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Andy Zaayenga: Nature is a Wonderful Thing…

Andy Zaayenga is vice president of business development at HighRes Biosolutions, a company focused on the design and construction of innovative robotic systems and laboratory devices used by pharmaceutical and biotech companies and academic research laboratories. Prior to joining HighRes Biosolutions in December 2009, Zaayenga held senior management positions at SmarterLab, Tecan REMP, TekCel (Hamilton Storage Technologies) and Zymark (Caliper Life Sciences). He has been involved in laboratory automation since 1989. Zaayenga currently serves SLAS as secretary and also is active in the Laboratory Robotics Interest Group (LRIG) and the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER) among others.


"I have to spend time with nature. I'm a big believer that being out in the woods is healing and rejuvenating."

So says Andy Zaayenga, SLAS board member and vice president of business development at HighRes Biosolutions. Zaayenga goes for total immersion whenever he can—multi-week hiking trips on the Appalachian Trail for example. A section hiker, Zaayenga says he has trekked approximately 25 percent of the trail's 2,175 miles to date.

"I've been hiking, backpacking and camping all my life," Zaayenga continues. "I grew up in a semi-rural area and my childhood included lots of camping. There weren't sports teams, but there was boy scouts. I participated in scouting and learned to love and appreciate the outdoors."

As Zaayenga grew, married, had children and advanced in his career, his passion for hiking, backpacking and camping grew as well. His favorite spot is the Appalachian Trail, or A.T. to some, a wonderful resource available to all for either short day trips or longer excursions. Its footpaths stretch through 14 states of the eastern United States from Maine to Georgia. There are numerous trail access points and routes that appeal to those at any level of experience.

Zaayenga's first trip on the A.T. was a two-week hike in the Virginia section and beautiful Shenandoah National Park in 2003. In 2004 he and his older son Dan, who was 19 at the time, tackled the Vermont section. This was a 15-day hike covering 155 miles and it rained—every single day.

"We had a fantastic time anyway," Zaayenga recalls. " There was a great feeling of accomplishment."

Younger son Nick joined Dad in 2005 on a reprise of the 2003 hike in Virginia's Shenandoah. In 2006, Zaayenga found himself taking two hikes—one on his own in the New Jersey section and one with both sons in the New York section. The next two years, he hiked the Connecticut section into Massachusetts and then did a continuation of the Virginia section.

"I think it's pretty great that my sons wanted to go away for weeks with their dad," he says. "Now, they are both adults with jobs and it's harder to find the time to do this together."

But, Zaayenga will continue. He and his wife Helen took a weekend trip to the Minnewaska State Park Reserve, part of the Shawangunk Ridge in New York recently. While Helen doesn't backpack, they found a nice bed and breakfast and took some great hikes, along with their dog Ryder, to fully enjoy the outdoors.

Advice for Fellow Hikers

"Just go and do it," he advises. "Don't overanalyze or try to plan everything to the nth detail. At the same time, it is important you cut every gram of weight you can from your pack. I've become a weight wienie over the years. I believe that the less you carry, the more fun you have. You also learn how much you can live without."

Whenever he gets a new piece of equipment, he weighs it and adds it to a spreadsheet. He advises you should cut labels off gear, cut each piece of string shorter and leave as much as possible at home.

"On that first hike with my younger son, I must have had a 95-pound pack," he remembers. "I had extra shoes, a GPS and three knives. I have learned NOT to carry so much."

Another thing that has changed over the years is how he camps.

"When I hit 50, I decided I was tired of sleeping on the ground," he laughs. "I invested in a hammock and I have to tell you it is like sleeping on a waterbed. Dan also has a hammock, but Nick sleeps on the ground in a small tent."

He stressed the importance of taking time away from the usual workaday world and shared the parable about "sharpening the ax."

