Want to dance?

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Julie Johnson, who commutes from Manhattan, drags a log she named “Betty,” up Pass Mtn. for use in a waterbar.

PATC North District Hoodlums Trail Crew, Pass Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, August 20, 2016 — Hanging out with the Hoodlums this weekend prompted a thought.

What is it about the Appalachian Trail that would cause people to commute hundreds of miles to maintain it; to hike it?  Why do so many report deeply personal relationship with this trail?

There are as many answers as there are hikers.  Here’s a possibility.

Some say the trail has the personality of a curvaceous vixen whose shapely turns first catch your eye on centerfolds in coffee table books.  She holds your gaze.

At the same time you imagine the possibilities, her earthy voice whispers on the wind, “Come with me. We’ll be amazing together.”  Smitten, you follow her irresistible come-hither with stars in your eyes and dreams of conquest.

Not so fast. Be careful of those sexy charms.  This babe may have legs that run from here to there, but a walk in the woods with this little number can suck you dry and empty your will to keep on.  Know that she turns from sultry to frigid ice virtually overnight.   See her tears fall in torrents that become rivers in your path. Be aware that she may not leave you laughing when she goes.

IMG_4914Date this honey and you’re in a high maintenance love affair. It’s more than the constant stroking, the sweet nothings or minding the flowers.  You’re in it with all of her friends including the bear who dug up my waterbar in search of a meal.  The hurt is high with this one.

She likes her suitors looking good.  Before you know it, you’ll own mix and match backpacks, tents and sleeping bags.   Guess how many base layers, flash dry shirts and pairs of Smart Wool socks I have.  I am ashamed to admit that my hiking boot closet would make Imelda Marcos jealous.

Heaven help you when you start owning your own personal trail tools – Pulaskis, MacLoeds – and Stihl brand anything is on your Christmas wish list.  I hear that she’s impressed by bigger saws.

Words like Jet Boil and Pocket Rocket soon replace GE and Tappan in the kitchen.  I mean who needs stainless steel when titanium is lighter.  Hell, Mother Nature even throws in the granite for free.

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She’s not a cheap date though.  Betty needed a lot of polishing before she became but one more piece of jewelry decorating the trail. This expensive jewelry habit is essential.  Keep it coming or Ms. AT’s beauty and charms quickly erode.  Costume pieces may be okay from time to time, but this girl likes to receive big rocks, especially on special occasions. Forget one and she can get ugly.

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In spite of all this, like a 1940s taxi dancer on a steamy Saturday night, the trail has no shortage of suitors.  Even the guy with the halo had to stand in line for his turn to dance.

Oh yes.  You probably guessed it.  The Hoodlums had another great outing.

Victory Lap of Sorts

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100-mile Wilderness, Maine, August 1-10, 2016 — Bottom line:  Eye witness accounts are notoriously unreliable.  I remembered the last 100 miles of my thru hike as a piece of cake.  In my memory, only the second day was challenging.  Oh Grasshopper, you definitely mis-remembered that experience!

Absent the adrenaline of a thru hike, the 100-mile Wilderness was hard work, and was it ever.  Nevertheless, it was a joy to share it with Windy (Pepsi Hiker) Horn and watch her face brighten with excitement as the wonders of this gem of a hike revealed themselves like a sultry fan dancer hungry for tips.  If Katahdin is the cherry on top, the wilderness is definitely the whipped cream and definitely worth the effort.

IMG_2195I met Wendy and her hiking partner Diane near Port Clinton, PA in 2014 on my thru hike.  We hiked together for several days before I eventually outran them and they had to return home to northern Illinois.  We kept in touch.

This summer I shared dinner with Wendy and her friend Rene at the Skyland resort in Shenandoah National Park.  Mostly we talked about hiking.

Turned out that Wendy has section hiked West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Nice, but little to write home about.  I suggested she chew off a chunk of excitement for motivation.  That’s how we found ourselves tramping our way through the ultimate 100 miles of Maine.

I drove to Maine to visit an old friend for a couple of days before snagging Wendy at the Manchester, NH airport.  We then motored six-plus hours north to Millinocket and stayed at the AT Lodge before being shuttled to Monson, the gateway to the 100-mile Wilderness.  There we stayed at Shaw’s, now under new and enthusiastic ownership.  The place was packed to overflowing.

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The first stop was the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s new visitor center in Monson.  The number of AT hikers is overwhelming Baxter State Park and Mt. Katahdin.  A new permit system is being tested that will ultimately meter in a finite number of hikers per day and limit the allowable number coming from the AT to 3,000 hikers per annum.

We will save the arguments about the efficacy of this system for another time.

