September 22 (continued)
State borders are always fun, but some are more exciting than others. Less exciting borders are places where there is either something else to catch your attention, such as towns (for example, Damascus is a couple miles past the Tennessee-Virginia border, and the Vermont-Massachusetts border is just past Williamstown), major rivers, or both (West Virginia-Maryland, Pennsylvania-New York and Vermont-New Hampshire both have rivers and towns), or where the borders are so bunched together that crossing state lines becomes passe (Maryland-Pennsylvania would be exciting if it weren’t the twelfth border crossing in seventeen miles or so). So among the best border crossings, in my opinion, are Georgia-North Carolina, simply because it is the first one, and Virginia-West Virginia, because you are so bloody glad to be done with the 550 miles of trail in Virginia.
But the best is saved for Maine. It is in the middle of nowhere, literally, near the center point of the longest roadless section of trail. And the Mainers know it; they put up a blue “Maine—The Way Life Should Be” sign like they have along highways in to the state. We all celebrated and took pictures (and ate lunch, perhaps the most important celebration of all). Someone decided they despised New Hampshire’s hills, and decided to moon New Hampshire (and get a picture of it). And, just as they were doing so, a group of high-schoolers came down the trail in the other direction, as he hastily pulled up his pants, and we then had a very awkward conversation with them (who had either not seen anything, or just were keeping it to themselves).
I decided that the entrance wasn’t complete without a “Maine Has A Tough Drunk Driving Law” sign, as is posted along the Turnpike in Kittery (and which has been interpreted as “All tough drunks must drive.”) So, with a piece of Rite in the Rain paper and sharpies, and jackknives to cut holes for the sticks which would hold it in place, I made a sign saying just that. I was very proud.
We left the sign and staggered on, over very rough terrain. The Whites are ass-kickingly hard, but they are but a warm-up for the Mahoosucs. I liked to tell people that the Whites were not just harder than the rest of the trail, the were a lot harder; it is true. But the Mahoosucs, perhaps because there are no huts and the trail is minimally maintained, are just as hard, and a lot rougher too. So at one point, we had to scamper down a sizeable cliff, and discussed throwing our poles down as they were going to do little more than get in the way.
The problem was that there was a small hole below, maybe two feet across, and of an unknown depth. So we had to make sure not to drop the pole in the hole. I went first, and with my first throw dropped the pole down the cliff, where it went tink-tank-tunk and straight in to the hole. Profanities were uttered. I climbed down, clutching the one remaining pole, took off my pack, and eyed the pole down a couple feet. I couldn’t reach it, but using my other pole, hooked the hand loop and pulled it to freedom. Lucky me. In addition to this gear issue, I broke a carebiner. Just wore it out from clipping my water bottle thousands of times. Oh well.
Fred and Stoker were excited about these caves in the jumbled rocks, and found a large one just downhill from there. Upon entering, one of them said “oh, man, someone took a dump in here.”
“Maybe it’s bear scat,” I said.
“Oh, no, definitely not.”
“Well how do you know?”
“Because bears don’t use toilet paper,” and then, after a slight pause, “except in commercials.”
I made my way up over Goose Eye Mountain (at 3800 feet) and then along a rather flat section with only krummholz growth in places on a windswept ridge. I was planning to make it through Mahoosuc Notch by nightfall, especially since a bunch of folks in the big group were set on going at least to Speck Pond. A few wanted to hike Mahoosuc Notch and continue at night to get to their mail drop in Andover by the next morning (so as not to have to wait there all weekend) and I asked if anyone had ever been through the notch before. It was a collective “no.” They were informed that they could try, but the trail, well, it wasn’t getting any easier.
At the Full Goose shelter, I stopped to use the pit, and upon realizing that if I continued I’d be facing the prospect of a climb up Mahoosuc Arm at night and a solitary shelter, I decided to stay, too. There were about eight of us (including a sick Pockets) and we had a grand time with a campfire to keep us sort of warm, and good company to boot (including: Rabbit, Riceburner, Walker, Fred, Stoker, Pockets and Tonka). I asked Rabbit about ingrown toenails and she, being a nurse, said that they might need to go in with (her tongue slipping) a “scalpula.” She meant scalpel, but someone, I think Fred, thought she might have said spatula. Then we all were asking where she worked, so we knew not to go to that hospital. “No! No! Take me anywhere else! She’ll come at me with a spatula!” Rabbit is on the trail because, as she said, her “husband decided to get a new girlfriend…and a new boyfriend.” In Wyoming. So she went hiking. Good reason.
