Thinking back, I remember the tingling feeling of hair rising on the back of my neck, like when you are really scared. Yes, that was it – then the brightest flash ever.
On a one-week solo section hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), I hopped on near Fontana Dam in North Carolina. It was mid-August and the weather forecast for the week was for scattered thunderstorms with highs in the 80’s. Most of my experience has been hiking the PCT and in the mountains of southern California. While we do get thunderstorms, they are infrequent and not as intense as the ones I remember while living back east.
My ride dropped me off on Hwy 28 near Fontana Village where I picked up some last minute supplies. I walked to the trailhead and stopped to take in the view at the dam. It brought back memories from my honeymoon 33 years ago. That was a glorious week spent exploring the Smokies and hanging out on Fontana Lake.
Today would be a short day and I would only knock out about 7 miles. Hoping to make Mollies Ridge shelter, I extended my hiking poles, took a deep breath and started walking. Fontana Lake was to my right and had plenty of water in it. Man, I was jealous because California has been in an awful drought and our lakes and reservoirs were almost empty.
Making good time, I thought about going for Double Spring Gap. It is a couple of miles west of Klingman’s Dome, the highest peak in NC/TN. At 6,643 ft. it provides awesome views of the surrounding landscape. It was no Mt. Whitney, but the trail wasn’t any easier. The SUDS (senseless-ups-downs) were just as tough as the switchbacks in the Sierras.
As I passed over a ridge, I took a snack break and noticed the cumulus clouds gathering to the west/northwest. A cool breeze picked up and it felt like the swamp-coolers we have in the desert. The pine trees started waving their spindly branches as the wind made a waterfall like sound. I caught the first whiff of rain, a refreshing smell. About 10 minutes later, I heard the first rumblings of thunder. Passing a fellow hiker who was getting out his rain gear, I thought to do the same and stopped a few minutes later. The hiker walked past me and I asked where he was stopping for the day. He mentioned that he was trying to make the Mount Collins shelter about 7 miles away.
Decent waterproof hat: Columbia Men’s Eminent Storm Bucket Hat
I dug out the rain cover for my pack and rain jacket. Back west, I used the jacket more as a windbreaker and only remember using my pack cover one other time on the AT up in the Maine wilderness. Back on the trail, the thunder became more frequent and I saw the first flashes of lightning. Hmm, those clouds became fully developed thunderheads now, nice and dark with flat tops. I started looking for a place where I could ride out the storm when a lightning strike hit too close for comfort. A flash and almost immediate boom made me speed up my search for shelter. Of course, this part of the trail had no shelter, just plenty of pine and oak trees. The rain came next, almost immediately a downpour. Well, this sucks. I know, if you hike the AT long enough, this is fairly common. For this California acclimated dude, this was going to be interesting.
What followed happened quickly. I remember feeling the hair rise on the back of my neck, a tingly feeling- like when you are really scared. My training kicked in and I dropped my pack on the side of the trail and began to sit on it. The flash came and occurred at the same time as the crack.
I woke up with the rain pelting me, the sound of it bouncing off my jacket. My vision was blurred and I was looking at a tree trunk sideways. Disoriented and dizzy, my ears were ringing. I laid there on the ground for a bit and got on my hands and knees and moved over to my pack. I had one hiking pole still strapped to my hand. My fingers were a bit numb, but no other damage. The storm continued as I sat on my pack to minimize contact with the ground. I looked around and saw an oak tree that was smoking about 30-40 ft away. The lightning had struck it about halfway up and split a large part of the trunk. Hoping that lightning wouldn’t strike twice in the same place, I sat for another 10-15 minutes and made sure I was ok.
As the thunderstorm passed to the east, I put my pack on and got back on the trail, thanking the Lord that it wasn’t a direct hit. My ears were still ringing when I strolled into the Double Spring Gap shelter. I met about three other hikers there and shared my tale of woe. They stared at me with wide eyes and said they were pelted with hail about an hour ago. I rested well that night but remember waking once to the sound of distant thunder.
Well folks, for the 10 or so people that follow my blog, you knew this was another one of my tall tales. I have hiked around thunderstorms and know about precautions to take. If there is a chance of lightning where you hike, consider the following:
– If you are with people, spread out. One lightning strike can take out an entire group if they are close to each other.
– If you ever do feel the hair rising on your neck or arms, immediately drop to the ground into a crouching position. Try not to touch the ground and drop those poles.
– If you have time, sit on your pack to minimize contact with the ground.
– Don’t seek shelter under a tall tree. If you can, seek a medium sized grove of trees, head there.
– Don’t go into caves or sit on rocks. They conduct electricity very well.
– If someone does get struck, they will quite possibly go into shock. Check for pulse and treat for shock by keeping them warm and covered. Seek immediate help.
Bottom line, there is no sure way to prevent lightning strikes. A strike can occur 30 miles or so from a thunderstorm. Tents provide little protection from lightning but may get you out of that pelting rain. If you do go into your tent, sit on a pad or your pack to minimize contact with the ground.
