I told you in my last email that I would back up a bit and let you know how I survived the 100 Mile Wilderness and made my way to the base of Mount Katahdin. This email is my best effort at doing that.
When I was in Monson, Maine, the last stop before entering the formidable wilderness area, I had the good fortune of experiencing the best of the two hostels in town. I stayed at the Lakeshore House which gave me a low key and comfortable place to stay, a laundromat, access to a computer, a friendly caretaker, and lots of good food at its downstairs restaurant. But I ate some colossal meals at the famous Shaw’s Lodging, one of the oldest hostels on the Trail, dating back to the 1970′s. Keith Shaw started the hostel with his wife, but after Keith’s death a few years ago, the hostel was sold to Dawn and Sue who currently run it with the assistance of several cooks and housekeepers. I pulled Dawn aside and asked her a few questions about the town of Monson. I was surprised by what I learned.
Dawn told me that Monson was known for two things: its wood and its slate. The wood takes the form of lumber, biomass (leftover wood products burned to boil water to make steam that then makes electricity), and wood pellets (used in furnaces for heat or steam production geneerinen viagra hinta) The slate comes from the fact that Monson is surrounded by mountains with slate as their principle bedrock. The slate that is the most unusual is black slate, noted for its deep dark color. This slate is linked to the US Presidency and a tragic time in our country’s history.
Jacqueline Kennedy, the first lady of the John F. Kennedy presidency, was close friends with a Monson resident, Bernice Abbott. Bernice was a prominent black and white photographer, noted for her pictures of ordinary Maine people and scenes around the old general stores that provided groceries, supplies, and community gathering places in rural areas. Bernice was also famous for some of her pioneering work at MIT in using photography to study motion, for instance the strobe light generations of a bouncing ball. Some of her male contemporaries got more credit for the work, because in those early days, men were recognized for their scientific contributions more than women. Well, Jackie Kennedy and Bernice were very close and Jackie visited her in Monson often. When President Kennedy was assassinated, Jackie remembered the black slate of Monson and insisted that her husband’s gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery be made from it. Today, dark slate stones engraved by a Monson craftsman mark the graves of both John F. and Bobby Kennedy.
Aside from its wood products and slate, Monson was once known as a tourist center. The town is located on the edge of Lake Hebron. In the early 1900′s, tourists would flock to the Lake Hebron House, a huge hotel, to enjoy the good life of the sunny days of Maine’s short summer and the crisp evenings of late summer and early fall.
After I enjoyed a last great breakfast at Shaws’s on the morning of Labor Day, Monday, September 7, I returned to the Lakeshore House to pack up my pack and say goodbye to the proprietor Rebekah. I positioned myself on highway 15 just across from the Monson General Store and stuck my thumb out. I was hoping for a ride to the trailhead 3.5 miles north of town. Several cars passed me by, and I started wondering how long I was going to be stuck there, when a truck pulled up next to me. I recognized the driver as the same guy that cooked my blueberry pancakes that morning at Shaw’s. He had another thru hiker, Gentle Ben, with him. I put my pack and hiking poles in the back of the truck and climbed into the back seat of the oversized cab.
Gentle Ben and I hit the Trail at 9:30. We soon split up and hiked at our own individual paces. We were in the 100 Mile Wilderness area of Maine. Outside of a few logging road crossings, there would be no towns and no chances for resupply until we reached Abol Bridge in 99.4 miles. I found myself in the Pond Country of Maine. I passed by Spectacle Pond, Bell Pond, Lily Pond, North Pond, and Mud Pond. As I have mentioned before, some of these ponds are huge. I would call them lakes if it were up to me. There were a lot of ups and downs to the terrain, and plentiful tree roots on the trail to make me slow down and pay careful attention to my steps. I forded several rivers and made it 15.1 miles to the Long Pond Steam Lean-to. Just before I got there at 6:15, I managed to get both my feet tangled up in tree roots on the trail. I fell face first onto the side of the trail. The weight of my pack pressed my face forward into a pile of pine straw and dirt. I dusted myself off and felt my nose to make sure it was not broken. It was a humiliating fall, but I was glad for the soft landing. That night, I stayed at the shelter with my friends Bunyan and Cruiser along with three more northbounders and one southbounder. I was proud of my higher mileage of this day. I was energized by the realization that I was less than 100 miles from my final destination, Mount Katahdin.
