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.