As Hikers Celebrate on Appalachian Trail, Some Ask: Where Will It End?


MOUNT KATAHDIN, Me. — The storied Appalachian Trail, which begins 2,190 miles away in Georgia, ends here, with a final scramble up Maine’s highest peak — some of it nearly vertical, much of it blocked by boulders. For those who have trekked five or six months, Katahdin’s iconic summit is an exhausting challenge with a rewarding end.

“It takes your breath away,” said Chuck Wood, 64, a hiker from Norristown, Pa. “Just to be there, it’s like an audience with the Lord.”

But that experience is now in jeopardy. Faced with increasing crowds and partylike behavior by a few — including an ultramarathon runner who celebrated at the summit last month with a spray of champagne — officials here are threatening to reroute the end of the trail off Katahdin and out of Baxter State Park.

The very idea has stunned the hiking world. Katahdin has been the trail’s northern terminus for more than 80 years. For the thousands who set out annually to follow its entire path, moving the trail’s endpoint off this rocky peak would be a momentous detour, forcing long-distance hikers to end their treks not with a bang but a whimper.

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A hiker scrambled over boulders this month on Mount Katahdin in Maine, the final stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The state park that controls the area wants to limit the number of visitors.

Credit
Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

“It would lose all its epicness,” lamented Ryan Mennett, 22, a trail hiker from Burlington, Conn. “Where would they end it? At a stream? On a piece of grass?”

The matter is coming to a head in part because the marathoner, Scott Jurek, broke a handful of strict park rules.

But more urgently, the Appalachian Trail is bracing for a surge in hikers after the release in September of a movie about the trail, “A Walk in the Woods,” with Robert Redford.

In 1999, a year after the book that the film is based on was published, the number of long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail, or A.T., increased by 45 percent, said Ronald J. Tipton, the executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages the trail in partnership with the National Park Service and more than 70 local agencies. Just as last year’s movie “Wild,” with Reese Witherspoon, heightened interest in the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast, “A Walk in the Woods” is expected to prod more couch potatoes onto the Appalachian Trail.

That concern about crowds, though, has also highlighted a deeper conflict between Baxter State Park, which wants to limit the number of hikers, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which wants to encourage the trail’s use.

Officials at Baxter have been sounding the alarm about crowds for years. Last year, 62,000 people entered the park, and a record 2,017 of them were hiking the trail. That was a jump of 18 percent over 2013.

Jensen Bissell, Baxter’s director, said the park already curbed the number of day hikers by limiting cars in the parking lots; now he wants to cap the number of long-distance hikers too, perhaps by requiring permits. He said his goal was to “make sure that the 2,000 people we have today won’t become 3,000 next year or 8,000 in 10 years.”

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Scott Jurek celebrating atop Mount Katahdin on July 12 after completing the Appalachian Trail in a record time of in 46 days, eight hours and seven minutes.

Credit
Bob Najar/iRunFar.com

Protecting the park is his job, he said. Baxter, which hosts the trail’s northernmost 15 miles, is managed by an independent trust that has pledged to carry out the vision of Percival P. Baxter, a former Maine governor, who bought up 210,000 acres and deeded them to the state to create a nature preserve to be kept in a “natural, wild state.”

The conservancy, which is promoting the Redford movie on its website, counters that the trail can still handle more people. “We believe the A.T. can accommodate more people if they can be educated to use the trail responsibly,” said Laurie Potteiger, a spokeswoman for the conservancy.

Baxter already has some of the strictest rules along the entire trail. They bar hiking in groups larger than 12, drinking alcohol in public, littering, camping off the trail and generally whooping it up in a party atmosphere on the mountaintop.

Mr. Bissell wrote an open letter in November to the conservancy noting that these rules were being violated with greater frequency and warning that if such activity continued, Baxter would no longer host the trail. He said that while Appalachian Trail hikers accounted for 3 percent of the park’s visitors, they used up more resources and had a disproportionate effect on the land.

His concerns received little notice outside the hiker world until July 12, when Mr. Jurek, 41, a champion ultramarathon runner, arrived atop Katahdin from Georgia after breaking the speed record for a supported hike. (His wife, Jenny, met him each night, allowing him to avoid carrying a heavy pack and to sleep in a van.) He ran the entire trail in 46 days, eight hours and seven minutes, beating the previous record by more than three hours.

At the summit, with an elevation of 5,269 feet, a friend handed Mr. Jurek a bottle of champagne. He uncorked it, inserted his thumb and shook the bottle vigorously until it exploded like Old Faithful. He then took a long swig before sitting on the rocks and talking with journalists and other hikers about his accomplishment. Among those watching was a park ranger, and Mr. Jurek later received three citations, for having a group larger than 12 (the citation said 16), drinking alcohol in public and littering — the result of that champagne spilling on the rocks, which the ranger said attracted bees and made the summit “smell like a redemption center.”

