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Heuvelton man hikes the Appalachian Trail

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CANTON - Some of the hardest days over the past month for Robert E. Pirie were waking up to ice and snow around his tent.

“I’d have to smack my shoes on the ground a few times before I put them on because they’d be frozen,” the Heuvelton resident said. “If it’s a sunny day with a nice breeze, your attitude is a lot different from a day in the snow when you didn’t sleep the night before because you were so cold.”

While many of his family and friends are vacationing in Myrtle Beach, S.C., this week, Mr. Pirie has been backpacking up the Appalachian Trail.

The 56-year-old is a retired deputy superintendent for programs for the Gouverneur Correctional Facility who began his six-month journey March 14 in Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia.

A month later, he’s as far as Erwin, Tenn., and 341.5 miles into the trail with 1,844 miles to go.

Mr. Pirie plans to take the trail to the end, finishing on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine.

“I’ve always enjoyed being in the outdoors,” he said.

Mr. Pirie said he’s always enjoyed hiking, and when a friend recommended the Appalachian Trail, he started to read books about it. Research turned into planning.

He also trained for more than seven months by taking long walks with a weighted backpack in good and bad weather.

“It’s been challenging, but I like this kind of thing,” Mr. Pirie said.

He said he started out with a 42-pound backpack but has since dropped to 37 pounds.

“You have to try to keep the weight down without sacrificing the comfort level,” he said. “I’ve learned to get rid of small items I haven’t needed to use.”

His backpack isn’t the only thing that got lighter.

Mr. Pirie said he has lost close to 20 pounds since the start of his trip.

He restocks his food supply every five or six days when he reaches either a town or a hostel and supply store close to the trail.

“That’s the biggest thing for me, is making sure I have enough fuel to last until the next station,” he said.

Mr. Pirie said every part of the trail presents different challenges.

“The first part was hard because of the snow and getting my trail legs,” he said. “The warmer months are hard because you’re dealing with the heat and you have to stay hydrated and make sure you have enough water with you. And the end of the trail, you’ve just been doing it so long and you’re tired.”

He said the next month or so should be easier for him as the mountain range levels out in Virginia.

His wife, Laura J., plans to visit him there.

“Wherever he is, I’ll go pick him up once he hits Virginia,” she said.

Mr. Pirie said he’s fortunate to have the full support of his wife, family and friends. One of his biggest challenges is being away from them for six months.

“I do miss my family,” he said. “Some days are really difficult depending on the weather and terrain, so I take out my cellphone and look at pictures of my grandsons, nieces and nephews, and they help me get over the mountains.”

Mrs. Pirie said she and the family miss him, too, especially during traditional family times like Easter and their annual vacation in Myrtle Beach.

Mr. Pirie will take a weeklong break from his hike the week of Aug. 1 to celebrate his grandson’s first birthday and to attend a wedding.

“I’m just really proud of him for following his dream,” Mrs. Pirie said. “I wait for his calls and I have a map so I can track where he is.”

Mrs. Pirie said when her husband first approached her with the idea to hike the Appalachian Trail she was excited, but worried about him being on the trail by himself.

“But he told me there’s always other hikers around,” she said. “He doesn’t want us to worry. What he’s told us about the most is how beautiful it is.”

Mr. Pirie said despite constantly watching his feet to navigate rocks, roots and rough terrain, he’s seen some beautiful views. One of the best parts of his trip so far is the culture he’s experienced.

“I’ve met so many interesting people from other countries and all over the United States,” he said.

Mr. Pirie will celebrate his 57th birthday in July by continuing the hike.

“I’ll just keep hiking that day,” he said. “You just try to take in every day God gives you.”

He said the experience has taught him that people don’t need as much in life as they think they do.

“You appreciate the small things and the generosity of people,” he said. “You see a lot of negativity in the news and on TV, but there are still a lot of good people in the world.”

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