wilderness

All posts tagged wilderness

As I’ve worked with maps of the Appalachian Trail for the past several years, I’ve been fascinated by seeing what the land around the AT looks like from satellite imagery. It’s often very different from what we, as hikers, realize is nearby. What you see from above tells a very different story about the landscape than what thousands of through-hikers have seen.

Logging
The mountains and forests surrounding the Appalachian Trail have traditionally been very busy with logging and timber cutting, although today the amount of logging is certainly less than it was a hundred years ago. Maine and New Hampshire, especially, were cut with wild abandon. Today, the aerial view of the AT shows that there is still plenty of logging in Maine, but not much near the trail in New Hampshire or anywhere else that I could find.

Land ownership is an important consideration in timber cutting near the AT– in Maine, the trail mostly follows a narrow strip of National Park Service land sandwiched between private land owned by logging companies. Further south, the AT mostly walks through National Parks (where logging is not allowed) or National Forests (where logging is regulated by the Forest Service). What surprised me so much about the aerial view of logging lands in Maine is how invisible they are from the Trail, despite being sometimes only a quarter mile through the woods.

A logging area, mostly regrown, near the north end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Notice how close to the AT this cut comes, though you'd never notice it from the trail.

A logging area, mostly regrown, near the north end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Notice how close this cut comes to the AT, though you’d rarely notice it from the trail.

Lots of logging near Pleasant Pond Mountain in Maine. Notice how the strip of uncut land around the Trail shows where the National Park Service land border abuts the private logging company's land.

Lots of logging near Pleasant Pond Mountain in Maine. Notice how the strip of uncut land around the Trail shows where the National Park Service land border abuts the private logging company’s land.

A recent, large cut very close to the AT in one of the wildest parts of Maine. Again, you'd never notice this from the Trail.

A recent, large cut very close to the AT in one of the wildest parts of Maine. Again, you’d never notice this from the Trail.

The cut on the left is within Grafton Notch State Park, which probably means the logging was regulated by the state's Bureau of Parks and Lands.

The cut on the left is within Grafton Notch State Park, which probably means the logging was regulated by the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Farms
The other major business in the mountains and rural areas is farming. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the trail walks along long mountain ridges, and occasionally dips into valleys that are filled with farmland. Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts are also patchworks of farmland although nowhere near as completely as those two large, flat, rural states. I find the farmland to be very pleasing to walk through, almost as much as a deep forest. There’s just as much peace to be found in a pasture, unless you happen to be nervous around bulls.

A patchwork of farmland on the New York/New Jersey border.

A patchwork of farmland on the New York/New Jersey border.

Farmland in the valleys between mountain ridges in Virginia.

Farmland in the valleys between mountain ridges in Virginia.

A more exaggerated example of farms filling the Virginia valleys while the mountain ridges remain mostly untouched.

A more exaggerated example of farms filling the Virginia valleys while the mountain ridges remain mostly untouched.

Ski Resorts
The Appalachian Trail crosses over, or within a short distance of, more than a dozen ski resorts. From the sky, one can see just how much of an impact this use of land can have. In some cases, the clearcut ski trails make for a good view where there may not have been one on top of a mountain otherwise. Hikers also tend to enjoy the ski resorts because there may be buildings where we can camp on top of a mountain, or restaurants and stores near the trail. A less flattering look at these resorts is that they become essentially permanent marks on the landscape, and often go along with major housing and condo developments. Like logging, I see them as an important economic driver in rural mountain areas which can have negative impacts if not regulated and held in check to some extent.

Sugarloaf in Maine, one of the largest resorts in the state.

Sugarloaf in Maine, one of the largest resorts in the state.

Killington and Pico in Vermont, the busiest ski resort in New England. Notice the extensive housing developments packed into the area around the resort as well as the ski trails.

Killington and Pico in Vermont, the busiest ski resort in New England. Notice the extensive housing developments packed into the area around the resort as well as the ski trails.

Housing Developments
I expected to find suburban developments in droves in the far northern section of Virginia, where the AT passes very close to Washington, DC, and was not wrong. But there are many large developments very close to the trail in other places, as well. It’s hard to miss these when looking at aerial images. Messes of yards and roads in deep woods very near to the AT stand out like a sore thumb. In one case, where a planned development was cancelled and later turned into a National Recreation Area, you can still see the abandoned roads even decades later– a near-permanent mark upon the land.

In New Jersey and New York, the AT is very close to New York City, so suburban developments are abundant, crowding near to the Trail.

In New Jersey and New York, the AT is very close to New York City, so suburban developments are abundant, crowding near to the Trail.

In Northern Virginia, the AT threads the needle between many suburban developments. Like the New York area, this area is home to many commuters in the Washington, DC, area.

