Lost and Alone: A Solo Thru-Hiker’s Perspective

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26 days lost, alone, and starving. Inchworm (Geraldine Largay) had gotten lost while backpacking along the Appalachian Trail and had survived for at least 26 days before perishing in the backwoods of Maine. I didn’t want to imagine it, but as I read the heart-wrenching words in her journal, imploring whoever found her body to let her loved ones know that she was dead and where to find her, I couldn’t help it. It’s the kind of thing that both tragic heroes and horror stories are made of.

I’d had similar thoughts in far less dire circumstances on my solo PCT thru-hike in 2014. Deep in the high sierra, alone, exhausted, hungry, and trudging through the snow with no trail in sight, no people in sight, and surrounded by nameless white peaks I was was overwhelmed by the realization that if I was truly lost, I might die out there and my body might never be found. I’d thought that I’d come terms with the risks and solitude of solo backpacking, but the thought that if something happened to me my family and the people I cared about might not even find my body… it haunted me as I doggedly plunged through the snow, postholing along the route where I imagined the trail to be.

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As it turns out, I wasn’t lost. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Sure, I’d like to imagine that my experience, my GPS, my map, and my compass, would prevent me from ending up in a situation like Inchworm’s, but I have enough experience to know that sh** happens, the mountains are unforgiving, and nobody is perfect.

Instead of second guessing Inchworm’s decisions and her personal character (read this article in the New York Times and this one in the Portland Press Herald if you want to reassure yourself that this could never happen to you because you’re a better outdoors-person than Inchworm was), let’s take a more objective look at how prepared she was.

Bushwhacking through the dense forest in Maine a couple of miles away from where Inchworm was found.

Did she have the “10 essential” pieces of gear every hiker should carry?

She had at least 9/10 of the essentials listed on the HikeSafe website:

  1. Map (yes)
  2. Compass (yes)
  3. Warm Clothing (yes)
  4. Extra Food and Water (yes)
  5. Flashlight or Headlamp (yes)
  6. Matches/Firestarters (yes)
  7. First Aid Kit/Repair Kit (yes)
  8. Whistle (yes)
  9. Rain/Wind Jacket & Pants (yes)
  10. Pocket Knife (unknown to me)

It looks to me like she was fairly well prepared (in terms of gear). Besides, she had enough stuff so that she was able to survive for 26 days after getting lost, which is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.

FYI: Many thru-hikers I know skimp on this list (especially the map, compass, and whistle). I didn’t carry an emergency whistle on my AT thru-hike until I was gifted one by the folks at the Mt. Washington Observatory on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I’ve carried it ever since.

Did she share her travel plan?

According to the HikeSafe website you should “tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.”

Inchworm shared her travel plan. Her husband knew her planned 3-day itinerary, saw her off, and planned to meet her at the next trail intersection.

Graphic: James Abundis/Globe Staff (Note that peak labeled Redington Mountain is not the 4000 footer; Redington Mt. is unlabeled)

Did she S.T.O.P.? (Stop, think, observe, plan)

If you get lost on an outdoor adventure, the general advice is that you should stop (or sit), think, observe, and plan (STOP). All of the evidence suggests that Inchworm did stop, think, observe, and plan, although it can be argued that she should have stopped sooner. The more detailed advice provided by Hike Safe says, “if the last known location is within a reasonable distance, try to go back to it. If you can’t find any recognizable landmarks by backtracking, stay put,” and further elaborates, “you may need to be on higher ground in order to identify landmarks such as streams and ridges.”

The evidence suggests that Inchworm followed this advice, perhaps to a fault. After realizing she was lost she headed to higher ground to try to get her bearings (and to try to get cell phone service) and then she stayed put. With 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to criticize her decision to stay put, but “staying put” and “charging on” are both considered reasonable actions after a few days of waiting for rescue according to some sources.

Did she do the “5 things” you should do if you can’t rescue yourself?

According to hike safe the 5 things you should do if you can’t rescue yourself are:

  1. Stay warm and protect yourself from the elements. If possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.
  2. Try to remain hydrated.
  3. Put bright clothing on, or put out something that’s bright to attract attention.
  4. Continue to blow your whistle at regular intervals
  5. Don’t lie on bare ground. Use the equipment you brought to protect yourself from the elements.

At first glance the evidence suggests that Inchworm did all 5 things. However, there’s that second sentence in step 1, “if possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.” Inchworm’s camp was in a warm and protected space, but it wasn’t readily visible from the air and ground. It seems likely that she looked for an open space and didn’t find one, so opted for higher ground not knowing that there was a nearby ATV road. There is evidence that she tried to increase here visibility by hanging her mylar blanket in the trees and there’s eveidence that she tried to light signal fires.

A campsite in an open area near the Appalachian Trail in Vermont

FYI: Open spaces can be hard to come by in New England’s backcountry, and most of us are used to pitching our tents under the cover of trees. This is especially true since we know that the fields are full of ticks (Lyme Disease is endemic), and camping is strictly prohibited in most other open areas along the trails in the Northeast. “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you” is a helpful reminder if you’re only hope is a helicopter rescue. It’s also important to know that most searches on the ground never get more than 1/2 a days hike from the nearest road, so if you’re backpacking in a remote area you’re best hope is probably going to be getting sighted by someone in the air.

Conclusion

Based on the Hike Safe Hiker Responsibility code developed by the White Mountains National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game, I’d have to declare Inchworm a responsible (and prepared) hiker. In TV survival shows like Naked and Afraid they drop people into the wilds and see if they can survive for 21 days. Inchworm survived for at least 26 days in the wild, and in my opinion that deserves a heck of a lot of respect. Misfortune, tragedy, and death should not be mistaken lack of preparedness, lack of moral fiber, or irresponsibility. Were there things that she could have done differently? Undoubtedly. Does the evidence suggest that she was ill-prepared, or incompetent? No.

Our Role: The Hiking Community

Although there has been lots of discussion about what Inchworm did wrong, and a lot of second-guessing of her actions, I haven’t seen much reflection on what we, as a hiking community, could have done better, or things that search and rescue could have done differently. Take a look at the reduced search area where efforts were focused after the first 7 days.

Map of the narrowed search area for Inchworm

Now take a look at the location where Inchworm was found.

Though earlier searches had come very close to her actual location, later searches focused on a different section of the trail. Why? How did they end up focusing on the wrong stretch of trail? I’m sure that there are a lot of reasons, but one contributing factor could be “a tip the warden service received about a hiker who reportedly stayed with Largay at the Spaulding Mountain lean-to the night before she was reported missing.” Certainly when I hiked through the area in late September the prevailing opinion was that she had gotten lost somewhere between the summit of Lone Mountain and the Carrabassett River (and I’d thought that the river might have done her in). We were all wrong.

She’d made a wrong turn at Orbeton Stream, and was found  much closer to the Poplar Ridge Lean-to than anyone expected (GPS Coordinates of her final location: N44 59.011 W70 24.099). When you look at the time, effort, and heart that went into the search for her by both search and rescue and the hiking community it’s impossible to find fault, but it is a reminder that we should be careful when trusting our memories, and with our reporting of events.

This map shows the tracks of searchers and the location where the remains of Geraldine Largay were found.

Heartbreaking map of the search areas, with a yellow dot showing Inchworm’s final location.

Yeah, but what did she do wrong?

Let’s take a look at the things people say that Inchworm did wrong.

Inchworm hiked alone. Inchworm started out with a hiking partner, but when her hiking partner got off of the trail due to a family emergency she decided to continue on. Although there is no guarantee that hiking with others will keep you safe, there is also no doubt that there is “safety in numbers,” and Inchworm was hiking alone when she got lost.  There are lots of reasons why people hike alone. I always invite other people to join me on my adventures, but when I can’t find people to join me, I frequently make the decision to hike alone. I love hiking and backpacking, and I have no intention of letting the fact that I’m solo deter me from following my dreams. For me, the benefit is worth the risk. That said, I try to minimize that risk as much as I can… lost, alone, and starving to death is not my idea of a good time!

Inchworm may not have known how to use her compass. Inchworm’s friend Jane Lee said that even though Inchworm carried a compass she didn’t know how to use it. Regardless of whether or not this assertion is true, it serves as an important reminder that your safety gear is useless if you don’t know how to use it. If you are a hiker that carries a compass, when is the last time that you used it? Chances are pretty good that a little practice and review with a map and compass would do you good. I think that it is also worth noting that most of the “concerning evidence” reported about Inchworm’s incompetence comes from the hiking partner who had to leave Inchworm and the trail because of a family emergency. As her hiking partner is human, it is incredibly likely that Inchworm’s disappearance was traumatic for her and that she was struggling to understand her friend’s disappearance and trying to bridge the gap between knowing that her friend’s disappearance was not her fault, and feeling like Inchworm wouldn’t have gotten lost if she had still been there hiking with her… Coming to terms with those feeling in the immediate aftermath of Inchworm’s disappearance may have caused her to overemphasize her concerns.

My impromptu backcountry campsite nestled under the trees near Mt. Abraham in Maine

Inchworm stayed in one place for too long. This criticism largely seems like a hindsight is 20/20 kind of issue. Inchworm followed conventional wisdom, sheltering in place, near water, and minimizing her hypothermia risks. I haven’t seen any guidelines that say that you should abandon your camp and move on if rescue hasn’t arrived within a day or two (please comment and share if you’ve found any). Bumbling around in the woods, especially after you’re been lost and when you have a dwindling supply of food, puts you at a high risk of injury and will cause you to burn calories and eat through your resources more quickly. I don’t think Inchworm stayed in one place for too long, it is more likely that she stayed in the wrong place for too long.

Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her. The missing person’s report states “SPOT@hotel.” Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her! Why? Why would it be listed as “SPOT@hotel”? Why didn’t she have it with her? My guess is that it’s absence from her gear and her person was 100% accidental. Why she’d taken it out of/off of her pack we may never know (perhaps to replace the batteries?), but this is the most tragic example of “your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you” that I have ever heard! Would Inchworm have been found? Would she be alive today if she’d had her locator device with her and activated it? Probably. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes! Your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you!

An InReach satellite messenger lent to me by my friend Root Beer Float

What would I do differently?

If I get lost, I want to get found!! When I think about what I could do differently one thing immediately comes to mind. I can carry some sort of personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger with me. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be found and rescued, (Kate Matrosova had a GPS, a PLB, and a sat phone with her when she perished in the White Mountains in the winter of 2015), but it certainly increases the chances.

