Thru hiker returns to finish the last leg of the AT after...

Thru hiker returns to finish the last leg of the AT after fires


Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

After dreaming of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail from start to finish since he was in the seventh grade, Andrew Grzanka’s dream came to a screeching halt in Franklin last year when his southbound hike was put on hold due to the forest fires. Determined to earn the bragging rights that he hiked the entire trail in a year’s time, Grzanka returned to Franklin to cross off the 80 miles of trail he missed due to the fires.

“We had hiked over 2,000 miles from Maine to get to where we were, and the fires took an 80-mile chunk from us,” Grzanka said. Grzanka is from Mendham, N.J. “Some hikers don’t mind skipping a few miles here and there, especially miles that are officially closed and on fire. I am what is called a purist thru hiker. I wanted to do the entire trail from end to end sequentially in one shot. I had not missed a single section of the trail in five months of hiking, and the fires made me skip 80 miles.”

When Grzanka was in seventh grade, his Boy Scout troop, Troop 1 Mendham in New Jersey started taking backpacking trails along the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey and New York and that’s when his love of the trail was born.

“We did one each spring and one each fall, about 25-30 miles per trip,” he said. “I remember talking to thru hikers that we met at campsites and being amazed at the idea of hiking the whole trail. Over time I had pieced together some of the Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania sections and the entire New Jersey section of the trail as well as going to hike in New Mexico and the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain and France. Through all of these trips, I always kept the idea of thru hiking the AT in my mind until I realized that the perfect opportunity for me to hike the trail would be between college graduation and starting my first job. So I went.”

When Grzanka, who is known on the trail as Baby Bear, graduated from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., with a degree in mechanical engineering, and his friend Trevor DiLallo, who goes by the trail name Pugs, set out to hike the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia just two weeks after graduation.

“I started on June 7, 2016,” said Grzanka. “Pugs and I needed to wait until after graduation to leave, and we knew that it would be too late in the season to go northbound, that’s how we decided to go southbound. Two weeks after graduation, we were on top of Mount Katahdin starting our hike.”

Five months later, and after nearly 2,000 miles of trail, Grzanka  and Pugs started meeting hikers who warned of fires along the trail. Despite the warnings, the duo trekked on, hoping to make it as far as possible before having to call it quits.

“The group I was hiking with had been hearing rumors of forest fires for about a week and a half as we were hiking,” Grzanka remembered. “As we entered the Smokies, we could smell the smoke as we hiked. Four days later, we exited the Smokies and stayed at the shelter near Fontana Dam. It was there, only 15 trail miles from Stecoah Gap (where the trail was closed) that we learned that the closure was not only real but was coming up fast. We had very little information and kept getting different stories from different people. At first we heard that the trail was closed from Stecoah Gap to Rock Gap, then we later found out that it was closed all the way to Dicks Creek Gap in Georgia. We got picked up by a shuttle  and he took us to Franklin. We spent the next day figuring out where the fires and trail closures actually were and where we could get back on the trail. Our plans kept changing constantly and every time we learned that more of the trail was closed than we thought, we kept getting more discouraged.”

As a purist hiker, Grzanka took the closing hard. He had spent his whole life plotting the trip and wanting to add the entire AT to his list of hiking accomplishments.

“I actually had a few friends tell me that they were upset by having to skip such a large section, but they felt a little better because they read my trail log entries and they knew that at least they were not taking it as bad as I was,” Grzanka  said. “We continued from Dicks Creek Gap and finished the last 70 miles of the trail and arrived at Springer Mt. on Nov. 18, 2016. Even though the ATC had officially closed this section and posted on their website that thru-hikes would still count if this section was skipped while it was closed, I knew that somehow, sometime before June 7, 2017 that I would be back to finish that section, to have completed the entire thing in one year.”

Without any of his southbound hiking friends able to return this year, Grzanka  took a week off of work and drove from New Jersey to Franklin with his dad. It took them 10 hours split between two days just to get to Franklin to start the hike. The pair left their car at Three Eagles Outfitter, who offered their parking lot up for free for the week, and called the shuttle driver who picked them up in November who happily shuttled them back to Stecoah Gap on April 8, 2017.

