Road Scholars

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Appalachian Trail, The Roller Coaster, Northern Virginia, September 27, 2017 — The nonprofit Road Scholar program seeks to provide unique learning experiences for adult life-long learners.  You can learn more at this link:  Road Scholar Program

One of the many experiences they offer several times a year is hiking on the AT in four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.  The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club supports these hikes with expert hike leaders be they ridgerunners in season or trail patrol members at other times.

These day hikes are moderate in relative terms both in terrain and distance.  To some, especially hikers who aren’t in the best physical shape, they can be quite challenging.  Fortunately for them, the sag wagon meets the group whenever possible.

With only one ridgerunner remaining in Maryland for this season, I led the roller coaster section last Wednesday.  The hike is short, about six miles, but the terrain is fairly rocky featuring a backbone of several nasty little hills after which the roller coaster is named.

This particular group was lively and amicable.  Some were faster than others, but we kept them together with frequent rest stops and a lunch break at the Sam Moore shelter.

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We stopped to wait at every stream crossing.  That’s where the propensity to slip and fall is the greatest.  Should we ever suffer a casualty, we would need everyone’s support to manage an emergency.

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Boomers are no different than Millennials and Gen Xers.  Heads in phones at every stop.  They had a 16 passenger van with a trailer for their gear.

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

Busy

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Digging a bear pole hole.

Northern Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail, July 21-24, 2016 — It was time for the monthly PATC ridgerunner meeting, this time at the Blackburn Trail Center where “Trailboss” is the caretaker and gracious host.  Since he has an endless list of projects, Robin Hobbs and I showed up early to help do some work at the Sam Moore shelter (AT NOBO mile 999.6).

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Bear poles have hooks to hang food bags using a forked pole, here tied down on the far side of the pole.

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The pole is set 18 inches in the ground with four 60-lb. bags of concrete.

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Working bear pole at Jim & Molly Denton shelter.

While the Sam Moore overseer and I installed the bear pole, Robin and Trailboss hiked north to clear two blowdowns across the AT.

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We finished up by replacing a fire ring with a new fire grate.

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The social and dinner prompted a lot of discussion.  This is where the real business is done.

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Sara Leibold, our Northern Virginia ridgerunner and I started patrolling immediately following the meeting.

We spent the first night at the Tom Floyd Wayside shelter with three others.

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We took a break after picking up micro trash at the John Singleton Mosby campsite.  It is deep in the area Mosby’s raiders patrolled during the civil war.

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Along the way we clipped plenty of vegetation which grows prolifically this time of year.

Our last evening was spent at the Denton shelter with a large grouping of campers. Sunday morning we hiked to a road where Sara’s dad was waiting to take her home to Alabama for a whirlwind visit.  She works 10 on and four off which gives her sufficient time.

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It wasn’t until much later that I realized Sara might be a serial killer! 😉

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Tried to photograph an interesting spider web with a phone camera.  No luck.  A good camera is on my Christmas list.

I was testing a new Osprey pack for use in the 100-mile wilderness next week.  It carries nicely, but I like the cargo features of my old one.  On a long hike the ride is more important, so the new pack made the Maine manifest.

Next stop Kennebunkport to see my friend Ed, the guy who taught me to split granite.  Then to Manchester, NH to pick up Wendy “Pepsi Hiker” Horn at the airport and head for Millinocket where we’ll drop my car and get shuttled to Monson to begin our 100-mile journey.  Boots on trail Aug. 1.

Sisu

 

What the funk?

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I was out on my annual walk with some of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club ridgerunners last week.

On this particular walk I started asking about thru hikers about their previous hiking experience.  Better than 90 percent said that they had little to no previous backpacking experience before toeing off on Springer Mtn.  Admittedly it’s a small sample.  Nevertheless, the answer to this question and other observations got me noodling about hiker hygiene …

In central Virginia I called someone to shuttle me into town for a resupply. I tossed my pack into the back of the van; then jumped in. The driver reflexively rolled down her window even before I could get my door shut.

I knew what she was thinking. “This guy’s a thru hiker and I bet he smells to high heaven.” She knew I’d been on the trail for five days and her expectations were reasonable. Hell, when I’m out maintaining my AT section, if the wind is blowing just so, I can smell the thru hikers long before they come into view.

Anyway, as she pulled away, I implored my benefactor.

