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out fr1During the next several weeks, thousands of people will leave from Springer Mountain in Georgia and begin the 2,184-mile trek to Maine along the Appalachian Trail.

SEE ALSO: Follow me, into the wild

For some, the trip is a lifelong dream. They have meticulously planned what to bring, where to stop, how many miles they want walk each day. They have queued up their own resupply boxes, packed with fresh headlamp batteries, deodorant and their favorite candy bars, ready and waiting to be shipped to “mail drops” along the trail.

 

out frAs the legend goes, Earl Shaffer, the first man to hike the Appalachian Trail from end-to-end in 1948, used leather footwear without socks. He only sprinkled foot powder in his boots each morning — some say he used sand — to keep them dry and prevent blisters.

The first women to solo-hike the trail in 1955, 69-year-old Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, forewent the boots and sand and opted for Keds tennis shoes and a light knapsack.

out ATThis year marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, measuring roughly 2,180 miles in length from Georgia to Maine.

out frBy Danny Bernstein • Contributor           

Many hikers are amazed by the balds that dot the Southern Appalachian landscape along the Appalachian Trail. Walking out of a tunnel of rhododendrons onto an open meadow where the views go on forever can be an exhilarating experience.

But what if Big Bald was no longer bald and the beloved Max Patch became a maze of bushes, brambles, and vines?

This year, the $35,000 to manage the balds in North Carolina and Tennessee national forests was eliminated from the National Park Service budget. But that’ s not the end of the story.

Responding to missing or injured hikers this time of year is expected in Macon County, where the Appalachian Trail winds through the mountains and the Nantahala National Forest makes up another substantial portion.

“Some years, at the peak (of thru-hiking) on the Appalachian Trail, we’ll get as many as three or so calls in a month from early spring for three or four months,” said David Key, director of Macon County Emergency Services.

Key said that it is easier to get lost, even on a well-marked trail such as the famous AT, than many people might believe.

“People say, ‘How in the world do you get lost?’ But it really depends on the signage. It’s hard to find your way around when you get disoriented,” Key said.

True, the trails are blazed with painted spots on tree trunks every few hundred yards along the trail. The AT is blazed with white paint spots, and the side trails in blue. But without signs of trail names, simply seeing the blazes isn’t much help.

“It’s like going into a town and all the street names are the same,” Key said. “Off the AT, all is blue, and that’s all you know. Everything is blue.”

Warren Cabe, Franklin’s fire chief, held Key’s position for many years. He too described responding to lost hiker calls, mainly involving the AT, as routine in nature. The cost, he said, isn’t easy to calculate.

SEE ALSO: Anatomy of a Smokies search

“The biggest thing is time,” Cabe said. “But the real intangible thing in Macon County is the volunteer help. It’s not a tangible cost. You’re talking time away from families and time away from jobs.”

Cabe said that fortunately most searches in Macon County that he oversaw did not last more than one, or at most two, operational periods, meaning that county staff was on the job anyway without running into overtime pay issues.

“It seems they’d almost always come in or we’d find them at about dark,” Cabe said.

The most disturbing case of a missing person on national forest lands in Macon County that Cabe remembered didn’t even involve an actual hiker.

It was a man with Alzheimer’s disease who went missing one day in the Nantahala National Forest. Search parties later found his car, burned with the body inside, tucked away on a forest service road. Cabe believes the fire was from some sort of mechanical malfunction with the vehicle, though questions obviously still remain unanswered.

SEE ALSO: Motives of missing man remain a mystery

Additionally, he said, Macon County over the years has lost one or two hikers to hypothermia in the Highlands area, where the elevations can pose a problem, and quickly, for those unprepared for the weather challenges.

Susan Sakna and her two dogs were far from their home in Massachusetts. But like many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, Sakna discovered the perfect temporary respite for the night staying at a hotel in Franklin.

This was an opportunity to rest her weary feet — and the dogs’ weary paws — before tackling more of the nation’s most-famous hiking trail. Stopping in Franklin has become routine for AT hikers such as Sakna.

Franklin serves as a chance to get rid of equipment found to be useless and to stock up on items discovered to be essential. Most of the hikers taking breaks here are about one-week in to their six-month journey; Franklin is 100 miles from the trailhead in Springer Mountain, Ga. This means that Franklin serves as the first place to closely evaluate and correct gear needs and equipment problems.

The AT passes just 11 miles from Franklin at its closest point near Winding Stair Gap.

