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Ten years ago today, I finished my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Since then, more than 7000 people have also finished their through-hikes of the AT. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy maintains that the completion rate has been consistently between 20% and 30%, so we can conservatively estimate that at least 35,000 people have attempted the AT in the past ten years. Pretty crazy!

And while there have certainly been growing pains with the number of hikers on the trail, overall I’m pretty happy about the fact that more people are getting out and enjoying the experience of long-distance backpacking. I hope that leads to more people getting involved in protecting the land and environment for future generations. Judging by the big increase I’ve seen in hikers on other trails, it’s certainly translating to hikers getting interested in more long-distance hikes. Good! If even one in ten through hikes is as life changing as mine was, I think it would be a good development for the world.

I’ve had to think often about how the hiking world has changed in the years since my hike (not to mention world as a whole), and it can be overwhelming to dwell on the changes. The obvious difference, the elephant on the trail as it were, is the introduction of smartphones which have made social media and other apps (ahem…) ubiquitous in the wilderness. I’ve also noticed a big difference in the number of businesses catering to long-distance hikers, especially hostels and shuttle services, and a vast improvement in how these services run their operations. I’m pretty happy about that, too.

It’s easy to look back at the way things used to be, and complain about the way things are now. I’ve certainly bemoaned my fair share of changes, and I count myself as lucky for having hiked the AT when I did. But I also think every Appalachian Trail hiker is lucky to have hiked the Trail whenever they did, be it 1997, 2007, or 2017. The challenges are different every year, and the culture will always change.

There will always be challenges to the experience of the Trail, and as long as there are people who care enough for it (like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and every local maintaining club), I hope it will change ever more lives for the better in the next ten years and more.

When I head out onto my adopted trail for seasonal maintenance trips, I like to keep my pack as light as I can, even with the additional tools. Since most of the work I have to do in the spring consists of cutting up fallen trees and clearing encroaching underbrush from the trail, I can get away with a wonderfully small set of tools that can take care of most of the work while adding less than 3 pounds to my pack.

Guthook’s arsenal of trail tools

This tool set includes:

  • Silky Gomboy 240mm Folding Saw (9.5 ounces): A very lightweight and sharp folding saw made for branches up to 3 or 4 inches in diameter, although with plenty of time and sweat I’ve cut through trunks up to 8 inches.
  • Silky Tsurugi 400mm Saw (16 ounces including sheath): Also very lightweight, but a fixed blade that’s about 16 inches long. Like the Gomboy, it’s best for branches that are up to 5 or 6 inches diameter, but I’ve cut 12 inch logs a few times.
  • Fiskars 15″ PowerGear Super Pruners (13.4 ounces): These loppers are pretty compact, but the geared mechanism makes them surprisingly powerful. They cut through brush up to an inch thick like it’s not even there.
  • Ironclad Gripworx Gloves (3 ounces): Good for preventing blisters while sawing away all day, and for keeping poking bits of logs from sticking your hands. And thin enough that you can still tie your shoes with them on.

Of course, two saws is unnecessarily redundant, but I just like both of them a lot.

Enough trail tools to take care of basic maintenance will fit in the side pocket of an ultralight backpack.

This small set of tools is great for clearing overgrown trail, or for most of the fallen trees I encounter (since much of my trail is high in elevation, the fallen trees are rarely very huge), and it fits easily in the side pocket of my Gossamer Gear pack. There are often obstacles that are bigger than what I can handle with these tools, but the vast majority of what I encounter is no match for them.

When I have digging to do, or when there are really big fallen trees, I’ll need to bring some bigger, heavier tools. But one of the benefits of the light tools is that I can take a quick trip to my trail in the beginning of the season, or a few times in the summer, and slice up all the easy stuff without having to haul a chainsaw or other heavy equipment. On those trips, I’ll note the locations of any larger issues so that I can come back for them later. Or, I can tag-team with a friend who has a chainsaw– splitting the load is a great way to deal with heavy group gear.

