The Universal Notebook: Keep Baxter forever wild by keeping out

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In July, professional ultramarathoner Scott Jurek set a world record by completing the 2,189 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin in 46 days, 8 hours, seven minutes.

I wasn’t impressed and neither was Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell.

“Mr. Jurek and the corporate sponsors were careful not to mention in the media coverage that one of the unfortunate outcomes of the celebration party at Baxter Peak at the completion of the event were the three summons issued to Mr. Jurek by a Baxter Park Ranger for the drinking of alcoholic beverages in public places (BSP Rule 7 and Maine State General Law), for littering (BSP Rule 4.5) and for hiking with an oversize group (BSP Rule 2.2),” Bissell complained on the BSP website. “… Not much to be proud of there.”

I admit, my first reaction was that Bissell was being a bit of a stuffed shirt. A spray of champagne hardly constitutes littering. Some 20,000 people a year set out to climb Katahdin and I’m reasonable certain a high percentage of them leave some bodily fluid along on the trail.

In his own defense, Jurek wrote on his website that, “When I reached the summit, two different park rangers watched my friend hand me the bottle to celebrate. We were not aware of any rules against alcohol and I own that – I should have been better informed. Neither of the rangers said a word about it. If they had, I would have immediately put the bottle away. No citations were issued to any of the people with alcohol and no warnings were given. It was only four hours later, after we had hiked down with all our trash and reached the parking lot, that I was surprised to be met by three more rangers who now issued me three summonses.”

Jurek plans to fight the summonses in court, and there is now talk about whether the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail should be moved out of the park and off Katahdin.

Jurek’s attorney, Walter McKee, got it right when he said, “It’s clear what is going on here. (Park officials) are trying to use Scott as a crude example in a much larger debate about the Appalachian Trail.”

True enough. On Nov. 19, 2014, in fact, Jensen Bissell had sent a letter to Appalachian Trail officials expressing his concerns about the increasing number of AT thru-hikers, the use of alcohol and drugs, large parties and a disregard for park rules.

The number of thru-hikers summiting Katahdin increased from 344 in 1992 to 1,862 in 2013. Bill Bryson’s 1998 “A Walk in the Woods” is often blamed/credited for the increase. There was a 60 percent spike in AT hikers in 1999. The fact that the book about two old guys trying to hike the AT is being released as a movie this month must be worrisome to park officials.

Baxter State Park is supposed to be “forever wild,” but Bissell has complained that “it’s hard when there are 200 people at the summit to say this is a wilderness experience.”

Katahdin is relative wilderness. Compared to the five million tourists who visit Acadia National Park each year, the 64,000 who visit Baxter State Park are a statistical anomaly, a 1 percent-plus back country blip. But I get Bissell’s gripe.

It is hard to say Baxter State Park is a wilderness experience when you’re standing atop Katahdin with 200 other hikers. Then again, it’s also hard to think of it as a wilderness experience when the guy next to you on Baxter Peak is chatting on his cell phone with his girlfriend in Bayonne, New Jersey, or when loud, smelly snowmobiles go roaring along snow-covered park roads.

Which brings me to my point: What’s the point of running the Appalachian Trail? Scott Jurek could not possibly have appreciated the beauty and solace of nature in his quest to make a journey into a contest.

In fact, hiking the Appalachian Trail, like climbing Mount Everest, is a hollow self-indulgence. It’s been done. Heck, a 13-year-old kid climbed Everest a few years ago. Some 200 people a day in season line up to try to summit the world’s highest mountain, in the process leaving behind tons of trash and human excrement.

Bissell’s major complaint about the increase in AT thru-hikers is that “The AT model seems to be based on unlimited growth in use while BSP operates under a fixed-capacity model.”

He’s right. Which is why I say again, it’s been done. It’s no big deal. Do something useful. Do something productive. At the very least, do your part for wilderness by staying out of it.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • Chew H Bird

    This type of thing, regardless of the medium, is happening all over (for better or worse). They key is to adapt to change whether or not we like it. Someone runs the AT, someone climbs a mountain, someone swims the English Channel, someone rides a bike across the country, or whatever the “thing” is, most of the time it has been previously accomplished by someone else.

    We do these things because we can. These are personal quests and although I may not “like” how others demonstrate their accomplishment I need to accept that not all of us celebrate (insert accomplishment her) in the same manner.

    In one of my part time gigs I perform weddings. “Everyone” says they want something traditional. What I quickly learned is that traditional varies greatly from family to family and my role is to support and enhance those different traditions regardless of what I may personally think.

    The same goes for people celebrating atop Katahdin. As a park service we should adapt, to the best of our ability, to accommodate what variances we can in a manner that best provides options for the majority or people while protecting the environment. I think we should capitalize on the popularity and objectively and logically and implement a range of options that best fits the majority of people participating in (insert activity here).

  • EABeem

    Update: Jurek paid the fine for consuming alcohol today in exchange for which the charges of littering and hiking with a group over 12 were dropped.

  • truther

    If these wonderful places are being “overrun” or whatever, then the obvious solution is to have more of them.

    • Chew H Bird

      However, more of them (with a growing population and increased usage) is ultimately going to fail due to only so much space available and the costs of managing and maintaining it. A defined resource with finite capacity vs theoretically uncapped demand at some point will require limitations on usage, increased management, and ultimately increased costs for the users.

      • truther

        I don’t disagree with you (well, except for the “ultimately going to fail” part). However, I would argue that we are not yet anywhere near the point where we have run out of space for things like parks and trails.

        A real quick google search tells me that Baxter SP is 327 square miles – less than 1% of Maine’s total area and only 8 times bigger than Disneyworld. York County is 1,271 square miles. The Chicago metro area is 10,857 square miles.

        • Chew H Bird

          You are correct and for the foreseeable future we can properly manage this growing situation. The “ultimate” part is simply that any finite resource has limitations. Cemeteries (sooner or later) fill up, just like real estate around a small lake or pond. Fossil fuel will eventually run out. Town dump sites eventually fill up. Eventually, the desire of people to access the park will inevitably exceed the capacity of the area (if we continue to increase demand without increasing the resource).