The Easy State

 2015-08-29 10.11.10  2015-08-28 11.54.30

Max Mishkin and Dan Smith are the AT ridgerunners in Maryland

Maryland Appalachian Trail, August 28 – 29, 2015 — Many hiking guides list Maryland as the easiest state on the Appalachian Trail.  Here the AT is a relatively flat ridgewalk, mostly on South Mountain.  It has its share of rocks, but nothing compared to those to be experienced north and south of here.  In that sense, Maryland is fortunate.

In contrast, Maryland has the misfortune of being easy and close to the millions who live in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metro areas.  That’s a lot of people, many of whom take the shortest path to the AT section nearest home.  It’s a recipe for over use and abuse.  That may be why the state funds two ridgerunners for just 38 miles. One starts early and the other stays through October.

On Saturday Dan Smith and I hiked from Weverton Cliffs to Gathland State Park.  These gentle miles unfold quickly.  Even the hump to the top of the cliffs isn’t an outrageous challenge.  Pretty much any able bodied person can make it.  Come at it from Gathland and the physical challenge is even easier.

Relative to the work Lauralee and I did last week in Shenandoah National Park, this southern chunk of Maryland was a piece of cake.  Still, I was surprised at the amount of trash we policed up – ranging from micro trash like mylar snack wrappers to discarded/forgotten clothing.  Dan said it was a light weekend. Note to self: Remember this for next year.

We also broke up a couple of illegal fire rings too.  Fires, except at designated fire pits at the shelters, are illegal in Maryland, but some people just don’t seem to care.

Dan is an amiable Pennsylvanian and mechanical engineer who appreciates being outdoors.  He’s thru hiked both the Appalachian Trail (AT, 2,200 miles) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT, 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington, featured in “Wild.”)

Next year Dan’s off to hike the Continental Divide Trail (CDT, 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada via New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.) It’s the last leg of his triple crown and I have no doubt he’ll nail it.  The ridgerunner community will miss him.

After repositioning Dan’s car, I left him to rush northward to spend the night at Annapolis Rocks with Max Mishkin.  I made camp about two minutes before I needed to turn on my headlamp.

The two Maryland ridgerunners rotate so that there’s always a caretaker on site at the Rocks.  It didn’t take long to figure out why.

Caretaker's tent at Annapolis Rocks. I hung my hammock nearby.

Caretaker’s tent at Annapolis Rocks. I hung my hammock nearby.

Annapolis rocks is the Grand Central Station of Maryland’s AT section.  On a nice weekend, several hundred people per day have been known to visit.  Most are neophyte day trippers who are unaware of the Leave No Trace principles.  Consequently trash and cigarette butts figuratively snow from their presence.

Outdoor organizations also frequent the Rocks.  Scouts and Outward Bound groups are common.  Camping is restricted to a limited number of designated sites and no fires are allowed.

As I was walking in, a disgruntled father with a couple of sons was moving out with the speed of the approaching darkness.  It seems that the father brought the boys to one of the most sensitive and protected places in Maryland to show his boys how to build a fire and make a lean-to.  Max caught them hacking live trees and starting a fire.

Rather than camp the right way, they packed up when Max didn’t allow them to continue their activities.  The damage they caused was sadly obvious when we cleaned up the site the following morning.  As some of my military friends put it, “You can’t fix stupid.”

The upside to caretaking at Annapolis Rocks is obvious. People seem to love a guy with patches on his shirt.

The upside to caretaking at Annapolis Rocks is obvious. People seem to love a guy with patches on his shirt. I think we found Max at central casting.

Max is a jovial extrovert from Connecticut who graduated from William and Mary.  Since then, he’s knocked about in political campaigns and paralegal work.  On his days off, he volunteers like I do at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Visitor Center.  In early November he plans to hike Vermont’s Long Trail.  I’m planning to be on that trip too if circumstances permit.  I love the challenges of winter hiking.

Two Outward Bound groups came in turn to climb the rocks. This is a climbing favorite in Maryland. The highest rated climb, Black Crack, is 5.9 because it has an overhang. The others are non-technical but do require rope protection.

Two Outward Bound groups came in turn to climb the rocks. This is a climbing favorite in Maryland. The highest rated climb, Black Crack, is 5.9 on the Yosemite decimal system because it has an overhang. The others are non-technical but do require rope protection.  It’s a long drop to terra firma.

I love to see young folks learning how to climb. The rock is a hard sandstone infused with calcite. The cracks and fissures make excellent and safe handholds.

