To the Editor:
The arrival of somewhat warmer temperatures and longer days – I hesitate to call it spring yet in spite of the calendar – has the hikers among us who have been more sedentary through the long winter itching to get out and stretch our legs. Most of us know about the carriage road closures that allow the frost to come out of the ground and the roads to firm up for biking and walking.
When the roads are soft, you can easily damage them. If we get out on them too soon, it’s a messy ordeal and a heck of a workout.
Hiking trails are not closed, but they too are at risk of damage from spring hiking and can be messy and more strenuous as well. We all need to be good trail stewards and minimize our impacts by following a few Leave No Trace principles.
Surprises surely await us on the trail after this long, snowy winter. How can we prepare for them?
Spring conditions are, to use an expression hikers are familiar with, “all over the map,” and this year they will last deep into April. Trails that are used often may have a frozen highway of compacted snow, but step off that highway, and a sudden sinking sensation overtakes you. It’s an easy way to sprain a knee. And as the snow melts and our footsteps chew it up, glaciers emerge, and we find sections of trail completely ice-covered.
Snow and ice usually linger longest in the trail, tempting us to walk around them rather than through them. Trails then widen or braid into multiple routes, as we step on the emerging grasses, shrubs and lichens along the edges.
Even with good snow cover, we can punch through and inadvertently trample the plants underneath. This is especially a problem in the subalpine zone. Snow has melted off the vegetation first, but the intermittent ice flows that cover the trail on the open ledges are treacherous. Subalpine plants are adapted to the severe natural environment, but not to the repeated footfalls of hikers.
As we look up at the mountains from below and the snow has mostly vanished from all the bare rock, it’s hard to imagine that in the woods, the valleys and the northern slopes, the snow is still deep and ice is still there. At the time when we most need to stay on the trail, the allure of straying from it is strongest, but only if we are unprepared.
The most important preparation is the right mindset – the will to make the little extra effort.
The second thing is to pay attention to staying on the trail, not always an easy task. Trails can be hard to find and follow. Cairns and blazes are covered, and previous hikers may have strayed from it, so following their tracks blindly may not be the best option.
It really helps to know your trail well from summer hikes, because it looks much different with deep snow cover. Next, we need to understand what the most durable surface is, and it’s usually the trail underneath all that snow. Uncompacted snow is not durable, and trails can widen quickly from just a few unwitting hikers. Compacted snow and ice are durable, but you need the right gear.
Waterproof boots, gaiters and crampons help you resist temptation, stay on the trail, and keep your feet dry no matter how snowy, wet or muddy it is. If you do get off trail, try to avoid snowpack that may have shrubs or forbs underneath. Stay on deeper snow, unbreakable crust or areas of rock ledge with or without snow cover.
Acadia’s hiking trails are amazing. Please help us keep them in good shape. Be prepared for the surprises.
Ranger Charlie Jacobi
Acadia National Park