Of course, if you’re going to take up being a volunteer trail maintainer, you should make sure you officially sign up with the local trail maintaining club or land manager. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Pacific Crest Trail Association are great places to start looking.

I’ve been writing this blog for almost ten years, and somehow there’s never been a post about pooping in the woods! How is this possible? Pooping in the woods is a hiker’s favorite topic (that’s an indisputable fact). So it’s time for me to right this wrong, and share Guthook’s Secret To A Happy Butt in the Woods™. Have you heard?

The Backcountry Bidet

Oh yeah. It’s the bidet. For those of you not in the know, the bidet provides a watery alternative to toilet paper, for a wash rather than a wipe. Sound weird? If so, you’re probably not from Italy or Japan. But if you’re willing to be bold, to try something new, read on!

First, though, you may be asking: why would I use a bidet on the trail when toilet paper has been treating me fine for my entire life? It’s a personal preference, of course, but there are some definite advantages to the watery approach.

  • It’s a better Leave No Trace practice than burying your toilet paper (I don’t object to TP properly buried in a good cathole in the right environment, but this avoids that decision altogether).
  • There’s less risk of getting butt-bacteria on your hand because there’s no hand-butt contact at all!
  • It’s much gentler on your bum than even the softest toilet paper. If you have a need for really soft TP, you’ll know what I mean.
  • I’ve found the bidet even helps cut down on butt chafe on long hikes. As they say, a clean butt is a happy butt!

The Backcountry Bidet is pretty simple– it’s a 4 fluid ounce squeeze bottle with a flip-top, which I found in the miscellaneous water bottles section at REI many years ago. You could use any kind of squeeze bottle that can produce a high-powered jet with a one-handed squeeze. For reference, I can get a good 20-foot jet out of my bottle (not that I test that every chance I get…).

I’ll assume you already know about digging catholes (if not, ask Sectionhiker). If you would normally bring your toilet paper, trowel, and hand sanitizer, just replace the TP with the bidet and a water bottle. Keep the bidet and water bottle within reach in front of you while you squat over the cathole. Once you’ve taken care of business, fill the bidet from the water bottle, then reach behind with the bidet and let loose. You’ll be aiming blind, but use the Force and you’ll be alright. Remember to keep the bidet (and your hand) back far enough that there’s no splashback. And since one spray will definitely not be enough, refill the bidet from the water bottle and repeat. I go for the full liter each time– because why not? If you’re going to poop, you might as well spend the time to make sure you do it right.

High-velocity is where it’s at!

Now, there are a few downsides to the bidet in the woods, including:

  • Hiking in the desert makes bidet-fuel scarce
  • Bidet use in an outhouse is not a good idea
  • Carrying extra water is heavy, so you’ll want to be within a moderate distance from a water source (remember, don’t poop within 100 yards of a water source!)
  • It takes a little more time than the TP method, which means you’ll get some good squatting exercise.
  • Your friends will probably laugh at you (until they realize you’re a frickin’ genius).

I won’t go into any more gory detail– you can figure out the finer points of the operation. You could also do some more research to find other methods of bideting it in the woods (I’ve heard of plenty). But for now, consider your horizons expanded. And if you ever become a full-fledged convert, you can even get these things in your own home! Whoah.

Note: A reader pointed out that there are some pretty nice travel bidets on Amazon that may work a bit better than random squeeze bottles like mine. A bit more expensive, but lightweight (2.6 ounces for this one) and effective!

With all the country’s attention stuck on the big issues in Washington, it’s easy to miss out on the little things that, arguably, make a much bigger impact on our day-to-day lives. I’ve been trying to keep up with Maine’s local public lands issues and get as politically involved as my short supply of patience allows. That’s led to some new experiences on my part, like a trip to Augusta last week to testify in support of a bill involving Maine’s public lands.

