One & Done (Part 1- The Bad and Ugly)
I knew I had problems when my hiking shoe washed away.
I turned off the headlamp and reluctantly went back to floating atop my banana-yellow air mattress like I was in the lazy-river at a summer waterpark. Unfortunately, temps were in the 40s, all my stuff was soaked and relaxation wasn’t going to get me out of my quickly escalating predicament. I sorted through my options and decided the best course of action was, unfortunately, to hope for the best until dawn.
And so another domino fell in an unlucky sequence of events leading to my hardest, wettest, final week on the Appalachian Trail- and ultimately most rewarding. But let me back up just a little to an idyllic late summer day, one of the last peaceful moments before the you know what hit the fan…
Somewhat amazingly, there is only one unbridged river on the entire AT so large you must take a ferry to cross it. It’s the Kennebec and is situated a mere 150 miles from the end of the trail. By this point in the hike Firewalker and I had come to the likely conclusion we were in the midst of the largest “bubble” of hikers remaining, as evidenced by the overflowing nature of every shelter and campsite we came to. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing though, as we’d been lucky to be surrounded by good friends who were increasingly likely to succeed in their thru-hikes like us. In a matter of weeks we’d no longer be in each others’ lives the way we had been for so long and it was a last chance saloon to celebrate our time on trail together. But the crossing of the Kennebec concerned us since we’d read comments on FarOut of long lines and wait times to get across.
The ferry was a simple forest green canoe being piloted by Greg, a man hired by trail management to provide the service. Only two hikers could ride at a time and the one seated up front had to help paddle. While the shuttle was free it only ran between the hours of 9am-2pm. Firewalker and I decided the night before to wake up early and be in line by 7:30. It was good we did as our friend Squirrel was the only person ahead of us and fifteen minutes after our arrival there were well over a dozen hikers stacking up behind. That number would continue to swell throughout the day.
As we sat on a dead log and patiently waited for Greg it was fun to listen to everyone talking. There were two topics I heard commented on most. First, everyone was excited because for the first time in days the sun was forecast to make an appearance, though in the early hours it was still playing coy behind dramatically puffy gray clouds. It’d been pretty gloomy and wet over the previous week and everyone seemed to be craving some Vitamin D.
The other talking point was Katahdin summit days. It felt like most folks had chosen the date their hike would end and it was interesting to hear the wide discrepancy between them. Some, like us, were trying to finish sooner rather than later. Firewalker wanted to spend time visiting family in the US before returning to Denmark in early October. Others said they were purposefully slowing down so as to prolong their experience. In the end there were several who had pinpointed the same day as us, Monday, September 25th. Since Sapling was coming to summit with me, and my wife and son were coming to celebrate with us, I’d given them that date with a plea to wait until the last possible moment to get the plane tickets and hotel reservations in case things went metaphorically south.
Squirrel and I were the first to cross the Kennebec and it was much smoother and quicker than I’d predicted. A few minutes later Firewalker and Rafiki had crossed and we were on our way again. The plan was to resupply at the Sterling Inn, a hostel only a mile from the nearest road crossing. I gave them a call to be sure they were open and was excited when the owner dispatched a shuttle to pick us up.
After purchasing my resupply and enjoying an early lunch of microwave pizza and Moxie soda, the official beverage of Maine that tastes like a mash-up of Pepsi and Dr Pepper, I was content to sit in a rocking chair on the lovely old porch of the inn and watch Firewalker and a couple younger hikers make wobbly football passes to each other in the yard. The sun had won out and everyone who’d made their way to Sterling’s had wet tents, sleeping quilts and soggy clothing strewn to and fro in an effort to dry them out before starting the whole process over again. Rain was forecast for most of the next few days. And that wasn’t even counting the white elephant in the room most weren’t mentioning- Hurricane Lee.
My wife had brought up the prospect of a hurricane a whole week earlier. I’d had a bad feeling about it ever since and watched Lee’s track as it took aim at the northern end of the AT. Luckily it diminished into a tropical storm, but high winds in an already oversaturated forest was still cause for concern. Firewalker and I agreed we’d been through some tough times already and decided to get back on trail and hike on. We were joined by a friend we’d gotten to know better at Sterling’s, a young woman named Savage who hiked at a pace which must have contributed to her trail name. Fire and I were just able to keep up with her and we found ourselves making strong miles that afternoon and into the next day as we crossed over the smooth rocky surface of Moxie Bald, the final big mountain before the town of Monson and soon thereafter, the Hundred Mile Wilderness.
