Keeping it Raw? Actually Backpackers You Might Still Want to Treat Your Stream Water

Crossing Streams in the Andes

When I come across a bunch of raw water in the backcountry, what do I do? Sometimes I swim in it, sometimes I desperately try to avoid it in the hopes of staying dry, and sometimes I drink it. When I drink it, do I keep it raw? Very rarely. During my Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikes, the most popular approaches when it came to drinking raw water were to:

  • Filter it: Sawyer Squeeze Mini (0.1 Micron Filter, $20/2oz)
  • Chemically purify it: Aqua Mira ($15/2oz) or bleach (2 drops/liter)
  • Purify it with Ultraviolet (UV) light: Steripen ($69.95/2.6 oz)
  • Choose wisely and take your chances: select high-flow springs whenever possible; otherwise select lower flow springs or small spring- or glacier-fed streams
  • Boil the piss out of it

When I read the title of the link that started showing up in my feeds yesterday, “Actually Backpackers You Don’t Need to Filter Your Stream Water” my initial thought was, #notwrong. Unless my stream water is chunky or green I don’t usually don’t filter it, I purify it. I was surprised when I opened the article and realized that the title wasn’t a bait-and-switch about other water treatment options, the article was really suggesting that treating backcountry water sources for contamination was unnecessary:

“Treating backcountry water sources for contamination is a fundamental tenet of outdoor recreation education, ignored at the peril of contracting giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, or worse. In this case, however, popular opinion is wrong: The idea that most wilderness water sources are inherently unsafe is baseless dogma, unsupported by any epidemiological evidence… research to date has failed to demonstrate any significant link between wilderness water consumption and infection with these threats”

Don't Fall In!

It is certainly true that the popular opinion in the backpacking community is that you should treat backcountry water sources for contamination, is it also true that there is no link between untreated backcountry water sources and giardia or other water-borne illnesses? (Spoiler Alert: the CDC released epidemiological evidence in 2015 and 2017 linking giardia outbreaks to a backcountry water sources). I settled in and made myself comfortable, curious to see whether the Slate was going to impress me with their SCIENCE or or with their SPIN. Ok, are you ready for it?

“A 1993 study looking at the incidence of Giardia infection and gastrointestinal illness in backcountry travelers in a high-use area of California’s Sierra Nevada found only 5.7 percent tested positive, none of whom exhibited symptoms. Broader-scale approaches have similarly failed to justify concerns: Both a survey of health departments and a meta-analysis found that while giardiasis was prevalent enough to justify concern, there was no connection between recorded cases and drinking backcountry water.” 

I started by looking up the cited 1993 study, “Cyst acquisition rate for Giardia lamblia in backcountry travelers to Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe.”  (Zell et al, 1993):

  • 5.7% (2/35) of the backcountry travelers (1988-1990) acquired giardia cysts during their backcountry trips but remained asymptomatic
  • 16.7% (6/36?) of the backcountry travelers (1988-1990) experienced acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI), but did not show giardia in their stool. However, 1 of the 6 was diagnosed with giardia and treated with flagyl.
  • ≤25 giardia cysts per 100 gallon water sample (sampled at 2 gallons/minute) were found in the one trailside creek (Meek’s Creek) they evaluated in 1988

In summary, they showed that ~6% of backpackers acquired giardia in the backcountry, ~17% of the backpackers suffered from some sort of gastrointestinal illness, and they found giardia cysts in the one wilderness creek that they looked at. Given that their data was collected roughly 30 years ago, I was actually surprised that they found as much giardia as they did. Since the number of humans are one of the largest sources of giardia contamination, and the number of humans heading into the backcountry (and pooping in it) has been increasing over the last 30 years, I’d expect the amount of Giardia to be even higher now. For example, in 1988 there were 31 thru-hikers that hiked through the Desolation Wilderness on their way to completing their Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikes, whereas 717 backpacker passed through there on the way to successfully completing their thrus in 2016. I think it’s also important to note that the quotes in the Slate.com article about wilderness are all referring back to this one wilderness, which is wilderness as defined by the Wilderness Act, and not generic wilderness areas.

Desolation Wilderness

Although I enjoyed reading the 1993 paper, it didn’t convince me that backpackers in 2018 should drink raw, untreated water from streams.  I’d hiked through the Desolation Wilderness during my 2014 PCT thru-hike and opted not to drink the raw stream water then, and the evidence they’d presented so far wouldn’t lead me to make a different decision now. My general rule is to always filter, purify, or otherwise treat my water if there’s any chance that animals have been pooping, bathing, or swimming in it (especially if those animals are humans, beavers, or domesticated animals). Even though the glacially-fed mountain lakes and streams of the High Sierra were some of the most beautiful waters I’ve seen, I still always treated my stream water before drinking it because there was still a chance that someone or something higher upstream had been pooping in it. (As an aside, the backcountry contaminant I was most worried about as I hiked into the High Sierras was uranium, which is found in almost all of the groundwater of the high sierras; I shared my thoughts about the PCT water situation at the time in my trail blog: PCT Days 40-42).

Knee Deep in Raw Water

The next paper the slate article cited, the 1995 survey of health departments, was based on data more than 25 years old that found that 10.5% (2/19) of reported giardia outbreaks from contaminated drinking water were reported by campers/backpackers. The final scientific paper the slate article mentions was a meta-analysis published by Welch in 2000, which initially looked promising, but on further investigation, the only data that they included (met their inclusion criteria) about backcountry scenarios was from 1977. I wasn’t feeling wowed by the Science in the slate article at that point, so I decided that instead of  jumping into the way-back machine and delving into data collected from before I was born, I would see if there was a more recent discussion about giardia in the backcountry in the scientific literature.

It didn’t take me long to find it. In November 2017 the CDC released information about waterborne disease outbreaks collected during 2013 and 2014 (the years I did my thru-hikes of the AT, and PCT, respectively), which included outbreaks of giardia in backcountry settings and in national forests that were caused by drinking water from a river, stream, or spring. The 2011 and 2012 data also specifically cites giardia outbreaks that occurred from drinking untreated water directly from streams or rivers in outdoor settings. These giardia outbreaks are only the ones that met the CDC’s criteria and don’t include individual cases that may be scattered along the trail (e.g. my 2013 case of Giardia from the 100 mile Wilderness on the AT isn’t included in the CDC statistics).