Mr. Jurek’s behavior incensed Mr. Bissell, 61, who has been the park director for more than a decade.  He took the unusual step of scolding the runner in a post on the park’s Facebook page. He noted the rule violations but trained his ire on what he said was Mr. Jurek’s commercialization of the wilderness — the runner’s headband and support van showed corporate logos. Mr. Bissell said Mr. Jurek and his sponsors had exploited the park for profit. And he reiterated the threat to move the trail off Katahdin.

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A climber on the peak.

Credit
Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

“When I saw the video, it spoke to me,” Mr. Bissell said later in an interview in his office in nearby Millinocket. “I thought, it’s time to speak more loudly about this because we’re not having an effect.”

The post drew a crush of online comments. While some lauded Mr. Bissell’s stance, the majority found it churlish and unprofessional. Readers were dismayed that he had singled out Mr. Jurek when so many others routinely celebrate with alcohol and are not given tickets. They said Mr. Bissell had missed an opportunity to turn Mr. Jurek’s staggering physical accomplishment — the equivalent of running nearly two marathons a day — into a positive for the park.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Jurek struck back with his own blog post, casting himself as a wilderness advocate and saying he hoped he had inspired others to test their limits.

Word of the exchange traveled up and down the trail. Many hikers on Katahdin earlier this month said the park had overreacted, at least with the littering charge. But many also said Mr. Jurek had violated the rules and missed the true Appalachian Trail experience. As Paul Nuckols, 59, of Springfield, Mass., put it as he descended the summit: “Doing this in 46 days is like going through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in one minute and 17 seconds.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Jurek has hired a lawyer, Walter McKee of Augusta, and is fighting the citations, which each carry a $200 fine. A judge has given Mr. McKee and the prosecutor, R. Christopher Almy, the district attorney of Penobscot County, until Sept. 9 to resolve the matter; otherwise, it could go to trial.

“I’m a man of integrity,” Mr. Jurek said in a telephone interview from his home in Boulder, Colo., when asked why he was contesting the charges.

Though pictures from the summit show him drinking alcohol, he said that his friend who had brought it had told rangers about it in advance and that the rangers had said only to avoid drinking in front of children.

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Jensen Bissell, the director of Baxter State Park in Maine, wants to limit the number of long-distance hikers in the park.

Credit
Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

Mr. Jurek said he found the charge of littering particularly galling. He is a strict practitioner of packing out what he packs in and leaving no trace, and he said he had taken 4,000 energy-bar wrappers out from the trail as well as his own used toilet paper and sorted it all for recycling. He also removed the empty champagne bottle and cork and left the summit as clean as he had found it, he said.

As to the charge of having a group of more than 12, his lawyer said others had tagged along with Mr. Jurek’s dozen, which was their choice, not Mr. Jurek’s.

Mr. Jurek said he was being made a scapegoat because he was a public figure with a following. “He wanted to tarnish me to further his cause about moving the A.T.,” he said of Mr. Bissell. “He stood on my shoulders.”

Indeed, while many hikers are reverential at the top of Katahdin, some are boisterous. Many drink. Some smoke marijuana. A few get naked. And yet citations are extremely rare. In 2013, the last year for which figures were available, eight people in one group were cited for public drinking; all pleaded guilty and paid their fines.

Mr. Bissell said the ranger at the scene had not issued citations to anyone besides Mr. Jurek because all the others had been there because of him.

Mr. Almy, the district attorney, said he was prosecuting Mr. Jurek’s case because “the park is a sacred place and he was disrespectful.”

The dispute, and the pending surge in hikers due to the movie, prompted officials from Baxter and the conservancy, as well as other stakeholders in the trail, to meet last month for the first time to try to iron out their differences and avoid having the trail moved off Katahdin.

They plan to meet again in October. Mr. Tipton of the conservancy said his organization was already developing strategies for hikers to educate themselves about the varying rules in each jurisdiction and how to avoid trail congestion.

Mr. Bissell said he thought moving the trail was “unlikely,” but he remained adamant that Mr. Jurek had set a bad example. He said his mission was to stay true to Governor Baxter, who wrote in 1945 that he wanted to protect the park against “commercial exploitation” — along with other vices of modern life, including “the trappings of unpleasant civilization.”

“It’s hard,” Mr. Bissell said, “when 200 people are there at the summit, to say this is a wilderness experience.”



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