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!

New Jersey tries harder

Mohican Outdoor Center, N.J., AT NOBO mile 1,300.4, Thursday May 8, 2014 — Early this morning I passed a sign that said Sunfish Pond was one of the seven natural wonders of New Jersey. I know Cape May could be another of them, but for the life of me I can’t think of any candidates for the other five.

Actually, it’s New Jersey’s unnatural wonders I worry more about – the Meadowlands superfund sites, the urban blight of Elizabeth and Newark, organized crime and state politics as if you could tell the difference. Then there’s Snookie…

New Jersey has more bears per square mile than anywhere else on the trail. We saw three huge piles of bear scat today, but no other indications. We even saw a sizable stash of uneaten acorns. Bet we’ll see a bear before we’re ought of here.

To be fair, most of the day was rainy and foggy. Very little of Sunfish Pond was visible, so maybe I’m missing something. If not, old New Jersey is trying awfully hard to make something out of not much. That was confirmed when we tripped upon the state’s cache of spare hiking rocks. Nice try NJ, but you’re no Pennsylvania.

We’re at the Mohican Center, a former Scout camp operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC is derisively know in some circles as the “Appalachian Money Club” for charging excessive fees for the use of its facilities, especially the huts in the New Hampshire mountains.

Tomorrow’s hike is 21 flat, and (we hope), moderately rocky miles to the next shelter. Here tonight is Swayed, Bus, and a male nurse section hiker from North Carolina. He makes the eighth male nurse I’ve met on the trail.

This is probably the last night we’ll see Bus. He’s much slower and can’t consistently do the mileage Swayed and I routinely turn in. He’s a great guy who will be missed.

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Mid-point Reality Check

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It’s not uncommon for aspiring Appalachian Trail thru hikers to vicariously hike the trail the previous year.   As an armchair hiker, I’ve been attentively reading the blogs and trail journals of the class of ’13 since February.

These blog posts, photos and videos are especially valuable because they offer generally raw and unedited insight into the day-to-day hiking experience before distance and selective memory can file off the sharp edges.

Following the AT in virtual reality is a good thing, but it’s even better to encounter real-time hikers in situ.  Thru-hikers are an abundant species in these parts from early spring through mid-summer, so running into them in season is easier than driving bumper cars at a county fair.

Living within proximity of Harpers Ferry and Shenandoah National Park during thru hiker open season allows for special opportunities to bag live game, so to speak.  Hint:  Free hamburgers make excellent bait!
The scene is Harpers Ferry, more than 1,000 hiker miles from Georgia.  By the time hikers get this far, a lot of them are physically and mentally distressed.  These circumstances apply equally to age and gender.  Trail journal blogs describe the accumulative effects of cold, heat, humidity, rocks, insects, blisters, dirt, funk and hunger as they snowball over the months and miles on end.

Every hiker seems to experience a mid-hike crisis.  Sometimes it’s nothing more than the Virginia blues.  Relief comes by simply crossing the West Virginia state line.  Other times the meltdown is triggered a little later.  In fact, it happened this year to one hiker in Maine, believe it or not.  But it is probably gonna happen irrespective of where, when or why.

Reading about it in Trail Journals is one thing.  Engaging the lab rats themselves and observing them first hand is another.

The spectrum is amazing.  Some hikers seem fresh off the showroom floor as if day one was yesterday.  Others appear bruised and battered and seem to remain mobile solely by the grace of prosthetic braces, wraps and devices.  One young woman tied bandanas around her legs to bolster her sore knees.  Maybe the Conservancy could raise money selling AT logo affinity hiker orthopedic devices.

The really unlucky hikers appear to have been the main course at a blood-sucking insect all-you-can-eat buffet.  I’ve seen scourge marks that would horrify Mel Gibson’s make up designer.

Clearly everything that happens on the trail is cumulative.  A hiker’s body experiences a thru hike is like a 2,000-mile demolition derby.  With this in mind, most hikers were not afraid to admit that quitting had crossed their mind more than once.

Overall, I was able to talk to about 30 thru hikers.  Five of them were special because they were sympathetic enough to candidly share lunch and their thoughts as they passed through Harpers Ferry.

I selectively invited each to lunch because their blogs were especially informative, insightful, and not to mention, interesting and fun to read.   Most fortunate for me, Saber, a retired Army guy who finished in less than four months, generously stopped by my house to share his thoughts.

I had a lot of fun talking to these folks and consider it a privilege to have been part of the tapestry of their hikes.  The hiker community is nothing less than totally awesome!  Thank you all very much.

The hikers didn’t agree on everything, and most of what I learned can be found among the eternal verities of the AT.  I hope billboarding the top level take-aways can be helpful to others.

Why am I here?

Saber asked me if my primary objective is hiking or camping.  That determination dictates everything else about the AT experience.

If your objective is to hike, then go light to fight.  Less pack weight cuts down on injuries and fatigue.  Just carry the equipment you need to handle extreme weather, temperatures and injury.  A lot of folks sent excess stuff home along the way.

Ultra light packs can carry ultra light loads.  No upgrades on the load limit.  A couple of folks suggested that pack comfort was a really big deal for them.