The three of us set up camp that Friday evening along with our friends Stogie, Bob Ross, Toaster and Bandit. While eating supper around a modest campfire they shared their plan to get going early the next day and make it to the road crossing thirteen miles uptrail by 2pm so they could catch the shuttle to the famous Shaw’s Hostel in Monson. The worst of Tropical Storm Lee was being forecast for late afternoon and they hoped to be out of the woods by then. Fire and I, along with Savage, decided to switch up our itinerary as we agreed with their logic. I’d already booked a bunkroom at Shaw’s Sunday night for the three of us so I’d need to call back when I had service and see what was available for Saturday.
By the time I was out of my tent the next morning our four friends were gone. Savage and Fire departed next and I promised them to make up for my dilly dallying with a fast pace and no breaks. It only took a few miles to catch Firewalker, but Savage was out of reach and wouldn’t be seen again until the shuttle. The winds were noticeably gusty and tropical, while the thud of crashing trees and large limbs became a worrying trend. Squally rain bands were rolling through just after noon but we weren’t being soaked until the last mile and a half or so of the hike. I was glad we’d decided to get into Shaw’s before it became any worse and we just barely caught our ride as it pulled onto the sparsely graveled lot that served as a trailhead only several minutes before 2pm.
The shuttle was being driven by the hostel’s owner, Hippie Chick. She, along with her husband Poet, have great reputations and it’s easy to see why. Shaw’s is probably the busiest and most important hostel on the whole trail due to its proximity before the 100 Mile Wilderness, and despite the normal chaos of “bubble” season they were unflappable while dealing with a bunch of hikers not wanting to leave due to the storm, crashing into an influx of hikers checking in to flee it. While there were no indoor rooms available for sleeping, Hippie Chick invited us to pitch our tents in the yard and use all facilities such as the washer/dryer, showers and toilets, common rooms and resupply/gear shop. She said if things became dangerous we could sleep on the floor of the kitchen.
There weren’t many choices for where our tents could be set up and the flattest spots had all been claimed. I was kneeling down fiddling with the placement of my final tent stake when two hands grasped me hard by the shoulders, lifted and shoved me aside. I looked behind to see Firewalker and followed his eyes to a tree coming down above us! Even worse, it was already tangled up in power lines and bringing them down with it. The whole yard was soaking wet and since my first thought was electrocution I began running in the other direction. Unfortunately I ran right into Firewalker’s tent and tripped over the guy lines, bringing me and the tent both to the ground in the process! Firewalker just stood there with a look on his face like, “REALLY???” It was kind of funny and embarrassing at the same time. But the danger was still real and Hippie Chick and Poet asked us to vacate the area while the fire department and electricians made their way to the scene.
Monson is an extremely small town so we walked through the increasing intensity of rain showers to a local pub known as The Lakehouse to begin fueling our bodies for the big week to come. It seemed like a good way to kill time during our banishment from the hostel. Savage, Fire and I tore through burgers, fries, bbq chicken tenders, drinks and ice-cream while staring out several windows overlooking a lovely mountain lake as it took a beating from the storm. Several hours later the worst of Lee had passed and we returned to Shaw’s. I noticed two parked vehicles were full of scrapes and dents and had suffered gouged windshields from the fallen tree. I felt vindicated that I’d not overreacted earlier since my tent wasn’t far from them. The smell of freshly sawn wood mingled with the gas/oil mixture of a chainsaw and I realized the yard area had been secured safely with the fallen powerlines now haphazardly coiled behind yellow tape. My tent alone was roped off from the rest so I took it to mean I needed to reposition it to a safer spot- which I promptly did before climbing in and going to sleep.
The rest of our stay went much smoother. The next day was the final Zero we’d take on trail and the weather was sunny and bright. Highlights included Shaw’s legendary breakfast, lunch and an afternoon of NFL football back at The Lakehouse, shopping in Poet’s well stocked gear shop/resupply store, and final visits with so many of the wonderful friends I’d made on the AT and likely wouldn’t be seeing again. Among them was Sunshine, the incredibly strong hiker doing the International AT I’d written about back in my Diary of the Smokies and who’d been suffering for weeks with a knee injury; and the Holy Hiker, an amazing Aussie around my age that always left me smiling and feeling good about humanity. Thank you Shaw’s Hostel… I honestly have no idea how Poet and Hippie Chick remain so calm with all the craziness coming and going around them!
Next morning I found myself back at the trailhead we’d been picked up from almost 48 hours earlier, standing in formation with the youngest tramily I’d met on trail. Poet gave us all words of encouragement along with a touching Haiku meant to inspire us to cherish our final few days of the hike, friendships made, and the success of our adventure. After waving goodbye as he drove off in his white shuttle van I was ready to roll. We’d waited a long time as so many hikers that morning settled their hostel bills and Poet ferried those who’d squared up on multiple shuttle runs. It was well past 10am already. But Firewalker needed to finish arranging his airline tickets while he still had cell service. We assumed, and correctly so, that there wouldn’t be much contact with the outside world over the course of the next week.
