At the northern reaches of the Appalachian Trail in Maine is the remotest stretch of walking: almost 100 miles without any towns or major road crossings, just the occasional long, private gravel road. My dad thought this would make a great backpacking trip after reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. And so, for the past two years, we planned on tackling this lonely stretch of trail. After flying from Portland to Newark to Providence, I met my folks at the airport and got ready for a 6 hour drive into the heart of Maine. Our plan: to hike north from Monson to Baxter State Park, 100 miles, in 8 days.
Day 1 (June 26, 2009)
We awoke from a good night’s sleep at the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket, Maine and head a nice, hearty breakfast before meeting Paul, our shuttle to Monson. One of the owners of the lodge, Paul basically shuttles AT hikers all day long, does their laundry, handles mail drops, and pretty much accommodates whoever, whenever, and whatever all through the hiking season. The guy is an angel.
We arrived at the trail head before noon and did one final check before embarking on our journey. The skies were overcast, the ground was damp, and the trail was surrounded by thick vegetation. At last, we were off.
Not five minutes into our walk we encountered a pond overflowing into an outlet stream that we needed to cross. The environment reminded me of a previous high water hike I’d done in the Whites years ago. The familiar plant life, smells and terrain came rushing back to me as we proceeded along the trail. As we sloshed through mud, clambered down wet rocks and gingerly stepped over, on, and between roots, I tried to snap out of West-coast hiking mode and back into East-coast hiking mode.
In the first hour of our hike we came across 5 or 6 hikers heading southbound to Georgia. They ranged from a single guy with his dog who was cruising along, to a cheerful couple who didn’t look like they’d been hiking for a week, to a guy who looked like he’d been hiking through a war for a month. We stopped for lunch mid-afternoon at a small opening in the woods, where we looked at the map to see how far we’d gone. The map, as we’d learn time and time again, was very difficult to use to gauge our progress. The trail has so many minute up and downs that do not show up on the map; however, when carrying 40 pounds those ups and downs feel significant enough to be seen on the map.
Shortly after our break, we reached the Leeman Brook Lean-to and then passed by the pretty North Pond. Calculating our speed at about one mile per hour left me feeling defeated already. I hoped that we would be able to pick up the pace in the coming days, or we’d never have a shot at finishing in our allotted time.
There are few points of interest along the trail. When we reached one, Little Wilson Falls, we used it as an excuse to take our packs off and check out the scenery. The waterfall blasts through a narrow gorge made of parallel slats of rock. The recent month of constant rain produced a high volume flow over the top of the falls. Hearing the loud pounding of water reminded me of home. But we had miles to cover, so we loaded up and went on our way.
Up to this point, the air had been heavy with humidity and the skies above looked ominous. It was inevitable that rain was on its way. And so, rain it did. I had a pack cover protecting the contents of my backpack but I skipped the rain gear for myself in fear of sweating to death. At the next river ford, we changed into water shoes in hopes of keeping our boots from getting soaked through. The rain broke for just a short while, and started up again as soon as I began to cross. The water rushed swiftly through the central river channel and tried its best to take me out. Once safely on the other side, we changed into boots and went on our way. The rain picked up and we exited the cover of forest to walk along more open, rocky ledges. We decided to move as fast as we could to get to the lean-to before dark. That was 3 miles away. Three miles sounded to me like a very, very long ways away.
But I put my head down, revved up my motor and went for it. My dad struggled along behind, moving as best as he could. We didn’t talk much as we negotiated nasty roots, slippery rocks and steep ups and downs. The next landmark we reached was a stream crossing. Looking at the map, we saw that the lean-to was still one mile away. It was now past 7 pm. We decided to camp here for the night. Fortunately we had just passed someone’s old campsite not 100 yards down the trail, so we called that home. The rain subsided a little bit as I set up my tent and my dad tried, unsuccessfully, to get a fire going. We were right beside a great big river so we filtered water, made dinner, and changed into dry clothes.
I slept on and off that night, listening to the rain pelt the tent, and wondering if my hips were going to make it through this in one piece. My pointy little hip bones get destroyed by heavy backpacks. I was using my custom made pads (Brad’s crafty handiwork) but I had my doubts. Friction sucks.
Day 2 (June 27, 2009)
The nastiest rain was over by morning, giving us a “dry” window in which to pack up and get moving. We decided to have a small snack and trek a mile to the next lean-to, where we’d prepare the real breakfast and have the option of shelter. Once we arrived there we woke up a hiker and his dog. They were just spending the night and were on their way out later in the day. We chatted as we ate warm couscous breakfast cereal, then got going. We set a goal to reach the next lean-to, 4.5 miles away, for lunch. After a couple of big stream crossings we got a break of sunshine so I stopped to tape up my feet to prevent blisters. They were doing fine so far, and I wanted to keep it that way.
