Black Friday = Green Friday

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Shenandoah National Park, Black Friday, November 23, 2018 — Everybody needs a ginormous boob tube to watch foooball and swill cheap beer, right?  When’s the best time to score one?  Black Friday, of course.

Everybody who needs more stuff, raise your hand. Warriors betting they won’t lose yardage tackling a foreign-made discount TV at the local mall’s running of the fools, please do the same.

Guess what?  There are alternatives.  Turn off your phone.  Go outside.  Volunteer.  Make a change. Be productive.  That’s what two of my friends and I did and what a day we had.

The curtain rose on a leaden sky, accompanied by a biting wind.  We linked up at the Jenkins Gap trailhead parking at a leisurely 9:30 to avoid suffering Washington’s mad dog, crack-of-dawn, Black Friday shopping traffic.

Bright sunbeams were piercing the cloud deck like metaphorical knitting needles as we pulled our gear out of our SUVs. The day ended in warming sunshine.

KellyPhilJim

There were three of us.  Kelly, me and her husband Phil.  We were armed with a shovel, a McLoed fire hoe, and a pick-mattox respectively.

The plan, march 2.3 miles to the top of Compton Peak and work our way back to the cars.  In between we’d clear waterbars (drains) of debris, improve those needing work, replace at least one, and clear blown-down trees and branches blocking the trail.

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The first order of business was to test the frozen ground to see if we could actually dig.  If we not, plan B was to take a long hike.

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Ice formed a crust about an inch thick.  It was easily cracked by our tools.

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Some waterbars needed only to have the leaves raked out.  Others, like this one, had silted up and needed extensive rebuilding.

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My resident bear sow ripped this waterbar apart discarding the rotting log off to the right.  The park’s policy is be more environmentally gentle and avoid, where possible, using wood and rock in building trail structures.  This swale, sometimes called a “grade dip” replaced the log.  Grade dips actually require less long-term maintenance, so what’s not to like?

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Keeping track.

We also cleared the path of several large branches knocked down by a recent storm.  After three hours, we were done with time remaining to take a little stroll.

We drove one car south to the Hogback overlook trailhead, leaving one at Jenkins to which we could return.

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What we’d hoped would be a pleasant walk turned into another three-hour maintenance trip.  In all, we found 10 trees blocking the trail.  We removed three with the small folding saw we had, trimmed a couple like this one making it easier for hikers to pass.  The rest we reported.

We finished up having turned Black Friday into a green one; also knowing the overseer for this section would soon be in need of elbow grease aplenty.

Happy Green Friday!

Sisu

C&O Canal Walkabout

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C&O Canal National Historic Park, Maryland, November 16, 2018 — Sometimes these days it’s hard to find peace and quiet, free from Washington’s noise. That was our quest when we planned a Friday morning hike in this particular park.  Good choice.  We were rewarded with fabulous weather, nature’s serenity and the warmth of good friendship.

Unfortunately high water closed the trail we’d planned to hike.

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The water level in July.  Note the rocks above the sign.

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The water level has risen because the Potomac River watershed precipitation levels are far above normal.

The part of the C&O Canal park located in urban Washington has three hiking trails.  The Billy Goat A trail was flooded and closed for safety reasons.  Link to blog about Billy Goat A  The adjacent Billy Goat B has been closed for maintenance and redesign for awhile, and only the more distant Billy Goat C was open.

Rather than drive to Billy Goat C, we decided to wander the canal towpath out and back for a few miles.  That proved to be serendipitous.

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Earlier in the week, the weather report predicted snow.  With steely resolve we vowed to persevere regardless.  Knowing how inaccurate longer term weather reports are, we rightly kept our fingers crossed.

Over time the report shifted to rain, then finally to a reasonably warm 30 to 40-something morning dusted with sparkling sunbeams and kissed by a light breeze. It was perfect for dancing down the pathway.

In all it was a day any little kid would love.  Besides, who are we at heart but big little kids who are allowed adult beverages.

