Monday, September 22, 2014

The Finale: Mt. Katahdin

So most journeys come to an end but they certainly designed the Appalachian Trail to finish with a bang. At 4200' Mt Katahdin is the highest vertical climb on the whole AT and most of the elevation occurs in a four mile span. To say that it is steep and difficult is an understatement. Much of the five mile trail up Katahdin is very rocky and exposed and involves scrambling, boulder hopping, rock climbing and even some iron handles and ladder wedging into the rock.

Looking down the steep rocky spine the AT follows
The first mile is fairly gradual following Katahdin Stream but starts uphill pretty seriously by the second mile. The weather was cool (upper 30s) when we set out but for such an extreme uphill hike not too bad. But somewhere around 2000' things changed drastically. We climbed through "The Gateway", a tangle of large granite boulders that required several hand-over-hand moves (with rebar ladders) and around that elevation we moved into a fog layer that persisted to the top. It may have been for the best because we couldn't really see how exposed and crazy the ascent up the trail was.
After The Gateway, The AT goes steeply up the rocky spine of a ridge at about a 70ยบ angle. Brutal. I needed to eat some food but there was no shelter from the 40mph winds so we just pushed on, trying to get out of harms way. Fortunately the Trail levels out after that into an other-worldy area known as Tableland. It's a high elevation Alpine zone filled with granite boulders that lead to the final ascent.
The Tablelands

Because of the fog and the wind we couldn't really get our bearings but knew we had to be near the top. We had been making good time, but my troublesome knee started aching a couple miles from the summit and slowed us down. Prior to that we had been leading the pack but several thru-hikers passed us. We could hear the jubilant screams of hikers as the wooden sign at the top of Katahdin finally came into view through the fog. It took us four hours to hike the five miles up. But it was over: I'd hiked the length of the AT.
Sept 18, 2014

Not surprisingly, there were quite a few hikers--maybe 15 that day--finishing the AT, about half section-hikers like myself, and half thru-hikers. Some day hikers were also on top. Even though the weather was crappy, the celebrations at top were in full swing. A few hikers had a toast, many dreamed of things they would eat and drink when safely off the mountain. I think I felt both satisfied to have completed such a long journey but also a little sad that the adventure was ending.

Occasionally the clouds would break and we would get a hint of the spectacular view one might get from Katahdin on a clear day. But the persistent clouds/fog, wind, and chilly upper 30s temps made lingering on the summit for very long unappealing.
Looking toward Pamola and down into the South Basin
The Kinfe Edge Trail

Plus, somewhat anticlimactically, we had to get DOWN off this beast, a task at least as difficult as climbing it. Four more hours of knee-pounding downhill hiking/climbing/butt sliding/praying and we were back at Katahdin Stream Campground like it was all a crazy dream.

Baxter State Park/Abol Bridge

My last two nights before summiting Katahdin were spent in campgrounds in/near Baxter State Park ME. My first night, at the Abol Bridge Campground, was somewhat disappointing as many of the amenities were limited or nonexistent. The restaurant was closed and the camp store was almost picked clean of supplies, the combination of which scared me since I was almost out of food after the 100 Mile Wilderness. But I scraped up provisions and found a sweet campsite on a bend in the Penobscot River that offered a fantastic view of Katahdin. My plan was to have two short days (10mi) after hiking hard for four days so I could rest up a bit before hiking up Katahdin. I literally spent hours watching Katahdin changing as the light and clouds transformed it dozens of times.
What an amazing, sacred presence.
Clouds shroud Katahdin

Evening sun


My campsite at Abol Bridge

The next day I hiked into Baxter Park, along the Penobscot then up to Katahdin Stream Campground. Baxter Park is a gem--so beautiful with nice groomed trail, wildlife, and waterfalls. I could feel the excitement build as I got closer and saw more and more hikers, both thru-hikers and section, preparing for the big day finishing the AT. Fortunately, Patty met me with fresh supplies at KSC and we hunkered down in a lean-to before the big day.

