First Day Hikes give a 'great perspective for the coming year'

First Day Hikes, held at parks throughout Maryland on Jan. 1 each year, have grown in popularity since 2012.

Unlike many holiday celebrators, Jim Rapp won't sleep in on New Year's Day. Or battle a hangover. Or sprawl on the sofa and watch football.

Rapp, of Hampden, has other plans. He'll rise early with his wife and 19-month-old daughter, drive to Assateague State Park and take part in the annual First Day Hike, one of 27 Jan. 1 jaunts around the state that are sponsored by the Maryland Park Service. There, on the beach, the Rapps will join perhaps 200 others, and a guide, and set off on a 1-mile trek around the island. They might see wild ponies and deer on the wind-swept terrain, as well as gulls and loons riding the waves offshore.

For Rapp, 46, a 15-year veteran of Assateague's First Day Hike, the day has a cleansing effect.

"Standing on the beach, on the edge of a continent and staring out at the ocean on New Year's Day is a spiritual thing. It centers me and makes my own problems seem less overwhelming," he said. "The hike starts at 1 p.m. but I like to go early. You get a sense that you have the place all to yourself, that you're one little speck in the natural world. It's an amazing feeling of isolation and solitude — and a super way to start the year."

Having attracted 225 participants in 2015, Assateague is the most popular of the state's First Day Hikes, which are scheduled in Maryland parks from Deep Creek Lake to Gunpowder Falls. Hikes range from 1 to 4 miles, vary in difficulty and start anywhere from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A complete list can be found at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/Publiclands/Pages/firstdayhikes.aspx.

First Day Hikes have more than tripled in popularity since 2012, when they became an annual event throughout Maryland. Last year, 1,600 people braved the elements and hiked a total of 3,267 miles on New Year's Day.

"We do this to get people outside during the holidays, away from their computers and TVs," said Barbara Knisely, personnel officer of the Maryland Park Service. "What we see is a mix. Last year I hiked the 3 miles at Tuckahoe State Park [Queen Anne's County] and met both a 5-year-old with his family and a couple in their 70s.

"People come with babies and backpacks, and several parks encourage folks to bring their pets on a leash."

Most hikes end with complimentary hot chocolate and cookies.

Assateague has attracted as many as 300 people since its initial First Day Hike 20 years ago, said Kathy Phillips, executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust.

"Folks actually drive from Baltimore to do this," she said. "Others come to Ocean City for New Year's Eve, then do the hike. Some are bleary-eyed, yes, but taking that walk on the beach helps you get through it. Plus, there's no way to get lost.

"The guide takes you to the north tip of the island, past dunes and marshes and forest life, without the flies and mosquitoes of summer. When you look off in the distance and see the development in OC, it makes you appreciate the wonder of having Assateague as preserved as it is."

For 20 years, Ron Pilling of Charles Village has done the First Day Hike at Assateague, regardless of how much partying took place the night before.

"It's often cold and windy there, which sobers you up pretty quickly," said Pilling, 67. "Why go? As a kid growing up in Baltimore, I went with my family to Ocean City. I don't go there now, but doing this still gives me a connection to that beach experience.

"Going to Assateague in winter gives you a difference environmental appreciation for the place. For one thing, there's not the distraction of young women on the beach like there is on the Fourth of July, so you find yourself looking at different things. And there are a whole lot more shells to pick up in January because no one is there."

Rapp said he never tires of the First Day Hike.

"Many times, when I was younger, I'd stay up late on New Year's Eve, drink champagne and wake up feeling horrible," he said. "But laying on the couch the next day does nothing for me. At Assateague, I may see a yellow-rumped warbler flitting around on the bayberry shrubs, or find fragments of sea turtle shells.

"It's fun to bundle up and do this, and it gives me a great perspective for the coming year."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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