An Appalachian Trail Series – Maine

281.8 miles
21 days (09.16 – 10.07)

Fun Fact: The state of Maine has the highest moose population in the lower 48 states. As the largest member of the deer family, Maine has approximately 60-70,000 of the cute, gangly and DANGEROUS creatures. While aggression is not their norm, they can resort to it when a cow moose protects its young or when the bull moose is in the rut. As always, stay aware of your surroundings, observe from afar, and don’t be like these assholes who throw snowballs at them.unnamed.jpg


Dearest Reader,

I’m willing to bet you can relate. Perhaps not to my obvious endearment for the outdoors; perhaps not to this crazy notion of walking for 6 months straight. But, instead, to anticipation.

Something that has been at arm’s length and is getting closer and closer.

You can smell it.

You can gaze upon it.

You are breathing in its intoxicating essence.

You want it so bad that the very thought of entering it is driving you, quite literally, insane.

This foreplay, this longing, this anticipation, it has kept you awake dreaming about it for months on end.

You know it’s going to be long. You know it’s going to be rough. You know it’s going to be wet. You know it’s going to eat you up and spit you back out again and, you, you dear reader, will all the meanwhile find yourself in complete awe of its beautiful ache.

Your thoughts are solely fixated on the climax.

That climax of the journey. For us, that would be Maine.

Not what you were expecting? Ah, well. At least I got your attention. Maine wasn’t quite what I was expecting either so let’s call it even.

Sincerely,

Your friendly, neighborhood not-so-frequent blog writer


MAINE.

To better express how excited we were to reach this point, the word Maine will hereby be referred to as MAINE. All-caps = excitement.

It feels silly to say, but it felt like we were in MAINE the moment we crossed into it. The trees, the dirt, the rocks were the same 5 feet one way and 5 feet the other. However, for some reason, it just felt different. Perhaps it was the finality of our journey along these wondrous 14 states, but you could blindfold me and drop me out of the sky into this section of trail and I am confident I would say New Hampshire MAINE.

Our perception of its difference rang true for the entirety of the state. It was rustic, far more so than any other stage of the journey. The distance to town was much longer. The trails, while nice, were at times so swallowed up by rocks and roots that you could only tell where the trail led by following the only piece of surrounding ground not covered with moss. Lakes were aplenty. Kindness was aplenty. Wildlife was aplenty, too. The trail was much like how I pictured the people… straight and to the point. There was none of this switchback bullshit (okay, maybe a bit). You want to climb this mountain? Fine, there’s the summit. Walk straight towards it. Simple as that. The fall colors are an unmatched spectacle. And the air was crisp. Yes, it would get cold but it was a bit refreshing, dare I say cleansing (except when you’re soaking wet but more on that later).

MAINE.

There is no better place to finish an adventure of this caliber than MAINE. And so we begin…

After a chilly night’s welcome, we headed onward and upward through the MAINE backcountry. At this portion of the state, and as we’d find would hold true for much of the remainder, it consisted primarily of pines, rock slabs, and mud. Mud bogs to be specific; mud bogs so deep that my trekking pole could go halfway down and still not reach bottom.

At one point early on, those rock slabs caved in on us and filled a ravine called Mahoosuc Notch. I suppose they may have caved in a few million years ago (please don’t fact check that time frame) but this mile-long obstacle is referred to as the hardest (and most fun) mile on the Appalachian Trail.

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Even though it took our group nearly TWO HOURS to go ONE mile, time wasn’t the important factor. It was the bouldering. We had to twist our bodies into unnatural positions, take terrifying leaps from boulder to boulder (at least in my acrophobic mind), and even crawl through tunnels.

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In some cases, the A.T. appears to take the least logical route possible (i.e. down a waterfall or straight up-and-over rather than around). While this may fall into that category, an enjoyable hardship it was.

