Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Appalachian Trail, Maine, August 2012

A little more than a year ago Erin joined Venture Crew 241.  As Venturing is not very widely recognized, allow me to explain.  Everyone has heard of the Boy Scouts.  Everyone knows that the Boy Scouts do Neat Stuff, such as hiking, camping, and tying knots.  (There's a whole lot more to what they do, but these are the activities about which everyone knows)  Venture Crew is a co-ed branch of Scouting, for young people ages 14 to 21, who also like to do Neat Stuff.  Isaac's Scout Troop has a Venture Crew associated with it; this Crew has a "backpacking" focus; and when Erin learned about this Crew she was immediately hooked.

In the past year or so Erin has been out with the Crew for a number of really cool outings.  They've been backpacking in the woods; camping in Virginia with white-water rafting, caving, and climbing activities; and ice climbing in New York state.  While Erin, often with Jim, was away on these adventures I'd wait at home and anticipate their stories of fun and memories made upon their return.  Waiting around to hear about their adventurous memories got old rather quick.  I realized that I wanted to be part of those memories too, and the only way to do that is to become a leader in the Crew.

There were forms to fill out and blah-blah-blah.  Skip to Maine.

After months of preparation and several practice hikes on sections of the Appalachian Trail nearby, we packed up our backpacks and headed to Maine with four other members of our Crew.  Three adult leaders and three teenagers.  I was the only real "newbie" to this sort of hiking.  I had no idea what I was in for.

We arrived at a private campground just as the sun was reaching for the horizon.  Setting up tents and preparing a hasty group dinner occupied us for a bit; then cleaning up and tucking in for the night with visions of The Trail dancing in our heads.  We woke early the following morning, packed up our gear, took a "before" photo, and headed for the trailhead.  Tim, our Crew Advisor, had driven us up in his Expedition with a trailer pulled behind so that we had room to lock up our belongings safely while we drove, and also while we were on The Trail.  I brought my "good camera" for when we were off The Trail and we had Erin's "adventure-proof" camera for on The Trail.  I was glad to know my Nikon would be safe as it awaited our return.  Tim had made arrangements for a shuttle driver to pick us up at our anticipated end point and bring us back to the vehicle, thus eliminating the need to shuffle multiple vehicles before hitting The Trail.

Packs on; we began our hike under overcast skies.  (Hey, we're in Maine!)  We soon settled into our places on The Trail.  Jocelyn, Charles and Erin, the younger three, out front, scouting the trail and leading the way.  Kim next; keeping the kids in sight while staying in sight of those of us who are in back.  I came next, with Tim in the "sweep" position; making sure nobody (meaning, Me) is left behind.  For some of the hiking we are close enough to carry on conversation; other times we can enjoy the silence of The Trail and the solitude of our own thoughts.

In Maine, everything under the shadow of the trees is covered in moss.  Varying in type and texture, from muted tones to bright emerald greens, the moss is everywhere.  There are places where it appears that the trail under our feet had literally been cut out of the moss to the rock just beneath.  When we would stop for a break I soon learned that a moss covered anything makes a comfy seat.  While hiking we needed to keep moving, so there just wasn't much time to look around and enjoy the beauty of the woods.  Those breaks gave all-too-brief opportunities to gaze into the woods and appreciate the serenity and loveliness which surrounded us.

The Appalachian Trail through Maine is not only a marvel of beauty, it can also be very rough going at times as it climbs and descends one mountain after another.  The section we were hiking included many mountain peaks.  The first day on The Trail we reached the summits of both North Crocker and South Crocker mountains.  Each summit has a sign by which we would drop our packs, (oh, the relief) and take a photo.  The climbs were intense, but the descent from South Crocker was my first realization that this was more dangerous and challenging than I had anticipated.

