Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Until the Wilderness

As I mentioned at the end of the previous post, my friend Josh was coming up from Texas to join me in Gorham to do a few days on the trail. Unfortunately, his flight was massively delayed and he was unable to get into town until three in the morning. Not a great way to start several days in the woods. In spite of a certain lack of sleep however, we were able to get going by about 9:30. It was a hard day. First off, it was hot as blazes. Secondly, Josh had just stepped into one of the hardest sections of the trail after not hiking for some time and having spent several months studying for the Bar Exam. He put up a valiant effort but even so, the 12 miles I had planned for that day were clearly a grind. We got into camp around 8:30 that evening, ate, and went right to bed.

It seemed pretty clear after the first day that I was going to need to adjust my plans for the next couple of days. I had intended for us to make Grafton Notch in the two days we had left. It just seemed like that wasn't going to happen, or it was going to make us both miserable if it did, so we adjusted our plans a bit. We only did five miles that second day and spent long hours just sitting, enjoying the views, and catching up. It was very nice and was at the same time very strange because that kind of movement was not at all what I was used to on the trail. Incidentally, this was also the day when I crossed the Maine border, hooray!

We had a good night at our camp site that evening and the next day we headed down a 3 mile side trail to a road where we could get picked up to get Josh back to town so he could catch his plane the next day. It wasn't a perfect plan in that it cut our third day way short, but it was really the only option available to us.

I ate lunch with Josh in town, got a few more supplies since I thought it was going to take me an extra day to get to Andover and then got Josh to take me back up to the side trail where we came off. I hiked back up to the shelter by about 6:00 in the evening and then I booked the six miles to the next shelter. I got there by around 8:00. It was good to really be able to release my legs to go at high speed again. Also, a good portion of the six miles or so between the two shelters was above treeline and there were some really good views. Oh and that night there was a really clear night and I saw a couple of shooting stars which was pretty cool.

I had heard some disturbing reports about the weather expected for the next day but when I woke up it was beautiful. I got going around seven and the sun was out and the sky was bright blue. In fact it was so nice that I felt the need to take about thirty minutes to just sit and look when I got to the top of the first hill. After I got moving it did not take me long to get to the infamous Mahoosuc Notch . Now for those of you who are not intimately familiar with the AT (as I was not before I did this) Mahoosuc Notch has the reputation of being "the toughest mile on the trail." I had several former hikers inform me that I should plan a short day around the notch and that I should allow somewhere between two and three hours to complete the Notch.

I did not find it to be nearly as difficult as everyone made out. Actually, I thought it was pretty fun. There was a bunch of jumping from boulder to boulder and some cool kind of half caves you walk through. Honestly, the only unpleasant part of it was the smell during the first third or so of the mile that was produced by the moose that had gotten trapped down there and died. Another interesting thing about the notch is that it is about 10 degrees cooler than any surrounding area and some of the deeper crevices are even colder than that. There are several deep holes where snow and ice exists year round. In the end it only took me about an hour twenty to traverse the notch and at least 20 minutes of that was monopolized by the taking of pictures.

On the downside, by the time I got about half-way through the notch, clouds had come out of nowhere to cover the entire sky, it was looking like the weather report was going to be correct after all. Indeed I was about halfway up Mahoosuc Arm (the very steep mountain immediatly following the notch) when it started to rain. Fortunately, I was at least able to get across the exposed top of the mountain before it became a thuderstorm. Frankly though, the wind that was blowing honestly seemed dangerous enough, as it practically pushed me over. Coming down from Mahoosuc Arm was pretty awful, it was dumping bucket-fulls of rain on me and the lightning was close enough to make me plenty nervous. I had never been so glad to see a little shelter when I got to the covered information board at Grafton Notch. Starting that day I had thought I might not make it past the next shelter which was only a couple of miles up the next hill. However, since the notch had not been nearly as bad as expected I decided that if the thunder let up I would go ahead and cross the next two mountains and go on into Andover for the night and hopefully catch up with Mystery Chicken. This would be a pretty good push of 21 miles considering the difficulty of the terrain and the unpleasant weather. Fortunately, the thunder and rain cooperated and I was able to push on which was what I really wanted to do at that point. I was very glad I did. The wet made quite a bit more slippery than I would have preferred (particularly coming down the backside of Baldpate Mtn.) but the view from Baldpate made everything worth it. There was a bunch of cloud moving in and out among the nearby mountain peaks and the mountains all looked deep blue and purple poking up among them. I did make it into Andover later that evening and Chicken was there. Unfortunatly, I discovered the next day that I was so exhausted that I needed to take a zero day so all was for naught. He got a full day out on me again. Ah well.