The next couple of days brought us up the Mahoosuc Arm, up, over and through MAINE backcountry, and into Andover. This one intersection town was small yet welcoming. We stayed at a place called Pine Ellis for a night which was more than accommodating. They recommended dinner at the local general store as it was the only place open within a 15 mile radius. It was quite good and gave us plenty of the much needed fat we’d been missing in our diet.

After a late night with friends, we went to breakfast the next morning at a place called Little Red Hen Diner. This was hands down my favorite breakfast of the trail. I know, I know… I say that in every A.T. post as hunger gives me tunnel vision. Except this one really was my favorite breakfast.  Everything was homemade from scratch – from the English muffins to the ketchup.

Once we caught a hitch back to the trail, we walked a few miles and discovered an abandoned cabin on a lake. After deciding that this looked like an optimal camp site for the night, we hunkered in forgetting how nearly every horror flick produced began this exact way. If we were going to become the next victims of “Jason”, at least the backdrop would be stunning. The maples were dressed in their fall’s best and brilliant reds. Contrast those with the rich blue water of the lake, green from the trees not yet turned and the soft blue sky and it was the perfect setting for some horror movie action.

Fortunately, we survived without having to escape “Jason” (which would most certainly consist of the quintessential horror movie plot – running to the worst hiding spot known to man like the basement or second floor).

It was nice being inside as it was starting to get quite cold, even with four walls and a warm sleeping bag. The elevation changes had been kicking our butt, too. When we started the final stretch into Rangeley, we were exhausted and in need of a reprieve. Here is a journal entry from that day.

09.22.2012 – Day 191 (Candice)

We tried to leave early to make it to the post office in time to ship some food ahead. We weren’t successful as we left camp around 8:30 AM. Turns out that was okay. We ran into a ridgerunner who told us that the resupply ahead was good and shipping food was unnecessary.

I’m starting to catch a cold so I was ready to head into town to get some medicine. Right as we walked into the parking lot at the road crossing we’d need to a catch a ride at, an older couple pulled in. Without having to ask, they offered to drive us into town – we didn’t even have to throw out a thumb!

They were really nice and gave us some background about the area while showing us around. It turns out their son thru-hiked some years prior so they enjoy helping hikers when they can. After saying our goodbyes, we headed into the library where we spent a couple of hours browsing the web and writing a blog post. Afterwards, we went to the Red Onion and devoured a Rueben Pizza. Sounds strange but it was delicious!

We were talking with some hikers outside the restaurant when a former thru-hiker offered to drive us to the IGA for resupply. We happily accepted and spent a lot of money as it was a very expensive grocery store. A large group of us were hanging around outside when a cop pulled up. Some hikers were drinking beer and were told that they can’t do so in public. As they were walking it to the trash, the cop yelled over “No, don’t do that! Just pour it into a cup so no one will know!” Thank you, Officer Friendly! We will gladly do so!

We walked down to a neat store called “Ecopelagicon” and received some free – and very yummy – ice cream. While there, we were informed of a couple in town that offers a place for hikers to camp in their backyard. Our group walked there using the map the lady at the store gave to us. We had an amazing time with amazing conversation. The owner, Mike, came outside with his daughter and played music with Chatty by the campfire. The guitar, fiddle, and flute sounded fantastic together. They played an irish jig which got us all amped up. The guys stayed up late and got pretty drunk. I had to go to sleep decently early since this cold is kicking my ass.

Our one night stay extended to 2 ½ due to my cold and everyone’s general need to rest up. Rangeley was the perfect place to do so. It’s a region of resorts, ice cream shops, hunting and fishing with Rangeley being central to all of the above. In other words, people want to come here which leads to people spending their money here which leads to more attractions to make people want to come here (and on and on the cycle goes). When I say resort area, please don’t imagine our earlier experience in Gatlinburg. Rangeley is a much smaller, more… refined… resort area.

Alas, we needed to move on at risk of becoming a permanent fixture in Rangeley. The next segment brought us into Stratton, up and over the Bigelow’s and across the 2,000 mile marker on Avery Peak! The setting for this accomplishment made us feel like true mountaineers. Nowhere near the Conrad Anker level of mountaineer but hardcore none-the-less. The climb was tough, sweat was profuse, and visibility was nil. Good thing there was a sign to tell us that we did indeed make it to the summit!