The only question is, which device should I carry? Since I’m looking for a device/technology that my life may depend on, I’ve done a lot of research on the current SOS/locator/messenger technology and devices available. Stay tuned for my analysis, gear-review, and decision based on the three main options:

For more information on what you should do if you get lost and how to avoid getting lost, check out NOHLs “What to do when you’re lost in the woods” post.

USGS Topo Map showing the GPS Coordinates where Inchworm was found along with the AT and 4WD roads nearby.

‘Tis the Season for High-Vis Hiking… (Hunting, blaze orange, a high-vis gearlist and more)

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The sound of gunfire shattered the stillness of the trail. “Oh, shit!” I thought. “It’s still hunting season!” Once again I’d forgotten that the winter hiking and backpacking season was also hunting season. I paused, trying to remember where my blaze orange was… Doh!! The answer was nowhere useful. I have a blaze orange hiking T-shirt that I wear in the fall, along with a blaze orange reflective baseball cap-I love them both. I also have a blaze orange expedition parka, but I don’t have any blaze orange for the in-between-winter season. Clearly, I needed more blaze orange backpacking gear. The only problem was that I needed it right then!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!

“Pop!” another shot went off, “Pop!,” And then another. I frowned as the AT was bringing me closer to the hunters and not further away from them. As a 4-season hiker and backpacker I share the mountains and the woods with hunters; I just want to make sure that I do it as safely as possible. That means being both seen and heard! Since I didn’t have enough blaze orange on, and my path was predetermined by the route of the Appalachian Trail, I opted to make my presence known with the only tool I had on hand: my voice. I started singing. Loudly:

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

As I hiked through Vermont singing, I remembered that I’d run into this same issue last year on a section-hike of the New England Trail during the week between Christmas and New Years. I’d known that the regular deer hunting season ended by the second-week of December, but I’d failed to take into account the ‘primitive firearms’ season which runs until December 31 each year. On that trip I ran into five hunters for every deer track I’d seen. Even though they’d surprised me, I hadn’t surprised them. All of the hunters had both heard and seen me coming long before I’d seen them; still, I’d like to give them as much advanced notice as possible!

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September through November I always remember that it’s hunting season and I wear my blaze orange, but for some reason in late December I forget that there are still plenty of people in the woods with guns that are shooting at things. I don’t want them to accidentally shoot me, so I want to make it as easy as possible for them to see me, and avoid me… blaze orange it is, but, how much blaze orange should I be wearing as I wander through the woods in the winter? (Check out the educational video below, which has information about how much hunter orange you need, and how visible it is).

The safe bet seems to be to wear the same amount of blaze orange they recommend that the hunters wear: a blaze orange hat during most of the hunting season and 500 square inches of blaze orange on the head, chest, and back during shotgun season. Perhaps due to my motorcycling background I figure if I I’m going with high-visibility for hunters, I might as well go high-vis all the way, so here’s my high-vis hiking gearlist/wishlist:

Once I have my blaze orange gear, the tricky part is remembering when hunting season actually is so that I’ll know when I’ll need wear it… The answer varies by state (check the listings near the bottom of the post), but it’s a good bet that you should be wearing blaze orange whenever you go out into the backcountry between September and May. For example, in Massachusetts hunting season started on September 8, 2015 (with deer archery season), and will extend until May 23, 2016 with the end of wild turkey season.

Is hunting really allowed on national scenic trails like the Appalachian Trail?

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Yes! Hunting is allowed along most of the Appalachian Trail, or at least 1,250 miles of it according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. For a large portion of the remaining 900ish miles, hunting is allowed just outside the 1000-foot wide AT corridor. On my thru-hikes I’ve encountered a fair number of hunters on the trails: on my 2013 AT thru-hike I ran into turkey hunters on the trail in Georgia and North Carolina in May, as well as moose hunters in Maine in October. On my 2014 PCT thru-hike I ran into hunters in the woods of both Oregon and Washington, and on the New England Scenic Trail I ran into dozens of hunters in late December.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

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As a thru-hiker I’ve heard gunfire on the trail so often that I’ve started to recognize, and be able to tell the difference in, the patterns of sound between: people firing at clubs and ranges (there’s a spot on the AT in Pennsylvania where the firing range sounds disturbingly close to the AT), people randomly firing at objects and targets (hiking through the desert on the PCT provided plenty of data points for that), and hunters firing at game (see above)…

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

As if the sound of frequent gunfire wasn’t enough evidence of gun use on the trail, on the PCT there were shell casings all over the trail… I ended up making a game of keeping track of each new type of casing I saw, just like I was keeping track of each new type of flower: there were casing from handguns, shotguns, and rifles in all shapes and sizes… Too many to count! Thru-hikers have a tendency to write-out the mile-markers for the long-distance trails using sticks, stones, and pine cones. But near mile 500 of the PCT the only thing around were shell-casings, so I made my mile-marker out of them :-P

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Since there are plenty of folks with guns out there, take a minute to review your local hunting seasons and land-use rules before heading into the woods this winter, and remember to wear plenty of blaze orange! Below are links to hunting information for the states that the AT, the PCT, and the Florida Trail cross through, along with a rough range of the current hunting season to give you a sense for why you want your blaze orange if you are thinking about doing a lot of winter hiking, or setting off on a thru-hike:

Hunting Seasons on the Appalachian Trail:

Hunting Season for the PCT:

Hunting Season for the Florida Trail:

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***

All together now, let’s sing (To the tune of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song):

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I sleep all night and I hike all day
I’ve got a pack, upon my back
And boots upon my feet.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I’m not a doe and I’m not a steer
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I hear gunshots, I eat my lunch,
I go to the lava-try.
I follow the white blazes
Singing loudly and off key

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like Bambi stew, and duck confit
My whiskey strong and neat.
I should be wearing orange
Now wouldn’t that be sweet!

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

Women are on social media and in the outdoors?! This can’t be real life!!!

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The internet was suddenly a buzz, “outdoor women are faking it!” The world of social media was aghast because a 19-year-old model from Australia had exposed the raw underbelly of her reality… The photos she posted to her Instagram account were staged, shot by a professional photographer, and she wasn’t actually having any fun at all!!! Color me shocked, shocked I tell you! With headlines like: “Essena O’Neill: The Instagram Star Who Quit Social Media,” it didn’t start off as a story that would get my attention, but before long the internet had worked it’s magic and morphed her outcry into an area that fell squarely into my lap… an article that seemed to question the legitimacy of outdoor women on social media, “Op Ed: Is This Real Life? Outdoor Women on Social Media,” started showing up all over my social networks.

As an outdoors woman that uses social media, I couldn’t help but follow the link and take a look at its contents:

“Recently, Australian model and Instagram sensation Essena O’Neill posted a rant on YouTube that has since gone viral, insisting that  social media is not real…..”

“These assertions feel more and more applicable to the outdoor community on Instagram as a relatively new type of account seems to be popping up all over the place: the everyday-woman-turned-outdoor-model.”

“You’ve probably seen it before. The classic wide-angle shot of a woman standing in front of a sweeping vista, waist-length  hair tucked under a backwards hat or beanie made by a small start-up gear company, patterned-legging bedecked legs that don’t touch, accompanied by a generic quote telling you what happiness is. She’s not a professional athlete or photographer, just a gal with great hair who likes to get outside…”

The article went on to describe the tell-tale signs that these women are fakers… mostly that they look too good to be true: wearing inappropriate clothing, fresh make-up, and having clean/brushed hair… this was all just a lead up to their final argument, however, that outdoor women on social media are not to be trusted… that if they tag a company, or if you see product labels in their photos, they are probably posers… nothing more than corporate pawns… Advertisements masquerading as beautiful women!

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By the time I finished reading the article I was feeling self-conscious about my Instagram posts… I don’t have any corporate sponsors (never have), but outdoor gear companies put their logos on everything, and I’m sure that those logos show up in some of my photos… I’ve even occasionally tagged products that I’m using when it feels relevant to my photo or post… Were people going to assume that I wasn’t a “real” outdoor adventurer because I excitedly posted about my Oru Kayak when I first got it?

“No, of course not,” I laughed to myself, “that would be ridiculous!” But I found myself opening up my Instagram account anyway…  I’m not sure what I thought I would find, but I was genuinely surprised to discover that in the 12 hrs since the article had been published 30 people (~5% of my followers) had decided to unfollow my account… That may not seem like a lot, but in the two years I’ve been on Instagram the number of followers I have occasionally goes up, frequently stays constant, but never goes down by more than one or two people in a week… nevermind 30 in under a day!

Did anybody really think that I was the “everday-woman-turned-outdoor-model” that the article was talking about? That seemed pretty ridiculous to me… Sure, I take shots standing in front of sweeping vistas (more after my mom started complaining that I was never actually in any of my photos), and I have to admit that I tend not to post the pictures that I feel like I look horrible in, but really?! It seemed laughable, but I didn’t want anyone to think that I’d sold out, so I hastily added a line to my Instagram profile,”I don’t get paid to to this, I do it because I love it!”

I immediately felt guilty for feeling the need to post the disclaimer… I would love to get paid to be an outdoor adventurer, to write about those adventures, to photograph my adventures… Getting paid to do those things isn’t something that people should feel ashamed about! The line between genuine social media content, and ‘stealth’ social media advertisements is a huge issue, which is partially addressed in the follow-up article, “Our Audience Weighs In: What is “Real,” What Is “Fake” In Outdoor Social Media?”, but it seems like we should direct our ire at the corporations exploiting outdoor adventurers (and women) for cheap advertising, instead of targeting the individuals desperately trying to find ways to fund their passions!

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I thought very seriously about trying to get corporate sponsors when I set off for my second thru-hike… My finances were limited, and it seemed like a reasonable approach to try to keep doing the thing I love for as long as possible. Unfortunately many of the sponsorships seemed like a bad deal… “You want me to do what? And in return you’ll give me a pair of hiking boots?” I ultimately decided that I would rather be broke than to sell my soul for a pair of hiking boots, and besides, I hadn’t hit the bottom of the barrel yet… For the people that are out there trying to live the dream full-time, for extended periods of time, however, the issues involved with sponsorship can become very complicated. If you’re interested in the pros and cons associated with sponsorships and what’s involved in getting them for “everyday adventurers” check out these links:

Okay, so the issue of corporate sponsorships and social media are real, but is there more of a problem with the “everday-woman-turned-outdoor-model” than there is with the “everyday-man-turned-outdoor-model”?

