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Middlebury native hiked Long Trail like it was 1917 — in wool knickers

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Posted on October 15, 2018 |
By Elsie Lynn Parini



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MIKE DEBONIS, EXECUTIVE director of the Green Mountain Club and a Middlebury native, decided to hike 230 miles of the Long Trail with food, gear and clothing that would have been used in 1917. Hear him talk about his experience on Oct. 18 at CVUUS. Photos courtesy of Green Mountain Club

Mike DeBonis’s curiosity got the best of him last summer, when he decided to spend two weeks of his vacation hiking the Long Trail in 1917 style. You know, wearing wool knickers, carrying a pack basket, sleeping under a twine-supported tarp and eating cold, canned fish for breakfast.

Why, you ask? Good question.

“As a kid growing up in Vermont I was fascinated by the idea of carrying everything you need on your back and walking someplace new every day,” DeBonis, now the executive director of the Green Mountain Club, explained in an article he wrote for the fall 2017 Long Trail News, a quarterly publication. “I can remember poring over the 1917 guidebook, imagining what it would be like to hike the whole trail.”

In 2017, as the GMC was planning the 100th anniversary of the Long Trail Guide, DeBonis decided to hike the trail as if it were 1917. Hear him tell his tales during his talk “Wool Knickers and White Blazes, A 1917 Inspired End-to-End Long Trail Hike” at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist meeting hall in Middlebury, on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. You’ll enjoy the fun of hiking the trail a century ago, without the wool, bugs and canned fish.

DeBonis’s love of the Long Trail started when he was just a kid growing up in Middlebury. He used to collect old Long Trail guidebooks.

“What I love about the old ones are the hand-drawn pullout maps, vivid trail descriptions, and gear and food recommendations,” explained the 1989 MUHS grad who now lives in Moretown.

Here are a few of his favorite excerpts:

“The camp equipage carried is a matter of personal experience and desire, but a good rule is to wear woolen underwear . . .”

“No person should ever travel the Long Trail without axe, compass, and matches.”

Right. When’s the last time you carried an axe on a hike? Or, ahem, stepped into a pair of woolen underwear.

DeBonis didn’t carry an axe, but he did commit to a pair of wool undies.

In fact his clothing options were mostly wool. For 14 days, rain or shine, he wore wool knickers, knee length wool socks, sock liners, wool under garments (yup, undies), a leather hat, rubberized poncho, wool hat, wool long sleeve shirt, wool sweater, leather hiking boots, wool long underwear (bottom and top), two bandannas and a leather belt.

To carry all his gear he made his own hand-woven ash pack basket.

“Two things are needed to make an authentic pack basket: a brown ash log and a good hammer,” said DeBonis, who knows a thing or two about wood; he earned his master’s degree in forestry from Yale. “Brown ash is unique in that the wood separates into strips (or splints) at the annual growth rings when pounded. A forester friend told me that a logger up north had cut some brown ash, and suggested I might be able to buy one of the logs.”

So he did, and spent all summer pounding, cutting and stripping the splints to size. He soaked them then wove his basket over the winter in 2016. DeBonis made the bottom runners from old Long Trail Patrol tool handles and fashioned a canvas lid to keep the rain out, and equipped the basket with leather straps.

“The 1920 Long Trail Guide recommends leather straps over canvas ones because canvas tends to curl and cut into your shoulders,” he said. “For the record, leather straps curl and cut into your shoulders, too.”

Outfitted as close to a 1917 hiker as he could get, DeBonis set out for 230 miles in two weeks. But wait, isn’t the Long Trail 273 miles? Yes, it is now. But back in 1917, the trail was 53 miles shorter: starting at the Massachusetts border and ending in Johnson.

DeBonis stayed under his homemade tarp, in lean-tos along the trail and one glorious night at the Lake Mansfield Trout Club in Nebraska Valley, Stowe, complete with a feast of lamb, veggies, potatoes and fruit cobbler.

“While the trail has changed over the past hundred years, I like to think that the trail experience hasn’t all that much,” DeBonis reflected. “I was filthy, and didn’t care. I marveled at how good the water tasted. I looked forward to a breakfast of anchovies, cheese, and nuts (because everything tastes good on the trail). I got up with the birds, hiked as far as my feet would take me, and went to bed when the sun set. And each day, I was struck by the inexplicable beauty of my surroundings.”

Coming back to his leadership role with the GMC, DeBonis had a renewed appreciation of the club’s mission to connect people to the outdoors.

“The mission is the same as it was 100 years ago,” he said. “The trail is free and open to all, and that’s the way it always should be.”

And don’t worry, there are no requirements to wear wool or eat cold fish. So, bring on the modern gear that makes life in the outdoors, oh, so cozy, and head out for a hike.

 

Mike DeBonis’s Trek log

 

Day 1. It’s about 12:00 p.m. and I just finished climbing up Pine Cobble. I am not even on the Long Trail yet. Heck, I am not even out of Massachusetts and I’m soaked clean through my wool clothing and leather hat. I took off my wool shirt and wrapped it around the pack straps for some extra padding.

 

Day 3. Heading to the Winhall River for the night. About a mile past Stratton Pond, I got caught in a summer thunderstorm. I put on my poncho and hunkered down on top of my basket like a mother hen over an egg trying to keep it dry. The rain left the trail and campsite filled with water. I decided to push on to William Douglas Shelter and was thankful for a roof over my head and a place to dry out my gear.

 

Day 6. It’s pouring rain and I’m stopped at Governor Clement Shelter for breakfast. Anchovies, bread, and cheese with a chaser of nuts and chocolate. I like soaking up the leftover salty olive oil at the bottom of the anchovy can with bread. I know that I’m lingering too long over breakfast delaying the wet climb up Killington.

 

Day 9. Massive rainstorm tonight. At Skyline Lodge and very happy to be out of the rain. Sleeping on the bare wood of the shelter, but I don’t mind. The first time I visited Skyline was in the winter of 1988 during high school. I remember hiking up the Skylight Pond Trail in running shoes wearing the equivalent of plastic bread bags over my socks. No, it is not lost on me that my gear has actually regressed from what I used on that hike so many years ago.

 

Day 12. After a ferry ride across the Winooski River and a hike up over Bolton Mountain, I made it to the Trout Club by 4:15 and checked in to my room. Dinner is served at 6:00 and I had enough time to get cleaned up and make my hiking clothes presentable. There is some benefit to hiking in pleated knickers and a button-down collar shirt. The highlight was a dinner of rack of lamb, mixed vegetables, baked potatoes, and a fruit cobbler desert. Seconds? Yes please, I’ll have seconds.

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