Trail Tales 17: NH/Maine Border to Stratton
The Song of the Loon
Coming into Maine was an awesome feeling. We didn’t let the fact that it is the second longest state on the trail daunt us, we’d heard so many good things about Maine. Maine is beautiful but tough and You’ll love Maine, it’s a real treat!. Except that the first miles into Maine really, really sucked. Errrrr….they were just really freakin’ hard.
Some places just involved going too incredibly slow up and down jumbles of rocks I thought we would never get anywhere. At this point everyone kept asking us when we might be done but I honestly couldn’t tell them anything. I felt like guessing an exact date was futile and if we bought plane tickets, that we might or might not make it in time. All I knew was that the first miles of Maine were going to be difficult.
We had made it a mere 7 miles before lunch, a pathetic mileage for us. We lunched on a false summit of Goose Eye Mtn’s East Peak, where we looked at the wilderness around us. Merf had gone to find some bit of privacy for using a tree; not much was there growing among the alpine plants. When she returned she showed us how she’d stepped off into what she thought was a hard surface but was really a bog hole. Careful where you step up there!
I really wish I had a photo of how we had to get to the top of Goose Eye’s East Peak because it was pretty hilarious, another very difficult ladder that was just a big fat pain in the ass. Just preparation for Katahdin! Walking up on Goose Eye we could see the north peak and then what appeared to be a nice walk along some alpine bogs. When we’d left Gentian Pond Shelter that morning we’d left with the intent on making it to the Speck Pond Shelter nearly 15 miles away. What was between us and Speck Pond was the Mahoosuc Notch and it was probably an ambitious plan to go that far. We’d been told by many people that we should stay at the shelter just before the notch, Full Goose Shelter, and tackle it first thing in the morning.
Along the path to the Full Goose Shelter we walked along the alpine trail and among many muddy bogs. Most had planks we could cross but many didn’t. There was one particular section that was just impossible to cross without getting muddy and well, we went right on across. Then at some point right after the mud bog we walked down more slick rock slabs. I’d been very careful since we’d started doing these slick rocks in New Hampshire as I am well, ok, I’ll admit it, a klutz a lot of the time. But, my carefulness didn’t pay off at this point and I slipped on the rocks. I’d slipped many times before and nothing had been broken but this time my right hiking pole went underneath me and when I stopped sliding I realized the pole was snapped in half. I was none too pleased at this because as soon as I started walking I felt very unsafe without my fourth leg. Damn, Damn, Damn! I was days from a town and cell service wasn’t good so there was nothing I could do but learn to hike with one pole.
When we arrived at the Full Goose shelter we found Snack Attack waiting for us. It was still 2.5 miles to the west end of the Mahoosuc Notch and it was nearing 3pm as it was. We filled up on water, looked for a hope of finding someone that might have left a hiking pole behind and then continued on to the notch. We were descending to the notch when we met some southbounders and asked them what they thought about the notch and arm. We’d heard even worse things about the Mahoosuc Arm.
The notch is an absolutely different experience than anything else on the Trail. It’s bouldering, squeezing through crevices, jumping from rocks to rocks and hoping not to slip in the holes where patches of ice and snow still linger in the middle of summer. We’d heard about a moose that had died several years previously; thru-hikers had come through right after it’d fallen into the notch and saw it suffering while it was still alive. We’d heard once it died that the stench was overwhelming in the notch. In every crevice we searched for the bones but never saw it.
We when emerged from the 1.1 mile notch it had been nearly two hours! It didn’t seem like that, but I was getting hungry and it was already 6pm. The end of the notch is flooded heavily from a beaver dam so where the trail really was it was under water. We skirted the side of the water filled notch and found a tent set up in a clearing. It was Cubbie and Dilly Dally who’d done I think like 8 miles that day and had called it a day after doing the Notch. Our plans of hiking 1600′ up 2.5 miles on the Arm were nixed after collapsing at the campsite with the group. Merf and Snack Attack stayed with us, too. Our one reason for going up the Arm was that it was supposed to rain and I didn’t want to make the climb any worse. The Arm is one big rock face with some trees and a bit of dirt and moss lining the sides. Camp was set up and dinner was eaten and not long after being in the tent the rain started.
We got up the next morning and the sun was trying to peek in from the east through the notch. There were still clouds around and it seemed to go back and forth between wanting to be sunny or cloudy. We headed up the Arm before anyone else and at first it wasn’t too terrible, but then we found the rock. We pulled ourselves up in places, clung to the sides of the trail where dirt still existed, grabbing hold of trees and trying to find the ones that hadn’t been pulled on for years by thru-hikers—those were wobbly. When a side of the trail proved to be harder to go up, we’d find a crack in the rocks that provided some traction and we’d slowly walk to the other side and walk that side until we had to do the same thing again. I was just glad we went up the Arm instead of down.