This is an awesome rain jacket and has never leaked: Marmot Mens Precip Jacket
We actually do get nasty thunderstorms in the Sierras and hikers have died from lightning on Half-Dome in Yosemite. Thunderstorms in the Sierra Nevada are generally mild compared to the ones on the Appalachian Trail. Enjoy the trail, you will be talking about that hail and stinging rain for years to come. 🙂
Inexpensive pack cover for occasional hiking: KLOUD City ® Black nylon backpack rain cover for hiking / camping / traveling (Size: L)
Do you remember the first time you hiked in the dark? Was it unplanned? Many, if not most of our day hikes end up at dusk or near dark – mainly because we frequently start late. We do it to avoid crowds on our local/regional day hikes. Having done a few backcountry trips, I can tell you that we try to finish before dark. However, there was this one backcountry trip……
The allure of the Appalachian trail was enough for me to fly out to the east coast from sunny San Diego. While hiking the entire A.T. is a dream, my friend and I would settle for a 7-8 day section hike. Decidedly, we would make this interesting and hike one of the hardest sections of the trail-The Maine 100 Mile Wilderness. In previous blogs, I’ve written how it was the one of my greatest challenges. This section of the trail was unforgiving. At 12 miles per day, we could easily make it out in time. A miscalculation of the terrain caused us to fall behind schedule. Well, my friend was doing fine. At half my age and a Marine, he was like a darn gazelle on the African plain. We had to make it out by a certain day to meet family and for me to catch a flight home. Anyhow, by the end of the first day, I experienced night hiking with a full, no – overloaded backpack.
I learned many things on that trip. Mainly, if you bite off more than you can chew on a backcountry trip, you just suck it up and go with it. The first night hike wasn’t extreme by any means, just different. As night fell, I broke out the headlamp and concentrated on the trail beneath my feet, occasionally looking up front for my friend – who must have had built-in night vision, because he wasn’t using a headlamp. I was starting to think that the government must have put night vision implants in their Marines, but as I would learn later, your eyes will adjust to the dark with pretty good acuity. Fortunately, after a couple of hours we stumbled on an empty campsite and settled in using our headlamps. Sleep came quickly after a long day on the trail.
With each passing day and night, the novelty of nocturnal trekking wore off and at times became drudgery. Much of the trail in the Maine Wilderness is composed of obstacles. For the duration of the 100 miles, every other step seemed like I was stepping on a tree root. Navigating a trail made of roots with the 40lb pack was tough. Even with my acquired “trail legs”, the root jumping ritual gets old quickly. By the way, the A.T. is fairly well-marked with the white blazes on the trees or rocks every 100-200 ft. – during the day that is. At night, the supposedly bright blazes get absorbed by the darkness. Often, my partner would hike ahead to find a campsite and I would trudge along through the darkest forest east of the Mississippi. I was usually so tired, that I didn’t give the darkness much thought. Thinking back, it was probably downright spooky. In Maine, the forest canopy is so thick that you don’t see many stars at night. Sometimes, the trail is only 2-3 ft. wide and the forest so thick and dark that it seemed to close in on me.
Did I mention that a good portion of the A.T. in Maine is built out of logs and cut lumber? The trail is often surrounded by water and much of it passes through creeks, streams and swamps. The “bridges”, many of them built by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, provide a way to navigate these watery areas. At night, the bridges seem narrow, loose and rickety. One slip and you could end up knee-deep in muck. Looking back, I can’t say that it was enjoyable. Fortunately, the swamps in Maine are not home to anacondas or gators. But, as you make your way over these logs late at night, don’t let your imagination wander too far. Occasionally, I would stop and scan the swamp with my headlamp, hoping that I would not see a pair of green eyes looking back at me.
On one night, I was in a particularly thick part of the forest near Joe-Mary Lake and lost the trail. My friend was probably 15 minutes or so ahead of me scouting out the campsite as usual. For a minute, panic set in as I couldn’t see the next blaze. I gathered my wits and focused on what appeared to be the trail and scanned the trees and rocks with my headlamp. A faint blaze appeared 50 ft. ahead on a tree. Was it a blaze or a faded piece of bark? Eventually, the trail became more apparent and 20 minutes later, I would find my friend setting up our home for the evening.
Summertime brings out the bugs on the trail and they love lights. One night, we were taking a break on a boulder and we had our lamps on. We scanned the area around us and saw something moving about 20 ft. away. Suddenly, it flew at us and thumped my friend in the head, me in the chest. It was the largest iridescent moth ever. It continued to dive bomb us and we would run away screaming until we realized that we just needed to turn our lights off. After sneaking away in the dark, we would turn our headlamps on hoping that Mothra was long gone. As the adrenaline faded, we continued to be hounded by smaller moths until we made camp.
By the 6th or 7th night, we would be putting in 12+ hour days and able to hike well into the darkness without headlamps. You really do gain confidence and your eyes seem to gather in every bit of light possible. We even braved a river crossing at night. Fortunately, the water was only to our knees so it wasn’t too bad.
Near the end of this trip, I was a seasoned night hiker. Did I enjoy it? No, not really, it was done out of necessity. On the A.T., the “green tunnel” really makes the night seem darker. I never realized how pitch black it gets in the woods. I think it comes from just being a city dweller. However, many thru-hikers absolutely enjoy night hiking and can knock down some serious mileage. Is it risky? Yes, you just have to know what the acceptable risk is.
Some tips for night hiking, based on my limited experience:
– Have a backup headlamp or flashlight, plus spare batteries
– Know the terrain and assess the risks of hiking in the dark.
– Water crossings at night can be dangerous. Have an idea how deep the water is. Always loosen or unbuckle your backpack straps.
– If you lose the trail, stop and gather your wits. No need to panic. GPS works in the dark too.
– Don’t let your imagination wander too far. You probably aren’t surrounded by alligators.
– When moths attack, turn off your light
I will do night hiking again, perhaps next time it will be under the wide open sky of the John Muir Trail. 🙂 Hike your own hike my friends, and don’t forget the headlamp.
