A flat soufflé and limp noodles…

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Good ole white blaze serial number 00000001

North Georgia, Appalachian Trail miles zero through 69.6, March 3-10, 2017 — There I was, hiking the Appalachian Trail in Georgia for the third year in a row.  This time it was different, very different, but we will get to that in due course.

This adventure started with an invitation to present my talk on trail hygiene at the annual ATKO – Appalachian Trail Kick Off event at Amicalola Falls State Park. The kick off targets future hikers and serves as a reunion of sorts for many others.

The premise for the talk is that hikers neither have to get sick – Noro virus or gastroenteritis – nor smell like Oscar the Grouch’s trash can on a hot summer’s day.  All they have to do is make staying clean a priority. My talk tells them how.

My talk is entitled “What the Funk!” I blogged about the subject here: What the Funk!  My Power Point slides are here:  https://www.dropbox.com/s/zwxxfhmz96vhn42/What%20The%20Funk.2.pptx?dl=0

The ATKO is a well attended two-and-a-half day event featuring speakers, vendors and old friends like Mike Wingeart and Robin Hobbs who were representing ALDHA, the Appalachian Long Distance Hiking Association.

The ATKO featured a tent city, gear vendors and even a slew of visiting owls.  This is a great horned owl.  His pals included a tiny screech owl named Goliath and a barred owl which remained amazingly quiet.  Trail Dames is a women’s hiking organization I try and promote as often as possible.  Love those gals, most of whom I’ve met on my various trail journeys.  Check out Trail Dames here:  Trail Dames

Now, let’s get down to business.  We’ll open with a brief confession.  I did not come to the trail with “trail legs.”  In other words, I was not in shape.  My excuse:  I injured my hip lifting weights in early October and have not run since then.  Throughout the hike, my hip and cardio were fine, but my legs had all the strength and authority of limp spaghetti noodles.  That’s definitely not a recipe for a fluffy soufflé in the nasty hills of Georgia. (Lovin’ mixed metaphors!)

The anointed know that launching from the Amicalola Lodge nets the upper five miles of the infamously steep “approach trail” that leads to the AT’s southern terminus on Springer Mountain.  I did it three years ago when I  had to spell the caretaker on Springer Mountain.  That year my gazelle-like bounds magically crushed the steepest hills.  This year I huffed and puffed like the little engine that barely could. I was delighted to summit, albeit about 90 minutes slower than before.

While on Springer, I took a look around.  I was saddened to see that two trees I’ve been tracking for the past three years had finally been done in.  The number of people on the trail continues to increase along with their relentless degradation of the environment.

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A bit hard to see, but campers have moved south of the lower bear cables on Springer Mountain shelter and much closer to the water source; and have established a new fire pit.

The good news is that previous recommendations have been implemented.  The increased presence on the trail has remarkably reduced trash.  Vegetation recovery projects have begun.  Extra campsites and privies have been added.  My observations from that time are here:  Georgia 2015

Old fire pit at Hawk Mountain shelter cleaned up.

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Improvements since last year to the new Hawk Mountain campsite.

As always the newly minted hikers were delightful.  I saw Lynne, the Trail Ambassador on the right, twice on my journey as she expanded her patrol coverage.  I saw several other ambassadors too.

Ambition has never been lacking for me.  Since this was my very first time to hike Georgia alone, I decided to pace myself in accordance with the legend in my own mind, versus the reality of my current physical condition.  Mind over matter was a good strategy, or so I thought.  That worked about as well as one might expect.

After pitching my tent the first night and on my way to fetch water, I met a young man who asked me if it was okay for his dog to be off leash.  Never ask a Leave No Trace zealot that question.  I convinced him that every snake, skunk, raccoon and porcupine in the woods would eat his dog for lunch, not to mention any stray bears.  How ’bout them Lyme disease bearing ticks ole fido is going to bring back to your tent?  Oh boy!!!

This fellow also decided to cowboy camp that night (no tent).  Guess what, it rained unexpectedly.  I awoke to his thrashing as he hurried to pitch is tent while dodging rain spatter.  “Grasshopper, you’re going to learn a lot,” I smiled as a hiked past his tent in the morning. He was sawing zzzzzzs.

