Monday, February 29, 2016

Day 150: OMG! Another Blueberry!

August 4: During the evening and night, a terrible thunderstorm rolled through. A torrential downpour of rain hit the roof of the shelter and rolled off in gushing streams as lightning lit up the forest and thunder echoed through the woods. It was quite the storm!

And by morning, all traces of it had completely vanished. The morning was bright and (mostly) sunny!

It's hard to believe the thunderstorm that blew through during the night with such a beautiful morning!

I woke up and hit the trail by 6:00, immediately climbing Pleasant Pond Mountain which popped me out to absolutely breathtaking views of the surrounding area, traces of mist swirling through the valleys as the sun slowly climbed above the horizon. I was a little taken aback the view. Maine is an absolutely beautiful state, but this moment was special even by Maine standards which is saying a lot. I hadn't planned on taking a break so early in the morning, but I stopped for about 15 minutes anyhow just to enjoy the views.

But I had work to do! And soon descended back down the other side of the mountain. The trail was extraordinarily muddy and rugged today, and the going wasn't fast. The storm from the previous night may have been gone, but water was still trying to drain from the trail and failing badly.

Once again, I was surprised at the number of southbounders I'd pass during the day, and they far outnumbered the northbounders at this point. In fact, the only northbound thru-hiker I'd seen all day was Sparrow, and I preferred talking to the southbounders and usually stopped for five or ten minutes to chat with them.

One young man I met was named Natgeo, who spoke with a southern accent but I didn't think too much of it one way or another. I told him what the trail ahead was like (difficult and muddy), and he said I could expect more of the same ahead and off we went in our separate directions. I'd have had a few more questions for him if I knew then what I know now, but I'm getting a little ahead of the story....

The trail climbed up the second big climb for the day: Moxie Bald Mountain. It was a brutal trail--no change there--although one of the bog bridges tricked me into stepping on it then immediately sank several inches deep into mud and water. Doah! #@$#!!!!

As I descended the mountain, I saw some nice, puffy cumulus clouds. They didn't look particularly threatening, but I stopped suddenly when I thought I heard thunder. Thunder? I held my breath and listened some more. Yes! There it was again! @#$!!! How can there be thunder coming from these clouds?

The views from Pleasant Pond Mountain were absolutely stunning!

Just another reason to hurry on ahead, and I did just that hoping to reach the Moxie Bald Mountain Lean-to before any rains started. Maybe it was just an afternoon thunderstorm and would quickly blow through--but if it did, I wanted to be in a shelter when the storm was at work. And definitely not high on an exposed peak!

I soon reached the shelter where a few other southbound hikers had already stopped for the day--which surprised me since it was only 2:00 in the afternoon.

The thunder continued growing in volume and about a half hour, it started to rain. Then it started to hail, crashing loudly against the roof. Yes! I was certainly glad to be in the shelter now! The hail was the final straw, though. I had no intention of hiking in hail and began to set up camp in the shelter. I was done for the day. It was an early end to the day, but I did get in 13.1 miles which is actually a fairly respectable amount given the difficulty of the trail. I was pretty impressed with myself, though, missing out on two hailstorms in the last few days by being in a shelter when they struck. =)

Through the rain and hail, another southbound hiker arrived and asked about Natgeo. Did he go on?

Yes... I said I saw him heading over Moxie Bald. I'd bet he'd stop at the next shelter up. "Why do you ask?" I asked.

"Because I don't want to camp with him another night. I'm stopping here!"

The strong reaction surprised me. Granted, I only spent all of about two or three minutes talking with the guy, but he seemed normal and nice enough, and I said as much. "So what's wrong with him?"

The other hikers in the shelter, all of them, looked at me with knowing looks. I was, apparently, the only person not in on this joke.

"Did he tell you what he ate for breakfast this morning?" one of the other hikers asked me.

"Umm.... No.... That didn't come up. Why? What did he eat for breakfast?"

"A shelter mouse!"

"A shelter mouse?" I raised my eyebrows a bit. I hadn't heard of that before.

"Yes, he caught himself a mouse during the night and skinned it, cooked it and ate it this morning."


Another one of the hikers pulled out their camera and started showing me photos of Natgeo, first cooking the mouse on a stick over a stove, then more photos of the grizzly scene of him eating it.

O.M.G. They aren't pulling leg! This really happened!

