After a wonderful zero day in the small town of Stratton, during which there was a tremendous thunder storm, it was time to get back on the trail.
Day 6: The Big Mountains
I delayed the start of my day by chatting with a few southbound AT hikers who had come into Stratton yesterday, and Sue, the owner of the hostel. We traded stories for a while, but eventually it was time to leave. I had a huge set of climbs ahead. The clouds seemed to be receding, though.
The long, gradual climb to the Crocker Mountains started wet, but soon enough there was a dry, cool breeze, and blue sky started to appear. There were much better views from the mountains than I remembered. This region has several of Maine’s highest peaks, so the open points on the mountains took in views of several 4000 footers, and a lot of just-sub-4000s. And, of course, the valleys below, with a vast wilderness, barely touched by humans.
After a steep drop to the Carabassett River, and a dicey ford, it was back up into to high peaks, with Sugarloaf and Spaulding, two more 4000-footers. There I saw the only hiker for the day, before making my way down to the Spaulding lean-to, where I found two peak-baggers I’d met in Stratton the other day. This would be the first night on this trip where I would camp with other people. Pretty remarkable that that hadn’t happened earlier.
Day 7: More Big Mountains
We awoke to constant wind and forty-degrees. Hadn’t it been 90 just a few days ago? I was happy, though– I realized I hadn’t seen a single black fly yesterday, and they sure weren’t going to be out in this weather.
Mt Abraham was mostly clouded in when I got there, unfortunately, but it’s hard to complain about missing views from any Maine mountain. It happens more often than not, and the fact that I got a view from there last summer was good enough. I had to move to stay warm, anyway.
Rain sprinkled a few times, and the temperature stayed almost arctic, but I made my way deep into the chasm of Orbeton Stream, then back up to the Saddleback range. Saddleback is where I was first inspired to hike the AT, way back in 2005, but I hadn’t had any views from it since. Today was everything I could hope for. Three miles walking above tree line, blasted by frigid wind the whole time, and high with the sublime experience. The views are beyond extraordinary. It seems my favorite mountain changes every time I hit a summit on a clear day, so for now I’ll say it’s Saddleback. I can’t even describe how wonderful it was.
I saw only two hikers all day, another low number for the AT. When I arrived at Piazza Rock lean-to, I expected a crowd, since it’s one of the most popular campsites in Maine, but the only crowd were three northbound AT hikers. A good crowd. They’ve had more than their fair share of cold and miserable weather. I hope they have some fine views from Saddleback tomorrow.
Day 8: Lower and Clear
The trail for today brought me back to the low lands, with no peaks to speak of, and many ponds. This is the stretch of trail that connects the high peaks region to the western Maine mountains. It started cold, below 40 degrees, and didn’t get much warmer for most of the day.
I walked along many lakes and ponds, seeing tons of moose sign (probably several hundred pounds of moose poop, at least), but never saw any moose. The trail was certainly a moose heaven, though– wet, muddy, and boggy. The AT in Maine has many such spots, since almost all trail work is done by volunteers, and the cold, wet climate wreaks havoc on the trail. I saw bog bridging that had been brand new when I hiked in 2007, totally rotted away only six years later. When I finally settle into a home here, I’ve got to do some trail maintenance for the MATC.
The day ended with a grand view of the Rangely Lakes from a highway crossing at Route 17, and then a steep and brutal climb to the Bemis Mountain range. This is a mountain that isn’t as immediately spectacular as the higher peaks to the north, but has a very quiet beauty. The trail over Bemis goes through deep fir forest and slab rocks. There are a few good views toward the lakes and to Tumbledown Mountain. With the sky as clear as it was, any view turned out to be stunning. As with earlier days, I saw almost no one– one through hiker, and one section hiker. A quiet day, indeed.
Day 9: Knee Crusher
The forecast has gone downhill almost as fast as the trail did today. It was supposed to be freezing overnight (low of 33), but it turned out much warmer. The clouds were definitely hanging low when I started hiking, though. And when I say the trail went downhill, here’s what I mean: the trail today went over a section that should be notorious for bone-crushing ascents and descents.
First, after climbing to 3600 feet on Old Blue Mountain, a 2.8 mile descent to Black Brook Notch (2100 foot loss). Then, a 1.2 mile climb to Moody Mountain (1000 foot gain). Next, a 1 mile descent to Sawyer Notch (1400 foot loss). Finally, a 1.5 mile climb to Hall Mountain (1600 foot gain). My knees feel like jello after that. But the end of the day was a nice six miles of gradual downhill from Hall and Wyman Mountains. That was okay.
Best of all, the rain held off, and the clouds even lifted for some fine views of the Rumford and Andover region. Like yesterday, the character of this region is very different from the higher peaks near Stratton, but it’s beautiful none the less. This is a region of lower mountains, lots of logging, and more population. Still, it’s hard to see much human impact compared with any other state on the AT.
I ended the day with a ride into Andover to stay at the venerable Pine Ellis hiker hostel. Andover is a small Maine frontier town, consisting of a few houses, a general store, and a diner. The Pine Ellis has been a hiker haven for 23 years, and it’s one of those places you can’t imagine the trail ever being without. David, the current manager (son-in-law of the original), picked me up at the trail with a cooler full of fresh lemonade. He knows his stuff!
I’ve decided to end this trip here. I’m about four days ahead of schedule, having hiked 154 miles in 8 days (plus one zero), but the next four days are going to be rain, rain, rain. I’ve hiked this section too many times in wet weather to feel the need to do so again. I’m quite happy with this hike, and I’ll come back for more later in the month.