Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Summary of My AT Experience

I finished my AT hike at Erwin, Tennessee, 343 trail miles (550 kms) from Springer Mountain.  This is a little less than one-sixth of the entire trail.  Was it a good experience?  Would I do it again?  The answer to both of these questions is yes.

The AT is a very challenging walk.  On the GaspĂ© last summer we met a 60ish woman who had hiked from Florida.  She was familiar with the Camino, but said she was saving it until she was older.  Having now walked a section of the AT, her statement sounds about right.  Not only is hiking the AT strenuous, the exposure to the weather, the hygiene issues, and the need to carry sufficient quantities of lightweight food all present their own challenges.  On the other hand, the AT allows the freedom to make your own decisions about how far you will walk, when and what you will eat, and where you will camp.

A hike on the AT takes you through beautiful forests and landscapes.  I was fortunate to be walking in the autumn, with its colours and transition from summer to winter.  There is, however, a certain sameness in what you see.  Compared to a long walk in Europe, with the contrast between the forests, the fields and the villages, the visual experience on the AT is more limited.  The scarcity of good views is also frustrating.  Because the tree line is so high at this latitude, you can rarely see the surrounding area, despite the fact that the Trail is often on a ridge line.  The "balds" (bare hilltops) are particularly valued because of their scarcity.

Like the Camino, the AT has a culture.  Although there are a surprising number of older walkers, most of the people who were doing more than a day hike were young and male.  This, and the sheer scale of the AT, leads to an emphasis on mileage.  Many of the thru hikers were walking more than 20 miles a day, a challenging goal when such a distance could easily involve 6,000 to 7,000 feet of climbing and descent.  The result is that most of the hikers were constantly in a hurry - to get up and start walking, to cover as many miles as possible, to prepare and consume meals, and to set up camp.  The shorter days of fall exacerbate this feeling of being rushed.  By comparison, I found that although there was a desire and pressure to move towards Santiago on the Camino, there was also more down time, more leisurely meals, and more time for sightseeing than there is on the AT.

Many of the AT hikers, past and current, cite the camaraderie of the trail as one of its primary draws.  I felt this on the Camino, but less so on the AT.  This is partly because I am older than most of the AT hikers, and also because I was not a thru hiker.  There is also a sparse distribution of walkers in the AT.  I generally met fewer than a dozen other people each day.  On a number of occasions I was the only person camped at a shelter or camping area.

When it comes to material goods on the AT, less is definitely more.  When I saw a hiker approaching on the trail I could generally guess whether they were section or thru hikers by the size of their pack:  those of thru hikers were smaller.  (The presence of a beard and a strong gait were also cues.)  My large pack identified me as an inexperienced AT hiker.  If I were to hike another section of the trail I would use a smaller and lighter pack.  My Deuter is robust and comfortable, but it weighs seven pounds.  Other packs on the trail weighed as little as two pounds, and most were less than four.  Other gear changes I would make would be to replace my white gas stove with the butane fuel canister variety that was in general use, and to bring a smaller tent or bivvy bag.  There is a minimalist ethos in the thru hikers.  Many do not have a stove, and some have replaced a tent with a hammock, a bivvy bag, or nothing (meaning that they are dependent on shelters).  I heard of one thru hiker who did not have a change of clothing: when he washed his clothes he wore a green garbage bag.

I am very glad that I had the opportunity to spend a month on the AT.  It was an interesting and rewarding hike and it exposed me to a culture and experience that is quite distinct from other hikes that I have done.  It also bumped up my fitness level and stripped some weight from my frame.  There is a reasonable probability that I will return to do another section at some point in the future.  Indeed, although I am enjoying the food and physical comforts of a return to civilization, I am already nostalgic for the AT experience.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Perfect Moment

Early in the day yesterday I encountered a herd of five whitetail deer. They were about 50 metres away.  In the quiet of the open woodland four of them raised their enormous white tails and ran away.  Because they were moving west the tails were illuminated by the morning sun like a collection of white flags.  The only sound was the crunch of their hooves in the dry leaves.  It was a perfect moment.