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We concluded the day with a successful, albeit dicey, wood-plank crossing over a mud bog and a beautiful campsite next to Flagstaff Lake. A fire on the beach kept us warm as a crisp breeze rolled off the lake. This place encapsulated fall in its finest.

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We couldn’t leave without practicing our spear throwing skills

The next few days had modest terrain. There was nothing too challenging other than the rocks and roots. A couple of highlights were:

  1. Crossing the Kennebec River via canoe shuttle. When you reach the river, you’ll find (and subsequently wave) an orange flag signaling that you need a ride across the river. The shuttle paddler will come and retrieve you and bring you to the other side. Too many people have tried to cross the relatively large river by swimming across and have not been successful in one way or another. The canoe is the safest route and thus has an official white blaze on the bottom of the canoe.
  2. Kennebec River Brewery was a wonderful pit stop. They (the entity is actually Northern Outdoors) offer food, beer, lodging, and is even a full-scale adventure outfitter offerings guides in rafting, snowmobile, ATV, and fishing trips among others). While we did not partake in the outfitter services, we did partake in the food and drink services and those were phenomenal.

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Heading onward and upward, we finally landed in a wonderful little town called Monson. Monson is the last stop before heading into the infamous 100-Mile Wilderness, a 100 mile stretch of complete and utter isolation requiring more planning and more food than any previous stretch of trail. Complete and utter isolation may be a bit dramatic. It’s not like we were stepping into a Stephen King novel here. If you were to come across a Jack Nicholson lookalike wielding an axe yelling “Here’s Johnny”, you should still be quite nervous about your survival.

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The very definition of poor nutrition.

Because of its final stop status (for NOBO’s that is), hikers tend to “live it up” in Monson. Don’t get me wrong, Monson is a small town. Like… really small. Like… 700 people small. A small town can feel like a bustling metropolis when you spend a few days in the woods, however, so it was more than enough to fulfill any wish or desire.

It fulfilled so many wishes and desires that we ended up staying nearly 4 days. Perhaps it was the finality of the trip, perhaps it was the indulgences of pizza, beer, food in general, kayaking, and laughter with friends; whatever the reason, it was especially challenging to leave Monson.

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The Friday Night Jam session in Monson at the General Store stars hikers and townsfolk alike. Moments like this are such a simple memory yet one I will never forget.

During our visit, we stayed at The Lakeshore House in downtown Monson right on Lake Hebron. Everything about it was beautiful – The views, the ambiance, the food, the owner, Rebekah. We’ve had many wonderful stays during our thru-hike but The Lakeshore House was top notch. As you near the end of your trip, you tend to savor every little thing you experience. Rebekah made it even more enjoyable with her bubbly personality and warm hospitality. During the time of our visit, The Lakeshore House offered bunks, private rooms, laundry with loaner clothes, computer and internet access, resupply shuttle ($), food and drinks in their very own pub, trailhead drop-off and even kayak usage. I would recommend any person traveling through Monson to visit The Lakeshore House.

In all fairness, I’ve heard wonderful things about Shaw’s Hiker Hostel as well.

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The 100-Mile Wilderness.

Anticipated.

Revered.

Awaited.

               Respected.

We went hiking for enlightenment in the woods; for the simplicity in taking time everyday to ponder the philosophical works of Plato and Socrates and Nietzsche (more along the line of “Is ‘bacon’ the world’s greatest pizza topping or would that be ‘mushrooms’?”).

The very definition of enlightening solitude is the 100-Mile Wilderness… and thus we begin.

Our group was dropped off by a former thru-hiker eager to see the long-awaited wonders of this venerated section. The beginning of October turned out to be the very best possible time to see MAINE’s colors. Every tree was in full display surrounding us with the most vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges. There is no shortage of water in MAINE so rivers were fully engorged.

