Friday, April 12, 2013

Hopping the Hills to Harpers Ferry

Did you ever play the game of Leap Frog as a kid?  I remember it from my early elementary years, but I have to be honest, that it wasn’t one of my favorite games. 

Leap Frog isn’t like other games.  Actually, I’m not even sure it should be classified as a game.  There are no opposing sides or teams.  There are no points to be scored.  There are no real challenges to overcome, unless the person you’re trying to leap over is much larger than you.  There’s nothing to win and no point at which you can say the game is over.  Well, that is, until everyone decides to quit playing. 

Of course, you can always get creative with it and pair up into teams of two or more and race to a designated finish line by leap-frogging or see who can leap a certain number of bodies the fastest, but face it, leap frog is played strictly for whatever measure of fun a kid gets out of acting like a frog while hopping over a squatting friend.

There are some physical benefits to playing the game despite its lack of competitive challenges.  You must have a certain level of flexibility, strength and coordination to be the leaper or the leaped and, of course, the repetitive squats are quite good for muscle development.  Still, this game was never the first choice amongst my options.

But here I am, faced with a new game of leap frog to play.  While it may not be my first choice, I am willing to play and for some good reasons too.  Now, you may be thinking, ‘Wait, aren’t you laid up at home with herniated discs?  How in the world are you going to be playing leap frog?  And why would you want to play anyway?’  All legitimate questions and I plan to answer them.

Yes, I have two herniated discs in my lower back.  Yes, I am off the trail at this time, but under my doctor’s wonderful care, I have managed to avoid the need for surgery and am healing up nicely.  Basically, we have been using corticosteroids and NSAIDs to reduce the swelling and gentle stretching exercises that are slowly strengthening the back muscles as well as expanding the vertebral disc spaces.  This helps to relieve the pressure on the discs.  The disc “jelly” is being re-absorbed and the discs themselves are being allowed time to heal.  Within the next couple of weeks, I should be able to return to the trail with a few minor adjustments.

As with any strengthening exercises, you start slow with low weights or resistance and gradually increase the weight or difficulty as you become stronger.  My ability to return to the trail will be using this same philosophy and that’s why I must play a game of leap frog.
First, let me define the rules of this Appalachian Trail thru-hiking game.  According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), who issues the certificates of completion for thru-hikers, “A thru-hiker is a hiker or backpacker who has completed or is attempting to walk the entire A.T. in one uninterrupted journey.” 
Notice, it is NOT required for you to carry a backpack to be a thru-hiker.  You are NOT required to sleep in a tent, shelter or hammock or even spend a single night out on the trail.  The definition of an “uninterrupted” journey is generally understood within the hiking community as within one 12 month period of time which allows hikers to take time off trail for family events such as attending weddings or graduations or for medical reasons and recuperation time. 
We even refer to ourselves as “classes”, like a graduating class of students, so I am a member of the Class of 2013.  Just like high school or college, not everyone completes the requirements for graduation and the drop-out rate is high in this school, a whopping 70% or more.
The bottom line is that there are no hard and fast rules to being a thru-hiker and even reporting your completion of the trail is done on the honor system.  No one is out there checking up on you to make sure you actually hiked what you claim, but obviously, anyone who would dishonestly claim to have completed the trail and didn’t actually complete the miles would be very much frowned on by other hikers and “outed” for a fraud pretty readily.

Typically, thru-hikers start at one end of the trail or the other and try to walk straight thru to the other end with the vast majority starting in Georgia in March and April.  North-bounders, or NOBOs, are by far the most plentiful of hikers on the trail, followed by the south-bounders or SOBOs, but there are other alternative hiking plans commonly known as leap frogs, flip-flops, or just plain alternatives.

For example, if you happen to be a slow NOBO hiker or maybe got a late start out of Georgia and you have not reached Harpers Ferry, WV by the middle of July, then it is recommended that you “flip” up to Maine and start hiking south to complete the trail.  This is because Baxter State Park, home of Mt. Katahdin, closes by October 15th, sometimes earlier due to the weather, and chances are you won’t make it there in time.  By flipping up to Maine and completing south-bound, you will still be able to complete the entire trail and maintain your thru-hiker status.
The ATC actually encourages hikers to use alternative hiking plans to help alleviate the crowds of hikers that hit the trail around the same time every year.  Scattering hikers over the length of the trail helps to reduce the strain on resources and minimizes damage to the trail.  Some hikers prefer alternative plans because they, too, would like to avoid the crowds and want to experience a more solitary experience with nature or for some of the other benefits that an alternative plan can provide which I’ll explain in a bit.
So, in a few weeks I will be returning to the trail at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to continue north-bound to Maine, hence I will be leaping ahead of my fellow hikers with whom I started in Georgia.  Then, I will return to Harpers Ferry and continue south-bound back to where I exited the trail in Georgia when I came home for medical attention.   This particular leap frog alternative plan is called “Head Start – May” since you get a head start on the crowds of hikers coming north and typically begin the first ½ of May.
Why Harpers Ferry, West Virginia?  Because Harpers Ferry is known as the psychological halfway point on the trail (the actual halfway point for mileage is in southern Pennsylvania), the home of the ATC offices, and it just happens to be located in one of the easiest sections of the trail.
Check out these two elevation profiles.

