Shaking It Down in AT Prep Town: Part Three
Finally, the third and last chapter in my blog mini-series about our shakedown hikes over the past year or so! Scope out Part One and Part Two if you missed ’em! (And thanks if you’re still sticking with me through this – I know the posts are wordy as hell, and I can promise that not every post will end up so ridiculously long!)
Over the summer of 2018, Garrett and I worked as a team at the family-run Coos Canyon Campground, nestled along the Swift River in the tiny town of Byron, Maine. We were able to get out for a few short overnight trips during our time at the campground, though the interesting and occasionally chaotic summer months in Byron had us plotting a longer adventure, a nature reboot between summer and winter seasonal jobs that could also serve as a longer shakedown for the AT. Read on to find out why our hiking plans took a complete detour, and where we ended up instead…..
The Best Laid Plans…
We spent a few days looking into trails that extended across a 60-150 mile range, hoping to find something relatively close-by that we could complete in one to three weeks. Enter the Cohos Trail (CT – not to be confused with the more heavily trafficked and well known Colorado Trail), which stretches just over 165 miles from Crawford Notch in the White Mountains to the Canadian border near Pittsburg, NH. The trail wends its way across various regions, ranges, and forests, trekking over Presidential ridgelines near the Southern Terminus, and meandering along old roadbeds and shorelines of the Connecticut Lakes en route to the Northern Terminus.
Most information found in our research of the CT was confusingly dense. The official trail book itself unfolds as a historical narrative waxing lyrical on local flora and fauna, the geological and lumber-trade-related evolution of the landscape, origins of mountain names, and prime spots to eat lunch, with sparse key trail notes and turn-by-turn directions interspersed throughout. Only a little bit frustrating when planning a trek through unfamiliar and somewhat remote territory…I’ll never take the Guthook or AWOL guides for granted again!
Living in seasonal summer job mode, we hadn’t hiked as much as we wanted on off days, aka I was (and still am) terribly flabby and out of shape and talking while hiking sometimes makes me breathe like Michael Myers in a creepy mask. ANYWAYS, starting northbound with the Whites as a warm up just didn’t seem smart. Also, the weather on those temperamental peaks can be wildly unpredictable, even on a warm summer day, and we didn’t want to have to pack gear for possible winter hiking on this go-round. Several months spent planning had us ready to go for a two-week SOBO section on the CT from the Canadian border to Jefferson, NH, with daily mileage, camp spots, a stay in a B&B, and a re-supply drop all plotted out.
Cohos Trail (10/15 – 10/28/18)
Well guess what, guys? This whole excursion fell apart before we even got out there. That’s right. All the time, energy, and small bit of money we’d spent planning out our CT hike went down the metaphorical drain. What went wrong, you ask? A late fall/early winter weather trend, courtesy of Mother Nature. The entire duration of our trip was slated to have temps ranging from 30-55 during the day and 15-35 at night, in addition to high chances of daily rain and snow. We’re smart enough to know that an extended hike in crap weather without opportunities to dry out gear would lead to a very uncomfortable experience, possibly even a dangerous one.
Hi-yo Backpackers, Away!
We still managed to escape to the woods though….in Arizona! A whirlwind trip that was decided and planned within two days compared to several months, we flew across the country to hike a section of the Arizona Trail (AZT), check out the cities of Flagstaff and Prescott, and of course see the Grand Canyon. This experience would not have happened or even been a dream without the amazing generosity of our parents through donated airline miles, rental car fees, and even a couple nights in a hotel, and we cannot thank them enough. Shout out to Nancy and John (my folks), and Colleen and Bruce (Garrett’s folks)!
A lengthy day (almost 24 hrs) of travel via car, bus, airplane, Uber, and trail angel later, and we had our feet on the ground at the Pine trailhead, pointed north on the AZT. Having flown into Phoenix where the sun was out and temps were in the 70s, the change in weather we saw (and felt) driving up into mountain range territory was mildly shocking. We were aware of the wet and cool weather patterns that had been hitting the highland areas of the AZT, many places having gotten excessive rainfall and even snow.
Leaving the simple comforts of our trail angel Mike’s Wrangler, a raw, misty, and breezy evening in the 40s welcomed Garrett and I to the trail. Initially having thought to push eight or nine miles from trailhead to camp site that first day, exhaustion levels finally reached a peak as we began climbing up into the hills. We picked the first flat spot we saw, tucked next to a flowing creek in a shrubby, forested area.
AZT Section Hike (plans)
Here’s our plotted course from Pine to Flagstaff. The longer days had options that would make them shorter, if necessary. We were ambitious given our low hike count for the summer.
Day 1 – Pine Trailhead to Webber Creek, 8.7 miles
Day 2 – Webber Creek to General Springs, 11.9 miles
Day 3 – General Springs to Hay Meadow Tank, 16.4 miles
Day 4 – Hay Meadow Tank to Wild Horse Tank, 17 miles
Day 5 – Wild Horse Tank to Van Deren Spring, 13 miles
Day 6 – Van Deren Spring to Mormon Lake, 8 miles (resupply box drop)
Day 7 – Mormon Lake to an old railroad bed, 13 miles
Day 8 – Railroad bed to Vail Lake, 14 miles
Day 9 – Vail Lake to Flagstaff, 13 miles
Total miles: 115
AZT Section Hike (real life)
Here’s what actually happened out there.
