Tag Archives: Long Trail

5 Anchors for the Appalachian Trail

Photo courtesy talksrealfast at Flickr

Photo courtesy talksrealfast at FlickrWill you anchor hold in the storms of life,

An anchor is defined as “a person or thing on which something else is based that can be relied upon for chief support, stability, or security; a mainstay.

The greatest anchor is Katahdin, whose looming summit entices when you first see it.  If the spirit of this summit doesn’t burn within you from the time you leave Springer Mountain your chances of becoming a thru-hiker diminish.  This is the “grail anchor,” and its majesty is compelling.  But Katahdin is many footfalls distant.  One needs other anchors — other goals — to guarantee a successful hike.  Let’s look at other anchors you can use to propel you to Maine

Towns.  Whether it’s to resupply for the next stretch of trail, or to find that all-you-can-eat restaurant you’ve been reading about in the trail registers, towns are significant anchors along your journey.  Town post offices also offer another drawing power as effective anchors.  Once I hiked 7 miles before noon to reach one in Stratton, Maine.

States.  The wonderful, bucolic hills of Virginia.  The rugged character of Pennsylvania.  Entering the magnificent Green Mountains of Vermont.  The remote north woods of the great state of Maine with its 100-mile wilderness.  Looking forward to hiking the trail through the wonderful terrain and characteristics of specific states is something to anticipate.

Peaks or mountain ranges.  I was passionately looking forward to climbing into the Great Smokies and standing atop Clingman’s Dome.  Being a native North Carolinian was one reason, plus I spent some memorable childhood summers vacationing there.  Mount Washington in rugged New Hampshire was also appealing for its volatile weather, grand views, and legendary history.

Parks and national forests.  Beside the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia can be a great anchor.  Thru-hikers often simply cruise through the park  due to the agreeable grade of the trail, but Shenandoah offers great views, Civil War history, and abundant wildlife.  I enjoyed the Green Mountains of Vermont so much I later went back and hiked the Long Trail through to the Canadian border.

Geographic features.  Rivers and stream crossings, like the mighty Kennebec in Maine, were things I looked forward to.  The waters of the Kennebec were low enough for me to ford on foot early one morning.  I’ve never forgotten that experience.

You get the idea — so look at the map and guidebook and considering drawing up a list of “anchors” to galvanize your journey to Katahdin!

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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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Thinking about…judgment and decision-making on the Appalachian Trail

Hiking and backpacking along he Appalachian Trail offers more than simply an engaging adventure; it provides an opportunity to acquire and sharpen leadership skills which will serve you for life.  Judgment and decision-making come into play early on during a backpacking trip, ranging from deciding what to eat for breakfast to how many miles you hope to hike each day.  Knowing how to make astute and timely decisions, while considering all aspects of a hiking situation when employing your judgment can be life altering, and even life saving.

It’s critical to know that different situations call for varying responses.  Just plodding ahead because you “just have to get there” won’t just bring  discouragement, it can turn into a circumstance which puts you and those with whom you hike, at significant risk.  You may be hiking in solitude, but you’re not hiking alone.  Each choice you make matters, even the ones which might seem inconsequential at the moment.

When I was backpacking the Appalachian Trail  southbound through the Barren-Chairback Mountain range in the “100-Mile Wilderness” of Maine, the ideal combination of wet, wind, and low temperatures arose and began to lower my core body temperature. Since I had researched and read about probable hiking risks, I knew I was starting to become hypothermic.  My judgment became impaired, my words  slurred, and my energy plummeted.  It was important to make an expedient traverse of the range I was hiking, but it became rapidly clear this new condition merited an adjustment of strategy.  I set aside my aim of hiking ten miles, made for  shelter, changed out of wet clothing, and restored my energy eating hot soup and energy bars.  Had I proceeded  it might have been tragic.  The life-saving decision I made stemmed from honest self-evaluation and assessment of the level of risk and symptoms involved.  Knowledge, plus the strength and humility to admit that potential trouble lay ahead, were the catalysts which resulted in a new course of action.

Good decision-making skills and wise judgment start with obtaining enough information.  Throw in  a solid dose of humility, situational analysis, and willingness to chart an alternative course of action.  This will go far in creating a greater margin of safety both for yourself and your trail companions.

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Thinking about…cooking on the Appalachian Trail

English: Svea 123R stove with windscreen and a...

Svea 123R stove with windscreen and adjusting key. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before the roarin’ Nineties of backpacking gear, the choices in backpacking stoves were few.  I now carry an MSR Firefly backpacking stove (bought around 1987), but I’ve kept my old Svea stove.  It’s stowed away in a hallway closet, along with that broken hiking staff.  Sentimentality reigns!  But, also, practicality.  I know that old warhorse would fire up on days when the more complex Firefly may not.  As I consider the inner workings of the Firefly, compared to the Svea, I think I could rely on it much more should I need a backup camping stove or one to use during a prolonged power outage.

