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May 2, 2002

Off the beaten path: Hiking is serious business for physics prof

The word "professorial" comes to mind when you see Richard H. Pratt in his Allen Hall office, catching up on some reading while munching a banana, at a desk stacked with physics journals and floppy disks.

The emeritus professor's unruly, thinning gray hair droops low across his forehead, one strand obscuring his eyebrows. He's wearing black pants and a short-sleeved dress shirt. Only his footwear — thick-soled hiking shoes — hints at Pratt's weekend adventures in the wilds of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Since 1970, six years after he joined the Pitt faculty, Pratt has been leading off-trail hikes for the Sierra Club. He also leads hikes for the University's Center for Lifetime Learning (formerly the Pitt Informal Program). And, during his travels as secretary of the International Radiation Physics Society and on Pitt's Semester at Sea program, Pratt has hiked up Japan's Mt. Fuji and in the Himalayas, the Romanian Carpathians and Poland's Tatras.

"I am a hiker, however, not a rock climber," Pratt notes. "I stay on my feet."

But rarely does he stay on the trail.

"Dick is an aggressive hiker," says fellow hiker Robert De Keyser, an associate professor of linguistics. "He's known for avoiding trails at all costs." De Keyser cautions that people who join Pratt's hikes should be prepared to get tired, muddy, "a bit scratched up" and, occasionally, even lost — temporarily, until Pratt regains his bearings with his compass and knowledge of regional terrain.

De Keyser's warning applies only to Pratt's 12-16 mile, off-trail hikes with fellow Sierra Club members, Pratt himself points out, not the "leisurely" seven-mile and "moderately strenuous" 10-mile hikes that he leads for Pitt's Center for Lifetime Learning. Pratt is among three leaders of the center's next hike, scheduled for May 16. It will explore the Coopers Rock State Forest (a 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh) and trails above the neighboring Cheat River Gorge.

"My introduction to hiking was with my father," Pratt recalls. "I grew up in upstate Michigan, in a little town called Mount Pleasant. The Chippewa River flows through it, and we would hike along that. Later, when I was 9 or 10, we hiked together in Vermont."

Pratt took a hiking hiatus until 1970, when the Sierra Club's local branch was founded. Pratt was elected as the branch's second chairperson, and later served as the club's state chairperson and regional vice president. During the early 1970s, Pratt wrote two of the original studies proposing that the U.S. Congress designate wilderness areas in Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest.

"It was a long political fight," Pratt says. "One of the three areas ended up being designated a wilderness area. The other two became national recreation areas." Even the less restrictive "recreation area" designations were fiercely opposed by the timber industry and state legislators in northwestern Pennsylvania — which shouldn't surprise anyone who followed the recent controversy involving Pitt's Environmental Law Clinic.

In retaliation for the clinic's representation of activists opposed to logging in the Allegheny National Forest, state lawmakers last year forbade spending state money on the clinic. Until law school personnel worked out a deal whereby the clinic will remain a self-supported part of the school, it faced bankruptcy or exile.

Before the conflict between clinic personnel and state legislators hit the news media, Sierra Club leaders approached Pratt to help resolve the issue. Pratt had long served on the University Planning and Budgeting Committee and other Pitt governance groups, and the issue had obvious budgetary implications.

"But then the [anti-logging] activists went public, and I saw no point in trying to work behind the scenes to resolve the issue," Pratt says.

Pratt prefers a quiet style of activism, in public or academic politics. "I suppose I'm low-key by choice. I'm just not the flamboyant type."

But, in Pratt's case, "low-key" should not be equated with "low-intensity," as anyone who has observed Pratt during meetings of the University Senate's budget policies committee can attest. One scene in particular comes to mind: Pratt's grilling of a Pitt administrator several years ago regarding the University's then-inconsistent (in some cases, exorbitant) rates for international telephone calls.

The administrator fended off other professors' questions but couldn't shake Pratt. Without raising his voice — although his eyebrows were working overtime, expressing skepticism and sarcasm — Pratt pounced on the slightest inconsistency in the administrator's presentation until the man finally apologized and admitted to Pratt's committee: "Basically, we screwed up."

q Pratt has sailed around the world twice as a dean on Semester at Sea. During his first voyage, in fall 1984, he initiated what came to be called the Dean's Hikes, expeditions he led through rustic areas near ports where the ship docked. Semester at Sea still offers the hikes but no longer calls them "Dean's Hikes" because subsequent deans weren't always physically up to leading them.

Pratt himself is still going strong, despite being diabetic and nearing his 68th birthday. "A young, vigorous hiker might go a bit faster, but I can still hike a good, steady pace," he says. "And I keep going for eight or 10 hours a day. I'm not a bird-watcher and I don't stop for photographs. I'll make a couple of 10-minute stops and spend 30 minutes for lunch."

At that pace, Pratt and his fellow hikers either scare off, or don't spot, a lot of wildlife. "I've seen one bear in some 30 years of hiking around here. That was fairly recently, down along Laurel Hill Creek. He ran away from us." Pratt also reports having seen deer herds, flocks of wild turkeys and several rattlesnakes (including "a couple of impressively big ones," he says) within a one- or two-hour drive of Pittsburgh.

Pratt has gotten caught in some impressive storms, most recently during a hike last December in Linn Run, south of Route 30. "It was sunny and 40 degrees during the day, with a light coating of snow. We hiked to the ridge of the Laurel Highlands trail that goes over to the Turnpike, looking at rock formations. One person wanted to look for more, but I was getting uneasy about the weather," Pratt says. "Indeed, a blizzard soon closed in on us."

Pratt led the group down off the ridge in blinding snow, at dusk, not knowing whether they would be able to cross the stream at the ridge's base. "In the end," he says, "we found an old footbridge across the stream, then walked along the road for a few miles, through eight inches of snow with ice under it."

What makes Pratt hike? "Oh, enjoying being out, seeing and understanding more of the world," he replies. "Enjoying peace and solitude. Exploring. Satisfying one's curiosity."

He doesn't plan to retire from hiking, off- or on-campus. "I have never ridden the campus bus," Pratt says, grinning proudly. "And except when I'm in the Cathedral of Learning, I almost never use an elevator."

— Bruce Steele

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