It’s been two months since I completed my northbound hike through the Maine wilderness. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. It took between 95-100 hrs, almost 12-13 hrs average per day.
Why did I do it? For me, it was the challenge. Maybe it is my midlife crisis, but I needed to prove to myself that I could do something that was physically and mentally difficult. At times, I wanted to quit but there was no easy way out of the wilderness. The hardest part for me were the SUDs (Senseless Up-Downs). But wait, isn’t this the Appalachian Trail? There are supposed to be mountains. We would experience over 30,000 ft. of elevation change in one week. The roots were the next hardest thing. For some reason, most of them are above the ground in Maine.
We met over 100 Southbound thru hikers (So-Bo’s) who started their hikes at Mt Katahdin. The wilderness would test their resolve. Many would take the opportunity to jump off at White’s Landing, spend the night and get a hot meal. Most were Americans, but on our northbound trek, we would meet hikers from Canada, the U.K., Germany, Australia and New Zealand.
As section hikers, we didn’t get into the culture that thru-hikers are immersed in. Their journeys are for months on end with life on the trail being a totally different experience. Our goal was to complete the 100 Mile Wilderness in 7 days while enjoying the beautiful Maine backcountry.
For me, the wilderness tested my limits for physical endurance and tolerance of pain. I learned to work through the frequent muscle aches and ate as much as possible to stretch my endurance. At times, I would just run out of steam, eat some food and hit the trail again. We never thought that it would take over 12 hours a day to reach our goal. We underestimated the terrain and my preparation was inadequate. While I was probably in the best shape that I’ve been in for at least 10 years, it wasn’t good enough. My younger friend who is an active duty Marine, admitted that it was tough. I’m sure he could have finished a day earlier, but in hiking you are only as fast as your slowest member. Mentally, it was a daily challenge to keep taking the next step. At this point, I’m not driven to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. The time, dedication and fortitude to do this for months on end takes a special person.
I learned a few things about myself.
– When presented with a difficult situation, I was able to persevere and complete the task.
– Pain is somewhat relative. Unless you are dealing with an obvious injury, it is mind over matter.
– My determination overrode my perceived limits.
– As a believer, I prayed for the ability to endure. It was answered with endurance.
– Living a week with only what I could carry on my back helped me to re-examine my desire for “stuff” I have too much stuff.
Getting “off the grid” to escape the rat race is really quite the privilege. Of course, most of us have to return to a job, but it sure clears the mind and provides the opportunity to see the amazing creation. In the end, my trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness confirmed why I am drawn to the backcountry. It can bring out the best in you, is therapeutic and can provide focus to the things that are really important in life.
The weather for this trip was mostly awesome. Sunny, clear skies, temperature in the 70’s. I imagined how much harder this would have been if it had been raining. The bogs would have become swamps, instead of rock hopping across streams, we would have been fording. We began our 8th day earlier than usual on the shores of Rainbow Lake. With 7 miles to Abol Bridge, we were ready to finish this marathon.
Making our breakfast, we would hop out on a rock and eat on Rainbow Lake. The water was like glass, the air still. The sun had not yet climbed over the trees. The quiet enveloped us and the solitude was remarkable.
Packing up, we hit the trail by 6:30 or so. Only one more “hill” to climb and one more lean-to. While the trail wasn’t as difficult as the first 50 miles, it wasn’t a walk in the park either. As we walked, our talk turned to food again – our favorite fast-foods and desserts. We both agreed that cheeseburgers were from angels and that we were going to get one after we emerged from this moss encrusted forest. The miles clicked by slowly on my GPS, each 1/10 of a mile taking forever. It probably wasn’t a good idea watching the mileage on my Garmin, kinda like watching water boil in a pot.
We would climb to Rainbow Ledges, a slow steady incline that threatened to sap our last energy reserves. This would be the 12th mountain, maybe the 13th in one week. After a false summit, we would reach the plateau, a collection of granite slabs with blueberry bushes everywhere. They weren’t quite ready to eat, so we just admired the view of Katahdin. We pressed on and the trail seemed to turn into a rock garden.
As we crossed one of the last brooks, we arrived at the Hurd Stream Lean-To. This would be one of the first lean-to’s if you were a So-Bo on the A.T. It was in fairly rough shape and looked small and uncomfortable. I just can’t get into the spirit of the lean-to’s.
As we continued on, we realized that we were within a few miles of Abol Bridge. We picked up the pace and took one more break on a big boulder in the middle of the trail. A So-Bo approached and said “You know, there is ice cold Coke and ice cream at Abol Bridge”. We all laughed because we probably looked pretty bad with our muddy, sweat soaked clothes and gaunt faces. We had one last snack and were determined to finish the last leg. About two miles from the end, something in me snapped and all I thought about was a cheeseburger. I ran past Joe who had been in the lead for 99% of this hike singing the praises of Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” You know the tune. The look on Joe’s face was one of confusion and humor. Now, I was walking twice as fast as he, sometimes running as my pack and I were one. I would stay in the lead until the end.
Still thinking about food and in a daze, I looked up and saw some people who I recognized heading southbound, but it didn’t click who they were. It was Joe’s family who hiked 5 minutes down the A.T. to meet us. We were happy to see them and enjoyed seeing someone we actually knew. We walked to the last sign before exiting the wilderness and took our last pics.
