An epic journey: Waukon graduate Owen Frieden logs more than 2,000 miles hiking the Appalachian Trail this past summer

Nearly 2,200 miles from start to finish ... Owen Frieden of Dorchester, a 2021 graduate of Waukon High School, is pictured both above and at right at the beginning and end of his journey this past summer hiking the Appalachian Trail across 13 states in 149 days. Although the Appalachian Trail is designated as beginning at Springer Mountain, GA, Frieden’s nearly 2,200-mile trek began at the Appalachian Trail Approach, where he is pictured above, at Amicalola Falls in Dawsonville, GA, which is one of the access points for Springer Mountain. Nearly 2,220 miles and half a year later, Frieden reached the Appalachian Trail’s ending destination of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in east-central Maine, where he is pictured below raising his trekking poles in jubilation 149 days later, having completed his journey. Submitted photos.

Sunrise on McAfee Knob ... Waukon High School 2021 graduate Owen Frieden raises one of his trekking poles above his head in celebration of the sunrise view he has from McAfee Knob while hiking the Appalachian Trail this past summer. McAfee Knob is located on Catawba Mountain near Catawba, VA and is described by hikers as one of the highlights of the Appalachian Trail for its panoramic rock ledge and the view it provides. Submitted photo.

Variety of pathways ... The trek along the Appalachian Trail that Owen Frieden of Dorchester completed this past summer encountered a variety of pathways through the nearly 2,200-mile journey he covered in 149 days. Among those pathways were the wooden planks known as “bog boards” (photo above) that make their way through the Alpine Mountain environment in Maine, or the rock-lined path across the top of Franconia Ridge (photo directly below) in New Hampshire, or the dirt path (lower photo) cut through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park beautifying both North Carolina and Tennessee. Submitted photos.

by Lissa Blake

Looking back at how he spent his summer, Waukon High School graduate Owen Frieden has a lot to reflect upon. He hiked 2,194.3 miles across 13 states in 149 days, all on the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States. Not only was the long journey the greatest adventure of his life thus far, he says he also made “an unfathomable number of friendships that will last a lifetime.” Frieden shared photos and commentary from much of his epic adventure on his Facebook blog:

Frieden, of Dorchester, is a 2021 Waukon High School graduate and the son of Jeremy Frieden and Heather Johnson. This past spring, while working at Toppling Goliath in Decorah, a buddy told  him about the Appalachian Trail, which set the wheels in motion for an epic journey. The Appalachian Trail, known informally as the “A.T.”, is a hiking trail in the eastern United States, which extends almost 2,200 miles between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. “In early March, I started thinking about it. I consider myself an outdoors person, but knew I would have to get into shape,” Frieden said. He watched many videos and researched what types of shoes and pack he would need. He went out hiking at least three days a week, in an effort to condition himself for the trip. “My dad was excited, but my mom was super worried. She thought I was going to get mauled by bears,” he said.

A month or so later, Frieden’s buddy, Tanner Kiel of Waukon, agreed to drive him east, to the start of the trail. He dropped him off April 25. Frieden set out with a pack that turned out to be way too heavy, and a travel plan that he admits might not have been very realistic. “I made a plan, but the mountains in Georgia were bigger than I thought. The hike was definitely harder in the beginning,” he said. At the onset, Frieden said he planned to walk 15 miles a day, six days a week. But nothing really turned out the way he planned it. “The first month I logged 270 miles. The second month I did 900. I just learned you have to go with the wind and listen to your body,” he said.

Frieden said he met too many people to count along his journey, and only traveled alone for the very first week of the trip. He met a  woman named “Lightfoot,” during his first week, and soon after met up with “Charger,” “Taxi” and “Karma,” who became a type of makeshift family for him during his trek. He explained that everyone has a nickname on the trail, and when asked what his was, he shared how he became “Banana Boat” or “Boat” for short. “I got sunburned in Georgia, so I bought some 100 SPF Banana Boat sunblock. It would not come off my skin, no matter how much I tried. Some of my gear still has it on,” he said. He explained that Taxi had an issue with a previously injured leg. “Taxi followed us in his car and would drive ahead to our daily destination and hike back to meet us,” he said.

Frieden said he and his small group traveled well together. They passed countless people, and most of the hikers they encountered were “very awesome and very generous.” “Out of the dozens of people we met, there were only about three I didn’t want to be around,” he said.  When asked if anything ever happened to really scare him, he shared an incident which occurred one night in Virginia. “We were in our tents and I heard this awful screaming. A homeless guy had broken into Karma’s tent (Karma is both vision- and hearing-impaired). Eventually the guy’s companion pulled him off and they left. After that, we packed up our stuff and got out of there,” he said. Other surprises along the trail included 17 black bears, one moose, and countless rattlesnakes and porcupines.

Frieden said the average AT hiker burns between 6,000-8,000 calories per day, so it is difficult to typically ingest enough food to keep weight on. Frieden, however, managed to gain three pounds during the trip, while Charger and Lightfoot each lost over 50 lbs. (less than 25 percent of hikers who set out to conquer the trail ever finish the journey, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.) How did he do it? By eating junk, he said. “I started out my day eating Pop Tarts and Honey Buns. It was the Breakfast of Champions,” he quipped. For lunch, Frieden would eat some tortillas with tuna or chicken for protein and cook eggs in a skillet or ramen noodles over the flame from a white gas cylinder. He also carried a three-foot Avengers fishing pole he bought at Walmart. “We did a lot of fishing. Maine had some nice trout,” he said. Water was taken from streams or springs they encountered and poured through a “Platypus” water filter into a one-liter bottle.

While Frieden enjoyed the time he spent on the AT, he said there were a few times he missed the dryness and comfort of his own bed. In northern Virginia, he battled a bad case of Trench Foot. “The bottom of my foot looked like it had been through a cheese grater,” he said, adding he wrapped his feet in Leukotape, a popular sports tape used by hikers, until it healed. He added,” Me and Charger both got sick once. It could have been one of the natural water sources,” he said. From Virginia to Pennsylvania, the bugs were almost unbearable. In addition, water became scarce as they traveled north, due to a record drought. “The northeast had had its biggest drought in years and there were many empty stream beds. In New York, we found only one water source and there were some long water carries,” he said.

Frieden explained that for all of the hardships, there were many things that made life easier for them. “There are many hiker-friendly towns near the trail,” he said. They hiked through the middle of five towns, and there are a total of 52 towns within one and 20 miles of the trail. “I ended up changing out most of my gear. My pack broke around 150 miles into the trip and I changed it out at about 207 miles in Hot Springs, NC,” he said. “Most towns have outfitters which cater to hikers.”

Frieden said he learned a lot during his first hiking journey of such great length, including how to rid his pack of unneeded weight. At the onset of the trip, his pack weighed 25 lbs., or 34 lbs. packed with food. He left home with five books, which just added weight, and he ditched them about 100 miles into the trip. By the end of the journey, he had switched his original pack out for a 12 lb. pack that weighed 18 lbs. loaded. He had been through five pairs of shoes, four trekking poles and two tents.

When asked what other types of things he learned from the experience, he said, “I definitely learned people skills.” He said the trip reaffirmed his “faith in humanity.” “I learned there are a lot more good people than bad people out there,” he said, adding his traveling companions “will easily be some of my best friends for the rest of my life. They’re very great people.”

Frieden said his first adventure in hiking went so well, he has plans to continue his travels. “I definitely want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (2,653 miles) through California, Oregon and Washington from Mexico to Canada, and the Continental Divide Trail (3,028 miles) from Mexico to Canada… Both before I’m 25,” he said.