Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, which manages the famous 272-mile Long Trail (the first long distance hiking trail in the United States, which inspired the Appalachian Trail and other long distance trails), routinely closes the Long Trail and other high-elevation side trails during Mud Season. The closure lasts from late March through Memorial Day even though actual “Mud Season” conditions are not necessarily uniform throughout the trail system. During the closure, hikers are strongly encouraged to pursue other activities or hike lower elevation terrain where the ground has had a chance to dry out sooner. Generally speaking, most hikers in Vermont respect this—some out of a sense of personal responsibility, some falling into line through raw peer pressure. But Mud Season isn't unique to Vermont--it's an issue throughout the Northeast (for instance NY and NH) and other northerly latitudes.
Changing how you hike in Mud Season is important. Trails are particularly vulnerable to destruction when the soil is saturated and 24-hour day/night spring freeze-thaw cycles are taking place. Wet trails churned up by a lot of boot traffic and frost heaves will erode quickly during the next heavy spring rain or warm-day melt-off, which means that trail maintainers (perpetually overworked, underfunded, underpaid, and with a backlog of priority trail work already on their slate), have to work a lot harder to shore up degraded trails. Hiking during Mud Season can also cause significant ecological damage—this is particularly true with regard to the fragile, endangered alpine plant communities above treeline.
Too, Mud Season conditions influence hikers to use the trails in ways that exacerbate trail entropy. Spring ice “monorails” (caused by hikers compacting snow into very hard ice over the course of the winter hiking season) melt slower than the surrounding snowpack, keeping trail soils damp longer, and creating unpleasant slippery obstacles. Monorails also increase the speed of runoff and channel water flow along the sides of trails, gullying them. To avoid slipping on the monorail (especially on the downhill) and to avoid stepping in the muddy areas that have melted out around the monorail, some hikers (too many!) will walk off trail, which causes a widening of the trail course called “trail braiding.” Braided trails move the footway away from the true trail and whatever erosion control measures (water bars, steps, etc.) were built into it. This results in more erosion and can make it harder for hikers to identify the correct trail course during snow-off conditions, exacerbating the problem.
The best way to avoid damaging trails in mud season is to refrain from hiking them until they have sufficiently dried out, i.e. hike elsewhere, at lower elevations, or further south, or engage in other activities altogether. Whether a trail is sufficiently dried out can be subjective and hard to assess if you don’t have experience with trail maintenance (and that’s why the Green Mountain Club has a general “closure” season). In places other than Vermont, one might consider a general rule of thumb: when the snowpack surrounding the trail is more than 40% melted out over any course of 500 feet in length; when there is a lot of lingering monorail with melted-out bare earth surrounding it; when the mud on the trail is ankle-deep or deeper for extended stretches; when you are finding yourself frequently walking around the trail to avoid ice and mud instead of on it—you’re probably hiking in “Mud Season.”
If you are determined to hike in the early spring (perhaps you’re Gridding and are reluctant to give up the month of April), there are some things you can do to reduce your impact:
See you in the spring! --Paul-William
I ignored the advice, through- hiked the A.T. end-to-end and the leg was fine-- in fact, it was made a lot stronger by the experience. But the knee still troubles me from time to time. It's been a bit of a rollercoaster: some years I don't seem to have much trouble with it, other years I do. Going on thirty years of vigorous hiking since the initial injury, It's held out far better than I'd expected. The injury has changed my hiking over the years: it has slowed me down a bit on the downhill and flats, made me more careful of how I walk, and make me reasonable about the miles (I rarely will do a hike of more than 16 miles in a day). I have also taken up barefoot hiking (long story; fodder for a separate post) which has taken some stress off the knee during hikes (one must step more gently on the downhill when shoeless, which reduces wear and tear on the connective tissue).
My left knee looks different than my right knee: it is thick with internal scar tissue and musculature which, I imagine, have insulated and buffered it, not unlike how a tree will grow gnarly around an old wound. I imagine that my careful hiking practices and regular strengthening have extended the life of my knee beyond the threatened diagnosis (every doctor that looks at it reminds me what a mess it is). I have not yet submitted to the knife. I rarely wear a brace and I use just one wooden hiking stick for support. But it would be foolish to imagine that knee replacement surgery is not in my future.
