Vermont turned out to be pretty muddy, but only for the first 50 miles or so. At one point I stepped into mud and sunk up to my knee. Luckily, my boot was still on my foot when I pulled it up. The mosquitoes don’t seem to like it this far north. It was nice to move out of their territory–they were pretty bad in parts of CT and MA. There is another long trail in Vermont, imaginatively called the Long Trail (there is also a brewery named after this trail), which is concurrent with the AT for the first 100 miles in the southern part of Vermont, starting at the border with Massachusetts. The Long Trail runs for 270 miles total, splitting off and heading north to the border with Canada as the AT heads east towards New Hampshire. The Long Trail pre-dates the AT, and was constructed between 1910 and 1930.
It’s always fun meeting new hikers, and in this section there are people thru-hiking the AT as well as others who are thru-hiking the Long Trail, in addition to the usual mix of day hikers and section hikers. This part of the trail is where I first started seeing lots of evidence of moose (their poop). Although there must be large numbers of moose from Vermont through Maine, I didn’t see any while I was hiking.
2014 has been a bad year for Lyme disease on the trail, and I met about a dozen people who contracted it while hiking the trail this year. It can be treated effectively with antibiotics if it’s diagnosed early. A good preventive step is to treat your hiking clothes with a product called Permethrin, which keeps the ticks off. I did this back when I was hiking on the trail in Pennsylvania, after a friend brought some out to the trail for me.
I did a lot of hiking in the last couple of months with an interesting fellow called “Opus,” who is a retired general from the US Army. He speaks Mandarin, and was active with security in Asia for much of his career, and has a lot of good stories. He left the trail a couple of weeks before reaching the end, to attend a wedding. He plans to return to the trail and finish it off soon.
Just after crossing from Vermont into New Hampshire the trail runs through Hanover, home to Dartmouth University. There is a hiker lounge in one of the buildings, which I took advantage of one afternoon. It belongs to the Dartmouth Outings Club, which is over 100 years old and is responsible for maintaining over 70 miles of the AT in New Hampshire.
The trail through the White Mountains in NH is challenging, and the daily mileage drops off a bit for most hikers after entering this part of the trail. Some thru-hikers do the trail with their dogs, but most of the dogs are checked in to kennels during this part of the hike. I saw some day-hikers who brought dogs up, and they wound up carrying them pretty frequently. The weather also plays a larger role here, and it becomes necessary to check the forecasts before starting up some of the higher ascents. The trail through the White Mountain National Forest runs for about 100 miles, crossing the Presidential Range, with several peaks named after presidents. Mount Washington is the largest in the range, and is visible for several days of hiking before and after reaching it on the trail. “The Whites” begin with a hike up Mount Moosilauke, and Opus and I had heard that the weather was going to be bad as we were nearing it, so we decided to ride out the storm in a hostel nearby, along with most of the other hikers on the trail who were close to this point. This turned out to be a good decision. We later met up with a couple of hikers who decided to proceed up the mountain in spite of the weather warning, and they described their ascent as something like a near-death experience, with wind gusts so high that they could barely stand upright, temperatures in the mid 30s, rain blasting sideways, and very poor visibility due to the fog and clouds. I was pretty conservative with weather forecasts from this point onwards, and stayed in hostels twice more to avoid bad weather while in NH and Maine.
The White Mountain part of the trail was something I’d been looking forward to for a long time. I had been through this section back in 1987, when my friend Brian, a Navy buddy who had been an Eagle scout, organized a week-long backpacking trip for us there. It was for that trip that I bought the old external-frame backpack that I used then and again for this trip, now 27 years old. That trip made a big impression on me, and ever since then I’ve wanted to hike the entire trail, and to do it with that same backpack.
The trail through “The Whites” is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the US, and it has a special set of shelters that are different than those on the rest of the trail. These are called “huts,” but they are actually much larger facilities than the typical AT shelter, and are staffed with cooks and caretakers. People pay up to $125 per night to stay in a bunk in the huts (this includes meals), and the large majority are folks on short hiking trips of a day or two. Supplies are brought in to the huts by backpack. There are tent sites and other shelters of the usual style in this section also, and those are where the thru-hikers stay most of the time. The huts do offer some special things to thru-hikers, though: they often have leftover food from the prepared meals available for the asking, and they allow “work for food” and “work for stay,” so that an hour or two of washing dishes or sweeping up can get you a free meal or room on the floor in the dining area to set up a sleeping pad and bag, to stay indoors for the night. I took advantage of this a couple of times, and did work-for-stay in Carter Notch Hut, which I remembered visiting from the earlier hike. While I was there, after finishing up the dishes, I noticed a bunch of old shelter logs on a shelf. I took the 1987 log down and looked through it, and found an entry that Brian had made during our trip! I took a picture of it and texted it to him–he was thrilled to see it after all of these years.
