Supplement to Map #279

map

Fish Club Appalachian Trail Hike Background

For eight years I was an adult leader with a group that led middle school kids (ages 11 to 14) on an annual hike on parts of the Appalachian Trail. The hike was the brainchild of a Larry Mulder, the 60 something CEO of a local business who also volunteered as the leader of our church's "Fish Club" youth group. Larry has been section-hiking the AT for over twenty years and firmly believes that exposing young people to the physical challenge of hiking 40 to 50 miles with full backpacks, camping out and making meals is a rewarding experience - especially when looking back on it. Even though our group is from Western Michigan, he believes that for kids to be able to say they hiked part of the AT makes the adventure more memorable and the long drive to the trailhead worth it.

I began hiking with Larry when my kids wanted to hike the AT and ended up helping even after they were too old for Fish Club. The set up for the hike is there are two groups of hikers each with six to eight kids and two or three adults. On the years I went, I led one group and Larry led the other. We parked at opposite ends of the section we were to hike and camped together when we met in the middle. We typically covered 45 to 50+ miles (depending on the terrain of the particular year) on a four day hike. One of the side pleasures for me was I got to hike with a good friend who is a Sociology professor at the college where I run the Bookstore.

One feature of the hikes was Larry's reputation for competitiveness (not undeserved). He is a great guy with a huge heart for the kids and wants them all to succeed on the trail but he also wants to get their first! The joke was that he always got the kids up at 4:00am on the day we were to meet and feed them a quick gruel breakfast of cold gruel so that his group could arrive first and be lounging around with their tents already set up saying, "what took you guys so long?" Jim and I on the other hand had a kind of "laid back" reputation and didn't really see the value of pushing ourselves (let alone grumpy, sleep-deprived & hungry teenagers) just to win the gloating contest.

In the years I hiked the trail we experienced all kinds of weather, terrain and of course every kind of kid. Most of the kids took the preparation seriously. We did training hikes, helped with gear outfitting and stressed how much they needed to be ready for the trip. Still, hiking the sand dunes of West Michigan doesn't quite get you up to speed for some of the climbs on the Appalachian Trail and we had our share of blistered feet, sore legs and the occasional crying hiker. Jim and I still talk about one kid who complained on every uphill to the point where Jim (and Jim is a very patient man) threatened to "smear him with honey and leave him for the bears" if he didn't pick up the pace.

Rain was always the hardest thing to cope with on the trail, especially if you had to pack up wet gear in the morning since it added extra weight to the backpacks. It also made meal preparation really hard. Although there are small shelters along the trail, AT protocol is that they are reserved for "thru hikers" (hikers who are trying to complete the entire 2,100+ miles of the trail in one season) who often don't even carry tents due to the extra weight. As a result our groups camped out almost every night and I usually checked the local weather reports every day for the week before we left for the trail.

The 1998 Hike & Map

Unfortunately the 1998 hike was influenced by rain even before we got to the trailhead. On the drive from Michigan to New York the weather became increasingly ominous and the reports were for torrential rains that afternoon and evening. Our normal plan was for each group to drive to their respective starting points, camp overnight and hit the trail first thing in the morning. Larry was dogged in sticking to the plan but as Jim and I chatted in the van we decided to insist that we figure out how to spend a dry night. Larry finally caved in to our impeccable logic and we spent the night in the basement of our former pastor's church in Northern New Jersey (Dennis' Church on the map).

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The next day there was another night of rain in the forecast so we drove up to the trail and ended up day hiking with no packs on the section of the trail that included the "lemon squeezer". The Lemon Squeezer is a well-known AT feature that includes a narrow passage through the center of a huge broken rock formation. The rain held off that day and the wild rhododendrons were in full bloom so it felt like a "freebie" day on the trail.

After another basement night, Larry had had enough of "wussy camping" so we packed up our gear for real and drove to our respective trailheads. Jim and I led the "B" Group while Larry led the other (which I may have unconsciously labeled "A" on the map to coincide with his personality type - hmmm). The day was cool and misty; clearly the rain was not gone from the mountains.

As I look back at the map I made from that that hike I realize it was more about the story of the hike (at least from the "B" group's perspective) than a precise record of the distances, elevations, etc. I also wanted to give the kids a sense of what hills they climbed since the official AT trail maps, although very accurate topo maps, didn't mean that much to the average middle-schooler. (The official trail map section on the right shows the Hudson River crossing and "Anthony's Nose," a bare rock hill said to be named for a pre-Revolutionary War sea captain, Anthony Hogan.)

