Gear review

For anyone planning a thru-hike who happens to be reading my blog, this could be the most useful post I make. You’re welcome. For anyone who doesn’t backpack, this is probably the least useful post I’ll make. I’m sorry.

One of the primary concerns for thru-hikers is minimizing pack weight. I realized this before my hike because I read a lot of trail journals. For other hikers they had to learn it on their hike. It is difficult to trade out gear while you’re hiking, both from a logistical perspective and from a cost perspective. It is best to start with the lightest weight gear possible. For that reason you’ll notice that many of my comments will be focused on where I carried more weight than I needed, but I’ll also try to give impressions of what I liked about the gear I had and what I liked about other people’s gear to give an idea of potential things to look for.

This covers the big things. Didn’t read about something that you wanted some info on? Let me know in the comments and I’ll give you my thoughts.

Tent – MSR Hubba

My Hubba was the old-school style with the yellow rain fly. If you were to go buy one in a store now you’d get one with a green rainfly. That is already an improvement over one of my complaints which is that it sticks out like a sore thumb during the summer, making stealth camping difficult. Overall I liked the tent. It is easy to set up and has a good shape and size. However I wouldn’t use this tent again if I were going to do another thru-hike. I would get a much lighter tent. The one I took with me was about 3 lbs total. Tarptents weigh around 25 oz, or 1lb 9oz, meaning you could cut your tent weight in half by going with a Tarptent instead. The only complaint I’ve heard about Tarptents is that they tend to allow condensation on the inside which, during a heavy rain, can fall on the hiker inside. With the right planning and mitigation measures this would be a tradeoff I would be ok with. If you want to go even lighter you could go with a cuben fiber tent like the Hexamid. I only saw a few hikers using them but they are way light. If I were to hike again I would definitely get one of these lighter options.

To return to what I liked about my tent, it is longer than I am. I am somewhat short at 5’6″ and the tent is 86 inches long, giving me an extra 20 inches above my head and below my feet. I used this room to store my hiking clothes (which I didn’t sleep in), my Camelbak (to keep it from leaking since I slept with my pack under my legs), the stuff sacks for my tent and sleeping bag, and some other miscellaneous gear. The tent is also tall (40″ at peak) so I could sit up with no problem. The side entry is wonderful and I heard several people comment that they liked that feature better than head/foot entries on tents like the Big Agnes Fly Creek. That said, the Fly Creek is about a pound lighter than the Hubba and I think I’d go with the weight savings over the side entry any day.

Backpack – ULA Circuit

The Circuit was great. I really have no complaints. If you thru-hike you will see lots of Osprey packs, but you’ll see almost as many ULA packs. They are lighter than the Ospreys but, in my opinion, just as comfortable. Perhaps more importantly, the Circuit is smaller so it forces you to get rid of extra gear. This was a conscious choice on my part. I read several blogs/forums before I left where people said that Osprey packs and the larger Catalyst ULA pack were too large, so I got the Circuit and forced myself to get rid of stuff. I would recommend the same course of action to anyone planning to thru-hike.

Things I liked about the pack. I like the tapered water bottle pockets on the sides. It made it very easy to grab things that I kept in there (Gatorade bottle, data book pages, snacks, etc) and, more importantly, put them back without having to take off my pack. In a similar vein, the Circuit has holes for hydration bladders so you can thread the hose through. I saw so many people stopping to take their packs off the first week or two just to get their water bottles while I would just stick the bite valve in my mouth and keep hiking. I wasn’t a huge fan of the roll-top design but it wasn’t bad. The mesh pocket on the front was great for storing things like my pack cover and rain jacket that I might need to grab quickly. The hip pockets on the belt were incredibly large (!) and somewhat water-resistant.

If I had to hike again I might go with an even lighter pack. ULA makes a smaller pack called the Ohm which would be tempting if I could get the rest of my gear down so that it fit. GoLite makes lightweight packs that I saw many hikers using. You could also consider a Zpack if you want to go cuben fiber lightweight. Just keep in mind that if you do go that light that the rest of your gear will likely need to be just as light. For instance if you plan to use a Hubba then a Zpack probably isn’t the right pack for you.

Backpacking Stove – Snowpeak Giga with Piezo

This stove worked just as it was designed to. I had a lot of people on the trail ask me about it. It is extremely lightweight, weighing only about 3oz. Although I had read reviews about people having trouble with the piezo crapping out soon after buying it, I didn’t have much trouble. There were a few days that I couldn’t get the stove to light using the piezo, but I think it was due to either the stove getting wet or the humidity. In those instances I was able to use a match or a lighter instead and it worked fine once it was lit. I never had to clean it. One advantage it had was that I could lower the gas flow enough to simmer rather than simply boil my food. This was especially useful for some of the dehydrated meals I had that had either fish or chicken in them because those meats seem to take longer to rehydrate.

If I were to hike again I think I’d probably use the same stove. There were a few times when I wished I had a Jetboil or a MSR Pocketrocket simply because they could boil water faster. However the downside to those stoves is the difficulty to find a simmer setting on them. They are designed to boil water quickly and as a result it is very hard to get the temperature on them low enough to cook your food at anything less than a boil.

