AT Day 105 – Chairbacks, Gulf Hagas, Whitecap
Dear reader, please accept my apologies for keeping you waiting. It was not my intent to have a gap in my postings and string you along. However, as you’ll read over the next several posts, the end of the trail swirled and twirled me enough to make my head spin. I just ran out of time to get them posted even though I had them written. Questionable cell service didn’t help either. Anyway, the posts are written, and they are coming. Enjoy, and thank you for your patience.
Fourth Mountain Bog to Logan Brook Shelter
Peace Needle Camp to One More Mountain Camp
AT miles: 22.6
Total miles: 2127.9
Elevation change: 7418ft gain, 6772ft loss
And then there was only one mountain left. After finishing off the traverse of the Chairbacks and then the four peaks of the Whitecaps, Katahdin is all that remains for me of the major summits of the AT. It also feels like the biggest. Big Mama K, or the Special K, as some hikers prefer to call it, has been in the back of my mind for years, ever since learning how to properly pronounce its name from an AT alumnus while hiking the PCT in 2015. For most of the intervening years, I never expected to even see the mountain, let alone in the final few days of my own thru-hike. The AT seemed like a long shot, way down on my list of cool things to do, yet one thing led to another, and now here I am. Katahdin casts a long shadow and is a strong presence that is felt even on the top of Springer Mountain, some 2200 miles south. It has never been taken for granted as just another terminus. And to think that I’ve hiked all these miles without ever having seen it for myself feels strange now that I have. The mountain has been such a large part of my life for so long that I feel as if I know it. Or at least I know the shuddering anticipation that it inspires in my belly. However, when the time comes, I know that I will be ready to meet it. If I wasn’t sure of that on Springer after years of idle thought, then I am today after three months of living on the AT.
The sun was making my tent glow with fresh morning light when I finally propped on one elbow and started shuffling all my possessions around. In between snoozes, I had watched the small patches of sunlight falling from the tips of the trees all the way down to my spot on the soft forest floor, and now it was finally time to get moving. I was packed and hiking by nine a.m., a little later than usual after a particularly tiring night of sleep, but I was hiking at least. Still moving north.
The morning was calm and peaceful. Not a breath of wind, just the sun and a few singing birds and chattering squirrels. A bright boardwalk across the bog blasted away any remaining mental cobwebs before the trail plunged me back into the forest to begin the first rollercoaster ridge of the day. Fresh cuts and new blazes guided me around Fourth Mountain rather than over it, as the line on my map led me to expect. It felt a little strange being off of the anticipated route, but I trusted that the effort required to make a false trail was so large as to prevent even the most devious villains from attempting to misdirect hikers. Besides, the new trail had yet to be worn in and was glorious in its untrampledness. The deep needle duff and thick moss bounced like a trampoline with each step, and I felt guilty for enjoying it so much, knowing that this quiet corner of the mountain was just starting to learn the destructive power of humans. The chainsaws and my steps were just the start. The spruce needles would be pummeled to dust along with the moss by millions of footsteps, poop would be buried, wrappers discarded. There would also be laughter and quiet contemplation, but even these forces for good and joy were not natural inhabitants of the forest. What use do squirrels and trees have for the pleasures and struggles of hikers? Humans were here, and this narrow strip of the mountain would never be the same.
The hard-packed dirt and rocks of the old trail felt punishing on my feet when I rejoined the old way north. Still, it was comforting to be back where I expected to be. I followed the trail up and over Third Mountain, then Columbus Mountain on the classic mixture of roots and rocks, and my morning legs did not complain about the effort. There was a view or two, but mostly I just churned away, wondering what was making that distant engine noise. It sounded like a jet ski, but no one had ever ridden a jet ski for that long before. On top of Chairback Mountain, the final peak of the Chairbacks, open ledges gifted me a sweeping view of a deep valley, a long pond, and another ridge of mountains that I did not recognize. Through the crystal clear air, the details and colors all popped in a vibrant display of textures and subtle shade shifts, yet it was the blueness of the sky that made my heart soar. It was mega-blue. Cobalt, sapphire, use whatever fancy synonym you want, this was freaking blue. Bright white strips of feathered clouds made the color seem all the richer. The lemon poppyseed bar in my hand made it seem all the yummier.
