I started a 9 day trip on the 100 mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail last Saturday, but ended up getting shuttled out after 6 days and 74 miles due to a knee/quadriceps overuse injury. Staying out for 6 days on a solo really pushed me mentally and physically in ways that I’ve never experienced on a shorter section hikes. Uncomfortably so, even. Yes, it’s a bummer that I didn’t finish, but as a section hiker, I can always pick up where I left off, another day.
Day to Day Mileage:
- Day 1: Spectacle Pond to Long Pond Stream Lean-to (15 miles)
- Day 2: Long Pond Stream Lean-to to Chairback Gap Lean-to (11 miles)
- Day 3: Chairback Gap Lean-to to Sydney Tappan Campsite (12 miles)
- Day 4: Sydney Tappan Campsite to East Branch Lean-to (9.5 miles)
- Day 5: East branch Lean-to to Antlers Campsite (15.5 miles)
- Day 6: Antlers Campsite to Wood Rd/South End of Nahmakanta Lake (11 miles)
Day 1: Spectacle Pond to Long Pond Stream Lean-to (15 miles)
I started a little late on Saturday by my standards, only getting into the trail at 8:20 AM. But I had decided to be mellow and enjoy the breakfast experience at Shaw’s Lodging, which was fantastic: great food and great company. Sometimes, online, you can get the feeling that thru-hikers don’t respect section hikers, but there I was sitting with thru-hikers, south bounders who had just started their hikes, and other section hikers chatting away like best friends. It felt really comfortable and goes to show that there aren’t any barriers between hikers when they all get together in person.
When I had finished my breakfast, I was eager to bolt, and to their credit, Shaw’s shuttled me to the trail by myself, even though there were easily a dozen or so other thru-hikers and section hikers who planned to start that day. Before I left, Dawn, the innkeeper, gave me a short, serious talk about some of the dangers ahead. She warned me that the rock in Maine is made out of slate and is very slippery when wet. In addition, she warned me about fording rivers, something I’d never done, and the fact that the streams were all running higher than normal from the 2 inches of rain we received the day before. Finally, she explained that they’d be happy to come pick me up if I got into trouble and I was near one of the logging roads that cross the trail, and that the best cell reception, if any, would be from mountain tops.
A lot of people will tell you that the 100 mile wilderness is not a true wilderness anymore, and there’s a certain amount of truth to that, but it’s still not a good place to have a bad fall, break a leg, or have a serious medical emergency. While I was there, I witnessed one serious rescue operation and heard about a second. While there are gravel logging roads that bisect the trail every 10-20 miles, cell phone reception is very poor and it could easily be over 24 hours before a SAR team could reach you. Even after that, the terrain is so difficult that extraction would likely have to be manual over a very rough trail. In a worst case scenario, I was carrying a Personal Locator Beacon at the request of my wife, so as long as I was conscious to operate it, I knew I’d have a better chance at getting help than someone relying just on a cell phone.
Regardless, I was eager to get some miles under my belt and when I was dropped off at the trail head, I set off hiking at about about 1.5 miles an hour in light rain. I was feeling good, but my Mariposa Plus backpack was stuffed to capacity with 9 days of dehydrated food and weighed a bit over 36 lbs including fuel, and 2 liters of water. That’s about 12 or 13 more lbs than I’d normally carry on a 3 day section hike and I was looking forward to eating down the load as the days progressed.
The trail was pretty muddy, but I managed to keep my boots dry for 2 hours. After that I fell off an un-anchored log bridge into a muddy bog up to my waist! That was special and pretty much set the tone for the next 6 days. Having hiked the Long Trail in Vermont last year, I thought that the Green Kingdom had the worst mud in New England, but I can assure you that Maine’s mud is far worse and there’s a lot more of it, despite the excellent trail maintenance work performed by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and the Maine Conservation Corps.
Swearing at my stupidity…I could have hiked around the mud pit…I continued on to a beautiful waterfall called Little Wilson Falls (see video above) which is the tallest waterfall on the entire 2,172 mile Appalachian Trail, reaching over 100 feet in height. It drops into a narrow slate canyon that is about 300 yards long and it was really cranking from the recent rain fall.