Day 1 – Pine trailhead to trail junction by flowing creek, 0.8 miles
Day 2 – Trail junction by creek to Bray Creek, 11.4 miles
Day 3 – Bray Creek to General Springs canyon area, 9.5 miles
Day 4 – General Springs canyon area to campground 0.3 miles past Blue Ridge Campground, 12.8 miles
Day 5 – 0.3 past Blue Ridge Campground to Sheepherders Tank 8.5 miles, backtrack on forest road and fire service road 4-5 miles to camp spot by trail, total 12.5-13.5 miles
Day 6 – picked up by Mike, shuttled to Flagstaff
Total miles (on AZT): 48
Sights & Sounds of the AZT
If you live across the country from Arizona, chances are there’s some things you’ll come across that you haven’t seen or heard before (in the wild/on a hike).
- Coyotes – we do have coyotes in Maine, though we don’t live where they howl every night like clockwork. The frantic yips and screeches we heard echoing across the landscape from our tent, sometimes super close, were enough to make my heart race a few times.
- Weird/Big Spiders – got up to pee the first night only to be barricaded in the tent by a large neon yellow/white spider on the mesh door. NOPE. On our last day hiking, we came across multiple tarantulas scuttling across forest service roads, which are also sometimes the trail. NOPE NOPE NOPE.
- Different Wildlife Tracks – blessed by the rains (down in Africa) and subsequent mud, I noticed a wealth of creature tracks that I hadn’t seen much of previously, including elk, black bear, and possibly mountain lion.
- Elk – we never saw elk on the AZT, only followed their tracks. Once we were startled awake by the dawn bugle of one nearby.
- Tanks – water sources on the trail oftentimes fell into this category, basically a low spot in which water collects to form muddy pools of various sizes, from which wildlife and livestock drink, and near which they poop. In drier seasons, these are sometimes your only option for water.
- Cacti – a plethora of makes and models of spiky plant life, some of which throw off their paddles for distracted hikers to step on and be impaled by. You think I’m kidding.
So, Why Only Hike 48 Miles in a 115 Mile Section?
In a word: BLISTERS. That first day spent slogging up and down through mud that moved like sticky, wet sand and slick concrete really did a number on my feet when combined with the Altra Olympus 2.5’s and knee-length merino wool/polyester blend socks I chose. The second day began with my feet already sore, and didn’t get much better when temps rose into the 60-70+ range as we climbed up steep, rocky switchbacks to gain the ridgeline in the General Springs area. I ended up in camp that night with several raging blisters on the bottoms and sides of a couple toes.
Garrett and I worked on lancing and draining these flesh bubbles with needle and floss, leaving them to air out overnight and using leukotape to protect and wrap up the blister zones in the morning. We repeated this process over the next couple of days since the blisters continued to re-fill with fluid, that giant one in the picture above being particularly troublesome.
Factors that led to our decision to get off trail:
- I was hiking more slowly, unable to make the planned miles each day
- Less daily mileage = more days of hiking until resupply = higher potential to run out of food in pack
- The trail was heading into miles of another exceptionally bad mud stretch (SOBOs warned us)
- Storms heading our way would swamp the trail, resulting in more flooded/muddy terrain from rain/snow
- The king blister was becoming a cause for concern – infection seemed imminent heading into such nasty trail conditions
- We were out there to enjoy ourselves, not torture ourselves 🙂
Hiker Trash Turned Tourist
Off the AZT earlier than expected, we filled our time with exploration and sight-seeing by foot and car. After a couple days of recuperation (for my feet) in Flagstaff, we journeyed less than two hours north/northwest to the South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park. Tenting at Mather Campground for two nights provided us with a great platform from which to bound off and roam around the Canyon, shuttling or driving to far reaches of the South Rim, hiking several miles on the Rim Trail, catching sunset and sunrise while staring into the amazingly vast expanse that is the Grand Canyon, etc. etc. If you haven’t been, definitely plan a trip! 10/10 would recommend.
From the Grand Canyon we traveled south a few hours to the city of Prescott, a place rich with “Old West” history, humming with natural beauty and wildlife, and struck by tragedy – the loss of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot Firefighters during the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013. In honor and recognition of the sacrifice these men made, the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial State Park has been created. Featuring a seven-mile out-and-back hiking trail, one can gain a better understanding of the Hotshots’ experience while en route to a wildfire. The memorial trail climbs up into the mountains, making its way to an overlook before following steep switchbacks down to the fatality site where the 19 men were recovered. Hiking this trail was an introspective journey for us both, a chance to appreciate the sweeping landscapes and small towns the Hotshots fought to protect, while giving opportunity to pay respects to fallen heroes.
Takeaways of the Trip
Obviously, some changes had to be made in regards to my shoes and socks – back to Darn Toughs since they’ve never done me wrong, and I’ve been trying out a pair of Altra Timps on neighborhood hikes and during some serving shifts at work with success (how the Timps work for me on longer hikes remains to be seen – here we come AT!). Our section hike of the AZT also led to our decision to bag the LightHeart Duo tent due to size and condensation issues that I’ve mentioned in previous posts.
Overall, I’d say the hike reminded us that it’s not a race as soon as your foot hits the trail – take it easy and let your body rest with more breaks as you build up to thru-hiker athleticism. Our minds often try to trick us into hiking certain mileage since we’ve done it before, but that doesn’t mean we should without real consideration for the cons of pushing to hard too soon. As they say, a thru-hike is a marathon, not a sprint.
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Adventures and misadventures … may your upcoming hike be more full of the former than the latter. And may blisters not be part of the equation.
Concerning the Cohos Trail Guide book, it is a history book. What you need are the NOBO Data books or SOBO Data books to go with the maps. You can work them backwards I suppose if you only buy one, all lefts become rights and rights left.
I hope you do get a chance to do the Cohos Trail someday. It is a very different experience if you are more used to doing the more populated trail systems.
Good luck and Happy Trails