Monday, September 27, 2010

The 100-Mile Non-wilderness and Katahdin!

Now that I've been home for a week, it's time to tell you about the last part of my journey. 

We resupplied for the last time in Monson, ME.  By this late in the hike, resupplying was generally easy because we had finally figured out how to do it right.  Unfortunately, we were resupplying for an unknown about of time.  We weren't sure exactly how many days it would take to get to Katahdin.  The 100 miles past Monson are known as the 100-mile wilderness because there is supposedly nowhere to resupply for 100 miles. 

So we entered the 100 Mile Wilderness with a lot of food and a lot of energy.  This was the home stretch! And everyone had said we would have no problem making up time.  That was a little misleading, but we were still on schedule. It turned out to be a blast and one of the most enjoyable stretches of the hike.  The first few days were slow-going because we had so much food in our packs.  At this point in the hike I was probably eating only 2,500-3,500 calories a day, which doesn't seem like that much for the amount of exercise we were doing, but 10 days worth of that food is heavy!

Day Tripper and I didn't see many other hikers the first few days in the 100 mile wilderness. It was nice to have a little "solitude" and to have a shelter to ourselves... or so we thought.  One night settled into our sleeping bags at dark and we were surprised to see hikers coming into camp one-by-one until almost 10:00.  It was the crew that we had left behind in Rangeley.  They were doing 25+ mile days and really, really hating their lives and the trail.  They were trying to get the trail over as soon as possible, while we were trying to enjoy our last few days.  The extra 5 miles they were doing made a difference- they couldn't take side trails to see ponds, they couldn't stop to scout for moose, and they couldn't ride the boat across the lake to White House Landing. And they never wanted to hike or camp again, whereas I went hiking within a week of coming home.

After a few days we stopped at White House Landing, the only place to resupply in the 100-mile wilderness.  It is basically a bunkhouse with a restaurant, but the novelty is that there is no way to walk there from the trail.  You get to the dock and sound a foghorn so the owner of the place drives a motorboat over to pick you up.  We sounded the foghorn and somehow that turned on a downpour, so the restaurant was a nice short break from the rain.  We didn't spend the night there but we did each eat 1/2 of a pizza, half of a 1 lb hamburger, and half of a pint of Ben and Jerry's.  And I still wasn't full!

In the "wilderness" the terrain was difficult for the first two days, but then it leveled out and we had no problem going 15-20 miles per day.  The only thing that slowed us down a little is that some sections of the trail in Maine are very muddy.  The Maine Appalachian Trail has constructed "bog boards" or wooden planks over the mud in some sections.  I think the main purpose of them isn't to help us as much as it is to prevent trail erosion.  Well, when it rains those things get very slippery!  I was constantly slipping off of them, but mostly landing on my feet.  Except once when I didn't, and I landed on my knees, elbow-deep in mud. Fortunately it was raining so I get cleaned off pretty quickly!

We learned that the 100-mile wilderness is not actually a wilderness at all.  The area is mostly a national forest (I think?) and that means that the resources are meant to be protected but not completely conserved.   That meant that we heard (and saw!) logging trucks every day.  There is even a railroad that goes through the 100-mile wilderness!  But we did see our third moose.  It was swimming in a river so it couldn't run away from us, so we finally got some good moose pictures.

After leaving the "wilderness" we spent the night at Abol Bridge Campsite, where our old friends Conan, Backwards, and Skippy were waiting for us! They had taken a zero day to wait for us so we could summit Katahdin together.  They had also hitched to town and gotten food for the night and champagne for Katahdin!  So we had a campfire with an amazing view of Katahdin, hot dogs on the fire, and a little bit of beer.  Or maybe it was a lot of beer, because somehow we missed hearing a bear sneak into Skippy's food bag 100 yards away and steal Ramen and Poptarts.  We started calling him the "ninja bear" because we never even saw him do it!  Good thing we were all sick of Ramen and Poptarts after 2100+ miles!

