By Kevin Miller, staff writer
Portland Press Herald news story
TOWNSHIP 2, RANGE 10 — “Sputnik” had just emerged from the most remote stretch of the Appalachian Trail – 100 miles of Maine “wilderness” with no stores, towns or even paved roads – when he paused to consider a different ending to the life-changing trek he was about to complete.
Behind him lay 2,170 miles worth of footsteps stretching from Georgia to this spot on Abol Bridge offering two images of Mount Katahdin: one rising out of the forests, and the other reflected in the water of the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Ahead of “Sputnik” – Jesse Metzger’s trail name, chosen by other Appalachian Trail “thru-hikers” because of the Russian appearance of his winter cap – was 10 miles of wooded trail followed by the momentous 5-mile climb to the peak that’s been his destination since Feb. 25.
But Katahdin could be just another mountain to future users of the trail known to legions of hikers as simply “the AT.” Baxter State Park officials, upset with the behavior of a relatively small number of hikers and facing growing challenges accommodating the Katahdin-bound thru-hikers, are pressuring local and national groups affiliated with the AT to address their concerns or potentially find another northern terminus of the trail.
“That would be seen as a very big deal,” Sputnik said while glancing toward the 5,267-foot peak. “It’s quite an icon, as you can see.”
More than 15,000 people have either started or, more frequently, ended their 2,185-mile thru-hike atop Mount Katahdin since Earl Shaffer became the first person to walk the entire AT in one trip in 1948. The bulk of those hikers have made the trek during the past decade, as the trail’s international stature has grown thanks to several thru-hiker books, a vibrant outdoor recreation economy and the emergence of social media.
Last year, roughly 800 of the 2,864 hikers who began the trail with the intent of hiking it in its entirety actually accomplished that feat, a success rate of 28 percent. But that is up from 472 thru-hikers in 2008, according to statistics maintained by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit that works with the National Park Service and local hiking clubs to maintain the AT.
As those numbers steadily increased, so have tensions between the overseers of America’s best-known hiking trail and those of Baxter State Park, the largest swath of undeveloped wilderness in New England.
According to park officials, some AT thru-hikers are flagrantly breaking park rules on alcohol, group size, camping and other restrictions intended to maintain the “wilderness” aspect of the park and protect the fragile alpine environment atop Katahdin.
Baxter officials have been raising those concerns for at least three years, but the issue went public last month when ultramarathoner Scott Jurek was given three summonses by rangers for alleged rule violations hours after he celebrated his record-breaking run of the entire trail in just 46 days. But to Baxter’s numerous critics, the Jurek situation as well as park officials’ statements on AT thru-hikers are the latest examples of overzealous park protectionism that is actually harming the park’s reputation and, in turn, the local economy.
The number of registered long-distance hikers at Baxter has more than doubled since 1998, the year the humorist author Bill Bryson published “A Walk in the Woods,” a wildly popular account of his failed thru-hike. Park officials are bracing for another surge following the release next month of a movie version of the book starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
Although representing just 3 percent of park users, AT users consume a disproportionate amount of staff time and resources.
“From the park’s perspective, we don’t want to provide more resources for this, so they need to help us,” said Jensen Bissell, the park’s director.
By “they” Bissell is referring to the organizations and clubs that are responsible for overseeing the AT and connecting with the long-distance hiking community, most notably the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, state-level trail clubs and the National Park Service.
“I think what has happened in the (history) of the trail’s existence is some areas have become more loved, and those are areas where we have to develop individual strategies to promote more awareness,” said Laura Belleville, senior director of conservation for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “I’m hopeful we can resolve the challenges that Baxter has raised. They’re not easy issues and there is no silver bullet.”
• • • • •
While Baxter State Park officials insist that rerouting the trail’s northern end is a real possibility if those concerns are not addressed, others see the threat as a high-profile bluff aimed at sparking dialogue.
Either way, that dialogue is happening in earnest in meeting rooms, in online discussion boards – and all along the trail from Maine to Georgia.
Sarah Morse, aka “Leap Frog,” appeared stuck between disbelief and deep reflection Wednesday morning as she paused in her descent on a rare flat stretch of the trail and asked another hiker to snap a picture of her with Katahdin in the background.
Like all of the other thru-hikers encountered in and around the park over several days, the 23-year-old was fully aware of the debate over Baxter State Park’s relationship with the AT, despite spending much of the past several weeks in remote areas where smartphones are merely dead weight in the backpack.
“To go through the 100-Mile Wilderness and end at Katahdin was just perfect,” said Morse, of North Berwick. “It would be unfortunate if thru-hikers would cause Baxter to close the park to the AT.”
