Illegal fires and fire pits are not only an eyesore, but represent a real potential hazard to the woods. Carey Kish photo

Last spring, after a month or so of taking walks and hikes close to home, I started venturing farther afield in my Downeast neighborhood. Used to finding next to no one on the normally quiet preserve trails of Hancock and Washington counties, I was surprised to discover people everywhere, no matter the location, day of the week or time of day.

Discarded masks were a signature items of trash along trails this past year. Carey Kish photo

It shouldn’t have been so surprising, I guess, because for anyone who wasn’t working the front lines of the pandemic, staying indoors for weeks at a time simply wasn’t an option. Most everyone had more time on their hands than ever before and needed to get outside in a big way, for their physical health and mental well-being.

As spring progressed into summer, then summer into autumn, there appeared to be no letup in trail use as I explored my way around Maine. My observations were, that in these pandemic times, day hiking was seeing an unprecedented spike in popularity, a notion confirmed by Rex Turner, outdoor recreation planner for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

“In springtime, when the rest of the state was gripped in winter, southern and coastal Maine were swamped with people,” said Turner. “Trail use remained strong throughout the summer and fall, and not just at the usual hotspots.”

A lot of people seemed to be discovering new places, noted Turner, due in part because popular trailheads were regularly jam-packed and overflowing with cars, necessitating a detour to another hiking locale.

“It’s exciting and gratifying to see how people, new and regular users alike, value our trails,” said Turner. “For many this was their first time getting out on the trail, and we’ve gotten some very positive reactions.”

This monumental increase in hikers and trail use has come with its share of challenges, of course. The carrying capacity of the trails, facilities and parking have been dramatically stressed, and with that, land management staff have been stretched thin working to monitor the trails and deal with the related effects.

A sign of the times at most every trailhead these days. Carey Kish photo

The environmental impacts of more boots on the ground in this pandemic year are many and varied, but perhaps the most notable is the number of cheap light blue face masks dropped along the trail and at trailheads. Masks, sadly in evidence on most every hike these days, appear to have supplanted tissues as the disposable item of choice in 2020.

Doggy poop bags are probably second to masks this year, the colored plastic lumps adorning the margins of many a trail like never before. I’m told that dog owners drop them on the way in, to be picked up on the way back. Having done plenty of round-trip hikes, I’m not so sure about that logic.

Besides, who wants to look at waiting poop bags that are akin to trash?

Regarding trash, there has been plenty of that, mostly the usual candy wrappers and soda bottles, just a lot more of it, so it seems. The worst, most offensive type of trash is the exposed lumps of used toilet paper, tissues and wet wipes in plain sight of the trail, behavior that in this hiker’s mind defies explanation. It’s basic hygiene.

The list goes on. Fire pits built in fragile places clearly signed “no campfires.” Hacking down green trees and stripping birch bark. Cutting switchbacks. Trampling off trail creating herd paths. Constructing inukshuks (rock art). Leaving painted rocks behind. These practices all have deleterious physical and visual effects on the trail experience.

Gear sales are booming, and even though it’s winter, trailheads around Maine are still busy. It’s my hunch that the current popular trend for hiking – for outdoor recreation in general – will continue for some time to come. That’s a good thing and a golden opportunity to draw greater support for trails and conservation and enlist ever more environmental stewards.

A renewed emphasis on the all-important seven Leave No Trace principles, however, will be critical as trail numbers grow, something you and me can gently help with in person on the trail, remembering that we were all novice hikers once upon a time.

“We need to encourage people to develop and learn the needed skills for responsible, safe and enjoyable trail use. In front-country settings, this will be especially important,” Turner said. “Start small near home and work up from there.”

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish


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