Protecting Katahdin: A guide to Baxter State Park rules
If you are reading this article, you probably know about the letter from Baxter State Park Authority to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. If not, go here.
Some people have responded to the assertions of BSP by claiming it was an overreaction and citing their own positive encounters in defense of thru-hikers. While the prevalence of good experiences is exactly what we strive for at Appalachian Trials, to dismiss the honesty of the BSP letter as it applies to an admittedly small counter-culture within the thru-hiking community is to move backwards. This is not a problem that our collective optimism can fix, and although the ‘thru-hiker attitude glass’ is certainly more than half full, every community is at some point represented – and judged – by its worst behavior.
When you want to know if it’s raining outside, you do not look up at the sky – you look at the ground. The source of a problem may be hard to identify, but we can’t neglect that the problem does exist – because at Baxter there are puddles forming.
I admit to being part of the problem instead of the solution when it came time to climb Katahdin. I was not intentionally malicious, as most people are not, but I was aloof. To neglect to learn the rules does not make you exempt from them, though, and I would be a pretty big hypocrite if I didn’t refer to my own mistakes throughout this article.
It might seem unfair, but I’m asking you to avoid making the same mistakes that I made, and I am hoping that if I provide you with the right information, you will not only have a less impactful time, but an easier time on the last chapter of your own adventure.
So here it is, the Rule guide: The major problems (as outlined by BSP) and my solutions:
Problem: Emergency rescue requests are increasing in the Hundred Mile Wilderness and phone calls are made in increasing frequency on Katahdin.
So how wild is the Hundred Mile Wilderness, exactly? For starters, the people who told you it ‘isn’t that wild’ are probably the same people who told you that Virginia is flat.
You might see (and hear) logging trucks. You will cross, contrary to popular belief, several roads, and you will actually get cell service in a few spots. You can also arrange to have someone from Monson drop you a bucket full of supplies in the middle for a reasonable fee. You will hike past several tied up canoes and even a public-use beach and campground at Nahmakanta Lake.
However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the Hundred Mile Wilderness seriously. For 90% of the time you will have no cell service and be ten miles from a road should you get hurt. The night is filled with the crashing noises of moose and hollow, reedy Loon calls resonating across the lakes. There are many stream crossings that are dangerous to ford alone and impassable following heavy rain, and the woods are so thick that Maine had to cut most of their trails along popular Moose runs (which means you share with the Moose). If you are a modest pooper, you won’t be able to find your way back to the trail from your cat hole.
1. Sobos may want to take advantage of having provisions left mid-trail so that they do not risk being stranded and calling on rangers for support. The trail is more forgiving than the Whites, but it is still challenging – especially the second half from East Branch Lean-To to Monson – and the stream crossings can make everyone’s timing uncertain. It is better to be overprepared in this case than underprepared.
2. NOBOs may want to take advantage of cell service on top of the mountains. It sounds a little silly, I know, but it is pretty hard to predict the day and time you will finish ten days in advance, and the pay phone at Abol Bridge does not work reliably enough to depend on it. Making arrangements with friends, families, and hostels from the Hundred Miles prevents you from depending on Rangers or using your phone on Katahdin. Texting requires less service than calling, and most peaks above 1000 feet seemed to have at least a weak signal. But there are no guarantees.
Places with some verified Verizon service:
- 2089.6 Barren Mountain
- 2097.9 Chairback mountain
- 2111.4 Hay Mountain
- 2137 Potaywadjo Ridge
- 2144.8 Some people claim to have gotten some service at the gravel road by the south end of Nahmakanta Lake, but only for texting.
Places with landlines:
- 2140.2 Whitehouse Landing
- 2171 Abol Bridge Store (unreliable)
3. NOBOs and SOBOs alike should Canoe, camp, swim, and enjoy the huge, clear sky full of stars. And while you’re at it, be so careful with Leave No Trace ethics, because you want this place to stay beautiful.
Problem: Car traffic in and out of the park is increasing and rangers are using their radios to find transportation solutions for hikers.
After following white blazes for half a year, finding your way out of the heart of Baxter can feel pretty overwhelming. There are basically two things I wish I had known before planning my grand exit.
