Jubilant Free Spirit on top of Katahdin. A Triumphant Journey's End.
Dates .... Saturday, August 17, 2002 to Saturday, September 14, 2002
Miles .... 332.4 miles, total.
From .... Mt. Washington, NH
To ......... Baxter Peak, Mt. Katahdin, Maine - Northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail
This hike dedicated to Marie H Robbins. My Mom. She is all the things a mother should be, and more. I cannot thank her enough for her lifetime of kindness and love.
Special THANKS go to Jim Yeich and John Clum for their untiring support and encouragement, without which hiking the Appalachian Trail would not have been possible. Also making this hike possible are the warm and lovely people operating the hostels and hiker support facilities along the way - the Hikers Paradise Hostel and Motel in Gorham, NH, Paul and Ilene Trainor running Pine Ellis B&B in Andover, ME, Mary and Jerry Hopson of the Widows Walk B&B in Stratton, ME, Steve Longley of Rivers and Trails Camp an Outfitters in Caratunk ME, The unforgettable Shaws in Monson, ME, and Whitehouse Landing Wilderness Camp on Lake Pemadumcook, ME, and the helpful folks at Abol Bridge Country Store and Campground. I wish to send a heartfelt THANKS to all the trail maintainers and volunteers that have done such a wonderful job of making the AT possible.
This Appalachian Trail (AT) backpacking adventure began August 17, 2002 on the summit of the northeast’s highest mountain – 6,288 foot Mount Washington, NH and ended triumphantly 332.4 miles away on the 5,267 foot high summit of Mount Katahdin – Baxter Peak – the Appalachian Trail’s final and most challenging mountain in northern Maine. Katahdin was the most magnificent of the many mountains I climbed on my 2,160 mile, 14-state, 174-day backpacking journeys.
On September 14, 2002 at 10:13 A.M., after 29 days of hiking and adventure, I climbed to the summit of Mount Katahdin, realizing my dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. The feelings I experienced at the summit were an indescribable mixed bag of emotion ranging from tears to ecstasy to relief and accomplishment.
The last few days of my journey, reaching the summit of Katahdin (Indian for "greatest mountain") became my primary focus and concern. The weather had suddenly deteriorated and the top half of the mountain had been closed for two days due to high winds, zero visibility, ice, sleet and snow. The “closing” meant that hiking above treeline to the summit was not allowed. At the mountain’s base, I heard from several climbers that attempted to reach the summit despite its official "closing". Winter conditions and concern for their safety drove them back. They failed, even though highly determined and well equipped. Most would try again, later. What a tragedy it would have been if, after all this hiking and effort, I could not climb the last 5.4 miles of trail up Katahdin to its summit and the northern end of the AT.
All my guardian angels, fate and Lady Luck were with me when I hiked the last two days in the wet woods, rain and wind to reach Baxter Park. The Friday the 13th weather forecast was for overnight clearing and a clear morning on Saturday the 14th with diminishing winds, then cloudy on Saturday afternoon with showers by evening and rain overnight and the next day. It was an extremely narrow window but it timed out perfectly with my arrival at the mountain's base camp, Katahdin Stream Camp in Baxter Park. Two other AT hikers and myself rose on a very clear and chilly (35degF) morning at 4:00 A.M. We left our surplus gear at the ranger station, loaded our climbing packs with water, food and winter clothing, and began our 4,200 foot ascent by signing in at the trailhead at 5:52 A.M.
At the summit we were joined by happy throngs of climbers and even happier fellow AT hikers that were also completing their journeys. It was an extremely emotional and spectacularly beautiful place, complimented by mild wind and azure blue skies with traces of high, wispy white clouds. High-fives, hearty handshakes and congratulatory hugs were mingled with tears and smiling, beaming faces as hikers and climbers posed for the obligatory photograph in front of the KATAHDIN summit sign.
Twenty-nine days of hiking and adventure led up to my final day of triumph. In total, I spent 174 days hiking the Appalachian Trail in 8 hikes over 4 years.
