Thursday, August 23, 2012

Appalachian Dreams - Part I

15 years ago I became keenly interested in the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail (or the AT as it’s commonly known) is a hiking trail marked with white blazes in the eastern United States and it extends 2,184 miles between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. I had only been hiking for a few months and had just recently begun running. But of course, like anything else I’m interested in, I became obsessed with it and devoured all the pertinent info about it I could find. In this case, that began with a trail map that I bought which extended from the floor to the ceiling of my dining room!

Every year thousands of thru-hikers (or people hiking the entire trail at one time) start from one end of the AT (usually Springer) and make their way to the other end. Only about 1 in 4 makes it the whole way on their first attempt. Some take as many as 8 months to complete the journey while others complete it in as little as 3. The un-official record for the fastest “supported thru-hike” (or, a hike with a little help from your friends) is 47 days by Andy Thompson in 2005. That’s more than 46 miles a day! The “unsupported” record is 60 days by Ward Leonard back in 1990. An equally impressive travel rate of 36 miles per day!

When I first attempted to wrap my head around the concept of hiking the whole Appalachian Trail it quickly became apparent that, as a parent of two small children, there was no way I could possibly devote a minimum of 3 months to something so “frivolous” as that. So, I shelved the idea until my later years (after the kids were grown) and focused on doing “section hikes” on the part of the AT which was nearest and dearest to my heart – The White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Well Marked Trail
The AT first hits the White Mountain National Forest near a little village called Glencliff and continues nearly 100 miles northeast though some of the most scenic and difficult hiking trails in the country before emerging once again on the other side at a slightly larger town named Gorham. When I first charted this Glencliff to Gorham (or G2G) course I figured I could probably do about 16 miles a day and finish this whole section in about 6 days. I’m a runner, so 16 miles a day should be easy! Yeah, right!

Later on that year, I attempted a “trial-run” over the middle third of the G2G and found that I had a LOT to learn about thru-hiking. 16 miles of road running is not even mildly comparable to 16 miles of hiking over that kind of terrain with a 30+ pound backpack laden with a tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment, food, clothes, supplies, and other extraneous gear. It was a long and painful 2-day learning experience and by the end of it I wished a bear would track down the scent of my 3+ pounds of trail mix and carry me off!

Yes I Am!
In the years that followed (and with that not-so-pleasant experience behind me) I satisfied my AT cravings with various multi-day, hut-to-hut hikes stopping for the night at one of the 8 AMC High Mountain Huts - answering the “sirens call” of a nice warm bed, a yummy pre-hike breakfast & a sumptuous post-hike dinner. This allowed me to carry much less gear in my backpack and, in turn, enjoy myself a whole lot more! But, even so, the idea of doing the G2G always stayed with me - in the back of my mind. That is, until this year.

This year I signed up for my first 50 mile trail race and have been working hard getting myself ready for it. The past few months have been filled with many hours on the training trails and even doing a trail marathon - just for fun. So, when I plotted out the rest of my summer I couldn’t help but dwell on the G2G. This was the year to do it! Unfortunately, most of the High Huts were already booked. And, even if they weren’t, they were now costing $120 a night! Yikes!

The Start
I couldn’t bear to carry all that gear from my previous attempt, so I came up with another plan. I would camp out and bring only the bare minimum: water, snacks, a couple changes of clothes and money to buy my meals at the huts. For sleeping I found a great (and lightweight) hammock that would serve as my shelter and my sleep sack. After loading up my pack it came in at a little more than 24 pounds – or 4 pounds over my target weight. I tossed as many “non-essentials” as I could but only managed to get it down to 22. Oh well. It would have to do.

Since the last time I tried this trek I also added two more kids to the fold. As a result, “daddy time” is somewhat limited these days. So, my plan was simple - go light, go quick and try to cover as much ground per day as possible. With 5 days available to me (and accounting for 1 day of travel & return) that meant I’d need to do about 24 miles a day (for 4 days) to cover the 96 miles from Glencliff to Gorham. At about 2 miles per hour that meant 12 hours of hiking, 8 hours of sleep and 4 hours of eating/downtime. Tough? Yes, but not impossible. Or, so I thought.

Still Life with Pack
Day One dawned early as I loaded up the Civic for the drive north. A short time later I was pulling into Lincoln to stash my bike at the Tedeschi Food Shop – the southernmost stop on the AMC hikers shuttle route. The bike would serve as my transportation back to my car some 18 miles further south (and west) in Glencliff. With the bike locked (and covered with fallen tree branches & leaves) I hopped back into the car to start my adventure. I hit the trailhead just a little after 6am. The sun was up but hidden by rain clouds. I wouldn’t see its shining face until late the following day.

The trails leading up to the first peak (Moosilauke) provided a bit of an “oh-shit” wake-up call. I hadn’t gotten my “hikers legs” yet and the going was very slow and labored. 2 miles in and I was drenched - partially by rain, but mostly by sweat. Fortunately I had an ample supply of electrolyte tablets and even added electrolyte supplements to my hydration pack. With all the salt I was losing, I was going to need it! The summit of “Big Moose” was shrouded in fog and I headed back down the other side without so much as a glance around. The footing on some of the descending trails was steep and slippery. If I was going to make it to Liberty Springs (my first stop for the night) I was going to have to go quickly, but carefully. One wrong step and that would be the end of my trip. Or worse!

Lonesome Lake
I made my way down to Kinsman Notch then back up again to Kinsman Ridge. It wasn’t until just after Mt. Wolf that I saw my first hiker of the day. I had stopped for a snack and a bio-break at one of the ponds that bordered the trail when a dude in a fedora and Spiderman backpack came scooting on by. I finished my snack and took off in hot pursuit. Eventually I caught back up to him and we chatted for a bit. He looked like a day-hiker, but to my surprise he was a thru-hiker! The first of what turned out to be many that I’d encounter on the trip.

He was doing what’s called “slackpacking”. Hiking only with a very small day-pack (in this case a very small cartoon character day-pack) then getting rides into (and out of) town every night to find food & shelter. Or, while in the Whites, doing the “work-for-stay” gambit at the AMC Huts. Work-for-stay is just what it sounds like. You perform odd jobs around the hut and the Hut Crew feeds you dinner leftovers and lets you sleep on the dining room tables after everyone else has gone to bed. Fun, right? Well he seemed to be enjoying himself!

Lonesome Lake Hut
I bid him adieu and scrambled up and over South, then North Kinsman. By this point the light rain that had been falling for most of the day had gotten a lot harder. Thankfully I reached my first hut (Lonesome Lake) before the skies really opened up. I sat down at one of the long dining room tables and tucked into a piece of homemade bread and a nice, hot, bowl of chicken rice soup. Mmmm. The hut was crawling with children having made the relatively easy hike up from Franconia Notch with their parents to stay the night. Many ignored me, but others looked on with a kind of morbid curiosity. Who is that smelly man? And why is he eating that soup so fast? Just wait kid. Someday you’ll be that smelly man!

No comments:

Post a Comment