Last Ridgerunner Hike of the Season

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Appalachian Trail in Maryland, August 24 – 26, 2018 — In spite of the horrible heat, smothering humidity and the drenching rains we’ve enjoyed all summer, autumn is skulking on the next calendar page and that signals the time when the clock expires for all but one of our ridgerunners.

The last man standing remains on duty in Maryland until Halloween hoarfrost beards the pumpkin patch.

Still, the season’s not over until it’s over.  We made time to celebrate the season’s finale with a final jaunt across Maryland’s 42 AT miles.

Kiki and I cinched up our hip belts and headed southward from the Mason-Dixon line, to Harpers Ferry.  I always forget this route is a little more challenging than hiking the other way around.  People say the trail in Maryland isn’t rocky.  Not so, as my blistered boots will gladly attest.  Best of all, hiking southbound front loads the best of the abrasive boulder fields.

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Kiki carried a hoe to clear clogged waterbars (drains) on what proved to be a waterlogged trail.

Initially we didn’t set a goal for the day because we got a late start which was the result of stashing my car in Harpers Ferry. We decided to see how the day would unfold.

Of note, Maryland is one of the most hiked portions of the AT with millions of people from the greater metro areas between Philadelphia and Washington living within a two-hour drive.  Consequently,  no dispersed camping is allowed to help protect the environment.  To compensate, there are shelters and campgrounds conveniently spaced along the way. We suffered no worries about finding a place to camp.

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We made excellent time in spite of finding several gallons of trash.  We measure trash by estimated volume rather rather than estimated weight for closer accuracy.  Occasionally, we stopped to enjoy the views after breaking up an illegal fire ring or two.

Penultimately we thought we’d drop anchor at Pogo campground.  (Yes, it’s that “the enemy is us” Pogo.)  But, long before we reached Pogo, we remembered Annapolis Rock is just a couple of miles further, and there our colleague Harry would be in residence as caretaker.

At our pace, we’d arrive slightly at the end of evening nautical twilight, but having the company and hanging out at the caretaker’s picnic table was worth the energy expenditure.

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Caretaker’s tent.

As it happened, we literally stumbled in, tripping over stones because we weren’t using our headlamps with the intent of pranking Harry.  In the gloom, Harry didn’t recognize us as we pretended to be thoughtless hikers intent on breaking all the Annapolis Rock rules like building a fire and camping on the overlook.  Ya had to have been there to appreciate the dialog before we ended the charade.

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Two years ago, in a one in a million tragedy, a dead tree fell and killed a camper at Maryland’s Ed Garvey shelter.  Since then trees of concern are quickly removed.  Recently, we traded safety for aesthetics in the caretaker’s area.

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Insects had invaded the wounded area and hollowing was present in the trunk.

From Annapolis Rock, a reasonably strong hiker can comfortably reach Harper’s Ferry the next day.  However there was a risk of arriving too late to catch the shuttle to the National Park Service’s remote lot and my car.

So, expecting unusually good weather for this sopping wet year, and therefore a busy Saturday, we decided to hike to the Crampton Gap shelter.  That would leave an easy 10 miles for Sunday morning.  It proved to be a solid decision when we coached a large group of young men on how to party without ruining the evening for everyone else.

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On the way to Crampton, we stopped to inspect and clean up the shelter at Rocky
Run.  We found a supermarket bag with a week’s worth of hiker food hanging on the bear pole.

Why would someone leave that much food where it was?  We checked with some campers.  It wasn’t theirs.  It was there when they came.

The food could have been leftover from an individual hiker or one of the many college freshman orientation groups currently on the trail.  It also might have been a misguided attempt by a trail angel.  Regardless, it’s irresponsible behavior to leave food anywhere in the woods.  The good news:  Kiki didn’t have to buy supplies for his final week on trail.

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Speaking of college freshman orientation groups, we met students from Loyola University of Maryland (Baltimore) on the trail and stopped briefly to chat.  They seemed like an agreeable group.  Only at Ed Garvey, where they’d camped the previous evening, did we discover the present they’d left for us in the privy’s wood chip barrel.

