Out of Baxter

I woke up early happy to find that my body still worked — a pleasant surprise considering the beating I’d taken on Katahdin.  Last night as I painfully crawled into my sleeping bag, I thought about staying here another day; it really is lovely, and it would give my body a day to recover.  I knew that the day’s hiking would only be about 10 miles, but even though it would be relatively flat and easy there would be no exceptions: in Baxter State Park you must stay at designated sites or you can be tagged with a pretty serious fine, and there are no other designated sites between Katahdin Stream Campground and the park’s southern border. This park was quite literally a gift to the people of Maine by their former Governor Baxter, and a specific condition of his gift was that the land be maintained forever as an undeveloped wilderness preserve and sanctuary.
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The people who run this park take that charge very seriously, and they keep tight control over the numbers of people allowed in the park on any given day. Just about anywhere else on the AT you can flop down and make camp whenever and wherever the spirit moves you, but up here your spirit better be movin’ your ass down the trail.

Well I slept like a log  and woke up early feeling pretty good, and I also knew I could get an early start and take my time (one nice thing about being this far north in Maine during the summer is that it gets light very early, like 4:30 am early, and the days are long); I had a beautiful, perfect day to make it 10 easy miles to Abol Bridge.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Everything was damp from having spent the night right by the stream, but it was a beautiful morning.  I took a couple of hours to get packed up and ready — my never-ending quest to see if the pack can be made lighter or more efficient — and then stopped at the ranger station to dump my trash and chat with the ranger.  While I was there, Paul from the AT Lodge was dropping off another load of hiker hopefuls.  After having the shit scared out of me up on Katahdin, there was a part of me that wanted to get in that van and go back to the comforts of Millinocket, but he gave me a big hug and wished me a good hike.  It was as simple as that; that relieved my worries for the day and renewed my excitement.

So I started walking.

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I was hiking out of the campground area when I heard someone call my name — it was Sean and Clayton, the billy goats from yesterday.  They said they worried when they didn’t see me at the summit, but they understood my decision not to go further. They told me that the sheer rock wall that stopped me almost stopped them as well, and even the last mile on the relatively flat “tableland” wasn’t easy.  By the time they summited the weather was pretty gusty.  They loved it but they were glad it was over.  They asked if I’d seen Jonathan, which I hadn’t; they had seen him at the summit but not after.  We could only guess that he had gotten down off the mountain safely since we hadn’t seen any kind of rescue activity.

Unfortunately, rescues happen fairly regularly Katahdin, and they aren’t easy rescues to accomplish, either — first, the rangers have to GET to you; then they have to man-handle you down someplace where maybe a helicopter can get you out of the park.  A rescue off Katahdin can take more than a day.

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But sometimes it just takes people a long time to make it up and back down.  And I mean a LONG time: the other day I met a guy who started up the mountain at 7:30 in the morning, and he didn’t make it down until 10:30 that night. AT NIGHT.  Yes, I was a good little hiker and had my fancy headlamp with me, but if I had been up on that monster after dark I think I would have just curled up into a fetal position and cried.

I hiked out of the park along with Sean and Clayton — well, actually they pushed on ahead quickly but I would catch up whenever they stopped for a break or to take in a view.  And there were many views. Sometimes it was a beautiful pond, sometimes it was a view of Katahdin, sometimes it was the work on the trail itself — log planks laid through a bog, or stone steps arduously and carefully placed on a steep slope.  It’s impossible not to appreciate the hard work of the trail maintainers here.

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Whenever I stopped for a picture, I was instantly swarmed by mosquitoes: a buzzing brown mass that would obscure my vision, fly in my ears, and generally make me nuts. I managed a couple of pictures, but the bugs were bothersome and I also knew there were a couple of water crossings ahead, so I put the camera (i.e., my phone) into my pack and just thanked God for the images that I will have in my soul forever: a deep beautiful forest filled with green spruces and pines and white birches; huge gray granite boulders covered with soft green mosses; a perfect azure sky, and lakes (or ponds, as they are called here) so crystal clear and deep blue they almost didn’t seem real.  And piles of moose poop everywhere.  It was fantastic.

I was huffing and puffing on this “relatively flat and easy” section of trail, but hey — I was keeping pace with the billy goats!  At about 11am I found them taking a break where the AT crosses the Nesowadnehunk — a “simple” stream crossing that was about 25 feet across and looked more like class II whitewater.  The boys apparently had waited for me to catch up to them there so that we could cross together.  I can’t tell you how touched I was by this.  These two young guys haven’t known me for much more than a day and will surely disappear over the horizon in no time, but they were looking out for me as though I were family.  (I had also saved them from a mistake reading their map earlier; they almost took themselves on a 6 mile detour off the AT!) This is that sense of “community” that AT hikers talk about; it’s real. People really do look out for each other out here.   Anyway, as sweet as it was for them to stop and wait for me, I chose instead to take the high water by-pass trail, even though it would add another mile to my day. I just didn’t feel comfortable taking a risk in that stream crossing if I didn’t have to.