September 23 — 9.7 Miles today, 1907.8 miles from Springer, 266.8 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -1530 feet.
Climbs: 2,3, Wx: 40s-50, 100%, RFW, Shelter: -, Dinner: +, Overall: 4.
I was up before anyone, and leaving by the time anyone else was stirring. It was gray and threatening, but rain hadn’t fallen yet. I was hoping to get through Mahoosuc Notch without any rain, and, if I was lucky, push on to Route 26 in the dry weather. It was partially my lucky day. The Notch was dry. Mahoosuc Notch is called the “hardest mile of the trail” for good reason. Although it is misnamed. Because it is not a trail. It is simply a bunch of blazes painted to show you where to jump, leap and scramble over (and under) boulders, most of which are at least as big as a car, and some of which are the size of a suburban, three-bedroom home. In any case, with a pack (luckily one which had almost no food in it) I was able to scramble under and through most of the narrow openings with relative ease (Especially hefty people might have to be worried about getting stuck, but not me. Then again, especially hefty folks might have some trouble hiking in to the Notch, or from Georgia.) and felt the first few rain drops hitting as I reached the northern end and the trail turned normal again. I didn’t take many pictures; it was dark and gray, and I took a bunch last summer when I went through on a nice day.
Beyond the Notch lies Mahoosuc Arm, a 1500 foot climb up a steeply-angled slab of bedrock, or so it seemed. And now it was raining and wet. I shivered my way up the arm, and at the top chased a bird of some sort. I think it was a grouse, so I kept yelling “Dick! Dick! Look! A Grouse! Shoot the old guy in the face!” I skirted Speck Pond, which is beautiful in nice weather (and at 3500 feet, the highest body of water in Maine) but which today was covered in a dense fog. I had lunch and paid a visit to the privy at the shelter there, where Fred arrived just as I was leaving, and made my way up to the summit of Old Speck, and then down. The trail down Old Speck is not terribly hard, although I did manage to slip on a rock near the bottom and fall on my bum, but no harm was done (most of the impact was taken by my pack, anyway).
I got to the bottom a bit after three, and upon signing the register, sauntered out to Route 26, which had quite a bit of traffic, and stuck out my thumb. My plan was to take a ride as far as I could get one, so my folks didn’t have to drive as far to pick me up. I hadn’t even taken off my pack when a pick-up pulled up and a couple of Mainers, dressed in The Uniform (red flannel shirt, some sort of blaze orange in season, Carhartts) offered me, in a thick, syrupy Maine accent, a ride down to Route 2. I called my parents when I got signal, and they were already in Rumford, so they came to pick me up. I really like hitching — it’s too bad that it is pretty dangerous away from the Trail.
My parents picked me up at the general store where I had just enough time to drink down a beer and eat a candy bar (I had no food in my pack, and definitely no beer) before they arrived. I piled my dirty, sweaty self in to the car for the drive to our camp (cabin), via Tubby’s for ice cream, and arrived, took a shower, ate salmon and played for a while on the internet before sleep finally overtook and I shuffled off to bed.
September 24 — 2.3 Miles today, 1910.1 miles from Springer, 264.5 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1145 feet.
Climbs: 3, Wx*: 50s-60s, 100%, W, Shelter: 5, Dinner: +, Overall: 5. *Weather while hiking; earlier: 50s-70s, 50%, TRW.
I slept until 10, and upon waking up was promptly put to work. We retrieved the sailboat from the lake, put it on its trailer, and moved it under cover (by hand). Then there was a trip to Winthrop for denatured alcohol and groceries, including a two pound brick of Cabot. A few showers blew through with the passing of a cold front, and we left at 4:30, which put me on trail by 6:00.
