August 4, 2013

On a trail, many trials, for hikers and searchers alike

The only easy thing about the Appalachian Trail section where Geraldine Largay was last seen in late July is finding trouble, hikers say

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.

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Jonathan Eaton, 54, of Warrenton, Va., crosses the Carrabassett River while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, in Wyman Township on Thursday. This section of trail intersects Route 27 in Wyman Township, where missing Tennesse hiker Geraldine Largay was scheduled to meet her husband, George, on July 24. She never made it for the scheduled rendezvous.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Nancy "Morninglory" Stetson, of Pittston, who hiked the entire trail in 1996,is seen on a 2010 hike in this photo from her Facebook page. "I've fallen, but I'm very careful near ravines and cliffs," she said. "Any time you're hiking, it's going to be a liability."

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APPALACHIAN TRAIL AT A GLANCE

The Appalachian Trail stretches approximately 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park.

Maine's 281 miles of trail — from near Grafton Notch State Park in Oxford County to the top of Katahdin's summit — are considered by many to be the toughest part of the trail because of unpredictable weather, steep elevations and rocky terrain.

Monikers

Most serious Appalachian Trail hikers adopt trail names, names they introduce themselves to fellow hikers with. They can be humorous or based on their lives on or off the trail.

Maine hikers who finished the entire trail in 2012 reported using names including Chickadee and Sit-a-bit. Dr. David Gagnon, a retired South Berwick physician, was simply Dr. Dave.

Finding civilization

In Maine, the trail crosses several state highways, including state routes 17 and 4, near Rangeley, Route 27 in Wyman Township, between Carrabassett Valley and Stratton, U.S. Route 201 in Caratunk and Route 15 in Monson. In the last 100 miles of the trail, however, no paved roads are crossed. This is known as the 100-Mile Wilderness.

Many hikers use crossings as opportunities to walk or hitch rides into town to get hotel rooms, buy supplies, send and receive mail and eat at restaurants.

Time and money

It takes most people between five and seven months to hike the entire trail, for which a budget of $3,000 to $5,000 in living expenses, plus $1,000 to $2,000 in gear, is suggested. Those planning on getting hotel rooms and eating out frequently will spend more.

Many start, few finish

Thousands attempt to hike the entire trail each year. Half go halfway and only about a quarter go the whole way. Some reasons to stop? Running out of money, having to return to obligations at home and being overwhelmed by the experience.

Maine's outsized influence

Of the 803 hikers who reported finishing the trail in 2012, 763 were Americans and 23 of them, more than 3 percent, were from Maine, an impressive feat for the state, which makes up less than half of 1 percent of the nation's population.

Source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy; staff research

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.

Last to see Largay?

George Largay had been following his wife's progress via text message throughout her trip north, and the two had prearranged meetings where he would stop to help her resupply.

Largay's goal, given her gender and age, is uncommon: only 604 women have completed the trail in sections within a 12-month period, or at least reported they have. Of those women, 25 percent were in their 60s, according to Appalachian Trail Conservancy data.

Those section hikers — people who complete the trail in multiple trips over a period of time — are typically a generation older than "thru-hikers" — those who hike the entire trail in one trip. The median age for a thru-hiker is 27. The median age for a section hiker is 55.

Twenty-five percent of the more than 13,000 hikers who have reported completing the trail are women, but women make up a much more equitable share of section hikers, said Laurie Potteiger, information services manager of the conservancy.

On July 21, Largay left Sandy River Plantation, near Rangeley, and texted her husband that she was on top of Saddleback Mountain. She last texted him on July 22, saying she planned to meet him at the Route 27 crossing in Wyman Township, about seven miles north on the trail, the next day. She never arrived.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The Stratton Motel, on Main Street in Stratton, on Thursday.

Staff photo / Michael G. Seamans

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