CDC_table

Update: 2/5/2018. Selected outbreaks caused by backcountry, wilderness, and other outdoor water sources (river, stream, and/or spring) reported by the CDC. AGI: acute gastrointestinal illness, G.duodenalis: giardia duodenalis, G. intestinalis: giardia intestinalis

In addition to the epidemiological data from the CDC, I also found a meta-analysis looking at data in both the US and Canada from 1971 to 2014 (published in 2015) that stated that “Half of the outbreaks… were located in camps/ campgrounds/ cabins/ parks“, and found that 35% (101) of outbreaks were from camp/ campgrounds.

Stream or Trail?

After spending some time wading through the science (additional links available at the end of this post), I wasn’t feeling tempted to save money and lighten my pack by choosing to drink lots of raw, completely untreated stream water. The perspective shared in, “Actually Backpackers You Don’t Need to Filter Your Stream Water”, seems outdated in terms of the science, the technology, and the culture. Sure, back in the 1980’s and 1990’s the dogma in the outdoor community was that the average hiker needed to carry a $99.95 water filter that weighed almost a pound, but in 2018 most folks (myself included) are more likely to suggest lighter (2-3 oz) and less expensive (<$25) water treatment solutions. The scientific data from Slate’s sources show that giardia is present in at least some backcountry water sources, and the epidemiological data I found links giardia to at least some backcountry and wilderness water sources. Overall, the data suggests that there is some risk associated with drinking raw, untreated water. Whether or not you feel it is an acceptable risk is a completely different question.

Raw Water on the Appalachian Trail

I almost always filter or treat raw water from backcountry water sources. Although often my options when it come to backcountry water sources are limited, if I have a choice I have a preference. My personal preferences (along with the treatment options I use) are:

  • Springwater coming out of the side of a mountain (raw or purified)
  • Bubbling spring with a high flow rate (raw or purified)
  • Piped springs (purified or raw)
  • Beautifully clear waterfalls (purified or filtered)
  • Streams (purified or filtered)
  • Rivers or Glacial Lakes (purified or filtered)
  • Cisterns (purified and/or filtered)
  • Lakewater and pond water (purified & filtered)
  • Chunky and/or green water (pre-filtered, filtered &/or purified)
  • Cow pasture water (purified & filtered & boiled)

Raw Water in Iceland

Over the years I’ve consumed thousands of liters of water from backcountry water sources in the US, and I’ve only gotten giardia once…

 I got giardia from a pristine looking stream near a shelter in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine on Day 147 of my 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I was really shaken up from having a tree almost fall on me, and distractedly gulped down a whole bunch of my water 20 seconds after adding Aquamira to it. I realized my error almost immediately, but the water was clear and the stream was pretty, so I was cautiously optimistic. About 10 minutes later the trail led me to the beaver pond that my stream had flowed from. Doh! I summitted Katahdin, finished my AT thru-hike, and didn’t think any more about it until a couple weeks later when a gastroenterologist suggested that town food wasn’t my problem, giardia was.

Once was more than enough for me. For me, $20 and 2 oz seems like a pretty low cost (both in terms of $$ and weigh) to decrease the odds of having to go through that again.

Beaver Activity in the 100 Mile Wilderness

7 Questions to Ask Before Drinking Raw Water

As we do more and more research on the importance of microbiomes in human health, I expect that conversations about raw water will grow. Over time our interactions with backcountry water sources may evolve, and we may develop better tools to guide our interactions with raw water. In the meantime, here are 7 questions I ask myself, and would encourage others to ask themselves, before drinking untreated raw water from backcountry sources (or any other source really):

  1. Are you in a long-term monogamous relationship with your raw water source?
  2. Does you raw water get routine testing for water-borne infections (WBIs)?
  3. Does it have unprotected contact with the bodily fluids (or solids) of other people? strangers? beavers? livestock?
  4. Does it have a history of unprotected contact with bodily fluids or other substances that could negatively impact your health?
  5. Sure, it’s beautiful, but how much do you really know about it?
  6. Who and/or what was your raw water with before it was with you?
  7. Do you really know enough about its history to want to be fluid-bonded with it?

In general, I would strongly advise hikers and backpackers to treat the water they take from streams before drinking it. If you do decide to drink raw backcountry stream water, you might want to consider abstaining during periods of heavy rainfall when the risk of drinking raw stream water is higher than usual because waterborne contaminant levels in streams (even in the high sierra) are highest after large amounts of rainfall.

NOTE: Although I know a few people that got giardia on the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, I know a lot more people that got Norovirus or Lyme disease (see links below) on their Appalachian Trail thru-hikes.


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Related Posts I’ve Written:

Links to Additional Information About Giardia:

Doggone Cold! Winter Gear List for Dogs

Doggone Cold! Winter Gear List for Dogs

Winter on Mary's Rock

Here’s a list of the winter hiking and backpacking gear that M’s Seeing Eye Dog Edge used on our winter Appalachian Trail adventure in Virginia for New Year’s. This list includes the gear he used for climbing up to Mary’s Rock with wind-chills of -15℉, as well as the gear he used for his first winter overnight (with a record-breaking low of -2℉).

Winter Day-Hike Gear List for Edge

  1. Fleece-Lined Waterproof/Windproof Jacket (5/5): The jacket was easy to put on and take off, provided good coverage for precipitation, great mobility, and some added warmth. The jacket performed as described; I think it would have been perfect if the weather had been in the predicted range (lows of 15℉ to 25℉), but with temperatures dropping into the single digits and wind-chills making the effective temperature even colder, a warmer jacket with more coverage would have been better.
  2. Musher’s Secret Wax: It’s a barrier wax that helps protect paws that comes highly rated for winter trekking, but it accidentally got left at home this trip.
  3. Grip Trex Booties (2/5): I was surprised by how well edge tolerated the booties. For walking around the campsite and in paved/cleared walkways the boots did a good job, but while hiking the booties on his rear legs didn’t stay on very well, and we ended up losing two of them (both later retrieved by a kind stranger). To stay secured, I think the booties would have needed to come higher us his legs. It was also pretty clear that Edge had less traction with the booties than he was accustomed to. For icy sections of the trail we removed his booties because he seemed to have better traction without them, but his traction still wasn’t good enough on the ice. If I were to do it again I would try the Winter booties instead because they would provide more warmth and might stay on better in snowy conditions. Figuring out the traction issue is still an open problem.Edge Sporting his Jacket and Booties
  4. Quencher Water Bowl (3/5): This bowl worked pretty well. For winter something with an insulated bottom might be better as a water bowl, also something with a watertight seal or an easy pour lip to make it easier to keep the water that wasn’t consumed. The flexible nature of the bowl made it easy to break to the ice out of, which was nice.
  5. Food & Water: We carried extra food and water for Edge for winter hiking/backpacking. It takes extra calories to stay warm on cold winter days/nights, and winter air is so dry that you lose more water than you think. For our adventure I was guesstimating about 50% more food than usual based on the temperature and the planned exertion.
    • NOTE: Pay attention to how much they’re drinking, eating, and peeing:
      • Fewer pee breaks than usual may indicate dehydration
      • If pee breaks are really frequent and low in volume, check and make sure your dog isn’t cold and shivering.
      • If the color of their urine is really dark/yellow (or has a stronger smell than usual) it might indicate dehydration.
  6. Poop bags: It is what it is. For all day hikes dog poop should be packed out. For backpacking when the ground is frozen and you can’t bury it, you should pack out for your dog’s solid waste as well as your own (blue-bagging it as we used to say).
  7. Leash and/or harness: In most state and national park areas where dogs are allowed, they are required to be on a leash no longer than 6 feet at ALL times. Please be considerate of other hikers, dog-owners, the wildlife, and outdoor ecosystems when adventuring with your dog. Edge is a working dog, so his harness comes along with him too.