It was very windy, but the rain held off, and the night was clear and calm. I made a big two miles (the definition of a “nearo”, which a portmanteu for nearly zero) to the lean-to, which was shared with a group from Unity College majoring in outdoor education. A couple minutes later, one of them said hi and then asked if I was Ari. Uh, yeah, I am. He was a NNHS ’01 grad, and although I didn’t remember or recognize him. But we knew the same people. It’s a small world.
I ate fresh salmon (hey, I only had to carry it two miles) and some of the college group’s leftovers (yum, free food) before retiring for what was a rather warm start in my zero degree bag. No matter, I was very happy to have it, as there would be cold nights to come. The last time I was at a lean-to with a log to step over to get in (as this had — I’d later found out it is called a “deacon’s seat” and supposedly prevents porcupines from climbing on to the sleeping platform) was at Mount Algo, and a drunk showed up, and I got no sleep. This should be better.
September 25 — 14 Miles today, 1924.1 miles from Springer, 250.5 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -10 feet.
Climbs: 3,4,2, Wx: 30s-50s, 60%, FW, Shelter: 5, Dinner: 5, Overall: +.
The day today started out gray and foggy, with a tough climb up the very exposed Baldpate Mountain. The last 400 vertical feet up the east peak were on a big granite slab. In the strong wind and some fog, there were limited views. When the valleys were visible, they were quite red — a nice clear day some time soon would be good. But it sure was cold, and I was glad for gloves. Going downhill over rough terrain with a heavy pack was not a cup of tea either, and it took me a while to get to the first lean-to for lunch.
Beyond there, the day got better. Dunn Falls (a series of falls, actually) was very nice and I took a picture break — it would be a great swim spot on a warm day, and from there it was only about a mile to the Andover-East B Hill Road, which, to my surprise, was paved, although there is not much traffic on it, as it goes from nowhere to really nowhere through the middle of nowhere. From there it was six easy miles with great views to the lean-to, past a nice pond and some great trail work; the MATC should be proud. At the lean-to, I joined Walton Ford, an artist from Great Barrington who is on a “business trip” for inspiration — should the IRS ask. No, I can’t write off my trip, not only because I won’t have any income.
September 26 — 12.8 Miles today, 1936.9 miles from Springer, 237.7 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +155 feet.
Climbs: 2,1, Wx: 40s-50s, W, 100%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: 4, Overall: 4.
I left camp and started a steep descent to Sawyer Notch, falling on my bum on one of the rock steps not long in to it. The pack, again, took the brunt of the fall, but I rolled off the trail and in to some trees. I lay there for a while, cursing, until I pulled myself back on to the trail in time to see Walton scurry by. The first ford, at the bottom of the hill, was a rock hop, and then there was a long climb up and a long climb down to South Arm Road (also paved) followed by the long climb up Old Blue Mountain — a real rollercoaster of a morning. The elevations are not particularly high, but the topographic map speaks wonders — steep-walled notches which the trail crosses. None of this is easy.
There were great views and good, cold weather, but I didn’t feel wonderful. I took a very short day, thirteen miles, all but dashing any fleeting hopes of making the base of Katahdin before the wedding, but was glad for my health, companionship at the lean-to, and I turned in early for sleep. Plus, there was a padded toilet seat at the privy — classy.
September 27 — 19.5 Miles today, 1956.4 miles from Springer, 218.2 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -710 feet.
Climbs: 3,4, Wx: 30s-50s, 90%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: 4, Overall: 5.
I was out early, although I wasn’t going too fast. Walton passed towards the road with no food in his pack, he was going to hitch in to Rangeley and skip ten miles of the trail, the bastard. It was a slog up to Route 17, which has great views of the Rangeley Lakes, especially with clear weather and color, and then the trail flattened out.
I was going along well and soon met Seed and Faceplant, flip-floppers whom I’d last seen in Massachusetts. They informed me that there was a can of soup at the next lean-to. It was good, but it was low-fat chicken noodle soup. If you are going to leave something, leave a chowder, or stew, or something high in fat. It was, however, appreciated, and I made a mouse hanger out of the can and some twine there. At most lean-tos, old tin cans are hung upside-down with a rope going through. The mice can climb down the rope, but not over the can, and thus can’t get in to your food bag or pack. I think they are mostly a way not to have to pack out cans, but, hell, maybe they work.