The trail parallels the falls down the south side of the canyon to Little Wilson Stream which has to be forded. This was the first ford I ever can remember doing with a backpack, so I was a little nervous, but luckily there were 2 thru-hikers on the other side of the stream that I knew from breakfast and they just waived me over. The crossing was pretty easy, even with the extra water in the stream, and it came up to my knees, completely soaking my socks and leather boots. I had brought some camp sandals which I had hoped would work for river crossings like this, but they weren’t going to provide me with the support I needed to cross rocky rivers full of waves and holes, and by the second day, I gave them away to some kids to stop carrying the extra 11 oz.
Once across, I took off my boots and squeezed the water out of them. Then I took off each outer wool sock and sock liner and did the same to them. I repeated this ritual for the rest of the trip each time I had to ford a river. This made my leather boots a lot lighter, but my boots never dried out completely after that and there were times when I felt like I was wearing cinder blocks. I am now convinced that I have to give up leather boots for this type of terrain.
After that I continued across rolling woodland fording another three streams, two of which had ropes for hikers to hold onto, like the one above. While emotionally comforting, these lines were not well placed in my opinion making the crossings more hazardous than necessary.
Despite the crossings and the delays caused by wringing out my socks, I made pretty good time the rest of the day passing two shelters and arriving at the third, the Long Pond Stream Lean-to, by 7:15 pm. My thru-hiker buddies were in the lean-to which looked a little scuzzy, and there was a son and father camped out in a tent who I would become good friends with in the following days. I scouted around and ended up picking a tent site above the shelter. It wasn’t perfect, but I wanted some privacy and peace and quiet my first night out.
Next, I cycled through my normal make camp routine. I hung my two heavy bear bags, almost breaking my jaw in the process when the rock came back at me after snagging on a branch and hit me in the face. I thought I tasted some blood, but there was no way I was going to quit a hike that I had been planning for 7 months, so I just took a big Ibuprofen pill and hoped the pain would go away. Next I filtered water, pitched my tent, cooked dinner, changed into my sleeping clothes, recorded a audio diary entry, and went to sleep.
Until 5 minutes later, when 11 young hikers and their counselors came in from the dark with headlights from Barren Mountain and proceeded to make camp directly behind me! They went to sleep 2 hours later and I finally got to sleep at about 11 pm, a little pissed off you might say. They only shut up when it started to rain.
Day 2: Long Pond Stream Lean-to to Chairback Gap Lean-to (11 miles)
After the Long Pond Stream Lean-to, the Appalachian Trail continues north over the Barren Chairback Mountain Range, a series of 5 named peaks that are all under 3,000 feet in elevation. I’d been told that some of the best views in the Wilderness are along this range, but the trail was completely socked in by cloud both of the days that I was climbing it, with intermittent showers during the day and torrential rain at night.
After leaving the previous night’s tent site, I had a long climb, just under 2,000 feet to the summit of Barren Mountain (2,670 ft) where there are remains of an old firetower. Surprisingly, treeline on the range starts at about 2,300 ft, quite low by New Hampshire standards, where it usually starts about 2,000 feet higher up. The other peaks in the range include Fourth Mountain (2,383 ft), Third Mountain (2,061 ft), Columbus Mountain (2,326 ft), and Chairback Mountain (2,219 ft).
During the day, I became friends with John and Matt, the father and son duo that had been camping at Long Pond Stream the night before. We had been passing each other during our respective rest stops all day until we both got to Monument Cliffs on Third Mountain and formal introductions were made.
They were from Northern Rhode Island and had some good section hiking experience on the Continental Divide Trail and in the Rockies. We would end up hiking from shelter to shelter for the next 4 days at the same pace and I got to know them a little better each day. John is a carpenter in his mid-fifties and Matt goes to college down in Virginia. I came to admire and even envy their companionship during the hike: it’s gets lonely hiking solo on a long trip and it would have been nice to have a partner along to break the tedium.
I arrived at the Chairback Gap Lean-to at about 5 pm which had a really odd layout. The shelter is at the top of a steep hill that descends about 150 feett to a tannic bog which is the shelter’s water supply and produced nasty, brownish water. The tent sites are about 75 yards above the shelter on another steeply eroded slope.
