A tale of two hikes on the Appalachian Trail

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Me, Mary and Joanne at Nutter’s Ice Cream, Sharpsburg, MD for a pre-hike treat.

Appalachian Trail, Maryland. June 27 – 28, 2019 — The Appalachian Trail is not all work.  Sometimes it’s a truckload of fun.  So it was this week with two different gravel-crunching adventures.

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Making a last gear check in the Penn-Mar Park parking lot.

My ridgerunner friend Mary decided to hike the 47-mile four-state challenge to celebrate her 45th birthday.

Her plan:  Ridgerunner colleague Joanne would support her by car.  Roughly speaking she would hike the first quarter alone.  I would join her for the second quarter, and  her colleague Witt, the current speed record holder at 9 hours and change, would trot the last half with her.

The adventure begins on the AT in PA at the Mason-Dixon line, then passes through MD and a corner of WV at Harpers Ferry.  It terminates where the trail breaks into Virginia territory.  To be official, the hikers have 24 hours to git ‘er done.  The average successful hiker uses close to the entire time.

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It doesn’t count without the predawn selfie.

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Crack of dawn start.

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She’s a blur at Pen-Mar Park.

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She’s off!

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Joanne met Mary at road crossings along the way.  Staying hydrated on a hot day was paramount.

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Blister repair at the I-70 footbridge.  “Dr.” Joanne officiating.

Unfortunately, this is the last known photo.  After handing off Mary to Witt at Washington Monument State Park, about 8 miles later they encountered unforecast thunder, lightning and hail.  The tenderizing effects of head-banging hail caused Mary to call the game at 32 miles.

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Flash forward one day to the long-planned first hike of the season for the Gang of Four (minus one).  Our plan:  Annapolis Rock where Mary was on duty as ridgerunner/caretaker.

Green Briar Lake in the background.  Catherine with a Ninja pose and Tina photographing a camera-shy copperhead wedged in a crack in the rock.

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Mary, none the worse for wear, warns hikers of the copperhead.

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Best part of the day at Dan’s Tap House.  We missed you Alexis.

Sisu

 

An Ugly Start to the Summer

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Bucky

Appalachian Trail, Maryland and Northern Virginia, May 20-24, 2019 — Usually the trail is an undramatic place.  Hikers come and go.  Some even dig cat holes to go in.

This week opened uneventfully and hopeful of good times to come.  I met the short-season Maryland ridgerunner at the Greenbriar State Park visitor center where the rangers with whom we work have their offices.  Bucky was issued his radio, parking permit, apartment key and other such stuff.

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Bucky’s room.  Packs explode when you open them.

We met Mary, his ridgerunner partner, at the apartment.  We drove around pointing out landmarks and key areas.  Then we adjourned to Dan’s Tap House for juicy gourmet burgers before bounding up the mountain to Annapolis Rock where Bucky will spend his first shift as caretaker.  Mary will be patrolling in Maryland.

The sundown faded toward black as Bucky and I arrived at Annapolis Rock.  As the last of the sunset peepers were sliding down the hill towards home, we stowed our gear and made the rounds.  We found only one camper, a thru hiker.  He actually properly hung his food bag on the bear pole.  Score!  After securing the sagging tarp over the picnic table, we called it a day and dove head first into our respective dream worlds.

We woke to the thunderous snoring of Jake brakes and the throbbing pulse of commerce rushing along I-70.  The interstate is invisible from the view point, tucked in behind a low ridge.  When the wind is quiet, its presence is as undeniable as is the drag strip across the valley.

With the crack of dawn piercing the tent walls, we raked the sand out of our eyes and adjourned to the ridgerunner office/picnic table for breakfast.  Two packs of instant oatmeal and a Jet Boil coffee later, it was time to inspect the rock.

Following orientation, we hiked to the Pogo campsite about two miles up the trail.  First we stopped at the Black Rock overlook and scoured the area for trash.

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The desecration of Black Rock and other places is a pastime for local high school kids.  I’m certain Shawna wasn’t present when the perp misogynistically memorialized his conquest.

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The good news is that it didn’t last long.  Mary followed up the next day with a bottle of Elephant Snot and a scrub brush.  Bingo.  Like it never happened.

