Growing Tensions: Baxter State Park, The Appalachian Trail, and Scott Jurek

“We really don’t think that the top of Katahdin should smell like a bar…” – Jensen Bissell, Baxter State Park director.

Champagne wasn’t the only thing that erupted as Scott Jurek celebrated his new Appalachian Trail speed record at the summit of Mt. Katahdin last week… The ongoing tensions between the long-distance hiking community and the Baxter State Park Authority erupted too…

The relationship between long-distance hikers and Baxter State Park has been under increasing strain in the past decades as the number of thru-hikers has exploded from between 5 and 40 a decade (between the 1930’s and 1960’s) to almost a thousand a year (2013, 2014).

With these increasing numbers, Baxter State Park has seen an increase in ‘bad behavior’ amongst AT hikers, and hasn’t been shy about voicing their displeasure. In November of 2014 the director of Baxter State Park sent a letter to the director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, specifically citing the following grievances (amongst others):

As a ‘modern AT hiker’ I thought that Baxter State Park was being a little harsh, and I found myself getting really defensive as continued reading their list of grievances, “I’m not like that… Most of the AT hikers I know are not like that!” But I have to admit that some are… and we were all getting grouped together in the eyes of Baxter State Park… The folks at Baxter State Park have done a lot to accommodate AT hikers over the years, but they were getting sick and tired of dealing with unappreciative AT hikers that didn’t respect their rules and their mission… It was amidst these escalating tensions that Scott Jurek’s summit photos were released…

Scott Jurek celebrated on the top of Mount Katahdin after setting a new record for the fastest hike of the entire Appalachian Trail.

Photo by Bob Najar, iRunFar.com

Champagne exploding, people cheering, and Katahdin’s sign were all prominently displayed in Scott Jurek’s summit photos… I cringed and thought, “Uh-oh… This is why we can’t have nice things!” The most publicized hike in AT history, and a perfect (and I’m sure completely unintentional) disregard of Baxter State Park’s rules…

A couple of days later Baxter State Park posted a scathing note on Facebook (in a tone similar to the previous letter), informing everyone that they’d issued Jurek citations: “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).”

Photo by Chris Kraft. From Runner’s World…Scott Jurek signed in with an official group size of 12 people.

The first citation, about public drinking, has been an ongoing issue at the summit of Mt. Katahdin. Even though I don’t blame Jurek for wanting to celebrate his accomplishment with a bottle of Champagne at the summit, I certainly can’t blame Baxter State Park for issuing him a citation for such a blatant, and public, disregard for their rules! The second citation, however, seemed like a bit of a stretch… the ‘litter’ that Jurek is accused of leaving in the park is spilled champagne… “The littering occurred when champagne sprayed into the air hit the ground.” Covering the summit of Katahdin with a gooey, sticky mass of champagne, soda, and/or Gatorade would significantly detract from the wilderness experience, so I can sort of see where Baxter is coming from, but is it really litter?

  • litter: things that have been thrown away and that are lying on the ground in a public place (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

The final citation was for group size… and I have to admit that the group-size rule confuses me in these contexts… What defines an affiliated group?… Were there more than 12 people at the summit of Katahdin to celebrate Jurek’s accomplishment? Yes! Were they an affiliated group, or were they a mass of individuals independently inspired by Jurek’s achievement? If a group of 12 (or more) is intentionally climbing Mt. Katahdin together, that’s a pretty cut-and-dry group. On the other hand, if 12 or more people are inspired to climb Katahdin by the same thing does that make them a group?

  • affiliate: to closely connect (something or yourself) with or to something (such as a program or organization) as a member or partner (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

When I climbed Katahdin as part of my thru-hike, I climbed it with two fellow thru-hikers, but when we reached the summit 8 to 10 thru-hikers were already there… By the time I left the summit a couple of hours later, there were closer to 20 thru-hikers there… Are all of the thru-hikers that happen to show up on a given day considered a group? How would that be different from classifying all of the day-hikers that show up on a given day as a group?

Baxter State Park has been controlling access to the area for the last 25 years by limiting the parking spaces, and overnight campsites (which they did on the day of Jurek’s hike as well), but this strategy hasn’t been effective for limiting the number long-distance AT hikers that are walking into the park, sometimes more than 15 miles, to reach the summit of Katahdin.

In addition to the ongoing issues with AT hikers, Baxter State Park’s Facebook post raised new issues about corporate sponsorships, blasting Jurek for hosting a ‘corporate event’ on the summit of Katahdin… In a world where social media is capital, the lines between personal, professional, and corporate are starting to getting blurry…

Look at the clothes that you hike in, they’re probably covered with corporate logos and names… If you wear them, does that mean that you’re hosting a ‘corporate event’? For hikers/adventurer that are searching for ways to make ends meet as they pursue their dreams full-time, its not uncommon for them to seek corporate sponsors. For most, these sponsorships don’t come with a salary, or any $$s at all! Instead, they come with free gear (a pair of socks, shoes, a pack, or a tent), and a nifty new title as a brand ambassador. Although high-end athletes like Scott Jurek probably get better sponsorship deals from companies like Clif Bar and Brooks, the issues surrounding sponsorship, ‘corporate events’, and social media are bound to get more and more heated, and apply to more and more people, in the coming years!

Luis Escobar | Reflections Photography Studio

In their November letter (long before Jurek completed his thru-hike), Baxter State Park suggested that, “ Options to address these concerns would require a commitment to sustainable use of the AT and preserving wild experiences along the trail. Permit systems are in place on other popular long-distance trails in the U.S. Relocating key trail portions or the trail terminus would be another option.”

For those of us that have had the honor and privilege of including Mt. Katahdin in our Appalachian Trail thru-hikes, the idea of having to re-route the trail so that it terminates elsewhere is absolutely heartbreaking… but being able to terminate our AT thru-hikes at Katahdin is a privilege… If we lose that privilege, it won’t be because of Scott Jurek (even though he did manage to step right into the middle of this steaming mess with cameras rolling)… He may be a very visible example of some of the issues between the AT hikers and Baxter State park, but he didn’t start the problem, and he won’t be the one that the staff at Baxter State Park have to deal with tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day.

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~6% (9/153) of thru-hiker summit pictures I found by googling “thruhike Katahdin”  featured alcohol…

Large trail-related media events like Jurek’s accomplishment (Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’, and Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods”) lead to surges in park use, which intensify ongoing issues between wilderness management and recreational use. It is up to us to help the parks and other landowners along the trail with their efforts to preserve the the trail and all of the wild places that we love… If you are planning on hiking on the AT in Baxter State Park, please familiarize yourself with the park’s rules, let the staff know that you appreciate their efforts, and treat the park (and it’s staff) with respect.

Related Articles:

Updated Timeline:

Baxter State Park Facts:

  • Staff: ~22 year-round staff, ~61 staff members on site during the summer. 1 staff member is dedicated exclusively to aiding thru-hikers, and is positioned near Abol Bridge for 15 weeks.
  • Governance: Baxter State Park Authority, a group of 3 public officials: the Commissioner of Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Director of the Maine State Forest Service, and the Attorney General that works closely with Baxter State Park Advisory: a group of 15 dedicated citizens.
  • Wildlife: 75% of the park (156,874 acres) is a wildlife sanctuary, 25% (52,628 acres) of the park is open to hunting and trapping.
  • Foresty: 14% of the park (29,537 acres) is set up for scientific forest managements (read that logging)
  • Recreational Use: 215 miles of hiking trails, 8 roadside campgrounds, 2 backcountry campgrounds

Additional Baxter State Park Rules Especially Relevant for Thru-Hikers:

For the original Scott Jerek photos, deal with the obnoxious ads, and check out:

New England’s 4000 Footers

Mt. Katahdin, October 3, 2013

Mt. Katahdin, Maine: October 3, 2013

New England’s 4000-footers showcase some of the most rugged trails and most spectacular views in the Northeast! So far, I’ve climbed 10/14 Maine 4000 footers, 35/48 New Hampshire 4000 footers, and 5/5 Vermont 4000 footers. As I continue hiking the peaks of the Northeast, I will post the links and pictures from my 4000 footer adventures here! If you have any questions about which mountains, trails, and hikes are my favorites, or if you have suggestions about additional information you’d like me to share, please leave a comment below!

