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Earlier this month, large parts of Vermont received more than 8 inches of rain over the course of 36-hours, causing an estimated $4 billion in property damage alone. As officials continue to assess the damage, some Appalachian Trail hikers are opting to entirely skipping the state.
Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, Michelle Hansen, told Vermont Public that she and her group weighed a variety of options prior to skipping Vermont.
“There was one day where we spent 15 hours just going back and forth on what our options were,” said Hansen. “Enter Vermont. Skip Vermont. Go north and come south from Katahdin. Take a week off, and we just… no option was, like, a bright, shining star of happiness. So it was very challenging to weigh all of those things.” But after witnessing reports about the devastation that the flooding caused across the state of Vermont, Hansen realized that entirely bypassing the state might be the best way forward.
With the state still recoiling from the effects of the flooding, the infrastructure of nearby trail towns is already strained. Hansen noted that adding to the burden on local communities or search and rescue teams is another factor that weighed in on her decision
“I don’t want to be a burden on anybody else, and shouldn’t be,” she said. “If I choose to put myself in danger, and need rescue, that’s taking away from somebody that didn’t have that option.”
During the initial flooding, the Green Mountain Club refrained from discouraging hiker traffic through the state, but the organization did suggest thru-hikers take a brief break to provide local rescue teams with a bit of relief. According to Keegan Tierney, the director of field programs for the Green Mountain Club, skipping the state was never part of the organization’s message.
“We’re not currently. And we never did [discourage hikers from passing through Vermont],” Tierney said. “We asked folks to stay off the trail during the height of the flooding for their safety and to make sure we weren’t adding strain to the Vermont SAR team.”
But not everyone decided to bypass Vermont. David “Step” Florence, a southbound Appalachian Trail hiker, was in Vermont when the flood hit. Since he was already in the thick of it, he chose to keep going, but he did notice a change in northbound traffic.
““It seemed like it was about 50/50 that were skipping Vermont for the NOBOs,” Florence said. “I would say that 99% of my fellow SOBOs sat still for a day or so and just kept going.”
Trail conditions weren’t quite as bad as Florence was expecting, either: “The trail was decent. Some erosion in places, and it got worse as we came to the Long Trail. But as a SOBO, I was used to it because it rained so much in Maine during June.”
While hikers like Hansen are skipping Vermont, the trail is technically open. In general, Tierney is optimistic about the trail’s conditions after the flooding.
“We, I think in general, got very lucky,” she says. “And we didn’t see any catastrophic impacts to the system. There are lots of smaller issues out there. But overall the trail weathered the storm pretty well. And the system should be fully open with some minor exceptions by the end of the week.”
Other hikers are still talking about the most responsible way to travel along the Appalachian Trail on White Blaze, a forum that’s traditionally used by Appalachian Trail hikers. One of the main reasons why forum members are considering skipping Vermont is due to the impact that’s associated with hiking through soft, muddy trails like those that the flood left in its wake. Vermont, already affectionately nicknamed “VerMud” by the hiker community, could remain wet for the foreseeable future.
Tierney notes that if hikers should decide to move forward on the Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail that they should proceed with caution.
“I think in general, the public should know that there have been impacts,” he said. “So, if they’re going to get out onto the trail system they should be aware that they’ll come across some minor to medium levels of erosion that is outside of the scope of how we usually maintain the trail.”
Although the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail managed to stay out of the eye of the storm, they still experienced some infrastructure damage. The Bamforth Ridge Shelter closed after suffering from flood damage. There are also a few 25- to 30-foot bridges that staff and volunteers are assessing for damage right now. Although not all of them are officially closed, officials are encouraging hikers to either ford the river or use an alternative route in lieu of using them.
Since most Appalachian Trail thru-hikers put their lives on hold in pursuit of the trail completion, determining the best way forward can be a complex topic. AT hiker Jennifer Fear told Vermont Public that by the time hikers reach New England, getting off the trail is a difficult decision.
“You know, bridges are washed out. Roads are washed out,” Fear said. “You really have to start trying to balance what your own personal desire is, and what that ego wants you to do with what makes more sense for a safe thru-hike. And then also the community at large.”
Another consideration is the impact the flooding has had on trail towns. While most of Vermont’s Appalachian Trail exists at higher elevations, many of the surrounding lower-elevation towns received the brunt of the flooding. This could mean that hikers who choose to make their way through flooded sections of Vermont may have access to fewer resources than usual.
“I think the big awareness that we’re trying to make sure folks have is that there are probably a dozen trail supporting communities that have been heavily impacted by the flooding,” Tierney said. “So, normal resupply places might not be available. And folks who might’ve been previously focused on the trail like shuttle drivers, or trail angels are really focusing on their communities right now, which are devastated.”
While the Appalachian Trail is likely to be one of the first places to recover from the flooding, other communities across Vermont may be less lucky. It’s likely to take local towns months or even years to fix the damage.
The Green Mountain Club posts updates to trail conditions here.