Last week, some old Appalachian Trail buddies went to the east end of the Bigelow Range to put on their annual Maine Trail Magic hiker feed, which has been yearly event for them since 1998. Mad Mike, whom I met on the AT in 2010, and his friends, Hydro and Fig, camp out at East Flagstaff Road on the AT from the Wednesday after Labor Day to the Sunday, feeding hikers as much food as they can, and generally enjoying some great company. This was my first time at the hiker feed, which Mike has been trying to get me to attend for three years now.
I showed up after my hike on Cranberry Mountain, late in the day but still early enough to enjoy the beautiful drive through remote Maine forests. I had been here before, when skiing on the Maine Huts trail network, but never without snow. While driving in on the Long Falls Dam Road, I got a very solid appreciation for how remote the area really is. I wonder if all the AT hikers here noticed that, too. In many ways, this area is more remote than even the 100 Mile Wilderness, since east of the Bigelow Range there are no major features that draw in large numbers of adventurous day hikers, and this area isn’t on any backpacker bucket-list.
The old gravel pit where the hiker feed was set up, which had been converted into a campsite by the Maine Forest Service as part of the Bigelow Preserve, was hopping with activity when I arrived. Hydro had brought a trailer full of food, tables, chairs, and a pavilion, making a little outpost for hikers. There were at least half a dozen through-hikers seated around the tables and the campfire, with Mad Mike grilling burgers and Hydro making sure everyone had plenty of drinks and junk food. More hikers showed up as the day drew on, most of them setting up camp in the area to take advantage of the dinner and breakfast combo.
Friday night, my first night there, we had about fifteen through-hikers camped at the gravel pit. It seemed very busy to me. Mike mentioned that they’d had their busiest year so far, so at least I wasn’t the only one noticing the trend. Most of the company was fantastic, though. I met a few hikers who had used my apps, and listened to their experiences, as well as just listening to stories from the trail as a whole. Sometimes as I hike, I only see the numbers of people and get distraught at how crowded the trail becomes, but at times like this, when I can sit down and relax with a group, I can get over that and just enjoy the company of individuals.
The big numbers of hikers this year, it turns out, are a measurable change from previous years. Mike and company had kept track of the number of hikers stopping by their trail magic setup (all hikers stop there, since it’s directly on the trail and irresistible). 2012 had been a record high with 50 hikers stopping in. 2013 is now the record high with 65 hikers. That’s a 30% increase over last year’s high water mark, and who knows what it will be next year– although you can bet the numbers won’t be going down. With all the hiking I’d done this summer on the AT, I had been distressed by the sheer numbers of people on the trail, and after last weekend I finally see that it’s not my imagination.
Regardless of how you see the crowds, it was a wonderful weekend. Nice, cold nights; clear skies day and night; relaxing days in camp; and bit of that feeling of community with the hikers. When Sunday morning rolled around, we cooked up lunch for the last few hikers to pass through, then dismantled the entire campsite, packing it all into Hydro’s trailer over the course of the last hour of the morning. By noon, the only sign we’d been there was a wet spot on the ground where we’d dumped some ice from a cooler. And then I was on my way back home, looking forward to hearing from some of my new friends when they reached Katahdin in a few weeks.