I love to see young folks learning how to climb. The rock is a hard sandstone infused with calcite. The cracks and fissures make excellent and safe handholds.

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The youngster on the right did an excellent job.

Say it ain't so! The seasonal transition has begun.

Say it ain’t so! Buckle up your overshoes. The seasonal transition is beginning.

On A “Blissful” Patrol

Lauralee Bliss may well be the dean of AT ridgerunners.

Lauralee Bliss may well be the dean of AT ridgerunners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course the trash was right next to this sign.

Of course the trash was right next to this sign.

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

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

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

Other sections need work.

Other sections need work.

Lauralee, whose trail name is

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

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

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

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

ridgerunners break up illegal fire rings.

Among other duties, ridgerunners break up illegal fire rings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flash Forward One Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ridgerunner Coordinator

Yours truly with the 2015 Potomac Appalachian Trail Club ridgerunners.

Yours truly with the 2015 Potomac Appalachian Trail Club ridgerunners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the original photograph.  The various renderings follow.

This is the original photograph. The various renderings follow.

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Reunions

EmilyLeonard

Harpers Ferry, WV, May 26, 2015 –There I was doing my best Captain Kirk impression as I sat in the command chair behind the counter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) visitors center when the door opens and I hear a cheery, “Hi Sisu!”  (Sisu is my trail name.)

To my delight, in walks Emily Leonard.  At least that’s who she was when I camped next to her and her husband on Springer Mountain, GA in early March.  Now she is “Black Bear,” an awesome thru hiker who remembered me promising that I would take her ‘half-way photo’ if she reached ATC HQ on a Tuesday, my volunteer day.  Well, she did and there I was wearing a giant smile in salute to her presence and accomplishment.

Emily is a former teacher and soccer coach who lives in Maine.  She sounded and looked strong. After the formalities, I treated her to a healthy, read leafy green-colored, lunch at a quirky local restaurant. Our conversation quickly established that she’s having a wonderful time walking in the woods.  You can follow her blog at:  http://happyhiking.bangordailynews.com/category/home/  I really hope that Black Bear goes — ALL THE WAY!

By way of additional insight, I wrote about Emily anonymously in one of my blogs from Georgia.  She was a hiker with the ultra light Cuban fiber tent pitched with so much slack that I worried might blow away in a strong wind.  After staying the first night, her husband returned home to Maine and work while Emily hiked on.  That wasn’t the first time I learned to never judge a pack by its cover.

Of note:  It turns out she ditched that tent for a range of reasons and is using the one her husband had.  So much for hi tech.

IMG_2095Separately, a hiker named “Bonafide” aka “Winter Walker” phoned me from Bears Den hostel last night.  I first met him in Tennessee in December 2013 during my thru hike.  That year his doctor told him to lose some weight, so he walked from his home state of Vermont to Tennessee and back to Harpers Ferry.  This year he decided to thru hike and I met him plowing through the north Georgia snow back in February.

Sisu and Winter Walker in Mount Rogers Outfitters, Damascus, VA in Dec. 2013

Sisu and Winter Walker in Mount Rogers Outfitters, Damascus, VA in Dec. 2013

His call was to check in being that he was nearby. When I mentioned that the movie, “A Walk in the Woods” would be out in September, he unleashed a tirade about hikers who mess up the woods and don’t follow Leave No Trace principles.  It was instructive to say the least.  It seems like time and distance don’t weed out all the bad apples.

The “Walk in the Woods” trigger was this:  The Bill Bryson book features many scenes like the ones I reported from Georgia with people tossing trash and worse all over the trail.

He asked me what I thought the answer might be.  My response was one word:  Babysitters.  That’s what you get when you act like a child.

Here’s the trailer for “A Walk in the Woods:” It promises to be a fun movie.

http://news.moviefone.com/2015/05/27/robert-redford-walk-in-the-woods-trailer/

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.

Walking in the Woods

IMG_2411

Kensington, MD, April 1, 2015 — Bill Bryson wrote a wonderfully humorous book entitled A Walk in the Woods almost 15 years ago.  It is a story about two totally unprepared old pals attempting on a lark to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.  When I read it, I thought it was humorous fiction.  After ridgerunning in Georgia this March, I know it’s not.  It is as true as true can be, and Bryson was an astute observer.

The movie of the same name, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, will be out this summer.  I can’t wait to see it, but I worry about those who do and then think they’re going to jump on the trail without a care in the world and hoof it up to Maine.  Not that there aren’t plenty of folks hiking this way already.  I just worry how many more of these unprepared innocents will join in the frolic over the next few years, and more importantly, what their impact will be on the trail and its environment.