Cook kit – Snowpeak Titanium Mini Solo cookset

Although my cook kit worked well, this is one area where I sometimes wished I had gone with a different piece of gear. The kit was incredibly lightweight, so that was a plus. If I hadn’t wanted to make coffee to have with my dinners I could have left the cup at home and saved an ounce or two, but I enjoyed having coffee in the wilderness. The downside to this cook kit was how much my food tended to get stuck to it. Cleaning the pot after dinner was a chore almost every night. I did find about halfway through the hike that adding instant mashed potatoes to my dinner at the end of cooking tended to make cleaning easier, but there were still nights where I would spend upwards of 10 minutes scraping my pot with my spork. Granted there are easier ways to clean a pot – scouring pads, pot scrapers, etc – but in any case you still have to clean the pot. I would much rather have gone with something that was more of a non-stick surface. I saw many people using GSI Pinnacle Soloists or similar and they seemed to be very happy with them. That cook set does weigh twice as much as the Snowpeak set though, so it is a tradeoff. The only other disappointment I had with my cookset was that I stored my fuel canister and my stove inside the pot but the pot would only hold the smallest size (200mL) fuel canister. It would have been nice to be able to carry a larger fuel canister to save money. Granted I could have carried the fuel canister in my pack instead of inside the cook kit, but then I would have had to make more space in my pack and I wouldn’t have had my entire cook kit in one handy bag.

Trekking poles – Leki Makalu

I liked my trekking poles well enough. They had the “SLS” adjustment mechanism. I never took the trouble to collapse the poles, opting instead to stash them in my tent vestibule every night fully extended. The result was that at the end of the trip I couldn’t get the poles to collapse, even with a pair of vise grips. I ended up throwing them away since there wasn’t much chance I would be allowed to take them on the plane with me. With my post-hike knowledge I would go with a flick-lock mechanism instead. This makes poles much easier to collapse, making it more likely I would do it every night. I also heard anecdotally from other hikers that the flick-lock mechanism doesn’t slip as much. As for weight, I think this is probably the piece of gear where weight matters the least. I ran into several people with lightweight poles that they had had fitted before they started and then they had broken along the way. It is incredibly hard to get replacement fitted poles. People with adjustable length poles had a much easier time finding replacements when needed. No matter what pole set you use, plan on breaking some tips along the way.

Sleeping bag – Mountain Hardwear Phantom 15 and REI Halo 40

The Phantom 15 was probably overkill. The bag was excellent but I only had to completely zip it up maybe twice on the whole trip. It was a warm year and in a colder year I might have been thankful to have it, but this year I could easily have made do with a 20 or 25 degree bag, and I tend to be a cold sleeper. As for things I liked about the bag, I’m definitely glad I went with down. I had never had a down bag before but I won’t be going back to synthetic. While it is more important to keep the bag dry, I never had a problem with that. I kept the bag inside its own trash compactor bag so even if the inside of my pack got wet my bag stayed dry. This paid off several times, especially the night in the Whites when I was camping with Five Pair and we got absolutely soaked. My sleeping bag may have been the only thing that stayed dry that day but its a good thing it did because otherwise It would have been a very cold night. Other things I liked about the bag included the mummy style (far superior to rectangular), the baffle design which drastically increased the insulation on cold nights, the interior pocket (which would have been great for my phone but unfortunately I didn’t find until later in my hike when I had already locked into my routine), and the zipper which – although it often caught the sleeping bag material – never caused any rips or tears. The only thing I would have changed was to have a full-length zipper rather than 3/4 (although this didn’t bother me too much since my feet are almost always cold).

I was skeptical of the REI Halo when Christy bought it for me. In Virginia I had decided that the Phantom was overkill and that for the sake of the decreased weight and increased comfort due to less insulation I would switch to a warm weather bag. I tasked Christy with finding one that didn’t break the bank but was still high quality. She definitely found a good one. The bag was very comfortable and worked well even on the colder summer nights up in Vermont in July. It did zip on the opposite side than the Phantom which took some getting used to, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker. Good bag and I’d recommend it as well.

For anyone planning to hike the AT, I would consider going with a 20 or 25 degree bag. Maybe you can save some money by getting one bag that lasts you the entire hike. Definitely get down though, and full-length zippers and interior pockets are a plus.