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Thanks Loyola for more trash then we could pack out.  Then we wonder why the number of problem bears is increasing.  I’ll be sending a letter to the university with an offer of free Leave No Trace education this spring when they train rising seniors to be student leaders.

But, there’s more …

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Survivalists and preppers are among the many subcultures on the trail.  They are sometimes called camosexuals, a label that is a twist on the Hipster lumbersexual subculture. Unfortunately, if everyone strip mined live vegetation like this, the shelter and camping areas would look like moonscapes.  This was within sight of the shelter.

This makeshift shelter would have been worthless in wet weather.  Moreover, nowhere on the Appalachian trail is this appropriate.  If you really want to do this, the national forests and some state forests are happy to oblige.

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We found this fire ring and grill half way between Ed Garvey and Harpers Ferry.  Not a bad field expedient attempt at making a grill from green wood and wire. Again, fires and dispersed camping are verboten in Maryland. But if you are willing to risk an expensive ticket, why not clean up your mess?  Please!  Leave No Trace.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Training

Left:  National patch.  Right:  Local maintaining club patch.

Scott Farm, PA, May 16 – 23, 2017 — Baseball players go to spring training and so do Appalachian Trail ridgerunners.  It’s a time to refresh and sharpen needed skills for the upcoming season; and to bond and mesh as a team.  It’s also fun.

The eleven ridgerunners hired to patrol the mid-Atlantic region gathered for five days of intensive training at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy training center at Scott Farm just outside Carlisle, PA.  I was there as the ridgerunner coordinator for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) which employs six of the 11; and to attend the wilderness first aid training to renew my sawyer certification.  Following first aid, I helped teach the Leave No Trace instructor course.

The first day opened with a hearty breakfast followed by administrative announcements and an orientation to the trail from a systems perspective.  The AT is a lot more complicated than the average hiker can appreciate.  The bunkhouse quickly filled up, so the spillover camped on the lawn.

Uniform and equipment issue soon followed.  Ridgerunners carry pruning saws to clear minor blowdowns, clippers, first aid kits and wear distinguishing uniforms.  The patrol their respective sections for five on and two off; always being present on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the days of heaviest use.

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Household chores – cooking, cleaning, dishes, etc. are divided among and rotated between everybody taking part in training.  Readers may remember PJ from the Million Woman March.

Following the administivia, it was time to get down to serious business.  Each ridgerunner is certified in wilderness first aid and as a Leave No Trace outdoor ethics instructor.

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First aid training comes first.  Some seasons the worst thing a ridgerunner sees is a skinned elbow or knee.  But, and it’s a big BUT, they have to be prepared to manage serious emergencies that arise in the backcountry, hours away from first responders and easy evacuation.

The SOLO Wilderness First Aid course is 16 hours long (two days), and focuses on the basic skills of: Response and Assessment, Musculoskeletal Injuries, Environmental Emergencies, Survival Skills, Soft Tissue Injuries, and Medical Emergencies.  The idea is to perform a proper patient assessment, treat common injuries up to and including setting and splinting a compound fracture.

The ridgerunners are trained to determine whether the patient can be safely “walked out” of the back country, or whether an evacuation is necessary.  At that point their training allows them to professionally interact with the medical system for the patient’s benefit.

Needless to say, the training is realistic.

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Lower leg fracture splint using a common sleeping pad as a splint.  Students are taught how to employ commonly available gear.

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Field expedient traction splint to set a fracture of the femur.

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Splinting an open book fracture of the pelvis.  The legs are tied together.  This is NOT something you want to deal with deep in the woods.  These fractures are often accompanied by severe internal bleeding and the need to get the patient to a room with bright lights and stainless steel tables is critical.  Unfortunately, this can take hours in most places and days in others.

Love moulage.

