740 miles in – Mount Katahdin, ME

 

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Everything is changing.

3 days ago, I embarked on the highly emotional journey from the base to the peak of Katahdin with 4 amazing friends. It was our last hike together, and for 3 of my friends, it was their final destination. After 6 months of walking with Mt Katahdin as their goal, they had arrived.

After leaving Stratton, Pineapple, Peanut Pan, and I camped at the base of what was essentially our last mountain range before Katahdin, the Bigelows. I had been hearing from Southbounders fairly frequently that the Bigelows were difficult and that I should definitely expect to struggle with that section. In my last blog, I talked about how it’s impossible to really know what lies ahead, and this became especially clear to me going over the Bigelows. Expecting to have to climb hand-over-hand and move at not much more than a mile an hour, I was shocked when I reached the top of the first mountain much earlier than expected.

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The view from one of the Bigelow peaks. The whole peak had been socked in earlier that morning, so I was extra appreciative of the views.

It was one of the coldest days we had experienced so far, and I decided to wear a long-sleeve shirt up the climb to stay warm. We ran into a couple Southbounders who were all bundled up, telling tales of gusty winds and no visibility on the peaks, so I wanted to be prepared. However, the sun was out, and as we ascended the side of the mountain, I started to feel uncomfortably warm. I decided to take my shirt off, and continue hiking like that. All day we were running into hikers who were wearing fleece or down jackets, but I was happy with none of that. I’ve noticed that as soon as I start hiking and get my blood pumping, I end up regretting any extra layers I have on.

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Feeling tough on a chilly day

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View of Sugarloaf mountain, a popular skiing destination.

Hiking up the first peak that morning, I had hit my head fairly hard on a tree at just the wrong height. It hurt. A lot. Then, I hit it a second time. Which also hurt. When I hit my head a third time, maybe it was all the brain damage, but my mindset shifted from being annoyed at having hit my head 3 times to being grateful it wasn’t 10 times.

When a thruhiker registers their hike with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, they receive a yellow tag they can attach to their packs that identifies them as a thruhiker. I had a vague memory of Peanut telling me my tag was falling off, and me forgetting to fix it, so when I noticed one on someone else’s pack, I asked Peanut if mine was still on my pack. I glanced and saw it hanging there, but Peanut decided to use this as an opportunity. He unclipped my tag from my pack, and showed it to me again. I don’t know if it was the brain damage from hitting my head all day or what, but for some reason, despite having seen otherwise just seconds before, I believed that my tag was missing. I expressed my disappointment at the loss of this useless-but-sentimental piece of gear, and Peanut graciously offered me his tag (which was actually my own). The next day, I noticed he had a tag hanging on his pack, and I asked why he had two. He decided to continue the joke and told me he had taken his back from me. It wasn’t until that night that I realized he had been messing with me that whole time.

The day after hiking through the Bigelows, we started to pass ponds. They were crystal-clear, and we couldn’t resist the temptation. Instead of hiking 16 miles that day, we decided to only do 10, and to swim in the ponds. That night, we camped on a beach just 3 feet from the edge of the water. Peanut built a fire and we ate dinner and headed to bed. As I lay in my sleeping bag in the dark, I could hear loons calling to each other, and later, coyotes howling. One would howl and others would respond. The sound was breathtaking and I was overwhelmed by the feeling that life was perfect.

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The fire on the beach.

The next morning, I woke up early enough to watch the sun rise over the water, and when we packed up our tents, we found tiny salamanders nestled into the sand beneath the tents. We had to get moving quickly that day, however. We were trying to reach the town of Caratunk that night, and there was a big obstacle. The Kennebec River. The Kennebec River is the most dangerous river crossing along the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Not only is it about 100 ft across and covered in slippery rocks at the bottom, but there was also a dam upstream of where we had to cross that would unexpectedly release water. The water level would then rise quickly enough that whatever poor soul crossing at that moment would not have time to get to safety before being swept away. mix that with a heavy pack on your back and its not good.

The ATC fixes this problem by providing a free ferry service across the river. There is a man with a canoe big enough for 3 and the job to get hikers safely from one side of the river to the other. However, the ferry only runs from 9 am to 2 pm. We had to make sure we arrived before the ferry closed, otherwise we would be stuck on the wrong side of the river until the next day.

