When we last left our intrepid hiker, she was camped on the shores of the beautiful Penobscot River at Abol Pines, taking a Zero day after her hike out from Baxter State Park…
My Zero day was perfect. I was up early and saw Sean and Clayton off. I’m going to miss them. Jonathon left a short time later, and I was alone for much of the day. I enjoyed a beautiful long day laying in the sun, watching kayakers in the river, eating, napping, and talking to a few new hikers as they came out from Baxter. And I have to say that one of the highlights of my day was finding out that I don’t actually have the heaviest pack, nor am I the only one who didn’t make it to the summit of Katahdin.
Late in the day I met Scotty, and we shared stories about Katahdin and our hike out of the park. Now unlike me, Scotty is an ultra-light hiker: all together, his pack probably weighed only about 12 pounds. He had spent a ton of money on a lot of high-tech, lightweight gear…but he hardly had any food, and he was exhausted. He said the only thing he’d brought to eat for the first part of the trip was a bunch of protein bars. Seriously. I gave him one of my super-gourmet ramen dinners and some crackers, and sorta gently suggested that he might want to buy himself some more food up at the store in the morning.
Nothing but protein bars. For a hundred miles. I’m not so sure I feel so idiotic anymore.
I left camp at about 6:30 in the morning; it was a 12 mile hike to my next stop, and I wanted to give myself plenty of time to take it slow and enjoy it. Of course, my first stop for the day was Abol Bridge itself, so that I could take my very own, practically required, iconic picture of Katahdin from the bridge.
It’s impossible for a picture to capture just how massive this mountain really is, and how it commands everything around it. Yes, I’ve seen the Rockies; they’re awesome. But Katahdin is different in a way I can’t explain.
It started to rain while I was on the bridge, and by the time I entered the Wilderness a half mile further on, it was coming down pretty hard. It was too dark and rainy to get a good picture, but this is another one every AT hiker has in their photo album — so I took this one shamelessly off the internet:
Just as I entered the Wilderness, I saw an older man was coming out from the other direction. He didn’t say anything but he had a freaky happy smile on his face as he walked by — probably because he knew he was so close to the nice dry refuge of the store. (Except it was still closed, poor guy.)
Okay, so remember that picture I took of the trailhead in Baxter? Pretty, huh?
Yeah. Well, the trail doesn’t really look like that.
The very minute you enter the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the trail becomes a gnarly, rooty, boggy, muddy, rocky…THING…that makes you work for every step. For hikers coming up from the south, this northern part of the Wilderness is considered pretty flat and relatively easy; a lot of NOBO’s will say it’s a piece of cake. Horse shit. I don’t care if you’ve hiked a million miles through Nepal, the hiking up here is tough. I thought I understood when people told me it was rough and rocky and rooty and muddy. But I didn’t really understand at all.
I don’t have many pictures of this section because it was rough and rocky and rooty and muddy…and I was trying to hike through it in the rain. But as I learned, I don’t think you can really appreciate this terrain until you’re actually in it.
The rain was constant, but I didn’t bother wearing my rain jacket. In spite of the cooler temperatures and the rain, sweat was pouring off of me; my jacket would have just made things worse. Scotty caught up with me about an hour after I had started; he was wearing his rain jacket and a rain kilt, but he saw me wearing just my t-shirt and hiking pants and agreed that was the better way to go: he was just as wet from sweat as I was from the rain. We hiked together for a while and actually had a lot of fun in what were otherwise miserable conditions.
Scotty is probably in his late 30’s, and says he’s been planning this trip for almost 10 years. He sold nearly all of his possessions, has lived with his parents for the last several months, and quit his architect job. He is smiley and energetic and has a great enthusiasm for the trail (even if he doesn’t have a lot of food.) We made it to Hurd Brook lean-to at about 9:30 and took a break.
Once we stopped moving, we could definitely tell it was cooler — we both put on our rain gear for warmth and sat in the shelter for a bit. I was surprised to see Scotty pull out an extra pair of shoes and a fresh pair of pants out of his pack. Is he going to change clothes at every stop? And how on earth can his pack weigh so little? What the hell is that — Mary Poppin’s handbag??
Hurd Brook lean-to is one of the older shelters in Maine, and one of a couple that still has a “baseball bat” floor (the floor is made of round tree limbs, not flat lumber, thus resembling baseball bats) Even though they were once knobby limbs, the floor has been worn smooth and feels practically polished after years and years of use.
The lean-to smelled of wood smoke, mildew, and stale hiker sweat. It didn’t look very comfortable to sleep in, but I was happy to have a place to sit out of the rain for a little bit.
Scotty was just bubbling with excitement at being at his first “real” AT lean-to; he sat and read through every page in the register, and then wrote a near novel-length entry of his own. (Every shelter along the AT has a register, usually just a spiral notebook, that were originally intended for hikers to sign so that searchers could narrow their search area, but now hikers use them as journals to record their own thoughts and observations, and to leave messages for other hikers. Registers actually serve as a very effective communication tool on the trail.)