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Putting a dislocated shoulder back in its socket.  If you didn’t treat dislocations and fractures, the pain might send a patient into severe shock long before s/he could reach care.

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Treating hypothermia (on a hot day).  Glad I wasn’t the patient.

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Eurica!  Our friend Denise hiked in right in the middle of training.  She’s on a LASH – long-ass section hike.  What a pleasant suprise.

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With first aid out of the way, we turned to Leave No Trace.  With an estimated 3 million people using the AT each year, minimizing human impact on the environment is of paramount concern.

The ridgerunners primary duty is not to hike.  Rather, it is interacting with the public for the purpose of helping them do as little environmental damage as possible.  Leave No Trace

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Most Leave No Trace training takes place in the woods.  The seven principles Seven Principles

Nobody is going to be perfect, but ignorance is our worst enemy.  If we can show a hiker how to improve, that’s a victory.

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Peeing and pooping in the woods is a subject of endless discussion and immense importance.  Not everybody knows how.  Ask any ridgerunner.  They’ll be glad to teach you.

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We divided the students into three teams and then determined who dug the best cat hole – width, depth, 200 ft. off trail.  Here, Ryan rolled up a Cliff Bar which looks just like shxt.  Then he reached in and pinched off a piece and ate it.  He actually hooked a couple of folks!

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Exercise in choosing durable surfaces.

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Learning about shelters.

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Unfortunately graffiti begets graffiti.

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Most Leave No Trace training takes place on hikes.

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Your 2017 mid-Atlantic ridgerunners.

FIRST PATROL

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Julie is our newest ridgerunner and the only one with whom I have not hiked.  An orientation hike is always beneficial.  So, we started by meeting with the rangers of Michaux State Forest and New Caladonia State Park, PA.  Her patrol section runs the 62 miles south from Pine Grove Furnace State Park, to the Mason Dixon Line at PennMar Park.

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Clipping vegetation encroaching on the trail.

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Documenting a blowdown that will require a sawyer to remove.  It’s waist high.

We stopped to clear a small blowdown and who should show up but my friend Rocky who this year is on his second thru hike.

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Checking the trail register at the official half way point.

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Hung our food and smellables at the Toms Run shelter.

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At the very time Julie and I were at Toms Run, Lauralee Bliss was at the Gravel Spring Hut (shelter) in Shenandoah National Park where a bear destroyed two tents.

The tents have had food in them.  Rule number one in bear country.  Never put food in your tent and properly store your food and anything that smells such as deodorant, toothpaste, soap, etc.!

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Found a hiker just starting his hike from Harpers Ferry.  He plans to flip from Maine back to HF and then hike to Georgia.  Note the bear bell, large knife and stuffed animal.  Bet those are gone soon as he gains confidence.

It was a good week.

Sisu

Short Part of a Long Journey

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Appalachian Trail, New York, April 2017 — Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days hiking with my delightful friend Robin.  She is on a month-long trek to both close an unfinished gap she has between Georgia and Maine; and to get into shape for ridgerunning.

She parked her truck and stashed her extra gear at our house and then together we drove to New York where climbed up to the ridge that hosts the AT at the NJ/NY border on a very warm spring day.

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I met Robin, aka Miss America, when I was ridgerunning in Georgia in 2015.  The daughter of National Park Service rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, she’s a willy woodsman and a strong hiker.  She was a ridgerunner in Maryland last year and will serve in Northern Virginia this season.  All told, she’s a perfect hiking partner.

Speaking of what’s hot, I can’t remember the last time I hiked in temperatures under 80 degrees F.  Last September in Vermont, this March in Georgia and last week in New York it was hotter than Hades.  My socks have been so sweat-soaked that they make a squishy sound that squeaks like Crocks on a wet tile floor.  Talk about holding your feet to the fire.  Enough with the hot weather already!

Fortunately the water sources were plentiful and flowing.  In spite of that, I drank four liters of water and still didn’t urinate.  By the end of my journey, my clothes were so salt encrusted that they could stand by themselves unaided – you know, kind of crunchy like saltine crackers.

