As stewards of the Appalachian Trail, we are inherently involved in risk management—identifying, evaluating, monitoring, and (to the extent that it is possible or appropriate) limiting risk to Trail users, including ourselves. ATC and its maintaining clubs have historically adjusted, and continue to adjust, Trail management and the Trail itself based on perceived risks to hikers and other Trail users.
For example, in the 1970s, A.T. hikers in southern Maine would leave the “green tunnel” of Mahoosuc Notch to find themselves in the sunlit playground of Notch II, a beautiful flume of rocks and ledges. Hikers loved to take their boots off and play in the flume. The problem? Because the ledges got gradually steeper, people playing in the river would slip and slide down the ledges. Several falls resulted in severe injuries with epic rescues—maneuvering a Stokes litter through Mahoosuc Notch or carrying it down Mahoosuc Arm from Speck Pond, about a 1,500 foot descent in just one mile, followed by a helicopter lift to a waiting ambulance. The maintaining club ultimately decided to relocate the A.T. upstream and away from the flume.
Another change to the Trail as a response to risk is the Kennebec River ferry. Hikers would ford the 700-foot Kennebec River at Caratunk, Maine, where water flow varies suddenly because of upstream dam releases. In 1985, a thru-hiker was swept away and drowned. ATC almost immediately implemented a free (to A.T. hikers) ferry service, which continues to this day at a current cost of $30,000 per year. The ferry is recognized as the official route of the A.T.
In 2011, after Tropical Storm Irene heavily impacted Vermont, large swaths of the Green Mountain National Forest—including portions of the A.T.—were temporarily closed because of damage to bridges and roads.
There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of other examples—most far less dramatic—where the Trail has been moved to safer locations as a result of “close calls” and perceived hazards.
The Trail will continue to be shaped by the perception of risk, by hikers bushwhacking and creating side trails through the woods to avoid slippery rock faces, and by ATC and the maintaining clubs and agencies responding to reports of injuries and complaints of dangerous conditions. But the issue of what risks can and should
be managed on the A.T. is complex. Effective risk management requires a consideration of context and purpose. One of the preeminent purposes of the Trail is to be a sometimes wild and unengineered place where individuals challenge themselves to identify, avoid, and overcome risks.
What is appropriate risk management in a remote area traversed by experienced hikers is likely to differ from what is appropriate in a heavy-use area teeming with tourists in flip-flops. One of our tasks as stewards of the A.T. is to exercise wise discretion to identify what risks can and should be “managed,” and which, as essential parts of the Trail experience, should not.
A thoughtful consideration of risk is Cosmo Catalano’s editorial regarding a 2013 death near the A.T. in Massachusetts (see "Death on the Trail," below). Cosmo is the Volunteer Coordinator for the Berkshire AMC A.T. Management Committee and the New England Regional Partnership Committee representative to ATC’s Stewardship Council.
A wealth of information about personal safety and health on the Trail can be found on both the ATC and NPS-Appalachian National Scenic Trail websites:
Health and Safety:
Safety Tips for Fording Streams and Rivers
Frequently Asked Questions:
And finally, for those of you attending the ATC Volunteer Leadership meeting in August, a workshop on risk and liability on the A.T. will be presented.
Beth Critton is Chair of the Stewardship Council
Bob Proudman is ATC Director of Conservation Operations