The shelter was full of men with dogs that liked to growl at other hikers, so I gave them a wide berth and ended up camping above the shelter area in a half-stealth location that was blissfully flat and protected from any more late night arrivals. I had a satisfying pasta dinner and crashed before 8 pm, sleeping once again through another night of torrential rain.
Day 3: Chairback Gap Lean-to to Sydney Tappan Campsite (12 miles)
I woke up the next morning at 5 am, but it was thundering and raining hard so I went back to sleep for another 90 minutes, breaking camp at 8 am. With all the rain we’d been having at night, my sleeping bag was beginning to get soaked from internal condensation in the Squall 2 tarp tent that I was using on this trip as a shelter. I wasn’t that concerned about warmth even though it is a down bag, but I knew that it was getting heavier to carry and I needed to dry it out somewhere.
The fog and intermittent rain continued as I walked over slate ledge to Chairback Mountain, the final peak in the range. Chairback is so named because the north side is a near vertical drop down onto a slide of giant bolders, followed by a steep walk through woods to the West Pleasant River (above) and another ford. This would be the longest ford of my trip and the water was running high, coming up to my waist during the crossing.
After ringing out my socks, I continued along the Gulf Hagas Stream which is wondrously beautiful series of cascades, waterfalls, and rapids, bordering Gulf Hagas, a unique slate canyon that extends northwest of the trail. By now the weather started to clear up a bit and the sun was finally coming out when I caught up to John and Matt and we ran into a rescue that had already been underway for 3 hours.
A young girl, about 13 tears-old, had suffered anaphylactic shock as the result of a bee sting and was slowly being evacuated down the trail afer being jabbed with an EpiPen. Someone had hiked out to call the state police and they had her conscious and upright supported by 2 other rescuers. This was a camp group and the counsellors, young by my standards, were clearly trained in Wilderness Medicine and doing a good job.
We were briefed by one of the rescuers and when it was clear that we weren’t needed for assistance, we continued on to the base of Gulf Hagas Mountain (2,683 ft). This was a 750 ft climb, but I was treated to stone stairs that had been built by a trail maintenance crew almost all the way up. They had done a beautiful job and we ended up meeting two crews out doing trail maintenance on White Cap Mountain that weekend.
After you summit Gulf Hagas Mountain, you still have a walk about a mile to get to the campsite, mainly through blueberry bushes and jewel weed. I flew through this bit but could hear thunder behind me from an indeterminate location. I’ve been in situations like this before, so I was relieved when I made it to the Sydney Tappan Campsite without being zapped by a lightening bolt.
A crew from the Maine Conservation Corps had already set up an elaborate base camp by the time I arrived, taking up most of the good tent sites, hanging a mess tent, and a multi-rope bear hang just outside of camp. They were a very friendly group of young college aged kids who were doing trail work all summer and were on site for a few days to build more water bars.
I set up my tent and hung my sleeping bag out to dry in the sun and soon my gear soon dried out. What a relief. By then, John and Matt had arrived and we cooked up some dinner. But just as it we started to eat, it started to thunder loudly and it got eerily dark outside. I hurriedly finished my meal and hung my bear bags just before a huge thunderstorm hit us. It was really coming down, so we all got into our tents and went to sleep.
Day 4: Sydney Tappan Campsite to East Branch Lean-to (9.5 miles)
I woke up to showers the next morning, but I got my gear packed away and headed out by 8 am. My goal was to summit White Cap Mountain (3,654 ft), the highest peak in this section and the lesser peaks before it before descending to the East Branch Lean-to and trying to dry out my gear again.
I was mad at myself for not packing a bug canopy or bug bivy on this trip so that I could sleep in the shelters during the heavy rains. It’s a toss up really, because the shelters up to this point were very unappealing to sleep in, but a tarp, sleeping bag bivy and head net/bug canopy combo might have been more flexible system under the conditions. I still can’t decide if the Squall 2 was the right shelter to have brought along on this trip.
Always the optimist, I was hoping the the weather would clear a bit so I could get some views off White Cap. Given my pace, I had pretty much abandoned the chance of hiking into Baxter State Park and climbing Katadhin by this point within the 9 days I had available and I was just aiming to finish the 100 mile Wilderness section, ending at Abol Bridge.