I started the trail hiking alone, but with lots of “weekenders” on the trail, especially at the more popular sites such as Mount Washington. I was never really alone on this hike at all. I met and hiked with Sly in the early part of the hike. Sly was an interesting athlete from Rhinelander WI and Oregon and a very determined through-hiker. Towards the middle of the hike my hike coincided with Sunshine’s, an interesting woman on leave from her Florida nurses job. Originally from Holland, she was a rugged and determined woman and great hiking companion. Towards the end I met up with two characters named Richard and Clint Ohmstede, brothers. They were often headed the opposite way (south) when I saw them but they managed to progress north at about the same pace I did. They had mastered the art of slackpacking with the help of their wives and a van. They were a lot of fun and very helpful. We summited Katahdin together and they gave me a ride to Millinocket after the hike. I met a lot of seasoned (in more ways than one) thru-hikers zeroing in on their final goal – Katahdin after months on the trail. Most were focused sharply on their objective but some were in party mode and could not pass through a road crossing that led to town without stopping and getting beer.
And of course there were countless others I met, camped or hiked with. I ran into the Idaho family of four again. Very nice people, they were doing very well. Dennis had a family emergency take him off the trail. Esther, Sage (age 6) and Autumn (age 8) waited in a hostel. When Dennis returned they flip-flopped (changed hiking direction) up north so they could avoid Katahdin’s early bad weather and beat the October 15 closing date. They had just come through Mahoosuc Notch when I saw them and, as usual, they were all smiles. I had hoped to run into Caribou Frank. I knew he was a day or two behind me. Paul, aka El Toro, was a couple of days ahead of me. It would have been great to see these guys again after hiking in NC and the Smokies with them this spring, but it was not to be. It is the kind and wonderful people along the trail along with the breathtaking scenery that make the whole experience fabulous and memorable.
It was supposed to be the tail end of summer in the North Country, with cool evenings and moderate, pleasant days in the 50’s and 60’s. At least that was the case historically. It was the hottest late summer the natives can recall with temperatures in the upper 70’s, 80’s and 90’s – even in the mountains and wilderness. Unheard of temperatures for late August and mid-September and a prolonged dry spell caused many trees to shed their leaves early. For me, these were among the worst possible hiking conditions. Actually, I’d rather hike in the rain.
I purposely hike in the spring and fall to enjoy moderate temperatures, avoiding the extremes of summer and winter. I chose mid-August and September for Maine to avoid Maine’s famous black fly season (that worked!) and that time frame for avoiding the cold nights and potentially cold days of September in Maine. Well, I avoided the cold all right, but I did not manage to avoid the heat. It was the hottest hike I ever undertook. Most of the time I was wearing only my backpack, boots and a pair of sweat-soaked shorts. I welcomed the little rain we had as relief from the heat.
Can you imagine what its like to climb a steep mountain in the 80’s with high humidity? I don’t have to imagine it. I experienced it. It’s ugly – and most unpleasant. Sweat just streamed off my body, ran down my face and back, got in my eyes, and dripped profusely from my nose, chin and ears. I looked as though I had just pulled my head out of a bucket of water. Most of Maine was hot and humid. But, I persevered. I just kept going. I drank gallons of water. I hiked early (4:00 AM) in the morning. I swam in the numerous ponds, streams and lakes, and made the most of it. Another unpleasant side effect I could not overcome was the haze and lack of views from the mountain summits. I climbed White Cap Mountain expecting a view of Mount Katahdin in all its glory and got virtually nothing. I could not see that far – the haze and humidity obscured all but the nearest mountains.
Enough whining. The northern White Mountains in New Hampshire, the mountains of Maine, and Maine’s wilderness were spectacular. They were without equal on the whole AT; the northbound hiker’s Grande Finale`. They presented the backpacker with the most challenge, the most work, and the most reward. Unforgettable were the endless sharp windswept rocks of Mount Madison (tragically, a hiker died from a fall there as I was hiking Maine) with their awe-inspiring views of Mount Washington. Unbelievable was the ascent of Wildcat mountain: “the trail goes up there????” – followed shortly by the incredulous and awe-inspiring descent into and out of Carter Gap – down and back up over two barren rock-faced nearly vertical mountainsides. I had grossly underestimated the ruggedness of the terrain (or overestimated my abilities) and fell behind schedule, causing concern back home when I failed to report in on time.
