By Andrew Vietze
Created Sep 20 2007 - 9:42pm
I was at the great consumer-review site Epinions recently and discovered to my surprise that five people had posted their thoughts about Baxter State Park. Each one gave the park a five-star rating, but there was one gentleman who made some comments in his summary that took me by surprise. Under "Pros" he lauded the park's "one-of-a-kind scenery, technical climbing, Knife Edge, and wilderness experience." Under "Cons," the part that got to me, he wrote, "highly regulated, day-use caps, hard to get overnight reservations." I found it interesting that he said that what he truly valued about BSP was the wilderness experience but then he allowed as how he was bothered both by the regulations and the day-use caps, which, it seems to me, are what help keep that very wild feel in place. Everyone is entitled to their own epinion, but it hit me that he was working under many of the same misconceptions that a lot of other people have about the park.
First and foremost was the idea the park was difficult to get in to. His actual comment was that the place is governed by "a park bureaucracy that makes getting reservations almost as hard as having lunch with the Pope," and that "getting reservations are like getting Willy Wonka's golden ticket." I've never attempted to dine with a pontiff nor eaten a Wonka bar, but I am familiar with the park's policies on reservations. In years past, these slips of paper were indeed hard to come by. For years, the park's popularity exponentially exceeded its capacity, and it was booked fairly solid. Getting a reservation was about as easy as hooking a Daicey trout in August, which is to say not very. (And in fairness, this review was written in 2004, the year before we updated our reservation system.)
But this is definitely not the case any more, and it wasn't even really the case in '04. In the past five years, our numbers have been on a downward slide for a variety of reasons, and on almost any night of the year we have vacancies. Through mid-July, I had as many as three cabins open a night and sometimes more. Even last week, in August, we had a night with six cabins open. If you come during the week or in the shoulder seasons getting a reservation couldn't be any easier - have a credit card? Call two weeks ahead and book a spot. Even in the height of summer we have openings.
There is no arguing with this reviewer about day-use caps. We have them. Limiting the number of day users - essentially people who come only to climb the mountain - is the only way to preserve the wilderness experience. If we didn't do this, Katahdin would be completely overrun on certain Saturdays. The trails would suffer erosion problems. Parking would be a mess. Climbers would be tripping over one another on the way up. And when they finally arrived at the summit it would look like a visit to the mall.
There's also no debating about the rules and regulations. We have those, too, just as there are rules at Acadia and at Camden Hills, and at every other camping area. Ours are essentially the same as theirs, really common-sense stuff based in courtesy and respect for others and the environment - no littering, no feeding of the animals, no soap in the waterways, etc. - except that, being a nature preserve, we don't allow dogs or radios. If you need Fido and a boom box at your tent site, we'll definitely come across as rule heavy. These are not particularly onerous laws, I don't think, and I'm no law-and-order type by temperament. I got into this because I'm a nature boy, a woods freak, inspired by the Dharma Bums and Edward Abbey, but I feel some rules are necessary to maintain the wilderness quality, the forever-wild identity that is Baxter Park's very essence and was Governor Baxter's most urgent wish. I think our regulations are very reasonable in the pursuit of that goal.
In the body of his review, the gentleman also mentioned something that made me scratch me head. He called the rangers in the south end of the park, "over protective," and "over zealous," and of the mentality that they "need to know where you are at all times." This one I found rather flabbergasting. We do ask people for their contact information at the gate - not because we're building some sort of wiretap database but to allow us to notify someone in case of emergency. Campers are entering 200,000 acres of wild terrain after all. We also ask people to sign in and out at trailheads, and again it's not because we plan on following you or making a list of names. We don't really have any interest where you're spending your afternoon, but we like to know where people are in case they don't come back or need our assistance. It also helps us keep track of numbers on the trails, for planning purposes. Most people have no problem with signing trail registers, others don't bother to do so, which is fine, but they should realize that if a situation arises and they find themselves in trouble they'll be much more difficult to locate.
Near the end of his review - which does give the park five out of five stars, remember - the fellow has a bit of a change of heart and ends up negating much of what he said before: "While I hate the over-regulated nature of the park, I realize for such a popular place, it's probably the only way to manage the use. You'll still run into crowds, but the park does not seem overused and beat out like other areas in New Hampshire or in the Adirondacks. Baxter has something special and their main goal is to protect that, which is admirable."
Now if only we can get him to try the new reservation system.