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Ticks are ‘worse than bears’ on Appalachian Trail

A Stellenbosch couple recently hiked the Appalachian Trail in the United States for approximately 165 days. Leslie Hurst (56) hiked for about 3 057 km, while husband Ian (58) completed one of 3 523 km. Elmarine Anthony spoke to Leslie about their adventure.

The couple, from Jamestown, had previously hiked sections of the trail in 2013 and 2015. Even though Leslie had vowed to never do it again both times, they decided to do the entire trail in one go this time. “We wanted to have an adventure before we got too old to do something crazy like this,” Leslie said. “We just said let’s go and spend six months walking in the woods.”

The trail, which is free, is broken up into sections that are each maintained by volunteers from the hiking club of that area.

It was a simple lifestyle according to Leslie, although there are a lot of logistics that went into it and she and Ian had to plan constantly while on the hike. “You have a guidebook that tells you where the water is, where the good camp sites, shelters and the towns are so that you can plan.” A good hiking day was 10 hours long, or about 32 km. The couple hiked for four to five days before they would come across one of the many towns on the trail, where they could buy enough food to last for the next four to five days. They slept in tents or shelters that were located every 16 km. “Everything was very basic,” Leslie said. “Life became so simple. We got water from streams and carried as little supplies as possible.”

They carried five days of food at a time, but could not sleep with the food in their tents owing to bears and mice possibly stealing it. Every night they had to throw everything that smells of anything, including toothpaste and deodorant into a bag and hang it up in a specific way that the bears would not be able to get hold of it.

“Once you’ve hung your food bag you can’t eat anymore,” said Leslie. “You have to go to sleep because your food is hanging in a tree. At times the hikers didn’t hang it properly, or the bears would be very clever and would get a hold of the food, then the people would be without food until they could get into town.”

However, the bears were nothing compared to the tiny tick carried by deer, which can give you Lyme Disease, Leslie said. “When it starts getting hot you have to check every night that you don’t have any ticks on you,” she said. “You don’t always see them. The bears are nothing compared to those ticks.”

Despite this, Leslie describes the overall experience as “fine”, except for the weather. “We had snow, then everything froze,” she said. “Then it started raining for days, and everything, including your sleeping bag and shoes, would get wet. At this point you’re in very low spirits. Then it started getting hot. Imagine hiking in this weather for days on end.” Describing life on a 35-degree day, Leslie said on hot days she and Ian had to carry lots of water because the rivers would run dry. “There are little things you have to be aware of all the time,” she said. “You are tired every night, but before you can relax you have to put up your tent, then you have to cook food.” They lived mostly off peanut butter, butter, chips, pasta, cheese and energy bars. “We ate all the time,” Leslie said. “Food is your obsession because you burn so many calories. Many hike to lose weight.”

During the day they hiked mostly alone, but others usually joined them when they set up camp for the night. The hikers become like family, according to Leslie, because they spend a lot of time together, and there is a strong sense of camaraderie among them. There is also a strong sense of community among the people living in the towns. “People would regularly put up gazebos and hand out food we didn’t carry,” said Leslie. “When it’s a day like this, and all you have is room temperature water, and they open a cooler box with Energade – it’s like heaven! My husband always craved milk for the protein, and he sometimes said I looked like a bottle of milk.”

It was a great experience, but not one she would do in a hurry. “I would do sections again,” Leslie said. “When you hike for so long you become jaded after a while. It becomes like a job. Every day is the same. You don’t appreciate it after a while. Whereas if you do it for a month, you still feel fresh at the end.”

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