Got up around 7a and re-packed my gear, so I could triage all of the unnecessary stuff in Ryan's car. Stoked to see him this morning, and bummed that neither Nate nor Sarah came. Not the end of the world though, since I'm staying with all of them tonight. Ryan and I have been friends for three years and have never adventured together, so it was nice for it to just be the two of us. (I consider him and Sarah family.) We left at 845a and slack-packed hard on the summit bid. He was absolutely kicking my butt on the way up; I was sucking air and my legs were burning the whole way. The trail was steep, then it turned into an outright class III climb after we got above treeline. Despite its modest elevation (5,267'), the low treeline and steep rock slabs were reminiscent of a moderate 14er climb. It was sweet!
The views were incredible all the way up. Ryan and I topped out around 1130a and had lunch at the summit. Stuck around for about an hour, and even had the place nearly to ourselves for a few precious moments. The sky was partly cloudy allowing for exceptional views all around. Ryan said by far the best he's seen in four summit climbs. Pretty lucky for my first time up. Even with the challenging weather, the entire week has been stunningly beautiful.
The climb down was super-fun. We basically raced back to the car (six hours round trip) and cruised out to the first convenience store we could find. It was a little grease spot out on the highway. We picked up a couple pumpkin beers and a few slices of pizza. Total bliss. I've only just finished this brutal trek, and I'm already excitedly anticipating the next. Guess that's the thing with long-distance backpacking. It's an addiction- a painful, beautiful, wonderful addiction. My first trip up here was a far more painful experience. I hadn't yet caught the bug, and it still didn't stop me from an epic thru-hike on the PCT, no-doubt made better by my challenging experience in the HMW. All things for a reason.
Miles Hiked: 10.5
I got up early again and packed up as quietly as I could. Don't think I woke anyone. Was already on the trail by 545a. It had rained literally all night, or at least it was raining everytime I stirred in the night. That meant the mud and puddles were out in force today. I'd done a decent job of keeping my feet dry much of this trip, but it was basically impossible today, so I found myself traipsing willy-nilly through the puddles that crossed and the streams that ran down the trail.
As Stryder explained last night, the climb up Nesuntabunt Mountain was steep but short. It was the last significant climb between Wadleigh and Katahdin, and I'd hoped to get LTE service to check the weather as I had on a number of mountains before this one. No such luck, though. This was also the last big view, which was unfortunately tainted by clouds and fog. So much for "partly sunny." Ah well, still pretty. And the colors were popping a little later in the day as I neared Rainbow Stream shelter. There were loads of desiduous trees- Ash, Birch, Hickory, Maple, and others. Brilliant colors everywhere, truly a Rainbow Road.
I really hit my stride after the Hurd Brook shelter, and I crushed the last 3.5 miles to the Golden Road and Abol Bridge Convenience Store. Popped a few Ibuprofen and ignored the Achilles pain. I was on a mission. I didn't know what time the convenience store was going to close, but I knew that I didn't wanna miss it! Arrived at 445p assuming that the store wouldn't close before 5p. Thankfully they closed at 6p, which gave me plenty of time to pick up a soda, a candy bar, a pack of crackers, and a V8 juice. I was psyched, especially because I wasn't convinced that my persistent 2 mph pace would suffice. Ended up staying for an hour, which allowed for some much-appreciated RnR as well as some outstanding sunset light over Katahdin. For all of the unpleasant weather this trip, that moment was perfect. And as I was sitting on a boulder out front of the convenience store, snickers in one hand and soda in the other, I was reluctant to leave. But I was far more reluctant to cover the next 9.5 miles first thing tomorrow morning, since I'm meeting Ryan and Nate (and hopefully Sarah) at the Hunt Trail TH in Baxter State Park at 8a. Trying to avoid yet another early start.
There are loads of flyers at the AT entrance to Baxter State Park warning against entering the park without a camping arrangement secure beforehand. One even said "Expect to be stopped by a ranger." Ok, so I expected it. The sun had set, and it was getting dark quickly. I started hiking figuring that it's not peak tourist season and that many of the thru-hikers have already finished, so it should be pretty reasonable to find a site. And I figured worst case, I could pay someone to let me set up in their site. I hiked hard to make sure I got there at a reasonable hour. Ended up passing a ranger outpost about a mile or so beyond the signage. No one came out, so I just kept hiking. Considered trying to stealth camp near Big Niagara Falls, but I knew that I'd have to leave before first light anyways, so it wasn't worth the risk. I had hoped to find a spot, but I was shocked to arrive at Katahdin Stream Campground a little before 10p and find a shelter empty. I was elated and left $40 with a note on the end of the platform in case a ranger came around while I was knocked out. Not trying to hijack the site, just didn't wanna wake anyone up at the ranger station because it's so late.