We also checked out Fox Gap where a Civil War skirmish was fought.  New graffiti topped the old.

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Once again, Mary and her trusty Elephant Snot to the rescue.  (Learn more about Elephant Snot here.)  All in a day’s work for a ridgerunner, right?

Now it’s time to interrupt this friendly story for a  brief trip to the dark side.

This hiking season has already been marred by a tragic event.  One hiker was murdered and another maimed and nearly killed when someone who was deranged stabbed them.  Click here for details: (How safe is the Appalachian Trail).

The AT attracts 3 million visitors annually.  They represent a cross section of society with all that entails.  Normally hikers are pretty mellow, but this tragedy elevated concern within the hiking community, especially for unbalanced and misogynistic behavior which was reportedly exhibited by the accused killer.

Earlier in the day, a hiker complained to us about another hiker variously called “Yogi Beer,” “Renegade,” or “Air Quotes.”  Bad actors often change their trail names to avoid authorities.  Judging from reports of his behavior, Yogi Beer appears to be a raging alcoholic and possibly bipolar.  He had been aggressively harassing women.

With this in mind, Bucky and I were enjoying the brilliant weather while hiking to the trailhead — Bucky to pick up a bale of wood chips for the Annapolis Rock composting privies and me to my car so I could meet the Northern Virginia ridgerunner for his orientation hike the next day.

Three hikers stopped us to complain about a guy called, you guessed it:  Yogi Beer.  They had first-hand knowledge.  One of them had been concerned enough to snap Yogi Beer’s photo.  We immediately filed an incident report and shared the photo with law enforcement rangers, trail officials and the other ridgerunners.  (Details not shared here to protect the innocent because some of it may be hearsay.) With that, we thought we were done with the dark side.

In the interest of chronology, let’s put the dark side on hold for a minute because we’re not done.  It will be right back after a bit more of our friendly story.

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Witt

Each of our ridgerunners is an expert backpacker.  Occasionally a resume stands out.  Witt has thru-hiked the triple crown – Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.  He also as held the FKT (fastest known time) for the Arizona Trail and is the FKT holder in Maine’s 100-mile Wilderness.  ( Info on the National Scenic Trails System)

Unfortunately for Witt, ridgerunners are more commonly evaluated by the number of contacts they make and the amount of trash they pick up.  That’s slow going for a guy who’s used to moving in the fast lane.

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Along the way we noticed an unusual arrow made of sticks pointing to a path in the woods.

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Somebody wants us to follow the yellow brick road, right?  Naturally we did.

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About 100 yards in we discovered a sign for a hiker hostel.  Unfortunately it’s on National Park Service land, about 20 feet inside the boundary according to the marked trees.  We informed the folks who deal with these issues.  The owner only has to move it off park service property and it’s good.  Commercial ads/promotion isn’t allowed on federal land.

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Stacking rocks has been a thing for awhile.  Cairns and rock art are inconsistent with Leave No Trace principles.  In short:  Leave only foot prints (not rock stacks, painted rocks or graffiti) and take only photos (not flowers, feathers and antlers). Leave those for others to see.

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Boom.  The rocks were widely scattered.

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We hiked 12 miles.  The trash collected was moderate.  Best highlight:  We opened the tool cache at David Lessor shelter.  We immediately noticed a field mouse.  A second later a juvenile Black Snake became obvious.  We left mother nature to her business.  If they could get in, they could get out.

Now we’ll return to the dark side. When we left we were dealing with Yogi Beer.

Turns out Witt and I may have passed a hiker who turned up in an incident report for threats and sexual harassment.  His photo was familiar.  Not long after learning that, a report came in about an abusive hiker at a nearby hostel.

Believe me.  This volume is highly unusual.  Unfortunately, there’s more!

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So, there I was at home in my favorite chair, quietly sipping coffee while reading the New York Times early Saturday morning. The phone rings.  It’s Mary at the Ed Garvey shelter in Maryland.

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She’s found a mess.  The guy in the tent won’t get up.  He doesn’t appear to be under the influence.  She wants to educate him to pack out his trash, not to mention properly hanging his food and not to make the mess in the first place.