The first 120 miles of Maine are brutal. There are many mountains over 3500’ high with notches or valleys down around 1500’. It was Baldpate with twin peaks, then Old Blue and Bemis (Bemis Range), then the three Saddlebacks in the Saddleback Range followed by Spaulding and the twin Crocker Peaks, then the two peaks of the Bigelows, both over 4,000’ and a host of lesser mountains in between. One mountain after another. And the footpaths up and down these mountains are not switchbacked, graded or smooth. They are “au natural” – big and bigger rocks, round boulders, sharp jagged rocks, rock domes, with ample amounts of tree roots thrown in. The trails head right up or down the best available ridge or route straight to the top or bottom. The elevation profiles on the maps are like none other, save some of the White Mountains in NH. Put the two together – northern NH and Southern ME - and you have a make or break killer hike. If you make it, you can take on anything the east coast or Appalachian Trail has to challenge you with confidence and pride. If it breaks you and you fail, you have been broken by the most rugged and challenging trail section anywhere on the east coast.
As if the mountains of NH were not enough excitement, there was a small but stubborn forest fire near the flank of Mt. Moriah as I hiked over it. Forest service firefighters and a helicopter were battling it as I hiked down the Rattle River towards Gorham, NH. The chopper was filling its bucket in the Androscoggin River and flying up the mountain over the AT and Rattle River to the fire. As I hiked I got showered by its water spray. That was a first.
Finally I reached Gorham NH, a rest and re-supply point a day behind schedule. I called home just in time to avoid having the troops called out to look for me. The following day – cleaned up, well fed, rested and refreshed, I started the ascent of Mount Hayes. From a rock outcrop opening in the side of the mountain I could see and photograph the helicopter filling its bucket in the valley below and flying to the fire site.
I saw and photographed my first moose in the wild in Page Pond, NH. A full-sized cow was swimming around, eating and thrashing about, having a great time. She would put her head under the water and come up with a mouthful of aquatic plants, chew and eat them. Then she would shake her head vigorously, her large ears slapping the water before she submerged it again. She would wade some and swim some, apparently enjoying her splash-filled lunch and swim. She finally meandered to the shore with great splashing noises, much like a kid at the beach. I was fascinated by the whole show. But, all through Maine I thought maybe that would be the only moose sighting. I saw tons of droppings and lots of tracks, but no more moose until I reached Baxter Park.
There, I saw another moose feeding in Tracy pond and I saw my third in a pond along the road as I was leaving. I saw no bear or deer on this trip. Not a single one. I had to shoo two spruce grouse out of my way and saw several others up close. I had a weasel run in front of me near Monson, watched beaver swim in a pond, saw two owls - one real close – swoop down out of trees as I got too close, and I saw my first snowshoe hare on the trail coming down from Katahdin. I saw 5 snakes in all, only two different (as yet unidentified by me) species. Loons entertained me from near and far with their beautiful, shrill calls. I saw two eagles while in Maine, one very close, thanks to the Loons. They would send out an excited distress call when they spotted an eagle nearby, alerting me to look skyward for a bird of prey. I had the great fortune to see an eagle swoop down to the water’s surface and fly away with a fish in his talons. But, generally, wildlife avoids the AT corridor due to the heavy hiker and human traffic, so I had to be very quiet and alert to be able to see the wildlife.
I crossed the NH-ME state line a few mountains and a rainy day after my stay in Gorham, NH. Maine’s piece-de-resistance, the reputed toughest mile on the AT known as Mahoosuc Notch, came a few days later. That is a truly wondrous section of trail, about a mile long, that presents the hiker with unique challenges and unforgettable geographic features. It is quite simply a natural maze of rocks and boulders, an oversized jungle gym. Running through a narrow canyon with sheer rock walls reaching hundreds of feet skyward and a stream underneath, the trail is choked with car and school-bus sized boulders. Some are round and some are broken and jagged. The hiker has the option, in many places, of going under, around or over these boulders.
It was challenging and a lot of fun but it was never easy and much time was spent in trying to decide the best route. I was expecting barren masses of rock, but it was anything but barren. Rather, lush greenery in the form of moss, bushes and trees was everywhere. It was beautiful with many fascinating caves along the way. Fun and beautiful, and full of hidden surprises. I laughed heartily as my hiking buddy became stuck in one of the passages under a rock. Later, I feared for the worst as a piece of thin soil gave way underneath me, sending me into the sharp-edged rocks below. I survived with only minor injuries, leaving just a little flesh and blood along Mahoosuc Notch rocks, but it was worth it. Actually, getting into and out of the Notch was as challenging as the Notch itself, both trails having very steep sections and lots of rock climbing. I loved The Notch and would gladly do it again.