“It’s very pretty here,” Sakna said as she sat outside a Franklin hotel surveying the surrounding mountains with dogs Max and Shay. Sakna was waiting for a shuttle to arrive and transport her and the dogs back to the AT. “And it’s good to get away from the trail — in some ways, you really can’t even see the mountains when you’re on it because of all the rhododendrons around.”

As AT thru-hikers pour into Franklin at an ever-increasing rate each year, town officials and business owners seem to increasingly relish and appreciate their role as an AT trail destination. Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, the hikers generally came and went with little notice or fanfare. No more: Franklin, these days, prides itself on having close ties to the AT. And, the town is gearing up for April Fool’s Trail Days on March 30 and March 31, capitalizing on the town’s close proximity to the 2,181-mile long trail stretching from Georgia to Maine.

 

Franklin as hikers’ paradise

“We see the Appalachian Trail as one of our main economic drivers,” said Linda Schlott, Franklin Main Street Program executive director. “And Trail Days just continues to grow.”

Franklin started April Fool’s Trail Day’s four years ago. In March 2010, the town officially was designated an Appalachian Trail Community at the invitation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Franklin became the first location in the South to receive the conservancy’s designation as an official trail community.

The Appalachian Trail Community designation is a relatively new program designed to promote the economic benefits of the trail to nearby communities and to foster local stewardship of the trail. For its part, Franklin showed its tie to the trail by creating a trail advisory committee, hosting an annual trail event, initiating an AT-focused education program through the school and library systems and getting the county planning department to commit to considering the trail in its land use plans.

Franklin has bigger eyes than just mining the AT, however.

“We’re not only looking at AT hikers but to use this as a base for all hikers,” Schlott said of the town’s trail-friendly status.

Macon County, in addition to the famous AT, has a substantial portion of the Bartram Trail, plus easy access to hundreds of miles of hiking trails within the Nantahala National Forest.

 

Important economic boost

Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of Outdoor 76 in downtown Franklin, said the gear-heavy store on Main Street gets a lot of AT thru-hiker traffic.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Gasbarro said. “And, Trail Days is a great opportunity to introduce locals to people doing the six-month pilgrimage.”

Down the street at the Life’s Bounty Gift Shop and Bakery and Café, co-owner Tony Hernandez has grown very fond, too, of the thru-hikers — they come in hungering for the carbohydrates, sweets and the breakfast specials offered there.

“Basically, most of my customers this morning all have been hikers,” Hernandez said one day last week. “And, they are wanting lots of carbs or breakfasts.”

Hernandez welcomes the hikers in, packs and all; just as Franklin these days is doing, too.

 

Franklin a do-or-die town for A.T. hikers

Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail — those who attempt an entire 2,181-mile trek from Georgia to Maine, from start to finish — are starting to show up in Western North Carolina.

To finish the trail before the New England winter sets in, hikers must set hit the trail in Georgia in March. Of the 2,000 or so who set out to thru-hike the trail, only 25 percent actually make it. Most drop out the first month. That makes the Nantahala and Smoky mountain ranges do-or-die for hikers — this is the stretch of trail where they decide to either pack it in or keep on packing.

Hikers who hop off the trail in Franklin to restock on provisions will find a little extra encouragement in their trying early weeks with the annual April Fool’s Trail Days on March 30 and March 31. Here’s the lineup:

• Hiker bash at 6 p.m. both nights at the Sapphire Inn on East Main Street. A chance for hikers to connect and share stories and advice.

• Trail Days event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 31, with outdoor gear vendors, food, entertainment and more. There also will be workshops, a rock climbing wall, children’s activities. One of the day’s highlights will be the 2012 Go Outside and Play Road Show presented by Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine. This exhibit encourages participants to become more involved with their local outdoor community and to inspire spectators to be more active in the outdoors.

828.524.2516 or www.aprilfoolstraildays.com.

Three Tennessee residents are headed to prison for breaking into a slew of cars at trailheads in Haywood County during a several month period, hitting hiker’s vehicles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pisgah National Forest.

The three stole credit and debit cards, and ran up charges on them, while the unsuspecting victims were off happily hiking … often for several days at a time. Other personal items were stolen, too, including a man’s billfold and, most brazenly, a U.S. government credit card from a U.S. Forest Service employee’s vehicle.

Their arrests and subsequent prosecutions have put renewed focus on what you should do, and not do, when parking a vehicle before taking a hike or backpacking trip.

The main thing is to “use common sense,” said avid hiker Cory McCall of Outdoor 76, an outfitter store in Franklin. “These trails do cross roads, and you often leave your car in vulnerable places.”