Sleeping Pad – Thermarest Ridgerest SOlite 3/4 length

I did tend to be jealous of other people’s sleeping pads. I partially blame my sleeping pad for my inability to get a good night’s sleep in the shelters. I wasn’t excited about taking an inflatable pad with me, both because of the extra weight and because they tend to attract holes that require patching. Instead I went with the Ridgerest because it was lightweight and because it seemed durable. It turned out to be extremely durable and I liked having it on the outside of my pack where, if I wanted, I could take it off right away when I stopped for a break and use it as a seat cushion. When I would take a nap on the side of the trail I would lay the pad out far enough to get my back on and roll the rest under my head as a pillow. Having it on the outside of my pack also gave me more space inside for things like food. The thing took a beating and hardly shows it. Still, it wasn’t the most comfortable thing to sleep on in the shelters. In my tent though it seemed to do just fine. I definitely recommend some sort of sleeping pad simply for the insulation value, but if you plan to sleep in shelters I might tend toward the inflatable pads. The winner on the trail this year in the inflatable pad category seemed to be the NeoAir. People would swear by those things. They’re expensive though, so choose wisely. If you go the inflatable route, take some Tyvek or similar to lay underneath it to prevent leaks.

Hydration

Get a hydration bladder. It doesn’t have to be a Camelbak, but get something similar. I met so many people who only had Nalgene bottles and they quickly got sick of having to stop in order to drink water. Meanwhile I would keep chugging along for hours at a time without having to stop because I could simply sip on my bite valve whenever I was thirsty. It definitely helps keep you hydrated. Not to mention it is lighter than a Nalgene.

If you simply refuse to get one, at least get a pack where you can grab the water bottle and put it back without taking the entire pack off. The Circuit works well for this and although I had a Camelbak, I would often keep a bottle of some sort of tasty fluid (Gatorade or similar) in a side pocket in case I felt the desire (as I often did) to drink something besides water. The slanted design of the side pockets allowed me to easily pull the bottle out of the pocket and put it back without having to take off the pack.

Stuff sacks

I ended up trying several stuff sacks along the way. I recommend the Sea to Summit vacuum bags that allow you to squeeze the air out of them after closing. The feature is nice and actually works. At the same time they are made out of a more durable material than the basic silnylon bags. The weight difference is minimal but the difference in material really pays off in terms of durability. The silnylon bags I had tended to get holes and other people had problems with mice eating holes into them.

Shoes

I used Vasque Mindbenders. They are trailrunners, not much different from sneakers but with a heavier sole. Of course every hiker needs to find a shoe that fits them well, but I would recommend going with a trailrunner over a larger boot. They say every extra pound on your foot is like 5 in your pack and I simply didn’t run into any instances where I wished I had a bigger shoe. The one case where I think a bigger shoe would pay off is in Maine early in the year when it is still boggy. If you plan to go through Maine in late July/August you should be ok in trailrunners. I also liked that when my shoes got wet they dried out quickly.

I did end up going through 4 pairs of shoes. Mostly this was due to my feet getting bigger. I discarded my first 2 pair not because they wore out but because they got too small. Only 1 pair actually wore out, and that was the pair I wore through the rocky parts of the trail in PA, NJ, and NY.

Categories: Gear, Post-hike | Leave a comment

Epilogue

Many of you displayed your modern-day internet stalking skills by informing me that you had noticed that my blog ran a few days behind. There were a few reasons for the lag. First, it takes a while to type with your thumbs. Second, I liked to read the I wrote entries again a day or two later before I posted them just to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. Third, I didn’t always have cell reception when I finished writing so leaving a buffer allowed time to find reception and upload before the entry was supposed to post to the blog. And finally, but perhaps least importantly, it was partly an issue of safety. This is a public blog so I had no idea who was reading. It was safer for myself but more importantly for those who I was hiking with and writing about to not post real-time.

Why do I mention this now? Because my final post was on August 29 but my actual summit date was on August 21. That means I was on the trail for 5 months from March 21 to August 21. By the time I had posted the last entry I was back in Virginia and was preparing for my first day back at work. Here’s a quick summary of what transpired between my summit and now.

After I summited Christy and I spent a few days in Maine at a B&B in Millinocket. It was a great transition back from being a dirty hiker to being a civilized person. We sampled a few of the restaurants there and I attempted to start eating normal amounts of food. On the first day we hung out with Yellowtail and Sunroof before they left to go back home. The next day we visited with the APE team and the Noodleheads who were all renting a cabin so they could stick around for another week. We also went canoeing on one of the lakes in the area and we did a little shopping for souvenirs, gifts for family, etc.

Flying back home was an experience. First, I lost my hiker wallet (ziploc bag with my license, health insurance card, etc) when we went canoeing. I assume it is at the bottom of the lake. After calling to cancel my credit card we had to figure out how I could fly home without an ID. It turns out a photo ID isn’t needed to fly. I was able to go online to request a new driver’s license and I took a printout of the temporary driver’s license with me. I also printed some other forms, bills, etc that had my name on them to prove I was who I said I was. I got through security without any real problem.

We flew out of Bangor airport which is rather small but we had a connection in LaGuardia which is much larger. I’ve heard a lot of hikers talk about how after being out in the woods for a while they have a hard time adjusting to being around crowds again. I didn’t have that trouble. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything that really bothered me, and I think that was the biggest change for me. When I lost my hiker wallet my pre-hike self would have been stressed about it but as it was my reaction was simply, “Alright, let’s make some phone calls.” Going through the airport we had to take a bus to get to another terminal. As we arrived at the bus loading area a worker cut the line off just in front of us so we had to wait for the next bus. The people behind us started freaking out about missing their flight. They spent the next three minutes tapping their feet, checking their watches, and huffing while they waited. I spent the whole time trying not to inform them that all of their antics and stress wouldn’t change whether they ended up being on-time or not. I know before my hike I would have behaved similarly, but with a simplified perspective I simply didn’t see the point.

