2,184.6 miles on the Appalachian Trail: The Hundred Mile Wilderness

KATAHDIN STREAM CAMPGROUND, BAXTER STATE PARK, MAINE

It’s upsetting to me that the Hundred Mile Wilderness is the last thing a hiker does on the trail. After almost five months on the trail, all I wanted to do was finish. I didn’t have it in me to really appreciated some of the best terrain in all the fourteen states the Appalachian Trail passes through.

The Wilderness starts at Monson and ends at Abol Bridge, just before Baxter State Park. The whole length is beautiful, full of almost untouched forests and secluded lakes, most of which have ample space to camp on. Even though there were probably dozens of hikers heading for Katahdin around the same time I was, I barely saw anyone after the first day or so out of town. Whole days went by when I was completely alone in the forest.

This could have been a profound experience. It could have been the perfect time to reflect on my journey along the AT. I could have taken it slow, camped a few times on the shore of one of these lakes and swam or just enjoyed the solitude. I could have spent twice as much time in the Wilderness and had an amazing time.

The lakes in the Hundred Mile Wilderness are all secluded, cold and crystal clear.

But I didn’t.

My parents were expecting me at Baxter on August 28, and I didn’t want them to waste a hotel reservation. I packed six days of food because I felt that any more would be too encumbering and I didn’t want to pay for a resupply at the only possible stop along the way.

By this point in the trail, I was tired. All I wanted to do was get to Katahdin. Even though Whitecap Mountain, the last real peak of the trail before Katahdin was close to the beginning of the Wilderness, I was still exhausted at the end of each day. Even the shortest climb left me discourage.

I hated how I came to feel about the trail. I wanted to enjoy the last section, but all I could think about was the final peak and getting home after.

My first glimpse of Katahdin came at the top of Whitecap Mountain. It loomed out over the other mountains in the distance. From the side, Katahdin isn’t a graceful peak. It doesn’t rise to a sharp peak, so even when it towers over the other mountains, it looks kind of hunched over. I thought the sight of it would give me some relief, or anticipation. But after working for more than four months towards that goal, I don’t think I really felt all that different.

I often compared Katahdin to the Lonely Mountain from the Lord of the Rings, and this view kind of gave me the same feeling of nearing the end of a long, difficult journey that had yet to show its reward.

Sure, I could now see my endpoint. I could see how far there was left to go, but if anything, it was kind of depressing. I had come so far. I just wanted to finish, to end strong, and the mountain was still days away. After a certain point, “so close” stops being close. I’d been hearing the phrase “almost there” since Massachusetts, and I think I psyched myself out of recognizing it. “Almost there” for me would be 50 yards before the terminus sign at Baxter Peak.

Other than a mental funk, hiking in the Wilderness was amazing. Beyond the beautiful scenery, the weather was fantastic through almost the entirety of the stretch. Days were mild and clear and the nights were cold enough that I could bundle up in my sleeping bag and not have to worry about overheating. There were so few people around, I could get my choice of campsites or shelter spots.

I even ran into my friends from Lakes of the Clouds, Powerade and Southbound. Colby Jack ventured ahead to meet his parents and the other two were trying to catch him. I walked with them for a few days before they took off ahead.

Leaving the Hundred Mile Wilderness and entering Baxter State Park was a surreal experience. This was it. The final destination. Base camp for the last ascent. Again, it was kind of hard to comprehend what that meant. Here I was, in the last 1/20 of the hike, and it still felt like I had so far to go. From the entrance to the park, there is another 9 miles of walking to the long-distance hiker campsite. The whole way to it was a pretty easy hike, but it seemed weighted down with significance. It was hard to get my legs to work right, and a hike that would have taken me a morning back in July took me to the middle of the afternoon.

The whole way there, I saw groups camping for the weekend or just doing a day hike around the park. Many people commented on my AT thru-hiker tag and congratulated me on making it. My response was usually along the lines of “I’m not there yet,” or “Congratulate me when I get to the peak!” It was mostly a joke but a little true. I didn’t want to celebrate until I laid hands on that sign at the top.

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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.