Every time I thumb through my Instagram feed, I am faced with photograph after photograph of young, long-haired women in brightly colored gear against jaw-dropping natural landscapes.”

I suppose if all of the people you follow on Instagram are young, long-haired outdoors women with brightly colored gear, that’s all you’ll see on Instagram… My Instagram feed looks substantially different than that, and if I had to guess, I’d guess that majority of the people in my feeds are men, but since most of the people I met on the trail were men, that wasn’t too surprising. I assumed that the distribution of men and women in sponsored media was probably closer to 50:50, but it wasn’t something that I’d even paid much attention to.

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But it seemed like the original article was begging the question, “Is there a gender bias in outdoor advertising on instagram?” and “Are we being flooded by photos of young, long-haired women by outdoor companies on Instagram?” They were suddenly questions that seemed worth looking into, so instead of counting sheep as I lay in bed that night, I decided to count the gender distribution of Instagram photos from a few popular outdoor companies**:

  • Oru Kayak: 34% women (37 men, 19 women, n=56)
  • REI: 38% women (37 men, 23 women, n=60)
  • Mountain Lite: 30% women (32 men, 14 women, n=46)
    • women portrayed tended to have long, blond hair
  • Mountain Hardware: 26% women (34 men, 12 women, n=46)
  • Patagonia: 28% women (42 men, 17 women, n=59)
    • massive gender bias in depicted activities
  • Backpacker Magazine: 46% women (31 men, 27 women, n=58)
  • Outdoor Research: 18% women (50 men, 11 women, n= 61)
    • photos of women biased towards looking more staged and less rugged

I was stunned by what I found… although I hadn’t noticed it before, the gender distribution in the sponsored outdoor media I looked through was not 50:50 as I’d assumed! Of 340 sponsored photos, 36% (123) were of women, and 64% (217) were of men… If anything, these numbers seemed to imply that there are more men ‘faking it’ than women! Although all of the companies portrayed more men than women, three of the companies showed a startling bias in the way they portrayed women (Outdoor Reaseach, Patagonia, and Mountain Lite), trending towards showing women in less active, more staged-looking shots, with a seemingly strong bias towards portraying women with long, blond hair.

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So, if you are asking the question, “Is this real?” there’s no reason to expect that the ‘outdoor women’ you see on social media are any less real than the ‘outdoor men’… Sure, if someone looks like they are wearing new, incredibly clean gear that may or may not be appropriate for the situation, it’s possible that the photo is staged, or that they are a novice, but that’s true regardless of the gender of the subject. It is also possible that if a woman looks freshly made-up, or if I guy looks freshly shaved, that the photo is staged… It’s also possible that they pride themselves on their appearance regardless of the situation that they’re in (I know women that carry make-up kits, and men that carry shaving-kits, even while backpacking).

“I think it comes down to whether your Instagram is about your life, or if your life is about your Instagram. The first category is full of women who are getting outside and doing them because they love it, whether it is their paid job to do so or not, and post photos that reflect the life they are living. The second is full of women who appear to be orchestrating their lives (and in some cases, social-media-driven careers) around posting a photo that will garner the highest amount of likes.

To me, this seems to defeat the entire purpose of going outside in the first place—of getting away from things you can plug in and interacting with the world around you. Of looking out and up at the grandness of our planet and not down at a tiny screen. Of being in the moment instead of orchestrating it.”

What it really comes down to is being an intelligent consumer of social media; do your research, know what you’re liking, and why you’re liking it. Stealth advertising, and targeted advertising campaigns are becoming a bigger and bigger part of our realities, and discussions about how we handle that now and in the future are important (this is the discussion that I believe “Op Ed: Is This Real Life? Outdoor Women on Social Media,” was really aiming it). The media (and advertising campaigns in particular) have a tendency to objectify and sexualize women in an attempt to increase sales, and discussions about how that impacts our culture and interactions with women and girls is important (this is the discussion that I believe Essena O’Neils original rant was targeted at).

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Finally, let me sum up with my two cents about a question that almost always seems to come up when people are criticizing outdoors people (both men and women), who take pictures of, and post to social media about, the outdoors, “What is the purpose of going outside in the first place?” In my experience, the answer to that question varies a lot by person, and can even depend on the day… At the core, the reason that I go outside can primarily be summed up as “the pursuit of happiness”… Sometimes I want to get lost in the grandness of our planet; sometimes I want to connect with my environment; sometimes I want to disconnect from technology; and sometimes I want to create art by capturing the beauty of a moment in a carefully timed and orchestrated photograph that I can post to social media so that I can share a slice of the beauty and happiness I find in the outdoors with other people…

When it comes to hiking and taking pictures I get to do what I love, and I love what I do… Social media won’t change that.

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**Note: I tried to count enough photos from each company to capture a broad enough sample to be representative of the overall content of the site; photos were counted consecutively, beginning with the most recent when I began counting; huge variability was present in sample sizes smaller than 10

7 Movies to Watch Instead of ‘A Walk in the Woods’

I didn’t love the movie ‘A Walk in the Woods… In fact, most people didn’t… Overall, I think that going for a short walk or hike would have been a much better use of my 104 minutes. However, there are days (typically the cold and rainy ones) when I don’t want to go outside and decide to stay inside and watch a movie. Since I’m a thru-hiker (LT ’98, AT ’13, PCT ’14) and have grown up loving the outdoors, it’s probably not a surprise that I gravitate towards movies featuring outdoor adventures and travel. Here are some of the movies about long walks that I’d recommend watching instead of ‘A Walk in the Woods’ (most are available on Netflix or Amazon):

  1. If you’re looking for a movie about the Appalachian Trail, check out:
    • The Appalachian Trail (7/10)
      • This National Geographic documentary explores scenery, wildlife, and some of the current issues facing the Appalachian Trail.
      • Genre: Documentary
      • Release Date: 2009
  2. If you’re looking for a buddy movie involving a long walk and fantastical adventures, check out:
    • Lord of the Rings (9/10)
      • This series of three fantastical adventure movies features two childhood friends, Frodo and Samwise, as they embark upon an epic journey that will shape their lives forever… I absolutely loved these movies, especially the first one, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).
      • Genres: Adventure, Fantasy
      • Release Dates: 2001, 2002, and 2003, Director: Peter Jackson
      • Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, and Sean Astin
  3.  If you’re looking for a movie about a long walk and issues associated with aging and retirement, check out:
    • Redwood Highway (8/10)
      • A drama/comedy about a stubborn older woman (in her ’70s) that decides to walk from her retirement home to her granddaughter’s wedding… Redwood Highway deals with some of the complex issues associated with aging and retirement, and has a more realistic approach to walking than A Walk in the Woods… It even manages to do it with a side of comedy! I would watch it again.
      • Genre: Drama
      • Release Date: April 5, 2013, Director: Gary Lundgren
      • Starring: Shirley Knight, Tom Skerritt, Danforth Comins
  4. If you’re looking for a movie about a long walk, mid-life crises, and personal transformation, check out:
    • The Way (8/10)
      • A drama about a middle-aged man who goes for a long walk on “El Camino de Santiago” as he deals with the death of his estranged son. The Way is a movie about walking, friendship, midlife crises, and personal transformation.
      • Genres: Adventure, Comedy, Drama
      • Release Date: October 7, 2011 (USA), Director: Director: Emilio Estevez
      • Starring: Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Deborah Kara Unger
  5. If you’re looking for a movie about long walks, youthful arrogance, and personal transformation, check out:
    • Seven Years in Tibet (8/10)
      • A drama about the personal transformation of an arrogant mountaineer who ends up befriending the Dalai Lama.
      • Genres: Adventure, Biography, Drama, History, and War
      • Release Date: October 10, 1997 (USA), Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
      • Starring: Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, BD Wong
  6. If you’re looking for a movie about long walks, childhood perseverance, and Australian history check out:
    • Rabbit-Proof Fence (9/10)
      • A drama about three young aboriginal girls that escape from a government camp and go on a long walk trying to get home… The story is tragic, haunting, and yet uplifting…
      • Genres: Adventure, Biography, Drama, and History
      • Release Date: January 31, 2003 (USA), Director: Philip Noyse
      • Starring: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Kenneth Branagh
  7. If you’re looking for a movie about hikers, friendship, and the beauty of the High Sierras, check out:
    • Mile, Mile and a Half (9/10)
      • A documentary about a group of friends (5 artists) that set out to hike the John Muir Trail and attempt to capture the beautiful sights, sounds, and images of the High Sierra along the way… The film is well done, breathtakingly gorgeous, and captures some of the thoughts, pain, and emotions of people that hike hundreds of miles of trail for the pure joy and beauty of it. Sure, there are bits that annoy me, but mostly it makes me nostalgic for one of the most beautiful sections of the Pacific Crest Trail… Overall I loved it and highly recommend it.
      • Genre: Documentary
      • Release Date: June 1, 2013, Directors: Jason M. Fitzpatrick, Ric Serena

In addition to movies about long walks, I love watching movies (of all genres except suspense/horror) about the outdoors and outdoor adventures. Here are some of my other favorites (by genre):