“You don’t have to do that. I don’t smell.” She looked me in the eye, wrinkled her nose and said, “You’re right.” “How do you do that?” she asked as she returned her window to the upright and locked position.

The answer is simple.   Personal hygiene is priority for me and a point of pride. I also don’t want to “smell like a Boy Scout” as my mother used to say to my brother and I when we returned from our camping trips. More importantly, I don’t want to get sick. It’s another level of Leave No Trace if you want to see it that way.

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My personal hygiene kit. It clips to and hangs with my bear bag at night.  It’s the equivalent of snivel gear for me.

Hikers don’t have to stink if they don’t want to.  I may may take it further than most, but staying clean isn’t all that hard and it has many benefits.  Experienced hikers tend to be the cleaner ones.

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The contents include tooth brush and paste, Dr. Bronner’s soap, waterless shampoo and waterless body wash, large microfiber wash cloths which double as towels, deodorant and Q-tips.  Fingernail clippers usually reside in my pocket for quick fingernail cleaning.

Here are eight hiker hygiene considerations.

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  1.  You don’t have to stink.  Using waterless shampoo and body wash each night is the trick. It’s a nice complement to the tick check, the weight is negligible, and it has the added benefit of helping to keep your sleeping bag from smelling like a dead gym sock.  Rub it in and wipe it off with a microfiber cloth.  You can buy the stuff and any drug store or REI.  Hand sanitizer works as deodorant if you rub it in, but I carry the real stuff.
  2. Bury your shit! Not only is it an unsightly and smelly disease vector, but the Bible itself, Deuteronomy 23:13, says do it!  Deuteronomy 23:13
  3. Wash your hands. I allocate two wet wipes per day for use when I relieve myself.  I work from the top down, face first, pits followed by the business at hand.  When done, they’re returned to the foil container they came in; then on to the trash bag. No monkey butt!  I also use a dab of Dr. Bronner’s eco-friendly soap to wash my hands whenever I get water.  I wash away from the source in a zip lock I carry for that purpose. I clean my fingernails each time I wash my hands.
  4. Treat or filter your water.  I prefer iodine and the neutralizer pills to save weight and space, but I also have a Sawyer.  The method is not important.  The key is to make it a habit.  Better safe than sorry.
  5. Dental care.  Brush after breakfast and again after dinner.  The key is the brushing action.  You don’t need but a dab of toothpaste which you can either swallow or spit into the woods away from camp.
  6. Clean your dishes!  This thru hiker was as filthy as her dishes.  I cook only foods I can rehydrate in Zip Lock freezer bags or their original containers.  If you cook in your pot, clean thoroughly with Dr. Bronner’s and scatter the gray water far away from camp.  You can dig a sump and strain out any chunks with grass or vegetation.  The chunks need to be packed out.
  7. Lyme disease.  This is bad stuff.  The most dangerous animal on the AT is the tick. Permethrin kills them on contact. You can have your clothes professionally treated here: Insect Shield or purchase permethrin spray at any Walmart, outdoor store or REI.  They even have it at the AT Conservancy Visitor Center.  I go overboard.  I spray my pack, the inside of my sleeping bag and tent and wear permethrin-treated long pants.  For those who don’t like chemicals, weigh the risk.
  8. Noro Virus.  The aforementioned practices can do a lot to reduce your chances of catching this ugly bug.  If you have a good relationship with your physician, you can get prescriptions that will stop vomiting dead in the water and doxycycline you can take on a prophylactic basis if a tick chomps you.  Imodium stops diarrhea.  I carry them in my first aid kit.  So far, so good, but it’s a comfort to know that they are there.  I had to promise that I’d immediately see a doctor if I took any of the prescribed meds.

Stay well.  Smell good.  Enjoy your hike!

Oh! The things we see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Selfie at the official half way marker.

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

As we moved along, trash of all kinds accumulated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Evidence of the party crowd.  Scattered the sticks.

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The last of the rhododendron blooms.

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

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

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

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

The AT foot bridge over I-70.

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

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

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Back to Virginia and Shenandoah soon.  Sisu

Flip Flops – the New Hiking Boot?

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Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, April 16 -17, 2016 — Flip flops are not going to be the recommended hiking boot anytime soon.  Certainly they have merit.  After all they’d tread lightly on the environment – with no cleats to rearrange the dirt.  They’re cool and airy which might help limit athletes foot.  Certainly they’d dry quickly.  Alas, they’re just not practical.

