Forty hikers gathered at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain early Saturday morning to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Appalachian Trail by trekking eight miles along the famous trail to visit a special spot — the place where the 2,181-mile route was completed.
On the ridge between Sugarloaf and Spaulding Mountain is where the final section of the AT was blazed — the last piece of a very long puzzle, the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.
“In Maine, we started building [the AT] in the west at Grafton Notch and also started at Katahdin and headed south,” said Lester Kenway, president of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. “So [by Sugarloaf Mountain] is the place where the two trails met.”
It was Aug. 14, 1937, when a crew of young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps completed the final two miles. That day marked the end of a 15-year construction project from Georgia to Maine that involved hundreds of volunteers, state and federal agency partners, local trail-maintenance clubs, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
“Maine is a very wild place with very little access — not many road crossings to rely on,” Kenway said. “The original route of the trail was proposed to end in the north at Mount Washington in New Hampshire, and it was some local Maine people, a guy named Myron [Haliburton] Avery in particular, who convinced enough people that the trail should continue to Katahdin. So they took on this very remote, wild area.
“There were some challenges. The trail was built in Maine from 1933 to 1937, and topographic maps had not been made of that area yet.”
Avery, a Lubec native, along with a few other Maine characters, spearheaded the efforts to mark and clear the Maine section of the AT, an adventure that is told through photographs and the words of David B. Field — a retired University of Maine forest resources professor — in “ Along Maine’s Appalachian Trail,” published in 2011 by Arcadia Publishing.
Avery referred to Maine’s section of the AT as “The Silver Aisle.”
“This route across Maine is marked by white paint blazes leading through, for the most part, a spruce and fir forest with a cathedral-like stillness; hence this appellation ‘The Silver Aisle,’” Avery wrote in “The Silver Aisle,” a 1937 pamphlet on the AT in Maine.
At the trail’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1987, a memorial plaque was mounted to a boulder on the ridge. A group — including Miles Fenton, the only surviving member of the 1937 CCC crew — rode the ski resort’s gondola and hiked to the location for the dedication.
The 40 people gathered on Saturday were prepared for a much longer hike to the plaque. After a bumpy ride in a jam-packed bus along narrow dirt roads, the group struck out on the trail near Lone Mountain, several miles southwest of Sugarloaf Mountain. From there, they followed white blazes over Spaulding Mountain (4,010 feet in elevation) and along the ridge to the plaque.
“It was just a chance to stop and kind of reflect on the 75 years of the AT being in existence, and the fact that it was completed in Maine is kind of nice,” said Peter Roderick of Rome. Roderick, an MATC member who oversees AT maintenance from New Portland to Monson, was one of the six leaders for the hike.
After signing a register above the plaque, the group continued about a mile along the AT, then turned onto a rocky, 0.6-mile side trail that rises steeply (about 700 vertical feet) to the mountain’s summit, which at 4,237 feet above sea level makes Sugarloaf the second tallest mountain in Maine.
After hours of hiking, they were happy to hitch a ride down the mountain’s grassy slopes on the resort’s ski lift.
Janice Ronan of Windham, a lifetime member of the MATC, opted for the shorter hike, a 4-mile round trip that used the ski lift both ways.
“The weather was absolutely gorgeous,” said Janice Ronan. Her husband, Ray Ronan, is also a lifetime member of the MATC. He thru-hiked the AT in 2000, and the couple have long worked to maintain the trail and the corridor of wilderness surrounding it.
“I just think I liked connecting with the thought of the people who, with their sweat and all their hard work, made the trail and brought it to completion,” she said.
After the hikes, more than 100 people gathered at The Rack BBQ in Carrabassett Valley to feast on a buffet and listen to talks about the AT’s history and it’s future. The ceremony featured guest speaker Mark Wegner, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
While the AT is known as a destination for thru-hikers (those who set out to hike the trail end to end), the majority of AT users are day hikers. In recent years, it’s estimated that 2-3 million people visit the AT each year, while only 2,000 people set out to thru-hike the trail. Furthermore, only 400-500 of those 2,000 who set out to attempt the journey actually make it all the way to the end.
“As far as Maine goes, I think the success [of the trail] lies in that it’s a very interesting place to go hiking,” Kenway said. “The trail goes over 52 different peaks, and those peaks are generally over 3,000 feet high — so you have the mountain environment, a lot of rivers and streams and waterfalls. I think it’s a very scenic place, and it has also developed a reputation in the world. If you go out hiking on the AT in Maine, it’s not just local people. I meet people from Germany, South Africa and Asia — all kinds of folks come to Maine seeking that experience.”
While 1937 marks the completion of the original AT, the route was (and is) far from set in stone. In fact, since then, most of the trail — probably 99 percent — has been relocated or rebuilt, according to the ATC. Many of the changes were in response to the 1968 National Trails System Act, which called for the secretary of the interior to establish the Appalachian National Scenic Trail on protected land.
Originally, hundreds of miles of the original route were along roads and passed through private lands. Today, more than 99.7 percent is in public ownership. Not only is the footpath protected, but a corridor of land that averages 1,000 feet in width is also protected.
In Maine, volunteer trail builders relocated 164 miles of the original 262-mile trail between 1970 and 1990. Many of those volunteers belonged to the MATC, which was created in 1935 by a small group of people already engaged in building the AT in Maine.
“The trail club has been a volunteer organization since its inception in the 1930s, and we’re open to have people join us and help us,” said Kenway. “During the last couple of years, we’ve had much better success at attracting volunteers.”
This summer, the club revitalized their summer trail crews — groups of volunteers (led by MATC members) that meet at a sheep farm in Garland and head into the wilderness for a week of trail work and tenting. Every year, the 75-year-old trail needs bridges rebuilt, branches cut back and blazes repainted so that it can remain Maine’s treasured “Silver Aisle.”
Those interested in repairing and improving the 75-year-old trail in Maine may call Holly Shean at 581-1779. For information on the MATC, visit matc.org; the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, appalachiantrail.org.