Along the way, we told stories, laughed, snapped a ton of photos, and complained about politically induced headaches.

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In total, we discovered three blue herons patiently earning their living trolling the abundant canal waters.  This is one.

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Another heron working the far bank.  These birds are quite large, about three times the body size of the mallard ducks which also were in the area.

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A busy flock of mallards.  We saw dozens of these paddlers throughout the day.

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The crunching gravel sounds like music.

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In places the canal is wide and deep blue.  In others it’s shallow, snagged with tangled trees, dabbed with floating green algae.

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The designer of Central Park in NYC and Piedmont Park in Atlanta has a monument.

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Who are we?  Friends who worked at the White House more than 20 years ago.

After our hike, we adjourned to a nice Tex-Mex place where, over a tasty lunch and margaritas,  the conviviality continued.  We’d earned it.

The next sunny day adventure:  Annapolis Rock.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Sisu

 

 

 

Busy

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Digging a bear pole hole.

Northern Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail, July 21-24, 2016 — It was time for the monthly PATC ridgerunner meeting, this time at the Blackburn Trail Center where “Trailboss” is the caretaker and gracious host.  Since he has an endless list of projects, Robin Hobbs and I showed up early to help do some work at the Sam Moore shelter (AT NOBO mile 999.6).

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Bear poles have hooks to hang food bags using a forked pole, here tied down on the far side of the pole.

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The pole is set 18 inches in the ground with four 60-lb. bags of concrete.

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Working bear pole at Jim & Molly Denton shelter.

While the Sam Moore overseer and I installed the bear pole, Robin and Trailboss hiked north to clear two blowdowns across the AT.

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We finished up by replacing a fire ring with a new fire grate.

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The social and dinner prompted a lot of discussion.  This is where the real business is done.

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Sara Leibold, our Northern Virginia ridgerunner and I started patrolling immediately following the meeting.

We spent the first night at the Tom Floyd Wayside shelter with three others.

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We took a break after picking up micro trash at the John Singleton Mosby campsite.  It is deep in the area Mosby’s raiders patrolled during the civil war.

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Along the way we clipped plenty of vegetation which grows prolifically this time of year.

Our last evening was spent at the Denton shelter with a large grouping of campers. Sunday morning we hiked to a road where Sara’s dad was waiting to take her home to Alabama for a whirlwind visit.  She works 10 on and four off which gives her sufficient time.

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It wasn’t until much later that I realized Sara might be a serial killer! 😉

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Tried to photograph an interesting spider web with a phone camera.  No luck.  A good camera is on my Christmas list.

I was testing a new Osprey pack for use in the 100-mile wilderness next week.  It carries nicely, but I like the cargo features of my old one.  On a long hike the ride is more important, so the new pack made the Maine manifest.

Next stop Kennebunkport to see my friend Ed, the guy who taught me to split granite.  Then to Manchester, NH to pick up Wendy “Pepsi Hiker” Horn at the airport and head for Millinocket where we’ll drop my car and get shuttled to Monson to begin our 100-mile journey.  Boots on trail Aug. 1.

Sisu

 

Da Bears (Den)

Bears Den Hostel and Hiking Center, Bluemont, VA – Saturday, November 21, 2015 — Sometimes pop up projects just happen.  The PATC supervisor of trails was jawing with Glenn, the Bears Den caretaker.  “Ya got any work?”  “Yup.”  And so another adventure begins for the North District Hoodlums Trail Crew.

So there I was, minding my own business when in comes a “flash” email looking for volunteers for Saturday.  Bears Den needs firewood and urgent repairs to one of its hiking trails.  Who can come?  Sawyers bring your chain saws.  “Let’s rally!”

Now what can you say at a time like this?  A chance to fire up my chainsaw…  This is better than playing baseball in late October.  Woah dude!  Don’t ask twice I’m there. I love extra innings.

Fortunately we’ve had a prolonged indian summer here in the mid-Atlantic.  Unfortunately we became way too comfortable with unseasonably warm weather.