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As we continued our hike the first day the mist turned to a drizzle and the temperature dropped. By the time we stopped for lunch we decided to string a big tarp we carried between some trees so we could get out of the rain. Several of the girls in the group were shivering and even warming them with hot chocolate from a camp stove didn't seem to help. Jim and I were worried about the evening because the rain was supposed to get worse. I noticed on the trail map that there was a "day use" state park near the trail that had what appeared to be a picnic pavilion. We made the decision to take a 2 mile detour in hopes of finding some shelter for the night. After trudging along in the rain and darkening skies we finally reached the deserted park and a wonderful open pavilion with a large roof and (mostly dry) concrete floor.

The kids immediately threw off their packs and celebrated our luck. Most of our tents were self supporting so we set them up on the floor of the pavilion. Jim and I started the dinner preparation in a dry corner and the kids went off to explore. One thing about kids is they bounce back quickly. The rain had let up a bit and forgotten were the muddy trail hassles - they were out to explore. They found a nearby pond and decided to go fishing.

Gamma Gonzales was a neighborhood friend of my son's who had had some problems in school. He was kind of a colorful character and Larry had decided to allow him to go on the trip even though he wasn't really a member of the church youth group. Larry felt strongly in the redemptive power the Appalachian Trail and was convinced the trip would be a "good thing" for Gamma. Gamma had not trained very faithfully and struggled a lot the first day, but like the others was suddenly rejuvenated with the activity of exploring the empty park. When they discovered the pond it was Gamma's idea to go fishing - something he did occasionally with his dad. He rigged up a string on his hiking stick and fixed it with an open safety pin - I don't even know if he had any kind of bait. The other kids were sort of mocking him when suddenly this huge fish jumped clear out of the water nearby. Gamma yelled that he could "feel it yanking on the line" but just couldn't pull it in. Even though the fish got away, Gamma had earned a bit of respect as the group's savvy fisherman and everyone cheered up.

That night a huge storm let loose and for two or three hours the thunder and lighting were pretty scary. We were all glad to be in the shelter and even though with the blowing wind and semi-flooded floor we didn't stay totally dry in our tents. The next day we headed out to clearing skies. We were supposed to meet the "A" group for lunch since we were now down to three days of hiking. We were already running late because we had a two mile hike back to the main trail and we hadn't even gotten to the spot we were supposed to camp the previous night. Of course when we finally arrived at lunch, Larry's group had already eaten and they just waiting to rib us before heading on. Unlike us, they had "braved the wild night out in the open," on a field outside a monastery. As we parted ways and headed east one of the kids said to me, "you know, I was really happy last night in our shelter. It was fun to talk about the day's hiking and especially Gamma's big fish."

The last two days of the hike were fairly dry. Crossing the Hudson River was pretty cool and we treated the kids to an ice cream cone at Bear Mountain State Park. (Ah, civilization!) The climb up Bear Mountain burned that off in hurry as the last part of the trail was full of steep ups and downs. Our last day was a long one - almost 15 miles, and we were all getting tired, thinking about a shower and pizza as we rounded the corner of a rocky trail section. Suddenly Gamma, who was "trail leader" that afternoon, yelled out "SNAKE!" We stopped the group to take a look, thinking it was one of the many small garters and blue racers we had seen along the trail. Instead, what faced us right in the middle of the trail was a huge timber rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike. "Cool!" the kids all shouted, "S---!" said the leaders. The snake was laying on a warm rock, blocking the trail on a section that had a steep wall on one side and a sharp drop-off on the other. No way around. We hatched various plots to move the snake using sticks and stones but the snake was unimpressed. I even tried climbing around below the snake but after nearly falling down the rocky slope gave that up as too dangerous. After hour, the snake decided to move on its own accord and disappeared into a crack in the rock. We waited another 15 minutes and then moved on. The van was waiting just down the slope.

That's the story that goes with the map. After our triumphant (for the leaders that equals "safe") return, we mounted the map in the church commons hall with photos from the year's adventure. Later I made color copies for anyone who wanted one to stick in their journals.

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Mark Cook
Holland, Michigan

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