  • Documentaries:
    • Desert Runners (9/10): An awesome documentary about desert ultra-marathons and the people that run them. (Available on Netflix)
    • Chasing Ice (10/10): A stunningly beautiful documentary about glaciers, the environment, and global warming. Watch it! (Available on Netflix)
    •  Touching the Void (10/10): A powerfully moving docu-drama about two mountaineers and their struggle to overcome disaster. (Available on Netflix)
    • Happy People (7/10): A people-focused documentary that I enjoyed once I finally got over the title and the slow beginning… Once I got sucked into it, I enjoyed it, but it isn’t a movie that I watch over and over again. (Available on Netflix)
    • McConkey (9/10): An exciting, and sobering, look at the life and adventures of Shane McConkey, an influential skier, base-jumper, and adventure athlete. (If you like McConkey, check out Senna, which is about a Brazilian Formula 1 Race Car Driver.)
  • Dramas:
    • Tracks (8/10): A drama about one woman’s long walk through the Australian desert. It deals with themes of solitude, adventure, wanderlust, and the bonds that she forms both with people, and animals, along the way. The content in the movie is great, and as a solo adventurer, there were many parts of the movie that I could really relate to, but the pacing was a little slow. (Available on Netflix)
    • A scene from Tracks
    • Wild (~8/10): A drama about a woman’s personal growth and development as she hikes a long section of the Pacific Crest Trail. I watched this movie on its opening night, right after I completed my own solo Pacific Crest Trail hike in 2014… Though the main characters journey was in many ways very different than my own, many of the scenes and her experiences on the trail really resonated with me. I thought the movie was powerful and well done, and was better than the book… I hope to watch it again so that I can write-up a more in-depth review.
    •  Cast Away (7/10): A drama about a man marooned on a desert island. It deals with themes of solitude, the wilderness, personal growth and development, and re-entry into society. As a solo thru-hiker there were many aspects of the movie that I identified with, like making friends with inanimate objects, adjusting to a different kind of reality, and they trying to figure out how you fit back into the old reality when it’s all over…
    •  A River Runs Through It (6/10): A coming-of-age drama about one man’s life fishing along a river. It deals with themes of family, friendship, rebellion, and wilderness. I thought the content was good, the scenery amazing, but the pacing was very slow!
  • Comedies: (I really struggled trying to come up with good comedies about the outdoors… What are your favorites?)
    • Ice Age (9/10): An animated family comedy about a group of animals going on a long walk and the adventures they encounter along the way.
    • Crocodile Dundee (7/10): An outdoor adventure comedy that I loved as a kid… Watching it as an adult, it suffers from a lot of the challenges associated with race, culture, and gender of it’s era and genre, but I still managed to have fun watching it. (Available on Netflix) 

Here are some other outdoor adventure movies I’ve seen, but not recently enough to rate:

  • 127 Hours (2010): I watched it when it first came out, and I thought that it was a gruesome, yet gripping movie that contained some very strong and important messages… “Make Sure Someone Has Your Itinerary and Knows Where You Are!”… It thought it was an excellent film, definitely worth seeing, but not something that I want to  watch again… I felt similarly about Schindler’s List.
  • The Blair With Project (1999): I tried to watch this movie in the theater when it first came out, but the visuals made me intensely motion sick and I ended up puking in the bathroom the whole time… It’s one of the few times I’ve had to walk out of a theater!
  • The Land Before Time (1988): An animated coming-of-age movie about a group of dinosaurs setting of on a journey to find a new life. I loved this movie when it first came out!
  • Cliffhanger (1993): Cliffhanger is a classic action moving starring Sylvester Stallone. I watched this movie when it first came out, and some of the images from it are vividly seared into my memory… I thought it was good at the time… I wonder what I would think of it now?

Hiking/Outdoor Adventure Movies I’ve heard good things about, but haven’t seen yet (or saw so long ago I don’t remember them):

  • Adventure/Drama:
    • Never Cry Wolf (1983), The Bear (1988), Jeremiah Johnson (1972)- starring Robert Redford, Dances with Wolves (1990), White Fang (1991), Southbounders (2005), Legends of the Fall (1994), Last of the Mohicans (1992),Walkabout (1971), Into the Wild (2007)
  • Action/Adventure:
    • The Edge (1997), Alive (1993), The Grey (2011), K2 (1991), The River Wild (1994)
  • Comedy:
    • The Great Outdoors (1998)
  • Documentary:
    • Alone in the Wilderness (2004)
  • Thriller:
    • Deliverance (1972), The Loneliest Planet (2011), White Water Summer (1987)

What are your favorite movies about hiking and the Outdoors? Which movies about outdoor adventures have I forgotten in my lists? Are there movies that you’d recommend that I haven’t watched yet, or that I should re-watch? Leave a comment below and let me know!

 

 

 

 

A Walk in the Woods: A Thru-Hiker’s Movie Review

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The view from the Chestnut Knob on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

I was cautiously optimistic as I walked into the theater with my mom and dad to watch A Walk in the Woods… the trailer looked good, the cast sounded awesome, and I believed that there was plenty of comedic gold in Bryson’s book for the screen-writers to work their magic with… My optimism didn’t last long… The movie lacked coherency, character development, and to my surprise, it even managed to dilute the parts of the book that I thought were funny, and highlighted the parts that I thought were awful… I didn’t love the book, but I’d recommend it over the movie any day!

  • Title: A Walk in the Woods
  • Release Date: September 2, 2015
  • Duration: 104 minutes, rated “R”
  • Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson
  • Producer: Robert Redford, Director: Ken Kwapis
  • Screenplay: Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman
  • Bechdel Test: 1/3

The Good: Emma Thompson did a great job setting the scene. The chemistry between Thompson and Redford at the beginning of the movie felt believable and provided the context for Redford’s character, Bryson, to be 70 instead of the 40-something he was in the book. As expected, the moment Nick Nolte came on screen, he stole the show… His character, Katz, was well-written (actually had a character arc) and Nolte did a good job playing the part. He was believable, he was funny, and I completely agree with the folks that suggested he was the one good part of the movie. Although some of his jokes were offensive, and not all of them hit the mark, by the end of the movie I couldn’t help but love Katz… His character felt like a refreshing breeze of honesty flowing through the muck and mire of the rest of movie.

The Bad: Despite getting off to a good start and having a scattering of funny moments throughout, the movie felt very disjointed. The introductory segments felt like they had been thrown in as an afterthought to try to explain why Redford seemed so old and senile during the rest of the film.  As soon as Bryson (Redford’s character) and Katz (Nolte’s character) hit the trail, the screenwriter from the intro must have taken a hike too, and a different, less skilled writer, must have taken up the reins… Sure, most of the comedic moments later in the movie came straight out of the book and would apply to people whether they were 40 or 70, but there weren’t any obvious tie-ins to the intro scenes, and many of the scenes felt like they were slapped together without meaningful transitions… After Bryson and Katz reached the summit of Springer Mountain, the movie started to unmistakably go downhill.

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Pushing myself to get over my fear of heights and sit on the edge of McAffee Knob on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

Although I didn’t expect A Walk in the Woods to be a movie about the trail, I had hoped to see a lot of beautiful shots of the Appalachian Trail (or at least Appalachian Mountain scenery). I was disappointed there too; they only showed two great sweeping shots from the Appalachian Trail: one from McAffee Knob, Virginia and one from what looked like Carvers Gap, North Carolina/Tennessee… The shots seemed like they were both taken by drones, and little to no effort was made to integrate them into the flow of the movie… Perhaps they were intentionally making the beauty of the AT feel detached from the characters that were hiking it? When they did eventually decide to immerse the characters in the scenery, it was so obviously a sound-stage that it was painful!

The Ugly: The movie removed some of the funniest scenes and mishaps from the book, the ones that resulted from Bryson and Katz’s ignorance about the trail and the inevitably steep learning curve that was thrust upon them as a result. Instead, the movie focused on the caustic and arrogant side of Bryson’s humor… This meant that most of the humor ended up relying on unsophisticated fat-shaming, class-shaming, and slut-shaming jokes… Comedy that’s really hard for a thin middle-class white-guy to pull-off successfully… In this, I thought that they sold Bill Bryson short. Though the comedy in the book was largely based on Bryson’s arrogance, ignorance, and negativity, it felt like it was handled in a more sophisticated and well-balanced way…

My general advice is to walk into this movie with very low expectations… That way if it exceeds them you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and if it doesn’t you won’t have lost anything more than 104 minutes of your life and the price of admission. On IMDB, A Walk in the Woods is listed as an adventure/comedy/drama movie. Roughly divided by genre, here are some of my thoughts about the movie…

Comedy/Buddy Movie (5/10):

  • A Walk in the Woods is primarily a comedy that I would put in the buddy movie sub-genre.
  • The central struggle or theme of the movie seems to be the friendship/relationship between Bryson and Katz. Though at times their dynamic is undeniably funny, the chemistry between Robert Redford and Nick Nolte never quite clicks. Despite the fact that Katz (Nolte’s character) is given more depth as the movie progresses, Bryson’s character remains aloof and seemingly unchanged… Does the friendship between Bryson and Katz evolve over the course of the movie? It seemed a stretch to me, but maybe that’s at least in part because they were trying to stretch the first part of Bryson’s book into a full-length feature film?
  • Do: watch the movie if you love Nick Nolte and want to watch him sneak in some funny lines.
  • Do: watch this movie if you’re looking for a comedy and don’t care about character development or plot.
  • Do: expect a lot of scenes with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in the woods.
  • Don’t: watch the movie if you expect your buddy movies to include the development of characters, relationships, or plots.
  • Don’t: watch this movie if you are offended by humor derived from fat-shaming, slut-shaming, or class-shaming.
  • Don’t: buy any of the gear shown in the movie for your Appalachian Trail thru-hike.

Action-Adventure/Road Trip Movie (3/10):

  • A Walk in the Woods is not an action-adventure movie, although it does in part fall into the road trip movie sub-genre.
  • Based on the book and the trailer, I expected A Walk in the Woods to have a central struggle that involved traveling, and a progression/resolution that demonstrated a change in Bryson’s perspective on his everyday life and interactions… While it is true that Bryson did travel, it wasn’t clear to me that his perspective on anything changed…
  • Do: watch the trailer and consider skipping the movie… all the best parts are in the trailer!
  • Do: watch this movie if you are a Bill Bryson fan and want to let me know what you thought of the movie… I expect that you’ll like it.
  • Don’t: watch this movie expecting Bryson and Katz to go on a road-trip from Georgia to Maine.
  • Don’t: expect this movie to show realistic depictions of hikers or the Appalachian Trail
  • Don’t: watch A Walk in the Woods if you’re looking for an action/adventure movie… You’ll be bored out of your mind.
  • Don’t: expect the movie’s tagline, “When you push yourself to the edge, the real fun begins,” to have anything to do with the movie… the characters don’t push themselves to the edge of anything (stumble maybe, push, no), and they don’t ever seem to have any fun (except at other people’s expense).

Drama/Coming-of-Age Movie (2/10):

  • Despite the introductory scenes that suggest the central struggle of the movie might involve Bryson dealing with the challenges of finding his place in the world as he deals with aging and retirement, the movie abandons those themes as soon as Bryson hits the trail.
  • Do: Enjoy the funny bits in the beginning between Emma Thompson and Robert Redford.
  • Do: Enjoy Nick Nolte’s performance.
  • Don’t: Expect the movie to have any character development or to deal with themes of retirement and aging outside of the first 15 minutes of the film.

