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Never too young to go the length of the Appalachian Trail

Bekah Quirin and her husband Derrick pose for a photo with their daughter Ellie, 1, in Daleville, Va. None of the Blue Ridge couple's adventures have been quite like the one they’re undertaking, tackling the 2,190-mile length of the Appalachian Trail while carrying Ellie.
Bekah Quirin and her husband Derrick pose for a photo with their daughter Ellie, 1, in Daleville, Va. None of the Blue Ridge couple's adventures have been quite like the one they’re undertaking, tackling the 2,190-mile length of the Appalachian Trail while carrying Ellie. The Roanoke Times

If anyone is qualified to hike nearly 2,200 miles while carrying a baby, it’s probably Bekah and Derrick Quirin.

Both 25, the Quirins have accumulated lengthy backcountry resumes — both have degrees in outdoor leadership and years of trail experience, both led week-long hikes in Washington and managed recreation programs in South Carolina, both trained as wilderness first responders.

But none of the Blue Ridge couple’s adventures have been quite like the one they plan to begin Monday: tackling the 2,190-mile length of the Appalachian Trail while carrying their 1-year-old daughter, Ellie. They plan to post pictures and descriptions of their trek - and plug their sponsors — online at their EllieOnTheAT Instagram account and at www.ellieontheat.com.

Both Quirins grew up near the trail — Derrick Quirin in Botetourt County, where his father is associate pastor of Bonsack Baptist Church, and Bekah Quirin in Blue Ridge, where her father is lead pastor at Fellowship Community Church.

Having dated since high school and completed North Greenville University’s outdoor leadership program together, the Quirins said they had dreamed about taking on the AT for years.

But when college ended, they both had full-time job offers. The trail would have to wait.

“We did the responsible thing,” Derrick Quirin said.

“We didn’t have quite enough saved up,” Bekah Quirin added.

Having a child lent a new urgency to the adventure. For one thing, they figured they had a brief window before Ellie became too heavy to carry for such a distance.

Taking a longer-term perspective, the Quirins said they are all too aware of the pressures on wilderness areas across the country. They wanted Ellie to have at least some of the experience they’d had in undeveloped forests and mountains.

“I don’t want her to miss that. And I don’t know where it’ll be when she’s old enough” to hike and camp on her own, Derrick Quirin said.

If the Quirins complete the trail in a year from their start date, they will qualify as through-hikers. And while Ellie won’t be the youngest through-hiker - “She’s not hiking,” Derrick Quirin is quick to point out - the Quirins think that she will be the youngest person to travel the trail’s 2,190 miles.

The three Quirins are scheduled to set off Monday morning from the McAfee Knob parking lot in Roanoke County. But instead of heading north toward the much-photographed overlook, the Quirins plan to walk south, opposite the seasonal direction taken by most through-hikers.

When they reach the trail’s southern end in Georgia, they will drive to Maine, the other end of the 14-state pathway, and start south again. The Quirins hope to average 12 miles per day, a pace that would have them completing the entire trail in six months.

But there will be days that they take off from walking, they know. If all goes well, the Quirins figure they will reach their starting point again by Christmas.

And if it gets cold earlier than it did this year and some walking remains to be done in 2018, so be it — “We’re not being so strict on ourselves. . It’s more about the experience of doing it than any titles,” Derrick Quirin said.

The biggest challenges on a long hike is the physical “accumulation of small things” - like blisters or sore muscles that can take on larger dimensions as when hiking day after day, Derrick Quirin believes.

As for larger threats, the risks of harm on the trail are probably less than what most people face driving in regular traffic, he said.

Bekah Quirin said that as much as possible, she and her husband would keep up with weather reports on their phones and get off the trail to a motel if a big storm seemed to be approaching.

“We’re just going to be hyper-aware,” she said.

With less than two days remaining before the journey’s start, the Quirins listed some of the preparations they’d made.

The family had packed boxes with two to six days of food — about 5,000 calories per adult per day, with a daily 500 calories added for Bekah Quirin to support breast-feeding. There were freeze-dried adult meals and baby food, oatmeal, noodles and more — “a lot, a lot, a lot of granola and granola bars,” Bekah Quirin said.

Also in the boxes were disposable diaper inserts for Ellie. “We’ll obviously pack out the dirty diapers,” Derrick Quirin said.

Relatives are to hand-deliver the care packages every few days for the first few weeks of travel. After that the boxes would be mailed to post offices along the trail.

The Quirins plan to carry a super-lightweight, three-person tent that uses their trekking poles as supports. Ellie’s gear wasn’t much more than her clothes, her stirrup-equipped backpack carrier and a pad for diaper changes.

Much of the Quirins’ food and some of their gear was supplied by about 25 sponsors, mostly national outfitters. The Quirins said they plan to highlight each sponsor for about two weeks in their online posts.

To prepare for the trip, the Quirins said they saved money for a year and sold many of their possessions, including a car and their house in South Carolina. They moved in with Bekah Quirin’s parents in Blue Ridge in November.

They did hikes with Ellie first riding in a chest-carrier, then moving to a backpack as she grew.

The journey ahead would be about family bonding, Derrick Quirin said.

But he hoped it would inspire others as well.

“Our hope is just to encourage families and parents to get out and do something,” he said.

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