Mission complete, it felt weird to emerge into civilization. In the past week, we had walked for approximately 95-100 hours, taken over 250,000 steps, endured approximately 30,000 ft. of elevation change, crossed countless brooks and streams, walked across several miles of logs and planks, and hopped thousands of boulders. We never fell into a stream, into a bog, or down a hill. We came close but were blessed with an accident-free adventure.
Oh yes, within a few hours I would have my cheeseburger. Sadly, my stomach had shrunk and I couldn’t even finish it.
My gear: Deuter ACT Lite 65+10 Backpack – Emerald/Anthracite A nice lightweight backpack that is tough as nails. A waterproof cover can be purchased separately.
At the Wadleigh Stream Lean-To. As dawn broke the next morning, we were still in our sleeping bags and heard footsteps outside the tent on several occasions. By the time we rolled out, most of the lean to occupants were gone. Then we realized that we had placed our tent on the path between the shelter and the brook. Oh well, it seemed like a good spot last night. Getting our usual late start, we filtered a few liters from the brook and were on the trail at a decent pace. Climbing Nesuntabut Mtn, we would reach a false summit which had some amazing views of Katahdin. We met a young So-Bo thru-hiker who was taking a break and taking a smoke. Later, I would laugh to myself about this young smoker. Such a dichotomy, long distance hiking and smoking. I wondered if part of his journey was trying to quit. Hmmm. Twenty minutes later we ran into a mother and daughter taking a break on an outcropping. The mom shared their story of hiking up Katahdin with the intent on hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness southbound. After 15 miles, the wilderness had taken its’ toll on the mom. Her legs must have had scratches over every inch. She said that they were going to bail out at White’s Landing, another 20 miles to the south. That was a good thing, because the trail definitely gets harder the farther south you go. Yep, this trail was not for the fainthearted. We wished them well and made the final 300 ft. to the summit.
We would skirt Pollywog Stream and eventually, we would parallel Rainbow Stream to began a gradual climb into the forest. The humidity was high, and I think we were losing more water than we could take in. We would end up drinking about 5 liters of water today.
Rainbow Stream at times was a rushing torrent through narrow crevices and multiple cascades. It was one of the fastest flowing streams of the entire trip. Taking a break, we observed several young people frolicking downstream. Tempting, but we owed the taskmaster about 5 more miles today. After a while, I found myself daydreaming and ended up in a meadow. I noticed a hiker setting up his tent and saw the Rainbow Stream Lean-To below. There were several northbound section hikers who were trying to make Rainbow Springs Campground a few miles away. Thunderstorms were all around us, but other than a few sprinkles, no rain. A Southbounder warned us about the bogs ahead. Lovely, more bogs. Actually, it could have been much worse – if it had been raining, we would have been sloshing through the bogs instead of hopping from rock to rock and root to root.
We took a break and dipped our feet in the stream. Trying to keep my feet out of the dirt, I almost fell in. This became a busy lean-to as a couple of more So-Bo’s would stop in. It was around 4 p.m. and most hikers would be settling in for the day. Not us, we still had a good 4 or 5 hours to go. A bridge, made up of several logs made for a precarious crossing. The thunder would continue, and we actually hoped for some rain. Lightning struck within a mile or so, the crack was sharp and loud. I imagined there was one less tree in the forest. As we made our way around the various lakes and ponds, the trail would be within yards of the bank. Mostly boggy at this point, it would slow our progress. The gnats and mosquitoes were relentless, but we pressed on.
I forgot to mention on Day 6 that Joe stumbled upon the remnants of another hiker’s expensive carbon fiber trekking pole, half buried in a mud bog. Joe would go on to explain that he almost ended up doing the splits into the same muddy crossing. My $25 poles were holding up just fine and kept me from falling down dozens of times. I will never hike without poles again.
We would stop at Rainbow Springs Campground and it started raining lightly. Joe broke out his rainfly and we ate under it. When I went down to the lake to refill our water, I saw a pipe sticking out from the ground with water draining into the lake. I thought that it was odd and put my hand under the water flow. It was ice-cold. Man, this was the first spring we stumbled on and the water was the best of the entire trip. We dumped some of our old water out and filled up with this heavenly liquid. It was so humid out here and the water so cold that condensation built up on our water containers.
The campground area was noisy with the sound of hikers enjoying themselves. We still needed to log a few more miles to make it out by mid-morning, so we packed up and headed north. The light began to fade on our last night in the wilderness. As darkness fell, our eyes would slowly get used to the low light and were able to hike without headlamps for quite a while after sunset. Joe would begin his search for a primo campsite in the blackness of the Appalachian Trail.
We would find an established site on the shore of Rainbow Lake. It was tough to find a spot large enough without roots or rocks, but that’s what the pads were for. The mice would scurry around the campsite and the loons would croon us to sleep in a humid, windless night. I was excited and yet sad that this would be our last night on the A.T. We would be rudely awaked around 0300 when the haunting calls of the loons turned into the mating call of the loons. It was not a soothing sound. But today would bring cheeseburgers…..
My gear: Deuter ACT Lite 65+10 Backpack – Emerald/Anthracite A lightweight pack that is super-tough. A waterproof cover can be purchased separately.
A little advice for bloggers who write about their hikes. Don’t wait too long to write your thoughts down after you’ve completed the hike. While I had the intent on keeping a journal during my hike through Maine, I was so tired at the end of the day that I would just crash. The best I could do was jot down approximately where we were. Funny thing about aging, the short-term memory goes first and by the time you’re really old the ancient memories come back clear as a bell. So, maybe I should just write about this trip in 25 years.
