By Rose Ann Smythe
How can you combine something you really love to do with raising money for charities you want to support? Local biologist Jennifer Davis’s answer was to hike the 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail within Shenandoah National Park to raise money for the Shenandoah National Park Trust and the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.
Davis, a biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute outside of Front Royal, is now working with Virginia Working Landscapes, “studying and promoting the sustainable use of Virginia’s landscapes for native biodiversity through ecosystem research, habitat monitoring and community engagement.”
She taught biology at Lord Fairfax Community College for several semesters, taking her students out on field trips to Big Meadows in the Shenandoah National Park. Davis’ students participated in a special program to study the endangered Shenandoah salamander, and learn first-hand about the implications of climate change and other environmental impacts on local species.
“I found out later that this entire Shenandoah salamander outreach program was funded by the Shenandoah National Park Trust, the private nonprofit that raises funds to support programs that the park’s limited budget cannot sustain,” Davis continued. “I decided that I wanted to help raise money so that this salamander outreach program could continue to be offered to guests and school children.”
“It is wonderful when someone with passion and enthusiasm for the park puts their philanthropy into action!” said Susan Sherman, executive director of the SNP Trust.
Davis’ first experience with the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center came a few years ago when she was looking for help for a vulture chick. The BRWC’s director, veterinarian Belinda Burwell, opened the BRWC in 2004 to fill the need for wildlife rescue and stewardship in northern Virginia — a need that has grown to include West Virginia and Maryland.
“Jen has been a very enthusiastic naturalist and volunteer,” Burwell said. Two of Davis’ volunteer projects have been to videotape the wildlife releases of an eagle and a great blue heron. “Her volunteerism and enthusiasm is an inspiration to others.”
Davis signed up with GoFundMe.com, selected the Shenandoah National Park Trust as one of her charities and the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center as another. “I told my family, friends and co-workers that I am hiking the 101 miles solo along the Appalachian Trail to raise money for these two local nonprofits that do great work in our region and are always in need of more funding, and I’ll complete the hike in 10 days.”
The 10-day trip was Davis’ first backpacking experience. “I had done lots of day hikes, but never an overnight! I started out with a tent and a camera and enough food for five days and my pack weighed 40 pounds.” She laughed about the blisters she had at the end of day one, but says she kept going.
“I made arrangements to have my parents meet me on day five to replenish my food supplies so I didn’t have to carry all 10 days of food,” she related.
For the first five nights, she was able to find space to stretch out her bag in one of the huts and never used her tent. So when she met her parents at Big Meadows at the halfway point, she made the decision to lighten her load by giving them her tent and her camera.
“That brought my pack down to 30 pounds!” she smiled. “Of course, that night there was no room in the hut and I slept under the stars at the top of Old Stony Man. My bag was drenched with dew in the morning, but that wasn’t so bad. The views in the morning were fantastic!”
Davis said she was fortunate to have mostly good weather. “There were two evenings that I encountered thunderstorms, and of course on each occasion I was at the top of a mountain. I found out that I can run downhill really fast with 40 pounds on my back and blisters on my feet and not feel any pain at all,” she laughed.
Davis met five or six southbound through-hikers on her tramp through the Shenandoah, including one with the trail name of Skunk Bite. Unlike Skunk Bite, though, she had no harrowing wildlife encounters, though she did see deer, turkey, mice, chipmunks, a bobcat and a couple of bears near the hut as she ate her evening meal. She tied her pack high that evening on a bear pole provided at each hut for just this purpose.
“I was a little nervous as I went to sleep that night,” she confessed. “Of course it was a night when there were no other hikers around. When I got up in the morning, I did find bear scat under the pole where my pack hung, but the pack remained undisturbed.”
Davis’ enthusiasm is evident. Would she do it again?
“Oh, yeah!” she said. “And, it’s not too late to donate to this hike! Just go to gofundme.com/101milesforsnpt or gofundme.com/101milesforbrwc. Our planet could really use a few more people to care about it nowadays, so I have made it my personal mission!”