New York is the state where the AT angles a hard north eastern turn toward Maine.  The trail turns perpendicular to the north-south flowing ridge lines meaning it’s all day up and down for the hikers.  In other words, PUDS – pointless ups and downs.

Here rebar replaces an aluminum extension ladder that was too easy to steal.  Hey, it’s New York!

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The terrain is ugly for the most part.  This is hard work even when heat is turned down.

The gnats had recently hatched.  In NY they’re a feature, not a bug.

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Can you spell rugged?

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How ’bout them bears?  We properly hung our food every night.

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Casualty.

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We navigate using a guidebook that lists terrain features, elevation profile, campsites, springs and also has town maps and phone numbers.

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Miss America photo bomb!

We were out four days before it was my time to head home for chainsaw recertification, a trip to Annapolis Rocks to bring supplies up to Gene Anderson and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Flip Flop Festival this weekend where I’m a featured speaker.

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We tented rather than sleep in shelters.  This is at dawn, packing up before a big rain pending.  At first, Robin was worried about wearing a Red Sox cap in Yankee country, but people treated her as a novelty.  Not sure most of them had never seen a Sox fan before.

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Staying clean in the woods is critical to remaining healthy and avoid gastrointestinal ailments.  We were hiking along one afternoon when I got a message from the ATC asking me if I could take a photo of a hiker using soap and water to clean up in the field practicing leave No Trace principles.  We magically produced the goods.

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Hudson River Valley just south of West Point.

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Yes, the trail goes straight up that rock slab.

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Earning my trail legs.

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Sometimes you get surprised by trail magic.  This was just north of the aptly named “agony ridge.”  The sodas were cold too!  As a practice, leaving unattended food, trash and drink along the trail is not a good idea.  Too many opportunities to unintentionally feed animals and make a mess.  Some call this “trail tragic.”  We did appreciate it though.

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Old sign.  Can’t wait to rejoin Robin next week.  We’ll be hiking north until just before ridgerunner training starts in late May.  Then my spousal unit will come pick us up. There’s no doubt in my mind that Miss America will go far.

Sisu

Oh! The things we see.

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Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA to Harpers Ferry, WV, June 30 – July 6,, 2016 — My annual hikes with our ridgerunners have begun.  This year my muffin top needs shrinking so I decided to walk all 240 miles of the PATC section in hopes of burning some of it off.  I’d like to do it nonstop, but schedules, theirs and mine, dictate otherwise.

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After dropping my car at the Harpers Ferry National Park long term parking, Robin Hobbs schlepped me up to meet Mitch Mitchell at the store where hikers traditionally eat a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate reaching the halfway point which is just down the trail.  From here the math for them changes from counting up the miles to counting them down.

Prospective ridgerunners think the job is about hiking.  Readers of this blog know from last year in Georgia and other missives that the opposite is true.  It mostly about picking up trash, coaching hikers in Leave No Trace outdoor ethics, counting and interacting with hikers.  The miles per day are generally slow and short.

This trip was no different, but here’s fair warning.  I’m going to let you in on some ridgerunner reality show secrets and it’s gonna get gross…

We were also out over the July 4th holiday weekend, meaning more people in general, more nubes, and the laggard thru hiker party crowd which is not known for its trail decorum.  In fact, they openly admit to yellow blazing (hitch hiking) and to using booze and drugs in excess.

The rule of thumb is that if a hiker isn’t at Harpers Ferry by the Fourth of July, they need to “flip” to Maine and hike south or risk winter weather shutting them out of Mt. Katahdin in October.  These folks are walking on the bleeding edge of that axiom.

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Selfie at the official half way marker.

Our start was leisurely enough.  We got about a half gallon (by volume) worth of trash out of the fire pit at Toms Run shelter and pressed on.  Before the day’s end Mitch’s pack reminded me of a colonial tinker plying his trade along the rutted byways that traced the very region we were trekking.

