Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Looking up at the Gateway.
Our ninth day, an eight or nine mile hike from Abol Bridge to the Katahdin Stream Campground at the southwest base of Katahdin, was the shortest of the trip.  The trail runs within the state park along the east side of the Penobscot for three or four miles, but the west side is private property, with a road only a short ways back from the river. We could see private houses here and there along the riverbank and hear the occasional car whooshing along. Eventually, the trail swung northeast along a tributary, slowly climbing toward the base of Katahdin itself. We ran into the Machine and her companion, ambling along nonchalantly with friends and relatives who had gathered to support them on the final push. RD also made a remarkable and unexpected comeback in our long-running fart competition, winning what was essentially the deciding Game 7 after I had dominated in the middle innings of our contest. In general, it was a quiet morning, however, as encounters with day hikers, conversation with a friendly ranger, and the sounds of civilization revealed that our time in the wilderness was over.

Katahdin Stream Campground holds only twelve spots for long distance hikers, and we hoped to arrive early enough to get a tent platform. In fact, we had actually signed in at a waypoint at the park entrance, presumably so that rangers can radio ahead to give their colleagues a heads-up about potential overflow. When we checked in around eleven with a ranger at the campground office, he informed us we were the first hikers to arrive. But as we walked the final quarter mile to the campsite, who should fall in ahead of us but the Machine, trotting along at a furious pace. Clearly, she been spooked when we passed by earlier in the morning and now, worried that she wouldn’t find space in the campsite, had skipped the ranger check-in. It turned out that there was only one spot to pitch a tent, so RD and I resigned ourselves to sleeping al fresco in a lean-to – for the first time on the trip, in fact. At least we would save time packing the following morning.

The campsite was shaded and chilly, so we returned to the campground’s central meadow, which had picnic tables, fire pits, and a good view of a shoulder of Katahdin that we would climb up on the morrow. Without any cares for the rest of the day, we spread out our things and began to nibble at what remained of our food supplies. Knowing that Rick, RD’s father, would join us with fresh provisions the following morning, we tried to polish everything off. We ate well for most of the trip but were now down to the dregs: nuts and seeds, carrots, a couple bagels, and plenty of peanut butter and jelly. Nearby, the Machine and her friends set up a real picnic; one woman kindly came over to give us some coke and a couple s’mores. RD and I must have sat at the table for six or seven hours, playing cards, daydreaming, and eventually building a fire (the rangers had wood for sale) to cook our final night of mac and cheese. In the late afternoon, several thru-hikers came off the mountain, delighted to be finished but reporting clouds on the summit. Indeed, even in the valley, the weather was a steady mixture of intermittent clouds, sun, and the occasional sprinkle of rain.

The gates to Baxter open at 6, so RD and I were waiting for Rick at the parking lot by bright and early the next morning. The sky was totally clear and the air a bit chilly – the best day for hiking of the entire trip. Soon, a long line of cars arrived all at once. Rick showed up shortly afterward, bearing our daypacks and food that seemed worth its weight in gold: sandwiches, two blocks of cheddar cheese, swedish fishes, chocolate bars, and other assorted goodies. For the first time in a week and a half, we could eat what we wanted, when we wanted. I immediately scarfed down a package of potato chips, which drew a quizzical glance from Jenkinson senior at this early hour. Then we hit the trail.

Katahdin has probably the most distinctive appearance of any mountain in the northeast because it rises up out of flatlands, at least when viewed from south. Its flanks are big and steep, but the top is actually quite broad and flat. I assume that this distinctive topography, somewhat similar to the Presidentials in New Hampshire, has to do with the thickness of glaciers that scoured the sides of the massif but did not reach the top.

Nearing the Gateway, with the Owl in the background.
In any case, the ascent up the Hunt Trail was steep and unrelenting, but our legs were now in great shape and particularly spry in the absence of our big packs. Rick, a veteran of the CrossFit training program, moved along at an impressive clip. The trail was crowded with people taking advantage of the fine weather and, as it ascends over some very large boulders, we often got caught behind other parties. Several times, we leapfrogged a young group of Mennonites, both men and women, though hiking in separate groups. They moved quickly and had little sense of trail etiquette, so we were glad to pass them for good about halfway up, when we got to the first of the open ledges.