Christy had arranged a surprise party for me a couple days after we arrived home. It was great to see all kinds of family and friends again, and they got to see my beard before it got trimmed up. By the way, I never got around to posting about it, but I ended up naming the beard Keith because of this Family Guy clip. Credit goes to my brother-in-law Mike for the idea!

And finally some stats. I tallied the stats for my hike versus those of the three thru-hikers that I used to plan my hike. The numbers are actually surprisingly similar. The story behind Portrait is actually a bit more complicated because he went really fast on the first half of his hike and then slowed down on the second half, but overall my hiking pace appears to have been closest to his.

Portrait Rusty Bumper Ghost Nitrous Oxide
Number of zeroes 11 11 8 14
Number of hiking days 142 144 131 140

I have already updated all of my posts with where I slept that night for anyone who is interested, and I’ve uploaded pictures for the last few weeks when I slacked on that due to cell signal and battery issues. I’m going to try to do some additional analysis on my hiking pace in the next few weeks, but for now that gives some info to anybody that is planning their own hike. Also I plan to post a gear review so you can find out what worked well, what didn’t, and what I would change if I were to do it again. For now for those of you who miss the daily fix, try reading Portrait’s PCT blog.

Categories: Post-hike | 5 Comments

Fin.

August 21

5.1 miles, 2184.2 overall, 0 remaining (Katahdin)
This morning I need an alarm to wake up on time at 4:30. We need to be on our way to Katahdin at 5:00 in order to arrive by 6:00 and start hiking. Although it is only a 5 mile climb, it is very technical and usually takes thru-hikers over 3 hours to finish. The park recommends allowing 5 hours for day hikers. Christy is usually a slow hiker so I’m figuring 5-6 hours.

We’re out the door a few minutes late around 5:10 but we arrive just after 6:00. I stop by the Birches briefly to see if I can find Stats to give him the Jell-O cups but everyone is already gone. By 6:30 we have our packs on and are starting up the trail. There are a few other dayhikers already starting and, when I reach the trail register, I find out the Noodleheads and Yellowtail have already been on the mountain for 30 minutes. Chances are they won’t be there when I summit. I’m a little sad about that but I’m sure there will be other people up there and it is great to have Christy along. She has been such a big part of my hike that it seems right for her to be there at the end.

Christy always has a slower hiking pace than I do and I usually hike behind her to force myself to slow down. Today it is harder than usual since I have thru-hiker legs that, for 5 months, have hiked my thru-hiker pace. It certainly provides some perspective on my new hiking capabilities as I watch her figuring out how to navigate the rocky trail while I hardly have to think about it. As we hike it starts to rain. The forecast was for a clear morning with a chance of isolated showers in the afternoon. Clearly that was wrong. The rain has the potential to make this a miserable hike and I hope that it starts to clear up as we get higher.

It takes us about 30 minutes to travel the first and easiest mile. Then, just after the Katahdin Stream Falls, the trail steps it up a notch. We are no longer in the well-traveled section and have entered the boulders. We begin to have to rock-hop and this slows us down a lot. The rocks are wet and Christy isn’t used to these conditions like I am. It takes us another hour to do the next mile, during which the terrain gets increasingly complicated as instead of rock-hopping we now have to climb up, between, and around boulders. I am starting to worry that we won’t have enough time to get to the top and, even if we can make it, the conditions might be dangerous. The temperature is 55 here, still 2000 feet below the summit and below treeline. This means that at the summit it is probably around 45 but with the increased wind above treeline it probably feels close to freezing. On top of that the climb is rocky and a slip could be costly. As we hike up we pass several hikers who have turned around due to the conditions.

All of this is in my mind as we hike and I keep an eye on my watch, trying to decide when I will have to make a call on whether or not to summit. Around 11:00 we reach treeline, still over 2 miles from the summit, and we are going slower now than we were earlier. The boulders are tricky enough for me to climb but for Christy, who is shorter and hasn’t been hiking for 5 months, they are near impossible. When we reach the point where trail maintainers have put rebar into the rocks and hikers have to pull themselves up and over the boulder, Christy decides she’s done. Climbing the rocks so far has been scary enough but now we are above treeline and the “trail” is still becoming more dangerous. She tells me to go get my summit and we’ll meet on the way down. I help her return past a particularly technical piece and back down to treeline where it is warmer. Then we say a quick goodbye before I take off.

