Out of Your Way
Don’t just take a hike. Think
Photo by Matt Petricone
When I was a teenager, part of the joy of driving was being able to leave the car behind at local trailheads, grab my daypack—which included a book, a crumbly granola bar, a bottle of water, a knife, a lighter—and explore what Mother Nature had to offer. On one particularly humid Saturday, I climbed to the top of a waterfall, perched myself on a small rock that jutted out more than 100 feet above the crashing torrent, and took my boots off. I reached into my pack to get my book and, in the process, knocked one of my trusty Timberlands off the ledge, only to watch it drop into the watery abyss below. Suddenly I was shoeless, faced with the prospect of hiking all the way down that steep, wet trail barefoot.
It was a long afternoon as I contemplated my stupidity and my bleeding feet.
“At least it was just your boot,” says Martin Mitsoff after I relay the 20-year-old story to him. He is a longtime member of the Sheffield volunteer fire department and has dealt with several emergency calls on the trails throughout his seven years. Lost hikers, exposure to the elements, bad weather, snake bites, fading daylight, twisted ankles—these are all fairly common incidents on the area’s many trail lengths from majestic (and dangerous) Mount Greylock to the meadows of Lime Kiln Farm.
“There’s no rhyme or reason for when things might occur, but we’ve already had a couple of calls this year, especially during the warmer months. A lot of people visit this place for the natural beauty, but they have no knowledge of the trails. We were doing a training at Racebrook,” Mitsoff says, referring to the same falls where I lost my boot and where a young man died two years ago after falling. “I watched at least three people with babies in backpacks hiking up that trail, who thought the risk wasn’t there. They had no idea.”
In fact, Mitsoff and the Sheffield emergency responders cover some of the most dangerous ground in the state. Many trails in South County—Bash Bish Falls, Sage’s Ravine, Racebrook Falls, even Monument Mountain—are notorious for their “surprises” of wet and/or eroded trails and snow and ice even as spring rolls in. The same can be said of Mount Greylock, where just a few months ago, a man was rescued after falling off an 18-foot ledge and knocked unconscious for several hours. He was rescued at 2 a.m., after regaining consciousness and making a frantic cell-phone call.
“We try to reach out to people who ask us. We can let them know about the aggressive trails and the slippery trails,” says Rebecca Barnes, a longtime regional trail coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. “We try to give them good advice, but sometimes they go anyway.”
“We could do a better job maintaining the trails, but we don’t have enough funding and resources for the hundreds of miles of trails,” says Robert Mellace, DCR’s former western regional director who retired in late June. “Some of the trails are old logging roads and weren’t built to today’s design standards to avoid erosion. They built them any which way, which means they can be really rocky and just not friendly to foot traffic. People should know this going in.”
In addition to the DCR’s multiple park and trail websites and phone numbers, several books on Berkshire hikes by experienced authors/naturalists (including Rene Laubuch, Jim Bradley and Lauren Stevens) are worth reading. There are also many Trustees of Reservations trails and sites as wells as those created and maintained by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. But nothing, absolutely nothing can protect a hiker better than good old common sense.
“Always pack water, some fruit and nuts or a granola bar, a cell phone that’s fully charged and in a plastic bag so it doesn’t get wet, a windbreaker or a raincoat, tell someone where you’re going, or better yet, bring someone with you,” says Ann-Elizabeth Barnes, a veteran hiker from South Egremont. “I’ve been hiking since I was six years old. I like to be prepared. I was raised that way.”
Yet even seasoned hikers make mistakes. Last year, Barnes was hiking along a familiar stretch of the Appalachian Trail with a friend when she heard the call of a scarlet tanager, a gorgeous Mercurochrome-red New England summer bird. Of course, with her eyes to the sky, Barnes was not looking at the ground.
“I fell six feet and landed on my arm,” she says. “It snapped at a very awkward angle. We were two hours into a four-hour hike. I called my husband, and then my friend called 911. She stayed on the phone while they sent a helicopter to hover over us waiting to see if Pam could move my arm to restore circulation. I would only have an hour or so before possibly losing the arm. She was able to, so they flew off. The rescuers on foot came about two hours later. I knew roughly where we were, and I felt safe despite the circumstances. I was prepared.”