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Raw chicken is in the mix.  This could attract animals including bears.  Then we’re dealing with a different problem.

Since the camper rolled over and would not get up, she moved a distance away to observe, radioed the Maryland Park Service and waited for the ranger.  Before the ranger could arrive, the guy packed up and left.  She cleaned up the area.

Enough already?  Damn right!

Of note.  Sexual harassment on the trail isn’t a universal experience, but its frequency is way too high.  Sometimes it’s subtle as when one of our women ridgerunners quipped that all she needed was another septuagenarian man-splaining how she should hike.  Other times males go out of their way to tell women they don’t belong on the trail alone or they aren’t strong enough to hike long distances.  Sometimes it’s much more sexually suggestive or worse as when someone attempted to rape a hiker I know.

This is shameful.  Men need to step up and stop this behavior.  We need to own it and step in when we see or hear it.

Incident Reporting:   http://appalachiantrail.org/home/explore-the-trail/report-an-incident?fbclid=IwAR2dlPHezWWPQy17qyRHUBqR21UWz-GyyrA7xtHD9FgXgZmrtxGLhZ7l73U

Sisu

 

 

Storm Clean up

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South District, Shenandoah National Park, Appalachian Trail, November 30, 2018 — The east coast got smacked with an early season snow storm a little more than a week ago.  The Washington area escaped major impact, but it hammered the south district of Shenandoah between Stanardsville and Waynesboro, VA. and cities to our north.

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Photo courtesy Shenandoah National Park

Heavy snow and high winds crushed the softer trees leaving hundreds of them blocking  Skyline Dr., the road that runs 105 miles from one end of the park to the other.  The park trail crews report that the downed trees resembled a military abitis that runs for miles along the road.  Abitis definition at this link.

Leave it to the park crews to painstakingly clear the road quarter mile at a time.  Each tree must be bucked and chipped.  That’s a slow process.

Meanwhile, enough of Skyline, from Swift Run Gap south, had been cleared to permit the PATC to begin clearing the AT.  The supervisor of trails in coordination with the south district manager called for sawyers and swampers.

Sawyers are club members certified by the National Park Service to safely operate a chainsaw.  Swampers help the sawyers by removing slash and trunk rounds from the trail.  The plan was to attack the afflicted area from both ends.

As the supervisor of trails reported yesterday:  “We met at Swift Run Gap at 8:30am today and had 22 PATC members ready to work. Ten were certified chain saw operators including six District Managers.

We were limited as to parking shuttle cars because of the clearing of Skyline Drive and this constrained the amount of trail we could cover. The AT is clear from Swift Run Gap to Simmons Gap a distance of nine miles.

There is another group working from Rockfish Gap north and I don’t have any information on their progress right now. The main problem appears to be further south toward Rockfish Gap where the blow downs are quite severe.

Skyline Drive is not open for other than emergency travel and the clearing is very slow. The park maintenance crews and back country trail staff are responsible for that clearing. We will schedule another work trip later this week.”

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Sawyers are distinguished by their red Kevlar chaps.

We divided into crews.  My crew consisted of three sawyers and three swampers.  We worked northward from Powell Gap to Smith-Roach Gap – about a mile and one-third. Other crews worked elsewhere.

The swampers were all experienced trail overseers and knew how to get after the work at hand.  They brought their pruning saws, loppers and other trail tools which allowed them cleared several blowdowns by themselves.

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With one exception, our blowdowns were smaller trees snapped or bent over across the trail.  These are tedious to clear, our three two-person sawyer/swamper teams worked quickly and efficiently.

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This is one blowdown we tackled with two sawyers, one on each side.  Hidden within these tangles are branches loaded with weight called spring poles.  They can whip around hard enough to cause serious injury when their energy is released.  Sawyers are trained to find them, but they are hard to read in tangles like this.  Each sawyer reported being surprised by more than one, including me.

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All told, our crew removed 27 blowdowns in just over one mile.

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Sawyer PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) consists of leather boots, Kevlar chaps, leather gloves, helmet, face shield, and ear muffs.