Edge in his Puppy Palace

Winter Overnight Gear List for Edge

  1. Highlands Sleeping Pad (4/5): This worked great as a winter sleeping/rest pad. This is a keeper and I’d highly recommend it for long winter day hikes as well as backpacking trips. In a perfect world I would want it to be a little bit bigger for a dog Edge’s size since his butt was consistently off of the back of it.
  2. Highlands Sleeping Bag (3/5): The sleeping bag just wasn’t big enough for Edge. For small- or medium-sized dogs I might give this bag a 5/5, but it wasn’t really big enough for him to be able to curl up into it. I ended up mostly unzipping it and tucking it around him like a quilt, and it did a pretty good job of keeping him warm. I was impressed by how well he tolerated being all bundled up. I’d be interested in upgrade options. With record-breaking low temperatures we ended up wrapping Edge with a second sleeping bag (a 30F bag designed for humans).Shenandoah Campfire with Edge
  3. Reflectix groundcloth (5/5): Used on the floor of the tent (the same way the humans used it) to provide an extra bit of warmth and insulation; it also covered a larger surface area than the sleeping pad, so if Edge slipped off of his sleeping pad he wasn’t on the bare ground.Edge inside the puppy palace
  4. Hyperlite Ultamid 2 Backpacking Tent (4/5): The hyperlite ultamid 2 worked great as a winter backpacking/camping dog house, but it is very expensive as a puppy palace. It provided good protection and extra warmth, and with one side of the door staked down, the door could be zipped ½ way down to provide a doggy door that Edge could enter and leave the tent through in case of emergency. The tent was plenty big so a person could have easily slept in the tent with Edge. I really liked the way the floorless tarp tent worked as a winter puppy palace. (I’m allergic to dogs, so it also had the advantage of being easy to shake it out, and then shower it off/wipe it down to prevent future allergen issues with the tent).

Additional Links/Resources for Winter Backpacking with Dogs

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.

Thru-hike Toothbrush Review (Backpacking/Ultralight)

Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different backpacking toothbrushes, and I’ve hated most of them… They’re usually too small to fit comfortable in my hand, awkward to use,  and/or messy! I also find the idea of spitting anything (even toothpaste, maybe especially toothpaste) into the bushes to be contrary to my leave no trace ethos… So brushing my teeth in the back-country has always seemed like a bit of an onerous chore… Unfortunately, going on a thru-hike and not brushing my teeth for 5 months wasn’t something I was willing to do, so I started experimenting with toothbrushes… After 5000 miles of backpacking, I’ve found a few that I like:

Colgate Wisp Max Fresh Peppermint Mini-Brushes, 24 count

The Colgate Wisp (5/5): By far my favorite backpacking toothbrush… I discovered them on my 2014 PCT thru-hike and have used them on almost all of my backpacking adventures since:

  • Usability(5/5): Easy to use, seems effective, minimal practice required
  • Weight(4/5): for a weekend trip (5/5) because I only take one… for a thru-hike with 5-7 days between resupplies I would take a few (0.3lbs shipping weight for 24 including packaging)
  • Cost (5/5): ~$0.21/each ($4.96/24)
  • Availability (5/5): Walmart and many convenience stores/gas stations
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… On the PCT where water was a premium I was loath to waste water on wetting my toothbrush, spitting out toothpaste, and cleaning my toothbrush… This little guy solved all those problems in one fell swoop
  • Hygiene (5/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when they get funky. Individual results may vary, but I was willing/able to use each brush at least 2-3 times before the minty goodness wore off (more if I cleaned them and didn’t mind the loss of mintiness).
    • Bonus: does not involve sticking your fingers in your mouth!!

Rolly Mini-Toothbrush(3-4/5): The lightest weight option, which is awesome, but seems to requires some skill to use effectively (without sticking your fingers in your mouth… Note: if you are super sensitive to strong flavors you may find its mintyness  overpowering at first.

  • Usability(3-4/5): Some skill required to get used to rolling around my teeth… I’ve used them 5 times so far, and with practice I expect that I will come to appreciate them more
  • Weight(5/5): Certainly the smallest and lightest weight toothbrush I’ve encountered… Just make sure you don’t accidentally swallow it! (0.3 oz shipping weight including packaging for 6 or them)
  • Cost(3/5): $0.60-$0.99/each
  • Availability(3/5): Available at some Walgreens stores and on Amazon
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… and small… nothing to complain about there
  • Hygiene (4/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when you’re done using them… the fact that you have to directly handle it to put it into your mouth (and to take it out), makes it more squeamish for re-use… for single use no problem (Mintiness lasted through 2, 2-minute uses for me)

GUM Folding Travel Toothbrush(4/5): For my 2013 AT thru-hike I eventually settled on this folding toothbrush because I found the lighter alternatives to obnoxious to use for such a long trip. I hiked over a thousand miles with it! For general travel I give this a 5/5… It is my favorite reusable travel toothbrush!