After The Notch I made my way to Andover, ME where I stayed at the Pine Ellis B&B run by Paul and Ilene Trainor. I had a mail drop re-supply package of food and peanut butter & jelly waiting for me, along with a hot shower and a chance to do laundry. Andover is a small crossroads Maine town with a gas station, post office, and a couple of grocery stores and restaurants. Sly and I got a pizza, some beer and other snacks and I called home. The Trainors took excellent care of us as they opened their home to us. Their breakfast was a delight. After breakfast, Ilene gave us a ride back to the trail and we were off again – all filled up on food, clean, rested and ready to take on the rest of Maine’s challenges.
In NH and Maine the soil is completely worn off the mountainside in many places and the trail scales the raw mountain rock itself, resembling a giant domed bald boulder, sometimes for hundreds of yards as the rock climbs skyward. I found myself grabbing tree branches or roots, sticking my toes in cracks in the rock, stepping or lifting myself 4 or 5 feet at a time, or lowering myself gingerly over a rock ledge or face, jumping from boulder to boulder and leaping over crevices or voids. It was anything but “hiking” in the sense of walking along one foot in front of the other with a pack on your back. It was work. Challenging, dangerous, scary, body-torturing work. Progress was often slow, exhausting and painful.
Holes in and along the trail are another neat Maine trick. Deep holes between two rocks are often covered with a little soil and root. Sometimes this thin layer of soil supports you – and sometimes your leg goes plunging down into the unknown. Often these holes would be bog, swamp or water – but it was so dry this year they were just non-supporting air. Sometimes they were visible – just open holes – where some other hapless hiker had stepped and gone through. Whatever their source or purpose, they were holes along the trail just waiting to sprain an ankle, peel some flesh from a calf, or break your leg. They made Maine interesting and kept me alert.
Maine did not live up to its reputation for being soggy and wet, though. Many areas of the trail would have been muddy bogs, some covered with planking or “bog bridges”. It was so dry this year, though, that mud was not a problem. All but the wettest bogs were dried out. Many areas were absolutely gorgeous swampland. With the unmatched variety of plant life and greenery, thick mats of deep green moss combined with the beautiful and eerie sight of skeletal and live swamp trees, the swamps became a wonderland of nature’s creation.
Southern Maine had no long flat stretches where I could get my rhythm until the last 50 miles of the 100-mile wilderness, and then there were only enough to tease me. Smooth flat sections of trail in Maine are measured in feet, not in miles or even fractions thereof. Oh, there were many flat sections in Maine – cluttered with rocks, roots and holes. It was the norm to have to place each footstep with the utmost care in order to prevent injury. Dancing on the rocks and roots became the hiking style for much of Maine, especially the numerous steep sections of trail.
A glance off to the side of the trail gave me a clue why the Maine woods are the way they are. The forest floor is not soft and smooth with trees growing out of a nice thick layer of topsoil, as many other AT sections are. It is cluttered with rocks of all sizes, from fist-size to car-size, round, broken, or jagged. There really is no forest “floor”. Just a jumble of rocks from which trees grow. All those rocks, or most of them anyway, are covered with moss or some other green vegetation, making them beautiful while masking their hard, unforgiving nature. The trail is the same – only it goes someplace and the vegetation is worn off by hiker’s boots, exposing the rock. I couldn’t stroll along and enjoy the scenery – I’d have been face down on the rocks if I tried that. I had to stop in order to look around. When making forward progress, I constantly kept my eyes and concentration on the trail immediately in front of me. I rarely glanced up. I wanted to stay in one piece. Unable to develop a smooth hiking rhythm, trail miles came harder and went by more slowly. Normal 15 to 20-mile hiking days became 9 and 10-mile days.
I developed a new technique for Maine when I came into the infamous Mahoosuc Notch. It was called the controlled slide. Controlled being the operative word. There I came upon places along the trail where the mountain rock was one big uninterrupted piece of barren and steep rock, often dome shaped. There were no hand or footholds, no way to lower myself with the aid of trees, branches or roots. It was too steep for my boots to grab and provide needed traction, especially when wet – as it often was. I learned to squat and slide down the face of the rock using my hiking boots like skis until, hopefully, I reached the bottom or a point of control such as a tree. Under control, more or less. It worked, but I had a few rough and less than graceful landings. .
The truly “unclimbable” sections, that is unclimbable without tools or assistance of some sort, usually had ladders, embedded iron rungs, wooden steps or toe holds chiseled into them to enable the hiker to proceed. For example, a 25-foot high cliff face would have a ladder consisting of two logs and some crude rungs leading up and over it. Many times I came to an obstacle in the trail and wondered where the ladder was. “Who stole the ladder?” I always found a way up or down, but it wasn’t easy. Fun? Maybe. Easy? No way! Sometimes the trail simply went miles out of the way around an “unclimbable” area, avoiding it.
