How to survive Southern Maine
Southern Maine is a beautiful but sometimes harsh section of the Appalachian Trail. I section hiked from Gorham, NH to Stratton/Eustis, ME in August 2015, beginning with Towanda, and adding Stretch and Backtrack to our trail family along the way. I was very glad of the company for this intense portion of the AT. I feel like this hike, of all my section hikes, was the lesson I needed in moderation. In the prior 2 years of section hiking the AT before my foray through Southern Maine, I’d struggled with finding moderation on my hikes. I did 80 miles of NY/NJ in three days; I started my AT section hikes by hiking all of MA’s 90-something miles in 4 days, having never backpacked before. I started this hiking experience without an ounce of moderation. I’d started to learn to pace myself better but Southern Maine and hiking with a group of NOBOs drove the point home. So here’s some lessons I learned from Southern Maine, that I wish I’d known before I started.
1. Slow down
Accept that thru-hiker pace for this area is 10-12 miles a day if you’re pressing yourself. If you manage 15 miles, be deeply impressed. My trail family managed a 15 mile day once in Southern Maine and it took us 12 hours. Take more breaks; accept that you’re going to feel like you were put through a chipper-shredder at the end of the day. Climbing a TON of elevation on slippery, steep, rocky terrain takes a lot out of a hiker.
2. Fall safely
You’re going to fall in Southern Maine. It’s an inevitability. It’s slippery, wet, and muddy. Use your pack to your advantage; it’s soft and can break your fall (and prevent head injuries). I feel like I crawled, climbed, tripped, slid, skidded, and fell my way through Southern Maine. However, sometimes falling isn’t really an option. Those little tiny pine trees on the side of mountains are sometimes the only handhold between you and falling 10 feet down onto a bunch of rocks. For what it’s worth, they’re quite hardy and, as I learned, can hold a lot of weight. But sometimes, you’re not the first person to have grabbed that little tree. One tree I grabbed had stubs of broken branches sticking out of its trunk which I didn’t see until I grabbed it when I slipped on a mountainside. Southern Maine is the only place where I managed to get a puncture wound.
3. Go into town when you can
There aren’t a ton of towns in Southern Maine but take advantage of the ones that’re there. Depending on the day and time, it can be hard to get a ride into town but it’s totally worth it. Especially for this section, do not carry more food when you could go into town instead. Andover has a general store/liquor store/gas station/diner. It’s very much a one-stop-shop. Rangeley has it all: restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream, an outfitter, and an IGA (full grocery store). The town also has The Farmhouse Inn hostel, run by Shane and Stacy. Last year, they gave me and my trail family a ride into town from the trail head, let us do laundry, shower, charge our phones, watch some TV, and then dropped us back to the trail head, all for less than $10/each. Stratton has a general store/small grocery store with a deli and a gas station; the town also has the Stratton Motel and Hostel and three restaurants. Resupply here is limited but decent.
4. Know cell service is practically non-existent;
This section frequently has no cell service for 20-30 miles, easy. If you’re on a mountaintop, give it a try. Sometimes I managed to get cell service on mountaintops but sometimes, not so much. Don’t depend on cell phones to be able to do much in Maine, as a whole, but particularly this section. Something to know about cell service around here: sometimes, I’d mysteriously have 2-3 bars of service but it wouldn’t let me send texts or call anyone. When I tried to call, a recording would tell me that I could only make emergency calls. I heard by word of mouth that logging companies often set up repeaters/mini cell towers for their employees and by Maine state law, they have to allow emergency calls to go through from cell phones not operated by their employees. In any case, sometimes the bars are a lie!
5. Seek support from your fellow backpackers
Especially for NOBOs, y’all are tired at this point. Katahdin is close but you can’t see it yet and there’s a 100 mile wilderness plus a bunch of mountains between you and the end. Southern Maine isn’t gentle or kind; it simply is. Having a trail family or folks you know at the shelter each night when you bed down makes things easier. It was so helpful to me knowing that each night, I’d be arriving to friendly faces who’d just done the same miles I had and knew what hell it had been.
6. Hike at your own speed
Don’t let other people (in your hiking bubble or otherwise) slow you down or push you forward. This portion of the trail, perhaps more so than any other, should be hiked at your pace, not anyone else’s. It’s burly terrain that’s going to kick your ass; rushing will only get you hurt. But it’s also full of beautiful mountain views and some nice swimming spots (Sabbath Day Pond has an awesome sandy beach and Orbeton stream has some nice deep pools), though not as many as Northern Maine; take your time so you have the energy to appreciate them!
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