Trail updates

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

The one where we suck the marrow

August 18

13.2 miles, 2145.6 overall, 38.6 remaining (Sandy beach, Nahmakanta Lake)
When I was hiking with the Noodleheads and the APE team they often mentioned that they were trying to suck the marrow out of Maine. After hiking big miles all the way up to New England they have recently been satisfied with 12 mile days, preferring to enjoy Maine as much as possible rather than race to the end. Today it is our turn to suck the marrow out of Maine. As I’m packing up this morning Stats talks more about his excitement for a burger. It sounds really good and, although I am still reluctant to hike an extra mile out of the way for a burger, he assures me that we are returned closer to the trail than where we are picked up. I decide to go with him and immediately set about convincing Sunroof and Yellowtail to do the same. They are non-commital. We decide that since the boat dock for White House Landing is 7 miles away (including the 0.9 mile side trail) that we will all meet there by 10 if we want to go. We will assume that anyone who isn’t there has continued hiking.

For those who aren’t familiar with the trail, White House Landing is a hostel/restaurant in the middle of the 100 mile wilderness. To get there hikers take a 0.9 mile side trail along a lake to a boat dock where there is an air horn. By blowing the air horn the hiker lets the proprietors know someone is there who wants to come across. They drive across in a boat, pick up the hiker, and bring them across to the property where they can get a meal and resupply or stay the night.

I leave the campsite first and take my time. It is 7:30 and I have plenty of time to get there with the trail continuing to be easy today. The worst part about the trail today is the bugs as I hike along swampy lakesides. I remind myself that I’ve hiked through worse and I have a flashback to the section in Massachusetts where the mosquitoes were so bad I had to use bug spray – the only time on this trip that I’ve used it. I hike up a small hill and find myself cursing at the trail for going over it rather than around it. When the entire day’s hike is flat it seems to make the uphills seem that much more annoying! When discussing this later with Stats he tells me he thinks of school as an analogy for the AT. As you hike, each state is like a grade level and each grade prepares you for the next grade. For instance as we hiked through Vermont the mountains there were preparing us for the Whites in New Hampshire. At this point we are seniors about to graduate. We have one final exam ahead of us (Katahdin) and it is the last week of school. The small hills we have to climb are so annoying because they are like pop quizzes during the last week of school – completely unnecessary but something we still have to get through to graduate. I like the analogy.

I reach the next shelter and, even though it has only been a few miles, since I’m ahead of everyone else I decide to take a break and sign the register. There are lots of tents at this shelter. I see a dome tent and immediately know that these are section hikers. I can’t think of any thru-hikers who I have seen with a dome tent since Georgia. There’s nobody in the shelter and I sit down for a snack and start flipping through the register. One of the section hikers comes over and strikes up a conversation with me. He’s a friendly guy and I learn that he has hiked all of the trail north of NY and south of VA. I inform him that he has gotten the best parts of the trail done first and has left the worst for last, which I’m sure he already knew. I ask about White House Landing as I’ve heard mixed reviews about it. I’ve heard that the owners aren’t the friendliest, to which he replies that he would call the guy who runs the place “particular.” It is not a ringing endorsement. Still, I figure if I’m friendly enough to him he may return in kind.

Not far from the shelter is a side trail to a lake with a view of Katahdin. The day is clear and when I reach the side trail I get an impressive view. It is still early and the lake is calm underneath a beautiful morning sky. When I turn to the left I see The Mountain and I am close enough now to make out the treeline. I get a quick rush of adrenaline realizing that I am only 40 miles and a couple days away from the base of the mountain that we’ve been trundling toward for almost 5 months.

Not long after I return to the trail Yellowtail and Sunroof catch me. They tell me they left the campsite after Stats so we figure he must be up ahead, having passed me at either the shelter or the side trail. We’re all fast hikers and, motivated by Stats and cheeseburgers being ahead of us, we cover the remaining trail quickly. Even the almost mile long side trail doesn’t seem to take long as we pass the time with some conversation. We arrive at the boat dock and find the air horn with instructions for how to use it, but Stats isn’t here. Either he fell behind somewhere or he’s already across the lake. We decide to wait 15 minutes before blowing the horn, but he never shows up. I give the horn a quick blast and then we wait on the dock. Several minutes later the boat comes shooting across the lake. We load up and not 5 minutes later we’re sitting at picnic tables on the other side of the lake.

The descriptions of the owner weren’t far off. Although he doesn’t come across as mean, he certainly isn’t friendly either. The best word I can come up with for him is efficient. He loads us in the boat quickly, informing us where to put our packs and where to sit. When we arrive he ties up the boat and is already off the dock as we’re stepping onto it. He shows us where we can sit and tells us it will be about 30 minutes before lunch is ready and then walks off. We’re left wondering whether we will be eating on the picnic table or inside, whether we’ll be able to do resupply as well, and most of all whether Stats has made it here.

