On the horizon, the gathering dark clouds of a mid-summer thunderstorm blew rapidly toward the mountaintop.
Nathan Sonderman watched as the tempest barreled toward him. Hiking the Appalachian Trail in the middle of Maine, there were few places to take shelter from the lighting and rain soon to arrive.
But he found a small cave that provided modest protection from the worst of the storm. Pulling off his pack and sitting on the rocks, Sonderman watched as hail nearly the size of golf balls buffeted the boulders outside.
“You can never trust the weather out here,” he said. “They can’t ever predict it right, so you have to be ready for anything.”
Sonderman, a Greenwood resident and 2015 Roncalli High School graduate, is following the entire Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia over the next five months. He’s doing the 2,185-mile trip solo, armed only with his backpack and a camera to capture the trail’s diverse wildlife.
Since arriving in Maine on July 19, he’s encountered flash floods, falling trees and raging storms. A wrong turn on a trail almost led him into a muck-filled bog, where a misstep could have sunk him into the water. When his food supply ran out in the middle of the wilderness, he was forced to catch and cook a garter snake to keep his energy up.
The 18-year-old hopes to use the trip as an adventure before he goes to college in the fall of 2016, as well as building his portfolio for his future career as a photographer.
“I thought that I’d never get this chance again once I got a job. The transition from high school to college would be the best time to do it, because afterward, life would get in the way,” he said.
As of Aug. 4, Sonderman had made it through 146 miles of the trail. He has purposely chosen to go from north to south — opposite of most of the hikers doing the trail — because much of the trail and parks it passes through close in late fall, meaning he wouldn’t be able to pass through parts of New Hampshire and Maine.
That decision has taken its toll.
“That’s the tough part — 90 percent of the time, I’m hiking alone. That’s been the hardest part,” he said. “It’s a constant mental battle.”
The journey started in Bangor, Maine. Sonderman had arranged to meet an outfitter to help him get started, and after spending the night in Bangor, he was shuttled to nearby Baxter State Park — the head of the Appalachian Trail.
“I’ve pretty much been hiking ever since,” Sonderman said.
Prior to leaving Indiana, Sonderman had spent two weeks hiking, mountaineering and navigating in Colorado as part of Roncalli’s Summer Field Studies program.
But that was his only real training experience. For the most part, he relaxed, tried to put on weight and prepared for his journey. He gained about 10 pounds in preparation.
Everything that he needs for the trip he carries on his back. From spare clothes to extra food to a sleeping bag, his survival depends on the supplies he has amassed. Water filters, eating utensils and a can of Mace are also stowed in his pack.
Sonderman decided not to bring a camp stove, figuring that he could eat his meals cold if need be.
One of his most important pieces of equipment is his camera, a digital single-lens reflex model that allows him to capture everything that he experiences.
He was able to get 10 feet away from a moose, snapping a photo of the monstrous animal.
Deer, loons and bald eagles became regular sightings during the journey. Traveling through some of the last pristine natural land in the country is exhilarating, he said.
Life on the trail has been a learning experience, even from his first day hiking up the start of the trail at Mt. Katahdin.
At one point, Sonderman lost his footing and fell 15 feet to a boulder field below. He was lucky to land on his backside and escape without serious injury.
Another time, a massive birch tree toppled over towards the trail but Sonderman was able to jump out of the way.
“It was a rough first day. I thought that might be a bad omen,” he said.
Sonderman was about 9 years old when his family first introduced him to the Appalachian Trail. They were on vacation in Tennessee, driving through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, when they passed a sign for the trail.
One side pointed to Georgia, 120 miles away.
“I thought that it was crazy people would walk all that way, but at the same time I thought it was pretty cool. That was what inspired me,” he said.
The idea stuck in his head throughout his teenage years. With his graduation from Roncalli approaching last spring, Sonderman broached the subject of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail during the summer.
His parents were not initially receptive.
But Sonderman was persistent. He presented them with a plan to walk the trail, discussed the money he’d raised to support himself during the hike, and showed how he’d stay safe by ensuring his cellphone was always operational and carrying Mace.
His dedication, as well as help from an aunt who supported the idea, slowly wore down opposition.
Being separated from their son has been a difficult adjustment, particularly when they can’t simply call and reach him, Ann Sonderman said.
“When he’s at really high elevations, he has cell phone service, but when he’s lower, he doesn’t,” she said. “You don’t know when you’re going to catch him.”
From his perspective, Sonderman is able to share his experiences without providing unnecessary concern from home. That was useful right from the start.
Likely his biggest challenge so far came only three days into the trip. Sonderman had reached the edge of the 100 Mile Wilderness, a stretch of the trail passing through nothing but forest, swamps and mountains.
“There are no towns, no shelters, nothing for 100 miles. Everything you need you have to carry in,” he said.
Sonderman had planned for the wilderness. He brought in military ready-to-eat meals to last him the first five days of the hike, and his wilderness outfitter agreed to drop off another five days’ worth on a logging road midway through.
At first, the plan worked perfectly. Sonderman made it through the first half of the hike without any problems. He was even able to store up a couple of extra meals along the way, so he could splurge by eating multiple meals.
But he had miscalculated. He didn’t have extra — those meals were part of his 10-day food store. The final four days of his hike he’d have to get by with only two meals.
“I was in serious trouble,” he said. “I had to hike 47 miles on only 2,600 calories, when you’re burning 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day. I was scared at that point.”
The realization forced Sonderman to ration whatever he could. For an entire day he didn’t eat, even as hunger gnawed at his stomach. He started dry-heaving from hunger.
When he came across a garter snake in the woods, he harnessed his inner survivalist.
“I was just so starving that I took it, killed it and cooked it over a fire to eat,” he said. “That was rough; it tasted awful, but it was something.”
Blueberries and raspberries helped provide some bursts of energy. Sonderman also caught three small trout with a collapsible fishing pole he kept in his bag. That also helped provide him with energy to hike the final miles out to the town of Monson, exiting the 100 Mile Wilderness.
He checked into a hikers’ hostel and spent three days recuperating.
“I had hiked 115 miles by then, and I was spent,” he said.
Sonderman’s plan is to arrive in Georgia, at Springer Mountain, sometime in the next four to five months. But Sonderman recognizes that any number of unforeseen delays could push back his arrival date.
“I don’t have a set date, since so many things can happen along the way,” he said.
Parents: Ann and Andy Sonderman
School: 2015 graduate of Roncalli High School
Over the next four or five months, Greenwood resident Nathan Sonderman will be trekking from Maine to Georgia along the Appalachian Trail.
He has invited the Daily Journal and its readers to join him along the way.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll check in with Sonderman to see how he’s progressing, hear about the adventures he’s having and feature photographs from some of the country’s most beautiful natural regions.
The Daily Journal will feature his updates on Saturdays every two or three weeks. Check back to see how Sonderman is doing along his 2,185-mile hike.