A Family Thru-Hike in the Year of Covid
Hiking the Appalachian Trail with four kids is tough; figuring out how to do it safely and legally in a pandemic year might seem insurmountably so. But for Olen and Danae Netteburg, two physicians who have spent the last decade working in Chad, it was just another challenge.
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When Olen and Danae Netteburg ran into other hikers on the Appalachian Trail, few guessed that they and their four kids, aged 4 to 11, were out for the long haul.
“We’d be out with these gigantic backpacks and they’d be like, ‘Oh, so you’re out for the day?’” Olen says. “Or for a night?”
Olen “Lion King” felt it was best to let it go and keep walking. Danae “Queen Bee”, on the other hand, wanted to set the record straight. To her, it was a reminder that people shouldn’t make judgements based on looks.
“Nobody expects little kids to be able to hike that far,” Danae says.
“Because it’s not normal,” Olen replies with a laugh. “It’s a reasonable assumption,”
Olen and Danae are physicians at Béré Adventist Hospital in rural Chad, where they have lived, worked and raised their children for the past 10 years. It can be rigorous work—supplies are often short, equipment is basic compared to what’s available in the States, and the whole facility runs off of a generator. For the couple, hiking the Appalachian Trail on sabbatical was a way to unwind as a family.
Juniper (trail name: The Beast) hiked the whole trail on her own at just 4 years old, minus three swift-flowing river crossings her father carried her across, says Danae. Because the Appalachian Trail Conservancy paused its thru-hiker registration system this year due to the pandemic, the official record-holder for youngest person to thru-hike the trail is still Christian “Buddy Backpacker” Thomas, who completed the hike in 2013 at 5 years old.
Juniper, who turned 5 after the hike was completed, made the trip with her siblings, 11-year old Lyol “Blaze”, nine-year-old Zane “Boomerang” and seven-year-old Addison “Angel Wings”. Olen and Danae, who homeschool, started by taking the family on a few day trips in Pennsylvania in February and wrapped up the trip in Georgia on October 13. “Most people start at one end and hike straight to the other end,” Olen says. “We skipped around so much.”
The family was about a month into their hike when the ATC announced in March that it was recommending thru-hikers postpone or cancel their trips For Olen and Danae, deciding whether to press on wasn’t easy.
As physicians, Danae says, they respect Covid-19 and took it seriously from the beginning. The first question they asked themselves was whether what they were doing was safe. Their second concern was whether they would be able to finish their hike legally.
In the end, the family decided to press on, with some modifications to their plan. Although they started out expecting to backpack the whole way, sleeping in a tent and hammocks, some states along the trail only allowed camping in designated campgrounds, all of which had closed due to the pandemic. Olen and Danae’s workaround was to borrow a mini van and a pickup with a camper on the back from family and spend nights in the camper during part of the trip. With two vehicles, they could shuttle themselves around, leaving the camper at the end of their hike for the day.
“It was a lot of driving,” Olen says. The couple is careful to mention that the family took care to respect quarantines and avoided resupply stops by stocking the vehicles with food and supplies.
As the days went on, the family got their trail legs and began traveling longer distances more easily. Together, they hiked 44 days that were 15 miles or more, including one 30.6 mile day. At the end, they hiked every day for 30 days in a row to complete the trip.
“It was really amazing how strong they got,” Olen says of their four children. “We did learn that if you do the same exercise every day for 10 hours a day for six months you get pretty good at it.”
Olen recalls the most difficult parts of the trail, where the family struggled over rocks. Instead of getting discouraged, he says, the children treated it like playing on a jungle gym.
“They think they are doing American Ninja Warrior Junior or something,” he says.
Even after a long day of hiking, the children asked for more and more responsibilities, setting up camp at the end of the day. As they got stronger, the older three began carrying more weight, he says. At the end, Lyol was carrying 16 pounds, Zane 14 pounds and Addison 8 pounds.
While Juniper only carried one or two pounds, her insistence on hauling a pack was how she got her trail name,“The Beast.” One day in the roller coaster of northern Virginia, Juniper sat down on the side of the trail and began to cry, Olen says. Eventually her parents figured out she was crying because her mom Danae had clipped her backpack to Danae’s own, thinking Juniper was too tired to carry it. They tried unsuccessfully to convince her to keep hiking. Juniper refused to budge until her parents handed over the pack; once she got it, she took off running down the trail.
“We’d go hiking after her and she’d be sitting there smiling at us and then she’d get up and take off again before we could actually get to her,” Olen says, adding that it took them three or four hills to finally catch her.
While the family is now preparing to return to Chad, their first long trail experience might not be their last: Olen and Danae say that the kids have talked about wanting to live nearby so they can be trail angels. They’ve also been talking about their next long-distance trip, possibly another long hike, bike ride or canoe trip.
“They are definitely still dreaming up adventures,” Olen says.