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I have finally perfected pitching and striking this tent in high wind.  I failed at that miserably in Maine last summer. Hint:  Up-wind pegs first…

The plan for Monday was to make it about 15 miles either to the Justus Mt. campsite or on to Gooch Gap.  The forecast included rain and high winds for Tuesday, so I wanted to get as far as possible.

Moving with the speed to cold flowing molasses helped me realize that I wasn’t going to make either of my targeted locations, so I parked at Cooper Gap where, this year, the Army has been leaving its 500 gallon “water buffalo” unlocked for hikers. Now I was a half day behind with a cold, heavy rain in the forecast.

Very good news:  ALL water sources in Georgia were flowing with the exception of the spring at Blue Mountain shelter which is just short of Unicoi Gap.

Fortunately the heavenly watering of the Georgia hills didn’t begin until after I’d packed up.  I sopped off with a dry tent at least, headed for the Woods Hole shelter half way up the infamous Blood Mountain; about another 15 miles away.  Woods Hole has a covered picnic table and is located where bear proof food containers are required.  The odds were good that I’d get a spot, and I’d be back on schedule given that very few people want to carry the 3 1/2 extra pounds the canisters weigh.

Along the way, sometimes you see weird stuff.  Who would set the stump on fire at Gooch Mountain?  Just past there, somebody used a machete to hack up a dead tree.  For what?  The dead tree bark is good insect habitat for birds and bears.  Why ruin it?  Ignorance lives.

Please pack out your trash!  The fire pits and the trail in general was far cleaner than I’ve ever seen it at this time of year.  Thank you ridgerunners and trail ambassadors!

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I arrived at Woods Hole just prior to dusk.  I ate and then crashed between these two tents.

The morning dawned cold and windy.  The rain had passed. Of the three campers at Woods Hole, nobody had a bear canister. Surprise, surprise, surprise!  Where’s the ranger when you need ’em.

A father and son had pitched their tent in the shelter.  They were were woefully underprepared with summer sleeping bags and sported wet cotton clothes from the previous day’s rain.  The other tent belonged to a new thru hiker who didn’t know better.  I made it clear.  If more hikers came during the night, the tents would have to come down.  Fortunately, none did.

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It dawned cold and clear as I waited form my coffee water to boil. Note the two hats. After breakfast I was off for Low Gap, another 15 miles or so away.

Walking over Blood Mountain has its aesthetic pleasures.

Wind at Neel’s Gap

The trail to Low Gap is a relatively easy hike with the exception of a nasty climb at Tesnatee Gap.  My right hip flexor was swelling.  Time for a reality check.

Dawn at Low Gap.  Fortunately, from there it’s an easy 10 miles to Uniqoi Gap where I decided to bail.  The noodles were still limp and the soufflé was pretty flat.  Reached Unicoi about 12:30 p.m. and shuttled to the Top of Georgia Hostel.

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Bought a thru hiker lunch.  How do you spell bankruptcy?

Breakfast at Top of Georgia where Bob Gabrielsen offers the morning pep talk before the hopeful sea of humanity rides the tide northward in search of adventure and the state of Maine.  Time for me to saddle up the Subaru and ride north.

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Toxic waste bag.

It ain’t over until everything’s cleaned up.

Sisu

Adventure Season 2016

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Kensington, MD, March 2, 2016 — It’s that time of year again when the call of the wild echos through the ether.  This is when we plan, pack, lace ’em up and get it on.

The year starts in Georgia on the AT.  For one, I’m anxious to see if all the planning we have done to manage the early crowds actually is beneficial. All I know is that a lot of time and energy have gone into the improvements.

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Next it’s the National Park Service’s centennial.  Shenandoah has challenged folks to celebrate by hiking a hundred miles in the park in return for a free patch. My friend and first hiking partner Mary and her son Ben will be hiking there on a 600 mile-long AT section hike in mid-April.  I plan to tag along for all 105 of Shenandoah’s miles.

