Mariel Leonard, a functional life skills teacher in Biddeford, plans to trek the Appalachian Trail next year. SUBMITTED PHOTO

BIDDEFORD — Mariel Leonard, a functional life skills teacher at John F. Kennedy Memorial School, has momentous plans for next year.

Leonard petitioned the school board for a leave of absence from Feb. 2020 until June 2020 to hike the entire the Appalachian Trail. The committee voted on the motion for her extended leave at the Feb. 26 meeting, and she was granted a leave of absence with a majority vote.

Leonard stumbled upon her new life goal while she was a student at the University of New England.

“When I was at UNE, I hiked around the area. I had never even heard of the Appalachian Trail,” said Leonard. “Once I learned about it, I told myself, ‘This is something I’m going to do someday.’”

The Appalachian Trail spans 2,190 miles up the East Coast from Georgia to Maine. Leonard said hikers must register online for when they’re beginning so rangers know how many people are on the trail. Leonard and her hiking partner will begin in Georgia in March and finish on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in late August.

“[The hike] should take around six months to complete,” said Leonard. “We’ll leave in the beginning of March and I’ll be back for the start of the school year.”

When preparing for such a lengthy hike, many factors come into play.

“I go to the gym five to six days a week, and I’m planning longer hikes to test out my gear,” Leonard said.

Hikers on the Appalachian Trail carry everything they need on their backs. The packs can be as much as 40 pounds.

“[In a pack] you’ll need a headlamp, sleeping bag, tent, a boiler and small propane cans to make a stove, a travel toothbrush, pocket knife, and meals that are ‘just add water,’” said Leonard. “I won’t carry anything I won’t use.”

In addition to those items, Leonard said she’ll also have her trail shoes along with camp shoes, light shoes to wear at the tent to let the feet breathe, and a water bottle. Leonard said carrying a water bottle rather than a Camelbak water backpack is more appealing to her because she’ll easily be able to see how much water she has left.

Finding water isn’t the hardest part. Purifying it to be safe to drink is key.

“There are sources for water all along the trail, and there are tablets you can buy that can purify water,” Leonard said.

Once Leonard begins the hike, she said she’ll average around 10 miles per day. In the southern part of the trail, there are trail towns that are centered around people who hike the trail.

“When I’m in Georgia, I’ll stop more frequently,” said Leonard. “I’ll only carry enough to get me to the next stop.”

In addition to physically preparing for such a grueling hike, hikers need to mentally prepare as well. Leonard said she’s read books and posts from people who’ve hiked the trail to hear their experiences.

“Every time I read about it, I’m like, ‘I want to be that person,’” said Leonard. “The odds are against me because most people don’t finish.”

But Leonard is determined to complete the trail.

“As a teacher in Life Skills, (my students) go through so many hardships everyday. If they can do something seemingly difficult, so can I.”

Leonard said she’s been talking about this hike for months, and she’s at the perfect place in her life to do it.

As Leonard reads and hears about other people completing the hike, she’s further inspired to continue.

“I met a guy at the top of Mount Katahdin who had just finished the trail,” said Leonard. “Seeing him in that moment made my eyes well up with tears. (He was) so happy to be done, and he was accomplished after the extremely grueling and inspiring journey.”

Leonard’s journey is now fast approaching with less than 12 months before it begins. She’s ready to take on the grueling adventure.

“I’m 150 percent certain I won’t decide to quit because I know it’s for me,” she said.

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