It happened in 2009 on Mount Moosilauke as I hiked southbound on the Appalachian Trail.
I’d heard stories, read Bryson, understood in a very cloudy way how popular the AT was. But I didn't understand – truly understand – until my hiking partner Hungry Creepster and I reached Beaver Brook Shelter on the north side of Moosilauke in New Hampshire. It was there I UNDERSTOOD.
|Not really a joke.|
We arrived in the late afternoon – certainly no later than we usually pulled over – and there was nowhere to sleep. I don’t mean that the shelter was full. I mean, it was. But there was Nowhere. To. Sleep. Every inch of the area was covered in tents and people.
It was too late to continue up Moosilauke – besides, thunder rumbled. There was no chance of flat land up ahead anyway. Retracing our steps down wet ladders was absolutely not an option. So we set up the tent on roots and rocks, surrendering ourselves to an awfully uncomfortable night.
It would have been okay if not for the constant noise. Zipping, unzipping. Privy door squeaking. The crumple of ziploc bags. A backpacker symphony that I could almost sleep through. And all night long – well past “hiker midnight” – some rowdy thru-hikers were partying. By “partying,” I mean “lighting their farts on fire.” I am serious. This actually happened.
(I’m not bringing this up to contribute to any northbound/southbound squabble on the AT. There were some real winners in the southbound class that year too. I know the average northbounder does not stay up all night farting into flames - thanks, by the way.)
|This is the privy at Beaver Brook.|
I like it.
That night, I understood. So many people love the AT: the leave-no-trace purists, the fart-lighters, and the vast majority of us in the middle who try to be decent stewards. The AT is epic, legendary - it deserves the attention. But on Moosilauke I understood the perils of its popularity: people can flatten a wilderness with their feet and with their love.
The backpackers - all of us - did not mean to trample the Beaver Brook Shelter area. But with so many people in one place (even ignoring extracurricular fire activities and the cacophonous night) it was grossly impacted by humans: vegetation visibly crushed, trails widened, mud holes deepened . . . and this was the effect on an area after most aspiring thru-hikers (both northbound and southbound) had quit the trail.
With such popularity, the hiking community needs to continue to be proactive before our trails get loved to death. There are so many ways to help the AT: it needs volunteers to maintain it. It needs hikers who know how to leave no trace (such as not tenting directly on tree roots, as I did that night). It needs financial support.
|The Great Eastern Trail: happy sigh.|
And I believe it needs the Great Eastern Trail.
The GET is growing into a trail that can and will relieve some pressure from the Appalachian Trail. The GET isn't the whole solution for the overcrowded AT, but it's a big part. When I volunteer on the GET, I feel like I am helping both trails. (FYI: We need more help to complete the GET and to maintain it.)
In the past week I've responded to more Great Eastern Trail inquiries than I have in the last year. I am grateful to the hiking community for embracing this trail - both for its own, well-deserving sake and for the sake of the Appalachian Trail.