An almost identical bill was introduced to the legislature last year, passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, was vetoed by the governor, and then failed to get the supermajority necessary to override that veto. So the crafters of the bill made some minor changes to address the reasons the governor claimed he had vetoed the original, and are reintroducing the bill this year. Since our governor has the dubious distinction of having vetoed more bills than any other governor in the state’s history, and is known for his hostile attitude toward public lands, my guess is that the new bill will also be vetoed after passing, and so far it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the veto can be overridden.

Tunk Mountain, in the Donnell Pond Public Reserved Land.

The details of the bill are fairly modest, and are probably quite unsexy for anyone who doesn’t have an interest in Maine’s public lands, logging industry, and outdoor recreation. The background is that Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands is funded mainly by leases and sales of timber cut on Public Reserved Lands. PRL’s are managed for multiple uses, including logging/forestry, recreation, hunting, and conservation. (Readers of this blog may recognize a few of the Public Reserved Lands, such as the Bigelow Range, Cutler Coast, Tumbledown, and Donnell Pond.) Maine’s Constitution mandates that the money from the PRL’s can only be used for improvements to public lands, and education (and apparently for building churches? So I heard during the public testimony). Over the past few years, the governor has attempted to use the money in the public lands fund for non-related purposes, until Maine’s Attorney General made it clear that that wasn’t going to happen.

By last year, the public lands fund had a pile of cash (around $8 million) that had been building over the years, and the bill aims to use some of that in order to improve educational programs to train future loggers (by providing money to lease logging equipment and training tools), and to conduct a study to decide which parts of the public lands could use better recreational infrastructure (trailheads, signage, etc.). Pretty boring, and seemingly uncontroversial, right?

I guess it’s a sign of the times, but our governor often lets his hot temper make his decisions regarding policy (like last year, when he vowed to veto every single bill that came before him, just because he was pissed off). I’ve written about his distaste for public lands before. As I learned while listening to two also uncontroversial bills that came to the committee before the one I testified for, the governor’s office and appointees opposed every bill that came before the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry this year. It’s hard for me to listen to the administration argue that spending five million dollars to help local food banks feed needy families is too expensive even though the governor has been building the state’s rainy-day fund to over a billion dollars by refusing to spend money at every turn, but that’s where we are as a state and a country.

There are plenty of signs that the governor is going to scuttle this bill as best he can already, including the recent news that the Bureau of Parks and Lands (which is led by someone that the governor improperly appointed to the position) has been spending that money as fast as it can on unknown projects. And the governor will likely not suffer any political consequences from this because it’s not a big, hot issue that will get lots of people all worked up. It’s just something uncontroversial that will help a good number of people while hindering no one.

Sunrise from a campsite at the Cutler Coast.

This was my first time doing anything like this, and I found the experience to be pretty interesting and enlightening. Because of the two bills being debated before the one I had arrived for, I learned more about food banks and rabbit farming than I was planning, and, of course, about the legal process. It was time consuming, but if you’re lucky enough to have the time to spare, I’d highly recommend getting more involved in your local politics like this. Also, especially if you have hair on your head and it’s not grey, apparently legislators love hearing from you even more (not that I value young opinions any more than old, I’m just telling you what I heard).

I wouldn’t have known to come to the hearing on my own— I have the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club of Maine to thank for that. Whether you’re a member of a local environmental advocacy group or not, get on their emailing lists, talk to them about what you can do to help in the legislative process, and get yourself to the state capital once in a while. Who knows, you might find it as surprisingly interesting as I did.

Last week I took a trip into the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, a new addition to the National Parks system directly east of Baxter State Park. The Monument was designated in August, after years of effort by Elliotsville Plantation (the former owners of the land, a foundation set up by the philanthropist and former owner of Burt’s Bees to advocate for a National Park in the area) to donate the land to the National Park Service. There was, and to some degree still is, vehement opposition to the Monument from a loud and increasingly small part of the population in the region, but the local attitude now mostly seems to range from fully in support to indifferent, which is just fine by me.