At Shaw’s we arranged a resupply drop which, sadly has upped in price from $25 to $80.  Seems hikers were dumping their garbage in and around the old 5-gallon paint buckets. Worse, some food was being stolen.  Now, resupply is delivered to your hand.  It takes some doing, but it worked okay for us except that it cost an unanticipated $40 each.  At least we could split the $80 cost.

THE DROUGHT

Maine suffered a dry winter.  This weather pattern has continued into summer.  In spite of the drought, the ponds have plenty of water to keep the outlet streams running.  The tertiary streams and many springs are bone dry. Hikers need to plan their water carefully.  The water sources for two Lean-tos were bone dry.

Same spot, two years apart.  The soil is thin with only inches of soil having been created since the glaciers retreated.  It doesn’t take much for a rain shower to make mud, or the sun to just as rapidly dry it out for that matter.

Desiccation is everywhere.  Even the blueberries are raisins.  If the berries fail, the bears, deer and other animals which depend on them will suffer.  The harsh reality is that some will starve.

The forest is tinder dry and we learned that fire crews have been propositioning equipment in expectation of forest fires that most certainly will occur.

Here’s a graphic example of the drought’s effects.  Little Wilson Falls, two years apart.

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Crossing Little Wilson Creek, two years apart.  This is not a crossing I ever imagined would be feet dry.

THE TRAIL

The trail begins gently enough with some gentle climbs and slab walks.

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Plenty of roots, considered a trail feature in Maine.

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Got rocks?  We climbed this twice … How?  The trail was rerouted at some point to include this gem.  The old trail wasn’t blocked and we accidentally did a two hour loop.  Ugh!

Not exactly a sprint.

THE JOURNEY

Ya got yer stream crossings and yer views.

We planned for an eight-day transit, allowing for some short and some long days dependent on the terrain.  The weather opened windless, humid and hot.  Temps were in the 80s and 90s which is cooking for Maine.

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Normally, I drink one to two liters per day and another in camp.  The first day I got dehydrated because several water sources were dry.  I filled up my spare three liter bladder (six lbs.) which we shared.  Problem solved.

Two years ago, I didn’t encounter more than a dozen or so hikers.  This year there were dozens upon dozens.  The college students told us that hiking is now a campus fad.  Good to get new blood into the woods, but the trash level was much higher than before.

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Two students from Elon U.  They had a general idea of what to do, but little knowledge of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics and practices or the fact that privies aren’t everywhere you can camp, or how to properly wash dishes in the woods (not in the pond), or the finer techniques of hanging a food bag.   I pulled out my handy Leave No Trace card and led a discussion in the proper practices.

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Only one place to get water from the pond where we camped the first night.  Guess what’s under that artsy reflection of the sky?

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Some Bozo washed his dishes at the only place campers can get water.  Brilliant.  Not!

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A snowshoe hare mowed the shelter lawn.  His hind feet were huge and mostly white.

As it turned out, I overestimated how much mileage we could make.  The terrain was tougher than I remembered and the heat was oppressive.  Each of us was fit enough, but …

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Wendy twisted her knee about 40 percent of the way in and had to be “med-evaced” (shuttled) back to Monson for a recuperation day.  Here she’s arranging transportation.  She brought our resupply when we rendezvoused at Jo-Mary Road – along with a surprise: An icy cold Coke which I appreciated very much!

Nature’s art gallery.

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Laundry.

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Katahdin in the distance.

While Wendy recuperated, I hiked over White Cap Mountain in the cold rain – exactly the same conditions and time of day as two years ago.  It wasn’t a happy flash back.

I pushed on to Cooper Brook Lean-to the next day to swim – almost as good as a shower.  The next morning Wendy rejoined at Jo-Mary Road and we were off.

The AT has its moments.  One that sneaks up on you like a woman in a Philip Marlow novel with that come hither smile then sets you up for a hard fall is the newly reopened White House Landing.  I missed this one last time around.  They pick you up in a boat and stuff your face full of burgers and incredible homemade pizza.  You don’t leave hungry in the morning either!  It helped that the weather broke to cool temps, low humidity and a nice breeze.  So much for wilderness.  Perfect!

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This little guy stood his ground.  No rattles, but with the body type of a pit viper including the narrow neck and triangular head.  Definitely not a hog nose.  Possibly a water snake.  We were near a river.

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The 100-mile wilderness ends at Abol Bridge, just before entering Baxter State Park for the Katahdin climb.  There were about 20 hikers headed for Baxter where there’s only room for 12 long distance hikers.  Everything else is reserved car camping.  We shuttled into Millinocket and drove into Baxter because we didn’t want to occupy space.

Katahdin is awesome!

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Made it!  Second time around is not the same, but it’s still pretty good.

New sign this year.

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Pretty obvious.

More trash than we could carry out.  This is just a sample.

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Best sign of the trip.

Sisu.