Tom and Mary Rhyner of Kenai have been on this earth long enough to know what is important and to appreciate the little things in life. Living active lifestyles on the Kenai Peninsula into their 60s, the Rhyners have embraced what the Alaska outdoors has to offer.
But when the couple decided to challenge themselves and make an attempt to complete the famed Appalachian Trail, they found out that the accomplishment of finishing the trail went beyond merely getting from post to post. The real enjoyment of the journey came from a little “trail magic.”
The Rhyners completed the 2,190-mile trail that stretches along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains and reaches a peak altitude of over 6,600 feet last October, doing so in three manageable chunks. They began their trek in March 2014 and ended Oct. 17, 2015, just as winter was beginning to set in around Maine.
“It’s huge,” Mary said about the accomplishment of finishing it.
“It’s almost a half year’s worth of time put into it,” Tom added. “Just to finish it was great, which when you’re 60, it’s a big accomplishment. If we were 25, we’d look at it different.”
The Rhyners will be at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Feb. 25 at 6 p.m. to share photos and stories of their long adventure. The gathering will benefit the Tsalteshi Trails Association.
Part of that storytelling will be centered around the spectacle of people and personalities that the Rhyners met on the trail, some of whom they will never forget.
To complete all 2,190 miles is no small feat. To complete it in one go — known as a thru-hike — is an enormous task. Since 1936, when the first adventurer completed the inaugural end-to-end journey (although not as a thru-hike), more than 15,000 others have completed the entire distance.
Most take five to seven months to finish it, but official trail-running records list endurance athlete Scott Jurek as the fastest thru-hiker when he completed the trip in 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes last year. The fastest self-supported effort — meaning no vehicle or crew support — was also done last year by Heather Anderson, who made the trip in 54 days, 7 hours and 48 minutes.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Mary said. “Except maybe childbirth.”
With work and time constraints, the Rhyners were not able to do a full attempt through the 14 states in one try, instead settling for a few weeks at a time.
Both born and raised in Wisconsin, Tom and Mary heard the calling to Alaska in the mid-70s. They arrived in the 49th State with their 4-month-old daughter Emily, settled in Kenai in 1980 and have lived in the same house since 1982. Tom is now 64 and Mary is 60.
Although neither were big into sports in their youth, both still stayed active in other ways. Tom spent countless hours outside working as a land surveyor, trimming Christmas trees and later coaching youth softball and basketball.
In the days before Title IX, which is a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex from sports and activities, Mary was left to find outdoor activities for herself. Ultimately, it was the apples falling from the tree that motivated her to ramp up her active lifestyle. The couple’s three daughters — Emily, Tessa and Laura — encouraged their mother to get involved with local five-kilometer runs and triathlons.
“I asked them what that was, and they said it’s a race that you swim, bike and run in,” Mary recalled. “I thought, all in one day?”
In addition to his summer work as a fish counter at the Russian River weir, Tom doubled as a substitute teacher in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District beginning in 1989. Mary stayed active as a letter carrier at the Kenai post office for 30 years.
After retiring in 2012, Mary realized she needed something to stay active and to occupy her interest, so why not take on one of the world’s longest hiking trails? The only hitch came when Mary had difficulty finding someone who would make the commitment to hike it with her, as going alone would be too dangerous.
Ultimately, Tom decided to join in with the condition that they break it into chunks to accommodate to his summertime job duties. Mary said their three kids might have thought their parents were a little too ambitious.
“I think they were kind of surprised, but pretty proud of us,” Mary said. “They knew we could do it.”
Mary said the support she and her husband received from their children made a world of difference once they were out on the trail, as their three daughters road-tripped out to various ending points to bring food and other supplies. One of them also surprised their parents with a send-off party in Alaska.
Tom and Mary also had support from a few friends, who helped the couple on their way by making sure they packed the right supplies, saving extra effort by avoiding items that would load the Rhyners down.
The first stint was completed from mid-March to the third week of May 2014, a total of about 900 miles in a 10-week span. Beginning in Springer Mountain, Georgia, the most popular place to start, the Rhyners set out among the huge crowds that were also looking to experience the wonders of the trail.
But first, they had to get to the trailhead. That began with a long drive out from Atlanta with a shuttle bus. Once the bus arrives in the parking lot, it’s another mile yet to hike out to the Springer Mountain trailhead. From there, the Rhyners finally set out on March 11, 2014.
In the early days, particularly on the southern end of the trail in Georgia, the Rhyners described the experience as if they were part of a herd, hiking and camping with up to 15 different groups at any point.
“In downtown Damascus (Virginia), which is a little bigger than Kenai, we would travel with fair size packs of people,” Tom said. “Because of the way we did it, coming from Alaska, the weather was really good for us. In March to May, they don’t have big thunderstorms or 90-degree heat.
“The second year, we started up in Virginia, and were the equivalent of two months ahead (of the crowds).”
Averaging about 10 to 15 miles a day, the Rhyners made friends often, stopping to chat it up with a group and continuing on their way. The couple marveled and took in what they called good old Southern hospitality.
The duo also learned to give themselves nicknames before others took it upon themselves to do so. Trail names amongst thru-hikers are a common ritual, so Tom and Mary anointed themselves “Weirman” and “Knitter,” respectively — Weirman because Tom counted fish at a weir on the Russian River, and Knitter because Mary couldn’t resist taking her knitting supplies on the trail with her.
