A weary Appalachian Trail hiker arrives at the crossing of the Kennebec River in the tiny town of Caratunk and stares at eighty yards of dark, moving water. The trail turns to gravel and stops at the river's edge, picking up again on the other side. The scene is picturesque, with dense woods flanking the narrow stretch of river and trees climbing up the hills in the distance. Pretty as it may be, hikers approach with dread. Beneath the seemingly placid surface of the water, stones rounded from the current are covered by silt and slime. Attempting to cross the river here has been compared to walking over greased bowling balls.
Slippery footing is just the first of the hazards facing Appalachian Trail through hikers at this juncture, 36 miles from the start of the 100-Mile Wilderness, 155 miles from the end of their trek. When electricity is needed to power the armies of air conditioners on the East Coast each August, the Indian Pond dam upstream opens up. As the released waters course down the Kennebec, anyone attempting to cross the river on foot can be caught in a rising torrent.
In 1986 one trekker, Alice Ferrence, drowned here as she was trying to ford the river, and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC), the body that governs the 2,167-mile East Coast trail, realized something had to be done to make the crossing safe.
Enter Steve Longley.
Back then he was in his late twenties, his head filled with plans to make it running his own rafting company. One day he answered an advertisement to ferry for a small salary. Easy enough, he figured, so he signed on for the season. That first year he took 230 people across the Kennebec in his boat.
Fifteen years later Longley is still at it. In 1999 he took nearly 1,500 people across in his red Old Town Discovery canoe, more than 600 of whom were through hikers. In 2000 there were even more.
And when hikers begin to arrive in August and September on their way north to Katahdin, they'll again see Steve Longley's smiling face waiting for them. Tall and fit, he looks the part of a modern woodsman. He has piercing, alert eyes. He's often bearded, and he wears the fleece jacket and river sandals favored on the Appalachian Trail (AT). And he always sports a life vest.
The gregarious redhead, 44, admits he still gets excited every morning when he heads down to the trail crossing which he calls "the corridor." "I always wonder, 'What's going to happen today? Who am I going to meet?" he says, his voice picking up as he thinks about it, "I love what I do. I can walk a mile from my house and meet people from all over the world."
Longley arrives each morning about 8:30 a.m. and looks around for signs of a stranded hiker. If there's none, he'll begin his daily routine. He unlocks his red canoe, drags it down to the river's edge, and waits with his dog, Samantha, a sweet mutt, for someone to arrive. Per his ATC contract, Longley can't take hikers across unless it's during designated hours. This year during peak season those hours are 9 to 11 a.m. and 3 to 5 p.m. In slower months it's 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. only.
Two south bounders arrive at the corridor, and Longley snaps to attention. He learns by word of mouth when most people are coming. (Sometimes they even stay at the cabins he runs in The Forks.) But Longley looks surprised when the rain-gear-clad Trent Alexander and Jen Bannister, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, show up on their way to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.
Longley asks, as usual, how the trail has been and then tells them about a mother hawk that has been striking backpackers farther down the trail. Bannister looks concerned. Alexander is skeptical.
After inquiring about where they stayed the night before, which turns out to be a competing hiker hostel in Caratunk, Longley takes their packs and hiking poles and places them neatly into the boat. He hands them life vests and makes them sign a liability waiver. He tucks it away, and in a matter of seconds they're safely across to the other side. The whole exchange lasts less than five minutes.
Steve Longley and his free ferry service are the official way for through hikers to cross the Kennebec River. He's paid and sanctioned by the Appalachian Trail Conference, based out of Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.
"To have a guy as reliable as Steve makes our job a lot easier," says Mark Simpson, president of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club Longley gets a base pay of $7,000 for the season, with per diem rates if he ferries hikers across in the off-season, but he doesn't measure success by money. The way he sees it, as long as he's happy and makes a difference, that's all he needs. Of course, a little more money could never hurt, he admits.
Longley lives year-round in The Forks, about a mile from the AT trailhead, and life in these woods south of Jackman can be lean. The town, if you want to bestow it with such a lofty title (it's current population is thirty-four, though it swells a bit in summer with adventurers), gets it name because it sits at the junction of two of Maine's more important rivers, the Dead and the Kennebec. Both rivers are dam released, making for raging white water, so the area has become a Mecca for rafters, kayakers, and canoeists.
Summertime can be busy as multi-million-collar rafting companies attract people from all over. Longley watches the fancy cars sporting the out-of-state license plates without envy. He may live more simply than they do, but every day he lives what they consider vacation.
Even so, he's sage about his life, "What appears as a glorious job is tough living," he says. "Nobody wanted to be me ten years ago. There are no vacations in this business, and I've got a short season to make money."