Part of our experience in the section hike of the A.T. was the camping. Many thru-hikers stay in the lean-to’s and say that it adds to the overall adventure. While we didn’t avoid contact with other hikers, we preferred to camp in a tent as it offered protection from the bugs and rain. (It’s still kind of weird to sleep next to strangers in a lean-to) Since we would hike into the night to make our mileage, finding a suitable site was difficult. Joe had the uncanny ability to find decent campsites next to a stream or lake in total darkness. Falling to sleep with the sound of rushing water is either peaceful or makes you go pee. For me, I don’t think that I had enough water left in me at the end of the day as I lost most of it in sweat, so it was just peaceful.
As we broke camp and sent out my daily OK signal on the SPOT messenger, (SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange) we looked forward to 15 mile days on easy terrain. Actually, there isn’t much easy terrain in the Maine wilderness – it’s just not as brutal. The bogs and roots were still prevalent and the occasional up/down would add some variety. At this point, approximately 60-70 miles into the 100 Mile Wilderness, the trail is never far from a lake or stream. We carried a little less water and noticed an increase in the humidity and bug population. In the summer up here, bug repellant doesn’t last long as you sweat it off within minutes of applying it. We did learn a valuable lesson on one type of repellant. Permethrin is a great bug deterrent when applied to clothing and hats. I treated most of my clothes, including socks and my hat. The bugs would bounce off the treated clothing, so most of the week I would wear long pants and a long sleeve breathable shirt. Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Trigger Spray, 24-Ounce
Hoping always to see a moose, we would continue to see their evidence on the trail. The little moose doodles were almost always on the trail, a reminder of who this path really belonged to. Most of the animals we would encounter or hear were birds and chipmunks. Around the lakes, the loons would make their haunting calls. The chipmunks almost seemed annoyed that we were invading their territory and chatter loudly. I began to imagine that whenever I was having a hard time on the trail, the chipmunks would be laughing at me with their annoying little voices. Little Boardman Mountain was a pleasant summit that provided some decent views of Crawford Pond and the Jo-Mary Lakes. We’ve been using Gu and Stinger energy gels to get us over these hills. They really have made a difference.
The lakes and brooks brought great opportunities to cool our aching feet. Yep, take off the shoes and wiggle your toes in the sandy bottom of a cool, clear lake or dip them in a rushing brook. We would repeat this cooling process a couple of times and take another 35,000 steps today.
Next morning, getting our usual late start we filtered a few liters from the brook and were on the trail at a decent pace. Eventually, we would parallel Rainbow Stream and began a gradual climb into the forest. The humidity was high, and I think we were losing more water than we could take in. We would end up drinking about 5 liters of water today. I ended up getting a lot of use from my water filtration system: Sawyer Products Complete Water Filtration System This thing is bulletproof and great for two or more campers.
Rainbow Stream at times was a rushing torrent through narrow crevices and multiple cascades. It was one of the fastest flowing streams of the entire trip. Taking a break, we observed several young people frolicking downstream. Tempting, but we owed the taskmaster about 5 more miles today. After a while, I found myself daydreaming and ended up in an area that opened up. I noticed a hiker setting up his tent and saw the Rainbow Stream Lean-To below. There were several northbound section hikers who were trying to make Rainbow Springs Campground a few miles away. Thunderstorms were all around us, but other than a few sprinkles, no rain. A Southbounder warned us about the bogs ahead. Lovely, more bogs. Actually, it could have been much worse – if it had been raining, we would have been sloshing through the bogs instead of hopping from rock to rock and root to root.
We took a break and dipped our feet in the stream. Trying to keep my feet out of the dirt, I almost fell in. This was a busy lean-to as a couple of more So-Bo’s would stop in. It was around 4 p.m. and most hikers would be settling in for the day. Not us, we still had a good 5 or 6 hours to go. A bridge made up of several logs made for a precarious crossing. The thunder would continue, and we actually hoped for some rain. Lightning struck within a mile or so, the crack was sharp and loud. I imagined there was one less tree in the forest. As we made our way around the various lakes and ponds, the trail would be within yards of the water. Mostly boggy at this point, it would slow our progress. The gnats and mosquitoes were relentless, but we pressed on.
I used this backpack for the AT hike in Maine: Deuter ACT Lite 65+10 Backpack – Emerald/Anthracite Also got a custom fit waterproof cover made for the Deuter. Well worth it; more stylish than a trash bag.
Other than the occasional pitter-patter of tiny mice feet, the night sleeping under the lean-to was uneventful. My food bag was hanging from a rope and I hoped that the critters had not eaten through the bag. Mice are great at climbing and one of the only deterrents is to hang a can or piece of PVC on the rope above the bag. Somehow the mice can’t pass the obstacle. With 40+ miles to go, it would be awful to have my provisions eaten by a rodent. Thankfully, my food bag was intact.
The other occupant in the lean-to was a middle-aged guy who was a southbound thru-hiker. His journey started at Mt. Katahdin in Maine and had over 2,000 miles to go. He gave us some good tips on the trail ahead of us, told us about his broken trekking pole in one of the most severe mud bogs. The reason there were no tent sites available was because of the 12 or so teenage girls spread out across 3 tents. They must have been girl scouts, because I couldn’t imagine your average teen hiking through this wilderness. Turns out, they were doing a partial hike of this area.
We shared our filtered water with the southbound thru-hiker, and hit the trail ready for a long mileage day. Expecting less elevation change, we hoped to make up some mileage over the next few days. The forest swallowed us up as we began to make good time. While the past couple of days had occasional breathtaking views from the mountaintops, today would be the typical green tunnel of the A.T. Numerous brook crossings and bogs would make the otherwise mundane trek more challenging.
