Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part series. Look for part two in print Thursday, Aug. 27.
It was a full house at the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket Aug. 19, but that was no surprise to the establishment’s co-owner Paul Renaud. The lodge, which holds about 30 hikers, has been packed for weeks.
To the north of the lodge looms Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain and the northern end of the famous 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.
“For me, this is a very important place on the trail,” said Paul Renaud, who owns the Lodge, as well as the cafe down the road, with his wife, Jaime Renaud. “It’s not just the end of the trail, it’s the beginning.”
At the lodge, Paul Renaud goes by “Ole Man,” the trail name he acquired while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2006. He purchased the lodge directly after completing the trail and has been an integral part of the Appalachian Trail community ever since.
“All of the hikers I take care of when they come to the lodge, I hear their stories,” Renaud said.
Recently, a favored topic of discussion has been the highly anticipated Hollywood film based on “A Walk in the Woods,” a popular book written by Bill Bryson about his adventures on the Appalachian Trail. The movie, to be released nationwide Sept. 2, stars Robert Redford and is expected to boost interest in the Appalachian Trail.
“We have data going back to the 1970s that shows that each time a popular promotion of the trail has been released, whether it’s a book, magazine article or film, there tends to be an increase in popularity in hiking the trail for several years after,” said Hawk Metheny, New England Regional Director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a national nonprofit corporation that works with 31 local organizations to maintain the Appalachian Trail.
“What’s portrayed in the movie is one story, but may be an inaccurate depiction of that it’s like to do a long distance hike,” said Metheny, who recently attended a special screening of the movie hosted by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “It’s going to be important for each individual to do sufficient research before they undertake the AT.”
This year, an all-time high of more than 3,000 people attempted to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, and next year, the number is predicted to climb even higher.
“With a bigger number of hikers, there’s going to be more damage to the trail … more of everything,” Renaud said. “There’s not enough room on the trail as it is. The lean-tos and shelters are too small, the camping areas around the trail aren’t big enough. We don’t have enough privies to provide for the hikers coming through. There are some major obstacles that we have to address.”
‘Loving it to death’
People who attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail are known collectively as “thru-hikers,” and they can do it a number of ways. Most hike the trail from Georgia to Maine, or northbound, starting in early spring. The trek takes them through 14 states and usually takes about 6 months to complete.
A small number of thru-hikers opt to hike the trail from Maine to Georgia, or southbound. And a small percentage hike the trail in sections and are known as “flip-floppers.”
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Appalachian Trail lingo.
Established in the late 1930s, the Appalachian Trail was slow to gain popularity. In the 1940s, just three people registered as completing the entire trail, according to Appalachian Trail Conservancy records.
Things didn’t really pick up until the 1970s, when 775 hikers completed the trail. Since then, the number of successful thru-hikers has essentially doubled every decade.
“We’re in a definite growth period right now with AT visitation,” Metheny said. “In the past 5 or 6 years, we’ve been seeing an 8 to 10 percent increase [in thru-hikers] each year, which puts a significant amount of stress on the trail’s southern terminus.”
In 2014, it was estimated at 2,500 northbound thru-hikers started their journey at Springer Mountain in Georgia; while an additional 869 thru-hikers started at another location on the trail.
“So many people are starting the trail now,” Renaud said. “We’re kind of loving it to death.”
And it’s not just thru-hikers. Weekend backpackers and day hikers are also increasing in number on the trail, Metheny said.
“All types of hikers track reasonably in sync,” Metheny said. “So while we may see more people attracted to doing a thru-hike, we also know from experience that we’ll see an increase in all levels of hikers.”
Modern day backpacker
Not only are more people starting the trail, more people are completing it, Metheny said. Just 10 years ago, the success rate for an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker was about 15 to 20 percent. Now, it’s 25 percent or higher.
“The revolution in lightweight materials in backpacking gear has made a significant difference,” said Metheny, who thru-hiked the trail in 1993, and has since instructed more than a dozen workshops about planning for a thru-hike. “The gear that is out there these days leads to much lighter packs and an overall improvement in the hiking experience.”