McCall is currently helping an Appalachian Trail thru hiker try to decide on a safe spot to leave her vehicle in Macon County for an extended period of time. That might not be completely possible, but there are steps hikers such as that can take, according to forest experts.

And here’s what the victims of the relatively recent break-ins didn’t do: they failed to take valuables out of their vehicles.

That meant when the Tennessee trio — Billy Chad Reese, 39, his wife, Christy Leann Reese and Jessica Hope Daniels — systematically smashed the passenger-side windows of cars at trailheads, they were amply rewarded for their criminal intentions. Specifically, they hit trailheads at Big Creek in the Smokies and Max Patch and Harmon Den in the Pisgah National Forest.

They would hit as many as five cars at the trailhead at one time. They would then go back into Cocke County, Tenn. and promptly use the cards to buy everything from cigarettes to jewelry.

When it comes to protecting visitors to the national forest lands and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, law enforcement officers with both agencies are taking a hold-no-prisoners stance.

And that focus is paying off: In the Smokies alone, more than 100 people in the past decade have been prosecuted for car break-ins, dubbed “car clouts,” at trail heads.

“That makes a big dent,” said Clay Jordan, chief ranger for the Park.

Sure does: The Smokies used to average about 100 car clouts per year. That number dropped to 37 incidents in 2010 and 14 in 2011.

“We have a cadre of rangers and special agents who are very attuned to it,” Jordan said of Park personnel’s attention to trail heads and visitor safety.

That’s true, too, of workers on the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. Stevin Wescott, who oversees public relations for the U.S. Forest Service in this area, said extensive efforts are oriented toward educating hikers. But, still, the fact remains that “it is pretty clear that theft is probably the most reported crime” in the national forests.

“We are always trying to encourage people to be safe,” Wescott said. “It’s very sad when (theft) happens. Our officers feel terrible for the people.”

Echoing McCall from Outdoor 76, Wescott said that visitors “should try to leave their valuables at home. If they must leave them in their car, tuck them out of site. Bring only the bare essentials.”

That advice holds true on the trail, too, the U.S. Forest ranger said. Tent break-ins also occur.

Smokies Chief Ranger Jordan said law enforcement is able to successfully prosecute most offenders. The crime, which is a felony offense prosecuted in the federal court system, carries a prison term. On average, those found guilty typically receive a six- to 12-month sentence plus three years probation, Jordan said.

The Tennessee man, Reese, pleaded guilty in August and was recently sentenced to serve more than 10 years in prison by a U.S. district judge and pay $23,000 in restitution. Reese received such a stiff sentence because of prior burglary convictions. When arrested, Reese was unlawfully in possession of a handgun. This meant he received an “enhanced” sentence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

His female accomplices are scheduled Feb. 27 for sentencing.

 

Trailhead-safety tips

• Remove valuables from vehicles.

• If you must leave valuables in vehicles, hide them out of sight in the glove compartment or trunk.

• Scan the trailhead to make sure no one suspicious is hanging about. If they are, consider moving to another trailhead.

• Do not leave a hiking itinerary on your dash. Leave it with friends, family or at a ranger station.

• Don’t back your car into a parking spot. This provides thieves cover to break into the trunk.

Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail — those hearty souls who attempt the entire 2,170-mile trek from Georgia to Maine from start to finish — will soon be arriving in droves in Western North Carolina.

To finish the trail before the New England winter sets in, hikers must set out on the trail in Gerogia in mid to late-March. That lands them here just about now, witnessed by the number of backpack-burdened hikers hitching rides into town to stock up on provisions. Of the hundreds who set out to thru-hike the trail, only 25 percent make it. Most drop out the first month.

This year, hikers will have a little extra encouragement in their early weeks with a line-up of festivals to look forward to if they keep on moving.

 

April Fool’s Trail Days in Franklin

Just one year ago this month, Franklin became an official Appalachian Trail Community, solidifying the relationship this Macon County town long has enjoyed with thru-hikers.

The Appalachian Trail passes 11 miles from Franklin at its closest point near Winding Stair Gap. A series of events are planned in Franklin: April Fool’s Trail (the third year this has been held) and the annual Hiker Bash.

Linda Schlott, executive director of the Franklin Main Street Program, said a survey of hikers conducted by the local hiking group, Nantahala Hiking Club, revealed each AT hiker who comes into Franklin spends an average of $150 each during the visit.

“I think the business owners see that the hikers don’t just come and restock and get back on the trail,” Schlott said, adding that Macon County has learned to view the presence of the famous hiking trail as an economic asset.

The exact number of hikers coming through hasn’t been pinpointed, she said, but it adds up to “a lot.”

