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.
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……….