The next morning, I carefully climbed down into the Slugundy Gorge and filled up all my water containers with water by a beautiful waterfall. I had been informed by the southbound hikers that, today, I would be climbing into a range of mountains where water was scarce. I hit the Trail and steadily gained altitude for several hours. I passed the Barren Ledges on Barren Mountain and eventually made it to the top of the very steep Fourth Mountain. From the top of this mountain, I was sure I could see the faint shape of Mount Katahdin just behind another towering peak. I knew the towering peak in the foreground as White Cap. The Trail would eventually take me over its top for a clearer view of my final destination. It was getting late that afternoon when I climbed over Chairback Mountain. I had heard this was a difficult climb and found this to be true. The descent was particularly tricky over a mass of giant boulders.
I had hoped to make it all the way to the West Branch of the Pleasant River before dark, but the descent down Chairback went on and on. At dusk, I tripped on the Trail and fell once more. Another miracle, I escaped unhurt. But this fall told me I was getting tired and clumsy. It was time to stop. I found a flat place to camp out of sight of the Trail and hurriedly pitched my tent. I judged the weather to be fair and stable enough to allow me to leave off the rain fly of my tent. I made myself a cup of tea and fixed a supper of Kung Pao Chicken. I ate by headlamp and felt very good about my day’s accomplishments. I was 14 miles closer to Katahdin.
The night was a beautiful experience. Because I had no fly on my tent, only mosquito netting was between me and the sky. The fir and birch trees towered over me. Stars peeked at me between the limbs. A waning moon came up late and lit up the forest. I slept well until dawn when I heard a visitor coming by my camp. This visitor was big. There was a large measured space between the sound of feet crunching on the ground. I was sure this visitor was a moose. I grabbed my camera, unzipped the mosquito netting door of my tent, and climbed outside. It was still dark. I turned on the flash to my camera and waited. I knew moose were particularly wary of interaction with humans. The crunch, crunch of its heavy footsteps continued as this visitor skirted my camp just out of range of my eyesight and the camera’s flash. I was disappointed that, once again, the chance of seeing a moose in the wild had escaped me. But I was confident that I could claim that, although I had not actually seen a moose, I had been visited by one!
That morning I forded the West Branch of the Pleasant River at 7:45. I took off my hiking boots and my socks and put on my crocs for the crossing. It was important to me that I keep my feet dry. The day before, I had started to feel the stinging pain of a blister forming on the heel of my left foot. I didn’t want to aggravate this condition to full blown blisterhood. Blisters were the last thing I needed on this final section of the Trail.
I climbed six miles out of the river valley up Gulf Hagas Mountain. I descended this mountain and scrambled up rocks to reach the top of West Peak. In the valley below, I ran into a hiker I recognized. He was coming south. This was Bookworm. I had last seen him in the Shenandoahs, heading north. I greeted him enthusiastically. Bookworm explained that he had been moving too slow on the southern part of the Trail. He was working on a “written word” project and found that many of the hikers he was interested in interviewing were passing him by. He decided to come north and hike back south to meet the hikers he needed to complete his project. He told me that I was one of the hikers he really wanted to interview. He asked me if I had the time. Although I wanted to get more miles in and the afternoon was wearing on, I agreed to an interview. With Bookworm’s ipod recording me, I told him my stories, my attitudes about the Trail, and sang him my Hikers’ Song. I hit the Trail 45 minutes later with an urgency. White Cap Mountain was three miles away. If I could get up to the top while the light was still good, I would be rewarded with my first full view of Katahdin, “the greatest mountain” in the words of the Native language.
So I set a fast pace. I was surprised when a friendly voice called from behind. It was Cruiser! I thought he was way ahead of me. Cruiser had decided to take a side trail to explore the Gulf Hagas canyon. This worthy adventure had taken him off the Appalachian Trail for several hours. We were both glad to share each other’s company again!
Cruiser and I made it up to the rocky, bare top of White Cap by 5:30. Sure enough, in the distance was the clear, unobstructed view of that place that had been calling to us ever since we started the Trail in Georgia. I was one day short of six months on the Trail. Finally, the end seemed real. I felt my confidence grow by several measures at that moment. Cruiser and I paused to take portraits of each other with the greatest mountain in the background.
