AT Journal 2010

100 Mile Wilderness Section Hike, August 2-8, 2010

It’s been not quite three years since I finished the AT via section hikes, with a long section from Lehigh Gap (PA) to Kelly Knob in southern VA. It’s been 19 years and 11 months since I hiked the so-called 100 Mile Wilderness on the AT. My attempted week-long hike of the JMT in 2008 fizzled because nephew Daniel, my hiking partner, got altitude sickness.

In any case, I felt it was time to re-do the 100 Mile, and so I did. I drove to Monson and spent the night (August 1) at Shaws. The name is now purely traditional, as old man Shaw is deceased, and son Keith had no interest in continuing the business. (But still lives just across the street.) Some Monson locals who did care for the tradition stepped in and kept it going. They’re doing a great job of it. Dawn and Diana are two names I remember from the staff. Ashley answered the phone when I called a few days earlier to arrange the shuttle. Dick was the shuttle driver. My car was parked at Shaws for the duration of the hike.

Had a fabulous Shaws breakfast and then Dick drove me to the Abol Bridge trailhead via Greenville, Moosehead Lake, and the logging roads. We arrived at the trailhead shortly after 10 AM. Dick reminded me to call Shaws at hike’s end for a shuttle back to town. Nice touch.

OK, weather was quite nice, though it went from sunny, cool, clear to moderately hot, muggy and overcast. That was actually a typical pattern for the entire week’s hiking.

Day One was (as is usually the case) in very high spirits. Of course everything’s relative. The pack was heavy by my standards, at about 35 pounds, of which about 12-14 pounds were food. Too much food. In 2007, I’m guessing my typical pack weight was 7-10 pounds lighter. Heavy pack. Shoulders not happy.

Day One ended at Rainbow Stream Lean-To. En route I had met and spoken to a trio of southbound flip-floppers, so I expected to see more of them on my southbound trek. For one reason or another, that was not to be. At Hurd Brook Shelter I had spoken with “Magic Draggin’” who prided himself on his slow pace. I believe he was camped at Rainbow Stream Lean-To that night, but after that, I didn’t see him again.

I got nice views of Katahdin from Rainbow Ledges but by then the sky was starting to turn gray. Raw enthusiasm carried me up and over the ledges, and by early afternoon I reached the shore of Rainbow Lake. Here my memories from 1990 didn’t seem to fit. At no point could I see Katahdin from the shore. Enthusiasm began to wane on the PUDs in the afternoon. The trail veered far from the lake.

I’m always impressed (or is it depressed) at the way the AT can cram 500 feet of vertical change into a mile with no net vertical change. Looks flat on a map. Surveyors stationed at the two ends would agree. But in any given 0.1-mile stretch, it’s likely to have a total vertical change of dozens of feet. Your body knows it’s not flat.

Rainbow Stream lean-to had a solitary resident, a fellow named Mike who looked more like a night club bouncer than a hiker. Said he worked for the State Department but wouldn’t elaborate. He was reading some novel on an iPad. I set up my tent in a nice spot just above the shelter and slept well. I think it might have rained that night. The trio of flip-floppers was camped nearby, out of sound and sight, and didn’t interact with me or Mike.

Day Two took me from there to Nahmakanta Stream campsite. Eastward approaching the southern shore of Nahmakanta Lake, up Nesuntabunt, back down to the lake shore, and then beyond it, in groves of Maine mangos and along running streams.

No, there are no mango trees in Maine but there are extensive sections, usually along lakes and streams that make me think of mango swamps. Specifically, the ground is criss-crossed by a vast web of fat roots, many of them completely out of the ground. The soil beneath has sunk or washed away. It makes for an interesting obstacle course.

Weather was dreary all day and even rained a bit in the afternoon. The climb up Nesuntabunt was harder than I recalled (this would be a common theme for the entire week.) The views from the summit were nil, just a gray void. I stopped briefly at Wadleigh Stream Lean-To after the descent, and was surprised to see Mike there, since he had told me he needed to get off the trail. Mike had had a harrowing experience knocking his head on a rock that morning. So he asked to walk with me as I continued on. I left him at last at the State Campground on the eastern end of the lake.

There were no awesome views from that lake shore either, but the overcast weather didn’t allow for much. Mike and I walked that stretch together, partly in drizzle. Mike took a couple of photos of me, with Mt. Nesuntabunt in the distance.

I was alone at the small campsite, right along a stream. It had a nice fire pit and I gathered wood and lit a fire. Just as dark set in, rain began to fall and forced me into my tent. I slept well.

