I got back Sunday night from a 4 day, 51 mile exodus on the most northern section of the Long Trail, hiking southbound from Journey’s End to Johnson, on Rt 15. This is the most remote section of the trail that abuts the Canadian border and then heads south though over surprisingly difficult terrain including Jay Peak (3,858 ft), Mt. Buchanan (2,850ft), Haystack Mountain (3,223 ft), and Mt. Belvidere (3,360 ft). While these peak elevations are not that high, the ascents up them all start from notches (gulfs, gaps, saddles, passes) and often exceed 2,000 ft. of slick rocky shelves, roots and mud that require considerable skill to climb wearing a 25+ lb. backpack. In fact, going down is almost worse, because you have to prevent killing yourself or breaking an ankle, frequently in the pouring rain, when the trail has become a rushing downhill stream.
I spent the night before my first day at Journey’s End Camp, a nice shelter which is about a mile south of the Canadian-US border. My Whiteblaze friend Bobcat had given me a ride from the Johnson trail head where I left my car, to the end of Journey’s end road. She had thru-hiked both the AT and the LT last year and was full of advice about what was in store for me on this upcoming section. It was a little unsettling, actually, but she hardened my resolve to make it through.
The ride up to Journey’s End is definitely an adventure in itself: the trail head road is not exactly well marked and it’s so rough that I was alarmed when Bobcat bombed up it in her old, beat-to-hell Le Sabre, before letting me walk the last half mile to camp in the dusk. If you decide to drive up to the trail head and leave your car, I’d advise against it. There is no traffic on this dirt road and you’re better off leaving you vehicle in North Troy, VT and walking in if you can’t find someone to drop you off.
The Journey’s End shelter is only a few years old and is really nice with prop-open windows and the usual built-in kitchen table. There is a resident mouse who has built a conical nest under the rightmost bunk bend, mostly out of trash and down feathers. It looks like a little volcano, actually, but he did not disturb my food or slumbers. I crashed at 9 pm and slept well, despite the fact that the mercury dropped to about 35 F that night. My new Big Agnes Air Core Insulated mattress performed as expected and proved to be a good gear call throughout this trip.
I always learn things on these hikes, about myself, my gear, technique, food, and so forth. So, I thought it was apropos when I saw this diagram drawn on the inside wall of Journey’s End Camp. Raw Pil and I view our Long Trail experiences slightly differently, but I can see where he’s coming from.
Day to Day Mileages looked like this:
Day 1: Journey’s End Camp to Jay Camp Tent site (12.6 miles)
Day 2: Jay Camp Tent site to Tillotson Camp (12 miles)
Day 3: Tillotson Camp to Corliss Camp. (15 miles)
Day 4: Corliss Camp to Johnson Trail Head, Rt 15. (11.7 miles)
I slept a bit late and only broke camp at about 8 am before hiking the eight tenths of a mile to the Canadian Border. This section of the trail follows a blue blaze. It had been relatively dry the previous week so there was little mud on the treadway, but I could easily imagine it being otherwise. After a short uphill walk, I came to this magnificent vista of the morning mist rising over Canada before me, with the famous Journey’s End border marker just below. I paused and took a few photos of my gear here – since I still haven’t figured out how to use the timer on my camera for self portraits, and then headed south. I had to summit monstrous Jay Peak before the day’s end.
The first part of my day’s hike required a climb up the foothills and guardian peaks surrounding Jay. These sounded easy on paper, but they turned out to be harder in reality and getting up Doll Peak (3,409) was taxing with a full pack. Bobcat had warned me about Doll but I really hadn’t paid it much attention in my planning efforts.
Trail conditions were pretty good and the weather on Day 1 was just fantastic. There were some muddy spots, as shown below, but this was as deep as they got. It turns out that the puncheon shown here is not securely fastened down and rolls when you walk on it. So in the process of taking this photo, I was log rolling to keep my balance. Needless to say, I fell off and got mud up my right leg to mid-calf. The price of fine art!
On my way up Doll and subsequently Jay, I passed two simple, but gorgeous shelters, Shooting Star and Laura Woodward. From Laura Woodward it is only 3.1 miles up and over Jay, so I rested here and had a long 30 minute lunch in the sun before making the final summit and descent. Both of these shelters are worth a return visit and stay.
After my rest, I summited Jay, a steep climb through yet another inevitable ski resort. For once, however, the trail was fairly easy to pick out over the summit and through the tram area, and after pausing for a few snaps, I started my descent, passing a hiker who was trying to cook a hot meal on the windy summit.
The weather was quite clear on top of Jay. To the east, I could see Lake Champlain and the Adirondack peaks beyond it in New York State, and to the south, I could see Mount Mansfield and the Chin, shown below, center. Mansfield is about 50 miles south of where I was standing and my destination on this hike was about 5 miles north of it. My journey over the next 3 days would be to walk over the mountains and through the notches in between these two points.
