Hiking the Appalachian Trail

By Dick Mason, The Observer November 19, 2010 11:31 am
Eight months ago Bill Canavan of Island City was in the midst of six of some of the most memorable and fulfilling months of his life.

Still he dreaded getting up each morning.

Why the apparent paradox?

Canavan was in Georgia where he was beginning to hike the Appalachian Trail during a wet March, one in which rain and sometimes snow seemed to fall constantly. The unpleasant prospect of changing into cold, wet clothing awaited him each morning as a result.

The precipitation created an uncomfortable situation for Canavan because he had room for only two sets of clothes in his pack, a dry one he wore when not hiking and a second which was perpetually wet. Canavan wore the wet clothes when hiking. The wool and synthetic clothes kept him warm while moving. However, when he stopped to eat or sleep Canavan had to don his dry clothing to remain warm and avoid hypothermia.

Canavan had no way of drying his soaked clothes at most stops, meaning he usually had to change into wet clothes before resuming his hike.

“That was a big mental challenge,’’ Canavan said. “It was hard to get out of bed and put wet clothes on.’’

He persevered and today holds a title anyone would be proud of  — that of a Thru Hiker of the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail. A Thru Hiker is anyone who has completed the Appalachian Trail within a calendar year. Walking the trail, which he started March 10 and finished Sept. 5 in Maine, fulfilled a lifelong dream for Canavan.

“I have wanted to hike a big trail since I was in high school,’’ he said.

The wet early weather he encountered on the trail did little to keep him from enjoying the beauty of its rolling hills and spectacular sunrises and sunsets. He noted that the sunrises and sunsets along the route are more spectacular than those in the west because there is more humidity and the air is hazy.

The path is also packed with remnants of human history unlike anything found in the west. Canavan explained that 200 to 300 years ago much of the land the trail passes through was farmed. Many people left it long ago to move west where the land was much easier to grow crops on.

Today stone foundations, walls and fences hundreds of years old remain as evidence of the early farmers.

Eastern style challenge

Canavan found the trail more difficult than he anticipated. One reason is its climbs are generally steeper than many western trails that have been graded for horse travel. Few portions are steeper than a 13-mile stretch passing through Virginia — a passage known as the Virginia Roller Coaster

“It has 13 hills in 13 miles,’’ Canavan said. “You go up 1,000 feet and down 1,000 feet. It is almost like climbing stairs only you are climbing rocks and roots.’’

Canavan also pointed out that other portions of the Appalachian Trail are relatively easy to hike.

Regardless of the level of difficulty they encountered, hikers were constantly on the look out for ticks. Ticks are everywhere along the route and feared because some spread Lyme disease. One man Canavan hiked part of the trail with contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite. He has since developed Bells palsy, a condition in which part of one’s face is paralyzed.

Fear of Lyme disease is so real among Appalachian Trail hikers that some carry antibiotics. They take them if they believe they have been bitten by a tick. Hikers know they have been bitten when they find a tick bloated with blood. Canavan, who had antibiotics, checked himself regularly and found many ticks but never one that had been on him long enough to draw blood.

Black bears are also a major concern of the trail’s hikers because they are known for pilfering their food. Almost all hikers place their food in “bear’’ bags at night. Many hoist them up poles installed to help hikers protect their food from bears, or they place them in tree branches by using pulleys and cables.

Canavan, like many hikers, relied on a guidebook to navigate his way along the Appalachian Trail instead of a GPS unit. There is no need for a GPS because the trail is well marked. The hiker also pointed out that the guidebook is lighter than a GPS unit, which weighs about 6 ounces. An extra 6 ounces can take a toll over the course of a long hiking trip.

The Island City resident walked the Appalachian Trail by himself, but he was far from lonely. He explained that the trail is filled with hikers, all of whom meet at the many shelters along route.

“You are never really alone. There are people from shelter to shelter,’’ Canavan said.

The hikers shared a sense of camaraderie.

“When you would see another hiker you would ask who they were and where they had been,’’ Canavan said. “If you did that in most other places people would be uncomfortable.’’

He would hook up with some hikers along the route and sometimes hike several days with them. Individuals he hiked with include Bill Bond of La Grande, a good friend who met Canavan in Pennsylvania and hiked with him for a week.

Canavan maintained fresh supplies during his journey by buying items in towns along the trail and with major help from his wife, Pam, and their five sons and daughters. His family sent supply boxes to the towns he passed through. Canavan picked them up at post offices.

The Island City resident stayed in touch with family and friends throughout his trek via cell phone. He had to limit use of his cell phone, however, because there were few places along the trail where he could recharge it.

Canavan did not have an IPod like some hikers who listened to music along the trail. He welcomed the silence.

The hikers with IPods “couldn’t stand the quiet.’’

Medical leave

Canavan took a month-long  break late in his hike after developing an abscess on his right shoulder. He returned home to have the condition corrected by surgery. Canavan believes the abscess may have been caused by a shoulder strap on his pack.

Leaving Union County for his final stint on the trail was difficult for Canavan because he had been away from home for so long.

“I was looking forward to finishing but I was more homesick than the first time (he left).’’ 

Still, he has positive memories of his final days on trail.

“I was having such a good time at the end I wanted it to go on just a little bit further,’’ Canavan said.

He is one of between 200 and 400 people who hike the Appalachian Trail each year. The number was probably down this year because many people quit early due to the wet spring weather.

Canavan found the hike so fulfilling that he is not ruling out the possibility of tackling the Appalachian Trail a second time.

“I will seriously consider it,’’ he said.