Of course the weather pattern was going to hold.  What was the chance it would be subfreezing Saturday morning … No need to guess.  It was 26F according to my car when I pulled into the parking lot.

Everyone was shivering as we organized our work parties.

We had three sawyers and split into two parties while a larger crew marched off to repair a badly eroded trail.

The swampers got some help from one of two Scout troops camping on the Bears Den grounds. We were bucking the hazard trees a professional crew of arborists dropped earlier this summer as mentioned in this post:  https://jfetig.com/2015/07/29/on-the-road/

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Lunch is always better when enjoyed outside, especially since the temp jumped the shark back to early autumn.

 Now to split the damn stuff.  Fortunately, Glenn has a hydraulic splitter.

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At the end of the day, we tramped down to Bears Den rocks for a zen moment  Thus ended another Hoodlums excellent adventure.

 

No Shxt Shirlock!

    
I found this uneaten apple about a perfect bear length in front of a pile of bear scat. Since there is but one apple tree on my entire AT section I can only deduce that it came from a tree three quarters of a mile away!

                                                           ________

Shenandoah National Park, August 20, 2015 — It’s been a crazy summer for black bears in the park. They aren’t behaving normally. 
Ridgerunners report seeing far fewer bears than normal. Yet, bear sign is everywhere. There’s plenty of scat, not to mention a huge increase in overturned rocks, shredded logs and the like.  Why this, now, when food in a wet year is especially abundant?

That’s my main complaint. Our furry but elusive buddies are making a mess of everything. They’ve never done that to this degree before. 

Take for instance the section of the Appalachian Trail that I oversee. I can appreciate the “guys” help in keeping down certain invasive species such as the raspberry snares that are proliferating in the aftermath of a 2011 fire that burned through the lower half of the trail. Thanks for that. But, to paraphrase what we used to say in the Army, “One aah shucks wipes out every atta boy!”

Message to bears: Stop tearing up my waterbars and check dams!  I mean it. It’s going to take half the winter to repair the damage. 

    
Here bro bear trashed a perfectly good waterbar checking for grubs. At least the log was heaved where I could find and reuse it. 

    
In this instance of bear banditry, the SOBs took the the log which is nowhere to be found. 

   
All right already!  I know the log on this check dam is starting to rot and needs to be replaced.  I just don’t need the ursus crowd chowing down on this insect motel. 

Guess what?  I know who you are. I saw both of you last week when I was working on keeping the weeds (Lyme disease-bearing tick habitat) in check. If you don’t behave, I’m going to have to post your picture in the Jellystone post office. I mean it!

A Romp in the Woods?

Harpers Ferry, WV, July 7, 2015 — I was privileged to see a sneak preview of “A Walk in the Woods,” a knockabout comedy staring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.  The show opens in 1,800 theaters on Sept. 2.

Redford.  Slapstick.  No way!!!  Indeed, it’s true.  The movie was a delightful midnight snack adding a light touch to Redford’s rich acting career.  If you recall, Redford and Paul Newman always had a comedic touch.

To my delight, the humor was practically nonstop.  The jokes kept coming.  Anyone would get them, but there was enough hiker and AT double entandre to evoke knowing nods and smiles from the audience.

From a potty trowel Christmas ornament available on line at www.appalachiantrail.com

Potty trowel Christmas ornaments are available on line at http://www.appalachiantrail.com

Potty humor on the trail isn’t new and this movie doesn’t disappoint.  The ubiquitous and sometimes maligned potty trowel makes more than a cameo appearance.

Redford with toilet paper in hand may have been added for shock value, but more likely, the potty trowel scenes are subliminal Leave No Trace messages using a subject not much discussed in polite, read the non-hiking, society.

Yup.  Bears aren’t the only ones who do it in the woods and wanna be’s need to know that and prepare to pull their pants down around that and other deeply personal subjects in advance.

