(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-story series. The second will appear in the Wednesday edition.)
Snow, sleet and rain fell as hikers Joanna Swanson, 28, of Willow River, Minn., and Bart Houck, 43 of Mollins, W.Va., entered the mountains of Harlan County.
Weary from the cold weather, the hikers spent a few days in Harlan County before continuing their journey on the Great Eastern Trail (GET).
An environmental education employee, Swanson most recently worked with AmeriCorps VISTA in West Virginia where she met Houck and they decided to hike the GET, a task which has not been done to date.
Houck is an athletic trainer for a high school football team and a substitute teacher.
“I’m a huge trail geek,” said Swanson. “I was doing some work on the Great Eastern Trail through AmeriCorps VISTA and ended up moving to Mollins, W.Va. I’ve spent the last year working and trying to make this trail happen. Bart was a local volunteer and that’s how we met.”
Beginning their hike in January on Flagg Mountain in Alabama, the southern most mountain range above 5,000 feet of the Appalachian Mountains, Swanson said eventually GET will extend to the Florida-Alabama border in phase two of the project.
“Our destination is Finger Lakes, N.Y.,” said Houck. “We’re guessing the Great Eastern Trail, which runs parallel with the Appalachian Trail, is approximately 1,800 miles. We’ve been told it’s 2,000 miles, so we’re keeping count of our mileage as we hike. No one has ever hiked this trail before.”
As of Saturday, the hikers had traveled approximately 600 miles. Swanson added there are “extra miles” from visiting other small trails along the way, getting lost and traveling into towns to resupply.
“There was a previous attempt in 2007 to hike the Great Eastern Trail, but it was not successful,” said Swanson. “She only made it to Tennessee, which is a difficult state logistically with a lot of little sections of trails that we link. We got through there and found Kentucky not as difficult. Once we get onto the Little Shepherd Trail, we’ll have a huge bunch of trails to get us to Elkhorn City.”
Swanson and Houck left Harlan on Sunday and spent the night on Pine Mountain at Goss Park near Putney. They traveled to Black Bear Shelter in Kingdom Come State Park on Monday.
“The Harlan Fiscal Court has done a tremendous job of rehabilitating Goss Park’s campground and picnic area,” said Harlan County Extension Agent Jeremy Williams. “The park offers a great stop along the way. Goss Park is 18 miles from Kingdom Come State Park and 16 miles from Harlan, thus offering a good one day hike. Most hikers try to keep their distance at 15-20 miles per day.”
When Swanson and Houck were asked why they decided to attempt this first-ever hike, which travels through Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, Swanson replied “it had never been done” and they “wanted to be the first ones.”
“When Jo first asked me to go, I said ‘no,’” said Houck. “I later changed my mind. I had the flexibility of leaving and I wanted to promote my home state of West Virginia. This trail, before Jo’s work, was going to be completely rerouted out of West Virginia due to land issue problems. Jo was able to link up a lot of state parks and different land companies — get them talking on logistic trails through West Virginia. Now, the trail will actually go through my hometown — right downtown Mollins.”