Maine’s 4000 Footers (10/14): I completed 10/14 Maine 4000 footers during my 2013 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike. The remaining Maine 4000 footers I need to hike are: Hamlin Peak of Katahdin and North Brother, both in Baxter State Park, and Mount Abraham and Mount Reddington in the Carrabassett Valley.

  1. Katahdin, Baxter Peak – Baxter State Park, on AT (Completed: October 4, 2013: AT Day 149)
  2. Katahdin, Hamlin Peak – Baxter State Park
  3. Sugarloaf – Carrabassett Valley, 0.6 miles from AT (Completed: September 22, 2013: AT Day 137)
  4. Crocker Mountain – Carrabassett Valley, on AT (Completed: September 23, 2013: AT Day 138)
  5. Old Speck – Mahoosuc Range, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 17, 2013: AT Day 132)
  6. North Brother – Baxter State Park
  7. Bigelow, West Peak – Bigelow Range, on AT (Completed: September 24, 2013: AT Day 139)
  8. Saddleback – Rangeley Range, on AT (Completed: September 20, 2013: AT Day 135)
  9. Bigelow, Avery Peak – Bigelow Range, on AT (Completed: September 24, 2013: AT Day 139)
  10. Mount Abraham – Carrabassett Valley (1.7 miles off of the AT)
  11. South Crocker Mountain – Carrabassett Valley, on AT (Completed: September 23, 2013: AT Day 138 )
  12. Saddleback Horn – Rangeley Range, on AT (Competed: September 20, 2013: AT Day 135)
  13. Mount Reddington – Carrabassett Valley
  14. Spaulding – Carrabassett Valley, 150ft from AT (Completed: September 22, 2013: AT Day 137)
Mount Washington, NH: February 2015

Mount Washington, NH: February 2015

New Hampshire (35/48): I hiked 20/48 New Hampshire 4000 footer during my AT 2013 thru-hike (some of them required short side-trips). 15/48 I completed with friends and family during day-hikes and shorter backpacking trips, but need to verify dates of those hikes (luckily mom has kept track, so I’ll have to check in with her). I guess that leaves 13 NH 4000 footers for me to explore for the first time!!

  1. Washington, on AT (Completed: September 10, 2013: AT Day 125)
  2. Adams, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed with mom, date=?)
  3. Jefferson, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed with mom, date=?)
  4. Monroe, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views!
  5. Madison, on AT (Completed: September 11, 2013, AT Day 126)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views!
  6. Lafayette, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  7. Lincoln, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  8. South Twin, on AT (Completed: September 8, 2013, AT Day 123)
  9. Carter Dome, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  10. Moosilauke, on AT (Completed: September 5, 2013, AT Day 120)
    • Sunrise/Sunset: July 2015: Trip Report
  11. Eisenhower, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views of Presidential Range
  12. North Twin, 1.3 miles from the AT (date? with Josh)
  13. Carrigain (date?: with Josh)
  14. Bond (date?: with family)
  15. Middle Carter, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  16. West Bond (date?: with family)
  17. Garfield, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  18. Liberty (date?: with Josh)
  19. South Carter, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  20. Wildcat, A Peak, on AT (Completed: September 13, 2013, AT Day 128)
  21. Hancock (date?: with Josh)
  22. South Kinsman, on AT (Completed: September 6, 2013, AT Day 121)
  23. Field
  24. Osceola
  25. Flume (date? with Josh)
  26. South Hancock (date? with Josh)
  27. Pierce, < 0.1 from the AT,  (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124 )
  28. North Kinsman, on AT (Completed: September 6, 2013, AT Day 121)
  29. Willey
  30. Bondcliff (date?: with family)
  31. Zealand (date?: with mom)
  32. North Tripyramid (date?: with Josh)
  33. Cabot
  34. East Osceola
  35. Middle Tripyramid
  36. Cannon
  37. Hale
  38. Jackson, on AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
  39. Tom
  40. Wildcat, D Peak, on AT (Completed: September 13, 2013, AT Day 128)
  41. Moriah (date: with Josh)
  42. Passaconaway
  43. Owl’s Head (date?: with mom)
    • No views, isolated wooded summit
  44. Galehead (date?: with mom)
  45. Whiteface
  46. Waumbek
  47. Isolation (date?: with Josh)
  48. Tecumseh
Sunset at Lakes of the clouds, NH

Sunset at Lakes of the clouds, NH

Vermont (5/5): I hiked 1/5 Vermont 4000 footers during my 2013 AT thru-hike, however, I hiked all 5/5 during my 1998 end-to-end hike of the Long Trail.

  1. Mount Mansfield, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  2. Killington Peak, on AT, on Long trail (Completed: August 1998, and August 2013)
  3. Camel’s Hump, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  4. Mount Ellen, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  5. Mount Abraham, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)

Better than sex? Boston Fireworks Kayaking Adventure

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“Boo-ooo-ooo-oom!” The first rocket launched, the sound so intense that I didn’t just hear it as it bounced off of the river and hit me, I felt it! “Hoo-ah!” I exclaimed as my startle reflex took over: my stomach tightened, my eyes widened, my back arched, my heart slowed (bradycardia), and my body flooded with adrenaline and endorphins… Time stood still as my attention was pulled fully into the here and now… all thoughts, emotions, and expectations emptied from my mind to make room for my heightened senses…

DSC07038 “Cr-ack!” the sky exploded and my entire visual field was suddenly filled with the most beautiful cascade of red light that I have ever seen… Sitting there, in my kayak on the water with the fireworks barges in front of me, the red peony burst above me, and its reflections in the water all around me… It was so intensely beautiful that it overwhelmed my senses and brought tears to my eyes…

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I’ve watched Boston’s 4th of July fireworks before (from the Mass. Ave bridge-back when that was allowed, from the MIT sailing pavilion, and from multiple locations along the banks of the Charles), but I’d never experienced fireworks like this! AND the show was just getting started!!!

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“Thu-ump!” another firework launched. As the sound hit me, I was reminded me of the feeling I used to get at rock concerts… dancing in front of the speakers when the music was too loud and the bass was cranked up as high as it could go… the raw power of the sound resonating in my body, moving me, as I breathed the music…

  • 90 dBA: Soud intensity at which the vestibular system begins increasing hedonic response (sense of pleasure) in response to low-frequency sounds (<500 Hz).

My heart sped up with excitement and expectation because I knew what was coming next…

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“Crack! Crack! Crack!” Three stars, one red, one white, and one blue, exploded. “Wow, is there anything better than this?” I wondered blissfully, “Well… maybe sex…” The fireworks continued with a chrysanthemum, followed by some willows… I breathlessly awaited each new boom, and burst as the fireworks danced and crackled across the sky… It was so amazing… so beautiful… so intense… so perfect… so lovely… so magical… DSC07043 “This! This IS better than sex!”” I thought, overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of both the auditory and visual stimuli… I suddenly I understood why people associated orgasms with fireworks; each explosion was full of ecstasy, joy, and happiness… Wow! As the show continued the fireworks just got more and more intense and amazing… showering the sky with cascading patterns of red, purple, green, and blue…

  • 5 to 2.5 seconds: time between firework explosions during main show
  • 500 ms: time between firework explosions during finale (last 3 minutes)
  • 600-800 ms: time between muscle contractions during male and female orgasm.