As luck would have it, just about the same time Christy and I separate the rain begins to let up. I only get back to the point where Christy turned around before I see Philly Steve on his descent. He is perhaps the happiest I’ve seen him on the whole trip now that he has finished. We talk for a minute and he tells me that their summit was incredibly cold and windy. While it may not have been a miserable summit (can you have a miserable summit after hiking 2184 miles?) it was definitely a summit in miserable conditions. It occurs to me that if I hadn’t stayed back with Christy I would have been up there with them. He tells me that the whole group is on their way back down now and over the next several minutes I run into the Noodleheads, then the APE team, then Yellowtail and finally Sunroof. I give them all my congratulations and talk with them quickly before heading up the mountain and letting them continue down.

On my own I’m able to cruise up the mountain. After climbing through the Whites I’m used to the steep climbs with the hand-over-foot boulders. Still, this climb is especially tough. Rather than a trail this is more of a boulder field, however it is also on a steep incline so while I navigate the boulders I am also climbing. There are a couple sections with rebar that are difficult and there is one place where I am forced to take off my pack in order to squeeze between two rocks. I stop periodically to catch my breath and take in the scene as the rain clouds move away and a warm, sunny day starts to take their place. It is still windy though and at times the wind makes my climbing precarious.

Around 11:45 I reach the Gateway which is the entrance to the Tableland, a flat section about a mile long before the final climb to the summit. I had imagined some sort of rock formation or sign that would indicate why the spot is called the Gateway but I find nothing and can’t come up with a reason for the name other than the fact that it is the entrance to the Tableland on the AT. The Tableland itself is pretty easy hiking although significant rock-hopping is still required. Ropes have been set up to keep hikers in a defined area to protect the alpine vegetation. I am hiking quickly now with the end in sight and I pass a few groups of hikers who passed us earlier. One on his way down sees my VT hat and mentions that there are some other Hokies on the summit. I don’t take much notice of the comment at the time, but as I start up the final ascent the family he was speaking of is on their way down. I stop for a second to talk to them and they quickly mention that they brought a VT flag to take pictures with on the summit.

Hikers have a lot of time over several months to think about the picture they will get at the end. Several times I had thought about taking a VT flag with me to the summit but never got around to finding one to bring with me. Now this family on their way down mentions that they have one. It seems too good to be true. I say something along the lines of “Would it be horrible of me to ask you if I could borrow the flag to take up with me?” It is not a question they expected. They immediately get confused looks on their faces as they try to figure out how I could get the flag back to them, but when I explain that I’m a thru-hiker, I’ve walked over 2000 miles in 5 months to get here, and I’m about to finish my journey their expressions change and they graciously give me the flag. I ask if they’re taking the AT back down to the bottom and when they say yes I tell them I’ll catch up to them to give it back. I don’t think they believe me because they tell me to just keep the flag. I thank them as much as I can and we part ways, me on my way up with the flag and them on the way down thinking I will keep it.

This bit of good luck and generosity on the part of the family came out of nowhere. For the last quarter mile of the trail I’m filled with thankfulness, both for this final piece of trail magic as well as for the rest of my journey. It seems like such a fitting end to my hike on which I’ve received so much from so many. I’m choked up as I take my final steps up the mountain and as I reach the sign I have to stop in front of it, close my eyes, and take a minute to breathe as the moment overwhelms me.

When I finally open my eyes I take a few seconds to look around and take in the scene. There are several day hikers on the summit, many of them apparently having lunch. I take a minute to read the plaque commemorating the donation of the land to Maine by former governor Percival Baxter. As I’m reading some of the hikers nearby ask if I want to have a picture taken. I of course take them up on the offer. The hikers are 2 Germans who have section hiked from Vermont to here. One is named Autobahn and unfortunately I’ve forgotten the other. They take several pictures of me with the Katahdin sign, including one with the VT flag. I have another person take a picture of me with the giant cairn at the summit before I stop for a snack.

The only bad thing about the trail magic is that during my summit I feel in a rush to start down and catch the family so I can return the flag. Still, I spend about 30 minutes on the summit taking pictures, enjoying the view, and having a snack before I start down. My goal is to catch them before they reach treeline. I don’t know where Christy will be waiting for me and once I rejoin her I will have to hike slower, meaning I might not catch the family. I start back down the mountain quickly and just about jog across the Tableland.

It isn’t long before I catch them though. When I reach the Gateway the family is only a few feet below trying to figure out how to navigate the boulder field. They are surprised to see me as I hand the flag back to them, thanking them again for their kindness. I spend a few minutes with them, having another snack while they ask me questions about my hike. Eventually though I feel the need to move on to catch up to Christy so I take my leave but mention my blog to them in case they have more questions. So if you’re reading this, thanks again!

Going down is easier than going up as I’m able to rock-hop a bit rather than climb. Several times I have to sit down and scoot across rocks or, in one place, allow myself to do a controlled slide down a rock in order to get down. It goes quickly though and pretty soon I’m back below treeline. I partly expect Christy to be waiting for me there but I don’t see her. I try to keep my eyes out for her as I hike down. As I get lower and lower though I start to worry that maybe I missed her. I try to calculate how fast she could have been hiking down and where she might have gotten to. Finally I catch up to her at Katahdin Stream Falls where we hug and I let her know that I’m done. She is worried about whether I had a good summit, to which I assure her I did and share with her the story about the family and their flag. We hike the last mile down together, a perfect ending to my hike on the Appalachian Trail.

