Maine’s recreational opportunities are part and parcel of the state’s identity; access to nationally recognized wonders like Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park are fundamental to the appeal of living and vacationing in the state. However, the popularity of these landmarks often means that they can be overcrowded and underestimated, and every season hikers are injured, sometimes fatally, miles from their trailheads. While services and circumstances can be held to some account, these situations ultimately fall on the responsibility of the recreationalists themselves.
On Saturday, March 20, the bodies of two hikers from Massachusetts, a man, 28, and a woman, 30, were discovered after they fell over 100 feet and died on the icy cliffside of Dorr Mountain in Acadia National Park. Two days prior, a 26-year-old hiker had to be rescued by an Army National Guard Helicopter crew after falling on the park’s infamously dangerous Precipice Trail.
According to the Maine Warden Service’s 2019/2020 Search and Rescue Report, hikers made up a significant majority of the rescues for the season at 107, up from 93 the year prior. The next highest category was watercraft at 60. Surprisingly, the majority of these rescues were not on especially strenuous or dangerous trails like Precipice or those on Katahdin. Instead, it was Tumbledown Mountain, located just outside of Weld and featuring a 1.5 mile loop trail, that led to over 16% of all searches.
Precipice Loop is widely known to be treacherous even in the best weather, and the official National Park Service webpage for the trail clearly indicates that it should not be attempted by children, those with a fear of heights or in inclement weather. However, the page for Dorr Mountains South Ridge Loop, while not nearly as exposed but still dangerous under the right circumstances, features no suggestions that the trail could be at all unsafe. Neither page advises hikers on how to prepare for icy conditions.
However, trail descriptions on government websites can often go overlooked regardless; suffice to say that the responsibility falls on the individual hiker to understand the risks that they expose themselves to. Easy access to short, and therefore seemingly easier, trails in popular recreation areas like Acadia often lead recreationalists to be overconfident and underprepared, which becomes all too clear when things suddenly go wrong. Things like layers, additional traction, proper footwear, headlamps, extra food and water, a map and first aid kits are necessities that, when overlooked, can make or break a hiker’s well-being and even survival.
As a result of a national increase in recreation and outdoor exploration during the pandemic, there has been a similar increase in search and rescues. According to Outside Online, Mount Rainier National Park rangers have completed more search and rescues in 2020 than in any of the previous five years. This trend has been mirrored across the country and will more than likely continue in Maine as the weather warms and the ice below tree level melts.
Maine will be dropping the majority of its travel restrictions before the tourism season begins on Memorial Day, and since the announcement, camping reservations have skyrocketed. According to CentralMaine.com, camping reservations at Maine state parks are up 66% from a year ago. While a relief for Maine’s recreation and hospitality industries, these increased numbers portend significantly increased stress on Maine’s natural spaces and their stewards.
An unprecedented number of individuals are seeking adventure in the great outdoors more than ever before, which is fantastic, but also means that an unprecedented number of people need to be acquainted with the standards and etiquette necessary to explore safely and conscientiously.
Many new hikers may not necessarily be acquainted with the Leave No Trace standards that parks ask visitors to hold themselves to. This is to say, people disrupt the natural space and ecosystem by littering, stepping off of trails in spaces where vegetation is vulnerable and failing to properly bury their poop, which is mostly just gross. As the influx of new hikers continues across the country, it is imperative that park staff endeavor to communicate Leave No Trace standards and vital safety information to recreationalists as they arrive.
With that said, preparation is not an ethic that can be instilled through a brochure and one doesn’t need to be an experienced hiker to make safe decisions in the mountains. More than anything else, it’s about knowing your limits.
“It can be kind of crushing to your soul to have to do that, but sometimes your best option is to just turn around,” Jodi Brewer, a Maine resident and novice spring hiker, told News Center Maine. “I typically plan the hike I want to do and if the conditions aren’t conducive to me doing that, I have a second option in the area that I can go do.”
In the same spirit as “building back better,” the nation’s revitalized desire for adventure on its public lands represents an opportunity to instill a new respect for nature and an understanding of the risks that one takes in failing to do so. No one wants to eat their humble pie 4,000 feet above sea level and five miles from the car.