Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Epic hikes: Appalachian trail end

Baxter State park in Northern Maine is the home of Mt Katahdin - the end of the Appalachian Trail if you are hiking north.  Some of the camp sites are restricted to a small number of overnight campers and you usually have to book about 6 months in advance if you want to make use of several of the sites.

My usual hiking partner, John, is also a master of understatement when he describes our hiking plans and I, a companion with less interest in the finer details, usually find out only on the trail any surprises that might be in store.

When we hiked Half Dome in Yosemite, for example, John told me that the hike was about 8.2mi to the summit and I somehow glossed over the detail that getting to the summit is only half of the distance.  It dawned on me a quarter of the way up that we were on a 16.4 mile hike!  This is not to say that John deliberately misleads me - only that the information is always there for the asking and I don't usually ask.

I should have done better research on this one - because there were a few surprises in store for us.

Jeff and John and his son Parker and I met at the Hampton park-and-ride lot late Thursday afternoon.  A small miracle happened with the packing - allowing us to stow all four packs and the overnight bags we'd brought into the trunk of the Yaris.  I was so amazed that I photographed the result.

The drive from the park-and-ride to the town of Millinockett is about 5 hours which gave us an excuse to stop for a Thai dinner in Portland.

We arrived at the Pamola motor lodge motel at about 10:30pm.

It rained on the first day up in the region - we had come early, it turned out, because of a mixup with the dates, so had some time to drive around near Millinocket and get a spectacular view of the mountain range that we were to hike.  The clouds made a very interesting formation above the mountain for a brief time before the rain reached us - these may be partially-formed lenticular clouds.

Mt Katahdin from the Golden Road
The promise of moose up in the region is a big attraction for many of the visitors who are treated with sightings at certain times of the year.  A ranger at our first stop on the hike said "The moose are on the move" because it is rutting season so the male moose are chasing and the female moose are running.

We had a leisurely day of waiting - as Jeff said afterwards an exhausting day of leisure!  A local said quite emphatically when asked that there was nothing to do in Millinocket and so we had a big meal and some beer at the Chinese restaurant attached to the motel and arrange to meet after 6 am the next morning.
Pamola motor lodge at dawn
Our hike was a loop starting at the Roaring Brook campsite and on to Russell Pond for the night - an even hike on a fairly level path and then on to Davis Pond for the second night, Chimney Pond for the third night and an easy hike out on the fourth morning (Tues).

With his slight 10- year old form, Parker's heavy pack was soon damping his enthusiastic chatter on the first day.

The hiking was easy going but a fairly long day of 7.8 mi.  It also held the first surprise - I had heard that one of the routes to Russell Pond involved wading through a stream.  This was not a prospect that appealed too much in the cool 46 degree (7C) autumn so when we met a hiker who confirmed that the slightly more direct route did involve wading I opted for the slightly longer route in the hope that it would not.
The water was bone-chillingly cold and about half-way across you felt that you really should turn around and take another run at it when you felt a little more up to it.  John was heroic, carrying Parker across and then coming back for the packs.

We arrived at the campground a little later than expected but still with plenty of time to take a look around and settle in for the the hearty sodium-rich dehydrated meals that mockingly refer to their contents as 2.5 servings - easily wolfed down by any single hiker at the end of the day. explains: The USDA and FDA regulate all food producers, including freeze-dried products, and federal regulations dictate serving sizes. We usually found that "serves two" really means "serves one hungry camper."

I stayed up to photograph the night sky streaks with a long exposure and had a satisfying result with the light from the ranger's office on the left.

The morning brought some interesting effects in the clouds and on the water as I waited for a sunrise that we would never see through the thick clouds.  The water looks like ice because of the long exposure which also made for an interesting effect in the clouds.

The campsite had a bear hang with a handy pole to hang your food bag.

I asked the ranger which time of year is best to visit the pond for moose sightings.  He has worked at the site since 1986 and said that when he first started there he would see moose more or less every day, but nowadays the sightings are fewer and further between.  He suspects it is because the forest was new then - the 80s were when there were a few devastating tree diseases that decimated some of the indigenous forest and left room for new growth.

