Worcester resident Tom Walsh took life’s trials to the trails.
In late June, the 65-year-old cancer survivor finished a 218-mile continuous thru-hike of Otsego County, walking to all 24 of the county’s towns, 20 of its state forests and five Otsego Land Trust conservation sites. The hike doubled as a fundraiser, with proceeds benefiting Otsego Outdoors and Bassett Health Care Network’s Hannah-Lee House, which provides housing for patient families. This year marked Walsh’s fourth annual such hike.
“Seven or eight years ago, I started hiking regularly, and looked at hiking the Long Path, from Manhattan to Thacher Park,” Walsh said. “I’m a member of the Long Path Hiking Club and maintain the last 75 miles up here … so I had an interest in doing the whole (358-mile trail). I was building up to it when I got diagnosed with cancer and that threw a monkey wrench into everything.
“While battling cancer, I wound up getting extremely sick (with fungal pneumonia), and was on life support for five days,” he continued. “It was a really bad time, and that was December 2018. When I had cancer, we had a plan … and there was never a doubt that I was going to beat the cancer, but then, when I got sick after chemo, we were told by doctors ‘we can’t guarantee anything.’ My kids had to leave work and come say goodbye to me, but 18 months later, I was standing on a mountain in the Catskills. I came off life support on my 61st birthday, got better, came home, beat the cancer and started hiking and building toward that goal. Then I decided, if I was going to walk that five weeks, I might as well try to raise some money. It’s something I wanted to do for the hospital, for saving my life. So, my being sick got me into doing this, and I’ve raised, after this year, over $19,000 and … it’s just under 1,000 miles that I’ve walked.”
Walsh said he typically sets a $5,000 fundraising goal.
“I got the impression from nurses that there were a lot of people that had difficulty paying (for medical treatment), so I raised money for Bassett Cancer Institute, and that was 2020 and about $4,900,” he said. “The second year, I went out to do that same trail in reverse — nobody had ever hiked the Long Path in both directions — but I got injured and had to call off the hike after 19 days, but still raised $4,600.
“Then I met Peg (Odell) and others at Otsego Outdoors three years ago and did one of their Octet challenges in one day and that made a big splash; I did like 18 miles in one day,” Walsh continued. “The Octet Challenge is a great thing the county does … and a great way for people to be introduced to the outdoors, but I’m used to 10 or 12 miles in a day, so I said, ‘Let’s see if I can do them all in one day,’ and I did. I said, ‘You know what? Maybe next year I’ll raise money for you guys,’ so every year, half the money goes to Bassett — cancer, ICU, patient and family services — and (half to Otsego Outdoors).”
Odell, program manager with Otsego Outdoors, said she’s appreciative of Walsh’s efforts. According to a media statement, Otsego Outdoors “connects residents and visitors with year-round recreational opportunities in and near Otsego County (and is) a joint program of Otsego 2000, the Otsego County Conservation Association, the Otsego Land Trust and the Butternut Valley Alliance.” In addition to the seasonal Otsego Outdoors Octet challenges, the statement says, the agency launched a new Summer Octet in late June.
“We’re really grateful to Tom for raising these funds for Otsego Outdoors, not only for trail maintenance, but he is a longtime trail volunteer and has helped us with volunteer training,” she said. “We have a core of volunteers working with the Otsego County Conservation Association … and they’ve adopted parts of trails in different state forests and the Butternut Valley Alliance is doing that, too. We’re working with DEC to take ownership of the trails and make sure they’re in good condition for anybody to enjoy. Last year, he also raised funds for us, and those went to all the state forests and state parks in the county. His determination and generosity, we’re just very grateful for it, and we encourage people to follow his example and get outside; not necessarily to hike 218 miles, but lots of places you can hike on or two miles and have a great time.”
Beyond funds, Odell said, Walsh’s efforts also raise awareness. She said that Walsh is “almost” to his $5,000 goal, though the donation portal at otsegooutdoors.org will remain open “for another month or so.”
“Some people sponsored him per state forest or land trust site, and there were 25 places he set out (to visit), and he reached that goal and hiked through all 24 Otsego County towns, just to show that these resources are county wide,” she said. “He wants everyone to know that, within 10 minutes of your house in Otsego County, you can find publicly accessible land, and that it’s there for all of us to enjoy.”
Funds raised this year, Odell said, will benefit work at Basswood Pond State Forest, where Walsh has worked “for a long time,” and purchase of tools for volunteers and better signage and trail blazes.