Flip flops are a type of Appalachian Trail thru hike.  Rather than hike in a single straight line direction from one terminus to the other, flip floppers are hiker jazz artists, jumping ahead or starting somewhere between the two ends and working outward.  They still hike all 2,200 miles within 12 consecutive months, they just don’t book a linear itinerary.

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The ATC is trying to encourage flip flop hiking in an attempt to alleviate some of the spring season overcrowding on the southern 500 miles of the trail.

Enter the flip flop Festival, an attempt to increase awareness of and participation in nontraditional AT thru hikes.

More than a hundred aspiring thru hikers and hundreds of hikers attended the many seminars on hiking-related subjects including trail etiquette, hygiene, basic hiking, trail issues and long distance backpacking.  I offered the latter.  My slides are here:  Eating the Elephant

The festival featured vendors, displays and even a food truck.  The cannon is located in the exact same spot as one that appears in a civil war era photograph.

Sunday morning we sent those starting their hikes off in style following a tasty pancake breakfast hosted by the Harpers Ferry Odd Fellows Club which was chartered in 1833!  It’s building is graced with (rather poorly) repaired cannonball holes from the civil war.  Talk about history!

Later that afternoon we were hiking up the southern shoulder of South Mountain (Maryland), just outside Harpers Ferry, leading the second of Sunday’s day hikes up to a nice viewpoint overlooking the Potomac River called Weverton Cliff.

The conga line of hikers winding up the switchbacks reminded me of a big city rush hour traffic jam. People were stepping all over each other.

Why would anyone do this, I thought.  I like to share scenery and the outdoor experience with a few friends or people that I like in small doses.  That’s when I realized that above all, one word describes why I like to be on the trail where ever that trail may be.  Solitude… and that’s no flip flop on my part.

Separation Anxiety

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Hiawassee, GA, March 17, 2016 — It was time to say farewell to my intrepid friend Denise and head home for a Hoodlums trail crew work weekend, since snowed out, but that’s another story.

I really didn’t want to go.  In fact, the bug bit me.  I really, really wanted to hike all the way home.  A cool thousand miles would be a great way to celebrate spring and work off my winter weight gain.  Unfortunately, my volunteer career comes with responsibilities requiring my presence in places other than the southern Appalachians.

I’ll be up front.  I think Denise is going to make it.  At the very least she has better odds than most.  She’s stubborn, positive, and has the self discipline of the soldier that she once was. Her competence in the woods counts for a lot.

For most people Georgia’s 80 miles are a bitch, plain and simple.  Although the treadway itself is mostly smooth dirt, the hills are steep and a good test of will and fitness.  The first day out, Denise’s challenge was compounded by a nasty upper respiratory infection (URI).

Being sick in the woods isn’t fun.  She suffered, yet she persevered without complaint – good sign!

Along the way we met a ton of people.  At one point she asked me if there was anyone I didn’t know.  Here we are with Erwin, Tennessee’s “Miss Janet” Hensley, one of the iconic trail personalities and genuinely good folks on the trail.  She’s referenced in memoirs going back to the turn of the century.  It’s fair to say those stickers help keep her van in one piece.

The weather this season has been unusually warm leading to a slightly greater number of hikers making it out of Georgia.  In other years adverse weather tends to wash out a lot of inexperienced people.

The warmth this year has led some hikers into believing spring has sprung.  They have sent their weighty cold weather gear home.  Not Denise.  She knows that she’ll  be hiking over 5,000 ft. (and at one point 6,000) for the next 400 miles.  Not until you’ve seen the wild ponies at Virginia’s Grayson Highlands state park just south of Parisburg is it safe to shed most of your cold weather gear.

Denise started ahead of the big bubble.  By March 15 last year I was counting around 150 hikers per day.  They fill the shelter/camping areas beyond capacity in spite of the heroic improvements made by the Conservancy, the Georgia Club, National Forest Service and the Appalachian Long Distance Hiking Association.  Knowing the area helped us find good flat spots away from the tent cities.

We hit one day of intermittent rain last week.  Our training hike in the cold rain last spring paid off.  The orange rain cover is to give the hunters a visible aiming point.

I’ve always loved the way life renews itself and finds a way to survive and recover.  That tree is a survivor.

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People still need to learn how to Leave No Trace in the woods.  It’s gross, and a lot worse than this in many places.

Taken three years apart.