  • Usability(5/5): If you’re looking for a travel toothbrush that fits in your hand like a normal toothbrush, doesn’t break in two while you’re brushing, and still folds up nicely for travel, this is the toothbrush for you.
  • Weight(3/5): It’s not ultralight by any stretch of the imagination
  • Cost(4/5): ~$4.50 each, typically sold in two-packs, reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Available at Walmart and on Amazon
  • Convenience(4/5): They are handy and reusable… they still require water, toothpaste, and washing, but it’s a toothbrush, what do you expect?
  • Hygiene (4/5): If you have plentiful access to water and can wash them regularly then hygiene is not an issue… I didn’t have any issues beyond what I’d expect with a normal toothbrush.

Safety First Finger Toothbrush(2/5): I would call this (along with all the other finger toothbrushes I’ve tried) a failed experiment.

  • Usability(2/5): the bristles didn’t seem very effective for me, and having to put my finger in my mouth seemed dubious (especially as a thru-hiker)…
  • Weight(3/5): much lighter than a normal toothbrush, and lighter than my travel toothbrush with holes cut into it…additional weight could be saved by trimming excess bits off of it, but then you have the hygiene issue of having your dirty finger in your mouth… I’m not sure that its worth it :-P (0.8 oz shipping weight; leave a comment if you know the weight of just the brush)
  • Cost(4/5): $1.99 is not bad considering that its reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Easy to get at Walmart (or similar) at Dollar Generals along the AT, which is how I ended up experimenting with one.
  • Convenience(3/5): Required washing, toothpaste, and usual care and maintenance of toothbrush
  • Hygiene(1/5): Didn’t clean my teeth well, required me to actually put my exposed finger in my mouth to clean rear teeth, and if water etc got into it, it tended to linger… yuck!

Do you have a favorite backpacking and/or travel toothbrush? Share your favorites in the comments! (Also, if you know the individual weights of the toothbrushes I’ve mentioned, let me know and I’ll update the post… I don’t have a scale with me.

Links to other backpacking/travel toothbrushes/reviews:

‘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!

Living On The Edge! Katahdin’s Knife Edge and More…

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Treebeard traversing the Knife Edge after completing his AT thru-hike.

If you are looking for one of the most spectacularly beautiful hikes in the Northeast, you should add Mt. Katahdin and the Knife Edge to your bucket list… but I have to warn you, it’s also one of the most rocky, brutal, and exposed hikes in New England. When I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike on the summit of Mt. Katahdin on October 4, 2013 I looked around and realized that the AT was missing some of the best parts of Katahdin and I knew that I’d be back. This summer (2015), after hiking all of the trails up Mt. Katahdin except for the Abol Trail (currently closed for repairs), I’ve finally decided on my favorite Mt. Katahdin day-hike, a hike that contains two of Maine’s official 4000 footers:

The view hiking up the Hamlin Ridge Trail 

Katahdin- Knife Edge Loop (Hamlin, Baxter, and Pamola Peaks)

    • Date: August 16, 2015 (Sunday)
    • Peaks: Hamlin Peak (4756 ft, official 4000 footer), Baxter Peak (5268 ft, official 4000 footer, AT terminus), South Peak (In the Middle of the Knife Edge), and Pamola Peak (4919 ft)
    • Parking: Roaring Brook Day-Use Parking Area (pit-toilet, ranger station sign-in with current weather report, no potable water). The roads into Baxter State Park are gated at night and open for Day-Use at 6 am. Parking is limited within the park, and spots may be reserved up to 4 months in advance. A small number of spots (5 for Roaring Brook) are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Prepare to get up early and wait in line at the gate if you are hoping to get one of the first-come, first-served spots, and have a back-up plan for enjoying one of Baxter’s other peaks, like North Brother, if the lots for Katahdin are full.
    • Conditions: Extreme Heat Warning! temps in the 90’s. 5-10 mph winds with gusts up to 20 mph
    • Total Mileage: 11.3 miles
      • Chimney Pond Trail- 3.0 miles. 0.2 miles to Helon Taylor Junction, 2.1 miles to North Basin Cut-off (originally planned to take cut-off, but water sources at junction were dry), 0.7 miles to North Basin Trail. Trail followed along roaring brook, below treeline with occasional views; rocky with constant, but relatively easy grade; crowded despite early (6:45 am start).
      • North Basin Trail- 0.4 miles. Large boulders,  below treeline (shaded), no water, no people
      • Hamlin Ridge Trail- 1.3 miles. First 0.2 miles below treeline; trail is rocky, with large boulders, rising steeply along the fin of the ridge to Hamlin Peak. Awesome views of Baxter Peak, the Knife Edge, and the North Peaks throughout; I didn’t encounter any people on this trail. (I’ve hiked all of the trails to Katahdin’s summit except the Abol Trail, and found the ascent up the Hamlin Ridge Trail the easiest)
      • Caribou Springs Trail- 0.2 miles. Rock-hopping from summit down to saddle, above treeline the whole way. Small clear spring located just off trail to the right as you descend and intersect with saddle the Northwest Basin Trail. Encountered 2 backpackers and 1 hiker while breaking for lunch at the spring. The spring was still freely flowing in late August.
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      • Northwest Basin Trail- 0.9 miles. easy rock-hoping along ridge, above treeline, no people.
      • Saddle Trail- 1.0 miles. Slow and steady climb to Baxter summit, droves of people, some rock-hopping, some loose gravel, many false summits. Exposed with gorgeous views. Intersections with cathedral cutoff (0.5 miles), and later Cathedral Trail provide welcome evidence of progress along ridge
      • Knife Edge Trail- 1.1 miles. Put your trekking poles away, you will need both hands and both feet to climb up and over boulders, rocky slabs, and fins. Do not attempt in wet weather or with approaching thunderstorms. Not recommended for folks with full packs. Not recommended for those with fear of heights. Very exposed, and awesome!
      • Helon Taylor Trail- 3.2 miles. Above treeline for the first 1.2 miles. Large Boulders and moderate to steep decline for the first ~2 miles. Large stream with good flow ~1.8 miles down. Final miles fairly easy going.
      • Chimney Pond Trail- 0.2 miles. I took a break back at Roaring Pond and then finished off the rocky, but easy last 0.2 miles to the parking lot.
    • Total Duration: 10 hrs, 15 minutes: 6:45 am – 5:00 pm (1 hr break at Caribou Springs, 2 hr break at Baxter summit, 45 minutes at Avalanche Brook)
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Mt. Katahdin at dawn as seen from Roaring Brook Road

Unlike most trailheads in the Northeast, the parking within Baxter State Park in extremely regulated, and you’re supposed to reserve your parking spot in advance (up to 4 months in advance). I was not that organized, so I was hoping to get one of the 5 first-come, first-serve parking spots in the lot at Roaring Brook. I’d heard rumors about people getting in line as early as 3:30 in the morning in the hopes of getting a spot but that was too early for me so I decided that I’d get up when I got up, and figured I’d take my chances!

