This week is about trying to stay focused on getting through Maine. It’s a state with 260 miles. We still had a long way to go and we were getting tired of being out on the trail so long. Moreover, we had heard that southern Maine was brutally difficult – not what you need to face when you’re struggling mentally anyway.
In many respects, while one is out on the Appalachian Trail for six months, you wonder if you’re really ever going to get to Maine. It’s so far away. It’s too hard to conceptualize in any meaningful present way, yet you often hear expressions like “no rain, no Maine.” There are so many ways that you can be tossed off the trail. And if you are fortunate to get this far (from Springer Mountain it requires hiking over xx miles) you’re told that “southern Maine” is the hardest part of the trail – and you wonder if you’re really up for it. Nonetheless, being the 14th and final state (and being the home of Katahdin), throughout the hike, Maine” stands for much more than another geographic boundary. Almost like a stage of life, Maine is a time to press on, but also a time to slow down and absorb what you’ve one before it is over.
I headed into Maine with my new hiking family – Recon, Gbolt and me. Immediately we had a vicious climb up Mt. Hayes that seemed to confirm that as hard as New Hampshire’s White Mountains were, southern Maine really is going to be the most physical challenge of the journey. Yet, we ran into three different summer camp trips of young women (including a “bumble bee” gang of teenagers we met at the New Hampshire/Maine border who had taken 43 days to get there from Mt. Katahdin on the AT). They were not only impressive for what they had already accomplished, but their spirit helped give some senior hikers hope that this final section might not be impossible.
Just six miles into the state, northbound thru-hikers are met with two, successive (back-to-back) one-mile stretches of the trail considered by many to be the toughest – Mahoosuc Notch and Mahoosuc Arm. From our campsite, as planned so we would be fresh, we only had a mile of hiking before taking on these iconic, AT features. No one had said that mile might rival the next two for ferocity. (The descent into Mahoosuc Notch was very difficult due to its severe steepness.) We got started a little after 6:00 a.m.
Mahoosuc Notch. The “Notch” is a mile long jumble of large boulders dumped into the bottom of a narrow gorge. It’s said that the Mahoosuc Notch is either the most difficult or most fun mile of the Appalachian Trail. How you view it is most likely to be determined by your attitude going into the challenge. It didn’t help that as we started it was misty, the rocks were wet and we had just finished an unexpectedly brutal descent. It also didn’t help that as we made our way down the last hundred feet to the Notch I slipped causing my arms to flail upwards with the hands releasing my poles. One flew over an enormous rock ledge and down a hill. The pole sat just above the edge of a cliff, five more feet and it would have fallen another hundred feet. It was so out of the way Gbolt asked if we had to just leave it behind. Not confident that I could hike without both poles, I removed my pack, started scaling the ledge and climbing (and sliding) down towards the wayward Black Diamond Alpine cork-handle trekking pole.
I retrieved the pole and climbed back to the trail so I could begin the difficult or fun part of the day’s activities – hadn’t I had enough fun already that morning? Ironically, the first thing we did was put our poles away – climbing through the boulder field required the active use of arms and hands to supplement the legs and feet – poles were of no use here. So we began. I think we had the right attitude. We were determined to take the time needed and try to have fun. In many ways Mahoosuc Notch is an adult playground requiring its participants to be ever attentive solving a jigsaw puzzle – picking a path through and climbing down, over, around and through rocks and boulders and caves. It’s helpful if you can channel your former 12 or 14 year-old self. (One summer when our girls were 10 and 12 we vacationed in New Hampshire and Maine. We visited an attraction called “Lost River,” where Brooke and Amy ran through a natural playground much like the Mahoosuc Notch. Coincidentally, Lost River is less than a half mile from the AT in New Hampshire.)
Sometimes you’d have to remove your pack and slide it through a narrow passage or push it over a rock face. Having a hiking partner or two is a big benefit as you try to work through the Notch. We met up with Sputnick at the beginning of this part of the trail and he joined us as a group of four. At one time he used a rope to lower his pack down.
Sometimes you’d have to backtrack, learning that the path you picked was a dead end or resulted in too dangerous or difficult a task. At one time Gbolt led me through a passage and we worked together pushing and pulling packs through. As I got most of the way through I turned around to help Recon the way Gbolt had helped me – but where was he? I looked back. I waited. No Recon. I finished crawling through the passage way and when I stood up, there was Recon grinning like the Cheshire Cat. He had found an alternate, much simpler route, and was waiting for Gbolt and me to emerge.
