The College held the 35th annual Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) Gathering on campus from Oct. 7.
The Williams Outing Club (WOC) invited ALDHA to campus, where it used facilities including Paresky Center, the ’62 Center and Brooks-Rogers Hall to meet and host workshops. According to iBerkshires over 400 hikers were present at this year’s gathering. Eric White, a local ALDHA member, noted that this is about the usual number of hikers who attend the yearly gathering. White lent Oblong Field, a part of his farm, as the campsite for the gathering, and used his barn as the registration site for the gathering.
The gathering offered a wide range of workshops, presentations and activities, some of which were oriented toward new hikers who have not yet hiked the Appalachian Trail. Still, White estimates that more than two-thirds of the hikers at the conference had hiked the Trail.
The gathering’s association with the College began in 2011, and WOC first hosted the 2014 gathering. The location of the gathering cycles by year so that hikers from different locations may attend easily in different years. The 2011 gathering was held at MCLA, but a Saturday evening talk was given at the ’62 Center, according to Jim Niedbalski, a member of the ALDHA board of directors and Facilities Coordinator for the 2014 and 2016 gatherings.
The first year attendees camped at Oblong Field was in 2011, after a local farmer withdrew permission to use his field.
For the 2014 gathering, the ALDHA reached out to Scott Lewis, director of WOC and asked to use facilities at the College. Lewis and ALDHA worked together to provide attendees access to College facilities at a low cost.
“Because of the sponsorship of the Outing Club, this gathering is very affordable for us as a small non-profit. Because of the sponsorship we are able to give something back — ALDHA will donate $1000 to WOC, as we did in 2014,” Niedbalski says.
White noted that this year the ALDHA sought to better inform students of its presence; it notified students through WOC and the daily messages. However, according to Lewis, student involvement was hampered this year because the gathering took place during fall reading period. White and Niedbalski both noted that students were free to attend workshops and socialize at the gathering. White hopes to continue to expand awareness and involvement of young people, including students, at future gatherings, like the projected 2018 Williamstown gathering.
In addition to their affordability, ALDHA members like the proximity of the College to the campsite, the beautiful location, the access to local food and drink and the direct visibility of the Appalachian Trail from Oblong Field.
“Just as hikers enjoy visiting smaller towns while hiking, the same applies to the Gathering. Many hikers ventured into the Spring Street area and beyond, for food, coffee, ice cream, et cetera. Some stayed in motels. The A-Frame Bakery on Route 7 stocked up in preparation for ALDHA folks. There’s an economic impact in Williamstown as well,” Niedbalski said.
Both White and Niedbalski emphasized the tight-knit community of long-distance hikers in this country. White noted that many times, a hiker on the Appalachian Trail will spend days or weeks with other hikers going in the same direction, forging a strong bond which the ALDHA helps to maintain when they get off the trail.
“We all share a common bond — we either have hiked long distances or want to do so,” Niedbalski said. “We share the passion of being self-reliant, of experiencing the best and the worst of what the wilderness offers, and the best far outweighs the worst. This was the 35th annual Gathering, and some folks have attended nearly all of them. Sometimes we see people we met on the trail five, 10 or more years ago. No matter your background, no matter how different you might be in any number of ways, we all feel an affinity towards each other because we revel in a common pursuit,” Niedbalski said.