It came as a real surprise when the Land Trust of North Alabama asked us to lead one of their fall series hikes. We’ve been on a few of the guided hikes and really enjoyed them, and learned a lot on each one. The leaders seemed so confident and polished and knowledgeable and prepared, so we knew the bar was set pretty high. Despite that, we jumped at the chance to lead a hike. It’s flattering to be asked, and it didn’t hurt that we were asked to head a Hiking 101 excursion on the Nature Conservancy’s Keel Mountain Preserve.
We had about a month to prepare, and had thought at the time we might use the blog to drum up interest in the hike after the Land Trust announced their fall hikes series. When the announcement came out, people started signing up right away, and in no time we had a waiting list! So we never needed to promote the hike, as these guided hikes are very popular. In fact, the entire fall series was just about filled to capacity before the first scheduled hike. Which was, in fact, the hike Ruth and I were leading. Yep, the rookies were batting leadoff.
We thought about the guided hikes we’ve been on, and considered what worked and what didn’t. The hiking part was easy — it was the talking part that was going to take some preparation. The hike description said that we were going to teach people all we knew about hiking — good thing it was a short hike! We were also to cover safety tips, recommended gear, survival, and how to respect the trail. So there were the main topics of our outline, plus we thought we’d throw in a short bit about the Land Trust and Nature Conservancy and also something about the geology of Keel Mountain.
Since we had the advantage of having two guides on our hike, we figured out a plan for dividing up the speech-making and research. One thing we’ve noticed on previous guided hikes (with one guide) is that conveying information can be tricky when you have a large group of hikers all moving at a different pace. It usually resulted in the guide stopping somewhere and everyone waiting until the last hiker arrived before the guide could start the presentation. We hit upon the scheme that Ruth would lead the hike, and would present the first topic (preparing to hike) in the parking lot. Then she would head down the trail to a predetermined location and give the next spiel (respecting the trail). I would be the sweep, at the end of group, so that when the faster hikers were ready to move on, I’d arrive on the scene with the slower-paced folks and repeat the presentation while the hares went ahead with Ruth to the next stop. Overall, we planned two stops on the way up, a longer presentation at the Lost Sink, and one last stop on the way down.
Though we’ve hiked the Lost Sink trail on Keel Mountain several times, we knew we should have a look at current conditions so we’d be less likely to be surprised. So we took a practice hike the weekend before and picked out the locations where we’d stop to do our presentations. We also noted a few of the plants in bloom or berry (the American beautyberry was in rare form) and decided we’d point out a few of our favorite trees (smoketree, shagbark hickory, persimmon, and hackberry). We went up to the top, where the waterfall was disappointingly puny, due to the dry weather. After that, over the next week we researched and outlined our presentation.
We caught a major break in the weather, as it rained profusely the week before the hike, and cleared up on the day before, which helped dry out the trail and also knocked down the high temperatures. We laid in a huge supply of water, printed out a couple of handouts, grabbed a few bags of candy as a post-hike treat, and headed out on Saturday morning to make the drive across the county.
We arrived a little later than intended, but still arrived before most of the group so we had enough time to get organized. Folks arrived on time or a little late, as we expected, but by 9:20 Ruth had finished her presentation on pre-hike planning, gear, and other hiking tips and we took a group photo before 23 hikers, one dog, and two guides headed up the trail.
From our perspective, the hike went really well. The group was a mix of ages, though we didn’t have any children on this hike, and they did space themselves out on the trail so that our “instant replay” strategy on the presentations seemed to work. Ruth’s group got to the Lost Sink quite a bit ahead of the trailing group, but they were polite enough to wait for me to come chugging up and deliver my remarks on geology. It was on the way down the trail that Ruth and I (separately) realized a flaw in our plan. We had left the candy and handouts locked up in the truck, and I had the only key! So the hares arrived in the parking lot with only the satisfaction of a nice hike, and the tortoises came along later and snarfed up all the candy. Indeed, the race was not to the swift, and time and chance favored the more moderately-paced hikers that day. In retrospect, Ruth should have brought her keys, or I should have handed off the keys at the top. We were able to email the handouts to the participants later.
We made the one mile hike to the Lost Sink on Keel Mountain, and didn’t leave anyone behind on the one mile back to the parking lot. I don’t think we had anyone fall (a good thing, because portions of the trail can be challenging), and no one got stung or overheated. I particularly enjoyed hearing the conversations on the trail about past or planned hikes and camping trips, and old-timey recipes for herbal cures, and the latest advances in wireless technology (we were in Huntsville, after all). We learned a lot from the research, and from the experience of the hike. For instance, we bought and carried way too much water, but Ethel the dog appreciated it and the collapsible bowl we had in a day pack. I think the humans enjoyed the hike too, and maybe the rookie guides started off the fall hike series with a solid base hit.
I’ll admit we were a little nervous about how things would turn out — remember, the event leading up to Gilligan’s Island was supposed to be a three-hour tour — but our preparation gave us confidence, and of course the folks on the hike were a generous and receptive audience. We had set aside a little treat for ourselves Saturday night to celebrate a successful hike: a couple of bottles of my latest homebrew batch of Moo-le Milk Stout. We don’t always have a beer after a hike, but…who am I kidding? We almost always have a beer after a hike! But at the end of the day, the hike was great, the beer was smooth, and leftover candy wasn’t going to eat itself.