The next day we walked together into Baxter State Park, the home of Katahdin.  The "state park" is not actually park of the Maine State Park system.  It was established by a private trust set up by the late, great Governor Percival Proctor Baxter.  So it is independently run and has some strict rules- like limits on the number of thru-hikers who can stay there.  You also have to leave to summit Katahdin by 10 am in September, and things like that.  But I am a rule-follower, so everything worked out fine.

It rained all night, but the weather report predicted that it would stop raining at 8 am.  So we left at 8 am for our last day of hiking.  The crew included Conan, Backwards, Day Tripper, Skippy, Skippy's girlfriend Alisha, and me.  And just as predicted, it stopped raining.  It was a "Class II" day, meaning that "hiking above treeline was not recommended", but we were trusting that the weather would get better throughout the day.

The climb up Katahdin is ~4000 feet of elevation gain over 5.2 miles.  For those of you who don't hike, I will translate.  That is STEEP.  People say that it is the hardest climb of the entire trail, but it was made easier by the fact that we left a lot of stuff at the Ranger Station. In fact, I think I was the only one to carry my own backpack and not a loner daypack.  After the ascent, I saw why.  There was a lot of very technical bouldering and climbing on rebar that would have been difficult with a heavy pack throwing you off balance.

The climb up took about 3 hours, but honestly, it was FUN.  The clouds cleared so we had amazing views, and it was a blast.  It was more than I thought it would be.  We got above treeline and the trail leveled out a little.  There were at least four false summits so it was hard to be sure where the top actually was, but finally we saw a group of people and knew that they were at the top.  So, we reached the summit of Katahdin.  It wasn't windy, it was just a little cold, and the clouds would move in and out giving us occasional views of the valleys below.  There were about a dozen day hikers at the top, and they all applauded for us. 

At the summit we had a great time taking pictures and enjoying the view- taking it all in.  We sang Happy Birthday to Skippy because it was his 30th.  Conan and Backwards sprayed each other with champagne and we drank what was left in the bottle. I thought that I would cry a lot, but I didn't cry until Backwards started crying.  It was more of a happy crying than a sad crying.  It was overwhelming to be at a place that I had dreamed about for as long as I could remember.  The feeling that I felt most was sheer joy.   I couldn't stop smiling.  I felt lucky to have had the opportunity and time for such an amazing journey.  I felt blessed to be with people I love so much in a place that will always be sacred to us.

So then we turned around and went home.  The hike down was kind of annoying, because there is no "extra credit".  We were done hiking the AT, but we still had to get back to the parking lot.  Also, I didn't mind the steepness going up but by the time we got down my knees were really hurting.  That was a sign that it was time to stop hiking for a while.  Overall, I will say with confidence that so far the day that I summitted Katahdin has been the single best day of my life, and hiking the AT was the best choice I ever made.  I am still processing thoughts on everything that happened and all we accomplished, so I will have one more closing blog post for you all.  Thanks for reading and being part of my journey.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Life's Not Always Rainbows and Butterflies, Except for Sometimes

The remainder of southern Maine before the 100 mile wilderness was amazing.  We climbed some big mountains- Saddleback, Sugarloaf, and the Bigelows.  We crossed the 2000-mile mark.  We took a day off in Stratton, ME to weather out the rain of Hurricane Earl.  The weather cooled. We ate lunch in a canoe in a lake, we swam near sand beaches, and we saw another moose.  We ate flapjacks at a remote camp and then rode across the Kennebec River in one of the the country's last man-powered ferrys.  We began to truly enjoy ourselves in a way we hadn't since Virginia.

Oddly enough, even after the difficulties of the beginning of Maine, this was my favorite section of trail.   The Bigelow Mountains in particular were are favorite mountain range there. It had a lot to do with the fact that it was such a beautiful day when we were there.  It was raining in the morning, and as we reached treeline we saw one of the most beautiful views of the trail complete with double rainbows.  This sounds corny, but it was really magical and in that moment I realized that it was all worth it.  All of the miles were worth it for little moments like that.

