Thursday, September 15, 2011

More on Maine

I can't put up photos from the last few days because it's not allowed on this computer, but let me take a moment to say this: Maine continues to be gorgeous.  This last stretch has contained some breathtaking peaks, waterfalls and pristine lakes (although for some reason, they're called "ponds").  The sunrises and sunsets have been legendary, the terrain has been manageable (but very muddy), and the aroma of fall is lingering in the air in the most pleasant manner.  I've been having a lot of conversations about what it means to have reached 2,000 miles, and whether this milestone in the trip is as significant as the 1,000 mile mark.  While I do think that 2,000 miles is personally a lot less meaningful than 1,000 miles, I can definitively say this: Maine is the reward for sticking it out this far.

I've been taking as many side trails as possible the past few days, and consequently am now four mountains shy of completing the Maine 4,000 footers list.  While I was detouring 1.7 miles to the summit of Mt. Abraham I ran into some lovely trail maintainers who told me that when they saw me coming they started wondering if I was a thru-hiker or a peakbagger.  Their conclusion was that, based on the size of my calves and the speed at which I was moving, was that I was a thru-hiker.  I laughed when they told me this, and then admitted that at least for the time being, I was both.  Mt. Abraham was quite possibly the best detour I've taken so far, as both the climb up to the summit and the view from it were lovely.  The trail maintainers that I shared the summit with were able to point out both Mt. Washington and the ever elusive Katahdin (which was my first view of the peak).  Both seemed impossibly far away, even though, I guess, both are technically within walking distance.  

The last few days have been particularly epic.  On Monday I reached the 2,000 mile mark, and spent the night camping at Avery Memorial Campsite, which is located between the two Bigelow peaks.  The campsite is within 0.3 miles of both summits, so getting to see both sunset and sunrise was easy.  My group and I packed out ingredients, so we celebrated becoming 2,000 milers by drinking beer and cooking steak, potatoes, veggies, and blueberry cake with cream cheese frosting.  It was quite possibly the best dinner I've ever packed out of town (although it was VERY heavy and consequently is unlikely to be repeated).  (I find it funny when I look back at my early blog posts and see how skeptical I was about people who packed beer out of town.  While I'm certainly not packing out a six pack of beer, carrying one beer out of town isn't as big a deal as I used to think.  Also, my pack no longer weighs 47 lbs, so carrying an extra 12 oz of beer isn't as crippling as it used to be.)

It took me the better part of two hours to say goodbye to Avery Peak, my last 4,000 footer until Katahdin.  From there I descended to the shores of Flagstaff lake, which I had the pleasure of observing from several thousand feet for the previous two days.  While eating dinner on the lake a bald eagle soared directly overhead, before crossing the lake and landing on a pine tree on the far shore.  I had been contemplating pushing on after dinner, but made up my mind to stay put then and there.  I spent the first half of the night cowboy camping on a stone beach about five feet away from the water (best half a night of sleep on the trail), and the other half  hunkered in my tent as a storm rolled over (not the best half a night of sleep on the trail, sadly).  I almost spent yesterday on that beach; the combination of wildlife, sense of peace, and lack of evidence of society was deeply thrilling and calming.  Also, the loons kept paddling back and forth in the water, crying out in the most chilling and beautiful manner.  Instead, however, my hiking partner and I decided to book it to Caratunk to avoid today's bad weather.  This was both a great and poor decision, as it meat that we had to haul ass to make it to the ferry on time.

Ferry, you say?  There's a ferry on the AT?

Why yes!  As it turns out, the Kennebec River is dangerous to ford, and the official AT route involves arriving at the Kennebec between 9 and 11 or 2 and 4 pm and taking a canoe shuttle across.  The Kennebec is controlled by a dam upstream, and water releases are unpredictable and can cause the river to rise rapidly.  Given the flow of the current and the width of the river (and being a bit of a wimp about quickly moving water) I doubt that I would attempt to ford it even if it was considered "safe."

Anyhow, Cotton and I were in the process of making it to the ferry by 2 pm (Note to Mom and Dad: Look!  I'm no longer opposed to arriving early for things!) when I got distracted by East Carry Pond.  There was swimming (followed by the unpleasant discovery that there were leaches lurking among the rocks of the pond, despite the clear water), lunch, and some laying around letting the sun bake my skin, when all of a sudden I looked at my watch and realized that we had to MOVE.  And MOVE we did: I set us up at a rather fast pace, and we booked it the 10 miles from the pond in 3.5 hours.  While at first it felt AMAZING to be moving that fast, I became a bit disheartened as we passed an additional beautiful pond and some gorgeous waterfalls, all with no time to spare for lounging and taking in the scenery.  We ended up making it to the ferry at 3:58, but at the expense of not enjoying a beautiful stretch of trail. I guess I'm just going to have to come back and do that section again.

I want to leave this last quote with you, as it's something I want to keep in the back of my head as I go about traveling my last 151 miles.  Myron Avery, the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail,  had this to say about Maine in his book "Into the Maine Woods":
To those who would see the Maine wilderness, tramp day by day through a succession of ever delightful forest, past lake and stream, and over mountains, we would say: Follow the Appalachian Trail across Maine. It cannot be followed on horse or a wheel. Remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, it beckons not merely north and south but upward to the body, mind and soul of man.