The only differences between my expectations versus reality were the amount of people we’d see (there was a fairly large bubble of hikers around us) and the amount of trash we’d find in some sections (apparently litterers do find their way into the wilderness, too).

One particularly memorable view was that from Barren Slide. Memorable is an understatement. It was one of those views that I’ll be recalling to my great-grandchildren when I’m laying on my death bed at the ripe young age of 95. As you’ve probably surmised, it was… barren. Views were unobstructed and colorful.

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This location was bittersweet for me knowing that these breath-taking views were becoming more and more limited. We were drawing near to the end. Each day you walk “x” number of miles and it can feel like your progress moves at a snail’s pace. Now that we were nearing the end, it felt like this journey passed all too fast.

At our home for the night, we joined forces for the night with a couple of other hikers and enjoyed our time playing “Jeopardy” while listening to music from a boom box straight out of the 90’s. Some other friends made an appearance in the middle of the night. Friends that were less than welcome.

Mice.

This shelter was teeming with the little critters. While this was something you get used to along the trail, having one fall off the overhead beams onto your stomach is NOT something to which you are accustomed. Needless to say, sleep was minimal this night fretting not over having one touch you as to having one maneuver its way into your food. The 100-mile wilderness would be a less than ideal location to not have any food.

Fortunately for us, we survived this ordeal with food and ounces of rest intact.

The 100-mile wilderness really isn’t much different than the section of trail immediately prior. The only big difference is the lack of main roads. We were in a bit of shock when we did come across some roads. While not heavily traveled and lacking pavement, they were still roads. Even in middle-of-nowhere MAINE, the brush of civilization still leaves its strokes.

The most surprising part was the amount of trash we found. While I’m not talking landfills here, we found more trash here than in previous sections of MAINE. I can’t say with any certainty that the Cookie Monster hadn’t passed through immediately prior but whether it was left by one inconsiderate person or an accumulation over time, it’s a shame to see such pristine wilderness being trashed upon.

Don’t be that person.

We were excited to catch our first glimpse of Katahdin on top of Whitecap Mountain. Even with the feeling of finality having hit in the days and weeks prior, it was still crazy to finally SEE our finish line. Despite parts of it being shrouded in clouds, it still appeared so tall and mighty jutting up from the surrounding flatter land.

Our tent site at Cooper Brooks Falls was one of the loudest nights on the trail… even louder than the ridiculously deafening cicada’s down south and the howling wind in The White’s. It felt as if we were camped right next to Niagara Falls. Usually I’d term trickling water as “soothing” but when the “trickle” turns into “semi-truck blasting it’s air brakes” it provokes an entirely different sensation.

Sleeplessness.

Easy terrain helped aid in some big mile days and the magical landscape made the time move quickly. Here is a glimpse at our second to last day in the woods:

DAY 204 – 10/6/2012 (Candice)

We did it! We woke up super early and hiked 10 miles by 10 AM! The terrain was pleasant with lime green moss covering the ground much of the way. It was moss-some. 😉

When we arrived at Abol Bridge, we all walked into the store and instantly went for the beer. We had to celebrate our accomplishment! After doing so, we went to the restaurant to get some lunch. Priorities, amirite? We had some delicious burgers inside the Abol Bridge Café. What a great day this was turning out to be, right?

WRONG.

After hiking out to complete the last 10 miles of the day, we had to stop at the Baxter State Park information kiosk to register. We had pleasant conversation with some A.T. ridgerunners (including the one we met on our very first day at Springer)! Doesn’t sound so bad, right?

WRONG.

A few miles in, we spotted some dark clouds moving in… and moving in fast they did! It started to downpour which ended up lasting for the remainder of the day. We were downright soaked by the end and freezing cold! I believe we (or at least I) were borderline hypothermic by the time we made it to the Ranger Station at the base of Katahdin. I couldn’t stop shaking while talking with the Ranger and certainly couldn’t get warm. We did end up seeing some friends we hadn’t seen in a long, long time so that was a nice distraction.