Then the filled in additional details of the story. He had set up a mousetrap and seemed surprised when he caught a mouse. He had been eating MREs that his mom had been sending him, but apparently his mom had taken out the toilet paper from his packages so he had nothing to wipe with except leaves. I wasn't clear--did toilet paper come in MREs? I didn't know that. Anyhow, whatever the case, his mother was supposed to be sending him toilet paper and he never got it.

And a northbound thru-hiker--I don't know who--had said he'd give Natgeo toilet paper if he ate the mouse.

So he did.

He didn't carry a stove, though, and went around asking other hikers if he could borrow their stoves, eventually waking up Octo who agreed to lend the stove to Natgeo.

"He caught me when I wasn't thinking clearly," Octo told me. "He'd just woken me up, after all."

Strangely, I was a little disappointed that I missed the big event and only heard about it later. It was an interesting story, but stories are better told in the first person. =) And darn it, I don't even have any photos of the incident to share. Sorry!

Of course, then I shared my Blueberry story about him killing the groundhog, washing it at an ice cream shop and cooking it for dinner at the shelter that night. "Don't worry, though--he's ahead of me and you'd have already passed him. In fact, he's probably finished the trail already!"

About an hour after the rain started, it stopped and not long after, the clouds started clearing again. I thought about packing up my camp and continuing on--it wasn't too late in the day to get more miles in, but I wasn't sure if I could get to the next shelter before dark. And with all of the rain going on, I really wanted to be in a shelter. Not to mention that I had already set up my camp in the shelter. No, I was calling it a day.

Still admiring the views from Pleasant Pond Mountain! =)

But the trails were bad.... very bad! Slick, wet, muddy, steep--it had it all today!
Water was still draining off the trail from the previous night's storm.
That can't be good....

Heading up Moxie Bald also provided some pretty nice views!

Do these clouds look like they would produce thunder? I didn't think so either, but I started hearing near the summit! Very faint, but it was there!

My refuge from the storm!
Bald Mountain Pond

Friday, February 26, 2016

Day 149: The Day I Stopped Walking....

August 3: I woke up early yet again and hit the trail by 6:00 in the morning. No worries about making noise or disturbing anyone else since I was the only one in the shelter. Which didn't necessarily give me the freedom to scream at the top of my lungs or bang the sides of the shelter with a branch, though. I might have been the only person in the shelter but there were a whole lot of those French-speaking girls camped outside of it.

Arnold Point... it's not an easy place to reach!

The trail followed the edge of West Carry Pond, soon leading to a point that branched off-trail to Arnold Point, named after that infamous traitor known as Benedict Arnold. The point stuck out about a quarter-mile into West Carry Pond and I wanted to check it out, which I soon regretted as the trail turned into an overgrown mess. It probably took me nearly 20 minutes to go that 0.2 miles, ducking under tree branches or climbing over fallen trees. More branches scraped at my clothes and I'd have to figure out ways to scramble up and down 5-foot walls of dirt. Eventually, however, I made it and the views were nice--but it really wasn't worth the effort. I so wished I had some pruners on me. I could have spent all day working just to prune that trail and been enjoyed every minute of it. As it was now, I could only complain and had no way to do anything about it.

Of course, once I made it out to Arnold Point, I had to make the repeat trip to get back to the Appalachian Trail again. When I arrived, I nearly fell to my knees and kissed the ground. Appalachian Trail! I sometimes complain about the poor conditions on it, but at this point in time, I was so glad to be back on it!

The next ten miles to the Pierce Pond Lean-to were remarkably flat and easy and I had covered the distance by 10:30. I was moving so fast, I was sure, the bears and moose on the trail were only seeing a blur as I passed.

There's a reason it's called Arnold Point--Benedict Arnold really did tromp through these forests and lakes during the Revolutionary War on their way to attack Quebec. (Sorry, Canada. It wasn't personal!)

And then I stopped. For about 1 1/2 hours. I was going too fast! Just up ahead, about 4 miles away, was the Kennebeck River. It was too big and too dangerous to cross on foot. Hikers have drowned trying to cross this river before, and there have been many more close calls. No, the only safe way to cross this river--and the only officially sanctioned way to cross it--was on a canoe. It's the only 0.1 miles of the entire Appalachian Trail that officially requires a canoe! You aren't officially a thru-hiker unless you canoe across!

But, wouldn't you know it? I wasn't carrying a canoe.

That's okay, though, because I had a plan B. The ATC runs a ferry here, but it only runs from 9-11 AM and 2-4 PM each day. I wouldn't be able to catch it in time for the morning run, which meant I wouldn't be able to cross that river until 2:00. I figured it was a good 2-hour walk away, but I had 3 1/2 hours until then. I had about 1 1/2 hours to twiddle my thumbs and enjoy the scenery, which I did at the convenience of the Pierce Pond Lean-to, located at the edge of beautiful Pierce Pond.

