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Wednesday, 09 September 2015 13:47

More than a walk: Conservation, tourism groups expect A.T. onslaught following movie release

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coverBill Bryson and Steven Katz didn’t really know what they were getting into when they began their Appalachian Trail journey, recounted in the newly released movie “A Walk in the Woods.” From the moment Katz shows up for the adventure — limping, overweight and prone to seizures — to the time an attempt at traversing a stream sends both men flailing in the water, ineptitude is part of the comedy. 

But conservation and tourism organizations along the AT are hoping they won’t find themselves similarly unprepared when thru-hiking season starts up this spring. Featuring stars such as Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson and Nick Offerman, the movie is expected to appeal to a wide audience, putting the Appalachian Trail at the forefront of many minds.

“Movies do funny things to trails — there’s no doubt about it,” said Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of Outdoor 76 in Franklin.  

A graph showing the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s best guesses of how many people thru-hiked in a given year — the figures are estimates rather than exact numbers, as hikers aren’t required to register anywhere — reveals definite spikes and surges in interest following releases of books and movies celebrating the trail. 

“We have typically seen an increase in use following those major publications or films,” said Morgan Sommerville, regional director of the ATC. “None of those have been quite as far-reaching as ‘A Walk in the Woods.’” 

That’s not just true of the A.T. When the Martin Sheen movie “The Way,” about the Camino de Santiago in Europe, was released in 2011, American interest in the trail — a religious pilgrimage for Catholics — surged. According to data from the Pilgrim’s Welcome Office, in 2012 more than 7,000 Americans received the compostela, a certificate acknowledging completion of the trail. That’s nearly twice the 2011 number of 3,726. The number of Americans who walked some or all of the trail is likely a good bit higher. 

Then there’s “Wild,” a movie starring Reese Witherspoon about the Pacific Crest Trail in the western part of the country. The trail has reportedly seen a surge in popularity since the release of the 2012 book on which the movie was based. After the movie came out in December, the PCT Association instituted a permit system to limit the number of hikers starting on a given day. 

It’s hard to say exactly what kind of impact “A Walk in the Woods” will have, but following the 1998 release of the book A Walk in the Woods, the number of people starting a thru-hike in Georgia went up more than 60 percent over two years, Sommerville said. Most people seem to agree that 30 percent is a reasonable increase to expect in 2016, but nobody will know how it will actually shake out until spring rolls around and boots hit the ground. 

And that’s just talking about thru-hikers. There’s a whole other category of people that could affect trail use in the region — day hikers, sightseers, people who want to spend their summer vacation following the trail of their new favorite movie. That’s where chambers of commerce, tourism authorities and downtown associations take an interest, because that demographic is more apt to buy a hotel room, eat a meal downtown and shop around for souvenirs. 

“We believe that there will definitely be an increase in people visiting the trail, walking the trial — not necessarily the full length,” said Brad Walker, president of the Swain County Tourism Development Authority board. 

 

Preparing for the wave

The A.T. will almost certainly be carrying an extra load in 2016, and conservation groups have been getting ready for high traffic since the movie’s production was first announced. 

Volunteers with the Nantahala Hiking Club, which maintains the southernmost section of the A.T. in North Carolina, have been hard at work building new campsites along the trail to accommodate overflow from the shelters, shoring up the privy facilities and improving signage. 

“Everybody pretty much is just trying to refurbish the trail as much as possible with volunteers to minimize impact,” said Olga Pader, club president. 

They’re not the only ones. Though increased traffic would affect the Macon and Swain county sections the most, as attrition hasn’t taken as much of a toll on hiker numbers at that point, other trail management groups are also keeping an eye on the movie’s potential impact. 

“The A.T. is our highest priority, so more work is put into those 90 miles than really any other [of the club’s 400 trail miles],” said Tim Carrigan, A.T. supervisor for the Asheville-based Carolina Mountain Club. 