To recap for the unfamiliar, author Bill Bryson penned a  best-seller in the late 1990s entitled, A Walk in the Woods.  It was a semi-fictional and somewhat autobiographical story based on chunks of the Appalachian Trail that Bryson sampled in preparation to write his story.  His sidekick, Steven Katz – played by Nolte in the movie –  is the foil and comedic counterpoint as their adventures unfold.

This New York Times best seller is credited with driving up the number of AT thru hike attempts by logarithmic factors since.

The screenplay differs a fair amount from Bryson’s original story, but the essence is there.  Two old comrades with diametrically opposite personalities reunite after decades of estrangement for one last adventure.

Neither this film, nor the recent movie “Wild” (based on Cheryl Strayed’s best selling memoir) are about hiking per se.  In each, hiking is the means to the end.  In this case, Bryson confronts career burnout and the remedy is a romp in the woods with his old buddy Katz.  Our treat is to go along for the ride and enjoy the laughs.

Kristen Schaal.

Kristen Schaal.

The cast is fantastic, especially Longmont, Colorado’s own Kristen Schaal who is brilliant.  Her character plays off a classic AT stereotype and the reappearance of her character could have been a hilarious punctuation point near the end of the movie when Bryson and Katz have to be rescued.  In stead, the dynamic duo are saved by other stereotypes they first hate but come to love. In reality, it doesn’t happen that way on the AT.  No spoiler alert here.

As with any movie about subjects we know intimately and love dearly, this movie has its share of nits to pick and quibble about.  Among them, in the movie: Gooch Gap comes after Neels Gap. McAfee Knob appears after Shenandoah National Park.  The duo has trekking poles strapped to their obviously empty packs, but never use them. The social aspects of the AT experience are mostly AWOL. The bears that steal Bryson and Katz’s food are grizzlies, not black bears.  (We know bears will do almost anything for food, but hitchhike from Montana?  That’s a bit much.)  Much of the movie was not shot on the AT. That’s dramatic license. So what?

The $64 dollar question is how “A Walk in the Woods” will affect the number of hikers in the future.  History is clear.  Major media events drive numbers up.

Given that most Millennials barely know who Redford and Nolte are, it may not have much effect on that demographic. Large numbers of Boomers, on the other hand, missed out when they were in their 20s.  Like me, they had to wait until retirement to find the time.  Could be that this will remind them to get off the bench and out in the woods.

More likely, we may expect the number of weekenders and short-distance backpackers to increase along the trail.  After all, Bryson himself didn’t hike the whole thing.  For those without the where with all or inclination to thru hike, sampling chunks of the trail is a viable alternative.

Hordes of uninitiated hikers can have a disproportionate impact on the environment.  That’s why the potty trowel metaphor is an effective vehicle to communicate the larger Leave No Trace message.  It creates awareness and opens the door to a broader discussion of appropriate behavior and practices.

Viewers come to movies like this with a truck load of preconceptions.  They’ve read the book, tramped around on the AT or other trails, and have their own inventory of intrepid experiences.  Hikers want a hiking movie with which they can self-identify and reinforce the attributes of the hiking experience as they understand it.

In other words, hikers will tend to want a certain label and vintage of fine red wine, e.g. perfection.  For some, this won’t that movie, and I’ll submit that there’ll never be one.  So, this flick may not be what you hope for, but it will still make you laugh because if you haven’t been there and done that, at least you’ve seen it.

As a feature film, this treat is tasty, but definitely lo-cal.  It never intended or tried to be an opulent double Dutch chocolate delight. In other words, here’s little to satiate the uncontrollable urge known as hiker hunger in “A Walk in the Woods” the movie, and unfortunately the lack of high caloric content may be unfulfilling to a few of the usual suspects out there in hiker land who never seem to be satisfied anyway.

By its end, “A Walk in the Woods” is a light comedy based on our favorite pass time with a sprig of deeply personal revitalization for the two main characters garnishing the end.  They all lived happily ever after.

When you think about it, isn’t that a big chunk of why any of us lace ’em up and grab our trekking poles?

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Reunions

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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.

