(Mis) Adventures of a Trail Angel in Maine’s Mahoosuc Range
As it is often said by NOBOs: “No rain, no pain, no Maine.” I’m here to tell you that the pain does not stop at Maine—it only gets worse (for a while).
A Fabled Land of Enchantment
For many NOBOs, Maine is like this magical kingdom of their dreams, and that by reaching it, they will somehow be translated into a promised land, flowing with milk and honey. As I was soon to learn, nothing could be further from the truth….
I too had dreamed a dream of Maine—a trail angel’s dream—of taking good things to hikers deep in the Maine wilderness.
For as long as I’ve been watching youtube videos, I’ve watched in awe at the fabled, “Toughest mile on the AT—Mahoosuc Notch,” a deep, rocky gouge in a rugged wilderness called the Mahoosuc Range. The videos of this magical place evoked visions in my mind of faerie kingdoms, wizards and Orks, and wandering Hobbits. The vloggers, with their editing out of major swaths of this stretch, made it look so easy… and short, that I thought, “Heck, I hike the Smokies all the time; I can do this”.
My original plan was to hop a shuttle to a side trail on the easternmost end of the Mahoosuc wilderness—at the ME/NH border—hike north for about 11 miles, through Mahoosuc Notch,, up the Mahoosuc Arm, past Speck Pond, ending up at Grafton Notch State Park, where my car awaited. What could go wrong?
Fantasy Meets Reality
After driving for many hours, I finally stared in awe at the majesty of the mighty White Mountains of New Hampshire as I drove past them on scenic Highway 2. Not long after I crossed the border and into the wilds of Maine, I found myself near the tiny town of Newry; within sight of the Mahoosuc Range: a rugged stretch of mountains that grew larger and larger the closer I got.
It was late on a warm summer afternoon as I drove into Grafton Notch State Park and into the shadow of this massive… no… monstrously HUGE mountain that the locals call Old Speck. Now, from my front yard back home in Tennessee, I often look straight out at the long, misty blue wall of the Smoky Mountains, with their 6500+ft. elevations, yet Old Speck, with its 4500+ft. elevation somehow looked way bigger. Maybe it was the abruptness of the mountain; whereas the Smokies have lower foothills, followed by intermediate foothills, stepping your vision gradually up to their hazy heights, Old Speck rises so suddenly that right away you get a sense of how high the mountain is.
Immediately, I was struck with this daunting thought: This mountain is more than I bargained for and there’s no way that I, a part-time hiker—someone who doesn’t possess the conditioned hiker legs of steel that through hikers have—could possibly get through all this rugged wilderness in one day.
So I opted for plan B: hike south from Grafton Notch State Park, up and over Old Speck, and down into the shelter at the beautiful Speck Lake—a mere 4.6 miles (one way). Piece of cake. Should be in and out before dark.
But First, Let’s Scope Out the Local Culture
Just down the road a few miles from Grafton Notch State Park was the little industrial town of Rumford, where, sitting as close to the center of town as possible, was their main industry; the paper mill.
In the early morning hours, the foul smelling steam of the smokestacks, blending in with the vapors wafting up from the dark waters of the Androscoggin River, gave this tired-looking mill town a dusky look, reminiscent of black and white photographs of the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
Since I was in search of a Wal-Mart to stock up on fresh food and drink for the hikers, I continued driving to the next town, which was Dixfield. This town had a more charming old style feel to it. Right near the downtown, I passed a large, vintage style house, littered with all kinds of used items for sale. Several conoes were leaned against the house and its adjacent trees. There were stacks of used items; everything from old-style windows, tools, furniture, and just about everything under the sun.
Seated on a chair on a side porch was a white haired old man, talking to another man standing at the edge of the porch, who was playing with his Jack Russel Terrier.
They were just like any good ole’ boys you’d find anywhere in the South, except they spoke with the local Maine twang. When I told them I desired to learn about the demographics of the area and write about it, the owner, Mr. Wardwell, a grizzled old timer who had a penchant for using foul language, wasted no time telling me all the dirt on the area. Like old timers everywhere, he said the region is nothing like it used to be, and is now more economically depressed than it has ever been.
Logging trucks, laden with huge logs kept roaring by all morning, whether to the sawmill or the paper mill, I couldn’t tell, but between their passing racket, I asked, “Aren’t the paper and saw mills providing good jobs and steady income around here?”. He told me, “No, the paper mill employs only around 500 people and the sawmill even less, and most workers only make $10-12 per hour. Most of the money around here comes from people on welfare”. At this point, his buddy blurted out, “Yeah, and he’s a slumlord who has several houses he rents to those people”. Wardwell admitted, “Whenever you rent to a working person, he eventually tells you that he didn’t get enough hours at work and can’t come up with the rent. That’s why I only rent to people on welfare because their checks come monthly and I always get my rent”.
Many more unsavory and profane words did he utter that I have the discretion not to repeat.
