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.
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……….