The Wind and the Warblers: recollections from the 100 mile wilderness
Cease your worrying!
First and foremost; yes I am fine. I am totally safe, haven’t seen a bear, and currently my only injuries are mosquito bites. The past 9 days I have spent hiking through Maine’s 100 mile wilderness – the most isolated part of the Appalachian Trail. The 100 mile wilderness begins south of Katahdin and ends at US route 15. From here, hikers can catch a ride into Monson, a famous trail town (and where I am currently resting tired ankles and eating as much fresh food as I can find before I head out on trail again tomorrow).
Katahdin: hiking through a storm
My first day on trail began in Millinocket, Maine. I had meant to wake up at 4, but I am sure I was up much earlier than that. The anticipation alone made me feel like I would burst if I just moved a little too much. Katahdin, the mountain that marks the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Has an ascent of 5 miles and steep climb of nearly 5,000 feet in elevation gain.
Intense rain and thunderstorms had been forecasted for Monday, June 27th and winds were expected to reach 50 mph during the exposed part of the climb. So naturally, I was a bit nervous as well as excited. After a long period of deliberation on Saturday and Sunday, I decided to still make the climb even in bad weather. Katahdin is extremely rocky, with sections above tree line becoming increasingly treacherous and technically difficult as the trail winds up a narrow ridge line for several miles.
For the first few hours of the climb, the weather still held. It was a brisk day, and smelled of rain, but the sun was still shining at lower elevation. Once above tree line, however, things quickly changed. What had been hiking turned quickly into rock climbing. The winds escalated, reaching 35-45 mph. With fog rolling in, the path ahead was almost completely obscured. The seriously difficult part of day had begun. I took shelter behind a boulder, took my phone out one last time to snap a picture of the climb ahead before everything was consumed by the wind and the rain.
For the most part, the only way to deal with the weather was to put on my wind breaker and move slowly. There was only one moment where I felt like I was truly in danger. There was a particularly tricky boulder climb right on the edge of the ridge, nearly twice my height and beginning to be slick with rain. All around I was encased by a layer of fog and the wind had plastered me against the mountain. I held on and closed my eyes for a moment, trying to remind myself that the danger was only real if I allowed myself to get stressed and lose focus. In the moment, I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep moving, just that I had to. Somehow, I did manage to get over.
Past the technical climbing was the slow incline to the final peak. The winds were the strongest here, coming over the edge of the mountain and pushing us with each step a little farther off trail. It was difficult to stay on course with the rain beating directly into my eyes. I realized after a few minutes that I could taste salt in my mouth. Puzzled, I lifted a hand and felt tears streaming down my face, trying to fight against the wind. I couldn’t help smiling. What an adventure! Reaching the summit was positively euphoric. I might not have been able to see any of Katahdin’s famous views, but I was perched atop the world, enclosed in my own little bubble of fog and joy. It was wonderful.
Seeing old friends!
The day after the summit I made my way south through Baxter State Park and crossed into the 100 mile wilderness. Amidst admiring the sun as it rose from behind Katahdin and sighing dramatically at the sight of every new pond and lake, I spotted a few Northbound thru-hikers that I met and hiked with back in April when doing a section in Maryland/Pennsylvania. The joyous reunions, with many smiles and how-have-you-beens, were exactly the sort of encouragement I needed heading into the next few days of isolation. Chernobyl, Yak, and Machine each gave me a taste of the days to come and wished me happy trails on the journey. Plus, Chernobyl and Yak are doing yo-yos so they will come back south as soon as they finish. Yak has already caught up with me and we were hanging out together last night at the hiker hostel in Monson.
Bean sprouts in a peanut butter jar
The first night in the 100 mile wilderness I ran into a veteran finishing up a section hike of the 100 miles. He was quite the fellow, and talked with me for several hours about his experiences dealing with his PTSD on the trail, living all over the country and creating new ways of growing plants in his hydroponics system back home. It was a wonderful reminder to me of the things that we can learn about our nation if we just take the time to look around us and listen to the life stories of the people right beside us. One of the coolest pieces of wisdom he left me with was his method of getting fresh vegetables on trail; put bean seeds in a peanut butter jar and water them every day. Eventually you will have bean sprouts that you can eat fresh whenever you like.
Alone in the 100 miles
The next few days were quite lonely, I will admit. Although I had summited on the 27th with a few others, never very far off, I spent the next 4 days alone with my thoughts. Every time I turned a corner I was a new person, every time I swam in a new pond, lake or river (which I did at least once a day), I felt truly free. I realized that so much of my life since I was 12 years old was consumed by getting good grades and trying to be smarter than everyone around me. In reality, I have found so much happiness is being able to just exist and enjoy the simple beauties of nature. To help you understand how I spent these days alone, I have compiled a list of quaint observations about the world that have made me smile over the last week.
- The squirrels here in Maine are very small and red and have a vague black stripe on their sides.
- All over Maine are these tiny silver moths that burst into flight in large numbers wherever you take a step (especially in the early hours of the morning), giving the feeling of being surrounded at all times by little fairies.
- There are what appear to be fresh water crawfish, oysters and mussels in the lakes here in Maine
- The frogs differ in color depending on the type of trees they live near. Frogs that live around pine trees tend to be brown to blend in with the layer of dead pine needles that blankets the ground.
- I have found several blue feathers. My best guess is that they are the feathers of black-throated blue warblers, per a log book entry by a NOBO named birdog
- when you are the first to step on to trail in the morning, the first thing you feel are all the little spiderwebs that have formed overnight breaking as you push through them. It can be a bit unsettling, but when it rains in the morning the webs become coated in dew and sparkle as the sun rises.
- You can tell when a blaze (the painted markers that guide the trail) is really old when the tree has grown for long enough to expand the bark and make the blaze stretch out.
- After it rains, the rivers are often covered in a layer of mist that hangs like fairy dust and shimmers in the sun
I do not wish to bore you with the details of my daily miles and routine. I typically hike somewhere between 11 and 20 miles a day. I eat when I am hungry, smile when I am happy and sleep when I am tired. I spend my evenings swapping stories with other hikers and musing about life and the universe. It is a simple way to live, but it has made me the happiest I have been in a long time. The trees can teach you a lot about having patience with pain and there is nothing quite like the feeling of the wind coursing through your veins after a long climb.
I am sending all my love to my family and friends. I miss you all and I can’t wait to talk your ears off with stories from the trail when I return.
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