Mother, son plan hike on Appalachian Trail


Jennifer Cenker and her son, Gabe Cenker, train at Cruickshank Sanctuary in Rockledge for their upcoming hike of the Appalachian Trail.

photo by mary brotherton

Jennifer Cenker has been in love with the outdoors for as long as she can remember. Out of concern that it wasn’t safe for a girl to go hiking alone, her father declined her request to take a year off before starting college so she could hike the Appalachian Trail. 

Her parents were also against her desire to teach in a remote Alaskan village after college, fearing for her safety so far in the wilderness. But these roadblocks never stopped her love of the outdoors and adventurous spirit. 

“When I first met my husband, I shared my dream with him about hiking the AT and he has always told me that I needed to follow my dream,” Cenker said. “But the time was never quite right. I’ve learned in life, there is always something that seems to come up. You just have to make the time or you’ll spend your whole life chasing things you want to do instead of actually doing them. Before you know it, your time will be up. The right time is now.”

She has decided to fulfill her dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in the spring of 2017. Her son Gabe, who will be 14 by that time, will hike the trail with her.

Cenker said she and her husband had taken Gabe to visit the Smoky Mountains National Park when Gabe
was 5. 

PHOTO BY MARY BROTHERTON“He was instantly fascinated with the idea that there was a trail that went from Georgia up to Maine. I had never shared with him my deep desire to hike the trail. We went back several more times to the Smokies and each time we had to hike part of the trail.”

When Gabe was 9, his mother told him about her dream and he suggested they should plan to hike the trail together. 

“We aren’t worried about taking time off from school because he’s ahead of where he should be in the county’s eyes and the last few years he’s been taking honors high-school Florida Virtual School online classes and getting straight A’s. He plans on taking the ACT soon so he can look at applying for dual enrollment after our hike.”

Gabe has been home-schooled since he was 5 years old.

“We have a pretty good feeling he will learn more on our thru-hike than anyone could learn sitting in a classroom. It will definitely build his self-confidence, individuality, patience and life skills. It’s also something that could help him on a college or future work application. It shows he can think outside the box.”

They have been planning, researching and shopping for their hike almost a year.

“We’ve nicknamed the UPS truck the Brown Truck of Happiness because of weekly gear deliveries.”

They have been training with weights, stretches and walking and they have tried out dozens of shoes, backpacks, sleeping bag pads and pillows. 

“It’s important we sleep well.”

They are working on a plan for separations, emergencies and communicating with family despite the canopy of trees that prevents typical cell phone reception.

“I have no interest in being able to use my cell phone and we are very much looking forward to becoming unplugged from the internet and phone.”

Cenker said hikers must prepare emotionally and mentally for any contingency.

PHOTO BY MARY BROTHERTON“It’s going to be the hardest thing we have ever done. There will be horrible days when we’ll feel sore, hungry, filthy and worn out. On the other hand, we’re going to see amazing beauty that many will never get to see. We’ll be hiking with a wonderful array of other human beings. We’ll spend some amazing quality time together and learn so much about ourselves. You have to be prepared knowing that while it’s a grand adventure, it’s going to be incredibly hard.” 

Because they expect to be on the trail up to seven months, they will rely on Dave Cenker, Jennifer’s husband and Gabe’s father, to mail boxes of supplies and food to the towns they will enter every few days. 

In addition to planning and preparing in advance for the hike itself, the duo intend to take time toward the end of their hike to prepare to re-enter their life at home. 

“Coming back to reality is hard. It is too loud, too fast, too many people, too much technology. Once people get off the trail, they have to remember that their bodies are not burning massive amounts of calories and so they have to be aware of not eating everything in sight. I think it will just be a lot of mental preparation trying to coax ourselves back into the real world.”

In addition to preparing for the hike itself and learning to cook on the trail, Gabe Cenker volunteers at Rotary Park, is involved in Boy Scouts, is on Merritt Island’s FRC Horsepower 801 Robotics team and is currently studying Japanese.

Jennifer Cenker said, “While it is in my heart and soul to push with everything in our power to complete the whole 2,200 miles, I know that only one in every four hikers actually completes the whole trail. We sure are going to do the best we can and the way I look at it, no matter how far we make it, I am teaching my son to always go for your dreams no matter how hard or how old you
may be.” 

Jennifer Cenker will blog for the Appalachian Trials blog site and you can follow their adventures by visiting VV

If you’d like to contribute supplies to their drop boxes or just words of encouragement, email