The Appalachian Trail is marked with one consistent method; a 2″x6″ white paint stripe on the side of a tree and every 100 to 400 yards there is normally a “white blaze” to keep you on track. Blue blazes mark everything from side trails to water sources to shelters to shortcuts. Because they mark shortcuts and ways to skip the true Appalachian Trail, those that take these shortcuts are often condescendingly referred to as “blue blazers” by their strict white blazing purist peers. Worse than blue blazing is the brown blazer, which is when a hiker follows a road to get easier miles rather than taking the trail. Still worse than a brown blazer is the dreaded yellow blazer, referring to the yellow of a taxi cab that they use to skip trail miles from one trail town to the next. Yellow blazers are the worst. Until mile 857 in Waynesboro, VA that is, meet the “aqua-blazer”.
We’re making a public confession in a two part blog post, for ten weeks we walked 857 miles and within 30 yards of every single white blaze, except for a section in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park from when Lindsay hurt her tailbone. We are now dirty, rotten, good for nothing aqua blazers, and proud of it! The Shenandoah River (and it’s tributaries) flows from its headwaters near Waynesboro, VA to Harpers Ferry, WV where it meets the historic Potomac River. This north flowing waterway loosely follows the Appalachian Trail between the two towns and the thought of floating down a river while still knocking off 150 miles of northbound progress is quite appealing to a tired hiker!
Lindsay and I learned about aqua blazing in several of the novels we read before starting the Appalachian Trail and it had sat in the back of our minds from the first step on the trail. Everyone hikes for different reasons and we choose the AT partly because of the community aspect of it in addition to our other motivations. For the last two years we have talked about how cool and aqua blaze would be and we would happily push aside any white-blazing-purist morals we might have for a week long river float. The only hang up for an aqua blaze, in our minds, came from the community motivator for our hike; we didn’t want to go float down a river by ourselves for a week while our friends were all out hiking! Fortunately after 800 miles pretty much everyone on the trail entertains the thought of a break for their feet and encouraging our little crew to look into the details turned out to be a pretty easy affair.
Convincing tired hikers to sit in a boat for a week is pretty much where the aqua blaze stopped being easy. Sometime in the last several years (I would know exactly if I were a better blogger… I guess you’ll have you buy my book next spring for all of the specifics) the Appalachian Trail Conservancy decided that aqua blazing could no longer be an approved method of completing the AT. This turned it into the “dirty little secret of the Shenandoah’s”. As with most vices that you aren’t supposed to talk about in good company, the traditional canoe rental aqua blaze turned out to be a very expensive way to complete 150 miles. The rental companies know that hikers are sick of walking and that there are those among us willing to pay several hundred dollars for a five day rental. Unfortunately we didn’t have any sugar daddies in our group willing to finance the whole adventure, so we had to get a bit creative!
One of the most difficult parts of hiking in a group is the unique financial situation for several individuals. We are hiking with people trying to spend no more than $60/week on their hike and with a canoe rental costing almost $200 per person, the aqua blaze looked like it would be cost prohibitive and just a pipe dream. We found out abut rental costs around the same time we went to the Devil’s Backbone Brewery to celebrate Fern Gully’s birthday. While hiking that afternoon, fueled on a few too many beers, we started kicking around low-cost ways to make the aqua blaze dream a reality. We entertained the idea of building a homemade flotilla of Huck Finn-Style rafts for, in all honesty, longer than we should have. Fortunately we had enough river experience in the group and too low of a blood alcohol content to know that building three 250lbs rafts out of fallen logs and barrels to take 150 miles down a river with several dam portages and miles of slack water might be a bad idea. Buying inflatable rafts from Cabela’s for a third of the price of canoe rentals and having them delivered to us in Waynesboro though? Great idea!
Enter: Brooke, “Bullfrog”‘s girlfriend who decided to come spend quality time with her boyfriend over the July 4th holiday. We called Brooke and told her of our river float plans and Bullfrog did his best to convince her she should pick up our boats on her way out to see him and come float on the river with us. I wouldn’t say she was a willing participant in the traditional sense, more like being Shanghaied by a group of smelly hikers and deciding to go along with it for comedic value. Nonetheless, a few days later and after a couple hours of research in the library to learn as much as we could about what was to come (outfitters/canoe rentals companies didn’t want to share any information with us because we weren’t renting with them), a trip to the local outfitter to buy some maps and two coolers filled with beer, burgers and veggies we were ready to hit the river. In our own defense the owner of the outfitter said that we had prepared enough to actually have a shot at successfully completing the trip.
We put in 20 river miles from Waynesboro in Port Republic, VA because of higher water levels and started our trip on July 4th. We left shore with three rafts loaded down with people, food you couldn’t eat on the trail, cases of beer and a very suspicious dog riding princess (middle) of our raft. The first day was great and exactly what we hoped our river trip would be: drinking all day while floating down the river, occasionally paddling through some small rapids, laying back with your feet up and enjoying some warm weekend sun. The second day on the river turned out to be a little bit exhausting, between a slight independence day hangover and the sun baking down on us all day we pulled off the river a few hours early. Tired and a bit frustrated we pulled out the map to see how far we had gone in two days and how far we had left… we had gone 21 miles in two days and still had 130 left to go!
(Part 2 continues from here… check back in few days)