Back to the future

IMG_1327

February 14, 2015 — I’m packing up and headed for some training in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has a base camp there used for training year round and for trail crews in the summer.

I’ll be joining a group of ridgerunners.  Ridgerunners patrol in season the Appalachian Trail (AT) from beginning to end.  The onset of thru hiking season is just around the corner,  and it’s time to get ready.

My role is to test the use of volunteers to augment the paid seasonal staff.  The difference is that I’ll be there only for the month of March.  Everyone else is there for the duration of hiking season – until autumn.

The need for the test is that AT (and other trails) is expected to see a large increase next year in thru hike attempts in response to the movies “Wild” in theaters now, and “A Walk in the Woods” which will be in theaters before summer’s end.

ATHikers

Historical data establishes a direct correlation between increases in thru hike attempts and popular mass media about hiking or the AT.  Books, television, videos have done it every time.  Now we have Hollywood to help drive up the numbers next year.

My patrol area is the AT’s 78 miles in Georgia.  We walk five days and spend four nights on the trail.  The sixth day is off.  Of interest, we hike southbound (SOBO) for the purpose of meeting as many thru hikers as possible.  Once we reach Springer Mountain, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club shuttles us back north to do it all again.

Among our duties is to help hikers as we can, educate them on Leave No Trace™ principles and trail etiquette, pick up litter, do minor trail repairs, and report issues we cannot handle.  These hikes are not about miles.  They’re about the smiles.

The forecast isn’t friendly, at least for next week.  It’s going to be colder than a well digger’s backside in the Smoky’s.  So much so that we’ve been told that we’ll be spending our nights at the basecamp and none sleeping outside. Yea!  No sense practicing being miserable.

The weather in Georgia will probably whip back and forth between ugly and nice with huge improvements toward the end of March.  Still, the southern Appalachians are high enough that snow can fall into April, even when the temperatures in Atlanta and points south are cooking.

IMG_1236IMG_1196

I’m looking forward to some former stomping grounds.  Dick’s Creek Gap is just short of the North Carolina border and the northern edge of the patrol area.  Blood Mountain is in the center of the sector.  It’s got some interesting native American history with some ornery bear activity on the side.

I plan to blog daily, but publish them as every fifth or sixth day as time permits just like I did on my thru hike.  So stay tuned.  If anyone has read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods, you know this could be interesting.

The beginning of the end

Long Pond Stream Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 2085.9, Tuesday July 29, 2014 — The Hundred Mile Wilderness is neither 100 miles nor is it a true wilderness. There are logging and other access roads everywhere. I even saw six muggles (day hikers) today. All of that is irrelevant, however. I’m in now, and when I get out, this journey will be complete.

There are 99.4 miles remaining. That’s less than 100 folks. Yea!

In Maine you never know how to plan. I estimated a daily rate of 10 miles knowing the average is 8-12 days. We got a ton of rain yesterday and I thought the additional fresh mud and rising rivers would slow me more than it did.

We did have an unexpected ford today bringing the total to four thanks to the rain. Changing foot gear on either shore is a pain, but now that I have it systematized, it goes pretty quickly.

Today’s hike passes two spectacular waterfalls. I got some slowmo video that will look great in the final anthology video.

I’ve run into several southbounders who have fallen into the rivers. Of course their packs weren’t properly packed for rain let alone a dunking. Needless to say, there is gear hanging out to dry everywhere around the campsite. As a hiker named Hutch might have observed about them, “Ain’t never gonna make it.” This is a teaching moment.

FYI, my pack is packed in such a way to make its contents waterproof. It is so water tight that it could serve as a floatation device for an indefinite period. Nothing vulnerable will get wet or damaged. This is the product of my own teaching moments over the years.

The weather will deteriorate through the week. If I get too far ahead of schedule, I’ll risk over-running my supply drop which will be cached at the mid-point Aug. 1. I may have to weather zero at a shelter to slow down. That does not mean I’m hoping for crumby weather.

Beautiful day today. Cool temps. Few bugs. What a life!

20140804-181833-65913464.jpg
Not exactly accurate.

20140804-182007-66007879.jpg
A sample of the lost and a abandoned gear along the trail.

20140804-182153-66113953.jpg
Beaver dam.

20140804-182319-66199301.jpg

20140804-182435-66275561.jpg
Nature is mysterious.

20140804-182633-66393956.jpg

Three Fords. Not a Chevy in sight.

Shaw’s boarding house, Monson, ME, AT NOBO mile 2070.8, Sunday, July 27, 2014 — Three river fords today. It took more time to take off my boots than it actually did to cross the rivers.

Today was mostly non-eventful. I was at the edge of the pond at 0500 a.m. looking for, what has been for me, the elusive moose in situ. So far, no dice. The loons were still at it, though. I got some decent recordings of their serenade that I’ll use for soundscape in the composite video that will follow the conclusion of this hike.

