June 3, 2013

How We Open the Park in Spring

The Process for Springtime Opening of Park Roads and Trails

As I write this at the very start of June, most of the Park trails and road are open.  The northernmost section of the Park Tote Road between the access road to Phoenix Camps and the Wadleigh Brook Trailhead remains closed as do all trailheads out of Chimney Pond Campground on the north side of Katahdin.  This is normal for this time of year.  It is likely that the entire Park Tote Road will be open within the coming week. The Cathedral and Dudley Trails out of Chimney Pond will also likely open for hiking in the next few days, although the Saddle Trail may be another week or more before it is free of snow.  Again, based on our experience, this is a typical opening sequence and timing for Park roads and trails.

The fact that some Park roads and trails remain closed into June often comes as a surprise to people – even some Mainers who are intimately familiar with the typical Maine winter.  It helps to remember that the Park landscape includes the highest elevations in Maine and that snow depths at Chimney Pond typically exceed 80” on the level by the height of winter.  It might be spring in your dooryard, but it’s still winter in parts of Baxter Park.

As winter begins to fade and rising temperatures signal the end of snowfall, we begin our planning for the opening of the Park.  As the snow leave and the roads begin to open up, Rangers begin to evaluate the conditions based on two of the six Park mission elements::

o   Protection of the Park’s Resources

o   Provision for Public Safety

Simply put, we check the roads to see if they firm enough to handle vehicle traffic without rutting, and we check the road edges to confirm that numerous soft shoulders are not a hazard to people driving on our narrow, gravel roads.  Lastly, we confirm that trees or other debris in the roadway don’t pose a safety hazard to drivers. 
Springtime progresses in the Park from south to north, and roads in the Togue Pond area are usually the first to become free of frost, dry and firm.  The north access to the Park at Matagamon usually opens later.  Typically, the last area to firm up in the section of the Tote Road between Trout Brook Crossing and the access road to the Phoenix Camps on Nesowadehunk Lake.  Not surprisingly, this is the section that is currently closed as we wait for soft areas to firm up.

The process of checking and opening Park roads is one we are very familiar with.  We open roads as soon as we they are firm enough to protect the resource and are safe for travel.  We are prompt and regular with our recon procedures, but we can’t rush Mother Nature. For many people, spring has long since arrived and they are surprised and confused that the Park road is not open, but winter is slow to leave the Park landscape.  Reflecting the wild and rugged terrain of the Park, summer is shorter and more intense and winters can be long and slow to end. 
Trails follow the same procedure.  We inspect trails for hikeable conditions.  Lowland trails below the treeline are the first to open.   Alpine and trails accessing Katahdin and Baxter Peak are often the last to open.  The very visible southwest facing Abol Trail is usually the first to clear of snow, but from a resource protection standpoint, the conditions on the Tableland, the treeless plateau below Baxter Peak, is much more important.  Park Rangers start hiking the Abol Trail regularly as soon as it appears clear of snow.   Once on the Tableland, they assess the trail conditions for frost, snow, water and the suitability for hiking.  We are especially concerned about areas where wet, snowy or soft conditions would prompt hikers to leave the trail treadway and venture into soft and vulnerable alpine vegetation.  Damage and disturbance from hiking boots at this early time of year would likely be enough to kill this vegetation.  Once the Tableland is free of snow and firm, we open the Abol Trail to Baxter Peak.  Deep snows that accumulate at treeline at the base of the Hunt Spur usually delays the opening of the Hunt Trail and typically the Hunt and Helon Taylor trails are the next Katahdin Trails to open.  The Traveler Loop Trails usually open at about this time.  Trails on the north side of Katahdin are usually the last trails to open.  Cathedral , Dudley and Hamlin Ridge usually open a short time after the Chimney Pond Trail becomes passable.   Due to the deep snow depths that accumulate around treeline, the Saddle Trail is usually the last trail to open.

So that’s how we do it.  Park Rangers put in lots of steep miles checking trails and long hours checking roads.  Nature is in control and our primary objectives are to protect the fragile alpine habitat of the Park and to ensure the trails are reasonably safe for public use.