org/home/volunteer/volunteer-recognition/volunteer-biography-full-page/october-2016—jim-fetig

Want to dance?

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Julie Johnson, who commutes from Manhattan, drags a log she named “Betty,” up Pass Mtn. for use in a waterbar.

PATC North District Hoodlums Trail Crew, Pass Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, August 20, 2016 — Hanging out with the Hoodlums this weekend prompted a thought.

What is it about the Appalachian Trail that would cause people to commute hundreds of miles to maintain it; to hike it?  Why do so many report deeply personal relationship with this trail?

There are as many answers as there are hikers.  Here’s a possibility.

Some say the trail has the personality of a curvaceous vixen whose shapely turns first catch your eye on centerfolds in coffee table books.  She holds your gaze.

At the same time you imagine the possibilities, her earthy voice whispers on the wind, “Come with me. We’ll be amazing together.”  Smitten, you follow her irresistible come-hither with stars in your eyes and dreams of conquest.

Not so fast. Be careful of those sexy charms.  This babe may have legs that run from here to there, but a walk in the woods with this little number can suck you dry and empty your will to keep on.  Know that she turns from sultry to frigid ice virtually overnight.   See her tears fall in torrents that become rivers in your path. Be aware that she may not leave you laughing when she goes.

IMG_4914Date this honey and you’re in a high maintenance love affair. It’s more than the constant stroking, the sweet nothings or minding the flowers.  You’re in it with all of her friends including the bear who dug up my waterbar in search of a meal.  The hurt is high with this one.

She likes her suitors looking good.  Before you know it, you’ll own mix and match backpacks, tents and sleeping bags.   Guess how many base layers, flash dry shirts and pairs of Smart Wool socks I have.  I am ashamed to admit that my hiking boot closet would make Imelda Marcos jealous.

Heaven help you when you start owning your own personal trail tools – Pulaskis, MacLoeds – and Stihl brand anything is on your Christmas wish list.  I hear that she’s impressed by bigger saws.

Words like Jet Boil and Pocket Rocket soon replace GE and Tappan in the kitchen.  I mean who needs stainless steel when titanium is lighter.  Hell, Mother Nature even throws in the granite for free.

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She’s not a cheap date though.  Betty needed a lot of polishing before she became but one more piece of jewelry decorating the trail. This expensive jewelry habit is essential.  Keep it coming or Ms. AT’s beauty and charms quickly erode.  Costume pieces may be okay from time to time, but this girl likes to receive big rocks, especially on special occasions. Forget one and she can get ugly.

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In spite of all this, like a 1940s taxi dancer on a steamy Saturday night, the trail has no shortage of suitors.  Even the guy with the halo had to stand in line for his turn to dance.

Oh yes.  You probably guessed it.  The Hoodlums had another great outing.