DSC07040 I was euphoric… I loved my colorfully lit up kayak… I loved the gentle waves that were rocking my kayak, I loved that there were 10s of 1000s of other people there, watching it with me… I loved that it still felt like the whole show was being put on just for me… I loved the new friends that were watching the fireworks with me… I loved Boston… I loved it all… DSC07026 I continued glowing with happiness even after the fireworks ended… Sure, the air was filled with smoke, the barges had caught fire, I had to pee, and I to kayak 4 more miles to get home, but I knew that the spectacular experience of watching the fireworks from my kayak would remain with me, as one of my happy thoughts, for the rest of my life… DSC07065 DSC07072 Additional Links & References:

Cell phone pictures:

“Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” Kayaking Adventure: Part 2- The Journey Downtown

The view from my kayak as we approached the esplanade on our way to watch the fireworks!

The pouring rain made me question my sanity as I headed over to the Charles River Canoe & Kayak kiosk in Allston/Brighton to meet up with some new friends for our 4th of July kayaking adventure. It was 5 pm, and I was surprised by the complete and utter lack of traffic on Rt. 2, Rt. 16, and Soldiers Field Road… I made it to the parking area in 15 minutes (a commute that takes over an hour during rush hour), and was even more excited to discover that the parking lot was half empty.

Preview of my glowing kayak!

I set up my Oru Kayak and filled it with the 10 remote-controlled wireless lights I’d purchased (and waterproofed) for the occasion while my friends picked up the tandem kayak they’d reserved…We waited a while for the rain to stop, then used the restroom one last time before launching our kayaks at 6 pm.

  • Restrooms: There are no publicly available restrooms between the Mass. Ave. and Longfellow Bridge on July 4th. Please leave a comment below if you know of any restrooms along the Charles that are publicly available for boaters between 7 pm and 1 am on July 4th.

Charles River Canoe & Kayak, Allston/Brighton location.

There was a steady stream of kayakers, canoeists, motorboats, and small yachts making their way down the Charles river and headed towards the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, but the river didn’t feel crowded and the paddling was easy… except when the motorboats and yachts zoomed by… Some of the smaller motorboats, didn’t seem particularly mindful of the 6 mph speed limit, or the etiquette suggesting they pass through the central arches of the bridges (we didn’t see any police enforcement until we were within 300 meters of the Mass Ave. bridge)…

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In the narrower sections of the Charles River (between the Eliot bridge and the River St. bridge) this meant that they created impressively large waves in their wake, which were especially nerve-wracking under the bridges where the wakes generated standing waves and weird interference patterns.

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If the motorboats were behaving badly before the fireworks, and presumably before they began drinking, what was the return trip going to be like?

Luckily, by the time we got to the BU Bridge, the river widened and the wakes of the motorboats stopped being an issue. Even more amazingly, the sun came out and we were rewarded with amazing views of the of the Boston city skyline (including the golden dome of the statehouse) in the early evening light.

Boston skyline including the gold dome of the capital building.

At around 7 pm, we reached the west side of Massachusetts Ave (the blue anchorage zone), where I guessed that close to 50 small boats and yachts were already anchored and another couple dozen kayaks/canoes were milling about.

  • Zones: Blue anchorage zone (vessels less than 12 ft in height, west of Mass Ave), safety zone (area east of Mass ave. bridge, and within 1000 ft of the barges), red anchorage zone (zone east of safety zone where larger vessels are permitted)

State police marine unit enforcing life jacket rules.

“Gentlemen, you must have life preservers to be out here,” boomed the state police patrolman from the first of many state police marine units we’d see. We were passing by a group of three shirtless guys in a green inflatable raft that looked more like a beach-ball than a boat as we approached the Mass Ave bridge. “Sorry officer, we don’t want any trouble,” one of the guys responded quickly and politely… “You need to vacate the area, you can’t be our here without life jackets,” the trooper continued sternly as we passed by…

Kayakers in front of a flotilla of motor boats.

After passing the state troopers, we paused for a minute to decide whether we’d stay on the west-side of the Mass Ave bridge in the blue anchorage zone, or pass through the designated channels by the barges to the red anchorage zone on the east side with the big boats… The folks at the rental agency had strongly recommended staying on the West side of the bridge, assuring everyone that they views there were just as good, but we weren’t convinced…

Hanging out in the Red Anchorage Zone

A few things compelled us onwards: the opportunity to be closer to the Pops concert, the fact that the winds were blowing out of the northeast (if the wind directions stayed the same the fireworks fallout would be to the west), and the idea of getting to watch the fireworks without the Mass Ave bridge obstructing our view of the barges.

As we passed under the Mass. Ave. bridge it seemed like we were the only boats moving except for the patrolling state troopers… “Uh oh, did we read the rules correctly? Are we allowed to pass through here?” We wondered as we paddled towards the oncoming state troopers…

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The round, orange buoys floating at intervals along the shore clearly indicated the restricted shore areas, but the markers indicating the safety zone around the barges wasn’t obvious to me…

  • Restricted areas: Boats are not allowed within 100 ft of the shore between the Mass. Ave. Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge. Boats are not allowed within 1000 feet of the barges.

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“Are they going to stop us? Did we miss something?” It was an unsettling feeling, paddling by the state police boats and hoping that we were in compliance with all of the rules, but we passed the patrol without incident and continued paralleling the crowds on the esplanade until we reached the flotillas of yachts in the red anchorage area.

Kayakers in front of esplanade with red boundary buoys in background

Boats lined up in front of Boston skyline waiting for the fireworks (Red anchorage zone)

It wasn’t until we started making our way through the big boats towards the middle of the river that the tall white cylindrical buoys marking the boundaries of the safety area became apparent.

4th of July paddle-boarder in front of boundary buoy for the safety zone.

“Kayakers, you cannot enter the shore area,” boomed a voice on a megaphone behind us… We looked up and saw the state police approaching a group of kayakers that were attempting to land on the esplanade. “Kayakers! Vacate the shore area!” The police presence was unmistakable and absolutely everywhere.

Paddlers in front of the esplanade.

At 7:30 pm, we picked a spot at the edge of the safety zone near the mid-line of the river to anchor our kayaks and have our picnic dinner. I’d never anchored a kayak before, so it took me a couple of tries to figure out how to compensate for the drift, drag, wind, and currents to make sure we stayed on the ‘safe’ side of the boundary buoy. Once I figured it out, I was confident that we had the best seats in the house!

  • Anchoring tips: Make sure each boats has an anchor… wind and wakes cause a fair amount of drift if you are in a single kayak with a single anchor (we struggled with that all night)… Check out these general anchoring tips, as well as these kayak specific anchoring techniques: kayak anchoring tips, or advanced kayak anchoring setups.
  • Note: The Charles River is between 10 and 50 feet deep around the Mass. Ave. Bridge… make sure that your anchor rope is long enough.

Watching the sunset on the 4th from the middle of the Charles River

As we relaxed and ate our picnic dinner were marveled at our good fortune and our amazing spot… the pouring rain was long gone, the skies were clear, and we were in the perfect location to watch the sunset behind the MIT dome as we waited for the show to begin… the evening was already off to a good start, and there was still 3 hrs to go before the fireworks started!

