July 6, 2013

The Most Important Sign in Baxter Park

The Most Important Sign In Baxter Park 

This season, Park hikers headed toward Baxter Peak will notice a new sign.  We have countless signs in the Park - trail signs, rules signs, policy signs, information signs. Of all the signs in the Park we post to help people to have a good experience while protecting the Park environment - this sign might be one of the most important.  We hope it is.
A day hike to Baxter Peak is one of the most challenging day hikes in New England.  Although more than 30,000 people will sign a trail register at a Katahdin trailhead this summer, we still consider Pamola, Baxter Peak and the Knife Edge to be a part of the wilderness of Baxter State Park.  Once away from the trailhead, wilderness conditions exist for all hikers, including sudden and sometimes violent changes in weather and steep, rocky and unstable terrain.  Most importantly, most visitors are left to make important decisions about their actions and plans based on their own or their group’s experience.  No formal assistance from Rangers or others is consistently available.  Since 1962, when Percival Baxter completed his grand vision, 48 people have lost their lives in the Park’s wilderness - roughly one per year.

Although hard to verify with existing scientific data, the past decade has left Park managers with the growing conviction that Park visitors are increasingly unprepared for the physical, mental and environmental challenges that are often a part of an excursion into a wilderness environment.

The number of Park visitors who attempt a Katahdin hike significantly under-prepared in terms of basic equipment and supplies like food, water, warm/weatherproof clothing, a map, and a headlamp or flashlight (required by Park Rules) seems to be increasing.
This lack of preparedness often seems closely paired with a false perception that help or assistance is always close at hand, convenient to utilize and with zero cost to the visitor. 

Increasingly, visitors display an attitude of expectation more akin to an amusement park attraction, where the element of thrill and danger are illusions wrapped in an invisible net of safety and security.  This attitude can be very hazardous in a wilderness environment where sudden changes in weather, difficult terrain and continuing physical exertion require sound individual judgment, a flexibility and openness in planning and constant attention to the environment in order to maintain a reasonable level of safe conduct.
Over the past decade, our attempts to address these concerns have largely been oriented toward increasing the venues, volumes and specificity of information we target to Park visitors, particularly through:
·         Information on sign and bulletin boards near hiker registration boxes at trailhead Ranger      Stations
·         Information on the Park website, Newsletter, Gatehouse handouts etc.
·         Face to face information provided by Park Staff

We realize that some of our most important messages may be getting lost in the ocean of information we try to make available to the conscientious hiker.

The Next Step
This summer we will be erecting four signs.  The signs would be medium size, likely 30”x 20” – small enough not to be overbearing, but too large to overlook.

They will be placed on each of the four primary access trails to Katahdin:  Abol, Hunt Chimney Pond and Helon Taylor trails.  Placement is important.  Too close to the trailhead and they may be overlooked by hikers amped up with starting a big Katahdin hike.  Hikers at the trailhead are often nervous, excited and eager to get started.  Too far up the trail and they may get lost in other signs or appear at a point when hikers begin to feel their plans are unchangeable. 

The signs will be placed not too far up the trail, but far enough that the initial edge of excitement has worn off, the physical effort is beginning to be understood, and the initial anticipation has been replaced with an awareness of and openness to the different environment of wilderness.

The message of the signs is very important.  We believe four messages is the most we can hope for if we aim for retention and consideration.  Any more than four and the messages get ignored or mixed up.   We have worked with staff and the Park Advisory Committee to craft the sign messages worded in the most simple and elegant fashion.

We hope the simple but important messages on these signs will come to mind later in the day, at that point where decisions - sometimes critical ones - are made.  If even one hiker averts disaster by adopting these ideals, we'll consider this "mission accomplished".