Baxter State Park’s backlash reflects larger issue?

It’s Party-on meets the Guardians of Wild time here in Maine.

photo from Runner's World
photo from Runner’s World

For the past week, there has been a heated and expansive  discussion on Facebook, Twitter, and  gear/outdoor adventure-related  blog/websites in response to the legal action that Maine’s Baxter State Park has initiated against Scott Jurek.  Jurek recently completed the fastest known supported thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

In case you were engaged in focused partying in Barcelona over this past week (a location which is also in the process of beefing up it’s own regulations regarding celebratory behavior), here’s BSP’s initial post about the event, which as morphed 616 shares, and 717 comments to date on Facebook.

I live in Maine, am a dues paying member Friend Of Baxter State Park, and have put in as much as a week of my time volunteering for maintenance up on top of the Saddle Trail.  I generally hike there every year. Just last year I spent a week on a “thru-hike” of Baxter State Park.

I treasure BSP.  I have summited Katahdin 17 times, dating back to 1970.  At 20 years of age, I was stunned that I couldn’t just drive in there and start walking around. That’s when I first learned about the details list of The BSP Rules.  I am going to try and reach the top again in two days, and will be following all those rules when I am there.

I was ( and according to my wife continue to be) one of  the great unwashed who completed my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2007.

Me atop Katahdin in 2007
Me atop Katahdin in 2007

I was a member of MeGaTex, a group of 7 , who had our own celebration in the cold blowing mist and fog on September 16, some 5,268 feet in the sky.

Something is going to change, not just about what you can or can’t do in BSP, but about the whole AT experience.  Twice in the past 4 years, I have returned to Virginia for a week to backpack some of my favorite sections of the AT.

In 2014, I did not enjoy my last week as much, due to large doses of inconsiderate behavior that I experienced from other hikers on the trail.  Twice, I came upon one of the shelters at the end of the day, after a long day of hiking, expecting to settle in for night, only to find that shelter filled with over a dozen thru-hikers, most of who were unapologetically smoking cigarettes (Smoking hand-rolled tobacco is a recent thru-hiker trend on the AT.)  One of those guys sat right beside me and proceeded to boil up his dinner. He was too busy with too many things at once, and knocked a pot of boiling water into his lap. It then drenched my gear, including part of my sleeping bag.  He scalded his thigh, which I knew would result in  a second degree burn, but he shoofed off my recommendation for immediate treatment.  The group hung out there for two hours before they thankfully moved on and I was able to spread out my bedroll for the night.

I think about Scott Jurek and the extreme discomfort and heroic effort that it took for him to cover over 200 miles on his last 4 days on the AT as he approached Katahdin.  I rooted for him.  Scott also slept only 10 hours over his last 4 days. In the end, Scott had to be only marginally coherent and cognitively intact- how could it be otherwise ?  He was not capable of steering the Jurek ultramarathon machine at that moment,  and maybe nobody in his party was either.

But, you gotta have rules.  Baxter State Park has the most rules of anyplace that an AT hiker has to contend with, and that’s a problem to many hikers who has dreamed, sweated, fallen, and bruised themselves as they labor toward their final footsteps in the sky.

How does a place with a unique vision and mandate do with hundreds, and now possibly a thousand or more people who have lived the past half-year with no one telling them what to do ?  They have one or two last days of freedom before they re-enter the ” shower world” again.

The numbers on the AT are expected to balloon big-time for 2016.  Jurek’s media coverage is definitely pumping interest.

So is the recent release of Trail Magic, the new film about Grandma Gatewood, the 67 year old woman who was the first female to thru-hike the AT, back in 1957.

Grandma Gatewood
Grandma Gatewood

So is the long-awaited movie derived from Bill Bryson’s best-selling book A Walk in the Wood’s, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.   It comes out in September.

Discussions had already begun last year,  exploring the possibility that the Appalachian Trail may be re-routed around Katahdin and linked onto the International Appalachian Trail.

