Trip report #1: The beginning through Day 2

[Category: 100 Mile Wilderness] [link] [Date: 2010-06-28 18:49:24]

Monday, June 14 (Cincinnati, OH to Groton, CT)

In order to properly time our arrival in Connecticut, we started our drive northeast at around 4AM. I surely didn't manage any meaningful sleep and I doubt Zach did either. We wanted to break the drive up to Maine into two sections in order to preserve our strength as much as possible. Luckily, the parents of one of Zach's friends (Nate) live in Connecticut and were more than willing to accommodate us for a night before our final push toward Maine. While it had been explained to me that Nate's parents are definitely top contenders in the running for the "nicest people ever" I was still surprised at their hospitality. I wish Nate could have gone on the trip with us but he was preoccupied with summer courses while working toward a graduate degree at the University of Louisville. We were welcomed in like family and given a proper New England dinner (which I, of course, could barely participate in due to my choice of being a vegetarian). After dinner we were treated to views of the Atlantic and the end of a car show on the beach. Dessert was a homemade Oreo ice cream cake that contained enough chocolate and sugar to make anyone salivate.

After all of the activities Zach and I spent the rest of the evening going over gear, honing our packing strategies, and making decisions on what we needed and what we could leave behind. I chose to use the MSR Pocket Rocket and to bring the Lafuma Warm n' Light 600 sleeping bag. My total weight was an amazing 37.5lbs. I was honestly ecstatic that I had achieved this low a weight. We went to bed for a good nights sleep and woke up to find numerous breakfast delights laid out for us in the kitchen. Danishes, fruit, breads, cakes, juice - you name it. We ate what we could handle (we each had an ultra-healthy piece of the Oreo ice cream cake, too) and took some treats with us to comply with the note that had been left instructing us to do so. After throwing all of our gear back into the car we headed north toward Monson, ME.

Tuesday, June 15 (Groton, CT to Monson, ME)

It is easy to misinterpret Maine's geographic location. One often forgets just how far north and east the state is. Driving toward Monson was relatively uneventful. We made sure to drive past Monson on ME-15 to catch a glimpse of the Appalachian Trail (AT) trailhead going into the 100 mile wilderness. After that we headed back into Monson to locate the infamous hiker lodge known as Shaw's. We had yet to decide what our plans were for the last night prior to beginning our hike at this point, and we were treated well by Dawn at Shaw's who kindly went over the maps with me to carefully point out extraction points that we should be aware of in case something went wrong. We were quite hungry and some of the only food in town to be had is at the Lakeshore House. Tuesday happens to be $4 pizza day so I treated myself to a pizza and salad for a bargain price. After eating we headed to the only gas station in town to fill up and decide what our plans were for the night.

The outside of Shaw's (photo by Zach)

This was an important decision. We had to be at the Katahdin Air (KA) flight base at 9:30AM and it was approximately a two hour drive from Monson. We could either head up to Millinocket and try to wrangle a place to stay for the night or stay in Monson and wake up early in order to make it up to KA in time. Since Dawn at Shaw's had offered extraction services I argued that it would be wise to at least stay the night and eat breakfast there in case we did need to use the service. Zach concurred and we stayed the night at the infamous hiker hostel.

Despite the fact that we were only at Shaw's for a single night we were given a significant glimpse of AT culture. Other hikers at Shaw's included a father, son, and friend who had just completed the wilderness. They told tales of abandoning gear in desperate attempts to lighten their packs. Their goal is to get to Harper's Ferry before the two recent high school graduates begin college. What amazed me most was the sheer size of the son. He was clearly overweight and possibly obese. I have a lot of respect for him. Completing the 100 mile hike for him was, without doubt, difficult. To his credit, he also resisted consuming an enormous breakfast the next morning. There were two other recent college graduates that had also just come out of the wilderness. They were prepared and had clearly planned their trip carefully. One of them consumed a truly disturbing breakfast consisting of 5 pancakes, 5 sausages, 5 strips of bacon, 5 eggs, and 3 potatoes worth of home fries. Thru-hiker calorie binging at its finest.