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Categories: ME | 21 Comments

The beginning of the end

August 20

13.5 miles, 2179.1 overall, 5.1 remaining
Stats is just getting out of his hammock when I am packing up the last of my stuff in the shelter. I eat the last of my food, excited to be heading out of the 100 mile wilderness with only minimal food remaining. I marvel at how light my pack feels as I don’t bother to fill it with much water for the last few miles. I tell Stats I’ll see him in a little while and I head out.

The three miles go by quickly. I hike fast since my pack is light and there is food ahead. I can hear cars and trucks up ahead for several minutes before I finally emerge onto Golden Road. I love the fact that the road coming out of the wilderness and heading toward Katahdin is called Golden Road. I turn right and head toward the campground. As I cross Abol bridge over the Penobscot River Katahdin looms to my left. I can’t help but smile as I know that I’ve made it. The last 10 miles into the park to the Birches campsite (shelter for long-distance hikers) are supposed to be pretty easy and although Katahdin itself will be a tough climb, I know I’ll be able to tackle it. I feel like I’m on my victory lap as I cruise into the campground.

I head straight for the store. As I’m deciding what to get Caveman arrives too. There is a $10 minimum for credit card purchases and he is trying to get dog food. I help him out by combining our purchases, giving him cash for my items so he can use his card. I order a cheeseburger with bacon and a fried egg and get a coffee to go along with it. I figure I’ll be back later for a few other items, but for now this will do and I can charge my phone while I wait for the burger. I wait outside at the picnic tables and watch as the day begins to unfold in front of me. Logging trucks pass by as river guides stop in at the store for discounted coffee. My burger gets cooked and I eat it in the shade, wondering when the others will catch up. Nobody arrives while I finish eating so I head back into the store to grab my phone and start charging the external battery. While inside I get a scoop of the blueberry Gifford’s ice cream I’ve been hearing so much about since I entered Maine. To get to the $10 minimum I also get two beers and a couple other snacks.

The plan was to drink one beer and then take the other on the road with me but Stats doesn’t arrive until I’m just finishing the first. It is 11:00 now and I have 10 more miles to hike to meet Christy inside the park at the Birches campground, but I decide to stick around for a while longer to hang out. Yellowtail and Sunroof aren’t far behind Stats and soon they’re all eating too. Stats picks out about $35 worth of food in the store, hoping that something in the lot will be appetizing to him. While inside he chats with a couple who are visiting from Tennessee and ends up getting a bit of trail magic from them. When he goes to check out at the register his $35 of food only amounts to $15. The couple left a $20 for him and left before he found out. What great people, and what great timing right at the end of our journey!

What Stats ends up eating is a full jar of apple sauce. He is obviously in dire straits as he complains more than usual about how badly he feels. I ask if there’s anything I can get him tonight since I’ll be staying in town. At first he can’t think of anything. After a minute he asks for Jell-O cups. Easy enough. I make a mental note to pick some up tonight. While I finish my second beer we find out Caveman has had his camera stolen. He set it outside the restroom while he was inside and 5 minutes later when he came out it was gone. We’re all sorry for him since he had pictures from all the way back to Vermont on it. We get his email address so we can send him some of ours once we get home. While they won’t be the same, hopefully he’ll enjoy them just as much.

Just before noon I decide I need to get going and I head off alone to enter Baxter State Park, home of Katahdin and the end of the Appalachian Trail. As I enter the park I check in at the hiker information stand where a park employee is stationed to check in thru-hikers and answer any questions. I cross Katahdin Stream and ford the two forks of the Nesowadnehunk on my way through the park. At one point I run into a group of people swimming in one of the streams and they recognize me as a thru-hiker. Two of them are also thru-hikers: The Dude and Coconut. They finished yesterday but have returned for some celebratory playtime in the water. They wish me luck and I congratulate them on their summit.

I take a few side trips as I hike. There are 2 waterfalls and I stop to view them both since they aren’t far from the trail. At both there are families enjoying the incredible weather by swimming in the water and sunning on the side of the stream. In this section I pass a few families on their way to the waterfalls and I try to be polite by getting as far away from them as possible since it has been about a week since I was clean. I’m sure that at this moment I am the spitting image of Peanuts’ Pigpen with a cloud of dirt and stench hovering around me. At one point though I’m not able to get far out of the way. Just as I get onto a bog bridge a family steps onto it from the other side. I side-step onto a rock to get out of the way as the dad tells the kids “Now make sure you watch for the white marks on the trees because we need to follow them.” I smile a bit as I think about how I’ve followed them all the way from Georgia and I wonder if the family knows that they’re on the Appalachian Trail. I soon get an answer though as the parents pass by and ask me where I’m coming from. When I answer Georgia they exclaim “Oh, they told us we might run in to some of you! Hey kids, this is one of the guys they were telling us about!” The kids, rather than ogling me like a zoo animal, aren’t terribly interested despite their parents excited explanations that I have walked all the way here from Georgia. Still, the parents would like a picture of me. I agree as long as they let me get one too and then we part ways. As I walk away I feel like a sports star.