The easiest and most common conclusion to that question, post-recovery, is bragging: I survived such-and-such, I’m a such-and-such badass, look at my badassery and tremble. Not to demean the value of celebration or the power of positive thinking, but if that’s your only tack and reward you’ll find plenty of back-pats on social media to help prop it up—you won’t even need to do it yourself; others will be glad to inflate your ego for you and help you dismiss your mortality. Ego-props as an end-goal are cheap prizes, however. It’s like hiking partway up a mountain and turning back, not because the weather is evil and I can’t reasonably go the rest of the way but because I am lacking in a fundamental kind of ummph that has nothing to do with hiking ability or trail conditions. It means I was never forced (or never conceded) to move beyond the denial stage (I’m not subject to the Law of Entropy the way other people are) or the anger stage (I “beat” my injury) before I was fortunate enough to recover.
In his book Who Dies? the late Stephen Levine, famous for his series of books on conscious suffering and dying, asks the reader to imagine they are terminally ill, unable to care for themselves in the most basic of ways. Levine poses a series of questions: [paraphrasing here] when you are no longer able to do the things that most defined you, and others have to take care of your most basic needs (on the extreme end: buying your groceries, rolling you around in a wheelchair, bathing you, wiping your ass) what are you? who are you? where is that “I” that you were in previous years: the father, the attorney, the bicyclist, the carpenter, the doctor, the mother, the caregiver, the football player, the rock-climber, the skier. . .the hiker?
Along those lines you may ask yourself: Who am “I” when my days of obsessively and relentlessly hiking Ultras and Grids and Redlines are officially over? Who am I when hiking a 4,000-footer is out of reach? Who am I when I can no longer easily walk down a flight of stairs?
This line of questioning automatically awakens my old friend Despair—maybe he (or she) is a friend of some of you, too. A few years back I impaled my leg on a sharp tree branch while on a long hike through the Mahoosuc Range (a side bushwhack up the now-appropriately-named “Trident” peak); little bits of wood were imbeded deep in the wound; the wound became infected and I went in for surgery. I thought: what if they can’t fix this? What if I lose my leg? Can I live with that? I won’t sugarcoat it for you: a little, dark piece of the hiker in me was quietly engaging suicide scenarios even before I went in for surgery. I’m not mentioning this to set the stage for judging that kind of thinking. The beloved and brilliant White Mountains author Guy Waterman, who suffered debilitating (albeit hidden), lifelong mental health issues, ended his life by committing intentional hypothermia on Franconia Ridge—for a hiker, quite a way to go out. I cannot know his suffering and so cannot judge it or the outcome he chose. I can only use it as a mirror as I observe my own thoughts during the times I’ve had to question the continued existence of my identity in the face of a contrary or unacceptable reality. Any forced change in one’s self-identification is itself a kind of death. In preparing for "death" the mind grapples with the stages of coping with loss: denial, anger, bargaining, grief, and acceptance. Some of us move through those stages more easily than others; some get stuck.
If I can no longer hike big mountains, but can still hike, the “big mountain hiker” must die to make room for a different kind of hiking identity. If I can’t hike anymore but can swim, kayak, bicycle, whatever, then the hiker must die and make room for those new identities. There is a loss and grieving inherent in that even if you work hard at burying the emotional labor—don’t let anyone tell you different. But beyond the endless morphing of identities lies the deeper question: what is this “I” that I keep creating? Is it important? How? When I strip it away, what is beneath it? In terms of hiking, one can ask more focused questions: what exactly IS a hiker? What does it really mean to be a hiker--beyond mere goal-posting and exploration? What is the kernel of that identity—and does it really even exist?
I don’t have answers to these questions (and all answers will likely be subjective and privately individual) but I do think it’s important to ask them sooner than later. In some aboriginal cultures there is a practice of “preparing for death” which begins at a young age and continues until the end of biological life. The process, which involves song, vision quests, prayer, and other practices, is really a delving into the question of self-identity and what lies beyond it. As I understand it, if it is done well it can prepare the mind for the “little deaths” of identity that occur throughout life: changes in occupation or role, loss of loved ones, tribal warfare, change of physical ability and mental acuity. And in modern life in America, also divorce, unemployment, foreclosure, empty nests, pet death, failed business ventures, stock market crashes, hospitalizations, breakups, house fires, car accidents. . .and hiking injuries.
If I can muster the courage to step beyond the props of the ego, the most important question might not be "when will I recover and hike again?" but "when the hiker can no longer hike [eventually, whether temporarily or more lastingly], what is left? Exactly who is this 'hiker' I have come to imagine I am?"
Thanks to those who submitted photos and stories of their injuries.
[Photo credits, by name in caption].
Postscript: my recent knee diagnosis is “badly contused ligaments/tendons /patella.” I consider it a deferment.