The most memorable character was definitely an older man from Minnesota who I now believe to be known as "suicidal". Like the others, he had completed the wilderness and was staying in Monson to recuperate. My first encounter with him was at 9pm when he was shuttled in from the trailhead with the most swollen feet I had ever laid eyes on. Removing his boots was an epic battle and his cringing face conveyed the pain with unhindered precision. He expressed repeated concern and disappointment in himself for giving up the trail and we all acted to alleviate his guilt citing his extraordinary foot problems. Zach and I offered him an apple danish to lift his spirits and he obliged and inhaled the sugar-laden delight. His pack was quite large and after some discussion I ended up giving him an alcohol stove in hopes that he may look into lightening his load if he ever attempts an extended hike again. I would later get to follow his story through the registers left at the leanto's where he had become a character of notoriety with other southbound hikers. His experience in the wilderness was one of struggle and pain and his notes contained a wide spectrum of emotions that ranged from anger to humor. According to Zach he woke up at 5AM to leave and catch a series of 17 different shuttles, buses, trains, and other forms of transportation to get back to his home in Minnesota.

We enjoyed our last night of sleep in a bed with proper sheets until we both lunged forward at 5:30AM in fears that we had overslept. We both estimated it to be around 9AM, but we had forgot to account for the geographic location of Maine that causes the sun to rise at around 4:20AM.

The last sheets I touched until Whitehouse Landing (photo by Zach)

Day 1: Wednesday, June 16 (Spectacle Pond to Wilson Valley Leanto) 10.4mi

The first day started off with a large breakfast at Shaw's followed by a two hour drive up to the KA base near Abol Bridge. The roads in rural Maine are poorly maintained and tend to have extremely conservative speed limits. What would take 45 minutes in Kentucky took us almost two hours. We anticipated this and left ourselves an appreciable amount of time as a buffer which we ended up taking advantage of. After checking in at the KA base and leaving our packs to be loaded onto the float plane we drove to Abol Bridge, left our car there, and were shuttled back to the KA base. Our shuttle driver was a toothless man who, despite his appearance and almost inaudible speech, was extremely friendly and helpful. He knew the road intimately and skipped around every pothole in his huge GMC truck with 10-ply tires.

Yes, everything fits in it

Once back at the KA base we met Jim who would be our pilot. It only took moments before we were loading our gear into the compact float plane. His flying was very natural and his knowledge of the region was vast. He made sure to point out locations along the trail to us that we should be wary of or be sure to see. He also made sure to mention that the 20 minute flight would cover approximately 40 linear miles while our hike would cover closer to 100 miles. We began to appreciate this statement more as he continued to point out landmarks along the trail that seemed to alternate between being on the left and right side of the plane. The landing on Spectacle Pond was the smoothest flight landing I had ever experienced.

Looking forward after gaining altitude

Some of the remote logging roads

Lakes and mountains

Coming in for landing

After the landing we were told we would have to wade to shore so we quickly stripped down to our bare feet. It was an easy wade since Jim was careful to place us in water that was not even knee deep. He took our photo and immediately fired up the engine and disappeared after the plane lifted from the pond. The flight had been exhilarating but brief and once the plane disappeared we both had to take a moment to sit down and come to terms with the fact that we now had a 100 mile walk to get back to our vehicle at Abol Bridge. Unfortunately, it was noon before we began to cover some miles on the trail. Not 100 yards in we had our first trail encounter and it was to the sound of banjo strumming. We had heard stories of the banjo carrying man and we awkwardly said hello and continued past him shoving any flashes from the movie "Deliverance" out of our mind.

Beautiful photograph from the first day (photo by Zach)

Me standing in front of Little Wilson Falls

We encountered a few other hikers finishing the wilderness, but the first notable encounter was when a hiker known as "road runner" sped past us in a bog while intricately balancing his steps from log to log. He expressed his intent to make it to Cloud Pond Leanto. I later calculated that this put him at a minimum of 22 miles for the day, and he had over 16 miles to go from when he met us and our encounter was in mid-afternoon. His aim was to finish in the top nine thru-hikers for this northbound season and he was currently in 10th place which explained his motivation to push on to Cloud Pond Leanto. A lot of the trail talk was centered around "trek" who was completing his 8th consecutive thru-hike this year. If he completes a thru-hike next year he will be the new record holder for consecutive thru-hikes. All I learned about Trek was that he is ex-military and specialized in building MRE's and other ration kits for field use. He also hikes the Long Trail in Vermont each year.

