A new (voluntary) step for thru-hikers

2013 thru-hikers Ninja, Bluetick, Ado and Smooth celebrate their arrival at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy//Harpers Ferry, West Virginia//Photo courtesy Chris “Smooth” Cage//Text by Anne Baker, marketing assistant 

Thru-hiker fever has officially set in. And with the general preparations like gear shakedowns, meal planning, mail drop logistics and (in some cases) quitting your job to hike thousands of miles, there’s another way the class of 2015 is getting ready for a thru-hike: voluntary registration.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) launched its Thru-Hiker Voluntary Registration system this year with the goal of not only better managing the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), but also enhancing the thru-hiker experience. With movies like “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods” drawing attention to two of America’s national scenic trails, something had to be done to spread out the volume of thru-hikers who hit the A.T. at peak times. This voluntary registration system is one way the ATC hopes to address potential overcrowding, especially at the southern end of the A.T. in March and April

Currently, more than 800 people have registered their thru-hikes through this system, allowing hikers to see how many have plan to start their thru-hike on a particular day and giving them a chance to see when crowded conditions will exist. Prospective thru-hikers can see on what days thru-hikers have registered not only for northbound  and southbound thru-hikes, but also for thru-hikes starting in Harpers Ferry or other locations.

This planning feature is especially appealing to hikers like Barbara “Firefly,” who will set out on a thru-hike this year with her 26-year-old son:

“When we started planning, we intentionally looked into the traditionally crowded start days and tried to avoid those as well as avoiding a weekend start. I really think for many people, being able to look and visually see days that are already packed will help future thru-hikers spread themselves out.”

Hiking the A.T. is practically a lifelong dream for Firefly, who began planning her hike when she was 12. Back then, she was using the library and snail mail to gather information while also getting firsthand experience by working on trail crews. Yet it wasn’t until now that she felt like she could to take the amount of time off that’s required for a thru-hike, and when she began planning again, she realized that the A.T.—and the process of planning—had changed.

“I was a bit sad at a lot of the negatives I’ve heard concerning problems resulting from overcrowding, especially at the both ends of the Trail. As a lifelong dream I couldn’t let go of the idea of a traditional thru-hike, even though the cool breeze option looks awesome. The reality is we are approaching our hike with a degree of flexibility, evaluating our progress along the way and if needed changing to an alternative itinerary.”

Firefly’s willingness to embrace an alternative plan if necessary is a sentiment that is growing among potential thru-hikers. It’s good timing, too—as the popularity of long-distance hiking trails increases, the A.T. will benefit from those who recognize that a thru-hike doesn’t have to start at Springer Mountain, or even Katahdin. After all, the journey isn’t so much about the destination, but the process of getting there.

To everyone who has registered their thru-hike, and especially those who made an effort to avoid popular start dates or even selected an alternative starting location, thanks for making the A.T. an incredible hiking and camping experience—and for helping it stay that way.

Have a comment about our voluntary registration system? Email AT-ThruStartDate@appalachiantrail.org

Erasing a trend

Heading to Springer Mountain from Forest Service Road 42//Photo by Anne Baker//Text by Robert J. Collins, guest blogger

Just what does it take to clean up graffiti at a shelter along the Appalachian Trail? Here’s a firsthand account from a shelter overseer who is not only attempting to clean up the mess, but also stop it permanently.   

Modern day petroglyphs? Self-expression art? An expected rite of passage? Vandalism? The definition of graffiti depends on who you ask. Prehistoric men and women felt a need to mark caves with drawings of animals or to scrape signs and shapes on rocks. Were these messages for others traveling through the area, or were they sitting out a thunderstorm in a cave, bored? Today we can still see the overwhelming urge that humans have to leave their mark—even along the Appalachian Trail (A.T.).

Springer Shelter

Late last year I was asked by Susie McNelly, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club overseer at Woods Hole Shelter, to help her haul wood chips. While we were at Woods Hole, she showed me how she was trying to remove the graffiti that was beginning to cover the shelter. As the co-overseer of Georgia’s Springer Mountain Shelter, I was very familiar with graffiti in both the carving and marker forms.

I began thinking that since most thru-hikes start at Springer, it is probably the first shelter new hikers see. If they see graffiti all over the shelter left by past hikers they probably assume this is an acceptable and almost expected way of announcing to the world that they were there and where they are going. It’s sort of like a wilderness version of Facebook or Twitter—only this “social media message board” is destructive, at times very vulgar and demeaning, and is in fact a criminal act.

I decided that this behavior was not conducive to an enjoyable experience for everyone and decided to try and change the graffiti permissive culture to one aligned with the principles of Leave No Trace. As with any cultural change, it will take education, diligence and most of all time. Thirty years ago smoking in office buildings, restaurants and even hospitals was a completely acceptable behavior, but today, you would not only be stared at and ridiculed but would be subject to a hefty fine. Peer pressure is a very powerful tool.

I discussed my graffiti eradication plans with my co-overseer Frank Wright, trail supervisor Marion Mclean and district leader David Stelts, and they all agreed it was a good idea. We wanted Springer to set the bar with hopes that if hikers stopped leaving their mark at Springer it would carry over up the Trail at other shelters. So with the help of my wife Patty, Frank and I waited for a day when the temperature was above 50 degrees and began our project.

We decided to first fill in all of the deep carvings with Elmer’s ProBond professional wood filler which is stainable and is approved for exterior use, and if it worked well, to return and take care of the less noticeable carvings. To remove Sharpie writings we used “Goof-Off” and sand paper. We waited a couple of days for the filler to dry (it normally takes 24 hours to dry, but with overnight temps in 20s it took longer) and I went to the tool shed and got a couple of gallons of the original stain used when the shelter was built.