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Meanwhile, our intrepid hiker has invaded North Carolina.  One state down.  Thirteen to go. She’s fine.  I’m the one wringing his hands.   I’ll continue to cross post her blogs as her hike unfolds.

Don’t practice being miserable!

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Forty liter pack. 

Appalachian Trail, January 5, 2016 — By now the 2016 thru hikers are deep into preparation.  A very small number have actually launched.  You go guys and gals!

Two years ago on this date I was thru hiking north of Damascus, VA.  The following day I was leaving the trail because one of my parents was going into hospice care.

That was cold hard news, but the weather was colder.

If you recall, the winter of 2013-14 was the year of the infamous polar vortex. When I woke up at dawn the morning of my departure, my thermometer read -15 F.  I had 21 miles to make for pickup.  That’s cause for pause for everyone planning to hike this or any year.

It had rained the entire previous day. Fortunately my rain kit kept my body and the contents of my pack bone dry.  That was a life saver under those circumstances, but my pack harness and pole straps were frozen hard as rock.  Pounding them into a pliable state generated much wanted body heat!

That icy morning I also took my all time thru hike favorite photo of a gorgeous white blaze framed in plump Virginia snow.

This year, as the seasons have switched from Indian summer to true winter, I’ve been following social media discussions on what gear thru hikers should carry.

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This March the temp on the AT in north Georgia fell to 4 F.

On the one extreme are the ultra light gram Nazis. Some of them won’t even carry a Bandaid for fear it will add too much weight.  On the other are extreme the Wally World folks who contemplate hauling camp chairs and elaborate cooking utensils.  Each of these approaches carries existential risks that aren’t for me. I can tell you stories …

Most everyone else is somewhere in the middle on pack weight. As I’ve followed the discussions and debate, I’ve contemplated what constructive information I might be able to add.  Afterall, I hiked 1,000 miles on the AT in winter conditions and was a ridgerunner in Georgia this past spring.  I saw and learned a lot of value from those experiences.

In that context I follow a blogger named Paul Magnanti (www.PMags.com).  Paul writes a very useful and entertaining hiker/backpacker blog from his home base in Colorado. His most recent is entitled “Snivel Gear.” Continue reading

Karma Comes to the Back Country

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award for picking up other people's trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award for picking up other people’s trash.

Appalachian Trail, Sunday May 10, 2015 — People are loving our national hiking trails to death.  The Appalachian Trail (AT) alone is estimated to see up to three million visitors per year.

Looking at it one way, that’s enough boots on the ground to bruise the rocks rather than the rocks having the opposite effect on the hikers’ feet.  It’s sort of like hammer vs. nail in role reversal isn’t it?

The collective environmental impact generated by all these people is enormous.  They generate human waste, leave trash, trample vegetation, erode trails and mark their passage in many other unwelcome ways.  There are many means to mitigate this impact, but before we talk about that, here’s the back story.

Most people experience our national parks and forests in what is known as front country.  Front country is civilized, distinguished by infrastructure such as roads, picnic tables, flush toilets, trash cans, concessions and parking.

You know about more about front country than you may think.  That’s where Yogi, Boo boo and Mr. Ranger did their Jellystone schtick.  You get the idea.

The back country is a very different animal.  In contrast to front country, about the only evidence of civilization are the marked hiking trails.  The AT’s primitive shelters and privies are a notable exception. Otherwise it’s supposed to be a “wilderness” experience.  (Not to be confused with designated wilderness areas.  That’s a separate matter.)

Most people never see the back country and hardly realize it’s even there.  The primary reason may be that a lot of muscle power is usually required to get into the back country.  In other words, you have to sweat.

Been to the mall lately?  Observations suggest that fewer and fewer Americans are up for back country excursions. Supersize soft drinks aside, nevertheless there’s no shortage of back country hikers.

The problem comes when people show up in the back country and don’t know how to limit their impact.  Within my experience, they fall into two primary groups.

One group fancies themselves as romantic throwbacks applying their survival skills and living off the land in ways promoted by Jack London, the Boy Scout Handbooks prior to the 1970s, or the Bear Grylls TV series today.

If everyone behaved this way in the back country, it wouldn’t be long before they’d turn paradise into a denuded moonscape.  When you spy someone with a axe, hatchet, machete or (the very heavy) Bear Grylls brand gear on a national hiking trail, you might be looking at one of these folks.

Machete damage.  Green trees don't burn by the way.