Cruiser and I tented that night just north of the Logan Brook Lean-to. As I removed my socks for bed that night, I was alarmed that the condition of my left heel had worsened. Multiple blisters were forming on the bottom of my heel. Why now? I was wearing the same shoes, the same kind of socks that I had been wearing for months. Why were blisters showing up in this final part of my hike? I was 72.4 miles from Katahdin!
The next day, Thursday, September 10, I hiked a little over eleven miles to the Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to by mid afternoon. I stopped here for a snack and to get water. As I was leaving I ran into old thru hiker friends Don Quixote and Panza. We decided to hike together the next four miles to a lumber road crossing called Jo-Mary Road. Don Quixote and Panza were going to be picked up at this road the next morning. They were going to be a part of the Trail’s End Festival happening over the next weekend in Millinocket, Maine. They were going to work the day before the Festival in a “Hard Core” project. This project would involve carrying in building supplies to the Chairback Lean-to for major improvements scheduled there. I was torn. I had dreamed for months of being a part of the Trail’s End Festival. I wanted to sing my new Hikers’ Song there. But, I had a linear view of the Trail. I just couldn’t allow myself to go to the end of the Trail before finishing it.
That night, Don Quixote, Panza, and I were joined by thru hiker L-Train. We had a great time together. We cooked our suppers over a campfire and reminisced about our best and worst times on the Trail. I played harmonica and sang my song.
On Friday, September 11, I had my earliest start on the Trail of my entire trek. I was hiking by 6:30. It was one of my most enjoyable mornings. Everything seemed so fresh, so clean. It was cold! Maine was definitely into the fall season. At the Antlers Campsite on Lower Jo-Mary Lake, I stopped and made myself a cup of coffee and had an early morning snack. I was surprised when Goof, a thru hiker I had last seen in Virginia, wandered into camp. Goof explained that he had amicably separated from the group he had been hiking with, a group many of us recognized as “The Goof Troop.” He felt the need to speed up the pace of his hike. Goof was one of the youngest hikers I had met on the Trail. He had just graduated from high school. Goof and I hiked out of the campsite and were surprised when we passed the privy. It was labeled “Fort Relief.” We had heard hikers Old Goat and Check Six talk about Fort Relief. They would always sign their shelter journals “Onward to Fort Relief!” But they would never tell us what Fort Relief meant or where it was. Now we knew. It was an outhouse! On closer inspection, Goof and I found that this was no ordinary outhouse. It had two windows with curtains. It had a polished wooden toilet seat. It had a privy journal and books to read. It had a wash basin inside (You had to provide your own water.) And it even had a crystal doorknob! We took our pictures by Fort Relief before moving on.
This day turned out to be my longest day on the Trail for quite some time. In 17.8 miles, I hiked down beautiful Nahmakanta Stream (Indian for “plenty of fish.”), and around Nahmakanta Lake. At 6:15 I arrived at Wadleigh Stream Lean-to. It was crowded with many hikers, among them, Goof, Space Cowboy, Slapshot, DOC, and Jellyfish. I hiked just past the shelter and pitched by tent just off the Trail. When I took off my boots and socks, I was shocked by what I saw. My feet had been complaining to me all day, but I was not prepared for this. The underside of my left heel was covered with many small, red blisters. Now, even my right heel had blisters starting to form. How could this be happening? I wasn’t doing anything different. Was my body finally telling me that it had had enough? If these blisters got infected, could this be the end of my hike? I ate supper in a worried state of mind. Before I went to bed, I went to the open ground in front of my tent and prayed. I put down tobacco in the tradition of American Indians, but I prayed to the God that listens to all human beings. I prayed that I be allowed to finish the Trail, not for some great accomplishment for myself, but for what it could mean for other people. I promised the Creator that, if I was allowed to complete this journey, I would dedicate the rest of my life to helping others believe in the power of their dreams. I would serve by example and deed to help people see that they had the power to make their dreams come true. I realized the enormity of what I was doing. I was essentially shaping the rest of my life. I crawled into my sleeping bag that night not really knowing what was coming for me. This hike had become something much bigger than I ever had imagined. It was defining me and my life.