After some uneventful hiking and smelly, swampy water (which I overtreated with AquaMira) I found more trail magic, in the form of Sierra Mist and Coke at the Route 4 crossing. I drank one of each, let out a couple of huge belches and was moving for the next lean-to, when I met Stoker, who had yellow-blazed (Why is hitching around a section of trail called “yellow-blazing”? Because of all those yellow blazes down the middle of the road.) to Route 4 and was setting camp. I decided to move on to the lean-to, found Walton as company again, and settled in for the evening, ready to climb Saddleback the next morn.
September 28 — 16.9 Miles today, 1973.3 miles from Springer, 201.3 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1060 feet.
Climbs: 1,2, Wx: 50s-60s, FW, 0%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: 4, Overall: 4.
From the log (Poplar Ridge):
“Note to French Canadians: I don’t speak French. I have NO IDEA what you’re saying. Are you making fun of Americans, planning evil schemes…I don’t know! Try writing in Spanish — then I will understand. Croissant!” -Hellbender, 8.30.
I had a late start after minor toe surgery, which I seem to need every few hundred miles. My ingrowing toenail (“And how is the old toenail? Still growing in, eh?”) is sort of static, and has been a bit bothersome since Hot Springs, N.C., so I think I can suffer with it on to Katahdin. It was terribly foggy, really a shame, because the views of Saddleback are rumored to be wonderful. I just hope the weather breaks before I go over the Bigelows. There were no views in the three miles above treeline [which were, by visual confirmation, snow-covered by late October], kind of a bummer, and it was wet, which made going especially slow down the east (north) side of the mountain.
I took a long break on a log after The Horn, my second new 4000 footer of the day (with three more to come tomorrow) and had lunch at the Poplar Ridge lean-to. The floor is a “baseball bat” type floor, meaning that it is made of locally-harvested saplings, all about three inches, stripped of branches and laid parallel to each other. It is an easy way to build a lean-to floor when you want to minimize the amount of wood you have to haul up. In the past, the bats were covered with hemlock branches, but that practice ended with LNT and a shortage of suitable branches nearby. The caretaker, a big name in trail maintenance, is Dave Field, who is in his 49th year taking care of this section of trail (and lean-to) and who is a retired forestry professor at U. Maine in Orono. He leaves several laminated pages of answers to questions, which is how I know a lot of this stuff. He helped to build this lean-to, too. In 1960. Quite a guy, eh? [I met him again in February (’07)!]
With the reading material, I took a rather long lunch, and didn’t leave until 3:40. I took a digger at Orberton Stream (another non-ford “ford”) and left at 5:20 with five miles to go. But it was sure an easy five miles, so I arrived at the lean-to just after dark, even with a major elevation gain. My toe hurts with a bunch of toe stubs, but the general numbness in my toes, plus my high pain threshold, minimize the effects of the pain.
September 29 — 18.6 Miles today, 1991.9 miles from Springer, 182.7 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +20 feet.
Climbs: 1,1, Wx: 30s-50s, 100%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: 5, Overall: 2.
My Nalgene bottle strap, which last broke in southern Pennsylvania, and which I repaired with P-cord, broke again. So I repaired it again. Good as new. I left late after this repair, in more fog and some rain as well. I summited Spaulding but didn’t go the extra 0.6 miles to Sugarloaf, which would have had no views anyway. It was very windy down the side of Sugarloaf, with some views in to the valleys which are in peak color. The Carabassett River was another non-ford, although a plank of wood, chained to a big rock, did help. It must wash away with every big storm. Walton said that the year before he arrived at the river to find continuous class III rapids, and had to climb back up Sugarloaf and then down the ski trails in June. Lucky for me the rain wasn’t as hard this time.
The sun threatened to come out up the Crockers, and the descent from the north peak was interminable. I slipped on a rock at one point, and then the rain hit. It was definitely a cold front, as the temperature dropped quite a bit, and I was wet and chilled to the bone. Ate Route 27, the sun was making an appearance, and I passed up Stratton, instead making for the Horns Pond lean-to. I finally put on all my layers down across Route 27, and then made my way up the Bigelows, climbing over 2000 feet (Wingfoot had poor elevations) and arriving at the shelter past dark. I tried my best to stay quiet, made a warm meal, and crawled in to bed, shivering for a while before I finally fell asleep, glad for every down feather in my bag.
