Hikes

Ten years ago today, I finished my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Since then, more than 7000 people have also finished their through-hikes of the AT. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy maintains that the completion rate has been consistently between 20% and 30%, so we can conservatively estimate that at least 35,000 people have attempted the AT in the past ten years. Pretty crazy!

And while there have certainly been growing pains with the number of hikers on the trail, overall I’m pretty happy about the fact that more people are getting out and enjoying the experience of long-distance backpacking. I hope that leads to more people getting involved in protecting the land and environment for future generations. Judging by the big increase I’ve seen in hikers on other trails, it’s certainly translating to hikers getting interested in more long-distance hikes. Good! If even one in ten through hikes is as life changing as mine was, I think it would be a good development for the world.

I’ve had to think often about how the hiking world has changed in the years since my hike (not to mention world as a whole), and it can be overwhelming to dwell on the changes. The obvious difference, the elephant on the trail as it were, is the introduction of smartphones which have made social media and other apps (ahem…) ubiquitous in the wilderness. I’ve also noticed a big difference in the number of businesses catering to long-distance hikers, especially hostels and shuttle services, and a vast improvement in how these services run their operations. I’m pretty happy about that, too.

It’s easy to look back at the way things used to be, and complain about the way things are now. I’ve certainly bemoaned my fair share of changes, and I count myself as lucky for having hiked the AT when I did. But I also think every Appalachian Trail hiker is lucky to have hiked the Trail whenever they did, be it 1997, 2007, or 2017. The challenges are different every year, and the culture will always change.

There will always be challenges to the experience of the Trail, and as long as there are people who care enough for it (like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and every local maintaining club), I hope it will change ever more lives for the better in the next ten years and more.

Last week I took a trip into the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, a new addition to the National Parks system directly east of Baxter State Park. The Monument was designated in August, after years of effort by Elliotsville Plantation (the former owners of the land, a foundation set up by the philanthropist and former owner of Burt’s Bees to advocate for a National Park in the area) to donate the land to the National Park Service. There was, and to some degree still is, vehement opposition to the Monument from a loud and increasingly small part of the population in the region, but the local attitude now mostly seems to range from fully in support to indifferent, which is just fine by me.

Haskell Deadwater on the Penobscot River, with Bald Mountain rising in the distance.

I had been into Katahdin Woods & Waters twice in the past few years before it was a National Monument, but only for short day-trips. Now that it’s officially part of the National Parks, I wanted to do a longer trip into the wilderness before the wider world started showing up in larger numbers. So for my goal of finding some quiet time in the deep woods, the trip was a wild success. I saw only a handful of people on the first day, but only one person (my friend Tom) during the three days after that.

Haskell Pitch on the Penobscot River.

Aside from the fine solitude in the Monument, how was the rest of the visit? While the Monument doesn’t have quite the wow-factor that Baxter does in many cases, it has plenty to offer.

On their own, KWW’s trails and campsite are pleasant in a low-key way. The trails I saw were mostly old logging roads, groomed so that Tom (on his fat-bike) and I (on my cross-country skis) could cover plenty of ground. There are several lean-tos and tent sites in the Monument, many of them on the shores of the Penobscot River, accessible by foot, bike, or canoe, and I figure they are quite nice, and fairly easy to get to. There are also two cabins, complete with wood stoves and bunks. I stayed in one of the cabins for this trip, which, of course, is the most popular option in winter.

Wood stove in Big Spring Brook Hut.

The Monument has a few fine viewpoints, although I only made it to one on this trip— a low mountain called The Lookout, with a nice view of the southern half of the Monument and some of the peaks in Baxter. You’ve probably heard from some of the naysayers that the only attraction in the Monument is a view of Katahdin, but you can just call them grumpy spoilsports. There’s plenty of beauty to be found on trails along wild rivers and ponds, and through deep northern forests. Some people will always complain about the Monument because of their own political leanings, and they’ll probably never enjoy it. That’s their loss, but I won’t waste my time trying to convince them otherwise.

From The Lookout, over the southern half of the Monument.