I’m reminded of a young man who hiked the Appalachian Trail who was a chef by profession.  He was the only long distance backpacker I ever met who disdained a cooking stove.  Instead, come dinnertime, come gale, wind, or high water, he would manage to gather enough wood to kindle a fire and used that to cook.  I still marvel today at his resourcefulness and how he could take food contributions from a gang of hikers and prepare a four-star feast!  Learning from him, I later spent occasions building and using cooking fires, and while I still carried my stove for backup, I came to enjoy the ritual and results of open fire cooking along the trail.  I recall a particular trip along the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts one early spring when I would tarry at camp long enough to cook up some Indian fry-bread and drizzle the golden brown delight with sourwood honey.  Now that’s eatin’!

Camp Cook

Camp Cook

Speaking of food and not just stoves, I found my trail diet developing as I hiked.  Though freeze-dried and prepackaged foods have their place in saving weight and providing good shelf-life, nothing will ever beat fresh produce.  If I’m out for a week, I will carry fresh garlic and onion, brussels sprouts, broccoli, red potatoes, carrots, green beans, and other trail worthy veggies to cook.  I eat these the first days out and save the dried goods for the last few days.  Nothing has lifted my spirits so much as fresh food for those first dinners on a trek.  The greatest validation I received doing this was when another hiker stumbled into camp on the Long Trail in Vermont.  I had just fired up the stove and was stir-frying onions and garlic in olive oil.  The fragrance wafted over to him.  Then I heard a low, curious voice saying, “Hey, man…whatcha’ cookin’ there?”  I went into defense mode even as I casually answered him.  “Oh, just some veggies I brought along…”  I though I was about to be mugged!  Fortunately for me that did not happen.  But it sealed the deal.  Other hikers, too, dreamt and drooled of fresh “real” food, and taking it with you is both practical and a tasty supplement to processed and packaged choices.  Bon appetit!

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Thinking about…the backpack I chose for my Appalachian Trail hike

Luddite's delight

Back to discussing equipment choices I made for my Appalachian Trail hike; today, the backpack.

I don’t think internal frame backpacks were even being sold when I was shopping around.  External frames were the only choice.  There were other “boy scout” type rucksacks you’d find at an Army/Navy store, but those didn’t have the large capacity to carry all the gear required for long distance trips.  Mine was a blue Kelty Tioga pack.  No bells or whistles; simply a durable external frame, generous top-loading mouth and a “new” feature – a zippered back panel so I could retrieve items without unloading the entire pack.  Best of all, a quick-release buckle on the hip belt.  This allowed me to quickly shed the pack in emergencies.   The belt also hugged my hip bones nicely and made for a stable, comfortable “ride.”  I loved it.

Backpacking to the Rice Fork of the Eel River

Backpacking (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Loading the backpack took some finessing over the months I spent on the trail.  The recommendation was to have the heaviest items lower in the pack and positioned near the spine, with lighter items on top.  This seemed to stabilize the load and I never recall being pulled back or thrown off-balance.

Internal frame packs were coming in strong, with Gregory Packs being a popular early star.  I eventually ended up with a “clone” internal frame manufactured by R.E.I. and was satisfied with it for some time.  It was the first choice pack for my adventures on the Long Trail and return A.T. hikes.  Yet, over the years, I find I am yearning to get back in harness with an external frame back.  If I bought a pack today I am sure I’d pick an external frame model.  Nostalgia?  Perhaps.  But I suspect the feeling of cool air between me and the load I carry has as much to do with it as anything.

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Thinking about…hiking sticks on the Appalachian Trail

“You wouldn’t part an old man from his walking stick?” – Gandalf, “The Two Towers”

I’ve always been a “tripod” ever since I was a kid hiking the woods behind my suburban house.  I would quickly pick up a downed length of basswood or cedar and adopt it as my hiking stick and off into the trees I’d go.  It wasn’t long before I felt unable to venture into the woods for a hike without having one.  That is still so today.

Hiking Stick Grips

Hiking Stick Grips (Photo credit: Randy Cox)

Somewhere at a roadside stand along the Blue Ridge Parkway about 1978 I found a walnut hiking staff carved by a local man vending summer tomatoes, corn, and mountain sourwood honey.  I think I paid ten dollars for it.  That hiking stick kept me stable during my trips into Pisgah National Forest, Linville Gorge, Shining Rock Wilderness, and eventually along my entire Appalachian Trail hike during the years from 1985 to 1988.  Sadly, the reliable length of wood splintered at a shelter on the Long Trail in Vermont.  Sentimental as I am, I still keep the two pieces of it inside a hall closet.  I have given up my old Vasque hiking boots, but I can’t part with that staff.

I carried a staff mainly for stability.  I cannot recall how many times it kept me upright when gravity would have had me horizontal.  There’s more than one instance when I know it literally saved me from sliding into a rushing torrent.  I would have drowned had I not had that staff to lodge into some rhododendron thicket to arrest myself.  Poking and prodding down the trails with it, I beat the ground to warn any rattlesnakes which might be sunning themselves to move along.  I used it to prop up my pack to make a backrest.  I have used it to fashion a tent with a tarp.  I have found a hiking stick indispensable for my sense of security.  And, yes, it’s added to my sense of adventure while on the trail.  Something compelling and magical always happens when I pick it up; either a new adventure is about to begin or resume, and taking the staff in hand is an inaugural movement which signals the beginning of something special.

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