Friday, August 31, 2012

Retired Doctor Hikes Entire Appalachian Trail in Five Months

Nathan Gagnon met his father, David, at the end of his long journey (courtesy photo)

By Timothy Gillis

David Gagnon, a retired family doctor who lives in South Berwick, recently completed a very long journey. He hiked all 2,184 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. He completed the trek in five months, staying at hostels and shelters and camping along the way.
His travels were inspired by a gift from his daughter, Nicole, last year, and when giving it to him, she probably had little inclination her present would expand exponentially.
“My daughter got me a stay on Mount Washington for Father’s Day a year ago,” Gagnon said from his home this week, recuperating and planning his next voyage.
“I hiked thirteen miles and felt pretty good, so that planted the seed that I’m not over the hill yet.”
Gagnon’s Mount Washington experience solidified his resolve to take the longer trip, so he made plans and departed this past March. He took the “midnight train to Georgia,” said Susan Gagnon, his wife. He rode the Crescent Line, from Boston to New York to Philadelphia, and then on to Gainesville, Georgia, where he made his way to the start of the Appalachian Trail. Then began the epic trip, with Gagnon carrying his 40-pound backpack along the way.
He was a family doctor with a practice in Eliot until he retired last September. His wife, Susan, works as a nurse at Marshwood High School.
“She’s supporting me,” he joked. In fact, his entire family has been supportive of the trip. His daughter inspired it, and his son, Nathan, met him at Mount Katahdin to hike the last leg of the journey with him. Nathan, 28, and Nicole, 30, both went to Marshwood High School. Nathan went to the University of Vermont and now works at Northeastern in their curriculum planning department. Nicole went to Brown and the University of Southern Maine, and then followed in her mom’s footsteps and went into nursing.
Gagnon’s hike offered him a fair share of adventure.
“On the third day out, I had my food bag rifled by a bear,” he said. “So I had to get new supplies and a new waterproof bag the next day.”
That bear became a recurring visitor to Gagnon and his fellow hikers. “The bear came back two or three times. We kept trying to hang our supplies higher but we weren’t successful.”
He started the trip hiking with an Englishman nicknamed “Hop-along” as he had a funny way of walking, Gagnon said.
“We met the first day and hiked for the first few days together. He was very brave. He would run out and scare the bear away,” Gagnon said. “The trick to is don’t make eye contact, but try to scare them away. Don’t let them get used to hanging around with humans.”
Gagnon said he heard the story of the recent fatal bear attack in Denali National Park, the first such attack in the park’s history, so he knows full well – despite its rarity – of the possibilities of such trouble and the dangers inherent in wilderness walking.
Doctor Dave, as he is known on the trails, was separated from Hop-along soon into the trip. “It was raining, and I wanted to keet hiking but he stayed put,” Gagnon said, adding that people often get trail names from some quirk of their personality.
He returned home on August 12, when he met his son and wife at Mount Katahdin. He finished the journey by hiking to the summit and back with his son.
While on the trail, Gagnon said he had a cell phone, but there were days - even weeks - when he didn’t have cell service. Up next for the intrepid traveler is a more intellectual pursuit – he’s writing a book.
Submitted to potential publishers before he departed, he is now working with Vantage Press to fine-tune the work, a fictional account “about the things that happened to me as a doctor over the years.”
While the book doesn’t include any aspects of his journey, he is going to talk to his editor about possibly adding a chapter. “They say the book works pretty well as it is, so shouldn’t need much editing,” he said.