This blog has noted the incredible number of clueless hikers  observed last month as they attempted to foible themselves through Georgia.  How anyone could jump into the woods having never set up a/their tent before, or show up with packs stuffed with so much that they can barely carry them – with all their gear still hermetically sealed in the original boxes – is beyond any level of sanity I can conceptualize.

IMG_2076

How people can forget that the sun doesn’t always shine, that the days and nights are not always warm, and that rain or snow can be bitterly cold is beyond me.  Misery does not love company on the trail.

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Under the wrong weather conditions – cold rain sleet for example – you could become hypothermic and cease to exist or be seriously injured in the southern Appalachian spring.  It’s happened recently.

Four components of success defined themselves as I observed both the prepared and unprepared go about their business.  I thought a lot about them, comparing what I saw this March with my previous experience on the trail and elsewhere.  Some may disagree with my priorities here they are anyway.

FITNESS.  Being fit, especially cardio fitness, can cover a wide range of other deficits, particularly in older and female hikers.  I couldn’t count the number of late middle age guys (mostly) who, for decades had been chained to their office desks until the week before they started, when they were suddenly paroled to pursue their retirement dreams on the AT. Too many of them went from zero to 60 and back zero in less than a week.

Guys, your high school sports days were close to 50 years ago!  Take a year to get yourself in shape.  Couch potato millennials fall into this same category. What did they think would happen when they rushed to Springer Mountain with little or no prep?  That’s why about a third of hikers don’t make it past the first 30 miles.

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As I hiked my patrol route, I’d watch the out of shape hikers sweat their way up hill chipping tiny step by tiny step up the trail, their wheezing breath hissing like dying steam engines suffering from leaky piston seals.  Pure panic defined pallid faces as the harsh realization sunk in that they were in for more than they bargained.  Their knees quivered under both the oppressive weight of their bodies and the clutter of unneeded gear strapped to their backs.  Their fun meters were pegged at zero.  So much for a walk in the woods.

Some folks are old school, but they're in shape and prepared to go.

Some folks are old school, but they’re in shape and prepared to go.

Being fit helps prevent common orthopedic injuries, not to mention that you can hump more weight on your back.  Would anyone think that it might be smart to at least attempt lose some weight and/or get into shape before day one?

EXPERIENCE.  Knowledge.  Know-how.  Call it what you will.  Knowing how to live in the woods, and what to do if and when, can be priceless.  Traditionally we might consider learning what’s in the Boy Scout Handbook a good starting point, and it is if you have an up to date copy, not the ancient one with which I grew up.  Excellent information is available on line or in a range of recent how-to books.  Then there’s the confidence born of having been spent a little practice time living outdoors.

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Experience is the best teacher and makes for fewer goof-ups in the woods. AT hikers should know how to hike in the rain and stay dry, stay warm and above all, stay clean.  How about pitching a tent in a storm so it won’t be flooded or blown down?  How big a knife does one need, not want, but need?  First aid anyone?  What do you do if you tear your ACL or impale yourself on a protruding branch?  You should know ’cause 911 response is several hours, if not a day or more away. Leave No Trace anyone?

How about them bears, anyway?

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GEAR.  You can buy your back weight down if you can afford it, but more folks are on tighter budgets than I would have thought.  They simply can’t afford to equip themselves with hyper-light gear.

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The reality is that most of us cannot afford a $600 – $800 Cuben fiber tent weighing mere ounces, much less the full boatload of gear made from this miraculous fabric – rain gear, food bag, pack, etc.

So, what do people do?  A good set of lighter weight gear costs between $1,000 and $1,500 depending on how much of it you can buy on sale.  This type of gear, with five days food and a liter of water, will get your total winter pack weight under 35 lbs. or less depending upon what you think you need to bring.

Properly fitting light weight and flexible boots or trail runners along with dry feet help prevent blisters, the scourge of any hiker.

Unfortunately even that much money is too much for many people.  Their alternative is to buy heavy gear from Walmart or army surplus, either that or they repurpose older but much heavier gear from previous generations.  They pack canned food because they cannot afford the lighter dehydrated meals.  This route alone doesn’t deny success, it just makes everything harder.

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Some hikers don’t know what to buy, even if they can afford it.  That’s what produces the over sized 70 lb. packs stuffed with all sorts of useless trinkets.