This went on and on until we finally reached the very top of the Arm and were were relieved for it to be over! From the top we saw Speck Pond, the highest body of water in Maine at 3500′. Down we went to Speck Pond shelter where we stopped for a snack break where we met a few southbounders and section hikers. We were excited to hear that apparently the trail got moderately easier after Baldpate Mtn and then even easier after Stratton and the Bigelow’s. Thank goodness!
After Speck Pond we had another roots and rock climb up Old Speck Mtn and then what seemed to be a pretty decent downhill towards Grafton Notch. We were finally able to move again, it seemed, but still not at our usual 2.5 to 3 mile and hour pace. Before we arrived at Grafton Notch we stopped at a nice rock overlook that faced towards the Baldpates and had lunch with Cubbie, Dilly Dally and Merf. Taking advantage of the noontime sun we took our boots and socks off as was habit to let everything dry.
After an easy downhill we arrived at Grafton Notch, signed the trailhead register, used the privy at the trailhead and then made our way for the Baldpates. I’d been eyeing some clouds that could potentially turn into storms later on. We made excellent time on the gentle sloping trail to Baldpate Lean-to, passing a group of adults that seemed to be part of an Outward Bound type group. Some of them were having trouble and a day hiker was talking to them about water sources. We stopped at the lean-to for a brief snack and privy break and I could tell through some of the trees that the clouds were looking more ominous. We started booking it in hopes of getting over the bald Baldpates before bad weather.
The trail up was eroded and worn similarly to the Arm. A crew of MATC volunteers were working on creating a new trail adjacent to the current trail. Once on top of Baldpate we saw the beautiful rocks of the mountain, sculpted by weather and years, dotted with stunted trees in the swag between the two peaks. Down in the swag we saw the rain coming from the northwest and stopped to don our rain gear. We looked back in the expanse and saw Merf several hundred yards behind us.
Merf shot this photo of us trying to scale our way up the east peak while walking into very strong, what I felt to be at least tropical storm force winds and in a very quick rain shower. The wind was insane! I tried to stay low and close to the rocks as I pried my way up. On top it was beautiful, puddles of water in some of the depressions, but it looked like more rain so I wanted to get down as soon as possible. That wasn’t exactly a fast prospect. Going down some of these rock slabs and faces is often times much worse than going up them. There were many scooting episodes, holding onto trees and swinging down the trail.
Eventually we arrived to the Frye Notch Lean-to, a mere 13 mile day, but it was still early enough to enjoy the evening. Snack Attack was already set up when we arrived and told us Cubbie and Dilly Dally had kept going to stealth somewhere else. A couple of southbounders arrived later on and we picked their brains about the trail ahead. We were hoping to do a 15 the next day and a 17 or so the following day and were curious if that was within reach. They said that it probably wasn’t and that there was some serious erosion and rock slides on one mountain that it was overall tough. Hrmmm, didn’t sound good.
After leaving the shelter the next morning we found the trail to be pretty good, actually. We trotted down to Dunn Notch and Falls in a good time, stopping to get a first morning snack at the creek. Near East B Hill Rd we saw several good stealth sites that we envisioned Cubbie and Dilly Dally staying at the night before.
We passed Surplus Pond and Wyman Mountain (a blink and you’ll miss it mountain) and a few miles prior to arriving at the Hall Mountain Lean-To we met Traipsing Platypus and a couple called The Griswald’s with their dog Otis. It was the first time we’d met The Griswald’s but we’d been following them for several hundred miles in the trail entries. They’d started in Harpers Ferry and were planning a flip-flop, hiking south from Harpers Ferry to Georgia after they reached Katahdin. We chatted for a minute and then kept on going. They passed us pretty quickly because they were much faster hikers than we were, but caught up to them at the Hall Mtn Lean-To. It was just after 11 am and we’d made 10 miles already. Those southbounders were a bunch of—well, liars. Or not. Perhaps it was hard for them, but for us northbounders it was easy-peasy miles to make! We were also none to pleased to read the entry from those southbounders in the shelter. They’d basically slammed the MATC about lack of trail maintenance (what??!) and dissed the landslide that was ahead.
After lunch we beelined it for Moody Mountain. It was there that we did see the damage from the recent landslide. We had some rerouting to go around but it really wasn’t that bad and other than some strenuous straight up climbing, which was to expected by this time on the Trail, you couldn’t blame the MATC for a landslide or for slacking on trail maintenance.