In Northern Virginia, the AT threads the needle between many suburban developments. Like the New York area, this area is home to many commuters in the Washington, DC, area.

In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one can still see the roads that were built for a real estate development and abandoned.

In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one can still see the roads that were built for a real estate development and abandoned (northwest of the AT, faint lines in the woods).

Even the high mountains aren't immune to vacation homes and real estate development.

Even the high mountains aren’t immune to vacation homes and real estate development.

Roads
I was surprised to see that Interstate 90 passed by less than half a mile from Upper Goose Pond Cabin, one of the quietest, most peaceful shelters on the AT. Roads are an interesting feature on the landscape, with thousands of miles of them winding all over the country and criss-crossing the Appalachian Trail. In some places I was surprised to see so few roads, though the Trail seems to cross them so often. In other areas, zooming in a little closer showed that there were many more small roads that weren’t visible from further out.

Upper Goose Pond, so idyllic and tranquil, isn't really so far from a major Interstate highway!

Upper Goose Pond, so idyllic and tranquil, isn’t really so far from a major Interstate highway!

In many National Forests, it looks like the closest road to the Trail is miles away.

In many National Forests, it looks like the closest road to the Trail is miles away.

But zoom in much further, and you'll find that there is a tangle of small Forest Service roads all around the Trail.

But zoom in much further, and you’ll find that there is a tangle of small Forest Service roads all around the Trail.

Wilderness
To find total wilderness near the trail, I had to look for areas with strongly protected public land. Shenandoah and Smokey Mountains National Parks had the largest uninterrupted road-free areas I could find. Baxter State Park was the only land I could find that wasn’t owned by the Federal government and did have deep wilderness. The National Forests along the Trail were hit and miss– many National Forests are filled with roads and logging, but some have heavily protected by Wilderness areas. After looking along the entire AT for visible human impacts, the truly wild areas seem scarcer and more important than ever.

Shenandoah National Park seems like such a car-oriented place, but there is a remarkable amount of wilderness once you drop off the ridgeline where the AT parallels Skyline Drive.

Shenandoah National Park seems like such a car-oriented place, but there is a remarkable amount of wilderness once you drop off the ridgeline where the AT parallels Skyline Drive.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, as well, seems busy and car-oriented, but the area near it is also remarkably wild.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, as well, seems busy and car-oriented, but the area near it is also remarkably wild.

The Smokey Mountains, so crowded by car-bound visitors and hikers, is also remarkable for the sheer acreage of its wilderness.

The Smokey Mountains, so crowded by hikers and car-bound visitors, is also remarkable for the sheer acreage of its wilderness.

Baxter State Park was the only massive wilderness I found near the AT not owned by the Federal Government, which says to me that the National Park and Forest Services, as well as BSP are especially important parts of our land management near the AT.

Baxter State Park was the only massive wilderness I found near the AT not owned by the Federal Government, which says to me that the National Park and Forest Services, as well as BSP are especially important parts of our land management near the AT.

Since returning home to Maine, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some of my free time in Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park, arguably two of the most beautiful natural areas in the country. Besides the bald mountains and glaciated landscapes, though, the two parks couldn’t be more different. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the differences as I walk on the rough granite bedrock, and the mossy, root-choked forest trails, finding solitude where I can.

That solitude is the defining difference. Acadia, a premier national park, follows the philosophy of providing the most accessibility to the largest number of people. Millions of visitors flock to Mount Desert Island every year to witness the beauty of the island’s granite domes, the jagged coastline, the idyllic carriage roads along the mountain sides. To get them along to their destinations, the carriage roads and the Park Loop Road are well maintained and scattered with viewpoints, rest stops, picnic areas, and the occasional unique attraction like the stone gatehouses or the Jordan Pond restaurant. Two primitive campgrounds within the park, and several private campgrounds nearby, allow for the semblance of ‘roughing it’ without having to give up running water or flushing toilets.

The crowds on Cadillac Mountain are best viewed from afar.

The crowds on Cadillac Mountain are best viewed from afar.

There is no solitude or wildness in Acadia. The island is overflowing with natural beauty, but it’s nearly impossible to find a spot on a mountainside that you can call your own for a full hour, let alone a full day.

Baxter State Park, at the other end of the spectrum, is quiet. The Park Tote Road leads along the edge, bringing visitors to more than half a dozen primitive campgrounds and several scenic roadside attractions, but the amenities are far more sparse. There is no potable water at the campgrounds, nor flushing toilets. No bus roams around the park, and no RVs (vehicles that size aren’t even allowed in the park, since the road is so narrow and winding they would undoubtedly get stuck). Even getting into the park is a task, with daily limits on the number of cars allowed past each gate, and no camping allowed without prior reservation. And while many ponds are close to roads and can be easily accessed, none of the park’s many mountains has any sort of road to the top, paved or otherwise.