The Bigelows were the last 4000+ ft mountains before the 100 mile wilderness, which also added to our elation.  I think that is where it really, truly sunk in that I was going to make it to Katahdin.  Supposedly there is a view of Katahdin from Avery Peak in the Bigelows.  There were so many mountains visible to the north that we had no clue which one it was, but that is where I realized that it was actually there.  It was not some imaginary peak of trail lore.  It didn't exist only in my dreams- it was there, and we were going to climb it. My faith in myself was restored and I realized that was what I was missing all along. 

Take-home point? Life is beautiful and so is Maine. Sometimes you just have to endure difficulties to be awed.


The House of Cards Collapses in Southern Maine

To all you inquiring minds who are dying to know- I summited Katahdin and finished hiking the Appalachian Trail shortly after noon on September 17!!  To backtrack, lots of exciting and important things happened in Maine, so here goes-

The last few miles of New Hampshire included a lot of boulder-hopping, but we trogged through the obstacle course riding on the excitement of crossing into our last state.  We got to the border and saw that the famous blue "The Way Life Should Be" sign was gone.   So, no picture with that sign! Shortly after entering Maine we ran into some southbounders who told us that the trail ahead was an obstacle course, but if we hurried and gave it all we had then MAYBE we could make it in time for Day Tripper's deadline.  He needed to be back for work by September 20, which would be very reasonable if we hadn't taken time off to go to a wedding...

So we stopped at the nearest shelter to evaluate our plan.  It seemed like we had everything under control, and if we had fresh legs it would have been ok.  But after almost five months and almost 2000 miles, my body was completely broken down.  We had just survived the White Mountains but they had left me more fatigued than I had ever been in my life.  I was so exhausted I could have slept for days, but instead we kept going just as hard as we had been.

The beginning of Southern Maine was a near-breaking point.  Summer 2010 has been abnormally warm on the East Coast, and another freak heat wave was occurring in Maine.  Temperatures in the 90s are uncommon for that area, supposedly.  We never saw anything different. That, plus the wicked hard terrain, took a toll on me.  In the first half of the trail, I cried three times.  In southern Maine, I cried three times a day.   I don't mean to be whining- I knew this would be hard, but I didn't know how it would affect me physically and mentally.  Day Tripper compared it to a house of cards.  You keep building and building and suddenly you put on the final card and it all collapses.

The final card for me was Mahoosuc Notch.  The Notch is known as the "most difficult mile of the trail".  It is basically a jumbled boulder field.  A lot of people say that you have to take your time and it is fun.  It was fun; I love bouldering and had a blast with similar boulders later in Maine.  But the problem was time.  The stress of a deadline was just too much.

But the universe provides, and a trail angel came in the form of another thru-hiker, Scatters. She is an aspiring writer who is working on a book of short stories about dating on the trail, and Day Tripper and I are one of her stories of interest. Scatters was in a hurry to meet her mom at the end of that day.  Her parents have a house in Rangeley, Maine and her mom was taking some hikers for the night.  Her mom made us a delicious steak dinner with homemade blueberry pie for dessert.  And her mom offered to drop us off anywhere the next day, and I made the most difficult decision of the entire thru-hike.

We resumed our hike the next day.  But, in the interest of time, health, and general enjoyment of the trail, we resumed our hike about 30 miles from where we left off.  So we skipped those miles.  It was a very difficult thing to do and  I felt incredibly guilty, like I was cheating.  Thirty miles, or two days worth of hiking, isn't much in the grand scheme of our hike, but it certainly kept me awake at night.  Those of you who know me well know that I am a rule-follower and I try to be an honest person, which is why I am admitting this.  I do intend to go back and hike every mile that I missed.  I have never defined myself as a "purist" or someone who tries to hike past every single blaze, but up until that point I made an honest effort to try.

One of the hardest things about the decision was how judgemental some people were.  I would guess that over half of thru-hikers skip small sections or "blue-blaze".  Blue blazing is hiking on a trail other than the AT for a while and skipping white blazes.  Anyway, some people had trouble minding their own business.  The take-home point here? Don't judge until you walk 2,000 miles in someone else's boots.