Penobscot River along BSP south border

Big Niagra Falls
 The bright sunny day made me hopeful that we'd have nice weather for summitting Katahdin. Once in the campground at the base of the mountain, it towers so high over the valley that it's a pretty daunting sight.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The 100 Mile Wilderness

Tomorrow I head into the last leg of the AT before Baxter Park, the section of The 100 Mile Wilderness. I actually slackpacked the first 15 miles yesterday over choppy terrain and three stream fords. After today's rain I'm sure the bogs, mud holes, and streams will be messy. First thing is Barren and Chairback mountains. I'm not out of the woods yet.
View of Barren/Chairback Range

Yes indeed, Maine is rough. By resuming the 100 Mile Wilderness 15 miles in, my first two days hiking consisted of knocking out the Barren/Chairback Range and the Gulf Hagas/White Cap Range.
Even though lower in elevation, both these ranges (approx 15 miles long) were made up of rocky, steep crags forming multiple peaks along the range. A cold front brought significantly cooler weather which made tough hiking easier but also presented new problems of exposure and increased caloric needs. Barren Mt afforded nice views back toward Monson and Moxie Bald but even more exciting, Chairback gave me my first good view of Kathadin. Unfortunately by the second day the weather had turned really bad with temps in the upper 30s (daytime) and high winds, so I couldn't really linger on White Cap Mt to enjoy the view of Kathadin.
Looking back to the southwest from Barren

A miserably cold summit of White Cap Mt.

View of Katahdin rom White Cap

Once these two ranges are traversed, much of the Wilderness Trail passes through low elevation woodlands on relatively smooth trail, a novelty for Maine. I hiked hard, doing 20 miles and 22 miles on consecutive days in really good time, partially due to my excitement of being near the finish. The presence of Kathadin, even when not visible, loomed ever larger, both ominous and inviting. It's amazing how much pull that mountain has both on the psyche and the landscape.
Katahdin shrouded in clouds

Katahdin from Nesuntabunt Mt.

Throughout Maine I have been impressed by the water: so many beautiful springs, lakes, and rivers. It's a sweet antidote to the rough terrain, having nice drinking water and even swimming when temps are mild.
Nahmakanta Lake
Rainbow Stream

The 100 Mile Wilderness concludes at the north end near Abol Bridge over the Penobscot River, the southern entry to Baxter Park, with Katahdin ever closer in focus.
Abol Bridge

Onward to Monson

Fortunately after the Bigelows, the Trail does mellow out considerably. Even though there are still substantial stretches of roots, rocks, and mud there is little elevation change. I was able to start hiking faster and doing more miles putting me at the Kennebec River the next day. I really enjoyed the Trail from Pierce Pond down the Kennebec as it follows the stream past many cascades and waterfalls.

Pierce Pond Stream
Kennebec River

Perhaps one the coolest things in Maine (maybe on the AT) is the "ferry" that transports hikers across the Kennebec. Even though the river is gorgeous it's far to dangerous to ford. The ATC's answer has been to provide a free ferry service for hikers via canoe during season. Our guide Dave, explained that the ferry has been in operation since 1937 and is the last surviving human-powered ferry in the country. After eight years of service, Dave deftly maneuvered across the Kennebec but I could sense the river's power as we battled the current just to make the landing.

Kennebec River Ferry approaching

I stopped overnight in the tiny town of Caratunk (pop 60) that dates back to 1840. The Sterling Inn provided excellent hiker accommodation and our host, Eric, was quite the local historian. But other than another resort several miles up US 201, there are few resources there. I pushed on the next day and finally got my first 20-miler of the entire hike. It wasn't exactly painless as I had to traverse both Pleasant Pond Mt. and Moxie Bald Mt. but I did get my first glimpse of Katahdin in the distance some 100 miles away.

My reward for cranking out the 20-miler (with the help of a Cliff Shot and Led Zeppelin II on the iPod) was a stay at the Bald Mt. Lake Shelter sitting just 40 yds from the water.  As dusk came on I went down to the lake to watch the loons singing and noticed the Harvest Moon rising in the east. It just doesn't get any better.

Dawn on the lake was just as beautiful but I had to tear myself away to make the last 18 miles in Monson, my final town stop on the AT.

Maine's Beautiful Rough Terrain

Heading out from Rangeley after a nice layover on Wed 9/03, I started the last section of tough mountainous terrain leading from Saddleback through the Bigelows. Even when the profile maps look like elevation is not an issue, rarely is the AT in Maine smooth sailing. In the case of the four mountains--Saddleback, Spaulding, Crocker, and Bigelow--there are still some elevation changes close to 3000' and rocky climbs making it all the more challenging.

Saddleback is actually a small range including several peaks: Saddleback, the Horn, and Saddleback Junior. Climbing over the range took me above treeline again and afforded some great views back to Rangeley Lake, but it was very blustery.

