Recently, well-known ultrarunner Scott Jurek bested the current Fastest Known Time (FKT) of the Appalachian Trail by three hours.
For backpacking traditionalists, an FKT was akin to running through the Louvre to knock off seeing as many famous painting sitings as possible…missing the point perhaps from a traditionalist viewpoint.
( Personally, while I can admire the athleticism of these FKT attempts, I have the same interest in the outcome as any sport…that is to say, not much. As a lover of the wild spaces, something like Kristen Gate’s journey is far more captivating to me.)
So in the small three-ring circus known as the so-called “hiking community” had the usual arguments….
“He did it for himself..the AT was secondary.”
“It was an amazing accomplishment that is inspiring.”
“It is missing the point of the trail!”
“Hike your own hike! Who is to say what the real purpose of the trail experience is supposed to be!”
…and so on. Ad nauseam. I suspect backpackers will have the same arguments next year..and the year after…and the year after that.
Then Champagne Gate broke.
More than one person has celebrated the end of a 2000+ mile journey by hoisting a toast on Katahdin. What Scott Jurek did was no different than many other thru-hikers after their journey.
However, Scott Jurek’s journey was very different in the execution vs. other AT journeys (even previous FKTs).
More public, orchestrated, and organized than anything on the trail before.
The usual suspects criticized the champagne toast on the summit..something banned by the park.
And lamented the corporate logos very obvious in many photos….
And the media presence and promotion done for the hike…
And the usual round of arguments went back and forth.
Mr. Jurek and the corporate sponsors were careful not to mention in the media coverage that one of the unfortunate outcomes of the celebration party at Baxter Peak at the completion of the event were the three summons issued to Mr. Jurek by a Baxter Park Ranger for the drinking of alcoholic beverages in public places (BSP Rule 7 and Maine State General Law), for littering (BSP Rule 4.5) and for hiking with an oversize group (BSP Rule 2.2). In addition, media personnel were issued a summons for violation of a commercial media permit which prohibited filming within 500′ of Baxter Peak. Not much to be proud of there.
And then the fighting really started…
My nickel’s worth is reading between the lines, and it was not the champagne toast, the filming, or even the crowds that caused Baxter State Park (BSP) to issue their fines.
I still believe BSP, at least until recently, did not honestly mind a champagne toast on the summit. Otherwise, there would be many fines sent to people in the past five years due to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. 🙂
I believe it is much like the red Solo cups that make the discreet beer at a tailgate party pre-game magically invisible to law officials . Keep it discreet? No issues. Make it evident that those red Solo cups do not have Cocoa Cola in them…funny how officials will no longer pretend your red Solo cup is invisible.
If the rules get publicly flouted (intentional or not), officials really can’t tolerate the public flaunting.
And when the rules start to become publicly shunned, then the officials start becoming very strict. What BSP discreetly tolerated is no longer allowed.
But I don’t think the issue is even Jurek’s incident per se.
Jurek’s is just the most recent and public example of incidents impacting an increasingly overused resource in a very short amount of time.
As Park Director Jensen Bissell told a local news station, “They [Appalachian Trail hikers] represent three percent of our use and about twenty percent of our effort.”
To put it in blunt terms: BSP is pissed off. And has been for a long time.
Baxter State Park’s mission is that the park “…shall forever be kept and remain in the natural wild state….”
And the changing nature of the trail and general outdoors experience may not be compatible with the vision currently had for the park.
But it is more than just an outpost of wildness in Maine that is affected.
I think the real crux is that this latest incident puts into focus a discussion that is often had in our increasingly connected and busy times:
What kind of trail experience is wanted, preserved, and accepted?
I will not get into the mess of if an FKT is respecting what the outdoors experience is about. I‘ve discussed that before.
I know that the experience some people are having is different from the traditional use of the trails. Social media, FKTs, corporate sponsorship of athletic events in the wild spaces, being connected while on the journey so much, the social aspect becoming the experience itself…all parts of the changing trail experience in particular and the outdoors in general.
All things change and go through a metamorphosis. Some people will cheer the change; others will be against the change.
And these opposing views are very much colliding in a dramatic and public fashion in the past few days.
In the end, what kind of trail experience will there be?
Jurek’s champagne toast is not just about the against-the-regulation alcohol use on Katahdin or ignoring other park rules.
It is about what kind of outdoor experience is wanted, desired, and promoted.
Jurek’s champagne toast may have started, what appears to be, yet another silly little internet squabble.
In reality, the toast is crystallizing an ongoing debate.
How we view the outdoors, what is acceptable in the outdoors, and how we use our time in the outdoors will change a lot in the next ten years.
There will be more debates.
Jurek’s champagne toast not only celebrated a 46-day athletic accomplishment. But his toast is bringing into sharp relief how we need to balance accessibility and preservation, sharing the resources and protecting them, respecting the solitude and quietness that others seek while accepting alternative methods of enjoying the outdoors.
And perhaps more importantly, while still preserving what makes the wild spaces so wonderful in the first place.
 From a campus police site link: “Tailgaters who use cups or other visible means to be discreet will typically have no issue. Those with large gatherings and visible alcohol will typically be addressed by our officers.”