A sign points toward the Appalachian Trail on Pleasant Street in Monson in this 2015 file photo. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

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While restaurants, shops and lodging establishments are already feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, another sector of the tourism economy in Maine is bracing for a rocky summer. Normally, communities located along the famous Appalachian Trail welcome thousands of long-distance hikers every summer, offering shelter and supplies to those endeavoring to complete the famous 2,190-mile trail. But this year, everything has changed.

Due to the pandemic, most hikers have postponed their treks, leaving trailside towns wondering how the decrease in business and absence of trail culture will impact their communities. Hostels, inns, shuttle services, gear shops, grocery stores and restaurants are all expected to take a hit.

In Maine, this reality will especially impact towns such as Millinocket, Monson, Caratunk and Rangeley, which serve as major rest stops for hikers. These towns welcome thru-hikers all summer, with their busiest time being late summer when most northbound hikers trek through Maine on the way to the trail’s end in Baxter State Park.

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It’s estimated that 3 million visitors hike a portion of the trail each year. Most visit it for day hikes and short backpacking trips, but each year, more than 4,000 hikers set out to complete the entire trail. Their success rate is around 25 percent. Typically, it takes hikers five to seven months to complete the entire trail, and each hiker spends about $1,000 a month on supplies and lodging, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

“A number of our local businesses rely on that traffic,” said Peter Jamieson, Director of the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce. “There are B&Bs, hotels and hostels in the area that for parts of the season are 100 percent AT hikers, and the restaurants and bars see a huge amount of business from the AT hiker community.”

Some affected businesses may not open at all this year. Others are making major changes so they can operate in compliance with new state regulations related to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. They’re holding out hope that they’ll be able to safely serve hikers later in the season.

Hiking the AT during the pandemic

In March, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy advised that all hikers stay off the trail to halt the spread of COVID-19. That guidance was aimed at everyone from day hikers to those attempting to hike the entire trail from Georgia to Maine. At the same time, several states closed group shelters along the trail, and certain conserved lands through which the trail passes — including Baxter State Park — effectively shut down.

All of this discouraged most hikers from starting their long treks this spring, but others refused to cancel or postpone their plans.

“I’ve heard that about 10 percent maybe stayed on the trail [heading northbound this spring],” said Kimberly Hester, who owns Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson with her husband, Jarrod Hester. “Almost 2,000 started, and maybe a couple hundred are still out there. They have to be stealthy and hike more miles into towns to resupply, but I do know there are thru-hikers headed this way.”

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Thru-hikers are defined as people who attempt to complete the entire Appalachian Trail within 12 months. The majority of them start in Georgia in the spring, then hike north to Maine. They are known as “northbounders.”

A smaller percentage of thru-hikers walk in the opposite direction, starting in Maine in late spring or early summer and hiking south to Georgia. They are known as “southbounders.”

“Normally by this time I already have many reservations for southbounders coming, but this year, a lot of people have canceled out and are waiting until next year [to hike the trail],” said Paul Renaud, who owns Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket with his wife, Jaime Renaud. “Others have delayed their start because Baxter State Park is closed [for above treeline hiking] until July 1. So it definitely has put a whole different twist on the hiker community this year.”

About 99 percent of his business comes from thru-hikers, Renaud said. But since thru-hikers can’t reserve lodging far ahead of time because their pace and schedules often change, he’ll have to wait and see how the season unfolds as northbound hikers reach Maine.

Endeavoring to safely serve hikers

The trail passes through 14 states. Along the way, hikers sleep in tents and group shelters such as lean-tos, as well as hostels, hotels and inns. When the trail approaches towns, hikers often hitchhike or use shuttle services to visit restaurants, find lodging, collect mail, wash laundry and resupply at grocery and gear stores. And while some hikers go it alone, most form into groups that socialize and support one another for months.

This trail culture has the Appalachian Trail Conservancy concerned that thru-hikers could accidentally spread COVID-19 among the hiker community and to the trailside towns that serve them. With that in mind, some Maine businesses that serve hikers are struggling to decide whether to open this year.

“The last thing we want to do is open too quickly and possibly be the catalyst for an outbreak in our small community,” said Justin Steele, who owns Hostel of Maine in Carrabassett Valley with his wife, Melanie Steele. “As proprietors we feel it’s our responsibility to conduct business in a safe and responsible way, and we just don’t feel we can do that yet.”

The couple lives on site at the hostel they run, and they’re especially concerned about the safety of their 6-month-old daughter if they were to open.

“This is a really tough decision to come to for us as our business is only two years old and we’ve literally put everything we have into it,” Justin Steele said. “We also just had our baby, so the thought of losing it all is especially anxiety provoking — but right now we’re trying not to think about the financial implications so much as we’re focusing on how we as individuals have a social responsibility.”

Still, they hold out hope for this season and could open as early as July, depending on COVID-19 statistics and if they can make enough changes to their business model to feel safe. Right now, they’re looking for ways to practice social distancing and frequently sanitize surfaces while still serving hikers.

How businesses will be impacted

It’s not just lodging businesses that rely on AT thru-hikers in Maine.

“It does ripple out,” said Steve Lynch, owner of The Hiker Hut hostel in Rangeley. “It ripples out to the IGA food store nearby, and Sarge’s Pub [& Grub]. It’s really felt in a small town like Rangeley.”

Farther north, Monson is located at the edge of the trail’s famous 100-Mile Wilderness. It’s a town that thru-hikers count on to resupply for days spent hiking through a remote, mountainous setting. Resting in town, hikers often eat at the local barbeque restaurant and prepare for the next challenging leg of their journey.

Located right in town, Shaw’s Hiker Hostel is one of the oldest continuously running hostels on the trail, and the owners plan to continue to serve hikers this season whatever way they can, while meeting state safety requirements.

“We’re going to find a way to support the hikers that are out there,” Kimberly Hester said. “We’ll wear masks and provide more outdoor seating … and if it turns out we shouldn’t do lodging or serve breakfast, we’ll do food drops out on the trail, and we’ll put our gear shop outside. We just feel there’s a huge need for us. Hikers need our support.”

Millinocket, the closest town to the north end of the trail, is expected to be especially impacted this year. Thru-hikers often stay in the town for days or even weeks while they plan their ascent of Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, and celebrate after the completion of their trek. Plus, family and friends often join them.

“Everything is a big question mark right now for everybody,” Paul Renaud said. “How is this year going to end up? What kind of an economy is the town going to have? How many businesses will stay closed? How many will open? For me, it’s just a big question mark.”

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...