Adventures in hiking…

Posts tagged “Maine

Backcountry Hiking: How not to Cross Streams and Other Bodies of Water

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If you hike in the backcountry long enough you will eventually come across a brook, stream, creek, river or ginormous mud puddle.  You will be faced with a decision.  Do I cross it, go around or turn back?

I once came upon a large mud puddle filled with the smelliest black mud ever on the Appalachian Trail and noticed half of someone’s hiking pole.  Wow, that was a run-on sentence.  I wondered, where the other half was and if the person fell into the bog. Actually did meet the owner of the broken pole at a lean-to later.  I did make it across the bog and learned how to do the splits that day.  Now, I can sing tenor.

Most of you will cross the creek, especially if there is a bridge.  I’m sure there are some out there that even have bridge phobias.   Kind of like driving on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and realizing midway that 23 mile long bridges with little or no guard rails scare the crap out of you.

What if there isn’t a bridge when you come upon that creek that is swollen to twice its’ size due to the thunderstorm that just occurred?  No fear, the purpose of my blog is to help you.  Actually, blogging just gives me something to occupy my time during my government furlough and keeps me from writing angry letters to my representatives.

Let’s assume there are no bridges, logs or rocks to step on to cross this creek.  You have many options, most require some prior preparation.  Still, you always have options in life.  Unless you are a congressional representative up for re-election that is.

Your first choice for crossing is this:

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The manly way to cross

Of course this method requires rope or a homemade hemp vine found only where they grow marijuana in the national forests of California.

The next method still involves rope, but it must be fastened to something on both sides of the creek.  Once, there was a rope strung across the Little Wilson Stream in the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness, but it was too high to reach.  Very funny.

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The monkey bar method

Hiking with a friend certainly makes it easier to cross water, especially when you have to ford it.

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The buddy system. Dude on top has four eyes. No, really.

The buddy system, while loads of fun when doing chicken fights in the neighborhood pool can be especially treacherous with 40 lb. packs.  Always remember to loosen your straps and unbuckle those waist fasteners.

Sometimes, the body of water requires something more than rope and a friend.    There are places in the middle of nowhere that require a boat ride to get to your resupply.  Why do they always put it on the other shore?  And why can’t you blow the horn more than once to get picked up?

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Don’t be a sissy.

I mean, really.  Who gets off the trail to resupply at some resort?   It’s only 40 miles to the next town.

So, there you have it.  The most common ways to cross water.  Why is it in Maine that a brook is bigger than a creek and a stream is wider than a river?  Everywhere else it’s not that way.  Well, maybe in other parts of New England.  But, they were here first, so I guess they can call it what they want.  Ayuh, that’s wicked cool.

P.S. – I must be passive aggressive because the WordPress grammar checker always underlines my writing and accuses me of “passive voice”.


Hiking Poles Are Not For Wimps

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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.

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Not the best spot to use 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%.

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Cooling the trekking poles off near Mount Laguna.

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.

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Not exactly carbon fiber, but they lasted over 750 miles.

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.

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Poles came in very handy here. 100 Mile Wilderness, Maine.

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.


Hiking in the Dark – Why Would You?

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A campfire is a a neat way to end a night hike.

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……

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Dusk provides some of the best hiking.

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.

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As the sun sets over the Maine Wilderness, the darkness really envelopes you.

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.

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Thanks Lord for amazing sunsets. We could hear a moose close by.

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.

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Try doing this in the dark. This is one of the reasons the A.T. in Maine is one of the toughest sections.

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.

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Our first river crossing at night. My friend’s headlamp about 100 ft. away, midstream.

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.

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The campfire would often draw curious forest creatures, mostly deer.

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.

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The peacefulness of the night was slowly ushered in.

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.

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Some fun with light photography. My first try at writing my name.


Why I Hiked the 100 Mile Wilderness

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.


Appalachian Trail – 100 Mile Wilderness – The Last Day

Sunrise on Rainbow Lake.

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.

All I want is a cheeseburger.

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.

Truly an unforgiving trail.

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.

Rainbow Ledges, Mt. Katahdin hiding in the distance.

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.

Mission Complete. Last sign in the wilderness near Abol Bridge.

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.