The development of lightweight gear started in the late 1990s and is ongoing, he said. Some thru-hikers can now get their base pack weight (without food and water) down to as little as 10 pounds.
In addition to better gear, today’s thru-hikers have access to more information about the Appalachian Trail on the Internet. This gives them a better understanding of the undertaking and helps them to better prepare for the long journey ahead.
Metheny also suspects the proliferation of communication technology have made an impact on thru-hiker success. When Metheny was on the trail in 1993, he hiked for days without speaking to another person. He had to wait until he could hitchhike into a town and use a payphone. Now hikers can simply use cell phones to stay connected to family, friends, trail resources and other thru-hikers.
‘The bad seeds’
Earlier this year, a couple well-known Appalachian Trail hostels closed, Renaud said. And they closed because of disrespectful, rowdy thru-hikers.
“It’s a very small percentage — maybe 1.5 or 2 percent of all the hikers cause problems,” Renaud said. “They disrespect the towns and hostel owners that are trying to help them.”
Renaud said he has only had a few problems this year and simply gives the hikers an ultimatum: behave or leave.
“The hike is not a party,” Renaud said. “The trail is not about partying every chance you get and causing problems in towns. It’s not about that … The bad seeds, the ones that do cause major problems, most hikers don’t want to be around them.”
Fortunately, many thru-hikers never come across these “bad seeds” because they’re so few and far between.
“When you’re hiking the trail, you’re not actually seeing a lot of people unless you’re trying to hike with someone,” said Michael Shaw, whose trail name is “Sparky,” who was stayed at the Appalachian Trail Lodge Aug. 19. He had summited Katahdin, completing his thru-hike that morning.
Shaw, a 34-year-old from New Hampshire, started the hike March 11, and during the months he spent hiking the trail, he doesn’t recall ever running into a “problem hiker.” He did see a lot of hikers at the shelters, though, especially in the south.
“At the first shelter I camped at — Hawk Mountain Shelter in Georgia — there was probably about 40 people there,” Shaw said. “It was very crowded.”
But the crowd thinned out as he trekked farther north. He said that overall the journey was a very positive experience.
“I just love being around people who want to hike the AT,” said Kim Hester, who owns Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson with her husband.
The hostel can house anywhere between 24 to 30 hikers, depending on if guests want to share double beds. In addition, it hosts hikers who’d prefer to pitch a tent on the lawn. And every morning, the Hesters cook their guests a giant breakfast of blueberry pancakes, eggs and homefries — a meal that has achieved fame among the Appalachian Trail community.
“We’ve been very busy,” said Hester, who’s known by her guests as “Hippie Chick,” the trail name she earned while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2008. “Since June 3, we’ve not had a night off.”
“I definitely think the majority of people who are out here, are out here for reasons that I really respect,” Hester said. “They have a reverence and respect for the world we live in, and they’re usually pretty caring about the environment and just want to live simply. You get into a lot of neat philosophical conversations around here.
“There are just a very few people who are out here because … well, I don’t know why,” Hester mused. “They just take the social part too irresponsibly, that’s where the problems lie. With the drinking and the drugs, it’s just really annoying. We don’t see a lot of those people, though. They don’t usually make it this far north.”
Monson became Maine’s first Appalachian Trail Community, designated by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2012. The Appalachian Trail Community Program recognizes communities for their part in promoting awareness of the trail as an important local and national asset. To date, there are 35 of these designated communities located along the Appalachian Trail, including Millinocket and Rangeley in Maine.
Monson is especially important to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers because it is the last place for northbound thru-hikers to stop, rest and refuel before they enter the 100-Mile Wilderness, the longest section of trail that doesn’t cross a major road or town.
“We’re a very small town, and for the most part, the people I’ve spoken to are very friendly with the AT hikers,” Hester said. “Not only is it financially good for the town, it also just brings some excitement.”