A jumbled rockslide and three, leg-burning riffles in the earth slowed down my descent from the Chairbacks, but then it was easy cruising down to the west branch of the Pleasant River. I changed into my crocs for the wide, knee-deep fording, then unfolded my pad on the opposite shore for an overdue lunch break. The mosquitoes were pleasantly absent on the north shore, so I ate in relative peace, watching six yellow butterflies dance and chase.
A fast two miles later, I turned off the AT onto the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail. The temptation to see the “Grand Canyon of Maine” was too strong to ignore despite the extra miles that the excursion would add to my day. Acknowledging that I was not in the best state of mind to observe the mighty Hagas objectively, I was frustrated and annoyed when I finally did make it back to the AT. The side trail had added a difficult two and a half miles to my already tough day and had not lived up to my expectations. Admittedly, they were unreasonably high for a place with such an awesome name, but any place described as the “Grand Canyon” of something needs to be unabashedly dope, in my humble opinion. The deep stone gorge of The Jaws was cool, and Buttermilk Falls was a wonder, but my thru-hiker brain couldn’t let go of the miles. Perhaps I will return someday more open to the experience, but I ended this visit underwhelmed and feeling behind schedule. What schedule, you ask? Nothing specific, but there is always a planning gear cranking in the back of my mind, beholden to mileage expectations and water sources.
Finally back on the AT, I charged through the heat and spiderwebs for a few miles up and along Gulf Hagas Brook. The ascent was gradual and I made good time, but I was working too hard, too early. The tough stuff was still to come, and I was holding nothing back. Sweat dripped, and then dripped more as the grade steepened to meet the summit of Gulf Hagas Mountain. It was steep now, and carefully crafted stone steps made it easy to charge hard, leaving no obstacle to throttle my effort except for my own suffering threshold. The beech turned to spruce, and I gasped to the summit sign. No views on top, but the cool, bugless air was enough for me. I ate a bar and gulped some water. Time for rollercoaster number two.
The trail dipped then rose sharply again to West Peak. Again, there were no views, but the forest was pleasant enough and I had earned another short downhill. Hay Mountain was next, and I made quick work of the low summit with some good ol’ rock n roll jamming in my ears, helping me ignore my fatigue and dehydration. Finally, there was just one more climb up Whitecap itself. It was the longest, but knowing that it was also the last took the edge off of my urgency. My legs would do what they do, and any extra oompf from my brain wasn’t going to save me any significant time. Furthermore, I absolutely appreciated the gravity of the moment. Whitecap was the penultimate climb of the AT. When I reached the top, not only would I get my first view of Katahdin, but there would be almost nothing left except for Katahdin. My anticipation built with every step as the trees thinned near the top. I turned off my music so that I could experience the evening with all of my senses.
The view from the summit talus field was grand indeed, and I spied the Bigellows in the far distance, but the one I wanted was just a little further, on the north side of the mountain. Katahdin lurched into view with a lunging step onto a boulder. It was huge, and way closer than I expected it to be. I found a different, more comfortable boulder to sit on. I ate a bar, finished off my water, and pondered. Even at a distance, the mountain humbled. The vertical rise was no joke, and the hulking mass of the wide ridge left no doubt in my mind that it was a mountain to be respected. It looked the part, and my expectations had not done it justice. They could not have.
A mile later, I pitched my tent within sight of the next shelter. I was alone, but the potential for mosquito visitors prodded me to erect my mesh walls. I was bushed after the long day but satisfied with the effort and the payoff. The Chairbacks, the Whitecaps, and even Gulf Hagas were a wicked brew of effort and beauty. Maine at its grandest, some might say. But it was Katahdin on my mind as I spooned couscous. How could it not be? Not only was it huger than my lofty expectations that had been built on a pile of anticipation, but it was all that was left. Just a couple days and one big mountain. That’s all.
This post was originally published on my blog hikefordays.com. Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.
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