Of course the day that I took in town was beautiful, though hot and the day that I left it was already raining and windy. Just what I wanted, another gross day. Yet in spite of not being thrilled by the weather and also feeling kind of sluggish, the first six miles just rolled right by. Unfortunately, it stayed pretty gross for the rest of the day, though it wasn't actively raining most of the time. My pace was slowed down pretty significantly that afternoon by climbing Old Blue Mtn. Its steep enough that it would have been tough in any circumstances but in this case I was also getting paid back for ever having complained about walking in a creek-like trail. The trail gods apparently decided I was to find out what it is really like when the trail is a creek. I actually had to walk through little mini-rapids running down the trail, and there were frequently pools that were well over ankle deep. In spite of all of that I was able to make it into camp pretty early, do all my stuff and hit the sack. I was exhausted and probably fell asleep by about 8:15. Even for the trail that was pretty early for me.
The next day dawned beautiful and I thought perhaps my feet would become dry that day but it quickly became clear that was not too be. I was doing a swamp slog for the majority of the day. Except for that though, it wasn't a very tough day and I ended up camped at the Piazza Rock shelter, which was right next to the actual Piazza Rock which was a pretty cool, table-like rock formation. This site also sported what is probably the most interesting privy I saw on the entire trip. It was a two seater with no partition, instead choosing to divide the seats with a cribbage board. There was a sign on the outside that labeled the privy "Your Move". I was exceedingly amused.
The next morning started out pretty easy. It was muddy, but not excessively so. I crossed the Saddleback Range that day. The climbs really weren't all that bad and the views from up high were excellent which is how I like my mountains. Unfortunately, it was also quite windy and chilly which kept me from spending an excessive amount of time up top. The amount of time I was above treeline really reminded me of being in the Whites. The second half of the day was a great deal more wooded, but they were very pretty woods. I went through some extremely dense conifer forests. That night I ended up camped with a large French Canadian camp group. They were funny for me to watch. Their dynamic was so similar to a lot of the groups I have had that I almost felt like I knew what was going on even though they were all speaking French.
Very little went right for me on the next day. I started the morning by snapping my left trekking pole about half a mile from camp. I had no idea how used to those things I had gotten. Losing one felt like losing a leg. I got into Stratton that afternoon expecting to pick up a resupply and maybe get a wash. Unfortunatley, my package had not shown up. This was a Saturday so in order for me to wait for my package I would have had to wait until Monday. I was still trying to catch Chicken at this point (since he wasn't in town as I had been expecting) so there was no way I was going to do that. Instead I had to do my first resupply from a grocery store. I ended up with some cheese, pre-cooked chicken breasts, peanut butter, corn tortillas, trail mix, and Snickers bars. Not exactly the most exciting or varied of food items, but I figured it was at least something to eat for the next two days until I could get my package in Caratunk. I headed back out to do another five miles that evening with Blow Out and Truffles, heavy one ski pole that the hostel owner had given me to replace my broken trekking pole. We camped at the Horn's Pond Lean-To with a legion of other people. I didn't even bother trying to get names.
The next day I had to cross the Bigelow range which was supposedly the last really tough mountain group before reaching Katahdin. They did indeed give me a great deal of trouble. It took me four hours to do five miles, but I don't really attribute that to the actual difficulty of the mountains. I felt extremely weak that morning and I attibute a lot of that to my less than satisfactory food I was eating. If I had been feeling up to par I don't think the Bigelow's would have presented much of a problem at all. Fortunately, after crossing those mountains the rest of the day became a great deal easier, the ground flattened out a lot and I was able to make exceptional time into camp for the evening at West Carry Pond Lean-To. Incidentally, somewhere during that day I crossed over the two-thousand mile marker. Anyway, the lean-to that night was set right against West Carry Pond and I was hot and gross so I decided to take a swim no matter how cold the water was. To my surprise it wasn't cold at all, but rather was an absolute perfect swimming temperature so that I probably stayed out in the water for a good 40 minutes even though the sun was in the process of setting. It was extremely refreshing. The sun setting over the pond was also very pretty.
