Local minister hiked Appalachian Trail

Mike Criner started his online blog a full two months before he began hiking a 275-mile section of the Appalachian Trail with his son-in-law, Matthew Sabin, a sports medicine professor at Eastern Kentucky University.

They had to keep their backpacks within a 35-pound range for optimal carry weight, loaded with daily essentials, energizing meals and Naproxen for tendonitis in his right knee.

“I have committed the ultimate sacrifice by eliminating two of my Snickers bars to help with pack weight,” the 57-year-old lamented in his journal.

Criner is the senior adult minister at Hillside Avenue Church of God in Springfield.

Fine-tuning their gear, intense endurance training and reducing body weight were top priorities in preparation for the hike. Most of his muscular and cardio training was done over several months on an inclined treadmill and practice trails.

When told of his upcoming plans, most people were incredulous, asking him why on earth would he want to put himself through this arduous hiking experience.

“Modern society, city living, civilization and clouds veil the real created world. I have no expectations other than what God reveals to me as I plant one foot in front of the other,” said Criner, four days before the start of their journey. “My greatest preparation is to be acutely aware of the still small voice of God, to catch glimpses of truth with wide-opened eyes, and to have a spiritual awakening that enables me to better apply myself to the real art of abundant living.”

That life included a visit to his 3-week-old grandson and a newborn granddaughter, born just three days before their section hike began on May 13 at Amacolia Falls State Park in Georgia. That first day they completed 11.6 miles to the top of Springer Mountain and down to Stover Creek Shelter, where they hung their Hennesey hammocks.

Going over the Sassafras and Justus Mountains the second day, Criner was dismayed to feel sharp pains in his good knee. Luckily, he had carried extra knee braces along for the trip. But the beauty of the trail outweighed any discomfort he was feeling.

“We enjoyed the sounds of birds during the day and owls at night, and saw the beautiful forest floor of may apples, rhododendron, ferns, and wildflowers,” wrote Criner. “Gigantic trees shaded approximately half the trail. We also saw chipmunks, hawks, buzzards, squirrels, and heard unknown footsteps in the night.”

Blood Mountain was on tap for day 4; the fifth day they crossed seven peaks, including Wildcat Mountain and Poor Mountain. They started developing blisters on top of blisters. The most difficult hikes were over Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain on May 19, and they had to endure that in the rain.

By the end of May 21, they had hiked about 80 miles. They were rewarded with a second invigorating shower close to Dicks Creek Gap. That’s where they met Alfonso, his wife, and 8-year-old daughter from Houston, Texas, who were also section hiking the AT.

“We quickly found out that we were both Christians, and that God had used Alfonso in tremendous ways on the trail to minister to hikers,” wrote Criner.

The pair climbed rocky Mount Albert on May 24. By that time, they had slept in a storm and experienced temperatures ranging from 37 to 87 degrees. When they stopped for the night, they always took care to hang their food high, beyond the reach of bears. They couldn’t afford to lose that tuna, pita bread, instant potatoes, cereal and powdered milk. They encountered an adult bear at Silar Bald that stared at them for a full 20 seconds before ambling away, and a rattle snake at Birch Spring Gap.

“Life is too short and sacred not to experience its abundance. Potential and possibilities are too rewarding not to accept the challenges with a ‘do or die’ spirit,” write Criner. “As they say, ‘You’re either busy living, or your busy dying.’ I choose life.”

His life has been full of adventure. Now he and Sabin can proudly claim to have hiked 275 of the total 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Georgia, North Carolina and the Smoky Mountains. They left on Mother’s Day and returned on Father’s Day. Even though it was hard to leave their families, they are hopeful to continue their journey in the spring of 2014 with another section hike.

“I discovered that almost everything that applies to a successful hike on the trail is relevant to my relationship with God, family, and others,” said Criner, whose hiking moniker is Bald Eagle. “Preparation, determination, hardships, rest, eliminating non-essentials, exhilarating accomplishments, unexpected wonders and sharing one’s experiences with other hikers gave me a renewed perspective of God’s desire for us to experience blessings awaiting all of us to know.”

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