Eating the Elephant

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Springer Mountain, Georgia, March 21 – 26, 2015 — My volunteer period is complete. I’ve hauled my last load of hiker trash out of the North Georgia hills.  It’s now up to someone else.  Some end of tour observations follow.

It’s a free country.  You can tell that from the range of people and their degree of respect for nature, the environment and the hard won Appalachian Trail infrastructure.  I just wish more hikers would come to the trail better prepared.

The overwhelming majority of people naturally do the right thing.  They practice “Leave No Trace” outdoor ethics by taking only photos and leaving only footprints.  Everything they truck in, they haul out from cigarette butts, Charmin flowers, and uneaten food to unwanted gear that’s unneeded or too heavy, excess clothing, or used dental floss.

My pleasure was being with these folks.  They’re plumbers, pipe fitters, surgeons, teachers, nurses and bus drivers.  They share a common love and respect for the outdoors and are excellent students of how to do well out here.  They love being outdoors and live to be one with nature.

A lot of hikers come to the AT overwhelmed.  They struggle to grasp all 2,189 miles at once.  It’s like the old aphorism about how you eat an elephant – one bite at a time.  The average AT hiker goes to town every five days.  If that’s so, hiking the AT is simply 35 consecutive five-day hikes.  Put that way, it’s much easier to get your arms around the magnitude of the task ahead.

My hope is that more hikers would better prepare themselves.  I follow a blogger from Colorado who wrote an interesting post this week about Colin Fletcher who wrote some of the seminal books on hiking including the all time favorite, The Complete Walker.  His post can be read at this link.  http://www.pmags.com/the-complete-walker-iii-colin-fletcher I just wish more people would read Fletcher, or at least check out the enormous amount of information available on line.

Here's a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills).  He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Here’s a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills). He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Others are far less attuned to ethical behavior in the back country.  They do what they do back home.  Twice hikers even tried to argue that I was hiding the trash cans from them.  These would-be-thru-hikers had a hard time appreciating that thru hiking is supposed to be a wilderness experience.  You pack it in.  You pack it out.  No trash cans.  End of story.  I was ignored more than once.

Food containers do not burn completely.

Food containers do not burn completely.

IMG_2368Nothing should go into the fire pits or privies that’s not supposed to be there.

Bill Bryson had it right in his book A Walk in the Woods.  It’s been made into a movie which will be in theaters later this summer. Bryson wryly observed the unprepared throwing their gear overboard and much more.  Why people come out here so poorly prepared is beyond me, and a hellova lot of others too. You don’t have to look far for classic examples. It’s a topic of continuing conversation among the properly prepared.

This was my final trash run.  The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food.  Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

This was my final trash run. The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food. Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

Considering how much excellent information is readily available on the internet or from recent books, there’s no excuse for being unprepared.  Some self-identify with so-called survivor show heroes and want to give it a whirl.  Others are just clueless.  Somehow almost all of them manage to learn one thing – that is to wind duct tape around their hiking poles.  A precious few don’t even find that out.

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There are two basic hiker types out here.  There are the thru hikers.  They are self-evident.  Only one in four will finish.  Still, this is their season.  They’ve got until mid-October to climb Maine’s Mt. Katahdin before it closes.  They’ve got to get going.

Some folks are old school.

Some folks are old school.

Then there are all the shorter distance hikers, sometimes called section hikers.  Of them, about half are on spring break – families and college students alike.  This is one of the only times during the year when they can come.  They identify with the AT brand and are in Georgia because it’s where the southern terminus of the trail is, it’s warm and the logistics are easy.  They’re not going away.

IMG_2296_2 IMG_2285_2There’s an interesting subculture among section hikers.  A significant number of these hikers want to share in the excitement of the great spring migration – to be there, to rub shoulders, to share the thrill and/or to relive their own adventure and reignite memories of years past.

Some come every year.  It’s muddy form of March Madness where they get to be on the court with the actual players themselves.  Later they will follow hikers they’ve met and root for them.  It’s hard to beat.