Kayakers watching the sunset over the MIT dome

Check out my previous post: “Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” Kayaking Adventure: Part 1-Overview and Regulations

Coming soon: “Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” Kayaking Adventure: Part 3-The Pops, the fireworks, and returning home!

Paddling off into the sunset on July 4th before the Fireworks.

Have you watched the Boston Fireworks from a canoe, kayak, or boat? If so, do you have any tips, tricks, or advice? Leave a comment below! As always, if you have any questions about my adventures, leave a comment below :)

“Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” Kayaking Adventure: Part 1-Overview & Regulations

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Do you have a bucket list? If so, you should add watching the Boston Fireworks Spectacular from a kayak in the middle of the Charles River to it! It was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve ever had… It was breathtakingly, orgasmically, beautiful and the sheer immensity and joy of it brought me to tears in a way that very few experiences have…

  • Starting location: 1071 Soldier’s Field Road in Boston (Allston/Brighton), MA
  • Round-trip paddling distance:  ~9 miles (4.5 miles each way)
  • Trip duration: 6 hrs 30 minutes, total paddle time: ~3hrs
    • 6 pm – launched kayak
    • 7:30 pm – arrived at viewing location
    • 8:30 pm – sunset over MIT and Pops concert began
    • 10 pm – Pops concert ended
    • 10:30 pm – Fireworks began
    • 11:00 pm – Fireworks ended
    • 12:30 am – returned to parking lot

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  • Viewing location:  East of the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge (next to the esplanade), Boston, MA
  • Parking: 2 small lots near Charles River Canoe & Kayak, 1 large lot 1/4 further down (no fee). I arrived at 5pm and there were still plenty of spots available. Portable restrooms available near the kayak rental kiosk.
  • Required Equipment: kayak or canoe, paddle, life jacket, waterproof headlamp/flashlight with white light, emergency whistle (I also brought: paddle leash, rain coat, dry sack, camera, cell phone, water, snacks, additional lighting, compass, anchor with 150 ft cord, and a pee jug).
  • Trip cost: $0.00, Value: PRICELESS! (Kayak & canoe rentals are available from Charles River Canoe & Kayak: $89/canoe, $59 single kayak, $99 tandem kayak etc.)

Boating-guidelines-map-7-4

If you are interested in watching the July 4th fireworks from a kayak or canoe, please be familiar with the special boating restrictions for the area, as well as the general rules for paddling on mulit-use waterways at night. I’ve tried to summarize all of the pertinent rules below, but please leave a comment if there is something that I’ve missed or that you think should be included! (Part 2 of this series will be my trip report, sharing stories and pictures from my 2015 Boston Fireworks Spectacular kayaking adventure.

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July 4th Boating Restrictions between Longfellow Bridge and Mass. Ave. Bridge (Massachusetts State Police and Department of Conservation and Recreation, 2015):

  • No restrooms and/or trash receptacles will be available to individuals on the water.
  • Boats must stay 100 feet from shore
    • All public docks will be closed. No access of any kind will be allowed at these docks.
    • No dinghies, PWC, kayaks, canoes, or any other small vessel will be allowed to deploy from anchored vessels or permitted access to shore. Violation of this security zone will result in arrest.
  • Boats must stay 1,000 feet from barges.
  • All vessels must anchor outside the Safety Zone, which is marked by buoys and Public Safety.
  • Vessels UNDER 13 feet (vertical height) can anchor in the BLUE ZONE (Mass Ave. side of barge), no vessels over 13 feet be anchored in this area.
  • Vessels OVER 13 feet tall are allowed to anchor in the RED ZONE (Longfellow side of barges), vessels under 13 feet are not precluded from this area.
  • At 8:15 pm on July 4, the designated channels that pass beside the barges on both the Boston and Cambridge sides of the river. The channel will not reopen until after the fireworks.
  • From 7:45 pm on July 4th until 2 am, the New Charles River Dam will close to upriver vessel traffic
  • The Massachusetts State Police will monitor Channel 16, and enforce all restrictions.

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US Navigational Rules of the Road (US Coast Guard regulations unless otherwise cited):

  • Required Equipment:
    • Life Jackets: All persons on board a canoe or kayak must have a readily accessible USCG–approved Type I, II, or III PFD at all times. Note: Some states have legislation that requires life-jackets to be worn at all times during cold weather months (MA state law-9/15 – 5/15, NY state law-11/1 – 5/1, CT state law- 10/1 – 5/31 (please leave a comment if you know of other states with similar regulations).
    • Whistle: A kayak must carry a whistle capable of producing sound signals audible at 1/2 mile under calm conditions.
      • A “short blast” means a sound signal lasting about one second.
      • A “prolonged blast” means a sound signal lasting about four to six seconds.
      • The “danger signal” means at least five short and rapid blasts.
      • When navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility, kayaks should sound a fog signal of one prolonged blast on their whistle at least every two minutes.
    • Lights: lights must be shown from sunset to sunrise and when visibility is restricted.
      • Flashlight: Kayaks must, at a minimum, carry a white flashlight which can be shown toward an approaching vessel in sufficient time to prevent collision.
        • Alternatively, kayakers can display both a constant white sternlight and a constant red/green sidelights.
        • Never use any strobe light to indicate your position while underway.
      • Distress Signals (optional on inland waters): Vessels, specifically kayaks, canoes, and SUPs, operating between sunset and sunrise on coastal waters must carry either 3- Flares (3 Night, 3 day/night, or a combination of both) or 1-Electronic Distress Light for Boats (For example: ACR “C” Strobe, a compact flashing white light to be used only in emergencies)

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  • Boating Traffic Rules
    • KEEP RIGHT. Any vessel proceeding along a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as far right as is safe and practicable.
      • For kayaks, who can travel in very shallow water, this usually means outside the narrow channel as long as this option is not dangerous.
    • Get out of the way! A kayak shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway, or which is constrained by her draft in any other way. Take early action to get out of the way.
    • Passing. When vessels are meeting on opposing or nearly opposing courses, each shall alter course to the right so as to pass on the other’s left (port) side
      • When being overtaken from behind, a kayaker should, if possible, maintain course and speed. It is the responsibility of the overtaking vessel to keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken.
        • one short blast = “I am altering my course to the right and intend to leave you on my left side.”
        • two short blasts = “I am altering my course to the left and intend to leave you on my right side.”
      • Kayakers should never travel along or between designated traffic separation lanes, usually encountered in major harbors and clearly indicated on the chart
      • If you are paddling in a narrow channel and cannot see a possible approaching vessel due to a bend or obstruction, sound one prolonged blast. An approaching vessel should respond with a similar prolonged blast.
    • NOTE: The coast guard regulations (and Massachusetts regulations) don’t give anyone the right of way. The local confusion regarding this point is probably due to New Hampshire’s regulations (270-D:2 General Rules for Vessels Operating on Water), which states that “Canoes, kayaks, rowboats, sailboats, and swimmers shall be given the right-of-way.”

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  • General Charles River MotorBoat Rules
    • 6 mph speed limit above the BU Bridge
    • 10 mph speed limit between BU Bridge and Longfellow Bridge
    • The basic navigation rule for powerboats is to keep to the center of the river except for going under the
      BU Bridge.
      • Motorboats: use the center arches of all the other bridges and either arch, preferably the right hand arch
        in whichever direction you are traveling, at the Arsenal St. Bridge.
      • River Depth at Mass Ave Bridge is 10-40 ft, 13.4 feet headroom on the BU bridge.