Let me start by saying this: I'm in Caratunk, Maine, and it's raining again.  Thankfully, the weather forecast says that the rain will only last one day (followed by a week of GORGEOUS weather), and so I'm planning on spending today at Northern Outdoors playing pinball and goofing off.  Tomorrow I start the two and a half day stretch to Monson, after which I hit the 100 mile wilderness and then Katahdin.  I'm guessing it's going to take me about 10 more days, but the finish line is in sight.  Woah!

This morning I went to the post office in Caratunk, and the lady at the front desk said, "Oh, you're Bree Carlson! I was hoping to meet you!  I've never seen ANYBODY get THIS MUCH mail!" Friends, thank you.  The outpouring of love and support that I received at the post office this morning is overwhelming, and so deeply appreciated .  While the past few days have been beautiful days, I have to admit that I haven't been really feeling up to this hike anymore.  I think part of it is that I'm ready to be done, ready to wear cotton clothing, ready to start planning my next adventure, ready to go back to work, and ready for reliable cell phone service so that I can catch up with all of you after months of being away.  (Small aside: I'm also sick of being around guys all the time. Don't get me wrong- guys are great, but I've been feeling like a participant in the man show for the past few weeks now, instead of feeling like a woman in charge of her own hike.  Time to strike out on my own, and leave the group I've been hiking with, I think.)  Anyhow, all that to say this: I was feeling a bit blue, and then I went to the post office and all of you made my day, and gave me the energy jolt needed to keep it going to the (spectacular) finish line.  Thank you.

I'll write more later, as other thru-hikers who are avoiding the rain are waiting to use this computer.

Again, thank you.

Monday, September 12, 2011

No Good Song Available...

But 2000 miles just the same. It's all downhill from here..... until it goes up again. But from what I hear, its a doozy of an up.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Maine... Part the Second.

The day after I entered Maine I hiked through Mahoosuc Notch.  For those of you who don't know, Mahoosuc Notch is a notoriously difficult (or fun, depending on your perspective) stretch of trail lasting 1.3 miles.  It's literally a jumbled boulder field crammed in between two cliffs, complete with a sporadic stream that surfaces and dives below the surface of the boulders.  Approaching Mahoosuc Notch I kept hearing stories of how the Notch ended the hikes for many an aspiring thru-hiker, or at least delayed the finishing date, through a variety of slips, trips, falls, breaks, and sprains.  My time through the Notch was filled with the first three, but thankfully, not the last two (although I did have one terrifying moment where I slipped backwards and briefly got stuck with my leg above my head in a rather uncomfortable position).  It took me 2 hours to carefully negotiate my way across the boulders, through the caves, and down the steep inclines.

 This is the first thing I saw when I got into Mahoosuc Notch.  
Not a very auspicious sign, if you ask me.

Carefully picking my way through a tight spot.


Anyhow, to amuse myself as I slowly picked my way through the boulders, I made up slogans for the Notch.
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Don't you wish you were an ultralight backpacker?
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Not a good place to encounter a bear.
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Don't you wish the last 2,000 miles hadn't sapped all of your upper body strength?
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Put on a pair of pants because wearing a dress isn't a good idea. 
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Just when you think it can't get any more dangerous, start bouldering over a river!
  • Mahoosuc Notch: It's a difficult five mile hike out, so try not to get hurt. Please.
I should mention that despite everything written above, Mahoosuc Notch was tremendously fun.  I'm looking forward to doing that section of trail some time in the future, only this time with a day pack and a pair of pants (as it turns out, dresses don't really provide much protection against scratches from rocks).  It's funny- all the negative hype about the Notch didn't live up to the reality, proving, once again, that I shouldn't listen to over-reacting thru-hikers who like to complain.

Or so I thought.

Maine, as it turns out, has been really hard (which is what I've been hearing all along, but have been choosing to ignore).  It's been a combination of the terrain and the weather, but the last week, Mahoosuc Notch aside, has been SLOW going.  I think that the double combination- not being able to do big mile days because the terrain is challenging, and being soaked to the bone on a regular basis is really making this portion of the trip trying.  I like doing big miles- it makes me feel productive and good about myself.  I mean, at the end of a 25 mile day back in Pennsylvania I remember thinking: 25 miles- that's FANTASTIC!  And here, in Maine, with nearly 2,000 miles behind me, I can barely manage to do 14 mile days.  At my worst moments, I feel like a bit of a failure, and at my best, I wonder what's wrong with me.  (Note to self: I'm doing fine. Stop over thinking.)

As you can imagine, the wet weather hasn't been making the challenging terrain any easier.  Yesterday, when confronted with, literally, a two feet deep river running down the trail, I finally gave up the pretense of trying to keep my feet dry, hiked up my dress, and waded right in.  Oddly enough, this simple act of giving up and letting things be what they were, made me feel quite better (as did the angry teenage boy music I was playing on my ipod). 

