Tag Archives: Appalachian Mountains

AppalachianTrail — Track of the cat

The cry was piercing, raw, and close, echoing through the humid late spring air of the Stecoah Mountains.  I was in my tent, which was pitched in a glade.  I sat up quickly, my heart hammering.  A chill ran through me.  I stopped breathing and listened, fearing there might be another — nearer — dreadful encore.  Nothing.

I’d never heard the creature before, but had read a description of its cry — “the sound of a woman screaming.”

Bobcat

Bobcat (Photo credit: Len Blumin)

Bobcat.

I parted my lips, exhaling slowly as the adrenaline kick fizzled out.  My afternoon siesta over, I packed up my tent and continued to the next shelter.  There I shared my experience with other backpackers, but chalked it up as just another “A.T. Adventure Moment.”

Now, years later, I wonder — was it a bobcat?  Might it have been a larger, more controversial and formidable animal now reportedly being seen in some places along the Appalachian Trail — a mountain lion?

Some website research recently revealed a page where debate rages in Connecticut.  There are reported sightings of mountain lions (puma concolor) over a wide area around Farmington (www.ctmountainlion.org).  The map on the site is of particular interest.  Comments there show how contentious the issue has been.

When I backpacked the Long Trail in Vermont I would hear rumors of mountain lions in the Green Mountains.  Vermonters call them catamount.  I never saw evidence for them, but then I wasn’t looking.

Encounters with mountain lions (also called panthers, painters, catamount, and pumas) reach back to the early settlement of America.  Their habitat, once abundant in the eastern range, dwindled, and they were considered extinct due to the encroachment of the logging industry as well as having been hunted.  Still, reports that they survived persisted among some scientists and locals, though definitive evidence was lacking.

Today, wildlife officials at the local and state levels agree that cougars exist in the Appalachian range, at least to some degree.

Which leads to the obvious question: what should you do if you saw a cougar along the trail in the wild?

First, do not run.  Cougars, though shy and wary of people, may chase anything that flees from them, including people.

Cougar / Puma / Mountain Lion / Panther (Puma ...

Another technique, sometimes used when meeting with bears in the wild, is to make yourself look bigger than the animal confronting you.  Stand up tall, raise your open arms in the air.  Stay calm, backing away slowly while maintaining eye contact with the cat, and talk loudly.  If you are attacked, fight back furiously.  Use your fists, any available weapon, tree limbs, rocks.  Putting up a fight can deter or drive the cougar away.

In my estimation, I believe it would be unlikely that I would see a mountain lion when backpacking the Appalachian Trail, nor does current news and reported sightings deter me from venturing onto the trail.

Still, when I look at that map of Connecticut sightings it makes me wonder.  What if?

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How far is it? Tips on mileage and time on the Appalachian Trail

Photo courtesy Nicholas_T at Flickr

Photo courtesy Nicholas_T at Flickr

Not long into my hike on the Appalachian Trail I met day-hikers and southbounders asking me a common question: how far is it to _____?  (campsite, shelter, road crossing, etc.)  I would provide my best estimate, they’d be on their way, but I was left feeling a bit incomplete about the encounter, as if the information I had given was not of much use.  Later on I learned that a mile is an easy hike for one person and a grueling trek for another.  In those cases, distance has less meaning that time.  As a result, I would tell someone “how far” based on how long it had taken me to leave that particular point.  For instance, I would say “It’s about half an hour,” if it had taken me that long to walk from the requested landmark.  I would modify this advice depending on what the person carried.  If they had a full pack like myself I would say 30 minutes; if they had a light daypack I might say 20 minutes.  Also, when I asked someone about a destination I was walking to I would ask “How long since you left _____?”  I found that the time estimates were more accurate and useful to me than a statement of mileage distance.

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The Appalachian Trail…a taste of risk

"into the wild"

“into the wild” (Photo credit: niawag)

Reflecting today, I have become aware of another reason I hiked the Appalachian Trail.  I wanted to taste risk.  Having read Ed Garvey’s book on the trail (“Appalachian Hiker II”), which was one of only a handful available at the time, I found not just his achievement compelling.  I discovered a greater adventure than just hiking and backpacking.  I had done plenty of that; long weekends in the woods near my home, camping overnight.  But the only sounds I heard consisted of a distant bellowing cow.  How thrilling is that?  No wolves called my neck of the woods home.