Before, climbing White Cap, I had to ascend two other wooded, viewless peaks called West Peak (3,178 ft) and Hay Mountain (3,244 ft). West Peak was a 750 ft climb in less than a mile from the campsite, but it was a easy climb due to another beautifully built series of stone staircases. Next, I continued up the more gradual dome of Hay Mountain, and started passing a number of southbound hikers. They reported clear skies and great views on top of White Cap but insane mud to the north in the flat lakes region of the trail.
After another 2 hours of hiking, I summitted White Cap and the views were good. Many of the surrounding peaks were cloaked in a lingering haze but I could make out Katahdin about 75 miles to the north. John and Matt were just packing up when I arrived. They were covered in flies, so I didn’t linger. I quickly changed out of the rain pants which I had been wearing for the past 3 days into my normal long hiking pants, bolted down some food, and continued on.
After a short descent through scrub and krumholz, I reached treeline again and met another trail crew building stairs. It looked like hard, wet work, but they made it look easy: hoisting rocks from the slopes in the surrounding woods and moving them to the trail on a complex system of pulley lines. After waiting for a safe moment to pass, I continued down White Cap, and was soon walking though a beautiful section of trail starting at the Logan Brook Lean-to and continuing to the East Branch Lean-to, where I stopped early for the evening, arriving around 2:30 pm.
I had hours to kill before dark, but the first order of business was to dry out my gear again, repair my bear bag system which had been giving me problems all trip, and investigate a problem that I was having with my water filter.
I should clarify: this isn’t the bear bag system that I wrote about a week or two ago, but I second one that I threw together at the last moment to carry my food for days 5-9 of my trip. The chief difference between the two is the cord. In the new system, I grabbed some thin spectralite line that I had sitting in my cordage drawer at home. Although strong, it was so thin and slippery that I was having a hard time pulling it without it cutting into my hands and even burning them if I lost my grip. To make it more usable I devised a different way of using it by cutting it in two and tieing one end to the bear bag and the other to a tree, and then connecting the two using an extra mini-biner. This worked out much better for the rest of the trip.
After that I went down to the stream to wash out my clothes and diagnose a problem that had just cropped up with my First Need water filter. The problem first started the evening before on Gulf Hagas Mountain. The First Need has a 2 stage filtration system: a prefilter for filtering out particulates that is attached by a long hose to the main filter responsible for filtering out organisms and toxic chemicals. I knew from experience, that if you tear a hole in the hose the productivity of each pump goes down and the pump makes a sucking sound, which it was doing now. I couldn’t find a hole by visual inspection so I cut the hose in half, reattached the ends, and found the hose with the hole on the second try.
I thought that this had fixed the problem, but the next time I used the pump the problem was back and I was forced to use my back-up chlorine dioxide tablets to purify my water. By pure luck, I did find a workaround which was to keep the filter parallel to the ground when pumping. I suspect that a simple backwash will fix this problem, but I’m glad that I always carry a few days of Micropur chlorine dioxide tablets in my gear repair kit as a fallback.
After that I relaxed, recorded another audio journal entry, and hung out in my tent watching my feet de-prune. They were still holding up well despite the mileage and wet boots. After a while, I ate a huge pasta dinner with genoa salami and was asleep by 6:30 pm.
Day 5: East branch Lean-to to Antlers Campsite (15.5 miles)
With the mountains finally behind me, I knew that I’d be able to pick up my pace and crank out some more mileage. So I broke camp by 6:30 am the next day and headed out. John and Matt were just packing up as I left – they had also stopped at this campsite to dry out the night before. But, of course, we had another river to ford just outside of camp and here is a photo of John (above) up to his knees in the river. I had gone in up to my waist just moments before.
After ringing out my socks, I continued on, climbing a small hill called Little Boardman Mountain (approx 2,000 ft) before heading down to the Crawford Pond area and starting the section of the trail that would continue at about 600 ft of elevation for the next 60 miles, past numerous ponds and lakes, all the way to Abol bridge.
