Moon Shine Country
It takes a certain breed of college students to pass up beaches, bikinis and beer on spring break and UMD’s got them.
RSOP sent 20 adventure-seeking students to the southeast over spring break, but 300 miles inland and 5,000 feet above any ocean beach.
Students Zach Gill, Erin Denny, Charlie Milton, Katie Houg and Nick Rorem led two different groups on a chilly 50-mile hiking trip up-and-down the Appalachian Trail along the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
The two groups of hikers came from different levels of experience, varied from freshmen to senior and, for the first time in a while, had a balanced number of men and women.
“Two years ago on the same trip, it was like all boys and one girl,” Houg said. “Now, I think both trips had pretty even male-female ratios.”
Denny, also the Outdoor Trips Coordinator for RSOP, added, “I’ve been noticing a huge increase in women participation in all of our (RSOP) events, which is crazy cool.”
The trip not only saw an increase in women, but in general participation.
“We didn’t know we were going to have two groups,” Gill said. “It was overbooked, so we decided to do two trips.”
Along with the surprising attendance numbers, the crew also didn’t expect cold weather.
“Weather is always a wild card,” Gill said. “But I didn’t expect 9 degree mornings.”
“I woke up one morning and there were a couple inches (of snow) on the ground and I was like, ‘What is this? Minnesota?” Matt Worms, a freshman in Gill’s group, said.
Unexpected conditions call for makeshift solutions.
“The water filters froze,” Houg said. “So, Nick stuck them in his armpits during a windy snow storm. It worked after trying everything else.”
Some hikers didn’t pack gloves, so they wore wool socks on their hands.
“Everybody was willing to adapt to the conditions and find beauty and joy amidst the unexpected cold,” Houg said.
Houg and Rorem started in Hot Springs, N.C. and ended 6 days later in Erwin, Tenn. Gill, Denny and Milton did the opposite.
“Our first day had like a 3-mile climb straight up,” Denny said. They gained 2,000 feet that day. “It took us 5 hours to go 5-miles … It was an overwhelming day.”
Inclines on the trail were especially challenging because there were no switch-backs to zigzag up the hills and decrease the intensity of the slopes. Instead, the uphill sections took the shortest route: straight up. “I got really mad at some of them,” she said.
When the trail got steep, they depended on each other for moral support.
Sasha Miller, a freshman in Denny’s group, saved her iPod especially for these moments.
“She’d always play at the perfect moment,” Denny said. “So we’d get a big climb ahead of us, everyone’s bogging down at the end of the day, and all the sudden she’d be playing the theme song from Rocky – it was perfect.”
Despite the pain and frustration, the reward was well worth it.
“I look back and see a bunch of tired faces,” Houg said, “and then we get to the top of a hill and everybody’s like, ‘Whoa, this trip is amazing! It’s beautiful.’”
The crew went on and on about the scenery.
“You’re either like in the valley with mountains all around you or you’re on top of mountains,” Miller said.
“Bald Mountain peak doesn’t have any trees on the top,” Rorem said. “So, there was this perfect panoramic view all the way around of the Appalachian Mountains.”
From valleys and rivers to peaks and ridges, the hikers saw all sorts of geographic features, including a bizarre one.
“On day 12, our longest day on Fire Scald Ridge, there was Butt Mountain,” Gill said. “There was a big rock with a crack in it.”
“Yeah, we have some pictures of that,” Miller said, and laughed.
Along with the peculiar rock shape, Miller’s group had another strange experience on the same day.
“I was hiking in the back and we turned around and were like, ‘Holy shit!’” Denny said.
“Three feet away from us there was this deer and it was just staring at us. It kind of looked crazy, so we kept walking slowly.”
The deer followed them for about an hour, wiggling through barbed wire fences and keeping a close distance.
“Charlie was in the back and had a stick,” Worms said. “He kind of held the stick out to keep the distance between the deer and our group … It had some weird look in its eyes.”
They suspect through-hikers were feeding the deer, making it unnaturally courageous.
Owls also presented themselves to the crew.
Rorem and Houg’s group heard Great Horned Owls and the other group, Barred Owls.
“We heard them at night and in the morning,” Denny said. “They still made the ‘who-cooks-for-you?’ call, but it was a little off. It was cool to hear the regional difference.”
Besides the deer and owls, there was not much wildlife – unless through-hikers (hikers traveling the entire trail) fall under that category.
They met through-hikers from Russia, Germany and all over the United States, according to Worms.
“Most of the time you’d just say ‘Happy Trails’ and that was all,” he said about interacting with the other hikers while on the trail.
At the campground it was a different story, though.
“This one hiker, I was like, ‘Hey, want to (hacky) sack?’ and he was like, ‘Of course!’ So, he came out with us and he was amazing.”