Machete damage. Green wood doesn’t burn by the way.

The other group is simply clueless.  Finding no back country trash cans, they just drop their garbage where they stand because they don’t come prepared to carry it out.  They befoul water sources with human waste.  They trample vegetation.  Overall, their practices put the back country environment at risk.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits.  It doesn't burn completely.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits. It doesn’t burn completely.

Unburnt trash.

Unburnt trash.

 When the backpacking craze developed as boomers came of age in the late 1960s, it threatened to overwhelm the environment.  Minimal impact techniques emerged as ways to mitigate the damage generated by the hiking hoards of that era.***

In time, minimum impact morphed into the Leave No Trace ethic.  Leave No Trace is based on seven principles designed to help not only to minimize human impact, but also to maintain the highest quality wilderness experience possible.

Principles were developed for both the front and back country.  Much more at:  https://lnt.org/  These are the back country principles:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Poorly prepared people, when presented with unexpected situations, often resort to high-impact solutions that degrade the outdoors or put themselves at risk. Proper planning leads to less impact.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Damage to land occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond repair. The resulting barren area leads to unusable trails, campsites and soil erosion.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Though most trash and litter in the backcountry is not significant in terms of the long term ecological health of an area, it does rank high as a problem in the minds of many backcountry visitors. Trash and litter are primarily social impacts which can greatly detract from the naturalness of an area.[5] Further, backcountry users create body waste and waste water which requires proper disposal according to Leave No Trace.
  4. Leave What You Find: Leave No Trace directs people to minimize site alterations, such as digging tent trenches, hammering nails into trees, permanently clearing an area of rocks or twigs, and removing items.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: Because the naturalness of many areas has been degraded by overuse of fires, Leave No Trace teaches to seek alternatives to fires or use low-impact fires.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Minimizing impact on wildlife and ecosystems.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Following hiking etiquette and maintaining quiet allows visitors to go through the wilderness with minimal impact on other users. (Wikipedia)
Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right.

Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Fortunately most hikers are aware of Leave No Trace.  It’s promoted everywhere.  Unfortunately these principles are practiced selectively and conveniently.  In other words, hikers reason their one insignificant transgression won’t have any harmful effect.

The reality is the opposite.  The impact of small Leave No Trace lapses grows exponentially when “everybody” does it.

Now back to the reason for this story.

Too many younger hikers were not following Leave No Trace ethics, yet hikers 18-24 make up the majority of AT thru hikers.  More challenging, the traditional messages and delivery means were not working with this group.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Enter Trail Karma as a new outreach program: http://www.trailkarma.com.  It is a website targeting younger hikers.  The Trail Karma awards component of this program allows ridgerunners and trail ambassadors to reward good behavior on the trail when it happens in real time.

The Trail Karma Award is a nice AT medallion with a serial number on the back.  Hikers can register the award on the Trail Karma website and even pass it along when another good turn is observed.

The idea is to reinforce the positive.  I thought the two Trail Karma Awards I was able to present during my time in Georgia had a positive impact, both on the hikers who received them and those who observed the presentation.

Yesterday’s mail brought a CARE package of new Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.  I can’t wait to find good behavior to reward.

***The trails weren’t pristine before the boomers showed up.  In the earlier era, hikers and campers built lean-tos, cut pine bows to make beds, chopped tent stakes every night, disposed of food cans willy nilly and practiced a multitude of other sins.  Their smaller numbers helped limit the damage which was was eventually cleared up.

Eating the Elephant

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Springer Mountain, Georgia, March 21 – 26, 2015 — My volunteer period is complete. I’ve hauled my last load of hiker trash out of the North Georgia hills.  It’s now up to someone else.  Some end of tour observations follow.

It’s a free country.  You can tell that from the range of people and their degree of respect for nature, the environment and the hard won Appalachian Trail infrastructure.  I just wish more hikers would come to the trail better prepared.

The overwhelming majority of people naturally do the right thing.  They practice “Leave No Trace” outdoor ethics by taking only photos and leaving only footprints.  Everything they truck in, they haul out from cigarette butts, Charmin flowers, and uneaten food to unwanted gear that’s unneeded or too heavy, excess clothing, or used dental floss.

My pleasure was being with these folks.  They’re plumbers, pipe fitters, surgeons, teachers, nurses and bus drivers.  They share a common love and respect for the outdoors and are excellent students of how to do well out here.  They love being outdoors and live to be one with nature.

