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Archive for October, 2014

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This past summer, I have served as the Caretaker at Statton Pond, on the Long Trail. In retrospect, caretaking leaves me with mixed feelings. While on one hand, Stratton Pond is a truly beautiful place, while on the other hand it is also a high use sight, which is constantly suffering from human impacts. Furthermore, being the first pay site along the Appalachian Trail, revealed some of the uglier side of a culture, most see externally and thus superficially.

Many people I met this year extolled the virtues of caretaking, and often asked me what it takes to get such a position. The true answer to such a question, is a willingness to shovel human waste from composting privies. One day on such a task and the true thanklessness of the position is revealed. But, it is not my purpose to bemoan the woes of a caretaker, though they are many and often invisible. Rather, I propose to reveal an essential question about the nature of caretaker programs across the Appalachian Trail, and whether they are useful.

I will be criticized, I am sure, for even raising the question. Metrics will be pointed to as signs of improvement, but such offerings miss the point. While the caretaker programs in New England have certainly helped to mitigate negative use (usually by charging a fee), it has not eliminated it in one place without displacing it to another. As such, one place improves at another’s expense, as can be seen at sites like Stratton Pond. Negative use, which used to be reserved for the shores of the pond, have no spread out across “stealth” camping sites through the Lye Brook Wilderness, and signs of inappropriate use are now readily apparent at both Story Spring and Spruce Peak shelters–the two nearest non-pay sites. New fire rings are built with a consistency that cannot be kept up with by an individual responsible for 26 miles of trail, 3 composting privies and 4 shelters already. Soil compaction is now expanding beyond the pond area, and into the wilderness section, which the trail traverses. Vegetation no long grows on any flat spot, which a thru-hiker throws down and pioneers for all subsequent hikers.

This begs an interesting question, beyond the obvious one. Obviously there is an aspect of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Less obviously, perhaps, we must ask whether having a caretaker contributes to a culture of irresponsibility, now pervasive on the trail. By having caretakers present, we are implicitly telling hikers that they are not solely responsible for the state of the wild lands. Many a thru-hiker felt compelled to extol the ecological virtues of the culture, but any casual observer would wonder otherwise. Rare was a day I did not find mountain house meals strewn about my shelter, along my trail, in my privies. When confronted, thru-hikers will claim, “we are not responsible, we know better.” This was often said with a readiness to come to the defense of their fellow hikers. “It is most likely day hikers,” they’d say. Yet, what purpose would there be for a day hiker to carry about a mountain house meal in the first place. The prevailing mentality amongst hikers is that they, the protectors of the trail, cannot have come 2,000 miles by failing to follow ecological principles… They can do no wrong, and will hear nothing of such accusations… “Why should we pay a fee?” They ask. “It is the day hikers who impact this area.”

What is behind this sense of entitlement? We as trail professionals have not done anything to correct bad behaviors, which through time and habit, become entrenched. The caretaker is assumed to be taking care of everything, from trash to medical emergencies… Our presence has become a convenient excuse.

I do not claim to have a good answer for this problem. After many years amongst the trail’s culture, I have come to believe that the only answer for many of these problems is to increase law enforcement presence. But, sadly, the protection of wilderness is not profitable and thus not a priority. In the absence of consequences, we, the recreators, have taken the place of industrial interests, as the destroyers of the wilderness… As was claimed once, we are loving our parks and forests to death. The only answer going forward is rationing and enforcement. That, or we shall all pay for the misdoings of the few… We shall all suffer the degraded quality of the resource… We will have the consequence of watching the disappearance of that which we loved.

There is a time and a place for caretakers. There is infrastructure that must be maintained, in the context of concentrating use, but it must come to pass that the individual bears no responsibility for what belongs to all of us. Perhaps it is time for the shelters and privies to go, and to ban camping altogether in certain areas. If it is the human element, which is responsible for the degradation, as is now clearly the case, then it is the human element that must be removed, in order to repair what has been done…

All summer, I stood by a pond whose bank is eroding into the water, so long has the vegetation buffer zone been damaged or destroyed. There is nothing to hold the soil to the rocks. Each year, 2000 thru-hikers will pass by the pond, many of whom feel inclined to swim and bathe in the water. Each foot the stamps along those banks, compacts and erodes. Each body introduces chemicals to the glacial pool, which for thousands of years were never present. The fish population is in decline, there is only one loon… And yet more and more people flock to the pond… I was asked by a Princeton student, part of a freshman orientation, why we do not allow motor sports on the pond, such is what the culture we live in has decided would be the best fate of wild places.

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Yet, not far from Stratton is Bourne pond. A pond once impacted by its proximity to the Appalachian Tail and the Long Trail. Now, the bank is restoring itself, and the vegetation restricts access… It is a pond in recovery. In the heart of the Lye Brook Wilderness, it is not impossible to reach, but it is difficult enough that it is preventative. Perhaps all such places should, be difficult. Perhaps we should be forced to keep our distance, they way we’re told not to touch the Mona Lisa, knowing that depriving ourselves the pleasure, is ensuring the entire community of earth’s life will continue to have the pleasure… In closing, I give the link to an article I wrote for the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail News. An article which the club expressed concern about, because it was too extollant of the virtues of wilderness. Wilderness, I was told, is not in the interests of the club, which concerns itself with the recreational experience… To me, these seemed an irrational claim… Wilderness, to me, is the highest iteration of what a wild land can achieve. By legal definition, it is a place where man is only a visitor, who does not remain… Where the land and its community of life are untrammeled by man.

The club ran my article, on the final page of the Long Trail News, and though much amended, I believe my goal was achieved, even if subversively. I hope that the reader will see my point, and that my preface here will shed light on that purpose…

Without further ado, here is the link to the Fall 2014 issue of the Long Trail News, containing my article on the Lye Brook Wilderness, as it pertains to the Long Trail experience…

Long Trail News

#longtrail #appalachiantrail #strattonpond #lyebrookwilderness #wildernessact #greenmountainnationalforest #greenmountains #vermont

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