This is the trail.  The water is two feet deep.  The 
whole area is flooded, so finding an alternate path
is not an option.

I knew from the start that Maine was going to be wet, but I had thought that it would be limited to river fording, which is what Maine is known for.  I've forded three rivers already- the first two were time consuming affairs, where I took off my shoes and socks, put on my crocs, carefully picked my way across shin deep water, dried off my feet, and put my shoes and socks back on.  This last time, however, because I'd given up trying to keep my feet dry (and because the river was flooding and I knew I'd want the stability of shoes to negotiate the scary-fast current), I just waded right on in.

 Bearbait, fording a rapidly rushing river.  Yup.  Those
are white water rapids you see in the background.

The other day I got into my tent after an appallingly windy and rainy day, feeling mildly hypothermic from sitting outside in the wet to eat dinner, and after snuggling into my (thankfully) dry sleeping bag, got hit on the head with a drop of water from my leaking tent tarp.  Knowing that I couldn't simply ignore the problem (being royally screwed if my sleeping bag were to get wet), I had to get back out of my tent and mess around with it for 5 minutes in the dark (and rain) to get it to stop leaking.  When I got back into my sleeping bag, more damp and cold than before, I realized that there are some things that I'm really looking forward to, once I'm done with the trail:
  • Not relying on a thin piece of nylon to keep me dry at night while sleeping.
  • Not having to put on wet shoes in the morning.  Ditto wet sock liners, wet socks, and a wet dress.
  • Cooking with real food, instead of instant stuff.
  • Washing my hands.
  • Feeling feminine.
  • Sheets.
  • Being overly warm.  
  • Not wearing the same dress every day for six months.
 But enough complaining.  Maine has been off it's rocker gorgeous, and I've been loving that.  Fall is in the air, and it's been beautiful to see the faintest hints of autumn begin to emerge in the forest.  On Sunday while hiking with friends I came across an abandoned cabin on a pond, and we hung out there for several hours, poking around, and eating lunch.  Eventually we found a leaky canoe nearby, and using boards for oars, we took it for a spin. Learning to take advantage of the small moments is what doing the trail is all about, right?

The leaves are just barely starting to lose their green color.

Speck Pond.

I forget what mountain this is, but it was rocky and bald and a good scramble.

So that's the news from the trail.  I'm doing okay, but am sensing that I'm getting ready to be done.  Six months is a long time to live in the woods.  I've got a direction home, and it's north.  Time to keep on trucking.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Maine... Part The First

I'm afraid I'm not sure where to begin this post, except to say this: the past week and a half has contained some of my best days on the trail, and some of my most challenging.  Most challenging, you say?  More challenging, than, for example, the bleak nothingness that characterized most of the state of Virginia?  More challenging than overcoming the nausea that comes along with eating a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting?  MORE CHALLENGING THAN ESCAPING THE BLACK HOLE OF PEARISBURG?

Yes, friends, more challenging than those things. But let me back up for a second.

I got back on the trail on Tuesday (I think?  Time is so meaningless out here.) by catching a ride north from Melvin Village (where I rode out the storm) to Gorham, NH with Trapper and Dube (whom I had last seen back in Damascus as he was in the process of making up his mind to leave the trail).  I had wanted to get to Gorham the day before, as I was getting antsy to get back to the trail, but since Route 16 was closed due to hurricane damage, I couldn't get up there any earlier.  The ride up to Gorham was lovely, although due to many washed out roads what should have taken an hour ended up taking closer to three.  We ended up cowboy camping (laying out under the stars in our sleeping bags) three miles out of Gorham, watching the stars, warming ourselves by our campfire, and eating wild blueberries.  It was a magical night, made more so by getting to see an old trail friend.  The last time I'd seen Dube was under the saddest of cirumstances, so getting to hang out with him once more when his life was headed in a more positive direction was, excuse my language, fan-fucking-tastic.

 Dube, Trapper, and me, sporting a Burger King crown.
The next day I solo hiked to the Maine border.  Walking into Maine was both amazing and incredibly sad: my last state border in this journey, and an significant reminder that the trail has a rapidly approaching endpoint.  Happily, I was able to share the experience with Trapper, who I should mention, I met on my second full day on the trail.  At the border he reminded me of the conversation we had when we met while eating lunch on a windy overlook way in Georgia.  At the time everything was still brand new, and we were all still sorting out how do to the whole "Appalachian Trail" thing.  I remember being a bit shy at that time with people, and feeling almost like I had to justify my presence on the trail as someone who was serious about making it all the way to Katahdin.  On that windy overlook I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple, and introduced myself to a quiet (HA! WRONG ABOUT THAT!) red haired guy named Trapper (then Jon) as Bree, from Boston (It's weird to think about introducing myself now with my real name.  I hope I get that sorted out before I return to work.).  After several minutes of polite conversation (mostly centered around him being from Philadelphia and me going on and on and on about how I love the Mutter Museum there) he mentioned how amazing that this was our real life for the next six months.  And it is.


Oops.  Getting kicked out of the library.  Part 2, in which everything goes down hill (spoiler alert: MAINE IS WET) is coming up... soon?