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Hikers Pack Up, Clean Out Appalachian Trail

  • Seth Orne, front, and Joe Dehnert use a makeshift “stretcher” made of tree trunks to transport a pair of mattresses away from the Appalachian Trail. The duty was part of the pair’s “Packing It Out” initiative, which removed nearly 1,100 pounds of garbage from the AT corridor this summer.Photograph courtesy Seth Orme



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, September 03, 2015
Coined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in the 1960s, the “leave no trace” principle encourages visitors of the outdoors to take out everything they bring into the wilderness. A few Appalachian Trail thru hikers did even better this year — leaving the national scenic trail even more pristine than when they entered by removing trash left behind by others.

Georgia residents Seth Orme and Joe Dehnert, both 25, and friend Paul Twedt, 29, set out last March on their “Packing It Out” initiative, with a goal of removing 1,000 pounds of garbage from the AT corridor. Orme and Dehnert completed the mission Aug. 15 — two days before starting trail crew positions with the Appalachian Mountain Club. Twedt had split from the group earlier on the trip, electing to continue collecting trash on his own rather than hurry with the other two, who needed to complete the trail before starting with AMC.

Orme developed the idea for Packing It Out over the last several years while hiking some of his favorite areas in Tennessee and North Carolina. Wincing from the sight of a noticeable amount of garbage along the trail routes, he began gathering it for proper disposal and realized he was collecting about a pound of trash per mile.

“It just didn’t make sense to me, to be in these beautiful areas and see so much trash,” Orme said in a recent phone interview from an AMC lodge in Pinkham Notch, N.H. “I’d hike three miles and come back with three pounds of trash, or five miles and come back with five pounds. I’d been wanting to hike the AT my whole life and decided to go for it.”

The trio toted an 18-liter, heavy-duty trash bag , one carrying it while the other two picked and pecked at garbage with elongated, pinch-style tools known as trash grabbers. Aluminum cans, food wrappers and broken glass — along with the occasional dirty diapers and underwear — were some of the more common items as they meandered along the eastern seaboard. Within the first week of departing Georgia’s Springer Mountain, the Packing It Out crew had gathered more than 100 pounds of trash.

“We didn’t really realize just how much trash there was going to be,” Dehnert said. “There are some urban areas near the start of the trail and we thought the amount of trash would dwindle as we got into more rural portions of the hike. That wasn’t the case; (the concentration of garbage) actually increased when it was more densely rural.

The crew employed a variety of methods to dispose of the garbage. Often, they’d walk into towns and neighborhoods, explain to business owners or residents what their initiative was and ask if they could help dispose of the items properly. Other times, at road crossings and trail heads, they’d approach strangers at their vehicles — especially if it was a pickup truck — and ask for assistance.

The responses they got were overwhelmingly positive, important both for the success of the mission as well as the trio’s morale.

“A hundred percent of the time we asked for help, people helped us, which was amazing,” Dehnert said. “It was really a 50-50 (percent) operation, where 50 percent of it was us gathering the trash and 50 percent of it was relying on the kindness of strangers. The positive responses really energized us and propelled our trip. It was really inspirational.”

The trio was also inspired from the responses of fellow hikers, with some of whom they exchanged “trail karma” pennants . About 500 of these pennants are present on the trail, according to their distributor’s website, intended to circulate among those performing acts of stewardship or generosity. Each pennant is numbered, and online tracking of gestures is encouraged.

“We got a lot of attention and really got to share what we were doing with a lot of people,” Dehnert said. “Our message kind of spread like wildfire.”

There were times when members of the group couldn’t help but feel discouraged, particularly when encountering an especially gross pile of trash at the end of a long day . They used each other’s company to stay focused and optimistic.

“The group dynamic really helped us keep a fresh perspective. I remember one occasion where we’d gotten to about 9 or 10 pounds that day, and I was carrying it around in my left hand for a long time,” Dehnert said. “We got to a campsite and there’s five cans of Chef Boyardee in a fire pit and I was just kind of like, ‘I’m sick of this.’ That’s when Orme patted me on the back, took the bag from me and said, ‘Let’s get back to work.’ We all had off days, but we all lifted each other up. I could see where if you were trying to do it as a single person, that it would be very easy to get discouraged.”

The group was in Virginia when Orme and Dehnert learned they’d each been accepted for crew-member positions with AMC —and that they’d have to increase their pace significantly if they were going to reach the AT’s northern terminus at Maine’s Mount Katahdin in time to start their AMC duties Aug. 17.

Near Pennsylvania’s “501” shelter, they encountered a pair of drenched, moldy mattresses just feet from the trail. Out of fallen tree trunks they built a stretcher-like device, affixed the mattresses with rope and carried them roughly two miles to the nearest trail head before securing disposal.

“That was probably the grossest thing we removed, for me,” said Dehnert, who estimated the mattresses weighed 70 pounds combined. “It was hard to get them out of there, but it was worth it to know they were something hikers would no longer have to see and try to ignore.”

Orme and Dehnert reached the 1,000-pound goal in mid-July and fortunately in the interest of time, they found very little trash to pick up through the northeast. Large messy areas filled with broken glass and cans dwindled to occasional candy wrappers and cigarette butts, and the poundages diminished from 10 per day or more to days when they didn’t gather enough to make it worth recording.

“New England was very clearly the cleanest area of the whole trail, and it’s not by accident,” Dehnert said. “It’s because of organizations like the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, the Green Mountain Club, the Dartmouth Outing Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club, who work tirelessly to keep them in that kind of shape.”

As they approached Mount Moosilauke, both Orme and Dehnert started feeling ill — Dehnert with a bacterial ailment causing severe dehydration and other symptoms and Orme with Lyme disease and Bell’s palsy, the latter causing paralysis of one side of his face.

The pair pressed on through the White Mountains and the infamous “100 miles of wilderness” in Maine, determined to complete their mission in time to begin with AMC.

They reached Katahdin’s summit on Aug. 15, in just enough time to seek medical attention, get prescription antibiotics and begin their AMC posts two days later.

Was it all worth it? Absolutely. Particularly during a time when the AT is experiencing record popularity — according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy more than 830 people completed the trail last year, up from 182 in 1990 — Orme feels it’s important to continue promoting “leave no trace” principles.

“We have to keep those ethics going stronger than ever,” he said. “With huge amounts of people using the trail, there’s going to be some trash that you just can’t stop. But especially if we can get more people carrying out trash — not just bringing out what they bring in, but carrying other trash out — we can reduce the impact.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.

Correction

Seth Orme, Joe Dehnert, and Paul Twedt were part of the “Packing It Out” team that removed nearly 1,100 pounds of trash from the Appalachian Trail this year. Their names were incorrect in an earlier version of this story.