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Sabbath Day – Father/Son Backpacking

May 29, 2016

My son August and I are now officially AT Section Hikers!

I used my Sabbath day this week to take an overnight backpacking trip with my son. We have been fascinated with the Appalachian Trail for a couple of years, ever since reading the “Bear Scene” from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and digesting Jeff Alt’s Walk for Sunshine together during our Tennessee camping trip in 2014. At that time we walked 12 miles along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, including the highest point the entire trail at Clingman’s Dome (which you can read about in an earlier post). And while we enjoy camping, this was our first trip carrying everything on our backs.


We spent weeks getting advice from friends and fellow hikers about the kind of equipment to pack, and an evening at REI getting outfitted with backpacks. We woke up on Thursday morning, ate a hearty breakfast Noelle prepared for us, and hit the road. By 10 o’clock we had registered with the park police at Bear Mountain State Park, and were on our way up our first mountain. The Bear Mountain Zoo is the lowest point on the entire AT, a mere 115.4 feet above sea level. Bear Mountain will rise 1305 feet in little less than two miles –  a good portion of which is blazed over stone staircases with occasional sweeping views of the Hudson River, the Isle of Iona, and the Bear Mountain Bridge.

We ate our lunch at Perkin’s Observatory at the summit of the mountain, and then began our first descent. A few hours later we were approaching the summit of West Mountain, where we sat on this rock outcropping to eat a snack of trail mix and bananna. We had come all the way over from Bear Mountain, the lower portion of which is seen on the left side of this photo below.

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In all, we climbed five mountains in two days: Bear Mountain, West Mountain, Black Mountain, Letterrock Mountain and Goshen Mountain. We made our camp just beside the lean-to on the north slope ascent of Letterrock Mountain.  We shared the camp with a thru hiker who stayed in the lean-to, and a couple of college students trying out the trail for the first time in anticipation of a thru hike later this summer. There was another couple thru hiking who camped a few hundred feet away. We shared salami and crackers for dinner, hung our food well out of reach of bears, and escaped into our tent from the mosquitoes and gnats. We were sore beyond belief, each of us having “quit” at least once on the climb up the last mountain – but the anticipation of a good night’s rest kept us going.

In the morning August was up at 6 o’clock insisting that we eat breakfast and pack camp up as quickly as possible. By 7 o’clock we were back on the trail.

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While we had each been concerned about the weight of our backpacks when we set out, they turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. Mine was a mere 40 pounds, and his weighed in a 25. The real challenge was to our bodies, which were not prepared for the steep ascents. August carried a pair of walking poles, which were a last minute inspiration on my part. They made the trip for him.

We learned many lessons about ourselves along the way. We talked about dreams and fears; August continued to catalog the world around him. We took advice from each thru hiker we met, learned to use our filter to purify water from streams, and were shown how to properly secure a bear canister. We overpacked our food, we did not drink enough water, and we did not rest often enough or long enough. But we also learned that we can do more together than we thought we could could. We took real pride in our accomplishment, and were grateful for every creature we share the path with.

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We encountered many deer; a tiny fawn; centipedes, beetles and bugs of all kinds; a mother turkey with about 20 poults; this turtle (above) who was crossing the trail; several snakes, a skink, and a five foot long black racer; a zillion squirrels and chipmunks; and some really beautiful birds.

I was particularly impressed that August could give voice to everything he felt, including the feeling that he could not go on, but he never let that stop them from putting one foot in front of another and eventually finding his second wind to push up another ascent. He has my deepest respect for his commitment to the hike, and for letting nothing stop him, not even himself. (I think it helped that I had moments of genuine struggle myself, like when my left calf cramped impressively partway up one mountain and was in visible trauma. Not enough water!).

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We are grateful to our friend Sarah Henkel who picked us up by the banks of Lake Tiorati and shuttled us back to our car. Or mouths hung open as we looked back of the way we had traveled.

I would not trade these couple of days for anything.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. planehpn permalink
    May 30, 2016 5:03 am

    you actually see any snamkes on the hike i bet you were scared of them bruce

    • June 3, 2016 10:43 pm

      We always see snakes, Bruce. The woods are full of them. Mostly, they are harmless, and quite graceful in their own way. I stick to the path, though, and leave the snakes be. Thursday was so warm the snakes were lying out on rocks – and I saw lots of rocks.

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