First: I don't do heights.  I don't enjoy viewing decks on the tops of skyscrapers; I firmly believe that standing at the edge of a cliff is sheer lunacy; and I have to cover my eyes during movies if the scene goes into one of those realistic looking-down-from-any-high-place sort of shots.  Artistic and thrilling for the rest of the audience; absolute terror for me.  Descending South Crocker brought all of that fear rushing to the surface as we clambered down the rock-strewn "trail", (how was that a trail?!).  One agonizingly slow step after another I picked my way down.  Tim was right behind me.  Conversation ceased.  I later realized that he was ready to grab my pack should the forces of gravity, in cooperation with my listing sense of balance, hurl me off the side of the mountain.

We made it to the campsite just as the light was beginning to fade and thunder began rumbling in the distance.  Tents were quickly set up and rain gear donned before we settled around the little propane stove to cook our meals and eat them in the rain.

The next morning, Monday, dawned bright and clear and refreshingly gorgeous.  Once we had breakfasted and packed up we hefted our packs onto our backs and hit the trail.  Each morning, that first heft of the pack was so difficult. so unbelievably heavy.  After we'd been hiking for a while though, it didn't seem quite so heavy.  That's not right; the weight of the pack didn't seem to be any less; it just became more bearable.  The first steps I took after each stop were the most difficult as well.  Once moving however, I'd find a rhythm and the difficulty wasn't in the movement, but in the decisions about where to actually place my feet.  These decisions became increasingly complex- for me- particularly when we were descending.

And descend we did, yet none of our remaining descents were as nightmarishly freaky as the first day.  We came down to the Carrabassett River which we were able to cross by rock-hopping and a board bridge.  We then ascended/climbed Sugarloaf Mountain.  Don't let the cute name fool you; this was no walk in the park.  In fact, near the top, the question again occurred to me, "This is a trail!?"  We went from hiking, to climbing very steeply, to a point where, as we we came out from the trees, the "Trail" just disappeared around the corner.  Kim was carefully choosing her steps in front of me when we heard Erin's voice from above a large boulder, "There's a good handhold in the rock right here."  Kim looked back at me and said precisely what I was thinking, "WHAT did she say?!"  Hand-over-hand climbing; gargantuan pack on my back; the mountain in front of me- thin air behind me; big clumsy boots on my feet...  Once again, the rising terror silenced any physical aches and pains that might have occupied any of my thoughts.  Climbing became crawling and I eventually got to a place where I felt I could stand up without the mountain flicking me off like an insect.

Once again, the view was stunning, and after catching our breath for a minute or two we hiked on to a spot further up the trail where we could drop our packs and sit for a lunch break.  While we were resting we met "Meat."  Many people who hike the AT have "trail names", names, most often given to them by others, which reflect something of their personality, habits, or simply an incident on the trail.  We had already met "Knatty Root" and  "Thirsty", and Tim, Kim, and Jocelyn from our Crew already have trail names.  This was the trip where Erin, Charles, and I would earn ours.  I was on my best behavior.  "Meat" was thru-hiking the trail, having begun at Springer Mountain in Georgia, and was excited to be within two weeks of his goal, Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. (I've been checking Meat's blog since I returned home and he made it just a few days ago!)

We finished our hike on Monday after reaching another summit, Mt. Spaulding, and then hiking down to the Spaulding Mountain Lean-to.  Along the Appalachian Trail there are many of these shelters built to accommodate hikers, mainly thru-hikers, giving them a more secure place to rest under a roof at night.  I think the shelters also help to keep the camping and cooking to specific locations, instead of folks clearing their own sites just anywhere along the trail.  Coming to the end of a long day's hike in inclement weather it's comforting to know that there's a dry place to sit, eat and sleep without worrying about setting up a tent, (which we gratefully discovered on Wednesday).  Mice also love the shelters.  'Nuff said.