The first taste of risk came when I met my first pit vipers while on a day hike in the Uwharrie National Forest.  To be sure, adrenaline never became so familiar as it did in those tense moments within striking range.  Rather than coiled, however, the snake was lying lethargic on the chilly earth on an April morning, trying to gain enough warmth from the sun to begin moving.  Even so, just the hint of danger was something I’ve never forgotten.

The Linville Gorge Wilderness of western North Carolina was another savoring of risk.  I did a mid-winter day hike, struggling to the wind blasted summit of Table Rock on a frigid day, barely able to light my Svea stove to make soup.  Slipping and sliding over ice atop the summit, I felt the exhilaration of my early experience in more serious mountaineering.

Danger Trail Closed

Danger Trail Closed (Photo credit: iwona_kellie)

When the full Appalachian Trail experience began, I reveled in the challenges it brought.  Even the misery was chalked up to stoic achievement.  Fortunately, I had laid aside unrealistic expectations and let the trail teach me what I needed to learn.  In that incubated state of mind, I was able to stretch myself further, tacking heights which until then would have left me paralyzed with fear; fording a deep river, something I’d never imagined doing; handling myself in a hypothermia situation and using my head instead of mindlessly plodding into further danger.

For some time, I chalked up these experiences as “adventure.”  And it’s true, they were and I still think of them that way.  But they were also risks I had taken.  They were not a mere “stretching” of myself; they were me deliberately moving beyond my comfort zone into an unknown land with potential for greater hazard.  When climbing, I might have fallen.  When fording a river I might have lost my footing and drowned.  When hypothermic I could have ignored the signs and ended up a casualty.  As a result of these encountered risks I learned to handle the events with hard-earned wisdom and a great dose of humility.  Had I taken them for simple “adventure” or a lark, I would have made unwise choices that might have cost me greatly.

Risk.  We live it every day we step out the door.  Adventure.  We seek it to remind we’re alive.  The Appalachian Trail is a living laboratory for you to enjoy adventure; but remember that you’ll take risks – both chosen and those thrust upon you.  Handle them with humility and be open to being taught.  Above all, learn all you can about the risks the trail entails.  Though it’s been greatly tread, written about, and heralded, it’s still a “footpath through the wilderness.”

Video showing risk:

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Perambulation and pages…books people read while hiking the Appalachian Trail

The Hobbit (2012 film)

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail consists of more than hiking from point to point daily.  After dinner is over and gear is stowed, hikers retire to tent or shelter to unwind with a good book before bedtime.

One hiker attempted to read the classics she’d never gotten to, only to discover “What I found I really wanted was complete escapism. My favorite was reading ‘The Hobbit’ out loud at night to my husband. I also read and enjoyed the rest of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ on one of my hikes.”

Yet another backpacker was taken with “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey so much “I so wanted to blow up Fontana dam.”  Last I heard, the dam is still intact.

Cover of "The Monkey Wrench Gang (P.S.)"

Some backpackers read nature guides, trail guides, and books about the Appalachian region.  One said “‘Our Southern Highlanders’ is amazing.  Read about what life was like along the NC/TN border in the Smokies before the AT existed.”

From another hiker: “I read a…ton during that trip… I can’t remember even a fraction of the books I read during those six months.”

Many hikers choose not to follow world events while they are backpacking the trail.  Others, however, like to keep their finger on the pulse of what’s happening.  “I read the same things on the trail that I do at home. Including, if I left town on a Sunday, the local towns Sunday newspaper. Once I was lucky enough to get hold of a Sunday New York Times.”

It’s no surprise that spiritual and religious books make the list for Appalachian Trail backpackers.  One hiker “Read the Bible through chronologically.  Changed me forever.”

Poetry is also read by long distance backpackers, with Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” being a popular volume.  “It carried me through years of section hikes and took lots of slow pondering to finally start to understand it,” one hiker said.

Other hikers weighed in —

“I would take a cook book because when I am out on long hikes all I think about is food.”

Holy Bible

“I’m an avid reader off-trail…but on trail if I’m not walking or eating, I’m sleeping. I like my light pack so I do not carry a book. I carry a few sheets of paper with challenging crosswords and Sudoku, in case of forced downtime.”

“The only book I read was the phone book when I was looking for the closest all-you-can-eat place.”

Weight is a huge consideration when it comes to books.  One hiker said he cut a book in half.  He carried one half, his son carried the other, and they switched halves.

Audiobooks round out the preferences, in the form of an MP3 player  loaded with plenty of selections.