After 33 miles and 16 hours on the trail, my feet are totally shredded and my Achilles is still swollen. Truth be told, I'm a little worried about the climb tomorrow. I can totally manage, just don't wanna hold my friends back. I think the weather is going to be gorgeous for the first time all week, and I'm confident we'll have plenty of time despite our late 830a start. It's 1130p, and I'm finally hitting the sack. Seven thirty wake up tomorrow morning.
Miles Hiked: 33
Got up especially early this morning in hopes of beating the rain to the Wadleigh Shelter. Alarm blared at 430a, and I begrudgingly sat up and began packing as quietly as I could. Didn't wanna disturb anyone, especially since I'd arrived after everyone was already asleep last night, and I was doing well until I banged my head on the slanted rafters. Oops. Looking at my shoes this morning, I did not want to put them on, a familiar feeling from my PCT days, and one that I'd conveniently forgotten in my many bouts of nostalgia. Of course, I put them on anyways. Ended up leaving around 530a before another soul had even begun to stir.
As predicted, the light was pretty good the first part of today. I managed to snap some beautiful pictures at a sandy beach along the Lower Jo-Mary Lake shore before lunch. The colors were beautiful, and the light was halfway decent, so I couldn't complain given the conditions the 24 hours prior.
Arrived at the Nahmakanta Stream tent sites around 12p and took refuge in the brand new, nearly-completed shelter. It had started sprinkling as I neared it, but I didn't even bother stopping to put on my rain jacket. I just turned up the jets to beat the heavier rain. Ate lunch as I watched the rain fall beyond the shelter canopy, then I took a nap for about half an hour before contemplating my options. I figured I could stop at Wadleigh just 6 miles north, or I could push for Rainbow Stream another 8 miles beyond that. The forecast I last saw indicated that there is a 75% chance of rain until like 10p tonight, which in my mind makes a case to push even further. I mean, if I'm gonna be wet either way, may as well cover more miles. Although to be fair, it would totally suck to get there and have the shelter be full. There are few things I hate more than setting up in the rain. Decided to head out and just re-evaluate when I arrived at Wadleigh. The rain had started falling harder since I'd been at Nahmakanta, so I donned my rain gear and packed my camera away. Planned to just put my head down and shred, which actually worked out because I wasn't expecting too many more great photo opportunities anyways.
If you're looking at hiking the HMW, don't let the mellow elevation profile between Cooper Brook Falls and Wadleigh shelters fool you. Yeah it's pretty flat, but it's also miserable rock/root/bog walking, which is pretty standard on the AT, and especially so in the HMW. I generally did pretty well with footing, though I did manage to eat it hard today when my foot slipped on a bare root and just kicked right out from under me. Been struggling with both knee and Achilles pain today, which makes sense given the difficult terrain, long days, and my planned pace.
Today was a different kind of day than I'm used to enjoying on the trail. Usually I'm cruising along, doing big miles and long days, snapping lots of photos. Today felt slower in some ways. I took time during lunch to just enjoy the protection of the shelter. Watching the rain fall, I wasn't in any hurry to leave. I wasn't stressed about gaining ground. I was just there, chillin'. Usually when I'm working my way back into trail shape, I don't do fewer miles. Instead, I do longer days to compensate for my slow pace. Today I just made up my mind to do a shorter day. I could've pushed - like I usually do - but it was nice to be done at 4p instead of 9p, just 10.5 hours of hiking versus 16. I enjoyed arriving at Wadleigh and chatting with other hikers before we went to sleep. I felt like an outsider as these thru-hikers swapped stories from the trail, but it was nice to listen because it reminded me of my own beautiful thru-hike.
It's now 7p, and the rain has been steadily falling since before I arrived. Thankful tonight for the early sunset, because the dark makes it easier to sleep. Gonna be up before anyone else again tomorrow, since I'm planning to do 33 miles all of the way to Katahdin Stream Campground. Should be decent weather tomorrow, and beautiful weather for the Katahdin summit bid on Wednesday with Ryan and Nate.
