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By Brad Viles
When Steve Longley goes to work, it's a short commute, less than a mile from his house in The Forks to the bank of the Kennebec River in Caratunk. Once there, he unlocks one of his Old Town canoes, then drags it a few feet down the gravel incline to the water's edge. He waits a while, then sees a northbound Appalachian Trail hiker, waving on the opposite shore. Steve grabs a life jacket, a spare for the hiker to wear, gets in the canoe and paddles to the other side. After signing a release form, the hiker climbs in the canoe, lifts a paddle, and both stroke their way across the river.
When the hiker is safely on the north shore, he steps from the canoe and continues trekking up the trail. Ferrying hikers is an act that Longley has repeated during his working day for the past seventeen years. By the end of the season, in October, he'll have carried over fifteen thousand hikers in those seventeen years. He's "The Ferryman" for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and it's his job to get hikers safely across the Kennebec River.
It's a dangerous river. Part of the danger lies in the fact that it looks fordable upstream, near the ferry crossing. The problem is that water levels rise unpredictably. Eighteen miles further upstream is Harris Station which releases water to power turbines that generate electricity. It's too far for an alarm system to alert anyone downstream to the coming increase in water level. If a hiker is in the middle of the river, fording, when the water starts to rise, the result could be disastrous. That's what happened to a woman in 1986, who drowned while attempting to cross. They very next year, the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, established the ferry service, with Steve as the operator.
He's paid by a contract with the Conference to be there every day from 9 to 11 from May until mid-July. From July until September 30, he adds an afternoon shift from 2 to 4. Finally, after the busy season, from October first through the eleventh, he operates from 10 to noon. The hours are posted in the lean-tos from Katahdin to the New Hampshire border so all the hikers, north or southbound, know when to arrive at the river's edge.
Steve's main tools are the canoe, personal flotation device, paddle and his arms with which he powers the boat. But, they're not his only tools. Much of his job requires that he be aware of everything that's happening on the river. He said in a recent interview, "You can't control the outdoors, that's why there's that lure to the outdoors. You are there to respect nature and to abide by nature's rules." That means he's there in pouring rain, black flies, blazing heat, and fall's crisp temperatures. In effect, everything hikers endure, Steve experiences as well.
To the hikers along the trail, Steve also is a real human contact. It's his experience that they rely on to get them across. But, sometimes they need directions to the Post Office in town. Some need a place to stay, or groceries which he can provide from his base camp at the Trail Post Store, which he operates in The Forks, near his home. Others need real emergency help. They may be injured and need evacuation to a hospital. Steve has seen just about everything on the river. Through it all it's his reliability that means the most to hikers. As he puts it, "I'm a friendly face in a remote area of Maine who provides a ferry service by human powered means, like that in hiking the trail. I'm a ferryman that brings people into his home, gives them information about the area, or a ride to the hospital. I also tell them about other places in the area where they can get their needs attended to."
Longley also has hiked parts of the trail, so he knows what it means to meet another person out there who genuinely cares about your comfort. Before he started operating the ferry service he owned the first rafting company on the Kennebec, Rolling Thunder. He's used to making people feel safe with his skills. "You have to make people comfortable," he said, "and not only do you have to make them comfortable, but you actually can show them how to have a good time. It takes a good guide to show people how to laugh in the rain."
Probably the most important tool Steve has is in his head. His knowledge of the river, his certifications as a Registered Maine Guide, Wilderness First Responder, First Aid and CPR are things most hikers will never see. As he paddles his way across the dark, swirling waters of the river, hikers see only a guy who greets them with a smile. He's someone whose sole purpose is to get them on their way safely across the one obstacle that stands between them and the rest of their journey. He makes sure their feet stay dry, at least for this part of the trip, and that they can continue on. He's "The Ferryman" and for the brief time he sees them, he's the one person they can rely on being there for them.
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