I recently received an email from Christopher O'Neil.
Chris is a long-time and very experienced BSP hiker and camper, as you will see below. His email captures some of the culture of the Park and it raises some serious issues as well. With Chris' generous permission, I've included it below, along with some comments from me at the end.
He replied that a little karma was in order, since his BSP visit had been a disaster so far. Canoes but no paddles at Kidney, so no fishing. "That's nothing though. Wednesday I almost died. Have you ever climbed Katahdin?"
Copperhead explained to us that he arrived in Maine intending to hike the AT, but he didn't realize how hard it would be. "We don't have any hills like this in Chicago!" His feet were mangled and bloody. We suggested that the flies might kill him before he reaches Hurd Brook, so maybe spend the next nine months training and try again next year in Georgia!
Chris' last question is a great one. Last year, more than 34,000 people signed out on a trailhead register for one of the four roadside trailheads accessing Katahdin (Abol, Hunt, Chimney Pond and Helon Taylor). This number has been pretty steady for at least 25 years. That's a lot of hikers headed mostly for the same place (Baxter Peak), which happens to be the focal point of a large wilderness that Percival Baxter asked us primarily to protect and secondarily to use for recreation.
This balance between recreational use and wilderness protection can be a difficult one to strike - particularly when the our Trust directive is clear that when the balance is most difficult, wilderness protection should be the primary consideration.
To sort this out, we have developed policies and yes, rules, that provide direction to Rangers and hikers alike. The primary objective underlying most of the Park rules is to provide future generations the same pristine and spectacular experience in the Maine's largest wilderness as we do today.
We hope also to help hikers have a safe experience. In a wilderness setting your safety is your personal responsibility, but we do our best to help you with this.
Chris provided a perfect example of how this works. Our rangers - in this case the ranger at Russell Pond - provide information, advice and recommendation on current conditions and anticipated hazards. We also provide information at campgrounds, gatehouses, Park Headquarters and our website. The decision on how to apply this information rests with the hiker.
Most people, like Chris, make an honest evaluation of their skills and knowledge and proceed accordingly. Some hikers overestimate their ability or experience and others, like Copperhead, don't try and get any information about the Park at all before entering the wilderness. They aren't prepared, don't set a turn-around time and put themselves in unsafe situations.
These folks are often the ones we encounter in our search and rescue work.
To answer Chris' question, when hikers don't return from a summer hike, and we haven't received any information from other hikers on the trail or our own staff patrols about a hiker in distress, then we generally do what we can to confirm the presence of the hiker in the Park (sometimes people leave without signing out) by locating a vehicle or other information. Then we wait until the next morning. Our most common rescue assistance is to help "benighted" hikers who neglected to bring a headlamp or flashlight and misjudged how long a Katahdin hike would take them. Night time in Baxter Park, especially on a cloudy, moonless night, can be very, very dark. Walking becomes impossible and people are compelled to find a comfortable spot and wait for daylight. These folks, along with those who must stop to rest, usually find their way out the following morning.
If we still can't locate the hiker by mid day, then our efforts become more serious and we set rangers out on likely trails to look for the hiker. Colder weather or extreme conditions can change this protocol and impel Park staff to begin a search earlier.
Park rules prohibit camping along the trail or on the Tableland. It's pretty easy to understand the reasoning behind this rule. If only a small percentage of those 34,000 people heading up the Katahdin each year camped along the trail or on the Tableland at a spot of their choosing, I can guarantee the mountain hiking experience for our children and grandchildren would not be as good as the one we have enjoyed. If you stay out all night on Katahdin with camping gear, then we treat that differently and the summons book may come out. In Copperhead's case, we concluded his overnight was a result of poor planning and preparation. Our concern then shifts to his next move which is into the Hundred Mile Wilderness. Unprepared southbound AT hikers have prompted a growing concern amoung our staff. We provided all the information and recommendations we can. I'm not sure if Copperhead decided to apply that advice or not, but he's out there somewhere. Hiking strong, I hope!