Rain punctuated today’s hike for about the last hour. I didn’t much care. After all, I was headed for a hostel. There I could dry out and get ready for what comes next.

Monson is another down and out trail town. It once was the center of the slate roof industry. One that dried up, the slide has been precipitous.

The trail was rerouted from passing through town to where it is now, by-passing the outskirts of the village. Not sure why this was done. Without doubt, right now it is not doing Monson any favors. The trail passes directly through several towns along the way, so it’s not unusual for it to do so.

I’ll try to learn more tomorrow as I work my way through the items needed for a successful transit of the hundred mile wilderness.

20140727-232527-84327379.jpg

20140727-232756-84476424.jpg

20140727-232837-84517825.jpg

20140727-232934-84574864.jpg

Manhattan Transfer

Wiley Shelter, N.Y., AT NOBO mile 1,450.5, Monday May 19, 2014 — The AT has its own train station, yup. Well, it’s a stop, not exactly a station, but what the hey, the train to Manhattan does stop right exactly on the AT.

According to the log books, a lot of folks take the train out to go hiking on the AT. A lot of hikers who’ve never seen the city ride in to see what NYC is all about. Pretty good deal, I’d say.

It was in the low 40s again this morning. Tomorrow we’ll be in infamous Kent, CT where my summer gear awaits. I’m thinking of bouncing it ahead to Mass because I have my doubts about just how warm my Army poncho liner really is.

One idea I’ve come up with is to curate the trail. The educational opportunities are unlimited. This trail passes through 12 of the 13 original colonies plus West Virginia. Think of the history both chronological and natural. It wouldn’t be quick or easy, but it could be accomplished over time.

For example, today we hiked past Nuclear Lake. Every year hikers muse in their blogs about how the lake got its name and what nearby companies GE/ATT/IBM might have buried there. Hummmmm… Nothing in Wikipedia.

Other than that, it was another great day.

20140519-193948-70788698.jpg

20140519-193941-70781709.jpg

20140519-193943-70783702.jpg

20140519-193940-70780137.jpg

20140519-194351-71031291.jpg

Hair today. Gone tomorrow.

ImageImage

I started cultivating my beard the day after my mother’s funeral. I just needed to change things up a bit.  If nothing else, I needed to see something different in the mirror.  We were beyond the fuzzy stage when I returned to hiking in early March.

Until the stubble showed up, I was clean shaven on the trail.  As winter progressed, the cold forced me from shaving every day as had been my previous habit. So shearing the crop shifted to join my weekly town routine along with laundry and a shower.  I should reverse those because the shower always comes first!

Believe it or not, on the trail having a beard made a huge difference.  Sans beard I had a hard time convincing people I was a thru hiker.  I just didn’t look the part. Thru hikers are supposed to be scruffy.  Almost by definition facial hair is an expected part of the male uniform along with a distinct odoriferous funk and filthy fingernails. 

Image

I didn’t fit the picture.

A typical conversation would go like this: 

Q: “Where’d you start?”  A:  “Georgia.”  (I didn’t want to complicate matters by explaining that I started first in the north before going south.)

Q:  “Where ‘ya headed?”  A:  “Maine.”

Q:  “What section are you doing this time?”  A:  “Not doing sections. I’m a thru hiker.”

Puzzled look.  :~{ 

Q: “Geez.  You don’t look like a thru hiker.  When did you start?”  A:  “Late September…”

And so it would go. Even Crazy Larry labeled me a section hiker on his hostel’s Facebook page – after I had explained my unconventional hike more than once, but then again Larry admits he’s crazy.

Once the beard showed up, the entire social dynamic changed.  People assumed I was thru hiking and were interested in the number of miles I averaged each day, how much my pack weighed, and how long I thought it would take to reach Katahdin.  It just goes to show that judging a book by its cover can be very misleading.

By now, someone out there is wondering why I whacked off the whiskers.  It’s simple.

Last week I chanced to stumble through a swarm of freshly hatched gnats.  There were ‘zillions’ of them, and more than a fair share opened a game of hide and seek in my facial hair, and were still squatting on my property several hours later when I reached camp for the evening.  Combing them out was a pain in my posterior.  While tending to my nitting so to speak, my subconsciousness recalled reading last year about guys combing ticks and other unwelcome guests out of their beards. Yuck!

Fear the beard!  The scariest animals on the AT are not bears.  Lyme Disease carrying deer ticks strike deep dread in every hiker’s heart.  Why offer those pests an extra opportunity to lay you low?  So it was bye-bye beardie. 

Maybe the beard and I will meet again when this is over.  I’ll think about it.  My buds at Fitness Together like it, though my spouse does not.

 

The New Fall Lineup

Image

The indicators are all there.  School has started.  The first college football games play this weekend.  The automobile companies are ready to unveil next year’s models.  The TV networks are unwrapping their new fall lineups.  It’s fall.  My favorite time of the year.

