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.

 

 

Made for TV movie

Baxter Peak, Mt. Katahdin, ME, AT NOBO mile 2,185.3, Wednesday August 6, 2014 — Today was like a made for TV movie with perfect scenery, a thickened plot and surprise casting.

Imagine two thru hikers hiking in successive years. Each has walked all the miles except the climb to Katahdin.

Better yet, each one has vicariously hiked with the other through their respective blogs month by month, day by day; mile by mile.

What are the chances that they would find each other and summit together? Well it happened.

Tie Dye wrote a fascinating blog during her 2013 hike. Along the way, we struck up a conversation. In fact, she was responsible for shaping the tone of my own hike. I blogged about it in a post entitled “Conversion on the road to Damascus.” Who knew she was working at the AT Lodge in Millinocket.

Conversely, Tie has been following my blog and has encouraged my progress. I bumped into her when I popped into the Lodge to wait out the rain.

Today was her day off and we summited together. How cool is that?!!! Two hikes, two years and one goal.

We piled into the van, a bunch of hikers headed to the top of a mountain, bound together in common purpose.

The trail can be divided into thirds. The initial portion resembles most of the trail in Maine – roots, rocks and mud. It even has bog bridges. At treeline, boulders resembling Mahoosic Notch add challenge with less difficulty. The end is a tableland walk with a surprise ending. The final exam has a bit of everything.

The dark leaden sky blocked dawn’s early light as the forecast’s twenty percent chance of rain threatened. About 45 minutes in, the sky dropped its load. With those odds, maybe I should head for Las Vegas.

As we scrambled through the boulders, the clouds parted like the Red Sea and we could see forever. It was indeed a perfect day.

Thanks to family, friends, followers for coming along for the ride. Special thanks to Tie for sharing this special day. Without Fitness Together, this would have been a struggle. Please stay tuned for follow-ups , the anthology video and to see what comes next.

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Go for launch

Millinocket, ME, AT Lodge, AT NOBO mile 2,180.1, Tuesday August 5, 2014 — Lies, damn lies and statistics? Wrong! It’s really lies, damn lies and weather forecasts.

Where have all the T-storms gone? Not here. No time passing.

Today dawned cloud free and has remained so all day. I feel like an idiot to have missed another opportunity to put the cherry on top of this most excellent adventure.

The forecast for tomorrow is now for clear weather. Therefore I’ve decided that we attack at dawn come hell or high water. It’s Katahdin or bust ’cause I am about to bust just sitting around here twiddling my thumbs. The hostel is a nice place, that’s not the issue.

Of course I am psyched. Let’s rock and roll kiddies. It’s time.

Now for other news. Sadly Millinocket is another small town drifting toward oblivion. It’s paper mills have closed taking its middle class down in the process. Deferred maintenance and for sale signs characteristically define Main Street in what has become a hiker town trend.

It is sad that the theories of Adam Smith and Darwin are evident one more time. In Smith’s case, the prosperity always seems to accrue to someone else or elsewhere. At least the hiking community brings in a few bucks.

Some of the businesses look like the owners left in a hurry. Names remain on marquees. It looks like they might be open, except they aren’t. Potemkin would be proud.

This town supports its troops. Communities like this have been sending their sons, and now their daughters, to defend our nation’s interests on muddy fields for centuries as monuments to their service attest. It’s ironic that no one seems to have defended them in the hour of their need.

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Outside. The desperation is evident.

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Inside. Working harder didn’t solve the problem.

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Rain delay

AT Lodge, Millinocket, ME, AT NOBO mile 2,180.1, Monday August 4, 2014 — Up to this point, every day, every mile, every rock, every root, every mud hole has been a preliminary heat. Now we’ve made the finals.

With toes on the starting line, the assent of Mt. Katahdin has been delayed by a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms tomorrow. A similar percentage applies for Wednesday.

I opted to regroup at the AT Lodge in Millinocket and climb on Thursday when the weather is expected to clear. It’s sad to come this far and not get a clear view on top, so I’m waiting.

I reached the camp store at Abol Bridge just as it opened. Hot, fresh coffee! Oh boy. Then it happened.

There it was – a moose just inside Baxter State Park! It was munching its way through a swamp to my right. Rain or no rain, I whipped out my camera and fired away. Mr. Moose, or maybe it was Bullwinkle, posed like a pro. Thanks bro!!!