Short hike or long haul, books play an important part in life on the Appalachian Trail.  As one hiker put it, “…I’m headed out this weekend with a total pack weight of 12 pounds.  You betcha that includes a book!”

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Thinking about…water crossings on the Appalachian Trail

Backpacker preparing to ford a river

Backpacker preparing to ford a river

Alice Ference drowned before I arrived to ford the Kennebec River.

Backpacking southbound on the Appalachian Trail, I had just arrived at the shore of the Kennebec River late on a September afternoon.  I took a serious survey of the water; it was clear there would be no crossing that day.  The river level was too high.

I withdrew with other hikers to Northern Outdoors, which was upriver.  I ate, rested, and spent time considering one of the most important decision I would make during my backpacking trek: whether to engage a ferry boat to cross the river, or ford it on foot?

Word had drifted along the trail about Alice Ference.  As I heard it, she and her husband had been hiking the Appalachian trail in sections for a number of years.  This year would celebrate the completion of their dream – to complete hiking the Appalachian Trail in by sections over a number of years, thus making them “2000-Milers.”  Yet while fording the river Alice lost her footing and was swept downstream.  Her body was recovered later.  News was her grief-stricken spouse went on to complete the trail, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy awarded the Ferences with the “2000-Miler” status.

This tragic news affected everyone I met along the trail.  It seemed there was no one who had not heard of the incident.  The sober and inescapable truth was that, for all its wonder and beauty, hikers and backpackers sometimes lost their lives while hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Kennebec River Rafting

Kennebec River Rafting (Photo credit: J Bull)

The Kennebec River is spectacular, and one is the most challenging water crossing of the Appalachian Trail.  The year I hiked the trail it was essential that those who chose to cross on foot did so by eight in the morning to avoid the rising water released by a dam  upstream, which would make it impossible to cross  any time later than nine in the morning.

I was told there should be at least two or three gravel bars in clear view along the riverbed.  If they were submerged it was too deep to cross.  The morning I forded, three bars were clearly visible.  Yet what lay beneath the surface of the river was deceptive; a jumble of various sized stones which slipped and shifted with each step.  I was advised to ford in my boots, but without socks.  A barefoot crossing was foolish to even consider.

I stood on the bank and undid my pack belt in case it became necessary to jettison my pack.  I removed my socks, laced my boots tight, and  retrieved an extra stout stick from the bank left by a previous river crosser to add to the hiking staff I carried.  Then I took some deep breaths and focused my attention.  I did a final cinch of my shoulder straps to stabilize the weight as much as possible.  I faced upstream and, slowly and cautiously, stepped into the river.

The water was cold, and within three paces I found myself chest deep in the current.  Steeling myself so as not to panic I leaned into the hiking poles and methodically navigated my feet over the riverbed.  The stones were like oily ball-bearings, large and treacherous.  I allowed each foot to sink down onto and between them.  As the stones would separate and my boot would touch bottom I felt some confidence.  When I felt my stance planted firmly, I shifted my body weight and moved another foot to the left.  Though the water was becoming more shallow as I crossed the river, I never allowed myself less than three points of contact with the bottom.  I walked into the current and upriver, allowing the power of the water to stabilize me, to become a substance I could lean into for steadiness.  This method worked, along with much patience, and I completed a ford of about seventy yards.   I reached the opposite bank, spent yet exhilarated.  I had taken my time to move with thought and purpose, negotiating the river on its terms.

The power of moving water is majestic, but it’s also deceptive.  Stream and river crossings can be one of the most hazardous situations found on the Appalachian Trail.

Some weeks before I entered Monson, Maine, I was delayed in the 100-Mile Wilderness by a terribly swollen stream whose current was violent with runoff triggered by four days of torrential rain.  The width of the stream was less than five yards, but it would have been hazardous to step into it.  I waited until the water level subsided and safe fording was possible.

Things to keep in mind when preparing to ford streams or rivers:

Always cross with others if flood conditions are present.  Unless the stream is shallow and you can see the bottom it’s wise to have company when making the attempt.

Scope out the river conditions.  Try to find a height of land which allows you to survey the water to determine the best and most logical place to cross.  Avoid areas where debris, log, brush, or snags are is present.

No bare feet!  Wear your boots without socks.  You’ll need the stability which stout footgear offers to cross safely.

Be ready to shed your pack if you lose your balance and fall into the current.  The waist belt of your backpack should remain undone and chest straps should only be tight enough to stabilize your load.  If you happen to be caught in the current, jettison the pack but try and hold onto the straps since it might be useful as flotation gear while you try to swim to shore.

