Stalled AT thru-hikers share Thanksgiving meal

Nov. 24, 2016: Wildfires have closed several miles of the Appalachian Trail, leaving thru-hikers stalled on Thanksgiving, just shy of completing their trek.

As wildfires continue to burn throughout the Southeast, dozens of southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers are stalled on Thanksgiving, just shy of completing their trek.

Fire restrictions are in place on much of the southern leg of the Appalachian Trail.

The burn ban means no campfires for warmth on cold nights, as hikers are not allowed to light any kind of open flame. The only heat sources allowed are pressurized gas fuel camp stoves and backpacking stoves. Ongoing drought conditions are drying up water sources, and wildfires have closed more than 75 miles of the AT across several states.

WBIR 10News first met hiker Andrew Feeney earlier this month. All of the above has kept him camping out in Hot Springs, N.C.

PREVIOUS: Appalachian Trail hikers stalled by wildfires

That's where, on Thanksgiving Day, more than 50 hikers gathered in the town's Bill Whitten Community Center.

Many of those hikers were shuttled in from elsewhere on the trail by volunteers called trail angels.

On a day centered on family and food, Feeney is surrounded by both.

"The hiker community is unbelieveable," the 24-year-old Connecticut native said. "There's been, like, a huge reunion today because there's people that I met in New Hampshire and Maine, saying good, and now they're here in Hot Springs because I've been here for 12 days."

"There's hikers here from all over the trail," hiker Leah Pelz agreed.

She started her southbound journey along the AT in mid-July.

"I'm in the middle of the Smoky Mountains right now, and the last couple days have been really smoky," Pelz said. "Like, smoky enough that it affects your breathing or it makes you a little sick to your stomach."

She would be less than a week out from the finish, if it weren't for the trail closures.

"When I first found out about the forest fires, it was rough," Pelz said. "At that point I had hiked 1,800 miles or something, and the idea that I wasn't going to be able to do that little chunk, like - I came here from Maine and now those 70 or 80 miles were going to be taken away from me?"

RELATED: Fire ban in place for much of southern Appalachian Trail

She plans on hiking up to the closure, shuttling around it and then hiking the rest.

"When the trail opens up in the spring again, I plan on coming back and making up that little section that we had to skip because, yeah, I want to do the whole thing," she said.

The shared experiences - good and bad, Pelz said - make fellow hikers feel like family.

"We're all dealing with the cold, we're all dealing with the fires, we're all dealing with, like, the aches and pains, and the drought has made the water sources very unreliable," she said.

One person who sees hikers' dismay over the closure is trail angel Janet Hensley.

"But nobody calls me Janet Hensley," she said. "Everybody calls me Miss Janet."

"Miss Janet, the one who arranges all of this, she is, like, a legendary trail angel," Pelz said. "It's really, really amazing to see how kind people are and how they go out of their way to help people in need."

Miss Janet lives in Erwin, Tenn., but travels along the trail from March through November, she said, assisting hikers as a trail angel.

"You know, they can't finish the entire AT this year because of the ban in a lot of places," she said, "so a lot of people are making the decision because of a number of fires and a third of the trail being closed south of Hot Springs, to actually end their hike now, so this is kind of like a celebration."

It's a celebration of the hike and each other.

"That's what makes the experience, too, is the people just as much as the things I see," Feeney said.

He plans on hitting the trail again Friday morning and going as far as he can until he hits the closure.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is posting condition updates HERE.

Pelz said the trail closures have made her slow her pace, which has been somewhat of a silver lining.

"It's made me slow down and, like, really savor my last bits of the trail," she said. "When I started slowing down, that means people who were behind me started catching up, so, you know, I ran into a lot of people that I hadn't seen in a long time, since New York or even, like, Vermont or New Hampshire."

(© 2016 WBIR)


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