Taking a Look at the Big Picture

Text by Laura Belleville, Director of Conservation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Here at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a day does not go by where we, and our trail management partners, don’t hear about hikers engaged in activities that are not compatible with Trail values. That’s not to say that there aren’t thousands of hikers that are doing the right thing, but more and more it seems to be tipping in the other direction. And as Baxter State Park has called out, it’s time to wrestle this issue to the ground.

We need everyone’s help. When I think about inappropriate behavior on the Trail I recall the widely popular and effective anti-littering campaign in the 1980s. This campaign was effective because it depicted the extent of litter across our lands and asked everyone to take a hard look at what they were doing to contribute to the growing problem.

Let’s face it, we could all benefit from taking a hard look at how we behave on the Trail. Day hikers, thru-hikers, section hikers all have a responsibility to protect the unique experience of hiking a world-renowned National Scenic Trail. It’s a precious resource that should not be tarnished. Frankly, the last thing I want to hear is that a hiker chooses to hike elsewhere because the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is no longer the outdoor experience we have all come to revere.

So, here’s a message from all trail managers: please, help out the Trail. It would be great if GOOD trail behavior goes viral. Here are some ways you can contribute to the effort:

  • Know before you go. The A.T. is unique in that it crosses 14 state borders, eight different national forests, six national park units and numerous state park, forest and game lands. Those lands are all managed for different purposes, which means the way you enjoy those lands will vary. But that’s just part of the A.T. experience!
  • Remember respect. Respect the Trail and those who choose to walk it. It’s just good Trail Karma.
  • Help others make the right decision. With such a large amount of people choosing to visit the A.T., the chances are great that any one of us may inadvertently damage the natural area around the Trail. Brush up on Leave No Trace here, and remind others when necessary.

We welcome your ideas and suggestions to promote the good while minimizing the bad. Let us know your ideas by commenting below.

View our response to the Baxter State Park Facebook post about this issue here.

Reunions—Trail Days style

Appalachian Trail Conservancy staff display the organization’s 90th anniversary banner during the Hiker Parade at Trail Days in Damascus, VA//Photo courtesy of Dan Innamorato//Text by Anne Baker, marketing assistant

I remember very clearly the first time I visited Damascus, Virginia. I was clutching a paper coffee cup in my hand, riding shotgun in a rental car early on a Friday morning, admiring the fog as it burned away from mountain peaks that hovered in the 3,000s.

“I’m kind of nervous,” I told the driver of the vehicle, who happened to be my boss.

And then the car rounded the corner, and I saw the tents.

“Happy Trail Days,” he said.

I had heard all sorts of things about Trail Days, the annual hiking festival that attracts the weird, the proud, and the dirty. People told me about the hundreds that come back to visit with their respective hiking class; the people that line up hours early to sign up for the legendary Hardcore Trail Crew; the excited thru-hikers that walk or hitch into town; the partiers in Tent City and the barrage of water guns in the parade.

But most of all, when people learned I was going to Trail Days for the first time, I heard the phrase, “Have fun.”

This year, I again had the opportunity to represent the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at Trail Days. It has become one of my favorite parts of my job. I step away from my computer, my phone, and my email, and for a solid 72 hours I am able to interact face-to-face with those who share the same passion that I am consumed by. To say that it is inspiring is an over simplification.

The Appalachian Trail experience is more than the approximate 2,180 miles that span from Georgia to Maine (or Maine to Georgia, depending on your perspective). It is something that involves perseverance, dedication, and heart. It requires adaptation. It involves both self-reliance and the ability to embrace those that make up your Trail family.

And during Trail Days, you are not only able to see all of that in action, but you feel it, too. I shared hugs with Rosalie “Gweem” and Daniel “Pop,” Trail Angels and ATC volunteers in the Roan Highlands, a couple I had chatted with last year during the event. I laughed as Scott “Flying Pork Chop” handed out buttons that read “I heart Bob Peoples,” and I saw the look on Bob’s face when he finally noticed the swarms of people proudly wearing them. I talked to countless volunteers and supporters who have helped maintain and protect the Trail, and I excitedly thanked those who became ATC members or who renewed their commitment. And I watched as hikers put their packs back on and hit the Trail for the continuation of a grand adventure.

The generosity of the A.T. family will always astound me. I can’t wait to see everyone again next year.

Want to see more pictures from Trail Days? Check out our gallery here.

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!

A mile here, a mile there

Albert Jackman, Myron Avery and Frank Schairer//Katahdin, Maine//Photo from the ATC’s archives//Text by Anne Baker, marketing assistant

Hikers, if you can’t get enough of the Appalachian Trail—well, there are now 3.9 more miles of it.

Wait, what? How did that happen?

It’s actually a pretty cool story.

Every year, the latest shelter and mileage information is gathered by volunteers, including Daniel D. Chazin of Teaneck, N.J., who has led the efforts since 1983. Believe it or not, to gather the data, a majority of the volunteers actually use measuring wheels like what’s pictured above—simply because measuring wheels pick up nuances in the terrain.

After the information is gathered, it is then carefully compiled and documented in the ATC’s official guidebooks, which include the Appalachian Trail Data Book and the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers’ Companion. Re-measurements and relocations result in the mileage changes, and the totals usually vary in some capacity each year.

This year, more than half of the changes in the mileage are in southwest Virginia, with 2 miles added to the total following a re-measurement by volunteers. Increases were also reported in New York-New Jersey (0.1 mile); central Virginia (0.1 mile); Tennessee-North Carolina (1.5 miles); and North Carolina-Georgia (0.2 mile). That brings the total to 2,189.2 miles versus last year’s 2,185.3!

So if you happen to be out on the Trail and you see someone rolling a weird-looking wheel, remember to say thanks—they’re probably making sure you have the most up-to-date information about the footpath we all love so much.

Want to get the latest official A.T. guidebooks and maps? Check out what we have at our Ultimate A.T. Store at www.atctrailstore.org. You can also call 1.888.287.8673 to place an order.