Binoculars, camp chairs, bear bells, heavy stoves and stainless steel cooking pots, Carhart canvas jackets and other detritus is what finds itself strewn along the trail. Folks start sinking under the tremendous weight and desperately heave it overboard in hopes of staying afloat as did Bryson’s sidekick Katz in A Walk in the Woods.  Remember:  Are you on the AT to camp or to hike?

ATTITUDE.  Like the Little Engine in the storybook, if you think you can, you can.  Self-confidence and a bit of bravado can take you a long way. Yet, self-doubt racks too many hikers.  The most common question is:  “What have I gotten myself into?” That’s when I want to roll my eyes and intone “Duuuuuude! What were you thinking – that is if you were thinking at all?”

Positive attitude!

Positive attitude!

Being trail ready on day one is priceless.  Showing up on the starting line fit, knowledgeable, properly equipped and confident isn’t a guarantee, but it gets you off to a great start.

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Sneak Peek

My gear set up in Woods Hole shelter in Georgia.

My gear set up in Woods Hole shelter in Georgia.

North Georgia, Friday March 30, 2015 — None of us who love being outdoors could ever be accused of living he lifestyles of the rich and famous.  We’re not even trying.  But, we are living life in the simple way we love.  A sneak peak into the way it is out here follows.

It’s always fun to write about the drama whether it’s snow, mud, rain, wind, heat, bears, snakes, and the like.  But reality is much more mundane.  So what it is that we really do? Here are a few questions and answers.

Where to we sleep?  Some people sleep in shelters.  These three-sided structures were part of the AT’s original vision.  A precious few of the original log structures still stand, though most are infested by field mice and the critters that eat them. (Read Jake No Shoulders: aka snakes.)

An original shelter from the 1930s.

An original shelter from the 1930s at Cable Gap.

Wood Hole, a more contemporary shelter.

Wood Hole, a more contemporary shelter.

Shelters offer safe haven in stormy weather and enable quick get-aways in the morning. The accommodate from six to 16 of your best friends, at least that’s what you become after sleeping cheek to cheek with people who were formerly perfect strangers. Corner locations offer privacy on at least one side.

Former strangers.  Friends now!

Former strangers. Friends now!

Tenting or sleeping in hammocks are alternatives to shelters.  Hikers tend to favor tents, at least until their need for speed trumps aversion to strangers.

A peak inside my mosquito netting.

A peek behind my mosquito netting.

Tents offer privacy and control of your gear.  Most makes are comfortable and weather tight.  They do add up to an hour each day to pitch and strike them.

Cooking?  There are as many ways to cook as there are hikers.  Some cook over an open fire.  This method has multiple disadvantages including sooty pots, the time spent gathering wood and building the fire, not to mention the extra weight of fresh food that’s much cheaper than branded dehydrated meals.

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Hikers tend to cook near their tents or in common areas associated with the shelters.

Hikers love high calorie, low volume foods.  Breakfast often consists of oatmeal, coffee, hot chocolate, pop tarts and granola bars.  Lunch can be tortillas and peanut butter, salami on bagels, or Snickers bars.  Many folks don’t stop long for lunch, if at all.  After all, time equals miles.

Almost everyone eats a hot dinner.  One all time favorite is Ramman noodles with peanut butter. That passes for haute Pad Thai in these parts.  Otherwise meals dehydrated at home or manufactured by companies such as Mountain House are luxurious at the end of a day harder than woodpecker lips.

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Some folks love a few creature comforts, especially at the onset of their hikes.  However these extras add weight and tend to disappear rather quickly as the reality of a 2,200 mile trek sets in.  It’s sometimes amazing what come out of the huge backpacks you see out here.

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After meals, we hang our bear canisters or food bags to keep them out of reach of critters.

Bear canisters are heavy and only required in one small area in Georgia.

Bears must think of this as a food bag tree.

Bears must think of this as a food bag tree.

"Mouse hangers" keep field mice away.

“Mouse hangers” keep field mice away.

After dinner, some folks like a camp fire where they wile away the stress of the day.

After dinner, some folks like a camp fire where they wile away the stress of the day.

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At the crack of dawn we reclaim our food from the bear cables or when in town (about every five days) go to the supper market to buy more.

Now you know a little bit more.

The First Patrol

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This tree was snapped off like a match stick

Hiawassee, GA, Top of Georgia Hostel, Sunday March 8, 2015 — My first patrol was over late Friday night.  The hiking was energy intensive at times, especially in the snow early on.  The ice and wind inflicted some serious damage on the trees, especially along the expose saddles between mountains.

