Nyle Sockbeson of the Penobscot Nation is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail to help inspire Indigenous children in his community and to raise awareness that the 2,200-mile trail crosses 22 Indigenous lands. Courtesy of Nyle Sockbeson

When Nyle Sockbeson started work two years ago as an outdoor educator at Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness in Bangor, he wanted to inspire children from Indigenous communities to pursue outdoor activities that he was able to enjoy while growing up in Rhode Island.

Sockbeson, 27, quickly was promoted to the agency’s Project Venture leader, directing outdoor adventures to help the children find confidence and motivation through time in nature. He teaches them to canoe, mountain bike, rock climb and build fires. He talks with them about Wabanaki culture to help instill pride in their heritage, and to gain confidence as they experience the joy and peace found outdoors.

“I started to realize that it was, for a lot of these kids, the first time they participated in any of these activities. For me that was a bit of a shock,” said Sockbeson, a member of the Penobscot Nation. “These kids, they love to do this stuff.”

Those children have led him to take on a greater challenge. In February, Sockbeson set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail to serve as an inspiration for kids in the Wabanaki communities in Maine. He also wanted to raise awareness that the 2,200-mile trail that crosses 14 states also occupies as many as 22 Indigenous lands. He is thru-hiking in honor of his brother, Douglas, who died of cardiac arrest in late 2020.

“This hike is a small part of what I can do to get Wabanaki representation more present,” he said, “and to keep youth involved in something that’s healthy. It’s really important for our community.”

Sockbeson is detailing his journey on his Instagram page. The Bangor-based Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness Center, which has provided financial support for Sockbeson’s journey, also is posting his trail journal as well as a map of the 22 Indigenous lands the AT crosses.


“My whole reasoning for why I wanted to do this project was to increase awareness in the big picture, increase Indigenous representation in the outdoor recreation industry,” Sockbeson said by phone as he took a break from his thru-hike in Hot Springs, North Carolina. “I want to see the outdoors be more diverse.”

The 86-year-old, 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail is billed as the longest thru-hike in the world. More than 3 million visit the trail every year. Only 3,000 attempt a thru-hike and only one in four complete the entire journey, according to Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which helps manage the trail for the National Park Service. 

The AT cuts through six national park units, eight national forests and two national wildlife refuges. It also crosses the native lands of the Abenaki people, the Pocumtuc Nation and the Wabanaki Confederacy in Maine, among other Indigenous communities. 

With each hiking post on Instagram, Sockbeson names the Indigenous land he is passing through, rather than the state, and tags his posts with #nativesoutdoors. He signs off each time with “woli-woni,” which is “thank you” in the Penobscot language, to acknowledge people taking time to read his posts.

Sockbeson’s odyssey is supported by the Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness in Bangor, which has allowed their outdoor educator time to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Courtesy of Nyle Sockbeson

He shares details about the grueling life of a thru-hiker describing how he sets up camp, filters water, and hangs his food to avoid attracting  bears. He also shares his reflections on being an Indigenous hiker. 

On March 21 when Sockbeson crossed the Cherokee’s native land, he posted about “The Longest Walk,” a traditional Wabanaki honor song. 


“I was taught this song honors the trail of tears, injustices that Indigenous People face, and all who suffer,” he wrote, and added: “As I hike through parts of the country where the trail of tears began, I’ve been singing loud for those who can’t … I continue to hike my longest walk and heal from my own trail of tears. Our traditional Wabanaki songs are good medicine.”

Educational signage along the Appalachian Trail is largely dictated by National Park Service guidelines, but the conservancy is exploring ways of providing better interpretive signs about Indigenous lands, said the ATC’s president and chief executive officer, Sandra Marra.

“We also support calls to return to original place names – for example, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation’s call to change Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Kuwohi,” Marra said. “While signage (along the trail) may currently be limited, some of the most famous summits, ridges, and streams along the Trail have maintained indigenous place names.”

While he grew up in Rhode Island, Sockbeson’s father was the director of high-stakes bingo at the nearby Foxwoods Casino and Resort in Connecticut. Mark and Sylvia Sockbeson both grew up on Indian Island in Maine. Nyle and his three siblings frequently returned there to visit family and the Penobscot community. 

“I was lucky enough to grow up in what you could say was an affluent household, to go on vacations to Alaska and cross-country road trips,” Sockbeson said. “I did all sorts of hiking with my dad and he would take me skiing. I was lucky to have my parents’ support to explore outdoor recreation. I truly fell in love with it.”

When Sockbeson graduated from the University of Maine he went to work in 2021 at Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness, which offers a variety of programs to help the members of Maine’s five Indigenous tribes. Among the programs it offers are treatment for substance abuse and recovery, maternal and child health care services, and combating infectious diseases.


Saige Purser, Sockbeson’s supervisor at Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness, said he helps “support social and emotional learning” through outdoor sports.

When Sockbeson shared his wish to hike the AT, Purser said his colleagues were universally supportive. Purser said Sockbeson is working for the wellness organization while he is on the hike – documenting his experience and sharing it with his community. It’s inspiring, she said. His colleagues conducted fundraisers and donated their paid time off to make it happen.

Sockbeson hikes with the backpack and ashes of his late brother, Douglas, on the Appalachian Trail. Nyle Sockbeson is making the long-distance hike to honor his brother. “I know he would have been here if he was still here today.” Courtesy of Nyle Sockbeson

“We support the community, that’s our job. This project is healing, and we are an organization that supports people’s healing,” Purser said. “For me, what he’s doing gives Indigenous representation in the outdoor industry where there’s not a lot of Indigenous people or people of color in the forefront. It’s improving, but it can always be better. What he’s doing provides that example and representation for Indigenous youth, that they can do this too.”

Since the moment Sockbeson started his journey from Springer Mountain in Georgia, his quest to help his Indigenous community also has been a personal one. On his 2,200-mile hike, Sockbeson carries the backpack and ashes of his late brother.

“I know he would have been here if he was still here today,” Sockbeson said. “My life suddenly and dramatically changed when he passed. I’m here doing this for him. I try to stay strong for him. He definitely changed me and left me in a better way.”

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