Some deep wilderness on Nesowadnehunk Stream in Baxter State Park. No humans for miles around.

Some deep woods on Nesowadnehunk Stream in Baxter State Park. No humans for miles around.

Spend a full day at the highest point in each park, and your experiences will be vastly different. On Baxter Peak of Katahdin, you might see thirty or forty people on a very busy day, each one having climbed one of the incredibly steep trails to the summit. That’s no small number, but on Cadillac Mountain, you’d see hundreds of people, shuttled to the summit on tour buses, vans, cars, SUVs, and motorcycles. You’d see a few hikers and bicyclists, too, but mostly a torrent of car-bound tourists. A better comparison, though, would be to take the second-highest peak in the park. Hamlin Peak in Baxter might see half a dozen people on a busy day. Sargent Mountain in Acadia, still close to a hundred.

Before I go much further, I’ll say that the increased access at the National Park isn’t always a bad thing. It makes planning a trip to the park much simpler, and it shows off the natural beauty of the area to many more people. The gateway communities on the way to Acadia see a huge inflow of cash every summer and autumn as millions of tourists flock to the park, their money burning holes in their pockets. And, of course, why should my grandparents, who are no longer able to hike very car from a car, not be able to share in the glory of Acadia? There’s certainly something to be said for ease of access to the country’s most beautiful places.

But we have to remember what is lost in the opening of the wild to the masses. I sometimes wonder what John Muir, the champion of Yosemite National Park, would say if he saw the cheek-to-jowl lines on Half Dome, or the traffic jams backed up through Yosemite Valley, few people venturing much further than an arm’s length from their vehicles in order to snap photos before going back to the air conditioning. Muir spoke of the mountains as a cathedral, and as a link to the divine– but how can you have any kind of connection with the landscape when you’re focused on your car or your noisy neighbors?

As much as I love the landscape in Acadia, I have to limit how often I go there and at what times of year. The spiritual recharge that I get in the deep woods or on the top of a remote mountain feels muted and imperfect when there’s a constant flow of people around. The sounds I need to hear in the wild are the birds singing, crickets chirping, and the wind whispering; not roaring motorcycles, boisterous parties, and people trying to keep their dogs in line.

Cars, trucks, and buses, packed onto the top of Cadillac Mountain like sardines.

Cars, trucks, and buses, packed onto the top of Cadillac Mountain like sardines.

My most recent experiences at campgrounds in both parks are indicative of the basic attitudes at each. On a night in Roaring Brook campground in Baxter, when the campground was completely full, I was pleasantly surprised to find the area silent by 8 PM, except for the sounds of the brook and the occasional crackle of a campfire. At Blackwoods, in Acadia, I was awoken at midnight by my neighbors having a bongo jam along with their stereo blasting Grateful Dead all throughout the campground. Both campground have rules about nighttime quiet hours, but neither are enforced by much more than the honor system (and people like me who get up and lecture the offenders).

Greater accessibility has its upsides, but less of it seems to lead more often to a greater respect for what brings us to the outdoors in the first place. Whether that’s the peace and quiet of the wild, or the joy of a fine view, it’s good to remember why we preserve those places.

A recent conversation with fellow Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador, Wired, reminded me of a major reason why I love the Appalachian Trail (and most hiking in the Northeast) so much. “This is the most relaxed trail I’ve done,” she said.

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The past few days on the southern section of the Appalachian Trail have been a perfect example of how relaxing the trail is. Joe and I started at Watauga Lake on Tuesday, forty miles south of Damascus, VA, and promptly started chewing up the miles. But we weren’t keeping a frantic pace– instead, the soft tread and gentle grades of the southern trail lent themselves to a mellow, steady walking pace. We just cruised along through the lush Appalachian forest, soaking in the sounds and smells of nature.

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Two major factors combine to make the AT so relaxing for me. The first is the ease of navigation– since the trail is so well marked and well travelled, it’s almost impossible to lose your way if you pay attention just a little bit. The second factor is the feeling of remoteness, and being away from people. You may be thinking, “the AT isn’t remote, and it’s totally crowded!” In many ways that’s true, but the illusion is just as important. The trail over the last few days stayed up on a ridge and only crossed a few mountain roads. And even though we passed dozens of hikers throughout the days, I was alone on the trail almost the entire time. Between meets with other hikers, there was plenty of time for me to be lost in my thoughts and to enjoy the dense forest around me.

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The crowds grew as we approached Damascus, until we ended up at a campsite with more than forty people on the last night before arriving in town. That many people packed onto the trail in one place killed the relaxation for me, but in the morning it was back to a calm walk in the woods again, as I saw only a handful of hikers on the trail. I’m sure in the next few weeks there will be plenty of crowding along the trail, and less time for me to be lost in my thoughts, but I’m pretty sure it will still be enough.