After chatting with the Ranger for some time, we realized that she wasn’t going to be too helpful in regards to answering summiting questions. We rushed to the lean-to to get out of our soaking clothing and get warm. Rob earned the three of us some carrot cake since he carried the matches that a ridgerunner gave him in Georgia the whole length of the trail. The match sleeve was barely legible after months of wear and tear. The ridgerunner said he didn’t have anybody actually do it so that either makes us suckers or completely awesome. I’ll go with the latter.

At the shelter, we saw another hiker we hadn’t seen since Virginia. At first I was happy but it gradually turned into irritation as he would NOT STOP TALKING. I forgot how much he talked. I finally let my irritation go as it was likely due to my hypothermic state rather than the constant play-by-plays. It was actually a bit humorous as he threw in some comments about the women he has dated over the years.

I think he fell asleep mid-sentence.

The three of us decided that we are going to wake up at 3AM to try and catch the sunrise on top of Katahdin tomorrow. Hopefully it won’t be too cold and our morale boosts as we’re pretty down from the miserable end to the day.

While we managed to wake up early, it took us a bit of time getting around as we finished drying our shoes over our camp stove. It may not have been the brightest idea but it worked! As mentioned previously, we would go through great lengths to avoid walking in wet shoes if possible.

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Permits are now required by Baxter State Park to summit Katahdin via the Hunt Trail (the official route of the A.T.). Permits are free but limited to a set number of long-distance hikers each year. You can find more information here.

Despite feeling tired, our moods were good (how could they not be knowing we were about to summit Katahdin!). We signed the register stating that we were indeed on our way to the top and left the majority of our gear behind. We had debated carrying it all to the top simply because we carried it with us all the way here. It had supported us for 2,000+ miles, we couldn’t possibly leave it behind now. But, we decided that was silly and hiking without a bunch of weight is MUCH more pleasant. Smell you later tent, sleeping bags, cookset, etc. etc. etc.

Everything was feeling surreal now. This wasn’t us. We hadn’t actually hiked 2100+ miles all the way from Georgia. What sane person would have such a desire?

Even stranger were the ridiculous things we were already making into nostalgic moments… feats that weren’t looked forward to in the past but because we were finishing, turned into a big deal.

Wah! This is the last uphill climb of our hike!

Wah! I won’t have to eat Knorr Pasta Sides ever again for the rest of my life!

Wah! I’m going to use this privy because it’s the last one I’ll see!

Along that line was the idea that we’d make it to the summit to watch the sunrise. I think we were approximately 1/3 of the way of the 5.2 mile (one-way) trail when the horizon displayed it magnificent colors.

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While the uphill was a challenge, we were seasoned hikers at this point. A bit of steady breathing and consistent pace were all it took to make our trek easy-peasy.

All was easy-peasy that is until we felt the ramifications from the yesterday’s rain coupled with the early morning, sub-freezing temperatures. Once we started to break the low cloud layer leftover from the previous day’s storm, everything had a layer of frost on it. That wouldn’t have been so worrisome had I not needed to cling for my life to the slippery rocks when we hit the scrambling portion of the hike (aka the Hunt Spur and The Gateway).

Per usual, I may have been a bit dramatic. The guys had zero problem hop, skip and jumping towards the summit. I, on the other hand, held onto those rocks like my life depended on it. Through my eyes at the time, it did. The zero visibility didn’t help. My vivid imagination had me believing that a fall would send me 2,000 feet to splatter on the jagged rocks leading to Mordor below. I later realized during our descent with clear skies that those falls leading to certain death would consist all of 5 feet.

The retrospective lunacy was something I could chuckle at later in the day.

For now, let’s go back to bone-shaking fear.

I. WAS. SCARED.

I felt like it was a legitimate fear, too. I mean… look at this!