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Logjams Not Traffic Jams: My Wild Kayak Commute (Part 2: Alewife Brook)

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My kayak commute had started well. I’d carried my folded-up kayak across the street and a block to the river, then timed myself with my phone as I set it up, 10 minutes 26 seconds… Not bad since it was just second time I’d put it together! I paddled up the Mystic River and into Alewife brook in a world of green trees, herons, and birdsong… It was easy to forget the ‘urban’ part of this urban wilderness even though the highway was never more than 500 feet away from me… The trees blocked the sight of it, and the birds blocked the sound of it.

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So when I ran into a logjam underneath the Boston Ave bridge it didn’t just jar my boat, it also jarred my mind out of the world of backcountry daydreams and back into my urban reality… The obstacle in front of me wreaked of civilization; a three-foot wide swath of trash: beach balls, soda cans, beer bottles, empty bags of Cheetos, Dunkin’ Donuts styrofoam cups, and other things that I couldn’t discern in the darkness under the bridge. Something was blocking the way and causing all of the urban detritus to collect here… yuck!

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I picked a spot that looked passable and went for it, but instead of making forward progress, my kayak lurched and wobbled in an unsettling way… My movements were too quick, too erratic. “OMG, I really don’t want to end up swimming in this water!” I thought frantically.

“Don’t Panic!” I scolded myself… I knew exactly where panic would lead me. It would lead me to the place I didn’t want to be… into the drink, where I would be immersed in the cold, dark, trash-filled water. Though up until now, the surface the water had seemed clean enough, the truth was that the water beneath me was city drainage water and definitely not clean… I didn’t have any idea what might have settled into its depths, and I really, really, really did not want to find out by accidentally swimming in it.

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I took a deep breath, and stilled my body and my kayak. I had my towel with me (in my dry bag with my work clothes), and as long as I followed Douglas Adams’s advice and didn’t panic, everything was under control… I maneuvered my kayak so that I was parallel to my mystery snag instead of perpendicular to it, and investigated the obstacle before me. It was passable… there was a log submerged near the surface, but over by the bridge’s pilings to the right, there was about 2 ft of clearance between it and the surface of the water… plenty of room for me and my kayak to pass over it! There was just one problem… the passable section was so close to the piling that I wouldn’t be able to paddle…

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Suddenly I longed for a simple pole to use to propel myself through narrow waterway… The romantic notion of Venetian gondoliers immediately came to mind with their narrow profiles and single oars, but I immediately revised it to the image that I actually wanted, that of a punt and a punt pole… If I had a punt pole I could propel myself forward by pushing the pole off of the bottom of the river… Instead, I was going to have to put my hands into that dirty water to try to propel myself forward!

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For some reason paddling through the water hadn’t bothered me at all, but reaching my hand down into it? That was a completely different story! I had to laugh at myself… My hands were already covered in Alewife Brook water, intentionally submerging my hands in it shouldn’t be a problem… and yet…

“There’s nothing to do, but do it!” I grumbled and reached in… within moments I was free of the first logjam and headed upstream again. This section of the brook wasn’t bucolic at all… Cement walls rose up on both sides of me, creating a cave-like feeling… the only thing breaking the monotony of cement were that occasional rusted iron ladders that allowed escape from the canal… To the right, the walls of the canal were lower… Affording a clear view of the cemetery…

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It was eerily silent as I paddled through, carefully avoiding occasional downed trees and rusting motorcycle engines… I was paying so much attention to the upcoming obstacles that somehow I didn’t see the…

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“SNAPPPP!!!!!!!” The sound was terrifyingly loud as it echoed between the water and cement overhang. It scared the living sh** out of me! Startled (ok, maybe slightly terrified), I turned my head towards the sound… It was a giant snapping turtle… In the water… under my kayak… I was already gliding over it… and it was biiiiiig…

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“Don’t Panic!” I reminded myself… The turtle was at least 3 feet in diameter… So big… so old… and so well camouflaged with the rocks just below the surface… Would it snap my kayak paddle in half? I lifted my paddle out of the water just in case, and tried to keep my calm… The snapping turtle was so close… This would be an even worse time to accidentally dump the kayak and go for a swim… Here, in this canal, the snapping turtle was obviously the boss… I was the intruder… and I quite happily left it where it was and got the heck out of there!

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The cement channel continued for ¼ mile with the cement overhang on one side and the cemetery on the other before it finally released me back into the trees… No more overhangs, graves, no more rusty ladders… just trees and brush and birdsong again… I was back in my happy place…

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Kayaking up alewife brook was definitely an adventure. It reminded me of one of my favorite childhood adventures/games, which I called “Combat Canoeing”… As a kid I wasn’t allowed to canoe on the river, but I was allowed to explore as far up the smaller waterways as I wanted… the waterways had been narrow, with overhanging braches tried to scratch us, underwater logjams that tried to dump us, and we were never sure if the waterways would passable, but we kept going because it was an adventure and that was part of the excitement (there was also a 2-canoe variant where my brothers, our friends, and I would throw river weeds and concord grapes at each other in epic canoe battles).

One of my favorite obstacles in “combat canoeing” as a kid was the “limbo tree”, a downed tree that spanned the width of the waterway, with just enough clearance for the canoe to pass under it… As I approached Alewife I was excited to encounter a limbo tree here as well… I took my feet off of the footrest in the kayak, scooted into the kayak as low as I could go, and launched myself under the tree… My face, with a huge smile on it, passed under the tree with about an inch of clearance… it would be really tight if the water levels went up any higher!

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In total, I crossed under 5 bridges, encountered 4 logjams (I had to portage over one of them), saw 1 heron, 1 snapping turtle, 3 families of ducks, 1 raccoon, and 1 deer as I paddled up Alewife Brook. After crossing under one final bridge, that felt more like a long, dark tunnel, I made it to the access road for the Alewife train station: my final destination. I pulled my kayak up to the granite steps, got out of it, and hauled it up onto the bank beside the bike path and the road.

I quickly folded the kayak back up while watching the streams of commuters heading for Alewife station either by car, by bike, or on foot… There were just so many of them! I’d been so busy having my kayak adventures that I’d once again forgotten that I was in the middle of the hustle-and-bustle of the city during rush hour!

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Within moments I entered the stream of commuters headed for the station, my kayak folded up and over my shoulder… I was about a block away from my office building… Once I got to my office I headed straight for the showers, kayak in tow. I showered, rinsed the boat off, pulled my work clothes out of their dry bag, and got ready to go… All-in-all it took about an hour door-to-door for my first morning’s kayak commute.

I’m was glowing with happiness, smiles and energy bubbling out of me as I tucked my kayak into my cubicle and sat down to work… This kayak commute was definitely something that I could get used to… And I was guaranteed to get to repeat it all over again to get home at the end of the day :)

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What price sanity? What price happiness? Discovering a way to start my day full of happiness and excitement instead of frustration and defeat was absolutely priceless! I would take logjams over traffic jams any day, everyday (except in thunderstorms)… As long as I had my trusty towel by my side!

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PS: Right now I cannot recommend the kayak trip up Alewife Brook to other people… Though I enjoy it, it requires experience with navigating narrow waterways, constant monitoring of both the water depth and quality, familiarity with the submerged obstacles, a willingness to get wet and portage as necessary, and immediate access to showers after any/all boating activities.

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Although Alewife is usually considered safe for boating, it rarely meets Massachusetts water quality standard for swimming, and for at least 48 hours following heavy rains neither Alewife Brook nor the Mystic River are safe for boating. This is largely because of combined sewer outflows (CSOs), which empty runoff and raw sewage directly into Alewife brook after heavy rains. “There are eight permitted CSOs on the Alewife Brook: one owned by the MWRA, one owned by the City of Somerville, and six owned by the City of Cambridge.”