Looking back across some of the ground we had covered in the wilderness. Lake Nahmakanta is in the distance.
The toughest part of the trail is the section known as the Gateway, which involves a lot of exposed scrambling on and around various boulders. At points, the climbing is semi-technical and is occasionally aided by iron rods that have been placed in the rock. By this point, the views were superb and the exposure a bit daunting. However, atop this section, we arrived at the Tablelands, a flat alpine region a couple square miles large that is populated by fields of alpine sedges and an indigenous butterfly, among other flora and fauna. The actual summit of Baxter Peak was a mile or two distant to the east. We stopped once at Thoreau Spring, where the writer/philosopher evidently tarried on his own visit to the peak in the 1840s. He excitedly described his explorations in The Maine Woods.

The Tablelands, with the summit beyond.
Looking South from the Tablelands.
The summit was a lively place. Several thru-hikers, all of whom were by now acquaintances, including the Machine, had hiked to the top earlier in the morning. Now, sprawling around the summit, which is surprisingly broad and flat, they rejoiced at finishing their trek. Cigars were lit and whiskey bottles uncorked. The Machine smiled. Hoss, a friendly young Iowan whom we’d met a couple days earlier, announced that he planned to drink up all the beer in Millinocket that night. Rick, RD, and I decided to venture out to the Knife Edge, the famously exposed ridge that connects Baxter and Pamola Peaks. Hoss declined our invitation to come along, saying he didn’t intend to hike another step if he could help it.
Chimney Pond from the summit, with Pamola Peak to the right.
Pamola Peak and the Knife Edge
We stopped for lunch at a small satellite peak on the Knife Edge itself. Our view stretched far across the forest toward southern Maine and into the bowl that contains Chimney Pond, as well as over the peaks that surround Katahdin itself. It is wild, rugged country, uniquely rocky, steep, and exposed in the northeast. Not wanting to have to climb back up, we decided to hold off on the rest of the Knife Edge and just sat around eating and taking in our surroundings.

Our destination for lunch.
Well, there’s not much more to tell. By the time we returned to the summit proper, it was swarming with several dozen hikers and had taken on a raucous atmosphere. Hoss and the other thru-hikers were still on top, holding court while they waited for a few other companions to join them. Rick snapped a picture of RD and me standing on top of the Katahdin sign, and then we started down. The descent was surprisingly quick and happened without mishap. I was very glad that we had gotten up early to start the climb when I observed the bottleneck that built up at the top of the Gateway. At the bottom, we had a small celebration of our own over a few beers that Rick had thoughtfully brought. I wouldn’t have trusted myself to climb down the mountain safely after one, to be honest. I hope all those thru-hikers did okay after their nips of whiskey – we never saw them again.  

The summit!
We spent our final evening at the Moose Inn, in Millinocket, where I had stayed with my brother on a trip to the north country perhaps 12 or 13 years earlier. It’s less rustic and charming now but remains comfortable, with plenty of good food and drink in the restaurant. We got off the mountain so early that we had plenty of time to lounge around. We were all in bed not long after sunset, as had been our habit on the trail. The Jenkinsons are an industrious pair, and we were up only a little time past the usual hour in the morning.

Descending through the Tablelands.
Before parting ways the next day, RD and I hatched some plans to do more backpacking in following summers, perhaps in the southern Appalachians next summer. I hope to include descriptions of those adventures here, as well. 

Hamlin Peak, Baxter's smaller neighbor.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Hundred Miles Wilderness

The view north from Chairback Mountain. The body of water in the distance is Long Pond, which I wrote about several years ago in Appalachia Journal as part of an article on the AMC's Gorman Chairback Camp.
 Last August, I backpacked Maine’s 100 Miles Wilderness with my old friend from the AMC Huts, RD Jenkinson. This stretch of trail, which sounds more remote than it actually is, runs from Monson to Abol Bridge, on the border of Baxter State Park. It is not a federally-designated wilderness; instead, its name comes from its perceived remoteness. Its history of use by European-descended Americans goes back to the mid-nineteenth century and includes extensive logging and recreational activity. We covered the stretch in eight days and then tacked on two extra so that we could summit Katahdin, accompanied by RD's father on the final push.

