I took a 75 mile section hike on the Maine Appalachian Trail last week and it was simply divine. The autumn color was in full glory and I had 50+ mile views for days on end. This hike had everything: drama, magic, danger, fear, thirst, fatigue, awe and one singular moment of breathtaking elation that I don’t think I’ll forget for the rest of my life.
This time, I hiked from Monson, at the southern end of the 100 mile wilderness, to Maine Highway 27. In between, there are woods, mountains, lakes, moose, bear, mice, rocks, roots, mud, and not much else. This is true north country wilderness. In total, I saw about 25 people during my trip, mostly Appalachian Thru-hikers racing north, trying to reach Mt Katahdin, before Baxter State Park’s closing date on October 15th.
Day to Day Mileage
My day-to-day mileage looked like this. I was hiking Southbound, starting with a 25 lb pack including food, fuel, water, and gear.
- Maine Highway 15 (north of Monson) to Moxie Bald Lean-to (12.5 miles + 5 miles of Trail Magic)
- Moxie Bald Lean-to to Pleasant Pond Lean-to (14 miles)
- Pleasant Pond Lean-to to West Carry Pond Lean-to (21 miles)
- West Carry Pond Lean-to to Avery Memorial Campsite (14.5 miles + 4,500 ft elevation gain)
- Avery Memorial Campsite to Maine Highway 27 (8 miles)
Rain in Maine
Hiking in Maine is always complicated by a large amount of rainfall because there are so many river and stream crossings required along the Appalachian Trail. Naturally, there are few bridges, so the only way to get across these rivers and stream is by fording them, which can be very dangerous in high water. Very dangerous.
When I hiked in the 100 mile wilderness last year, I experienced 6 inches of rainfall, and became somewhat of an expert on fording rivers, in a short period of time.
In the days preceding this latest trip, central Maine received 4 inches of rain, causing widespread flooding and high river levels. This delayed a lot of Thru-hikers across the state who had to camp beside rivers for days until water levels dropped sufficiently low to allow safe fording.
The volume of rivers fords required on the Maine AT is unusually frequent in my experience, especially compared to hiking the AT in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. It’s rare in those states to have a crossing that can’t be done by jumping from rock to rock or wading through ankle height water. I don’t know what the AT is like down south, but Maine is off the charts when it comes to fords in my experience.
Day 1: Maine Highway 15 (north of Monson) to Moxie Bald Lean-to (12.5 miles + 5 miles of Trail Magic)
My friend hikezilla gave me a ride up to Monson, Maine last Saturday. I met him at Grafton Notch in southern Maine early that morning and I was on the trailhead by 10:30 am. Monson is about a 7 hour drive north of Boston, about 3 hours north of the New Hampshire-Maine border, and in the middle of nowhere. You know you’ve reached nowhere when all of the stores you come across sell everything you could ever need from fresh coffee to ladders, hunting ammunition, fishing waders, children’s dolls and games, booze, over the counter medicines, deli meats and subs.
The rain had cleared by the time I started hiking and the temperature was cool, in the low sixties in the sun, and cooler in the shade. I slipped into the woods, just south of the entrance to the 100 miles wilderness (which heads north) and started hauling through a kaleidoscope of autumn colors.
Truth be told, I don’t think most thru-hikers hike the 3.5 miles of trail that runs outside Monson. Shaw’s, the famous hiker hostel in town, runs a morning shuttle right to the 100 mile wilderness trailhead on Route 15, and it’s easy to miss these miles unless you’re an AT purist and make a point to hike every step from Georgia to Maine.
I hiked up and down rolling hills and past Lake Hebron, which borders the tiny town of Monson, passing a blue blaze trail and Shaw’s sign nailed to a fallen tree. I was hiking at a 2 mile per hour pace and continued straight to the banks of the East Piscataquis River, arriving after 3 hours.
Along the way, I met a section hiker who was just finishing up a short hike from Caratunk to Monson, some 3 days south. She told me that she had forded the Piscataquis, but that the river had run up to her chest. Under normal conditions, this would be a knee-high crossing.
I was deflated and horrified. There was no way that was I going to do a chest high ford. Even worse, she did it on the up-stream side of a beaver dam. This is doubly dangerous because if you trap your foot in the dam, the water flowing downstream will pile up on you and push you under water as you get tired and/or cold and hypothermic. A beaver damn is called a strainer in kayaking lingo and you always want to be on the downstream side of a strainer and never above it. See my post on how to safely ford a river, if this is new for you.