Leap Frog said she observed her moment on the summit with a candy bar and some pictures. Others mark their achievement in ways that violate park policies.
A Google Images search yields plenty of pictures of thru-hikers celebrating with bottles of beer or booze in hand, some while standing atop the summit sign. Some thru-hikers have opted to pose with the sign wearing nothing at all, while others enjoy a celebratory puff of marijuana.
Of course, thru-hikers aren’t the only park visitors to break the rules. The majority of alcohol and drug offenses on Katahdin’s summit are likely committed by day-hikers.
With a summer staff of 60 in a 209,000-acre park, Baxter managers do not send rangers to Katahdin’s summit – an arduous, hourslong hike no matter the route – every day even in the busiest months. And rangers have been known to look the other way as long as the rule-breakers are discreet, are not endangering themselves or disturbing others.
On July 12, however, a celebratory bottle of bubbly thrust the AT-park tensions into the public spotlight.
Having completed the entire 2,185-mile-long trail in a world record-breaking time, Jurek marked the occasion by popping a bottle of champagne brought to the summit by a member of his group. Several park rangers were in the large crowd watching Jurek that day, and when his group gathered in the parking lot hours later, rangers presented him with three citations: public drinking, littering (for spilling champagne on the summit) and hiking in a group larger than 12.
The citations likely would have gone unnoticed amid the national news coverage of the historic run if Bissell hadn’t disclosed them in a stinging criticism of Jurek that he posted on the park’s Facebook page.
The post, which accused Jurek of bringing a corporate-style event to the most revered spot in the wilderness park, had drawn more than 900 comments, many of them highly critical of Bissell and the park. After more than a week of silence, Jurek fired back by accusing Bissell of vilifying him with inaccurate depictions in a post that he predicted would do much more harm than good to the park’s national reputation.
Bissell stood firmly by the post and its tone last week. But by publicly calling out Jurek, Bissell has also called additional attention to concerns about AT thru-hikers that he says he has been conveying to trail managers for three years.
Bissell reiterated Thursday that relocating the trail away from Katahdin is a potential option if the park’s governing board, the three-member Baxter State Park Authority, doesn’t see a reduction in the impact of thru-hikers.
“There is a timeline on this,” Bissell said. “They (the authority) are not going to just accept this for an (indeterminate) time. For them the park comes first.”
• • • • •
That “park comes first” mentality stems directly from Baxter’s creator, the late Maine Gov. Percival Baxter, who made it his lifelong mission to permanently preserve Katahdin and keep the surrounding forests “forever wild.” Baxter almost single-handedly created the park that bears his name by acquiring land and then transferring ownership to the state. And he fastidiously controlled use of that land – and protected it from the whims of future generations of politicians in Augusta – by ensuring each parcel was transferred with restrictions “carefully worded into a binding and unbreakable Trust Deed.”
The park’s blanket ban on all dogs except service animals as well as the policy against hunting throughout much of the park come directly from those restrictive “deeds of trust.” While park officials have softened some restrictions, the debate over AT thru-hikers is merely the latest in a lengthy history of tensions between park managers and the public over access to Baxter regarding activities such as snowmobiling, ATV-riding, hunting and camping.
Bissell pointed out that Baxter never mentioned the AT in his deeds.
“It’s not in our mission,” Bissell said.
On Wednesday afternoon, the rocky and boulder-strewn summit of Katahdin was crowded with dozens of day-hikers enjoying a windy yet picture-perfect summer afternoon on the highest point in Maine.
A steady crowd gathered at the iconic, weather-beaten summit sign for pictures, then spreading across the landscape to relax and refuel before beginning a descent that, for many, is even tougher and more dangerous than the climb up.
At least three thru-hikers and one “flip-flopper” – hikers who cover the entire trail in a season, but not in a straight line – reached Baxter Peak during a roughly 90-minute period, among dozens of others. They all had their own way of celebrating the achievement, but none did it with alcohol, drugs, nudity or other blatant rule violations.
In fact, the only alcohol seen on the summit that day was a day-hiker discreetly sipping a beer among a larger group.
“Biscuit,” a 19-year-old thru-hiker from Chicago who goes by John Brady when he isn’t on the trail, was all smiles as he enjoyed a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts and later a donated bag of sour cream and onion potato chips that he had been ogling.
Steph “Superfeet” Jones, a 27-year-old flip-flopper, marked the occasion by savoring a tube of Vegemite, the yeast- and vegetable-based paste beloved by her fellow Australians and a select few elsewhere.