Another aspect of the Monument experience that I need to mention is staying at a Maine sporting camp. There are several lodges and sporting camps near the Monument, which are an old Maine tradition for hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, and other outdoor recreationists. Think of them as semi-rustic hotels, generally small and family-run operations, with family-style meals and tons of local knowledge to mine. I stayed at Mt Chase Lodge for a night on either end of this trip, and it really added to the whole experience.

One of the primary arguments for the Monument has always been that it would boost the local economy by bringing visitors to the area to spend money, so I see staying at one of the lodges as a concrete way of showing my support for public lands in general, and KWW specifically. And what do you know, since the Monument designation, there has been an increase in sporting camp visitors, real estate sales, and new investment in the area. Imagine that.

Tom leaving Big Spring Brook on his fatbike after a cozy night by the wood stove.

So, one other point.

Our governor, who is known for many of his boneheaded statements over the past six years, is also known for being consistently opposed to just about everything related to public lands and conservation. I’ve talked about this before, so I don’t want to rehash too much. He’s always been opposed to the Monument, despite the fact that the majority of the people in Maine support it. He even took it upon himself to ask the president to revoke the Monument status, even though it’s unclear that that’s even possible, none of Maine’s congressional delegation supports that, and even local politicians who were opposed are now more interested in moving forward with the Monument.

The governor loves to claim that the Monument will hurt local businesses, and that “it’s nothing but a cut-over woodlot” (meaning it was logged recently and the forest is mostly new growth). It’s easy enough to see that local businesses haven’t been hurt, although they weren’t exactly in a strong place for the decades before the Monument. As for the wood-lot claim, the governor seems ignorant of the fact that another famous park was also mostly clear-cut before being bought by a wealthy philanthropist and given to the people of Maine: Baxter State Park. The most valuable part of the Monument, as I see it, is the fact that the forest within it will be preserved for future generations. Without one very forward-looking individual, Baxter State Park wouldn’t be what it is today. Give it a hundred years, and it will be just as wild as Baxter’s deep forests. In the meantime, it will still be a perfectly pleasant place to spend some time in the deep forests of northern Maine.

After finishing the NOLS course in the Wind River Range, I went right back out into the mountains for a short trip with a college friend to climb a peak we had passed by on the course. Wind River Peak, at 13,192 feet, is the highest peak in the southern portion of the Wind River Range, and was a prominent landmark for the first several days of the NOLS course as we walk below it. And as the topo map shows, the ascent to the summit is amazingly straightforward from the northeast along a feature I heard referred to as “The Ramp.” I’m sure you can guess what that is by the map snippet below.

WindRiverPeak

It was a straightforward hike, but certainly not an easy one, especially as we brought our packs up and over the peak, dropping down the south side of the mountain to Tayo Lake. The descent was also fairly simple, if time-consuming due to picking our way across boulder fields for a few miles. We were rewarded at the end of the descent with the icy waters of Tayo Lake, and a freshly-maintained trail heading down to the valley. A volunteer crew from the Sierra Club was on a work trip for the week, which certainly helped speed up the end of the day for us.

I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking here, since as I write this I’m still getting adjusted to life at home after all that time in the mountains. From the summit, there are plenty of views across much of the range, and I could see plenty of places I know I’ll have to visit again later.

Second Deep Creek Lake at the base of Wind River Peak.

Second Deep Creek Lake at the base of Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake below the cliffs of Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake below the cliffs of Wind River Peak.

Temple Mountain and Frozen Lakes from the summit of Wind River Peak.

Temple Mountain and Frozen Lakes from the summit of Wind River Peak.

Tayo Lake, from the long descent of Wind River.

Tayo Lake, from the long descent of Wind River.

Looking back from a crossing of the Popo Agie River.

Looking back from a crossing of the Popo Agie River.

