WOOLRICH - The first-ever through-hikers of the Great Eastern Trail stopped in Woolrich Saturday to share their adventures.
"It's been a humbling and absolutely wonderful experience. We had no idea the support network we'd fall into," said Joanna Swanson, one of the through-hikers.
The Great Eastern Trail is an collection of smaller trails stretching 1,600 miles from Flag Mountain, Ala., to Steuben County, N.Y. Swanson and her hiking companion, Bart Houck, began their five-month trek in January.
After hiking eight states, through-hikers Joanna Swanson, right, and Bart Houck were in Woolrich Saturday to share their story.
"We picked January because the leaves were off the trees, which meant better vistas," Swanson said.
"Also, the cold winter air was like a refrigerator so we could pack meat and didn't need a cookstove," Houck said.
The pair met while building a portion of the Great Eastern Trail in Mullens, W.Va.
"I asked Bart if he wanted to hike the whole thing with me and he said absolutely not," Swanson laughed. "So I did all the planning and got the maps around and then he decided he'd come."
Although the Great Eastern Trail runs parallel to the Appalachian Trail, Swanson says it has a personality all its own. The trail is so new that it doesn't have a trail culture or even a guidebook yet, Swanson said.
"To hike the Appalachian Trail, you buy a guidebook and follow the white blazes. But the Great Eastern Trail takes all these existing smaller trails and links them together. The blaze colors aren't consistent," Swanson said.
Some parts of the trail have consistent white blazes shaped like diamonds, but many miles don't.
"The northern portion is the most well-marked," Swanson said.
Dozens of hiking groups in nine states are working together to finish the new trail. There's even buzz about extending the southern portion into Florida.
"The Great Eastern Trail Association is an association of associations," said Pete Fleszar, vice president of the Mid State Trail Association.
The trail's Pennsylvania portion is comprised of the Standing Stone Trail and the Mid State Trail, the longest single trail in the Great Eastern Trail system.
"Pennsylvania is definitely the hardest hiking," Swanson said. "Not because of the climbs but because it's much rockier than the rest of the trail. It would've been easier to begin north while I still had more energy and then hike south."
Since certain parts of the trail still aren't finished, sometimes hikers are forced onto pavement.
"The gap between Elkhorn and West Virginia is the road walk of hell," Swanson said.
The pair, unwashed and walking with backpacks along the roadside, were sometimes mistaken for being homeless.
"People aren't used to through-hikers, especially in the south. But there was so much kindness shown by everyone," Swanson said.
Swanson and Houck ration their food and map out grocery stores along the way.
"We eat bagels, tortillas, tuna packets, peanut butter," Swanson said.
"We try to carry three to four days' worth of food with us. Anything more than that and it's too heavy," Houck said.
On average, Swanson's pack weighs 32 pounds. At 45 pounds, Houck's pack is significantly heavier.
"Probably because he's so fond of picking things up he finds along the way," Swanson said, laughing.
Houck agreed and admitted to finding everything from socks to mustard packets along the trail.
"I was sick of dry tuna and found these mustard packets on the ground. They weren't punctured or anything," Houck said, blushing.
The through-hiking pair is nothing if not resourceful.
"We camped in a mesh tent the whole time, even in snowstorms," Swanson said.
Swanson and Houck's adventures aren't over yet. They have about 180 miles of Mid State Trail and 60 miles of Crystal Hills Trail to finish before officially completing the entire Great Eastern Trail. Still, they've hiked more of the trail than anyone has before.
The hikers expressed their gratitude to the volunteers who donated hours, weekends and even years of their lives to make the Great Eastern Trail a reality.
"It creates opportunities for everyone from hikers to local businesses," Houck said.
"You live in such a beautiful place," Swanson said about Woolrich. "Thank you for caring about the trails in this area."