The weather was great and I was finally able to turn on some speed over the level ground despite my wet boots. I made it to Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to, a distance of 8 miles in just over 4 hours, and stopped for lunch shortly afterwards. My right knee had started to hurt, badly enough that I was limping, so I took a 600 mg Ibuprofen before I hiked another 8 miles to the Antler’s Campsite arriving exactly at 3 pm. The trail up to this point had just been beautiful all day. I has been walking parallel to Cooper Brook for much of the way on an easy trail cushioned by pine needles and largely void of mud, roots and rocks.
I sat down outside the entrance to Antlers which is the location of a former fishing camp on Lower Jo-Mary Lake and had a snack. I could have easily continued on to the next shelter or beyond and cranked out a 20+ mile day. But my limp had worsened and I decided to call it an early day and have a bath in the lake instead.
No one else was at this campsite that whole evening, so I had the place to myself, and I picked an incredible tent site surrounded on 3 sides by the lake on an isthmus surrounded by red pine trees. People hike in the 100 mile wilderness to camp at pristine locations like this.
I set up camp as usual, and then went skinny dipping and had a good wash with some Dr. Bronner’s liquid peppermint soap which I had brought along for just such an occasion. This was my first wash in 5 days and I felt refreshed to be clean again. I rinsed out some clothes and then lazed around for a while, barely clad until dinner, watching the ducks and goslings paddle around the lake and trying to predict the weather from the clouds. There had been a brisk breeze all day that had blown out the big cumulus clouds and I was hopeful that I’d have fine weather the next day.
I made a great dinner that night and went to sleep early again but woke up at about 8 pm. The sun hadn’t set yet, but I could see that the lake was fogged over completely. I suspected rain, so I dropped the front vestibule of my tent and went back to sleep until morning.
Day 6: Antlers Campsite to Wood Rd/South End of Nahmakanta Lake (11 miles)
I didn’t hear a thing after that until I woke up the next morning, but it had apparently rained at least 2 more inches overnight and it was still pouring when I woke up. I lingered in the tent as long as I could stand it and then packed up all my wet gear again and set off.
My limp had grown worse overnight and I was not doing so hot when I arrived at a small stream crossing. The only problem was that the rain had turned it into a roaring river full of downed trees and other hazards. I scouted for a better crossing and even considered sitting there for half a day to let the water level drop. In the end, I figured a way across, but was unsettled by the experience. John and Matt had not camped at Antlers the previous night and must have continued on to the next lean-to. I knew that there was no one behind me for at least a day to pick up the pieces if I got into trouble.
After the stream crossing, I started climbing Potaywadjo Ridge. I have been down the knee and quadriceps injury road too many times and was really questioning my ability to last another 3 days with the pain. I knew that this would be my best chance to get cell phone reception for the next 24 hours – this being an elevation highpoint close to 1,000 ft, and decided to try to call Shaw’s for an extraction. It seemed like the best option to prevent any further damage to the knee and as I sit here writing, I now know that it was the right decision. I can barely climb stairs at the moment.
Just then I met a southbounder named Jared, who was in far worse shape than me. He had a bum ankle and knee and was limping very slowly down the trail. I told him that I was going to try to call Shaw’s and that he was welcome to join me if I could get a shuttle out. Amazingly, I did manage to reach Shaw’s, although my connection dropped 4 times during the call. I arranged a shuttle pickup 8 miles to the north at the southern end of Nahmakanta Lake for 5 pm, giving us 8 hours to get there. We actually make it there by 1 pm, which is amazing considering the trail conditions that we encountered along the way.
I don’t have any pictures from that day because my camera was packed away in a waterproof sack, but I can tell you that the trail conditions were horrendous. Every tiny stream we came to was in flash flood mode and hazardous to cross. I can’t even remember how many we had to ford. Incredibly, the trail looked a lot like the swamps of the Everglades in Florida or the bayous of Louisiana, minus the alligators, of course. Many sections of the of the trail were completely under water and after a while I just gave up trying to stay dry and sloshed through the calf deep mud.
We arrived at our destination several hours early for our pickup but our adventure was far from over. It turns out that the gravel logging road we were waiting on had been washed out the previous evening by the rain. We found this out from the assistant director of a girl’s camp located at the end of the road, who told us that they couldn’t get any trucks out for food pickups or trip shuttles. We couldn’t get any cell reception from where we were to call Shaw’s to warn them or to make alternate plans, so I suggested we just sit tight and see if they could make it through as planned anyway. There were several places where we could still camp out if we needed to wait another day for a pickup and neither Jared or I had what I considered a critical injury.