The fifth deer bizarrely stood its ground and stared at me for the longest time, eventually walking towards me before changing her mind and running to join the herd.  Her time in the gene pool may be limited.

As I approached the summit of Big Bald I suddenly came upon a doe and its yearling fawn.  They were only 10 metres away, but did not flee for a long moment.  The Virginia Whitetail is a beautiful deer, with a white belly and that magnificent tail when it is raised as a warning.

Seeing seven deer in one day is notable because large animals are rarely seen on the trail.  I assume this is the result of habitat loss and several hundred years of hunting pressure.  I have only seen one other deer in the past month.  In addition to the three bears I also had a good look at a couple of wild turkeys a few days ago.  As the forest floor is often covered with acorns and hickory nuts, the woods are alive with squirrels and chipmunks.

Old Baldy

Ruth: Gord is camped on the top of Bald Mountain tonight so here is a bed time story about the Hermit of Bald mountain, a man named David Grier. Now our best friend and house mate is a Don Grier who is the descendant of an unbroken line of David Griers. A man who after long stints alone at our cabin has been known to sometimes fall into hermit behaviour. 

Only 5 more sleeps and my Gordie will be home!

Hot Springs, N.C. - an AT Community

I met Tim at Walnut Mountain Shelter the night before I arrived at Hot Springs, N.C.  He was out on a lengthy day hike and paused for a smoke and a drink.  Tim thru hiked the AT a few years ago and tries to get back on the trail whenever he can.  He invited me to join him for a beer at the tavern in Hot Springs when I arrived the next day.

The next day was a nightmarish 6 hour walk in torrential rain.  The trail turned into a river or a lake, depending upon the topography.  Dramatically, the rain ended and the sun came out just as I arrived in town.

Hot Springs is the first town I have encountered which is located directly on the AT.  All previous reprovisioning stops required a side trip from the trail.  The AT runs right down the main street of Hot Springs, with markers set into the sidewalk.  The lamp standards have banners announcing that the town is an AT community.

At the tavern, where I had a cider and a burger with Tim, I learned that most of the town's population had moved there from elsewhere, many to be on the AT.  Indeed, most of the people I met in the bar had walked the AT or hoped to do so.

After first dinner with Tim I went up the street to have the daily special, a chicken and dumplings spread, at the local diner.  I love those places, not just for the cheap and filling home cooking, but also for the sense of community.  They really are like the small town diners portrayed in movies, where everyone knows and greets each other.

Perhaps it was the double dinner, but since I left Hot Springs I have felt much stronger.  Despite carrying a heavier pack full of food picked up in town, I have walked 17 and 20 miles, my longest days.  Because I bought too much food I am eating more during the day.  This may be a better strategy.

In recent days the fall colours have been the best of the trip, with hillsides a balanced mix of green, yellow, orange and red.  I had never experienced an eastern fall, but it is like pictures I have seen of Ontario in October.

The temperature has dropped significantly in recent days, with hard frosts at night in the hills, and daytime highs that only make it to about 8 degrees C.  Fortunately, there have been hostels available the past two nights and I have enjoyed dingy but warm comfort.

I must add one anecdote illustrative of thru hiker hygiene.  I am sharing this small hostel with a young SOBO thru hiker couple.  The hostel is equipped with a modern shower enclosure.  Spying it, I asked "How's the shower?"  The young fellow replied "I don't know. We're going to be in Hot Springs in two days and we thought we would shower there."  It puts me in mind of a ditty my Dad used to sing: "I've heard it said and believe it's true, too much bathin' 'll weaken you."

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Wild Night

It was forecast to rain last night for the first time in a week.  I therefore ensured that I was in a shelter rather than the tent.  What I had not anticipated, however, was the wind.  It was blowing on the ridges all day yesterday, but the intensity increased toward nightfall.

Unfortunately, unlike the Plumorchard Shelter, where we weathered the remnants of Hurricane Nate, Walnut Mountain Shelter is open on the side facing into the wind.  It is also an old log shelter, built in 1939, with gaps in the walls and the sleeping platform.

