Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Start of the Trail

It has been an eventful first few days on the Appalachian Trail. In three days hiking I have completed just over 50 miles, seen some wonderful scenery, have been rained on and met some interesting characters along the way.

Along the early stages of the Appalachian Trail there is a big trail community. There are just so many hikers around whether out for a day or those planning to thru-hike the trail, it would be hard not to have the kind of camaraderie that has evolved. That being the case, it made my life easy for the last couple of days. There were no real hardships; everything I could have possibly wanted or needed was a short distance off the trail. I pretty much had everything I needed and knew what to expect, but there were others out there (like the woman I met who quit two days in) that needed a hand. Its always nice to have people out there to lend a hand as I am sure I will be needing help myself at some point.

Every year on the Appalachian Trail there are a fair number of people who intend to thru-hike but only a handful succeed. I have heard stories of people who have quit before even reaching the start on Springer Mountain. I was told that 20% don't make it past 30 miles. Some succumb to injury while others claim it is not what they expected. The phrase I hear quite often is "Hike your own hike". Every person has their own reason as to why they are on the trail.

To start my hike I was dropped off at Amicalola Falls State Park, an 8.9 miles hike just to the starting point of the Appalachian Trail on the summit of Springer Mountain. I signed in at the office and as I did, I thumbed through the register to see the particulars of some other people hiking the trail. One of the columns in the logbook is for pack weight. I weighed my pack on the scale just out front of the office and came in at 23 pounds including food and water. I saw some people having pack weights north of 60 pounds! It seemed that the average was about 40 pounds, but still, I wouldn’t want to carry that along the entire Appalachian mountain chain.

I lingered a bit at the bottom of the falls and much like the bike ride, it didn’t seem as it I was setting out on some journey, but rather going out for a day hike. I asked a woman to take a photo for me, which she happily did. As she walked off, she joked to her friend, "Hey, you want to walk to Maine". Little did they know it was my destination.

The hike up the falls is what I would describe as McHike. The trail was paved and had several hundred stairs leading up the falls. I climbed the stairs with some trepidation, as I didn’t want to blow out my knee before even getting to the start of the trail, but they held strong. I chatted with a few people on the way up the falls who wished me well. It finally started sinking in that I would be on a long, long hike. I relished it.

The top of the falls offered a wonderful vista, exposing the mountains in the distance. The trees were still mostly bare and the water in the river was icy cold to the touch. I had packed light, so I was just hoping the weather would cooperate. Beyond the waterfall the paved paths disappeared, as did the people. The path finally wound through the wilderness, giving me a little taste of what I would be up against in the coming months. The path was rocky, but well worn, leaving little doubt as to which way to go.

It took me a little over 3 hours, but eventually I reached the starting line, Springer Mountain. I paused to look at the view from the top of the mountain and as I did so it started to rain. A harbinger for the first few days of the trip. I quickly signed the register that keeps track of people coming along the trail. I signed as "Magellan". It is tradition hiking the Appalachian Trail that one takes on a trail name. I was given the name Magellan by my friends Matt and Paul when we did the Vermont section hike in September 2007, due to my round the world travel. It certainly beat "Kung Pao" and "Sleeps with Squaws" as Matt and Paul were known.

I made my way to a nearby shelter where I was going to be spending the night and got settled in. Before long I was joined by one other guy who was planning to thru-hike the trail. He had blisters the size of silver dollars on both of his heels and the hike hadn’t even started yet. I was glad I wasn’t him. My feet were in fairly good shape with only the smallest blister on one of my toes.

From my experience on the trail I knew that all of the shelters had mice that frequented them. It is just the way it is and mice aren’t that dumb. Just look at Jerry. He always seems to outsmart Tom. Being wise to the whole mouse scenario I hung my food on the bear cables, as everyone is encouraged to do for bear deterrent purposes. I even hung my pack inside the shelter to keep it off the ground.