I ended up waking up fairly early, just before 5 am, so I hoped I might actually stand a chance. Still in my pajamas I crawled out of my sleeping bag, rolled into my car, and drove over to the Togue Pond Gatehouse where the road into Baxter State Park was literally gated off. When I got there at 5:15 am there were already three cars in line (the people in the first car said they got there at 4 am), and by 5:30 am there were at least 10 cars in the line behind me. When the rangers finally arrived to open the park at 6 am the line of cars behind me stretched down the road, around the corner, and out of sight… It probably contained upwards of 60 cars, and 4 of the first 6 cars were hoping for the first-come, first-serve parking spots at Katahdin’s main trailhead! Although the rangers tell you to get there by six for the first-come first-served spots, on most popular days the folks arriving at six are already too late.

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Taking a break to look back at the trail I’d just climbed along Hamlin Ridge.

By 6:10 am I’d filled out the paperwork for my spot and I headed down the dirt road towards the main trailhead. I was tired, but excited… The drive down the dirt road to the parking area felt like it took forever, but eventually I joined dozens of other cars at the lot, packed my bag, and by 6:45 am I was on the trail and headed off on my adventure!

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The first part of my hike (the Chimney Pond Trail) was crowded with dayhikers, backpackers, scout groups, and camp groups, but as soon as I turned onto North Basin Trail I had the mountain to myself… I enjoy interacting with other hikers, but there’s something about being in the woods alone that I’ve grown to love. I reveled in the solitude and the joy of only interacting with the rocks, roots, earth, and sky… The going was rocky, but before long I’d turned onto the Hamlin Ridge Trail, and by ~8:30 in the morning I’d popped up above treeline where I would stay until ~4:30 that the afternoon.

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Looking up the Hamlin Ridge Trail towards Hamlin Peak.

As I hiked I marveled at how lucky I was… the weather was picture perfect and I could see both Hamlin and Baxter Peaks rising ahead of me, with the Knife Edge in silhouette off to my left… If I looked very carefully I could see the ant-like people scurrying across the top of it’s ridge. It looked truly impressive!

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Looking over at the Knife Edge from Hamlin RIdge Trail

When I reached Hamlin Peak I had the summit all to myself… The rocky alpine meadow up there was still  intact and seemed to stretch almost endlessly in every direction. “This is how the other summits should look…” I thought contemplatively and almost mournfully. Here, at the summit of Hamlin Peak, there was almost no sign of the erosion damage that is so pervasive on almost every other alpine peak in New England… There haven’t been enough travelers to trample the meadow and damage it’s fragile ecosystem (yet)… I found my irritation with Baxter State Park’s rules, gates, and lines beginning to melt away… “There need to be places like this, places where the foot traffic is limited, and some semblance of the native alpine environments exist,” I thought as I enjoyed the privilege of being there… It was beautiful and it was wild, and I hoped it would stay that way!

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As I lingered at the summit I noticed the sign for ‘Caribou Spring.’ Was it really possible that there was a spring up here above treeline on one of Katahdin’s flanks and that I was going to be hiking right past it? It was late August in the middle of a mountain heat wave, and the thought of getting to top off my water bottles before continuing my hike across the exposed ridgeline to Katahdin’s Baxter Peak was more than a little bit appealing! I was skeptical though, in late August a lot of New England’s mountain water sources go dry…

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The quiet of the mountains stayed with me as I continued towards the spring… I could see the crowds on the Saddle Trail headed towards the summit of Baxter Peak, but they were over a mile away. I lingered on my peaceful mountaintop trail, enjoying the solitude while it lasted.

When I got to the trail junction and looked around sure enough there was the little spring burbling away. I decided to sit there a while, eat my lunch, and top off all of my water bottles. It was hot and I still had a very long day ahead of me! While lingering there for lunch I encountered the only three people that I’d see on the trails around Hamlin Peak.

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On the Northwest Basin Trail looking at the cloud enveloping the summit of Katahdin.

The difference in the number of people hiking on the Northwest Basin Trail along Katahdin’s ridgeline and the Saddle Trail was stunningly impressive… I had the Northwest Basin Trail all to myself, but I could clearly see a constant stream of people ascending and descending the Saddle Trail… I felt no need to hurry as I picked my way through the rocks… I’d get there soon enough, and no matter how many people I encountered, Katahdin’s majesty wouldn’t be diminished… The mountain and its ridgelines were breathtaking!

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On the Saddle Trail looking back towards Hamlin Peak and North Brother.

I’d forgotten how rocky Katahdin’s trails are… They look so beautiful and well defined, that I’d somehow thought of them as being like the trails along Franconia Ridge, which almost feel like the gravel trails you’d find in a well-groomed park, but in truth they are much more like the rock-hopping trails that you find near Mt. Washington’s summit… beautiful, but definitely knee-busters…

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On the Saddle Trail looking back at Hamlin Peak and North Brother

As I slowly, but steadily climbed the Saddle Trail I met and passed many of the same scouts and campers that I’d seen earlier in the day (back on the Chimney Pond Trail), and we cheered each other on. Sure, the solitude I’d been enjoying earlier was gone, but it was replaced by a sense of community and comraderie that was special in a different way.

“Is there an easy way down?” asked a bedraggled couple just beginning their descent and looking like the heat was getting to them. “Well,” I thought, “I think the Saddle Trail down to Chimney Pond is your best bet if your car is at Roaring Brook.” They looked at me and moaned, “That’s the way we came up!” They were radiating a sense of misery and defeat, that knew very well… I’ve been there before.

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“Do you guys have a map? How are you doing on food and water?” I asked and encouraged them to step to the side of the trail for a minute. They didn’t have a map, so I took a break and showed them mine… It was their first time up Katahdin and it was a heftier climb than they’d expected, and the weather was a lot hotter than they’d anticipated as well. “I think we have enough water to get back to Chimney Pond,” they replied, “but we’re out of food.” I nodded, dug around in my pack and gave them the extra granola bars and packets of Oreo Cookies I had. “Thanks!” they exclaimed digging into the Oreo Cookies right away. “No problem, I always carry extra,” I assured them as we parted ways.

