Monday, March 21, 2016

Day 159: Legal Hurdles

August 13: I made sure to hit the trail as early as I could, 6:00 AM, in the hopes of getting a coveted and limited spot in the Birches Lean-to--the last shelter of the trail at the base of the Great Mountain known as Katahdin. Baxter State Park, where the trail ends.

A beautiful sunrise over Rainbow Lake!

The trail was mostly flat and although muddy, it didn't seem as difficult as yesterday. I made it out of the 100-Mile Wilderness before noon and at Abol Bridge reached a group of hikers who were just standing there admiring the view of Katahdin--still stubbornly stuck in the clouds despite it being an otherwise beautiful, clear day.

The only one of the hikers I recognized was Loon, who I hadn't seen since I deviated off-trail into the Gulf Hagas. She'd gotten ahead of me and only now did I catch up again, and she had bad news for me. The Birches was already full.

Shoot.

I continued on to the general store where I bought a few snacks. Afterwards, I headed to the restaurant to eat lunch and ponder my options. Loon and the other hikers had already taken a table and I would have liked to join, but the table was already crowded with six people and the only person I knew was Loon. Chatting with a bunch of strangers didn't particularly appeal to me, so I took a table by myself at the window.

I was feeling a little sad. None of my friends were around. Even Loon--who was perfectly pleasant--I didn't really consider a good friend. I'd only met her less than a week earlier and only for a couple of days before she pulled ahead never to be seen again until today.

All of the people I considered good friends... none of them were around, and I was a little sad over that. The Four Horsemen had passed through two weeks earlier based on register entries. Little Red and Chuckles were at least a couple of weeks behind me according to the emails I'd last gotten from them. Bearfish was probably the closest person I had to what I'd consider a friend that was in my general vicinity--at least I'd met him more than a week ago and two states ago. He probably wasn't more than a day or two behind me.

But at the moment, I felt completely alone. And sad.


I ordered a hamburger and fries and while those were being made, Good Man and a hiker who'd just completed the 100-Mile Wilderness named Chris joined me. At least they were familiar faces. I knew a little about them having met them both in the 100-Mile Wilderness. Good Man I met just the day before, but I'd take what I could get!

Chris was camping at the campground next to the store and said that we were welcome to join him--he had plenty of room. Good Man and I weren't sure what we would do and we kicked around the options.

Sneak into Baxter Park and stealth camp illegally? Camp legally at the campground here, then hike a whopping 15 miles to Baxter Peak, 5 miles back down to the nearest trailhead, then hopefully hitch a ride back out of the park? That's 20 miles of hiking, though, including Katahdin itself which is no small task. Seeing as my biggest day of hiking on the AT during the whole trail was 23.7 miles, it didn't seem like doing 20 miles on some of the roughest terrain of the entire trail was a good decision, though. Or maybe we could camp legally here, then get a spot at the Birches tomorrow night, and finish the day after tomorrow. Except... the weather forecast for the day after tomorrow wasn't looking good. The weather forecast for tomorrow, however, was looking excellent.

We all ate our meals and chatted. I decided to walk into Baxter SP to check things out, still not sure what I'd do for the night.

The trail followed a dirt road, turned left, then entered Baxter State Park where I soon ran into a ridge runner who seemed to be permanently stationed at the entrance. He told me that the Birches shelter was full--no surprise there--and I asked if there were any other options. His blunt option was... no. Camping outside of established campsites was illegal, pure and simple. The Katahdin Stream Campground was already full as well. There were, he told me, absolutely no legal places for me to camp in the park tonight.

Out of curiosity, I asked him what the fine would be if I was caught camping illegally. After all, if it was $20--hey, no problem! I'd be more than happy to pay it! He said it was "up to" $1000 which was definitely a little out of my price range!

So I asked him about what that means, exactly. "Up to" $1000? Is it at the discretion of the person writing the ticket? Or is the maximum fine only applied for multiple offenses? What if you're a first-time offender?

I think the ridge runner was a little surprised at my questions. I'm sure hikers have camped illegally many times before. In fact, I was absolutely certain this ridge runner was stationed here because it has been such a big problem recently. (During my 2003 thru-hike, there was no ridge runner here.) But I suspect that he hasn't actually had a hiker trying to decide if paying a fine was worth it or not. He clearly didn't want to encourage me to camp illegally, though, and stuck to the "up to $1000" fine. I'm not sure he actually had the authority to fine people since he was a ridge runner rather than a "normal" park official, so many he didn't actually know how the fines worked out, but he certainly knew who to talk to who could hand out fines, and he definitely seemed to want to avoid saying anything that might encourage me to camp illegally.