Stay tuned for follow on trips.  We’ll be at this for awhile.

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

 

 

 

Sisu and Salmiakki

New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 28, 2018 — Sisu is the perfect trail name.  Here’s why according to the New York Times.

“In January 1940, in the pages of this very magazine, a writer by the excellent name of Hudson Strode published an article with the headline “Sisu: A Word That Explains Finland.” A Finnish concept that’s tricky to translate into English with any real precision, sisu represents something like a deep well of inner fortitude. The Wikipedia entry includes links to “stiff upper lip,” “cojones” and “chutzpah,” but none of those phrases or words quite capture it. A “special kind of strong will” is the definition Strode goes with, something drawn upon by the stoic in order to persevere in the face of extreme adversity — say, winter, if you live in Lapland.

At one point in the article, Strode visits a Finnish town near the Russian border and meets the local sheriff. For sentimental reasons, this sheriff carries around a dagger, which he hands to Strode. Apparently a previous owner used the blade to fend off six attackers. “They fought for an hour,” the sheriff says. “He cut the six to pieces. I saw the finish of the fight — it was a glorious display of sisu.” Strode doesn’t record his own response, but he seems impressed. The sheriff slips the knife back into its leather holster and gazes to the east. “We shall have need of sisu,” he observes gravely, “to face what may come shortly.”  (Finnish-style knives are called Puukkos – Link to Puukko)

Reading about Strode’s journey — which took him to Finland at the start of World War II, only months before the Soviet invasion — I thought about my own rapidly approaching trip to the same country, for the same magazine, 79 years later. I smiled at the pleasing symmetry. Granted, my surname does not double as an active verb, not even in Italian. Also, I was going to Finland to report an article on salty licorice. But otherwise, our tasks were not dissimilar. Strode had introduced his readers to a word that explained a distant country and its underlying values. I would try to do the same, only with a really weird flavor of candy.  (It probably pairs with herring.)

There would be need of sisu to face what might come shortly.”

Sisu

Ten Glorious Days

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Hiking and Working on the Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah National Park, October 4 – 10, 2018 — Being busy beats boredom more often than not. It’s the same when work is pleasure and pleasure is work.

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Hike across Maryland hikers resting at the Ed Garvey shelter.

Road Scholars offers several hikes in our region.  The one in which we are normally involved is hiking legs of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia – in that order.  We have one more of these on schedule for this season.

The other offering is four days hiking the AT across Maryland’s 42 miles.  This is a gentle hike compared to rest of the AT with most of the miles spent running a ridgeline on an old logging road converted to trail.

We were asked to fill in for leaders who could not make it.  Good weather graced our participation and the hikers marched into Harpers Ferry in good spirits.

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The next day, my friend and colleague Mary Thurman, currently Blackburn Trail Center caretaker, offered to help with some trail maintenance on the AT in Shenandoah National Park.

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On a grossly muggy day, we weeded a couple of miles worth of trail on two sections in the North District and removed seven blowdowns, two by handsaw; the rest with a chainsaw.

The long sleeves, gloves, face shield, and buff are to protect from poison ivy which is atomized by the string trimmer.  You can feel the spray as you go.

Soon Mary will be headed for her next gig at the Grand Canyon.  I’m going to miss her. This spring my wife and I are going to celebrate my 70th birthday in Colorado with my siblings and cousins.  Mary and I plan to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim on the way.

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Twelve hours later.  Here we go again.  Time for the White House Hiking Group’s planned hike up Old Rag, Shenandoah’s most popular hike – so popular that it was on Thomas Jefferson’s bucket list back in his day.

We rendezvoused literally at Zero-dark-thirty in order to get a jump on the crowds.  On a rare dry day in a rain soaked summer, you just knew people were gonna come, and they did.

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Dawn cracked with an unexpected overcast.  Since you hike Old Rag for the views we prepared for disappointment.  Imagine our delight, popping out of the gloomy clouds  into happy sunshine.

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Obligatory horsing around photos.

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We made it!

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Brick oven pizza and a brew in nearby Sperryville capped the day.

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No rest for the wicked.  Tuesday and Wednesday brought the Road Scholars again, this time hiking the AT in four states.