What I have concluded, from experience, is that without question, northern New Hampshire and Southern Maine are the most challenging miles of the Appalachian Trail anywhere along its 2,160-mile length. Many would agree they are also the most ruggedly beautiful. I also thought McAfee Knob and Tinker’s Cliffs in VA, Big Bald in NC, the Smokies, and Maine’s wilderness lake region to be especially rugged and beautiful. That is not to say the other trail sections were not beautiful. They were. But perhaps I experienced them in the rain (Shenandoah VA, for example) or they were some of the many sections affected by a bad experience (Mount Rogers in a snowstorm, for example), tainting my appreciation of them. The trail goes right through Hanover, NH. I found that to be absolutely beautiful, a lively, lovely college town and a wonderful trail experience. Some hikers, on the other hand, hate it when the trail goes along a roadway or through a town. Still others wish the trail went through every nearby bar and restaurant it could. Beauty is subjective, the total experience and truly of the moment.
As I climbed the mountains and moved north, deeper into Maine, I had three other supply points before entering the 100-mile wilderness. In Stratton I stayed at the Widow Walk B&B, a charming old Victorian home once the town’s centerpiece. Mary and Jerry Hopson ran it as a B&B for hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Another small crossroads town, it had a hotel, laundromat, a couple restaurants, grocery store, post office and the usual tourist traps. All I needed. A double hamburger and home made strawberry shortcake filled me up at the restaurant. The Hopsons were an incredible sweet and kind older couple. They made the stay there like going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house – loving and warm. It will be a sad day for hikers when they have to “retire” and give up running the place.
The Kennebec River is a real river that was crossed by fording in the past. After some tragic accidents, the ATC contracted with Rivers and Trails to station and operate a canoe ferry service there for hikers making the river crossing. The Kennebec is not all that deep and swift, but releases from a major power plant several miles upstream cause the water level to rise dramatically and without warning several times a day. Rivers and Trails’ Steve Longley also runs a nearby camp store and rents cabins and campsites to hikers, shuttling them where necessary. Up the road a little further is the Northern Outdoor Outfitters restaurant where I got a nice lunch and 9 of us had a nice evening dinner. It is also a microbrewery and I enjoyed a sampling of six different beers with dinner. I did some hand laundry and re-supplied. Steve’s hired hand cooked us all a hearty breakfast and Steve shuttled us back to the trailhead.
My final resupply before the wilderness was Shaw’s Boarding house in Monson, a place famous for its hiker hospitality for over 20 years. There I re-supplied, did my laundry and got humanized again. The Shaw’s run the place in old tradition family style – everyone is part of a BIG family. Unquestionably the home-cooked boarding house style all-you-can-eat beef pot roast dinner with all the trimmings, including corn on the cob, was the best dinner I have experienced along the trail. And for breakfast, a hungry hiker simply ordered what he wanted and how he wanted it, and that’s exactly what he got. Four eggs over light, four French toast, home fries and 6 bacon strips would do for starters. Coffee, milk, juice and donuts were included. After breakfast you got a ride to the trail.
The 100-mile wilderness starts at Monson and ends at Abol Bridge, in the foothills of Mount Katahdin. Only logging roads and wilderness camps interrupt it. As I was admiring Jo-Mary Lake from the shore of Antlers Campsite a float plane landed and came right to shore. It was dropping off an environmental engineer for some surveying. Speaking with the pilot I found that float planes are the quick way to get around and the “emergency vehicles” of the Maine wilderness. Dotted with lakes and ponds, they can access much of the remote countryside. The pilot told me that most of his “rescues” involving hikers were for tourists, novices and neophytes involving minor injuries, blisters or inability to cope with the bugs. Very seldom did he have to rescue a seasoned northbound hiker. But this year he had to take out a through-hiker with a severely injured leg just 30 miles from his goal. When distress calls come in, rescue personnel are flown in to the nearest lake or pond and the victim is evacuated from there. The pilot, with time to kill, offered to fly me over the ridge to Pemadumcook Lake, my next overnight spot. I would have loved to take the opportunity to fly in a float plane, but tempted as I was, I could not let myself skip those white blazes (the trail). So, he took off without me. Then I realized I could have flown to the lake and walked the trail sans pack. Oh well.
