On Saturday, I went to Bears Den Trail Center for an all-day workshop on thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. This was the first time that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which owns Bears Den, hosted a (free!) thru-hiker workshop, and I jumped at the chance. I’m glad I signed up early because the 30 spots filled up quickly, and in fact 25 people were on the waiting list to attend.
I arrived at Bears Den in Bluemont, VA and was surprised by its size. Bears Den – run by Patrice and Justin, a married couple who hiked southbound in 2011 – has a lodge, hiker hostel, cottage, and campgrounds on its 66 acre site, which is within spitting distance (150 feet) of the A.T. As I slowly drove up the narrow gravel path, I passed an old fence of peaked stone parapets that must date back to the 1930s when the land, which was then private property, was first developed. I parked my car and made my way toward the lodge to sign in.
I was greeted by no less than five people right away, and I soon realized that there were at least a dozen people there contributing to the success of the workshop. I chatted with a few of the people welcoming me and learned that most of them are previous thru-hikers themselves: this one in the ‘90s, that one in ‘08.
The workshop began at 8:30 with introductions. In addition to hearing about all of the previous thru-hikers, each attendee had his say. I was surprised that so few of the 30 people there were imminently planning a 2013 departure. Many were just interested in learning more about what was involved. I did, of course, take note of the other four in the room that are also aiming for a Spring departure and made sure to introduce myself later on.
After intros, we spent the rest of the morning steamrolling through several meaty topics including planning and preparation, health and safety, Leave No Trace guidelines, and nutrition and cooking. I was really excited to learn that the woman leading the nutrition and cooking session also has a gluten intolerance and avoids soy. She provided great pointers on finding protein in whey protein, rice powders, and bean powders. She also provided the names of a couple of well-known brands, so I have good leads. Not the least of all, she assured me to ignore naysayers that look down on getting food packages sent, that healthy gluten free food is indeed sometimes hard to come by, which was something that had been nagging at me.
We broke for lunch, during which I took the opportunity to talk to Patrice about her experience with health insurance, hitchhiking, money – you name it. Given that she and her husband Justin had quit their jobs and hiked the trail last year, I figured she’d be a good source of up-to-date and relevant information. This workshop (successfully) packed so much information into one day, but there were so many
anxieties topics yet to address!
After lunch we went outside for an hour-long session on gear essentials and packing a backpack. It was great because the various contributors all took different approaches to their gear requirements, and all options were presented. For example, one guy preferred ultralight packing and had a pack that weighed six pounds with everything except food and water. Other variable gear items included cooking and water purification systems.
After the gear session, we broke into groups and rotated among four hands-on demonstration areas. I first learned how to hang a bear bag. Then I mastered the art of digging a cat-hole (hint: when ya gotta go, ya gotta go). I then circled back to the gear table to have another opportunity to ask questions. And last we talked through tent options.
I wish I could tell you everything that I learned, but there’s way too much to cover without turning this post into a novel. Maybe I’ll discuss the specific topics in more detail in future posts.
At about 4:00, the workshop wrapped up with closing comments and then a raffle. I stayed around for a while and mingled. At about 5pm, the sun was fading, so I decided to hit the road. If I could do it again, I would have reserved a room in the lodge. I had to cut short several engaging conversations because I hadn’t had the foresight to stay overnight.
I mentioned that this was the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s first-ever workshop. They are looking at planning more and potentially charging a fee. I highly recommend attending one in the future if you’re able and interested in long-distance hiking. In fact, I was so impressed by the experience (and shocked that it was all done through volunteer time!) that I’ve decided to purchase a membership to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. I am so pleased with the support that the ATC has provided that I couldn’t imagine not supporting the organization in return.