Tuesday we had a more level bit of hiking for much of the morning; level and muddy.  The mud in Maine is thick, black, and, in spots, really, really deep.  The folks who maintain the trail - bless them - have installed log bridges over many of the muddiest and wettest spots on the trail.  I use the term "bridge" loosely here.  They are really simply two split logs - or one wide split log - fixed in place across the icky parts.  Sometimes there's a whole series of them.  Having watched a lot of Olympic gymnastic coverage on TV before leaving for Maine, I couldn't help but think of the balance beam as we crossed these bridges.  Balance is not my strength, but I managed to gain some confidence crossing these logs.

We hiked alongside of, and crossed a time or two, Perham Stream, which gained in speed and intensity as the mountain slope turned downward and the banks grew deeper and rockier.  The stream became a waterfall, and soon we were clambering down a straight drop to the low point in the valley and Orbeton Stream, which calmly and quietly meanders and pools where The Trail crosses it.  Here we met a few other hikers headed north and we took a break to eat lunch and to remove our boots and refresh our feet in the cool mountain water.  Erin napped on a boulder.  Afterward we hiked right up the other side and made it to Poplar Ridge in good time, followed by a short hike to the Poplar Ridge Lean-to which we found empty.  We had it all to ourselves.

That night we saw our first wild animal larger than a squirrel or chipmunk.  All week we've hoped to see a moose.  We've seen plenty, and I mean plenty, of moose poo on The Trail.  Evidently the AT is a convenient place for this largest of animals to have a poo.  We're also carrying all of our food and "smell-ables" in bear canisters because the woods of Maine are home to black bears and hikers have had their food stolen and their belongings destroyed by hungry and curious bears.  One night I know that I heard coyotes howling, and the next morning Kim mentioned hearing them as well.  But until Tuesday night we hadn't actually seen any animals other than what we see at home scampering through our own backyards.  Tuesday night we saw a hare!  He was hopping all around the open site, stopping here or there to check things out, then dashing off into the underbrush before reappearing elsewhere.  So cute, not dangerous, and a welcome bit of comic relief as we fell asleep.

Wednesday was our final full day on the trail and our longest distance; with three peaks to summit before we reached the shelter in the evening.  We began in pouring rain.  We hiked in the rain, we ate lunch in the rain, we hiked some more in the rain.  And then it let up a bit and was merely a drizzle, perhaps even a heavy fog, as we reached our second summit. (I'm not even remembering our first, Saddleback Junior, because I can't find any photos...)  We took our summit photos on The Horn, wearing our rain gear and cloaked in the cloud, but thrilled to have made it.  As we began to cross over the Saddleback Range the sky lightened, the wind picked up, the clouds gently blew away, and the view appeared.  The mountain peaks before and behind us and the whole valley beneath us opened up in a glorious blaze of sunshine!  We took a minute to drop our packs and look around.  Our next peak wasn't "straight up" necessarily, but it was reached only by getting up and over some rather large rocks and boulders.  More hand-over-hand climbing with careful assessment of each handhold and foothold.  This is where I twice - at least - slipped and scraped/cut/bruised my knees and shins.  Pretty sure I said a bad word on one of those occasions.

We reached Saddleback Mountain and dropped packs for our photos, a bit of first aid, and momentary relief.  Before heading onward we were caught up by a thru-hiker, MeloDee, whom we had met earlier in our hike.  MeloDee joined us for the next bit and I enjoyed visiting with her as we walked.  I suspect she's older than I, but she can move along those trails with confidence and skill which I certainly don't possess.  Hiking the Appalachian Trail has been her dream for the past 30 years since she read about it in National Geographic Magazine.  She began at Katahdin and is heading south, planning to get off the trail October 15th, wherever she may be at that point.  She'll resume again from there in the spring and finish when she finishes.  She's enjoying her the beauty of the wilderness and the people she meets there.  Once I got home I looked up her online journal and confirmed what I suspected from our conversations; MeloDee is a sister in Christ.  She sure was a blessing to me for the brief time that we hiked together and I'm praying that she makes it safely to October 15.