“We were warned if you don’t have a trail name, you’ll have one by the end,” Mary said.
One year later, in the spring of 2015, the Rhyners set off to complete the second chunk of the mammoth journey. The two hiked out from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and set out across eight states. The 10-week crossing would end in Lincoln, New Hampshire, in White Mountain National Forest.
It was the second year and the farther north sections of the trail that caused the Rhyners to realize how difficult the terrain was. Climbing up mountain after mountain and lumbering down the backside of each took its toll, and an increasing amount of rocks and roots didn’t help matters.
The Rhyners likened the experience to making two runs up the popular Skyline Trail near Sterling, then adding on a run up the Fuller Lakes Trail. The Appalachian Trail, which is managed and taken care of by competing nature clubs and groups that have the goal of outdoing their opponents, can often take a hiker up to the peak of a mountain, only to descend down the other side when an alternative route is possible.
The frequent Appalachian Trail enthusiasts have named them “Pointless Up and Downs.”
“People call them ‘PUDs,’” Mary explained.
Still, Mary and Tom trekked on.
“It was all just part of the trail, you just do it because that’s where the trail went,” Mary said.
“And we thought, why didn’t we do something else?” Tom chipped in.
The tiresome nature of the course left the Rhyners turning in early most evenings, as did most other hikers, and it also helped to coin the term, “hiker’s midnight,” which refers to the early bedtime of campers and hikers on the trail. When the sun sets, they sleep, and when it rises, they get up and get walking.
With Alaska never far from their thoughts, the Rhyners enjoyed the scenery as much as they could, but still didn’t shy away in picking Alaska as the ultimate postcard state.
“The beauty we have here, there’s no comparison,” Mary said.
For their finishing act on the Appalachian Trail, the Rhyners decided to return in the fall of 2015, which would present them with smaller crowds, but it also meant they would have to hurry to beat the impending winter weather of the northeastern United States. The hike would be half as long as their previous two installments — this one going just under 380 miles and taking five weeks to hike.
“It was nice to be going back in the fall,” Tom said. “After the last year, we felt like we had to come back and finish it, but we had to wait a year.
“This time, you had that to look forward to.”
The Rhyners took off Sept. 15 from Lincoln, New Hampshire, giving them a month before the state park closes near Gorham, Maine.
“We were running against the weather in Maine,” Tom said.
Nearing the end of their journey at Mount Katahdin, Maine, Tom and Mary were faced with their biggest challenge yet. In what Tom called the longest, hardest day of hiking, the Rhyners climbed 5.2 miles up Mount Katahdin, starting promptly at 5:20 a.m. in order to make the cutoff time of noon. The cutoff time ensures a reasonable window of descent.
The Rhyners summited at 11:20 a.m., but on their way down met some friends they had previously encountered in the trip. The Rhyners decided to go back and summit with their friends, which they did with five minutes to spare.
However, the most difficult part was the downhill, which proved to be hard on the Rhyners’ tired knees.
“The whole issue was the downhill,” Mary said. “My knees were killing me.”
Eventually, the couple made it back to camp around 8 p.m., the end of a 14.5-hour day.
On the last day of the journey, Mary was pleasantly surprised to see her sisters, Peg and Susan, greeting her before the finish.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “My two sisters were there, and I didn’t get my confidence on the trail until the last 200 miles.”
In the end, the Rhyners had spent 189 total days on the trail over a year and a half while averaging 81 miles per week.
“There’s a rule on the trail that you cannot talk about politics and religion,” Mary said. “I like that.”
After over 2,000 miles of hiking, what made the most memorable impression on the Rhyners was more than the scenery and accomplishment. It was the people.
Folks such as the couple of ladies in Shenandoah, who greeted the Rhyners with a cooler full of cold sodas and beer, all while relaxing in lawn chairs.
“They yelled out, ‘Are you Knitter and Weirman?’” Mary said. “They were tipped off by some other hikers.”
There was the old man in his 70s, a lively character who upon finishing the trail biked back down to his home state of Florida.
“He’s retired and doesn’t want to sit still,” laughed Mary.
The Rhyners also met a man who had embezzled close to $8 million from his former employer and was on the run. Every day he hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, and had been doing so for five years when the Rhyners met him (he was eventually recognized and turned in by a fellow hiker).
There was also Whitney, the girl with the Studebaker tattoo, which helped to give her her trail name of the trusty car from years ago.
Then there was the old lady in Virginia, who went above and beyond her original offer of providing a ride for the Rhyners. The 77-year-old offered her house for the couple to use, giving them a spare room, letting them use the laundry facilities and using the fridge and stove.
“That was probably the ultimate trail magic,” Mary said.
“Those are the kind of people on the trail that inspired us,” Tom said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re 20 or 70, they were young because of the things they were doing.”
It was that “trail magic” that hooked the Rhyners from the start, and that hospitality and willingness to make the journey as comfortable and easy as possible has gotten Mary thinking of making a return to the East Coast of the United States, with one small change.
“I think we’d try to do trail magic,” Mary said. “That’s something incredible, those people helping us out. I think that’s something I’d like to do because it’s incredibly rewarding.”