Keeping Mountains Mountains

“Caution…you must have at least 10 days worth of supplies,” the sign read. Accidentally, I found myself in the 100 mile wilderness of Maine. With only about four days worth of food and no map, I was slightly unprepared.

The sign was a welcome respite from the red tape at Baxter State Park. Privately operated, the park “closes”  Mt. Katahdin and does not allow overnight trips into the park between October 15th and December 1st. I listened patiently as the park ranger listed all the rules and regulations and offered some ideas for day hikes. When I inquired about conditions on the mountain, the ranger said no update was available because no one had been up there for weeks, not even the rangers! Truthfully, there was no real reason the park was off limits except that it was low season and Katahdin Corporation did not see it worth it to staff park campgrounds with people to take hiker’s money.

The restrictions in Acadia National Park where I had spent about a week day hiking, made some sense. There was no camping or backpacking in the park, only two designated campgrounds well out of the woods. One was open year round and if you are really out to see Acadia and want to avoid the crowds and peak season prices, you can self register and fork over just $10 a night. (Still too much for no-ranger-and-no-bathrooms camping, if you ask me.)

Acadia was my first hurdle, bad enough to make me want to spin my car around. With trails spread out at times an hour apart on a one way park look road and a non-negotiable five day visitor’s fee, only the beauty of a place like Acadia could be worth it.

I had no idea what Katahdin Corporation had in store for me when I arrived. The massive wad of paper the ranger handed me stated that I could be fined up to $1,000 for staying in the park overnight or breaking any of the other titles or sections stated in the several 8×14 in legal sized sheets.

Sneaking in and hiking with a heavy heart was the last thing I was after, especially if it cost me $1,000 to stay in Baxter State Park. So I headed south on the Appalachian Trail without a plan. My few days on the trail were quiet, restorative and beautiful.

Perhaps it was all that time in the Green Mountains that left me gasping for air when confronted with so many regulations. I met a wonderful couple in Acadia who were lifetime members of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) but not even current members of the Green Mountain Club (GMC).

The AMC is not a far throw from the outdoor blockades I encountered in the last few weeks. The club relies on seasonal and international staff and volunteers to satisfy their high paying clientele and even asks volunteer trail crews to pay to volunteer! I’m talkin’ like several hundred bucks to volunteer on a trail crew for a week. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, it won’t take long to find a disgruntled through-hiker frazzled by the $8-$12 nightly fees for nearly all shelters and campsites. Even more, the AMC is one of the few groups in the northeast that does not limit their group sizes when hiking and charges fees upwards of $50 a night for huts and trips.

Let’s drift east for a moment to Vermont’s Green Mountains. You can hike over 300 miles of the Long Trail and side trails without ever having to open your wallet. No money, no worries. There are plenty of free shelters and campsites.

The Green Mountain Club gets it. People go into the woods so they don’t have to hear “we accept credit cards” or “the mountain is closed” or “there’s a entry fee.” Snow and ice at the top of Mt. Mansfield? Great, get your snowshoes on and get out there! Too tired to make it to the shelter? Don’t kill yourself, just Leave No Trace where you camp. Skiing too expensive these days? Not if you can backcountry off the Long Trail.

Green Mountain Club pays their employees and feeds their volunteers. Somehow, the small staff maintains trails, keeps hikers safe, reaches out to the community and works to shield the beautiful mountain landscape from constant threat of development. Applause, applause? Not often enough, let’s hear it for the Green Mountain Club!

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