Boothbay Harbor father and son attempt Appalachian Trail

Posted:  Thursday, March 26, 2015 - 8:45am

Steve and Karl Berger know the odds are stacked against them.

When the father and son team from Boothbay Harbor arrived at Springer Mountain in Georgia last week, they knew there was only a 25 percent chance they would make it to Maine.

But as far as the Bergers are concerned, they’re determined to the meet the challenge ahead. 

Over the next six months, Karl, 24, and his dad Steve, 61, are planning to reunite on America’s oldest and most celebrated mountain path — the Appalachian Trail. 

The decision to take a half a year off from work and leave Boothbay Harbor didn’t come easy for Steve, but in the end, he said that the time was right to start a new adventure.

“I knew in my heart that it was something that I always wanted to do,” Steve said. “It’s something that I especially wanted to do with Karl, my son. As a father-son experience, that was the embryo of it. That was the start.”

Over the course of their journey, the pair will battle blisters, bruises, dehydration, rattlesnakes, Lyme disease, and the inevitable run-in with the eastern black bear.

So why would anybody actually want to do this?

For Karl and Steve, their reasoning does not lie in the trail itself, but in the path they blaze together.

When Karl was 8, his parents divorced, leaving little time to spend with his dad. In a way, Karl said, this is an opportunity to make up for lost time.

“I really think that we’re going to kind of break down the father-son barriers,” Karl said. “I certainly think our relationship will change and develop and become something new ... or it could totally be awful, you know?”

As two novice hikers, the pair intend to walk nearly 2,180 miles, or more than five million steps, to reach Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus, by mid-August.

They will cross 14 states, experiencing elevation gains equivalent to climbing up and down Mt. Everest 16 times. Some people may call it crazy, but for the determined hikers, it’s well worth the sacrifice.

The Appalachian Trail started as an idea in 1921 to build a continuous walking path that would serve as a weekend retreat for families living in the suburbs. By 1937, the last portion of the trail was completed near Sugarloaf, Maine. No one at the time ever believed that a “thru-hike” was possible.

Earl Shaffer was the first person to complete the thru-hike in 1948.

It took Shaffer nearly 10 months to reach the summit of Mt. Katahdin, and when he did, no one believed him.

Over the years, the population of thru-hikers has surged, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a volunteer trail management organization. 

This year, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimated that roughly 2,500 hikers will attempt a thru-hike, but less than 500 hikers will actually complete the trail. Most of them will quit in Virginia.

More than 15,000 people have successfully thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. Less than 500 have completed it over the age of 60. 

In April, Steve Berger turns 62.

“I am not a young man, but I feel that I am in pretty darn good shape,” Steve said. “I can’t imagine, outside of a lot of blisters and perhaps some knee pain, that there will be many things that will deter me from continuing on.”

Steve said he thinks the trail will be just as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one.  

“We’ll make mistakes,” Steve said. “Hopefully, nothing that’s going to be tragic or detrimental to our health. But at the end of the day, I think we’re ready to go.” 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail begins with a camp stove, a tent and a sleeping bag —all items that one must carry on one’s back across some of the most remote and seemingly endless woods of North America.

Equipped with iPhones (what Steve refers to as the modern day Swiss Army Knife), and plenty of Ramen noodles, the duo expects to hike 15 to 20 miles a day. They will filter water from streams and rivers. Every 6 to 10 days they will hitchhike to nearby towns to resupply. Otherwise, they will be sleeping in tents and sharing wooden shelters with hikers that have trail names like “Beef Cake” and “Skunk.”

They will not be taking showers. In short, they’ll be roughing it.

So when the March winds howl and the spring rains pelt the windowsill, just know that somewhere, Steve and Karl Berger are probably outside trudging through it.

But with all the drudgery that comes with long distance hiking, the Bergers will be rewarded with some of the most picturesque, scenic landscapes.

They will hike through open mountaintops where wild ponies graze. They will dip down into spruce forests and valleys filled with rhododendron. They will pass through craggy notches, and scramble over boulder fields. And by the end of the journey, the Bergers said they hope to emerge at the mighty slopes of Katahdin, not just as thru-hikers, but also as father and son.

“It’s to see this part of the country that I’ve never really seen before,” Karl said. “To see if we can walk this 2,000 miles on our own two feet. That will be the driving force really, just to do it, and to see if we can.”

Ryan Leighton is producing a full-length documentary about the Bergers’ hike the Appalachian Trail that will premier this fall on Boothbay Region Community Television.