Night had descended on Baxter State Park when Justin Landry, 17, of Brewer, entered the pitch-dark forest and began hiking up Mount Katahdin, lighting the rocks and roots on the trail with a flashlight. He was scared — not of hiking alone in the dark, but of what he might find.
“It was my grandfather I was looking for,” Landry said. “And one of my fears was that he’d fallen off a bridge and into the falls — that I’d be finding a body.”
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. About 1½ miles up the mountain’s Hunt Trail, Landry found his grandfather sitting in the trail, uninjured but unable to proceed without a flashlight. Together, they made it down the trail safely.
Their unnerving experience in the dark Maine wilderness brings to light a policy of Baxter State Park that people may not be aware of — that park rangers don’t always help search for stranded hikers.
In scenarios where a hiker has not returned to a trailhead before dark, the park policy is that rangers assist in the rescue if the hiker is known to be injured. However, if there isn’t evidence of a medical emergency, the ranger’s first option is to equip an able-bodied person from the hiking party to search the trail, according to Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell, who would not comment on the specific event but would discuss the park’s policies.
“We make sure they have a light, food and water, and we send them back up — because self-rescue is always the best and first option,” Bissell said.
Landry’s experience of self-rescue began on the morning of June 27, when he climbed to the top of Katahdin with his 75-year-old grandfather, Miles Spring, and his friend Rose Ross, 17, of Holden. On the way down the mountain, they split up. They never planned to stay together the whole hike. In fact, they signed the register at the trailhead as separate groups because they knew Spring had a slower hiking pace.
The teens, eager to fish in Katahdin Stream near the bottom of the mountain, quickly descended. At the trailhead, they waited for Spring, but when darkness fell, they became worried and sought help from park rangers.
“Basically, he [the ranger] said unless my grandfather was known to be injured, they wouldn’t go up,” Landry said. “The only way to get him down was for me to go up.”
The ranger didn’t realize the two were minors, Landry said.
Ross was too tired to hike back up the mountain. Landry asked if a ranger would stay with her, but his request was ultimately denied. The ranger station was closing for the night, they were told.
Disappointed and upset, the two returned to the parking lot, opened their backpacks and took inventory. They transferred extra food, first aid and water into Landry’s pack. Landry handed Ross a can of pepper spray, and she sat on the ground by their locked vehicle to wait. Unfortunately, Spring had the keys.
“I love the park,” Landry said. “I’ve climbed in it a few times, I was just especially disappointed in the park service to learn that they wouldn’t help. I would have expected a lot more out of them, especially since a ranger is a law enforcement officer.”
As Landry hurried up the Hunt Trail, following the white paint marking the trees, he called out for his grandfather.
“I saw the flashlight coming up the trail to my right,” Spring recalled. “And I had a whistle — my wife’s idea.”
Spring, who had sat down in the middle of the trail at 9 p.m. when it became too dark for him to see, blew his whistle until his grandson appeared.
“I was just so relieved when I found him,” Landry said.
Together, they slowly descended. On the way down, they met up with a park ranger who had followed Landry after learning he was 17 years old. They all reached the trailhead by 1 a.m., tired but safe.
In the meantime, the teen’s parents, worried that the hiking party hadn’t returned home on time, called the state police. The police connected them to rangers at Baxter State Park, who explained the scenario. That’s when the rangers learned that Ross and Landry were both 17 and sent a ranger up the trail.
“A part I’m very disturbed about is that they sent my daughter to wait in the parking lot by herself,” said Jennifer Ross, who drove to park that night with Landry’s parents to greet the hikers at the south gate. “I don’t think you should do that to a 30-year-old woman, let alone a teenager.”
Since the scary event, Landry and his family and friends have done a lot of thinking about Baxter State Park policy, and many of them think it should either be altered or made more clear to the public.
“There are 400 to 500 hikers a day on Katahdin, and we don’t have a big enough staff to deal with every incident,” Bissell said. “We fight this a little bit — the perception that whatever goes wrong, there will be a ranger coming.”
Hikers being stranded on a trail without a flashlight is fairly common in the park, Bissell said, despite the regulations requiring all hikers to have a working flashlight.
“Being stranded in the Maine wilderness without a light — this happens to people mostly who don’t intend to be back after dark or they thought they had a flashlight but forgot it,” Bissell said. “Some people think the starlight will be OK to see by, but it’s really not OK. You can’t walk. It’s too dark. And people just stop.”
Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, is the park’s biggest attraction by far, and it is often underestimated, Bissell said.
In the past 50 years, there have been 19 fatalities on Katahdin, and 80 percent of these tragedies involved a person leaving the trail they were on, according to Baxter State Park Authority.
Signs posted at all Katahdin trailheads remind people of safe hiking practices.
Yet even experienced hikers make mistakes.
Landry and his grandfather have hiked several mountains together, including the impressive Bigelow Range in western Maine. They have the right gear, and they know their limits. But on this one occasion, Spring simply forgot his flashlight.
“It wasn’t too bright,” said Spring, who was characteristically calm during the whole scenario. He knew the worst thing would be to wander off-trail, so when darkness fell, he simply sat down and waited.
“The only thing I was really feeling bad about is that there wasn’t cell service and I knew that my wife was going to be worried,” Spring said. “I don’t think I was in any danger or anything. It was going to be a warm night, and it was going to be light in another seven hours. From that standpoint, it wasn’t bad. But it was bad for everyone else, I guess.”
BSP Authority provides a wealth of information about safe hiking in their publications and on their website, baxterstateparkauthority.com, including the hikeSafe Hiker Responsibility Code, which is summarized on signs throughout the park.
“We try our best to prepare people,” Bissell said. “We’re going to tell you what you need and advise you as much as we can. Your safety is something we take as our responsibility right up until you get to the trailhead. Then, after that, it’s yours.
“Think about what could happen,” Bissell said. “Sometimes hikes don’t go as you plan.”