Day 149: Rain and Big Water
Rain pelted the windows all night and was still spitting on me at sunrise when I got up to take Gus out for his morning walk. The forecast told me the weather would clear this afternoon, but the morning skies foretold all-day rain. Most likely, I had a dreary, wet hike ahead of me. I almost wished I didn’t feel well enough to hike. But I had recovered, mostly, so I packed up for an overnight trip.
I knew that most of my friends had planned to do the 32.5-mile stretch in two days, but I wasn’t sure how my cold, the weather, and my legs would do, so I brought enough food for three days. I’d also identified two bailout points where I could stop before my first-day target at the Spaulding Mountain Lean-To, just in case the first day didn’t go well as I hoped.
The 32.5-mile segment included big climbs over Saddleback Mountain, the Horn, Saddleback Junior, Poplar Ridge, Lone Mountain, Spaulding Mountain, and North and South Crocker Mountains, for a total of 9,800 feet of climbing and over 10,000 feet of descent. If I made my Day 1 target, I’d hike 18.7 miles and climb 6,200 feet.
I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic about my chances for a two-day hike when Northstar dropped me off in a light rain. Anyone with any sense would have stayed in bed another day.
The Lonely Mountains
I walked alone all morning on an empty trail. Even the wildlife had hunkered down to wait out the storm. I summited Saddleback Mountain in a ripping wind that blew wet cold mist over the bare rock peak. The wind took my pack cover, but I snatched it out of the air before it disappeared off the ridge, securing it with a makeshift tether. Though it briefly stopped raining, the mists soaked my pants on their windward side, but the strong winds dried them out the lee side.
The other peaks were no different. The low clouds prevented any summit views. I could barely find the trail in the fog, let alone see off the mountain tops. Lack of any views made the climbs tedious in the rain, though they weren’t particularly difficult. However, the climb down from The Horn was a painful reminder of the worst of the descents in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
During the descents, I fell twice on wet rocks, my feet slipping out from under me on steep sloped rocks. Another time, I tripped, stumbling down a steep grade, narrowly avoiding face-planting on a tree by spinning and landing on my back in the wet underbrush. I’m not a fan of steep descents in the rain.
It could have been rain-induced delirium, but I’m pretty sure I saw three switchbacks on one of the climbs. I would have made a video, but it was raining too hard to pull out my phone.
The Appalachian Canal
Most of the trail flowed like a small mountain stream. At first, I tried stepping around and over the rushing water and puddles, but after a few slips and missteps my socks and shoes were soaked, so I gave up. Hikers call that “reaching the notch-it point,” when you say, “Aw, notch it, I’m just going straight through. I can’t get any wetter.”
Today, the plank bridges put me at the notch-it point. I’d carefully stepped around all the water for the first few miles, staring at the trail without looking up to assure I placed my feet in the best, most secure spots. That works, but you don’t see anything but your feet and the trail.
I stayed dry, except for the rain that dampened my shoes, until I stepped on one of those floating planks and it sunk under six inches of water. Notch it! They look just like the anchored planks that bridge all the bogs, except that they have no foundation.
Tricksy AT. You got me again.
When it Rains, It Floods
The AT wasn’t the only watercourse with attitude. All the little streams were angry today too, brimming with brown, fast, roiling water above their banks, submerging any steppingstones and inundating normally dry ground. Each crossing required a brief reconnaissance to find the best spot to get across, and most required some mighty leaps (for an old man) between rocks. Others left no choice but to wade, leaving me sloshing up the trail with water squishing out the sides of my shoes.
I walked up to the Poplar Ridge Shelter around lunch time and saw my first hiker of the day, a southbounder named Vocale (sp?) sitting out the rain and waiting until his gear dried before moving on. He’d gotten thoroughly soaked yesterday afternoon and refused to go on. When I arrived at the shelter, he sat all by himself on his backpacking chair, wrapped up in his sleeping bag, with his gear hanging from nearly every hook and line in the shelter.
When I set down my pack, I realized my pack cover was gone, probably stolen by one of the scrubby trees I pushed through to avoid the bigger puddles that occupied the entire trail footprint. My favorite line in Bill Bryson’s book is when he goes to REI to buy a backpack and is told he also needs a rain cover. “What?” he says, “Did it not occur to the manufacturer that we might take one of these things outside?” I feel exactly the same way.
