It’s doubtful a paddler could describe a piece of water in more intimate detail than registered Maine Guide Greg Caruso, speaking of the Kennebec River near his home in the small North Woods town of Caratunk. Caruso has ferried a canoe across the same 100-yard stretch of river dozens of times per day since 2016. As the only ferry service on the Appalachian Trail, the famous 2,190-mile footpath from Georgia to Maine, Caruso and his 17-foot Old Town Tripper serve as a lifeline for some 2,500 hikers per year, May through October.
Caruso’s service is paid for by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and free for backpackers. He’s the fourth ferryman to hold the position since 1987, when a drowning made the canoe crossing the only legal way for hikers to traverse the fluctuating, dam-controlled waters of the Kennebec. The 50-year-old Caruso started guiding rafts in 1992 and has since pieced together work as an outdoors professional—managing a rafting outfitter, guiding hunting and fishing trips, ski patrolling at Maine’s Sugarloaf Resort and maintaining snowmobile trails.
The Appalachian Trail opportunity came up in 2016. Caruso perked up when he realized the Kennebec crossing is only three miles from his house. Finally, he could spend more time with his family—and bring his golden retriever to work.
“I have to admit, my first thoughts were, ‘Do I really want to paddle a bunch of smelly hikers back and forth all day?’” he laughs. “After learning more about the job, and considering things with my wife, who knew I was ready for a change, we decided to give it a go. After all, they couldn’t smell much worse than a bunch of raft guides in August, could they?”
Caruso is busiest in the morning when hikers on either side of the river line up for the ferry service. He equips them with PFDs and requires they sign a waiver. Then, in twos, hikers, their packs and sometimes trail dogs pile into Caruso’s canoe, which has been modified with a center seat instead of the typical carrying thwart. A strip of white duct tape on the inside of the hull replicates the traditional blazes used to mark the footpath. “Many hikers like to see that blaze and take photos,” notes Caruso. “Some even touch it.”
The crossing takes barely a minute, with perhaps another 10 minutes for unloading and reloading on either end. “Usually, I paddle my rear end off back and forth for a good hour or so due to the rush hour traffic, then things mellow out a bit,” he says.
However brief his interaction with the hikers, it’s often enough time for the waterman to catch a glimpse of long-distance backpackers’ life on the trail.
“One of the first hikers I met had the trail name ‘Handmade,’” recalls Caruso. “The guy walks up with no shoes, some very worn and partially torn up clothes sort of like the Incredible Hulk would wear, carrying a huge exterior frame pack and a Bowie knife with a handmade handle tied to the pack. I asked him what happened to his shoes and he said he’d been hiking like that since his shoes wore out somewhere in Virginia. He was planning on hiking the rest of the way barefoot. It was a memorable first encounter.”
Another generous backpacker offered Caruso a curious snack, whipped up while he waited for a ride across the Kennebec: A breakfast sandwich consisting of bacon, cheese, bread, and fried Oreo cookies. “Food is a coveted item on the trail, and it was great he thought of me with his interesting concoction,” says Caruso.
As a lifelong Maine resident, Caruso places his role as Appalachian Trail ferryman in a historical context.
During idle moments on the riverbank, he recalls childhood memories exploring the North Woods with his grandfather. Often, he ponders the historical significance of the Kennebec—from the saga of Benedict Arnold, the American colonel who led a grueling military invasion of Quebec by way of the Maine wilderness in 1775, to the lyrical descriptions of Henry David Thoreau.
“I certainly never imagined I would be doing this line of work,” says Caruso. “I love the peace of paddling, watching the eagles, casting a line, and of course meeting the hikers from all over the world. Maine usually tops their list of favorite places, and I have to agree.”
Just another day at the office. | Photo: Scott Martin