While we wait we inevitably talk about food. I’m really happy when the conversation turns to donuts and Sunroof pulls up Brian Regan’s donut lady bit on his phone. We admire the view across the lake and are somewhat sad we aren’t staying here for the night. Pretty soon Sunroof thinks he hears the airhorn across the lake and, when the owner takes the boat across a few minutes later, we learn that Stats has arrived. It turns out Yellowtail and Sunroof passed him when he stopped at the shelter.

Lunch is served not long after he arrives. We’re told to put on camp shoes to come in and are directed to a large dining room with a kitchen/bar at one end where there are menus. A resupply cabinet tempts us on one side of the room while we order our lunch. We all opt for deluxe 1 pound cheeseburgers. They are cooked while we wait and pretty soon we have some juicy, incredibly delicious hunks of meat sitting in front of us. None of us have trouble packing away the entire burger and afterward I opt for a whoopie pie (a Maine specialty). Stats and Sunroof have both already eaten one while they were waiting for their burger and that turns out to be the better order of eating as by the end the infusion of sugar starts to make me feel uncomfortable.

White House Landing is a little bit controversial among hikers. On the plus side, since it is a hostel in the middle of the 100 mile wilderness it has an allure to people hiking through this section simply because of the availability of a bed and good food. The boat pickup is also pretty nifty and adds to the charm of the place. However a place in the middle of nowhere has pricing power and they use it. A can of soda runs $1.50 and the burgers cost $12. If you don’t stay the night they charge $2 for boat fuel. On top of that, if you pay with a credit card they charge an extra $7.50 to run it. They explain that this covers the fees they incur for the service but I’m incredibly skeptical it really costs them that much. The other negative of the place is the hospitality. While we were there we didn’t have any horrible experiences, but while we are paying the owners mention how busy it has been this year and that they’re ready for hiker season to be over already. This isn’t something to say to hikers, especially when the season has barely started and more hikers means more profit for you. We like to go places where we are wanted and where the owners enjoy what they are doing. Telling us that our patronage of your business is a burden is neither a “hiker-friendly” thing to do nor a good business strategy. By the time I leave I can understand why the place gets a bad reputation. Still, the owners mention they are trying to sell it and I hope that somebody is able to buy who will be able to repair that reputation.

We do get dropped off closer to the trail than where we were picked up. We all muse that walkie-talkies would work better and would allow hikers to signal from this closer dock rather than having to walk the 0.9 miles to blow the air horn. The cynic in me decides that the owner kept it this way to save on gas since the drop-off point closer to the trail is also a longer trip by boat.

Once we start hiking we quickly separate. Yellowtail and Sunroof hike the fastest and get out ahead while Stats falls behind me. I take my time, letting the sugar rush from the whoopie pie wear off and wondering why I didn’t learn my lesson from the cake on top of Mt Washington. This morning I had hoped to do some more big miles after lunch in order to make the next 2 days shorter, but it is becoming clear that I won’t be doing that today. The others are all talking about a lakeside campsite about 8 miles up and it is sounding really great to me now.

The trail winds along more lakes and continues to be flat. It will stay this way almost all the way to Katahdin. The map is littered with lakes that we will wind through and it promises to be quite scenic. I go up and over one last bump in the trail and then arrive at the sign for a “sand beach”. The beach isn’t quite sandy, it is more of a gravel, but it is actually preferable for me since the gravelly stuff is less likely to stick to my feet. The beach is long and I have to walk down a couple hundred feet to find Yellowtail and Sunroof in a clearing in the trees just yards from the lake. There is plenty of room for all four of us and I stake out an area for my tent. Stats arrives and since it is only 4:30 we all go swimming in the lake. Unlike Virginia where lakes are usually dark green with algae and it is impossible to see very far into the water, lakes in New England tend to be clear enough to see the bottom several feet down. It is much more refreshing and after taking a dip I actually feel a bit cleaner.

The night turns out to be perfect. The weather is cool but not cold and we find enough wood to make ourselves a campfire in the makeshift firepit that has been created at the edge of the woods. Dinners are cooked and Stats fries up some falafel that he has been carrying but doesn’t have the appetite for so that we can all share it. As the sun goes down we listen to the loons making their haunting calls on the lake. We stay up a little later than usual learning a dice game that Sunroof’s family plays. This morning Stats mentioned that although he is ready to be done and return home to his family, when he looked across the quiet campsite last night and saw our headlamps on in our tents it was the first time he had sensed that he would miss being out here. Tonight playing dice around the campfire with good friends I get the same feeling. It is the perfect ending to a pretty perfect day on the Appalachian Trail.20120915-101928.jpg20120915-101953.jpg20120915-102007.jpg

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Categories: ME | 4 Comments

The last marathon

August 17

26.8 miles, 2132.4 overall, 51.8 remaining (Antlers campsite)
I am quick to rise in the morning and by 6:15 I’m leaving the shelter before anyone else is up. I need to get an early start in order to make some big miles today. I have a few 3000 foot peaks to get over (the last that are this tall until Katahdin) before I descend to some incredibly flat terrain for the next 45 miles. Although the rocks are wet and it is cloudy it is not raining. I am hopeful that the clouds clear up a bit in the next couple hours while I hike because from the last mountain, White Cap Mountain, I should have a view of Katahdin.