It was here where I first met Sparrow. He didn't strike me immediately as a thru-hiker because he was clean-shaven and looked about my age--most thru-hikers are usually young, just-out-of-college or retired so there aren't many 40-year-olds on the trail--but I noticed a patch on his gear with the abbreviation FT.

"You hiked the Florida Trail?!" I gasped.

He seemed surprised that I recognized the logo--most people don't--and we quickly went into a conversation about the Florida Trail. He had started his thru-hike in Tallahassee, FL, hiked up the Alabama Trail (the fool!), the Benton MacKaye Trail and finally connecting to the Appalachian Trail which he's been on ever since. Yep, I was familiar with all of that. The sucker! =) But to be fair, he might be smarter than me. He did start in Tallahassee. I was dumb enough to start way back in Key West.

Holy cow, that sign is tall! I gotta imagine it's to keep it above the snow during the winter months. How much snow does this place get in the winter?!

So we swapped war stories, and I asked him what he did for a living figuring he must have been laid off and was hiking the trail during his unemployment. It's perhaps the most common reason you might see 40-somethings hiking the trail.

But then he started becoming cagey. He said he was making money by hiking the trail. I was doing this trail again for work purposes as well--we had something else in common! But he wouldn't tell me how he was earning money. Writer? No. Guidebook author? No. Photographer? No. But then, why would he want to hide what he did? Wouldn't he be glad to tell people what he was doing to promote whatever business venture he was in? I certainly had no problem telling people about Walking 4 Fun whenever someone asked me what I was doing on the trail. But he said he couldn't tell anyone, because then they might start copying him.

But that's all he would tell me. I probed a bit more but that was it. So whatever he's doing... it requires no publicity on his part, and there's only a limited amount of it available that if everyone else started doing it, he couldn't make a living from it anymore.

Very interesting.... Or maybe he was just yanking my chain. But let's assume he's not. What in the world could Sparrow be doing that he makes his living by thru-hiking? There was nothing in his manner or gear that would indicate he had any special equipment for whatever it was he was doing. And there's only a very limited amount of work available.

It gave me something to ponder ALL the rest of the day! =) My best theory is that someone is paying him to spread the ashes of their loved ones along the trail. Okay, I didn't say it was a good theory--just my best one. And the fact that he started in Tallahassee and hiked the Alabama Trail--nobody would ever want their ashes spread out along that trail! No, that's not it.... But I'm baffled. To this day, I'm still baffled! (Feel free to post your own guesses in the comments! To this day, I still don't have a clue what he might have been doing--assuming he was telling the truth in the first place.)

He also had a large bandage of some sort on his hand which I asked about, and he told me that he had broken his thumb on the trail about a week earlier. Good for him, continuing on the trail despite a broken thumb!

It turns out he had camped at the same shelter I did last night, but he camped out near the French-speaking girls and made some sort of comment about how hot and young they all looked which really surprised me. They were young--probably too young for him. Jail bait.

And I was pretty well stunned at some of comments about women. I'd have thought he was joking if he didn't seem so serious when he said it. Another unsolicited comment included, "All women are whores. Some just have higher prices than others."

Woah! I couldn't believe he'd be telling me this! You hear about people like this, but I don't think I ever actually met one before!

He had a lot more to share than that, but I'll leave it at that. I was a little uncomfortable with the direction our conversation had headed and tried to steer it in another direction.

Or, maybe he was somebody famous? Like the King of Norway and just wanted to keep a low profile.

"You're the King of Norway!" I exclaimed. "You're undercover! That would explain your secrecy. Don't worry, though--your secret is safe with me!"

In my head, I was trying to remember if Norway actually had a king or not. Off the top of my head, I didn't know. I'd never been to Norway before. But if Norway did have a king, I certainly would have no idea what he looked liked. Sparrow's English was excellent, though. No hint of a foreign accent. A deep and gravely voice, but no accent that I could discern. Not even a southern one.

He laughed. "No, I'm not the King of Norway. If I was the king of Norway, I'd be f***ing beautiful women everywhere, not hiking the trail."

*face plant*

Alrighty, then....

Even dirt roads need a little maintenance, and this contraption was regrading the road.

Finally, it about noon, and it was time for me to continue on. I wanted to get to the Kennebec River when the ferry started up again at 2:00. I wasn't entirely displeased at the thought of leaving Sparrow behind either.