In the off months, Longley takes on odd jobs to make ends meet. There have been weeks in the spring when he ate only the trout he could catch and the fiddleheads he could pluck. When the heater is on the blink in early summer, he'll turn the oven on and open the door for heat instead of starting a fire in the woodstove.
Most AT hikers know Steve Longley simply as "The Ferryman". But they all know him. His identity has become blended with the Appalachian Trail and the river crossing.
"The whole shebang know him," MATC's Simpson says. "Steve's a typical Maine guy. He's very laid back, east to get to know, but he truly cares about the trail and its community, and he takes his job extremely seriously."
Longley's even painted a white blaze on the bottom of his canoe to signify that his boat is part of the official Appalachian Trail.
"For us, Steve is The Ferryman," Simpson said. "It takes a unique individual to spend that much time, get paid as little as he does, and still survive."
"That crossing is synonymous with his name," agrees Lori Potteiger, and information specialist for the ATC in Harper's Ferry. Potteiger says Longley has given her office some of the most accurate hiker counts ever.
"He's at one of the few places along the trail where every single hiker will meet the same person," Potteiger says. "He's not only The Ferryman, he's really tapped into the trail community. I can't think of any one person who would have seen a higher percentage of through hikers."
Longley's met all the famous hikers. Like Earl V. Schaffer, who became the first solo through hiker in 1948, walking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine, and then completed his third through hike in 1998, fifty years after his first, to become the oldest through hiker at age 79. And Ed Garvey, the tireless maintainer of the AT and author of the book, Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime, which has become a hiker's Bible for planning a through hike. He died in 1999. And Bill Bryson, author of the best-selling A Walk in the Woods, and John Brinda, the first man to make it from the Florida Keys to the Gasp� Peninsula, a 3,500-mile journey now officially known as the International Appalachian Trail.
Longley's heroes are the hikers who complete the AT with a disability. He's met people with missing limbs and diabetes, bent over with old age or hiking with a broken heart. These are the people that he really admires. He remembers one such hiker particularly well. Bill Irwin, who was legally blind, came through on November 5, 1991. It was a bitter forty-five degrees out and the water in the river wasn't much warmer.
It's easy to complain when you're hiking on a perfectly normal trail," Longley notes. "But there are some people who are just grateful to be able to hike the trail."
People like that give Longley the perspective to keep his mouth shut when he thinks there's something to complain about. "I'm not out there hiking, I'm just out there observing," Longley says. "I have a lot of respect for someone who can put a pack on their back and be a self-contained unit."
Another individual who continues to inspire Longley is his father, the late Maine Governor James B. Longley, who occupied the office as an Independent from 1974 to 1978. The distinction of being the governor's son is something he's lived with all his adolescent life, and it's been a mixed blessing. "He came out of nowhere and proved you can achieve your dreams," Longley says proudly of his father. "He proved you could be the underdog and win. I model myself after my father."
Longley's lifestyle is far removed from politics and business suits chosen by his father, his brother, James Longley, Jr., who is a former U.S. Congressman and has run for governor, and his sister, Susan, who currently serves as a state senator. When Longley, who attended Notre Dame University, explains his work ethic, he recalls his father's words. '"There's no substitute for hard work."' he quips.
But sometimes being the son of the governor has been tough.
Longley got busted ten years ago for being a pirate rafter. He didn't pay Central Maine Power its share of profits -- six dollars per person -- for carrying people down what the power company considered its river. It was big news back then that the son of a former governor was bucking the system and got taken down. Longley was defiant, but the scandal didn't stop him.
He says he misses the rafting business a little, but he enjoys the ferry service a lot more.
"Rafting can be very stressful. Hikers are very enjoyable," he says. "It's not like being with someone up from Boston who wants you to give them a thrill before they go back to foreclose on someone."
Though he's like to join the trekkers who wave goodbye to him as they pick up the trail again, Longley hasn't been able to find the time to hoist a pack and do it himself. He did a brief stint, under the trail name Thunder Rebel, but he knows finishing the trail would require him to abandon the ferry service. And that's something he just can't do right now.
"I kind of look at it as helping people's dreams come true," he says. Longley admits it's not the easiest life, but he figures he's good for another 10,000 hikers, give or take a few.
"I took the road less traveled, and now my road has become more popular, so maybe I should look for a different road," he muses. "I'm not going to be The Ferryman forever. When I move on, all that matters is I left this place in a little better shape than I found it."
Down East - August 2001
HIKERS MEET NOTORIOUS MAINE CHALLENGE WITH HELP OF KENNEBEC RIVER 'FERRYMAN'
For 11 years, Steve Longley has faced daily danger and endured low pay for the love of his job.