The forest canopy took the brunt of the storm, roaring to different degrees as the wind rose and fell.  Fortunately the rain was not too heavy, but the wind driven mist and rain did manage to dampen my gear, including the sleeping bag.  The noise kept me up much of the night, so I finished reading A Passage to India and started on The Grapes of Wrath.

It was rather exciting to listen to the storm, secure in the knowledge that the stout shelter would protect me from falling branches.  It is also life affirming to find that you can comfortably weather such foul weather.  Is this a good time to quote Nietzsche, who famously said "Whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger?"  I may not be stronger, but I think I at least have the energy to hustle the 13 miles into town for pizza and beer.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Good Bear, Bad Boots

This morning I saw another bear.  He saw me first and did what was best for both he and I: he ran away as fast as his furry black legs could take him.

Bears in this area have good reason to flee humans as quickly as possible.  Yesterday, as I crossed the Park boundary, I met three good ole boys with a pickup load of kennelled dogs.  I asked them if they were hunting, and they responded "Yep, for bear."  As a social curtesy I wished them good luck, but my sympathy lay entirely with the bear.  Who would want to be pursued by a pack of baying hounds until you seek sanctuary in a tree, only to be shot at close range?  I have also been told that wild boar are hunted with dogs.  Pit bulls are used: they immobilize the pig by grabbing its ears and limbs until the hunter finishes it off with a gun.  The truly macho reputedly kill the restrained pig with a knife.

Blood sports are big in this region in a way that is excessive even by rural Canadian standards.  Everyone seems to like to hunt, often in ways that would not be legal at home, such as the use of bait or dogs.  I have been in a few sporting goods stores and they are typically a disturbing collection of firearms and survivalist paraphernalia.

Yesterday I noticed that the soles of my boots are separating from the uppers.  I was 30 miles from the next town and I do not have a second pair of footwear. This development was therefore a concern.  I quickly threw a couple of wraps of medical adhesive tape around the toe of the worst boot, and walked carefully to the next shelter.  Fortunately, a couple at the shelter gave me a small roll of bright yellow duct tape.  I am now only 13 miles from town and I think I should be able to limp in.

I had an unexpected treat at the end of the day today: an apple tree with fruit on it.  It is an enormous tree standing by itself only 100 metres from the Walnut Mountain Shelter.  I picked a number of apples, and threw a couple of them into the instant oatmeal I had for dinner (I'm running out of food).  It was delicious.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are a rare delight on the trail, because they are just too heavy to pack.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fall is Back

Today I came down from the high ridges in the Smokies: last night I slept at 5,900 feet and tonight I am only at 2,700.  This has the effect of taking me back in time with respect to the seasons.  At the higher elevations fall was well advanced, with almost all the leaves off the deciduous trees.  (Above 5,500 feet there are also extensive areas of conifers.  It was like walking in a typical western Canadian forest.)  At the lower elevations the fall colours are still on display.  The leaves are mostly yellow or brown,  but there are sugar maples and sour wood trees to add crimson splashes.

                               Wreckage from 1984 jet fighter crash - both pilots were killed

Someone at the shelter this morning had the popular Gut Hooks app for the AT.  It indicated that the 14 mile walk today involved climbing 2,000 feet and descending 5,500 feet.  I believe these are typical numbers for a day on the AT.  It's a lot of up and down.

With all that up and down it is hard to hold onto your fat.  This evening I asked a SOBO thru hiker how much weight he had lost during his months on the trail.  He said 60 pounds, but admitted that he had been heavy at the outset.  The thru hiker said he had heard that the average weight loss for thru hikers is about 30 pounds.  He had no idea how you would do it if you started lean.  I have encountered long distance hikers that were quite distressed by their limited energy resulting from not eating enough.  One woman said "I was off the trail for a week but I didn't eat enough and now I have no energy."  This of course is a rare sentiment in a western world awash in excess calories.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Northern Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There is one road that crosses the AT in its 70 mile run through the Park.  I found myself on the side of that road at 3:30 yesterday, with the possibility of walking 3 miles uphill to the next shelter, or hitching into town for pizza and a shower.  I let my stomach make the decision.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a tourist town in the foothills.  It has a Ripleys Believe it or Not, several western themed animatronic amusement houses, and innumerable restaurants and hotels.  For someone who has wandered in from the forest it seems tacky and overwhelming, but there is pizza.