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I was actually surprised that I disliked the movie as much as I did… I suspected that it might not be 100% my type of movie, and that I might not love it, but I thought that it would be good for what it was… After watching the movie I’m not convinced… It didn’t quite have the dynamic, acting, or scriptwriting it would have needed to be a great comedy, and I thought that that was it’s best genre…

In terms of my reactions to the hiking component… Well, it was laughable, but not in a good way… How is it that Bryson and Katz never seemed to get dirty? or sweaty? Did they consult with anyone about what modern (or period) hikers wear or look like? Did they consider making the packs weigh more than 5 lbs so they’d look believable? From a hikers stand-point there were too many errors and inconsistencies to keep track of, but if you’re curious about some of my more detailed impressions of the movie, read the spoilers section below…

Look out, spoilers below (though I’m not sure there’s anything *I* could do to spoil the movie, the screenwriters did a good enough job of that without any of my help).

(begin spoiler alert) “Wow, Robert Redford looks really old!” was my first thought as the film started, and a host of unforgivingly bright lights focused on Robert Redford’s face. It’s not like I expected him to look young, but… I thought Bryson was supposed to be in his 40s in the book… As the opening sequences continued it became clear that instead of being a mid-life crisis road-trip/buddy style movie, this was going to a retirement crisis road-trip/buddy movie… The official movie trailer had sort of prepared me for that, but wow, they must have photoshopped the heck out of all the movie posters and magazine articles that talked about the movie, and they must have chosen the timing and angles of the shots in the official trailer very carefully… “Well, show biz,” I thought and shrugged, still hopeful, “let’s see what they do with it!”

(continue spoiler alert) In the first part of the movie the dynamic between Robert Redford and Emma Thompson was believable, and the dialog was more comic and witty than not… So I was still on-board with the movie especially when the screenwriter worked in a line letting us know that Redford (now 79) was playing a 70 year old Bryson, instead of the 44 year old Bryson in the book… My hope that a good screenwriter could make a great movie out of the book seemed justified!!

(continue spoiler alert) As the movie progressed the story arc started throwing in nods to hiking, and I started getting really confused…was Bryson shopping at an REI… Wait?! What?! Where would he have found an REI in New England in 1994… Sure, it was possible… He could have driven almost 90 miles to the REI in Redding, Massachusetts (which is still the closest REI to where Bryson lived), but REI was mostly a West Coast chain… In the ’90s and ’00s, people in New England either went to local outdoor stores (that’s what Bryson did in the book), or they went to EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports, which currently has a store 5 miles away from where Bryson lived). It was a noticeable, but trivial point… I figured that they were using some literary license and framing the movie as happening now, instead of in 1994, that was fine… But then they started talking about gear, and even though they were filming in an obviously modern store, they were talking about the equipment using antiquated terms, sizes and weights. In the movie Bryson ends up carrying an 85L Osprey pack (in the book it was a Gregory pack), which is huge by 2015 standards… There’s no way a modern REI employee would recommend an 85L pack, but in 1994 that size was pretty much standard… So, which was it, 1994, or 2015? I was never quite sure… Maybe 2015?

(continue spoiler alert) “Ugh,” I thought, “I hope people don’t get the impression that this is what people hike with nowadays!” But even though I was confused, I knew it was a minor point… If there was anything I learned on the trail, it was to be flexible and go with the flow… Besides, the movie was just getting started… They didn’t have to have the right gear for the movie to be an awesome retirement crisis/buddy movie… And Katz (played by Nick Nolte) still hadn’t come on scene yet… I thought the best of the comedy was yet to come!! I was wrong… When Nolte first came on screen, I was hesitant and unsure… The comedy felt a little stilted and awkward… Perhaps the fat-shaming had too much reality and not enough comedy to it, or maybe the dynamic between Nick Nolte and Robert Redford just wasn’t doing it for me… Nick Nolte definitely had some funny lines though, and he was holding up his end of the bargain.

(continue spoiler alert) “Ugh,” I groaned again, watching the scene at the restaurant in Amicalola Falls unfold… Did they really just do that? Say that? It was hard to see the comment about the waitress and Katz standards for women as anything other than downright offensive… “At least the scriptwriters didn’t seem be having any trouble translating Bryson’s contempt for other people to the screen,” I mumbled… It made me forget for a moment that the scenery outside the lodge was all wrong for March at Springer Mountain (I got there in May, and didn’t see anything approaching the lushness of foliage they were showing)… The poster inside the lodge for the Appalachian Trail “Kick-Off”(ATKO), cinched it… ATKO didn’t exist in 1994, so the movie must be set in 2015 (probably).

(continue spoiler alert) As Bryson and Katz began climbing Springer Mountain, I found myself laughing at the relatable image of everyone zooming by Katz and Bryson, including the troop of scouts. I had been overweight and out-of-shape when I started the AT, and the scenes depicting the first 1/4 mile of their journey resonated with me and kept me laughing and feeling fairly positive about the movie. There were a few nit-picky things about the scenery being wrong, but the writing and scene transitions seemed decent enough…But, as my dad always used to say, “sh** runs downhill,” and that’s exactly what happened to the movie as Bryson and Katz headed down Springer and onto the Appalachian Trail proper… From the “How to sh** in the woods” scene all the way to the final credits, it was hard to come up with positive things to say about the movie….

(continue spoiler alert) Sure, I was glad that they showed Bryson digging a proper cat-hole for his poop (6-8 inches deep, and 4-6 inches wide), but he was doing it within sight of the camping area!!! There was no way he was the requisite 200 feet from the trail, it looked more like 20 feet to me! I sighed and reminded myself that the movie was a buddy movie and not a hiking tutorial, and tried to withhold judgment… But by the time the next scene hit the screen my hopes that I’d find the movie enjoyable were diminishing…

(continue spoiler alert) “Hmrph…” I thought as Bryson and Katz interacted with Mary Ellen… Well, I guess they did a good job of portraying her as really irritating… She is the one and only female hiker portrayed in the film and she reminded me of a lot of the negative stereotypes that people have about women on the trail, and the dreaded “Wild Effect”-the fear that irritating, incompetent women would be hitting the trail in droves after the movie Wild came out… Was it funny enough to make up for reinforcing the stereotype? I didn’t think so… Have we all met irritating know-it-all’s on the trail and tried to avoid them? Yes… and it’s definitely true that figuring out how to get away from them can be a real challenge, but… I sighed and tried to muster positive feeling about the movie… “I suppose that means there’s at least one female character in the movie that isn’t a sex object, and that’s good, right?”

(continue spoiler alert) As the movie continued I discovered that the scenes from the book that I thought were funny had mostly been cut, and the comedy that I found offensive, the comedy at the expense of women and southerners, remained… It started to become hard to find good things in the movie to focus on, and easy to focus on the unrealistic interactions with other hikers and the trail… How come they never seemed to get dirty? How come their packs looked like they weighed less than 5? How come they never took their trekking poles out of their packs on the rugged terrain? Wait, a southbound hiker in Georgia in March that looked really buff?! So wrong, in so many ways… Thru-hikers don’t look muscular and buff like that, especially not if they’re finishing in Georgia in March… That would mean they’d started in November and winter-hiked the trail! Possible, but unlikely…

(continue spoiler alert) The number of funny bits in the movie steadily dwindled and my focus strayed… “How long is this movie?” I wondered as I realized that the movie hadn’t even come close to covering the material in the first half of the book yet… I tuned back into the movie as a bunch of scenery and cliff that I didn’t recognize from my hike hit the screen… “Wait,” I thought, “I’ve hiked the entire AT and the trail doesn’t have anything that looks even remotely like that!” Sure, the Pacific Crest Trail would run you along the edge of cliffs like that all the time, and it’s possible to find terrain like that on the East Coast in places like the Knife’s Edge on Katahdin, but on the AT? In Virginia? Nope… Never! It was also weird because I just finished reading that section of the book, and I didn’t remember them tumbling from a cliff in Virginia… “Hmmm….”

(continue spoiler alert) “Really?!” I thought, as the scene continued on a poorly matched sound-stage… so much beautiful and epic scenery on the AT, and this is what they ended up with? I don’t know what the movie’s budget was, but it was clearly less than I thought… I watched as they tried to get out of their newest predicament… There was definitely humor in it, but the more serious side clearly focused on the character development of Katz, and didn’t do much with Bryson (also the close-ups of their faces that were now supposed to be dirty and/or tan was confusing)… and then… and then the movie ended!

(continue spoiler alert) The movie ended with them getting rescued and deciding that the trail wasn’t for them, so they just headed home, which is what most novice hikers attempting a thru-hike end up doing, but not exactly what happened in the book… I watched the credits with disbelief and a strange sense of awe… They’d left the road trip out of the road trip movie! In the book Bryson and Katz had decided to take a car and do a highlights tour of the trail, but in the movie they’d self-righteously decided to keep hiking instead of driving… In the book, it was clear that Bryson’s motivation for hiking was to write a book about it, while in the movie he vehemently denied it, and tried to frame it as a noble journey of self-discovery or something…

(continue spoiler alert) One of my criticisms of the book was that it hadn’t felt honest to me, it had felt like Bryson was deluding himself and us with him… The movie felt like it was trying to make Bryson a more honest and approachable character, but ended up mashing everything up and feeling even less honest… When the credits finally rolled, I thought they were the best part of the movie… Finally we were getting to see the epic scenery of the Appalachian Trail, and we were getting to see it without interruptions from the constant prattling of poorly scripted dialog.

(end spoiler alert)

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Coming up next: 7 Movies to Watch Instead of ‘A Walk in the Woods’

Links to other reviews of the movie: ‘A Walk in the Woods’

A Walk in the Woods- Don’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover: A Thru-Hikers Book Review…

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Misled… that’s how I felt about Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods” when I tried to read it in 1998, and that’s how I felt about the movie when I watched it on Tuesday night… First, let me talk about the book (see the next post for my review of the movie).