So we left from Rangeley at a more reasonable pace.  We still had lot of huge climbs and boulder scrambles ahead, but it didn't seem so intimidating.  And we managed to rebuild our bodies and spirits enough to summit Katahdin while truly being able to enjoy the rest of Maine, and it was blissful.

More soon!


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The White Mountains and our first Moose sighting

Lack of internet access and a busy schedule to finish the trail have caused me to neglect my blog- sorry! I am currently in Caratunk, ME and will write about Maine in a little while, but here is my story of the White Mountains.

The White Mountains greeted us with a big climb and a steep, slippery descent: Mt. Moosilauke.  The meaning of this name has nothing to do with "moose" or "lake", but we saw our first moose there! As we neared the top of the mountain and the alpine vegetation zone we heard some scampering in front of us.  It was a young moose, and he was freaking out.  He was running in circles and grunting.  We had heard that moose will usually just scamper off if they see people, but this one was crazed and the vegetation on both sides of the trail was too thick for him to move through.  Eventually he just went the other way and we discovered that the reason for his behavior was that there was a couple coming down the trail towards us, so he felt trapped.  All ended well, and we got a nice picture of a moose's butt.

Moosilauke wasn't nearly as difficult as it is made out to be, but the Whites as a whole are.  Our hourly pace slowed from 2.5-3 miles an hour to 1 at times.  The trail requires a lot of hand-over-hand scrambling that is more like rock climbing than hiking. It was certainly something different!

The real bummer of the White Mountains was our time spent in Lincoln, NH.  We had to spend three nights there because Day Tripper had an abscessed tooth and the only dentist for miles around wasn't there on the weekend.  So we just sat around impatiently.  Fortunately she cam back early from Cape Cod just to take care of us- picked him up at the hotel, opened her office at 7 pm, and gave us the thru-hiker rate.

After leaving Lincoln we were eager to get into the heart of the White Mountains.  It was a blessing in disguise that we were delayed a few days because that allowed a storm to pass.  Bad weather in the White Mountains is a lot worse than bad weather in a lot of other places on the trail because a lot of the trail is above tree line and exposed.  We had great weather across Franconia Ridge, followed by a few days of light rain. The day we summitted Mt Washington was VERY wet and windy but tolerable, especially because Mt Washington is the 2nd highest peak on the AT and has the "worst weather in the United States".  It holds the record for the highest recorded wind speed anywhere on land in the world.  Somehow, miraculously, as soon as we reached the summit the sky cleared and we had a great view of New Hampshire and Maine.  Some people claimed that we could see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, but that looked like a mirage to me.

In addition to surviving the terrain of the Whites, we survived the AMC.  This organization, the Appalachian Mountain Club, is responsible for maintaining the AT through the Whites. Thru-hikers refer to them as the "Appalachian Money Collectors" because they charge a fee for using the shelters.  That's fine with me- it's just $8 per person per night and I guess it is a high-use area, so whatever.  The real annoyance was the hut system.  There are numerous mountain huts along the trail that people pay $100+ per night to stay at.  Through certain stretches there are no camping spots because you are above treeline They allow you to do work for stay, which basically meant washing dishes, etc to stay there for free.  We couldn't complain because it is a privilege to stay in the huts for free, but at the same time thru-hikers would rather not stay there, we were just forced to.  Long story short, we were treated pretty rudely in some instances, and it would be beneficial for the AMC to build more shelters in the White Mountains so thru-hikers and rich weekend hikers could be kept apart and get more of the experience they want.

Mentally, the White Mountains were very difficult and that was magnified by the fact that we took time off in the real world to go to a wedding.  They were hard physically, but we were well-rested so we managed to trudge through them. And, up to that point, were the most beautiful spot on the trail and overall a good experience, until we got to Maine.  Maine takes the cake as our favorite spot, and I will write more about that later.  Right now I have to go eat lunch because my hiker hunger is back full-force and I only have a few more weeks to eat whatever I want without feeling guilty!