August 4, 2013

Appalachian Trail has plenty of perils

Maine has some of the most difficult sections, but there is no explanation yet for a hiker who went missing.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

CARRABASSETT VALLEY - Snaking steeply up a ridge above the Carrabassett River's south branch, the Appalachian Trail isn't a hike, it's a rock climb: tiring going up, unnerving going down. If not for white blazes on granite, a hiker could clamber off the trail on the way up. On the way down, a missed step could mean a snapped ankle or something worse, like a tumble off the narrow trail.

"There's plenty of opportunity to injure yourself," said David Lowe, 56, a hiker from Greenville, N.C., who set out recently from Baxter State Park, southbound to the trail's end, nearly 2,200 miles away in Georgia. "I will be reminding myself out loud to pay attention because if I don't, I won't be making it to Georgia."

Not that Lowe's nervous: If he completes this trip on schedule, it will be his third hike of the entire trail in four years.

Lowe, who goes on the trail by El Flaco, loosely translated Spanish for "the thin man" -- he's a skinny guy -- said it's all worth it as he sat on rocks Wednesday afternoon near the shore of the picturesque Carrabassett River's southern branch, eating store-bought cinnamon doughnuts.

"I think the beauty far outweighs any peril."

But it looks more and more like peril found trail hiker Geraldine Largay as the days pass since her disappearance.

Largay, 66, of Brentwood, Tenn., started out from Harpers Ferry, W. Va., in April, hiking north toward Maine. She'd already done the southern half of the trail, and finishing the northern half was an item on her bucket list.

Largay made it about 950 miles, with about 200 more to go, when she vanished on a stretch of trail between Route 4 near Rangeley and Route 27 in Wyman Township around July 22.

Lt. Kevin Adam of the Maine Warden Service has called the search for Largay mystifying, saying almost all hikers who disappear from the trail in Maine are found within a day.

The rugged, steep terrain just off the trail in Franklin County, rife with treacherous basins, has hampered the search effort. As the search passed the seven-day mark late last week, the Maine Warden Service said they'd gone as far as they could with the searchers available because of the challenging landscape, and put out a call for trained volunteers to help over the weekend.

"The logistical and physical challenges associated with this remote search area restrict our ability to use searchers without formal training provided by professional SAR organizations," said Warden Service spokesman Cpl. John MacDonald in a news release Tuesday night.

'YOU'RE GOING TO FALL'

The stretch of trail between Route 4 and Route 27 is steep and challenging, but Poirier said there aren't many particular hazards on the trail. Off it, wardens have said, there would be.

The trail traverses many of Maine's tallest mountains, including Saddleback and Spaulding, elevations 4,121 feet and 4,009 feet, just missing Sugarloaf to turn toward the Carrabassett River's south branch as the trail heads north to the state's highest peak, Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin.

Maine's 281 miles of the Appalachian Trail, along with parts of New Hampshire, are considered by many to be the toughest on the trail.

"There's no disputing" that fact, said Potteiger, of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Adam, of the Warden Service, has said that while Largay is an experienced hiker, this was her first time on the trail in Maine.

Potteiger said hikers who haven't hiked the northern part of the trail often struggle to prepare for the steep climbs of Maine. While the southern half has steep elevation gains, climbs are more gradual. On that half, there aren't many climbs like the ridge over the Carrabassett River.

The trail in Maine is "rough in a sustained way," Potteiger said. "Rock climbs are rare on the southern half of the trail and they don't last as long."

The trail is also narrowly cut in western Maine. A two-mile area along a ridge connecting Spaulding and Sugarloaf is so difficult it was the last part of the trail to be blazed, in 1937 by a six-person crew from the Civilian Conservation Corps.

"Soils are so thin that they just don't lend themselves well to the kind of trail-building techniques that can be used in other places," Potteiger said. That means conditions in Maine can be slipperier, rockier and more treacherous for hikers who aren't experienced with that kind of terrain.

"Whatever your skill level is, there's a degree of luck involved," he said, "because you're going to fall."

'THE TRAIL PROVIDES'

Like the wardens, those familiar with the trail are surprised by the search's length without results, good or bad.

"People just don't go missing on the trail this way," Potteiger said. "It's well-traveled and generally well-marked in the prime hiking season."

Wardens haven't ruled out foul play in Largay's case, but they have said it is likely that she got off the trail herself and got lost. Before they find her, they can't speculate much. But Adam has said foul play on the trail is rare, and hikers say danger barely crosses their mind. Wardens have swept the trail for Largay, to no avail. All that has made the hiking community rally for the best possible outcome.

Wardens have said many have volunteered to search for Largay. Wednesday, they put out a call for searchers with Maine Association of Search and Rescue certification. The Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel have received emails about the search from as far away as Georgia and Tennessee.

"We're all praying for her," Stetson said. "It's just bizarre."

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

 

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