As we moved along, trash of all kinds accumulated.

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I don’t know what it is with me and finding pots and pans.  Since hiking with Hal and Lauralee last year, I’ve found enough to open my own store.

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Any more trash and he won’t have a place to put it.  It’s the second pair of new (cheap) boots I’ve found this year alone.

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Taking inventory before feeding the friendly dumpster at New Caledonia State Park, PA.  We’re not showing you the snack bar just out of the photo.  I packed out some of their tasty treats for  dinner for that night.

Homeless camp on state park property.  It was a family that appeared to have left in a hurry.  Some toys and a pink blanket were in one of the tents along with clothing.  The food in the cooler was rotten.  The park rangers cleaned it up.  Too big for us to haul out on our backs.

After spending the night at Birch Run shelter with a noisy crowd of hikers, we press on.

Ridgerunners see a lot of gross stuff on the trail including unburied human waste, used feminine hygiene products,  wipes and toilet paper (Charmin blossoms) and the like.  We fish it out of privies, pick it up and pack it out or bury it as appropriate.  What comes next  is a first for me.  Why I was surprised, I don’t know.

You’d think after more than 1,000 miles on the trail, hikers would learn a thing or three, especially about hygiene.  Maybe not.  We found the young woman who owns this food dish improperly camped too close to a stream and illegally camped in the vicinity of a PATC rental cabin.  I’d met her previously while hiking with Denise the week prior in Virginia.  The embedded dirt on her skin reminded me of a character made up to be in a movie about peasants in the middle ages.  My stinky gym socks smell better.  Small wonder hikers get sick on the trail.

There were fewer flies on this pile of human scat I buried than on our hiker’s food plate.  These videos will go into every presentation I will ever give from now forward on backpacking.

Approaching Deer Lick shelter, we bumped into a PATC trail crew hiking out their tools.  They were nice enough to invite us to dinner with the North Chapter group, so we grabbed some of their tools and Chris Ferme’s chainsaw and tagged along for some chicken pot pie, green salad and fresh backed blueberry and lemon pie for dessert.  Yum!  Chris hauled us back to the trail in time to reach Deer Lick before dark.  The next day we hiked over their handiwork.  Nice job guys!

The following morning Mitch dropped off to participate in a PATC North Chapter hiker feed back at Pine Grove Furnace.  I pushed on to Raven Rock shelter in Maryland to rendezvous with Robin.

People love to steal this sign.  I was lucky it was there this trip.

Removed a small blowdown obstructing the trail using a folding saw.

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Evidence of the party crowd.  Scattered the sticks.

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The last of the rhododendron blooms.

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Bear activity has been unusually high this season.  The good news is that most hikers have found religion when it comes to bears and are hanging their food and toiletries rather than sleeping with them.  Yogi and Boo Boo have been working overtime.  Bears have entered shelters and stolen packs in search of food and destroyed tents.  Shenandoah has closed a section to camping and bear sightings in the PATC’s 240 mile section have been frequent.

While at Raven Rock shelter, MD, Robin and I hiked down to the old Devil’s Race Course shelter location (now torn down) and dismantled the fire ring.  That will help make it less inviting for high school drinking parties that caused the new shelter to be built up a steep hill from there.

Now, it didn’t happen by accident that I timed my hike to be at Annapolis Rock for July Fourth ’cause guess what?  You can see fireworks from that lofty perch.  Unfortunately the rain was falling in buckets with heavy fog.  We saw zip, but the campground was nearly full in spite of the forecast.

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The clouds were clearing the next morning when I set off for Crampton Gap after a quick photo op with Robin.  It was Kyle’s day off (the other Maryland ridgerunner), but I’ve been out with him before and we intercepted him along the way.  He’ll be there through Oct. 31, so we’ve got plenty of time.

The AT foot bridge over I-70.

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The original Washington Monument outside Boonsboro, MD.  My camera lens was foggy with sweat!