The peaks this morning are not terribly difficult. I climb Gulf Hagas Mountain quickly and am surprised when I find I’ve already gone 2 miles. West Peak and Hay Mountain pass by quickly and pretty soon I’m on my way up White Cap. As I climb I take a look at my compass to see which way is northeast, the direction I estimate Katahdin should be. As I get near the top the trees part and through a gap in the clouds I get a great view of The Mountain. Even from many miles away it looks ominous, a behemoth standing out in the middle of nowhere. I can’t wait to climb it.

On the way down I get another view, but this time there are clouds around the summit such that if I hadn’t already seen it I wouldn’t be sure if I was looking at the right mountain. I continue down the mountain to the shelter only another half mile further. I stop to fill up on water, having not bothered filling up all the way this morning before I left. I also grab a snack and check the register. Progress and Joiner stopped here last night and Progress left a note for me to let me know that after they left yesterday she was able to “decide to be happy.” There’s also an entry from Stats who is having a hard time. He got to this shelter and felt sick, so he took a zero day yesterday to try to feel better. He has lost his appetite and feels nauseous. I hope he is feeling better and I take it as a good sign that he isn’t here now.

When I get moving again the trail begins to get easier. As I continue to descend it gradually becomes flatter and starts following old woods roads for periods of time. This makes for some faster hiking and I’m able to pick up the pace to my old standard 3 mph. The next shelter is only 4 miles away and I get there before noon. It is a nice looking shelter and the area in front has some benches made out of old logs. The benches are in the sun and I take advantage of this by pulling out my tent and spreading it out to dry while I eat some lunch. By the time I’ve finished eating and resting about 30 minutes later the tent is mostly dry. It wasn’t absolutely necessary to dry it but the fact that I was able to get it dry is a big psychological boost and I pack it up motivated to crunch some more miles.

For the next several miles I am on cruise control. There are a few short uphills but nothing too serious. I keep remembering that the ridge runner the other day mentioned Little Boardman Mountain as the place where the trail becomes really easy so as I hike I am anxious to get there. She turns out to be right. After climbing the mountain (more accurately described as a hill) the trail flattens out and becomes a series of old woods roads, bog bridges, and flat trail. Even the roots seem to diminish as the ground becomes less rocky and the forest shifts to a more deciduous mix.

I’m trying out listening to some “tiny desk concerts” podcasts from All Songs Considered when up ahead I see Stats. It takes me a while to catch him because he is hiking almost as fast as I am. When I do catch him we talk for a minute about how he’s feeling. He’s still feeling bad but has started a course of antibiotics that he had with him to try to fix whatever it is that’s bothering him. His appetite hasn’t quite returned but he is able to keep some food down. He tells me he is ready to push through it no matter what so he can get home to his wife and 2 kids. It seems like he could be on the upswing and I hike ahead happy that he is still moving.

We both stop at the next shelter to grab water and evaluate our options for the night. I still want to go another 8 miles to the Antlers Campsite that I’ve heard so much about. It is only 3:30 and the trail appears to be more of the same so it is definitely within reach. When I leave Stats is still considering it but it sounds like he is leaning toward coming along. The extra miles would put him only a short distance from White House Landing where hikers can go to get a cheeseburger for lunch and, for some reason, a cheeseburger sounds really appealing to Stats right now.

The last miles go quickly for me and I arrive at the campsite just after 6. There are 4 other hikers already there, all section hikers. I talk to them briefly and learn that 3 of them flew in on a seaplane. Now that must be the way to backpack! Forget having to hike in to a location, just take a plane! I look for a spot for my tent on the western side of the peninsula on which the campsite sits, thinking that camping on that side would give me a great view of the sunset. However there aren’t any good spots there and I figure I can simply cook my dinner and carry it to a good spot to eat. I set up my tent in the middle of the campsite and start dinner.

As my dinner is cooking Stats walks in. He isn’t incredibly hungry now but he is excited about the burger at White House Landing tomorrow. Once my food is cooked he joins me to watch the sunset which turns out to be pretty underwhelming in terms of colors in the sky but the peacefulness of the lake makes it worth it. I clean my pot, we hang our food (more for the sneaky squirrels at this point than the bears), and head to bed. As I’m just getting settled in my tent I hear 2 hikers arrive and discuss where they should tent. As they walk by my tent one says, “Is that you Nitrous?” Its Sunroof and Yellowtail! Turns out they were the next to leave the shelter this morning about an hour after I did and they have hiked the same distance to get here for the night. I’m glad they made it and I direct them to a spot that might be good for them to set up as the last light of the day disappears on the Appalachian Trail.

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