For my first night out in the woods I got a fair nights sleep. It always takes me a few days to get used to sleeping on a thin mat and confined in a sleeping bag. I was woken a handful of times by the mice running about the shelter. I could feel the vibration from their little footsteps as they ran about. I didn’t care; I am willing to share, even if it is with mice. They probably want to come out of the cold rain as well.

When I woke up in the morning and grabbed my backpack, it was literally crawling with mice. I had absolutely nothing of interest for a mouse to eat in there, but nonetheless, they were using my bag as a jungle gym. I counted five mice in total. The first three sort of scurried away while I had to prod two others to get them to move on. While there was no food, the mice thought it would be funny if they were to eat one of my sock liners. The sock liner was brand new, never even worn, so there was no scent they could have been attracted to, but there I was, with a chewed up sock liner. I wanted to hike lightweight, now I was a sock liner lighter.

I didn’t feel like eating breakfast, as I wanted to set off on the trail. I went back up to the summit of the mountain to make my official beginning on a grey overcast morning. I was only planning on hiking 15 miles for the day, so planned on stopping for a few hours around lunchtime to rest my feet. The mornings hike followed the up and down that one might expect hiking in mountains. The downhill sections wreaked havoc on my knees as the tendons weren’t used to that kind of treatment. I tread gingerly going downhill. Going up though was a breeze. I was able to cruise up any and all uphill sections without so much as being winded on all but the steepest and most prolonged climbs. I knew riding a bicycle across the country would be beneficial in the mountains. I think I like climbing hills while hiking better than on a bike.

By mid morning I stopped to have a bite to eat. I stopped by a shelter where most thru-hikers would spend their first night, about eight miles along the trail. I figured there were a large number of people staying at the shelter given all the gear that was there. As it turned out, it was all the gear that was abandoned by hikers after their first day on the trail. There was piles of clothing, toiletries, a pair of boots, a day pack, a camera case and a samurai sword. Yes, a samurai sword. As I went over to my bag to grab some food I saw some rustling going on inside. Apparently, there were six mice in my bag, this one hitching a ride eight miles up the trail. I was rather annoyed as he crapped in my bag, but I was able to find antiseptic wipes among all the other gear piled in the shelter. I will just say that it didn’t end well for the mouse.

The weather has been rather poor to start the trip, but I am not about to complain. Probably the most annoying thing is that when I climb up a mountain and expect a scenic vista, all I get is lots of fog. There was one point where visibility was no more than 100 feet. I was also glad to get the first heavy downpour out of the way. It just reinforced my belief that it wasn’t that bad. The rain was much warmer than the rain I had on my bike ride though. The rain also softened up the ground so as to lessen the pounding on my knees.

Wildlife, other than mice, has been sparse. I have come across the usual birds, squirrels and chipmunks. The only uncommon thing I had seen was a turkey. While I hadn’t seen any bears, I was told by some other hikers that there was a bear sighting in the area the day before I passed through.

After being on the trail for three days I had the option to stay someplace out of the woods. I waffled as to weather I wanted to sleep in a bed or not, but in the end decided to get away from the mice. As it turned out I had made the right decision. The temperature overnight dropped down to the low 30’s. It also rained most of the night. In my ultra lightweight sleeping bag I would have had a rough night out. I am guessing it was snow, or at least sleet on the mountain.

So I found myself sitting in the Jacuzzi, relaxing. After that I watched a hockey game. It was a pretty easy life for supposedly hiking the Appalachian Trail. As it turned out, Frank, the gentleman running the place is an avid fisherman. After chatting a bit he mentioned that he would be going out the following day and invited me to join him. How could a boy resist? I was only on the trail for three days so didn’t really want to stop, but after missing out on similar opportunities on my bike ride, I couldn’t turn this down. We fished from kayaks and even caught a few fish.

Tonight is supposed to be colder than last night, so I am not disappointed that I am indoors again. I will be back out on the trail tomorrow and will hopefully start picking up the pace. I have so many stories to tell, but I would be sitting here all night typing.

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