The remainder of the ten-mile walk to Katahdin Stream Campground was a soggy jaunt in drenching rain. Can you believe it? The sky cleared just as I arrived, just 30 minutes past the deadline for starting a summit attempt. If I hadn’t stopped for coffee, I could have summited today. Oh well, 5.2 miles to go…

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The store and it’s setting reminded me of Alaska.

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The white tail was a bonus.

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Eyes on the prize!

Hurd Brook Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 2,166.7, Sunday August 3, 2014 — Finally! A clear view of Katahdin. Not the best , mind you, but at least the camera saw it clearly and unmistakably.

Katahdin rises like a ginormous humpbacked whale breaching a flat ocean surface. It’s simply overwhelms everything around it. Simply put, it’s impressive.

I actually was so l busy picking blueberries, which are ripening on the rainbow ledges where hikers get their first up-close and personal view of the mountain, that I almost missed it. I looked up just at the right time. The sight took my breath away. Photos do not do it justice.

Earlier this morning a longer distance view was very hazy with Katahdin barely visible to the camera. I’m disappointed in my photo ops so far.

Tomorrow it’s breakfast at the Abol Bridge camp store, then on to The Birches where thru hikers stage for their assents. The weather remains a mystery given how long it’s been since I saw a forecast.

One caveat. The mountain is closed by the park rangers if weather conditions endanger hikers or possible rescuers. If that’s the case, I may have to hang in Millinocket until it clears. I’m hoping for a clean first attempt.

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Lo and behold

Logan Brook Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 2,113.9, Thursday July 31, 2014 — Let’s start at the end. A late afternoon thunderstorm was just passing, the clouds parted and behold — the holy of holies, the end all and be all, the ultimate objective, Katahdin. Mind you it was itself shrouded in clouds, but it was unmistakable nonetheless.

There it was, plopped on the far horizon like a great mound of blueberry ice cream snuggled in a cloud of cotton candy draped like a baby blanket over its shoulders. Where’s the cherry on top? That’s where I’ll be in a few short days I smiled before planting my right pole in a thru hiker pirouette to soldier on under the dripping sky.

The end is actually in sight with just 71.4 miles remaining in this little party. My emotions are mixed. On the one hand it’s time to turn out the lights on this little fiesta. On the other, following the white blazes is pretty uncomplicated employment. It’s hard to give up life at two miles per hour and return to interstate speed.

Today was another good day. The trail was in excellent shape. At the river ford, just after the 2,100 mile mark, I met a senior trail overseer from the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) who advised me that the trail ahead of me was fast. Most of it was her responsibility. She told me the story of taking 11 years to build 1,100 stone steps down the north side of White Cap Mountain, the day’s big climb. On my way down, I realized that steps help make today’s 17 miles a relative snap.

The thunderstorm caught me below treeline. Fortunately it didn’t drop much rain, just enough to freshen the mud and slicken up the roots. I thought I’d lose out on the first view of Katahdin, but luck was a lady this afternoon.

All the young hikers are talking big miles tomorrow. The trail flattens and everyone is anxious to speed up their finish. Such competition is the coin of the realm for young men.

My resupply is supposed to be delivered sometime tomorrow, tho I don’t know what time. So as for my planned speed, I’m making sure I get fed.

That’s all I have to worry about at the moment. No deadlines. No hurry.

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Hint.

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The big K is one huge chunk of rock.

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Stopped short

Wadleigh Stream Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 2147.1, Saturday August 2, 2014 — The morning dawned promising rain. The cloud deck hung low, the barometer was falling and the air thick and slow. I dallied in my morning routine, lingering over my coffee and pop tarts. I was in no hurry.

My feet dried out nicely overnight. The damage was less than I feared, but I was worried about making them worse. My choices for distances were, in round numbers, between hiking 10 and 20. After doctoring my foot, I opted for the lesser mileage and rest that might aid in the recovery.

Tomorrow will require 19 miles which will put me in perfect position, four miles short of Abol bridge and 13 short of The Birches Lean-tos and campground, the launch point for summiting Mt. Katahdin.

There’s a store at Abol that sells ice cream! Be absolutely certain that I’ll be there when it opens.

Barring some setback, it looks like Tuesday is the big day. The forecast is for clear weather. Fingers crossed.

Saw loads of fungi along the way and will include some of what I saw.

Meanwhile, my hiking day stopped at 1:30 pm when I reached this shelter. I learned reading the register that Swayed, my partner for 750 miles, pulled up here also rather than pushing too hard before he summited last week. The immediate threat of rain is gone, so I hope to dry some things out while I am here.