At an organizational level, earlier this year the ATC rolled out a website for thru-hikers to sign up for their start dates. The sign-up is voluntary — nobody can forbid someone from starting on a certain date — but it allows hikers to declare their start date and lets them know if more than the recommended maximum of people have already elected to begin that same day. 

The ATC has also been releasing a steady stream of educational materials and social media campaigns designed to increase awareness of responsible trail use. And a push to train more volunteers and get the message of outdoor ethic out to potential hikers will continue through the winter. 

“It’s the classic park management conundrum,” said Sommerville, who hiked the trail in 1977. “You want more people to enjoy our park, but you want them to not love it to death.”

Sommerville remembers the hike as a transformative experience, an adventure that forced him to push his limits and see life through a new lens. He’s all for extending that opportunity to future generations of thru-hikers. 

“It changes their whole perspective on life, and they come back better than they came,” he said. 

But there’s no doubt that the A.T. experience is different now than it was in 1977. For one thing, traffic’s up. In 1977, fewer than 100 people hiked all the way to Mount Katahdin. By contrast, nearly 900 made the trip in 2013. The towns along the way are bigger, and there are more places to resupply. Cell phones are ubiquitous, and many areas of the trail have some level of cell service. Gear has changed drastically, and it’s a lot easier to get thru-hiking information and tips online. 

“Our main objective is to get people to spread out in space and time so that increased use can be absorbed on the A.T.,” Sommerville said. 

By far, the most popular way to thru-hike the A.T. is to start at Springer Mountain in Georgia sometime in March and continue north to Mount Katahdin in Maine. With trail use increasing, that’s tradition has created a bottleneck that had an effect on trail facilities at the southern end. How natural does it feel to walk a path littered with trash and discarded equipment? And does it really count as a solitary outdoor experience if you’re sharing a shelter with 70 other people? 

“There just isn’t enough overnight space in Georgia for that period of time,” Sommerville said. 

That’s why one of the ATC’s big marketing pushes with the movie’s release is promotion of non-traditional thru-hikes such as the “flip-flop hike” — starting in the middle of the trail and hiking to one end, and then finishing the hike by starting again and heading the other direction. 

That could be a tough sell for someone entranced with the notion of walking from Georgia to Maine. But Bill Van Horne — past president of NHC who now heads up the Franklin Appalachian Trail Communities Committee — can see the appeal.

“If you want solitude, I would forfeit the starting at Springer and ending at Katahdin,” Van Horne said. 

 

Take only pictures, leave only footprints

Education is also an important part of the preparation. 

“We really want the Appalachian Trail hikers to take responsibility for themselves when they’re out there,” Sommerville said. “Almost every management issue we have can be solved if hikers would just leave the trail better than they found it.” 

The education piece started with the movie itself. The ATC was involved with its production, ensuring that Katz wasn’t shown chucking cans and candy wrappers all along the trail like he did in the book. Several scenes show hikers using trail-friendly practices, such as burying their waste with a trowel rather than leaving “toilet paper flowers” all through the woods. 

That’s all a good start, but according to Pader, the movie can also serve as a cautionary tale. Bryson, and especially Katz, were not in the best of shape when they began the trail, and that’s probably a good part of the reason they didn’t actually finish it. In fact, the two men made it only partway through North Carolina before abandoning the thru-hike idea. Actually completing the trail requires some significant physical preparation, Pader said. After all, the Appalachians are real mountains, not TV mountains. Things can go wrong, and someone’s not always there to save you when they do. 

“It doesn’t show best practices of what people should prepare themselves for,” Pader said. “I think that as a society these days we are used to everything being 100 percent, totally safe. If we do something stupid or if an accident happened or accidents are about to happen, somebody is going to be out there to rescue us.”

As entertainment, she said, it’s a pretty good movie. It’s funny and certainly shows off the beauty of the region. But it is a movie, not real life, and viewers need to keep that in mind when watching it. 