We applied the original stain, but since it was transparent, the gray wood filler bled through and it looked worse than the graffiti!  But after talking with a professional in the paint and stain department at Lowe’s, Patty and I were able to select a cover stain in a reddish brown color, enabling us to try and match the wood of the shelter and not be as noticeable.

Again we waited for a 50+ degree day and went back and sanded the original stain off of the wood filler and then applied the new cover stain. It worked! It not only covered the gray wood filler but was a very close match to the wood. The shelter was returned to her original glory—and instead of looking like an ogre in the woods, she had the warm welcoming glow of a Thomas Kincaid painting offering tired and sore hikers a dry, clean and graffiti-reduced haven.

I realize that every time I go to clean the shelter I will have to bring my can of cover stain and wood filler to remove new graffiti. But if we can begin to see a reduction in new graffiti within the first year of this project, it will be an investment that will pay big dividends in the future.

Robert J. Collins is the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club co-overseer of section 3.1 (Springer Mountain Summit to FS 42) and got his trail name “Psycho” after years of skydiving and BASE jumping.

‘Hiking the Hill’ to protect the A.T.

Senior conservation staff Karen Lutz, Hawk Metheny, Laura Belleville, and Morgan Sommerville in Washington, DC during Hike the Hill//Donated photo//Text by Laura Belleville, director of conservation

This past week, our senior conservation staff have had their hiking boots on, but not for a jaunt along the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Instead, we were in DC for the annual advocacy event “Hike the Hill,” along with many other national scenic and historic trail representatives from across the country, for nearly a week of organized meetings with agency and Congressional representatives.

That many meetings may sound boring, but it was a whirlwind! With about 60 visits scheduled, staff members Morgan Sommerville, Karen Lutz and Hawk Metheny, along with myself, Laura Belleville, and Executive Director Ron Tipton, were busy dashing from the U.S. Forest Service buildings to the National Park Service and back and forth between House and Senate visits. Our charge? To keep the A.T. on everyone’s radar and ensure that high-priority land protection projects are supported. We were also plugging re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and full annual funding—or $900 million total per year—of that program.

(A bit of backstory: The LWCF puts a portion of offshore drilling fees toward the protection of land and water, with money being intended for national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges and more. And although money is deposited into the LWCF account annually, part of the funds are diverted elsewhere each year—meaning all of that money is not being used for its intended conservation and recreation purposes. Learn more about the LWFC here.)

Our experience at Hike the Hill was a bit unusual this year because the President’s budget was released before our meetings, meaning we knew beforehand which of our A.T. parcels made the budget and how they were ranked. While we have fared better in previous years, we did have several projects in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina that have been ranked high enough in the President’s budget to likely receive funding through appropriations. A Forest Legacy project in Virginia that we have supported was also included in the budget, but not ranked as well as we had hoped. This was the first year this project was submitted and, like many projects, it may take a couple of submissions to rank high enough to make the appropriations cut.

We also learned that another smaller project in Virginia will be funded by the U.S. Forest Service with funds set aside to acquire inholdings. Of course, if there is full funding of LWCF, the A.T. benefits even more. We did have projects in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania that did not make the cut this year—so we are re-doubling our efforts and will continue to work with agencies and Congress to highlight the importance of these priority acquisitions.

I want to shout out appreciation to Senator Richard Burr and Senators Kelly Ayotte and Michael Bennet for their leadership to sponsor and co-sponsor a new bill aimed at re-authorizing LWCF and providing full funding. (We expect that bill to be released in the next week or so.) I had the privilege to meet with Senator Ayotte yesterday and to thank her personally for her support. She is a very strong supporter of the A.T. and public lands in New Hampshire.

How can you help us advocate for full funding of the LWCF? Please let your senators know how important this legislation is and to vote for it!

Raising the next generation of Trail stewards

TTEC participants during a 2013 summer training session//Photo by Bob Ryder//Text by Kathryn Herndon, education and outreach coordinator

It’s estimated that children today spend about half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago, instead devoting an average of 5 to 7 hours a day staring at a TV, computer, or other screens. These statistics raise an interesting (and scary!) question: Will the next generation care enough about the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) to protect their national treasure?

Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum famously said:

In the end we will conserve only what we love.

We will love only what we understand.

We will understand only what we are taught.

For the children of today to become tomorrow’s hikers, trail maintainers, stewards and guardians of the A.T., someone has to introduce them to the Trail. And that’s exactly what we’re hoping to accomplish through our Trail to Every Classroom (TTEC) program, which is a unique professional development opportunity for K-12 teachers who want to connect their students with the natural environment and their community. What’s neat about this program is that it uses the A.T. as a living classroom—resulting in a memorable curriculum that students will remember for the rest of their lives.

So—how does this work, exactly? Through a cumulative workshop series led by national experts in Place Based Service Learning, each teacher will create an experiential learning curriculum based on the state or Common Core standards of learning for their discipline. Each hands-on curriculum integrates the study of A.T. resources in the local community, and is supported by strong teacher and student networks from Georgia to Maine. To see examples of what TTEC teachers are doing, visit the TTEC blog or browse the database of TTEC curricula.

If you know a teacher who loves the outdoors, we’re currently looking for a few outstanding educators in the 14 Trail states for this year’s TTEC program. Download the application here, and keep in mind that the deadline to apply is March 15.

From urban to rural, elementary to high school, and math and science to English, history, art, and physical education, teachers of all stripes are discovering the power of the Trail to engage and educate their students and invigorate their teaching practice. Please help connect students and communities with the A.T. by sharing this opportunity with a teacher!

TTEC is a program of the ATC in partnership with the National Park Service. To learn more, watch this video to find out what teachers are saying about the TTEC workshop series.