I took a couple of short off-trail detours along the way to a few waterfalls located 0.1 miles off trail. They were waterfalls! And a mere 0.1 miles off trail! That was nothing!

Or so I thought.... Those 0.1-mile off-trail jaunts were badly overgrown and eroded and took a remarkably long time to navigate. In all, they probably set me back a half hour--although the waterfalls were relatively large, scenic and impressive. Worth it, but I was annoyed at the lack of maintenance on these short side-trails.

I arrived at the Kennebec River just as the ferry operator and two southbound hikers arrived from the other side. I told the hikers that they'd have a real easy time of it the rest of the day (as long as they stayed on the trail and didn't try out some of those waterfall views).

The ferry operator introduced himself as Hillbilly Dave, a friendly guy with a deep southern accent. He had me sign a waiver promising not to sue anybody if I should drown in my crossing and gave me a life vest to put on. It was time to stop hiking this trail, and to start paddling it!

I got into the canoe first, then Hillbilly Dave pushed us off into the river and quickly jumped in after me.

The current was flowing remarkably hard. There's a dam upriver that controls the water flow and apparently it was letting out a lot of water at the moment. Usually, Hillbilly Dave told me, the current isn't this strong. It's among the strongest he's seen it.

He pointed us upstream, following the shore so when we actually cut across the river, the current would pull us back down to the opposite shore from where we took off. We had to paddle hard against that current, though!

A southbound hiker told me he saw a moose in this area about 15 minutes earlier. Unfortunately, I never saw any moose today. =(

While I was busy paddling, Hillbilly Dave kept talking and asked if I knew Red Titan. Well, yes and no.... I know about her, and I've met her parents while they were waiting at trailheads as they slackpacked her along the trail, but I've never actually met her before. She's always been ahead of me. Or behind me.

"Why do you ask?" I asked him.

Then he launched into a story about her trying to swim across the Kennebec River the evening before after the ferry had closed for the day and nearly drowned in the process, the only thing saving her life was another hiker nearby who used to be a lifeguard. She'd be dead if he hadn't saved her last night.

I was a little confused about this story, though. How would he have even known about it if the ferry had already ended for the day? Presumably, they left and what evidence would there have been about the near-tragedy the next morning? Or was she stranded on the far side all night and only in the morning when the ferry started up again and he paddled them across did he hear the story? Or did the former-lifeguard who supposedly saved her tell him the story the next morning? The hiker-turned-lifeguard could have inflated the story to make him sound like a hero, told it to some southbound hikers who told then told Hillbilly Dave when they crossed the river.

When it comes to stories on the trail, there's a certain element of trying to figure out how much of it is really true. We hear rumors that are often told as facts which might have a kernel of truth in the beginning but become wildly trumped up with every telling. How much of this story was truth and how much was trumped up? Don't know! But I had suspicions that I was missing some key details of this story--the boring details that people gloss over because it's not as interesting. I might not ever get the full story. It was certainly an interesting story, but I felt a certain sense of frustration at knowing I probably didn't know the real story. Or at least the full story.

But in any case, I was glad to hear that nobody had died trying to ford the river the evening before. That would have put a damper on things today, most certainly.

A few minutes later, we successfully arrived on the other side of the river. I took off the life vest and retrieved my backpack. Before I left, I asked Hillbilly Dave if he knew anything about the imminent weather forecast.

"Looks good!" he told me. "Unless a thunderstorm rolls in!"

I laughed. Isn't that pretty much always the case?

Alrighty then....

Pierce Pond

It was time to start hiking the trail again. My paddling days were over.

The rest of the day's hike to Pleasant Pond Lean-to was uneventful. Dark clouds started blowing in and water began saturating the air. Not rain per se, but those little drops of water that seem to hang suspended in the air and make everything feel clammy. I picked up the pace hoping to reach the shelter before any real rain decided to strike.

The shelter itself was mostly empty, but once again a large group of French Canadians had set up in tents all around the shelter. It seemed like there were more French Canadians on this trail than Americans at this point! This wasn't even the same group of French Canadian girls I had camped near the night before.

Sparrow had passed me on the trail and arrived at the shelter before I did, and when I took my usual photo of the shelter as I do with all shelters, he did something surprising--he moved out of the photo, telling me that he didn't like to be in photos. He didn't want people to know where he was.

