You can usually tell the experienced hikers from the rookies on the trail. With only 3 years of hiking under my belt, I’m no longer a rookie you see, I’ve moved up to a novice. Not that I don’t make rookie mistakes on the trail now and then. Like the time I almost lit my friend’s JetBoil with the little foam koozie thing still on. Man, I might dedicate one of my future blogs to my rookie mistakes.
So back to the subject at hand – hiking or trekking poles. Almost every seasoned hiker uses them. Early on in hiking, it was with a single pole. Not sure why I started using one. One pole was ok, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Either that or I wasn’t using it properly. After some research, it became obvious that I could have gotten by with less knee pain with two poles.
Most people will tell you that they use poles to lessen the impact on the knees. The knee is an amazing feat of design by our creator. It absorbs repeated pounding and tremendous weight over and over. The compressive force exerted on the knee going downhill is significant. One study revealed that the typical runner’s knee absorbed between 2-4 times the bodies’ weight. for a 150 lb hiker, that’s approximately 500 lbs each time! The average person’s stride is 2.5 ft. So, in a 10 mile hike, you take roughly 20,000 steps. So here’s some numbers that will blow you away. That’s over 10,000,000 pounds of force or 5,000 tons absorbed by your knees on this particular hike. Good golly, check my math on that one. No wonder my knees ache sometimes. Supposedly, a 1999 Journal of Sports Medicine study revealed that used properly, poles reduce the stress to the knees by up to 25%.
I bought my single trekking pole a partner and that’s when the benefits became obvious. With two poles, I developed better balance going downhill, didn’t slip as much, moved faster and even learned how to “spider” with them. Yes, I know arachnids have eight legs, but someone came up with the name for the technique. The poles even gave this boy some rhythm, where there was none before.
One of the reasons I took up hiking was to get some exercise. Using the same math as before, imagine lifting your trekking poles even 5,000 times on a hike. At an average of 10 ounces each, that’s over 3,700 lbs of lifting. Wow, who needs a Nordic Track? Back to the balance discussion – poles provide the stability when carrying a heavy pack on those extended backcountry trips. They are invaluable when you have to ford those fast-moving streams. Think about it, having 3 points on the ground at all times when crossing over those slippery rocks.
There are times when poles are a nuisance or even a hindrance. Bouldering or rock scrambling is not the time to be using your poles. Hand over hand climbing or bushwhacking through dense vegetation may be some other situations where they are best left strapped to your pack. Lash them down and stow them with the tips down to avoid skewering yourself in the neck or head.
If weight is an issue, then shelling out the money for lighter high-tech carbon poles may be for you. Expect to spend $150 or more for those. I remember a time on the A.T. where we ran into a fellow with 1 – 1/2 carbon fiber poles. We saw the other half of his pole 20 miles later in a swamp with thigh deep mud. The brittle carbon fiber pole was no match for the Maine muck. On the other hand, my $25 aluminum poles were going strong 200 miles later. Even something as simple as this comes with accessories. Rubber tips are more eco-friendly, mud and snow baskets will keep them from sinking down. Some have compasses and thermometers built into the handle. Handles are typically plastic, rubber, or even cork, with straps to prevent flinging them over the ledge when you point out the awesome scenery or mountain lion. I prefer cork handles since it is comfortable and doesn’t cause as much sweating.
Some other uses for trekking poles:
– The make great spears for self-defense.
– You can wrap duct tape around the shaft which can be used in emergencies.
– You can make a huge cross symbol for those trail vampires
– Use them to make noise so that you don’t sneak up on a bear or to scare away mountain lions. No, really.
– Sword fights or fencing around the campfire. Rubber tips on of course. 🙂
So, like anything else in hiking gear, you get what you pay for. If you’re not sure about the need for poles, borrow some from a friend or spend a small amount on an entry-level set. Your knees will thank you.
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.
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……….