*sigh* Bummer.

Katahdin loomed larger than ever, but the peak just never seemed to want to come out of the clouds. Bad, clouds! Bad!

I retreated back to the park boundary, near where a picnic table was set up, to sit down and ponder my options some more. A few minutes later, Good Man arrived and I told him everything that the ridge runner had told me and we discussed our options some more.

Try to sneak around the ridge runner and camp illegally? I've camped illegally before, but I wasn't really inclined to do it in this instance. Baxter State Park is an absolutely wonderful place--one of the few places in the country where nature actually comes before people. The park is really quite strict about this.

Dogs aren't allowed at all. Just their scent can disturb wildlife, after all. The roads are unpaved and limited. Parking lots are small and specifically intended to be small to limit the numbers of people who visit the park. It's an unusual concept in our country--parks that are created for nature first and people second. Even the official campsites don't have clean, running water piped in. It's a special place and I very much appreciate that fact, and although the restrictive rules were very much hindering my hike now, I still wanted to respect them.


While discussing matters, three woman walked up the trail who seemed quite familiar with the park and said it would be stupid to camp illegally because they'll find us. They're looking for thru-hikers that camp illegally.

Then one of them suggested that we could hike the Blueberry Ledge Trail to Katahdin Stream Campground which is actually about five miles shorter than the official AT. But, she assured us, it was even prettier than the official AT!

That got my attention. I have fond memories of the trail through Baxter Park and it was absolutely beautiful. Lots of lakes and ponds and streams and I even saw a moose last time around. And the Blueberry Ledges was even better?!

It was also a 5-mile shortcut. I'm not big on taking shortcuts, but I certainly will if it improves the views. I took the 5-mile longcut around Gulf Hagas just for better views. I could make up for it by cutting off 5 miles of hiking tomorrow.

But the other advantage this shortcut had.... which was a critical selling point for me... was that I could make it to the top of Katahdin and back down in just 15 miles. That was doable! Trying to do 20 miles up Katahdin seemed a little iffy, but I was sure I could knock off 15 miles in a day. Perfect! I could camp legally outside of the park, then still summit Katahdin tomorrow. The best of both worlds!

Good Man seemed to like that idea as well. It was still early in the afternoon, though. What would we do for the rest of the afternoon? There was a map of Baxter State Park at the entrance of the park and we noticed a few trails running in loops near the entrance and we decided to do a quick loop-hike three or four miles in length down the Abel Stream Trail, which connected to the Abol Pond Trail, which connected to the Blueberry Ledges Trail, which connected back with the AT where we'd hike back out of the park and set up camp.

The trail was still quite rough in places!
Good Man surprised me when he expressed an interest in joining me. It seems like most thru-hikers would rather die than walk a single step more than they had to, but I guess he felt the need to explore the area while he could--especially since he had nothing better to do at the moment. I was happy for the company. =)

So off we went! We took our time, enjoying the views and chatting. Across one creek, I slipped off the wooden bridge and fell into the water. I landed on my feet so I didn't get soak--just my feet and my pants from the knees down got wet. I cursed the wooden board. Good Man just laughed.

We completed the loop in a little less than two hours and chatted with the ridge runner some more near the park boundary. I'm half-convinced that he was surprised to see us. We told him about our plan to do a day-hike around the edge of the park here, but he probably suspected that we were really just trying to sneak around him. Especially after my questions about how much a fine would cost!

Then we walked back towards the general store. Near the store, we bumped into Young Blood who's parents had come out to be with him at the end of the trail. He was clearly very excited about his parents coming out to visit and we chatted for a few moments when the ridge runner walked up from us and asked to talk to me.

"Me?" I asked, confused.

So I wandered over to him to see what he wanted. I wasn't really concerned about being in trouble--quite literally, I'd done nothing bad or illegal. Maybe contemplating thoughts of illegally camping, but I hadn't done anything. Not yet, at least. What did he want with me?

Then he told me he had radioed the ranger station at Katahdin Stream Campground and a spot had opened up at the Birches. Since I was the first person who had arrived after the shelter was full, he was giving me first dibs on the now-open spot.

"YES!" I exclaimed excitedly. I definitely want it! Woo-who!"

All my hand-wringing over what to do and where to camp all afternoon for nothing--I got a spot in the Birches after all!