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One section of the trail leading to the Kennebec river, a dammed pond to one side and the trail was a big pile of rocks and logs, many of which moved when stepped on.

Luckily, we arrived way earlier than expected, the terrain having been kind to us. We stayed at the Caratunk House Bed and Breakfast, an extremely cheap ($30 for a private room, shower and laundry), but adorable business, run by a man who had thruhiked the AT and the PCT many years ago. However, I was most impressed by his hike across Maine in the winter for gay rights. I thoroughly enjoyed their milkshakes and pulled-pork sandwiches.

The next day, we hiked out again, to a shelter by a pond. We were discussing the differences in the way we are treated based on our genders (hint: there’s a lot), and I was getting worked up about it. All of a sudden, we arrived at our spot for the night and I realized that I had been so heated over the conversational topic that I had been walking much faster than usual.

At shelters the women are usually outnumbered by men 5 to 1, so when I brought this up to my friends (who are all men), I realized that I was preparing to defend myself to them when they disagreed. I was pleasantly surprised when none of them argued that I was overreacting or taking things the wrong way. They all agreed that women are treated differently, and often worse, than men on the trail. This also made me realize how often in my life off-trail, when I want to discuss with male friends particular discrimination I’ve faced because of my gender, or just sexism in general, they say I’m overreacting, and how often I just drop the subject when this happens.

Pineapple, Peanut, and I did a long day the next day, and Peanut and I arrived at the campsite together. We figured that Pineapple had been ahead of us all day, so when we arrived and he wasn’t there, we assumed he had moved on. We set up camp and I placed my shoes right next to the trail, in case Pineapple was behind us, so he would know where we were. Sure enough, 2 hours later he finally arrived, and when we asked what had taken him so long, he replied that he had been slowed down by the barbecue. “What barbecue?” we asked. Apparently, just 15 minutes after I had passed a road, and just 30 after Peanut had, some Trail Angels had set up a huge barbecue for hikers.

Next, we were on to Monson. Monson was the last resupply option before the 100 mile wilderness, and the last town before Katahdin. The hostel there, Shaw’s, is famous along the AT, and we decided to tent in the yard. Shaw’s is run by a family of four. Their daughter Julia is around 5-years-old, and she and I quickly became fast friends. As I was getting ready to leave, she asked if I wanted to help her make oatmeal. I explained that I had to keep hiking and she asked if I was going to come back. I told her I probably wouldn’t, if everything went well. She asked if I would come back if a tree fell on me. I told her I probably would come back if a tree fell on me.

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The 100 mile wilderness felt less wilderness-y than I expected. I saw at least 7 cars.

Embarking into the 100 mile wilderness, the three of us had different tactics of approach. I brought 7 and a half days of food, Peanut brought 6 days of food, and Pineapple brought 5. Peanut and Pineapple were plotting how to acquire more food just 2 days into the wilderness.

On the first day, I was hiking along and suddenly noticed that the white blazes, which had been abundant throughout the 100 so far, had disappeared. I was still on a trail and didn’t notice any other-colored blazes, so I assumed I was still on trail. I kept going and didn’t see a blaze, but then I noticed boot-prints in the mud and assumed I was still on trail. Then, I still didn’t see blazes, but I arrived at an old, rotting bridge, so I assumed I was still on trail. What eventually gave away that I had gotten off-trail was when I noticed that the leaves on the ground were suspiciously un-crushed. after much deliberation of what to do, since I still wasn’t positive that I was off-trail, I decided to walk back. I had gone about a mile in the wrong direction.

We hiked past a lot of day-hikers in the 100, which never failed to confuse me. Where had they come from? Where were they going? How had they entered this alleged wilderness (read the sign above) without anything more than a water bottle and some snacks? My questions were answered when we crossed a road our second night just 200 meters from where we were camping. We heard a car drive by every half-hour until dark. So much for wilderness.

The next day, we hiked over Whitecap Mountain, which allows the first view of Katahdin. It was exhilarating. The hike was faster than expected, however, and we decided to go past our original destination about 2 miles and camp at a pond. As we walked to the pond, Peanut and I were behind Pineapple. I heard a crashing noise and looked up. A mother and baby moose were running straight at me. My life flashed before my eyes as the only thing I had time to think was that I was being charged. 2 seconds later, though, they darted off into the woods. I turned to Peanut to confirm it had actually happened. I was light-headed from shock. Pineapple’s only goal through New Hampshire and Maine was to see a moose, and he wasn’t happy to hear he had missed two by just a couple minutes.