MeloDee hiked on ahead- she's quicker than our group, (who needed to wait for me) and before long it began to rain again.  Rain gear on, hiking over bare rock, headed downhill.  We encountered a couple of ladders as a very welcome surprise.  Some areas were like walking on wet sidewalks, others were wet stone staircases, and then there was the grab-a-tree-and-swing-down-and-around routine.  Ever downward, one step after another, and I was getting the hang of it.  Then, I fell.  I slipped suddenly and came down hard on my tuckus and left wrist.  Stopping everything to evaluate just what I had done I quickly realized that I hadn't broken anything, though there might be a sizeable bruise on my backside, I got back on my feet and continued on.  What wasn't visible to me, though Tim saw it clearly, was that I had broken the confidence which I had gained over the past three days.  I was once again mincing along, choosing and second-guessing every step.  My knees hurt; I was beginning to fear real lasting issues with them which might affect my running once I returned home.  What if I fell again?  I'm holding everyone up; slowing us down on our longest day.  Erin came back to guide and help me, showing me the best steps to take and giving me support when I needed it.  To lighten my load Tim took my bear canister and Charles and Jocelyn took my tent, going ahead of the group to find the shelter where we'd be spending the night.  Then, after a little while Jocelyn came running back, wearing no pack on her back, both arms raised in the air as she announced that she had returned for a gift, she was going to take my pack for the rest of the way!  What an angel!  I gratefully surrendered my pack and we all expected to find the shelter right around the corner.  No; we still had almost another half-mile of slogging to go; she had run the whole way back to us.

We found MeloDee  at the shelter with "Mack", who took care of all the conversation as we unloaded for the evening, ate our dinners, and tucked in for the night.  It continued raining through the night and into the morning, a bit of thunder and lightning in the distance now and then to break the monotony.  We covered the final brief two miles of uncomplicated terrain in an hour and a half, finishing 30 minutes before our scheduled pick up.  And then we waited in the pouring rain for two hours as our shuttle driver was running behind.

To wrap up this post I'll hit only the highlights of our last couple of days.  We drove to Baxter State Park and spent the night there, (and listened to a moose eating its way all around our site, invisible to us in the dark) waking early on Friday to get Kim and the kids onto the trail to hike Katahdin.  Tim and I went into town, had breakfast, scouted out a hotel for that night, did some "sightseeing" and second-hand-store shopping, dug through everyone's packs to find all the trail clothes from the last few smelly-wet days and took them to a laundromat (Woof!  We love our Crew), had lunch, drove back out to Baxter and waited for their return on the opposite side of the mountain from where we'd left them.  They appeared, triumphantly exhausted, ten minutes before we expected to begin looking for them!  They had hiked the highest peak in the state of Maine in less than ten hours!  We drove our dear Crew to the hotel and everyone showered before going out for a real, warm, not-carried-in-our-packs meal at the Appalachian Trail Cafe in Millinocket; which I highly recommend whether you are famished from The Trail or just passing through.  I don't know which was the greater treasure, the shower or the meal.

Saturday morning we hit the road and headed for home.  One brief stop in Freeport for some touristy shopping at L.L. Bean and surrounding shops, ('scuse me, "shoppes") and then a fantastic Victory Feast of lobster at the Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster - oh, baby - and the reveal of our trail names capped our trip perfectly.  Erin's trail name is "Beast", because there is nothing on The Trail which scares or slows her down, and mine is "Play-by-Play", because, evidently, I keep a running commentary of everything I see as I'm walking along.  Strange; I know.  We pushed through and made it home by 11pm, completely exhausted and brimming with tales of adventure from The Trail.

For a peek at the photos of our journey you can check out my album on Facebook.  No camera can capture the real feel of the places we saw, but you can get a glimpse of the majesty.

I'm looking forward to going back someday and hiking Katahdin myself.  On the mountain peaks the glories of creation are staggeringly real; and as I felt so very small, the awe-inspiring might and the condescending love of our Creator God was overwhelming.

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!
~Carl Boberg, 1886

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