Day Three took me to Cooper Brook Shelter and pretty much out of the “lakes region” of the trip. Took a late AM break at Potaywadjo Shelter. Up and over a small rise to Antlers Campsite on Jo-Mary Lake. From there, a straightforward eight-mile, nicely-graded uphill walk (probably an old logging road) to Cooper Brook shelter, which is beautifully sited along a stream with waterfalls. In 1990, I stopped in at that shelter for a break from the rain. Today, the weather had been generally agreeable, and Cooper Brook Shelter made a fitting endpoint, in terms of schedule, endurance, etc.

Weather was akin to the first day – started out bright and clear, turned mildly overcast in the afternoon. It wasn’t hot, but I was certainly working up a sweat while hiking.

Early in the morning I crossed the side-trail that leads to White House Landing. I didn’t bother with it. It seemed too early in the hike for that kind of break. If it had come at Day Five… entirely different matter.

At Potaywadjo shelter I bid a brief hello to a father-son duo heading in the same direction. We met again at Antlers Campsite and the four of us took a 45-minute break by the lake shore. The father was Paul (Soda) and son was Chase (Coolfeet.) They both seemed fit and in good spirits but were obviously carrying too much weight. I showed Paul the trick of dipping my shirt in the stream, wringing it out, and putting it back on wet.

The four of us spent a pleasant evening together at Cooper Brook Shelter. We were all planning to re-meet at Logan Brook Shelter, on the southbound ascent of WhiteCap.

Day Four took me to Logan Brook Shelter, but Paul and Chase never made it. I left Cooper Brook at 7:30 AM, while Paul and Chase were still deep into their oatmeal. The hike takes you up the logging road another few miles, over a dam, up over Little Boardman, then to a “ford” of the East Branch of the Pleasant River, and then a 1500’ climb over four miles to the shelter. No big deal, a mere 11 miles. No easy way to make more, ‘cuz you’d be up on a long, high ridge.

Generally mellow weather and mellow hiking. I remember taking a smoke break at the dam (Crawford Pond) talking to a friendly solo thru-hiker. Another longish break on the summit of Boardman, where it was fairly hot and muggy. The ford was nothing, the stream was a trickle, and it was possible to hop from rock to rock and avoid the stream altogether. Big disappointment. I stopped in at the shelter just south of the “ford.” There was a thru hiker there of the non-communicative autistic variety. He was trying or pretending to sleep. When awake, he wasn’t saying much. Whatever. I slogged on up the mountain and made the shelter before 4 PM.

There was a trail work crew hanging out in tents near Logan Brook shelter, but no other hikers in the shelter. I kept expecting Paul and Chase. Nothing. It rained, and for a while quite heavily, for good long while as I made dinner and went through my evening routine. I was glad to be in the shelter though not glad to be alone.

Just as light was fading and I was about to call it a night, I heard footsteps. Five thru-hikers arrived… but were not planning to stay. They had just hiked 22 miles, from the stream 1.7 miles south of Chairback Ridge Shelter. I watched in awe as they set down their packs, fetched water, performed foot care, dug out stoves, started them, prepared dinner, cleaned up, did more foot care, then put on wet socks and boots, shoved everything back in their packs, donned headlamps, and as quickly as they’d arrived, marched on down the mountain (another 4 miles to the next shelter) by headlight. Apparently the two English girls in the group had flights to catch, which necessitated the hectic schedule.

Day Five took me up and over the White Cap ridge, past the next ford (West Branch Pleasant River) and maybe a mile up the trail to a shabby improvised camp just off the trail. There were lots of nice campsites on either side of the ford, but I wanted to make more miles, knowing the next day would be rough. The ford in this case was for real. I took shoes and socks off and waded across, though water was never more than six inches deep and very slow moving. No problem walking barefoot, just stay off the broad flat rocks and keep to the pebbles on the river bottom.

Views from White Cap in the morning were awesome, Katahdin fully visible (at times) but it was cold and windy at the summit, so I did not linger. There’s sixty miles of moist air between there and Katahdin, and the wind is blowing the mists around. The view changes from moment to moment.

The day had started with maybe 1000’ ascent from Logan Brook Shelter to White Cap summit, but what I remember mostly from that day were a series of incredibly long, steep descents and a few moderate ascents. Trail crews were active in several places. Nice new stone work. I don’t recall it as a particularly rough day. In fact I felt bad for the northbounders, since it must have felt like hell for them.