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This bunch was unique – a running group from Grand Rapids, MI.  They’ve been together for decades and were a hoot!

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Meanwhile Sophie endured surgery to remove a cancerous cyst. The bounce is returning to her step and the prognosis is good.

Not until the heavy exercise was over, did the weather turn toward autumn.  The humidity and temps are mercifully down just in time for the Hoodlums trail crew next weekend.  See you there.

Sisu

Hiking Maryland Heights with Old Friends

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Friends from my days in the White House/National Security Council Press Office.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  July 7, 2018 — The auspicious press room at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is just off the West Wing, constructed over what was once the inauspicious presidential swimming pool.

As life would have it, my favorite journalists swam in the deep end of that former pool, now known as the press room basement.

You could say this invisible nether region was reserved for the less pyrotechnic news broadcasters such as Bloomberg, the Voice of America, NPR and the like.

I wish I’d taken photos of these down-under denizens who were literally schmooshed into their phone booth-size working spaces.

Believe me, ya hadda be there to appreciate it, especially the irresistible treats they’d bring from home each day.  I was soon food-conditioned and grazed almost daily.  It was an irresistible trap of sorts.  In return for treats, I’d respond to questions.  Hope my answers were as good as the brownies.

After my time at the Executive Mansion expired, keeping in touch was precarious.  This was the mid-1990s when the Yahoo search engine was revolutionary and long before social media.

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Two decades passed.  Then our friend Tina thought we should meet-up at a baseball game on July 4.  Catching up, we realized some of us had in common a previously unknown love of nature.

Impulsively I offered to organize a hike and BOOM, there we were, three days later, munching (this time my homemade blueberry muffins) in a Harpers Ferry parking lot preparing to assault the Maryland Heights overlook.  Maryland Heights Trail

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The iconic view from Maryland Heights is spectacular.  The Shenandoah River is top left.  The Potomac River is bottom center.

The weather was unheard of for July in the mid-Atlantic region.  Our 7 a.m. departure featured low humidity, a light breeze and a sweat-free temp of 60 F.  Up we chugged, skidding to a stop at the featured overlook in well under an hour.  We toured the 1862 civil war fortifications on the mountain top before finishing the 10 km loop before lunch time.

 

 

Along the way we took selfies like giddy teenagers.

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Showing off my thru hike photo from 2014.

With time to spare, we toured the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Visitor Center, then we stopped for burgers and beers in town before moseying down to John Brown’s fort.

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Railroad tunnel and bridges over the C&O Canal and the Potomac river.

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Ruins of a lock keeper’s house on the C&O Canal.

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Jefferson’s Rock.  The props were added in the mid-1800s to preserve the balanced rock formation.

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The view from Jefferson’s Rock.

After exploring the lower town and crossing the river over to the C&O Canal, we marched up to Jefferson’s Rock, then through the ancient cemetery and back to our initial rendezvous point where we hugged all around and agreed to hike again soon.

Upon reflection, I’m thinking food history might be repeating itself.  I’ll keep baking blueberry muffins and other treats, as long as they keep coming.

To those from that era who weren’t there: We’ve got plenty of roster slots, lots of fresh hikes, and all the freshly baked muffins you can eat.

Sisu

Windstorm Cleanup

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Shenandoah National Park, Sunday March 11, 2018 — About ten days ago a nor’easter ripped through the mid-Atlantic on its way to hammer New England.  Large trees were snapped and uprooted like toothpicks, dragging down power lines as they crashed to earth.  Widespread power outrages bloomed in the winter storm’s aftermath.

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Our own electricity in the big city burbs was out for four days thanks to a big old tree that landed in the wrong place.

Soon word spread of massive blowdowns all along the Appalachian Trail, especially in Shenandoah National Park.  What’s a dedicated trail maintainer gonna do except saddle up and ride toward the sound of cracking tree trunks?

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This tree snapped near its base, and in the process, blocked a four-way trail junction.  Bucking this 20-inch tree was an interesting puzzle requiring careful attention to safety and a step-by-step approach.

fullsizeoutput_154bStep one was trimming away the smaller branches and reducing the blowdown to its bare structure.

