Connecting the Trail
By David Sherwood
Central Maine Morning Sentinel
August 6, 2005
CROSSING THE MIGHTY KENNEBEC: Steve Longley, who operates the ferry service at the Appalachian Trail crossing in Caratunk, off Route 201, paddles across the Kennebec River in preparation for his first ferry of the morning. Longley operates from 9 to 11 in the morning, then again from 2 to 4 in the afternoon.
Longley ferries hikers across the Kennebec River, playing a key role in their conquest to concur the Appalachian Trail
By DAVE SHERWOOD
Steve Longley looked nervous. He paced back and forth, then checked his watch. It was 8:55 a.m. Time to go.
"I'm never late, and once I get there, I never leave early," he said as he rushed out the door to his Ford pickup truck.
He was serious.
In seconds he'd sped away, disappearing down a winding bend of Route 201.
Longley may well be the most reliable form of transportation in Maine.
Since 1987, he has managed the Appalachian Trail Ferry across the Kennebec River in Caratunk, on a wide, bouldery spot in the river just shy of the Forks off Route 201.
His service hasn't missed a hiker in 18 years. If it weren't for him, the thousands that make the 2,174-mile trek each year from Springer Mountain, in Georgia, to Mt. Katahdin, in Maine, would face a daunting, and potentially dangerous task -- fording the mighty Kennebec on foot.
Water levels can rise up to four feet in the time it takes a hiker to cross, making it a life-threatening proposition.
As of Thursday afternoon, Longley and his fellow ferrymen had crossed 16,000 trail hikers.
That number -- roughly equivilent to the population of Waterville -- may not seem like many in today's crowded world, but watch them clamber into a canoe, one by one, then paddle across the Kennebec and it becomes awe-inspiring.
"People have a hard time envisioning it," Longley said. "Some of them imagine it's like a big ferryboat we use."
OFF TO WORK
Clad in sneakers, jeans and a white T-shirt, and already snugged into his ornage life vest, Longley walks the trail like a city commuter on the way to work: He's all business. Point A to point B.
At the ferry site, there is no steam-powered ship or motorboat, just two canoes chained to a tree and overturned on the bank. A large sign hung between two trees proclaims "Welcome Hikers." It's visible from the landing on the opposite bank.
The walk down to the river on both banks is mowed and immaculate, the trail to either side pristine. There is no trash or litter anywhere.
"I work hard to maintain the appearence here because it promotes people respecting the area," Longley said. "This way, they get to the ferry service and they're in a good frame of mind."
Longley operates his ferry the same way he always has: from 9 to 11 in the morning, then again from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, every day, all season, from May to October. His current ferry of choice is a red Old Town canoe, which he purchased second-hand this year.
"She's still a little stiff," he said as he paddles it across the river, towards his first load of hikers on Friday.
Signs advertising his hours are posted along 130 miles of trail in each direction, mostly in leantos and at established campsites. Many hikers see his service as one of the highlights of the trail in Maine.
How much does he charge for his crucial service? Nothing.
"Money doesn't really mean anything out here," he said. "I get calls from hikers on cell phones all the time. I tell them I can't give you a special ferry service. Money can't change hands here."
In part, he said, it's because he's stretched thin as it is. The day in, day out routine, and dealing with people who are on their journey of a lifetime, can be exhausting.
"I deal with 1,400 hikers a year," Longley said. "They pull me in all different directions. Some have been working since March or April to get here."
But that's not the only reason he won't budge.
"Out here, you remove the facade of everyday life," Longley said. "It's not about what you were, or what you have, it's about right now. How are you doing now?"
Longley says paying for a special, off-hours ferry shouldn't be part of the experience.
A WORLD APART
Longley receives e-mail, cell phone calls and word of mouth messages from all directions, and from people across the globe.
"Every hiker had hundreds of people who are following their hike on the Internet, or by mail or phone," Longley said. "There are a lot of armchair hikers out there."
The appearance of technology on the trail: e-mails, cell phones, iPods -- is one of the biggest changes Longley has observed in his 18 years of service.
"I'm at the ferry four hours a day, but there are 24 hours of communication."
Longley doesn't just ferry hikers, he also represents their link to the outside world. For safety and insurance reasons, Longley has hikers sign a release waiver, then gathers information from them. Their trail nickname? Their real name? Hometown? When did the start the trail, and where?
Armed with this information, he can reach just about anyone, anywhere on the trail, within eight hours.
Word travels fast among hikers, he said. Yesterday, he heard a rumor that a new Appalachian Trail time record had been set: 2,174 miles in 47 days, 13 hours, and 31 minutes. It takes the average thru-hiker, as the long-distance hikers are called, five to six months.
Longley is impressed by the news, but not overly excited.
"I'm not as concerned about the ones that go fast as I am the ones that go slow," he said. That's because Longley is on duty until the last hiker makes his way north to Katahdin.
In part it's because it is his job. The Appalachian Trail Conference, a branch of the Department of the Interior, reimburses him a small amount for each hiker crossed, as well as stipends for gear, his time and insurance costs. His contract allows him to finish duty on October 10th.
But there's more to it than that, he said.
A LONG JOURNEY On Friday, a group of eight hikers waited for him on the opposite bank. Four were thru-hikers -- they'd come from Georgia, and had begun their hike as early as February or March. One of them, Daniel Bailey, trailname "Senator," had come from Oregon to hike the Appalachian Trail.
"This is my first overnight backpacking trip," he said. Now he was just 150 miles away from completing the hike, at Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail. In a week and a half, he would be done.
Longley loves to hear people's stories, and share in their adventures.
"Everyone here is in a transition in their life," Longley said. "They're hiking the trail because they graduated college, they're on a honeymoon or they just retired. I tell them 'Enjoy yourselves, this is the best time of your life.'"
The ferry service, he said, is a small part of what makes it all happen.
"It's about them, not me," Longley said. "We'll be here for every hiker, whether they get here before October 10th, or after."
Dave Sherwood -- 621-5648
<!GETTING READY TO CROSS: At the ferry service landing on the west side of the Kennebec River in Carrying Place Townshi[, ferry operator Steve Longley outfits hikers with life preservers before the crossing. In the foreground, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, most of whom started their journey in Georgia, wait their turn. HANG ON, I'M COMING: Steve Longley heads off across the Kennebec river in Caratunk to pick up a group of hikers who wait on the opposite side. Longley's ferry service has shuttled 16,000 Appalachian Trail hikers across the river over the past 18 years. ------------------------------- HELPING HAND: As the sign says, the Kennebec River, in its upper stretches below Indian Pond, can rise rapidly, and without warning, making it too dangerous to cross on foot. This a challenge because hikers trying to complete the Appalachain Trail must cross the Lennebec at this point. Steve Longley helps, ferrying hikers across the river in a canoe.>