The descent down Jay reminded me of the descent down Camel’s Hump and Mansfield. Tough scrambling around and over Volkswagen sized boulders above tree line, then dropping steeply and steadily to the forest floor at Jay Pass, over a jumble of stone, tree roots and granite face.
When I finally arrived at Jay Camp, and headed toward the Jay Camp shelter 0.4 miles off the trail, I ran into John and Jen who were just completing a northbound Thru-hike. I also met Dave, who had just started a 14 day section hike and told us that Jay Camp was boarded-up for renovation. We were all tired and crushed by the news, but decided to camp near the shelter which has a great water supply.
I had only brought along my 9.9 oz. tarp as an emergency shelter and was finally forced to use it for real. I set it up in an A-frame configuration, with the sides closely staked to the ground to limit side airflow. After dinner, we crashed at 8 pm and I slept soundly through the night. All that tarp setup practice finally paid off.
I broke camp on Day 2 at 7:40 am and said my farewells to John and Jen who would be finishing the LT later in the day. Dave, who I had met the previous evening, had decided to sleep at Atlas Shelter, a decision he said he regretted, when I caught up to him later in the day at Hazen’s Notch Camp, where we had lunch together and a nice chat. Atlas is a leaky lean-to, right on Rt 242 where it travels through Jay Pass, and he was bothered by headlights and traffic noise all night.
When I started hiking on day 2, the skies were overcast and it looked like we might get rain later in the day. My objective was to reach Tillotson Camp, which required that I climb Buchanan Mountain (2,940 ft), descend about 1,200 ft. to Hazen’s Notch, and then climb another 1,400 ft up Haystack Mountain (3,223 ft), followed by another short 400 ft climb up Tillotson Mountain (3,040 ft). All this, over the course of a 12 mile ridge walk.
The hike up Buchanan went pretty quickly and required a number of lesser ascents over some minor peaks. There was some mud, but again trail conditions were good due to the recent dry spell. I descended to Hazen’s Notch and began the arduous slog up Haystack. This is a hard climb in under 2 miles (avg 700 ft/mile) with many tricky climbing problems to solve. But after 210+ miles on The Long Trail, I’ve gotten rather skilled at solving these little puzzles and have learned all kinds of foot placement tricks to get up these granite slabs, loose scree, and root congested slopes.
In the meantime, however, the weather around me grew more ominous with each passing hour. The remnants of Hurricane Ike were about to pass through the area, and the overcast sky got darker and darker throughout the day. In fact, the sky was so dark that I was unable to take any photos during the daylight hours due to a lack of light.
By 5 pm, I made it to Tillotson Camp after a short ascent up Tillotson Mountain. I was fetching water for the evening and for my next morning’s hike, when it started to rain in buckets. I had had a little warning and had donned my rain gear and covered my pack in time, but I was still pumping away on my First Need filter when it began to pour. I was quickly drenched as I walked the last few feet to the shelter, but couldn’t figure out how to get inside!
I raced around the building trying to figure out how to enter, but couldn’t find any way to open the front door. It’s not always obvious if Long Trail shelters are safe to sleep in because their external appearance can be a bit on the grungy side and Tillotson Camp is no exception. I searched the surrounding area to see if there was a newer shelter but couldn’t find any other structures nearby except the outhouse. I returned to the front door of the cabin, determined to break in if I had to, when I saw an small eye hook holding the door closed from entry by animals, some trail maintainers idea of a joke, given the numerous gaps in the shelter’s walls and window frames.
Once I gained entry, it turned out the shelter inside was actually quite nice with the usual bunk beds and table, but extremely dark inside. Despite the rain, I opened the front window to let in some light and sorted out my kit for the evening. By the time I fired up my stove for a hot dinner, Dave arrived, also soaked, and ready to share the shelter with me for the night.
I reviewed my plan for day 3 with him, which required a 15 mile walk, shaving a day off the normal time it takes to traverse this northern section going southbound. That night I decided to go for it by waking up very early to maximize my daylight and try to make Corliss Camp by dark. This would be a huge stretch, but I wanted to finish the entire section in four days because I was already zonked from the first two days of the section which had been challenging, both physically and mentally.
I woke up at 5:15 am and broke camp by 6:15 am. It had continued to rain heavily throughout the night, but the rain had tapered off a bit just as I was ready to leave the shelter. I had experienced worse on the LT, beginning other days by leaving shelters in the pouring rain. Lying in my bag that morning, I had really wanted to just take a zero day and not get up, but hiking in the rain is just part of the Long Trail experience, and something you have to accept when it occurs.
