OCSJ Spotlight on:
By Vera C. Stek
Many are called but few complete one of the most grueling challenges hikers face in America: a thru-hike of the more than 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. Only about 12,000 people have completed the distance from Georgia to Maine since it was completed in 1937, though countless others have finished the trail in sections or done just a few sections.
It’s like the Boston Marathon for runners or Mount Everest for climbers: the pinnacle of striving and achieving something extraordinary, surviving the elements and meeting every challenge Mother Nature has available.
Ann Palaitis of Medford completed her thru-hike in 1998, before there were apps that let you know if you went off the trail and how to get back on it, and before there was tech gear that eased the weight of backpacks by pounds. She has done many section hikes since then and enjoys a very active lifestyle with her long-time husband, John.
“Long ago, I read an article about following your own passion in life. I try to follow that advice and it has served me well,” Ann said. “Also, I want to express my gratitude to the OCSJ, its leaders and members for giving me the opportunity to explore the outdoors with adventurous liked-minded people.”
Here’s her story:
Q. First, tell us about yourself.
ANN: I grew up in South Philly and rarely saw a tree but I fell in love with the woods at age 10 when I went to summer camp in Burlington County and continued to go for many years.
Now I live with my husband John of 50 years on Taunton Lake in Medford where the woods surround me. We have 2 children and four grandchildren who live in the area.
I have been retired for around 10 years and have time for lots of adventures near and far. In my working days I was an actuary and helped companies maintain the financial soundness of their pension plans. It was a very technical and analytic job and a big contrast to the outdoors.
Q. When and why did you join the Outdoor Club? What activities do you most often participate in? What benefits do you gain by belonging to the club?
ANN: I joined OCSJ in 1990 after going on a moonlight hike that I read about in a local newspaper. I enjoyed it so much that I did more hikes and joined the club. Over the years I have participated in every activity offered by the club and met so many wonderful, friendly people and many are now my good friends.
The club expanded my horizons: I have done outdoor adventures that I never thought I could do, like hut-to-hut X-country skiing in British Columbia and completing the Batona Trail 50 miler in a day. I especially enjoy X-country skiing and John and I have led ski trips to Yellowstone National Park and West Virginia. These longer trips are a great way to get to know other club members with like interests.
Q. Tell us about your thru-hike of the AT. Why did you do it? Would you ever do it again?
ANN: The seeds of my thru-hike go back to 1972 when I was in Shenandoah NP and bought a book by Ed Garvey about his thru-hike. I read it in a day and decided I would thru-hike one day. But I had two toddlers and had never backpacked or even hiked long distances.
But that decision guided me for the next 30 years to keep in shape and stay active. Then, in 1998, the stars aligned: children grown enough and financially able to take time off from work and there I was at Springer Mountain in Georgia!
It took 6 months to reach Katahdin and every moment exceeded my expectations as I hiked thru cold and snow, spring flowers and then heat and humidity to fall colors. Hence, my trail name was Seasons!
My spouse John joined me every few weeks and hiked about 1,000 miles of the AT, so he chose Halftime as his trail name. Off the trail, John would enjoy the easy life and when he returned to the trail, it was always tough to get his muscles going again.
I could go on and on about the experiences of the AT. Yes, there were scary moments related to strange people, moose and bear encounters, violent mountain storms and raging stream crossings! But also perfect days, magnificent vistas, great people and trail magic.
Yes, I would do it again. In fact, I did do a section of each of the 14 states last year to celebrate my 20th anniversary of the thru-hike. Things have changed over the last 20 years! Most significantly, technology and smart phones make communication easier. For example, at a remote road crossing in North Carolina, a hiker called a food truck and another called an Uber driver to shuttle her to town.
Q. Where else have you been hiking (or biking, kayaking or whatever else you do)? Do you plan active vacations? Any place on your bucket list?
ANN: I enjoy organizing active trips, both short and long. I come up with ideas and plans and John moans and groans but he is a great sport and traveler. I have done many trips with friends made through the club, including bike and barge trips in Europe and biking various rails-to-trails in the US.
John and I hiked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago and also parts of caminos in France and Italy and we biked for 77 days across the US from Oregon to Virginia.
We've climbed the highest points of 30 US states including the highest in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney in CA.
I have spent many winters in Florida where I kayak; sometimes where there are alligators (which scares many folks) but they don't bother me (yet!, haha).
The trip to Yellowstone NP in winter for snowshoeing and x-c skiing was an amazing experience, skiing near elk, bison, steaming hot pools and geysers.
On my bucket list is hiking in New Zealand and seeing the Northern Lights, maybe in Norway.
Q. What’s a piece of equipment you couldn’t do without when you’re outdoors?
ANN: I generally like to travel light (like John Muir who only carried a loaf of bread as he hiked the Sierras). But items most likely in my pack would be water, sunscreen and extra clothes (as I am always chilly).
Q. What are some of your favorite hikes/bikes/kayaks in the Pine Barrens?
ANN: I enjoy the north end of the Batona Trail and the Pakim Pond area. I like the cranberry bog areas, especially when they are near harvest. Lately I have been on some club hikes in central NJ, like Cheesequake SP and it is neat to hike HILLS!
Q. Do you feel that keeping active has affected your health and well being?
ANN: Being active probably saved my life! In 2007 while on a OCSJ backpack trip in Virginia I had a slight pain in my chest and felt out of breath on the climbs. I continued the 5-day trip but went to see the doctor after. Tests showed that I had 5 blocked arteries and quickly had a quintuple bypass!
I don't know if I would have survived that backpack trip if I wasn't in good shape. Since then I have kept active and follow a low-fat vegetarian diet and am doing well for my age (70 +).
I do yoga to keep flexible and I like to challenge myself so this year while in Florida I started swimming and did my first triathlon, not an Iron Man, just a mini, but it was fun.
Q. What other interests do you have?
ANN: My extended family, my kids, grandkids, sisters and cousins. We are close and have a lot of traditions that involve parties and entertaining. Also, I like to follow the business and economic news and I volunteer to prepare income tax returns for low income through the AARP tax program. To keep the mind active I do the WSJ crossword puzzles and play mahjong.