CARATUNK, Maine — The water of the Kennebec River rushed by, swift and cold, as Greg Caruso unchained his canoe from a tree on the east bank. He looked toward the far shore, which was bathed in the October morning sunlight, anticipating the first passenger of the day.
Welcome to the “office” of the new Appalachian Trail ferryman.
“See that big oak?” Caruso asked, pointing to a towering tree on the opposite bank. “They come out just there.”
Its leaves kissed with rusty orange, the oak stood at the edge of the forest. After just a few minutes, a man emerged from the shade beneath the tree. Carrying a large pack and balancing his steps with red hiking poles, the man paused in the tall grass lining the shore.
“Are you the ferry?” he shouted, his voice lifting above the gentle roar of the river.
“Yup. Be right there,” Caruso replied before wading into the water, his feet protected by tall rubber boots.
He dragged his Old Town Tripper canoe into the flow, hopped in and paddled across to meet the hiker.
The Kennebec River ferry in the small town of Caratunk is the only ferry located along the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. A service paid for by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the ferry ride is free for hikers. In fact, because the river is so dangerous to wade across — or ford — taking this ferry is the only officially sanctioned means of crossing the Kennebec River on the Appalachian Trail.
“The water level [of the Kennebec River] is all over the map because of the hydro dams up above,” Caruso said. “It’s such a giant watershed up above here … So between the hydro [dams] releasing or if we have a big rain event, it can go up and down dramatically really easy. … So that’s why I’m here.”
Since the Appalachian Trail was laid out from Georgia to Maine in the 1930s, hikers have hitched rides from local guides across the Kennebec River and others have carefully forded the waterway. But it wasn’t until 1987 that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy established an official Appalachian Trail ferry service in response to the death of a hiker attempting to cross.
In 1985, a northbound hiker, Alice Ference, drowned while attempting to ford the Kennebec. After her drowning, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy published instructions for fording the river, according to Craig Dickstein, who manages the ferry service as a volunteer for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and fills in for the Appalachian Trail ferryman when he needs a day off. Soon after, following legal advice, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy advised hikers against fording the river and offered them a free alternative — the ferry.
In 1987, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy contracted a local river guide Steve Longley to shuttle hikers across the dangerous river. For 20 years, Longley held the post of Appalachian Trail ferryman. He was followed by Dave Corrigan, who operated the ferry for nine years.
And this year, the paddle was passed to Caruso.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect,” Caruso said.
Originally from Millinocket, Caruso is a registered Maine Guide in hunting, fishing and recreation. Living in Caratunk with his wife and two sons, ages 10 and 12, he has guided whitewater rafting on the Kennebec, Dead and Penobscot rivers for Northern Outdoors for the past 24 years. He also is one of three guides who lead fishing trips for Kennebec River Angler, and he leads moose hunts.
When an opening came up for the Appalachian Trail ferryman job, he placed a bid because he wanted to try something different, he said, and the job certainly fit his expertise and lifestyle.
“It’s obviously a nice office,” Caruso said as he sat on a bench he’d made of fallen trees by the bank. “I like the view. And I can fish in the downtime or read a book or something.”
On Oct. 7, a bald eagle soared across the river to perch on a tall white pine near the river crossing, and two days before, Caruso arrived at the river to find two moose wading through the tall grass on the far shore.
“I thought they were hikers at first, but they looked pretty big for hikers,” Caruso said.
The 2016 season for the Kennebec River ferry started May 27 and just ended on Oct. 10, after which the amount of Appalachian Trail hikers coming through Caratunk drops significantly because of the cold weather.
During the season, Caruso worked 9 a.m.-2 p.m. seven days per week, with hours tapering off in the spring and fall. This year — his first season — he ferried an all-time record of more than 2,500 hikers across the river because of the growing popularity of the Appalachian Trail. On average, Caruso ferried 20-30 hikers per day, with his biggest day being 55 hikers.
“This is one of the only spots on the trail where they get a really accurate count of the number of people coming through,” Caruso said. “So that’s part of my job, keeping track.”
One of the first hikers Caruso ferried across the Kennebec River in late May was a young man with the trail name “Handmade.” He was barefoot and shirtless, Caruso recalled, and wore long johns and a homemade, external frame backpack. The hiker also carried a large knife that he had fashioned out of a railroad spike and a deer antler.
“That was one of the first guys that I met,” Caruso said, laughing. “He looked like a hobbit.”
As the hiking season picked up throughout the summer, Caruso realized that the Appalachian Trail hiking community was extremely diverse and included people from all walks of life and from all around the globe. He met people from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and all across Europe and Asia.
“Honestly, I don’t typically talk to them that long,” Caruso said. “Especially if it gets busy here … I’ll ask where they’re from or, you know, how the hike’s going, that sort of thing.”
The river crossing is about 100 yards across, so Caruso only gets a few minutes in his Old Town Tripper with hikers, which he can take two at a time.
While a number of hikers choose to ignore Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s warnings and ford the river every year, most rely on the ferry and consider it to be an integral part of the trail. In fact, it’s a tradition for the Appalachian Trail ferryman to display a white blaze — the simple rectangular symbol that marks the entire trail — on the floor of his canoe.
“For some hikers, it’s a big deal to see that white blaze,” Caruso said, lifting up a personal flotation device and dry bag to reveal the mark, which he created with white duct tape on the bottom of his canoe. Some hikers, he said, are very excited to see that.
“I get it,” Caruso said. “If I was hiking 2,000 miles, I’d get pretty pumped about it probably.”
One group of hikers decided to give Caruso his own trail name: “Charon,” after the character in Greek mythology who ferries souls across the River Styx in the underworld.
“I thought that was pretty funny,” Caruso said. “Some of the hikers I see look like they’re about half dead.”
On the morning of Oct. 7, that first hiker that Caruso ferried across the river was Gary Orlando, 62, of Southborough, Massachusetts, a man who was hiking the Appalachian Trail in sections.
Caruso then had some downtime before five more hikers showed up on the west bank of the river. All were northbound thru-hikers — meaning they were attempting to hike the entire trail in one long, continuous trek, south to north. In Maine, they were nearing the end of their 2,190-mile journey.
After the ferry ride, the five hikers planned to walk to Route 201 in Caratunk, where they’d hitchhike to the nearest burger and beer.
The ferryman had other plans.
His official work day was done, but Caruso had one more trip to make.
The ferryman offered the hikers a ride to town, which, after miles on the trail that day, they happily accepted.