Approaching Baxter Peak on Katahdin all I could think about was the last time I’d been here… I didn’t notice the crowds of dayhikers swarming around me at the summit. I was lost in memories of my 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hike…

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Standing at the summit of Katahdin in 2013 at the end of my AT thru-hike

Memories of my thru-hike, memories of the amazing adventures I’d had, and the incredibly people I’d met… Memories of the crew I’d celebrated with on summit of Katahdin in 2013, and grief over the loss of Shady, who I’d last seen here at this summit. I retreated to the rocks where our group had huddled for warmth two years ago on that day in 2013, and had a moment of silence for Shady… Remembering not just the grief of loss, but the joy of the times we’d shared…

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The crew I celebrated with in 2013

While we’d huddled in this spot in 2013, Shady, with his ever adventurous spirit, had decided that finishing the AT and summiting Katahdin wasn’t enough, so he’d done a quick hike across the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak and back again. Remembering that brought a smile to my face… there was no denying that Shady was a Bada** Ranger with a heart of gold!

I slowly returned from my reverie and looked around… I was surrounded by day-hikers… There were at least 50 of them, but there was no sign of any thru-hikers, but wait… wait… “That’s totally a thru-hiker,” I thought in the second before I recognized him… “Treebeard!” I exclaimed realizing that it was the thru-hiker that had camped with me at Abol Pines Campground the night before. “Congratulations!”

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Treebeard celebrating amongst the crowds at the summit of Mt. Katahdin

“Are there any other thru-hikers around?” I asked. “I haven’t seen any,” he shrugged in reply. When I’d summitted early on an October morning in 2013 the people at the summit were almost exclusively thru-hikers, I couldn’t imagine what it would have felt like to finish my thru-hike without any other thru-hikers or friends and family around… “Could you take some summit pictures for me?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied enthusiastically… I’d wished I’d taken more fun and creative summit photos at the end of my AT journey, so I was more than happy to help Treebeard get the photos he wanted!

OMG, it was a zoo up there! Absolutely everybody wanted to get pictures with the sign at the summit of Mt. Katahdin… there was a disorganized line, and people were either calmly waiting their turn, or pushing their way to the sign and taking their photos oblivious of everyone else… We waited in line and eventually got to take a series of photos, some funny, some serious, and some with me joking with the crowd about thru-hiker modeling,”Work It! Work It!” I yelled laughing and snapping photos…

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Eventually Treebeard got all of the summit photos he wanted and we prepared to set off. Since he and I were both planning on descending via the Knife Edge we decided to head of together. Nowadays I don’t get to hang out with fellow thru-hikers very often, so it was nice to get to relax into thru-hiker mode for a bit… From the summit the Knife Edge looked pretty intense, and I have to admit that I didn’t mind the idea of hiking it with another person instead of hiking it solo!

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Looking out across the Knife Edge from the summit of Katahdin

Though I’ve hiked the Knife Edge before, I was surprised by how crazy, rugged, and awesome it was… I don’t know of any other trails in New England that are quite like it! As Treebeard and I slowly made our way across it we were constantly amazed by both the beauty of the ravines falling off to either side of us, and at the path that the trail took across the ridge.

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Preparing to cross the Knife’s Edge

We were lucky that we had perfect weather crossing the ridge, and as we crossed we could see the people scurrying along it’s edge almost a mile away… “Wow!” I kept thinking, “just wow!” Since Treebeard is a 2015 thru-hiker and I’m a 2013 thru-hiker I figured he’d outpace me and be on his way before long, but we ended up crossing the whole Knife Edge together… The fact that he’d hiked 20+ miles to get there and was doing the Knife Edge with a full pack probably slowed him down a bit ;)

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Treebeard stopping to look back at the Knife Edge trail winding it’s way down from Mt. Katahdin

“There’s nothing like this on the AT,” Treebeard exclaimed as we bouldered across the ridge and skirted narrow rock ledges. I absolutely agreed, but it felt kind of nice having someone who had just hiked the entire AT that summer put words to that feeling! As we threaded our way through Katahdin’s rocks we talked about our thru-hikes and some of our experiences on the trail in the lazy off-hand sort of way that sometimes comes with having lived through similar, but different, extreme circumstances.

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We took it slow, taking pictures, and taking care with our footing… We’d both had long days and it didn’t seem like it was worth risking injury to rush through the Knife Edge. Nobody else seemed to be in a big rush either.

After spending a full day rock-hopping on Katahdin, I was feeling pretty confident with my balance and foot placements as we went across, but I was incredibly glad that I wasn’t carrying a full pack, and that I wasn’t wearing thru-hiker shoes (by the time thru-hikers get to Katahdin their shoes are usually falling apart). Treebeard seemed to be handling it with not problem, but admitted he wasn’t sure that he’d recommend that other thru-hikers go this way. “Actually, I talked to the ranger about it this morning,” he confessed, “and he said that they don’t recommend this to the thru-hikers…” He paused, “I can see why!”

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It turned out that the most challenging portion of the Knife Edge for us came at the very end. It was a steep descent down a slightly jagged rock-face right before we got to Pamola Peak. As Treebeard and I approached we saw a group of people staggered at different spots, unable to figure out how they were going to get down, but confident that there was no good way.

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The first section of the descent didn’t seem so bad and Treebeard and I quickly passed everyone, but I have to admit, we were a bit stymied by the final section… No matter which way we looked it didn’t seem good. Treebeard went down the way we’d seen a couple of people ahead of us go, but seemed to struggle with it, so I looked for an alternative. “Sh**,” an expletive floated up from down below as Treebeard almost pealed off of the rocks. “Nope,” I’m definitely not going that way I decided as I looked for a safer way to meet him at the bottom. Eventually I found a way that worked better for me, but it still involved one slightly risky move…

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The last descent along the Knife Edge (look closely and see the people in the process of descending… I blew up that section for the next photo)

At the bottom Treebeard and I looked back at it, “Is this worse than Mahoosuk Notch?” I asked. The Mahoosuk Notch is infamously the hardest mile on the AT… It’s not as exposed as the Knife Edge, and certainly doesn’t have the same kind of spectacular views, but crossing it during my thru-hike had definitely seemed like a death-defying act. “Yup,” he replied, “worse than the Notch!”

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Standing on Pamola Peak and looking back at the Knife Edge we’d just crossed Katahdin seemed like a mammoth of an awesome mountain… It felt strangely bittersweet though… All day as I hiked I’d had amazing things to look forward to, first Hamlin Peak, then Baxter, then the Knife Edge, but now the next stop was the parking lot… I didn’t want to be leaving Katahdin… I didn’t want to be leaving Baxter State Park… I wanted to stay up there above treeline soaking it all in, at least until sunset and the light went away.

