The Last Section Part 10: Final Peaks and River Fords Until Katahdin
This is part 10 of a 188-mile northbound section hike of the Appalachian Trail in Maine in September 2023. I started hiking at the road crossing near the town of Stratton, ME and finished at Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, the northern terminus of the trail!
For a refresher, read part 9 here!
Day 14: Stealth Campsite before Whitecap Mountain to Stealth Tentsite near Crawford Pond
No alarms were necessary that morning as I drifted out of a sound sleep. Where I was camped was clearly an established tent spot, unlike the questionable one from the day before, so I didn’t have to worry about being in an awkward spot if other hikers started to pass before I was packed up.
All I had to do was make it 18 miles by the middle of the next day to be on time for my food drop, which I knew was doable and allowed me to relax a little. I was so thankful that I had given myself some leeway when I planned the date of my food drop, because at the section hiker pace I was moving, it turned out that I needed the extra time when it came to the weather and some of the river fords. It was my fifth day in the 100 mile wilderness, and on an average stretch of the Appalachian Trail, I’d probably have made a town stop by now to resupply. I was just thankful my pack was finally lightening up!
The night had definitely been the coldest yet on this hike, and after coming out of my tent to grab my food bag and then wander a little ways from camp to use the facilities behind a tree, I scurried back into my sleeping bag and decided I’d just hang out there a little while as I let my instant oatmeal soak.
I was enjoying my breakfast in bed when I heard “Hello there!”
I unzipped my tent and propped my weight on one elbow as I leaned my head out. A friendly and extremely outgoing thru hiker with an Australian accent struck up a conversation with me as he was passing on the trail not far from my tent. I had to laugh, it was obviously late enough in the morning that he didn’t need to question whether I was awake, plus my scattered supplies from already venturing out of the tent once that morning probably gave it away.
This set the precedence for a day full of warm energy, both physical and mental. Not far behind him was Firewalker, a hiker I had met back at the pancake breakfast at Harrison’s Pierce Pond Camp a few days into my hike. It was fun to see him since I had assumed he was way past me, but he had taken extra zero days in Monson to hang out a while.
Our conversation drifted right to the topic of the chilly night, and he mentioned he wanted to get a move on and get to Katahdin because with the sleep system he was carrying, he wouldn’t be very comfortable in temperatures much colder than that. The sleeping bag I was carrying could be considered excessively warm for this hike, but suddenly I felt better about having it knowing that if it got even colder on a fluke, I could still sleep very comfortably.
White Cap Mountain
When the sun finally reached such an angle that it showed through the trees at my camp spot, I started up White Cap Mountain. I was only a mile from the peak, so I hadn’t been hiking long when I got there. But there was no way I wasn’t going to allow myself a break. The views of the hundred mile wilderness so far had mainly been made up of drizzly lakes or wooded mountains, but here I was looking out over a big open sloped field of rocks, the partial sun dotting my face and the little imprints of ponds in the distance far below. There was hardly a hint of wind.
I felt like I was being rewarded for getting through those first few rainy and challenging days after leaving Monson, and without much hesitation I peeled off my socks and shoes and hoped to coax them into drying out a little.
Nevermind that this peak offered the first view of Mount Katahdin, the real bliss was the nice weather. The only item on the to-do list here was to find supposed cell service and text Shaw’s hostel letting them know I was still on schedule for my food drop the next day, as all of the hikers had been instructed to do at this mountain. No cell service was happening for me, until I found a random spot as I finally left the view behind and started heading down from the mountain on the other side.
Crossing the East Branch of the Pleasant River
About six miles into the day, I came face to face with the last of the tough river fords that I had been warned about – the East Branch of the Pleasant River. Warnings had spread through comments in the Farout guide as well as a hiker game of telephone that some people were having real trouble with this crossing. But a few days had passed since the last real rain, so I was cautious yet hopeful.
I was excited to see that the river wasn’t very wide at all at the point where the trail was directed across, which was unexpected since I had in my head that this one would take a long time. But I should have known. Wide points in the river tend to have a milder current, and being that the river was narrow, it turned out to be a real challenge regardless of the short distance to the other side compared to some of the previous crossings. Someone had tied a line up, but it was a little too high for me to reach comfortably and I just decided to go with what I’d been doing and side step with help from my trekking poles rather than experimenting with trying to grab the rope.
Rather than try crossing downstream at a very wide point in the river, I was lured in by the short distance to the other side at the cross-point of the trail. But it took me three very slow tries to get to the other side. This crossing was unique to the others in the sense that what was under my feet felt different. Instead of a bottom full of slippery rocks the size of tennis balls and footballs that I could navigate across walking upright, this was as if some tall giant threw a pile of boulders into a pit and then poured water over it.
I’d take a step and it was knee deep, then the next step would have me immersing my leg up to my upper thigh in the space between the next boulder and still not being able to find the bottom. It was like a big maze that could be traversed in a combo of hopping on top of wet rocks coupled with stepping into a depth of water that I wouldn’t have considered ideal.
When I was finally at the other side, a group of hikers showed up and although I was heading off just as they were beginning, it looked like there was an array of techniques being used to get across. All that seemed to matter was that everyone did what was most comfortable for them.
It made me laugh thinking back to the morning when I was sitting on top of White Cap Mountain hoping my shoes might dry a little bit, because the reality was that it wouldn’t last long. But it did feel nice that although soaked again, my shoes were blissfully clean after the river ford.
You might be wondering why I wouldn’t just change into my camp shoes for these river fords. The simple answer is that it wasn’t worth it anymore. There were so many water crossings that I didn’t feel like changing every time, plus my shoes never fully dried anyway because the trail itself was so wet with puddles. My shoes also provided much better stability over slippery river rocks than my crocs.
Although the river ford was behind me, and I knew I’d be able to make it to my food drop on time the next day, I still needed to walk the miles to get there. As the sun set I wasn’t quite as far along as I wanted to be after pausing so long at White Cap and then the snail’s pace at which I had to ford the river. It sounded like a nice idea to hike into the night a bit since I wasn’t too tired yet.
Finding Camp Near Crawford Pond
Well, that only sounded like a nice idea until I was actually doing it. I was still hiking and out of breath as I got an epic view of the sunset through the wooded-in Little Boardman Mountain, but once it was actually dark, I just started to wish I was in my tent. Maybe the day had been a little more tiring than I thought.
Upon scanning the Farout guide, I had an idea where some tent spots might be coming up, and was surprised to find a bunch of them occupied. As I kept walking, there was a beautiful pond to my left, Crawford Pond, but I came to a dead end when I had to cross the outlet stream from the pond. It sounded like a rushing river, and although it wasn’t really a river ford, but mostly just a walk over a muddle of rocks piled over the water, the dark still had me questioning myself.
I decided right then that I was done for the night. There was a teeny gravel clearing right there next to the trail that was definitely not a tent spot but could work as a tent spot, and I probably wasn’t the first to make it work as such. I settled in for another one of those nights knowing I’d wake up early to my alarm so that I could get out of the awkward location before any early morning hikers might brush up against my tent as they walked along the trail.
Read part 11 here!
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