As a lover of water, I found the trail in Maine to be full of rewards. There were many streams and waterfalls, the beautiful Gulf Hagas among them. Gulf Hagas is an incredible gorge carved out of rock by a stream. The water tumbles, swirls, falls and cascades over the rock. It reminded me a lot of and was very similar to many of the gorges coming into New York’s Cayuga Lake. Take a look at a map of Maine and you will see very few settlements or even roads in its interior, but lots of water in the form of lakes, ponds and rivers. A very sparsely populated state, most of its residents live near the coast. I observed life to be very different in Maine from that which I have experienced elsewhere. Many of the roads penetrating the interior are private dirt or gravel roads owned by the timber companies. Users must pay a fee to travel them and agree to yield unconditional right-of-way to logging trucks. Area residents and business people must often travel 50 to 100 miles or more to get groceries and supplies. Even the water rights are owned by huge corporations, the water being used to generate electric power and to power the big mills. Pond, lake and stream levels rise and fall at the mercy of the corporations. Wilderness camps attract fishermen, hikers, hunters, snowmobilers and other outdoorsmen. But they too are at the mercy of the big corporations. They lease their land from them, must use their toll roads, and the level of their water is out of their control. Maine’s big wilderness, with the exception of the AT and a few parks, is not the public domain, but, rather, controlled by large corporations. Life is very different.
Be that as it was, many of the ponds and lakes I experienced displayed very low water levels due either to the drought or corporate control, or both. Nonetheless, there were many pristine bodies of water surrounded by beautiful forest. Streams carved beautiful forms from their rock beds and became glorious cascades down a mountainside. The water was almost always crystal clear, cool and refreshing. In the oppressive heat, escaping to swim in a cool mountain stream or lake enabled me to keep going and added a much-needed element of pleasure to an otherwise stifling and nearly unbearable hike.
My gear worked very well for me, for the most part. Often I would find the shelter’s water source dried up or unsuitable. Then I would just sign the register and move on. My 20-pound pack had all I needed and my frequent food re-supply stops minimized the additional weight of food. I never had to carry more than 5 days (about 7.5 pounds) of food. I sent wading sandals to myself in Gorham, thinking I would need them for some of the more than 10 river and stream fords identified in the trail data book. I carried them, cursing their weight in my pack, until I realized I would not need them. All the streams were so low you could cross them by rock hopping. Some were totally dry. I sent them back at the next mail drop.
I did have boot trouble. My boots, now on their second hike (about 550 miles of wear) started to come apart at the seams and the tread was worn off the sole. I could not lace my left boot tight to my foot and fearing a lack of control on the climb up Katahdin, I spent 4 hours sewing them back together with the nylon thread I carried for just such an emergency. Have you ever tried to force a needle and thread through leather? It’s a painful experience, I assure you. I found no cobblers in the wilds of Maine. The same needle and thread were used to temporarily hold my eyeglasses together when a screw came out of the frame causing my left lens to fall out. There were no optical shops or eyeglass repair kits in the wilds of Maine, either.
I did not hike shelter to shelter as in some past hikes. Rather, I hiked as far as I could each day and camped wherever I could find a water source and campsite to pitch my tent. Sometimes that was a shelter because a water source is usually nearby. Even when it was a shelter site, I often pitched my tent on a nearby tentsite or platform simply because it was out of the shelter and quieter. A couple of nights when I shared the shelter with only one or two others I put my tent up inside the shelter just to keep the bugs away. I found I slept a lot better by myself in my tent. Also, I found I hiked further when I was not limited to stopping at a shelter. Wherever I stopped, though, I had to have a water source nearby since I rarely carried more than a quart of water. It was too heavy.
Whitehouse Landing, a wilderness camp on Pemadumcook Lake was an oasis in the 100-mile wilderness and my final resupply point. About 40 miles south of Katahdin, it welcomed hikers and provided a much needed opportunity for re-supply. I had to hike about two miles off trail to a boat dock then blast an air horn I found there. Moments later I saw a motor boat heading towards the dock and I was ferried to the camp on the far shore. They had no electric, except what they supplied with their own wind generation system. That was backed up by a gasoline-powered generator. There was no telephone service, save the owner’s personal cell phone. The freezers, refrigerators and lights were all run by propane gas. Heat, when needed, was provided by wood stoves.