We were there almost an hour, then put our wet shoes back on, took our warm jackets off, and headed back out. We warmed up quickly enough because the trail started to climb. The trail maintainers in Maine obviously think that switchbacks are for wimps, because when the trail goes uphill, it just goes straight up. Scotty had much stronger legs and was able to pull ahead; he waited for me a couple of times, but I’m much slower and didn’t want to hold him back, so I told him to go on ahead and I’d see him at the campsite.
Up, up, up…rocks and roots and mud. And rain. But — and I’m being totally honest here — I was having a lot of fun. It was beautiful, I mean seriously beautiful, and I stopped a lot just to look around and smile and thank God that I was able to be out here. (Well, I also stopped a lot to catch my breath, but I smiled a lot while I was doing it.)
The trail kept going up and gradually became a little less muddy and rooty as I neared the top at about noon. It’s a spot called Rainbow Ledges; it’s not a mountain but still a good elevation gain. I’ve read that this area was devoured by a forest fire at the turn of the century (the other one, the one before the last one…), and was left as just a solid dome of exposed granite with some great views from the top. I was a little nervous scrambling up a short rock face at one steep point (I attribute this to a minor case of PKTD — Post Katahdin Traumatic Disorder), but it was good to be out of the mud! It was still raining and was too cloudy and misty for any views, but I found a big boulder to sit on and took a short break anyway. I was surprised that no other hikers had come up behind me; I’m a pretty slow hiker and I expected some of the other people I met yesterday would have over-taken me by now, but Scotty is the only hiker I’ve seen all day (well, with the exception of the weird old NOBO man….) They all must have had the good sense to stay out of the rain.
The greens of the trees and mosses were really beautiful against all the grey rock and clouds, and there was some beautiful lichen covering the granite; the trail almost looked like a gentle park path as it went across the top and down the other side. But it was breezy and chilly up there, so I didn’t stay too long.
I was fascinated with the lichens and mosses and the roots of trees that cut right across the rock…probably a little too fascinated, because this is where I fell.
I really don’t know exactly what happened. I just tripped. A simple, stupid trip over my own stupid feet. I fell down hard on my left knee; right smack on the kneecap. The pain was instantaneous and enormous. I did one big, awkward tumble and then ended up just laying there like a big wet lump. I checked to make sure everything was moving like it should and nothing was bleeding, and slowly got myself back up to my feet. I knew that was going to leave a mark for sure, but there really wasn’t anything to do except keep hiking.
So I hiked on. The trail went down steeply for a couple of miles to Rainbow Lake, and it was a rugged hike the whole way. The rain finally had finally stopped and the sky cleared up, but the trail was a gnarly, deep muddy mess. I have never in my life seen mud like this! Even the log bridges, where they existed, were underwater or under the mud most of the time.
The mosquitoes were epic; I think they could strip the paint off a car in just a few minutes. But surprisingly, they didn’t really bother me too much. Well, they bothered me, yes — they swarm around you the instant you stand still, buzzing around your eyes and ears, and I could see how some people could almost feel panicky about that — but they didn’t land on me, and I didn’t get one bite. Not one. Now, I was wearing long pants and had some Off! wipes that I used to wipe my face and arms (which I think was totally wasted anyway as I was sweating so much), but I think the fact that I had sprayed all of my clothes (and pack, and tent) with permethrin really helped. Future hikers, take note.
Even though I had kept moving, my knee had swollen up quite a bit, and by the end of the day I was walking as though I had a peg-leg. I took another tumble as I crossed some boulders at a rocky stream; my leg just wouldn’t support the weight. It wasn’t a bad fall, I just managed to get my butt wet, add a couple more bruises, and look like an idiot, but I was tired and frustrated.
About a mile before my campsite, I limped past a small pile of fresh bear scat right in the middle of the trail. No, it didn’t scare me; actually, I thought it was pretty cool. All the experts say that black bears are really quite shy and usually will run away if they hear you coming; hikers are told to make a lot of noise so that they won’t surprise a bear on the trail. Well, I was making a lot of noise — my knee was hurting pretty bad, and with every step I was grunting, groaning, gasping, and cussing like a sailor. Trust me: every bear within a five mile radius knew all about me and didn’t want to have a thing to do with me.
I didn’t make it to my campsite at Rainbow Lake until 6:30 — twelve hours to hike 12 miles. I guess in the rain and mud and with a bruised up knee that’s not all that bad, but it’s going to be some long days to Monson at that rate.
Scotty isn’t here; he must have moved on a few more miles to the next shelter. Nobody is here. The lake is beautiful and the water is crystal clear. I sat on a boulder right on the shore and and ate some dinner, with beautiful fresh water straight from the spring. It was beautiful in every way I thought it would be, but frankly I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wish I could have — it’s a couple hundred yards from the shore up to the campsite, my knee was really stiff and sore, and I was starting to get chilled. I set up my tent, changed into heavenly dry long underwear, and crawled into my sleeping bag.