In 2011, I thru-paddled the 740-mile long Northern Forest Canoe Trail. I was a 2016 A.T. flip-flopper, but my thru-hike attempt ended after 1300 miles. I started in Shenandoah National Park and four months later I summited Mt. Katahdin on August 23. Turns out, I did miss being on water instead of worrying about finding and carrying it. When I returned home after Katahdin, I headed up to Ely, Minnesota unwinding with a little 150-mile, two-week solo canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Wilderness. During the winter, I decided I should finish what I started and headed back to the A.T. on May 2, 2017 departing from Springer Mountain. I arrived at Rockfish Gap on June 30, amidst families taking photos by the park entrance and wondering why anyone would be tearing up so much by a roadside sign.
“There was no hiding. The rain shot at Harold’s waterproof jacket and down his neck, and even up the elasticize rims of his sleeves. The drops hit like peppercorns. Late in the afternoon, the rain stopped so abruptly it was hard to credit there had been any at all."
Common Loons are the siren call of summer and poster children to wilderness. They are embossed upon Minnesota license plates and appear on the eleven-sided, one-dollar “loonie” Canadian coin. They are the uncredited backup singers to every TV fishing show.
The water trail not only attracts paddling enthusiasts, but some Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have also thru-paddled the Northern Forest Canoe, a few hardy souls even completing both trails within the same calendar year.
And just like that, it was done. I didn’t beat the odds of finishing a thru-hike in one year, but I did finish what I started. Ultimately I proved to myself that I possess the stamina of a sled dog. Or the stubbornness of an ass. Or the persistence of a three-year old who refuses to go to sleep even after reading several books, a drink of water, numerous hugs and kisses and one extremely long backrub.
I hadn't planned it to be this way, but my 2000-mile milestone arrived darn close to iconic McAfee Knob. McAfee Knob and the Katahdin terminus sign are unquestionably two of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail. Katahdin represents a completion, a pinnacle at the end of a long journey. It’s the icing on the cake. With a cherry on top.
Besides shelters and the homes of friends and strangers, hostels and hotels form the trifecta of hiker refuges. Each hostel and hotel found along the Appalachian Trail is as different as the ingredients found in a protein bar. Some are basic, others more decadent. All usually satisfying on some level.
After now hiking 1800 miles in total, I've noticed a few differences between starting almost midway versus starting at the southern terminus in Georgia.
Having people to visit, meals to be shared, places to stay, even a wedding to attend, became my metaphorical dangling carrot(s). Except unlike the horse/donkey/mule who never actually gets to eat the carrot, I was constantly being rewarded by systematically reaching it.
Shelters become nightly community social hubs after a long day of hiking, despite the lack of privacy, despite the snoring and despite the less than stellar accommodations.
Like migrating geese and spawning salmon, I find myself moving in and out of formations, stronger hikers pass me and I pass others struggling.