We did see plenty of sign of moose on our hikes - fresh tracks and droppings - but none of the moose came down to the ponds to visit.

At Russell Pond for a nominal fee you can rent canoes and paddle out onto the lake.  It seems that September is the prime time to go there although the ranger did say that there were "ways to deal with the insects" if you go in the spring or summer.

The lean to was comfortable and we were allowed to make a fire - although the ranger warned that it was the only site where this was going to be possible.

John told Parker that we could make a fire if he found the wood so it wasn't long before we had enough for a fairly good blaze.

The second day was also going to be fairly easy hiking with a steep section at the end.

There are plenty of streams on the hike and for the most part they are easy to cross.  John eased Parker's load by taking on a fair amount of his gear to give him a better day with the pack.

We saw some really spectacular rapids and the water was flowing well.
Other sections were waterlogged and slippery and required some inventive maneuvering.
At some point we met a hiker coming in the opposite directly and I jokingly said that at least we didn't have to do a river crossing - to which he replied, "Well, actually...." and sure enough within a few feet we came across a stream with a single blue streak on a prominent rock and rushing water on either side of it.

This time, John had to walk across with Parker with no pack on to make sure that he could rescue him if necessary and then return twice for the two packs.  I made a bee-line across the water with my feet aching as I reached the other side - John claimed that his feet lost all feeling after a bit but it was another heroic effort....
At one point we ended up having to walk up a fairly steep slab that was streaming with water - fortunately not very slippery.
Jeff is still finding his conditioning for backpacking and found the steeper section at the end quite challenging.

At the top of the steep section we arrived at a large pond that we had to hike past (somewhat disappointingly having assumed it was Davis).  The walk at the top was over a shoulder and fairly easy-going and picturesque.

We made it to camp at 3pm again after this 5.8 mi section of the trail.

The Davis pond lean-to is nestled in the trees near the pond which has a view of the first basin that we had to climb out of the next morning.

There is evidence of a lot of powerful forces at work on the rocks - I suspect due to ice getting into cracks and forcing the rocks to break in fairly straight sections of varying sizes.  While I was down at the pond that night I heard a few cracking sounds followed by a short rockfall.  The slides (scree slopes) across the way were a small foreshadowing of what was to come on the third and most difficult day of the hike.

The day started with a series of steep sections that culminated in a boulder-field of rocks that reminded me of the top of Mt Adams in the Whites.  The rocks have even edges and varied in size from a small bar-fridge to a large desk.  These were the first taste of what was to be a day of hiking on broken rock.

John emptied Parker's pack and strapped it to his - I took a few odds and ends to share the load and probably brought my pack weight up to about 40lbs - John thought his was close to 50.  This left Parker free to hike with no extra weight.  It was to be a difficult day of hiking.
Behind John is the basin that we could see from the Davis Pond campsite.
After hiking up for a good deal of the morning we ended up on a large shoulder with clear views of the top of Mt Hamlin and Mt Baxter and a valley in the distance with a single large mountain across York valley in the direction of the 100 mile wilderness - the longest wild section of the Appalachian trail.

The view of Baxter was impressive too - with the Knife Edge ridge prominent to the left.

The impression that I had of the Knife Edge ridge was that it would be a lot like Franconia Ridge - a nice, even path with steep drop offs on each side.  As we got closer to the last push up Baxter it became clear that it was boulder-land all the way.
I took a photograph from the saddle between the Hamlin shoulder and Baxter and we could see Chimney pond - our destination for the day in the distance nestled below the far ridge.

We arrived at the summit and discovered that the few rather ragged people we had met on our way up had in fact been through-hikers who had just finished the over 2000-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) trek from Georgia after 5 months of hiking.  A few AT through-hikers were enjoying Subway sandwiches near the summit sign and exchanged some friendly greetings with us along with some subtle mockery of my oversized pack.  I think by the end of your hike on the AT you are stripped down to the bare essentials - fitting most of what you need into something resembling a day pack - but we had carried meals that fed 2.5 people and nice down sleeping bags and other luxuries with us all this way.
The cairn at the top of Baxter is impressive - a crow was hovering on the updraft for a few minutes - long enough for me to get a clear shot of it before it went on its way.
In the distance you can see the beginning of the Knife's Edge ridge and the debris of what looks like an explosion of rocks.