The boys decided to ford it and looked for the easiest spot while I took a break, aired out my feet a bit, and ate an early lunch.  Sean found a spot a few yards downstream that looked “quieter”, but he was up past his waist in a few spots, then struggled to find a way up out of the stream on the other side.  Clayton cautiously poked his way across the boulders and then found the inevitable Invisible-Slippery-As-Shit rock, and he fell in up to his waist.  It took both of them a good five minutes to make their way across, but they made it safely.  As I ate lunch on one side, they stripped off their wet clothes and tried to dry out a little on a boulder on the far side  Thankfully for them it was a warm, sunny day — that water was cold.  We laughed and communicated by hand signals; the roar of the “stream” was loud enough to make 25 feet seem like the other side of the planet.

After I ate, re-filled my water, and put on new dry socks, I hefted my pack and went on down the by-pass trail.  I almost instantly felt isolated and alone.  There’s no rational reason I should have felt that way; the trail was well marked with blue blazes, and there were plenty of boot prints in the mud from other hikers ahead of me, but I felt like I was in another, lost, world.  I haven’t been hiking on the AT for a full day, yet already the absence of the familiar white blaze was disconcerting.  The trail meandered away from the Nesowadnehunk and it got quiet and dark.   I passed some pines that were unbelievably huge; they really stood out next to all the spruces, firs, and birches.  This particular trail may be a “high” water by-pass, but it certainly wasn’t a water by-pass by any means: it went through a couple of boggy areas and at one point over a slow, muddy stream on some very old, rotten slippery logs.  I took a cautious step onto the first log and sunk down into the mud; no way was I going to make it across that sucker! I bush-whacked a few yards downstream and found a narrow place to cross.  Deep, but narrow.  I walked through it as fast as I could, feeling my foot getting sucked down into the mud, and I was really glad I had lock-laced and double-tied my shoes, because I would have definitely lost them!  It was nasty, but this is part of what I signed up for, right?   A few hundred feet further on there was a nice clear stream to rinse some of the mud off.

I met up with the boys again right where the by-pass trail re-joins the AT; they were putting themselves together after their second ford of the stream, and it had been difficult both times.  They were both soaked and definitely humbled by the force of the water. Other hikers later talked about having lost various items in the stream, including their hiking poles, shirts, shoes, and a water bottle…one guy even lost his bivy (tent)!  I was soaked and a little mucky, and had hiked an extra mile, but I was glad I had.

I met a few other hikers during the day — all of whom passed me with ease.  I signed out of the park at a kiosk and continued another mile or so to Abol Bridge, where there is a small store and restaurant.  I got there about 3pm, and not a moment too soon: I was over-heated and dehydrated.  It had been a beautiful sunny day, but way too warm for hiking with a full pack.  Sean and Clayton were there, and were a couple of sad puppies because the store had no power today and so there was no soda or ice cream — those poor guys had spent the last couple of miles dreaming of a cold soda.  More disappointing to me, there was no cell service.  Hikers are commonly told that there is cell service here, but apparently this is a myth.  I was disappointed because I really wanted to get word to my roommate and daughter that I was safe and sound (there is no cell service at all in Baxter State Park, except maybe from the summit of Katahdin.)  I set up at Abol Pines, a campsite across the road, and happened to run into the park manager Tammy.  She offered to drive me a few miles to a spot in the road where she sometimes gets some signal, so I was able to send out a quick text message.  That was a relief for me.  I’m out here having the time of my life; it worried me that they would be worried.

I spent a fun and relaxing evening with Sean and Clayton.  After getting something to eat, we walked together a mile or so up a logging road (like we didn’t get enough walking today!) so that they could try for some cell service. We laughed and joked and were enjoying our accomplishment for the day when we turned around and saw Katahdin behind us. It was beautiful and very sobering. Pictures cannot do this moment justice.
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Later we were happy to see Jonathan arrive. He definitely had a long day on Katahdin!  Apparently he had put all of his cash in the back pocket of his pants, which of course became shredded over much boulder sliding up and down the mountain.  At some point just before he reached the summit, he discovered all his money was missing, so he went back down to see if he could find it.  Down at treeline he ran into a group of young day hikers, who reluctantly admitted that they found about $20 and gave it to him.  Jonathan never did find the rest, but he climbed BACK up to summit Katahdin before finally making it back down at about 8:30 last night, just as it was getting dark.  THAT’S a long day.

This is a beautiful spot (are there any un-beautiful spots in Maine?) and I think I’m going to spend an extra day here.  The last two days have challenged my body, and I promised myself that I would start out slow and easy.  My right foot is actually holding up pretty well, but tonight I have my first official AT blister! (which actually is odd, because I never get blisters anymore since I switched to my awesome DarnTough Socks), but overall my feet are doing pretty well. I have been taking my time during the day to stop and take care of them; it slows me down during the day but hopefully will pay off down the trail.  I have to take care of these babies!

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Sean and Clayton are moving on first thing in the morning; they hope to be finished with the 100 Mile Wilderness in 7 days (whereas I’m planning on ten); I probably won’t see them again.  They have been a pleasure and a gift to me these first couple of days, and I really hope they have a good hike.

Looking forward to a good day’s rest in this beauty spot, then I will start the 100 Mile Wilderness.  I’m taking my time and have no reason to rush.  I just have to be safe and smart.

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