The Appalachian ferryman

Posted Sept. 11, 2009, at 9:47 p.m.

Every day when they go to work, Dave Corrigan and his shift replacement, Craig Dickstein, have people’s lives in their hands.

Corrigan is on duty six days a week, Craig the other day. If Corrigan has a change due to an unexpected personal emergency, he calls Craig to cover his shift.

It’s their job, seven days a week, on schedule, to paddle Appalachian Trail hikers by canoe safely across the Kennebec River in Caratunk.

Corrigan is the ferry contractor for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., which established the service in 1987. A woman drowned in 1985 when she tried to wade, or ford, the river and was swept away.

At the time there was a private, unscheduled provider that was used, historically, for access to a set of camps on Pierce Pond a few miles away. Since the new service was established not one person has been lost. It’s the only official way to cross the river and stay on the trail. There’s even a painted white blaze on the bottom of the canoe.

I visited Corrigan in July during the highest water of the year, when the combined flow of the Dead River and the Kennebec River was around 15,000 cubic feet per second. The water was so high officials for a whitewater canoe championship moved the event to a safer place on the river. I went back to Caratunk to talk with him last Sunday, to see how the rest of the season has progressed and find out more about his job.

Unlike in July when the river was flowing full, the water was much lower last weekend. Even though it’s due partly to a recent rainless spell, the water level is not only subject to rainfall, Corrigan explained.

“There are three dams that control this river, Harris Station, Long Falls Dam, and Wyman Dam. Two of those dams, Harris and Long Falls, release water for whitewater rafting. I never know how high the water will be, or when,” he said.

The morning I was there, Corrigan already was across on the west bank picking up his first hiker, one of several trips for his first shift of the day from 9 to 11 a.m. He’s off until 2 p.m. when he starts the afternoon shift, which ends at 4 p.m. After making a few more crossings, dropping off a couple of north- bound through hikers on the east bank where I was standing, I asked him about how many trips across he has been making.

This is the busiest time of the season on the trail. The north-bound long distance backpackers have been arriving since August and will be until the first of October.

“My biggest week so far was in August with 95 hikers in seven days. That week it was mostly north-bound through hikers. I was on for six of them,” Corrigan said.

The largest users of the Appalachian Trail aren’t through- hiking, long-distance backpackers, however.

“I’ll average probably 1,200 hikers a year; and maybe 400 of those are through hikers. The rest are all section hikers. There are 20 Colby College students coming across today,” Corrigan said. “Pierce Pond camps called me at home and told me they were coming.”

There’s an overnight lean-to near the camps. News travels fast along the trail.

It wasn’t long before another couple of backpackers, walking from Monson to Stratton, showed up to cross to the other side. Corrigan had them sign the release forms, don their life jackets; after giving him their packs to load, and instructing them in how to board, he loaded them in the canoe and pushed off.

In the three or four minutes it took them to paddle the 100 yards to the other side, others have showed up for a ride back. It looked like it would be a busy day.

I stayed around for the rest of the shift as the Colby group showed up and then it was non-stop paddling for Corrigan as he paddled the six-mile an hour current downstream one way, up stream on the return trip.

“On an average day,” he said, “the current is seven to eight miles an hour. At high water it’s 10 miles an hour.”

With someone else paddling for one of the trips, Corrigan has at least another paddler to share the work. But, he never knows if that person’s ever been in a canoe, let alone paddle against a strong current in 15- to 30- foot deep river, rain or shine.

All the weather that hikers endure, apply to Corrigan, when he’s on the job. For the 31-year-old from Concord Township, it’s the outdoor lifestyle that’s part of his off-season work as well. He’s the owner of Fletcher Mountain Outfitters, a traditional hunting, fishing and guiding service.

As a licensed Maine Master Guide, Corrigan is used to changing conditions outdoors. He’s also a pre-1840’s period re-enactor, which explains the period felt hat he wears.

But it’s not always large numbers of trips or severe weather and high water on the river. Some days, like last Sunday are spectacular, though busy. Over his lunch break, away from the river at his truck, I asked about what kind of wildlife he sees at the river.

“I’ve seen eagles, loons, lots of loons. This year I saw a fawn deer swim across the river,” he said. “It still had spots on and just swam across the river. That was pretty cool.”

Getting everyone across safely is a job that’s perfectly suited for someone like Corrigan. He’s dedicated to 100 percent safety. I watched as he fitted a life jacket on each hiker and transported them with dry feet and dry packs from one side of that brilliant blue river to the other.

Remarkably, one of the biggest dangers to Corrigan doesn’t come from high water or bad weather. There’s always someone, for unfathomable reasons, especially fishermen, familiar to rivers and strong current, who insists on fording the river. Corrigan’s biggest danger comes from them. If they need help, they put him and rescu-ers at great risk.

He told me about one guy on Friday, two days earlier, who tried to ford.

“It happened on my lunch shift. I was at my truck, a half mile away. When I came back, I saw him on the other side, drying his stuff out.” Corrigan said. “He told me he was up to his thighs, then up to his waist, then lost his footing and ended up 400 yards downriver on the same side he started from. He lost all his food. It was soaked. His sleeping bag was soaked.”

That guy was lucky. There’s no reason to ford when there’s someone like Corrigan to ensure your safety. The service is free. The schedule is clearly posted in lean-tos and on the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s Web site, matc.org.

The schedule is: from May 22 to July 16, the hours are 9 to 11 a.m. only. from July 17 to Sept. 30, it’s 9-11 plus 2-4 p.m. from Oct. 1-12 9-11 a.m. only.

Corrigan is proud of his job on the river and he should be. It takes a special person to care for others safety. He’s in the second year of his three-year contract.

I asked him how long he’d like to do his job. He told me he’d like to give it at least 20 years, as long as the previous ferry operator, Steve Longley. He probably will, too, making crossings and ferrying hikers.

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