We were finally underway just shy of noon. As a team we were outwardly determined to enjoy ourselves and treat the final week of our journey as not only a challenge, but also a celebration. Firewalker is a bit more laid back than I, though, and several things were worrying to me now that both of us had purchased plane tickets home in eight days time. In no particular order they included: flooding rains being forecast yet again over the next 24 hours; a distance of 115 miles to cover in what was now down to six and a half days; a hefty seven day food resupply in our packs making them the heaviest they’d ever been; a tough series of underrated mountains to cross known as the Chairbacks; and Firewalker’s shoe was literally falling apart after the Gorilla glue which had been holding it together finally began to falter in the mud.
Against that set of circumstances we began hiking north from Maine Route 15 and it was a relief to discover a smooth and easy path to travel along for the first few miles. We walked around several lakes and ponds rimmed with tall grasses and which seemed like good Moose habitat- though I can tell you now I never saw one. I heard their morning and evening calls on several occasions, saw plenty of tracks and even stepped in their skat once or twice, but the sight of one eluded me.
After five or so miles we found ourselves looking through an ever-thickening foggy mist at our last serious climbing challenge before Katahdin, the Chairbacks. We wouldn’t tackle them until the next couple days but most of their southern menu was laid out before us. More than one former thru-hiker had mentioned they weren’t all that tough, but I’ll sing a different tune if anyone ever wants my thoughts on them. We also found ourselves traversing a more familiar state of the trail itself, one covered in mud, rocks, water puddles and roots. Fire complained that I was kicking water up his backside as I hiked behind him and we both had a laugh when we figured out his flappy-soled left shoe was the actual culprit. He was nervous that the Gorilla glue was no longer holding so I studied the situation as we walked. I suggested we use some rope to mechanically tie the sole back into place from the shoelace eyelets. He agreed to try and allowed me to Jerry-rig it in place. The early results were promising and we moved on.
As we drew closer to the Wilson Valley Lean-to it began to rain again. I was so sick of being wet but I’d grown used to it and just wanted to settle in for the night after salvaging a 10.4 mile day despite a very late start. The sun was setting around 6:30 due to how far north we’d traveled, and depending on other factors like cloud cover, tree canopy or mountainside juxtaposition it could seem dark as early as 5:30. The lean-to was mostly full and Firewalker elected to join the others while I set up my tent fifty feet or so down the mountain in front of it. I ate a honeybun and some dry Raman for supper and called it a night.
I woke up around 3:30am needing to pee and was quickly aware of heavy rainfall. As a member of the fifty-plus mens’ club I grabbed my “no longer a Gatorade” bottle, twisted off the orange cap and tossed it into my tent’s vestibule before doing my business. When I reached back out for the lid not only was it missing but my hand was splashing around in water a couple inches deep. A toggle of my headlamp’s on-switch showed the whole tent was surrounded like a castle in a moat, though the water was yet to breach the “bathtub” style floor of the inner tent.
An hour passed and the rain pelted the sagging fabric walls around me with growing strength. Atmospheric condensation coupled with the moisture of my breathing to form beads of water inside and much of it was splattering down upon me as the rain flicked it off while striking the tent’s outside surface. As I lay there in the dark I began to worry about the state of the trail and the difficulty of upcoming water crossings throughout the hundred mile wilderness. There were three in particular being labeled as “concerning” by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Rainfall measured by inches would certainly not help matters. And then the more pressing problem dawned on me. If I set my tent up on a slope then how in the world was it surrounded by deep water!?!?
By 5am I sensed I was rhythmically rocking back and forth upon my air mattress as it floated in rushing water. I decided I needed to fully assess my situation. The tent floor was quite wet, but most of the water was rushing underneath it. As long as the tent stakes held firm I felt I’d be okay. Using the headlamp I peered through black mesh netting into the vestibule. One of my hiking shoes, like the orange Gatorade cap, was gone. My other gear had enough weight to hold it in place though I didn’t want to take any chances so I unzipped the flaps and pulled everything I owned in with me to protect it from being swept away. I looked in my plastic food bag and was frustrated to find it sopping wet and that all eight packs of peanut M&Ms had peeled open and coated a 7 day resupply with chocolatey water.
With an already crowded Lean-to nearby and no imminent danger there wasn’t much that could be done so I made the plan to lay there until it was light enough to get up, pack and get going- supposing I could find my missing shoe. The bottom and sides of my sleeping quilt were wet but the top was mostly dry and still keeping me warm. Once I was out of it and into my wet clothes I’d need to start hiking to stave off hypothermia. An interminable amount of time later Firewalker’s voice pierced the din of rushing water around me and said, “Captain, are you okay in there? Your tent is basically in a river and everyone in the shelter is worried about you!” I assured him I was okay and let him know my plans to get going shortly. He said he’d start packing too.