Hacky sacking, card games and talking around the fire after dinner brought the group together after the day’s work.
“We had fires most every night,” Rorem said in an email. “A couple of the nights we had everyone together to reflect on the day … Katie read a short poem from a book one night.”
The other group enjoyed goofier conversation.
“One night we did the Rose and Thorn reflection, but I don’t really think it was our thing,” Miller said. “We just had good conversation, really goofy and it just happened naturally …
Zach would always ask us questions like, ‘What’s your favorite animal’s favorite animal?”
“It was a really open group,” Gill said. “Nobody had to be coaxed out of their shell, I feel like. They all made friends pretty easily.”
Lake Superior is an ocean of a lake. But no matter how tubular the waves are, nothing can quite replace real ocean waves for surfers.
This past spring break, five students and their leader, Randy Carlson, the coordinator of Kayak, Canoe and Kiting for RSOP, flew out to southern Cali. to catch some ocean waves and experience California surf culture through the UMD RSOP.
For eight consecutive days they lived out of a van on the warm beach, sleeping in tents and occasionally cooking burritos or hot dogs over fires.
It was a pretty simple lifestyle.
“In the morning, people just pee, brush their teeth and get in the vehicle,” Carlson said.“Then you go to the surf break and you check the surf while you’re eating breakfast.”
The entirety of their days were spent on the beach, surfing and taking breaks as needed.
“By the time we get back to camp, it’s usually dark,” Carlson continued. “So, you crawl into the tent and crash, hard. And then the next morning I shake the tent at 7 am and we repeat the whole thing.”
The surfers hit up classic surfing beaches such as the historical San Onofre Beach in San Clemente. It was the first surf beach in the continental United States, according to Carlson.
They also caught some waves at Doheny Beach Park and San Elijo State Beach Park, and paddle boarded over kelp beds at the marine reserve at Dana Point.
The group’s favorite spot was Trail 6, one of the San Onofre beaches. “That’s where we went back the most,” Kyra Harty, a freshman on the trip, said. “It was secluded and behind you it was like the Grand Canyon and there was this beautiful ocean in front of you.”
Gerrit Bass, a sophomore on the trip, used his knowledge as a geology major to describe the red, layered cliffs behind the beach as an old river bed. “It was sandstone,” he said. “You could rub it and it’d come right off … You could tell it was young.”
Also layered where the waves at Trail 6. First paddlers had to make it out of the first layer, “the soup,” where the white water from crashing waves pushed them back into shore.
“The whole wave would be at the same time, so it was just a wall of white water, and it’s kind of hard to get past those,” Bass said.
Harty expressed similar frustration: “Sometimes you get mad at the waves when you’re paddling out there. They’re just like beating the crap out of you, taking waves upon your head.”
Sneaking past the waves is possible, however.
“You wait for lulls and find the gap between where the waves are breaking,” Harty said.
Then, paddle like crazy.
“I definitely got tired. My arms were killer from paddling and keeping my chin up high on the board.”
Once out of the soup, it was okay to take a breather and enjoy the surroundings.
“As we got past the white water, dolphins were there and they gave us a little dolphin show like 10 feet from our boards. They were totally out of the water jumping around.”
The group had several encounters with dolphins.
“Jack went to catch a wave,” Bass explained, “and when he was standing up a dolphin jumped right in front of him. He just fell off his board because he didn’t want to hurt the dolphin.”
Jack Forsman was another student on the trip.
They also saw star fish, a green sea turtle, small sharks and sea lions.
“On our stand up paddle tour to Dana’s Point, there were sea lions swimming right underneath our boards,” Harty said.
Paddle boarding made Bass realize just how vast the ocean is.
“That paddle out to Dana Point was kind of overwhelming and scary because there was kelp coming up from the bottom,” he said. “Just the immensity was pretty cool.”
Carlson speculates that surfers are so laid back because they need to be able to handle intense situations out on the water. It’s a coping mechanism.
“It’s three thousand miles of ocean to the next land mass in Japan,” he said. “You have to stay calm and think about the big picture.
Harty caught on to the laid back surf culture groove: surf hard and then lay in the sun.
“When the surf boards were out and the sun was really bright, I’d like wiggle off my wet suit a little bit and draw and catch some sun,” she said.
Relax in between the surf and then afterwards around a bonfire at night.
“People would always invite me to their fires,” she said. “It’s just so relaxing. Everyone has their fires and their last friends are just trickling in from surfing or stand up paddle boarding.That just seems so great to me.”
Both Harty and Bass say they plan on continuing the sport.
“As soon as I get the email from Randy I’ll be on Lake Superior,” Bass said.
And that’s exactly what Carlson wants to hear.
“When you’ve surfed ocean waves and the dolphins are right next to you and you get a taste of the surf culture,” he said, “it just changes you forever.”