I sat on the bank of the river for a while just looking at the water level and considering my options. I could camp on the riverbank and wait for the level to drop which would take a least one day; I could walk down to the highway and back up to the opposite bank – a 15 mile detour ; or I could find another place to cross.
I scouted up and down the river for a while looking for a better place to cross, and secondarily, for a nice campsite. In the end, I came back to the crossing and sat there for a while, looking at the beaver dam which people normally walk on to cross this river. One third of the damn had washed out completely and the river was pouring through here faster than the section that was overflowing the damn outright. None of this was good.
It just so happens that there was a cooler of soft drinks placed on my side of the river bank, a common practice along the Appalachian Trail, where trail angels leave food and drinks for thru-hikers. Many of these trail angels are former thru-hikers themselves. This one was left by Strider, GA->ME ’03.
About an hour later, Strider showed up, followed by his Dalmatian named BW, to pick up his cooler of soft drinks for the night. He saw me and we commiserated about the river level.
He agreed that a crossing was ill-advised, but he offered to drive me around the crossing and up the other side over Breakneck Ridge. This would leave me on the south side of the West Piscataquis, which is about 5 miles downstream of the East Branch which I was stuck at, and was also running high. The river was running so high, in fact, that a Middle branch had appeared between the two requiring still a third crossing!
It was an awfully kind suggestion and we took a ride around the rivers, down to the storeless town of Blanchard where Strider lives and back up the ridge along the unsigned gravel lumber and snowmobile roads that crisscross Maine. You either live here and know your way around, or you are lost.
This detour was the first section of the AT I had skipped, but under the circumstance, I viewed it as a justifiable pass. Thru-hikers are technically only required to hike 2,000 miles of the 2,175 mile length of the Appalachian Trail, for this very reason.
Strider is a quiet guy but I was able to get some information out of him during our drive. He had hiked the AT a few years after retiring, after he had finished hiking the White Mountain 4,000 footers. I asked him why he’d hiked the AT, and he replied “I’m really not sure why”, which is a pretty typical response, actually.
We arrived at the trail head after passing a half-dozen parties hunting grouse and said our goodbyes. It always makes me feel blessed when something like this happens to me, and deepens my commitment to pass trail magic on to others.
After parting with Strider and BW, I was still able to walk another 5 miles to the Moxie Bald Lean-to on Bald Mountain Pond before nightfall, putting in a respectable 12+ miles on such a short day. There I met another section hiker who was finishing up his thru hike from the year prior, when he’d hiked from Georgia to Hannover, New Hampshire on the Vermont – New Hampshire border.
His name was Gummie Bear and I came upon him wearing an unlikely sombrero, watching the sunset over the pond. I have no idea how he manages to keep the thing on his head while hiking! He told me a little about how the rain had delayed other thru-hikers up and down the trail, and I gave him the skinny on the Piscatiquis situation and his options. Basically, without a ride, he’d probably need to wait for the river to drop for a safe crossing.
The sun was setting rapidly, so I set up camp and then cooked dinner in the dark on the banks of the pond. Much to my alarm, the Piezo lighter on my Titanium Snow Peak Canister stove finally crapped out, and I found that I didn’t have any matches in my emergency gear repair kit. It was cold each night of this trip, down to the twenties (F), and this was not good. Luckily, I also carry a Light My Fire Magnesium Fire Steel, which I used for the first time on this trip. It worked great, and I don’t think I’ll ever carry matches to start a stove or fire, again. This solution appears foolproof, and for only $8.
My menu for this trip was pretty simple, mirroring the multi-day menu I typically use on longer backpacking trips.
- For dinner: ramen noodles cooked in miso soup with a 1 oz shot of olive oil for extra calories and fat (700-1400 calories.)
- Breakfast: pound cake or other quick bread, smashed flat to save space, and packed in plastic bags (1000 calories.)
- 3 Snacks per day consisting of snickers, cookies, salami and crackers, cliff bars, nuts, or licorice (1000-1500 calories.)
After dinner, I hung my bear bag and fell asleep quickly, to the sound of the wind blowing across the pond and in the trees. It was pitch black out, so I thanked my lucky stars that I’d brought an Ursack and could just tie to a tree, instead of trying to throw a line in the dark.
Day 2: Moxie Bald Lean-to to Pleasant Pond Lean-to (14 miles)
The next morning I was up early, but lingered in my sleeping bag a bit longer than usual. The morning was chilly and I was almost a day ahead of schedule.
I broke camp by 9:00 am and immediately started to climb Moxie Bald, a 2,600-ish peak. Balds are mountains whose summits have been burned clear by fire. Conservation biologist Tom Wessels describes their ecology in the The Granite Landscape. If you’ve never read Tom’s books, and you like to understand natural processes and ecology, they really are fantastic reads.