The rest of the trail winds along some more ponds, once in a while providing quick glimpses of the mountain rising up to my left. I’m in a hurry because I told Christy I would be at the shelter by mid-afternoon and it is almost 3:00. Finally I make it to Katahdin Stream Campground and find the ranger station where I check in as a thru-hiker. The ranger congratulates me as she takes down my information. She gives me an entrance permit for the park (why that’s done 10 miles into the park and not at the entrance I don’t know) and my ATC 2,000-miler application. I sign the register in the ranger station – my last one – with the top 5 foods I plan to eat after my hike, in roughly chronological order:
1) Sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit.
2) Cinnabons. Yes, plural.
3) Avocado. Any form, just lots of it.
4) Pot roast
5) Bacon-wrapped scallops in garlic butter

I leave the station to go find Christy and I run into her coming back from the Birches. She has been visiting with the Noodleheads, APE team, and Philly Steve. Since we’re not in a hurry we go back so I can catch up with them and we spend about an hour chatting. Previously I had told Almost Awesome that thru-hikers always tend to be polite around non-thru-hikers and so Christy hasn’t truly experienced hanging out with thru-hikers yet. Awesome promised not to be polite and she keeps her promise. The conversation ranges from food to bowel movements, back to food, to the Noodleheads’ list of the top 10 signs you’ve hiked 2000 miles.

Eventually we have to tear ourselves away. Millinocket is about an hour drive from this spot and we still need to swing by the grocery store. I say goodbye and hope that I’ll see them all in the morning. Chances are since Christy plans to hike up with me they will all summit before I do, but perhaps I’ll run into them before they start or catch up with them afterward. We drive into town and go by the IGA where Christy grabs a couple things for lunch and I pick up the Jell-O cups for Stats along with a couple snacks for tomorrow’s hike. Then we head to the B&B to check in. The owner asks me to leave my shoes and pack outside or in the car. I understand the request. These are the smelliest of smelly items. Luckily I don’t need much, just a toothbrush and the clothes I’m wearing. I head in, take a shower, and pretty soon I’m in bed. I fall asleep surprisingly fast considering a few hours later I will be on my way up to that infamous sign at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

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Categories: ME | 1 Comment

My moose!

August 19

20 miles, 2165.6 overall, 18.6 remaining (Hurd Brook Lean-to)
As I wake up in the morning I can hear Stats packing up. We have two days left to cover the 33 miles left to the base of Katahdin so today needs to be a longer day. I’m hoping to go 23 miles to reach the Abol Bridge campground. This would give me the chance to get a shower, eat some food at the camp store, and buy a beer. I pack up and get out of camp as Yellowtail and Sunroof are just starting to pack up. For most of their hikes they have hiked together and rarely started hiking before 9:00. They have started leaving earlier the last few days as they’ve been hiking with me and Stats. Today they will probably start by 8:00. I leave before 7.

There is a shelter only a half mile away and I stop in briefly to look at the register. The hikers here are all southbounders and they are just starting to wake up when I arrive. I chat briefly with them while I sign the book and then move on.

A short time later I get to Nesuntabunt Mountain, one of 2 climbs today (both less than 1000 feet). At the top is a side trail to a view of Katahdin only 16 miles away as the crow flies. It is an incredible view but I have to settle for a memory of it rather than a picture. My phone and external battery are both out of power and so I have no camera until I can get to Abol campground and charge the phone.

On the way down the mountain I pass another pond. This one is called Crescent Pond and it has canoes on the shore. It is a small pond for canoeing and since I want to get some miles in today it isn’t very tempting. I pass them and only wish that I had a camera to snap a quick picture since the canoes on the shore of the pond are a classic scene. Just after I pass them I start looking for a place to stop for a snack. I haven’t gone too far today but I’m already hungry. I find a nice rock to sit on and pull out some crackers.

As I am reaching for my crackers I take in the scene. It is a beautiful morning on the pond and everything is quiet except for some waves hitting the shore to my left. It takes a second for my brain to register that I hear waves even though the pond is calm. I wonder if maybe there are some rocks or something that are exaggerating what tiny waves there are on the pond. Then, just as I realize what is going on, a moose stands up in the grassy shallows! It is a cow moose and she is huge, hardly 50 yards from me. I clear my throat a bit to let her know I’m here and she looks at me briefly before reaching down and grabbing some grass to chew on. She doesn’t seem to care much that I’m nearby. I watch for a few minutes, eating my crackers as she eats her breakfast of littoral (vocab!) pond plants. At one point she walks straight at me as she comes closer to shore and I begin to back away up the trail, but she turns and walks along the shoreline instead of following me. I return to my rock as she takes a moment to defecate in the water, then returns to eating from it. This is apparently a dirty moose. I think about the times I have used pond water on this trip and I’m glad I let the chemicals work a little longer before drinking it. Because my phone is dead I’m not able to get a picture of the moose either so after a few minutes I hike on, hoping that some of the others behind me will come by soon and notice the moose here so they can get a picture and send it to me later.