Once out of my tent in morning light it was quite shocking to see it being swamped by a cascading flood. Full credit to the tent stakes, MSR Mini Groundhogs, for holding up to that much water pressure. My shoe was grounded on nearby rocks but I never could find the Gatorade cap. The pack felt ten pounds heavier due to water weight but feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t help matters so we were off and hiking soon thereafter, looking to make up some miles after coming up short the day before.
That did not happen. Only four miles in we arrived at what had been described as the least concerning of the ATC’s concerning rivers, Long Pond Stream. It was now VERY CONCERNING. Firewalker and I stood on its perilous banks with puzzled expressions. A strong section hiker named Ron we’d befriended was with us. Since the current was rushing so fiercely after not only two or three inches of overnight rain but also Tropical Storm Lee’s offering, there appeared to be no way to reach the other side. We’d bushwhacked upstream and it was worse, and forty yards downstream resulted in a waterfall. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Overkill appeared. A thirty-something year old Canadian who carries himself with the strength and confidence of a military specialist, he felt he could fjord it. For the next fifteen minutes we watched as man fought nature to a dangerous standstill. He did get two-thirds across before he was clinging to a previously installed overhanging rope and whipping about in roiling waters above his waist. When his feet lost contact with the rocks below my heart skipped a beat. Ron breathlessly shouted out he was in trouble but there was nothing we could do to help. Overkill somehow fought himself back upright and began moving in our direction again, and almost comically announced as he climbed from the water to stand on the bank next to us, “We can’t make it, guys!”
Despite his failure we were lucky that Overkill appeared in the first place. Not only had he confirmed to me there was no way I was trying that, but he’d also downloaded the extra map layers that most FarOut users never get around to doing. Back on land he brought one up showing some dirt roads and figured out a way to do a three and a half mile walk-around that would supposedly cross a bridge and deliver us back to the trail on Long Pond Stream’s far bank. With no choice other than to wait a few days for the water to recede, the three of us scrambled to keep up with him. Unfortunately the map layer didn’t show how low the dirt road was in relation to the “stream”. For almost two miles the four of us mostly waded through knee to waist deep water as we essentially fjorded a swamp. The flooded road was deep and its bottom muddy and attempting to suck the shoes off our feet, but it did indeed deliver us to a rickety bridge that got us across. The return route was better and after many exhausting hours we found ourselves standing in a spot that didn’t seem possible that morning.
Firewalker and I were now back on our own and the day had mostly gotten away from us again. Though we’d worked hard in tough conditions most of that time was spent Blueblazing around the stream and we’d only hiked 6 AT miles. We were tired, our morale had taken another hit, and we were hungry… the only bright spots being the skies turned blue that afternoon, and somehow the string I’d fashioned to hold Fire’s shoe sole in place survived the swamp walk. I figured if it could make it through that it could make it through about anything. We ate and decided that though we could get a couple more miles in before dark, it made more sense to set up a stealth spot and let me try to dry some of my gear out. Plus we’d need to rest up for the hard days to come. We hadn’t done 20 miles in a day since Massachusetts. Now we’d need to average about 20 a day for the next 5 to summit on the 25th- and we still hadn’t gotten to the Chairbacks.
The Chairbacks range took two days and acted as a turning point in our fortunes. With the strength, pluck and resolve we’d developed since Georgia and the luck to encounter any other “concerning rivers” after they began to recede, we managed to stay both on trail and on schedule. Just as impressively Firewalker’s shoe continued to defy all odds and stay affixed to his foot, though it was beginning to cause him pain.
Day one remained cloudy and served our weary legs 4,600 feet of elevation gain. But we crossed the 2,100 mile mark and whooped for joy as we now had less than a century to go. The cloud ceiling lifted and we even had views to enjoy. But best of all was having a short lived cell signal for our phones because when we checked the weather app the forecast showed partly cloudy or full sunshine all the way through our summit day. And no more rain, which mentally made all the difference in the world.
There are seven summited climbs to tackle in the Chairback range. The final one is Whitecap mountain and we were in for a treat when we ascended to the top on the second day. For the first time in our lives Firewalker and I laid eyes on Katahdin. It was huge. It seemed like a painting. It had to be too close to still be 67 miles away. But I confirmed it with my PeakFinder app. I was initially confused because it’s labeled Baxter Peak there, but thru hikers always call it the name given by the Penobscot Indians which literally translates to “The Greatest Mountain”- Katahdin. We celebrated this colossal moment in our journeys with hugs, high fives and selfies… and then with quiet reflection. I’d been dreaming of this mountain for twenty years and now I’d walked 2,130 miles to have the thrill of seeing it.
And in only four hard yet beautiful hiking days, I’d be standing upon it.
To be continued…
Stay tuned and Thanks for reading!
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