Haskell Deadwater on the Penobscot River, with Bald Mountain rising in the distance.

I had been into Katahdin Woods & Waters twice in the past few years before it was a National Monument, but only for short day-trips. Now that it’s officially part of the National Parks, I wanted to do a longer trip into the wilderness before the wider world started showing up in larger numbers. So for my goal of finding some quiet time in the deep woods, the trip was a wild success. I saw only a handful of people on the first day, but only one person (my friend Tom) during the three days after that.

Haskell Pitch on the Penobscot River.

Aside from the fine solitude in the Monument, how was the rest of the visit? While the Monument doesn’t have quite the wow-factor that Baxter does in many cases, it has plenty to offer.

On their own, KWW’s trails and campsite are pleasant in a low-key way. The trails I saw were mostly old logging roads, groomed so that Tom (on his fat-bike) and I (on my cross-country skis) could cover plenty of ground. There are several lean-tos and tent sites in the Monument, many of them on the shores of the Penobscot River, accessible by foot, bike, or canoe, and I figure they are quite nice, and fairly easy to get to. There are also two cabins, complete with wood stoves and bunks. I stayed in one of the cabins for this trip, which, of course, is the most popular option in winter.

Wood stove in Big Spring Brook Hut.

The Monument has a few fine viewpoints, although I only made it to one on this trip— a low mountain called The Lookout, with a nice view of the southern half of the Monument and some of the peaks in Baxter. You’ve probably heard from some of the naysayers that the only attraction in the Monument is a view of Katahdin, but you can just call them grumpy spoilsports. There’s plenty of beauty to be found on trails along wild rivers and ponds, and through deep northern forests. Some people will always complain about the Monument because of their own political leanings, and they’ll probably never enjoy it. That’s their loss, but I won’t waste my time trying to convince them otherwise.

From The Lookout, over the southern half of the Monument.

Another aspect of the Monument experience that I need to mention is staying at a Maine sporting camp. There are several lodges and sporting camps near the Monument, which are an old Maine tradition for hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, and other outdoor recreationists. Think of them as semi-rustic hotels, generally small and family-run operations, with family-style meals and tons of local knowledge to mine. I stayed at Mt Chase Lodge for a night on either end of this trip, and it really added to the whole experience.

One of the primary arguments for the Monument has always been that it would boost the local economy by bringing visitors to the area to spend money, so I see staying at one of the lodges as a concrete way of showing my support for public lands in general, and KWW specifically. And what do you know, since the Monument designation, there has been an increase in sporting camp visitors, real estate sales, and new investment in the area. Imagine that.

Tom leaving Big Spring Brook on his fatbike after a cozy night by the wood stove.

So, one other point.

Our governor, who is known for many of his boneheaded statements over the past six years, is also known for being consistently opposed to just about everything related to public lands and conservation. I’ve talked about this before, so I don’t want to rehash too much. He’s always been opposed to the Monument, despite the fact that the majority of the people in Maine support it. He even took it upon himself to ask the president to revoke the Monument status, even though it’s unclear that that’s even possible, none of Maine’s congressional delegation supports that, and even local politicians who were opposed are now more interested in moving forward with the Monument.

The governor loves to claim that the Monument will hurt local businesses, and that “it’s nothing but a cut-over woodlot” (meaning it was logged recently and the forest is mostly new growth). It’s easy enough to see that local businesses haven’t been hurt, although they weren’t exactly in a strong place for the decades before the Monument. As for the wood-lot claim, the governor seems ignorant of the fact that another famous park was also mostly clear-cut before being bought by a wealthy philanthropist and given to the people of Maine: Baxter State Park. The most valuable part of the Monument, as I see it, is the fact that the forest within it will be preserved for future generations. Without one very forward-looking individual, Baxter State Park wouldn’t be what it is today. Give it a hundred years, and it will be just as wild as Baxter’s deep forests. In the meantime, it will still be a perfectly pleasant place to spend some time in the deep forests of northern Maine.