Here’s the line-up in Franklin:

• The 7th Annual Hiker Bash will be held on both Friday and Saturday night, April 1 and 2, and will include food, music and entertainment at 6 p.m. each evening at the Sapphire Inn Motel on East Main Street. This is a venue for thru-hikers to share stories and meet former thru-hikers of the AT. 828.524.4431.

• Friday, April 1: Warren Doyle has hiked the Appalachian Trail more times than anyone else. Hear his story during a special presentation at Franklin Town Hall beginning at 7 p.m. The presentation runs from 90 to 120 minutes. Jennifer Pharr Davis will also be speaking.

• Saturday, April 2: More Warren Doyle’s “Stories from the Appalachian Trail.”

The program will last from 75 to 90 minutes.

• Saturday, April 2: Acclaimed bluegrass group Buncombe Turnpike will headline Trail Days entertainment. There will be two sets of music, at 11 a.m. and again at noon.

• Saturday, April 2: The Iotla Valley Elementary Chorus and the South Macon Elementary Chorus will perform a joint concert at the gazebo stage beginning at 1 p.m.

Under the direction of Michael Tyson, the students will perform a wide selection of songs, including songs about North Carolina and the region we live in.

• Macon County Public Library displays winning photographs from the second-annual “Walking with Spring” photography contest. Photos on display until April 8, and all photos are related to the Appalachian Trail.

• Wednesday, March 30: The Appalachian Trail Documentary: A Walk for Sunshine at 7 p.m. the Macon County library. 828.524.3600.

• Thursday, March 31: Join artist Michael M. Rogers for a program at the Macon County library at 7 p.m. as he takes you on virtual hikes in the surrounding mountains. Experience the beauty through nature photography and music. 828.524.3600.

• Thursday, March 31: “The Unsung Hero Hike,” leaving from the Bartram Trail intersection at N.C. 106 near Scaly Mountain, follow a guide from Outdoor 76 south into the Appalachian escarpment toward the Georgia border. Total hike about five miles, it is of moderate difficulty. 828.349.7676.

 

AT Founder’s Bridge Festival in Nantahala Gorge

Nantahala Outdoor Center has a long and rich association with AT hikers — the trail passes through the heart of NOC on a footbridge over the Nantahala River. To celebrate and deepen this connection, the outfitter will hold its first AT Founder’s Bridge Festival April 8-10.

Weekend day hikers, long distance warriors and outdoor enthusiasts alike are invited to share their passion with a like-minded trail community in honor of the trail that bisects NOC’s campus in the Nantahala Gorge. Trail-steeped speakers will share their knowledge, humor and experiences in hands-on workshops and presentations. Gear representatives will demo product, provide support, and sponsor lots of great product giveaways and door prizes.

• The women’s AT speed record holder Jennifer Pharr Davis will make a presentation and sign books on Friday, April 8.

• The weekend’s keynote speaker will be Andrew Skurka, renowned long-distance backpacker and ultrarunner. Skurka, recognized as “Adventurer of the Year” by National Geographic and “Person of the Year” by Backpacker, has thru-hiked the AT and many other long-distance routes. He will be leading two lightweight-backpacking skills clinics throughout the weekend, as well as giving a presentation Saturday evening on his recent Alaska-Yukon expedition (as featured in the March issue of National Geographic).

• Visit Gear Fair, packed with manufacturer’s reps touting the latest and greatest in backpacking gear.

• Join the Nantahala Hiking Club and Smoky Mountain Hiking Club for AT trail maintenance Saturday morning. Sign up in advance by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

• Purchase any pair of Patagonia footwear during the event at NOC’s Outfitter’s Store, and $10 will be donated to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

• Enjoy live music from Asheville’s homegrown bluegrass group, Stumpwater. With a mix of pure Carolina drive and strong four-part vocals, the band plays a repertoire rich in original material and favorite covers.

All activities take place on NOC’s Wesser campus, and are free of charge and open to the public. Go to “Events” at noc.com or call 828.488.7244.

The legendary Appalachian Trail grew by 1.9 miles in 2010.

Every December, the latest mileage and shelter information for the 11 official guides to the AT is updated from volunteers who are constantly improving the trail. Volunteer Daniel D. Chazin of Teaneck, N.J., pulls all the information together, a task he’s been performing since 1983.

This year, due to relocations  and re-measurements, increases were reported for: Massachusetts-Connecticut (0.2 mile), New York-New Jersey (0.9 mile), central Virginia (0.1 mile), and Tennessee-North Carolina (0.9 mile), while the southwest Virginia mileage was reduced by 0.1 mile.