The previous day, Strider had told me that moose were common around Moxie Bald, but I didn’t remember that until after I came upon a moose, right on the trail. At first, it looked like a really tall hiker, about 20 yards ahead of me, putting on a dark poncho. I was just about to call out “Are you a hiker or a bear?”, when this enormous moose head swiveled back to eye me, and I realized this was a moose body. He (or maybe she) then made eye contact with me before it trotted off into the woods and vanished. Moose are my totem animal, so I viewed this as a good omen.
Climbing Moxie Bald was surprisingly challenging for such a short mountain. The trail quickly turned to rock covered with delicate alpine vegetation and the trail became increasingly difficult to follow along the scattered cairns. But the sun was out and the views were grand, so I took my time to take it all in. Despite the sunshine, Moxie Bald is very exposed to the elements, so I put on my Rab Fleece to stay warm.
After summitting, I descended down the south side of the mountain to my first major stream crossing of the trip, across Baker Stream at Moxie Pond Road. This is a wide stream crossing, probably 30 yards across, situated just past a large beaver pond that is crossed by walking on top of the damn.
I reached the northern bank of Baker stream just as a thru-hiker, named Ripple, reached the southern side, and we waited to see who would go first. I got the impression that she was pretty unsure of herself, so I took the first plunge, the water coming up to the bottom of my undershorts. Gummie Bear had told me that this stream was waist-high when he’d crossed it the previous day, so it had dropped significantly overnight.
I picked my way across and made it to the other side without any issues, and then waited to make sure that Ripple got across safely. I noticed that we had different crossing styles, something I’d never considered before. She tried walking on top of the submerged rocks in the crossing, while I chose to stand on the stream bed between the rocks because it’s far less slippery. Maybe I just have more practice. It stuck me as significant, at the time.
After this crossing, I walked another 6.5 miles before stopping for the evening, passing another dozen thru-hikers, and finally climbing Pleasant Pond Mountain. By now the day was waning and my feet were starting to get cold from trudging through big puddles and mud on the trail. Wearing trail runners this late in the year, even with wool socks, was uncomfortably cool in the early mornings and afternoons.
The views from the summit of Pleasant Pond Mountain were similarly spectacular to those from Moxie Bald. From there, it was a short steep descent to the Pleasant Pond Shelter, just off Pleasant Pond, where I again camped for the night under my tarp.
Day 3: Pleasant Pond Lean-to to West Carry Pond Lean-to (21 miles)
I woke to my alarm at 5:00 AM in the morning, well before the 6:30am sunrise, in order to get an early start. I needed to get to the Kennebec River, just over 6 miles away, between 9 am and 11 am in order to get a canoe ferry across it. This is a very dangerous river crossing that should only be done by boat, and the ferry ride is actually part of the official Appalachian Trail route.
I had breakfast and packed up, leaving at 6:35 am when there was enough daylight to see by. Then I really turned up the pace, covering the 6.2 miles to the river bank by 9:00 am, where I met the Maine Guide who works for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and ferries hikers across the river. I was first across for the day, and stood on the southern bank by 9:18 am.
As I headed up the trail on the opposite bank, I was passed by a dozen northbound thru-hikers racing to make the daily ferry window. Earlier in the season the ferry runs on an extended schedule, but this late in the year, it’s hours are very restricted. Miss it, and you have to wait til the next day to get across.
The walk south from the Kennebec is really a magnificent section of trail, passing miles of pristine waterfalls, as the trail meanders through a dense forest, along the Pierce Pond Stream. I made a mental note to return here in summer for some serious swimming and loafing.
After climbing a low ridge and passing Pierce Pond, the trail continues past by several other lakes called East Carry Pond and then West Carry Pond. The Carry in their names signifies that they were used to shorten the distance required to portage trade goods into the region, by transporting them over water. Today, they are sparsely populated with private camps, off the grid.
By now, the day was waning and I had covered 21 miles of trail. I decided to stop at the West Carry lean-to and sleep inside for a change because I had it to myself. Normally, I don’t share lean-tos because I snore and I don’t want to get kicked in the head when I’m asleep.
The West Carry Pond Shelter is by far the nicest shelter I’d see so far on this hike, and is quite new in comparison to the others I’d passed. The site also has an extensive warren of good tent spots, and is a popular shelter for thru-hikers because of good swimming in the lake in warmer weather.
I cooked up dinner and hung up my wet gear to dry, before going to sleep at sundown and sleeping for a full 12 hours. It was great.