In the end, Gary arrived from Shaw’s at 5:05 pm, and had driven through the washout in a Honda CRV to get to us. We were so happy to see him. The washout was pretty impressive when we came to it on the way out and I could see how trucks or vans with longer beds would have a hard time getting through it. It was about 3 feet deep and maybe 5 feet wide. Gary got out and moved some rocks when we got there and then drove right though it. It was great. We arrived at Shaw’s by 7pm and headed south from there toward Boston in my car.
Jared and I had by this time become good friends. He’s a great guy and I hope to meet up with him again. He lives in Manchester, NH, so I offered to take him down to Portsmouth, NH on my way back to Boston, where he could get picked up by a family member. He was 7 days into a southbound thru-hike when he got injured, so he decided to bag his entire trip. I tried to talk him out of this, but he had decided to go in the spur of the moment after getting laid off from work, despite having little prior backpacking experience. I think he was glad that he did a 1 week trip, and learned a lot, but decided that he needed to ease into the thru-hiking experience a little more gradually. I really wish him well.
Before I started this trip, I felt like I was in great physical shape for backpacking and I’m stunned, I guess, at the realization that my body broke down under the circumstances. It would be easy to blame this on the weather. I’ve been told that there was an unusually high amount of rainfall the week that I was out. In fact there was not one continuous 24 hour window when I didn’t experience heavy rain on this trip. But honestly, I think there were many factors that led to my knee issue including my chronically wet and heavy leather boots and all of the wet gear, extra food and fuel I had to carry.
I think another key issue was the duration of the trip. If I could have broken this trip into three, three-day section hikes, with plenty of rest in between, I doubt I would have had any issues. That’s a sobering thought since I’ve been planning longer trips abroad in Scotland and Japan.
However it plays out, it’s always useful to find your limits. But I’m not giving up so easily. I think in the short term, my mission will be to experiment with knee braces, like the Cho-Pat, that many of my older hiking friends wear religiously, to see if they can provide me with the extra bracing I need for longer hikes. In addition, I’m going to rekindle my efforts to find non-leather boots that I can use for fording rivers, but are still rigid enough for me to climb mountains with.
So, stay tuned. If you have any comments or feeback, and actually made it through this huge trip report, I’d love to hear from you, as always.
2011: Two Years Later
Tenacious nutcase that I am, I returned to the 100 mile wilderness last week (8-15-2011) and finished the 26 miles I missed when I had to end my hike early in 2009. This involved hiking from the northern end of the wilderness south to the place where I’d been picked up and back north again to get back to my car.
A lot has changed since 2009 and I am a much more experienced hiker. On hindsight, if I’d known what I know today about foot gear (using trail runners instead of leather boots), I’d have probably gotten through the entire wilderness, even with the insane 9 inches of rain we had in 2009. No worries though, it was good to be back in the trail again and out for a few nights in the Maine woods.
Day to Day Mileage:
- Day 1: Abol Bridge to Hurd Lean-to (4 miles)
- Day 2: Hurd Lean-to to Rainbow Stream Lean-to (11.5 miles)
- Day 3: Rainbow Stream Lean-to South End of Nahmakanta Lake and back to Wadleigh Stream Lean-to (14 miles)
- Day 4: Wadleigh Stream Lean-to Rainbow Spring Campsite (12 miles)
- Day 5: Rainbow Spring Campsite to Abol Bridge (11 miles)
Evening 1: Abol Bridge to Hurd Lean-to (4 miles)
I got a really late start after climbing Mount Katadhin earlier in the day, only getting to the Abol Bridge trailhead which is the northern end of the 100 mile wilderness at 6 p.m. That left me just 1 hour and 40 minutes to hike 4 miles south to the Hurd Lean-to where I wanted to spend the night.
I barely made it there before darkness fell at 7:40 p.m. The lean-to was full of sleeping thru-hikers, so I pitched my tarp and hung a bear bag out front on the only level area I could find. Amazingly, I found a good tree and hung a bear bag line with just one throw while wearing a head lamp. Obviously my lucky day.
