The sign near the top of Mount Washington confronted Ray Byle like a park ranger in a bad mood.
“STOP,” it read. “This area has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure even in the summer. Turn back NOW if the weather is bad.”
Byle kept going. Fortunately, the weather was not bad that day. But it was so cloudy atop the 6,288-feet mountain that the veteran science teacher could barely see 30 feet in front of him.
Such were the adventures of hiking the Appalachian Trail – a trek that both satisfied Byle’s love for nature and enriched his teaching at Kenowa Hills High School.
“Putting myself in uncomfortable situations reminds me of students who are in uncomfortable situations in the classroom,” says Byle, who’s taught physical and environmental science since 1996. “It’s a learning process: ‘This is tough. What do I have to change to be more successful?’ “
It’s also a way to help his students appreciate and enjoy nature.
“The first step in getting people to care about the environment is to get them to have fun in the environment,” he says.
Lessons from the wilderness
Byle’s two-week hike in early July was only his latest summer adventure. An avid outdoorsman, he’s also hiked on Isle Royale, Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Parkand the Teton Wilderness in Wyoming. He’s taken canoe trips with youths from his church, Blythefield Hills Baptist, and biked from his Grand Rapids Township home to the Mackinac Bridge several times.
The married father of four says the trips help him recharge from the school year and learn about nature. He studies up on the areas he explores, bringing back to the classroom knowledge about geology, plant and animal life.
His summer experiences bolster his teaching with specific examples from the wild. When his environmental science students make water filters, he explains how his backpack filter protects him from parasites and bacteria that cause fatigue and diarrhea.
His hike two years ago through the Tetons provided a graphic illustration of climate change, as milder winters were contributing to trees dying from pine beetles.
“That’s a personal experience I can bring out: ‘It’s not just this stuff we’re reading about. I went hiking, and these beautiful forests by Yellowstone are half dead,’ “ Byle says.
Physical challenges, emotional rewards
The famed Appalachian Trail was one hike he’d never taken. The 2,180-mile trail passes through 14 states between Georgia and Maine. Byle tackled a 122-mile segment in New Hampshire, scaling about 5 miles out of a mountain pass to reach the top of Mount Washington. Much of the climb was over rocky terrain.
“At the end of the day, your ankles feel like rubber,” he says.
He carried a 40-pound pack through hot weather and frequent rains, soaking his clothes and boots. He batted away bugs, guzzled several liters of water a day and ate high-calorie power bars. He tented at night, cooking over a small gas stove.
He got to know many fellow hikers along the way, and was invited inside for a pleasant chat and ice cream by a retired man who lives by the trail.
“That ice cream got me up the next ridge,” Byle says with a grin.