Between questions from day-hikers curious about his five-month odyssey, Biscuit seemed to sympathize with both sides of the issue. He said he “totally gets” people wanting to really “celebrate” their achievement, but added you can’t spray champagne all over the summit in front of cameras and rangers.
“It would be a real disappointment if they had to move the trail,” he said. “It’s definitely understandable with the mission of the park.”
While Jurek set a new world record in 46 days, Caleb Payne spent 4½ months away from his wife and Kentucky home in order to raise awareness about colon cancer.
Dubbed “Semi-colon” by his trail compatriots because cancer had claimed part of his colon just one year ago, the 55-year-old was filled with emotion as he posed for pictures holding banners and shirts promoting the Colon Cancer Prevention Project and a “Fit Test” diagnostic tool for the disease. He also posed shirtless to display the scars left by his surgery.
After the pictures, Semi-colon celebrated by downing a sandwich and attempting to call his wife, from a spot where cellphone signals are fleeting.
“I can see both sides of it, but I think Baxter is really pushing a lot of buttons,” Semi-colon said. “I feel like we (thru-hikers) supply a lot of good will. We do a lot of trail maintenance, we shop in stores and support the local economy. But there are always bad apples.”
• • • • •
Reducing the number of “bad apples” was the primary focus of a meeting held in Millinocket eight days before Semi-colon finished his hike. In addition to Bissell, attendees included representatives from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, Friends of Baxter State Park, the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association and several area business owners.
The group has remained tight-lipped about the meeting’s outcome because the discussions continue. But among the early results of the dialogue is a commitment to improve outreach to and education of thru-hikers about Baxter State Park’s unique restrictions, especially in New England trail shelters and hostels.
Other options include a pre-registration or permitting system along the northernmost stretch of the trail in Maine in order to better space out hikers during the peak season between August and mid-October.
Among those in attendance was Paul Renaud – trail name “Ole Man” – who operates Millinocket’s Appalachian Trail Lodge that offers hikers a clean bed and laundry facilities as well as a gear shop and a shuttle service to and from trail heads. His wife, Jaime “Navigator” Renaud, runs the Appalachian Trail Cafe in downtown Millinocket, where the ceiling tiles are covered with the trail names of hundreds of successful thru-hikers who have stopped by over the years to leave their mark and grab a bite.
Ole Man says he is well aware of the increasing problems with a small group of thru-hikers over the past three years. As the online debate continues over Jurek and what some view as the park’s heavy-handed response to him, Renaud said everyone needs to “calm down, back up and chill out” as the parties work on a solution.
“I would say 98 percent of the hikers don’t do all that much up there,” Renaud said. “Most of them just want to take the picture up there and then come back down. And then they do the partying down here. But there are a few.”
Renaud, who also worked with hikers near the trail’s southern terminus on Georgia’s Springer Mountain, said he is confident the issue can and will be addressed because the trail just wouldn’t be the same if it ended anywhere else.
“We have been to most of the national parks and we have been to a ton of state parks,” Renaud said of himself and his wife. “There is nowhere in the country like Baxter park.”
The “Class of 2015″ ceiling tile at the Appalachian Trail Cafe had only a few names on it as of Thursday afternoon. But there is a wave of several thousand hikers steadily, ploddingly approaching Maine from the south.
And those involved in the trail community, as well as Baxter State Park officials, only expect that crowd to grow in size in future years.
The at-present tense relations between the trail and Baxter State Park have been a hot topic on the trail and among AT devotees ever since Jurek’s momentous summit.
But for the vanguard of this year’s crop of thru-hikers arriving in Baxter last week, the only thing that mattered was completing the final 5.2 miles – or the last 0.2 percent – of a 2,185-mile trek along the mountainous spine of the eastern U.S.
Roughly 18 hours after taking in the full scope of Katahdin from Abol Bridge, Sputnik climbed the final steps and briefly touched the summit sign before disappearing to enjoy a few minutes of quiet contemplation. He then returned to the sign, climbed up it and made a giant victory-V with his arms as Biscuit snapped the pictures.
“Attrition,” who will once again have to get used to responding to James Lenning, climbed the mountain earlier Wednesday in order to watch the sunrise and “enjoy the solitude” atop Katahdin. Bushy-faced and bedraggled, and wearing a shirt held together at the shoulders by threads that had been tied back together, the 22-year-old Minneapolis resident said he hopes the AT’s northern end remains in place.
“I think the arc of the trail is perfectly designed for northbounders to end at Katahdin,” he said.
And with that, Attrition resumed his steady march away from the summit that he had spent months chasing.