The top profile shows the trail from about mile 62 through 82 as measured from Springer Mt. and is around the Georgia/North Carolina border.  The bottom profile shows the trail elevations in Maryland from about mile 1,031 through 1,051 again, as measured from Springer Mt.   As you can see, not only are the elevations of the mountains higher in GA/NC, but the changes in elevation (the ups and downs) are much more dramatic.  The stretch in MD is nearly level and the changes are more gradual.
The easiest section of the trail lies between the northern edge of the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia into Pennsylvania, a distance of several hundred miles, and from there it gets progressively more difficult the further north or south you go with the most difficult sections being at the most northern or southern ends of the trail.
Medically, this is significant for me as starting at Harpers Ferry will allow my body more time to strengthen gradually, so as the terrain becomes more difficult, I will also become stronger and better suited to the conditions.    Also, since I will be at the lower elevations, the threat of winter weather will be gone and I can reduce my pack weight by not carrying my winter gear, (although, that may be an issue open for debate with the spring we’ve been experiencing this year).  So, physically and medically, starting at Harpers Ferry makes sense, but there are some other benefits as well.

Spring, of course, brings warmer weather.   April showers and May flowers make for beautiful hiking days and plenty of water to drink, but it isn’t long before those temperatures rise to uncomfortable levels accompanied by high humidity making for long, hot, sweaty days with water supplies in the Mid-Atlantic region often drying up.  By starting in the middle of the trail in May, I will be able to have more pleasant, spring-like weather throughout most of my passage north and will avoid those hot, sticky, dry days of summer in the Mid-Atlantic.
Another huge bonus…for the first time in many years I will be able to spend Mother’s Day with my mom.  Harpers Ferry is just a little over 60 miles from my hometown of Shippensburg, PA and my hiking schedule should get me there right around Mother’s Day weekend.  I’m really looking forward to spending that time with her and I’m pretty sure she’ll be happy with that too.
As for the New England region, I will arrive in New Hampshire’s White Mountains before the crowds arrive in July and enter Vermont after their “mud season”.  The black flies of Maine will be gone and there will be no worries about reaching Mt. Katahdin before it closes for the season.
Once Mt. Katahdin has been summited, then I’ll grab a bus into Boston and take the train back to Harpers Ferry.  Riding the train is another one of the unforeseen benefits to my change in plans and another item that I can scratch off my bucket list.

The train from Boston won’t be the first one I take though.  I’m going to catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief in Hutchinson, Kansas when I head back out to the trail which will take me to Chicago.  There I will change trains to the Capitol Limited in which I will have a sleeper car to catch some rest before arriving at the Harpers Ferry station which is practically on the trail.  Now how convenient is that?  And what an added bonus to this adventure!

(Above: The Amtrak station at Harpers Ferry, WV.  Below: A typical sleeper car on an Amtrak train.  The two seats slide together and fold down into a bed.)

I am very excited about getting to travel by train.  I’m going to see some new sights and territory that I haven’t covered before.  I’ll get to peek into Michigan as the train travels the southern border of the state and get a better look at the city of Chicago than I’ve ever had before.  I’ll get to visit Maxwell Klinger’s home of Toledo and maybe be close enough to view the southern shores of Lake Erie on our way to Cleveland.  Maybe I’ll catch a glimpse of the campus of Notre Dame while passing through South Bend, Indiana and I’ll think of my daughter and wave as I pass through Pittsburgh.  I love watching the changing landscapes, the architecture, the wildlife and all the wonderful variety that we have across this great country.
The second half of this journey will also involve some changes.  I will be following the fall season back into the south and can only image the great views of patchwork colors across the quilt of forests that await my arrival.  Again, I will have pleasant temperatures as fall’s warm colors carry their contrasting currents of crisp air into the mountains.  I may get to hear the elk bugling with the fall rut in the Smokey Mountains.  I may get to see an early snow frost the high peaks of Tennessee, but most likely, it won’t last long and I’ll be finished before any severe freezing weather arrives. 
The changing of the seasons will bring me full circle to the conditions that I experienced at the beginning of my hike.  The leaves will fall and once again I’ll find myself looking through the bare trees of Georgia as I descend into Unicoi Gap near Hiawassee, or maybe if I’m ahead of schedule, I’ll hike all the way back to Springer Mt. and finish where I began.  Just like in the game of leap frog, eventually you return to the position in which you started.
You might say that I’ve found a silver lining to my dark cloud and as a friend recently reminded me, I may have just increased my chances of success as well.  The ATC statistics for 2012 thru-hiker completions reflect that 21.2% and 21.5% of NOBOs and SOBOs respectively completed the entire trail, but 64.9% of leap-froggers completed.  So, while leap-frogging may not have been my first choice for this hike or how I envisioned completing the trail, this is a very good and viable option that will safely allow me to complete and has brought with it some surprising and welcomed benefits.
I’ve also learned that leap frog isn’t just for kids.  While the Guinness world record for the largest game of leap frog involved 1,348 children in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2010, the world records for most leapfrog jumps in 30 seconds and 1 minute by a team of two people are held by adults from China, Japan and the U.S.A with the most recent records being set in 2011.  So, I guess whether you’re a hill hopping hiker or you just get your kicks leaping over a squatting lily-padded partner, the game of leap frog will remain an enduring option to bring smiles to the faces of those who just love to play.
Happy Hopping Everyone!!