Sidney Tappan campsite felt overgrown compared to 1990. I almost remember it as a bald – no trees or shrubs and good views (which was a bit weird but cool, even then.) Not this time. All overgrown. Deeply in need of trimming, the trail cut through shoulder-high stretches of green leafy meadow-marsh vegetation. The trail was nearly overgrown and obscured by the stuff. Blech.

From there, a mile or two to Newhall shelter for a long break, chatting with a couple of thru hikers cooking and eating lunch. They departed northbound up the hill, and I departed southbound down the hill.

A four mile meander down the mountain takes you past the junction to the Gulf Hagas trail, then to the ford. Grab water – a full three liters and then some – and head up the next mountain as far as I can. Always a risky business finding a useable “stealth” camp on a steep climb like that. Add to that the need for lots of water, with the next known source being seven miles and a couple thousand feet uphill.

What stopped me that day was a precipitous drop in temperature and a bit of rain. Spooky. I found the first useable tent location and called it home. By the time I lay my head to sleep it was about 50 degrees out. It was 45 when I woke up the next morning.

Day Six: up and over the Chairback range, to Long Pond Stream Shelter. Wicked hard, but great views, especially from Barren Ledges at the end of the day. Very dry. The only water source is a stream that crosses the trail, about 1.7 miles south of Chairback Ridge shelter (The shelter is as I recall it.) Nice views… and a serious rock slide, on ascent to shelter. Third Mtn. and Fourth Mtn. feel interminable. Spirits soar when I reach Cloud Pond Shelter turnoff at 4 PM; that means I’ll make it to the shelter at the bottom of the mountain. In fact, with some time to spare, for a break at the “Ledges” with beautiful views of the lakes below and Barren Mtn. summit, by the grace of god, looming upwards and behind. Again, I remember more of this ridge being “barren” in 1990.

Day Seven: to Monson trailhead and done. Blah. Boring. I want out of here. But met Paul and Chase camping along a stream, I think Little Wilson Stream. Ford at Big Wilson Stream – took socks off but used sneakers. Spoke with old hiker “Shovel” at Leeman shelter. On traverse of 2nd climb, rock escarpments that invoke memories from 1990 trip. Other escarpments remind me of the ledges above Greenwood Lake in New York.

A couple of nice pond views very late in the day, near Monson, particularly due to the very still air and glassy water surface. But mostly gray sky. Overall the day was annoying; the trail felt like a dreary green tunnel. An all-day PUD with no views.

Day 6 and Day 7 both started quite cold, and with me wearing a base layer top and bottom…. which was peeled off after a few hours of hiking. I maybe waited too long for the peel-off on Day 6, and that might have contributed to the tough going.

Sooo…. I re-met Paul and Chase, camped by a stream, middle of the day. Seems Chase had blown out a knee somewhere around Boardman… not surprising given the load he was carrying. They managed to back out of the woods, retreat and re-group in Monson, and then hike seven miles in from Monson to the camp where I met them. They seemed comfortable and content. Chase was midway through a fat, hard-cover book of the fantasy genre.

Overall Impressions: I’m getting too old for this kind of hiking. Seven days was too much. Made pack too heavy. Two days later my shoulders and neck are still aching. Legs are OK. I had a blister starting on left heel. No biggie.

New Balance 993 running shoes mostly did what they needed to. Traction was good. Their one serious flaw is the thin soles, so that you feel every root and rock. Fortunately I didn’t get to test their performance over wet rocks or miles of wet trail.

Tons of thru-hikers on this trip. Probably six to ten per day. No southbounders of any type passed me. As far as I can tell, I was the only southbounder. The four that I met on the first day, I never met again. So many thru-hikers that after a while, I didn’t bother to ask for names, since I knew I’d forget them within minutes.

Tons of “short-section” hikers, which in 1990 just didn’t happen. Shuttlers are bringing people on and off the trail at all manner of road crossings. For me, this really took away from any sense of the section as a wilderness. Not to mention the sounds of the cars, or in one case, the loud airbrakes of a logging truck, unseen but not unheard.

In 1990 and in my memories of that trip, there was something quite special and remote about this section. This time through, not so much. Maybe I’m just spoiled and jaded.

Sadly, in terms of my morale on the trip, this section was more like the bad old days, before 2006. Just not a lot of fun, and it didn’t take long before it started feeling pointless and boring.

Of course there were occasional awesome views, but I found the work and drudgery to obtain them barely worth the effort. But maybe the drudgery makes the views that much more awesome?

As I reflect back, some of the best views were near the end of the sixth day, at the Barren Ledges. That was also almost surely the hardest day. Or maybe my spirits were lifted, knowing that the next day would the last day of the hike.