by Jeff Pederson
for The Beacon
Taking on the longest hiking trail in the world would seem like a daunting task to even the most seasoned trail hiker, but not so for Sheboygan Falls resident Jonas Selk.
In fact, the 2016 Sheboygan Falls High School graduate recently joined the relatively small percentage of hikers who have completed a “thru-hike” of the entire 2,200-mile trail in one non-stop attempt.
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, generally known as the Appalachian Trail or simply the A.T., is a marked hiking trail in the Eastern United States, extending between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy describes the Appalachian Trail as the longest hiking-only trail in the world.
More than two million people are said to take a hike on part of the trail at least once each year. However, only one in four that attempt a “thru-hike” of the entire expanse of the trail are reported to actually complete the entire distance.
Although he lacked prior long-distance hiking experience, Selk was intrigued by the lure and lore of the Appalachian Trail.
“I really didn’t have any experience doing big hikes beforehand,” Selk said. “I like to travel and the trail seemed like a really fun challenge. The Appalachian Trail is the longest walking-only trail in the world, crossing 14 states and over 2,000 miles over various terrain.
“I would say that I’m a decently experienced hiker now, after doing the trail,” he said.
Selk, who previously served four years in the U.S. Army and is presently seeking a career in the security field, completed his trek in four and half months, which is faster than the five-to-seven month average for completion of the entire trail.
“I started on February 24th and finished on July 11th,” Selk said. “I was very fortunate and thankful to be able to finish the whole trail.”
The trail, which was completed in 1937, is maintained by 31 trail clubs and multiple partnerships and managed by the National Park Service, United States Forest Service and the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Most of the trail is in forest or wild lands, although some portions traverse towns, roads and farms. In all, the Appalachian Trail passes through 14 states, including Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
According to Selk, the trail provided numerous challenges over varying types of terrain and land forms.
“The terrain is fairly mixed with open fields, steep mountain climbs, river crossings, swampy areas and dense forests,” Selk said. “In some places, the trail is all boulders.
“The hard part is knowing you have a steep climb right in the morning and knowing it’s 2,000 plus miles you are walking,” he said.
He pointed to two times during his excursion where he felt like he might not make it the entire distance.
“There were only two times I thought I wouldn’t finish,” Selk said. “The first was the first week, mainly because your just starting and you say to yourself, ‘What the hell am I doing?’
“Then another came at at Harper’s Ferry, which is at about 900 or so miles out, but everyone calls it the emotional halfway point because you feel like you have gone really far, but your not even half done,” he said.
Selk said he was quite lucky to not encounter any extremely severe weather that might have impeded his progress or possibly ended his trip prematurely.
“The weather was pretty favorable,” Selk said. “We did have a few thunderstorms and heavy rain, but you kind of just have to deal with that.”
In addition, Selk said the trail did not offer much in the way of predatory or aggressive animals.
However, he did run across plenty of other hikers along his adventure.
“I didn’t see much for wildlife,” Selk said. “It was squirrels, rabbits and deer mostly.
“There were plenty of people on the trail, including a lot of weekend hikers and others hiking the whole trail, he said. “It was about 50/50 walking with others that I met along the way and walking by myself.”
Selk lugged all of his possession and necessities for the hike, including a tent, in his ever-present backpack.
“I carried a tent, but there are shelters on the trail at various points that hikers share,” Selk said. “I carried my life in my backpack. I had a tent, sleeping bag, small air mattress, about two changes of clothes, and a lot of food.”
As far as eating, Selk said he never suffered from a shortage of food.
“I ate a lot actually,” Selk said. “At first, it was healthy snacks and stuff, but after a few weeks, it turned into nothing but junk because your burning more calories than your taking in.”
For those wondering about bathroom accommodations, Selk said he took whatever he could get during the 2,200-mile trek.
“There are usually privies at the shelter depending on what state,” Selk said. “Other than that, it’s find a big log or rock.”
While Selk encountered many breathtaking views and memorable locations during the trip, one particular area stood out to him.
“My favorite part was probably Maine because it has a lot of small inner-connected lakes kind of like the Northern Wisconsin, Minocqua area,” Selk said.
Although cell phone reception was never good along the trail, Selk said he was able to communicate with loved ones on occasion during his journey.
“I talked to my family and friends a bit, mostly when I was in town because reception was spotty at best on the trail,” Selk said.
Selk cherished those that he met along the way and the exhilaration of completing the entire 2,200-mile trail.
“I’d say the ultimate high point was finishing, but the many high points were all the people I met and getting to the peak of hard climbs,” Selk said.
Selk says the hike turned out to be pretty much what he expected and will rank as something he will always remember fondly.
“I would say that it was more or less what I was expecting,” Selk said. “It was a difficult challenge, but one that’s very gratifying.
“I think it was a great experience and a very enjoyable challenge that I’m glad I did,” he said.
Selk has a few words of advice for those considering following in his footsteps and taking on the longest hiking trail in the world.
“I would say if someone wants to hike the trail, do some research before, pack less than what you think you need and don’t worry about others,” Selk said. “It’s your hike. Do it how ever you want.”