As I'm lying here, I notice that I'm annoyed at the conditions. Even when it's cool and breezy, the humidity is so thick that everything is eternally damp. And I'm really noticing the mosquitoes for the first time this trip. Could be a long night. (Let's be honest, though- if these are my concerns, I'm doing pretty well.)
Miles Hiked: 21.5
Up at 530a and out by 615a this morning. One of the perks of not sleeping in the shelter was that I didn't have to be especially quiet as I packed up this morning, which made the process fairly quick and efficient. Grateful to finish packing up before any significant rain started, and happy to be on the trail early. There was still a thick fog that seemed to only get thicker as I climbed up into the mountains again. And the rain was intermittent. It started falling more steadily around 1030a, and I hit a shelter about a half hour later where I stopped for lunch. I was pretty wet and happy to have a dry space to eat. Nice to chat with Cavebear and Fairy Baby too. They're some of the few hikers I've met so far. Really haven't seen as many AT hikers as I'd expected. Cavebear told me that everyone at the shelter last night was hiking together, which gave me some hope for space at the shelter tonight.
The rain persisted today until about 330p. Ugh. I was feeling pretty miserable. Had my head down and my camera packed away for much of the day. Did manage to snag a few nice shots, but there seemed to be a lot that I missed. I met a day hiker, Charlie, and his two chocolate labs atop Whitecap Mountain. He gave me a piece of chocolate, which was about the coolest thing ever. As I made my way down the north aspect of Whitecap, the sun started to break through the clouds here and there. Charlie had mentioned that the weather should be good the rest of the day and into tomorrow morning before it gets worse again. Supposed to be iffy the next few days, so we'll have to see how all of that plays out.
I passed both Logan Brook and East Branch shelters as I made my way toward Cooper Brook Falls knowing that it would be another late night. I felt anxious, because both shelters I passed had room for me, but it was still too early for me to stop, especially given the suddenly nice weather and the unstable forecast. I ran into some southbound hikers just north of East Branch and asked how many folks they'd seen, hoping to get a sense for the odds of there being space for me at Cooper Brook Falls. They said maybe 8, which made me wonder whether I should stay at East Branch. I decided to press on, figuring I could camp if I needed to, even though I really didn't wanna have to do that. I was feeling pretty lazy.
I stopped to filter water around 7p, and I just turned on the jets after that. Covered the last three miles of the day in an hour, a significant increase from my 2 mph average pace today. I was elated to arrive at Cooper Brook Falls a little after 8p and find that there was space for me to set up along one of the shelter walls. Everyone was asleep, so I unpacked as quietly as I could in an effort not to disturb anyone. Surprised I'm not starving after the long day today, but I'm actually not that hungry. Decided to skip dinner. Considering a short day tomorrow, so I'll shoot for a hot lunch to make up for tonight. I might only tackle like 20 miles tomorrow, and try to get under cover for the night before the predicted rain starts. It should be pretty flat for a while from here, and the weather should be nice to start, so I'll get going early again and try to maximize the miles while the conditions cooperate.
I'm so tired. Covered 29 miles in 14 hours today. The miles were tough, but I'm generally getting my legs back, even if they are a bit sore. I'm doing better than I was the last time I hiked the HMW, but I'm also wondering whether the trek is just really this hard. Yes, I'm way outta shape. But still, I can usually manage things like this pretty well. Seems this hike is beating me up all over again, albeit more slowly and to a lesser degree. Guess that's progress. I wonder what it's like for thru-hikers who have already covered over two thousand miles. Are they doing days this big? Bigger? Does it take them as long? Does it take the same toll? This trail is so different than the PCT, I really don't know how big thru-hikers are going at the end of it. Doesn't really matter; I'm just curious.
Miles Hiked: 29
I left Kailee's place in Augusta at 530a this morning and arrived at Spectacle Ponds around 8a. (How fitting that I begin my second jaunt into the HMW from the same place that my last trip ended.) Would've been there sooner except that I kept stopping to take photos. The early morning light and the reflections of color in the still water of the lakes- epic. From my last hike in the HMW, I knew that the true trailhead is marked a few hundred yards north of Spectacle Ponds, which saved me over 3 miles compared to last my trip. In many ways, I'm far better-prepared than I was last time. My base weight is a mere 10-ish pounds, and I'm a seasoned thru-hiker. I'm in far worse shape now, though, and that might cancel out the former. Guess we'll see.