The next day I tried something different. If I had developed blisters by doing things the same, why not switch it up a little bit. Instead of wearing a thin liner sock underneath my hiking socks, I just put on the hiking socks. I also started a regimen of applying Neosporin to the outside of the blisters on my heels. I was surprised when I put on my boots that my feet felt pretty good. As I hiked that morning, climbing Nesuntabunt Mountain, I said prayers as I hiked. I reminded myself of an old teaching I had learned from the Ojibwe Indians on the Great Lakes. In their Midewiwin religion, the Ojibwe have an expression of “Let me walk with moccasin tracks on my Mother the Earth.” This doesn’t really mean that we walk in moccasins. It means we should walk respectfully on the earth. We should treat the earth as if it was our Mother. We should be respectful of all living things. We should expand our definitions of brotherhood and sisterhood to include all of the Creation. That morning as I climbed the mountain, I carefully placed my feet between the rocks and tree roots. I was walking with moccasin tracks.
That day something shifted in me. It was a growing confidence. I felt stronger. My feet stopped hurting! I hiked 11.9 miles along a beautiful stream, Rainbow Stream, to Rainbow Lake Campsite. I arrived midafternoon at 3:45. When I went down to the spring on the edge of the lake to get water, I could see a tip of Mount Katahdin peeking over the trees on the horizon. Even though I knew I should be careful with my feet, I decided to do something I hadn’t done before on the Trail. I pitched my tent and made my camp ready for supper and bed. I left my pack and food bag hanging from a tree. With my hiking poles, but without anything on my back, I hiked on northward on the Trail. I hiked for about 1.5 miles, carefully placing my feet on the Trail. I could see the lake shining through the forest below me. At one point, and I don’t know how I picked this point, I left the Trail and carefully threaded myself through the trees and thick undergrowth to the lakeshore. When the trees opened up at the water’s edge, a sight lay before me that took my breath away. Below me was the perfect mound of a beaver lodge. I stepped out onto the sticks of the lodge and out beyond the shore. There, on the horizon, was Katahdin. It was huge! The whole mountain was visible to me. No clouds obscured any part of it. I sat down right on top of the lodge. I didn’t move for thirty minutes. I just watched the mountain.
At that moment I realized that I was going to complete my journey along the Appalachian Trail. Somehow I knew that Katahdin was calling me. Like the Trail, Katahdin had become my ally, not my adversary. I marveled at the beauty of this greatest mountain and its reflection in the water of Rainbow Lake. As the light started fading, loons all over the lake started up with their evening calls. I knew I was going to make it. Everything was working with me.
The next morning, Sunday, September 13, I was up at 5:30. I was on the Trail by 7:00. I only had 11.2 miles to go before I came out of the 100 Mile Wilderness. At 1:30 that afternoon, just before I reached the road crossing that would take me to Abol Bridge, I met a family of a mom, dad, and two kids on the Trail. A steady drizzle of rain had started to fall. These people were amazed to meet a thru hiker. The boy and the girl seemed to soak up every word I said. I told them that I was impressed they were out as a family hiking on the Appalachian Trail. I told them to never let things like rain or cloudy skies get them down. All of this was part of the Creation, I told them.
This encounter with the parents and the kids energized me even more than I realized. I practically streamed through the light rain to the trail crossing with the highway. I turned right, headed down the road, and crossed the fast waters of the Penobscot River on a pedestrian bridge next to the main single lane bridge that I knew was reserved mainly for lumber trucks. I came to a log building that had a sign beside it. “Abol Bridge Campground and Store,” the sign said. Another sign on the side of the building said, “Game Inspection Station.” Another said, “Office, No Dogs, Packs, or Bare Feet.” I went inside to find a paradise of junk food, canned goods, cold drinks, and other things highly desired by thru hikers coming out of the 100 Mile Wilderness!