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C&O Canal lock # 33 just outside Harpers Ferry.  I’m standing on the tow path.

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Back to Virginia and Shenandoah soon.  Sisu

Leave No Trace!

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Overlooking the Shenandoah River Valley. About the only dry sunshine we enjoyed.

Shenandoah National Park, May 1-5, 2016 — Some hikers are pigs.  No doubt about it.  I saw plenty of that on my AT thru hike.  Being involved with ridgerunning has driven it home like a pile driver.  That’s why I signed up for the Leave No Trace Master Educator Course taught by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

We’ve got to get better at helping people do the right thing when they are in the back country or it will evolve into a place we don’t recognize.  Educating those who use the great out doors is important.  So for me, I’m already in with a dime so why not a dollar?

In addition to trashing the woods, some folks can’t resist making the maximum impact they can.  Most times they are simply ignorant.  These folks can be educated.  Others not so much.  There is a “no rules for me” crowd that is killing it for everyone else. If the trend continues, future generations won’t have a lot left in a pristine state to enjoy.

Now you know why.

(If this weren’t a family-friendly blog, I’d show you some outrageously gross behavior.)

Pinnacles featuring mouse-proof storage!  Rededicated the previous day.

Saturday night I reported to the newly renovated Pinnacles Research Center in Shenandoah’s central district to kick off five days of advanced Leave No Trace (LNT) training designed to teach us how to train LNT trainers and to give more effective classes ourselves. The idea is to help instill an outdoor ethic – good behavior when nobody is watching.

The group was small.  Seven students with two instructors.  The course is mostly practicum in the field with each student required to present a training session on one of the seven principles of LNT.  They are:  1)  Plan ahead and prepare.  2) Travel and camp on well-used surfaces.  3)  Dispose of waste properly.  4)  Leave what you find. 5) Minimize campfire impacts. 6) Respect wildlife.  7)  Be considerate of other visitors.  If you’ve read this blog, you’ve found it has touched on these concepts plenty of times.

My fellow students were a delight.  Each cares a great deal about the outdoor environment.  Their diverse backgrounds included a college student who works at a Scout camp in the summer, a professional Boy Scouts of America scouter, a county park environmental educator, a Vermont Green Mountain Club summit steward, a college professor and more.

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All told, we were a good humored lot that could not stop talking shop.

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This forecast proved to be optimistic.

We would suffer the first day indoors followed by three nights and four days tramping through Shenandoah’s Hazel Mountain wilderness area.  Weather forecast:  Liquid sunshine garnished by warm and cold temperatures with wind and thunderstorms on the side.  Yum!  At one point the weather abruptly changed to pea-sized hail and the pellets stung the hey out of my bare arms.

Along the way we slept in four-person circus tents and prepared meals from scratch.  These are not my favorite ways to approach backpacking.  I like to be in control and don’t like the time and mess required to do dishes in the back country.  Nevertheless, this arrangement turned out to be simple, efficient and actually facilitated some of the lessons we were studying.  It reminded me of being in the Army and Boy Scouts.

Our group.

Our field kitchen.

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Deeelicious!  Pasta, broccoli, cauliflower, salmon and cream cheese.

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Last night.  At Birds Nest 3, a hut on the AT.  Discussion on how we planned to apply our newly acquired skills.  It rained buckets and hour later.  No.  That’s not a whiskey bottle.  It’s a water bottle with a filter on top.  We wished it was whiskey.

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Cooking at shelters is a bit easier.

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Cleaning up and turning in NOLS equipment back at Pinnacles.

The scenery alone is worth the time.

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Shelters are designed to concentrate environmental impact in a few places.  Sometimes you can’t make it to the next shelter.  If you can tell I was ever there, then I did something wrong.

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.

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?

IMG_2403

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.

2015-06-14 18.00.44 2015-06-14 18.01.25 2015-06-14 18.01.48 2015-06-14 18.02.06 2015-06-14 18.02.18 2015-06-14 18.02.52 2015-06-14 18.03.00

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.