Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Andy Nichols knows that most visitors experience the woods and mountains flanking Skyline Drive in the way its name suggests -- from behind their steering wheels. And that, Nichols said, drives him bonkers.
"We've got to get people out of their cars," he said, gesturing like a preacher on a Sunday morning. Except it was a Monday, and for this sermon, at Skyland Resort, Nichols was reading from Map 10: Appalachian Trail and Other Trails in Shenandoah National Park, Central District.
With the arrival of warm weather, Nichols just might see his prayers answered. He's part of a new Shenandoah program meant to get more park visitors deeper into the woods, for a price.
Aramark, the park's independent lodging and food service concessionaire, is offering Outdoor Adventure Programs, a spring and summer series of guided outdoor adventures ranging from day hikes to overnight backpacking. Nichols and his 13-year-old Maryland company, Teamlink/Shenandoah Mountain Guides, are leading the trips.
They're not cheap. I signed up for one of the Trekking Adventure, which for $344 ($499 for a couple) includes two nights in Skyland's lodge, two lunches, a couple of souvenirs and two five-mile hikes. Subtract the extras, and each hike comes to about $50 a person. Hikes that, yes, most folks could pretty easily do on their own. But would they?
In Nichols's experience, many people won't. They're scared of getting lost or hurt, or they just don't know how or where to start. To some, the Appalachian Trail might as well be Tibet -- foreign, exotic, perhaps treacherous.
"We're here to hold their hands," said Nichols, 49, a retired Navy officer and a wilderness paramedic. "People are afraid. That's one reason they don't get out of their cars."
For folks who like their hand-holding to come without a price tag, park rangers do offer some free guided hikes, for up to two hours covering a maximum of two miles. But don't expect lunch or even personal attention.
Nichols, who radiates enthusiasm for the outdoors, knows his stuff. In briefing me for the adventure, he went over the route in detail, discussed my level of experience and physical condition, and offered me extra layers of clothing, just in case.
"We're going to start here, at the Pinnacles Picnic Area," he said. "You gotta see the apple tree there. The deer stand up and eat the lowest ones." Now there's some local intelligence I wouldn't have known without a guide.
Aramark offers a range of outings in this program, from rock-climbing instruction and backcountry camping to wildflower walks and inn-to-inn rambles. My own pair of day hikes was labeled a "trek" because we were dropped off at Pinnacle by an Aramark driver and then hiked back to Skyland. The difficulty rating of "moderately easy" was right-on for this mostly flat route with a few ups and downs.
Nichols's knowledge was abundant. I learned that the woolly adelgid, a fluid-feeding insect, is killing many of the park's hemlock trees by sucking their sap dry. Nichols, who grew up in Rappahannock County, pointed out scat he guessed was from a coyote or bobcat, and he made sure we stopped talking when a raven flew so close we could hear the wind in its wings. Having someone narrate nature was like springing for the audio tour at the art museum, only better because it came with food and water.