One thing I haven’t mentioned was that in Maine the way they name their bodies of water is different from many other places. Maybe, this is a New England thing. You see, they use brooks and streams for what I normally would see as a stream, creek or river. A brook up here can range from a little trickle to a 40 ft. raging torrent. Streams are even bigger. Even stranger are the ponds and lakes. Up here, the ponds can range from an acre or so to hundreds of acres. Lakes can be the size of, well you get the idea. It’s a different way of thinking up here.
Our pace continued to pick up as our usual .8-1.2 mph uphill crawl increased to about 2.5 mph. We would pass a couple of shelters and had our lunch on a flat section of the trail. Often, we would just dump our packs and have our meals right in the middle of the A.T. I don’t think anyone ever walked through while we were eating on the path. After lunch, we came upon a sign that said “Sandy Beach” Our thoughts turned to a cool bath and an opportunity to rinse out our sweaty clothes. I won’t go into detail about how one smells after 5 days on the trail, but your olfactory senses are somewhat improved after you’ve been removed from civilization for a while. Granted, we would take anti-bacterial wipe “baths” each night, but there’s nothing like a real bath or shower.
The sandy beach was a strip about 5-10 ft wide on a large pond. The water was clear and the waves lapped the shoreline. We shed most of our clothes (except for skivvies) in case those girl scouts showed up, and I broke out the biodegradable soap and we had our first “real” bath of the week. The water was cool but not cold unless we went deep. We also took the opportunity to wash the clothes on our back. Using the same soap, we scrubbed them down, trying to remove a couple of days of trail grime and salt from our garments. We hung our clothes to dry on bushes along the shore with the hope that the warm mid-day sun would dry them out.
While we would have enjoyed some more time swimming, the goal for today was mileage. Feeling refreshed, we pressed on, had dinner on the trail and logged over 15 miles before finding a sweet campsite by a stream. Joe had a good ability to find sites in the dark. Making camp, I was finally able to get a decent fire going.
In fact, the fire was almost too good. The kindling and pine straw crackled and popped like a bowl of rice crispies. Joe had to pour some water on the outside of the campfire to keep the pine straw from lighting. The main reason for a fire here wasn’t really to stay warm, but it did keep most of the bugs away. Moths would be the exception, and I think Maine has 90% of the moth population in the U.S. Eventually, we would settle in for a great night’s sleep next to the babbling brook.
By the fourth day, it felt like I was getting my “trail legs”. That means I wasn’t stumbling as much and hopped along from root to root, rock to rock, log to log, you get the picture. The Appalachian Trail as it passes through the Maine Wilderness is an unforgiving collection of bogs, roots, rocks and streams. There were times, no – hours of walking on tree roots. I haven’t figured out why those roots aren’t underground in Maine. By now, you can see my obsession with tree roots. Of all the terrain obstacles, roots are the worst. They trip you and make you calculate each step to avoid rolling down a hill. As we made our way through a ganglion of wooded tendrils, I wondered how many times we would step on, over and around them. Altogether, we would take about 250,000 steps on this hike. Each day 35,000+ steps. Now, after a few hours of walking we would have to stop, take off our shoes and let our feet cool off. This practice would enable us to hike longer and farther. The feet are amazing appendages. I learned from the Marines just how important it is to take care of the feet. Keep them dry, take care of the blisters and keep them clean.
On this day, we would trek up 5 mountains, over 7,000 ft. of elevation gain. The white blazes on the trees would be replaced by the occasional rock cairn or blazes painted on the rocks. At times, the granite was a collection of sharp stalagmite looking projections that would poke into our shoes. A fall here would definitely leave a mark.
The green tunnel of the lower forests would become a green gauntlet on the mountains. There were so many conifers up here, each one competing for the soil. At times, we could only see 10 feet or so off the path. The bugs were starting to get really annoying up here too. So, July is a pretty good time to hike up here as far as weather, but the pests are still abundant. When we reached the point where we were out of gas, we would have lunch. Today’s hike was much like yesterday and I was looking forward to getting these hills behind me. The climbs seemed longer and harder. Switchbacks are not very common on this section of the trail, so when you looked up, you would see a relentless, steep path. On one ascent, I heard someone whistling a pretty good rendition of the Star Wars theme. As I peeked around the next boulder, the young hiker who was on his way down said, “I thought you might need some encouragement”. You run into funny people on the trail.
On the fourth mountain, we would take a break at the Sydney Tappan Campsite, a rare, flat spot with grass. It had one of the classic privies, or in my neck of the woods an outhouse. Joe made it a point to use these civilized structures while I preferred the Yogi Bear method.
The chipmunks around the lean-to’s and campsites seemed especially adept at stealing food. I was on the lookout for them as they stealthily scampered around my pack. I fussed at them, threw a few pebbles as they chattered back at me. After a nice break, we began our last ascent of the day to White Cap Mountain. We were hoping to get some decent views at the top.
At the top, we dropped our packs and found a large, lichen-covered boulder facing west to catch the sunset. The air was cool as we took in the scenery. We retraced our path, pointing out each of the 8 mountains we had climbed. The contrast of the landscape made the colors of the sky even more brilliant. We acknowledged the creation of this vista did not randomly occur. The Lord’s majesty was all around us. After plenty of pics, we saddled up and began the steep climb down.