Day one: RD at the entrance to the Hundred Miles Wilderness.
The top of Little Wilson Falls, which cascades another forty or so feet into a striking slate gorge.
Foolin' around on the one railroad line that cuts through the wilderness
Ledge near the summit of Barren Mountain.
The trail separates into distinct segments, with logging roads, peaks, lean-tos, and rivers forming boundary points. The first day was deceptively easy, but then we started up over the Chairback Range, which for me was the most challenging part of the trip. I wasn’t yet in backpacking shape, and of course we had our entire food supply on our backs. We spent a beautiful night at the Cloud Pond Campsite and took in some excellent views, especially on the last peak of the range, Chairback Mountain, but I don’t think I really believed I would get through the trip until we crossed the West Branch of the Pleasant River late on the third afternoon. The fourth morning, a cloudy, windy occasion, saw us climb a series of peaks, culminating in Whitecap Mountain, which stands about 3,600 feet tall. Henceforth, our only really significant challenge, at least in terms of elevation, would be Katahdin itself.

Cloud Pond.
The cooking area at our campsite along Gulf Hagas Brook. My vantage point was the floor of our tent; the division of labor ideal.
The veiled summit of Whitecap Mountain.
Swollen waters by Cooper Brook Falls
Trying to dry out a little at midday.
By this point in the trip, we’d developed a routine of rising at six every morning, getting breakfast going quickly and packing up our sleeping bags and tent. Most days we were on the trail by 7:15. It’s a good thing that we were developing some trail discipline (and by we I really mean I, as RD basically floats around effortlessly in the backcountry), because just about the time we rolled into our campsite that afternoon, a steady drizzle opened up. It got loud enough that night to wake us – no thunder, just a deafening downpour that would not abate for hours. Thank goodness for RD’s sturdy tent, which was equal to the challenge. Luckily, we camped near the East Branch campsite lean-to, so we stayed dry while we cooked breakfast, but once we were on the trail, there was no respite. Crossing the shockingly swollen branch East Branch of the Pleasant River the next morning, the water was fast and up to my waist. Lunch at another lean-to was our only significant break in the day because pausing only made us cold. We covered more mileage that day than any other. A ranger at Baxter State Park later told us that the Chimney Pond Ranger Station recorded 7 inches of rain in that 24 hour stretch, an astonishing accumulation in such duration of time. The 5.5 inches of rain in Portland during the same period was the fifth-largest 24 hour rainfall locally recorded; record-keeping goes back to the nineteenth century. In retrospect, it’s surprising we didn’t encounter more problems that day.

Fetching water from the lake at the Antlers Campsite.
Our cooking area.
A bedraggled but sturdy tent. 
In the late afternoon, we arrived at the lovely Antlers Campsite on the shore of Lower Jo-Mary Lake. Though little trace is left now, it was once the site of a hunting camp. We had just finished setting up our tent when the rain stopped. RD, tired for once, entered the sanctuary of the tent, but I felt an unusual energy, as often happens to me when in old, disused places. I went for a swim and talked for some time with an austere man from Texas, who was camping out with his grandchildren. The sunset was beautiful, so I roused RD, and then finding that we had cell service, we looked up the weather forecast and texted his father with requests for sandwiches and other goodies for our Katahdin ascent.

Evening light on our point. The pine trees and gentle waves made the place feel very familiar.
A beautiful morning on Lower Jo-Mary Lake.
In the morning, the sun was out (for the last time until Baxter) so we loitered in camp for a while, hanging our tent and clothes out to dry. This provided a great boost to morale, as did another lengthy swim and exploration around the point on which we had camped. However, we also discovered in trying to warm up some oatmeal that my stove had ceased to work. In five or so years of service, it had never given me problems, but it remained unusable for the rest of the trip. RD became very proficient in cooking our mac and cheese over a campfire, while I grew used to scrubbing out blackened pots. We now ate our breakfast cold, without our bowl of warm tea prior to hitting the trail in the morning, and it took us a couple days to grow accustomed to building a fire every night. However, in the end, I think it made us more confident in our woodcraft and ability to weather unexpected challenges. Certainly, our dinners, already a high point in our day, became an even more pleasurable, hard-earned experience.

