Friday, February 3, 2012

Hiking the Appalachian Trail (part 1)

There are several “long trails” located around the world, and America has one of the most famous, known as the Appalachian Trail. The AT, as it is also called, runs along the eastern spine of the United States, with one end located at Springer Mountain in Georgia and the other terminal at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. The exact length of the trail changes from year to year as the trail gets relocated slightly for various reasons, but in 2011 the end-to-end mileage was 2,184 miles.

The AT passes through 14 states along the way: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. The trail is maintained by over 30 volunteer organizations, each taking responsibility for a stretch where they do work to control erosion, clear away trees that have fallen across the trail, cut back brush, and take care of the shelters along the way.

Every year, tens of thousands of people hike along parts of the AT, including a couple thousand would-be "Thru-Hikers", who attempt to walk the entire length in one year. Most start north from Georgia in February, March or April, and are called NOBO’s (NOrth BOunders). SOBO’s (SOuth BOunders) usually start from Maine in June or July. Either way, it can take from four to six months to complete the hike. Only about 10% of those who start out to be Thru-Hikers actually finish in any given year.

"Thru-Hiker" is an unofficial title, and the only official designation is a “2000 Miler,” which is earned by anyone who hikes the entire trail, no matter how long it takes. Many people are section hikers, doing the trail a piece at a time, sometimes planning their hikes to see a particular part of the trail during the nicest part of the year for that area.

The entire length of the Appalachian Trail is identified by white ‘blazes’, which are 2”x6” vertical stripes that are painted on trees along the way. The idea is that while standing by a tree that is blazed, you should be able to see the next blaze farther along the trail. Side trails that intersect the AT are blazed with a different color, but are collectively called ‘blue blaze’ trails. There are stretches on the AT where you are above the tree line, in which case stacks of rocks called ‘cairns’ are used to mark the way.

A "blaze" marking the way along the AT.

Check back for part 2.

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