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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Hiking for Habitat

Oak Island resident partners with North Carolina Wildlife Federation to highlight state’s biodiversity on Mountain-to-Sea Trail

Oak Island resident Luke Bennett, pictured here on the Appalachian Trail in 2021, will hike the Mountain-to-Sea trail in April and raise awareness of the state’s biodiversity with help from the wildlife federation. (Courtesy photo)

OAK ISLAND — Luke Bennett has traversed more than 20,000 miles in his 22 years of life and plans to embark on a new challenge in early April when he will hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST). He will report on its biodiversity, and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF) will blog his findings under the campaign Hiking for Habitat.

The Oak Island resident will trek the 1,175-mile route spanning the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks. Originally, he hoped to challenge himself with a goal of 28 days, which would break the fastest-known travel time (29 days and eight hours) on the MST. The more he considered it, he decided to revamp his plans to take in the scenery. 

“I wanted to make sure I could go at my own pace,” Bennett said, “and not be too exhausted to enjoy my surroundings.”

Some friends and family will support him along the way to help him restock, but he will travel alone.

Bennett’s journey coincides with the 45th anniversary of MST, first proposed in 1977 as the state’s flagship trail. He will begin at Jockey’s Ridge State Park at Nags Head and head west to Clingmans Dome at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

The MST traverses four national parks and two national wildlife refuges, connects to 10 state parks and journeys through three national forests. Bennett admitted  he is a little apprehensive about the 39% of the trail that requires roadside walking.

“[It] offers rugged terrain and a chance to experience the state’s geographical diversity,” Bennett said, referring to its connections between the Coastal Plain, Piedmont and mountains. “My goal is to kind of show what’s out there, draw attention to the area and get people to realize there’s this incredible resource in our backyard.”

“What helps make the Mountain-to-Sea Trail so unique is that it’s closely linked to our state’s wildlife and beautifully highlights the diversity of North Carolina’s landscape and natural resources,” NCWF spokesperson Kristine Goodyear added.

A biology major, Bennett will document his journey through photos shared on a NCWF blog. The goal is to spread awareness about the native flora and fauna in this region and shine a light on threats to wildlife, such as fragmented landscapes, trash and debris, wildlife crossings, evidence of climate change in coastal areas and invasive species, according to Goodyear.

Hiking for Habitat will raise funds for NCWF. Supporters can make donations in honor of Bennett’s journey with $10 per mile. An unnamed donor has agreed to match all gifts up to $10,175 according to the donation page. All proceeds benefit NCWF.

A Durham native, Bennet has always loved the outdoors and spent his childhood fishing, swimming and exploring the Eno River. He began running cross country in seventh grade, partaking in his first race at Eno Park, nonetheless. Bennett graduated in May 2021 from Appalachian State University and completed the entire 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail shortly after.

“It was the best time of my life,” he said. “That’s what really solidified my interest in hiking.”

It typically takes hikers five to seven months to complete the Appalachian Trail, with only one in four actually finishing. Bennett traveled its entirety in 100 days. He averaged about 25 to 30 miles per day, which he will likely replicate, depending on weather and terrain. Aside from “expect the unexpected,” Bennett said his experience taught him a lot about hiking and even more about life in general.

“I learned how to stay motivated, how to pack light and still be prepared, how to hitchhike, how to pitch a tent on an icy slope in the rain, how to be OK with solitude, how to make camp food palatable, how to be filthy and not care, how to listen to my body — I could keep listing things all day,” Bennett said.

After realizing how much attention his Appalachian Trail adventure gained through word of mouth, Bennett saw how he could amplify that using a widespread online platform for a good cause. He then cold-called the NCWF because their missions and values aligned. He said the NCWF team was just as eager as he was to partner.

“If I’m going to take the time to do something, I want to make sure that the attention wasn’t fully on me,” Bennett explained. “I wanted it to reflect on something I’m passionate about, something meaningful to me.”

Along his hike, Bennett expects to encounter wildlife, such as the Pine Barrens treefrog (also the official state frog), ruby-throated hummingbirds, swallowtails, Eastern bluebirds, wild turkeys, raccoon kits, Fowler’s toads and many more.

“I really don’t want to encounter bears,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe as long as they’re from a good distance.”

Bennett plans to travel light, with only his backpack and the essentials: water, food, tent, sleeping bag and pad, small cook stove, clothes, electronics (phone, headphones, power bank and charger), headlamp, toiletries and a personal journal. His plan is to restock at grocery stores along the way.

He will camp each night, with the exception of a few nights where he might stay with family who live nearby, a cheap motel to escape the elements or with MST volunteers called “angels,” who offer hikers supplies and free places to stay.

To prepare for his hike, Bennett said he’s been staying active — running uphill and along rugged terrain specifically, as well as stretching and playing pickleball. He’s also been studying the trails to plot his stops and figure out logistics.

“I’ve been squirreling away some money, so I can afford to go a few months without an income,” he added.

After he completes the trail, Bennett will move to Raleigh and start an accelerated pilot’s program. His ultimate goal is to one day work for the national parks service.

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