(Later, the next day, I'd see Young Blood who explained what he saw from his point of view. The ridge runner calling out to me, me talking for a few seconds with the ridge runner, then walking off with the ridge runner back towards the park. Young Blood thought I'd been busted for something or another and had no idea why I was walking away with him--so he assumed it must have been something bad. I hadn't even thought to mention that I was heading to the Birches before I left! But thinking back, looking at how the ridge runner and "tracked me down" and "marched me off," I could see why it might have looked bad!)

Toad on the trail! Their camouflage is really amazing! I'd only notice these fellows because they'd jump and their movement would give away their positions.

But I had to hustle. It was now 4:30 in the afternoon and I'd only have a couple of more hours of daylight left to take photos. It would have been a heck of a lot more convenient if I had learned about this good news a couple of hours earlier.

I immediately decided to take the Blueberry Ledges Trail shortcut since it was the only way I could possibly make it to the shelter before dark. I can do 5 miles in two hours. I can't do 10 miles in two hours, though--which is what the official AT trail would require--and I figured I had about two hours of decent daylight left.

I hustled, walking quickly as I could. The trail was a bit rough, but not terribly so. I assumed with a name like Blueberry Ledges and the topo map of the area showing the trail near the top of a cliff that there would be some amazing views. The woman earlier did say that she thought this trail was even more spectacular than the official AT and that must surely be the reason.

I'm going to say this right now, however: I think she's wrong. In hindsight, the Blueberry Ledges Trail was pretty boring. Not really any great views to speak of, mostly in the trees the whole time. No water features such as lakes or streams. All-in-all, remarkably disappointing. Not that the trail was bad, but nothing near as awesome as I remembered the AT section that I had just skipped.

But I made to the shelter at dusk and was glad to be at the Birches.

Surprisingly, one of the two shelters there was completely empty, so I took it for myself. About half the hikers at the shelter were camped around it rather than in it, although technically speaking, I think only two people are allowed to camp outside of it. Well, not my problem. I'm in the shelter. And had the whole thing to myself!

Golden Road marks the end of the 100-Mile Wilderness. I have SURVIVED!

I set up camp, then wandered the extra 0.2 miles down to the ranger station at Katahdin Stream Campground to report in. There I met Knots, who had just finished thru-hiking the PCT and now wanted to thru-hike the AT heading southbound.

"Holy cow!" I exclaimed. And really, he's already finished the PCT? It was only mid-August! Being a former PCT thru-hiker myself, I gave him some advice.

"Don't tell anyone that you think the PCT is better than the AT. It is, but don't tell them that. It'll annoy the hell of them and they'll hate you for it. After all, they've just spent the last 5 or 6 months of their lives hiking to get here, and they'll get a little annoyed if you keep reminding them that the trail they're on sucks." =)

"If you want to make a lot of friends on this trail," I told him, "tell people how much better the AT is than the PCT. Lie your ass off! If there's anything about the PCT you hate, tell people about that and why the PCT sucks. That," I told him confidently, "is how to make friends on the AT."

I meant it half in jest, but there actually is some truth to it. For the most part, I deliberately avoided comparisons between the AT and PCT unless someone directly asked me about it. I'd tell them some of my PCT stories and didn't hide the fact that I had thru-hiked the PCT before, but I generally avoided making comparisons of it with the AT. Nothing could come from that!

When I checked in with the ranger, she told me that I was the 252nd northbound thru-hiker to arrive. My official number: 252. I wasn't even at the top of Katahdin yet, and I was now officially the 252nd person this year to finish the trail.

I walked back to the shelter and mostly kept to myself. I didn't know a single person at the shelter. Not one! It made me a little sad.

Katahdin, as seen from Abol Bridge. Still stuck in the clouds! I hoped that wouldn't be the case tomorrow....
The general store at Abol Bridge.
The restaurant where we ate lunch near Abol Bridge.
Good Man signs us into the register for our day-hike through Baxter SP.

This is the official sign-in location for thru-hikers wanting to stay at the Birches--which thwarted me much of the afternoon. But at 4:30, I got the okay to hike through to the Birches Lean-tos. That's the Blueberry Ledges Trail to the right of the sign which I'd take to the shelter. The official AT is the trail on the left. (You can see a white blaze on the rock at the edge of the photo.)
The Blueberry Ledges Trail started off nice and easy! It would stay pretty nice and easy the whole way, although the last part was a bit more overgrown than this section.
The Blueberry "Ledges" didn't offer much in the way of views.... I was a bit disappointed!

I made it to the Birches Lean-tos at around 6:30 in the evening, and would have that first shelter all to myself despite the multitudes of other hikers camped around it.

1 comment:

George Boscoe said...

good article in today(3/21/16) wall st journal on why and how AT thruhikers get their trail names,, hope you get a chance to read it

george