Hiking Katahdin – aka “The Bear”

After landing in Bangor, ME, and walking all over town to get our food for the first stretch of the trail and send the luggage we flew our packs in home, we hit the Concord bus station to wait for the Cyr bus to Medway, ME. Having been up since 3 a.m. and walked six miles in Bangor, I was already beat, so I did what any soon-to-be hiker would do—I fell asleep in a sunny spot near the window on the bus station floor. Gotta get used to the strange looks in public early, right?

We slept the hour and 40 minute bus ride, legs sprawled into the aisle and pressed diagonally against one another and into the window in a weird slumped cuddling position that probably looked super comfortable but was not at all. We woke to the driver’s monotone “Medway” over the PA, as we pulled into a bus station and parked behind a white van.

As the bus driver grabbed our packs from under the cab, we noticed there was a third pack. It belonged to a tall man maybe in his mid to late thirties with a dark ponytail a little sparse on the top and wide green eyes. Another hiker! The bus driver handed us our packs and one by one followed with “good luck.”

Out of the white van stepped a small framed old man with tan skin and a head of white hair that was accented by an unexpected tiny white ponytail held by a clear rubber band where his neck met his head—Ole Man. He smiled at us and threw open the back doors of the van where we stacked our packs before heading off to the AT Lodge in Millinocket. As we drove, he told us a little about himself.

Ole Man came to AT Lodge 13 years ago—he and his wife, NaviGator, were nomads and traveled around the US. Their dream was to have a big red barn down South to make a hostel out of for hikers. Instead, they ended up with a big red 118-year-old house that used to be a boarding house. He said that one day Ole Man and NaviGator hiked to Millinocket, laid their packs down, and resolved to buy the AT Lodge and become a permanent part of AT hiker culture.

We passed some old industrial buildings, and Ole Man explained that Millinocket used to be a paper mill town with a population of 15,000 or 20,000. He said the town had a bias against hikers, and thought that they hurt the town’s reputation. Ole Man and his wife, NaviGator, have worked hard over the past decade to change the town’s view of hikers because they boost the town’s economy, especially since most of the paper mills have shut down and the town’s population has dwindled to a mere 4,000. The streets and buildings looked deserted as we drove.

The AT Lodge includes hiker housing, a gear shop, and a cafe, though the cafe is a little way down the street from the big red house. As we got closer to the lodge, Ole Man gave us some expectations—he told us we’d get to the lodge, lay our packs down outside, find a bed in the bunk room, then he’d take us downstairs to get checked in and take care of our food drop for the 100-Mile Wilderness.

Just as he said, we laid our packs down on a screened-in porch and headed inside the bunk room where there were bunks in every usable space available. To claim a bunk, just put something there; the beach chair system. He showed us where there were showers available, told us the rules about hanging our towels on the hooks by the beds, and we headed down to the office to meet NaviGator and get checked in.

NaviGator is tall woman with cropped gray hair and sharp facial features to go with her strong personality. She talked us through when to get our food dropped in the 100-Mile Wilderness (there are old logging roads that go through the wilderness that Ole Man uses to drop hikers’ food), and gave us advice on how much fuel to carry for our stoves. The hiker from the bus was there as well, who said that he didn’t plan on a food drop, but he had about nine pounds of food on him. Usually the rule if thumb is to plan on two pounds of food per day, so Ole Man explained that nine pounds was only about 4 and a half days of food, which had to last him through summiting Katahdin, the ten miles out of Baxter State Park, and then the 100-Mile Wilderness. The hiker seemed nervous, but he didn’t opt to get more food dropped to him.

We headed back to the bunk rooms where Mason and I chose a top and bottom in a room where a hiker was sound asleep in the bunk on the adjacent wall. We showered, called our moms, and headed to bed to prepare for our AT journey’s beginning the next morning.

At 4:50 a.m. the AT hiker we saw from the bus woke Mason and me up at the AT lodge. We headed to breakfast at the AT Lodge Cafe, where we received a massive breakfast of two eggs, two pieces of bacon, two sausage links, potatoes, and your choice of two pancakes or two pieces of a French toast. And holy cow was it delicious.

We headed back to thelLodge, grabbed our packs and hit the road in the white van again, this time bound for the beginning of our AT thru-hike—Mount Katahdin.

Ole Man gave us some trail spoilers on the way and said that the 100-Mile Wilderness is beautiful, almost like you’re on a different planet. Katahdin, however, is a “bear.” He said, “Katahdin is the hardest place to start the trail by far, but if you can do it, you can do the rest. The mountain will beat you down.” Oh great!

When we reached Baxter State Park, our phones lost service, and signs at the park said “cell service is limited to nonexistent in the park.” The beginning. Ole Man dropped us off at a ranger station, wished us luck, and gave us one last piece of advice—he held out his fist to fist-bump us. “This is your new form of hello when you meet people. Only fists or elbows!” Oh yeah, hikers are not clean.