Lastly, if you can, cross at an angle, facing upriver.  Use an extra hiking staff or pole for support.  “Feel” you way across the riverbed.  Take your time and make no sudden movements.

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Thinking about…your mindset before you hike the Appalachian Trail

Mountain hiking

Mountain hiking (Photo credit: arnybo)

Discouragement.  Disappointment. Physical pain. Exasperation.  Dreadful weather.  Slick trails.  Mail-drops that aren’t at the post office when you get there.  Blisters.  Humidity and heat w

hich sap your hardiness and hinder your hiking until the cooler part of the day.  Mobbed shelters.  Difficult people.

These are some of the dynamics you will (yes, I said will) meet when backpacking the Appalachian Trail.  Even so take heart, and know this before you set about your journey; there will be joy.  Days of elation and striking beauty.  Nights of amazement under the stars.  Spectacular moments that are lifetime blessings.  Look for them.  Trust that they will come.

Here are some techniques you may find useful to adopt before you strike out for the Appalachian Trail:

The image shows a sign on the Appalachian Trai...

The image shows a sign on the Appalachian Trail at the northern trailhead of the 100-Mile Wilderness giving the following warning: “CAUTION. IT IS 100 MILES SOUTH TO THE NEAREST TOWN AT MONSON. THERE ARE NO PLACES TO OBTAIN SUPPLIES OR HELP UNTIL MONSON. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS SECTION UNLESS YOU HAVE A MINIMUM OF 10 DAYS SUPPLIES AND ARE FULLY EQUIPPED. THIS IS THE LONGEST WILDERNESS SECTION OF THE ENTIRE AT AND ITS DIFFICULTY SHOULD NOT BE UNDERESTIMATED. GOOD HIKING! MATC” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perfection does not exist on the Appalachian (or any other) Trail.  Hardship is part of the price paid for the glorious experience of hiking it.  If you’re susceptible to black-and-white thinking, realize that each mile and each day will bring a combination of arduousness and delight, and regardless of the difficulties, when you finally complete your hike it will be with a deep sense of attainment and reward.

Release the following expectation: hiking a specific number of miles per day.  A wise backpacker has said, “begin slowly…the 20-mile days will come.”  In my case, there were just two high-mileage days and both were triggered by necessity.  One was a 17 mile push to retrieve a Saturday mail drop in Maine; the other was simply because I missed some trail blazes in Pennsylvania.  By the end of that day I had walked 23 fatiguing miles!  Even if you’re in the best of shape you can expect about 7 to 10 mile days in the southern Appalachians.  As you reach the 10-percent trail grades in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, doing a 20-mile day is easier.  Even so, who says you have to?  Who is looking over your shoulder?  What person has hitched a pedometer to your pack belt?  This trip is for enjoyment and personal growth.  “Hike your hike” cannot be repeated enough.

Remember, during despondent moments, that you can do this.  A setback does not have to become something which derails your hike.  I once heard “if you’re sick and tired of hiking, go into town and get a motel room for a few days.  Kick back, rest, decompress.  If you’re not missing the trail in two or three days maybe you need to set your sights on another goal.”  There is no shame in this.  Besides, the Appalachian Trail is not going anywhere.  Never abandon your desire to hike it while the fire still burns inside you.

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Thinking about wind, snow, sleet, rain, and cold on the Appalachian Trail (in early spring)

View from Springer Mountain

View from Springer Mountain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s late February or early March.  You’ve been packing and planning your Appalachian Trail thru-hike for months.  Everything is ready and you’re itching to tackle the footpath.  Looking at the weather forecast, you see fair conditions and mild temperatures have enveloped the South.  Now, you think, it’s time to go.  But, before you shoulder your pack and head for Springer Mountain, consider these facts.

While the low elevations of Georgia and North Carolina bask in sunshine, the Appalachian summits are still subject to radical changes in weather and temperature.  Blasts of rain, fierce winds, paralyzing sleet and cold, and significant snow are as common as would be found in the loftier New England mountains, and it’s wise to prepare for severe weather, or delay your departure at least until mid-April.  Even then nights can be cold in the mountains and low temperatures, rain, and wind combine to create ideal hypothermia conditions.

When I set out mid-April I carried wool gloves, a wool sweater and knit cap, and a rain and windproof jacket.  I needed them all.  You will also want reliable, warm clothing for a safe journey on the trail.

 

 

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