ECT Day 117 – The Slash
Prestile Stream to Fort Fairfield Lean-to
Dirty Hippies Camp to So Much Rain Camp
ECT miles: 22
Total miles: 2339
Elevation change: 3330ft gain, 3094ft loss
Trails are a strange thing. There is such a wide variety of what we humans consider trails, yet we use this catch-all term to describe both the wide, flat, and smooth ATV road as well as the overgrown single-track that is little more than a few blazes nailed to the occasional tree. Borders are an even stranger fabrication. For the second half of today, SpiceRack and I literally walked along the US-Canada border. A straight cut through the forest, dubbed “The Slash,” marked the precise, yet seemingly arbitrary, delineation between two different countries. As we walked, we weaved back and forth, around deep puddles of mud, and chest-deep beaver bogs, mostly in the US, but sometimes in Canada, if the marking obelisks were to be believed. And when we gratefully cruised on a paved road for a quarter mile, it seemed clear to us, based on the Canadian addresses on our right, that we were definitely in Canada, if only by 10 yards. So we were in Canada without officially leaving the US, and I wondered what would happen to us if we followed the road when it made a sharp right turn, pointing deeper into New Brunswick. Sure, there may have been cameras watching us the whole way, but maybe not. Who cared about two hikers ping-ponging between countries? Anyone? Not the moose, not the trees, not the beaver. Certainly not the mosquitoes or thunderstorms, which berated us regardless of which country we were in. Nope, turns out that taking a beating knows no borders. A wet and wild day caught between two countries.
The rain started up just in time to prolong the snooze. At 6:30am, with little prelude, fat drops began thrumming on our tent canopy. The onslaught came in waves, and I remained prone, watching the water cascade down the translucent blue of the thin fabric that served as not just a comforting physical barrier, but also a mental one. A tremendous crack of thunder was the final dagger through the heart of my hiking motivation, and I settled my mind back into the cozy comfort of snoozing. A friendly local yelled at us from his red truck to see if we were alright. Touched, we responded that we were just fine.
By 8am we were hiking in a light rain. The ATV road flowed with water, but it was easy to navigate around the milky puddles. Soon we had walked through a buzzing potato distribution and loading center, and into the town of Mars Hill. When we realized that this unexpected splash of civilization was a real town with a real grocery store, we got excited. Sure, we carried more food than we needed to from Houlton, but now we would get to eat town food. We picked up some vegan yogurt and chips at the IGA, then hunkered under the gas station canopy to get out of the rain while we ate. Somewhere in that time, Spice procured hot potato wedges, coffee, and a lemon turnover to complete our feast. We felt like royalty as we crouched on the concrete between propane canisters and stacked bundles of firewood. A couple of locals recognized us as hikers on the IAT. Who knows what the silent glancers were thinking.
The light rain continued as we hiked out of the town of Mars Hill and turned towards the hill of Mars Hill. In just two blocks, the bustling town center transitioned to suburbs, then farmland dotted with gorgeous old homes that I figured had been there for a very long time. Ahead was the hill, but it was completely draped in mist so it wasn’t until we were on it until we could actually see it. We started up the Olivia Rodrigo jams again as we left the road, following the signs that pointed us up the ski slopes. This was our first real climb since Deasy Mountain on Day 111, so we took it slow. I noticed how each step through the sodden grass refreshed the chill water held by my saturated socks. I noticed how my uphill muscles groaned as they shook off the rust.
By the time we reached the top of the shockingly steep slope, we were looping Dejá Vu and dripping with a mixture of mist and sweat. The rhythmic thumping of a wind turbine confirmed that we were at the top, but its presence was something that I felt rather than saw. The WHOMP…WHOMP…WHOMP rumbled in my chest, and I imagined myself as an ant when I finally reached the tower and gazed up to where the blades cut through the cloud. I could just make out the tips as they swooped through their bottom arc. They looked so slow, yet so fast at the same time. Logically familiar, yet intuitively alien. Comforting, yet unnerving.
Spice and I were both thrilled to join wiiiiiide gravel access road for the Mars Hill rollercoaster. We cruised past several other turbines and vibrant fields of lupine, glowing in the gloom with the internal light of the living. I commented for the hundredth time that I loved roads, and we contemplated the ever-changing, and oh so personal, criteria of what makes a ‘good’ trail. The subject was convoluted, but one thing was clear. On a rainy day, it’s nice to have a puddle-free gravel road stretching ahead.
Of course, soon after reaching this conclusion, the road ran out and the trail plunged into the forest. A dense carpet of ferns and baby maple trees obscured the light track under a high canopy of big maple trees. They blocked the wind and trapped the mist, rising like bare pillars before spreading into a green ceiling of a million leaves. I felt inside instead of outside, which was actually pretty cool. Blazes led the way more than the trail, and although it was beautiful in there, both of us were ready to be back on the road by the time we scrambled up a pile of rocks to reach the base of the next turbine. After a lunch break, we finished the traverse of Mars Hill by following the gravel gradually downhill to pavement, pleased with our progress, excited to reach the border in just one more mile.
Knoxford Road took us there. It continued into Canada, but an orange gate and some cameras were there to discourage an incursion. A normal looking house stood on the other side. The whole scene was a bit more casual than we had expected, but it must have worked. We snapped a few photos, then turned left onto an ATV road pointing north. The Slash cut a straight line through the forest, the US on one side, Canada on the other. Alone, yet feeling like we were being watched, we got to it. We’d reached Canada, but had some work to do yet before we could say goodbye to Maine for good.