Which prompts the question — who will make up this expected influx of thru-hikers? Experienced outdoorspeople who have been contemplating that next big challenge for a while? People who have been reading A.T. lore for a long time, their desire pushed over the edge by viewing the movie? Out-of-work adults looking to fit a big accomplishment into their unemployed period? Or people who envision the A.T. as a six-month-long party that just happens to take place on the storied trail? 

From his vantage point in Franklin, Gasbarro sees hikers who fit every single one of these descriptions, as he’s close enough to the beginning of the trail that the majority of those who will eventually quit are still hanging on. 

“There’s people out there who just want to follow the party. They don’t give a crap about the A.T. They just want to hike with a group of modern-day hippies and pilgrimage to the state of Maine,” he said. 

It’s hard to say which group the additional hikers will belong to. But the prospect that many of them could be those with little respect for the trail “I think is what the people out there that are losing sleep right now are losing sleep over,” Gasbarro said. 

Sommerville’s hoping to catch these prospective hikers with the A.T. message before they start. The ATC’s been developing a curriculum to teach the basics of how to hike the A.T. in a way that’s sensitive to the surrounding natural beauty — a set of outdoor ethics called Leave No Trace. A series of 17 short videos, vignettes designed to be funny and informative, is on YouTube to promote Leave No Trace principles. A social media campaign called #ProtectYourTrail is encouraging people to share pictures of best practices outdoors and work to maintain trails’ integrity. 

These efforts will only ramp up as springtime nears. 

“We’re going to be doing a lot of outreach,” Sommerville said. 

The plan is to continue the education effort on the trail itself. The ATC already hires a corps of Ridgerunners up and down the trail, part-time workers who are paid a stipend to hike the trail, camp out and interact with thru-hikers, giving tips, advice and instruction in outdoor ethic.  

By spring, Sommerville hopes to increase the ranks, especially in the Georgia portion, which will bear the brunt of the additional traffic.  This year, two people worked the Georgia section, but Sommerville’s hoping to have four or five in 2016. 

He’s not planning to hire any more Ridgerunners for the North Carolina section, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any extra people to educate trail users. There definitely will be. 

So far, the Nantahala Hiking Club has 10 people trained as A.T. Ambassadors, people who will go up on the trail for a day hike with the express purpose of interacting with hikers and educating them to minimize impact. Kind of like the Ridgerunner program, except geared more to day hikers, a group that’s also expected to grow in size with the movie’s release. The Trail Ambassador program will eventually be instituted trailwide, with a training slated for April. 

“The emphasis for the program is … not to go and say, ‘You’re doing this wrong,’ but to have people understand the effect of whatever action they’re taking,” Pader said. 

 

A plus for tourism

Educating hikers isn’t a job reserved for the ATC and its associated hiking clubs. Becky Seymour, video production and social media manager for the Haywood Tourism Development Authority, also emphasized education when discussing what impact the movie might have on Haywood County. 

“My big thing is to make sure to promote the movie, of course, but to also make sure that our public or our travelers are educated,” she said. “To me, that’s the most important thing — that these people are educated. It’s not just a walk through the woods.”

When someone leaves a Haywood visitor center or hangs up the phone in search of a trail, she said, the goal is for them to understand what they’re getting into and what equipment they’ll need to stay safe.

She said she understands the concern of groups like the ATC, but she expects the movie will be a good thing for tourism in WNC. 

“Most hikers that are avid hikers, they all know about the Appalachian Trail, but considering the cast of the movie, all those ladies that love Robert Redford, it may open their eyes to a new activity when they’re here or anywhere else,” she said.

She’s definitely been including “A Walk in the Woods” in her social media outreach, sharing movie-related posts and tagging them with Haywood County-centric tags. And though she expects to see an uptick in interest in the A.T., neither Seymour nor the TDA as a whole are necessarily focusing their marketing efforts on the movie.

“There’s so much more to us than that, but it is a very good tool marketing-wise,” she said. 

Swain County, on the other hand, is taking a more head-on approach the movie. It recently launched an entire page on its website targeted to people whose interest is driven by the film’s release. 