1. Have your family meet you in Millinocket, not at Katahdin Stream Campground – If you’re an East Coaster like me, your family might be planning to drive up and scoop you up straight out of the majestic Baxter wilderness… right after an anticlimactic 45 minute drive along rough forest service roads and a $14 entrance fee. On top of the 6 hour drive through Maine, this proved to be less than ideal. Our family met us, took a picture with the mountain in it, and then drove us and a couple other hikers the 45 minutes back to Millinocket to rendezvous in town. Parking is limited and Baxter only admits a certain number of vehicles per day, so unless your family is planning to do the final hike with you (which they can plan for here) I don’t recommend putting them through the struggle.
Meeting in town is lower impact on your family as well as lower impact on the park itself. If I had realized exactly what that request would entail, I would have asked them to go to Millinocket.
2. Of course, part of the reason you asked your family to meet you is because you’re a little nervous about how to get a ride to town, especially without cell signal. We didn’t realize at the time, but there is a shuttle which runs twice daily from Millinocket. It is operated by the Appalachian Trail Lodge, but even if you don’t plan on staying there they will sell you a seat back to town. It’s certainly cheaper than the entrance fee and gas money that a personal ride would entail. But don’t take my word for it – give them a call before you enter the hundred mile wilderness and ask about their pickup schedule. That should be enough to convince even the most anxious of planners (myself included) that it’s a reliable option.
Problem: Hikers are traveling in groups exceeding the number designated as safe by BSP.
When my partner and I reached Abol Bridge, we were accompanied by seven other hikers. We had managed to stay together through the Hundred Mile Wilderness. This sounds remarkable to anyone who is used to leapfrogging with people on the AT, but after months of traveling together, we knew each other’s paces pretty well and felt comfortable traveling together. We stopped at Abol and pretty soon, the other group that we had been leapfrogging with found us and we became fifteen people.
We were lingering at Abol because we knew a big storm was coming. After discussing it for a while, we opted to go into town to wait it out for the night and return to Abol to hike into Katahdin Stream Campground in the morning. When we returned to the trail, there were people we knew hiking across Abol. Like a bizarre Appalachian version of the Wizard of Oz, we collected people throughout the day and arrived at the base of Katahdin with a group twenty strong.
At the campground there were dozens of people. We met people whose trail names we had been reading in the log books for hundreds of miles. It seems that with two days of storms, we were not the only ones who had been waiting to summit that final mountain.
I understand now that we were being selfish. We wanted to not only finish the trail, but to do it in glory, with our friends surrounding us. We wanted blue skies, perfect weather, and a day to remember. But prolonging the final moments couldn’t make the journey stay.
The days I will never erase from my memory are scattered throughout our summer. They are happy, sad, and unplanned. Our last day was a memorable one, but it was still bittersweet because it was the end of something great. There is no stopping that feeling, and a big source of this problem is that people want to extend their journey and the feeling of community as much as possible, because it’s hard to let go.
Sometimes climbing Katahdin with a group is almost unavoidable, but it shouldn’t be forced. Good weather is obviously desirable, but I do have a greater admiration for those summit pictures taken by hardy souls in the wind and rain who were unafraid to embrace solitude, even at the end.
I can’t make the transition back to reality any easier, but I can offer some practical thoughts.
- Get an early start – the first sunrise in America is said to be seen from Katahdin, and most of the families and other day hikers camping overnight there are not likely to wake up at two in the morning to begin their hike. What a great way to ensure that you have privacy on top and that only your early riser friends will accompany you. It will split your group up, if you happen to be traveling in a big cluster, and you can gloat to your friends about how you finished the AT before them.
- Much like your family, plan to meet your group in Millinocket – You know what’s even better for a rendezvous than the uneven, rocky, windy top of Katahdin? The bar in Millinocket, where you can all deal with the reality of finishing the trail the healthy way – over several pints of beer.