The trail through Maine is extraordinary–I thought this was the most beautiful part of the trail, hands down. It also has some very challenging sections, particularly in the southern part, which includes the toughest mile of the AT, through Mahoosic Notch, which is a mile-long stretch through a narrow channel between two peaks, which has been filled with boulders that one must climb up, over, under, and through. It requires a lot of climbing with hands and feet, and it took Opus and me an hour and 45 minutes to complete.
There was a hiker festival in Rangeley when we arrived, and we were treated to a nice barbeque dinner there. Parts of the trail in Maine wind around several lakes, some with sandy beaches. One of the lakes has a few canoes that have been left for use by passing hikers—I spent some time paddling around this one, called Little Swift River Pond.
I was lucky to be visited again by a friend from Pittsburgh who had also come out to hike with me back in April in North Carolina. The dates for his trip this time were set by his schedule, but it was very fortunate timing–he joined in for three days of hiking in Maine, between Stratton and Caratunk, which includes an ascent of the Bigelow Mountains and a crossing of the Kennebec River. The view from Mount Avery in the Bigelow range was perhaps the best view on the entire AT, and the crossing of the Kennebec River is one of the iconic parts of a thru-hike–it must be done by a canoe “ferry.”
Most of the trail in Maine is remote, particularly the northernmost part, called “The Hundred Mile Wilderness,” which ends just 15 miles from the northern terminus of the AT at Mt Katahdin in Baxter State Park. There are many stream crossings all along the trail, but there are usually bridges put in for the hikers, or else the smaller streams can be crossed by stepping from rock to rock, or walking over a fallen tree. In Maine there are some streams that must be waded across (or “forded”). Thru-hikers usually carry a second set of shoes in Maine for this purpose (Crocs are popular; I carried a pair of Tevas).
I had an interesting experience climbing up White Cap mountain in this section: it was a rainy and windy day, but the path up the mountain was along a narrow trail through a section of thick conifer trees, about 15 feet high. The trees provided such good cover that it was almost entirely still along the trail, although I could see from the swaying of the trees overhead that the winds were heavy. The rain was coming down at an angle, but almost none was falling straight down, so that the trail remained almost dry, and the hiking conditions were quite nice, despite the howling of the wind and rain overhead. Things turned nasty near the peak, after the trail continued beyond the treeline, but this only covered about 250 yards across the very top of the mountain, until the trail went below the treeline again on the opposite side. Nevertheless, the 250 yard section was pretty crazy—there were gusts of perhaps 40 mph, and it felt like I was being shoved around by invisible thugs as I made my way haltingly over a pile of wet, jagged rocks to cross the peak. The rain was heavy and I got thoroughly soaked, but it was all over in less than ten minutes.
Other highlights from Maine included sightings of loons on the lakes, and hearing their distinctive calls (they sound a little like coyotes); meeting up with the visiting family of another thru-hiker and getting a lobster roll on the trail (the family was from the coast of Maine, and they caught the lobsters themselves); crossing a misty mountain bog, where dozens of pitcher-plants grow along the trail; getting my first glimpse of Mt Katahdin in the morning, over a mist-covered lake; seeing the stars and the Milky Way spread over the night sky (while making a trip to the privy at about 3 am); and reuniting with some south-bound thru-hikers that I had met earlier on the trail, who skipped up from points further back on the trail to begin hiking south from Mt Katahdin (this is called “flip-flopping,” and is usually done to avoid arriving too late at Baxter Park, which usually closes in mid-October).
My summit of Mt Katahdin on Sept 15th was a fantastic experience. There were several other hikers I knew who went up on the same day. It was a bit cold and overcast at first, with clouds passing over the higher reaches during the climb. The trail up has several stretches with different characteristics. Part of the climb is pretty rocky, and requires the use of hands and feet for climbing, but there is another section near the top where it flattens out a bit. This part has a spring that is named for Thoreau, who hiked the mountain in the 1840s. This section had lots of beautiful “rime ice” pattern formations over some of the rocks and grass tufts, which form from the moisture in passing clouds freezing directly onto surfaces, without any rain. When I reached the peak, I got in with a group of other hikers and we posed for pictures with champagne spraying from bottles as they were opened. We also huddled in a circle and shared a variety of treats that we’d brought up in our packs. The sun came out while we were up on the summit, and the view from the peak was really grand. The day warmed up then, and made the descent more comfortable.
I had rather mixed emotions during my last day of hiking. It felt great to complete the journey, but I was also a bit sad about ending my time living on the trail. I had really begun to enjoy the vagabond lifestyle of carrying my home around with me, and having a routine with just a limited number of concerns each day. It felt pretty liberating to be free of most of my possessions, and to rely on just the things I could carry for all of my needs.
Later that same day I finally got to see a moose–there was an adult female standing in the road as I was leaving the park in a car, along with several other hikers. She moved off into the woods as the car approached, and it felt to me like a special farewell to the trail.
To read Charlie’s other posts visit:
Charlie’s Story – Part 1 and Charlie’s Story – Part 2