The ATV track was muddy, but in excellent shape for a few miles. I love road. We hoped that absolutely nothing would change. A massive field of deep dirt furrows broke up the forest monotony on the Canadian side, granting us a sweeping view deep into New Brunswick, and for the first time I was shocked by the lack of a buffer zone along the border. I was used to the thought of animals living free of international borders, but it seemed like these Canadian farmers had an almost equal freedom to come and go as they pleased. The edge of the farm just happened to be the edge of the country. Who cared?
A few miles further, we found ourselves in between two intimidating border compounds, soaked from the waist down from wading through tall grass. The ATV road had left us to fend for ourselves in this no-mans land. Suddenly we were on the ‘outside’ of both countries, which was an uneasy place to be. However, the map said straight ahead, so straight ahead we went, fording a river, then slopping through sucking mud out of the mire. The Slash now was overgrown and filled with mosquitoes. The uneven ground made it impossible to outrun them, and my frustration grew with the increased rate of slapping and whacking. We stopped to apply DEET and regroup after this unexpected and unwelcome change.
The situation improved significantly when we reached a freshly-mowed stretch of grass. The walking was easy again, and a wide field on the US side gave us some mental breathing room beyond the deep corridor through the trees. A border patrol agent waited for us behind a bush in his truck, but he didn’t give us any trouble beyond the obvious questions. We’d called ahead of time to let them know what we were up to, so I wasn’t surprised by his lack of interest or concern. And so for a brief few miles we cruised. The nice lawn gave way to pavement, and we strolled on the aforementioned Canadian road for a quarter mile, wondering if anyone knew, or if anyone cared.
Things got interesting where beaver had flooded a half mile of The Slash. Spice did a great job of navigating the first bog, and I followed her as she balanced on the narrow lip of the beaver dam while weaving between the slender trunks and limbs of the trees that lined the edge of the water. Each branch tried to dump us into the depthless muck, but we held on, using them as handrails as we chose each step carefully. The footing was treacherous, an unstable conglomeration of wrist-thick sticks and gooey mud. I slipped up to my knee numerous times when the mix gave way, and only with a tremendous amount of unflattering flapping would I manage to regain my perch. On the dry side of the dam, a five-foot fall onto a messy pile of wooden spears promised to do real damage, or at least cause a mighty tangle. Slowly, we inched around the 100-yard perimeter, and I felt more than a little bit guilty for putting my footprints all over the meticulously crafted structure. When we finally did reach solid ground on the other side, unbroken and mostly not soaked, we congratulated one another and shared a fist-bump. That wasn’t so bad.
Ah, but then there was an even bigger bog. While we were balancing along the next dam, Spice pointed ahead. Yet another dam held a mirror of placid water a face-level this time. A mega-dam. I followed Spice up the pile of sticks to the top, and was kind of shocked by the scale of the beavers’ work. They were better at building dams than I was, that was obvious. The strategy that worked for us before served us well again, and we began to pick our way along the perimeter of the vast lake. This water was deeper, beyond the depth of my trekking pole, and the fall on the other side was taller. We slipped and slid as far as we could go, but eventually the dense needles of the adjacent conifers barred our way. To top it off as we struggled through the grabbing branches on constantly decaying footholds, the rain started up again and thunder cracked overhead. The still surface of the water prickled with tiny explosions, and water mixed with sweat dripped steadily from the brim of my hat. Bog water soaked my bottom half. Sweat and rain drenched my top. As I stopped to swat the rain-proof mosquitoes out of my face, I recalled the scene in The Return of the King, when Gollum led Sam and Frodo through the Dead Marshes. Their trial had looked miserable on the big screen, and now we were actually living it. I couldn’t believe my luck. Yet as objectively terrible as our own situation seemed to be, Spice and I really did think it was cool. What a unique experience, to walk through a beaver bog on the US-Canada border in the worst conditions imaginable. We were out here for an adventure, and we were getting it.
Eventually, the trees forced us to wade through the waist-deep water, almost losing our shoes to the sucking mud in the process. We squelched up the northern bank, grateful for the experience, but definitely ready to be done with it. Unfortunately, the bog splashing persisted to a lesser extent for another kilometer, before transitioning into an overgrown mess of baby trees and mud. Finally, the two-miles from hell released us. I was as beat down and frustrated as I’d ever been during a thru-hike.
The final two miles to camp were easy, but slow. The mileage and constantly wet feet were catching up to us as we stumped over the final few undulations to our shelter. Yes, there’s a shelter smack-dab on the border. We found it by headlamp, and it was perfect. A protected safe-haven, a flat spot not covered in wet grass. Spice pitched the tent inside to keep the bugs away while I gathered water for filtering from the nearby creek. The rain began to pour down once more as we hung our soaked clothes from all the hooks and nails that we could find. There wasn’t a chance that they would dry completely, but I would consider it a win if I didn’t need to wring anything out in the morning.
As soon as I lay down, I lost all ability to be productive. I couldn’t finish my beans, and Spice patiently poured shots of mint tea in my mouth. I was feeling a little bit funny, but I wasn’t surprised. That had been a butt-kicker of a day, and finished with pretty much my worst nightmare. I was ready to move on, to sleep it off. However, despite all the nastiness, it had also been an awesome day. I chalked it up to seeing some new things and being in SpiceRack’s company. She turned a miserable day into an awesomely miserable day, from potato wedges to mint tea. Also beavers. Beavers are awesome.
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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