Preparing for the Expedition: My Trail Angel Gear Picks
After driving away from visiting the locals, I decided I was going to do my version of what a lot of hikers do: list all the things you have to bring to be a halfway decent trail angel (IMO). Just like hikers do on YouTube, displaying all their gear on a flat surface, I laid out all the things I’d be hauling on this expedition on the picnic table at Grafton Notch Campground for all to see.
Though it is often referred to as trail magic, preparing to serve hikers in the backcountry is anything but. A lot of thought and planning goes into not only selecting the best fresh food and drink that will appeal to a starving hiker, but to anticipate other needs, like: extra batteries, flashlights, lighters, toilet paper, and paracord, to name a few. Then, it has to be at a reasonable weight for the terrain and distance. The shorter the distance, or the flatter the terrain, the more I will carry, sometimes up to 50 pounds. This day the pack weighed in at 39 pounds, including water (Yes, I carry scales because I’m curious about my pack weight, as well as what kinds of weights hikers are carrying on the trail)
Packing a trail angel’s pack has to be done carefully so that the heavy cold drinks inside the cooler at the bottom of the pack stay cold, and the fragile fruit and vegetables sit on top, where they won’t be bruised. This time I did something different; I placed the pack of candy bars in an outside zipper pouch so that all I had to do was turn around and let the hikers help themselves, without me having to unshoulder my pack, set it on the ground and dig them out—which was a real time-saver—allowing me to detain hikers less than a minute, sending them on their way quicker.
Lessons in Misunderestimation
Since George W was so well known for his skillful invention of new words, I could think of no better word to describe how I not only underestimated this climb; I misunderestimated it (Meaning, I screwed up bigtime). Let me explain.
It was a warm, sunny, summer afternoon in August, when I hoisted my heavy duffle onto my shoulders and began the long, arduous journey in the wild unknown (to me) of the Mahoosuc Range.
Since I don’t like hiking alone, I brought my constant hiking companions along with me: my bloodhounds, Caroline and Beau Diddley.
The first thing I noticed about the terrain here was that there was an overabundance of boulders, both big and small, scattered about the trail, interrupted by rock shelf, after rock shelf, after rock shelf… this was so unlike back home in my beloved Smokies, where most of the trails are nice dirt paths, interspersed with occasional rocks and roots.
The trail profile map told me that it was a 3.5 mile, 2,880-foot ascent to the top of Old Speck, followed by a short 1.1 mile, 960-foot descent down the back side of the mountain to reach Speck Pond, for a total of 4.6 miles one way; something I could have easily done back in the Smokies. What the profile map didn’t tell me was that the variability of the trail made the profile behave more like fractal geometry, rather than your usual steep uphill curve. This made the total length seem so much more than the 4.6 miles to my legs; like being on a stair stepper machine all day.
Still, being ex-military, I believe in the mission, and my mission was to take fresh food and drink to thru-hikers at the shelter, and, dammit, that was what I was going to do!
So, the only way I knew to get up this massive mountain, rough as it was, was to put one foot in front of the other and keep going until I arrived.
Despite the rugged terrain, the northern forest is a marvelous spectacle to behold, with its large variety of dark green evergreen trees, light green ferns, and dusky mosses. With the trail going for a little way alongside a crystal clear mountain stream, there was plenty of beauty to take my mind off how the straps were digging into my shoulders and what the pressure of all this extra weight was doing to the bottoms of my feet, and the muscles in my legs. After an hour of this painful uphill slog, I arrived at a cliff line and was presented with a view that was both awesome and daunting. The surrounding landscape, though stunning in its beauty, was overshadowed by the large, looming figure of the massive bulge of Old Speck, which was still far, far up and away.
However, there were nice distractions along the way. I ran across several hikers–some SOBO’s, some NOBO’s–who were unbelievably grateful that I was meeting them in the middle of the wilderness…..with candy bars! One hiker was shocked beyond words as I slapped an ice-cold PBR Tall Boy into her hand, finally saying something like, “Oh my God, that is the best beer I’ve ever had in my life”.
One NOBO, trail name, French Press for the French press coffee maker he carries, recognized me and said, “Hey, Bloodhound, remember me? You served me cold beer, cheese and crackers at a shelter back in North Carolina.” I told him, “Yes, I do remember you, but your beard was considerably shorter back then”. Whoa, what are the odds that we’d meet a few months later on the same day and place!
Later on in the afternoon, when I was getting weary from all the uphill climbing and having to sit down to rest a lot, I met another hiker, Ford Wizard, a SOBO who got his trail name earlier in his hike when he was attempting to ford a river. Instead of carrying lightweight hiking poles, he chose to hike using two large wooden staffs and, when he stood at the river crossing with his shoes stuck on the end of his staffs, another hiker remarked that he looked like a wizard of the ford—hence the name Ford Wizard.