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In an area full of people that pride themselves on their environmental awareness and activism, it is truly heartbreaking to see how easily our waterways can be left behind… I prefer to focus on the positives; the beauty, the wildlife, and the amazing steps we’ve taken to clean our waterways, but we still have a long way to go.

Click here for more information about the Mystic River’s water quality and boating safety

Log Jams Not Traffic Jams: My Wild Kayak Commute (Part 1: The Mystic River)

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“No more traffic jams for me!” I thought jubilantly as I took my Oru Kayak (a life-sized, foldable, 26 lb. origami kayak) out of the trunk of my car and prepared for my first kayak commute to work. I threw the folded-up kayak over my shoulder and headed for the river… It was less than one city block away.

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Since it was only the second time I’d set the kayak up, I was curious about how long it would take me, so I set a timer. A mere 10 minutes and 26 seconds later it was set up and ready to go, “Not bad!” I thought as I donned my life jacket, grabbed my paddle, and lowered the kayak into the river.

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I pushed off from the bank and slowly paddled up the river towards work as the people commuting by car zoomed over the bridge beside me. They were stuck in a race that no-one wins, lurching forward and braking fast as they raced from traffic light to traffic light.

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On the other hand, I hadn’t even gone 200 feet upriver when I spotted a great blue heron fishing amongst the lily pads… It was amazing how quickly I felt like I’d left the bustle of the city behind and entered a different world; a world of trees, water, and wildlife… It wasn’t the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail, but this world… this world felt like home to me…

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I took a deep breath and felt the tensions of the city melt away… I’d discovered a new kind of trail to follow: a river! It would lead me to woods and to the wild places that I loved… even at times like this when my ankle was busted and walking wasn’t an option!

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“This is a commute I could get used to,” I thought as I lazily paddled upstream… Sure, the river didn’t smell great, but neither did the city roads… Before I knew it I’d finished the first leg of my commute and reached the point where Alewife Brook merged into the Mystic River…

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Alewife brook was going to be the most questionable part of my commute– it was shallower and narrower than the river… I’d been walking along the Alewife Greenway by the brook for months though, and I was fairly sure it would be passable by kayak… almost certain… Either way, I was about to find out!

Stay tuned for “Log Jams Not Traffic Jams: My Wild Kayak Commute (Part 2: Alewife Brook)”

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What price sanity?

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“I hate this commute,” was all I could think as I sat in a river of stopped cars on my way home from work last week. “Why would anybody CHOOSE to do this?” I whined as the traffic jutted ahead 2 feet before stopping again. “I want to be hiking!” I screamed from inside my prison. I hated being confined to my metal box, but I’d sprained my ankle halfway up Old Speck on the Appalachian Trail in Southern Maine, and not just a little sprain, a severe sprain.

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Icing my freshly sprained ankle in a waterfall near Pinkham Notch, NH

“Go big or go home,” is our family motto, and certainly a thru-hiker motto, and my ankle had gone big… to about the size of a grapefruit… and I’d had to go home… It happened on Memorial Day weekend and was a heartbreaking start to my summer… I wanted to hike… I NEEDED to hike… hiking wasn’t just a hobby for me anymore, hiking was a part of my daily meditation… The two-mile walk to- and from- work had been keeping me sane while I attempted to re-acclimate to civilization, but I’d gone to the ER and they’d booted me… like I booted car, I wasn’t going to be using that ankle to get very far, very fast…

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Booted!

I looked longingly out the window of the car… The sky was a gorgeous blue, and trees were finally, beautifully, green… I knew exactly where I was supposed to… out there! This car commute was driving me mad… It didn’t help that my right ankle was the one I sprained, so every time I had to step on the gas, or hit the brakes I was flooded with physical pain as well as psychological pain.

“Hmmm… Maybe I could buy a bicycle, and bike to work while I wait for my ankle to heal…” It had been a couple of weeks and my ankle was getting a little better… It would get me out of my daily traffic jam, but biking on a sprained ankle seemed like it might be pretty painful.

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“Or… I could get a kayak, and paddle to work everyday…” There’s a river near my apartment, and it connects to a brook that leads right to my office… There are even showers in the bathrooms at work, so I could shower when I got in! …”That would be perfect!” I’d wistfully thought about this before as I hiked along the river, but I couldn’t think of any good places to park my kayak at work.

“Aaargh,” I moaned as the traffic moved forward another couple of inches… It had been 15 minutes and I’d barely moved 15 feet. “That does it! I cant do this ‘car’ thing anymore!” For my sanity I need to figure out another options… “What I need is a collapsible kayak,” I thought and vowed to look into it.

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Eventually when I got  home I did just that! It looked like I had three options: an inflatable kayak, a skin-on-frame kayak (Folbot Kayak), or an origami kayak (Oru Kayak). Yes, you read that right, a human-sized origami kayak… I was excited that there were actually options! So I sat down and tried to figure out what I wanted out of my ideal kayak:

What price sanity? All of the options would be breaking the bank… but if I could actually commute in it? Priceless! After a lot of hemming and hawing, I ended up getting the Oru Kayak (The Bay). It seemed like the right balance of ease of setup, space, and weight for me… It also helped that I could get it from REI, which allowed me to go and check it out in person, and gave me greater confidence that if I had a problem with it, I could just return it.

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Coming soon: “Log Jams Not Traffic Jams: My Week 1 Review of the ORU Kayak”

Ticks & Lyme Disease at home and on the trail…

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2012 Master’s Project by Victoria Shelus

When a fellow 2013 thru-hiker was hospitalized with severe Lyme meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain) earlier this month, I decided to do some research and try to help raise awareness about Lyme.

“How many of my friends have had Lyme disease?” I wondered… I assumed that most of my friends with Lyme experience were hikers since I’d estimated that almost 30% of the northbound 2013 thru-hikers I met in New England had had it,  but I wasn’t really sure… so I turned to my Facebook friends looking for answers…

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What I discovered came as a surprise! 5% of my friends (22 of the people that viewed the post, n=440) have had confirmed cases of Lyme! And most of them, (68%, n=15) weren’t hikers at all! They’d gotten Lyme in their yards or in nearby parks… The youngest had been bitten before she even turned a year old! I guess with 5,665 reported cases of Lyme in Massachusetts in 2013 (a 12% increase from 2012) I shouldn’t have been surprised… but I definitely was! (Also, check out this link: How did 2014-2015s harsh winter effect tick populations?)

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RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue= low (Link Risk of tick encounters in Rhode Island by year)

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RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue=low.

