It had been a long push Friday, June 15, 2012, and Jake “Achilles” Mehlman and Paul “Parkside” Bernhardt needed to cool off. The two intrepid thru-hikers, who had ventured from the deep south, had pushed 20 miles likely from the West Carry Pond Lean-to until arriving at Pierce Pond before dusk.
So the two decided to use the pond for a quick, much-deserved dip. But as Bernhardt swam farther from shore, he vanished beneath the pond’s surface and never rose, according to a Bangor Daily News report.
Maine Game Wardens, Pleasant Ridge Fire and Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance personnel worked over the weekend to recover the body of Paul Anthony Bernhardt, 20, of Flushing, New York. Bernhardt had drowned in 15 feet of water some 35 yards from the shore of Pierce Pond, the Bangor Daily News reported.
With just a little more than 155 miles to go before Bernhardt would reach Katahdin, his journey was brought to a tragic end. He would have likely hit the northern terminus by the Fourth of July when Baxter State Park would be teeming with thru-hikers and weekend hikers and campers alike.
But there was much more to Bernhardt’s story than news reports told.
Appalachian Trail journals from the Class of 2012 reveal that Bernhardt had a magnetic personality that made him instantly likable among his thru-hiker brothers and sisters.
Peter J. Wetzel decided at the age of 63 he would hike the Appalachian Trail. Early on down south he met Bernhardt at Max Patch Bald along North Carolina’s section of the Appalachian Trail, according to a June entry in his trail journal, made just days after Bernhardt drowned. News of Bernhardt’s death hit Wetzel hard.
Bernhardt was the first hiker Wetzel met on the trail, so he became engrossed in following the progress of this “super intelligent, inquisitive kid.”
All along the way he read Bernhardt’s entries at the various registries along the trail and was struck by the humor and intelligence of his notes. (Wetzel has shared a number on these entries on his trail journal, which you can see here.)
One Appalachian Trail blogger from Saugus, Massachusetts, who had met and spent time on the trail with Mehlman, the last hiker to see Bernhardt alive, dedicated a post to the fallen hiker. According to the blogger, he had learned from Mehlman that this Appalachian odyssey was a first for Bernhardt. Prior to the Appalachian Trail, he had little hiking experience and had never spent a night out in the woods. Yet, he had put 2,029 miles under his boots by the time he reached Pierce Pond, just shy of the Kennebec River. An astounding feat that gives him the privilege of joining the ranks of hikers such as Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, who also had no prior hiking experience before journeying from Mount Oglethorpe to Katahdin in 1955.
Even though Bernhardt never reached the trail’s end, he did accomplish what many people never will: Hike over 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Bernhardt was posthumously accepted into the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s 2,000-Miler List. Also on the list is his companion Mehlman with he whom he would have finished his trek and Peter J. Wetzel, who was very much drawn to Bernhardt’s amicable nature.
Could there be a more fitting tribute to a hiker of his caliber? I think not.