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Unfortunately, better sense prevailed… I’d been up since ~4:30 that morning, and had been baking in the sun above treeline since 8:30 that morning… It wouldn’t be smart to stay up there and I knew it, so I slowly began my descent down the Helon Taylor Trail. As we descended into the shadow of Katahdin we remained above treeline, but dropped out of the wind… Suddenly it was oppressively hot… It had been abnormally hot all day, but the temperatures were at their hottest now, and peaking into the 90’s even on the mountain.

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The rock-hopping that had been fun just moments before began to get tedious… did every step really have to be this rocky? And though the views were still impressive, I began to long for shade… Shade that I knew wouldn’t come until I was within 2 miles of the end of my hike. As I continued to descend I noticed that I was getting unreasonable irritated every time the trail decided that the best route involved me dropping down 3+ feet in one step.

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“Hey Treebeard, I’m going to have to stop for a snack and for some water,” I said as soon as we dropped below treeline and I noticed a bit of shade. “Ok,” he replied, “I think I’m going to keep going.” We exchanged contact information and headed our separate ways. It had been nice to hike with someone for a while. It was also nice that in true thru-hiker style there wasn’t any pretense or hurt feelings when we decided to part ways again when our needs differed.

I sat in the shade, taking a leisurely break, eating a snack, and double checking my water reserves… I had about a liter and a half left… “Wow, I’ve been going through a lot of water!” I thought. I’d started up the Hamlin Ridge Trail with 5L of water, and had topped off my water with another 2L at caribou Springs… It’s really unusual for me to go through 5+ liters of water on a hike, but it had been a long day, with temps in the 90’s, and a lot of sun exposure.

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After eating my snack I felt energized and starting dancing down the rocks like I used to as a thru-hiker… Since I was down below treeline I could focus entirely on the rocks, roots, and finding the best foot placements amongst them… It was a weird sort of fun, but I enjoyed it. As I booked it down the mountain I passed a couple of guys that were looking truly miserable. “Are you guys ok?” I asked. The first one nodded his head, but the other one said, “We’re out of water, do you have an extra?”

My answer was unfortunately yes and no… Given the conditions, I was figuring that I needed a full liter of water to get back to the parking lot, so all I could give them was 1/2L to share. They took it gratefully, but I knew it wasn’t enough :-/ I looked at my map and it showed a stream crossing the trail in about 1/2 mile… “Do you have any water filtration or treatment stuff?” I asked them. “No,” they responded sadly. “Well, when we get down there if the stream exists, maybe I treat some for you?” I offered.

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Hiking down towards the stream our paces were very different, and I was way way ahead of them within moments. The rocky downhill seemed to go on forever, but eventually I got to the branch of Avalanche Brook that crossed the trail  and happily discovered that it was running strongly. It takes 15-20 minutes to chemically treat drinking water using my system, so I immediately starting preparing one of my one liter bottles for the guys coming behind me knowing that they were far thirstier than I.

I set a timer for 15 minutes to make sure that the water would be all set before giving it to them and decided I might as well prepare some extra water for me while I waited for them to show up. I waited for them until the alarm went off and then started wondering if they were ok, or if I should just leave the water bottle in the trail for them or… Eventually I decided I would backtrack just a little bit to look for them.

Luckily I found them almost immediately. They were not having any fun at all. When they saw me they sunk down onto a rock and gratefully accepted the water. “We were beginning to think we might die out here,” one of them panted. I looked them over. They weren’t showing obvious signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion, but given the conditions it’s possible that they weren’t far off. “Do you guys have some water bottles?” I asked. “I could treat some water for you. You’ll have to wait 15 minutes to drink it, but after that it’ll be good.”

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It didn’t take much convincing, and I filled up 2 more water bottles for them for their descent, explaining the process of treating the water as I went along. I ended up spending a half hour or so with them and gave them the last of my oreo cookies and topped off their water bottles before heading off. “Thank you sooo much!,” they exclaimed, looking much better as I prepared to head off. “No worries,” I replied, “It ends up happening to everyone at some point, I’ve certainly been there! I’m glad I could help!”

After taking that break I felt rejuvinated and zipped down the rest of the trail, completing my loop at the Chimney Pond Trail with a quick jump into Roaring Brook… I didn’t want the hike to be over because it had been so beautiful, but I have to admit that the air conditioning in my car was sounding mighty appealing at that moment… Civilization does have its perks!

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P.S. When I checked out at the ranger station I told the ranger that there were a couple of guys that had been struggling on the Helon Taylor Trail, explained the situation and comments I’d heard from hikers that passed them after I left them… I figured they’d be fine, but I wanted to make sure that if they didn’t get back in the next couple of hours that the rangers would know where they were and go looking for them.

Treebeard standing at the top of Pamola Peak

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.”

Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 1: The Calm Before the Storm)

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Sunrise over Abol Bridge Campground and Mt. Katahdin, ME


 Knowing what I know now, I would have made different decisions… I may be an expert hiker, but when it comes to kayaking I’m still a novice and I know it. There’s absolutely no way that I would have knowingly chosen to kayak through class IV (advanced) rapids in my origami kayak (Oru Kayak), never mind doing it alone, and without a spray skirt!! No way! So how is it that I ended up in way over my head on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, swimming through Big Ambejackmockamus Falls?

Setting the Stage:

“What’s your plan for today?” asked the woman sitting across from me at the picnic table. She and her family had invited me to share their campsite late last night after seeing me wander around the campground hoping to find a non-existent empty spot. This morning when her family invited me to join them for breakfast, I’d found their kindness and generosity (not to mention the smell of bacon) irresistible.

“I don’t know, I’ll probably just lounge around all day,” I replied stifling a yawn as I watched her four boys romp gleefully around the campsite. As the youngest (~2 yrs old) dodged towards the river, it occurred to me that my kayak was in the trunk of my car… The Penobscot River, which was right there in front of me, looked like it had a really strong current (actually ~2300 cubic feet per second, cfs)… Much stronger than the currents in the rivers I was used to (100-300,cfs), but a relaxing paddle on a nearby lake could be nice, so I added, “Maybe I’ll take my kayak to one of the lakes around here later.”

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Five tents crammed into a site at Abol Bridge Campround across the river from where I stayed at Abol Pines Campground.