Where were my non-hiker friends getting Lyme? Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut and is endemic in New England so I wasn’t surprised that 93% (14/15) of my non-hiking friends with Lyme live in New England… but they weren’t getting it from backpacking trips to the wildnerness; they were getting it from ticks lurking in their yards and suburban parks. Since there are more white-footed mice and deer (the two biggest vectors for ticks and Lyme disease in New England) in the suburban areas of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island than in the wild areas it makes sense that those are the places where people are getting infected with Lyme… Clearly I need to start eying the tall grass, brush, and leaf litter in suburban parks and backyards with much more suspicion…

QDMA data from 2001-2006

It seemed strange, however, that  0% (0/7) of my hiking friends with Lyme were from New England… Another surprise was that 100% of my hiker friends that got Lyme got it during their during their thru-hikes (revision: 1 was on a 500 mile section-hike)! Maybe it’s partly because thru-hikers from other parts of the country don’t have the same level of tick awareness that people in the Northeast have? I remember being absolutely horrified the first time I saw someone drop their pack and lie down in the middle of a field of tall grass while I was hiking through North Carolina… Why? Ticks!!!! I had the same trouble on the PCT, even though people assured me that the PCT doesn’t have the same issues with Lyme… It was just engrained behavior for me…

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

Though a part of me loved the bucolic moments when deer wandered towards me on the trail… a bigger part of me was hungry and wished that I was going to be having have a nice venison steak for dinner instead of a boring dehydrated meal (Note: the CDC has this assurance, “You will not get Lyme disease from eating venison or squirrel meat”)… the biggest part of me, however, would start to feel imaginary ticks crawling on my arms and legs, so I would stop and do a tick check… “Is that a speck of dirt, or a deer tick?” I would wonder again, and again, and again…. On the trail I couldn’t shower as often as the CDC recommends for tick prevention, but I carried wet wipes with me and wiped down my legs with them every night as part of my tick check (~50% of tick bites in adults are on their legs).

It wasn’t until I hiked into Virginia on the AT in June that I really started seeing tons and tons of deer… I swear they were waiting around every corner of the trail. In the Shenendoah’s I saw tourists intentionally feeding the deer! I was horrified… Almost as horrified as I’d been watching people inside the AT shelters pick dozens of ticks off of their dogs and drop them just outside where they could re-attach to the dog or the next unsuspecting hiker that went by! Since dogs carry ticks, and can get sick from Lyme, tick checks are important, but disposing of the ticks appropriately is too!

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Later on in Virgina, I watched a fellow thru-hiker, Fingers, count as he plucked 48 ticks from his arms and legs after finishing a night hike… I hadn’t ever thought about it, but ticks don’t just quest (hunt for food) during the day, they also quest at night! In cool, humid climates adult ticks quest both day and night… When it’s hot during the day, the young ticks that cause 98% of Lyme cases quest at night (when their local humidity drops below 80% they dry out, dessicate, and die)... I had no idea that ticks came out at night… (I blindly asked 5 of the 7 thrus that had had Lyme if they’d done any night-hiking… all 5 had gone nighthiking in Virginia (or further north) prior to coming down with Lyme symptoms!)

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On the AT in Virginia with my parents .

It was July when I first discovered a tick on my person, “Ewwww, a tick!” I exclaimed looking at the lyme carrying Ixodes scapularis tick crawling on my hand! I was at a campground in the in the Shenendoah’s of Northern Virginia with my parents, “what kind is it?” my mom asked from the camper. I looked down at it, “A deer tick… it looks like a tiny poppyseed, but it has legs and is moving….”

Sizes of Ticks

“Wait, don’t brush it off, I want to see it!” cried my mom from the camper. “Really MOM!!” I replied incredulously! I have to admit that I was eying it curiously, but I was also in a hurry to get the damn thing off of me before it decided to bite. I watched it very carefully for the 3 seconds it took for my mom to come over and check it out (here are some tick pictures just for you mom!) As soon as she looked at it, I breathed a sigh of relief, flicked it into the fire, and headed for the showers. Mom was right to insist that we, the filthy stinky hikers, shower as often as possible… (Ticks usually take a couple of hours to attach so showering is recommended by the CDC as effective prevention). reportedcasesoflymedisease_2013

It wasn’t until I got to Pennsylvania that the first thru-hikers I knew started having symptoms of Lyme… I was sitting around hanging out with my friend Sir Stooge in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania when I noticed that he had a rash on the back of his calf (50% adult bites on legs, 22% on torso, 18% arms, 6% genitalia, 4%head/neck whereas 49% of bites on children were on head & neck). It was 4 or 5 inches across, with a partially cleared center… Bull’s eye (the classic erythema migrans rash)… A tick had found it’s target (a picture of his rash from his blog is below)…

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Sir Stooge’s rash from a picture on his blog

“I’m not sure if it’s Lyme,” he told me. “I think I’m going to wait until we get to the next town to get it checked out,” he continued (One study suggests that only 54% of thru-hikers know how to identify the erythema migrans rash of Lyme Disease). “Why?” I asked with disbelief.  “Well, it’s only 3 or 4 days to the next town… I’ll go then,” he said still procrastinating… I looked at him skeptically. Lots of thru-hikers don’t get prompt medical treatment because they don’t have health insurance and transportation to hospitals and clinics can be a challenge, but he was insured and his parents lived nearby, “You have health insurance, you’ve got a ride, go! The speed at which you treat Lyme matters,” I insisted!

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He ended up going to the ER, being diagnosed with Lyme, and was put on antibiotics (Lyme is usually treated with b-lactam or tetracycline antibiotics: penicillin or doxycycline). While he was at the hospital they tested him for Lyme, but he said on his blog, “I called the hospital to get the results of my blood titer (to see if I had antibodies against the Lyme). And much to my surprise, I tested negative for any Lyme.” Luckily for him, he took the antibiotics and his flu-like symptoms and rash went away… Unfortunately Lyme tests done when the rash first appears are rarely diagnostic because it takes the body a few weeks to generate Lyme antibodies, which is why the CDC recommends a 2-tiered approach to testing for Lyme: begin with Lyme ELISA tests (false negatives are common in the 1st 2 weeks of infection and positive results just suggest that you’ve been infected sometime within the last 5 yrs), and follow up with IgG and IgM Western blots only if ELISA is positive (Positve ELISA + Positive Western Blot ~100% certainty of Lyme Diagnosis).

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CDC report on the number of Lyme cases per month

As I continued to hike North I ran into my friend Bud, who’d left me in the dust as blazed ahead of me during the southern part of the trail… He was standing dazed and confused in the middle of the trail, clearly struggling… “Well well well, look who it is,” he said with a weak smile. “You don’t look so good,” I said, “Are you ok?” I asked, split between shear joy at seeing a hiker I knew, and concern over his obvious ill health…. “Well, I was hoping to hike, but I just can’t right now,” he confessed before continuing, “I ummmmm, well… I got Lyme… real bad, it really messed up my head…. my memory…. I started repeating myself all the time… and… I don’t think I’m going to be able to get to town today… I can’t hike that far,” he lamented.

He’d gone to the hospital and tested positive for Lyme and had already been on antibiotics for a week, but it was taking longer to recover than he’d hoped. It was a story that I would hear over and over and over again that August and September as I continued towards Katahdin… People without the characteristic rash, but with flu-like symptoms and a brain fog that just wouldn’t lift… Everything causes flu-like symptoms… With the rash, or a known tick-bite followed by flu-like symptoms Lyme is obvious, but without those two things? I wasn’t sure… actually, I’m still not… Thinking back on it, I had an awful lot of the symptoms while I was on the trail…

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Light-sensitive headaches… well, it’s probably just a migraine… fatigue and muscle aches, well, I’m a thru-hiker! Swollen knees… once again, thru-hiker… Nausea, double vision, trouble standing? Must be heat exhaustion… Having trouble breathing and exhausted? Must be my asthma… Would I even know if I had Lyme? I never thought that I had Lyme on the trail and I was never diagnosed with it… but I was treated with Doxycycline (for 10+ days, the preferred treatment for Lyme) during my thru-hike, and at least once afterwards… If I ever did have Lyme, I am relatively confident that it’s gone now!

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A dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) I found attached to my leg on the AT in Pennsylvania. Dog tick’s don’t carry Lyme!

