I love the natural world. I want to see it, experience it and be in it. I love that smell of evergreen trees that hits you when you first cross into the New Hampshrie and Vermont borders from Rhode Island. I love waking up and opening the rain fly of my tent to see fog or the early morning light. In the West, I love the smell of sage bushes and that really cold feeling you get when camping at elevation. If I were interesting enough to write an autobiography, I am sure that it would become clear that there are four activities that I enjoy beyond everything else - photography, exercise, hiking and camping. That might not be in perfect order, but it is probably close. It is a bit more boring than sex and drugs and rock and roll, I suppose. Over the last decade, I have hiked and photographed the entire Yosemite Loop Trail and pieces of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). With this said, I was so excited when my brother in law started talking about hiking the Maine 100 at Christmas time. The Maine 100, for folks who are not aware, is the last 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which correspond from about Monson Maine to Katahdin.
Given that COVID 19 has essentially killed the travel season for many of us, it seemed like a perfect vacation for folks who are attempting to socially distance and enjoy nature. Hanging out with Chanthee and the rest of the family for two weeks was going to be perfect. While I am on the topic of Covid 19, let me start this with a bit of a rant. I realize that my perspective of COVID is colored by having had to walk past a make shift freezer filled with dead people in the morning for three months in order to get to my office, but as we can see by on-going nationwide death toll - this is not a virus to be trifled with. Given that New York City seems to be one of the safest places you can now live in the country, based solely upon COVID infection numbers, shows that perhaps we have learned a thing or two about preventing the transmission of this virus. I was appalled by the number of people that I saw - both on the trail and off, who were not (a) wearing masks when in places with other people, or (b) practicing social distancing. This was pretty much universal - regardless of demographic. It became clear very quickly that it is intellectually lazy to assume that this was "Republican= No Masks" and "Democrat = Masks." Ignorance and abject indifference apparently doesn't have a political party when there is no one watching. With all that said, back to our story.
An 'advance team' volunteered to research the area - figuring out how far we were going to hike each day and where we were supposed to stop and make camp for the evening. This hike is considered "epic" in its difficulty level and is known for being 100 miles of mush and muck and loaded with mosquitoes. Having looked over the topographical maps and watched hours (and hours) of Youtube Videos, we felt that we were going into this hike with eyes wide open. I knew that it was going to be a far harder hike than I have ever done before...particularly because I was going to be carrying a lot of extra weight because when I go hiking...well, there has got to be a camera. I also have never had to carry five days of food with me at once. We were confident we could do it though. We were so confident that we even planned in an additional day to climb Mount Katahdin, in Baxter State Park. It has been a dream of mine to photograph "the Knife's Edge" for years - and this was as much a draw to me as the hike up the AT. For folks who want to watch some entertaining videos on Hiking the Knife's Edge, go to Youtube. It looks like sheer joy, lol.
This was a trip that was going to take a lot of grit and determination. We knew it was going to be tough. Some of my anxiety was rooted (pun intended) in the fact that my wife wanted to come. While she loves to car camp with me, this would be an entirely new experience for her. It is a whole different world between car camping and back country hiking. It will have been her first time hiking with a 30 pound backpack and hiking poles. I was so excited - and at the same time very nervous - as I did not want for her to have a bad experience with hiking. I want more trips - many, many more. If there is a place where we could potentially have a 'bad experience' hiking - well, this is it. Given the amount of advance work that had been performed, we thought that this was going to be a very successful - but difficult - hike.
The original plan was to take 8 days to hike the 100, performing 27 of them in the first two days. Looking at the topo maps, we thought that the hardest parts of the trail would be the third and fourth days. The planning team had food drops set accordingly for the 2nd and 4th days, knowing that we would have very full packs going into the last four days of the hike. It sounds like we had this down, right? We were ready for this, right??? Well, not so much. I am not proud of this - but by the end of the trip, we had broken nearly every major rule of hiking. While we made it out just fine, it was mostly through a combination of dumb luck and because we were never really that far from civilization. The first rule of hiking is "know where you are going."
While we had the route fully mapped, we did not really understand the terrain. What was initially described as 'flat hiking' was some of the most technically difficult hiking I have ever done. The path was filled with 'treacherous tree roots' and deep ruts. It also required more than a bit of rock scrambling and boulder climbing. What seemed like a doable plan for a 16 mile hike on the first day crashed down around us, and we were only able to finish 8. Chanthee fell multiple times on the trail, and I am eternally grateful to my brother in law, who helped her through it. We were also very fortunate that there was a really nice, flat campground not too far from our exhaustion point where we were able to bed down for the night. Looking back at it, I lay the misunderstanding of the real estate on myself. It probably would have been very thoughtful to reach out to Shaws (the hostel we were going to stay at, and arranged for food drops with) in advance of the hike to confirm what the lay of the land actually was. When hiking in the Sierras, the average speed with a pack is about 1.5 mph.- but you are going up some serious altitude, and we thought that the original plan of 2-3 miles per hour was something that we could attain. Boy were we off. This over estimation of our abilities created a cascading effect that had profound impacts throughout the rest of the journey.