That night it rained for the first time in 10 days, and it rained hard. The tent remained dry this time, and the next day was nice weather. I started hiking on what was flat terrain all day, save one small hill. As I ascended the hill, I felt something sting me through my sock. I looked down and a yellow jacket was hanging from my leg by it’s stinger. It hurt like hell. Turns out there was a nest in the ground right next to the trail, which I must have offended.

Peanut, Pineapple and I were planning to go 26 miles that day, in order to make it out of the 100 before Pineapple ran out of food. However, when I arrived at the next road, Peanut and I discovered trail magic! Chocolate milk, sodas, grapes, watermelon, and we split a sub sandwich. this gave peanut enough food to take his time a little more. We were to meet Pineapple at the campsite 5 miles south of the destination for that day, so we grabbed him a soda and kept hiking.

We passed a big pond when we heard a confusing noise. It went shoooooooooo-EEEE. Peanut, Pineapple and I used that noise to find each other in the woods, but Peanut and I were together and Pineapple was pretty far ahead. We shoo-ee-d back. It was coming from behind so we decided to wait and see who it was. Not to much after, a man walked up who I didn’t recognize, but when he and Peanut saw each other they hugged, excited. His name was Rocket Fuel, and they had hiked together months ago, when the Black Hole had first invented the call. They hadn’t seen each other since. We hiked together for the the rest of the day. When we got to the meeting spot, Pineapple wasn’t there and it had gotten late. We decided to pitch our tents for the night and stay there, and we would catch up with him after the 100 mile wilderness.

We camped next to Nahmakanta lake that night, and I got up early the next morning so I could hike farther.

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Poorly-captured sunrise through the trees.

The next night I camped on another beach, about 15 feet from the water. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of splashing, and the first thing that went through my head was that it was a moose. I lay there awake for what felt like forever, picturing the moose splashing around in the lake so close to me. Then I pictured it getting startled and trampling me in the darkness. Then I REALLY couldn’t sleep. I slowly unzipped my tent, trying my hardest not to make any noise that might trigger the animal to charge me. I peeked out and… nothing. The noise was coming from the water splashing against the rocks more loudly because of high-tide.

The next morning, I woke up and could hear the slashing again. I figured it was nothing, but I peeked out anyway. It was a family of ducks! When they saw me, they did what I could only describe as sprinting across the water. I’ve never seen a duck do what they did.

I was hiking out of the 100 that day, and it poured the whole way. Peanut and I met Pineapple at the store/restaurant/campground at the end of the 100, and we decided to rent a “cabin,” with a friend of ours, Rooster. The cabins were shacks with 4 walls and a door, no electricity, and 6 bunks with eclectic mattresses. we were warm and dry, however, so it was much better than sleeping in a tent.

The next day, we ordered lunch (I ordered fried chicken with french fries, couldn’t finish it, so I put it in plastic bags and kept it for camp) and hiked out. We couldn’t have had better timing. the rain stopped just before we headed out. We were hiking to the base of Katahdin, where there was a campground where Rocket Fuel had reserved a campsite for us. My dad was to meet us there with his car, half a gallon of chocolate milk, a pineapple, and $24 cash. When we arrived, I was so excited. I hadn’t seen any of my family in months. We set up our campsite and my dad and I decided to take a trip into town to get s’mores and hot dogs for a great feast. When I came back, the boys had built a fire perfect for cooking hot dogs. We all talked about our favorite memories from the trail and ate good food and enjoyed our last night together on the trail.

We climbed Katahdin the next day, a trail which resembles a low-grade rock-climbing route in many spots.

I didn’t take any pictures of the trail, so here is one which I think represents it well. Photo creds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOo_VfSbL-o

It was an emotional hike to the top, and we finally reached the summit to someone playing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” on their phone, a popular trail song.

At the summit, the boys all wanted to do a photoshoot with the props they had brought. Pineapple with his pineapple:

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Peanut with his chocolate milk:Screenshot_20170911-142444

And me, pretty simple:

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Here are some other pictures from the top:

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At one point we watched a plane fly past us, below us!

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The peak of Katahdin from a mile away

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A distant rainstorm

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We were lucky to be blessed with beautiful weather. Congratulations to all my friends who have completed this amazing goal.

-Shiver