Even though it was only 2:00 in the afternoon, I decided to stop for the day. A kind lady behind the counter gave me what she called an Abol (pronounced A-ball with the accent on the long A sound) Bridge shopping basket, which was the top of a cardboard box. I filled it with supplies that would see me through my final push to Katahdin. I selected a jar of peanut butter, a package of English muffins, several Snickers bars, a block of cheese, a cheese danish, a raspberry danish, and a cinnamon bun. I paid for a tent site in the adjoining campground. The lady was a fountain of knowledge about the area. She told me that before the bridge was built in 1953, there was no way to cross the river except over a dam upstream on the Penobscot River. Prior to the bridge this dam and three others like it were use to release water into the rivers to float logs down to the paper mill in Millinocket. Now, the bridge allowed lumber trucks to transport the logs. She said there was a movement at one time to call the bridge, the Thoreau Bridge, because the famous naturalist, writer, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau camped right where the campground was, where the Abol Stream flowed into the Penobscot. This movement failed, and the bridge and the store remained known as Abol Bridge. Abol, she said, meant “Where the rough waters meet the calm.” I kept my mouth shut, because I had been told earlier that Abol meant “bare, devoid of trees.” Anyway, I liked her definition better, and there were a lot of trees around there.
I paid for my goods and set up my tent on the shore of Abol Stream. It was still drizzling slightly, but the rain stopped about the time I needed to cook my supper. In the twilight, I hiked 0.7 of a mile to the boundary of Baxter State Park. There was an information board there. I signed up for a spot for the next night at a shelter reserved for thru hikers at the base of Mount Katahdin. I slept well that night knowing that my goal was within easy reach. It was only 9.9 miles to my next night’s lodging. From there, it was 5.2 miles to the top of Katahdin.
The next morning as I was eating my danish and drinking my coffee at my campsite’s picnic table, I had an amazing experience. In the dim light at 6:30, a large bird came flying down Abol Stream straight toward me. It was the largest bald eagle I have ever seen! Out of respect, I stood up and spoke to him (or her) as he (or she) flew over. “Booshoo, Migizi!” I said and raised my hand. “Miigwetch!” Hello, eagle! Thank you!
Immediately, the Midewiwin teaching about the eagle at dawn came back to me. At one time long ago, the earth was destroyed by a flood. Later, after people repopulated the earth, and started to become corrupt again, the Creator planned to destroy the earth again, this time by fire. At that time, the eagle came at dawn. He flew amidst the crack between darkness and light, straight up into the sky, higher than any other bird could fly. He screamed four times to get the attention of the Creator. He stopped the destruction of the earth. The Creator told the eagle: “It is now your job to fly over the earth each day at dawn and report back to me. As long as you can tell me that there are people living on earth who are remaining true to their original instructions, I will give the earth one more day.” According to this teaching, our lives and the very existence of the earth are linked closely with the eagle and the service he provides each morning.
I marveled at this sign as I packed up my tent and made ready for my hike into Baxter State Park. The hike proved to be rather demanding. I first followed the Penobscot River and then a tributary, Nesowadnehunk Stream (“swift stream between the mountains”) through the park. I had to ford the Nesowadnehunk two times, once on a very wobbly log, and once on some slippery rocks. I stopped by Daicey Pond and Elbow Pond for photos of Katahdin, the mountain getting bigger all the time. I arrived at the Ranger Station at Katahdin Campground around 3:00. Bruce, the Ranger, registered me for the Birches Campsite, and gave me a piece of paper confirming that I was the 304th thru hiker this year, coming north, to make it to the base of Katahdin.
That night, I shared the shelters and tenting platform of the Birches with Wolfpack (a young thru hiker and graduate in zoology from NC State University), Lisa, Desert Fox (from Arizona), Cloud (a deaf flip flop hiker), and Kind Man (from Saint Louis).
At 5:30 AM on Tuesday, September 15, I roused myself, fixed breakfast, and packed two packs. One pack was my old backpack that had seen me through most of the Appalachian Trail. The other was a daypack that Ranger Bruce insisted that I take. I was to use the daypack to go up Katahdin. “Just take some water, some food, extra layers of clothes, and some raingear,” Bruce had said. “You will need this lighter pack to help you maneuver through the rocks getting up the mountain.”