A representative from the Hannah-Lee House was not available for comment in time for press, though Walsh said he hopes his charity hike can “draw some more attention” to it.
“I do this to raise funds and challenge myself, but the big thing is awareness,” he said. “The Hannah-Lee House, a lot of people hadn’t even heard of it. Bassett brought me over and showed me, and it’s beautiful. I said, ‘Works for me; let’s give the money to them.’ I actually spent one night (of the hike) at the Hannah-Lee House.”
Odell said Walsh’s undertaking dovetails with rising post-pandemic interest in outdoor recreation.
“We’ve seen continued interest in hiking, and we offer the seasonal challenges and (hiking group) the Otsego Octets is interested in them, and they tell us they’re always interested in finding new trails, so as part of the Summer Octet we just started, there’s a new set of Table Rock trails up at Hartwick (College) now open to the public, and that’s a great place with wonderful views,” she said. “We just want to let people know all that’s available. It’s a quality-of-life issue; people are interested in being outside, and we just want to give them the tools to make the most of it.
“And we can always use more (volunteers) and people adopting portions (of trails),” Odell continued. “It’s a big job — cutting down branches or reporting fallen trees — so along with more people being interested in hiking, we want to have more trails available and clear for people to use.”
Walsh, too, emphasized the importance of trail maintenance and availability in relation to rising usership.
“We’re building, maintaining and establishing some new trails and, hopefully, in the next couple years, we’ll get more walking places in the county,” he said. “There’s 20 state forests in the county, but maybe 10 miles of actual DEC land; you can find an old logging or snow-mobile trail and walk on them, but they need to be designated by DEC if we want them maintained, and that’s what I do. I get my weedwhacker and trimmers and make sure they’re in good shape for people to walk on them, so that’s our goal with Otsego Outdoors: promote these great outdoor places and enhance them as we go.”
Walsh said he typically begins planning his charity hikes in January.
“I enjoy the prep for it,” he said. “After the first of the year, I break the maps out and start my recon. I pinned all my locations and ran a piece of twine from one to the other.”
Walsh, who finished his recent trek on June 21, said this year’s hike was full of ups and downs.
“The hardest part has just got to be the climbs,” he said. “I can tell you, Otsego County has more uphills than downhills. It seems I started and ended every day with a two-mile climb, and those were the hard parts. I like to think I’ve walked on everything from single-track foot trails to logging, snowmobile season roads to county and state roads. The only thing I didn’t walk on was the interstate, but I hit pretty much every kind of road this county has.
“Total, from start to finish, it was 21 days,” Walsh continued, noting that he did “take a couple extra days” when smoke from Canadian wildfires came through the area. “I went from Fly Creek to Richfield Springs (that day) and it was about 12 miles with a full pack and by the time I was in Richfield Springs, I was physically ill.”
Despite the difficulties, Walsh said, this year had “a hell of a lot more good parts.”
“I just enjoyed it, I really did,” he said. “A dozen times a day, I’d go around a bend and just have a vista around me, and to see the beauty in this county is unbelievable. I’m already starting to think what to do for next year. It’s getting harder and harder to carry this pack; with food and water, it’s getting to be really heavy for me. I have old man syndrome and the aches and pains that come with age, so I’m looking at options … and trying to figure out a way to make it easier for myself, but it’s still to got to be a challenge. If it wasn’t hard for me, I’d just ask people for money, but I want people to give money based on me actually completing (the challenge). There’s a couple of sayings in the hiking community: ‘embrace the suck,’ and it’s going to suck, at some point. When I went from Morris to Gilbertsville, I’d done 12 miles in the pouring rain, without stopping, for five hours and it was just horrible, but you’ve got to laugh. If you don’t laugh and embrace it, it’s going to kill you. That, and ‘never quit on a bad day.’ Those are the two mantras I have on the brim of my hat. You have bad days, but you’ve got to make it through, wake up in the morning and then decide what you’re going to do.
“And I met a lot of great people,” Walsh continued. “People let me stay on their property with land between state forests, people fed me, so it was a lot of good this year. I’m not going to lie, some of them mountains and hills took me hours and that wasn’t fun at all, but I’ve come to accept it. I realized a couple years ago, I really hate climbing mountains, so I really took up the wrong hobby, but I’ve accepted it … and, when I get to the bottom of the hill, I look up and say, ‘All right, let’s do this.’”
For more information, including how to volunteer and a schedule of outdoor events in Otsego County, visit otsegooutdoors.org.
Worcester resident Tom Walsh took life’s trials to the trails.