September 30 — 27.5 Miles (MARATHON), 2019.4 miles from Springer, 155.2 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -2010 feet.
Climbs: 3,3,4, Wx: 30-50s, 40%, Z, Shelter: 4, Dinner: 4, Overall: +.
It took a while to fall asleep — I had to warm the bag first, and start myself drying out. The process was endless, and the sleep, once it came, restless. My shoes were wet in the morning, and it was just above freezing. My bag was wet from condensation, so I hung it to dry in the sun which was coming out, and I found that I was sharing the lean-to with a hiker, who I nicknamed, in my head, Miss Negativity. I was cold, wet and bitter and managed to keep a straight face. She was angry at everything, and couldn’t even take solace in the appearance of the sun. “It’s too cold…my shoes are cold…the trail in Shenandoah was in the wrong place…there are too many ridgetops.” And although she told me I missed the experience of the people by hiking too fast, there were two people and two shelters and she was not keeping the other guy company. Why am I not surprised? She then had the nerve to tell me that I was really loud and that I shouldn’t have cooked (I tried to be quiet, plus, you have to deal with it, lady, plus, it was no later than 9:00 when my lights were out), and then launched in to the whole “you missed the whole experience of the trail” by not drinking in every town. Some experience. I calmly pointed out that the Horns Pond Trail was really easy and nice down to Route 27, which had a lot of traffic. Right over her head. It was all good impetus to put on my cold, wet shoes (yipes, never a fun time) and start running up the trail in order to warm up — and get away from Ms. N.
In any case, I got up to the top of the Horns and had some splendid views. The valleys below were bright red — peak foliage, and it looked like there was ice or snow up on the top of the Bigelows. But I figured that I just drank too much — was it that cold? I was the first one on the trail, well, except for a moose which had left his tracks, and I got up to the summit of the west peak of Bigelow, which was white! All the trees, cairns and signs were encrusted in rime ice, as the fog last night must have blown through with the temperatures below freezing. It was stunning, with the ice and the long views in to the red valleys. I got very shutter-happy, and got some great photos.
I’ve been up the Bigelows twice before, but never had views this good. And I wasn’t the only one up for the scenery, by the time I got to the Avery Campsite (the lean-to burned several years back) there were day hikers climbing up, and I had company on Avery Peak, named for Myron H. Avery, a “grandfather” of the Trail, along with Benton MacKaye (Old Benton has a trail named after him down south). Two guys, from Maine and Massachusetts, respectively. The roots of the trail.
I spent way too much time on the Bigelows, but it was well worth it, and then went down the rather easy trail on the east side before traversing the endless Little Bigelow Ridge (albeit with some nice views). I went down from there and — POOF! — I was on to flat ground. No more major climbs until, well, until Katahdin. I was running late, but I wanted to make the shelter near the Kennebec tonight for two reasons: the ferry only ran from 10 a.m. to noon and I was signed up for breakfast at the camps just past it the next morning. The trail passes several large ponds, which are spectacular. The trail passes very few lakes south of here. Prior to New Jersey, there are no natural lakes along the trail, and from New Jersey to the High Peaks of Maine it is up high enough that the lakes are all far off. Here, huge, undeveloped lakes are everywhere, and the trail weaves between them.
Once it was dark, I heard a moose (it could not have been anything else) which was kind of spooky, although not as weird as when I saw a fire ahead of me on a beach. And then, I found two other NOBOs, Dead Bear and Moonbeam, who were camping there. I ate food and hung out for a while, and then hit the trail again.
At one point, I came upon a floating bog bridge. The trail crossed what seemed to be an area of recent beaver activity (it was dark, how could I know?) which was too deep or muddy for the MATC to just call a ford. So they linked together a bunch of logs, to make a floating bog bridge. They were pretty sturdy when I crossed them, but quite narrow, and my hiking pole, when set down in to the water, didn’t reach the bottom. During the day, this would have been interesting. At night, it was kind of scary. A slip would have sent me in to very deep water, at least as deep as my hiking pole. I took my time and was glad to be standing on soil at the other end. There were no major uphills, and I arrived at the shelter a bit before 1:00 (yes, a.m.) and settled in for a short night’s sleep.