I bolted down a cold dinner of cookies and trail bars and went to sleep, waking during the night to discover that my tarp was leaking rain into the unsealed threads of my bivy sack. I repositioned myself to prevent my sleeping bag from getting wet and made a note to reapply seal seal to the tarp when I got home. Maybe I’ll touch up the bivy sack too.
Day 2: Hurd Lean-to to Rainbow Stream Lean-to (11.5 miles)
The next morning, I got a late start out of Hurd and headed south climbing a stubby pair of hills called the Rainbow Ledges. It was drizzling most of the day but warm enough outside that I could hike without rain gear and still stay warm. Still there was plenty of water and mud on the trail and I was glad that I was wearing Inov-8 trail runners on this trip and not leather boots like in 2009.
The southern half of the 100 mile wilderness is very hard hiking over mountains, so I was curious to see if the northern half was any easier. It is thankfully, although there’s still a fair amount of mud and water on the trail. Still, the high peaks give way to lakes and there are ample opportunities to skinny dip in waterholes alongside the trail or lie on sandy beaches.
It took me 6 hours of hiking to get to the Rainbow Stream Lean-to which is situated at the end of Rainbow Lake. There’s a bridge across the stream made up of two narrow trees about 20 yards long which is a bit shaky but low consequence since the stream isn’t very deep or fast.
I could have had the shelter to myself if I’d wanted, but I decided to sleep on the pine needle covered forest floor in the nearby woods. I wanted to sleep under my tarp and try some of the square tarp pitches I’ve learned this summer on a trip.
I’m really enjoying using a plain old 8×8 silnylon tarp these days instead of a catenary cut and/or cuben fiber one. Pitching it requires so much more skill than setting up a boring old A-frame. That evening, I used a Half Tetra Wedge Cover pitch, pitching the back of the tarp into the direction that I expected that night’s rain to fall. We had heavy rainfall that night, but I slept high and dry (I put duct tape over the leaking seam from the previous evening.)
Before turning in, I had a hot dinner using a Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove that I’m reviewing, the first alcohol stove I’ve used in several years. On shorter trips like this I have a staple dinner I usually eat and enjoy: Ramen noodles, miso soup, and olive oil. I find it very satisfying, easy to make, and easy to clean up.
After dinner, I washed up and hung my bear bag before retiring shortly before sun down. It felt good to be back on hiker time again, rising with the dawn and sleeping when the sun set at night.
Day 3: Rainbow Stream Lean-to South End of Nahmakanta Lake and back to Wadleigh Stream Lean-to (14 miles)
My goal on this trip was to find the last point on the Appalachian Trail that I’d gotten to in 2009, before I had to bail on that hike. I had a good mental picture of the exact spot, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it was. I figured I’d just keep hiking until I got to it and hoped that my food supply would hold out until then. I broke camp early the next morning with hopes of finding it later in the day at the southern end of Nahmakanta Lake.
As I continued south The trail got easier to hike and the weather cleared up. This stretch of trail is exceptionally beautiful, running past beautiful Crescent Pond, up and over Nesuntabunt Mountain and alongside several excellent swimming beaches on Nahmakanta Lake.
About a mile south, I met another pair of section hikers, a couple, with the trail names Down and Out. They’d hiked the International Appalachian Trail last year and were doing the Wilderness this year, gradually working their way south along the AT.
I was hiking much faster than them, but stopping a lot to take in the views, and they kept catching up to me. They’re both into lightweight backpacking and so we talked a lot about gear.They were both wearing Golite Gust backpacks that were over 15 years old and in excellent condition, made in the days when Golite made still made UL packs with mesh back pockets. The Gust is a classic UL pack and was favored by mountaineers and alpinists as a high capacity gear hauler.
Nesunabunt Mountain was literally the high point of the day, with incredible views of distant Katahdin in clear conditions. The mountain is only about 1750 feet high, but towers above the blue waters of Nahmankanta Lake below.
A few miles futher south, I found it: the place where my 2009 section hike had ended and I’d been picked up by the Shaw’s shuttle. It looked exactly like it did then: a gravel logging road and the wood bridge spanning Nahmankanta Stream. This might sound anti-climactic but arriving at this spot meant I’d finally hiked all 100 miles of the Wilderness! I snapped a few photos and did an about-face, hiking a few miles back to the Wadleigh Shelter to camp for the night.