From there it gets fuzzier.  I have my ridgerunner hikes and trail crew week – only one this year. I’m signed up for a Leave No Trace master educator course and a talk on backpacking at Sky Meadows State Park, Va. for National Trails Day.

We’ve hired two returning ridgerunners and four new folks for this season.  More on them at another time.

There’s an opportunity to hike the northern half (Oregon and Washington) of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and/or the Colorado Trail.  Lastly, once school is back in session, finishing the Long Trail in Vermont is carved in stone after having to miss it last year.

I’m learning not to predict too much.  Plans do not survive contact with reality, and this year reality is holding a lot of face cards.   I’ve taken on some executive responsibility with my trail club that’s going to eat time, and have been nominated for a professional lifetime career honor that, if selected, I will accept in person come hell or high water.

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Top of the first inning is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain, Georgia.  I’ve noted and written about my friend Denise’s plan to thru hike this year.  Well, she gets dropped off at the trailhead around noon on March 9.  I’ve made the arrangements to be there like a beacon to cheer her on and hike the first 80 miles of the AT with her. She will nail her hike to the wall.

The weather in Georgia has been all over the map.  Hey, it’s in the south you say; it’s bound to be warm.  Well considering that the entire AT in Georgia is above 4,000 ft., cold weather, sleet and snow are factors throughout March.

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I’m packing now.  My pack is going to weigh much more than normal.  For one, I’m carrying my food in a bear-proof container, not so much for the bears, but to set an example to others who don’t take bears seriously.

As for which sleeping bag, jackets and other clothing, I figured I’d split the difference between zero degrees F and 70F.

Stay tuned for dispatches.

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/

Fifty Shades



Neels Gap to Springer Mountain, GA, Saturday March 14 to Monday March 16, 2015 — This is a dirty story. In fact it’s going to be filthy!  But, it’s not about what you think it is. It’s about Georgia mud. 

When this patrol started, it had been raining nonstop for eight days. The trail is a sodden River of viscous mud. The hikers are coated with it. Their soggy tents have been pitched in it. They’re filthy and everybody needs a break. 





The aphorism on the AT is “No rain. No pain. No Maine.” Well, we’re breaking in the AT Thru Hiker Class of 2015 the right way. Between the epic snow, cold and endless rain, for sure they’ll have earned some bragging rights. 

I started my new patrol from Neels Gap (mile 30). So far I’ve run into many hikers I met earlier in the week on Springer Mountain. They were a cheerful lot having come this far. But, to a person, they want to dry out. 

Ditto for the hikers who dragged themselves into the Top of Georgia hostel where I’ve set up my base camp. At least hostels are a safe haven from the elements. 

Some people are damp because the don’t know how to stay dry. Rain gear alone isn’t enough. 

For example, tent pitching is a good place to start. There are ways to pitch tents in the rain that minimizes the opportunity for water to wet the sleeping compartment. The secret is getting the fly up first, then ducking under it to hang the sleeping compartment. Reverse the process when striking the tent. 

I’ve demonstrated this technique several times. I love it when you can see that little flash bulb go off when the hikers get it. It doesn’t eliminate all dampness, but it’s a huge improvement over the alternative where rain pools on your tent floor after beating its way through your mosquito netting while you struggle with the rain fly. 

Unfortunately after a week of nonstop sop the damp infiltrates everything no matter what you do. 

The rain finally quit on day two. The viscosity of the treadway morphed from soup to solid in just hours.  It was almost as if a miracle occurred right under my muddy clodhoppers. 

Without rain to lubricate the trail, the hikers joy returned. The thousand yard stare yielded to the warmth of days 30 degrees warmer than what they’d been experiencing. 



From rain soaked to salt stained. 

Of course the heat cooked up its own challenges. Dehydration eats you from the inside out. Thirst is a hard master, so be careful what you’re wishing for. 

Late middle age can be unforgiving in these conditions. I encountered a proud former Philidelphia cop struggling up hill. His burdens were typical for early hikers – too much gear, out of shape (but not overweight), serious dehydration and mental doubts. He was thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” 

This is when the unfit begin to realize how far their apple can fall from the tree of success. They begin thinking of the comforts of home, and some succumb. 

