As I write, we are listening to the sound of rain falling on the roof of a small cottage next to the sea. It is a joy to know that today we don’t have to disassemble a soggy tent, put on clammy, mildewed clothes and spend ten chilly hours backpacking. Instead we are drinking real coffee from real mugs and contemplating the comforts of indoor life. After five months in the hills, we have a newfound appreciation for everyday things that previously we didn’t consider luxuries. We are incredibly fortunate to enjoy them here on Cliff Island, off of the coast of Portland, Maine where Anne’s extended family spends much of the summer months. It is the ideal setting for weary hikers to re-enter what we are reluctant to call the “real world” (although a better term eludes us.)
Before I start to get introspective about our thru-hike, I should first recount the saga of our last week on the trail, which was not without drama. The final leg, from Monson, ME to Baxter Peak, turned out to be more strenuous than we had anticipated…
This sign greets visitors as they enter the 100 Mile Wilderness. Considering our fitness and experience with over 2,000 miles under our belts, we did not take ten days of supplies with us, but our packs were as heavily laden as they had ever been.
On our first day into the Wilderness, we paused for lunch by this waterfall which spilled into a deep, sheer gorge. We were joined by a large group of teenagers who were being guided on a backpacking trip as a summer camp. They were the first of an astounding number of large groups with whom we would be vying for tent space over the next few days.
The trail in Maine is known for a number of river and stream crossings which must be forded. We were lucky to have passage during a dry spell when the waters were low. Stories abound of waist high crossings.
The landscape is riddled with ponds and lakes.
We hiked an ambitious twenty miles on our first day in and climbed Barren Mountain at sunset, barely reaching the shelter at Cloud Pond by dusk. This is where our difficulties began. When we awoke the next morning, Willett had developed a severe limp and could not put weight on his left front paw. Our hearts sunk as we considered the gravity of the situation and began to assess our options. The injury appeared to be a sprained wrist, something he had recovered quickly from once before, so we initially decided to wait a full day at the shelter before taking a more drastic course. By noon that day we realized with our supply of food and the eighty miles left to hike that it would be too risky to ask Willett to go on. We had find a way to get him rescued from an area that is unreachable by road. We were lucky to get a little cell phone service on top of Barren Mountain and even more so that the folks at the Lake Shore House in Monson happen to be the most generous, sympathetic and helpful people we had met on the entire journey, which is saying something. They knew of an old logging road at the base of the mountain where we could meet them and were willing to do so on our schedule and then drive Willett all the way to Millinocket, at the other end of the Wilderness, where there is a kennel. The following morning Willett was still showing some stiffness but was able to move under his own power. We left most of our gear on top of the mountain and worked our way southbound (unfortunately) five miles to the rendezvous point. To our amazement and gratitude, everything went smoothly. After a deep sigh of relief, we started back up the hill, collected our stuff and were underway, albeit a day and a half behind.
The next leg took us over the very rugged and slow going Chairback range.
We were little low on food and behind schedule to meet Anne’s mom for our planned final ascent when we got our first view of Katahdin from the north side of Whitecap Mountain. The photo doesn’t quite do justice to the imposing prominence of the highest peak in Maine.
We pressed out the last fifty miles in just two days, pausing briefly at the ubiquitous ponds to cool off. The sandy beaches were quite a surprise!
The serene calm made for breathtaking views over the water.
We saw a moose making a meal of aquatic plants as the weather changed for the worse, making for a damp finish to the hundred miles.
A tiny camp store marked the end of the Wilderness and the beginning of Baxter State Park. At that moment it might have been the most beautiful sight of the whole week.
Rain over the last couple days made for a couple of pretty harrowing river fords during the ten miles to our last campsite.
And finally we were at the base of Katahdin.
We spent the night at “The Birches,” a thru-hiker only shelter. There were three fellow hikers there who would summit the next day. We made a fire, sipped a few celebratory beers and swapped trail stories and future plans. In the morning it was gray and rainy, but even so our spirits were high when Anne’s mom arrived and we began our final ascent.
We passed Katahdin Stream Falls about a mile into the 5.2 mile hike.
Soon the trail began to turn into a pile of huge boulders. It became evident that this was going to be a very tough day.
As we gained elevation we entered the clouds. Above treeline the temperature dropped, the wind increased and it started to rain. The trail became increasingly technical, requiring a lot of slippery rock climbing. Not to mince words, it was treacherous. There was real concern for the risk of an accident.
When we finally reached “The Tableland,” where the top of the mountain flattens out for over a mile preceding the summit, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief, but had to press on as the freezing winds chilled us.
When Anne and I saw this sign we both wept. It was overwhelming. The ascent had taken the three of us over five hours. It was a shame to be locked into the clouds and the conditions there didn’t allow us to linger. We had a quick sandwich for lunch and turned back, expecting the descent to take at least as long.
Somehow we were much more confident on the way down, and we actually had a lot of fun scooting down the mountain, mostly on our rears.
The weather cleared a little too, letting us get some views of the valley below.
And ten and a half hours later, the exuberant but exhausted climbing party was safely home free.
We left the park without delay, retrieved Willett (who was wild with joy to be reunited), and I had the surreal experience of transitioning from five months of backpacking to taking the driver’s seat for a four hour trip down the interstate to Portland, where we had a midnight water taxi waiting to bring us to the island.
We are now, of course, enjoying all the amenities of normal, civilized life while we wait to figure out what comes next. We plan to post some follow up and give retrospective about our experiences in the coming days, but for now we are just going to relax and bask in the afterglow.