Next day we were heading into Caratunk, the entire day was flat walking. I don't know if any of you guys can conceive of how weird (and how nice) that was. I was cruising. It was damp out but not unpleasant and there was a really pretty section where I was walking right beside a big pond with several sandy beaches. It was still a little too cool for a swim or I likely would have gone in. I was in no real rush that morning because there was a river crossing that afternoon and I was going to have to wait for the shuttle that started running at two. There was no reason to get there early. As a result of this timing I took an exceedingly long lunch at another shelter that was set idyllically on another pond, took another swim, and sat listening to the loons. When I finally did get to the river crossing right at two the Georgia Boys were in the process of trying to ford the river (something we had all been advised not to do). They were halfway across the river and in water up to their necks. They were floating their packs. Around the time I walked up they decided they weren't going to make it and turned around. Thus they still had to take the ferry and were soaking wet too boot. Not that it was a big deal to them, nothing really seemed to phase those guys much. Anyway, I caught the ferry and headed right into Caratunk where I was disturbed to discover that once again my package had not arrived and this time there wasn't really any other resupply available to me. Truffles and I headed down the road to the hostel where we unexpectedly and thrillingly came across Mystery Chicken and the friend who had come out to hike a couple days with him; Fru-Squirrel. I was thrilled, I was starting to give up hope of catching him. He was planning on heading back out for a few miles that afternoon but just about that time who should roll up but Widowmaker. The crew was back togethor with extras! At this point we all pretty much knew no one was going on so we went up to the Northern Outdoors resort and got some private cabin tents for 10 bucks a person and had an awesome night. It was much needed, everyone felt much more relaxed and easy going the next day.
My package had also showed up by morning so I was able to leave Caratunk with everyone else. It was a really nice day, we all felt kind of weak early in the day but even so it was awesome to be back in company. That afternoon we came across a pretty cool rock outcropping and in addition there was a ceramic bust of Mary set way back in a rock cleft. That is the second religious icon I have seen set out by the trail. Odd. Shortly thereafter we got some fantastic views from the top of Moxie Bald including what we think was our first view of Katahdin.
It was kind of drizzly and gray when we got going the next morning, but it wasn't exactly unpleasant. The temperature was nice. Widowmaker and I ended up walking together for most of that day. There were a couple of streams that we had to ford that day, but fortunately they were shallow enough that I didn't get my boots soaked. After one of these crossings there was some unexpected trail magic in the form of soda, a very welcome suprise. It had been quite a long time since I had encountered any trail magic. Pretty much the only other thing of note that happened that day was we made a shocking discovery. Slate is slick when it is wet. Who knew. The reason I know this is Widowmaker was walking down a patch of it and his legs flew out from under him so he looked like he was doing some sort of crazy jump kick. Thankfully, he wasn't hurt so I was able to laugh without feeling guilty. Then I walked around the rock. We made it into Monson in time to get our stuff done that evening and we had an awesome time in the Hotel Restaurant eating and laughing it up with Jersey Fresh, Truffles, Earl Grey, Magic Horse, Hungry Tiger, Mr. Fred, FlyAway and the restaurant staff. It was an awesome night.
Well I think I am going to end this entry here. Just the hundred mile wilderness and Katahdin itself left to go.

Stay tuned sports fans,
The Breadless Horseman

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