Wildcat Hits the Woods: Ex-Lebanon, UNH Athlete to Hike the AT

  • Alexander Morrill in Maine's 100 mile Wilderness in July 2015. In the background is Mount Katahdin. The Lebanon High graduate will be doing a solo hike of the Appalachian Trail, starting in Georgia. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Alexander Morrill at Mount Willey during a hike in the White Mountains in March 2017. The Lebanon High graduate will be doing a solo hike of the Appalachian Trail, starting in Georgia. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Top: Lebanon High graduate Alexander Morrill in Maine’s 100-mile Wilderness in July 2015. In the background is Mount Katahdin. The Lebanon High graduate will be doing a solo hike on the Appalachian Trail, starting in Georgia. Above: Morrill (69) in action with the University of New Hampshire football team in an undated photograph.

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 3/24/2017 11:46:32 PM
Modified: 3/25/2017 12:14:25 AM

Lebanon — Like many recent college graduates, Alexander Morrill understands this may be the best time — after school, but before the working world or postgraduate studies — to travel. Some see the country. Some go abroad. Morrill plans something simpler, yet more complex.

He’s taking his adventure one step at a time … on the Appalachian Trail.

The 2012 Lebanon High graduate leaves on Thursday for Atlanta; two days later, he’ll set foot northward from Springer Mountain, Ga., on the AT, a hike of nearly 2,200 miles that he hopes to complete atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin in the next five months or thereabouts. Outside of his preparatory workouts, it’ll be his biggest physical challenge after losing his entire senior football season at the University of New Hampshire to hip surgery, the result of a preseason injury.

“I figure I would do this hike before I get too committed to anything,” Morrill said earlier this week before a workout at the CCBA’s Witherell Recreation Center. “I don’t know when I’d be able to take 4½, 5 months off again. Everybody I’ve talked to has been like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve always wanted to do that,’ or, ‘I thought about doing it, but then life got too crazy.’ I’m just going to do it, so I’m not like those people down the road.”

The affable 23-year-old is the rare Upper Valley athlete who turned high school success into a bona fide Division I college opportunity. A key offensive lineman on Lebanon’s undefeated NHIAA Division IV state championship football team in 2010, Morrill earned a partial athletic scholarship to UNH that became full once the Wildcats realized the talent they’d attracted. Morrill played guard on UNH teams that reached the final four of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision tournament in consecutive seasons (2013-14).

Morrill, who received his degree in biomedical science, has kept in contact with the UNH coaching staff through his AT planning. The person who ultimately drew Morrill to Durham loves that one of his former players is taking on the trail.

“It’s a pretty exciting thing for a young man to partake,” UNH head coach Sean McDonnell said in a phone interview.

“He’s such a great kid and a great person. When he told me he was doing it, I wasn’t very surprised, to be honest with you. He’s a very level-headed young man with a great heart. He wanted to get away, get out and explore something totally unique.”

Morrill has been an avid hiker since junior high school, when his older stepbrother, Nicholas DePalo, introduced him to it. To DePalo’s credit, he didn’t start Morrill out slowly.

“He had an old-school Marine rucksack, because he was in the military, and he took me up Mount Washington, which was awesome,” Morrill recalled. “He didn’t break me in at all. We did an overnight hike; we did a couple of the Presidential mountains, hiked down the Gulf of Slides Trail, set up camp at the base and, in the morning, hiked out. To this day, I still remember.”

Morrill fell so hard for hiking, it became his go-to training outlet in the football offseason. He spent many a day running up or down Cardigan Mountain, gaining both strength and cardiovascular benefits.

Traversing the 100-Mile Wilderness between Monson, Maine, and Katahdin, the northernmost stretch of the AT, with DePalo two years ago further whetted Morrill’s thru-hike appetite. It took the stepbrothers six days to complete the Wilderness stretch; Morrill lost 10 pounds from the exertion.

“It’s one of those activities where it’s so rewarding, but to get to the top, it’s such a struggle,” he said. “You have to fight, you have to push yourself, but when you get to the top, all that fades away and all you’re thinking is how gorgeous it is.”

Morrill couldn’t be healthier — or happier — as his adventure approaches. It has required a lot of expense and planning.

Even last week, Morrill had his hands full readying his backpack (current weight: about 35 pounds) for the flight south and sending boxes with supplies to the first couple of towns through which he’ll walk. He estimated he’s already spent $2,000 to get ready for the trek, a cost that will likely double before he gets to Maine.

With DePalo unavailable for company, Morrill plans to start the AT hike alone. While looking forward to getting away from civilization, he won’t be completely without technology. In addition to an mp3 player, his phone and a water purifier that doubles as a UV light, he’ll be carrying a GPS device that provides a means of tracking his progress and allows for quick contact in case of an emergency. (Those interested in monitoring Morrill online can do so at https://share.garmin.com/ZanderMorrill.) He also hopes to post pictures every week or so on his Facebook page as he breaks to do laundry or resupply his provisions.

There’s still a feel-it-out element to Morrill’s plans, however. He’s not sure what his caloric intake should be, as he’s not certain how many calories he’ll burn or how many miles he’ll cover each day. He’s also yet to adopt the traditional trail name.

“People do it differently,” he said. “Some pick it themselves. Some do something stupid and get a trail name that way. I’m hoping that’s how I get mine.”

Morrill tipped the scales at 310 pounds during his UNH playing days. He’s dropped down to 275 since he returned home from school. He’d eventually like to reach 240, and there’s little doubt a five-month, 2,000-mile hike will help.

But there’s a deeper purpose to Morrill’s adventure than weight loss.

“No way am I saying I’m a loner and I want to be alone in the woods or anything like that,” he said, “but there’s just something peaceful about being in the woods and carrying everything you need to live on your back, through rugged terrain and fighting up and down hills and mountains. That had a big part in the reason why I’m doing this.”

McDonnell plans to track Morrill’s long walk home.

“One friend’s son did this trek, walking the AT, my roommate from college’s son; it’s a pretty amazing feat,” the UNH coach said. “But he did it with a partner. This will all be on Zander, and he will be a guy you can count on.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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