- Have friends and family hike a section of the trail instead, especially in the busy season – If your friends or family want to join you for Katahdin, think about suggesting a different section of the trail instead. Katahdin is amazing, but so is the Hundred Mile Wilderness. So are the Bigelows. So is Saddleback. So are the Whites and so many other mountains that are much closer than Katahdin. You could meet them somewhere you actually have cell phone service, for instance. It will be easier and involve fewer logistics for you at a time when you are a white-blaze-following zombie.
Problem: Personal pets are being snuck into Baxter with false service animal papers.
We hiked with someone who had a dog for a lot of the trail. She was a well-trained husky who was always on lead. Her owner was vigilant, constantly planning ahead, and always prepared to put her dog’s well-being ahead of her own. It really drove home the reality of hiking with a pet for us and made us realize that having a dog on the AT is not an excuse; it’s a responsibility.
Personally, I wouldn’t want to bring a pet with me after Vermont. The climbing becomes steep, slippery, and technical. The rivers you have to ford are sometimes waist deep. And there are a lot of wild animals, especially porcupines, bears, and moose (all of which will hurt anything that challenges them). That being said, some dogs are completely capable of handling these hurdles without a problem.
The important thing though, is that if you do choose to take your dog, don’t take them into Baxter. First of all, there’s a lot of damage that a dog can do within the park. That’s why the Baxter State Park Authority is upset about false service dogs. It isn’t because they enjoy upholding arbitrary rules. The park is home to protected habitats and areas with delicate and rare vegetation. And secondly, Katahdin would be pretty hard to climb without hands to grip the iron bars and enough height to shimmy up rock chimneys. If your dog can’t rock climb, they probably shouldn’t go up Katahdin.
Solution: Make arrangements to have your pet picked up at Abol Bridge by Connie McManus 207-723-6795 (this number is in the AWOL guide as well). It’s not that much more expensive than buying fake service papers for your dog, and it’s way more responsible (not to mention safer for your four-legged buddy).
Problem: Alcohol and drug use in the park is increasing and interfering with the experience of other hikers.
Those who know me at all know I’m the last person to tell anyone not to drink. If it weren’t for whiskey, my knees wouldn’t have made it the last two hundred miles.
But even I can admit that discretion is important. It’s true – I am one of the people in those ubiquitous celebration photos spraying champagne on people (in fact, my pictures after the summit of Katahdin are all blurry from the champagne on my phone’s lens). In retrospect, we should have hiked up earlier to avoid an audience or at least been a little more subtle.
I knew a hiker who was hiking to get over his over-indulgence in alcohol and food. He lost a lot of weight and gained a lot of friends hiking completely sober from Georgia to Maine. And on top of Katahdin, he had his first beer in seven months. I would never tell him to refrain from that celebration. But this is an extreme example.
The other side is that people take this celebration too far sometimes. Sometimes people upset families and forget that, for others who paid to come here and hike this mountain, this is a different type of pilgrimage. They came here to get away from people and experience something breath taking with their family. They didn’t expect to come across wild twenty-somethings chugging Jim Beam.
This is a gray area you will have to navigate for yourselves – and I hope you make slightly better decisions than I did, just as I hope that every generation of hikers only can only grow more conscientious and considerate. But here are some facts to consider:
- It is illegal to imbibe on top of Katahdin.
- Being impaired on top of Katahdin is dangerous.
- You are subject to Maine’s laws as well as federal laws in Baxter, which means that you can, technically, be arrested for possession of marijuana (Maine has passed a medical marijuana bill but it is still federally prohibited).
- There are quiet hours at the campgrounds that exist not only for the families on vacation but for the wildlife in the park as well.
Solution: Use your common sense. Be discrete. You don’t have to whisper all night but avoid running through the campground at 2 AM singing that song by the Proclaimers that we’re all sick of. Instead, put that energy into running up the mountain in the morning, hopefully early enough that you have some private time on top before the hordes of others (who have also been waiting months for this hike) join you and commend you on completing your journey.
I hope that this is helpful. I hope that people appreciate this as more than some hikers’ St. Augustine confessional; I hope that it is received as a practical guide to respecting Maine. Mostly, I hope that we as a community are always moving forward and learning how to not only hike our own hike, but to hike with everyone else in mind.
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