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Letterboxing & Biking on the NCT

January 21, 2009

Several people have asked if I am planning to plant letterboxes along the North Country Trail as we hike the Manistee Forest Segment. Actually Randy was shocked when I told him my intent was not letterboxing as that is generally the impetus behind our hiking adventures. Since the NCT is administered through the National Park Service, I had assumed that letterboxing was off-limits. Upon further research I have found that the NCT Association does have a published policy on geocaching, which generally covers letterboxing as well. The policy states that the activity is allowed…

  1. where written permission has been obtained in advance from the appropriate land manager or land owner, providing a specific timeframe and location for the activity, and
  2. where proper care is taken to avoid damage caused by digging or trampling to vegetation, archeological evidence, trail tread or other fragile resources in the area.

While I certainly agree with the second condition as this is something I, and hopefully every letterboxer, takes into consideration whenever planting or hunting a letterbox. However the first condition is kind of counter-intuitive to the hobby and to my planned interaction with the trail. Having to obtain permission prior to planting a letterbox, giving location details and a set duration would require

  1. that I am familiar enough with the area before I go there to be able to provide details of a specific location, and
  2. that I am sure to collect the box precisely at the end of the specified duration

This would require me to scout out possible letterbox locations prior to planned hikes (far enough in advance to obtain the necessary permission before going back to do the hike and plant the letterbox), or to look for good spots while hiking, then seek permission and then make a return trip to plant the box. Not only does that seem like a lot of hassle just to plant a letterbox, but it would require me to begin keeping more detailed records on the letterboxes I plant — whom I negotiated with for permission, what our agreement was, when the box term expires, etc. Imagine doing that for 80-100 letterboxes! This is after all a hobby, not a full-time job. I would love to plant a couple of letterboxes, thus sharing my love for this public trail and encouraging others to enjoy it also, but it’s really more maintenance than I have time for. I may go through the approval process and plant a box or two, but certainly it would be minimal. There are many other places to plant letterboxes that do not impose this kind of restriction.

I’m just not sure that I understand the logic in allowing mountain bikes on the trail, an activity which is not only contradictory to the purpose of the trail, but obviously is having severe negative impact on the condition and stability of the trail and is often outright dangerous to hikers, but activities like geocaching and letterboxing are viewed as potential negatives that need to be controlled. It would leave one to wonder if the person making the rules is perhaps a mountain biking enthusiast. The NCT mountain biking policy is actually a bit of a joke.

One is actually very encouraged as they read this…

“The Trail is meant to provide and protect an experience that more and more is lost in our busy and growing world. Whether exploring wilderness or rural landscapes, for an afternoon or weeks on end, hikers should expect to fine peace, solace, insight, and a reconnection with the natural world as they journey along the North Country National Scenic Trail. Many trails offer the opportunity for exercise in a natural environment, but few seek to protect this type of experience that we feel is a crucial and growing need in human nature.”

This is after all, exactly the thinking of most who enjoy hiking the trail. Even the next sentence continues to lend encouragement…

“Part of the reason the Association discourages bike use is that it threatens to displace hikers seeking the type of experience for which the Trail is intended.”

But this is where the Association backs down…

“This policy does not represent a ban on mountain bikes on the trail, as the local managing authority has the final decision over whether or not to permit bike use. It does mean that the Association is on record as opposing mountain bike use in most situations.”

So basically, we realize and admit that biking is counter-intuitive to our purpose and poses threat to the trail and it’s intended user and we really wish you wouldn’t do it, but we don’t want to go on record as prohibiting mountain bikes so we will push this off onto the local trail managers…

This dispersed management of the policy is why mountain biking is allowed on some areas of the trail. The following excerpt is from the book “Following the North Country National Scenic Trail”, by Wes Boyd, and is in specific reference to Ed Talone’s observations and the biking policy along the Manistee Forest Segment of the trail (Ed Talone is the first person to do an end-to-end thru hike of the NCT):

“… Talone noted damage and erosion from mountian bike usage on the trail, which, though never formally opened to mountain bikes, was never offically closed to them, either — the trail had been ‘discovered’ by the mountain bike crowd, which pushed hard to officially open the trail to them. In a display of bureaucratic pigheadedness unprecedented on the NCNST, in 1996 the forest manager overrode conclusions of a study then in progress, and formally opened all but 30 miles of the trail to mountain bikes. The areas opened to mountain bikes were some of the most scenic and easily damaged sections of the trail. ‘If hikers don’t like it, they can go elsewhere,’ the decision statement on the issue wrote.”

… and they’re worried about a little ole letterbox?

All that being said, I have to admit that I am so geeked about hiking the trail that I really don’t care if there are letterboxes involved or not!

Posted by Deb  

Topics: hiking, letterboxing

3 Responses to “Letterboxing & Biking on the NCT”

  1. sharkbytes Says:
    January 24th, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    I think maybe you don’t fully understand what the NCTA can and can not do. The NCTA is adamant about the vision for hikers only. However, the NCTA has no power other than persuasion to make the Forest Service or any other landowner follow that vision. The Manistee NF, and the entire Michigan DNR simply refuse to make the trail across their lands hiking only. Corridor management, which would allow “us” to decide on allowed uses is so far in the future I can’t even quite imagine it.

    But I’m really glad I found your blog!

  2. sharkbytes Says:
    January 24th, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    Oh, and PS about geocaching, letterboxing. Same deal- the land owner gets to choose. So call the MNF to get the exact rules. I know they don’t allow anything to be buried, but I think it’s ok to place them. Again, though, don’t take my word for it.

  3. Deb Says:
    January 24th, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Yeh, I am beginning to see the controversy as I read more at the Yahoo groups… sounds like it is a hot topic. I can see both sides, but my personal opinion is against bikes, based on unpleasant experiences while hiking in Yankee Springs and Fort Custer.

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