By Cady Kuzmich
CLIFTON PARK — A narrow wooded path, sometimes interrupted by mammoth boulders, rocky mountains and waist-deep rivers, stretches over 2,000 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia all the way to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. This is the Appalachian Trail, a path dreamed up by Benton MacKaye in 1921 that slowly became reality in the following decades. Earl Shaffer of Pennsylvania claimed to complete the first ever thru-hike of the trail in 1948. The trail has since has millions of visitors and resulted in memoirs like Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.”
Mike Popolizio of Clifton Park shared his knowledge of the trail with a group of curious community members at the Clifton Park–Halfmoon Public Library on June 6. Popolizio, who serves as the district commissioner for Boy Scouts in Saratoga County, has hiked more than 300 miles of the trail in sections over the course of five years, from just south of the White Mountains in New Hampshire through Bear Mountain in New York.
Popolizio’s talk focused on the infamous thru-hiker, “a committed group to say the least,” in his estimation.. Thru-hikers are the determined few who make it from one end of the trail to the other, totalling over 2,000 miles, in one shot — a journey that typically takes five to six months and several pairs of shoes.
Popolizio went over some basic hiking terms in the thru-hiker community like “cameling up” (to hydrate), “Yogi-ing” (getting food from friendly day hikers), and “yellow blazing” (skipping sections of the trail and hitching rides ahead).
“Many of you have probably been on it without even knowing it,” said Popolizio. One of the closest trail junctions is in Manchester, Vermont. Popolizio encouraged those in attendance to explore the trail on day hikes, section hikes and even thru-hikes. For those who aren’t interested in hiking, he suggested becoming a trail angel. From Maine to Georgia, kind folk in communities along the trail, and even some who travel from far and wide, come to the Appalachian Trail to provide food, drink, shelter and rides to worn out, hungry hikers.
Knowing thru-hikers are likely hesitant to stop and chat since they have so much mileage to cover in a relatively short time frame, when Popolizio hit the trail, he brought something no long-distance hiker can refuse — Pop-Tarts. Whenever he crossed paths with a thru-hiker, he would offer them a Pop-Tart in exchange for some trail stories — earning him the trail name “Pop Tart.”
One of the best parts about hiking on the Appalachian Trail, according to Popolizio, is never knowing what’s waiting around the bend — it could be a case of soda sitting in a chilly mountain stream, a river to ford, a ladder to help scale a rock face, a bear, moose or even a rattlesnake. “If you find blackberries on the trail, you’ll know what a bear feels like,” he laughed heartily.
Among those in attendance was Kathryn Bissett, 25, of Clifton Park, who was setting off to begin her Appalachian Trail hike June 13. Bissett has been teaching third-graders at the Augustine Classical Academy in Mechanicville for the last three years. She will begin her trek at the Connecticut–New York border and head north toward Katahdin. Once she reaches Katahdin, the northern terminus, Bissett plans to drive back to the Connecticut–New York border to begin walking south towards Springer Mountain in Georgia. Bissett will be one of a small number of “flip-floppers” who opt for this less traditional route, but cover the same distance on foot. Most flip floppers begin at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia which is close to the halfway point of the trail.
The trail hits a road crossing about every four miles, according to Popolizio. Originally, the trail was intended to have shelters located about a day’s hike apart.
In terms of distance, Popolizio said “hiking the whole A.T. is like climbing Mount Everest 16 times. It’s not something to attempt without a lot of thought.” Though, he added, “Everyone is capable of challenging themselves,” he said.
The journey begins
Bissett began her thru-hike attempt on her 25th birthday, Monday June 13.
A Q&A with Kathryn Bissett of Clifton Park, just days before she began her first thru-hike attempt:
Q: How many miles per day do you hope to average? How long do you expect to be on the trail?
A: As we start out we will definitely be keeping our mileage low, not more than 10 miles a day. But after the first two weeks we hope to jump up to 15 to 17 miles a day. After that we hope to average between 15-22 miles a day. We expect to be on the trail about five months, till mid/late November.
Q: Will you try to make it back for school in September? That would be a tight time-frame, right?
A: This trip is actually a big turning point for me as far as teaching goes! I’m not going to be returning to Augustine in the fall, so that I can finish the whole trail. After that I’m hoping to pick up some substitute jobs in the spring and then hopefully make the switch to a public school for the 2017-18 school year.
Q: Who are you hiking with?
A: I am hiking with one of my best friends, Corinne DuBois. We’ve known each other since freshman year of high school and have always loved hiking together.
Q: How long have you been planning this hike?
A: For a long time I’ve felt an itch for adventure, feeling restless, but not sure what to do with that. When Corinne moved back to the area two years ago, we planned to do lots of hiking together. Last march, as we were prepping for a short section hike on the AT, the dream was born: What if we did the whole thing? And from there everything clicked — it was the answer to all our questions. We’ve been planning ever since, so about a year and a half.
Q: What part of the hike are you most looking forward to?
A: I am most looking forward to the freedom that comes with being outdoors. Everything seems so much more uninhibited, so real, and so refreshing. I can let go of all the daily stresses and deadlines. I can find myself in both the breath-taking views and the breath-taking inclines.
Q: What are you most nervous about?
A: Honestly, I’m most nervous about running out of money and having to stop hiking. I’m a little nervous about how all the food details will come together. And maybe I’m a little afraid of bears.
Q: How much does your pack weigh?
A: With food and water my pack weighs just about 32 pounds.
Q: How long has this been something you’ve wanted to do? Do you remember when you first learned about the trail?
A: While the specific dream of hiking the AT has been more recent (in the last two years), I’ve always wanted to go on a big life-changing adventure. I remember the first time I heard about the trail was when a college-aged guy from my church had decided to take time off and go hike it. At that point I had no idea what the trail really was, or how crazy of an endeavor he was starting off on. When the book “Wild” came out, I devoured it, and that was the first real seed that was planted in my mind about hiking.
Q: Did you go camping and hiking a lot as a kid?
A: My family loved camping as I was growing up. I have so many memories of family campfires, animals sneaking into our campsites, and my dad’s dutch oven cooking. We had a few summers once all my siblings were a bit older that were full of hiking trips. We loved climbing mountains with fire towers on the top.
Q: Where did you do your practice hikes and how long was each?
A: Corinne and I have done two practice tests together. The first one was last August, 2015. We took a week and hiked from North Adams, MA to Becket, MA. Our second hike was this April, 2016. We covered about 45 miles of the AT from Pawling, NY to Garrison, NY.
Q: Where is your starting point?
A: Our starting point is the CT-NY border. Our plan is complete our hike in “flip-flop” style, hiking first up to Maine, getting a ride back down (thanks to Corinne’s family) and then hiking south from the CT-NY border to Springer Mountain.