We arrived down at South Arm Road well before dinner and we found a stealth site at Black Brook that would be perfect to stay at. While on Moody Mountain Chris and I’d come up with the idea to either hitch or call a shuttle from the local hostel in Andover to get a ride to eat dinner and pick up some extra snacks. We’d planned one of our longest resupplies in awhile and while in Gorham we’d skimped on extra snacks. Now several days in we were wishing we had extra food to eat after our meals. Snack Attack was game and we waited for Merf to come down and she was game as well. We made a call to the Pine Ellis Lodge and they came to pick us up awhile later. It’d been quite a while since we’d all been in a car, or at least inside one and not hitching and the guy who picked us up drove like a maniac. The road was very quiet and not heavily used, but we all looked at each other incredulously as we sped down the two lane road.
The only thing open in Andover was the general store and luckily it served good grub. We ordered food, did some window shopping on what snacks we might buy and then after gorging ourselves on dinner I spotted a Carvel ice cream cake tucked away in their ice cream freezer. It didn’t take long to convince everyone to split it! Ohhhh, yeah! One ice cream cake split four ways!
Back at the campsite we rolled in and set up camp. Super Tarp made another debut and we nestled our tent under the evergreens. It had drizzled on us while we waited for our shuttle but now it was quiet beside the stream.
We had a 2200′ climb the next morning from the road up to Old Blue Mountain. We’d heard a few people call it tough but I felt like it was a pretty easy climb. It had it’s moments but in it didn’t have any different challenges than the mountains we’d already gone up. At the top we stopped to eat whoopie pies we’d bought in Andover and Chris flew the Spider Man kite he bought in Gorham. We descended the mountain and walked a nice stretch of the trail between Old Blue and Bemis. The morning was beautiful and the sun poked through the evergreens throwing gorgeous rays of light onto the pine needle laden forest. We caught up to Traipsing Platypus and The Griswald’s and walked around them for awhile as we came to the Bemis summit. Lunch was at the Bemis Mountain Lean-To with everyone except Snack Attack who’d kept going despite saying he might stop at Bemis for the day.
Walking down from Bemis.
Somewhere down from Bemis I’d taken a sip of water and managed to choke on it. I’d gotten it swallowed but my air passage decided to close up and I started wheezing and was not able to speak. Merf and Chris were behind me trying to figure out what happened but all I could do was suck air in as best I could and ease the muscles around my throat. Eventually they relaxed and I was able to cough and say what had happened, but for a few seconds I was very nervous about regaining an appropriate airway to breathe. Ugh!
After a descent down to Bemis Stream we had a fairly steep and wooded climb up to Maine 17. We climbed right out to the road where we found a bench to sit at to over look the valley and mountains we’d just come from. It was a spectacular sight to behold. Maine appeared to be truly a wilderness, vastly different from the views we had in the mid-Atlantic states where we saw cities and lights galore.
We arrived at Sabbath Day Pond Lean-To, our 17 mile day, for dinner. The day was much easier than the southbounders had related and I was glad for the easier miles we had now. The shelter was crowded, a French-Canadian group of boys had taken up most of the tent sites and pads, some southbounders were in the shelter and others were scattered around the area. Luckily one of the French-Canadians gave up their tent site and let us stay there. I was nervous they’d be rowdy all night—we cranky thru-hikers needed our beauty sleep! That night we heard our first loons out on the lake. They made their ethereal calls throughout the night awakening me from sleep a few times.
Town was on the agenda for the next day, Rangeley, for a resupply and a stay at Gull Pond Lodge, a hostel. An easy 10 miles got us to the road well before lunch. We found a trail magic cooler waiting for us at the road as well as Snack Attack who always hiked out earlier and faster than the three of us. We waited for quite awhile trying to get a ride, sending Merf out to try to hitch. Suddenly on the other side of the road a man and his little daughter, maybe six or seven, came out of the woods. They’d spent the night at the first shelter two miles up and were heading back to Rangeley where they lived. We asked if they could perhaps give us a ride and we were in luck! WOO!
Chris and I rode in the back of the truck on the way to town, watching as we passed Saddleback Mountain, what we’d have to climb the following morning. Town was a quaint vacation village with a grocery store and small tourist shops. Small enough to have what we needed but not too touristy to be overwhelming. We made a stop at the outfitter to try to get my pole fixed but resorted to having them call Leki to get replacement pole parts sent ahead since they didn’t have them in the store. We called Bob at the hostel and told him we’d meet him at the grocery store after we had lunch and went to the library. Lunch was a barbeque joint that was attached to an ice cream store. Merf and I went on a search for a bathroom and I wanted to just find a tree to pee behind—finding a public bathroom proved to be pretty difficult in this town! The bathroom at the town park was open and finally we had sweet relief. After lunch we topped it off with ice cream, blueberry for me.