Looking toward our ultimate destination from Lake Nahmakanta.
When the stove failed, I was worried that my partner would be frustrated, but I need not have wondered. There are few people with whom I would spend ten days in the backcountry. The physical and psychological challenges stress the strongest of relationships. Luckily, RD and I have had many adventures in the backcountry. I knew we could easily share the tight space of the tent and that he rarely grows impatient or frustrated. In the first half of the trip, when I moved slowly and rolled my ankle a few times, he seemed happy to wait and comfortably resigned to whatever obstacles might stand in our path. On one occasion, while I was resting in the tent after a long, trying day early in the trip, he quietly passed me a Swedish fish through the tent door. Such small moments of thoughtfulness mean a great deal in the woods, just as the tiny, sweet fish provided me with a boost in spirits disproportionate to its meager content.

As the trip wore on, I grew tougher and comfortable in our routine. The effort of backpacking diminished, and while we still conversed on a range of topics – long talks about the Keystone Pipeline, Wendell Berry, and trail culture – we didn’t need to communicate much on the basics. The contents of our packs slowly shrank, and we began to knock out the bulk of our mileage before lunch, leaving us time to relax and really think during the late afternoon and evening. I became perfectly confident in my abilities. Focused on immediate challenges, trail life was simple and satisfying. I don’t want my life to be like that indefinitely – it would grow monotonous and lack meaning over the long haul, I think – but it was a delicious antidote to my everyday experience for the rest of the year.

Beyond Lower Jo-Mary Lake, the trail remained mostly flat. Though the soles of my feet often grew quite hot from the friction of constant walking, I would bathe them in lakes and streams. We camped by lakes several nights in a row, and going for a swim in the evening put me in a crisp, cheerful frame of mind. One afternoon, at a tentsite on Rainbow Lake, we found a canoe a few feet back in the woods from the water, a battered old aluminum specimen that I assumed was abandoned. We took it out for a paddle, though we quickly retreated to the shore when the wind blew up. We did get a view of the lower flanks of Katahdin, however, not so distant, now. In the evening, we heard the sound of the aluminum scraping on rocks, and later the canoe was gone. We guessed it actually belonged to a party camped around the next point. 

Rainbow Lake, with the lower flanks of Katahdin in the distance, from the canoe.
On the trail, we passed and (more frequently) were passed by many thru-hikers, all cracking along to get to the end of their several month-long journey. Most ached to finish, so the Maine wilderness held little wonder for them. This is one reason that hiking the whole AT has never appealed to me. Most were friendly and complimented us on our audacity in hiking the 100 Miles. AT thru-hikers are a curious community, composed mostly of young men, who rely on each other for news, amusement, and encouragement, especially at the end of the day. By the end of their hike, many become myopic about the trail and lose the ability to talk of anything else, but I admired their sense of purpose and tight-knit camaraderie. Several hailed from the Midwest and Upper South and took to the trail out of boredom and a desire to expand their horizons. In some ways, they reminded me of the single young men who tried their luck on the frontier in the mid-19th century. We also met several women, hiking in pairs or attached to a larger group of guys. Two older ladies made a remarkable partnership of convenience. One, a chipmunk-like retiree from Tennessee, was full of energetic quips and cheer, while her companion was a dour character, relentless on the trail, who fully earned her trail name: the Machine.  RD and I were grateful for conversation with these folks, most of whom generously accepted us into their fleeting community. I’ll have more to say about them in my post about climbing up Katahdin.

While we hobnobbed with the northbounders, we also passed a few poor souls who had just started out on the journey in reverse. The contrast between the hardened, trail-wise northbounders and some of these hapless neophytes was humorous. Many still had a meandering, innocent gait, and one had several bags dangling off of his pack. I can’t imagine he lasted long on the trail.

Atop Nesuntabunt Mountain, looking at Katahdin over Lake Nahmahkanta.
 We pressed to reach Abol Bridge on the eighth day and made it in the early afternoon. It is a raw, backwoods outpost on the East Branch of the Penobscot River that mainly exists to serve rafting outfits and campers. It does possess a restaurant that serves cheap grub and surprisingly good beer. Upon arrival, I gleefully ordered poutine and an Italian sausage sub but could not finish the latter. As the only other customers were other backpackers who had just finished the 100 Miles, we sat around for hours, playing cards and reading. Later on, we returned for dinner and caught a lovely view of Katahdin at dusk. The clouds had cleared, promising good weather for the next couple of days. I'll cover our last climb in a future post.

Mt. Katahdin from Abol Bridge.