"I knew it!" I exclaimed. "You really are the King of Norway and are trying to thru-hike the AT undercover!" I was joking, but what if it turned out that he really was the King of Norway? Wouldn't that have been hilarious? Note to self.... Google King of Norway when I get a chance....

I didn't really care if he was in my photos or not, but now that he was making such a big deal about not being in anyone's photos, I suddenly very much wanted a photo of him. =)

Maybe that was his whole point. He toys with people, telling them he has this secret job making money hiking the trail, but won't tell people what it is just to draw them in further. Reverse psychology!

Or.... maybe he's wanted by someone? Trying to escape the FBI manhunt that's looking for him at this very moment?

He was a strange enigma. I wasn't sure what to make of him. How much of what he was saying was an act and how much was real? He seemed like he was putting on an act, but if he was, he was really good at selling it. Very convincing. I didn't really like him either, but there's a quality about him that had me immensely curious about who he was and what he was really doing out there.

Questions, I suspected, that would never be answered....

Nice waterfalls, but they were all ridiculously hard to get to!

Hillbilly Dave, running the Kennebec River Ferry for hikers all summer long....
It's official: For approximately 0.1 miles of the Appalachian Trail, I did not walk. I paddled!

Safe and sound on the other side. Let the hiking continue....

Sparrow might not be in this photo, but that's his pack at the left side of the shelter!

Pleasant Pond, a short way from the Pleasant Pond Lean-to.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Day 148: The Bigalows!

August 2: I woke up early and hit the trail by 5:45 in the morning--one of my earliest start times yet. I wasn't too worried about disturbing the guys next to me in the shelter. They managed to arrive late the previous evening (after 10:00) and made lots of noise, shined their headlamps in my eyes and kept me up later than I'd have preferred. I wasn't inclined to feel sympathetic if they found my packing up annoying or disturbing!

Sunrise from the North Horn!

The trail started off steep and just got steeper climbing to over 4,000 feet above sea level passing a series of spectacular peaks along the way. The first peak I hit was North Horn, about 0.2 miles off trail. Then on to South Horn, Bigelow Mountain and Avery Peak. Despite the difficulty of the trail, however, I couldn't help but smile with the gorgeous views spread out all around me. Much of the route was above tree level providing fine views of the brightening morning.The wind was quite strong and brisk and I wore my windbreak across the traverse.

After Avery Peak, the trail descended hard and fast to Safford Notch after which the trail became considerably easier and slowly climbed back up again to Little Bigelow Mountain--a pipsqueak of a mountain peaking out at only about 3,000 feet above sea level.

Then the trail descended one last time and became positively easy as it went almost completely flat for much of the rest of the day. The biggest hills the last half of the day were barely over 500 feet high. The trail followed alongside the edge of East Flagstaff Lake and I finally called it quits for the day after 17.9 miles at the West Carry Pond Lean-to, located near.... yes, West Carry Pond! As is the norm in Maine, this "pond" is actually a gigantic lake and I wound up sitting on a small pier at sunset watching the sun go down. All-in-all, it was a positively wonderful day of hiking.

The shelter, much to my surprise, I wound up having completely to myself. A large group of French-speaking girls (French Canadians, I assumed) were camped all around the shelter, but absolutely nobody else showed up to sleep in the shelter. What happened to all of the other thru-hikers and section hikers? I wasn't complaining, though. I was perfectly happy to take the whole shelter for myself. =)

Sunrise over Bigelow and Avery Peaks.

That's Horn Pond down below. The shelters where I camped (there are actually two of them at the location) are located where you see those two tiny little white dots directly to the left of the lake.

What a beautiful morning! I couldn't stop taking photos! =)

That's Flagstaff Lake down below, and the trail will be heading down to it then follow the shoreline for a bit.

That ridge just ahead is Little Bigelow Mountain, and the trail crosses right over the top of it!
With great views, however, come difficult (and STEEP!) trails!
Lots of mud too. Thick, mushy stuff that will suck your shoes right off if you let it!

Looking back towards Avery Peak from Little Bigelow Mountain.

Lots of blueberries on Little Bigelow Mountain!
Butterfly sunning itself at the Little Bigelow Lean-to.
Okay, seriously, what's up with the two-seater privies in Maine? This is the second one I've seen in Maine now! Once was funny and unique, but now I'm growing increasingly disturbed over them....

Many, many years ago, this was the 2,000-mile mark on the Appalachian Trail. The road (barely visible in the background through the trees) was the 2000-mile mark when I hiked the trail in 2003. Now it's closer to 2020 miles!
Congrats to me! =)

Sunset over West Carry Pond.