Eventually (in just over two hours – an average or reasonable time based on anecdotal evidence), we finished the task. We had successfully completed one of the most discussed/videoed and “iconic” parts of a journey along the Appalachian Trail. I think we all felt like it had indeed mostly been fun.
The mist turned to a light rain. I was anxious about the very next mile – the Mahoosuc Arm. I’m still not sure why it’s an “arm,” but what it is, for some, is the most vertical and difficult mile ascent on the Trail. It involves lots of area of exposed rock slabs at ridiculous angles of steepness, over which hikers must walk. To do this over wet rocks and slabs introduces a factor that for some makes the exercise prohibitive. I wondered if we should even try. We decided to push on and see how difficult it was. It was very hard. Very steep, requiring many difficult maneuvers, finding limited footholds, climbing without poles, grabbing trees and tree roots, pulling ourselves up and sweating profusely. Fortunately, many had gone before us and they had created routes just off the slippery slabs through the dirt/moss/underbrush. Reaching the top was an incredible relief, and quite an accomplishment, I thought.
Having completed one of the most severe climbs on the Trail, we rested at the top of the Mahoosuc Arm a little after noon and had lunch. We had covered three miles in six hours – easily the slowest pace for any of us the entire trip.
Next was a short hike to Speck Pond, a highest alpine lake in Maine. Although there was a nice shelter and campsite there (and the skies were clearing), we pushed on to Old Speck mountain followed by a very long descent into Graftin Notch. We had decided to stealth just before the parking lot in Grafton Notch. Just before we reached the site Recon had selected Gbolt and I ran into Atlas, a friend from the Shenandoahs, who had flipped and was now hiking south from Katahdin. He alerted us to great trail magic just a few hundred yards from our stealth site. We were able to enjoy hot dogs, beer, soda, chips, cookies, fruit, etc. courtesy of Hyperlite, an outdoor gear manufacturer.
The following day we climbed out of Grafton Notch and up Baldpate peaks. It would be one of my favorite days. The peaks, including the surrounding peaks such as Old Speck were in the clouds although it was sunny. The clouds were lifting as we climbed. The first peak (West) had no view so the lingering clouds were of no moment. As we descended to climb Baldpate East the sky continued to clear and our views were magnificent. The climb up the east peak was unique because it was all exposed, smooth rock slab – it was steep and the wind had picked up. The geology was interesting and we were able to enjoy ever clearing skies and grand vistas. The rest of the day was a pleasant walk over pine needle paths passing a gorge, cascades, and waterfall. Unfortunately, Recon started feeling poor and we would learn the next day that his hiking was over. (He took a severe blow to the chest during a fall in the Wildcat Mountains a few days earlier.)
Another unique feature of this week were trail angels. Jeff and Tracie have a cottage or “camp” near Andover. We stayed with them two nights while another trail angel (Random – a hiking buddy’s wife) slackpacked us the next three days. Tracie and Jeff are fascinated with the enormity of the AT and the task thru-hikers undertake to travel its length. They provide a bed, shower, meals and shuttle service. They do not want any money, just stories of the experience. These great benefits helped boost our spirits about getting this hike finished. We finished the week with a two-night “semi-slack” (where Random took most of our food and some gear to Stratton for us).
Before we knew it we had covered 110 miles, climbed Sugarloaf, Spauling, the Saddleback Montains, the Crocker Mountains and completed two of the most notorious challenges on the Trail. We had visited (and stayed) in Rangeley and had reached Stratton. We had passed the 2,000 mile mark and had less than 200 miles to go. Between the hard work at the week’s beginning and the help of trail angels making the second half easier, it started to seem like we might really be able to finish this journey. Stratton and the 2,000 mile mark seemed distant a week ago, now we had new enthusiasm, although saddened to lose Recon. Many told us that the tough hiking of southern Maine ends after the Bigelow Mountains, which is how we’d start the next week. Three days to Caratunk, three days to Monson, and then onto to the 100-mile wilderness and Katahdin. For the first time in almost six months I allowed myself to think that we might just get this thing done.
Last modified: August 29, 2018