There’s an exception to every rule.  At the 935 mile point, I saw one thru hiker who said she was as “happy” to be hauling a pack about the size of a hippo with a camp chair attached as were those saddled with 20-lb. packs the about the size of shoe boxes.   Hike your own hike.  Right!

Feet don’t fail me now.

Healthy feet are everything.  The right boots or hiking shoes matter a lot.  It’s almost impossible to avoid blisters at one time or another.  Many of these hikers spend a lot of time thinking about and caring for their feet.  On average, Boots/hiking shoes last about 500 miles.

Techno-hikers.

Some newer, high tech equipment can confer a real weight and performance advantages if you can afford them.  Reports are that dry down works.  One hiker said her fuel-efficient stove was still on its original butane cartridge (albeit the dregs) at 1,000 miles.  Lightweight thermal air mattresses are recommended for cold, hard shelter flours.

On the downside, the lighter weight fabrics are prone to tear or puncture.  Best to carry a patching kit.  Duct tape doesn’t stay stuck long and leaves a mess to clean up.

Keeping electronics charged is a universal pain.  Auxiliary storage batteries come in all prices, shapes and sizes.  A few folks had the smaller solar chargers.  The larger ones had been sent home long before 1,000 miles.

This was universal.  Strike up the band.  Music/electronic book readers/ or some form of entertainment should be considered.   More songs are better along with a variety of pod casts.  It’s a long hike.  I was assured I would fall in love with my personal pocket juke box before it’s over.

Mo better grease is gourmet fare.

Everyone does food differently.  One vegan said she had been able to maintain a very healthy diet.  Very few hikers were that picky.

There’s a reason hikers post so many photos of food on their blogs.  Hiker hunger is real!  The folks with whom I lunched had the option to get very nice (and HEALTHY) salads, seafood, etc., but NO!

Hikers are addicted to hamburgers and fries – the more artery clogging the better.  It’s sort of like the AT version of the Atkins diet with a pop tart bonus.  (Mom, stop reading now, please.  “Personally, I can’t wait.”)

Logistics.

You can resupply high octane calories out of a convenience store if necessary.  Your doctor and dentist might not approve, but it’ll keep you on the trail until a grocery store is near.

Many towns have an outfitter of some kind.  Fuel cartridges are readily available.

Mail drops are a pain.  Many of the hikers were reducing their dependence on them.

Towns are necessary time and money magnets.  You can save a lot of time and money by taking neros in town – just doing the necessary shower, laundry and resupply, then jumping back onto the trail before the day is over.

Be smart and get off the trail and go to town when super bad weather is pending, especially in the winter.

Not all hostels and motels are equal.  Some are filthy dumps.  Read the Trail Journals carefully or contact a hiker directly.  Hikers will tell you what they think.

If you need privacy, you’ll probably not like hostels.  Everybody has a list of must places to stay and places to be avoided unless hell is about to freeze over, and it almost did a couple of times during the luck winter of ‘13, so stay flexible.

Bring earplugs.  Everybody snores at one time or another, even if they think they don’t.  Say it ain’t so!

Embrace the suck factor.

To paraphrase Yogi, 90 percent of hiking is half mental.  On the one hand, the physical and mental can combine to kick a hiker’s butt and destroy morale.  It can be psychologically wearing to hike for days on end without conversing with, or even seeing many other people.  Many said this was where music really helps keep morale up.

You have to hike your own hike.

Dictate the terms of your own hike.  The hikers in the best shape were approaching their hikes using the tactics distance runners use in marathons.  Don’t go out too fast, control your pace in the middle of the race when you think you ought to be passing more people and then, it’s mostly a mind game at the end.  The end game is a successful finish.  Never mind what the group thinks.

Conversely, the hikers who seemed to be concentrating more on bragging rights and endless numbers of big mileage days were suffering accordingly.  Age and gender were not factors in this observation, but pack weight was.

Hiking is a social experience.  The more the hike was about friendship and community, the easier the mental challenges.  A lot of folks said they were going to slow down and enjoy themselves more in the second half.

Plagues and other medieval experiences.

Norovirus nailed almost 100 percent of this year’s hikers.  Everyone I met got it including a hiker with a clinical background who took meticulous measures.  Folks kept themselves extra clean, avoided shelters, privys, shelter registers, sick hostels and stealth camped. It nailed them anyway.  OhJoy.

Hiker funk should be classified as a weapon of mass destruction.  It took three days to get the aroma out of my car after leaving a pack in my trunk for about five hours on a hot day.  Heaven only knows what incubated in there.  My bet is that the Pentagon would pay a fortune for it.

A rose by any other name … A small number of folks reported that they managed to largely avoid the worst of the hiker funk by taking sponge baths, rinsing out their clothes as frequently as possible, even in colder (not the coldest) weather.  REI carries NASA-designed waterless soap and shampoo that may be worth consideration.

Bottom line.

Hiking he AT is personal.  Each experience is unique.  Every hike is hard at times.  Reading about it, watching You Tube videos and talking to hikers isn’t the same doing it day in and day out for six months.

The hikers I’ve encountered have been fascinating people.  I’d tend to expect that of anyone with the giddy-up to hike a thousand miles in three months. It’s going to be fun to watch them summit Katahdin.  I’ll be cheering no matter what.