“I knew that there would be a lot of damage because of how much trail was closed but I was surprised to see how destroyed some of the sections really were,” Grzanka said of the fire damage a year later. “The section that really shocked me the most was the tower on top of Wayah Bald. The trees all around the fire were black and dead, it looked like the fire had swept up the side of the mountain and taken out all the trees in its path. The signs on the top of the tower were all melted, and the wooden canopy was completely gone. I was standing there just imagining how hot the fire must have been to have done all that damage. At first I felt like seeing the fire damage reaffirmed why I needed to skip that section, but as it went on for almost 80 miles, it was really sad to see, especially knowing that it was started intentionally.”

Leaving Wayah Bald, Grzanka got news he never expected and news he never wanted to hear. Northbound hikers started to once again warn of fires up ahead on the trail.

“I couldn’t believe that I had come all the way back, in a 10-hour car ride, and again, my hike was threatened by forest fire closures,” Grzanka said. “We started hiking up to Siler Bald, asking passing hikers if there was any danger up ahead, and they said they had not seen any indication of fire, so we pressed on. After passing the top of Siler Bald, we started a four-mile descent into Winding Stair Gap. We noticed that no more northbound hikers were coming the other way, very unusual for this section in this time of year. I smelled a small whiff of smoke, and started getting nervous. As I’m sure most people in Franklin know after last year, forest fire smoke has a distinct smell, different than even campfire smoke. When I smelled that smoke, it sent waves of emotion over me as I was reminded of the emotional experience of having to skip the section, and I was determined to push through and finish this section. We got to Winding Stair Gap to discover that the trail had indeed been closed and that there was a fire. I checked the trail going south from the gap, and it was not roped off. We had met a lone southbound hiker named Papa Slow a few days before and had been hiking with him until the previous day. A car pulled up and he got out, explaining that he had to skip the last eight miles because they were closed, and that he had gone into Franklin to resupply. He told us that he stopped at the ranger station and gotten confirmation that the trail was open south of Winding Stair Gap. My dad and I were the last two hikers to get through that section. We continued south from there.”

Grzanka’s return south wasn’t just an opportunity to complete his AT hike, but it was a second chance to visit Franklin, a town that he overlooked due to the disappointment of the fires in the region.

“My visit in November was full of smoke and bad feelings about skipping trail,” he said. “We had stopped in Franklin because we didn’t know how far the trail closures went, and we needed some time to regroup and resupply after just having come out of the Smokies. While there I had heard of the Lazy Hiker Brewery, but did not get a chance to visit.”

Because Franklin was right in the middle of the section that Grzanka was doing the second time around, it was the perfect place to keep the car and to return to.

“As the shuttle driver drove us to Stecoah, he mentioned that the burgers from the food truck outside the brewery were very good, and so from the moment we set foot on the trail at Stecoah, I was dreaming of a burger and a beer from the Lazy Hiker and the truck,” Grzanka said. “This is how we wound up there after we had finished. My celebration for finally having finished the whole Appalachian Trail was a few beers from the Lazy Hiker and a big delicious burger from KC [owner of the Food Truck]. My dad mentioned that I had just finished the trail and KC bought me a beer.”

Grzanka finished at Dicks Creek Gap in Georgia on April 14, 2017. Even though this is the date that he finished the entire trail and his purist hike, Grzanka still likes to consider Nov. 18, 2016, as his ending date because that’s when he finished at Springer Mountain with all of his friends.

“I felt a little bit like the ghost of southbound hikers past as I hiked through the burned out remains of the trail,” Grzanka. “I searched each log book for entries from hikers that I knew who had made it through before the fires or who came through after they were out. It’s a real shame that so many southbound hikers had to skip this section, it was a great section with fantastic views and challenging climbs. Finishing this section was very important to me, I wanted to finish it for myself so that I could feel that my thru hike was complete, so I made it a priority to get off of work and get back down there to hike that section. I encourage everyone, especially those who live in close proximity to the trail, to take a hike, either one day or many along the AT. Also, show  some love. Southbound hikers get a lot less trail magic than northbound hikers because there are a lot less of us and not as many people know when we are coming through.”

To see pictures of Granka’s hike, visit his Facebook page at: