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Hikers bond over PA's ice cream challenge

More than 35 years after it began, the "half-gallon challenge" has become one of the Appalachian Trail's most well-known traditions.

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For Appalachian Trail hikers, devouring a whole tub of ice cream is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Every summer, more than a thousand hikers pass through Pine Grove Furnace State Park, west of York in Cumberland County, the approximate mid-point of the 2,186-mile footpath between Georgia and Maine.

Some of those hikers will attempt one of the trail's well-known traditions, "the half-gallon challenge." To complete it, you have to eat a 1.5-quart tub of Hershey's ice cream, plus a hand-scooped pint, in one sitting.

The challenge began more than 35 years ago, when the former manager of the Pine Grove Furnace General Store realized that thru-hikers — those trying to hike the entire trail in one long push — were craving ice cream by the time they were halfway through.

Since then, the tradition has become a fixture, said store owner Michelle Michael, so much so that the state contractually requires her to provide the tubs of ice cream.

"It's become so popular, even some non-hikers are coming out to try it," Michael said.

Like the trail itself, the challenge brings together people from sundry backgrounds. On a humid June day, three more-or-less strangers sat together, relaxing and talking while two of them attempted to breach their dense blocks of ice cream with spoons.

“We didn’t start the hike together,” said Mitchell Connell, a wiry 24-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee. “We’d be an unlikely combination.”

Connell sat next to Daniel Dean, a 33-year-old Nashville songwriter whose eagle, globe and anchor tattoo identified him as a Marine Corps veteran. Dean served three tours in Iraq. Now he is on the trail with Warrior Expeditions, a charitable group that coordinates long distance hikes for groups of veterans.

Matt Stavenjord, a 24-year-old from Falls Church, Virginia, decided to take up the challenge after watching Dean destroy his cookies and cream. After more than two months hiking, his pack has worn a hole in the shoulder of his vaguely tropical button-down shirt, a look, along with his seafarer's beard, that makes his trail name, "Castaway," seem fitting.

READ: York's Earl Shaffer remains a legend among Appalachian Trail hikers

The oldest to take up the challenge so far that day was Yongshuo Li. The 63-year-old retired as an editor from China Press that spring and got on the trail after watching "A Walk In The Woods," the film adaptation of Bill Bryson's hiking memoir. Li had never hiked before, but this was hardly his first adventure; in 1999, he rode a bicycle from New York to Los Angeles, and in 2007 he biked from Seattle to Prudhoe Bay on the northern coast of Alaska.

Those four hikers are just a sliver of the daily traffic passing through the general store during this season, when it will serve hot food to dozens of hikers per day, Michael said.

Of the 10 to 20 hikers per day that will try the challenge, there's about a 70 percent success rate, Michael said. Others start and get lured away by the smell of hamburgers and other food the store serves. Occasionally, there's a more visceral reason the hikers can't finish.

The prize for those who do complete it? A wooden spoon, which reads "member of half gal. club." That, and a lifetime of honor.

Still, hikers, always eager to set new records, have created a more extreme challenge, Michael said. In the last 10 days, two hikers have done the "one-gallon challenge."

Even among this elite group, there are further records to be set. For example, the record for the quickest completion of the one-gallon challenge is some quasi-legendary figure named "Samsquatch," who ate a gallon of ice cream in 24 minutes and 40 seconds.

How many calories is in a gallon of ice cream? That number will vary slightly by flavor, but for example, Hershey's cookies and cream flavor, which Dean ate, has 170 calories per half-cup serving, according to its nutrition information. That means a half gallon has 1,360 calories and a whole gallon has 2,720.

Nobody is worried about cutting calories, though.

"The more calories, the better," Connell  said. "If you're feeling tired, that's bad because your body might not have enough calories and is burning your muscle and fat for food."

Hikers become experts at selecting low-weight, high calorie foods that keep them fueled. Some of their staples are instant mashed potatoes, Pop-Tarts and beef jerky, Stavenjord said. Connell stocks up on Knorr rice and noodle meals and jumbo Honey Buns, which he said pack 610 calories each.

Hikers are often short on words when asked why they decided to hike the trail. Connell and Stavenjord each mentioned that they had graduated from college in December and hadn't yet begun their professional lives.

"It's like a good blank spot in our lives for hiking," Connell said.

Dean said he's wanted to hike it since he got out of the Marines in 2007. In addition, the chance to hike with other veterans was a sort of therapy for him.

"Warriors used to walk home from war," he said. "That was decompression time. Stuff like this is one way for veterans to share our experience."

For Li, who shares his time between Brooklyn, New York, and China, the hike was one more way to experience the natural beauty of the United States. Unlike bicycling, hiking often leaves him with several days at a time in the wilderness.

"The hiking is hard everywhere, but America is very beautiful," he said.

Pine Grove Furnace State Park 

Situated at the northern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 696-acre park is full of history, wildlife and recreation activities. Here are a few ways to enjoy the park, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Historic iron furnace

Pine Grove furnace was built in 1764 and was used to make stoves, kettles, fireplace parts and possibly armaments during the American Revolution. The furnace ran for 131 years, producing 6,000 net tons of cast iron during its peak year in 1883. Though it ceased production in 1895, the furnace stands intact, evidence of the region's early industrial past.

Appalachian Trail Museum

The museum gets right to the point of what hikers care about — gear. One display features original equipment carried by Earl Shaffer, the first person confirmed to have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. Another display shows the gear carried by Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, the first woman to thru-hike the trail. Gatewood's minimalist gear, including little more than a Band-Aid tin, Army sleeping bag and shower curtain, is likely to impress contemporary hikers accustomed to lightweight stoves and freeze-dried meals.

Two lakes

A short bike ride is all that separates Fuller Lake and Laurel Lake, located at opposing ends of the park. Each lake has beaches, picnic areas and other recreational activities. Stocked trout make for year-round fishing at the lakes, and because Mountain Creek flows through the parks, cold-water species like brown, brook and rainbow trout can also be found. Boating and swimming are also popular at the lakes.

Pole Steeple Vista

The park has four miles of trails, including a dramatic overlook on a rock outcropping called Pole Steeple Vista. The hike to the outlook is less than a mile, but the trail is steep and hikers should exercise caution. Those who aren't in shape for a steep climb can opt for one of the meandering, relatively flat trails that run between Fuller Lake and Laurel Lake.

If you go

What: Pine Grove Furnace State Park

Where: 1100 Pine Grove Road, Gardners

Cost: All Pennsylvania state parks are free to enter. There is a cost to camp at the park.