Peak of Saddleback looking west
Life above treeline

Fortunately I was feeling well and rested and determined to get through this section so I pushed on the next day over Spaulding and Crocker. Easier said than done. The Trail winds past Sugarloaf (the ski resort) and steeply down to the Carrabasset River. More scary stuff. The the climb back up the other side to Crocker Mt. is equally rough. Even though I made it I think it was my toughest day: I did about 6500' of climbing and 9000' of total elevation change. Ooof!
The next day I made a quick dash into Stratton for breakfast and resupply then started the ascent into the Bigelow Range, the last of the 4000-footers until Katahdin. Along the 2-mile approach trail I passed the official sign for the 2000 mile mark on the AT, a big milestone indeed.
Not very wisely, I started the 2000' climb up right around noon on the hottest day of the year in Maine with temps around 85 degrees. I've never sweated so much in my life and had to stop twice due to overheating but fortunately water is abundant in Maine, both for drinking and swimming. I had to dunk in Horns Pond to cool down before my final climbs over The Horn and Bigelow West Peak.

As difficult as many of the climbs above treeline are, I have to admit that the trail to Bigelow West was beautiful. a nice ridge walk without too much chop. And the peak itself is spectacular--a rocky outcrop with full 360 views. I camped in the saddle between West Peak and Avery Peak at the Avery campsite but it was not very restful with threats of bad weather and high winds, camping at 3800'.

The climb down from Avery Peak is a very steep 2000' down that further pounded my already achy knees. After a tedious run down Little Bigelow the reward was some awesome Trail Magic. Some members of the M.A.T.C. has set up a weekend camp at Flagstaff Lake with a huge spread including burgers (veggie burgers even), cold drinks, snacks etc. Quite the reward for making it through 45 miles of abuse.


Monday, September 1, 2014

No Pain, No Maine

I had heard that southern Maine was the toughest part of the AT but found it hard to believe it could be more challenging than The Whites. Although the elevation is lower, So. Maine is a brutal section, in part because of the rockiness, but also because the trail is so rough and choppy. There's the famous Mahoosuc Notch--a maze of boulders lodged in a deep canyon that requires a lot of maneuvering and even removing the pack to get through. But there are many jagged climbs like Bald Plate, Old Blue, and Mahoosuc Arm that just ground me up.
Start of Mahoosuc Notch

Thar's trail in there!

I stopped briefly in Andover to regroup and stayed at The Cabin, a fixture on the AT for 20 years. Bear and Honey are fabulous hosts and I feel honored to share their space in this, their last season. The recharge helped me but dang this trail is tough.
The Cabin, E.Andover

Made it to Rangeley ME yesterday for a resupply and rest day. I hear the trail gets easier in another 45 mi or so. I hope so. My knees and ankles are swollen. And any time there is rain, the difficulty level increases exponentially.

Rangeley Lake

Missed the hiker fest by a day. Dang
View of Mooselookmeguntic Lake (yes, it's real)
Rangeley is a cool little town with a coffee shop, outfitters and even a Thai restaurant. Rangeley Lake is part of a larger chain of lakes throught Maine and New England that are part of the "Northern Canoe Trail". Seems like a good place to recharge before this next puch over Saddleback and the Bigelows.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Wildcats and Carters

Once through Pinkham Notch and the grandeur of the Presidentials behind, I started the final section of the White Mountain Nat. Forest which some believe to be to most rugged--over the Wildcat and Carter Ridges. The climb up Wildcat E is indeed really tough: 2800' of ascent that in places involves rocky scrambles and climbs with rebar steps. Ironically, the summit is crowded with tourists who took the easy way--the tram fro the ski slope on top of Wildcat.

The descent is just as steep into Carter Notch but the notch is really a beautiful and special place. The last of the huts is there and the notch walls seem to go almost straight up, nestling several high elevation ponds (that are popular for moose as well).

Carter Dome is another steep ascent and offers a wonderful view back toward the Presidentials. Fortunately the trail levels out for a bit going over the three peaks of Carter Mtn. but the final descent from North Carter was perhaps the steepest and most scary yet. I had chosen to slack pack this section to save my knees and was glad I did but it still was very slow going. I met Patty late on the trail and we hiked out on a side trail (Stony Brook) having to do the last hour by headlamp.

Fortunately, the next day was much easier, finishing off over Mt Moriah (another 4000 footer) and a gradual down to US2 and Gorham.