Inside the ranger station, we dropped off our packs, picked out a slackpack from a pile of interesting smelling and semi-damp backpacks, filled our pack of choice with snacks, a water filter and bladder, first aid kits, and sunscreen, and headed for The Bear.

The first two hours of the hike wasn’t too challenging—some steeper ups than we anticipated and a little more rocky and rooted, but hell, not nearly as bad as everyone said! Just before we hit the top of the treeline, we caught up to a group of hikers, in which was Brittany and her dad, Joe, who were from Tallahassee, FL, and we found out that Brittany graduated from Florida State University the same year as Mason and me. Small world! Brittany was just hiking Katahdin and the 100-Mile Wilderness with Joe, but Joe is going all the way southbound, just like us. We’re starting to make friends!

Then we hit the rock scrambles. For those who don’t know,  scrambles are sections of huge boulders, in this case twice the length of your body and triple the width, that you’re scaling as gingerly as possible while overlooking the edge, and I truly mean the edge, of the mountain. One wrong step and you’re done. There were metal bars drilled into the rocks in some places to help you up and give you something to hang onto for dear life, but for the most part, you’re climbing on light feet and a prayer. Terrifying, but thrilling and magnificently beautiful.

Ole Man had told us that we’d hit a plateau after the rock scrambles and then it’d be smooth sailing to the top. We hit the top of the scrambles huffing and puffing and laid down on a rock at the beginning of the plateau to rest for a minute. After all, we were almost to the top, right?!

Nope! After the scrambles we had another hour and a half of upward climbing on rocks. Every time we got up a set of rock steps and thought that was it, there was more. Billy Mays here with Mount Katahdin! Exhausted and think you’re done with your hike? BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!!

The sun beat down on our necks and hands as we struggled to reach the top. Black flies just swarmed our exposed skin as our bug spray wore off and we spent each step swatting them out of our faces and trying not to suck them up with each massive inhale. Honestly, there were points where I thought, “Even if I make it up there, how the hell am I going to get down?!”

I left Mason behind at one point because I had to keep a hefty pace to keep myself going and he was lagging a little. Finally I could see the sign at the summit and there’s no way I was going to summit without my partner, so I sat down on a rock and waited for him to come up over the rocks. As he got closer to where I was sitting he yelled, “Can’t stop! Gotta keep going!” I feel ya buddy.

We held hands as we finished the last 200-foot climb and touched the sign at the summit and let out the obligatory celebratory whoop that we made it to the top. We climbed the bear!

Surprisingly, the bugs were the worst at the summit—black flies, regular flies, beetles, these weird flying black bugs that looked like bees but weren’t. You name it, they were all over us. We ate lunch and stretched out our legs for about an hour before deciding to start the hike down.

One of the gals we rode to Katahdin from the AT Lodge with was at the summit with us—Melissa—and we started the hike down at the same time. We stopped at a junction between where you can chose either Hunt Trail, the scary rock scramble trail we came up, or Abol Trail, a steeper but one mile shorter trail. We had asked some hikers who came up Abol how it was and they had said it wasn’t too bad, so we filtered some water at a spring and decided to try Abol Trail down. We were so thankful we made that decision.

Abol Trail was very steep, but instead of having the large boulders you have to scale with your body close as possible to it, the boulders were smaller and jagged, so there were lots of good places to put our hands and feet to come on down. It felt MUCH safer than Hunt Trail, plus it was shorter! Win win!

We chatted with Melissa the whole way down and we bonded over musical theater, chatted about our lives before the trail, and what our plans were moving forward. She’s an environmental scientist on a two and a half week hiking trip and was getting as much of the AT in as possible before heading back home. She’s a dancer with a huge personality, and she just bubbled with positivity. She could tell us what types of rocks we were climbing over, which plants we were passing, what type of bugs we were seeing. It was fascinating!

We finally made it to the bottom of Katahdin after a ten-hour hike up and down, but Abol Trail lets out two miles from Katahdin Stream Campsite, where we were staying. As soon as we hit the bottom, we saw a car drive in to the Abol Campsite and I got my first experience asking for a hitch. A couple with lots of gear were in the car. I waved them down and asked if they’d mind giving us a lift to Katahdin Stream two miles down. The man driving replied, “Yeah, no problem! I totally get it, I’ve gotten hitches to Katahdin Stream before.”

We got into camp and the other hiker from the bus was already there. He and Melissa hadn’t made campsite reservations, so we shared ours with them—after all, they sleep six people. We found put his name is Ray and he’s a wildfire fighter from North Carolina. And he was hilarious to talk to. He’s one of those people who is naturally funny but has no idea he’s funny.

We cooked dinner in our camp stoves, pitched camp, filtered some water from the nearby stream, rinsed off our clothes, and hung them to dry before flopping down in our tent to sleep. We were pooped. It took us ten hours to get up and down Katahdin, and that was only day one. As we drifted to sleep, I thought about the 100-Mile Wilderness to come. I can do this, I thought, and fell asleep to the sound of Ray snoring in the tent next door.

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