Day 4: West Carry Pond Lean-to to Avery Memorial Campsite (14.5 miles + 4,500 ft elevation gain)
After hiking 21 miles the previous day, my plan for day 4 was to take it easy and do a 12 mile hike to Safford Notch Campsite. The campsite is at a 2,000 foot col at the base of Mt Bigelow, an awesome knife-edge 4,000 footer with a pair of summits at 4088 ft and 4145 ft. But things didn’t work out quite as I planned.
The two major peaks on My Bigelow are in the center of a 17 mile ridge with secondary peaks to the north (Little Bigelow – about 3,100 ft) and south (The Horns – about 3,800 ft). The Appalachian Trail runs along the length of this ridge.
The pair of 4,000 foot peaks are named West Peak and Avery Peak. They are only 0.7 miles apart and separated by a 4,000 foot col called Bigelow Col. There are a series of tent platforms that form a campsite in the col, sheltered only by stunted trees, growing just below treeline.
Hiking south, my plan was to climb Little Bigelow and camp at the Safford Campsite, 2,000 t below the northern peak. I arrived as planned at 4:30 pm, after an arduous climb over Little Bigelow, which is challenging in its own right.
Unfortunately, my plan for an easy day was thrown of course by an ill-behaved bear. The Safford Campsite, as well as other lower elevation sites around the mountain, are having a bear problem this year, with bears stealing food and harassing hikers at night. This year’s drought resulted in less naturally occurring bear food than normal, sparking this “aberrant” behavior.
I didn’t want to deal with this issue at all, so I decided to climb to the top of Avery Peak (4045 ft) at 4:30 pm and 1) try to summit before sundown at 6:30 pm and camp at the Bigelow col campsite at 4,000 ft or 2) find a stealth site on the climb, and spend the night there. The challenge was that I needed to climb 2,000 feet, in less than 2 miles, in under 2 hours, after hiking 12 miles beforehand.
It was a struggle, but I did make it to the summit and down to the Bigelow Col campsite just as the sun set. I was hyperventilating in fear when I made it to the top because I knew that I didn’t have much time to traverse the narrow summit trail and get down to the campsite before I’d be surrounded by darkness.
Climbing Avery Peak this late in the day was a risky decision, but I did manage to pull it off – incredibly, since I was carrying a 20+ lb pack. Regardless, the feeling of summitting, just as the sun was setting, was an incredible personal triumph that I doubt I’ll ever forget.
The sun set just as I made it to the campsite, I took the first tent platform I found and proceeded to pitch my Duomid on it for the night.
I made dinner and took in the stars at 4,000 feet. The night-time sky was crystal clear and I saw more stars that night than I’ve ever seen on a hiking trip before.
Day 5: Avery Memorial Campsite to Maine Highway 27 (8 miles)
Despite the elevation, I remained warm overnight, snuggled in my Western Mountaineering Ultralight 20 down bag and MLD Superlight Bivy Sack. I had also packed chemical warmers (Grabbers or Hotties) just in case I did get cold on this trip, but I didn’t need them.
The following morning, the sky was overcast and it was clear that we were due for more rain. I intended to be in Stratton, Maine before this happened, where I planned to rest overnight in a motel, resupply, and decided whether I wanted to hike for another week. I was starting to feel my IT Band act up and questioned whether I’d be able to comfortably finish the remaining 75 miles to Grafton Notch, where my car was parked.
Lying in my sleeping bag, I looked up the number of the motel in the pages of the A.T. Guide that I’d brought along, and reserved a room from the night at the Stratton Motel using my cell phone. Then I packed up, had a short breakfast and proceeded to climb the West Peak of Mt Bigelow, the Horns, and hike the remaining 8 miles to Maine Highway 27.
Ascending the higher West Peak of Bigelow was an easy climb from the col, but I still needed to climb another sub-peak called South Horn before I could descend from the Bigelow Ridge to Highway 27.
After South Horn, the AT drops down to Horn Pond (3,250 ft), where there are two Lean-tos, a summer caretaker, and a large number of tent pads. It’s a nice place to camp, especially if you’re hiking north along the AT. I refilled my water bladder here before descending the next 4 miles to Highway 27, passing through a pleasant wooded area with some bog crossings before reaching the highway. From there I had an easy hitch into Stratton, Maine, just 8 miles to the east.
After a night’s rest in Stratton, it was pretty clear that I was going to have IT Band issues if I kept hiking south for another 75 miles, so I arranged for a shuttle back to my car, parked in Grafton Notch. I’d had an awesome hike as it was, and plan to do the remaining section next spring.
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