The challenge is that, in the first 30 miles of the trail, for every 10 thru hikers there are 8 section hikers.  The infrastructure is taxed to the max!  Even the privies fill up – ugh.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter.  These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter. These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

Overcrowding has its downsides.  Earlier in the week, the Georgia Health Department issued a noro virus warning.  A case had been reported in the state.  Funky hikers who don’t know how to stay clean in the wilderness, living in close proximity, form a perfect petri dish.  In spite of the beauty, it can get really ugly out here.  Nevertheless, it’s worth it.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning.  Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they'd collected.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning. Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they’d collected.

Many hikers are tuned in to Leave No Trace practices and collect trail trash as the hike.  I gave one hiker (from Brooklyn, NY no less) a “Trail Karma” award for carrying out discarded clothing and other trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award.

Someone creatively tried to hike the space blanket they no longer wanted.

Someone creatively tried to hide a space blanket they no longer wanted.

Still, hikers are excited to be on the AT whether the trail viscosity matches a hot fudge sundae on a summer day in Georgia or it’s frozen over.  In many cases they are living their dreams.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

During my stay the seasons changed – at least twice.

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This year the Appalachian Trail is 90 years old.  It was built by volunteers and is maintained by volunteers as originally envisioned by its founder Benton MacKaye.  It’s thrilling to play a small role in that legacy.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.

Hope



Springer Mountain, GA, Tuesday March 10, 2015 — It’s raining with liquid sunshine dominating  the forecast for eight out of the next ten days. Yet on Springer, hope is not dampened. Hope is eternal.  

This is the beginning of the great spring migration to Maine, that’s 14 states to the north of here. It’s five million steps, but what the hey!  

On the first day everyone has a more or less equal shot, or so they think. It’s all about optimism and the anticipation of dreams long in the making. 

For the next couple of days I’m spelling one of my colleagues who is the caretaker here. My job is to educate hikers on Leave No Trace, gather data and help the hikers. 

On the first night I helped a woman who was setting up her ultralight tent for the first time outside of her living room floor. I asked how well she thought it would withstand high winds. The tremendous amount of slack in her rain fly and the obvious swayback in the middle was my prompt. 



Later we learned how to hang food bags on the bear cables. Within that context, the opportunity was right, so we learned to throw a bear line and hang food without tying it off to a tree. That way a smart Yogi or Booboo wanna be can’t break the rope and score a meal. She survived the night intact. 



Springer is a place of optimism and farewells. Fathers and mothers, grand parents, husbands, wives, even sisters and brothers trundle to the summit from US Forest Service road 42, just 9 tenths of a mile down the hill. 



The nonhikers gaze deeply into their loved one’s eyes in search of doubt. You can catch them furtively glancing about for danger as they hug their dears and even blink back tears. Then they mug for photos, sometimes even asking the caretaker to be their shutterbug. 



At the trailhead parking lot come the final hugs and tears. Then, with an adrenaline rush, the hikers are off on one of life’s great adventures while the loved ones return home to quietly worry and hope for success.



The hikers come by ones, twos and small clusters. It’s sometimes the first time they meet their fellow thru hikers. No matter where they’re from, their age or reason for hiking, they bond instantaneously in common cause. 

Me. After introductions, bears are my first topic, followed by a bit on Leave No Trace. 

I specifically mention “pack it in. Pack it out.” But I’ve learned to mention cigarette butts, cat holes and for the women, packing out their TP after taking a pee. I’ll mention pee rags, Diva Cups and Go Girls if appropriate. Believe me, most of them need to hear it.  Charmin flowers are not appreciated. 



My last mention is the large number of hikers on the trail. Crowding in shelters and at camp sites is to be expected.



Last I ask who participated in the voluntary registration program, the purpose of which is to help hikers self disperse. Almost everyone who’s heard about it registered. Only a small minority thinks it’s a bad idea. 

At the end of the day I am humbled and reminded that a journey of 2,189 miles begins first with hope; and it’s launched with that first step on Springer Mountain.