  • Title: “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.”
  • Author: Billy Bryson
  • Publication Date: May 4, 1998
  • Print list price (2015 paperback editition): $8.62
  • Weight: 12.6 oz, 304 pages
  • Kindle edition: $7.99

I had never heard of Bill Bryson in fall of 1998 when I first stumbled upon his book, but I was an avid hiker, and I was intrigued by both the title of the book and the art on the cover… I liked to walk in the woods! It definitely looked like my kind of book… I picked it up, rolled it over, and read the summary on the back…

“The Appalachian Trail trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you’ll find.” (Taken from the book description on Amazon.com)

Even better, it was a book about the Appalachian Trail (AT)! I had just finished an end-to-end hike of the 279-mile “Long Trail” in Vermont in August and was an aspiring thru-hiker… I purchased it on the spot, and couldn’t wait to get home to start reading it. I devoured the intro and all the details at the beginning, but Bryson’s humor, tinged with ignorance, arrogance, and negativity, started to grate on me… The writing, the history, and the details about the trail kept me reading, but I was finding it hard to like Bryson’s character… the pages dragged on, Bryson’s negativity and air of superiority seemed to intensify… I was waiting, waiting for the story of how he would grow to love the trail… waiting for the story of his personal transformation from arrogant a**hole to humble and caring human being…

One of the first white blazes of the Appalachian Trail near Springer Mountain in Georgia.

One of the first white blazes of the Appalachian Trail near Springer Mountain in Georgia.

About 60% of the way through the book I was so disillusioned that I couldn’t take anymore (read spoiler alerts at the end of post for details), and I set the book down… I wouldn’t pick it up again until 2013, after I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike…

  • Hiker: Someone who walks large distances, typically in a rural setting, for excercise or pleasure
  • Section-hiker: someone that hikes (typically backpacks) sections of the Appalachian Trail, with the goal of hiking it’s entire length over the span of multiple years.
  • Thru-hiker: someone that hikes (typically backpacks) the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in less than a year.

For good, or for bad, Bill Bryson’s book is a constant topic of conversation on the Appalachian Trail. Most thru-hikers seem to have disliked the book, and the trail registers (log-books at AT shelters, where thru-hikers leave notes for each other, kind of like the notes that high school students pass to each other during class) are full of comments poking fun at Bryson. Most non-hikers, and many shorter-distance hikers I met along the way, however, loved the book.

“Have you read that book? that book by Bill Bryson?” People asked me over and over again in town and on the more popular sections of the AT… “Well, part of it,” I’d hedge. “Oh, you should finish it! It was just so good, and so funny!” Eventually I started thinking that maybe they were right… Maybe there was something that I missed? Maybe if I went into the book expecting a travelogue about Bill Bryson, instead of a book about a thru-hiker I’d enjoy it? When I first tried to read it I was 19, and Bryson’s character was supposed to be 41, maybe reading it now that I was in my 30’s would be an entirely different experience… Besides, I hate to leave things unfinished.

Did I like the book any better when I read it 15 years later? Not really… I no longer felt misled, and I was able to see a lot more merit in it, but I still didn’t like it… On the plus side, I managed to finish it this time around! Here are some of its merits and pitfalls:

Biography/Memoir Rating (4/10):

  • “A Walk in the Woods” is framed around Bill Bryson’s journey exploring and researching the areas around the Appalachian Trail. It is not a book about Bryson’s personal growth and development. It is not a book about a hiker or backpacker.
    • Do: read “A Walk in the Woods” if you like Bill Bryson’s previous books.
    • Don’t: assume that you’ll find Bryson’s character likeable.
    • Don’t: assume that there will be anything motivational or inspirational about the book.
    • Don’t: expect Bryson to respect the trail or the people he meets along it.

Adventure/Travel Book Rating (7/10):

  • “A Walk in the Woods” is a travelogue full of fun facts connected to the Appalachian Trail, colored by Bill Bryson’s unique sense of humor, and tendency to see the worst in things. It is not a book about a hiker, and it’s not a book about a thru-hikers journey.
    • Do: read “A Walk in the Woods” if you are a huge Bill Bryson fan, you’ll love it.
    • Do: read “A Walk in the Woods” if you’re curious about the areas the AT passes through, like a bit of comedy, and don’t mind a sense of humor that is tinged with ignorance, arrogance, and negativity.
    • Don’t: assume that all your backpacking friends love the book.
    • Don’t: assume that the book and the movie contain the same content.
    • Don’t: expect Bryson to respect the trail or the people he meets along it.

Backpacking/Wilderness/AT Guidebook Rating (1/10):

  • Although “A Walk in the Woods” provides facts of interest about the trail, it does not contain any advice or guidance on appropriate backpacking behavior or etiquette. “A Walk in the Woods” is not a book about backpackers or backpacking.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: learn Leave No Trace Practices before heading off on your outdoor adventure.
    • Do: find good maps, and keep track of the weather before heading into the wilderness.
    • Do: be tolerant of the different people you meet along the trail.
    • Don’t: throw your gear into the woods because you are tired of carrying it.
    • Don’t: get into a car with people that are drinking/drunk.

Conversation Starter with the Thru-Hiker You Just Met (0/10):

  • Regardless of whether the individual thru-hiker you’re talking to loves, hates, or simply hasn’t read the book, rest assured that they have had many, many, many conversations about it.
  • Recommendations
    • Don’t: ask the thru-hiker that you’ve just met on the trail if they’ve read (or watched) A Walk in the Woods. Try asking them what they love about the trail instead…

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If you want details about why I hated the book the first time around, and still didn’t like it the second time around, here’s an in depth look at my first experience of reading the book in 1998:

(begin spoiler alert: Chapters 1-8) The first time I read the book, I just kept waiting, waiting for the story of how Bryson would grow to love the trail… waiting for the story of his personal transformation from arrogant a**hole to humble and caring human being… It didn’t happen. Just a little over a third of the way into the book the going got tough, and Bryson got going… Why hike, when you can drive? I threw the book down in disbelief, and went to bed… He’d hiked ~205 miles of the AT at that point (< 10% of the trail). The next day I picked the book up again, determined to have an open mind… So what if Bryson was calling my dream, “boring,” or a “tedious, mad, really quite pointless business…” He was just going to skip over the crowds and regulations… I could understand that… he didn’t share my dream, but he was still going to hike and explore the AT, and maybe the story of his transformation was still yet to come? Besides, they’d hiked ~205 miles (from Amicalola Falls, Georgia to Newfound Gap, North Carolina), was skipping 20 miles really all that bad? I read a couple more pages… Bryson was acting like an entitled elitist a**, and when he couldn’t get a cab to take him 20 miles, he decided f** it, if we’re gonna skip 20 miles, we might as well skip 450 miles… Gah!!! This book was not for me! It was not about what I thought it was going to be about… but I’d never left a book unfinished before…

  • Yellow-Blazing: following the two yellow lines down the road (typically in a car), instead of hiking on the trail and following the single white blazes that mark the Appalachian Trail
A misty Georgia morning.

A misty Georgia morning.

(continue spoiler alert: Chapters 9) A week later, I picked it up again. Chapter 9 started out ok, relating the history of some famous AT thru-hikers, mostly in a positive light except for Emma “Grandma” Gatwood whom he referred to as “a danger to herself.” Unfortunately, within a couple of pages his attitude shifted again and he snidely finished his description of thru-hikers, “I don’t mean that hiking the AT drives you potty, just that it takes a certain kind of person to do it.” Perhaps I could ignore his tone, and just read the words? What he actually said wasn’t all that bad… “I was still going to hike the Appalachian Trail; I just wasn’t going to hike all of it”…. “It didn’t seem altogether essential to do the other 4.5 million (steps) to get the idea of the thing.” I threw the book down again… Does doing less than 10% of a thing really give you the idea of it? Not only that, he was supposed to be rediscovering America… Can you really do that is you skip over the parts that you’re not used to, that make you uncomfortable, and that don’t match your ideal of the thing? Arghh! I’d read 40% of Bryson’s book… I’d given him more of a chance than he’d given the Appalachian Trail, surely I had more than enough justification to quit this thing!

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(continue spoiler alert: Chapters 10-12)  No, I decided, no I would give him a chance… there was still hope, I was less than halfway through the book… it could get better? He was still going to hike on the AT, and I loved the AT… maybe he would still grow to love it! As I plodded through Chapter 10, it seemed as if he might… “If there is one thing the AT teaches, it is low-level ecstasy-something we could all use more of in our lives,” he utters as the trail begins to grow on him. Yeah! I rejoiced as the negativity in Bryson’s prose finally started to lift, and the storytelling become more engaging (In Chapters 10-12 they hike another ~260 AT miles of the AT, from Roanoke, Virginia (Catawba, VA?) to Front Royal, Virginia).

(continue spoiler alert: Chapter 13) At the end of Chapter 12 when Katz decided to go home and Bryson took a break, I thought there was still hope for the book… I’d read 50% of the book, and they’d hiked 500 miles… that’s pretty damn respectable! Bryson claimed that he and Katz were now “hikers” and “mountain-men”… I thought the book was finally going to be about hiking… I was wrong… Bryson decides not to resume hiking in Virginia, not only has he abandoned his thru-hike, he’s not even going to backpack anymore… Relentlessly, I tried to keep reading as Bryson drove himself to Harpers Ferry, then skips up to Pennsylvania on his road-trip… I completely lost interest in the book at that point… Bryson wasn’t a likeable character, he’d left his comic foil, there was no adventure, and I just couldn’t read it anymore… I was beyond irritation and disgust now, I was just disinterested… I’d managed to read ~60% of the book, and Bryson had managed to hike ~25% of the trail…

(end spoiler alert: Chapters 14+) I didn’t read them until I re-read the book 15 years later.

Despite my misgivings about the book, I was cautiously optimistic about the film adaptation…. The preview was funny, the cast looked promising (especially Nick Nolte), and I had to admit, Bryson’s book contained a lot of comedic material. I wasn’t expecting a movie about the trail, I was expecting a movie about the book… A movie about a cynical and arrogant guy facing a mid-life crisis…  a movie filled with well-scripted dialog and funny scenes with the Appalachian Trail as a backdrop.

Coming up next… My thoughts and review of the new movie based on “A Walk In the Woods.”

Growing Tensions: Baxter State Park, The Appalachian Trail, and Scott Jurek

“We really don’t think that the top of Katahdin should smell like a bar…” – Jensen Bissell, Baxter State Park director.

