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.

1 comment:

Kevin Cattrell said...

Excellent read, old man. I'd love to try this sometime.