Flip Flops – the New Hiking Boot?

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Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, April 16 -17, 2016 — Flip flops are not going to be the recommended hiking boot anytime soon.  Certainly they have merit.  After all they’d tread lightly on the environment – with no cleats to rearrange the dirt.  They’re cool and airy which might help limit athletes foot.  Certainly they’d dry quickly.  Alas, they’re just not practical.

Flip flops are a type of Appalachian Trail thru hike.  Rather than hike in a single straight line direction from one terminus to the other, flip floppers are hiker jazz artists, jumping ahead or starting somewhere between the two ends and working outward.  They still hike all 2,200 miles within 12 consecutive months, they just don’t book a linear itinerary.

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The ATC is trying to encourage flip flop hiking in an attempt to alleviate some of the spring season overcrowding on the southern 500 miles of the trail.

Enter the flip flop Festival, an attempt to increase awareness of and participation in nontraditional AT thru hikes.

More than a hundred aspiring thru hikers and hundreds of hikers attended the many seminars on hiking-related subjects including trail etiquette, hygiene, basic hiking, trail issues and long distance backpacking.  I offered the latter.  My slides are here:  Eating the Elephant

The festival featured vendors, displays and even a food truck.  The cannon is located in the exact same spot as one that appears in a civil war era photograph.

Sunday morning we sent those starting their hikes off in style following a tasty pancake breakfast hosted by the Harpers Ferry Odd Fellows Club which was chartered in 1833!  It’s building is graced with (rather poorly) repaired cannonball holes from the civil war.  Talk about history!

Later that afternoon we were hiking up the southern shoulder of South Mountain (Maryland), just outside Harpers Ferry, leading the second of Sunday’s day hikes up to a nice viewpoint overlooking the Potomac River called Weverton Cliff.

The conga line of hikers winding up the switchbacks reminded me of a big city rush hour traffic jam. People were stepping all over each other.

Why would anyone do this, I thought.  I like to share scenery and the outdoor experience with a few friends or people that I like in small doses.  That’s when I realized that above all, one word describes why I like to be on the trail where ever that trail may be.  Solitude… and that’s no flip flop on my part.

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.

The Value of Zero

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Some people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.  That’s the rap on more than a few of the bean counters out there in the business world.

It’s a fact: 1 x 0 = 0.  That equals nothing, nada, zilch, zip, empty, nil, naught, nix, nicht, and without value.   It follows that 2 x 0 = 0 and so on.  So, zero’s worthless?  Don’t kid yourself.  On the AT a zero can be priceless.  A zero can save your hike.

Recently a hiker I’ve been following wrote a blog post embroidered with frustration and punctuated by despair.  It wasn’t unlike dozens we’ve seen in all seasons this year when hikers have reached their wits end.  Cold, heat, sow, rain, mud, bugs, discomfort and falls all add up.  My hiker friend, who has anonymity, was ready to cash it in and go home. 

Enough was enough.  The rain, mud, bugs and all finally added up.  But no, that wasn’t enough.  Then came the fall. It wasn’t the first, but this one was serious – a faceplant into a rock.  There was blood, and it hurt – a lot.  I was heartbroken for my friend.

Every hiker has an inner reservoir of mental resilience much like a checkbook balance. The balance ebbs and flows as a hike unfolds. 

Debits are obviously related to cumulative experiences with rain, cold, heat, snow, rain, plague, mud, fatigue, hunger, aches and pains, etc. 

Deposits come in many forms – trail magic, hot showers, town food, trail angels, new friends, and cool experiences, etc.  Everyone tries to keep the balance in positive territory.

My friend was in a mental overdraft situation – out of gas and without the will to even take another step.  Worse yet, there were no zeros on the schedule and the nearest exit was literally in the middle of nowhere, and probably the most austere “trail town” there is with a hostel.  Its only claim to fame is jewelry literally made out of dung and we’re not talkin’ buffalo chips!  Think of it as the only fly-over burg on the whole AT.

Then a miracle happened (Enter deus ex machina.)  in the form of two unplanned zero days (2×0) notable for the hostel owner’s generous hospitality and remarkably spiked with the company of a gaggle of friendly hikers who showed up to duck some nasty storms. 

Gently stir (not shake) it up over a couple of days and guess what?  Total rejuvenation.  Mental over haul complete!  Back on the trail and ready for the next challenge. 

 Cue the bugles.  Charge!  Never quit on a bad day, right?

 Who says zero has no value?  Sometimes a zero or two can be the difference between success and failure.  What’s that worth?