Tillotson Camp has a glorious view of Belvidere Mountain to the south, my next major climb, but it was lost in a heavy mist which covered Tillotson, Belvidere and the valley in between. Visibility when I left Tillotson camp was very poor, at about 25 yards, and continued to suck for the next 4 miles as I summited Belvidere and made my descent to tree line. There’s a famous fire tower on top of Belvidere, but there seemed little point in climbing it when I couldn’t even see the treetops around me from the ground.
The southbound descent down Belvidere to Eden Crossing is extremely steep and treacherous and I was thankful that I had avoided hiking it northbound. Near the summit, I had to descent through a dense jumble of huge boulders and slabs of granite, with rain water pouring over their surface. I had to laugh at how dangerous this was. If you break a leg up here, you might not be found for days. On the bottom, northern half of the mountain, the surface turns to steep, loose, heavily eroded scree and I had use my hiking poles like an ice axe to arrest my descent with each step. This section needs some heavy trail maintenance to address the erosion issues.
When I got to Eden Crossing, however, the trail changed rather dramatically to a forest walk for most of the remaining 25 miles, and what a beautiful forest it is. I made excellent time for the next 2 miles to Devil’s Gulch, a dramatic gap filled with car-sized boulders all jumbled together like a Giant’s workshop. Figuring a path through this mess of ankle and leg breakers took a while but I muscled my way over the hardest parts and continued south to Spruce Ledge Camp where I ran into 3 older guys from Grand Rapids, Michigan who were hiking the trail.
I stopped for lunch and we talked about the North Country trail some, which is the big trail that passes though their area running from North Dakota to New York State. They had all hiked in from Corliss Camp that morning, a distance of 6.6 more miles and said that it was an easy hike, but had decided to stay for the night at Spruce rather than tackling Belvidere Mountain during the remainder of the day.
I took off at 12:30 pm and headed to Corliss Camp walking through a beautiful wooded area, making great time over easy forest trail. When I arrived at Corliss Camp 4 hours later, I thought I had gone to heaven. This is an incredibly nice shelter that has been recently refurbished with real glass windows and a sleeping loft. I swept the floor a bit and set out my kit for the night, only to find that I was the only one staying at the shelter for the evening. I crashed by 7:30 pm, exhausted from doing 15 miles, and slept until 7:00 am the next morning. Unfortunately, rain showers had started at 2 am in the morning that night and continued heavily throughout the next morning.
Once again it was raining when I left Corliss Camp to head up Laraway Mountain (2,790), the last peak of any significance before the end of the section. I was blown away by the beauty of Laraway, despite the fact that I was walking uphill in the pouring rain for most of it. As you climb, the trail takes you through beautiful fern choked areas blooming with wildflowers, until you come to the cliffs on the northern face of the mountain. These are magnificent rock faces that materialize from the mist after the Laraway summit. Streams and waterfalls work their way through these stone monoliths, and became one with trail treadway itself, as I found myself descending down a rushing stream which had taken over the trail. This is a classic Long trail experience: walking down an active stream bed, forcing you to walk through moving water for hundred of yards.The only thing missing were beaver damns on this section of the trail. I do not jest!
I made great time over the 8.7 miles from Corliss, over Laraway and to Round Top lean-to, the last shelter on this section, before Rt 15 at the Johnson trail head, where I had parked my car 5 nights previously. The rain had finally stopped, but I kept on my rain gear because I was still concerned about hypothermia and because the bugs were out in force in this wooded area. Once past Round Top there are still a few miles of overused town trails called Prospect Rock that coincide with the Long Trail, before one comes to the Lamoille River and bridge crossing. After that, it was about about 0.5 miles to Rt 15 and the Johnson trail head where my car was parked.
This was a really difficult section for me on many levels. Physically, I had to push myself to my limits to finish in 4 days. My Illiotibial Band and left quadriceps were fine for 2 whole days, but began to ache after that and I had to put on my ITB wrap to support it the remainder of the trip. Mentally, there where times when I just wanted to quit and walk out, but thankfully this was impossible given the remoteness of my location: there is simply no place to walk out too up here. And finally emotionally, I had a hard time getting to the point where I could just focus on walking, without thinking and replaying all of little daily dramas of my life in my head. I eventually achieved my normal walking meditative nirvana but had a hard time coming down from recent life events.
Along this section I met about a dozen northbound hikers, many who said that they were ready to be done with their Long Trail end-to-end hikes. I think I’m also at the point, as well, where I want this 272 mile journey over with, but at the same time I’m know I’m afraid what it will be like to not have it dominate my life, like it has since Memorial Day.
All I have left to hike is another 15 mile section between Rt 9 and North Adams, MA on the southernmost part of the LT that coincides with the Appalachian Trail. I could probably day hike it, but I plan to go in a few weeks and do an overnight, stealth camping along the way, to avoid the hordes of leaf peepers who will descend on this area in October to experience the Autumn forest. Until then.