Looking down the first stream we had to ford

As night approached, we were clearly falling short of our goal of Long Pond Stream Leanto which was over 15 miles from our starting position. After a small debate and Zach expressing that he was done for the day (DFTD) we agreed to aim for Wilson Valley Leanto and to make up the miles in the next few days. After spying the shelter as dusk arrived we rested for a short period before being joined by three colorful male hikers who carried nothing less than a department store in each of their packs. Two of them quite clearly invest a lot of their time in the art of smoking pot and even went so far as to offer us some (which we both kindly refused). The leader of the group was clearly Nate who made sure to point out that he was an Eagle Scout. He seemed to make most of the important decisions and was the only one in the group who was not attempting a thru-hike. He would be attending graduate school in Seattle for molecular biology in the fall. His two weed-filled friends had lesser aspirations and intended to hike the trail until they weren't enjoying themselves anymore.

There are lots of small ponds to accompany the larger lakes

They were respectful of us and we entertained each other until rain arrived and made cooking dinner a bit difficult. After that, Zach and I decided to place our tents away from the weed-filled shelter and get to sleep for an early start tomorrow. Our first day had been shorter than anticipated, but our first stream ford had gone well and we were in good spirits. Unfortunately, the rain never stopped and there were periods of extremely strong downpours throughout the night. My new MSR Hubba HP handled the conditions with flying colors, but Zach's tent never truly dried.

A sunny day is a rare day in Maine

Day 2: Thursday, June 17 (Wilson Valley Leanto to Cloud Pond Leanto) 9.7mi (+0.3mi)

Our intentions to get an early start were thwarted by the unrelenting rain. We wanted to use the shelter for a staging area to dry off some gear and change our packing strategy to make sure important things stayed dry. The group using the shelter took their time and our start was once again delayed considerably. We watched as their 85L packs swallowed pound upon pound of gear including amenities such as an LED lantern and mosquito coils. The humorous sight of a hiker with an 85L pack wearing a poncho was too much to pass up and Zach snapped a photo of one of them as they departed. All in all, it was 11AM before we truly started the day.

Sunglasses, walking stick, a straw hat, and a huge pack

After the rain the trail had become a much more dangerous place. Zach and I both took spills on slippery rocks and roots, but we managed to avoid serious injury. The day was characterized by the struggle to summit Barren Mountain (2,670ft) which took much longer than we had anticipated. The challenge was great, but the views from the summit provided a more than adequate reward. It was on the summit of Barren that I first noticed that Zach was struggling. I attributed it primarily to the weight of his pack and that it was only the second day hiking. We enjoyed some cheese and bagels before setting out again.

I took a spill on these large slippery boulders before snapping this photo

Zach demonstrating the stream ford routine

If my shirt was less neon I might have disappeared in the background

Another beautiful mountain stream

Looking westward from Barren Slide

A view of the sun getting ready to set from the summit of Barren Mtn

We once again ended up falling short of our intended mileage and had to settle on staying at Cloud Pond Leanto. A majority of the leanto's are located immediately adjacent to the trail, but Cloud Pond is another 0.3 mile hike off the trail and it is a relatively difficult side trail. This didn't make either of us happy hikers. I arrived at the leanto and was greeted by a man named James who was already turning in for the night. James was retired from the military and had worked for the postal service for some time before his wife got a high-security job in Washington, DC. He was very nice and despite the age difference connected with us very well. He told of his intentions to meet up with his wife near Harper's Ferry for a canoe trip when he made it that far along the trail. He also discussed things like MMORPG's and was clearly a multi-faceted individual.

It was hard to get a good angle to photograph this small canyon

I tended to my first blister that had formed in the latter half of the day and was provided a cotton ball by James to help deal with it in the morning. The water source for this Leanto was Cloud Pond itself which turned out to be relatively filthy. It clogged the water filter twice and I had to improvise a cleaning kit out of some shoe string left at the shelter since I had neglected to bring the field maintenance kit for the filter. As Zach pointed out, necessity is truly the mother of invention.

Zach and I realized that our pace was not turning out to be anywhere near what we had expected and we attributed it to the late starts and the difficult terrain. We resolved to push ourselves harder the next few days and to aim for an early start the next day to try to get out of the Barren-Chairback range which was slowing our progress considerably.

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