The new official length of the AT is 2,181.0 miles.

“The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s 2011 Data Book is an essential planning resource for any Appalachian Trail hiker; whether they are out for a day hike or hiking the entire length from Maine to Georgia,” said Brian B. King, publisher of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Each year, the $6.95 Appalachian Trail Data Book is a top-selling official guide to the longest continuously marked footpath in the world. It condenses into 96 pages the high points of the series of guidebooks and maps. Information is presented at a glance in the same geographic units as the guides, with elevations for major points. Shelters, campsites, water sources, road crossings, supply sources, off-trail lodging, eateries and post offices are all easy to identify in the Data Book.

For more information about the 33rd edition of the Appalachian Trail Data Book or to purchase a copy, visit www.atctrailstore.org or call 888.287.8673.

For years, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have been stopping in Franklin for supplies, rest, and Internet access, but last week the town solidified its place as a trail destination. Mayor Joe Collins signed a proclamation accepting the town’s designation as an Appalachian Trail Community at the invitation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at a celebration event in the town hall.

“It’s such a natural fit. We’ve always appreciated the hikers and hopefully this will allow us to broaden our relationship with them. Hikers are great people,” Collins said.

The Appalachian Trail passes 11 miles from Franklin at its closest point near Winding Stair Gap. Franklin’s position 100 miles from the trail’s southern starting point makes it a natural stop for hikers making the 2,170-mile trip from Georgia to Maine.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy Board Chairman Robert Almand described the magic feeling of discovering the AT as he welcomed Franklin into the greater community of the trail at the ceremony last week (April 23). Almand told the story of his first encounter with the trail in the ‘80s while picking up trash near Moody Gap on Earth Day.

“I noticed the AT ran through there, and I went down the trail a little ways to explore and kept seeing those white blazes,” Almand said. “I realized I could walk all the way to Maine if I kept going.”

The Appalachian Trail is one of America’s true pilgrimage routes, stretching nearly the length of the East Coast and attracting some 2,000 thru-hikers each year.

Franklin became the first location in the South to receive the ATC’s designation as an official trail community. The effort was driven by the Nantahala Hiking Club — whose volunteers maintain the 80 miles of the AT between Bly Gap and the Nantahala Outdoor Center — the Franklin Main Street program, and by local businessman Ronnie Haven.

The trail has been both a passion and a resource for Haven, who owns and operates a group of motels between Franklin and Georgia.

“At age 16, I thought I could walk to Maine and back before school started, but I didn’t make it but to Pearisburg, Virginia,” Haven said.

Haven was one of the first Franklin-based business people to embrace the trail hikers as customers. His hotels are known as a stopping point, and Franklin’s trail celebration “April Fools Trail Days” owes its genesis to the hiker bash Haven has hosted at the Sapphire Inn for the past six years.

Haven’s bash includes trail advice from legends, music, and demonstrations of mountain cultural activities, like five-string banjo picking and clogging. Haven said the new ATC designation would allow the town to take on the role as cultural ambassadors of the Western North Carolina high country.

“There’s people who come here from all over the world, and some of them never heard tell of some of the things like we do,” Haven said.

The Appalachian Trail Community designation is a new program designed to promote the economic benefits of the trail to nearby communities and to foster local stewardship of the trail. In order to qualify, communities must meet two of four requirements. Franklin met all four by creating a trail advisory committee, hosting an annual trail event, initiating an AT-focused education program through the school and library systems, and getting the county planning department to commit to consider the trail in its land use plans.

Nantahala Hiking Club President Bill Van Horn hailed the effort as confirmation of Franklin’s commitment to the AT motto “Join the Journey.”

“Today Franklin has truly joined the journey,” Van Horn said.

Van Horn spearheaded the trail advisory committee, which spent the past year meeting to plan local efforts around education and trail stewardship. Along the way, the committee conducted an informal survey of thru-hikers. The survey found that, on average, thru-hikers stay 1.4 nights in Franklin and spend $124 during their stay.

Both the town of Franklin and Macon County have shown strong support over the past year for becoming an official trail community, but it’s the Nantahala Hiking Club and its volunteers that have undertaken the hard work of maintaining the AT over the years.

Don O’Neil, the NHC trail manager, is one of the many volunteers who maintain the 47 miles of trail that run through Macon County. For O’Neill, who hiked the AT in sections between 1981 and 1991, the motivation to maintain the trail is a sign of gratitude for the experience it provided him.

“I’m just giving back what I got out of the trail,” he said.

As the newest Appalachian Trail Community, Franklin is doing the same.

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