CARATUNK- A loon breaks the surface in the middle of the Kennebec River before it dives again in search of food. On one side of the river, Appalachian Trail hikers pull on dry socks and boots and lift heavy packs to their backs before disappearing into the woods. Across the water Steve Longley drags his red canoe over polished rocks on the shore, his work done for another day. Longley has a job most people couldn't handle. Low pay, few days off, hordes of biting flies in all kinds of weather, and the possibilitiy of swamping in the fast-moving river.
Those are the challenges he faces every day, but he does so willingly. From the end of the ice season in May until late fall, hikers can depend on Longley and his Old Town canoe to get them safely -and dryly - across the river. For the past 11 years Longley, 40, a hiker, kayaker and former rafting company owner, has ferried hikers across the Kennebec.
Compared with the high-stress job of running the former rafting business, his ferry service is simple and rewarding. "I just take care of hikers now," the soft spoken Longley says. Known as the "ferryman" by hikers from around the world, Longley is owner and chief operator of Rivers and Trails Northeast Inc. in The Forks. He comes from a family with deep roots in Maine politics. The son of the late Gov. James B. Longley and the brother of former Congressman Jim Longley and state Sen. Susan Longley, he may have chosen a different path in life but shares his family's work ethic.
"We are all workaholics," Longley says of his family. "My father always respected you making your own decisions. He didn't care what we did as long as we did our best." He speaks with pride of getting more than 6,000 hikers safely and efficiently across the river.
Along with climbing Mount Katahdin, crossing the Kennebec is considered one of the Appalachian Trail's significant obstacles. Longley says the 80-yard crossing can at times be dangerous. When upriver dams release a surge of water, for example, the river can widen with fast currents. Longley offers hikers several options to get across the river. They can load themselves and their gear and paddle across - or load the gear and swim across. Some purists insist on not interupting the hike and choose to ford the river by foot.
"I'm here to help," says Longley. "My ferry service is regarded as a safety checkpoint that gives hikers and their families peace of mind. These people are part of a tight subculture, and I am part of the chain of people who help hikers."
There is no charge to hikers unless special crossings are requested, and that costs $10. per person. Longley contracts with and is paid by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club for his service.
He said business picks up in late August and September as northbound through hikers from Georgia arrive toward the end of the five-month hike to Baxter State Park. On a busy day he transports up to 40 hikers.
Longley also operates a nearby hostel that offers hikers a respite from the trail with thick mattresses, hot showers and indoor cooking facilities in three cabins. He says he one day hopes to offer food to hikers and others in an area that is undergoing rapid four-season growth in development.
In the winter, he works for LL Bean Inc in phone sales. Longley says he's been inspired by many of the hikers he has met- colorful individuals from all walks of life: hikers who are blind or disabled, people who are determined to help others and themselves by the enormous task of hiking the famed trail. He also loves the tranquility of the river, which is frequented more by eagles, moose and deer than by people. Despite the daily schedule, low pay and seasonal nature of the work, Longley remains committed to his ferry service. "You know, people work 50 weeks a year so they can do what they like for two weeks," he says. "I can do this nearly year-round."
Better Than A Bridge
written by Jonathan Van Fleet for the
August 2001 Edition
Mainer Steve Longley helps Appalachian Trail thru-hikers keep their boots dry and spirits high.
He's a positive voice to those in it for the long haul. "Way to go," Steve Longley chirps as weary northbound Appalachian trail (AT) thru-hikers emerge from the Maine woods. "Only 160 miles left to Katahdin."
Those heading south get a less encouraging greeting: "You're doing great! Only 2,000 miles to Springer Mountain (Georgia)."
Besides being a cheerleader for AT thru-hikers, Longley is also the ferryman at the Kennebec River crossing in Caratunk, Maine, and a living, breathing part of the AT. He and his red Old Town canoe are the official means -- endorsed by the Appalachian Trail Conference, that is -- of getting across a particularly treacherous stretch of the Kennebec. Recently, we caught up with the 43-year-old son of a former Maine governor.
BP: What's it like to be such an important part of the AT?
I get down at the (river) crossing sometimes and I can't remember the combination to the lock on the boat, and I think, "Oh my god, I just stopped the AT." It hits home at that point that I hold the key to the Appalachian Trail.
BP: What's the craziest thing you've seen at the river crossing?
There was this guy named Moses with a big white beard and big white hair who walked across (the river) one time.
BP: Did he part the waters?
No, but he was enthralled with it. He looked like a superstar.
BP: How do you feel when someone asks you about your father, the late Gov. James Longley Sr.?
I model myself after my father. I may not be a governor or senator, but I'll be the best ferryman I can be. -
Backpacker - August 2001