As we talked, I shared how much this mountain was kicking my @$$, telling him, “I don’t have through hiker trail legs, so this is really rough on me.” He confided, “Don’t feel bad, I have my trail legs and yet it is hard for me too”. Those words gave me some comfort in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who found the Mahoosuc Range rough. No doubt the mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, would totally have seen “The Art of Roughness” in this terrain.
A few hours later, I arrived , hot and sweaty, at the top of Old Speck (which I renamed, ‘Old Sonofabitch’ because it had caused me so much misery). Even though my legs were trembling and I had drunk the last of my water, the amazing panoramic view of the Maine landscape stretching on to the horizon was so beautiful that it temporarily took my mind off the misery in my body. The surrounding landscape was every bit as beautiful as any view we have back in the Smokies.
Looking off to the east, I could just make out the tiny little paper mill in Rumford, its smokestacks still belching out little wisps of foul smelling white smoke.
Looking at the steep downhill section leading from the top of this mountain, I could see that there were a series of small cliffs, cascading down the steep sides of the mountain that I knew were going to be difficult for both me and my dogs to navigate. Then we still had to serve the hikers and hike back out. And, difficult it was.
By the time I lifted Caroline, who weighs 120 pounds, and 90 pound Beau Diddley down the last of the cliffs, hiking the last few hundred yards to the high alpine lake of Speck Pond, several bad things happened: the energy level in my 57-year-old body tanked, I was out of water and thirsty as hell, and had no way to filter more. Also, the sun was going down and the temperature was dropping rapidly.
I Went From Being a Trail Angel to Being in Need of Trail Angels
After six hours of painful hiking, I limped on into the camp and began setting up my serving station, making vegetable salads topped with ranch dressing and passing around fresh strawberries, chocolate and ice-cold beer. It warmed my soul to see that I had accomplished my mission. I was only remiss that it was too dark to get any decent photos to share.
The camp caretaker, a nice young woman named Olivia, upon hearing of my grueling trek to get there, advised me to stay the night in the shelter and not try hiking out in darkness, citing plunging temperatures and the danger of climbing cliffs in the dark. Ford Wizard also cautioned me of the same. In the end, I conceded to their sensible suggestion but was left with a bit of a dilemma: all I had to keep me warm was a light jacket and knit hat–no tent, no sleeping bag; not even a mat to lay on. Olivia, sensing my need said, “Let me go around the camp and see what I can do”. 30 minutes later, she came back carrying a small tarp, a foam sleeping mat and a couple puffy jackets that some of the other hikers had graciously given up for me. One of the hikers, Ford Wizard, shared some filtered water with me. These acts of kindness touched my heart, for this was the textbook example of true, ATC approved serendipitous trail magic.
I had no idea that the temperature in the north country was going to drop so sharply but soon it was getting down into what felt like the mid 40’s and the wind began to gust. Fortunately, I was able to coax both bloodhounds to lay up against me as I wadded up the jackets to use as a pillow and dragged the tarp over the top of us. We shivered for a while, but soon, with the help of the combined mass of 210 pounds of bloodhounds, the space beneath the tarp warmed nicely and we were actually able to sleep comfortably during most of the night. Thanks to ‘Saint Olivia’, we not only survived the night but did so in relative comfort.
The next morning, I filled my water bottle directly from the charming little spring in a faerie-like mossy forest. Since I didn’t have a filter, I took my chances with germs.
After slaking my thirst, I went and profusely thanked Saint Olivia for bailing me out, then began the 960 foot climb back up Old Sonofabitch.
On the way back, while scrambling up a long, curving granite slab, my feet slid out from under me, causing me to fall flat on my face. My anger began to boil and, just when I was about to cuss out the mountain (again), I looked to my right and, a few inches from my face, were some of the prettiest pink flowers I’ve ever seen–just about the size of forget-me-nots–that were probably from some kind of mountain laurel. This beautiful spectacle softened my ire and I resolved to call this mountain by its proper name from now on, especially since it had taught me such valuable lessons about myself, and the hiking community.
After summiting Wise Old Speck, the downhill was so much easier. A few hours later, as I emerged from the forest, I was never so happy to see my car waiting for me.
With the rugged Mahoosuc Range slowly shrinking in my rear view mirror, I began the long drive back down to Tennessee, and my beloved Smokies. During the drive, I had time to reflect on my little adventure and here are some things I took away from my encounter with the rough Maine wilderness:
- I need to be in better physical shape the next time I attempt to hike this region
- I need to be prepared to bivuac overnight on long day hikes
- Never assume that the temperature is going to remain mild in the North Country; always bring warm clothing and be ready for any kind of weather
- Always allot more time to reach my destination than I think I’ll need
- Be assured that the hiking community pulls together to help hikers in need, even if it happens to be a trail angel
- Bring water filtration
In the end, I was able to do a little good on the trail, as well as learn valuable life lessons while doing so, which made me feel good to be alive.
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