After a nice chat about trail conditions with Vocale, I headed back into the rain. The Poplar Shelter, or the “Popular” Shelter, as Vocale kept calling it, had been my first bailout point. But I still felt strong, doing slightly more than 2 mph this morning, and the forecast called for clearing skies. If I kept that pace, I’d make my target well before dark. I might even dry out by then if the sun came out.
The light rain continued through lunch, but I decided to keep moving. I had the energy to hike, and no interest in spending the whole afternoon and evening with Vocale, though he was pleasant enough company. So, I set my sight on the Spaulding Mountain Shelter, eight miles ahead.
I climbed down into the next notch, focused completely on the 1,400-foot descent and next 1,800-foot climb, until I came to the Orbeton Stream. Just like every other stream I’d crossed, the flow was high, fast, and angry. At low flow, the crossing has steppingstones across the 20-foot-wide stream.
Today, the stones were underwater, with a recirculating rolling wave just downstream. An aluminum rowboat was plastered and taco’d against a mid-stream bedrock island just below the crossing where the flow split into two Class IV chutes.* An accidental swim into either chute could easily be fatal at these flows.
Fortunately, the flow was clear enough that I could see the streambed and estimate the depth. And the flow velocity above the rolling wave was swift but not too powerful. So, I unclasped by hip belt and chest strap so that I could shed my pack if I fell and had to swim, and carefully waded in, testing the depth and my footing with my trekking poles as I went.
The parts with faster current were mid-thigh deep, but the eddy on the far bank was waist deep with almost no downstream velocity. If the flow was any deeper, I’d have had to spend the night on the shore waiting for it to recede. The entire crossing was cold, though I realized afterward that my knees felt great, almost like they’d been iced. Hiking it alone was a little unnerving, but I’ve crossed faster, deeper water in the past.
Was it Bad?
I climbed out of the stream and started the ascent toward Lone Mountain. I’d gone only a few steps when a southbound hiker came down the trail and asked, “Did you just cross? Was it bad?” He’d been sitting on a flat spot a few hundred feet up the hill all day, coming down every hour to measure the water level. I told him it wasn’t good, but it was passable. He said that the water had been dropping about four inches per hour, and that he planned to wait two more hours before trying it himself. I offered to wait around and watch him cross, but he said that if it didn’t drop enough, he’d wait until the next day.
Despite seeing a window of blue sky on the horizon – in Arizona we call those “sucker holes,” because only suckers get fooled into thinking the skies are clearing – the drizzle continued all afternoon. I rolled into the Spaulding Mountain Lean-To around 5:30 pm, soaking wet and chilled. A southbounder named Sylvan had his wet gear hanging over one half of the shelter, so I claimed the other half. But we didn’t expect any of it to dry with a cold wet breeze blowing through all night.
News From the North
Sylvan said he’d had a rough crossing at the South Branch of the Carrabassett River. He’d barely gotten across but had seen a northbounder get swept off the submerged plank that spanned the deepest channel. The hiker had managed to hold on to the plank, which was anchored by a steel cable on one end, and another hiker had grabbed him and pulled him up onto a huge mid-channel boulder before he was swept downstream into a huge rapid.
I found out later that the hiker was Special Sauce, who had been part of PBJ’s group, and his rescuer was Fizz. You can watch a video of the event on Just Try’s YouTube channel. I bumped into Special Sauce a few nights later and he said it had been terrifying. If he’d been alone, I doubt he would have survived since he hadn’t thought to unhitch his hip belt or chest strap and would have had to swim the rapids while wearing his pack.
Well, that crossing was a problem for tomorrow. Tonight, I only had to worry about making dinner, hoping the shelter roof didn’t leak, and drying out my wet pack and gear.
I turned in as soon as the sun set around 7:00 pm, tired from an 18.7-mile day and more than 6,000 feet of climbing, but happy to have completed a big day in bad conditions.
- Start: ME 4 (Mile 1977.8)
- End: Spaulding Mountain Lean-To (Mile 1996.5)
- Weather: Gloom, doom, and rain. Lots of it.
- Earworm: None
- Meditation: Ps. 23
- Plant of the Day: The nasty tree that stole my pack cover.
- Best Thing: 18.7 miles and 6,000 feet.
- Worst Thing: Rain, rain, and more rain.
*A Class IV rapid has large hydraulics and waves that require complex moves to navigate and have severe consequences of failure.
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