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.
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.