Sitting still has never been my strong suit, so as the morning warmed up and it became apparent that my new friends were going to stick around the campsite for a bit, I asked them if they’d be willing to keep on eye on me while I took my kayak out for a quick spin on the swiftly moving Penobscot River… They heartily agreed, and Gabe, their nine-year-old son, offered to help me carry my stuff over to the small launch point at Abol Bridge.

“Is that really a kayak?” Gabe asked as I pulled my folded up Oru Kayak out of my trunk. “Yes,” I replied smiling, “It’s a folding kayak.” He looked at the box I claimed would open up into a kayak with skepticism as I handed him my paddle… Finally he shrugged, clearly tired of trying to imagine how that box could possibly be a kayak, and said, “If you say so…” and walked off, heading towards the river.

The launch point at Abol Bridge Campground is one of the most beautiful spots that you can drive to… it’s a small sandy riverside beach with a gorgeous view of Mt. Katahdin towering behind it. As I unfolded my Kayak and explained to Gabe how it went together I couldn’t help but sneak occasional glances at Maine’s most majestic mountain… They were predicting thunderstorms that afternoon, so I was going to wait for a different day to climb Katahdin, but the mountains were the real reason I was there.

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Mt. Katahdin as viewed from the Penobscot River near Abol Bridge.

“Wow, that’s a good looking kayak,” Gabe finally admitted as I cinched up the last few straps of the kayak and installed the seat… “Thanks,” I said, dropping it into the water. “Do you want to wait until I get in and launch it, or do you want to head back to the campsite now?”

“I’ll wait,” he said grinning ear-to-ear, “that way I can race you!”

I laughed, “You’re on! Just be careful crossing the road! Make sure you stop and look both ways first!!” He nodded seriously, as I climbed into my kayak, and pushed into the water… “See you there!” he yelled, his feet already moving as bolted off. The race was on!

I carefully steered my kayak out of the still-water at the launch and into the current… I’d kayaked in water like this before, but not in my Oru Kayak… Could it handle it? Yes! The handling with great… The current was fast, the water was a bit turbulent, but it was well within my comfort zone… It felt a lot like kayaking in Boston harbor. I could just relax and enjoy the scenery.

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Gabe took this picture of me with Mt. Katahdin in the background right before I set off!

As I looked around, I spotted Gabe dashing through the woods trying to beat me to the campsite. He was going to win.

“Ha! I beat you!” exclaimed Gabe triumphantly and at least a little bit out of breath, as I pulled my kayak up along the riverbank at the campsite. “Can we help?” he asked as he led his brothers tripping down the steep bank to the kayak. “Sure,” I replied, assigning each boy a task… Though I could have done it alone, their help made the whole process a lot more fun. Before long we paraded into the campsite full of smiles.

A Decision Is Made…

“We’re going to head out and go swimming pretty soon, but we could give you a ride upriver so that you could just paddle back downstream to the campsite if you’re interested…” It was a generous offer and I was tempted, but I was also a bit hesitant. “Do you know what the river is like up above?” I asked. “I’m ok paddling on water like this,” I continued, pointing back up towards the bridge, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable on anything much rougher…”

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A loon hanging out in the middle of the Penobscot River!

“Well, there are some big rapids up at Cribworks. That’s where the whitewater rafters go to play, but we can drop you off down below that, where the canoes usually put it… it’s mostly still water from there… except for Horserace, which is a class II.”

That sounded pretty good, but before agreeing to it, I took a minute to think about my experience, skill level, and comfort level, “As long as none of it more than a class II, I should be fine,” I replied. “I have a map, can you show me where you’re thinking about dropping me off?”

“Sure, we can drop you off at Big Eddy, it’s just a couple of miles up and mostly Class II’s from there,” they suggested as I spread my map out on the picnic table. “Well, it’s over here, just off the edge of the map,” the dad said, his finger trailing onto the wood of the picnic table. “It’s about a 10 minute drive from here,” he continued, looking up at me, “and the road follows alongside the river the whole time.” I felt uncomfortable not being able to at least see the route on the map, but with the road running alongside the river I figured it would be ok… “Besides,” I thought, “I’m not proud, if I run into anything I’m uncomfortable with I can always get out of the river, fold up my kayak, and walk the rest of the way back!”

  • hamartia: “a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.” –google dictionary

After some more discussion, I accepted their offer, we loaded the kayak into their van, they prayed for me, and we were off. As we drove along the river there were some sections that were obscured by trees, but as promised the road seemed to wind along the river and the river looked pretty calm, there were occasional riffles here and there, but it didn’t look too bad… I still had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into…

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The Penobscot River, ME

Big Eddy’s Nuisance Bald Eagle

As I prepared to launch my kayak at Big Eddy, I was struck by how picturesque the river was… The white-capped rapids tapered off above me, two fly fishermen stood knee-deep in the water rhythmically casting their lines, and the Maine woods extended from the far bank of the river endlessly into the horizon… It was a great day to be outside!

“Woah! Is that a…” I asked, the fly fisherwoman beside me, my voice sticking in my throat as the giant bird dove at us… “BALD EAGLE?” I finished, able to speak again as it swooped away, sticking it’s bright white tail in my face. I continued staring at it as it perched in a nearby tree, it’s eyes seemingly trained on us.

“Yes,” the fisherwoman replied with exasperation. “The damn thing’s a nuisance bird,” she continued vehemently. “It hangs out here trying to steal our fish. Just watch!” she exclaimed pointing to the other guy’s fishing line… As soon as he started pulling the line out of the water the bald eagle dove towards it, “If he’d had a fish that eagle would have taken it right off of the line!”

“Wow!” It was incredible, I’ve seen a lot of bald eagles over the years, but I’d never had one fly this close to me, never-mind having it do so repeatedly… I’d also never heard of a nuisance bald eagle, but like a nuisance bear, it seems to have associated humans and that particular location with food… I thought about taking my camera out to get some pictures of it, but I was anxious to get moving… I didn’t want to be on the river that afternoon when the predicted thunderstorms cropped up.

As I paddled away from the bald eagle at Big Eddy, I had a smile on my face and a heart filled with happiness… The water was fast, but as I paddled down the river I was at peace… My eyes, my ears, my lungs, my body, and my thoughts were all full of the here and now, full of the river and the woods, full of the outdoors… I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I rejoiced in it!

TO BE CONTINUED in “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 2: In Over My Head”

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Sunset over the Penobscot River, ME