Once upon a time there were two men who lived in the same forest and decided to have a contest chopping wood. The first man was in good physical shape and very muscular. The second man was in good shape but smaller in statute and wiry. They would chop wood all day and at the end of the day compare to see who had chopped the most wood. The first man laughed to himself that there was no way this wiry little man would beat him. Every 45 minutes the second smaller man would take a break and would just wonder off somewhere. The first man laughed again to himself and said, "Yep there's no way this wiry little man is going to beat me." This happens several times during the day. At the end of the day the two men compare their piles of chopped wood and unbelievably the wiry little man has chopped twice as much wood as the more physically fit man. He says, "I don't understand. First I'm twice your size and twice your strength! On top of that, every 45 minutes you rolled off and took a break or a nap or something. You must have cheated!" The smaller man says, "I don't cheat. It was easy to beat you because every 45 minutes when you thought I was taking a break, I was out back sharpening my ax."

"This illustrates how I feel about taking some time off and renewing, reflecting and being able to come back to work with a clear mind," Zaayenga ends.

The Appalachian Trail

Zaayenga points out that the Appalachian Trail is very well characterized and resources are available to you for each section, complete with maps, landmarks, water sources, etc.

"The Appalachian Trail has universal appeal, and it has trails for everyone," he touts. "I've seen very heavy folks out there making their way, and I've met 70-year-old men hiking with their grandchildren. The scenery is just wonderful."

The beauty of nature also includes wildlife not normally seen in your neighborhoods, including bear, coyotes, deer, fox and snakes.

"There are only people walking the trail, not running motors, so the animals come out," Zaayenga reports. "There is a general peacefulness out in the woods surrounded by nature. I do my best to maximize that feeling by leaving electronics at home. Well, I do have a cell phone as I always promise my wife I'll call home every couple of days to let her know I'm alive!"

He speaks of a "oneness" with wildlife that transcends into the ability to live together and have no fear of one another. Of course, he also believes in setting boundaries.

"You have to do the proper things for prevention of wildlife issues," Zaayenga instructs. "Keep food out of your tent, don't cook in the campsite and respect the animals' homes. Out in the middle of the woods, the animals are less fearful of people, so they don't know to attack. In fact, they respect our space too."

He recounts a time where a bear came right up on him on a New Jersey hike. He was eating his lunch, and the bear cut across the trail just 10 feet in front of him. Zaayenga said he stood up to present a big profile and the bear took off, disappearing into the woods.

"Admittedly, on my first solo hike, I did worry quite a bit," he recalls. "No matter how rational I tried to be, the thought kept returning to me – ‘oh my gosh, I'm going to get eaten!'"

Clearly, that didn't happen. Zaayenga truly appreciates that he is in the animals' homes when he is hiking and camping, and he respects their space.

Making Time to Get Away

The summer of 2011 signals a return to the refuge of section hiking for Zaayenga. In 2009 and 2010, he wasn't able to make the time to take a long hike due to his new job. In 2011, he plans to hike the Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail and looks forward to the opportunity to get back to nature and refocus. And, while it is no A.T., Zaayenga is sure to at least hit the woods behind his home each weekend.

"Where we live we back up to the woods with miles of trails," he ends. "I feel physically different when I spend time there."

Hike/Backpack Like Zaayenga!

Thru-hiking (completing the entire Appalachian Trail in one trip) is a mammoth undertaking. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), thousands of hikers attempt a thru-hike each year and only about one in four make it all the way. And, most people can't afford the average six-plus months away from work to do the whole trail at once.

That's where section hikes come in. Check the ATC site for section difficulty. According to Zaayenga, the biggest challenge you will face is how to get to the trailhead entry you choose and how to get picked up where you end. The ATC has information on trailheads, parking and transportation.

The Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is a 2,175-mile long public footpath. Conceived in 1921 and completed in 1937, private citizens built the trail. From Maine's Mount Katahdin and Georgia's Springer Mountain, this footpath traverses scenic, wooded, pastoral, wild and culturally resonant lands through 14 of the eastern United States. It is the nation's longest, skinniest part of America's national park system.

Source: U.S. National Park Service

Fun Facts about the Appalachian Trail

  • Lowest elevation: 124 feet – near the Trailside Museum and Zoo at Bear Mountain, New York
  • Highest elevation: 6,625 feet – on Clingmans Dome in Tennessee
  • Approximately 165,000 white paint blazes mark the Trail's route
  • More than 10,000 people have reported hiking the length of the Trail
  • It takes approximately 5 million footsteps to walk the entire length of the Trail
  • More than 6,000 volunteers contribute about 200,000 hours to the Appalachian Trail every year

Source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy

July 6, 2011