Running Jersey Ridges, Part 1
|Birdman and Grasshopper|
The summer thunderstorm blew through Delaware Water Gap, up and across the Kittatinny Ridge, its winds whipping the Backpacker Campsite on a steamy August afternoon.
Its thunder boomed and its lightning crackled as heavy wind and rain slapped the tarp against the tent. Braced inside, I pushed back hard to support straining poles, happy to be dry but knowing that storms earlier in the summer had snapped a pole, collapsed the tent and sent the 16x20 tarp sailing.
The wind died as the storm moved north. A steady rain continued as I slipped outside to check for damage and see how others camped on the mountain had fared. Thankful for having gotten to shelter just ahead of the nasty weather, I knew others had not been as fortunate and I used my emergency radio to call park police about some very soggy hikers headed their way.
I knew at least a dozen people were scattered along the four miles of Appalachian Trail back to the visitor center at the Delaware River; I was especially worried about one heavyset couple I had passed an hour earlier, just before the storm.
They were moving slow, wearing the wrong shoes, and starting to mumble and whine about the long walk back to their car. The four miles up to Sunfish Pond was harder than they had expected and the pond was very nice; what, now they had to hike four miles back?
Stopping to chat, because that’s what ridgerunners do, I did my best to cheer them on with the news that it was only three easy miles to the bottom. Yes, I agreed, walking downhill often hurts more than walking uphill; and yes, hiking is harder than walking.
They trudged slowly on; I moved quickly and eagerly up the trail, heading north, excited to be starting a 75-mile hike across New Jersey.
Hiking with the trail name “Grasshopper,” I had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2011 and had fond memories of the five hot days I had spent crossing Jersey. Blessed with the opportunity to return in 2012 as a ridgerunner known as AT-3, I spent five days each week in the woods, hiking different chunks of trail, and covering about 40 miles. I was living the dream -- paid to hike and spending the season with hikers, trail volunteers, work crews, and Trail Angels and hoped to give back and help them as much as they had helped me on my own long walk north.
All told over the past 18 months, I had hiked more than 2500 miles and had lived in the woods for nearly a year.
Hired by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the New Jersey Parks Service, and the New York / New Jersey Trail Conference, I was one of three ridgerunners in Jersey for the season. We are “boots on the ground” to help folks safely enjoy the AT, its forests and footpaths, to share the gospel of Leave No Trace and to keep tabs on the trail and those using it.
We share directions and advice, remind people to store food in bear boxes, and to pack out their own trash. We explain that the sign saying “No Ground Fires” really does mean that campfires are not allowed (yes, this means you) and that “no alcohol” means “no alcohol.” And yes, the leash law applies to your dog, too.
Off-trail, we shared housing with summer interns and firefighters at the Lake Wallkill Wildlife Refuge. In the field, we were wonderfully supported and shuttled by the good folks who work in and manage the state’s four public forests, especially Rebecca Fitzgerald at High Point and Ernie Kabert at Worthington.
I had been camping at Backpacker for five days, hiking nearby trails and keeping tabs on Sunfish Pond, a gorgeous glacial lake that attracts hundreds of hikers and tempts many to ignore the ban against camping and swimming.
I had gathered trash from near the pond and in the bear boxes and I was making my rounds, when I encountered an Outward Bound group headed north. We had met the night before and they happily gathered again to hear me “talk trash.” Holding my bag aloft, I said, “I know this isn’t your trash, but this is what others have left. This is why we … Leave No Trace!”
“Leave No Trace!” they shouted. “Thank you, Grasshopper,” they say in chorus as my lesson ended, and they moved on.