Champagne wasn’t the only thing that erupted as Scott Jurek celebrated his new Appalachian Trail speed record at the summit of Mt. Katahdin last week… The ongoing tensions between the long-distance hiking community and the Baxter State Park Authority erupted too…

The relationship between long-distance hikers and Baxter State Park has been under increasing strain in the past decades as the number of thru-hikers has exploded from between 5 and 40 a decade (between the 1930’s and 1960’s) to almost a thousand a year (2013, 2014).

With these increasing numbers, Baxter State Park has seen an increase in ‘bad behavior’ amongst AT hikers, and hasn’t been shy about voicing their displeasure. In November of 2014 the director of Baxter State Park sent a letter to the director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, specifically citing the following grievances (amongst others):

As a ‘modern AT hiker’ I thought that Baxter State Park was being a little harsh, and I found myself getting really defensive as continued reading their list of grievances, “I’m not like that… Most of the AT hikers I know are not like that!” But I have to admit that some are… and we were all getting grouped together in the eyes of Baxter State Park… The folks at Baxter State Park have done a lot to accommodate AT hikers over the years, but they were getting sick and tired of dealing with unappreciative AT hikers that didn’t respect their rules and their mission… It was amidst these escalating tensions that Scott Jurek’s summit photos were released…

Scott Jurek celebrated on the top of Mount Katahdin after setting a new record for the fastest hike of the entire Appalachian Trail.

Photo by Bob Najar, iRunFar.com

Champagne exploding, people cheering, and Katahdin’s sign were all prominently displayed in Scott Jurek’s summit photos… I cringed and thought, “Uh-oh… This is why we can’t have nice things!” The most publicized hike in AT history, and a perfect (and I’m sure completely unintentional) disregard of Baxter State Park’s rules…

A couple of days later Baxter State Park posted a scathing note on Facebook (in a tone similar to the previous letter), informing everyone that they’d issued Jurek citations: “for the drinking of alcoholic beverages in public places (BSP Rule 7 and Maine State General Law), for littering (BSP Rule 4.5) and for hiking with an oversize group (BSP Rule 2.2).”

Photo by Chris Kraft. From Runner’s World…Scott Jurek signed in with an official group size of 12 people.

The first citation, about public drinking, has been an ongoing issue at the summit of Mt. Katahdin. Even though I don’t blame Jurek for wanting to celebrate his accomplishment with a bottle of Champagne at the summit, I certainly can’t blame Baxter State Park for issuing him a citation for such a blatant, and public, disregard for their rules! The second citation, however, seemed like a bit of a stretch… the ‘litter’ that Jurek is accused of leaving in the park is spilled champagne… “The littering occurred when champagne sprayed into the air hit the ground.” Covering the summit of Katahdin with a gooey, sticky mass of champagne, soda, and/or Gatorade would significantly detract from the wilderness experience, so I can sort of see where Baxter is coming from, but is it really litter?

  • litter: things that have been thrown away and that are lying on the ground in a public place (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

The final citation was for group size… and I have to admit that the group-size rule confuses me in these contexts… What defines an affiliated group?… Were there more than 12 people at the summit of Katahdin to celebrate Jurek’s accomplishment? Yes! Were they an affiliated group, or were they a mass of individuals independently inspired by Jurek’s achievement? If a group of 12 (or more) is intentionally climbing Mt. Katahdin together, that’s a pretty cut-and-dry group. On the other hand, if 12 or more people are inspired to climb Katahdin by the same thing does that make them a group?

  • affiliate: to closely connect (something or yourself) with or to something (such as a program or organization) as a member or partner (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

When I climbed Katahdin as part of my thru-hike, I climbed it with two fellow thru-hikers, but when we reached the summit 8 to 10 thru-hikers were already there… By the time I left the summit a couple of hours later, there were closer to 20 thru-hikers there… Are all of the thru-hikers that happen to show up on a given day considered a group? How would that be different from classifying all of the day-hikers that show up on a given day as a group?

Baxter State Park has been controlling access to the area for the last 25 years by limiting the parking spaces, and overnight campsites (which they did on the day of Jurek’s hike as well), but this strategy hasn’t been effective for limiting the number long-distance AT hikers that are walking into the park, sometimes more than 15 miles, to reach the summit of Katahdin.

In addition to the ongoing issues with AT hikers, Baxter State Park’s Facebook post raised new issues about corporate sponsorships, blasting Jurek for hosting a ‘corporate event’ on the summit of Katahdin… In a world where social media is capital, the lines between personal, professional, and corporate are starting to getting blurry…

Look at the clothes that you hike in, they’re probably covered with corporate logos and names… If you wear them, does that mean that you’re hosting a ‘corporate event’? For hikers/adventurer that are searching for ways to make ends meet as they pursue their dreams full-time, its not uncommon for them to seek corporate sponsors. For most, these sponsorships don’t come with a salary, or any $$s at all! Instead, they come with free gear (a pair of socks, shoes, a pack, or a tent), and a nifty new title as a brand ambassador. Although high-end athletes like Scott Jurek probably get better sponsorship deals from companies like Clif Bar and Brooks, the issues surrounding sponsorship, ‘corporate events’, and social media are bound to get more and more heated, and apply to more and more people, in the coming years!

Luis Escobar | Reflections Photography Studio

In their November letter (long before Jurek completed his thru-hike), Baxter State Park suggested that, “ Options to address these concerns would require a commitment to sustainable use of the AT and preserving wild experiences along the trail. Permit systems are in place on other popular long-distance trails in the U.S. Relocating key trail portions or the trail terminus would be another option.”

For those of us that have had the honor and privilege of including Mt. Katahdin in our Appalachian Trail thru-hikes, the idea of having to re-route the trail so that it terminates elsewhere is absolutely heartbreaking… but being able to terminate our AT thru-hikes at Katahdin is a privilege… If we lose that privilege, it won’t be because of Scott Jurek (even though he did manage to step right into the middle of this steaming mess with cameras rolling)… He may be a very visible example of some of the issues between the AT hikers and Baxter State park, but he didn’t start the problem, and he won’t be the one that the staff at Baxter State Park have to deal with tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day.

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~6% (9/153) of thru-hiker summit pictures I found by googling “thruhike Katahdin”  featured alcohol…

Large trail-related media events like Jurek’s accomplishment (Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’, and Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods”) lead to surges in park use, which intensify ongoing issues between wilderness management and recreational use. It is up to us to help the parks and other landowners along the trail with their efforts to preserve the the trail and all of the wild places that we love… If you are planning on hiking on the AT in Baxter State Park, please familiarize yourself with the park’s rules, let the staff know that you appreciate their efforts, and treat the park (and it’s staff) with respect.

Related Articles:

Updated Timeline:

Baxter State Park Facts:

  • Staff: ~22 year-round staff, ~61 staff members on site during the summer. 1 staff member is dedicated exclusively to aiding thru-hikers, and is positioned near Abol Bridge for 15 weeks.
  • Governance: Baxter State Park Authority, a group of 3 public officials: the Commissioner of Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Director of the Maine State Forest Service, and the Attorney General that works closely with Baxter State Park Advisory: a group of 15 dedicated citizens.
  • Wildlife: 75% of the park (156,874 acres) is a wildlife sanctuary, 25% (52,628 acres) of the park is open to hunting and trapping.
  • Foresty: 14% of the park (29,537 acres) is set up for scientific forest managements (read that logging)
  • Recreational Use: 215 miles of hiking trails, 8 roadside campgrounds, 2 backcountry campgrounds

Additional Baxter State Park Rules Especially Relevant for Thru-Hikers:

For the original Scott Jerek photos, deal with the obnoxious ads, and check out:

Better than sex? Boston Fireworks Kayaking Adventure

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“Boo-ooo-ooo-oom!” The first rocket launched, the sound so intense that I didn’t just hear it as it bounced off of the river and hit me, I felt it! “Hoo-ah!” I exclaimed as my startle reflex took over: my stomach tightened, my eyes widened, my back arched, my heart slowed (bradycardia), and my body flooded with adrenaline and endorphins… Time stood still as my attention was pulled fully into the here and now… all thoughts, emotions, and expectations emptied from my mind to make room for my heightened senses…

DSC07038 “Cr-ack!” the sky exploded and my entire visual field was suddenly filled with the most beautiful cascade of red light that I have ever seen… Sitting there, in my kayak on the water with the fireworks barges in front of me, the red peony burst above me, and its reflections in the water all around me… It was so intensely beautiful that it overwhelmed my senses and brought tears to my eyes…

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I’ve watched Boston’s 4th of July fireworks before (from the Mass. Ave bridge-back when that was allowed, from the MIT sailing pavilion, and from multiple locations along the banks of the Charles), but I’d never experienced fireworks like this! AND the show was just getting started!!!

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“Thu-ump!” another firework launched. As the sound hit me, I was reminded me of the feeling I used to get at rock concerts… dancing in front of the speakers when the music was too loud and the bass was cranked up as high as it could go… the raw power of the sound resonating in my body, moving me, as I breathed the music…

  • 90 dBA: Soud intensity at which the vestibular system begins increasing hedonic response (sense of pleasure) in response to low-frequency sounds (<500 Hz).

My heart sped up with excitement and expectation because I knew what was coming next…

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“Crack! Crack! Crack!” Three stars, one red, one white, and one blue, exploded. “Wow, is there anything better than this?” I wondered blissfully, “Well… maybe sex…” The fireworks continued with a chrysanthemum, followed by some willows… I breathlessly awaited each new boom, and burst as the fireworks danced and crackled across the sky… It was so amazing… so beautiful… so intense… so perfect… so lovely… so magical… DSC07043 “This! This IS better than sex!”” I thought, overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of both the auditory and visual stimuli… I suddenly I understood why people associated orgasms with fireworks; each explosion was full of ecstasy, joy, and happiness… Wow! As the show continued the fireworks just got more and more intense and amazing… showering the sky with cascading patterns of red, purple, green, and blue…

  • 5 to 2.5 seconds: time between firework explosions during main show
  • 500 ms: time between firework explosions during finale (last 3 minutes)
  • 600-800 ms: time between muscle contractions during male and female orgasm.