Lyme is certainly a scary thing, but a  life without playing outside is an even scarier thing for me. The fact that mice are also carriers for Lyme, that ticks hang out in the leaf litter, that most people get Lyme from nymphs in June and July, and that the nymphs are at least as likely to bite at night as during the day were some of the things that were new information for me. Check out my previous post: “Deer are the scariest things in the woods…” for more information about prevention, and stay tuned for one more post where I’ll go into the tick’s life cycle and what that means for Lyme disease transmission and prevention.

Have you been bitten by a tick? Did you get Lyme? Do you know someone that has? Did you get the rash (I’m curious about how similiar most people’s rashes are to the text book rashes)? Do you know where you got it? I’d be interested to hear you Lyme stories… either in comments below, or email me: patchesthru at gmail dot com.

 

Finally som tick advice for backpackers/thru-hikers based on my experience:

  • Shower as often as you can!
    • carry wet wipes to clean off and check target areas
  • Ticks bite at night!
    • Don’t hike thru tick-prone areas at night especially if the days have been really hot and humid!!! The ticks are out, and it’ll take you longer to see them and remove them
    • Don’t camp (especially if you are using a tarp without and bug prevention) in areas with dense brush, high grass, or leaf litter… Ticks quest at night!!! They don’t jump, or fly, but they do crawl.
  • Be especially attentive at lower elevations!
    • If you’re hiking at elelevations lower than 2000 feet to extra tick checks… Ticks are less common above 2000
  • Check dogs regularly for ticks (and use preventative measures)
    • Don’t forget to dispose of the ticks appropriately
    • Consider keeping your dogs out of the AT shelters when people are sleeping in them… The only way ticks have been shown to enter the shelters is if we bring them there!
  • Check your pack for ticks!!! If you set your pack down in the tall grass or leaf litter, ticks can grab a free ride directly back to you… besides, you don’t want to carry anything extra :-P
  • Walk in the center of trails where possible… It’s better for you and its better for the trail!
  • Use repellents: permethrin kills ticks on contact or 20% Deet
    • Permethrin comes in a wash or spray that you can apply to your favorite clothing and is good for dozens of washes
    • 20% Deet is just as effective as 100% deet for prevention…
  • Know the symptoms of Lyme and seek medical attention as soon as possible if you experience any of them

The beautiful balds in TN.

Deer are the scariest things in the woods… Here’s why!

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What’s the scariest thing that I’ve encountered in the woods? Most people guess that it’s the bears, or the rattlesnakes, or the people. It’s not. It’s the deer

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Bambi (deer), Thumper (rabbit), and his fellow terrorists (skunks, squirrels, birds etc.) are loveable and cute, but they’re also masters of biological warfare! While we fawn all over them, they deliver their payloads of disease-laden ticks to our backyards, parks, trails, and campgrounds.

Borrelia burgdorferi

Corkscrew shaped Lyme bacteria.

Ticks have been roaming the earth since the time of the dinosaurs, and infecting humans with the corkscrew-shaped bacteria (spirochetes) responsible for Lyme disease for the last 5300 years…

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Autopsy of the 5300 year old mummy “Otzi-the iceman” revealed borrelia spirochete DNA!

In the US alone, ticks infect an estimated 300,000 people with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) each year. Lyme disease is currently on the rise (up 12% between 2012 and 2013 in Massachusetts)… and the worst thing about it? It’s targeting our poor, defenseless children!

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Distribution of Lyme cases by age: 5-15 year olds (playing in their yard), followed by 40-60 year olds (gardening) are the most likely to get Lyme disease.

Since June and July are the months that most people get infected with Lyme disease we need to learn how to protect ourselves, and our children, from this menace right now!

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Number of cases of Lyme disease in the US per month.

Let’s start with some simple guidelines from the CDC:

  • Wear Repellent!

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  • Check for ticks daily!
    • A tick typically is attached for 36-48 hrs before it transmits Lyme to it’s host… get them off before they infect you!!
    • Although ticks can bite anywhere, their favorite spots are: the head and neck (~50% of bites in children and 4% in adults), legs (50% in adults), torso (22% in adults), arms (18% in adults), and genitalia (6% in adults, but even higher in men… check your junk for the funk!).

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    The size of the Lyme carrying deer tick at different stages of development.

  • Shower after outdoor activities!
    • Shower within 2 hrs of outdoor activities: ticks usually roam around for a couple of hours before settling in and attaching to a tasty bit of thin skin… Wash them off before they even attach!
    • Wash & tumble dry clothes on high for ~1hr when you get home to kill remaining ticks.
    • medical illustration of Erythema migrans

      Bull’s eye rash (Erythema migrans)

  • Call your doctor if you get a fever or rash!
    • ~3-30 days after being bitten by infected ticks 80% of adults and 60% of children develop a rash. The Lyme rash (erythema migrans) is typically red and expands to >2 inches in diameter (5 cm), frequently clearing in the center giving it the Bull’s eye appearance.
    • Arthritic knee

      Lyme Arthritis

    • ~4-60 days later: the Lyme spirochetes invade systemically and cause flu-like symptoms. They may also cause: multiple bull’s eye rashes in remote locations, arthritis in the large joints (Lyme arthritis), cardiac issues (Lyme carditis, which is 3x more likely in men than women), and brain issues (Neuroborreliosis, Lyme meningitis, Lyme encephalitis, and Lyme palsy).
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CDC’s report of Lyme disease symptoms in US patient

Remember that Bambi and his terrorist friends don’t just hang out in the woods, they also hang out in your backyard! Ticks love moist areas, leaf litter, tall grasses, and brush…

  • Have you done your yard-work? Reduce your chances of Lyme infection by 50-90% by removing leaf litter, tall grasses, and brush from around the edges of your lawn! Create a tick-free zone around your yard and suburban parks:
    • Mow your lawn regularly and remove tall weeds… I hate the idea, but another option is to apply pesticides to your yard 2x a year, which reduces Lyme infection by 68-100%
    • Lay down a three foot wide barrier of wood chips/gravel between your lawn and the woods to restrict tick migration. Consider fencing in your yard to keep out deer, raccoons, and other Lyme disease carriers.
    • Keep activities away from lawn edges and overhanging trees
  • Is your garbage covered and inaccessible? The critters that get into your gargbage (Mice, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, and raccoons) carry Lyme disease! Mice are an especially big problem: the white-footed mouse is one of the biggest carriers of Lyme disease (common in small patches of woods, 5 acres or less) !
  • Do you have pets? Dogs love to romp in the woods and tall grasses where they fetch ticks and bring them right back to you! Check your dogs for ticks before letting them into your house, your tent, or the shelters on the AT… Talk to your vet about tick prevention treatments like Frontline. Note: Dispose of ticks properly! If you toss them onto the ground they’ll just grab onto you the next time you walk by… I see this all of the time and it makes me very grumpy!
  • Are you hiking in the middle of the trail? Hike in the middle of the trail and avoid tall grass, leaf litter, and brushy areas whenever possible… No matter how beautiful the wild meadow looks, don’t drop yourself, your pack, or your tent in the middle of it… Ticks love wild meadows and will happily catch a free ride from your pack to you! Know before you go: the Appalachian Trail goes through 12 of the 14 states responsible for 96% of all Lyme cases in the US!
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CDC Map of reported Lyme cases in the US in 2013

Please join me in raising awareness about ticks and Lyme disease by sharing this post and your comments about Lyme disease below. Stay tuned for my next post, which will also be about ticks and Lyme disease!

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~90 Million year old tick fossil from New Jersey

Disclaimer: I am not an MD or public health official. I am a scientist and an outdoor enthusiast with a passion for research… After discovering that ~5% of my friends (see my upcoming post) have had Lyme, I decided to do some research about it and share my findings here. Talk to your doctor if you have health related questions!