“You read the book, you saw the movie. We have the real thing,” the page declares, going on to give a synopsis of the movie, seven “walks in the woods” accessible from Bryson City and a plug for Fontana Dam, where one of the movie’s scenes was shot — the majority of the film was shot in Georgia.

“I call it another piece of the puzzle,” Walker, the TDA board chair, said. “We’ll have an increase in people on the Appalachian Trail, and most of those people are looking at other outdoors sports. It just shows you what a beautiful place we have.”

For Walker, the projected increase in day hikers — not thru-hikers — is the main economic opportunity the movie affords. 

“Thru hikers, they don’t always necessarily stop at your place,” he said. “But the biggest thing, I believe, is that people will be coming to the town, the area, and go see what the trails are like.”

More people walking the downtown, eating at local restaurants and shopping in Bryson’s mom-and-pop stores is a good thing, Walker said, the pulse of a tourism-driven economy like Swain’s — and the same goes for nearly all of Western North Carolina, for that matter. 

But a statement like that should always come with a caveat, Gasbarro said.  

“We do we see an opportunity for our business to grow here, obviously, but we also believe in our business in so many stewardship ways,” he said. 

Introducing people to the beauty of the outdoors, the Southern Appalachians and Western North Carolina is a good thing. But not necessarily when they come in such droves as to drastically alter the experience of solitude and environmental balance that has spoken to so many generations of thru-hikers in the past. 

“I’m deeply concerned that this does have an ability to negatively affect the trail experience to where one of the byproducts of this is that people go, ‘This is just out control. I really have no interest in doing this,’” Gasbarro said. “Do I think that’s going to happen? No, but our love of the A.T. and our respect for it means that there is some concern. Whenever a good resource gets overused, it’s not a good thing.”

For now, though, any guess about what the impact might be is just that — a guess. So for the present, there’s not much to do except prepare for what might come and, when there’s some down time, maybe catch the new Robert Redford flick. 

 


What’s all the fuss about? 

“A Walk in the Woods” is based on Bill Bryson’s 1998 book of the same name. It’s the story of Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail with his old friend Stephen Katz — not the optimal thru-hiking companion, he knows even before starting out, but the only person he can get to join him. 

The two men start off from Springer Mountain in Georgia and are quickly confronted by the realities of the trail. A lighthearted, witty style interspersed with informational passages on the trail’s natural and human history characterizes the book, and the movie attempts to keep the same tone. 

The book was an immediate success upon its release, easily making its way to the New York Times Bestseller list, and it has seen a resurgence with the making of the movie, currently sitting at No. 10. In its opening weekend, the movie pulled in more than $8 million, according to Box Office Mojo. 

 


Feeling inspired? 

A swell of 30 to 60 percent more thru-hikers is expected to take to the Appalachian Trail this spring, hoping to tread every step of the 2,189-mile trail. If you think you might be among their number, check out these tips and resources:

• Plan a non-traditional hike. The first section of the trail in Georgia is the one that takes the biggest beating when an entire cohort of thru-hikers takes off at the same time, and solitude proves evasive when 50 other people share your campsite. Consider a “flip-flop hike,” which involves starting somewhere in the middle of the trail and hiking to one end before returning to tackle the second half. 

• Declare your start date. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a new voluntary trail registration tool, aimed at helping hikers to spread out their start dates enough that the trail won’t be overcrowded or the experience ruined. www.appalachiantrail.org/hiking/ thru-hike-registration.

• Get educated. Before you go, read up on Leave No Trace principles for ethical use of the outdoors, and learn about what gear you’ll need for the trail. www.appalachiantrail.org/hiking/hiking-basics.

• Go to school. The ATC has partnered with REI to offer classes on successfully hiking the A.T. Check in at www.rei.com/stores/asheville.html.

• Get in shape. Hiking miles a day with a full pack requires some physical preparation. Make sure you’re up to hiking 3 or 4 miles every other day with a weighted pack before starting the A.T. 

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