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Once we (finally) reached “The Tablelands”, we knew we conquered that ridiculousness. I mean, we still had to go back down but that was my furthest thought at the moment. My actual thoughts were (in no particular order):

“I can’t believe I survived that nonsense”

“I’m really cold”

“I really need to take up new hobbies”

“Rob’s booty looks really nice from here”

The Tablelands were an easy 1.5-mile stroll leading to the summit. The land was barren consisting of lichen and small alpine plants that could survive the harsh climate. Rumor has it, the views were great, too. Rumors were all that carried us through as we were surrounded by a vast white expanse – either I did fall and tricked my way into heaven or we were nestled right in middle of the dense cloud layer.

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It’s all a blur from here.

Sure, we crossed a few landmarks such as Thoreau Springs and other landmarks we couldn’t read the sign for:

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But, we had our eyes on the prize (and down out of the wind). Every few seconds, one of us would say, “Is that it?”

“No? Okay.”

“Wait, that’s definitely it, right?!”

When it finally was it, it seemingly came out of nowhere thanks to the fog. It didn’t matter. Whether we had clear views or cloud covered, rain or shine, the moment was just as glorious!

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Since we were the first ones to summit that day, everything was pure and untouched. Unlike a warm, clear day where one must literally wait in line to get a picture with the sign, we had 5-10 minutes of beautiful solitude.

THIS WAS IT.

THIS IS WHAT WE TOILED, SWEATED AND LABORED TO GET TO.

THIS IS WHAT WE HAD BEEN WALKING TOWARD FOR THE PAST 6 MONTHS.

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It was a bit emotional.

A good thing to remember if you summit on a cold day is to make sure you bring spare batteries or something to protect your camera from the cold. We did not and were able to shoot all of two pictures before our camera died. Fortunately, we still had our iPod touch (I’m really showing our age here) to take more pictures.

Even with the bone-chilling cold, we demanded to spend some time atop the terminus. We found a little cocoon that was enough to get us out of the wind. We sat amongst each other’s company not really talking much but instead soaking in the moment. Rob broke the silence by doing a toast to his dad while we followed suit finishing our ice-cold beer with shaking hands. It was at this point that we decided to say our final goodbye’s to the sign and head back down the mountain.

What comes next, you ask?

That was precisely what we asked ourselves, too. I don’t mean this in a “you walk the same trail back down so you already know what comes next” type of question.

Although, for some the answer would not be the same trail but rather the “Knife’s Edge” – a 1.1 mile hike connecting Baxter and Pamola Peaks. Navigating the path is rather straight-forward as straying too far may lead you straight off 1,000 foot drops. It is for this reason that the park strongly urges attempts to be made only under perfect weather. Such exposure leaves you extremely vulnerable to wind and weather (and nagging wives afraid of obvious death). No, we did not attempt the trail. We had inclement weather and therefore were not able to make the journey across.

Bummer.

I was really looking forward to certain death this exhilarating section.

Too bad THE WEATHER prohibited us.

Such a shame.

Oh well! MOVING ON!

Moving on for us meant heading back home to Michigan and finding work again. It felt a bit anti-climactic after such a journey to hop back into the grind. Truth be told, it was. Don’t get me wrong, we were excited to head home and reunite with our family and friends. That part was delightful. Rather, it was the day-to-day tedium that left a void in our lives. This leads me to a little something called “Post-Trail Depression”.

It’s a real thing, folks. Perhaps not at first, maybe not even for a couple of months, and certainly not for everyone. It comes in various shapes and sizes, strengths and lengths. With as exciting of a journey as you have been on for the last 4,5,6 months, this kind of change is bound to disrupt your equilibrium. The important thing is to have as much of a plan as is reasonable for what’s to come after the trail. This not only keeps your mind busy but gives you a renewed daily purpose.

It’s this purpose that helps you look forward to future exciting journeys – whether they be a career, a family, or another trail – while being able to look back at this experience with reflective joy, rather than desperate longing.

Although… memories of that beautiful ache may lead to passionate longings.

Of MAINE.

Yes, yes, I am talking of MAINE.

Didn’t we already go over this?

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