February 2010
Walking the Walk for Stronger Kids
by Jennifer Cline. Photos courtesy of Ryan Boatman.

Ryan Boatman doesn’t want other kids to head down the path he began to tread when he was a teenager. Once well acquainted with trouble, he has decided to follow a new road, and part of the journey took him more than 1,700 miles on the rugged Appalachian Trail.

Little things make big differences sometimes

Boatman, a 2008 graduate of Pennsylvania College of Technology’s physical fitness specialist major, hiked the trail – a footpath that stretches 2,178 miles from Georgia to Maine – last summer to help promote the YMCA Strong Kids Campaign. Boatman is a Fit Team member and personal trainer at the Eastern Lycoming YMCA in Pennsdale, where colleagues say he is a role model for the facility’s young clients.

Ryan Boatman on the trail

The annual Strong Kids Campaign raises funds for scholarships that help children and families to afford YMCA programs such as child care, day camp and programs for at-risk youth.

Boatman was introduced to hiking through such a youth program, offered through STEP Inc., in Williamsport, when he was a young teen. It was not until college that he bought a backpack and began taking short hikes, his longest a 59.21-mile trail over three days and two nights.

“Now I’m kind of hooked,” he said.

On the Appalachian TrailBoatman began his Appalachian Trail journey with an Amtrak ride to Gainesville, Ga., where he stayed with an aunt and uncle who then drove him to Amicalola Falls State Park.

“My heart was pounding,” he said. At the park, he registered and weighed his pack, then started the 9-mile approach trail to the official Appalachian Trail head on the summit of Spring Mountain.

“I practically ran up that mountain, I was so excited,” he said.

A black bear comes in for a closer look.

Boatman said there were many hikers on the trail, each keeping his or her own pace.

“There were people partying,” he said. “I tried to steer clear of them.” Having joined the crowd in such activities when he was younger, he does not want to go back. “I’m still tempted; I’m still human. That’s the way I was brought up. I thought that was what people did. … But I try to be wild for a good cause now.”

Boatman says he had “kind of a rough childhood.” His father was not a good role model, he said, and in seventh grade, he began to find trouble. The trouble continued until he began his college career.

Boatman offers a thumbs up to the panorama on a sunny afternoon.“I barely got through high school,” he said. “I don’t know why I went to school for (physical fitness). I liked fitness, but I wasn’t too motivated.”

Once he began classes, his attitude – and his lifestyle – changed. He earned a spot on the dean’s list each of his five semesters at the college and was named recipient of the Ronald E. Thompson Memorial Physical Fitness Specialist Commencement Award.

Since returning from the trail, he has talked with groups of young people at churches – he describes himself as a born-again Christian – and other venues. He hopes to teach them that while some activities might seem like the “cool” choice, they won’t bring happiness.

“Not lasting happiness, anyway,” he said.

On the day he was interviewed, Boatman was preparing to take a 15-year-old acquaintance on his first hike. He said the boy does not have a male role model in his life and was excited for the trip.

Boatman gets close to a tamer form of wildlife on the trail.

“I empathize with him,” he said, recalling his own childhood and his longing to play outdoors with his father. “I didn’t have a great father figure. My mom would try,” he said, recounting with humor a short-lived boating attempt on the Susquehanna River in a blow-up raft. “It didn’t work out very well.”

He appreciates the value of being around a group that cares, and hopes children who benefit from the Strong Kids Campaign will gain from the same.

“I see activity and fitness as a positive outlet,” he said. “The way I found fitness was, I was suspended from school, and I had two dumbbells sitting around. I started lifting them, and I felt better. It improved my self-esteem.”

While he does not work directly with children as a personal trainer, he makes efforts to be a friendly face to the children he encounters at the YMCA.

Boatman befriends a donkey.“Little things make big differences sometimes,” he said.

“Ryan’s attitude definitely fits in with our tagline of ‘Caring, Honesty, Respect and Responsibility,’” said Melissa Wallis, communications director for the River Valley Regional YMCA, which encompasses the East Lycoming branch.

Wallis – who is a 1992 alumna of Penn College’s advertising art major – said Boatman represents the type of family the YMCA helps on a regular basis, be it with childcare or wholesome activities.

“Here’s a young gentleman who has been through that and is thriving,” she said. “He’s here for those kids, and he’s setting an example.”

One of the trail's many shelters.
Trials of the Trail

On the trail, Boatman got to know a few hikers, but being away from friends and family was difficult. When he had phone access, he called home, and his mother was always comforting.

“As it went on, though, it became quite emotional. I cried like a baby quite often,” he said.

Even for Boatman, who is typically enthusiastic about taking on physical challenges, the hike was grueling. Next time, he will pace himself.

“I always felt like I needed to go five more miles,” he said. But he pushed himself to the point of burnout.

After dropping 20 pounds of body weight in the first 300 miles of the trip, he also learned to leave the trail to visit restaurants – often all-you-can-eat buffets where staff gave him disapproving glances as he filled his hiker’s appetite – to keep his weight on.

On the Appalachian Trail.On the southern leg of his trek, Boatman spent 13 days in rain, which made traversing parts of Tennessee’s Roan Mountain more like wading a shin-high stream.

In Pearisburg, Va., Boatman took a five-day respite to visit with his girlfriend, who had traveled from Pennsylvania to see him. Although the modern conveniences of a hotel at first felt foreign, he quickly acclimated to the comfort, the good food and spending time with a loved one.

The visit only made him miss home more. But he continued on.

In Virginia and in Pennsylvania, Boatman was bitten by ticks. His neck and joints became stiff, and he began to feel lethargic – so exhausted that the high-energy 22-year-old sometimes lay down on the trail. By the time he reached Connecticut a month later, he felt bad enough to visit a doctor’s office, where upon describing his symptoms, he was given medication to treat Lyme disease.

Again, he continued on the trail. In Vermont, though, he became more ill. Running a fever, he took a day off in a motel, but he did not feel any better. Just 20 miles from the New Hampshire border and the White Mountains he had been looking forward to viewing, he made the wise decision to take a bus home to Muncy and delay finishing the trail.

“I try to be humble, but pride was a factor out there,” he said. It was difficult to have to stop short of the goal that had been widely publicized back home. “It was a big old mouthful to swallow.”

He arrived home Aug. 15, after hiking 1,714.1 miles from the trailhead in Georgia to Woodstock, Vt. He plans to return to finish the remaining 460.2 miles of the trail.

Boatman is back to work and normal activity, including replacing a co-worker in the Bald Eagle Mountain Megatransect, a 25-mile wilderness hike/run. (Boatman finished third in his age group and 33rd overall among the 585 men and women who completed the race.)

Wallis said Boatman not only helped to raise money and awareness for the local YMCA’s Strong Kids Campaign, but – through media coverage across northeastern and northcentral Pennsylvania and the personal encounters he made on the trail – he helped to advocate for all YMCAs. There are 2,686 YMCAs in the nation, which collectively serve more than 20 million people each year, including 9.5 million children.

Once reluctant to spend time with children, Boatman’s attitude has changed.

“I don’t mind putting a lot of effort into children, because it can make a big, big difference,” he said.