All of us thru hikers started up Katahdin independently that morning. We promised to gather at the top to help each other take our summit pictures. I headed out at 8:00, signing the clipboard at the trailhead with my name, time of departure, trail taken, and leaving blank the column for time of return. At first the trail was easy. I made my way up one mile to the falls of Katahdin Stream. Two more miles, and I broke above tree line. Here, the trail got steep with huge boulders and very hazardous climbing. With the absence of trees, the wind dramatically increased in velocity, at times gusting to 50 mph. Stinging rain came with the wind. I entered The Gateway section of hand over hand climbing before one final steep ascent to The Table Land. The thru hiker, Lisa, joined me for this section. It was comforting to have the company of another human being in this stark environment. We both marveled at a huge rainbow that had formed in the valley far below us. The Table Land turned out to be a relatively easy trail of steadily rising rocks that led to the final climb to the summit. The higher Lisa and I got, the thicker the clouds became until our visibility was reduced to about 50 feet. Then, up ahead, Lisa and I could see definite forms of other people. It was 12 noon. We had reached the top!
Lisa and I shook hands with everyone and then collapsed in the rocks, using them to provide shelter from the wind. We all ate something and drank something to increase our stamina. Then it was time for pictures! We all took our turns at the sign that proclaimed: “Katahdin, Baxter Peak, Elevation 5267 Ft, Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, A Mountain Footpath Extending Over 2000 Miles to Springer Mtn. Georgia.”
Our journey was finished. We were ecstatic, but we were also tired. We had 5.2 miles and 4000 feet of descent to negotiate safely before our trail odyssey was truly finished.
We headed down the mountain at 12:30. We reached the Ranger Station at 4:00. Soon, an SUV from the Appalachian Trail Lodge arrived to take us to Millinocket, the closest town. The ride to town was full of cheerful chatter among the hikers. Everyone was talking about one or more of the following subjects: what they were going to eat that night, what they were going to drink that night, taking a shower, not taking a shower, how they were getting home.
Jaime and Paul made us all feel welcome at the Appalachian Trail Lodge. Before I had managed to make it to the shower, I was greeted by Elizabeth and Dan Page. Elizabeth said she didn’t mind hugging a smelly hiker. Elizabeth was one of my first students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, back in 1980. Dan, her husband, was the pilot of a Piper PA-28, single piston, four seater airplane. They had flown up from Raleigh, NC to pick me up and fly me back home over the Appalachain Trail. But that was the next morning. Tonight, Elizabeth had packed in a North Carolina feast of pulled pork barbeque, cole slaw, Brunswick stew, homemade skillet cornbread, and peach pie.
I went to bed that night tired and happy.
Liz, Dan, and I were joined by Cruiser at 6:00 the next morning for a fabulous breakfast at the Appalachian Trail Cafe. Thru hiker, Pipe Smoke, gave us a ride to the Millinocket Municipal Airport. The airport manager, Jeff, gave us a very friendly send off and urged us to come back again. We took off at 9:11 with Pipe Smoke just off the runway snapping pictures.
I have to tell you that our plane ride back accomplished its major mission: getting us home safely. But it fell short of our hopes of offering us spectacular aerial views of the Appalachian Trail. Almost the entire East Coast of the United States was covered with clouds on Wednesday, September 16! Dan had planned a route over the Trail, and we were able to get a few mountain shots, but we discovered an amazing thing as we flew over the highest peaks of New England, the White Mountains. Air Traffic Control officials had assigned us to fly 2000 feet over the tallest mountains. With Mount Washington towering close to 6000 feet, this meant we were cruising at 8000 feet. We were above the clouds! I was expecting to see the tallest peaks poking above the clouds below us. What happened was this: As the tallest mountains rose in elevation, so did the clouds. The clouds grew in height to obscure the mountains beneath them! We still got some great photos and videos that we will post to the website: http://joeliles.chunkyboy.com
We stopped once for refueling and lunch at Orange County Airport in New York at 12:19. We stopped to stretch our legs and top off the fuel tanks at Charlottesville, VA at 5:16. We arrived home at RDU Airport at 6:50. And I was home by 8:00!
I am happy beyond words to be finished with the Trail, but I know I can never be finished with the Trail. The Trail will always be with me. Thank you all for standing by me on this journey. Thanks for your kind thoughts, your words of encouragement, your offers of help, and your prayers. You have helped me accomplish a dream. Now, I want you to work on yours!
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles
PS. Stay tuned to the blog for more photos, videos, and “life lessons from the Trail.”