Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mountains man

Mountains man
Linus Gillis of Miscouche scaled great heights during his six-month, 3,500-kilometre hike along the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine

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The Guardian

Linus Gillis is a changed man after completing a six-month, 3,500-kilometre (2,175-mile) march of the Appalachian Trail.

In fact, he lost about a fifth of his weight and gained a new Grizzly Adams-style beard and hairdo doing this 14-state hike, which the official guidebook says is the equivalent of going from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest and back more than 16 times.

“It’s a triumph in my life really to do that,” says this Miscouche contractor, who celebrated his 60th birthday near the end of his Georgia to Maine Appalachian Trail journey.

“He’s amazingly healthy for someone who (about 10 years ago) couldn’t walk from here to (the end of the room) without puffing and panting. He's amazing, he literally is,” says his wife, Faye Gillis.

Gillis did this journey of a lifetime for the health of it. Although he had quit smoking years ago, his weight kept rising to its pre-walk scale of 109 kilograms (240 pounds), putting him at risk for health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease.

About six years ago he began hiking on a short distance scale. Then a few years ago he hiked the Confederation Trail from tip to tip. However, that 11-day 300-plus-kilometre endeavour would prove to be a walk in the park compared to the six-month 2,175-kilometre Appalachian Trail.

With some winter gym and outdoor camping time under his belt, he stepped onto the trail in Georgia on March 31 of this year, carrying a weighty backpack with camping gear, clothing and enough food to get him from one re-supply spot to the next.

He wasn’t alone. Friend Alan MacKenzie of Travellers Rest was along for the walk until mid-June when until a financial commitment forced him to end his hike in Virginia.

These Islanders were two of approximately 4,000 hikers from all walks of life and all corners of the globe to set out this year on the Appalachian Trail. Only about one-tenth did the full Monty.

“It’s called a thru-hike; you do the whole continuous trail in one season. That’s what I had planned to do but whether I could do it or not I didn’t know at the time because I knew it was a long challenging journey,” Gillis says.

“It’s 2,200 miles roughly and that’s just the trail itself. Altogether you’re hiking about 2,600 miles because there are (places) where you have to get off the main trail at different times to go in to shelters, to go get water or to go into towns.”

The first day was a quick introduction to some of the difficulties to come.

“It was about five or six o’clock when we finally got to the top of the mountain at the rock where you had to register. It was raining and half snowing, a miserable, miserable day, so it was kind of an eye-opener to start with,” Gillis says.

“Thankfully, I had worked at the gym so was half prepared anyway. But as time went by the weight was coming off and you’d start to get in shape and the first time one mountain leads into another. . . . It was a gradual thing.”

As the physical challenges became easier, the mental fatigue of doing the same thing day in and day out became the next obstacle for him to overcome.

“You’d walk 10 or 15 miles and think I still have another 2,000 to go, so then you’ve got to take it one mountain at a time, one day at a time — break it up into small, little segments,” he says.

“Every now and again you get to a milestone, you leave one state and go into another state. The worst one of all was Virginia because it was 500-and-some miles so you're in Virginia for what seems like forever.”

Virginia also stands out in MacKenzie’s mind. It was his place of departure after two-and-a-half months on the trail, during which time he developed friendships with others who were doing the same personal challenge.

“There’s quite a bond that develops among hikers. There’s more than your hiking partner looking out for you,” he says. “(Most) begin the hike total strangers to each other and then the bond develops regardless of age, sex or where people are from and it increasingly gets stronger and stronger.”

By happenstance, Gillis met up with North Carolina artist James Davis, better known on the trail as Brushstrokes, who hiked with him to the end.

“Everybody that hikes has a trail name,” explains Gillis, whose trail handle was Serene.

“Serene means peaceful and quiet. Because I’m self-employed I’m gung-ho all the time, got to get this done and that done. And every time I’d go out hiking or walking I’d settle down some. And so my buddy, Alan, stuck that on me, Serene.”

Of course, being an extensive wilderness trail, there were dangers to consider.

“Bears are the least of your worries on the trail. As soon as they spot you, if you’re lucky to see one, they’re gone before you get anywhere close to them,” Gillis says.

Rattlesnakes, however, were another slithering matter in certain areas.

“I was hiking with (Davis one day) and he hollered, ‘You just stepped on a snake!’

“Of course he didn’t know what it was. So when I came back it was all coiled up and ready to strike and it was a rattlesnake.”

As it turned out, it was the unpredictable human factor that Appalachian Trail hikers had to fear most. This year, there were a number of crimes involving hikers. In fact in May two people were allegedly shot by a man who had previously been convicted and served time for murdering two people on the trail in 1981. The latest victims survived but the suspect died in custody in a Virginia jail cell.

Injuries could also hit a hiker great distances from immediate medical help.

Gillis was held up in Pennsylvania for a week as he fought a lower leg infection. There were plenty of on-trail falls but fortunately nothing that prevented him from finishing his personal trek.

Thru-hikers are always on a timetable of sorts because the end point of Baxter State Park in Maine closed in mid-October and hiking past that time can become dangerous due to weather.

In June, his wife and one of his sons, David Gillis, made the first of a number of trips south to give a boost of family support. It was their first look at Gillis’ slimmed down and increasingly bearded appearance.

“The first time David and I went down to see him, we walked right by him,” Faye Gillis remembers.

“. . . . I recognized this ugly green shirt he used to wear and when I looked there he was. I barrelled over to give him a big hug . . . and I said, ‘Where’s the rest of you?

“And David turned around thinking ‘What is she doing? She’s awfully friendly with those hikers’ and then he realized it was his father. (We’ve) never known him to have a beard.”

Family and friends were also in Maine when Gillis and his friend, Davis, reached the summit of Mount Katahdin on Sept. 30. That nine-hour hiking day was 8.4 kilometres (5.2 miles) straight up the mountain and the same distance back again.

“It was quite a feeling to think that this is it, I’m going to go home after I get down off this mountain,” he says.

“ ‘My son had hiked up the mountain with us and unbeknownst to me he had a birthday cake with candles so we lit that up on the mountain and had a birthday party.”

Gillis goes down in history as the 345th person to finish the Appalachian Trail in the 2008 season.

“I was glad it was over because I wanted to get home to my family and my grandchildren and all that. But I was kind of disappointed that the end had come because it becomes a way of life.

“Every day you’re out there and you’re with these people. Your main responsibility was to hike so many miles and that’s about it. It just seems to become a way of life after six months,” he says.

Gillis is now somewhat settled into home life again, albeit the beard and lengthy hairstyle remain intact for now. As for future hiking adventures, they will be on a much smaller scale than the Appalachian Trail.

“I wouldn’t want to do another long hike like that, but I’d go hiking tomorrow.”

Fast facts

The number of people hiking the entire trail has risen dramatically over the years. From 1936 to 1969, only 61 completions are recorded. In 1970, the numbers began to rise. Ten people completed the trail in 1970, including Ed Garvey, whose thru-hike was well-publicized. The trend was further fueled by the release of Garvey's popular book, Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime. The term "2,000-miler" was coined in the late 1970s to help identify this growing group of hikers.

By 1980, the total number of 2,000-milers had increased more than ten-fold. The total had doubled by 1990 and again by 2000. More hike completions were reported for the year 2000 alone than in the first 40 years combined. The 10,000th hike completion was recorded in 2008.History

2,000-milers by decade

1930s 8

1940s 3

1950s 14

1960s 37

1970s 749

1980s 1,410

1990s 3,275

2000-present 4,600

Total: 10,096

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