The northbound descent from White Cap was interesting with plenty of stone steps. The knees take a beating when you have hundreds of these steps, but it is better than an uneven trail. As darkness surrounded us, we began to search for a campsite, but as usual – there were none. We continued on for a couple of miles and stumbled into the Logan Brook Lean-To around 10 p.m. It was so dark that it seemed to suck the light from our headlamps. An unknown voice from the shelter said something about all the sites for tents were taken. We were so tired that we unpacked and rolled out our pads and sleeping bags in the lean-to. These structures will hold at least 6 people, so we joined the one other occupant and settled in for an uneasy nights’ sleep. Uneasy because it is a bit weird to sleep in the same structure with strangers. Fortunately, it was unlikely that serial killers would venture out this far into the wilderness, so as I drifted off my thoughts went to the other lean-to occupants – the mice. I did not want to share my sleeping bag with these vermin.
I used this lightweight for my hike on the AT: Deuter ACT Lite 65+10 Backpack – Emerald/Anthracite It holds up well and there is even a custom waterproof cover for it.
The first night’s sleep on the trail went too fast. Leaving the rainfly off the tent, the cool air from the stream enveloped the tent causing us to retreat deep into our sleeping bags. The sound of the rushing stream nearby is the perfect way to nod off. In the morning, it must have been in the 40’s as it was brisk. It was tough to get up early, in fact both of us were awake at dawn. However, our bodies said go back to sleep so we did. After a quick breakfast, we would pack up and top off our water.
The trail continued to follow the Big Wilson and we would cross over a couple of brooks before arriving at our opportunity to ford a big stream. As we reached the bank, we were a bit hesitant, but excited to cross. The water was moving at a decent pace, not as cold as the water in the Sierras, and there was a rope that went across.
I’ve never forded a stream with a heavy pack, so this would be a new experience. Putting on some river shoes, we would unbuckle our packs in case we tripped. I gave Joe one of my trekking poles and we held the rope with the other. The water was above our knees, and other than the challenge of walking on top of slippery rocks underwater, the crossing was uneventful. I’ve heard how these streams become rushing torrents after a heavy rain or Nor’easter, but not today.
We would dry our feet and get back into our hiking shoes to begin a gradual up/down track. The trail was a mixture of boggy areas and granite or slate boulders. Crossing multiple brooks, we arrived at the next large stream around lunchtime. This one appeared wider than the Big Wilson. Looking over the map, it appeared to feed the large Lake Onawa that we would see from the Barren Ledges. The rope on this crossing was not as nice, but we forded this stream and started to feel more comfortable with water crossings. While eating lunch on the banks of this stream, we watched another northbound hiker boulder hop across the same stream we just forded. He had some long legs, because if I had tried that, I would have been floating downstream like a log. This guy ended up being from Ireland and was on a fast pace. Afterwards, I would call hikers like this “fast movers”. In my Navy days, that’s what we in the aviation community would call a jet.
After lunch, we began a slow, difficult 2,000 ft. climb up to Barren Mtn where we would get our first decent views of the surrounding country. I might add it was slow because I was the slacker. Joe would power up and patiently wait for me as the weight of my pack slowed me like a boat anchor. The scenery at the top was stunning.
On our 2nd day,the climb up Barren Mtn was hard, but little did I know that by the end of the week, we would experience over 30,000 ft. of elevation change. Up-down-up-down. Why can’t the trail just go up one side of a mountain and down the other? Today would be a longer day, around 12 hours and we would make camp at the base of Fourth Mtn. Oh my goodness, they give the mountains numbers?
On day 3, I told Joe that my ibuprofen tablets were Skittles because I took so many of them. Well, actually I took a couple at night and usually around lunch. This painkiller is the best thing to have on the trail. My first aid kit was like a paramedics kit – I had some of everything. Joe, who carried the map gave me the bad news. Today, we would climb four mountains. Crud, I thought we were climbing a mountain named Fourth Mtn. I silently prayed “Lord, give me strength because I don’t want to climb four big hills. Admittedly, it would turn out to be the hardest and longest hiking day of my life. The climb up the mountains wasn’t just ascend on one side and descend on the other. The trail would go up some, down, up, up and down. I was starting to get upset when I realized, what is there to get mad about? Are you going to get mad at the trail – you chose to do this!
On the trail, your body burns between 3,000-5,000 calories per day, depending how far and fast you go. By lunch, I was out of energy and running on empty. Lunch was tuna, a tortilla an apple and carrots. One of the difficult things to do on a long hike is to pack foods that have the protein, carbs and nutrients that your body needs. My day became a day of mountain purgatory. Up one, down another. The forest was a mix of oak, maple and various conifers depending on the altitude. Sometimes, the young pines and firs were so thick, you couldn’t see 10 ft. into the woods. There wasn’t much wildlife to speak of – plenty of frogs along the way, a few snakes, but mostly birds. If it wasn’t for the birds and the wind blowing through the trees, it would have been very quiet.
The last mountain of the day – Chairback had a treacherous 250 ft. descent through a slide. Not a kids’ slide, but a class 2 rock climbing adventure. A tumble here and you would find yourself in bad shape. We slowly picked our way down, well – I slowly picked MY way down. Joe was at the bottom but didn’t see the blaze for the trail. I happened to see a “cairn” – one of those nice little stacks of rocks that previous hikers made to mark the trail. Farther on, we would see a white blaze and continued our descent into the Pleasant River Valley.