I got a ride back to the AT with a charming older couple this morning.  Well fuelled with pizza, the climb that seemed daunting yesterday was quite easy this morning.  It was another gorgeous fall day, with one of the most spectacular hikes of the trip.  The trail ran along a series of knife edge ridges with extensive views.  After a 15 mile walk I am staying at Tricorner Knob Shelter, the most remote shelter in the Park.  It is at an altitude of 5,900 feet, so the night will be chilly.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Two days ago I entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This is a large park that includes parts of both Tennessee and North Carolina.  It is also the most popular national park in the US, with more than 11 million visitors last year.

About 70 miles of the AT are in the Park, including the highest point on the AT, which is at Clingman's Dome (6,643 feet).

The Park is an ecological hotspot, with more tree species than Europe, a large number of salamander species, and the highest density of bears in the Eastern US.  In fact, research that I was reading about said that there are a staggering two bears per square mile of Park.

I saw a square mile's worth of bears the day I entered the Park.  I had stopped for a lunch break and had just opened a package of teriyaki flavoured beef jerky (not something I eat at home, but man it's delicious).  I heard a crash in the woods just ahead and immediately two bear cubs appeared on the trail only 20 metres from me.  One ran into the bush on my left and the other climbed a tree right in the edge of the trail.  They were cute, but my mind immediately raised the question "Where's Momma?"  I through my lunch back in my backpack, stuck my whistle in my mouth (my thin defensive line against bears) and carefully walked up the trail.  By this time the cub in the tree had slithered down, making a juvenile growling noise, and run back into the bush.  I never saw or heard Momma.

That night we had a yo-yo hiker stop at the shelter.  A "yo-yo" thru hiker is someone who completes the entire AT and then turns around and does it again in reverse.  It was about 8:30 pm, an hour after dark, when the hiker emerged from the night looking for water.  He went to the spring, gobbled something cold and crunchy from his bag, and then headed back into the night.  He said he wanted to make it to a shelter 14 miles away, for a total walk of 41 miles that day.  For some the AT is a 2,189 mile ultra marathon, and I guess this guy was in the vanguard.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Fontana Dam Shelter

Last night I stayed at the Fontana Dam Shelter, well known on the AT as the Fontana Hilton.  It is a beautiful and spacious shelter that sleeps 24.  There is a washroom block nearby that has flush toilets and a hot shower, amenities not available at the backcountry shelters.  A hot shower at the end of the day is much more pleasant than the usual 4 pots of cold spring water over the head.

Until an hour before dark I was the only hiker at the shelter.  Then a couple of young SOBO thru hikers arrived.  They completely ignored me, probably because I am just a section hiker, and old to boot.  I returned to my reading, but intermittently I noticed an unpleasant odour.  I eventually realized that the smell was coming from the thru hikers: I was finally encountering the infamous AT Thru Hiker Stink.  It was with some trepidation that I went to bed in the quasi-enclosed space, but mercifully the thru hikers were on the far side of the large shelter.  Waves of the stench did waft over throughout the night, but it was bearable.  In the morning the thru hikers slept in.  I got up and left, my last image of the shelter a filthy head of hair protruding from a fetid sleeping bag.  I thought it was remarkable that when presented with the opportunity for a free and convenient hot shower at the end of a hot day of hiking the thru hikers opted to abstain.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Happy in the Woods

I have found a good daily rhythm on the AT.  Making and breaking camp has become second nature, and most of the remaining daylight hours are spent walking.  I am enjoying the variety in the scenery as well as the changing seasons.  If I didn't miss my beautiful wife so much I would happily walk until winter made it uncomfortable.  