Only a day after arriving in Colorado, coming from sea level, I was up above 9000 feet and wouldn’t come back down to a reasonable elevation for the next five days. Hiker Box, whom I’d hiked with in New Hampshire in our snowy 2014-2015 winter, had moved to Boulder after hiking the Continental Divide Trail last year, and I had let him come up with all the hiking plans for the week that we would spend backpacking. We would enter the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness of the Rio Grande National Forest and spend five days bouncing between peaks. I had no idea what to expect, having spent very little time off-trail climbing 14,000 foot peaks.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

After a breakfast at the tiny town of Crestone, we started up Crestone Creek, outrunning clouds of mosquitoes despite our heavier-than-usual packs. Five days worth of food in Gossamer Gear Kumo may be a little much. Hiker Box probably had the better idea with a slightly larger Gorilla. Sometimes a little extra volume to the pack and a solid frame isn’t such a bad thing. Anyway, we peaked out in the afternoon at 13,000 feet on Venable Peak, then dropped down to 11,500 in the Venable Peaks basin. Remember, this was now less than 48 hours after I’d woken up in my bed about 40 feet above sea level. Luckily, charging up and down the White Mountains of New Hampshire for the past several months helped keep my lungs spry.

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Day two was our crusher day, charging up four more 13k peaks (Commanche, Horn, Fluted, and Adams). All of this was off trail, climbing steeply and clambering over boulders like any self-respecting New England hiker. As we reached the saddle between Fluted and Adams, a menacing-looking cloud front moved over, and we huddled in the saddle for an hour as it passed uneventfully. That was a little different from my usual experience. Then it was on to Mt Adams, the highest peak of the day at just under 14,000 feet, and requiring several short 4th class climbs. At least one of those caused us to name the hiking route, “The Dirty Pants Route” for a very scary bit of climbing.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

This was where a smarter person might have taken a rest day for the third day, but instead we turned the dial up, climbing Kit Carson, Challenger, Columbia, and Obstruction peaks (two above 14,000 feet). The last part of the day was a long traverse toward another 14er, but the two of us were so exhausted by the constant rock-scrambling for the past two days that we decided to bail on Humboldt and just head down toward South Colony Lakes, a pair of beautiful mountain lakes at the bottom of the basin below Humboldt Peak. This area was more crowded than other places we’d been so far, probably because of an easy hike to a 14er and another less easy 14er’s primary route coming up from the valley. A freezing dip in the water, and then an early bedtime for a long day.

Scrambling to the top.

Scrambling to the top.

The next morning we cruised up Humboldt Peak with empty packs, then back down to where we began the day, and then back up the other side of the valley toward Broken Hand Peak. The path we followed to a pass between Crestone Needle and Broken Hand Peak was pretty popular, but every single person going that was was heading for the taller Crestone Needle. We opted for the pretty peak of Broken Hand, and got to hang out with some goats to boot. What a difference a few hundred feet makes when you’re that high already– the peak is just as gorgeous, but not a soul had been there in who knows how long.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

We finished the day down at Cottonwood Lake, a pristine and seemingly unvisited lake below Crestone Needle, where we waited out our first thunderstorm of the trip with a legion of marmots. There I discovered just how much marmots actually like human urine– you know how they say not to pee on vegetation because critters will tear up the plants to get at the salt? Turns out that’s true! They really like it.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Day 5 was supposed to be a quick walk out, although the abandoned and overgrown trail made the first few miles a slow bushwhack through dense willows. Once on trail, we had to rush to outrun the mosquitoes again. I’m pretty resilient when it comes to biting insects, but as we got closer to the trailhead, they seemed to understand that they would soon lose a large source of blood, and attacked with gusto. Hiker Box estimated he killed well over a thousand of them in the few hours of walking down the hill.

Aww, nice marmot. They may be cute, but they're relentless when chasing your food bags.

Aww, nice marmot.
They may be cute, but they’re relentless when chasing your food bags.

By the time we ended the day back in Boulder, I had had an eye opening experience with this trip. There are a heck of a lot of mountains to play around in in Colorado, and if you stay away from the popular list of 14,000 foot peaks, you can go days without seeing a single person. Hiker Box and I already decided we’ll need to do more like this.