A lot of hikers come to the AT overwhelmed.  They struggle to grasp all 2,189 miles at once.  It’s like the old aphorism about how you eat an elephant – one bite at a time.  The average AT hiker goes to town every five days.  If that’s so, hiking the AT is simply 35 consecutive five-day hikes.  Put that way, it’s much easier to get your arms around the magnitude of the task ahead.

My hope is that more hikers would better prepare themselves.  I follow a blogger from Colorado who wrote an interesting post this week about Colin Fletcher who wrote some of the seminal books on hiking including the all time favorite, The Complete Walker.  His post can be read at this link.  http://www.pmags.com/the-complete-walker-iii-colin-fletcher I just wish more people would read Fletcher, or at least check out the enormous amount of information available on line.

Here's a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills).  He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Here’s a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills). He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Others are far less attuned to ethical behavior in the back country.  They do what they do back home.  Twice hikers even tried to argue that I was hiding the trash cans from them.  These would-be-thru-hikers had a hard time appreciating that thru hiking is supposed to be a wilderness experience.  You pack it in.  You pack it out.  No trash cans.  End of story.  I was ignored more than once.

Food containers do not burn completely.

Food containers do not burn completely.

IMG_2368Nothing should go into the fire pits or privies that’s not supposed to be there.

Bill Bryson had it right in his book A Walk in the Woods.  It’s been made into a movie which will be in theaters later this summer. Bryson wryly observed the unprepared throwing their gear overboard and much more.  Why people come out here so poorly prepared is beyond me, and a hellova lot of others too. You don’t have to look far for classic examples. It’s a topic of continuing conversation among the properly prepared.

This was my final trash run.  The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food.  Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

This was my final trash run. The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food. Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

Considering how much excellent information is readily available on the internet or from recent books, there’s no excuse for being unprepared.  Some self-identify with so-called survivor show heroes and want to give it a whirl.  Others are just clueless.  Somehow almost all of them manage to learn one thing – that is to wind duct tape around their hiking poles.  A precious few don’t even find that out.

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There are two basic hiker types out here.  There are the thru hikers.  They are self-evident.  Only one in four will finish.  Still, this is their season.  They’ve got until mid-October to climb Maine’s Mt. Katahdin before it closes.  They’ve got to get going.

Some folks are old school.

Some folks are old school.

Then there are all the shorter distance hikers, sometimes called section hikers.  Of them, about half are on spring break – families and college students alike.  This is one of the only times during the year when they can come.  They identify with the AT brand and are in Georgia because it’s where the southern terminus of the trail is, it’s warm and the logistics are easy.  They’re not going away.

IMG_2296_2 IMG_2285_2There’s an interesting subculture among section hikers.  A significant number of these hikers want to share in the excitement of the great spring migration – to be there, to rub shoulders, to share the thrill and/or to relive their own adventure and reignite memories of years past.

Some come every year.  It’s muddy form of March Madness where they get to be on the court with the actual players themselves.  Later they will follow hikers they’ve met and root for them.  It’s hard to beat.

The challenge is that, in the first 30 miles of the trail, for every 10 thru hikers there are 8 section hikers.  The infrastructure is taxed to the max!  Even the privies fill up – ugh.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter.  These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter. These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

Overcrowding has its downsides.  Earlier in the week, the Georgia Health Department issued a noro virus warning.  A case had been reported in the state.  Funky hikers who don’t know how to stay clean in the wilderness, living in close proximity, form a perfect petri dish.  In spite of the beauty, it can get really ugly out here.  Nevertheless, it’s worth it.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning.  Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they'd collected.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning. Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they’d collected.

Many hikers are tuned in to Leave No Trace practices and collect trail trash as the hike.  I gave one hiker (from Brooklyn, NY no less) a “Trail Karma” award for carrying out discarded clothing and other trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award.

Someone creatively tried to hike the space blanket they no longer wanted.

Someone creatively tried to hide a space blanket they no longer wanted.

Still, hikers are excited to be on the AT whether the trail viscosity matches a hot fudge sundae on a summer day in Georgia or it’s frozen over.  In many cases they are living their dreams.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

During my stay the seasons changed – at least twice.

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This year the Appalachian Trail is 90 years old.  It was built by volunteers and is maintained by volunteers as originally envisioned by its founder Benton MacKaye.  It’s thrilling to play a small role in that legacy.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.