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Step two is getting the main trunk on the ground where it’s safer to chop it up.

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Step three is reduce the main trunk.  Here, with a top bind, after an initial cut about eight inches deep, wedges are driven to keep the cerf from closing and trapping the saw in the cut.

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Wedges in, the job can be finished.

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Step four is get the slash off the trail and out of the way.  Best of all, we converted a lot of chainsaw gas into sawdust.

Job. Done.

All told, we cut six blowdowns on the section I maintain.  The subject tree was on the southern end.

After that, we moved to the Indian Run fire road which is the access to the Hoodlum’s maintenance hut.

We quickly picked off three minor blockages on the fire road.

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Of course there’s always “that one.”  This 12-incher was draped in vines and it was hollow making it a bit more sketchy to cut.

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The approach was to trim away the vines and branches before dicing up the trunk from the top down.

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Like dicing vegetables for roasting.

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Sliced into small enough chunks to drag off the trail.

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Ten obstructive trees were gone.  Then we found this.  This tree is a good 20 inches alone.  It has a twin right behind it. That’s a twofer.  It’s also a “leaner.”  The angle isn’t bad, but this multi-ton tree’s top is hung up requiring care to safely bring it to justice.

The day was getting late.  Fatigue proved the better part of valor and a safety rule red light, so we left the remaining trees for the Hoodlums to tackle on Saturday.

Sisu

 

Planning Your On-trail Budget

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Where the budget starts for most hikers.

From and article I prepared for the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page, January 5, 2018.

Running out of money is one of the primary reasons hikers do not finish their thru hikes. A realistic budget, understanding where the money goes, and a little self-discipline can help ensure your hike goes all the way.

What a previous hike may have cost any single individual is relevant to your planning, but not definitive because everybody is unique. But, if you know what drives costs, you can develop a budget that will help you succeed at a price you can afford.

So, this post isn’t going to tell you now much money you need. Instead, it seeks to help you think through how to develop your budget by looking at where costs come from and offering a sense of what average hikers spend.

The irony is that while you’re actually hiking, you aren’t spending money. You may be eating, wearing or carrying what money bought, but unless you’re shopping on line from mountaintops, you’re not actually burning cash while you are on the trail itself.

Being that we’re discussing on-trail expenses, we will not include the cost of gear or equipment purchased prior departure or your transportation home.

Towns are money sumps. Some expenses are undeniably necessary while others are optional, but for the most part, how much you spend is purely up to you.

At this point human nature is worth noting. By the time a thru hiker gets to town, s/he has been on the trail for approximately five days. In addition to the big four: groceries, laundry, fuel, and a shower, most hikers want to sleep in a bed. Those five usually cost less than number six.

Number six. Being people, we’re hungry for restaurant food and maybe a beer or two. You guessed right. That’s where the real money goes. A restaurant/bar stop can cost more than the big five all together. Stay for a zero and a second night and you can easily double that.

So let’s talk about town stops.

First, how do you get to town?

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Some hostels shuttle for free and some do not.

With the exception of the few times the trail actually runs down Main Street, you’ll need to hitch or shuttle. Hitching is free, but sometimes difficult or sketchy. It’s also against the law in New York, New Jersey, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, in and around Harpers Ferry, and possibly more places. Weather and time of year also can be factors in this decision.

Shuttles usually cost around $2 per mile. Be sure you understand the cost before asking the driver to meet you at the trailhead. Shuttle drivers also expect cash payment.

With a growing number of hikers attempting to duck payment, some drivers are asking for payment up front, so be prepared.

Some hostels shuttle for free; some don’t. Sometimes you can spit costs with other hikers or get a group discount. If the guidebook doesn’t say, be sure and ask up front.

The average one-way shuttle cost is around $10 – $20 or $20 – $40 per town stop.

Once in town, expect to walk where you need to go. Hostels located outside a nearby town generally will offer free daily shuttles to town at designated times.

The big five:

Grocery costs depend on menu. The menu includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Also, most hikers change tastes over the course of their hike. So, that energy bar you love today may be the one you gag on three months in.