By 1 pm we reached the lean-to and the sun was still shining. I switched into Crocs, laid out all my socks and other wet clothing, and ate my lunch. It was gnarly just getting here: more mud, roots, rock, and mud. Oh, did I mention mud? Yeah, there was some mud along the trail. Boot-sucking mud. The scrambling sections would have been great fun on a dayhike but are absolutely murderous with a heavy pack. Especially when the rock is wet. I was very happy to have hiking poles!
Ahead lay a three mile climb to the top of Barren Mountain. The trail would gain 1700′ feet from the lean-to to the top. Again, this would be no big deal on a dayhike…but carrying weight is a whole different story. We pushed as hard as we could as the afternoon sun beat down on us. The trail was unrelenting up to the Barren Slide, where we slipped off our packs and trotted out to the lookout point. WOW! From the top of this gigantic rockslide, we were treated to views of the surrounding countryside. We watched hawks ride thermals high above the valley floor and I snacked on a well-deserved Snickers Bar. It was really beautiful up here. In retrospect, I am glad that I savored this moment because it would be the last of its kind.
As we completed the final assault of Barren Mountain, the sun disappeared behind soggy sheets of mist and we reached the bare summit ensconced in a wet cloud. The remnants of a firetower rose into the mist. The wind blew. We spent no time here, instead heading down the other side, intent on hitting the next lean-to. Once we reached the junction, we expected to prance another 150 yards or so to get to our sleeping place. Instead, this one was almost a half mile off the trail, through sloppy, deep mud. Great. If you’re thinking, “What, just another half a mile?” then you are unable to grasp exactly how awful we felt at that exact moment. I think my dad checked out mentally and physically about 2 hours before, so reaching that sign was a big, fat disappointment. We trudged on until finally dropping our stuff at the Cloud Pond Lean-to.
Someone had already colonized the lean-to, as evidenced by the tent inside and articles of clothing suspended in the mist. My non-freestanding tent doesn’t really work inside a lean-to so I set up a pad and my sleeping bag inside, then proceeded to reheat a tasty, spicy, Chicken Pilaf for dinner. I’d spent months ahead of time preparing dehydrated food for this trip at home so that we would eat well. And eat well we did. The home-made food blows away the freeze-dried stuff you can get at REI. They are so good I’ve eaten them at home when I didn’t feel like taking the time to prepare dinner.
It was overly buggy here. I gave myself a good spray-down and put on my head net for the first time. We nursed a sorry fire all night that wouldn’t stay going for more than three minutes unattended. But that gave me something to do and it got my mind off of the misery we’ve endured so far on this trip. Dad stayed occupied chatting with the other hiker who had holed up here for the night. I ran around gathering sticks and blowing air into the hottest part of the fire. I went to bed with my headnet on, dreaming of better weather and speedy travels.
Day 3 (June 28, 2009)
The next morning we ate breakfast, then put our wet socks and boots back on. There was no way for anything to dry because the air was so moist. I think that hanging our clothes just allowed water particles to move from the air into the clothing, making them even more wet, if that was possible.
We blasted through the mud to regain the main trail. We completed the slick, nasty descent down Barren Mountain to the base of Fourth Mountain, a 500 foot bump on the map. This was where looking at the map was basically a ridiculous waste of time. The trail was barely a trail, by some standards. It was ruggedly steep, consisting of the now ubiquitous mixture of mud-covered or soaking wet slab, webs of roots and giant-sized steps. The steep incline was followed by an even steeper descent that required the utmost concentration and care in where I put my feet.
Early in the morning I felt a bit queasy and just a little off, so I asked my dad to go on ahead while I battled my stomach and forced my legs to move. After eating some food and getting myself into the rhythm again, I started to feel a little better. I had been staying as positive as possible during the last two days, coming back to every complaint with a smile and some upbeat words. But now I was worn down. I couldn’t handle any more negative remarks from myself or my dad. I needed some space. I was feeling myself lose control over the situation and that made me feel worse.
There were many minor elevation changes over the next few miles. It was impossible to get any kind of flow going. I walked up, then down, then scrambled down, then climbed up, then traversed slab, then splashed through water up to my ankles then… it was frustrating. The air was heavy; it felt like walking through soup. By the time we reached Columbus Mountain, the clouds gave way and released their aqueous cargo upon the land. It dumped rain. For two hours. My pants clung to my legs, my feet squished in my socks, and the water washed bug repellent into my eyes. My glasses fogged up. My soul was being sucked out by each rain drop and I could do nothing to stop it.