John and Parker were off like spring-hares over the terrain with Jeff and I following at a more sedate pace.  We had arrived at the summit at around 3pm and realized that we would have to get a move on to avoid going down in the dark - but it soon became apparent that this was a vain hope.

Jeff had mentioned something in the car about not being too keen on heights but being game to try the Knife's Edge.  Not long into the ridge he admitted that his fear of heights at this point was more like abject terror.

I was amazed from then on at what Jeff managed to pull off.  The ridge is not (as imagined) a walk along a path, but rather a series of scrambles up, along and down steep boulders piled on one another - in some places high enough to give me pause (and I really don't fear heights much at all).  In one section in particular you have to lower yourself down onto a leaf of rock that is just outside of your reach.  With the heavy packs on our backs, being buffeted by the wind and pushed off balance as we maneuvered down off ledges, it was Jeff's turn to be heroic.  I wonder now, whether after all the adrenalin and fear of the crossing the ridge, he must have just shut down the rational part of his brain when he had to lower himself and then drop onto this leaf of a rock and throw caution to the wind.

We arrived at the top of Mt Pamola as the sun set.  I had taken a number of photographs of Jeff in some of the extreme locations along the route and was able to get a few images of the sunset before the dark had us pull out our headlamps and start working our way from one blue blaze on rocks to the next.

After an afternoon of adrenalin and high anxiety we were ill-prepared for the rest of the way down which, it turns out, makes our destination (Chimney Pond) a very apt name.

It seemed like an interminable series of rock-slides with rocks the size of cars and large rooms at first - the blue blazes painted on the rocks leading us from one "chimney" to the next.  Each chimney involved lowering ourselves with our packs down onto what often seemed like tentative footholds in between two large boulders.  The darker it became and the more tired we were, the slower we moved - carefully picking our way down the scree slope and onto sections of smaller boulders and a cluster of trees and then back into a field of car-sized boulders.

I kept thinking we were getting to the same level as the light on the office near the pond and that we were reaching the end of the boulders but it was always far away and a long way down.

Jeff had run out of water earlier and we shared what I had until I ran out at about 9pm.  We imagined we had another 15 or 30 min left and shared some of the condensed milk that I had for my coffee to give us a little energy to keep pushing down.

At some point I noticed that the point and shoot camera that I had brought with me had been dislodged from my pocket and was lost somewhere in the boulder-field above us!

Eventually at about 10:30pm (13 hours after we had left Davis Pond) we heard John's voice ahead of us telling us that one more series of boulders would have us home free.

Jeff was mute and I was aching as we carefully made our way to the edge of the pond and silently pumped water to drink and for our dinner.

I made gatorade for both of us and as a sign of how exhausted we were I said: "Jeff - come over here and get some of this gatorade."  Like a stoned hippy, a few minutes later Jeff said: "What was I supposed to be doing?" and several minutes later it dawned on me: ".... come and get some gatorade...".

We ate our 2.5 helpings of dehydrated dinner at 11pm and had a hot cocoa drink each - mine with a healthy dose of John's bourbon to take the edge off the endorphins still coursing through my body and to ease me into sleep.

The day's hike was 7miles over really rough terrain and we were alarmed to realize that it had taken us 4 hours to cover the last mile.  Longer than Mohoosuc notch had taken me.
The next morning I took a panorama from Chimney Pond of the basin, the reverse of the view from the top of Baxter.
We pumped water for the last time and headed out for the 3.4mi hike back to the car.
I stopped to capture a fall abstract near the Roaring Brook campsite.

On the way back we stopped for a delicious post-traumatic meal at the River Driver's restaurant.

As we drove off, John reminded us that we had cheated death one more time....

I got this in the mail today.  Going to have to send a donation to the park as a reward because they don't have the address of the person who handed it in to them.  So grateful for the kindness of strangers!