When Eben Sypitkowski took over as Baxter State Park director last summer, the challenge of leading the storied wilderness park seemed to him the honor of a lifetime. A year later, the 36-year-old Bangor native says directing the park and its staff of 60 presents many challenges, and many questions that don’t have immediate answers.

Since Sypitkowski became director, Baxter State Park – a gift from Gov. Percival Baxter in 1931 – has done away with the decades-old (and much loved) reservation system called “Opening Day,” under which people would show up at park headquarters one day in January to book a campsite in person. Also under his leadership, park officials continue to monitor Appalachian Trail hiker permits, a system instituted five years ago as a way to limit thru-hiker traffic on Mount Katahdin.

And Sypitkowski and his staff must always be ready to respond to the perennial challenges of a primitive park that draws 70,000 visitors, such as the constant need to educate hikers on safety. Just last week, two helicopter rescues were necessary to help two hiking parties on Katahdin.

We caught up with Sypitkowski to ask about his first year. We also posed some questions suggested to us by longtime Baxter visitors. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What’s new and notable in the park in the past year?

A: We’re transitioning with the staff, trying to figure out how best to align the mission and structure of the park. It’s taking a lot of my time and focus, but there are some real positives. We’re growing as an organization, professionalizing our roles and better connecting ourselves with the wider landscape. For instance, we’re reaching out to the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands and learning how they solve some of their problems. And our law enforcement officers are more connected now through the dispatch system to agencies throughout the state. My philosophy is the more you network, the better the solutions you’ll find.

Q: Lately the park’s Facebook account has been really lively. Is the park using social media more than it has in the past?

A: We’ve recognized it as a pretty pivotal place to get information out to the people about the conditions in the park and to remind them of things to bring and things to know to be prepared. That’s mostly due to the skill and acumen of our Staff Naturalist Marc Edwards. Marc has taken a serious look at making sure there is good and consistent and frequent information in that channel. He became the staff naturalist last September.

Q: Percival Baxter said in his Deeds of Trust that he didn’t want park officials to advertise the park. What do you think Gov. Baxter would say about Facebook? Is the park using it to advertise and does that defy his wishes?

A: That’s a great question. We have to be careful that we don’t cross the line and go into that area of advertising. What we’re trying to do is to provide information to visitors, not to entice visitors to come here. He wanted the park to be advertised by word of mouth.

Q: What’s happening with the Dudley Trail route up Katahdin? It’s been closed since 2016, was expected to open last year, but is still not open.

A: We’re looking forward to finishing that in the next year. It’s a hard case because there are so many rock slides in that area. We are trying all over the park to change from this technique of building trails as straight as possible to try to achieve the summit in the straightest route possible, to try to make them more gradual and more stable footpaths.

Eben Sypitkowski inspects a trail along Abol Stream in Baxter State Park last August. Deciding with his staff where to reroute trails is one of the many challenges of his job. Kevin Bennett photo

Q: Opening Day for reservations used to be a great tradition. Now everyone must enter the rolling reservation system to book a campsite. Was there much pushback over the change?

A: A few die-hards were sad to see it go. There are some issues to work on still with the reservation system and the predictability it affords. It was somewhat inequitable, providing an opportunity to get reservations only for those willing to camp out (at park headquarters). It’s much more on even ground now. This will be a reservation system we continue to work on.

Q: Originally, the International Appalachian Trail ran from the end of the Appalachian Trail at Mount Katahdin through the park and into land that became Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. But when the monument opened in 2016, the park closed that hiking trail, forcing the IAT to start in the monument. Will the IAT be routed through Baxter again?

A: That’s another evolving question. Some of these questions will be answered over time. We have been concerned about the effect the monument will have on the park in some locations, like Katahdin Lake and (areas) at the northern end. Having a lot of people near those areas may change the character of those areas. We have a good relationship with the folks at the monument. We’ll see how the monument looks after it goes through the planning process.

Q: Regarding the national monument, are you concerned that the federal government could try to acquire Baxter State Park, or parts of it, to form an even larger national park?

A: There are some really strong legal barriers to that ever happening. Baxter State Park is a public trust, and the strength of that trust has been reinforced by laws that have been accepted by several Maine legislatures and governors. It’s a pretty iron-clad legal structure that would prevent the park from changing hands. That’s why Baxter is unique, and why it is outside the state park system. The word of the donor is the mandate.

Eben Sypitkowski, after his first year as Baxter State Park director, said the challenges of managing the 209,000-acre wilderness park are many. Kevin Bennett photo

Q: How is the Appalachian Trail hiker traffic affecting the park? Have you met with AT Conservancy CEO Suzanne Dixon, as you said you would last year?

A: No, it hasn’t happened yet. We hope that still happens. Our conversation with the ATC is ongoing and as a result of better communication we’re collaborating, and that issue has become smaller over time. The Katahdin Hiker Permit System is still in place, and the numbers haven’t increased or decreased the past few years. I’m sure that won’t always be the case. … This is a place where two different cultural approaches to the wilderness experience come together, so we will always need to make sure that we have a conversation about that.

Q: Is there anything else you want to say about your first year leading the park?

A: I’d like to remind people that as we go into another summer season at the park, in particular on Katahdin, that it is very rugged territory, and park visitors should never underestimate how difficult that hike can be and never overestimate their own ability to handle it. Over the weekend, we had a couple of different rescues. We’ve had a late spring and so people want to hike it. But this past weekend we saw some folks (on Katahdin) who were unprepared. It’s the responsibility of the visitors to this wilderness park to make sure that they’re taking challenges that are within their ability. You may be hours or days without rescue if you get into trouble.

Q: Last question – are you having fun as director of Baxter State Park?

A: (Much laughter, then a pause). I enjoy a good challenge and this is a great challenge. We’ll go with that.

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