Day 151: Tramily
(Expect daily posts from now on)
Two thousand miles into my hike and we finally stayed at a hostel, the Maine Roadhouse near Stratton. We’d asked to park at a few hostels previously, but had been turned down, either because of Gus or because of limited parking. But the folks at the Maine Roadhouse are easy going and let us park out back on the grass near the tents, charging us the same as everyone else.
The hostel was clean, quiet, pleasant, and full of hikers. It seemed like everyone from our most recent bubble was staying there. I got my hot shower, used an indoor bathroom that flushed, and washed our dishes in their sink. Pure luxury. I even found an extension cord lying in the grass that I used to charge our van batteries overnight, which needed some juice after so many cloudy days. Then we fell asleep to the howls of coyotes, making us homesick for Arizona.
We planned to leave with PBJ’s crew at 6:30 the next morning, but the hostel host didn’t appear until 7:00, and then took some time to work through the queue of people needing to settle their accounts before leaving. But we still got to the trailhead before 8:00 am, ready to tackle the Bigelow Mountains, reputed to be one of Maine’s toughest ranges.
Today’s 16.6-mile hike included 5,100-feet of climbing over The Horn, Bigelow West Peak, Bigelow Avery Peak, and Little Bigelow Mountain, plus 5,600-feet of steep descents. Depending on the ruggedness of the trail and the climbs, it could be a tough day. As I set out, Gus reminded me that before we got to New England, a 16-mile hike was an easy day.
At least we had good weather. The forecast called for clear blue skies, a stiff breeze, and a high in the 60’s, perfect for hiking. But at 8:00 am, the thermometer hadn’t pushed past 45F, so I wore my fleece while hiking for the first time in months.
PBJ’s Plan for the 100-Mile Wilderness
I walked with PBJ for the first mile, which gave me a chance to ask how his crew ended up at ME 27 yesterday, instead of being two days ahead of me. It turned out that I’d misunderstood when he said they only planned to camp one night in the 32-mile segment between ME 4 and ME 27. He had arranged a shuttle from the Carrabassett River back to the Maine Roadhouse and had done the section from the river to ME 27 yesterday. They’d camped the previous night at the Poplar Ridge Shelter.
I also discovered that PBJ’s trail name doesn’t come from his favorite sandwich. It stands for Platinum Blaze John, because of his penchant for using shuttles, hostel stays, slackpacking, and shelters to avoid staying in his tent. He’d done a ton of research before he left home and knew every slackpack option along the entire trail. My kind of guy.
PBJ also thinks he can slackpack the entire 100-Mile Wilderness. Warren Doyle’s itinerary is based on the same assumption, though Warren knows the forest roads in the wilderness better than most Mainers and isn’t afraid of driving them, regardless of their condition. JW and I aren’t thrilled about Alex and Northstar driving our vans on those roads, but the idea bears investigation.
South Horn Peak
I dropped PBJ on the first climb, a nearly 3,000-foot ascent over three miles. Somewhere in there we passed an official AT marker for the 2,000-mile point, now inaccurate by about 12 miles. The AT’s mileage changes from year to year, as sections of trail are rerouted or improved. The ATC would like us to believe that adding switchbacks also increases the mileage, but that only happens if switchbacks are actually added.
Except for the last 700 feet up to South Horn Peak, the climb wasn’t particularly onerous. But it certainly wasn’t easy and had more than its share of roots, rocks, mud, fallen trees, and running water left over from a week of rain. The gorgeous moss-blanketed pine forest along the way more than compensated for the trail conditions, as did the views from the summit.
Horn Pond, nestled in the deep forest between an unnamed peak and South Horn Peak, was the highlight for me. Its crystal blue waters reflected the sky and mountains, creating a postcard moment. If I’d brought a tent, I’d have stopped right there. But I had miles to go, so I did the next best thing. I stopped for an early lunch on South Horn Peak to enjoy the view. Gus put his head in my lap and fell asleep, completing the perfect moment.
I’d just started thinking about moving on when PBJ and JW hiked up and sat down. So, I stayed and enjoyed the view with them, chatting about the climb, the remarkably improved weather, and the remaining 200 miles to Katahdin.