Progress was slow early today, because I just kept stopping to take photos. I was so excited, and everything was so new and so familiar all at the same time. It was exhilerating. When I did hit my stride, I was cruising. Had to consciously slow down in order to prevent shin splints or some other early injury. I'd forgotten how different the AT is from the PCT. It's steep, and the Chairbacks mercilessly highlight that truth. Steep and seemingly endless ups and downs. And the downs are sketchy.
I'd been pushing all day long and finally bonked around 8p. It was dark, and I was within an hour of the AT shelter I hoped to stay in. Didn't wanna stop to make dinner, but I was stumbling up the trail and really had no choice. Made dinner right there in the middle of the trail, a nice hot pot of instant mashed potatoes. Just the ticket after a long day on the trail. I finished, packed up, and made good time for the last 0.75 miles to the shelter. Finally arrived around 9p to find it full, and all of the reasonable nearby campsites occupied. For all of the solitude I've experienced today, I'm surprised at how packed this place is. I'm set up in a tiny spot that's not even really adequate for my little tarp. There isn't enough space for the corners to extend fully. Ah well, making it work.
Concerned about the weather tonight. The humidity is thick in the air, and I've felt some rain drops here and there the last few hours. Hoping it holds, but the forecast wasn't overly promising the next few days. Either way, hope I manage to snag a few sweet shots. Certainly got some today! It's hard to tell how far along the colors are. From much of the trail corridor, it looks like very little, but the big views suggest more like 50-60%. Regardless it's definitely not peak yet.
Hiked for 13 hours today and averaged 2 mi/hr overall. Way out of hiking shape, even more than I'd realized, and way dreading getting back into it, but excited to ultimately arrive. Tonight I'm sore from the long day, but not in pain which is certainly better than I was doing at this point of my last trip in the HMW. I'll take it.
Miles Hiked: 26
The Hundred Mile Wilderness has long-been on my bucket list. I was stoked to finally be setting out five days ago. I arrived in Maine late the evening of 9/4. I spent the night in Augusta, a few hours from the trailhead. I wasn't sure how straightforward the situation would be in a small town like Monson, so I didn't wanna get there real late and fumble around in the dark. Instead, I arrived around 7a the next morning. I explored one access point and decided it probably wasn't the true start to the Hundred Mile Wilderness, so I found another access point a few miles trail south and started from there around 8a. Turns out I was right the first time, so my choice added about 3.5 miles to my trek. Doesn't sound like much, but it ended up being pretty significant. Wish I'd saved both the time and the extra effort. I tried not to let it get to me, since this trip is really a test run for my PCT thru-hike next year, but when you're on a solo backpacking trip, all you can do is get inside your own head.
I’m sure I’ve explained the three degrees of fun somewhere in these pages, but I’ll go over it again, since it’s the only way to accurately communicate this experience. First degree fun is fun while you’re doing it, like eating ice cream. Second degree fun is not fun while you’re doing it, but it’s fun to talk about later, like a close call. Third degree fun isn’t fun at all, and you almost never even mention it because you’d rather pretend it didn’t happen. But hopefully you at least learn something from third degree fun. The Hundred Mile Wilderness is second degree fun, mostly. It was gorgeous, and rugged, and miserable, and lovely, and intense, and amazing, all at the same time.
If I'm being honest, I have to admit that I bit off more than I could chew. Sure my conditioning and primary muscle groups were up for the challenge, but all of those little stabilizer muscles that I hadn't really used for months were about to experience some serious shock. By the end of the second day, I wasn't just sore, I was in pain. I was taping blisters, wearing my knee brace, relying heavily on my trekking poles for balance and support, and taking way too much ibuprofen to mask the pain of my shin splints. I was already just over halfway through the wilderness section, so I could no more easily go back the way I'd come than press on to the finish. I kept going. And if I was going to meet my friends in Baxter on Monday (as planned), I had to keep pace. It was a brutal couple of days. Even so, I was happy to be there. It was captivating and endearing in its raw wildness. Not as remote as I'd expected, given the literature, but certainly still inaccessible by typical means. Just a maze of logging roads and old two tracks criss-crossing the trail.
