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Hiking Pressure on Appalachian Trail Prompts Reassessment of Trail's End at Mount Katahdin

MILLINOCKET, Maine - The Appalachian Trail, already popular with hikers, is expected to see a big bump in traffic with the release of "A Walk in the Woods," the movie based on the memoir of two men's experience along the 2,200-mile route that runs from Georgia to Maine. The trail's official end is in Baxter State Park. But a rise in raucous behavior, rule-breaking and hiking pressure is prompting managers of this wilderness area to consider putting the trail's end somewhere else.

Baxter is a 200,000-acre park carved out of the dense Maine woods, dotted with lakes and streams and capped off by Mount Katahdin, a sheer granite fortress that rises above the tree line. At more than 5,200 feet, it's the tallest mountain in Maine.

And for hikers northbound on the AT, reaching the summit marks the challenging conclusion to an arduous journey. At the Katahdin Stream Campground, several long distance hikers are being reunited with two friends whom they last saw a week ago. After five months of hiking, Matthew Fioramonti, Kacy Hale and Alexander Scherlitzky have just come down from Mount Katahdin. Their journey is over. They can now join the ranks of "thru hikers."

Hale says timing of this adventure was important.  "Knowing that the movie's coming out - that's what all the thru hikers are talking about. They're like, there's going to be a lot of traffic on the trail next year. I'm really glad that we did it this year."

Ron Tipton, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, says he can't predict how many more hikers will hit the trail but it's likely to be a lot. After the book "A Walk in the Woods" was published in 1998, traffic on the AT grew by 60 percent in just two years.

He says the movie will bring more attention to the trail. "It brings the experience of the trail to a much broader audience and I think that's good. I think the more relevant this trail is to more of the American population, the better."

But for Jensen Bissell, park director at Baxter, an increase in use is an ongoing problem. Last year there were about 2,000 thru hikers on the trail. He says that's up from just several hundred 20 years ago. And Bissell says some of these hikers are violating wilderness park rules when they hike Mount Katahdin - moving in large groups, for example, relieving themselves too close to the trail and not cleaning up, drinking and smoking pot at the summit, and generally whooping it up.

"You're really trying to give people the opportunity for solitude and expansive exploration of a wild landscape," Bissell says. "It's a sacred mountain to the native Americans of the state of Maine. So it seems reasonable when you reach this place you should have respect for the place itself and for the other people who are there and for the experience that it means to everyone."

Last month, ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek, who completed the entire AT in just 46 days, was cited for his behavior on the summit, which included spraying champagne from a bottle and having an entourage of more than a dozen people. Now Bissell says park officials are trying to work with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Park Service to figure out ways to limit pressure.

Bissell says one option is to move the trail's end outside the park itself. "Well, certainly no one would want that to happen but these are still serious issues for the trustees of the park to address because their first commitment comes to protect the trust as it was envisioned by the donor."

That donor was Gov. Percival Baxter, who envisioned a special place to protect and enjoy nature and to provide for non-motorized types of recreation. Recreation, says Bissell, does come second.

And while some may not understand that, thru hiker Matthew Fioramonti says he does. "We love Katahdin. We love the idea of Katahdin. Of course, some things could seem strict but it's not my park. I understand the rules. They're in place for a good reason."

None of the hikers interviewed for this story said they would like to see the AT moved to anywhere short of the base of Mt. Katahdin. To do so, they say, would be a huge let-down - no rewarding last challenge, nothing to let you know you've really reached the end.

"I don't think it's at all likely that the northern terminus of the trail will be moved," says Ron Tipton of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Tipton says his group intends to provide more education to thru hikers and to find ways to limit the number of people who hike to the top of Mount Katahdin each day. He says he's also encouraged by statements made by Park Director Jensen Bissell, including the fact that Bissell intends to see the movie.