Swanville couple tests if relationship is ready for marriage by hiking Appalachian Trail

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff
Posted Nov. 24, 2012, at 10:50 a.m.

The length of the Appalachian Trail, a famous footpath that spans from Georgia to Maine, is constantly changing. During this past hiking season, the official length was 2,184.2 miles.

For many thru-hikers, it was 2,184 miles to mend blisters, create a trail name, meet challenges and explore the wilderness. But for one Maine couple, it was 2,184 miles to learn about each other and discover if their relationship was ready for marriage.

“We said, if we make it to the end, then we’ll get married,” said Holly Todd, who lives in Swanville with her fiance, Neil LeBlanc.

Last fall, the couple moved from Massachusetts to a tiny Maine town to be surrounded by the state’s lush wilderness. The transition between homes and jobs seemed to be the perfect opportunity to take eight months off and hike the AT, a journey LeBlanc had been thinking about for 20 years. Neither of them had ever done any backpacking, so they practiced tenting in their yard and hiked around Swan Lake to grow accustomed to wearing heavy packs.

Just before beginning the AT on March 20, the first day of spring, LeBlanc proposed to Todd on the Belfast footbridge. She said yes. But they still had a long trail ahead of them before even thinking about a wedding.

“It’s not like you’re putting your relationship aside during that time,” said Todd, “because you definitely have to be there for each other. But you can’t expect to be romantic out there, even though there are a lot of romantic spots. You have to kind of have this mindset the whole time that you’re going to finish this, just be goal-oriented and get the job done.”

Not far into the trail, Todd stowed her engagement ring in her fiance’s pack out of fear it would scratch as she used her hands to traverse the many mountains from Georgia to Maine.

While they hadn’t been backpackers before the trip, they were both used to long-distance challenges.

Todd and LeBlanc met while competing in a River Rat canoe race in Athol, Mass. And despite a large gap in their ages — Todd now 39, and LeBlanc, 64 — they hit it off right away, chatting about paddling and marathon running, another passion they share. They became canoeing partners first, then a romantic couple.

On the AT, they took advantage of the long summer days, hiking extra miles and “stealth camping” rather than using official AT shelters, so they could complete the trek by Sept. 20.

But things didn’t go according to plan.

A chipped tooth, poison ivy, and a sickness known to thru-hikers as the “AT Plague” slowed them down.

Bad weather was also a challenge.

Todd recalls one miserable night in South Carolina, when an April storm trapped them in their tent. All night, sleet coated their shelter in ice, and by morning, LeBlanc had to thaw sections of the tent with his hands before breaking it down. Their bear bag was frozen to a tree.

“I don’t cry easily,” said Todd. “But all of a sudden, I couldn’t feel my feet. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting frostbite.’”

That day, they were scheduled to hike 14 miles north. Instead, they backtracked five miles to the nearest hostel to rest and dry their gear.

“The first challenge was the weather, and the second challenge was being with the same person 24/7,” Todd said.

Their disagreements would usually be over small things, misreading the mileage, stinking up the tent with dirty socks, or whether to take a “zero day” (a day of no hiking).

“We’re both very challenge-motivated, and we saw it as just another challenge,” Todd said. “We had our moments, but then we’d calm down and say, ‘OK. We’re out here to do this together. We’re a team.’”

“I learned that I could trust other people’s judgments, and not just rely on my own thinking of how to do something,” LeBlanc said. “It’s hard to put a finger on what, but we learned a lot about each other. It helped our relationship, I think, to understand each other more and trust each other more.”

Hundreds of miles later, relentless rain and powerful winds chased them through the White Mountains of New Hampshire to Gorham, where they decided to rent a car and drive to Baxter State Park to summit Mount Katahdin on Oct. 2. The park roads leading to the mountain typically close on Oct. 15. LeBlanc and Todd didn’t want to miss the opportunity to hike the last mountain of the trail.

But they planned to hike every mile of the AT, and they’d skipped a big section. So after summiting Katahdin, they returned to where they left off in Gorham and hiked to Maine’s Mahoosuc Notch, a boulder field known as the hardest mile of the trail. It took them four hours (instead of the normal two hours) to travel the rough mile because by that time, everything was covered in snow.

They embarked on the 100-Mile Wilderness, the final stretch of the AT in Maine, just in time for Hurricane Sandy.

“We couldn’t go our normal distance because of the snow and ice on the mountains. And then the dark — with the days getting shorter, we just had everything against us,” she said.

Nevertheless, they completed their 2,184th mile on Nov. 14, and Todd put her engagement ring back on. Through trials and triumphs, the trip gifted them with a new appreciation for nature, a respect for the weather and trust in each other.

They’re now planning to be married on Mount Katahdin or one of their favorite spots along the trail, such as Maine’s Mount Bigelow, next year, preferably on the date they completed their long trek.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/11/24/outdoors/swanville-couple-tests-their-commitment-by-hiking-the-appalachian-trail/ printed on July 25, 2014