When I start hiking again I quickly reach a viewpoint of the Pollywog Gorge. I take the side trail without realizing it and when it dead-ends at the view it takes me a second to figure out what has happened. I am forced to backtrack, but when I return to the trail I can’t remember exactly which way I came. I feel like I had been hiking downhill so I continue downhill on the path to the right rather than uphill on the path to the left. 15 minutes later I realize this was the wrong way to go when I notice the canoes next to Crescent Pond again. After a bout of cursing I turn around and start going north again. This detour will set me back about 30 minutes. On my way back I figure the moose must have moved on since I didn’t notice it on my way back, but a few seconds later I see her just off the trail and realize that on my southbound trip I passed her without noticing. I’m not as excited to see her this time, but the incident makes me wonder how many other moose I’ve passed in Maine that I didn’t notice. I also wonder how far back the other hikers are since they don’t catch me during my detour.

Back on track, I soon reach a road with a bridge across Pollywog Stream. As I cross I see Stats ahead of me and wonder how he got there. Did I take another wrong turn? After toying with me for a second he tells me he walked here on the road from the first road crossing a few miles back. It cut out a few miles for him which he is happy about until I tell him that I saw a moose. Still, since he isn’t feeling well, it was probably the right strategy for him. Having already “blue-blazed” a few times earlier in his hike he doesn’t have a problem doing it again now, especially in the condition he is in.

A couple miles later we stop for lunch at a shelter. It is a scenic shelter with a large stream right in front of it. I still have hopes of making it to Abol campground but due to my wrong turn they are fading fast. A southbound hiker named Caboose arrives and pulls out his lunch. He thinks he is the last southbounder (hence the name) but we doubt it. While we eat we discuss the audacity of the squirrels in Maine and how likely they are to try to take your food. Stats and I both can’t believe it as, while we’re talking, Caboose pulls the corner off some of his bread and tosses it away on the ground. He explains that a mouse got to some of his food and so he ripped off the eaten part. We explain that what he just did is exactly why the squirrels are so audacious. We make him pick up the food and pack it out.

As I’m finishing up my lunch Yellowtail and Sunroof arrive. They’re only planning to get to the last shelter. This helps me make up my mind to stop short of Abol today. Instead I’ll hike 13 miles tomorrow – still a reasonable amount – and have second breakfast at the camp store.

The next 10 miles are tough for me to get through. They aren’t physically hard but without my phone to listen to music or audiobooks, with nobody to talk to as I hike, and with the end so near the miles drag. The trail follows the shoreline of Rainbow Lake and I pass a number of hikers going southbound. It is hard to tell at this point whether they are section hikers or southbounders since either way they are at most only a couple days into their hikes.

At last I reach Rainbow Ledges, the last uphill before Katahdin. It is small at only about 500 feet and I finish it quickly, but at the top is a gorgeous direct view of Katahdin only a few miles away. The treeline is clearly visible and the clouds passing by frame the summit perfectly. Being this close to the end is emotional and I take a minute to drink it in. Since the shelter is only 2 miles further I stop to wait for the others. I put my pack down and lay back against it. I think the others will be close behind but as I wait I become tired and wind up closing my eyes for a nap.

Eventually I hear someone coming but when I open my eyes and look I see Caveman, Captain and Willie. They are on a mission to get to Abol before it closes so they can have some beer. It is 5:00 and the store closes at 7. It is just about 6 miles from here to the store, mostly downhill, so they have a good shot at it. I wish them luck and they scamper off. It has been almost an hour since I stopped to wait for the others so I decide to move on to the shelter. I figure if I get there early enough it would be nice to have a fire again tonight.

I arrive at the shelter around 5:30. I pick out a spot and set up my tent, then go about gathering a bit of wood for the fire. Yellowtail arrives just as I’m lighting the tinder and Sunroof isn’t far behind. After a few minutes struggling with some damp wood I’m able to get the fire going on its own just as Stats arrives. Yellowtail uses the fire to boil her water so she takes over tending it while I start on my dinner. Stats, still not having much of an appetite, pokes around the site and tosses more stuff on the fire to pass the time. Once we’ve all eaten we play another game of dice before heading to bed. As we leave the shelter they remind me that tonight will be my last night in the woods on this trip. It seems fitting that it is a cool, dry night and I leave the rainfly off the tent so I can see some of the stars through the forest canopy. I am kept awake for a little while contemplating which pieces of my trip I will miss and which I’ll be glad to be over. I’ll be glad not to hike 20 miles every day anymore. I’ll miss the people I’ve met along the way. I won’t miss the stifling heat of summer or the soaking rains we’ve had, but I will miss cool nights in the shelter or around a campfire. I force myself to stop thinking about the last two days ahead of me so I can fall asleep on the Appalachian Trail.

Categories: ME | 2 Comments

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