Just Try and Sauce hadn’t shown up when we got up to leave, but PBJ had gotten a text that they weren’t far behind. Next up was West Bigelow Peak, the high point of today’s hike. The peak offered stellar views of the surrounding mountains, Sugarloaf Sky Resort, and miles of pristine lakes. It’d been weeks since I’d seen anything but clouds from a mountaintop, so I lingered and stared until PBJ and JW caught up.
Avery Peak, named for Myron Avery, the Mainer responsible for completing Benton MacKaye’s dream of the Appalachian Trail, was next. The views from the ridge were no less amazing than they had been from the other Bigelow peaks. At the summit, I stopped to chat with some day hikers who’d taken the day off from paddling Flagstaff Lake because of the wind. After a few minutes of conversation, we discovered that they lived in Skaneateles, New York, just 15 minutes from the town where I grew up.
As we talked, we stared down at Flagstaff Lake. All day, I’d been looking at that lake, thinking that I’d happily spent an entire summer exploring every cove and island in a canoe. That and every other remote lake in northern Maine. Once again, I just sat and stared until JW caught up and we started the big descent together.
Little Bigelow Mountain lies 1,200 feet below the other Bigelow peaks and its views are somewhat diminished as well, but you gotta love the name. Little Big. Hiking the Bigelows was a grind, due to the steep terrain and rugged trail, but I’d have to put it on my top five favorite AT hikes. It was definitely worth the effort.
JW and I leapfrogged each other on the descent from Avery Peak, up Little Bigelow, and across its plateau, pushing past if the other stopped to take in a view or filter water. Twice, we passed each other when one of us accidentally mistook unmarked side trails as the main trail, discovering our mistake ten minutes before having to do an annoying, unnecessary climb back to the trail.
JW got ahead of me on the descent from Little Bigelow and stayed there. That dude can move. At times, he was almost jogging. It was all I could do to keep in him sight. By the time we got to East Flagstaff Road, I was toasted.
It didn’t help that I’d run out of water just before reaching the summit of Little Bigelow and had resorted to filtering water from a puddle left from the rain two days ago. My eyes had been on the views and I’d forgotten to keep track of the few water sources on the ridges.
When we got to East Flagstaff Road, Alex and Northstar had set up their own mini-trail magic in the parking area. They had all the chairs set out, the grill on, and they’d bought grilling stuff and drinks for all the hikers who had come over from ME 27 this morning. PBJ’s crew, Sauce, HR & her crew, Fox, Soup & Shoulders, and several others I didn’t know all joined in.
Everyone who walked in was beat from the climbs and descent, but they all lit up when Alex asked if they wanted a hot dog, beer, or something else. Almost everyone stopped right there, picked out a tent site, and came back to eat. And we all sat and talked around their fire pit until well after sunset.
When Sauce learned that I’d been a river scientist specializing in flood control work, he pulled out a video of his Carrabassett River crossing to ask how much danger he’d been in. He said he was more focused than scared but was starting to get more scared the more he thought about it. Sauce is no softie, having served multiple tours in active war zones with the British Army, but that crossing rattled him.
Later, Northstar told me that one of the hikers had asked about the PBJ-JW group, and that she had jokingly responded that they were a clique. Then she added that she wanted to be part of it. JW looked over at her and said “You’re in.”
Two thousand miles and we finally have a tramily (a trail family). I like this group. I like that JW and Alex are doing the same vanlife thing Northstar and I are doing. As we try to navigate the winding dirt roads and vast forests of northern Maine, it’s been nice for Northstar to be able to caravan with Alex. I hope we can hang with them until Katahdin.
- Start: ME 27 (Mile 2010)
- End: East Flagstaff Rd (Mile 2,026.6)
- Weather: Bluebird. Sun, cool, puffy clouds, and a breeze.
- Earworm: Here I Go Again (on my own)
- Meditation: Ps 8:3-4
- Plant of the Day: Moss carpets
- Best Thing: Summit views
- Worst Thing: Nothing
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