The miles were tougher than I'd expected. As you can imagine, the terrain played a huge role in determining my speed/distance each day. The big climbs were tough, but it was really the mercilessly steep descents that shredded my body and demolished my pace. It was tedious to pick my way down everytime, but it was equally necessary in order to minimize the impact on my knees. Despite the beating, I pressed on, tenacious as ever. On Day 1, I covered 22.5 miles in 13 hours. Day 2, 27.5 miles in 16 hours. Day 3, 26.5 miles in 12.5 hours. Day 4, 23 miles in 12 hours. Day 5, 13.5 miles in 8 hours. My pace wasn't sustainable. If I had been working the trails all summer - like last year - maybe I would've been equal to the task, but cycling just doesn't prepare your body for that sort of abuse. My confidence had begun to waiver as early as the start of the second day. I was already hurting, but I kept moving. My trek quickly became more about beating the wilderness than enjoying it. But really it wasn't me against the wilderness, it was me against my own arrogance, stupidity, and unpreparedness. I'd underestimated the wild, though not so badly that I had to evac. I felt miserable for much of the trip and often wondered whether I was having third degree fun. "How could I not love being in such a majestic place," I thought. I really only wish that I had more time, that I could slow down and just be there, that I didn't have to push beyond my own comfort and enjoyment, that my decisions hadn't irreversibly bonded this incredible place to my incredible pain. I had no regrets. It was just that my experience had been shaped by my forced timeline.
I hardly slept the third night, because the pain was so bad. To make matters worse, it rained all night and the bivvy sack was both restraining and uncomfortable, though to be fair, it and the tarp did keep me dry. I had camped on a sandy beach along a lakeshore, which under other circumstances might have been exciting. I imagine the view was stunning, but I couldn't see through the darkness and thick fog that hung in the air that evening and the following morning. I wasn't exactly bounding with excitement when my alarm buzzed pre-dawn, but I was ready to hike. I took lunch that day by the river, and as I was sitting on a bridge at a road crossing, a passenger truck drove by. It was the only vehicle I saw in the wilderness, and I nearly stuck my thumb out to get a ride back to my car. There I was, my gear sprawled out and drying in the sun, my feet bare and hanging over the lip of the embankment, my knees and shins throbbing. I saw that truck and wondered whether I'd had enough. I resisted the urge and instead watched the truck amble off in the distance. Then I was alone again, just me and the 18 miles that laid between me and any hint of civilization. Passing up on a prime opportunity to call it quits only hardened my resolve. I knew - somewhere inside of me - that I could finish. Otherwise, I would've given up right there. I just kept reminding myself that all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other for a few more miserable hours, then I would have this experience forever. Nothing, and no one, could take it from me.
Dreams are made up of two parts: (1) the guaranteed goal; and (2) the challenge goal. At a minimum, you expect to achieve your guaranteed goal. For me in this case, it was the Hundred Mile Wilderness. In a perfect world, you'd like to achieve your challenge goal. For me in this case, that would've been bagging Katahdin and closing out the last few miles of the AT. We all know that life is imperfect, so when conditions prevent us from achieving our challenge goals, we must step back and take pride in knowing that fundamentally we've achieved what we set out to. Seeing the world in these terms has allowed me to push myself, to set lofty goals and strive honestly toward those goals without feeling defeated on those occasions where I don’t quite reach them.
Giving up on a goal, even a challenge goal, is supremely difficult for many of us. I knew I could summit, despite the incredible pain I was suffering. But at what cost? And for what purpose? My ankles were severely swollen and my feet numb and tingling. I was taking way more ibuprofen than the recommended dose. With each step, I wondered whether my knees might give or my shin splints turn to stress fractures. Sure, I could make it. But could I afford the possible consequences? And what was in it for me anyways? An ego boost? Not worth it. Maybe I'll make my way back sometime to finish it, but if I don't, that's ok too. I have much bigger goals than Katahdin, and I've learned enough this week to accomplish those, so I can't be dissatisfied. Lesson number one: invest in lighter gear. No reason to lug around 60 pounds. Grateful to learn that lesson here in the Hundred Mile Wilderness rather than via pack shakedown on the PCT.
Kailee met me at Katahdin Stream Campground yesterday and gave me a ride to my car this afternoon. It's awesome having friends all over the country. Seems no matter what I'm up to, I get to see people I care about. Thanks for the lift, Kailee!