I stayed with this hiker until he consumed enough water and refined sugar products to get a mental grip. Then I moved on. 

The day ended atop Springer, that perpetual well spring of hope and optimism. The sun was shining and the Warrior Hikers were present to start their long healing march the next morning. It doesn’t get better than that out here. 

Hope



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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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

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

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



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



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

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



Are we there yet?

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In October, the weather at White Blaze number 1 was a harbinger of temperatures to come – The ambient air temp registered a unseasonal 17 F frosted with a stiff wind.

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When 2014 rolled over on Father Time’s odometer, the annual blossoming of the Appalachian Trail (AT) commenced as hikers slowly began pollinating north Georgia’s Springer Mountain.  Each new arrival swelled the cavalcade expectantly streaming northward.  From a few in January, each successive month bears witness to new hopefuls joining the annual rebirth and migration.

From Springer, they follow the nor’ easters stormy track for 2,185.3 miles – all the way to Baxter State Park in central Maine.  Their ultimate hope is to hug that battered placard atop Mt. Katahdin.  Undeterred, they willfully ignore the overwhelming odds against their success.  Historical evidence suggests that least three of four of us will be unsuccessful. 

As a family strung out over the miles, individually and together we hikers navigate a unique ribbon of reality. It twists and turns in a slow motion parallel universe to I-95 which, just a few miles east of the AT, rages relentlessly northward in the direction of our common destination.  We are confident in our slower but equally determined pace, and fortified by our greater peace of mind as we leave civilization in the rear view mirror.

For the next several months we inhabit a migrating colony of free-range hikers.   Our feral existence is defined by day-by-day adventures all our own.  That’s how our story unfolds.

The class of 2014 has done all the preparation possible.  From now until Katahdin, for any chance of success, each of us needs luck, and above all, the courage to keep on keeping on, no matter what challenge comes our way. 

 Feet to brain, “Say what! “

Not one of us is an island.  The support of family, friends, the trail community, complete strangers, and those who read our journals is a necessary condition of success. 

The long march for the Class of 2014 is finally underway in significant numbers. If we have the physical stamina, enough luck to avoid major illness and injury, and the mental fortitude to repeat the first stride five million times through ups and downs, snow, rain, mud, heat, humidity, ugly rocks, injuries and blood sucking insects, then we too will claim the high ground and tag that weathered scoreboard almost 2,200 miles north of white blaze number 1. 

My hike is highly unconventional, although not originally planned that way.  On September 24th I started a 13-day, 160-mile practice hike from Waynesboro, Va to Harpers Ferry WVa.  It was so much fun that I did not want to waste it.  So, I decided to get down to Springer Mountain and start northward as soon as I could.

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With my friend Mary “Hey Man!” Manley, I took the on-ramp to the northbound hiker super highway on Oct. 24.   Mary plans to resume her hike from where she suspended it in about a month from now.  I know this tough cookie is going to make it all the way.

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As I crunched my way forward on the snow and ice-crusted trail as the days darkened, I heard of three NOBOs hiking ahead of me with the intent of driving on to Maine unless weather drove them off the trail.  Reports are that one left the trail in Damascus just prior of my arrival there.  I have no word of the others.

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Now it’s my turn to rejoin the class.  The administrative tasks related to my mother’s passing are complete, the taxes filed, and all the rest. 

My official return to the trail is Wednesday.  High octane drop boxes packed with calories were mailed last week. During the interim, I’ve been working hard at Fitness Together.  The plan is Katahdin or Bust by July fourth – give or take.  Fingers crossed.

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As always, armchair hikers are welcome to enjoy the rest of the journey.

 Sisu – Making tracks

Humor does not diminish the pain – it makes the space around it get bigger. – Allen Klein 

“The most certain way of ensuring victory is to march briskly and in good order against the enemy, always endeavoring to gain ground.”   Fredrick the Great

A version of this entry was previously posted on Trail Journals.