Sunset over the East Branch.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Along the Old Crawford Path

As ever, Lakes of the Clouds Hut provides a wonderful base from which to explore Bigelow Lawn, the plateau that lies on the south side of the Mount Washington summit cone. In late June, Ari Ofsevit, last fall’s hutmaster at Lakes and an old hiking pal, and I hiked up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail and then went on a leisurely botanical ramble around the summit. Despite the scores of people coursing up and down the Crawford Path and Tuckerman Ravine Trail, the Lawn, which lies between the two, was deserted.

Ari suggested that we look for the old shelter that was built in 1900 for William Curtis and Allan Ormsbee, two members of the AMC who perished near the lakes the previous year on their way to the club’s annual meeting at the summit. Both were known for their experience and fitness, so their death convinced club members to construct a shelter in the vicinity of the area where they expired. I had thought that the shelter was built on the site of the current hut, but in fact the AMC placed it about a third of a mile further up the ridge, well beyond the lakes. The picture above shows why: since the original Crawford Path ran around Mount Monroe to the east, a trip to the lakes would have necessitated a detour that included a slight descent (the precursor to the modern hut was built in 1915 - hundredth anniversary is next summer!). Indeed, Ari speculated, rightly in my opinion, that much of the Dry River Trail’s route before it ducks into Oakes Gulf, was probably once part of the Crawford Path. Both trails have required rerouting to avoid the delicate habitat of the Dwarf Cinquefoil on Monroe Flats, which was devastated by the foot traffic.

Little remains of the original shelter save for a pair of iron rods and bolts that reinforced the wooden structure. A couple piles of rock that must once have been cairns lie nearby, as well. A nearby view towards the lower lake provides a sense of size the watershed that is responsible for the upper lake’s existence.

Though Monroe, the hut, and the lakes are often photographed from higher up on the Crawford Path, I've never seen a picture from this perspective.

Returning to the site of the old shelter, we noticed the remnants of the old treadway, lightly overgrown but still visibly impacted. It intersected very quickly with the Camel Trail. However, we knew the concurrence could not last for long if the trail were to climb towards Washington. Sure enough, we caught sight of the old Crawford Path splitting off a few yards further on. We resolved to follow it, taking care to hop from rock to rock.

Though we lost sight of the old trail here and there, we were able to track it all the way to its old junction with the Davis Path, with which it coincided, I believe, up to the summit. As the picture above shows, Diapensia and other species have filled in some of the path, but the trail is still bare in some stretches. Its endurance is a testament to the harshness of the climate in the alpine zone and the need to minimize human impacts. 

After a spell, we came across this bare patch, which to my eye is a less-developed example of the soil striping that characterizes Monroe Flats. 

Interesting arc the old path cuts up this slope.

One of the distinct pleasures of carefully following this old path was to gain a new perspective on the alpine zone. Bigelow Lawn is a particularly beautiful area in the Presidentials - big, broad, and well-vegetated, unlike the summit cone of Washington. Ari and I had ample time to examine the local flora here and in the Alpine Garden farther on along the east side of the mountain. 

First, however, we needed to cut across the rim above Tuckerman Ravine. As we crossed the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, we looked up to see this queue of hikers running up to the summit. Ari counted seventy or eighty people in a brief glance. 

Further along, we came across Mountain Heath. I hadn't identified this plant before. Lovely, delicate flowers. 

Good old Diapensia.

Mountain Heath. Such wonderful clusters of blossoms. 

Ready for its close-up, apparently. It was too late in the season for Lapland Rosebay, but I was glad to see these pink beauties. 

Mountain Bluets, which I first confused with the more common Mountain Sandwort.

Mountain Avens, which was in full bloom in the Alpine Garden. Spots of yellow everywhere. 

A very lush streamside community toward the north end of the Alpine Garden. It's right along the trail.

This vernal pool is actually on Bigelow Lawn, near the Camel Trail, but it's another interesting example  of how plants cluster near water sources. We came across the Mountain Heath here, actually, rather than on the Alpine Garden. The pool was swollen with recent rain and probably often dries up by midsummer.


Here we look back at the Alpine Garden as we began to hike up to Nelson Crag. This is one of the few spots in the Whites where the scenery gains an extra degree of scale, more like a feature that one would find out west or in the lower Alps. What a day! We had plenty more mileage to cover to return to our car at the base of the Ammy, but there were fewer points of interest to capture my camera's attention.