I’ll still going be able go up and go into Baxter State Park , due to living here in Maine, but others from places and even continents far away won’t find it easy to do so. They may not be able to stand on top of Katahdin to experience the most fitting end to their extended time out in the great forest.  It would be a sad conclusion for sure.

This clash between preservation of the wild versus big numbers of users, corporate footprints and media is not just playing out on on isolated granite massif in Maine Maine- it’s going on all over the world right now.  Check out today’s New York Times feature–>> – The Revolt Against Tourism.

6 thoughts on “Baxter State Park’s backlash reflects larger issue?

  1. Tom Tanner

    Uncle Tom,

    Well said –

    As another wise man once said –
    Every action has an equal and opposite reaction – Newton’s Third Law

    My opinion – the (very few) rules along the AT matter, good manners matter, smart LNT matters.
    The more hikers bend and break these things that matter – the more of them we will be faced with.

    I am at awe of what Jurek accomplished – but think the celebratory approach taken by Jennifer Pharr Davis (previous record holder) much more appropriate (and “compliant”) The AT, & especially Baxter SP, is not an ultra-marathon commercial event and should not have been disrespected as such.

    Let’s work to keep it that way. Jurek, his commercial sponsors and professional film crew had the obligation & responsibility to abide by those rules – regardless of if they agree with them – they did not & now many of us who do/did may pay the price.

    But then there is the age old expression – “this too will pass.” But I am not sure this all will without permanent changes!

    I had the pleasure of meeting you on the AT as I also completed my Thru Hike in ’07.
    Appreciate your blog as it is a great commentary from the “shower world” of someone who genuinely understands the “stinky, dirty hiker world.” Not to mention my admiration of your Triple Crown accomplishment.

    Be safe,

    “Evil Eye”
    Tom Tanner


    1. Great to hear from you again, Evil Eye. Appreciate you taking the time to comment. I noted your line: ” My opinion – the (very few) rules along the AT matter, good manners matter, smart LNT [Leave no Trace] matters.”


  2. Thank you for mentioning our film #trailmagic about in your recent blog.
    Of course Emma hiked 2050 miles in 1955 on barely marked trails and back roads and the experience was much different then. This year marks the 60th anniversary of her walk. No GPS, cell phones or easy to procure maps. But she did manage to get quite a bit of press, from Sports Illustrated to The Today Show. I think you and the generation that begin hiking in the 70’s brought the new found interest to the trail that was built on the back of people like Emma.

    Todays speed hikers like Scott Jurek are a reflection of the change in extreme sports and it has provided new found media interest in the AT. It is easy to see where the simple trek of Emma “Grandma” Gatewood could be linked to this years story. It will be interesting to see where the next new “face” of the trail will emerge.

    Meanwhile, I hope through hikers will take it a little bit slower and enjoy the sites along the way. Come join us at New Hampsire’s AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center this Saturday (July 25th) to watch our film about Emma “Grandma” Gatewood.

    Peter Huston


  3. Kevin weir

    There is a similar phenomena among those of us who enjoy bird watching. High tech, heavily loaded equipment recorders v low tech LNT observers. How do we co-exist?


  4. Thanks for the excellent post. If you ever get a chance, read Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the spirit of Wildness . Written by the well-known New England wilderness advocates Laura and Guy Waterman. Written in the early 90s (just as cell phones were becoming affordable), the questions raised are probably more pertinent no. Namely, . How to preserve the wild spaces, share them and keep what is wonderful about them?


    1. Th is for writing, Mags. I have he Waterman’s Forest and Crag on kindle. I will check out the ethics book. You Trail Show zanies will have a lot of AT buzz with the Jurek story still rolling out, Trail Magic- the movie, and then A Walk in Woods coming out. I’m at the AT CAFE right now, guiding my first client up the Hunt Trail tomorrow. There a big pow-wow going on today somewhere around here where the fate of the AT within Katahdin is at least in part being laid out. Sheesh!


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