About two hours after my arrival, Saturday struck with a vengeance. I did note that this place is neither 100 miles nor a wilderness. In proof, I offer the loud and I noxious Boy Scout troop that just pulled in, fresh after a short walk from a nearby road. So much for the rest. The good news is that their leaders just took them swimming at a nearby pond. Those who opted not to swim are upstream contaminating the shelter’s water source. Didn’t work that way when I was a Scout, and particularly when I was an adult Scout leader.

More rain is in offing for tomorrow. Unfortunately, today’s opportunities to view Katahdin were clouded out. Maybe my luck will change, but I doubt the clouds tomorrow will offer much of a break. I also plan to blow this pop stand really early. I want a running start to what promises to be a long day – much longer if it rains heavily. On – on!

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Really?

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Are we there yet?

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In October, the weather at White Blaze number 1 was a harbinger of temperatures to come – The ambient air temp registered a unseasonal 17 F frosted with a stiff wind.

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When 2014 rolled over on Father Time’s odometer, the annual blossoming of the Appalachian Trail (AT) commenced as hikers slowly began pollinating north Georgia’s Springer Mountain.  Each new arrival swelled the cavalcade expectantly streaming northward.  From a few in January, each successive month bears witness to new hopefuls joining the annual rebirth and migration.

From Springer, they follow the nor’ easters stormy track for 2,185.3 miles – all the way to Baxter State Park in central Maine.  Their ultimate hope is to hug that battered placard atop Mt. Katahdin.  Undeterred, they willfully ignore the overwhelming odds against their success.  Historical evidence suggests that least three of four of us will be unsuccessful. 

As a family strung out over the miles, individually and together we hikers navigate a unique ribbon of reality. It twists and turns in a slow motion parallel universe to I-95 which, just a few miles east of the AT, rages relentlessly northward in the direction of our common destination.  We are confident in our slower but equally determined pace, and fortified by our greater peace of mind as we leave civilization in the rear view mirror.

For the next several months we inhabit a migrating colony of free-range hikers.   Our feral existence is defined by day-by-day adventures all our own.  That’s how our story unfolds.

The class of 2014 has done all the preparation possible.  From now until Katahdin, for any chance of success, each of us needs luck, and above all, the courage to keep on keeping on, no matter what challenge comes our way. 

 Feet to brain, “Say what! “

Not one of us is an island.  The support of family, friends, the trail community, complete strangers, and those who read our journals is a necessary condition of success. 

The long march for the Class of 2014 is finally underway in significant numbers. If we have the physical stamina, enough luck to avoid major illness and injury, and the mental fortitude to repeat the first stride five million times through ups and downs, snow, rain, mud, heat, humidity, ugly rocks, injuries and blood sucking insects, then we too will claim the high ground and tag that weathered scoreboard almost 2,200 miles north of white blaze number 1. 

My hike is highly unconventional, although not originally planned that way.  On September 24th I started a 13-day, 160-mile practice hike from Waynesboro, Va to Harpers Ferry WVa.  It was so much fun that I did not want to waste it.  So, I decided to get down to Springer Mountain and start northward as soon as I could.

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With my friend Mary “Hey Man!” Manley, I took the on-ramp to the northbound hiker super highway on Oct. 24.   Mary plans to resume her hike from where she suspended it in about a month from now.  I know this tough cookie is going to make it all the way.

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As I crunched my way forward on the snow and ice-crusted trail as the days darkened, I heard of three NOBOs hiking ahead of me with the intent of driving on to Maine unless weather drove them off the trail.  Reports are that one left the trail in Damascus just prior of my arrival there.  I have no word of the others.

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Now it’s my turn to rejoin the class.  The administrative tasks related to my mother’s passing are complete, the taxes filed, and all the rest. 

My official return to the trail is Wednesday.  High octane drop boxes packed with calories were mailed last week. During the interim, I’ve been working hard at Fitness Together.  The plan is Katahdin or Bust by July fourth – give or take.  Fingers crossed.

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As always, armchair hikers are welcome to enjoy the rest of the journey.

 Sisu – Making tracks

Humor does not diminish the pain – it makes the space around it get bigger. – Allen Klein 

“The most certain way of ensuring victory is to march briskly and in good order against the enemy, always endeavoring to gain ground.”   Fredrick the Great

A version of this entry was previously posted on Trail Journals.