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Shopping at Ingles in Hiawassee, GA.  Taken from the in-store Starbucks.

As for entrées, on the high end is freeze dried food. You can save a little by buying freeze dry food in bulk, and use resupply boxes, but your tastes may change. On trail, freeze dry meals are available at Walmart and at most outfitters. Depending where they’re bought and the specific meal, freeze dry food costs, on average, between $6 and $10 per meal, bending toward the higher number.

Among the more affordable prepared foods are Knorr sides and Ramen which can be supplemented with tuna or chicken packets and much more. Hikers also favor instant oatmeal, granola bars, energy bars, candy bars, jerky, instant coffee, cured sausage, cream and block cheese, hardboiled eggs, crackers of all kinds, olive oil, peanut butter, tortillas, snack cakes, sticky buns, and cookies just to mention a few. Consider taking a multivitamin if you eat too much of your diet in refined sugar and salt.

Of course there are vegan diets and those who love fresh food. Also, some cook and some don’t. Choosing not to cook can save $3 – $8 per week in fuel costs depending on fuel type.

Your menu choices will determine food costs.

Don’t forget you’ll not be very hungry but will transition to eating much more after hiker hunger kicks in.

Your grocery bill will depend on what you eat. Between $30 – $50 per resupply stop seems to be around average.

Your trip to town subtotal is now $50 – $90 and you still have to shower and do laundry. There’s also a place to stay.

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No two hostels are the same.  Costs can vary dramatically.

Let’s say you’re sleeping in town. Hostels are cheaper than motels. The cost of hostels can vary widely depending on amenities – platform bunks vs. mattresses and pillows, tenting, private rooms, etc. Some hostels include laundry in their total price while others offer a la carte pricing for laundry, showers, snacks, meals or offer use of a kitchen to cook your own meals and save money.

Laundry and showers, without stay, at most hostels average around $5 each.

The cost of a hostel stay can vary a lot. The prices have been recently increasing due to supply and demand, the short season, and growing overhead costs. While one may be as low as $25, another can be more than $50, with some considerably more. An up to date guidebook will have the details.

At this point your plan may be to stay only at the least expensive hostels, and at that tent whenever possible to save money. Unfortunately no plan ever survives contact with reality.

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Severe weather can change your plans.  Photo by Warren Fewtrell

Your spreadsheet may say so many miles per day and specify town stops. However, weather, illness, frame of mind, trail family companions, injury, fatigue and a host of other issues may alter that planning and add considerable unexpected expense.

For planning purposes, it’s generally safer to round up. So let’s average $50 per hostel stay even though that may be slightly on the high side.

Your bare bones town stop is now up to $100 – $140 and you haven’t even had a hamburger yet.

Remember the reference to human nature. It takes a strong will to forego at least one restaurant stop while you’re in town.

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Some restaurants are part of the trail tradition and are difficult to avoid.

Run into some trail friends you haven’t seen in awhile, here’s betting you can’t avoid the temptation to find a place to eat, grab at least one beer and catch up. What about if you’re hiking out of town after a zero and just happen to run into these same friends you haven’t seen in awhile? Bet you take a second zero. Kerching! It’s like lighting twenty dollar bills on fire.

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Trail families form and dissolve.  You’ll want to catch up with people you haven’t seen in awhile.

Beer and burgers/pizza cost more or less depending on where you are. Realistially, you probably won’t get out of most restaurant/bars, with the exception of fast food, for under $40 – $50. The cost of alcohol is expensive and most hikers don’t drink just one beer or eat one hamburger.

Restaurant food and alcohol can cost as much or more than the big five.

If you eat breakfast and lunch in restaurants, add more. The good news is that AT towns are so rural that there are only a couple of Starbucks on the trail, so your coffee habit won’t beak the bank!

Coffee

There are excellent and not inexpensive coffee shops/restaurants along the way.  Dalton, MA.

Subtotal: $140 – $190 per town stop. If you use resupply boxes, add around $15 for a medium size flat rate box, two-day delivery. A medium size Express Mail box will hold four days food.

Since town stops are so expensive, how many should you expect?