As Labor Day approaches the anticipation of autumn excites the senses.  The pending ascendance of nutmeg as top spice in the kitchen helps complete the fashion shift from polo shirts to polar fleece.  By the time the frost is on the punkin’, snow can’t be far behind if you live far enough north.

If fall is a-comin’ then my mid-February Appalachian Trail start date is just around the corner.  Time to focus on the task at hand and lay down some boot tracks.

In any sport, cross training helps improve performance.  But, no matter how much cross training you do, you still have to get the reps in for the sport itself.  Football players lift weights, but they also block and tackle, baseball players hit, catch and throw and runners run.  It follows that hikers should hike.

The trail is pulling me out of my comfortable rut and telling me to start putting one foot in front of the other, get funky and stress test the shelter, sleep, food, and clothing systems that will be used during my thru hike.  Only a long trek can produce the realistic conditions needed.

The first item on the fall dance card is a joint National Park Service/Potomac Appalachian Trail Club two-day advanced trail maintenance workshop September 21 -22.

We’re scheduled to build erosion control structures with big rocks.  Think Triassic tinker toys, building blocks and Lincoln logs all rolled into one giant play set.

This stuff is fun, especially the part where we’ll be car camping at Mathews Arm Campground in Shenandoah National Park.  We get to bring a camp chair and coolers! They’ve got showers!! They’re even cooking the food for us!!!

I wonder if the cooks could just follow the class of ‘14 up the trail?   We could all chip in…

A couple of days after the workshop, it’ll be happy trails for for me on the 160 miles of AT from Waynesboro, Virginia to Harpers Ferry. That’s enough miles to find out what needs fixing. 

It has another advantage.  It simulates the longest leg without resupply that I’m planning in the spring.  That stretch is from Fontana Village, NC to Hot Springs, NC.  I’m not particularly high on the options in between, so a simple by pass strategy seems reasonable caveated by a severe weather opt out proviso.

Here’s where it gets personal.  This particular test hike is not happening by accident.  It will determine whether my body will stand up physically to a thru hike.  With all the weight training and running, you’d think it would be a cinch.  Let me clue you in on a secret.  It’s not even close.

Six years ago I severely injured my right ankle.  The injury includes the effects of tibial nerve damage that may not withstand the continuous pounding and dynamic stresses that long distance hiking generates over time.  If the outcome is going to be negative, it will be unambiguous and show up before the end of this little jaunt.  My thru hike could be over before it even begins.

If that isn’t enough, a chronic running injury called piriformis syndrome adopted me several years ago.  When the piriformis muscle gets irritated, it is literally a pain I the butt that hurts like hell. 

Of course the hurt has a bonus effect.  The swelling irritates the sciatic nerve.  And that my friends is a joy to experience, not to mention a potential show stopper! Both injuries are in the same leg. Has anyone ever hiked this thing on one leg?

 I’m actually shocked that my right leg and foot haven’t filed a class action law suit for abuse. 

The effects of these injuries can be moderated by systematic stretching, religiously limiting miles, and frequent rest.  But in spite of everything, piriformis misbehaves on its own schedule.  Moreover, the neuropathy in my right foot attended the same reform school and they’re both frequent recidivists. 

Drama aside, there’s plenty of optimism.  After all, I’ve made it through a year’s worth of heavy duty trail maintenance without problem.  My intermittent hikes with a full pack have gone well.  We just need more a more realistic test before actually reporting for duty in Georgia.

Triassic rocks and a little long haul truckin’ – a couple of nice shows for the fall schedule wouldn’t you say?  Ah, but it gets even better.   Get this.

Following a successful hike to Harpers Ferry, it’s immediately home to refit and head out to rendezvous with a member of the class of ’13 who flipped and is now southbound for Harpers Ferry on a Thanksgiving deadline.  I get to observe a real lab rat performing the act itself.

The social benefits of having a compatible hiking partner aside, a medicinal traipse through the Pennsylvania rocks will notch up the difficulty factor enough to be an absolute validation of my body’s ability to perform over six months.  Can’t wait.

What comes after Thanksgiving?

Last December I saw someone who gave me a great idea.  This guy was decked out in REI’s finest while hiking with a ginormous pack on the Capitol Crescent Trail – an old street car line that’s now a nice walking path from Silver Spring, Maryland to Georgetown, D.C.  Only later did I realize that he was training for the AT. 

Thanks to the anonymous hiker, I’ll devote several hours each day, regardless of weather, to following his footsteps while wearing a full pack until it’s time to do an about face, jump in the car and motor to the Peach State. 

BTW, I used to work at Georgia Tech.  Georgia is a nice place if you haven’t been there.

If everything works, I’ll feel a lot more physically prepared to play my part in the 2014 Appalachian Trail reality show.  I can only hope it’s not going to be  “Survivor – the Earnest Shackleton Edition.”  Whatever mamma nature plans to throw at us, it’s coming to Trail Journals in February.  Hope to see you there.  Sisu

Image

If the weather is ugly, ole Sisu is comin’ anyway.  He’s got backup.