We rolled up to the Chairback Gap lean-to at 2pm and called it a day. Dismayed and demoralized, we slung off our wet gear and crawled into dry clothes. The best decision I made on this trip was to keep one set of underwear, pants, and shirt dry for night time. Nestled in my warm sleeping bag in my dry clothes and fleece, I watched as the rain got even heavier outside the shelter.
Another hiker joined us not too long after we got comfy in the lean-to. He was attempting to hike to Georgia, but some infected blisters had been ruining his trip. After catching a glimpse at his feet I wondered why he hadn’t ditched out sooner. It must have been excruciating to walk. Later on that evening two guys fresh out of high school, also bound for Georgia, joined us in our dry sanctuary. It would be a full house tonight but everyone was amiable and that made for a nice atmosphere.
My dad and I came to the decision that we would hike to the next bail-out point, the Katahdin Ironworks Road, the next day. We had both been caught off-guard by the challenges brought about by this trip and reasoned that it would be better to get out while we still could. There were only a few points of contact with the outside world along this trail and there was no point prolonging the situation and risking injury. It was really disappointing for both of us. I had a hard time getting to sleep that night, knowing that I’d failed at reaching my goal and that all the anticipation had led to a very major anticlimax. But I knew that we had no chance of meeting our timeline, and we weren’t exactly having fun.
Day 4 (June 29, 2009)
The rain pelted the metal roof of the lean-to all night long. When we rose in the morning, the rain was still coming down. The three other guys sleeping there looked like they were hunkering down for the entire day. I dozed in and out of sleep for most of the morning, waiting for a break in the weather so we could make our escape. At 11 am we made the decision to move. Water was still sprinkling down from the wet treetops as the breeze picked up, but the clouds were not dumping rain.
It was a little confusing to find the trail from the hut but soon we were on our way. Before long, we stood atop the ledges on Chairback Mountain. My cell phone had service up here so I placed a call to Paul at the lodge to ask humbly for a shuttle home. He said he’d meet us in four hours. That gave us plenty of time to hike 4 miles to the road, and a short ways down to the closest parking lot. Knowing we were so close to the end gave me a boost of confidence. We moved smoothly along, dreading the much-maligned backside of Chairback Mountain. The last group of people we chatted with spoke of impossibly steep and smooth slab that they could barely manage to get up and could not imagine the terror of getting down. In fact, one guy said he’d planned to hike the AT north to south instead of the other way around simply to avoid downclimbing that area. Yikes! I agonized over the thought of yet another hurdle.
Shortly, we began noticing more downhill walking than uphill walking and figured we’d get to the gnarly scramble soon. We reached the top of a small (50 ft?) rockslide composed of giant, blocky boulders that made a nice, solid staircase leading back into the woods. The steps were large, but the rocks were solidly nestled against each other and we were through it in no time. Was that the dreaded section the others had spoken of?
It was, and the rest of the hike out was fairly pleasant compared to the nastiness we had already come through. Perhaps we were hardened from our previous days of hiking, or perhaps we had come through the toughest sections already…who knows? We arrived at our destination about an hour early so we had some snacks, slathered bug repellent on our skin, and waited for our ride. It had been a most excellent adventure, beyond our wildest imaginations. And I had a hot shower and warm bed awaiting me at the Lodge :).
As with all outdoor experiences, successful or not, there is much to be learned. Here are a few tidbits that were very helpful to me on this journey that I now share with you. Happy trails.
- Keep one set of dry clothes for the evening. My choice: underwear, long-sleeved shirt and long-john bottoms. I didn’t bother keeping dry socks since I knew I’d have a nice warm bag to crawl into and I hate sleeping with socks. MAJOR morale booster.
- Put clothing into a waterproof stuff sack and sleeping bag inside a garbage bag inside its own stuff sack.
- Eat well. All the time and effort I spent in preparing home-made dehydrated meals was worth it. I enjoyed every morsel of every meal. And, it weighs nothing!
- Have a pair of crocs handy for wearing around camp. They hardly weigh anything, dry quickly, keep your feet well aired out and are super comfortable.
- Use duct tape on hot spots as soon as you notice them to prevent blisters.
- Keep a well-stocked first aid kit loaded with blister pads, bandaids, neosporin, etc. Treat injuries asap, even if they are minor. Minor injuries can become infected and worsen without treatment.