The second day was much better than the first for everyone involved - but we still only made it another 8 miles. In short, we made it to where we were first supposed to end on the first day. We stayed at a spot called the Long Pond Stream Lean To. This was the morning where my brother-in-law and sister decided to make pancakes. Warm pancakes might just be the most wonderful thing you can have on the trail. It sure beats cold granola any day of the week. It also gave everyone a nice boost. I suffered a personal crisis here as my plunger to my french press was lost. I think a chipmunk stole it. Seriously. They are quite aggressive around that lean to and I swear I could see the metal twinkling in a tree and so far away from the coffee that I was about to brew. I think I saw the chipmunks taunting me throughout the rest of our time on the AT. Light heartedness aside, our delays were causing a serious problem. Because we were taking so long to get where we needed to, we were going to be late for our next food drop. This is Rule #2 - make sure you pack the right amount of food for the trail.
I always pack an additional meal or two, just in case, but several of our group passed on this because of concerns about carrying too much weight. It was decided that we would all have to pool our resources to make sure that everyone in the group had enough food to eat. Fortunately, some others in the group over-packed on food and we were able to develop a plan to insure that no one went hungry.
The team ultimately limped up to Barren Mountain where 1/2 of the group promptly decided to call it quits. One of our group is a former Navy Search And Rescue soldier - and he had gotten sick the night before. In addition, my wife was feeling the falls on her knee and was assessing if she could continue or not. My sister decided she wanted to get off the trail because of trail condition concerns going over the Chairback Slide. On a cheery note, this meant that all of a sudden we had tons of food, as we greedily took the departing group members food from their packs. Their loss was our gain!! My brother in law was able to call for help using his Garmin GPS that guarantees enhanced coverage to reach out to the folks at Shaw's. For anyone who is seriously into hiking I recommend getting one of these. While they are only as good as your ability to actually use it, it is a nice additional piece of insurance. Because he had this, we were able to make arrangements with them to pick up the three who wished to leave the trail. Thank you Shaw's Hiker Hostel!!!!
The three surviving members of the group decided to get moving to hopefully not lose any more time. Coming down the Barren Mountain was probably the most daunting hiking that I saw on the trail. It was very slick, and the climbing angles were very tight - meaning that there were lots of places to potentially fall and get injured. My brother unfortunately re-injured his foot coming down the trail. To boot, we also had a water shortage (Rule #3 - always carry enough water)
. There was a drought occurring in that section of the Maine 100 and some of the traditional water sources were low on water. I am sure we could have made do if we needed to, but it wasn't really preferable. We decided to make a diversion to Cloud Pond to get fresh water. It was honestly a lovely diversion and I am glad that we did it. It was around here that my brother's Plantar Fasciitis really started to act up, and we decided to cut the day short and give my brother a chance to heal up. We also decided that it was probably wise to make for camping locations based upon known water sources.
While this article was written with the idea of driving some important points home to potential hikers, and as a result may have more than a bit of doom and gloom, let's be honest - you are in paradise. Outside of my concerns about making sure that the entire group was going to finish the trail together, I was having the time of my life. The Appalachian Trail is challenging - but the rewards are magical scenes that are worth the time and effort. I wish I had more time to photograph these amazing locations properly. I often felt like I was performing in a drive-by shooting.
My brother is a real trooper. Without any complaint, he just kept moving. Having said that, it became very clear that his foot was really acting up. We kept plodding - one foot in front of the other - and just kept moving. We even pushed out over the Chairback figuring that it made sense to make as much ground as possible. Honestly, the Chairback Slide looked much worse than it actually was - though I did drop a lens cap.
The problem was that we didn't have a place to camp, and we had to keep an eye out for a space where we could fit our two tents. Ultimately, we stopped for the night at an unmarked camp site near Barren Pond. My guess is that it was abandoned because of its close proximity to the water. Having said that, we bedded down and had a lovely evening. I cannot express in words just how wonderful it is for me to be able to wake up and listen to the sounds of the coyotes yipping early in the morning. There was also a small family of loons that I saw. The light was too poor to photograph them, so I filled the memory card between my ears. My brother reported that he was feeling much better, but the team decided it would be best to see if we can reunite with the rest of the family and see if we can have everyone finish together. We were able to reach Shaw's and arrange for a transport out. This was the second time that Shaw's saved the day.
We reunited with my sister and my wife back at Shaw's, rested and made some alternate plans; such as skipping a couple of days of hiking to try to make up some time and doing just the last 47 miles of the Maine 100. Honestly, Chanthee wasn't looking so great to me, and I was concerned that she could not make it on the trail. She was insistent though - so we decided to go and make the hike out to Antlers Camp Ground. I am told that Antlers has a lovely peninsula and beautiful camping. The terrain was super easy - but in less than a mile it was clear that Chanthee couldn't make it because her knee was still bothering her (Rule #4, never go out onto the trail injured).
We turned around and reached out to the folks at Shaws, who fortunately had not gone very far and picked us up. We were disappointed, but not really worse for wear. My brother, sister and her husband were able to keep to the trail and finished. Our other comrade, George, feeling better, drove back up to the end of the trail and hiked it backwards unti they met them. I am really jealous of them all!
As you can see, we made a bunch of rookie errors - from start to finish. It was more a wounding to my ego than anything else as we are all now safe on the other side. I cannot speak highly enough of Poet and Hippie Chick over at Shaw's Hiker Hostel
. They run a super high quality establishment - and if you are on the Maine 100 portion of the Appalachian Trail, I strongly suggest staying with them. On top of that, they are clearly incredibly patient and kind. I don't know about the rest of our team, - but I want a second stab at this hike next year. The sad thing is that the conditions this year were over-all very favorable as the dry climate meant a lot less hiking in the muck and far fewer mosquitoes. Next year will probably be harder...but I want more.