DSC07040 I was euphoric… I loved my colorfully lit up kayak… I loved the gentle waves that were rocking my kayak, I loved that there were 10s of 1000s of other people there, watching it with me… I loved that it still felt like the whole show was being put on just for me… I loved the new friends that were watching the fireworks with me… I loved Boston… I loved it all… DSC07026 I continued glowing with happiness even after the fireworks ended… Sure, the air was filled with smoke, the barges had caught fire, I had to pee, and I to kayak 4 more miles to get home, but I knew that the spectacular experience of watching the fireworks from my kayak would remain with me, as one of my happy thoughts, for the rest of my life… DSC07065 DSC07072 Additional Links & References:

Cell phone pictures:

“Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” Kayaking Adventure: Part 1-Overview & Regulations

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Do you have a bucket list? If so, you should add watching the Boston Fireworks Spectacular from a kayak in the middle of the Charles River to it! It was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve ever had… It was breathtakingly, orgasmically, beautiful and the sheer immensity and joy of it brought me to tears in a way that very few experiences have…

  • Starting location: 1071 Soldier’s Field Road in Boston (Allston/Brighton), MA
  • Round-trip paddling distance:  ~9 miles (4.5 miles each way)
  • Trip duration: 6 hrs 30 minutes, total paddle time: ~3hrs
    • 6 pm – launched kayak
    • 7:30 pm – arrived at viewing location
    • 8:30 pm – sunset over MIT and Pops concert began
    • 10 pm – Pops concert ended
    • 10:30 pm – Fireworks began
    • 11:00 pm – Fireworks ended
    • 12:30 am – returned to parking lot

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  • Viewing location:  East of the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge (next to the esplanade), Boston, MA
  • Parking: 2 small lots near Charles River Canoe & Kayak, 1 large lot 1/4 further down (no fee). I arrived at 5pm and there were still plenty of spots available. Portable restrooms available near the kayak rental kiosk.
  • Required Equipment: kayak or canoe, paddle, life jacket, waterproof headlamp/flashlight with white light, emergency whistle (I also brought: paddle leash, rain coat, dry sack, camera, cell phone, water, snacks, additional lighting, compass, anchor with 150 ft cord, and a pee jug).
  • Trip cost: $0.00, Value: PRICELESS! (Kayak & canoe rentals are available from Charles River Canoe & Kayak: $89/canoe, $59 single kayak, $99 tandem kayak etc.)

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If you are interested in watching the July 4th fireworks from a kayak or canoe, please be familiar with the special boating restrictions for the area, as well as the general rules for paddling on mulit-use waterways at night. I’ve tried to summarize all of the pertinent rules below, but please leave a comment if there is something that I’ve missed or that you think should be included! (Part 2 of this series will be my trip report, sharing stories and pictures from my 2015 Boston Fireworks Spectacular kayaking adventure.

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July 4th Boating Restrictions between Longfellow Bridge and Mass. Ave. Bridge (Massachusetts State Police and Department of Conservation and Recreation, 2015):

  • No restrooms and/or trash receptacles will be available to individuals on the water.
  • Boats must stay 100 feet from shore
    • All public docks will be closed. No access of any kind will be allowed at these docks.
    • No dinghies, PWC, kayaks, canoes, or any other small vessel will be allowed to deploy from anchored vessels or permitted access to shore. Violation of this security zone will result in arrest.
  • Boats must stay 1,000 feet from barges.
  • All vessels must anchor outside the Safety Zone, which is marked by buoys and Public Safety.
  • Vessels UNDER 13 feet (vertical height) can anchor in the BLUE ZONE (Mass Ave. side of barge), no vessels over 13 feet be anchored in this area.
  • Vessels OVER 13 feet tall are allowed to anchor in the RED ZONE (Longfellow side of barges), vessels under 13 feet are not precluded from this area.
  • At 8:15 pm on July 4, the designated channels that pass beside the barges on both the Boston and Cambridge sides of the river. The channel will not reopen until after the fireworks.
  • From 7:45 pm on July 4th until 2 am, the New Charles River Dam will close to upriver vessel traffic
  • The Massachusetts State Police will monitor Channel 16, and enforce all restrictions.

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US Navigational Rules of the Road (US Coast Guard regulations unless otherwise cited):

  • Required Equipment:
    • Life Jackets: All persons on board a canoe or kayak must have a readily accessible USCG–approved Type I, II, or III PFD at all times. Note: Some states have legislation that requires life-jackets to be worn at all times during cold weather months (MA state law-9/15 – 5/15, NY state law-11/1 – 5/1, CT state law- 10/1 – 5/31 (please leave a comment if you know of other states with similar regulations).
    • Whistle: A kayak must carry a whistle capable of producing sound signals audible at 1/2 mile under calm conditions.
      • A “short blast” means a sound signal lasting about one second.
      • A “prolonged blast” means a sound signal lasting about four to six seconds.
      • The “danger signal” means at least five short and rapid blasts.
      • When navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility, kayaks should sound a fog signal of one prolonged blast on their whistle at least every two minutes.
    • Lights: lights must be shown from sunset to sunrise and when visibility is restricted.
      • Flashlight: Kayaks must, at a minimum, carry a white flashlight which can be shown toward an approaching vessel in sufficient time to prevent collision.
        • Alternatively, kayakers can display both a constant white sternlight and a constant red/green sidelights.
        • Never use any strobe light to indicate your position while underway.
      • Distress Signals (optional on inland waters): Vessels, specifically kayaks, canoes, and SUPs, operating between sunset and sunrise on coastal waters must carry either 3- Flares (3 Night, 3 day/night, or a combination of both) or 1-Electronic Distress Light for Boats (For example: ACR “C” Strobe, a compact flashing white light to be used only in emergencies)

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  • Boating Traffic Rules
    • KEEP RIGHT. Any vessel proceeding along a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as far right as is safe and practicable.
      • For kayaks, who can travel in very shallow water, this usually means outside the narrow channel as long as this option is not dangerous.
    • Get out of the way! A kayak shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway, or which is constrained by her draft in any other way. Take early action to get out of the way.
    • Passing. When vessels are meeting on opposing or nearly opposing courses, each shall alter course to the right so as to pass on the other’s left (port) side
      • When being overtaken from behind, a kayaker should, if possible, maintain course and speed. It is the responsibility of the overtaking vessel to keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken.
        • one short blast = “I am altering my course to the right and intend to leave you on my left side.”
        • two short blasts = “I am altering my course to the left and intend to leave you on my right side.”
      • Kayakers should never travel along or between designated traffic separation lanes, usually encountered in major harbors and clearly indicated on the chart
      • If you are paddling in a narrow channel and cannot see a possible approaching vessel due to a bend or obstruction, sound one prolonged blast. An approaching vessel should respond with a similar prolonged blast.
    • NOTE: The coast guard regulations (and Massachusetts regulations) don’t give anyone the right of way. The local confusion regarding this point is probably due to New Hampshire’s regulations (270-D:2 General Rules for Vessels Operating on Water), which states that “Canoes, kayaks, rowboats, sailboats, and swimmers shall be given the right-of-way.”

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  • General Charles River MotorBoat Rules
    • 6 mph speed limit above the BU Bridge
    • 10 mph speed limit between BU Bridge and Longfellow Bridge
    • The basic navigation rule for powerboats is to keep to the center of the river except for going under the
      BU Bridge.
      • Motorboats: use the center arches of all the other bridges and either arch, preferably the right hand arch
        in whichever direction you are traveling, at the Arsenal St. Bridge.
      • River Depth at Mass Ave Bridge is 10-40 ft, 13.4 feet headroom on the BU bridge.

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What price sanity?

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“I hate this commute,” was all I could think as I sat in a river of stopped cars on my way home from work last week. “Why would anybody CHOOSE to do this?” I whined as the traffic jutted ahead 2 feet before stopping again. “I want to be hiking!” I screamed from inside my prison. I hated being confined to my metal box, but I’d sprained my ankle halfway up Old Speck on the Appalachian Trail in Southern Maine, and not just a little sprain, a severe sprain.

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Icing my freshly sprained ankle in a waterfall near Pinkham Notch, NH

“Go big or go home,” is our family motto, and certainly a thru-hiker motto, and my ankle had gone big… to about the size of a grapefruit… and I’d had to go home… It happened on Memorial Day weekend and was a heartbreaking start to my summer… I wanted to hike… I NEEDED to hike… hiking wasn’t just a hobby for me anymore, hiking was a part of my daily meditation… The two-mile walk to- and from- work had been keeping me sane while I attempted to re-acclimate to civilization, but I’d gone to the ER and they’d booted me… like I booted car, I wasn’t going to be using that ankle to get very far, very fast…

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Booted!

I looked longingly out the window of the car… The sky was a gorgeous blue, and trees were finally, beautifully, green… I knew exactly where I was supposed to… out there! This car commute was driving me mad… It didn’t help that my right ankle was the one I sprained, so every time I had to step on the gas, or hit the brakes I was flooded with physical pain as well as psychological pain.

“Hmmm… Maybe I could buy a bicycle, and bike to work while I wait for my ankle to heal…” It had been a couple of weeks and my ankle was getting a little better… It would get me out of my daily traffic jam, but biking on a sprained ankle seemed like it might be pretty painful.

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“Or… I could get a kayak, and paddle to work everyday…” There’s a river near my apartment, and it connects to a brook that leads right to my office… There are even showers in the bathrooms at work, so I could shower when I got in! …”That would be perfect!” I’d wistfully thought about this before as I hiked along the river, but I couldn’t think of any good places to park my kayak at work.

“Aaargh,” I moaned as the traffic moved forward another couple of inches… It had been 15 minutes and I’d barely moved 15 feet. “That does it! I cant do this ‘car’ thing anymore!” For my sanity I need to figure out another options… “What I need is a collapsible kayak,” I thought and vowed to look into it.

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Eventually when I got  home I did just that! It looked like I had three options: an inflatable kayak, a skin-on-frame kayak (Folbot Kayak), or an origami kayak (Oru Kayak). Yes, you read that right, a human-sized origami kayak… I was excited that there were actually options! So I sat down and tried to figure out what I wanted out of my ideal kayak:

What price sanity? All of the options would be breaking the bank… but if I could actually commute in it? Priceless! After a lot of hemming and hawing, I ended up getting the Oru Kayak (The Bay). It seemed like the right balance of ease of setup, space, and weight for me… It also helped that I could get it from REI, which allowed me to go and check it out in person, and gave me greater confidence that if I had a problem with it, I could just return it.

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Coming soon: “Log Jams Not Traffic Jams: My Week 1 Review of the ORU Kayak”