Here’s a multiple choice question for you. When Scott Jurek arrived at the top of Mount Katahdin, setting a record for the shortest amount of time traversing the entire Appalachian Trail, he:
• Was greeted by the governor with a proclamation declaring July 12 as “Scott Jurek Day” in Maine.
• Arrived in rain and thick clouds so he had trouble even finding the sign at the summit.
• Was called aside by Jensen Bissell, director of Baxter State Park, and handed three summonses for violations of park rules.
I’ll give you some hints. Jurek arrived at the summit on a beautiful sunny day after just 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes of hiking, breaking the speed record for an assisted thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. And the governor was too busy not vetoing legislative bills that day to get to the top of Katahdin.
Sadly, the answer is No. 3.
Jensen, who I admire and respect, gave Jurek summonses for three violations of park rules: hiking with a group larger than 12, public consumption of alcohol, and littering. A friend of Jurek’s handed him a bottle of champagne at the summit, and he was cited for littering when, after popping the cork, he spilled some of the champagne on the ground. Jurek disputes the facts in this case but this column is not about whether he is guilty as charged.
The message sent worldwide to Jurek’s admirers and everyone who heard about his achievement was not a welcoming one for our state.
Tourism is now our No. 1 industry, and the Tourism Commission spends more than $9 million each year trying to convince more tourists to visit Maine. The media — including social media — is very powerful, and Jensen turned what could have been a very positive message into a very negative one for Maine.
In fact, even the members of the media who were at the top of Katahdin to record and report on Jurek’s accomplishment were given a summons for violating Baxter Park’s prohibition of filming within 500 feet of the mountain’s peak.
If Jurek did violate park rules, surely there was a better way to handle it than this. But perhaps Jensen knew just what he was doing, because for quite some time he has been complaining about park rule violations by AT hikers. His approach to Jurek certainly got his message out worldwide.
Here’s the real issue. Baxter Park doesn’t want more visitors. For example, it limits hikers by having small parking lots. Linda and I recently noticed a sign at a three-vehicle parking lot near a popular pond where moose can often be seen, informing visitors that if the parking lot is full, they should return another time. I can tell you, I’ve seen lots of violations of that rule. I’ve seen cars parked in the middle of the perimeter road, all four doors still open, and people standing there gawking at a moose.
I have a friend who, years ago, got up before dawn and drove three hours to Baxter to hike Katahdin. But when he arrived at the gate, he was told the parking lots were full and he would be unable to hike the mountain that day. He drove home, fuming, and I don’t think he ever returned to the park.
We’ve been blessed to have a camp on Sourdnahunk Lake on the park’s western boundary for nearly 25 years. We drive 20 miles on the park’s perimeter road to access our camp’s driveway. It was a shorter trip for us when the park maintained a western access point, and when it closed that gate, I complained. But I have to admit, it turned out for the best for us, because it really reduced traffic at the northern end of the park.
I also complained when the park gated a road into a spot where I love to fish a small brook. But after hiking the mile and a quarter several times, I figured out that hardly anyone else is fishing there now. And I apologized to Jensen for my earlier criticism.
This is what I know and see. With our most magnificent mountain and park in its backyard, the town of Millinocket has gone from the state’s most prosperous town to its most destitute and desperate. They can’t even give away homes there now, and many are being torn down.
It’s long since time for Baxter State Park, the people of the Millinocket region, and our state’s leaders to get together and figure out how to turn Katahdin into a positive force for the regional economy. Perhaps we can begin by welcoming Jurek back for a ceremony — not on Katahdin’s summit, of course — where his summonses are ripped up. I’ll even bring the champagne.