So it was a bit jarring when I crossed a busy highway to the hyperkinetic Nantahala Outdoor Centre (NOC) and associated businesses.  The AT passes through the NOC, but its services are directed more at whitewater rafters and general tourists than walkers.  NOC offers hostel accommodation, and I had contemplated staying there, but one look and I wanted to head back into the woods.  I did, however, stop long enough for a pizza and a beer.  It ranked among the most enjoyable meals I can recall.  A steady diet of powdered soup and pasta will do that for you.  After eating I walked another 3 miles and pitched my tent in the forest.

I met a couple of interesting SOBO thru hikers today.  Both had started the trail in Maine in June, so they made good time.  The first was a mellow older hiker with the trail name "Papa".  In each hand he was carrying a heavy wooden staff that he had carved.  On one he pointed out two carved faces that were reminiscent of Munch's Scream.  He said they were taken from the ultrasounds of his in utero grandchildren.  When I commented that they looked a little ghoulish, he replied "They look better now."

The other thru hiker was a young woman (trail name "Shredder") who was walking with a friend who was doing a long section hike.  I met them at the top of a remote former fire lookout, where they had camped for the night.  It provided a 360 degree panorama and seemed like an exceptional place to sleep.  I will be keeping my eyes open for a similar opportunity further up the trail.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Walk with a Botanist

I was grinding my way up Wayah Bald at a point where the AT crossed a small road, when a truck stopped and an older gentleman got out.  We chatted for a few minutes and he revealed that he was looking for seeds on the wild rhododendrons and azaleas.  He was familiar with the wild rhodos in B.C., as he had given a lecture on rhodos in Vancouver.  He said that B.C. has one wild species, but in this area of the Appalachians there are 3 rhodo species and 11 azaleas.  He wandered up the trail and I asked if I might walk with him and have him identify a few plants.  He was more than happy to share his knowledge, asking if there were any plants that I wanted identified.  He pointed out several azaleas and their specific characteristics.  He also confirmed my suspicion that some of the small trees are chestnuts.  The Appalachians used to be covered with chestnut trees, which were highly valued for their nuts and their wood.  An introduced blight all but eliminated them.  A few young trees still come up, but after a few years they become infected with the blight and succumb.  The botanist said that blight resistant trees are being developed and the trees may come back.  I thanked him for taking the time to talk to me, and continued up to the stone observation tower on the top of 5,342 foot Wayah Bald.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and the views were superb.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Sobo thru hikers

Hikers who attempt to hike the entire AT in a continuous outing are known as "through hikers".  Walkers who are only doing a portion of the trail are called "section hikers".  Hikers are further distinguished by whether they are northbound (NOBO) or southbound (SOBO).  Hence, in the parlance of the AT, I am a NOBO section hiker.

Most of the through hikers are NOBO.  Large numbers of them leave Springer Mountain in March and April.  There is so much competition for shelters, hostels and campsites during this period that hikers are starting earlier and earlier in the year, with the result that they sometimes find themselves walking in snow.

Due to climate and geography a smaller number of through hikers are SOBO.  We have met a few of these through hikers as they approach the end of there journey.  The average time to complete a through hike is 6 months, but there is a significant variation in the time spent.  A few days ago we met a couple of young guys moving quickly down the trail with their walking poles stabbing frenetically.  (Interestingly, poles are very popular with the faster walkers.)  Although they were moving too quickly to exchange more than a "Hi, how are you?" I later learned they were through hikers on track to finish in about 3 1/2 months.  This is an average of about 20 miles per day, a remarkable pace for such a challenging trail.

At the other end of the through hikers spectrum was the relaxed older fellow I met today.  In response to my question of how long he had been out he said "All year".  (This probably means that he is a "flip-flopper" who has walked all of the trail, but not in a continuous southerly direction.)  This walker had the time to chat with me at length, and apparently was trying to enjoy the experience of the AT.  Nevertheless, it was clear that he was looking forward to the completion of the hike in about a week's time.