October 1 — 4 Miles today, 2023.4 miles from Springer, 151.2 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -630 feet.
Climbs: Nil, Wx: 50s, 20%, Shelter: -, Dinner: -, Overall: 2.
We all woke up early, thanks to Minnesota Smith, Fish and Minnow all talking around 6:00. Fish and Minnow are a father and son team, and Minnesota Smith is a trail legend. But not so much in a good way. First of all, he’s not from Minnesota. Second of all, he only recently toned down his disparaging remarks about women, which had not gone over well. He was quoted, several times, as saying that he was on trail to find a wife, but she had to be no older than 27 because that is the best age for child bearing. Now, he is a pudgy (after 2000 miles of supposedly hiking), bald, 42-year-old who it seems just moved out of his mother’s basement (or so everyone agreed). He also carries an immense pack, including many items most people sent home from (or didn’t bring to) Georgia. Here’s a picture someone took of Minnesota Smith dressed in his usual hiking get-up: way too much clothing and, yes, two pairs of gaiters. This guy‘s going to get one of the few under-27 girls on the trail? I sincerely doubt it. In any case, I was glad not to have to spend a lot of time with the trio.
My foot was really beat from the night hike, but I hobbled to the Harrison Camps for breakfast: eggs, sausage, and twelve “red, white and blue” (raspberry, apple and blueberry) pancakes. Yum, yum, yum. After I ate through Fish’s grace (no, God is not going to keep me from food), we all finished our meal. I left after the three, but passed them, intent on crossing the Kennebec before they did.
I got to the ferry landing right around 10:00, and Steve, the ferryman, came right across. The Kennebec is a large river — the largest unbridged crossing on the trail — and is dangerous to ford. The trail was originally located there in order to take advantage of a ferry operating in the 1930s to shuttle sportsmen to camps across the river, and was reinstituted in 1985 when a section hiker died trying to ford. Water released from dams upstream can raise the level several feet in a manner of minutes, and it is cold, deep and slick, even at low water. Plus, most of the rafting companies start their trips mid-morning, so the water is “turned on” around, say, 9:00 and thus rises unexpectedly around the Trail at around 10:00, right when slower hikers from Harrison’s would be hitting the crossing. I signed a release form, hopped in the boat, grabbed a paddle, and we went across. I got to the other side and realized that I had forgotten my poles. Damn. I waited for him to go to the other side, get my poles, and then wait for Fish, Minnow and Minnesota Smith to slowly, slowly make their way down the trail and wait for the ferry. Damn. What a waste of half an hour, just from forgetting my poles.
I walked up to the store in Caratunk (a teeny, tiny excuse for a town) and slowly started coming to a decision. The Patriots were playing at 4:00, and I could easily get a hitch with the heavy traffic driving south to Waterville, and watch it with friends at Colby. Plus, I could get away from all these people who should have quit 1000 miles ago, get a shower, a proper resupply, and drive up, shuttle around, and do the hike to Monson with a nice, light pack. So I went out to the road, stuck out my thumb, and got a ride down with a nice Nutmegger (someone from Connecticut, not some weird trail talk) to Waterville, where I watched the game, and then got a ride to camp, where I showered, and went to bed.
October 2-8 — Off
I almost left for the trail on Monday (the 2d). I really should have. But I didn’t feel great, my toe still hurt, and a shuttle from Monson to Caratunk was going to run to $80. Now, in retrospect, I could have hitched around; I had the time. But I decided to hang out at camp. And by Tuesday morning, I drove home, with a doctor ready to see my toe on Wednesday. He did, I had very minor surgery on Thursday, and on Friday I left for the Manchester airport to fly to Oklahoma. The problem was that I sat in traffic for more than an hour on Route 128, a stretch of 10 miles, and missed the goddamn plane. If I had printed my boarding pass at home I likely would have made it, but the counter was empty. But Northwest was nice on the phone, and for $22, I got a flight down to Tulsa the next morning. I’d make it there, by the skin of my teeth, but at least I’d make it.