Beautifully situated on the lake, they had a large dock designed to float and accommodate the changing water levels. It was more then 12 feet deep off the end of the dock and I could clearly see the stones on the bottom of the lake. It was over 90 degrees when I was there. I spent the entire afternoon lounging on the dock and swimming in the lake, after starting the hiking day around 4 A.M. to avoid the 92-degree heat. I forced myself to take time out to eat a couple of their giant hamburgers, which were well over a half-pound each. We all felt that the day I spent there was the last swimming day of the year; bad weather was moving in and the lake was not usually this warm this late in the year. In fact, they often had a few frosts by mid-September but had none yet this year.
At Abol Bridge I expected a small town. But it was just a bridge and a country store and campsite. No town. There, as I was sewing my boot back together, I saw lots of emergency personnel, reporters and investigators returning from the scene of a tragic drowning of 14 migrant workers. Though the accident happened more than 60 miles away, they had to pass through Abol Bridge to get to the scene, unless they took a float plane. That was Maine’s worst-ever vehicular accident and very big news.
I stayed with my no-stove, no-cook food routine. I mailed myself jars of peanut butter and jelly, bought bread and made sandwiches at mail drops. I ate dry Chex cereal mix and some peanut butter crunch bars and a P&J sandwich for breakfast. During the day I ate two chocolate covered granola bars and two candy bars and a bagful of trail mix (granola, raisins, coconut, walnuts and cashews). For dinner it was mixed nuts, P&J, homemade cookies and some candy. When in town or at a food source (hostel, commercial camp, etc) I would eat heartily (burgers, pizza, etc.) one or two meals there and get sandwiches or food to go (pack) for 2 or 3 more meals. This provided a tasty variety. I didn’t miss cooking and was glad I did not have to carry a stove or fuel in my pack.
I got in the habit of purifying three quarts of water when I reached camp. Most hikers needed water for cooking and drinking and washing dishes; I needed only enough for drinking. One quart I drank with dinner, another I drank in the morning and the third I would take with me and drink on the trail. When it was hot, I treated and drank as much as four additional quarts of water as I hiked. My iodine purification system worked perfectly. Whenever water was available, I could purify and drink it quickly, easily and effectively. I observed many others on the trail having problems with their water filters. On two occasions I let other hikers use my iodine system when their filters failed them. (There are no filter repairmen or replacement filters in the wilderness either!)
A few of the characters along the trail: Spyder and Be-free (brothers), Sobo, Isaac, Dutch Uncle, Foz, Rain Dog, Tom, Bigfoot, Muskrat, Wee Willey the Prince of Whales, Sunshine, Clydesdale, Gray Jay, Sidewinder, Cheetah, Starvin Marvin, Buddha, Cameron, Rainbird, Mina and David, Serendipity, Disco, Walking Wounded, Semi Pro and Woodstock, Pa Kettle, P Harley, Bill and Anita, Steve, Gypsy, Tennessee Red, Gyro, Leprechaun & Bear, Bigfoot and many many more whose names escaped me.
“Trail magic”, where former and sometimes present-day hikers or just friends of hikers help out hikers along the AT (by leaving jugs of water, or food and candy, sometimes soda or beer), especially near road crossings, was noticeably absent along the trail in Maine. I think that was due to the inaccessibility of the trail in Maine, the generally low population density of northern Maine and the expensive logging road use fees found there ($8.00 per person per day). Trail magic was found at the hostels and towns near the trail and some of the hikers had vehicle support (wives) that turned their efforts into trail magic for other hikers. As a hiker I was always treated well, wherever I was.
Taken together, as a whole, northern New Hampshire and Maine had almost too much natural beauty to take in and comprehend. There were the rugged mountains along the trail and in the views, the babbling brooks, streams and roaring waterfalls, placid lakes and ponds, enchanting canyons, notches, gorges and deep, lush captivating forests. The trail went over the mountains rather than through their saddles or around their bases. It went along the streams, ponds, lakes and rivers. It was constantly changing, ever beautiful scenery from one mile to the next.
MOUNTAINS over 4,000 feet elevation, in the order I climbed them: NH: Washington 6288’, Madison 5363’, Wildcat 4380’, Carter Dome 4832’. Middle Carter 4600’, Moriah 4049’. ME: Old Speck 4180’, Saddleback 4120’, the (Saddleback) Horn 4040’, Spaulding 4000’, South Crocker 4040’, North Crocker 4228, Bigelow West Peak 4145’, Bigelow Avery Peak 4090’, Katahdin Baxter Peak 5268’.
