2,075 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Maine was harder

MONSON, ME

For most of the southern portions of the Appalachian Trail, people had been warning me about New Hampshire. They kept saying how my mileage would fall off in the White Mountains, the weather was violent and unpredictable and the terrain would be as rocky as Pennsylvania and twice as steep.

I can now that everything true about New Hampshire is also true about southern Maine, but worse.

My start in to the last state on the Appalachian Trail was a little delayed. After an unexpected day off at Lakes of the Clouds, I wanted to try and get through the few remaining miles in New Hampshire as fast as possible. I stayed the night in Gorham, NH and decided to slackpack (hike without a full pack) the 21 miles from Pinkham Notch, over the Wildcat Range, to the Route 2 crossing and spend a second night in town. I figured this would cut a day off of my travel time and would be more convenient, since my first plan would have me stopping for another night in Gorham anyway.

I set off with three other hikers I met at Lakes with loaner day packs at almost exactly 8 am that morning from the visitor center at the Notch. Honestly, I credit these guys with getting me through this day. Powerade, Southbound and Colby Jack, thank you.

The first half-mile felt great. Suddenly going from a 30 pound pack to a 10 pound one is amazing. I practically felt like running across the bog boards that started the trail.

However, that happy feeling went away as soon as I saw the first real ascent. The southern end of the Wildcat Range is pretty much a sheer rock wall. We passed another thru-hiker who opted to do the range with his pack and he told us he had to haul his pack up the face with a rope.

It took an hour to go the first one and a half miles and that pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day.

Rains from the last day made the rock faces of the sawtoothed ridge slippery and difficult to navigate. I spent more time standing on top of a drop-off, carefully planning my route down from treeroot to barely-there crack in the rock to a landing place that might not be a pit of mud. The saving grace was the last three miles. I could walk that gentle downslope of soft dirt path all day long. I actually ended up running for part of it, just because it felt good to stretch my legs out a bit.

Those 21 miles were some of the hardest on the trail. The worst wasn’t the rugged terrain, the slippery surfaces or the threat of more rain later on, but because I didn’t have all my gear with me. On other days, if the terrain is harder than expected, there’s always the option to bail out early and set up camp. With the slackpack, I was committed to 21 miles, regardless of how late it went. And it did go late. I called the hostel for pick up at 7:56. That’s almost 12 hours of hiking with maybe an hour’s worth of breaks throughout the whole day.

Despite it being difficult, I’m glad I did the slackpack. And, I’m glad I took a full zero day after it, something I’d avoided since Connecticut. It would have been a miserable two days with a full pack and the zero gave my body some time to recharge, which it desperately needed.

Maine proper started out deceptively easy. The first seventeen miles out of Gorham weren’t too bad, at least not compared to the Whites. We joked and laughed at the campsite that night, making fun of southbounders who warned us about the horrors of southern Maine.

We were wrong.

It was like someone turned up the difficulty to 11. Every mountain was steep and rocky, either with huge boulders or just solid, flat slabs of rock. I had to trust that smearing my shoes over the flat surfaces would keep me vertical.

That first full day also brought me through the Mahoosuc Notch. The Notch is often called the most difficult mile on the trail, or the most fun by adventure-seekers, bouldering enthusiasts and masochists.

I kind of regret not putting something for scale in this photo, because it’s really hard to tell that the rock in the middle is as tall as I am.

It took more than two hours for me to clear that mile of trail. Boulders the size of cars and in some cases small houses were scattered around a deep ravine. The gaps beneath them were so dark and deep they stayed cold even in August. It was like standing in front of an open refrigerator and there was still ice in some places. The trail went around, over and in some cases under boulders, like the trail crew simply spun around, pointed at a rock and said, “Put the blaze there!”

I planned to hike 16 miles that day. I figured it would be a tough one, but I had done a couple 15-milers in the Whites and had done 17 the day before, so I was feeling confident. After the madness that was the Mahoosuc and the other climbs that day, I finished at around 4 p.m. having completed a big 10 miles.

Maine continued to pour it on over Bald Pate Mountain. The peak was like solid slabs of granite stacked on top of each other. I again had to rely on my trail runners sticking to the damp rocks.

At the elevation above the treeline, there is no protection from the weather. Storms come in fast, hard and dangerous.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s camping in the rain. For most of the trail, I tried to plan out my campsites to be in shelters if there was any chance of rain in the forecast. On August 12, I found a great campsite next to a surplus pond. It was a nice spot and the sky over the pond was clear, so I didn’t feel too bad about stopping early for the day. I could have made it to the next shelter four miles on, but I would have arrived just as it was getting dark.

I was congratulating myself after a relaxing evening when I heard thunder. The next lightning flash was clearly visible through the thin wall of my tent. Then the rain started. My tent was pounded all night. I barely slept, paranoid that my tent would spring a leak.

Luckily, my tent held but I had to pack out probably three pounds of water weight in to Rangeley, where I received some awesome trail magic from a friend of my aunt and grandmother. I had an awesome hot meal and a great tour around a pleasant little town tat I’m sure Stephen King would love to visit.

Robin and Stephen, thank you for putting me up and putting up with me for the night!

The next few days were really my last “difficult” days. I say that because they were the last ones with any serious elevation change, not because the last ones were any easier. The few days after Rangely took me over the Bigelow and Saddleback range. Both were dramatic and beautiful. The ridges were almost entirely over the treeline. The mountains fell away from the trail in steep drops hundreds of feet down and the wind threatened to blow me off the trail in some places. I felt really bad for the college orientation group I met at the campsite just after the Bigelows, since they were planning on doing a traverse in a predicted thunderstorm that I was uneasy on on a clear day.

Taking photos in Maine on a clear day almost feels like cheating, especially in a place like the Bigelow Range.

Thankfully, that rain hit me over some pretty flat terrain. Despite the constant downpour, I still managed to get in 22 miles to Pierce Pond. I attribute that to just not wanting to stop in the rain for breaks. Also, a hunting cabin at Pierce Pond has a pancake breakfast that’s open to hikers. Motivation, thy name is food.

The last few days into Monson were nice. The weather was great and the trail was pretty mellow, at least compared to southern Maine. Despite that, I was hitting some serious trail fatigue. Earlier in the hike, I could do days like those and be done by five or six. By Maine, it was a struggle just to finish the day before dark.

A lot of the time, the trail can be boring and difficult. Those times are made up for by the views on top of those hard-to-climb peaks and the people that share the long journey.

All that was left from Monson was the Hundred Mile Wilderness. It was hard to believe the trail was almost over. All that separated me from that sign at the peak of Katahdin was 100 miles through the Maine backwoods.

Piece of cake, right?

I can’t say how excited I was to hit this milestone. After about 1,000 miles, people stop making these and it was nice to see again.
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