Back in August, Dayton Hikers founder Andy Niekamp completed a fifth Appalachian Trail hike. Since the 1980s, Niekamp has returned time and again to hike the popular trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia. Overall, during the course of five decades, the Kettering resident has hiked 11,000 miles and spent 1,000 nights and three years just on the Appalachian Trail.
Niekamp, chief adventure officer of Outdoor Adventure Connection, has been a major fixture in the Dayton hiking scene. Aside from section hiking (or hiking the trail in sections rather than from end to end) the Appalachian Trail, Niekamp has completed a thru-hike of Ohio’s Buckeye Trail, the 1,100-mile Florida Trail, the John Muir Trail, the Superior Hiking Trail, and the Colorado Trail.
In fact, in 2011, Niekamp (known as Captain Blue on the trail) wrote a book about his adventures as the first thru-hiker of the 1,444-mile Buckeye Trail called “Captain Blue on the Blue Blazes.”
He has always been a hiking and outdoors enthusiast, but he didn’t dedicate a large portion of his life to hiking until over a decade ago when he semi-retired from a corporate job at Hewlett Packard during the Great Recession.
“In a nutshell, I hike because of the inner journey,” Niekamp said. “For a lot of people who go backpacking, it’s about the outer journey — what they see and where they are — but I go because of the inner strength that I get — the peace, billowing out the cobwebs, just kind of getting away from my normal life. Every so often I just need to go immerse myself in nature, to get some physically demanding exercise and push myself and get out of my comfort zone. That’s where I reap the benefits of hiking.”
While many might wonder how a trail could continuously captivate Niekamp for over 30 years, he claims it’s the multitude of terrains and challenges that have him hooked. On each section hike of the Appalachian Trail, he spends a solitary 500 to 700 miles trekking through the Appalachian Mountains and marveling at the sights mountains, lakes, wildlife and more.
“When I first hiked the Appalachian Trail, and once again, I did this all in sections, it was very difficult,” Niekamp said. “But then I realized how much better it was the second time because I knew what I was getting myself into and I was much more prepared. I didn’t have this constant quest for new miles. Most people who hike the Appalachian Trail care more about coming home and saying how many miles they did. But then I realized, you know, I didn’t have that pressure of having to get it done because I’ve already done it. And in the subsequent times, when I went back, it just got even better, and then it became like an old friend.”
Throughout the years, Niekamp has experienced many once in a lifetime events while hiking the Appalachian Trail. One of the more perilous experiences occurred during an afternoon thunderstorm in New York when a bolt of lightning hit the ground near him. Though the bolt of lightning did not hit him directly, he says the electricity still traveled through his body. After hiking nearly a mile to get to the paramedics, he was evaluated and came back perfectly fine from being electrocuted.
Though his frequent hikes as founder of Dayton Hikers provide more than an adequate amount of training for his Appalachian Trail adventures, Niekamp suggests locals looking to hike the Appalachian Trail can train by visiting the Caesar Creek State Park trails or the Twin Valley Trail near Germantown. Additionally, to get accustomed to the experience of hiking longer distances, he suggests hikers take a large backpack with them on these hikes.
Now that Niekamp has hiked the Appalachian Trail an impressive five times, he has his sights set on conquering other trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail (made famous by the novel “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and subsequent movie starring Reese Witherspoon). He is also open to penning another novel about his experiences on the Appalachian Trail. In the meantime, he plans to keep busy embarking upon challenging hikes on trails around the country.
To learn more about Niekamp and his many outdoor adventures, visit buckeyetrailhiker.com. To get involved with the Dayton Hikers, visit daytonhikers.com.