For my second annual Baxter State Park backpacking trip, I had planned to bring friends from all over the country to Maine late in the season to show off the parts of the park that few out-of-staters ever see. Most of my friends had to bail, but a small core group stuck with the plan, and we spent a large chunk of Columbus Day weekend hiking across the park. I take great pleasure in bringing visitors to my home state and acting as a sort of outdoor tour guide. Partially, it’s an excuse for me to take trips that are on my bucket list, but it’s also nice to be reminded how much of a treasure the state’s wilderness is.

Map of the backpacking trip through Baxter State Park (created with CalTopo.com)

Map of the backpacking trip through Baxter State Park (created with CalTopo.com)

Grant, the president of Gossamer Gear, his stepson, Ian, and my fellow Portlander, Hans made up the small group. Grant had last been in Maine at the end of his AT hike in 2002. Hans had been to Baxter State Park several times, but never as deep into the park as we went on this trip. Most of the hike was new terrain for everyone.

Day one consisted of driving four hours from Portland into the Park, then shuttling cars from Roaring Brook Campground to Nesowadnehunk Field Campground (by far the most beautiful and remote roadside campground in the park). Despite long hours of driving, there was plenty of good sightseeing along the road. And since it was a car-camping night, we had an epic feast of lobster-mac and maple-apple-cobbler to get the trip started right.

Day two started with a hard frost and sunrise views over Doubletop Mountain, then a long hike through deep forest to the newest BSP campsite on the west end of Wassataquoik Lake (Grant shortened the name to a more pronounceable “WTF Lake”). Foliage colors were a little duller than peak, but still gorgeous, especially as seen from a high ledge overlooking the lake in the evening. Once at the campsite, we spent a bit of time canoeing across the lake as sunset put the final light of the day on Turner Mountain.

Frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field Campground.

Frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field Campground.

A trailside bog on the Wassataquoik Lake Trail.

A trailside bog on the Wassataquoik Lake Trail.

Wassataquoik Lake from an overlook at the west end of the lake.

Wassataquoik Lake from an overlook at the west end of the lake.

Day three was a short hike to Russell Pond, with a perfectly timed day of cold rain. Despite the damp and cold, it was a beautiful hike along Wassataquoik Lake, with waterfalls and deep, mossy fir forests. We spent the afternoon and evening drinking hot cocoa and reading in our sleeping bags while the rain fell outside our lean-to.

Sunrise from the shores of Wassataquoik Lake.

Sunrise from the shores of Wassataquoik Lake.

Green Falls on the south shore of Wassataquoik Lake.

Green Falls on the south shore of Wassataquoik Lake.

Damp, mossy forest in the depths of Baxter State Park.

Damp, mossy forest in the depths of Baxter State Park.

Day four was the long day, climbing Katahdin via the North Peaks Trail (which started with an icy ford of Wassataquoik Stream) and traversing about six miles of frosty alpine terrain. The rain of the previous day had brought the foliage colors out with a vengeance, but also coated the summit in a thick layer of rime ice. I nervously watched the time all day, since we were taking one of the longest routes to Baxter Peak, and one of the hardest descents, but the tour-guide in me decided getting down from the mountain after dark wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. We took our time to enjoy the scenery and the biting wind, and got to the car at Roaring Brook an hour after dark, then took another hour to drive back to Nesowadnehunk Field for the night.

Early morning on Russell Pond after a day of rain.

Early morning on Russell Pond after a day of rain.

An icy ford of Wassataquoik Stream.

An icy ford of Wassataquoik Stream.

Climbing Baxter Peak on Katahdin despite the rime ice.

Climbing Baxter Peak on Katahdin despite the rime ice.

Starting Katahdin's Knife Edge in the afternoon.

Starting Katahdin’s Knife Edge in the afternoon.

Because of how BSP’s reservations system works, backpacking trips like this have to be planned in advance with an eye toward worst-case-scenarios. I got incredibly lucky for the second year in a row with this trip, having the rainy days fall only on short hiking days or on days when hiking only in low elevation forests. Even if it had rained for all three days of the trip, though, it would have been an enjoyable trip in some of the finest wilderness the east coast has to offer. I’m already thinking of plans for next year’s trip.