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The Rachel Carson Trail is 34 miles of tough terrain and natural beauty

Tuesday, April 20, 1999

By Kristen Ostendorf, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Its main attractions: poison ivy, swollen streams, nettles and steep hills. But there is also a lush, green hemlock grove, a trout quality stream and bloodroot poking through the ground as a sign of spring.

 
The trail's maintenance manager Barbara Peterson makes a crossing on the Rachel Carson Trail. (Darrell Sap, Post-Gazette) 

Enthusiasts of the Rachel Carson Trail, which is marked only by yellow blazes on tree trunks, revel in its primitiveness, as well as the grueling 34 miles it covers.

And in June, about 200 people will try to hike the entire length of the trail in one day -- from 5:40 a.m. to 8:54 p.m. -- during the third annual Rachel Carson Challenge.

"I think the idea is just: Can I do it?" said Jim Ritchie, chairman of trail systems for the Pittsburgh Council of Hosteling International, formerly American Youth Hostels. Hosteling International, through an army of volunteers, maintains the trail, which passes through private land and public parks.

"The trail is extremely difficult," Ritchie said. "It has a lot of ups and downs, climbing hills, very steep grades, loose gravel. It's quite a challenge to hike the trail at all."

"I think it falls into the category of the extreme sports," he added. "It appeals to the kind of people who enjoy testing their limits: How far can you go? How high can you go? How fast can you go?"

What is now the Rachel Carson Trail originally was part of the Baker Trail, which was dedicated in 1950 and ran from Highland Park Bridge in Pittsburgh to Cook Forest State Park in Cooksburg. In the 1960s, the southern part of the Baker Trail was abandoned because of development. In the 1970s, the Allegheny County part of the Baker Trail was re-established with a 34-mile route from North Park to Harrison Hills Park in Harrison that was named for the noted environmentalist and author of "Silent Spring." The route passes within a quarter mile of Carson's childhood home in Springdale Borough, marking the trail's halfway point.

"We try to keep it simple," said Ritchie, 55, who lives in Oakmont. "We try to keep it low-impact [environmentally] and low-impact on the area it goes through."

There are no cedar chips and no asphalt pathways to mark the trail -- if the trail winds up a hill, you do, too; if it crosses a stream, you get wet. The only markers are a series of yellow dots on trees, which are sometimes barely visible among the foliage.

During an out-and-back day hike recently, Ritchie and Barbara Peterson, 50, of Regent Square, led hikers along "the easy part" of the trail. The several miles included some of the trail's "best" and "worst" features, depending on your preference: a slender board had to be negotiated over a ditch; slippery rocks had to be hopped to cross a creek high with rain water from recent storms; and steeply graded of hills had to be chugged up.

But the rugged beauty of the trail was apparent: a grove of lushly green hemlock trees marked by an abandoned shelter; a trout quality stream that will be packed with anglers once the season starts; early spring flowers peeking through the dead foliage on the forest floor.

"You just sort of need to respect the trail and know where it is," said Peterson, a trail maintainer and hike leader with Hosteling International.

Only a fraction of those who enter next month's challenge will actually finish it. In 1996 and 1997, about 135 registered for the race. In 1996, about five hikers finished the entire 34 miles; in 1997, 26 people finished. Last year, there was no hike because of a lack of voluteers, and this year registration will be capped at 200 participants.

The trail is never far from civilization. Private homes can be seen through the branches of trees at the tops of ravines. Hikers also stumble past power lines, across pipes and sometimes must cross streets.

Hikers who can't or don't want to finish the challenge will be able to call for rides at checkpoints; in other places they will be a short walk to bus stops.

Because the average trail speed is two miles an hour, hikers who attempt the 34-mile challenge or 17-mile half-challenge should pack accordingly and lightly for a long, hot June day.

Peterson has hiked the challenge twice and finished once. She brings along a 70-ounce water container called a camelback, which she refills at checkpoints along the trail; powdered Gatorade; sports energy gel, which she takes every two hours; one or two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; a couple of Clif bars; and cookies.

Despite all the high-calorie, high-power food, "You usually eat for three days straight when you are done," Peterson said.

Pat Goebl, 28, assistant manager at Eastern Mountain Sports in Ross Park Mall, hiked the challenge in 1997. He started at 5:50 a.m and finished at about 7 p.m.

"It gets to a point where the physical part just gets out of the way, then it gets to the mental . . . You get to the point where everyone is hurting," he said.

Goebl plans to do the challenge again this year, and he's learned a few lessons: eat more and stay hydrated during the day. And he learned the importance of team work by walking with other hikers he met along the way.

"It basically runs along power lines for a good stretch, and the downside to that is . . . you're just always out in the open," he said.

He ate Nutri Grain and Power Bars and chocolate for quick bursts of energy.

"The thing about chocolate is when it's 95 [degrees] out, you kind of drink it," he said.

Ritchie recommends training a couple of months in advance for the challenge by doing regular 10-, 15- and 20-mile day hikes. He also recommends hiking the trail before the challenge to know how it is marked, "so you're not surprised."

If the primitiveness of the Rachel Carson Trail isn't appealing, there are plenty of trails near Pittsburgh, ranging between three and five miles that take just a couple of hours to hike. Groups such as Hosteling International, the Sierra Club and Mountain Dreams International offer guided day hikes, some of which are geared toward beginners.

Hiking doesn't have to be expensive. To get started, all you need is a pair of trail shoes with lug soles to grip gravel and dirt, which start at about $50.

"There are ways to get ... outdoors with nature and enjoy having that kind of freedom and community with nature," Ritchie said.


Hiking information

For more information on the third annual Rachel Carson Challenge on June 19 or Hosteling International hikes, call 412-431-4910. Final registration is due by June 9 and must be postmarked by June 7. The fee is $20 and registration is limited to 200 entries.

For more information on Sierra Club hikes or the club itself call 724-327-8737.

Mountain Dreams International Inc. on Bower Hill Road in Mt. Lebanon leads occasional Discovery Day Hikes. The hikes are free, but registration is required. For more information, call 412-276-8660.



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