Hiking club gives seniors a welcome challenge


GETTING READY

Tips for safe hiking

  • Hike in groups.
  • Start out slowly, gradually increasing pace and distance.
  • Hike only on marked trails.

  • Leave your itinerary with a friend or family member, and don't forget to check in.
  • Take frequent breaks and drink plenty of water.
  • Have an emergency plan. Make sure everyone knows what to do if they get lost.
  • Dress in layers with wicking fabric. Wear long pants to protect legs from poison ivy and ticks.
  • Wear a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.

What to bring in a fanny pack or small backpack

  • Map or guidebook
  • Water
  • High-carb snacks like energy bars, candy, fruit and nuts
  • Pocketknife
  • Whistle
  • Flashlight
  • Insect repellent
  • Compass
  • First-aid kit
  • Sun protection
  • Toilet tissue (in a plastic bag)

Source: Forsyth County Senior Services

There are seniors who enjoy walking the mall or a flat greenway trail for exercise. But you won’t find them among the Hearthstone Hikers in Cumming.

These grandparent types would rather ramble up and down steep trails in the North Georgia mountains, crossing streams with their shoes off, resting on an outcropping of rocks to enjoy a sack lunch while brushing off ticks and poking around in the leaves for wildflower surprises.

There’s 91-year-old Ted Borzak. He had never hiked before when some neighbors encouraged him to come along on the group’s initial outing. The widower Borzak felt sure he was up to the task because, after all, he walked his dogs every day in the neighborhood.

“It was a disaster,” Borzak remembers. “I found out that hiking trails in the forest wasn’t the same as walking on the streets.”

He went home, got in shape by walking up and down hills really fast, and by the second hike he did all right. And he’s stuck with the group ever since.

The Hearthstone Hikers are sponsored by the Forsyth County Senior Services Hearthstone Lodge. The club started in 2008 at the insistence of a former participant at the center, who was an avid hiker herself. She rallied together about a dozen participants — most of whom had little prior experience — and showed them what to wear, what to bring and what to expect during their adventure in the woods.

There are now about 70 active participants. Most are retired; the average age is 70. Some have had knee replacements. Those with still creaky knees or wobbly ankles find hiking poles are helpful, especially on the descents. Forsyth County even offers a free pole walking class.

For those with a fear of falling, hiking could be just the prescription needed for improved balance.

It was for Veronica Lehmann, who is in her 70s. Since she’s been active with the Hearthstone Hikers, her balance has made noticeable improvement, she said.

“With hiking, you have to put your foot down solid,” she said.

Newbies are welcome, even encouraged to join. Activities leader Apryl Milam said she fields a lot of phone calls from seniors who are curious but hesitant with comments like, “I’ve never been hiking before,” “I’m too old,” “I’m too scared.”

For most of them, once they go on that first hike, they’re hooked. And the rigor of the hike builds confidence in other areas of life, Milam said. There’s also a side benefit of making new friendships.

“One of the best things about this is all the friends we’ve made,” said Fran Laprade, 70. Carol Duff, 67, agreed, adding that the activity has helped some overcome depression and loneliness.

Twice-monthly trips are scheduled a year in advance, always kicking off the season in late August with a hike at Unicoi State Park followed by tubing on the Chattahoochee River in Helen.

Trails are rated for difficulty, and are pre-hiked the week before by a few group members to ensure accessibility. One week it might be a 3-mile loop at a state park, the next a venture through the backwoods in the middle of nowhere. In the latter case, carrying your own toilet paper is advised.

Seniors help each other cross over creeks and other obstacles. They stop a lot for water, snacks and fellowship. No one gets left behind, or is pressured to finish the hike if they’re not up to it. There have been some falls, but nothing serious and no broken bones.

However, there are always unexpected adventures. There was the sudden hailstorm at Springer Mountain. Ticks are common. They might see a few snakes, or even bear tracks. And sometimes friendly dogs from the area want to tag along.

It’s a small price to pay for such spectacular views, members say.

“You’ll see things the ordinary tourist will not see,” Borzak said. “It’s amazing how many waterfalls there are that you would not see if you weren’t on the trail.”