The average hiker goes to town every fifth or sixth day. The reason is that food is the single heaviest item – and one of the bulkiest – in their pack. Think weight and space. Five days is about what fits (in a bear canister, food bag or pack) at a weight hikers feel comfortable carrying. There are exceptions, but again we’re talking averages.

Divide the average time it takes for a thru hike, 180 days, by five and you get 36 before zeros. Believe it. You’ll want to zero from time to time. Let’s say you plan for 15, but due to circumstances actually take 20 under the round up principle. That’s 40 five-day hikes and 40 town stops.

Estimated rounded-up cost on the trail ranges between $6,000 and $7,200. Add $15 for each resupply box you expect to use. The author used about 15 of them, all in the north.

Resupply by mail is common.  You can leave boxes open so the contents can be adjusted if necessary.

Can you thru hike for less? Absolutely.

Start with fewer zeros. If your body holds up, you may only need one zero per month. That’s six, not 15. Unfortunately, that’s not what most people need or do.

By increasing days between resupply you need fewer town stops at the price of a heavier pack. You can use the NERO (near zero) option to minimize your overnight stays in town. Above all, decrease eating in restaurants and alcohol consumption.

Hitch

Hitch more if you’re comfortable doing that.

Work for stay also can reduce hostel costs. But remember that you won’t be the only one who wants work for stay and the opportunities are limited. There just isn’t enough work for everyone.

Be aware that hostel owners complain that a lot of work-for-stay hikers aren’t willing to work hard and do a good job. They have a list serve and communicate with one another. All the other hostels up the trail will know about shirkers or problem hikers. Do a good job and you’ll stand out from your competition.

One successful hiker was very smart about work for stay. He was a decent handyman who was able to do very useful work for hostel owners. When he completed his assignment, he’d ask the hostel owner to refer him up the trail. His lodging budget was $0 and he was successful. He even earned real money from time to time. The keys were his willingness to work very hard, do an excellent job, his useful skills, and being savvy enough to ask for help landing a gig at his next stop.

Of note.

You’ll need a budget contingency for equipment you may have to replace. Whether a bear tears up your tent, you fall and bend your trekking poles, a boot fails, or you lose weight and need new pants, you may have to replace something along the way.

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Gear breaks and hasty repairs don’t always hold.

Bear Damage.

Be aware that the southern end of the trail is very good at separating hikers from their money. The trail towns are friendly, the festivals frequent, and the hikers really want to be social.

You really have to watch your spend rate on the first half of your hike. Too many hikers spend way too much money in the south and have to go home early because they are dead broke.

Hiker feeds are found primarily in the southern half of the trail.  Do not depend upon them to reduce costs.

Many hikers don’t realize how much more expensive the northern half of the trail is compared to the southern half. There also are far fewer hiker feeds that sometimes off set food costs in the south. Consider adding 15 percent to what you think the southern half will cost.

New England accounts for part of the northern cost increase. The area is unique with its fragile ecosystems that require management of very popular overnight sites. Trail/infrastructure costs are higher because human waste has to helicoptered out at the end of the season. The warm weather season is too short for it to compost. Caretakers must be paid. Campsite fees cover these extra expenses. They are listed in the trail guidebooks.

The huts in the White Mountains take only the first two thru hikers for work for stay requiring most hikers to either find a scarce place to stealth or go to a pay-for-stay campsite.

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The crowding in New England at popular sites requires expensive management.

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White Mountain Hut (Madison)

Hikers can avoid some of these sites by doing long (and hard) miles in tough terrain and unpredictable weather.

The Appalachian Mountain Club has tried to help hikers save money with this recently announced campsite deal: https://www.outdoors.org/articles/issues/2017/may-june-2017/amc-rolls-out-overnight-camping-deal-for-appalachian-trail-thru-hikers

Baxter

Once you reach Baxter, there’s a $10 fee to camp at the Birches. After you’ve summited, the hitch to Millinocket is easy. There’s only one road in and out of Baxter State Park and it goes straight to Millinocket. Millinocket is usually another town stay to celebrate and recover before you head for home.

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Last hostel in Millinocket, ME.

Your last budget item is off trail – the cost of transportation home.

Good luck. 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