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Overall, the trail treadway is in good shape.  The water is draining properly and the mud is minimal under the conditions although my clothes were covered with it by the time I’d reached the summit of Springer Mountain.

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Along the way I was able to clear several blowdowns that impeded navigation.

The hikers seemed strong and determined for the most part.  I did notice a propensity for them to hold at shelters or dive into town when it rained.  I can’t say I didn’t do some of that during my hike.  Hiking in the rain is miserable.

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My patrol pattern will be changing for the rest of the time I’m here.  From now on, I’ll be hiking south from Neels Gap to Springer where I’ll spend two days while the caretaker there is off.  This makes sense since most of the need to help hikers occurs in the first 30 miles.

Naturally, Murphy was lurking over my shoulder.  I didn’t get back to Hiawassee until 11:30 p.m. Friday evening.  I was so tired that I locked my car keys in the trunk.  I had to go to Atlanta to get a new one.  Lesson learned!

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This weekend was spent at the Appalachian Trail Kickoff.  It’s a hiking seminar at Amicalola State Park.  The presentations ranged wide and far from bears, to hostels, to lightweight gear.  It’s designed to help hikers learn what would be helpful for them to know prior to starting their hikes.

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It was a special privilege to meet and talk with Gene Espy, the second person ever (1953) to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.

Next week we do it again.

Trail Ambassador

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Role playing exercise

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, February 20, 2015 — I’ve spent the past week gettin’ ready for love.  Oh, not THAT kind. I’ve been with a group of people training to assist hikers on the Appalachian Trail this year.  We love the trail and the people who hike on it.

Our base camp is a modern style house from the late 50s or early 60s owned by the National Park Service.  During the summer it is basecamp for the trail crews that work in the park.

Our mission is to educate hikers primarily on “Leave No Trace”™ principles, encourage them and help them in practical ways.

An estimated three million people walk at least some distance on the Appalachian Trail each year, so Leave No Trace is a big deal.  The national scenic trails, of which the AT is only one albeit the most famous, are being “loved to death.  The number of users continues to increase at a high rate.  Therefore, the impact on the environment from human footsteps alone is enormous.  Add their feces and urine, toothpaste, dishwater, dropped litter, abandoned gear, fires, animal disturbance and all the rest together and the sum is enormous.

Unfortunately, individual hikers fail to appreciate that their impact is additive to all the others.  That’s why Leave No Trace is more than Pack it in.  Pack it out.  Hikers are expected to plan and prepare for everything they might encounter on their hike.  Understanding how and where to camp prevents erosion and unsightly scars.  Knowing how to dispose of human waste properly is critical to preventing water contamination and disease. Respecting wildlife, fellow hikers and campers, leaving what you find undisturbed and generally being considerate round it out.

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Here I’m demonstrating how to hang a food bag in a way that is not tied to any tree.  Bears have learned to break ropes tied off to trees and feast on what falls to the ground!

Human food kills bears.  Once they become unafraid of humans, bears have to be trapped and moved, or worse, destroyed. They are magnificent animals.  Being thoughtless has sad consequences.  The AT-wide bear statistics weren’t encouraging.  Bear territory is shrinking and the animals are only trying to find food.

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Had a small bear encounter at the outfitter in Gatlinburg, TN.

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During the week, the Forest Service taught us a lot about hiker/camper psychology and methods to be persuasive without confrontation.  Nobody wants to hear that they are a screw-up.  Above all, we learned to count small victories.

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Then there’s the weather.  Minus 23 at altitude in the Smokies!  Holy frostbite Batman!!!  My gear will get me to -15F at best with a miserable night.  I’ve experienced and slept outside in -50F in Alaska and northern Minnesota.  I can’t carry that kind of gear over these mountains.  Best to stay in town when the weather forecast looks like this.

Today I drove to Hiawassee in north Georgia to visit a couple of hostels and assess trail and weather conditions.  There weren’t that many hikers around.  Several had been driven back to or into town by the subzero temperatures.  They said the snow wasn’t a big deal, but that there were a lot of downed trees to impede progress.

Ridgerunners/trail ambassadors carry large pruning saws to attack blowdown up to about a foot in diameter.  At a minimum, we can trim away the branches from a large trunk.  The going will be slow next week.  Can’t wait.

Tuesday the Georgia crew meets with the Forest Service and the local trail club for coordination.  Let the games begin!

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Dick’s Creek Gap today.

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Same rock.  Better weather!