Shaking It Down in AT Prep Town: Part Two
Welcome to the second installment of my blog miniseries, in which I talk your ears off—eyes out?—about a few more hiking trips I’ve done with my adventure partner, Garrett, over the past year or so. (Here’s part one, in case you missed it.) These trips were a little bit about physical prep/just getting out there and hiking, and a lotta bit about testing gear for the thru-hike we’ve been dreaming of and planning for. In this post, I’ll include some details about a couple of overnight adventures, what gear was newish and being considered for thru-hike status on these trips, outcomes of said gear testing, why all thru-hikers (false: everyone on the planet) should go to Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson, ME, and my encounter with the biggest horde of mosquitoes EVER! Read on, friends.
Overnight in the 100-Mile Wilderness (6/1 – 6/2/18)
After returning to Maine (following the LHHT experience), our travels south to visit friends and family cut short with the start of our summer jobs mid-May, we quickly decided to start organizing another little jaunt into the woods. This planning also coincided with the long-awaited arrival of our new packs from Superior Wilderness Designs (SWD), and we were almost desperate to throw them on and get a feel for them.
Wanting to reconnect with the trail (the AT) on a stretch I hadn’t seen since 2015 that was also new and exciting to Garrett, we decided to do an overnight trip, hiking north from the Pleasant River ford to the Carl Newhall Shelter in the 100-Mile Wilderness. For those who aren’t familiar, the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine is the last stretch heading north toward the summit of Katahdin, the AT’s Northern Terminus. Between Monson and Abol Bridge (100 miles) there are very limited roads and no real resupply points for food, supplies, etc. (though you could arrange to have a food drop about halfway if you can spare the cash). Needless to say it’s a section of trail that’s described as one of the most remote and potentially dangerous on the AT.
Having hiked its entirety in 2015, the 100-Mile Wilderness remains a respectable challenge as a whole. Add in a vehicle and directions to one of the obscure gravel roads that cross the AT within this section, and you’ve got a recipe for a fun, manageable, and beautiful out-and-back excursion. At just 5.6 miles from car to shelter, we weren’t overly concerned about timing, ending up with a later start than we’d hoped. Immediately after we strapped on our packs, an afternoon storm rolled overhead, unleashing a torrent of rain, thunder and lightning. Fun times when you’re fording a river! Though the thunder and lightning quickly moved off, the rain continued most of the way up to the shelter and we arrived quite soggy—wet from rain and sweaty from the humid warmth of the day.
Our SWD packs are made with a water-resistant fabric and we did not seam seal them, so they did get soaked externally. There was also a bit of dampness inside the packs, but the compactor trash bags we used to line our packs kept all of the essentials dry; no complaints. Reminder: This pack is my backup/alternate for the AT due to its extensive capacity with my current gear lineup.
The impromptu storm gave us a chance to really see how effective our rain gear was. Over the previous winter, I snagged a discounted Outdoor Research Helium II rain jacket off the REI Outlet. Despite a ton of hikers and randos on the interwebs harping about the OR Helium II not having pit-zips, I really love this jacket. It’s kept me dry, and it blocks wind like nobody’s business, plus the teal color is rad as shit. Final thoughts: It’s definitely a keeper on the list for our AT thru-hike this year.
I was similarly trying out a Swing Trek Liteflex umbrella (found on Amazon), and a Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) rain kilt. I’ll be bringing the MLD rain kilt on the AT, especially since it only weighs a couple of ounces. The rain skirt/kilt will work better than full-on rain pants for me, as I tend to sweat a lot and I’d rather be wet from rain and keep air movement instead of melt inside a pair of pants. Found this out on the AT in 2015 while trying to deal with days of rain in Georgia in the full Frogg Toggs rain suit. To hell with that!
In terms of the umbrella, I am not fully committed to it yet for the thru-hike. We’d initially bought them with the intention of hiking the PCT this year, not the AT, where an umbrella as a sunshade made a ton of sense. With a good rain jacket and rain skirt, there isn’t much need for an umbrella, aside from protecting my non-waterproof pack and keeping my upper body dry. We’ll see. If anyone has solid reasons for including an umbrella on a gear list for the AT, let me hear them so I can make up my mind.
