Greencastle man conquers Appalacian Trail

By PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot
Emile Charest made it to the top, choosing the northern end of the trail for his final section, as do most hikers.

The trip was 20 years in the making, but Greencastle resident Emile Charest has now walked the Appalachian Trail. He and hiking buddy Ray Erb used summer vacations to traverse various sections of the 2,184 mile route. They started in 1992, backpacking with their Boy Scout sons on hikes near Allentown. They finished up Aug. 18 at the northern terminus, Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

"It was time to finish it," said Charest, 65. "Mentally, us old guys are still 18, but we can't go as fast as the younger ones."

The 75th anniversary of the completion of the AT, as it is commonly called, was a fitting year for the friends to wrap up their journey. They walked through 14 states, with the starting and ending points on their calendar in 2012. In May they did 167 miles from the southern terminus, Springer Mountain, Georgia. In August they ended 115 miles at Baxter Peak on Katahdin.

Charest found New Hampshire and Maine the toughest part of the hike, but also the most beautiful. He was above tree level in those states and could see for miles. The final leg was five miles straight up the mountain, with bars drilled into boulders in places for hand grips. The fog cleared when he reached the top for a perfect ending.

"Then you have to get back down," he said.

A family affair

Charest's sons, Joe and Mike, accompanied him most of the summers. The day trips and overnight hikes expanded into walks of up to 80 miles. His daughter Andrea was not interested in joining them. His wife Jeannine was support all the way. Sometimes she came along to provide a shuttle service to an entry point and to meet them at the exit spot.

"The logistics were crazy," she said. "But Emile planned so well. He had everything on spreadsheets. He used maps and guidebooks to keep going in the right direction."

Jeannine knew where he would be at all times. But she didn't personally feel the call to be a hiker. Once she walked just a mile for fun, and got lost heading back to the car.

"It's tough. And there are no facilities out there. The shelters are three sides, and you might have to share them with six or eight people."

On the trail

Charest didn't encounter any dangerous situations over the two decades. He saw bears, and once couldn't find a place to camp as darkness fell. The path was boulders at that point, some as big as sunrooms. The pair just sat down to sleep and get their bearings in the morning. When Hurricane Irene hit last year, the trail was closed just as Charest finished a section in New England.

Blisters were the biggest physical problem. "Finding the right boots was the hardest thing to do," recalled Charest.

He carried a backpack containing 35 pounds of gear, which got lighter as the days went on. Meals consisted of simple snack items and freeze-dried food. Since hikers can burn up to 6,000 calories a day, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Charest said they munched all day. Raisins and peanuts were popular. He also filtered his water.

The encounters with other travelers were a highlight of the summer stints.

"The hikers were the most interesting part of the trip," said Charest. "They were friendly, from all walks of life, all ages and from many countries. They had lots of reasons for doing the hike."

He didn't get to know real names, since people tend to adopt trail names. Charest went by Frenchy. Ray was Ray.

Back home

Retired from Mack Trucks in 2009, the engineer is all set to fill his spare time.

"I need to do other things now," Charest said. "There are lots of choices. But the AT was fun."

Jeannine agreed. "He'll stay active. That's how he is."