At the lodge we found a few southbounders and section hikers already there. The hostel is run in the home of an older man who has rooms of bunks upstairs and a very crowded space downstairs for hikers. He lets hikers use his kitchen so we’d brought food from the store to cook for dinner. Gull Pond stretched out from the backyard of the lodge and we watched a beautiful sunset that evening.
Tight quarters, but a good nights sleep in the bunk room. We said goodbye to Snack Attack here in Rangeley the next morning. He was planning to zero there since he wasn’t going to be able to have a ride from Katahdin until days after we were planning to summit. With the recent easier trail we’d been able to estimate a finishing date and were able to finally buy plane tickets.
We were dropped off a little before noon the next day planning an 11 mile day to Poplar Ridge Lean-To. We stopped at Piazza Rock Lean-To for lunch and were astonished to find that Moose and Tetherball had caught up and had thought they’d catch us at the shelter the night before, but we’d stayed in town. Drat! We knew they’d go further than we would that day and had no chance to catch them for awhile.
The double privy at Piazza Rock Lean-To. At the shelter we met some dayhikers who were searching for their lost seven year old. He’d wandered off near some caves and had not been seen. Before we left it seemed like they’d found him as they’d left the area. Chris and Merf stopped in at the caves near Piazza Rock before we made our way up Saddleback.
Several false summits got us excited to get to the real top of Saddleback. It was here that we were supposed to get our first glimpses of Katahdin. Unfortunately it was too hazy to really pick it out in the distance, but we found a few peaks far off that we thought might be it.
Huddling out of the wind for a quick break.
Hiking along the rock strewn trail of Saddleback and The Horn was pretty awesome despite the wind.
We met a few new faces at Poplar Ridge Lean-To that evening, including Ponytail Dave. Turns out he’d hiked in the beginning with Moose and Tetherball and was excited to hear they were close by.
We had a pretty easy going morning on our way to the Spaulding Mountain Lean-To for lunch. Some climbing was involved but it seemed smoother and less rock slab climbing than previous mountains. We met a few more southbounders but for the most part it was quiet. At the shelter the trail register had jokes about missing Mt. Abraham to the south, because it seemed that previously the AT managed to find every peak it could possibly go over. At lunch two weekend hikers came by to rest and talked about other sections of the trail they’d done.
At Spaulding Mountain after the shelter we had only 200 miles left of the trail. I’d imagined the trail went to the summit of Spaulding, but in another AT surprise it bypassed the summit with a blue blaze to it instead. Sugarloaf Mountain was our next destination, the second highest mountain in Maine, after Katahdin, but again the trail didn’t go to the top. The majority of this mountain is a ski resort but luckily we did not see that aspect of the mountain and mostly saw the wild side of it. Once on the west side of the mountain we started descending into the Carrabassett River valley. The trail then became a very dusty and rocky trail, more reminiscent of trails out west not of what we’d been on for the past several hundred miles. It was steep most of the way down and hard on our knees.
At the river Chris decided he wanted to fish for awhile and we’d tossed around the idea of going further than the Crocker Cirque campsite a mile past the river. But, we changed our minds in favor of relaxing by the river and relishing the trail instead of rushing it more. We had only the rest of the day and morning with Merf since she was getting off to zero and resupply in Stratton.
For three hours Chris fished, catching trout and losing trout. We thought we might have some for dinner but no such luck. Merf and I curled up in the sun next to some rocks letting the sound of the river put us to sleep. Sometimes I read and wrote a bit, tried to figure out upcoming mileage, but for the most part we just enjoyed the afternoon.
The Crocker Cirque campsite was listed at .2 off the trail but when we found the blue blaze to the site we also saw an easy stealth site right next to the AT and to the water source so we opted to stay there instead.
We caught up on some phone calls, made dinner and enjoyed a nice snooze in the tent that night.
South Crocker was a bit rocky going up, in all the Crocker’s were an easy traverse. In the privy at the campsite we’d read in the register about a hiker we’d been following for awhile, Switchback, who’d said as a kid the Crocker’s were her first backpacking experience. After seven moderate miles we arrived at Maine 27 where we said goodbye to Merf. Resupplying and taking a zero, she was planning on finishing the trail several days after us and was not in as much of a hurry as we were. Not that we were in a hurry, but she had no one to pick her up until then so why rush?
It was bittersweet to say goodbye to someone we’d been hiking with for so long. We’d talked about so much and I felt so close to this trail friend of mine. She made us laugh with some of her goofy antics and it would be sad not having her with us.
So, we said goodbye to Merf for good—or so we thought!
Stratton to Katahdin is next.
So you are saying going south on the arm is going to be a biotch, huh? It is interesting that what could be tough for SBers is easy for NBers or vice versa. I think one rule of thumb I have is to take what people say about the upcoming trail with a grain of salt:)