Wadleigh Shelter is probably one of the most underused shelters on the AT. It’s located a short distance north of Mahar Landing which is where you can catch a boat to White’s Landing, one of the only possible places to resupply in the Wilderness. I’ve never stayed or visited there myself and I’ve only heard horror stories from thru-hikers about it (surly owners and food poisoning,) but some people stay there overnight and survive the experience. Anyway, the proximity to White’s means that the Wadleigh Lean-to is vacant most nights.
Rather than stay in the shelter, I pitched my tarp again, this time as an Adirondack Wind Shed. I was joined by another camper that night, a thru-hiker named Moosehead from Florida, who I was to see repeatedly over the next couple of days as we both hiked north to Abol Bridge, he for the first time, and me back to my car.
Day 4: Wadleigh Stream Lean-to Rainbow Spring Campsite (12 miles)
One of the challenges with section hiking is that you often have a limited about of time to cover a set distance, unlike thru hiking where there’s a little more leeway in your schedule. But on this trip, I had a little more time flexibility than normal and decided to take my time hiking out. The weather was fine and I wanted to spend some time swimming in the lakes and camping rather than pushing myself to hike extra long days to finish sooner.
I broke camp the next morning and hiked leisurely up Nesuntabunt Mountain again to take in the view of Katadhin. There I met another thru-hiker named Captain Planet who is from Georgia. He was smoking a cigarette at the viewpoint, having stealth camped there to photograph the sunrise on Katadhin. We chatted for a while and I took off leaving him contemplating the view. My hike had definitely taken an unusual social turn for me, as I continued north.
After a few hours, I arrived back at the Rainbow Stream Lean-to where I met Moosehead again and another thru-hiker named Vegan. I took a water stop there and ate some nuts and dried fruit while we got talking. Captain Planet ambled in shortly afterwards, as well as a hiker named Nimblefoot, who was just starting a southbound thru-hike to Georgia.
Captain Planet and Moosehead were set on doing a long day to get to Hurd Lean-to that night. After that they planned to hike into Baxter and stay at the Birches for the night which is reserved for hikers who complete the 100 mile wilderness. The following day, they’d climb Katadhin and finish their AT thru-hikes.
Vegan and I decided to take it easy that afternoon and only hike a few more miles to the Rainbow Spring Campsite so we could go swimming in Rainbow Lake. Vegan needed to kill a couple of days in Millinocket to wait for his family to show up and climb Katadhin with him, and I offered to drive him into town, about 20 miles east, on my way back to Boston.
Vegan and I hiked separately to the Rainbow Spring Campsite which has an excellent swimming lake and fresh water spring. When I arrived he was already swimming in the cool clear water. I set up camp and joined him at the lake where we swam and hung out, talking along the rocky shore. There aren’t many people in the 100 mile wilderness, so you can have a lake all to yourself if you want.
Vegan told me that he’d been living in Germany and teaching business English before returning to the US in March, 2011. He’d just been divorced from his wife and decided “what the hell”, he’d thru-hike the AT. That turned to be a good move because he escaped all of the depression that goes with a marriage breaking up, instead waking up every day surrounded by good friends and ready to hike onward.
There’s probably a good lesson in there. Hiking heals the heart. He’s climbing Mount Katadhin today, as I write this trip report.
Day 5: Rainbow Spring Campsite to Abol Bridge (11 miles)
The next morning we got an early start breaking camp around 7 a.m. We’d agreed to hike separately because thru-hikers hike a lot faster than most people and I like hiking alone anyway. Though, without the rain I’d expereineced on my first day along this section, I made pretty good time myself, hiking the 11 miles out to Abol Bridge in 4 hours. I’d clearly gotten my trail legs back.
I popped out of the woods and walked down The Golden Road to Abol Bridge where I came upon Vegan, Moosehead and a few other thru-hikers drinking beer outside the Abol Bridge store. I had a drink and some chips and hung out with them for a while, before taking Vegan into town and driving back to Boston. I’d really enjoyed his company and that of the other thru-hikers I’d met those last couple of days. I’ll remember their kindness toward me and their easy going nature for a long time.