We kept going down as the daylight dwindled. It became a race to make it to the West Branch of the Pleasant River by nightfall. It flattened out for the first time in three days. We passed a group of girls camping, and two who were sitting in the middle of the trail eating. I almost tripped over them as I had gotten used to the darkness on the easy terrain. By the time we reached the river, it was dark. The river was actually fairly shallow, just under the knees and about 150 ft. across. We both crossed without incident, hoping to set up camp as we were around our 13.5 hour mark of hiking.
No, no, no! “No camping”, the sign said. We would just have to find a flat spot up the trail to pitch our tent. 30 minutes, went by, one hour – no suitable locations. Taking a break after crossing one of many bogs, Joe and I sat on a rock sipping water and staring at something that was moving on the other side of the trail. It was big as my hand and was an iridescent off white color – and moving. “What is that?” we said out loud until it became airborne and flew right at our heads! Thump, it would bounce of my head first and then off of Joe’s before flying away. First we tried turning off our lamps, but couldn’t see anything. It would continue to dive bomb us, hitting us in the head, chest and arms until we ran away screaming up the trail. Well, kinda ran away. We would hop from rock to rock across a muddy bog until it lost sight of our headlamps. Afterwards, I would name this monster “Mothra” and Joe would call it “Mothzilla”. It would be our most exciting creature encounter so far.
We continued on, up and down, over roots and through the bogs. Joe would venture ahead moving faster and looking for a campsite. I would hike alone in the darkest woods ever. Then again, I’ve never hiked in the woods in the dark by myself. It would have been kind of spooky had I given it much thought. Beyond tired, I was running on the desire to find a site and collapse in the tent. After another hour of following the white blazes, I caught up to Joe and we proceeded downhill on a trail that was 90% roots.
At the 15th hour of hiking, we found a site relatively free of rocks and roots. We pitched the tent, cleaned up and were asleep within minutes. Now, that was a tough 3rd day. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..
By the third day, I would ask God ” Lord what have I gotten myself into?” My epic adventure into the 100 Mile Wilderness may have been the greatest physical and mental challenge to date. What follows is a description of the first day I spent hiking the most remote and arguably the toughest 100 mile section of the Appalachian Trail.
The “A.T.” as it is commonly known to hikers, is a 2,184 mile marked hiking trail. It extends from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Every year, approximately 2,000 people attempt to hike the entire trail and are known as thru-hikers About 20-25% actually complete the 5-6 month journey. Most people hike northbound and try to make it before October. About 10% start in Maine and work their way down to Georgia. My friend Joe and I did a section hike of the A.T. We would start in the last trail town – Monson, Maine.
My preparation for this hike was pretty basic. Strengthen my legs and cardio endurance. Do day hikes on the weekend for 8-10 miles and run after work in the hills of Camp Pendleton. I knew that I should hike with a 40-45 lb pack to simulate the load, but it was such a pain to do it. This decision not to practice with a loaded pack would significantly impact my journey into the wilderness.
Joe and I have hiked Yosemite and discussed section hiking the A.T. We tossed around the idea of doing a section in North Carolina or Virginia, since he transferred to the east coast this year. The idea of the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine came up and we were quickly sold on it. The logistics made the decision easier. His family lived about 2 hours from the A.T. trailhead in Monson. We did some calculations and decided at 14+ miles per day, we could complete the section in 7 days. Little did we know that this timeframe is a stretch and only the best of the hikers make it through that quickly.
We discussed supplies, calculated the weight of each item and determined that we would need approximately 12-14 lbs of food to safely traverse the wilderness. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) advises 10 days of food for the hike. With 3.5 liters of water, my pack weighed in at 46-47 lbs. Each day, I would hope to shed some of the weight by eating my food. With my pack, the load on my small frame was around 215 lbs. On this trip, I would use my SPOT GPS messenger to notify our families where we were and that we were ok at least once a day. It’s a one way messenger that is used to communicate your position or as an emergency beacon.
Joe’s family drove us to the trailhead and walked the first 100 yards or so to the sign indicating the seriousness of what we were going to attempt. Their enthusiasm and encouragement made us excited to get started. We could hardly believe that the time had come. We started around 11:30 a.m. A pond near the beginning was an omen of things to come. Making our way deeper into the forest, the sounds of Highway 15 gradually faded with distance. The canopy of the deciduous trees enveloped us and we realized that we were entering the “green tunnel” of the Appalachian Trail.
The terrain was rocky, full of roots and hilly. Up and down, this would be the norm for the week. The forest was still damp even though there had not been significant rain for a couple of weeks. Bogs with planks and rocks would slow our pace even more. We would not see too many vistas on the first day and it was tough getting a GPS signal through the trees. Stopping at the Little Wilson Stream late in the day, we would have lunch/dinner near a nice cascade. We would cross here only having to double back because the trail actually follows the stream for a bit.
Following the “white blazes” that defined the A.T., we would see them on trees and rocks every 50-100 feet. Without these, it would be difficult – especially at night to stay on course.
Daylight seemed to fade quickly under the thick canopy. We checked out the map and determined that we could make it to the Big Wilson Stream by nightfall. Joe would continue to hike with his built-in night vision eyes, while I would put on my headlamp to tackle my first serious attempt at night hiking.
We found an established campsite next to the stream and each began our chores. Mine – to collect and filter the water, send out our “OK” GPS message, and start a fire. Joe’s – to set up the tent. Starting the fire was very hard. All the wood and kindling was wet. The fire never amounted to much, but was ok, because within 30 minutes of setting up the tent, we were hitting the sack. A 9 hr. hiking day and only covered approximately 9.5 miles. Tomorrow, we would ford across the Big Wilson. Zzzzzzzzzzz……….