Friday, May 3, 2013

Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania Northbound from Swatara Gap to the Blue Rocks Family Campground

Hiking History

I have talked with many Appalachian Trail thru hikers, and each of them have told me how hard it  is to hike the rocky areas of the AT in Pennsylvania. In the past I have envisioned hiking the entire AT in sections at my own walking rate. I am over half way finished hiking the entire AT and I have recently come to the realization that at age 70 the vision may not become a reality.  About 20 years ago I was diagnosed with severe knee loss of cartilage due to many years of overuse and abuse running marathons and ultramarathrons. Three doctors told me that I needed immediate knee replacements in both knees and that my long distance outdoor activities of running, bicycling and walking were a thing of the past. I refused to give in to an inactive life of  being a couch potato. I vowed to become even more active than before the doctors' diagnosis. I knew that running was no longer an option, but bicycling and long-distance walking seemed real and viable to me. I began bicycling to and from work and started hiking small sections of the AT. My first real test was to bicycle 470 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I completed the trip in six days and since then I have not looked back.  I have completed many 100 and 50 mile bicycle rides, bicycled to and from work for ten years, as well as  hiked portions of the AT and the Continental Divide Trail. Last summer I hiked Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon. I thought that I would have enough time to finish hiking the AT before I physically would have to quit.  My latest adventure was to hike 75 miles on the AT from Swatara Gap to Lehigh gap in Pennsylvania. I divided the hike into two parts. The first part was from Swatara Gap to Port Clinton and the second from Port Clinton to Lehigh Gap.

Swatara Gap to Port Clinton Hike

At Swatara Gap a hiking friend joined me as an encourager and as a safety precaution against me falling and being left all alone injured on the trail. The AT is a well-maintained trail.  Hikers have a very small chance of becoming lost in the woods. The chance of injury comes from falling while walking long distances on basketball-sized wobbly rocks up and down the mountains with a 35 pound pack. During the month of April in Pennsylvania there are only a few thru hikers on this portion of the trail and an injured solo hiker may lay unattended for hours or even days. We hiked together for three days before he had to quit to attend the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. 

Along the trail we passed groups of young couples trying to find suitable areas to view the meteor showers expected that night.  Our first stop after 11.2 miles was the 501 Shelter. The 501 Shelter is one of the only shelters that are enclosed with a roof and four walls. The shelter is maintained by a caretaker who lives in a house less than 100 yards away. The shelter ceiling is composed of  a skylight covering the entire roof. If we had not been so tired we could have viewed the meteor shower without getting out of our bed. It was great to be able to sleep inside without the worry of bears or other larger animal visitations looking for our food. Of course, one has to worry about mice in the shelter trying to sneak a morsel of food or steal something to line their home from a chewed piece of coat or sleeping bag. It was 29 degrees that morning, making it hard to roll out of our sleeping bags to starte on the new day's hike. I dined on a breakfast cookie and some hot instant coffee. I usually pack only very light items for a long hike, but my pack was much heavier this trip. Although the mountains of this section of the AT in Pennsylvania are only 1500 feet high they are challenging because of the very rocky trails.

The next day we hiked to the Eagles Nest Shelter, approximately 13 miles. This hike was not  very scenic. There were rocks, trees, and shrubs along the entire day's hike. The shelter was three-sided with a roof. Another hiker was already at the shelter nursing a smoky fire. After three washes my jacket and clothes after three washes still smell like campfire smoke. The other hiker was in his late forties and appeared to be an experienced hiker. His destination was some place in New Hamphire, and I hoped we would not be seeing much of him further down the trail because his snore sounded like a wounded bear all night long. My friend and the new hiker hiked a lot together the next day. They hiked at a faster pace than I did, but my friend stopped many times to let me catch up with him. You should never hike solo along the trail in areas that can be very dangerous. We saw very few other hikers along this hike. We never saw the other hiker again. The next day's hike would be nine miles into the town of Port Clinton. This hike was very much like the last day's hike without any exiting views.

At one point my friend missed a turn in the trail, and I managed to get in front of him. It was a pleasant surprise to see him coming up behind me.  We walked together for awhile, and I was in front of him when I heard a large thump. He had fallen on the trail on some rocks, but he jumped up and exclaimed that he was not hurt and limped onward. I wonder while in private that night did he secretly survey his bruises and knots from the fall.  The trail coming into the town was almost straight down without any switchbacks for about a mile. It was very hard to keep our balance while going downhill, stepping over large rocks with a heavy pack.  I stayed in the town at the Port Clinton Hotel. The Port Clinton is an old coal town.  

There were many historic markers documenting the town's history. I believe the hotel was as old as the town. The hotel lobby was also the bar, and the dinning area was just off the bar. My friend decided to have lunch with me before he was shuttled back to his car in Duncannon, PA. He ordered meat loaf and stuffed mashed potatoes. Stuffed mashed potatoes are mashed potatoes with pieces of celery, onions, bread crumbs and other things (who knows what else). I had a cheeseburger and a small french fries. The small french fries were enough for three people. The large fries must have been made from ten large potatoes. The people who ran the hotel were very nice. My room was one of six rooms upstairs. The door was locked by a dead bolt since the door knob lock had been shattered sometime earlier. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. The bed mattress reminded me of one of those sway-back horses I used to see during a family country drive when I was a child. I did not care about any of these things because it was a chance to sleep in a bed without anybody snoring next to me. 

Port Clinton to Lehigh Gap Hike

I planned to continue solo hiking for four more days to Lehigh Gap. Since I had come down in elevation to Port Clinton that meant I had to go back up the same distance to the trail again. Somehow the breakfast cookie I ate did not have that lasting energy it had the previous morning. There were many great views of the valley below on the way up the mountain.

At the top the rocks became almost unbearable to walk on and I found myself taking many breaks. This trail had more day hikers. They did not have a problem telling me how difficult the trail is since it is lined with softball-sized rocks for miles and miles. The more hikers I encountered the more they stressed how dangerous the rocks were along the trail. The right kind of encouragement goes a long way, and the wrong kind makes a good day turn bad. My day's destination was a family campground a mile off the trail. If the side trail to the campground was  only a sample of what was in store for me the next day I was mortified. At the end of the hike I checked into the Blue Rocks Family Campground. The campground was named Blue Rocks because there was a large rock field stretching from near the top of the mountain to the campground.

The rocks are thought to be deposited from glacier deposition during the ice age. The pictures confirmed to me that more rocks would have to be crossed the next day.

Graphic pictures of the dangerous trail rocks posted on the check-in wall was the straw that broke the camel's back. I made the decision to go no further and made arrangement's for my shuttle pickup for the next day.  I had envisioned starting the hike the next day and only going half way down the trail before falling and having to call for help. I felt that I had reached my limitations for a safe hike and had to call it quits. Part of hiking is making sure you are safe in all that you do along the trail. 

After Thought

I believe that I need to look at each section of the AT that I have not hiked yet and pick the hikes that are the most representative of each state section. I will not rule out slack packing or day hiking some of the more challenging sections.  Let me know your ideas on my plan and post then in the comments section of this blog.

Psalm 40:2.............God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.