Coronavirus shutdown lures many to the outdoors

Fall & Winter Hikes In Maryland State Parks

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Thanks to the coronavirus, Summit the puppy will likely get a chance to live up to his name in the coming month.

Bernadette Leibensperger and her 8-month-old rescue mix set out Wednesday morning to complete the 9-mile Pulpit Rock and Pinnacle Loop Trail in Windsor Township, Berks County. The Lynn Township hairdresser and avid hiker will be out of work for at least the remainder of the month, and she expects Gov. Tom Wolf’s ordered shutdown of non-life-sustaining businesses will extend longer – perhaps much longer.

What to do? Hike, of course.

Leibensperger and her daughter, Kara, a Reading School District teacher, have backpacked on the Appalachian Trail from Roanoke, Virginia, to New York. In the coming weeks, they will likely extend the leg with a multiday journey south from Roanoke or north from New York.

“Except during summer, we don’t get to spend big chunks of time with each other,” Leibensperger said. “So in some ways, this is an opportunity.”

The coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the U.S., disrupting the daily lives of pretty much everyone. We are being asked to self-quarantine, to practice social distancing, to help flatten the curve. Some see heading to the hills as a compromise of sorts.

Students, teachers, service workers and others escaped last week to Appalachian Trail access points across the region, leaving behind a newly confined civilization, if only for a few hours.

“It’s kind of social distancing, and it’s kind of not,” said Ryan Sterling, a 24-year-old from Perkasie who hikes the Pinnacle loop every few months and had never seen it so crowded so early as it was Wednesday morning. By 10 a.m., the parking lot at the Hamburg Reservoir was full, and by early afternoon, there were more than 100 vehicles, many parked along the access road.

Sterling and friends Mike Tatarowicz and Dylan Jeronis all filed for unemployment benefits Tuesday after losing bartender and server gigs. They’re planning a hike from the Lehigh Gap to the Delaware Water Gap next week.

“We have no work for the foreseeable future, and I’m definitely worried financially, but I’m also just trying to make the most of the time off,” Tatarowicz said.

While most fun things are off-limits, the outdoors is not. Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine last week urged families to take walks and children to ride bikes or play in their yards. That can be done with the recommended 6 feet of social distancing. And the vast AT offers plenty of room to spread out.

But to be clear, officials do not consider the outdoors a completely safe alternative to staying home. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy last week shut down all visitor centers and urged hikers to postpone overnight trips, especially those who planned to head south in droves to embark on the 2,190-mile thru-hike all the way from Georgia to Maine.

“The practices necessary to support a section or thru-hike may make A.T. hikers vectors to spread COVID-19 – whether congregating at shelters or around picnic tables, traveling to trailheads in shuttle vans, or lodging at the various hostels up and down the Trail,” Sandra Marra, conservancy president and CEO, wrote in a public letter.

For the many hikers likely to disregard the plea, the ATC says to avoid shelters and privies, and to allow ample space between tents. It also recommended hikers bring enough financial resources to cover a trip home or potential medical and lodging expenses if they get sick and need to be quarantined.

Backpackers diagnosed with COVID-19 during their trip should submit an incident report at appalachiantrail.org/incidents detailing when and where you got sick, when and where you got off the trail and any other information.

By a recent Wednesday afternoon, most people on online forums appeared to begrudgingly agree that the resupplying process made thru-hikes dangerous. There was less agreement about section hikes, such as the one the Leibenspergers and Summit were planning.

“I’m going to take this as an opportunity to hike the hike less traveled,” one enthusiast wrote on WhiteBlaze.net, a site for news and discussions about the AT. “There are lots of trails out there that take 3-10 days where you can supply at home and not have to worry about closures, etc. Many of those trails don’t have such disease vectors as shelters where hikers congregate.”

The Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club, which helps preserve a 65-mile stretch of the trail through Lebanon, Berks and Lehigh counties, has limited trail maintenance activities to no more than 12 volunteers. Joan Moyer, club president, said she was unaware of any regional issues that have arisen the past week due to the increased number of hikers. She recommended everyone comply with guidelines the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has provided.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources on Monday closed all facilities at state park and forests for the remainder of the month, though the public is still able to access trails, lakes, forests, roads and parking areas for passive and dispersed recreation, such as hiking. Visitors are urged to use the bathroom before they leave home.

Bryan Eshleman and his 17-year-old son, Devon, embarked Wednesday on a three-day hike starting near Hawk Mountain in Albany Township.

The Eshlemans, of Lancaster County, had been planning a longer hike for June, right after Devon’s graduation from Ephrata High School. They worry the school year might be extended, disrupting those plans. So Bryan, 45, decided to take a few days off this week from his job transporting fuel.

“Since we have at least a couple days now, we figured we might as well go,” he said.

They stocked up on tuna and rice and tested out their camping gear over the weekend to ensure they were prepared for potentially near-freezing overnight temperatures. For Devon, a few intense days at his part-time pharmacy job and the uncertainty regarding AP exams and graduation faded as they walked deeper into the woods.

The Eshlemans early in their hike passed Kurtis Reif and Jennifer Knauss, who were trekking in the opposite direction toward Dan’s Pulpit on Wednesday. It was their fifth hike in as many days.

Knauss, of Alburtis, needed all the fresh air she could get after a “very, very crazy and intense weekend” working at Weis Markets in Emmaus. She’d lost track of the number of times she had to tell customers she wasn’t sure when certain items would be restocked.

Reif, an elementary school music teacher in East Stroudsburg, was still trying to figure out how to engage students who were likely going to miss out on upcoming performances.

Not far behind them was a group of four middle school teachers who drove up from Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

“We are going on day hikes at least once a week for as long as this goes on,” said Angie Cartron. “And we might backpack – we hiked across Maryland last summer.”

Benjamin Smith, a radiographer at St. Luke’s University Hospital in Allentown, has been hiking the Pinnacle loop twice a week recently while he sets up a bird sanctuary. He walked his dog Clove with one hand while carrying supplies in the other.

Evidently, it’s a stressful time at work, Smith, 26, of Macungie, said, with no relief on the horizon. Building bird sanctuaries isn’t a longtime hobby, just something he felt compelled to do.

“I need to do something uplifting and out in nature,” he said. “I need to feel like something good is happening in the world.”

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