Gulf Hagas Loop
Our second day of this out-and-back trip was about ten miles. Backtracking south on the AT to the Gulf Hagas junction, we took the blue-blazed side trail and followed its winding track to the old Pleasant River Tote Road, eventually merging with the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail. We began trekking back toward the AT along the river’s edge, climbing with the rise and fall of steep, rocky embankments, which dropped away on our right down to the water.
This trail was moderate to difficult due to quick and dirty elevation changes, as well as numerous sections of slippery rocks and roots. Definitely not made easier when we encountered several humongous blowndowns, having to slog around and over giant trees through cold mud and deep puddles from the prior afternoon’s monsoon.
The takeaway of this trail is the many vistas and craggy outcroppings, from which gorgeous views abound as you look out at various waterfalls and down into the surging river below. Now go out there and chase some Maine waterfalls!
Get Your Boots and Booty to Shaw’s
Another reason we picked/I pushed this area of trail was the exciting prospect of crashing for a night at Shaw’s Hiker Hostel and devouring the epic breakfast whipped up by Poet, one of the owners. Shaw’s is a long-standing AT hostel in Monson that holds many fond memories for me from 2015:
Meeting owners Poet and Hippie Chick and experiencing their amazing openness, friendliness, and hospitality, as well as the Poet pack shakedown (entertaining and informative).
Meeting early northbounders within a week or so of them finishing,
Spending time with bold southbounders who had made it through the trials of the 100-Mile Wilderness right out of the gate.
Finding new trail family (tramily) members as a result of spending several days in Monson.
Legendary breakfast. Do not miss it.
Reconnecting with friends in the trail community tends to have that “returning home” feeling; it’s hard to explain, but it’s awesome.
Overnight on the Cutler Coast (8/6 – 8/7/18)
Early August saw us out on Maine’s Bold Coast within the Cutler Coast Public Reserved Lands, close enough to the Canadian border that our phones tried to tell us that we were, in fact, in Canada. The Bold Coast’s network of hiking trails follow rocky shoreline that looks out onto the Gulf of Maine, and the Bay of Fundy to the north.
Camping spots are limited to specific areas in an effort to keep damage to fragile ecosystems at a minimum. Snagging one is based on a confusing combination of filling out/checking a sign-in sheet itinerary at the trailhead and last one to a tent site is a rotten egg. We saw more people camped out than had been listed on the sign-in paper, at different tent areas, and ended up not pressing on to our planned destination (which only had three sites) in favor of taking a spot we luckily came across instead.
The main thing we were logging more miles with on this overnight was our LightHeart Gear Duo tent, and the SWD packs. The tent was a challenge to set up at our selected site due to soft terrain that wouldn’t hold our tent stakes, but it wasn’t the tent’s fault. We began to notice that getting in and out of the tent was a bit of a struggle with both of our sleep systems fully set up and gear inside—more so for Garrett, who has flexibility issues. This trip was the beginning of the end for our Duo, though we didn’t really know it at the time. I’ll chat more about this in the next and final miniseries post, detailing our last thru-hike shakedown out on a section of the Arizona Trail.
Mosquito Horde from Hell
While this hike left us with endlessly gorgeous views of rocky coastline, unspoiled coves, and turquoise waters, we also encountered a mass of needle-nosed bloodsuckers that numbered in the hundreds. Never have I seen that many droning around an area at the same time. We had dinner on a small pebble beach near our tent site and finished up around dusk, with just a few beach spiders to add to the list of wildlife we’d seen that day. The trek out to camp had been a stagnant one, very hot, with little to no breeze to speak of even along the ocean’s edge. I have no idea if heat was a factor in keeping bugs at bay, but once the sun began to disappear it was like a switch had been flipped.
By the time we returned to our tent after eating and cleaning up for the night, little ole me was being swarmed. I suffer on a regular basis from being overly attractive to mosquitoes, and this night was exceptionally bad. Once we got in the tent we were basically trapped, watching as hundreds of these freaking things poked and bumped into the mesh door on primarily MY side, corralled by the half-open vestibule wall and main body of the tent. I’ve read horror stories of mosquito swarms on the AT in certain areas when weather conditions are just right, but nothing I dealt with in 2015 even comes remotely close to this experience. Fingers crossed we’ll avoid thick mosquito clouds on our thru-hike, but with my luck, probably not.
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