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Detour to East Chairback Pond by Walt McLaughlin

East Chairback Pond from the summit
East Chairback Pond from the summit

The 100 Mile Wilderness is an unforgiving section of the Appalachian Trail, winding through the remote backcountry of northern Maine. Drawn to the physical and logistical challenge of it, I shouldered a sixty-pound pack then stepped into that sprawling forest with my dog Matika. I was gung-ho at first, but after pushing myself hard for eight days I began to question the wisdom of relentless trail pounding. So I detoured to East Chairback Pond in the middle of the afternoon on the ninth day, taking a short break from shelters, trail blazes and the beaten path.

As the sketchy track to the pond rapidly lost elevation, I cursed myself for leaving the main trail. My dog began to worry. When it petered out completely, I cursed again. But a few minutes later, I found a relatively flat spot beneath some conifers to make camp. There I dropped my pack, declaring the place home for the night.

Crystal clear water lapped gently to the pristine shoreline. Wispy clouds passed slowly over Columbus and East Chairback Mountains a couple miles to the south. A deep silence reigned. I set up camp slowly and deliberately, giving myself a chance to catch my breath. Then I stripped off my clothes and eased into the pond.

The dirt and sweat of the day’s hike washed away as I swam in broad, lazy circles. Matika watched from a patch of moss on the rocky shoreline where she lounged. While treading water, my eyes feasted upon the wildness all around me. I thought about other wild places I’ve known and how good it always feels to be in them. I recalled my camp along the Endicott River in Southeast Alaska, where I’d spent the best two weeks of my life. I remembered Linton Meadows, high in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, where I’d first connected with the spirit of the wild. Thank God I’d had sense enough that warm, summer day to leave the Pacific Crest Trail and camp for a couple days along the edge of those meadows. Had I stayed on task, I could have completely missed the point of being out here.

It’s all about going a little wild. That’s why I venture into the woods, anyhow. For an hour or two, a couple days, or several weeks at a time, I hike through the forest escaping the madness of civilization. Then I groove on the natural world in the most elemental way possible, rediscovering a primal self. The peaks bagged, miles logged, and trails hiked end-to-end are secondary. First and foremost, I reconnect.

After spending a long evening and quiet night at East Chairback Pond, I finished my trek. “Never again,” I told my wife at the trail’s end. I was completely exhausted by then. So was my dog. Yet I dreamt about my next big outing while driving home the following day. Woods wanderers like me never get enough, it seems. The forest is always beckoning. The wildness within us always wants more.

About Walt McLaughlin

Walt McLaughlin writes from St. Albans, Vermont.  His book about hiking through the Adirondacks, The Allure of Deep Woods, will be released in the spring of 2013. You can also follow him at his blog Woods Wanderer.

12 comments

  1. Thanks for the story. I could not help but be reminded that almost all things truly worth doing require a greater effort. If we are willing to push ourselves beyond our normal comfort zone the reward can be great. We can all hike a well marked path and see what others see but on occassion it is nice to go out of way and see what lies beyond the beaten path.

    • That’s it exactly – going beyond the comfort zone. In my experience, the best backwoods experiences have always required greater effort and risk. That’s why I prepare as well as possible and try to remain flexible.

  2. This is the reason I like to get outside and hit the trails. Not to conquer miles, but to get away from civilization. To get away from my daily job, sitting in an office for 9 hours a day. I like to disconnect from the world of IT and reconnect with nature and learning outdoor living skills. Great post by the way, enjoyed reading!

  3. Walt – The Wilderness was very dry, hot, and humid this year and we had to carry extra water over the Barrens and Chairback. I got moderately dehydrated and spent a few hours rehydrating at East Chairback pond (the stream at the Chairback shelter was dry) by eating pot after pot of Ramen Noodles under the pines along the pond shore. The blue-blazed pond trail is hard to miss unless you look for it. It was an oasis for me too.

    • I backpacked into the West Canada Lakes Wilderness in the southern Adirondacks last month and repeatedly soaked my t-shirt with sweat. Yeah, it has been a hot summer. But that only makes a dip in a pristine lake or pond that much more enjoyable. I did that at Brooktrout Lake and felt reborn.

  4. Nice story Walt. Having a dog along is a real pleasure on these adventures. Although I didn’t have a dog along on my AT thru-hike, I did spend some time alone, off the trail in some pretty remote spots. I can totally relate to your sentiments. The time spent there is so liberating.

    Thanks for the memories.

  5. CAPT Dan Smith, USN

    Walt,
    Thanks for your writings. I too love the North Country and especially the Adirondacks. I’m a native of Watertown, NY, so Old Forge is my approach point to the Adirondacks. I usually find myself completely alone in the wilderness when I’m on trail there, and I find it exhilerating and spiritual. The occasional deer fly or bear crosses my path, and I can cope with that. I have seen plenty of coyote scat, but have yet to see one. I hear them at night, though.
    One time, en route a remote lake along an old logging path, I came across a man and his son in a large wooden cart, pulled by two draft horses. What a surprise! They were ferrying supplies for a hunting club in the area.
    After living for many years in urban areas, like Washington, D.C., London, and Tel Aviv, I cherish the sweet, fresh air of the forest. It restores my soul.

  6. Sounds like you’re dialing into the Adirondacks the same way I have. The wild gets under your skin, doesn’t it?

  7. Margaret van den Bergh

    Wonderful story. Sometimes you just gotta stop and smell the roses.
    But …what I really wish to tell you, is that I have this wonderful dog, Keisha, who LOVES to go on the trail with me as well. The astonishing part is that she looks exactly like yours! I would love to send you a picture of her so you can compare. She is 8 and I wonder if you might have gotten her from the same litter.
    Thank you.

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