There were dozens of mountains in the 3000 to 4000 foot range, Mt. Carlo 3565’, Goose Eye E 3794’ Goose Eye N 3675’, Fulling Mill 3395’, Mahoosuc Arm 3770’, Baldpate West 3662’, Baldpate East 3810’, Old Blue 3595’, Bemis West 3580’, Saddleback Jr 3655’, Lone 3260’, Little Bigelow East 3010’, White Cap 3650’.
RIVERS, NH: West Branch Peabody 2300’, Rattle, Androscoggin 730’. ME: Sandy 1595’, South Branch Carrabassett, Kennebeck 490’ (ferry), West and East Branchs Piscataquis, West and East Branches of Pleasant, West Branch Penobscot 588’, (Abol Bridge). Streams and brooks, though some were significant, were too numerous to mention.
PONDS: Page, Moss and Gentian Ponds, NH. ME: Spec, Surplus, South, Moxie, Bald Mountain, Sabbath Day , South, Eddy, Stratton Brook, Horns, West, Middle and East Carry, Pierce, Pleasant, Spectacle, Bell, Lily, North, Long, Cloud, Mountain View, Crawford, Mud, Crescent, Daicey, and Elbow ponds – to name just the ones that the AT passed by.
LAKES: Dream Lk, NH. ME: Flagstaff, Hebron, Jo-Mary, Pemadumcook, Nahmakanta, Rainbow.
Climbing Mount Katahdin was my crowning achievement. The culmination of four years and 8 long-distance hikes across 14 states; 2,160 miles of Appalachian Trail, 174 days of backpacking. Katahdin’s climb was 4,200 feet over 5.2 miles of trail, then back down the same way. The first two miles were relatively easy, along a beautiful cascade, and then the boulder climbing began in earnest. The boulder field became increasingly challenging until, near its end, I was pulling myself and scrambling up and over granite boulders eight feet high with the aid of implanted steel climbing pegs. As I climbed, the scenery grew more spectacular. The boulder field was followed by the steepest and most challenging section, the knife edge ascent up Katahdin's west slope, (not to be confused with the Knife Edge Trail) from Hunt Spur to The Gateway, all above treeline, where those attempting the summit failed yesterday and turned back. There I gained 900 feet in elevation in a quarter of a mile along a narrow stretch of jumbled rocks that fell nearly vertically away from the trail on both sides. It was definitely not a place for anyone with the slightest fear of heights or lack of determination.
The narrow trail and steep climb was crowned with a spectacular plateau of alpine tundra and rock, where the remaining 1.5-mile, 750-foot climb to Baxter Peak and the summit was mild. But the jubilant feelings of reaching Katahdin’s summit and completing my AT journey were anything but mild. My dream was fulfilled, my journey was over. I made it. The experiences I had were countless and timeless, as will be the many friends and acquaintances I made along the trail. So many wonderful things happened.
Now, on to the next challenge: Getting my book finished and published. Based on my experience and the experience of hundreds of long-distance through-hikers and backpackers I met and interviewed along the Appalachian Trail it will describe different methods of preparing and equipping for a long-distance backpacking trip or through-hike of the AT. It will allow the reader to decide which method and gear best suits his/her situation or abilities. The book will give the reader several options such as gear and equipment selection, re-supply techniques as well as menus for trail cooking or hiking without cooking. Topics will include physical conditioning, hike planning, clothing, daily mileage, safety and first aid, camping, trail etiquette and no-trace principles, hiking and gear tips, re-supply options, and a list of related information sources and links. Excerpts from my detailed journals will give the reader insight into trail life, conditions and experiences. The essence of the book will be to prepare anyone adequately to enjoy a long hike in the woods and be prepared for the unexpected.
I am available to speak to the public and present slide shows about my Appalachian Trail adventures and long-distance backpacking. Contact me through e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 570 465 2047.
Those of you living close enough or able to travel to my home in New Milford PA are welcome to make an appointment to visit and browse through any of my eight photo journals. Each journal has hundreds of trial and related photos, all identified, in addition to my trail summaries, maps and daily journal entries. I will try to answer your e-mails and trail-related questions.
Happy Trails J to all
Al Free Spirit Robbins
Spring/Fall hikes - 15 miles/day - Contact Al. email@example.com.
Last Updated 12/19/02