The problem of Appalachian Trail hikers sneaking into Baxter State Park in the fall and risking their lives in bad weather has officials looking for solutions. One thing officials are unwilling to do is adopt the hard-line policy now used by New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department.
Baxter State Park director Irvin “Buzz” Caverly prefers to use a kinder approach with reckless hikers rather than the tack taken by the Granite State, where a careless climber can end up paying the cost of a search and rescue. That can amount to thousands of dollars.
“There is a philosophy that people have a right to die wherever they want. I would argue that is their perception, but we are required to protect the resource, and human safety,” said Caverly.
The Appalachian Trail enters the park at Abol Bridge on the trail’s last leg to Mount Katahdin. Caverly has been looking for ways to minimize two problems he grappled with last fall. They are:
. Thru-hikers – those who hike the entire AT from Georgia to Maine – who arrive at the park after Oct. 14, when camping is off-limits for the winter for people without permits.
. Hikers who fail to listen to weather warnings, and try to climb Mount Katahdin, no matter the time of year.
Camping in the park is permitted after Oct. 14 for those who apply and meet standards involving experience and physical fitness. Most thru-hikers don’t even know about the policy, and they are usually in too big a hurry to ask.
In the last decade, up to 12 searches a year have been undertaken for lost hikers. During that time, at least six people died, recalled Marcia Williamson, a park ranger.
Even if campers don’t risk life and limb, they can damage fragile alpine fields if they try to camp near the top of Mount Katahdin.
Park officials and affiliated groups that met a month ago decided that enlightenment, not enforcement, was the way to stop violators. Still, the idea of closing the park to everybody after Oct. 14, even for day hikers, was broached.
Caverly, who is determined to accommodate as many people as possible, was dead against it.
“You can’t punish everyone for a few,” he said.
Caverly said there were about four incidents last fall where rangers had to transport late arrivals outside of the park after Oct 14. While the number is not excessive, Caverly said the overall number of AT hikers arriving has increased, and he doesn’t want the problem of reckless hiking to get worse.
The number of AT hikers in the park during the entire season jumped from 400 five years ago to 1,400. Most of them arrive after August.
John Neff of Winthrop, president of the newly formed Friends of Baxter State Park, said last week that the Maine Appalachian Trail Club designed a brochure three years ago that outlined the dangers hikers face when severe weather warnings are ignored. The brochure has been included in packets disseminated by the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where many hikers pass on their way to Maine.
There has been little sign that these pamphlets conveyed the intended message.
Caverly said problems with hikers climbing during severe weather late in the season started mounting five years ago, and the problems have persisted. He said climbing during severe weather conditions endangers the environment and puts rescue workers at risk.
Sgt. Bruce Bonenfant at New Hampshire Fish and Game said the incidence of searches in the White Mountains went up with the widespread use of cell phones in recent years.
In December 1999, the state’s Fish and Game Department announced its new safety policy to charge careless hikers the cost of search and rescue missions. The department has posted signs at trailheads telling hikers that if they are not prepared they will pay the cost of any rescue.
Bonenfant said the law holding reckless victims responsible for the cost of searches has been on the books for years, but only in the past year has the state’s fish and game agency applied it to hikers. In that time, about five hikers have been charged for a search, Col. Ronald Alie said.
Bonenfant said that with more people owning cell phones, there have been more cases where careless behavior has occurred.
“People have a cell phone or a GPS [Global Positioning System] and they have no clue other than that. They are in a situation way over their head,” Bonenfant said.
One of the most-publicized incidents occurred when Dr. Bernhoff Dahl of Winterport became lost in a whiteout on Mount Washington in October 1999 when he went up ill-prepared.
“He is one who is now giving us voluntary contributions,” Bonenfant said. “He turned that into a lecture tour.”
Caverly hopes to avoid such problems with a friendlier approach.
The park has made public its ability to evict violators who come camping after Oct. 15. Yet, last fall, Caverly maintained the policy to transport violators outside the park at dusk and offer them transportation back into the park the next day.
According to Baxter State Park regulations, Caverly has the authority to revoke a hiker’s privilege of using the park. He has not done this, but said he would go this route before denying the entire public enjoyment of the park late in the fall.
Caverly said the best solution for hikers who arrive late is to “flip-flop” their finish – that is, to be shuttled from a distant point to Mount Katahdin where they can backtrack to the section of the AT they missed.
“Part of the mind-set for someone who is asked to flip-flop, to go in the other direction, is that, somehow, it’s not as pure,” said John Neff, a former Maine Appalachian Trail Club president.
Caverly said it would help to promote this idea if organizations that serve the AT offer to shuttle thru-hikers. He said that in 2000, of the 1,449 hikers who traversed the AT, 86 finished by backtracking.
Another idea Caverly hopes to implement is to have volunteers, such as those from the Student Conservation Association, a provider of outdoor career training for youth, stationed in key areas to inform hikers of the Oct. 15 closing date.
Rebecca Oreskes, the U.S. Forest Service recreation program leader in New Hampshire, said meetings have been held this month with the Appalachian Trail Club to find new ways to disseminate information. She said thru-hikers grow accustomed to the regulations in other states, so that then when they reach northern New England, where there is an Alpine zone, rules forbidding them to camp above the tree line are new.
Caverly said it would be better to have uniform regulations along the AT, but that’s impossible, given that the trail passes through 14 states. But better communication could help, he said.
“If you catch the first hiker going south on the AT in the spring of the year and make good contact with them, they are the best messenger to send the word all the way down to Georgia,” Caverly said. “Word travels faster through the grapevine.”
Deirdre Fleming covers outdoor sports and recreation for the NEWS. She can be reached at 990-8250 or at email@example.com