100 Mile Wilderness

All posts tagged 100 Mile Wilderness

After a restful night at White House Landing, and a hearty AYCE pancake breakfast, it was time to hit the trail again. Bill shuttled the three guests across the lake to an old logging road landing near the AT, and I sped off southward. The rains yesterday had soaked the lowlands thoroughly, and the low clouds had yet to burn off, so the early part of the day was a damp hike through soggy trails.

A view from Potaywadjo Ridge, a side trail that I doubt most AT hikers ever notice.

A view from Potaywadjo Ridge, a side trail that I doubt most AT hikers ever notice.

The first order of the day, a few miles in, was to explore a side trail to a rocky ledge on Potaywadjo Ridge. The trail rose steeply from the shores of Jo-Mary Lake, into a blueberry- and lichen-covered granite outcrop with amazing views over the lake, Jo-Mary Mountain, and the lowlands between. It was a totally unique view, since this section of the 100 Mile Wilderness is mostly lowlands with few elevated views. The mass of Jo-Mary Mountain seemed so huge from this sub-1000 foot ledge, and the lakes and forest surrounding had a surreal quality to their silence, the fog clinging around the edges of everything.

Crawford Pond, one of many in the 100 Mile Wilderness.

Crawford Pond, one of many in the 100 Mile Wilderness.

I had a long way to go, so I couldn’t sit and relax too much. Lower Jo-Mary Lake is now on my list of places to visit by canoe or kayak later on, though, since the Potaywadjo Ridge and The Antlers Campsite (one of the most beautiful campsites on the AT) are both located close to the shore. It looks like you could paddle across Pemadumcook Lake from near Millinocket, and portage to the Jo-Mary Lakes pretty easily. The 100 Mile Wilderness by boat would be an entirely different experience.

Clouds receding over Whitecap Mountain in the morning.

Clouds receding over Whitecap Mountain in the morning.

The clouds burned off throughout the afternoon, and a dry, cool breeze erased the effects of yesterday’s rain. I passed over a dozen northbound through-hikers, all nearing the end of their journeys. It must be that time of year when the front of the northbound crowd hits the end of the trail. Hiking against the flow always makes the crowds seem bigger, since you run into everyone rather than gradually passing them. Most people didn’t stop to talk very much, and that’s okay. I remember being a northbound through-hiker and feeling overwhelmed by the flood of southbounders as I neared Katahdin.

Hey moose!

Hey moose!

I ended day 3 at Logan Brook Lean-to, with four other hikers. This wouldn’t have seemed like too big a crowd, normally, but there were also two summer camp groups tented nearby, so it felt cramped. Happily, the company was really wonderful. Midnight, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s ridgerunner for the Whitecap and Chairback Range was camped in the shelter, so we had some great conversation about the AT (he through-hiked a year or two before me, and has been close to the hiking community ever since). It was great to pick his brain about the Maine AT, as well, since he had an insider’s perspective. His job is a hard and thankless one, but I will say that he handled it amazingly. The four shelters in his range were the cleanest in the 100 Mile Wilderness.

Screw Augur Falls at the beginning of the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail.

Screw Augur Falls at the beginning of the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail.

Day 4 started with a short hike to the top of Whitecap Mountain, the highest in the 100 Mile Wilderness, and one of the best views anywhere. I hiked slowly in order to let the clouds burn off, which they partially did. After arriving, I had the summit to myself for 45 minutes (and it would have been much longer, but I had to move on). I sat and watched the dense clouds to the north dissipate as they hit the Whitecap Ridge, and I listened to the sound of utter silence. This isn’t a sound that many people can find, even in wild places, so I drank it up, knowing how rare it was. That long break made the trip for me– as unwild as the 100 Mile Wilderness can be, that one experience was enough to convince me it’s still the wildest on the AT.

Looking at the Whitecap Range from Chairback Mountain.

Looking at the Whitecap Range from Chairback Mountain.

The walk down from Whitecap is a long one, so I zoned out for the next ten miles. The number of people picked up again when I neared Gulf Hagas, but dropped again once I crossed the Katahdin Ironworks Road to climb Chairback Mountain. This is the territory of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s newest camp and hiking trails, so I thought I might see more people on Chairback, but it was just as quiet as Whitecap had been. Strange. I thought hikers were drawn to mountains up here just like anywhere else. But it turns out Gulf Hagas has a stronger pull.

From Third Chairback Mountain, looking north over Long Pond to Baker Peak.

From Third Chairback Mountain, looking north over Long Pond to Baker Peak.

I camped at Chairback Gap with three southbound hikers, and had a great evening full of laughs and stories. Again, I realized that seeing lots of people in the 100 Mile Wilderness wasn’t always a bad thing. After the good company at Logan Brook, and now the good company at Chairback Gap, I remembered that I’d camped alone plenty of nights on the AT this summer, and with good company all the rest of the nights. You don’t always get an empty campsite, but you can usually count on good neighbors. If I had really wanted to camp alone, it wouldn’t have been hard to find a place away from established campsites.

Waterfalls on Vaughn Stream.

Waterfalls on Vaughn Stream.

In the morning, the forecast of clear skies through the weekend failed. I started hiking in a light rain, and continued that way for the rest of the day. I wasn’t too upset, since I’d had such a good day yesterday, but I decided I would have to come back to see Barren Mountain and a few of the lower ledges near Wilson Streams later. For the day’s hike, I hadn’t decided if I should push 27 miles to my car, or stop 10 miles short, finishing the trip the next day.

The top of a 60+ foot waterfall on Little Wilson Stream.

The top of a 60+ foot waterfall on Little Wilson Stream.

I passed several northbound hikers (some whom I had met in the White Mountains only a few weeks ago!), and the rain eventually came harder. The trail in the last miles of the 100 Mile Wilderness travels through several big streams, up and over some jagged slate ridges, and along many beaver bogs. The slate ledges and gorges are, like the forest further north, the kind of landscape that is just too beautiful for my camera to capture properly. So I decided I would have to come back again sometime soon.

In the meantime, I had a strong urge to finish converting my GPS data into the next section of the AT for my iPhone apps, which helped make up my mind to do a big day of hiking. Rather than stopping a few miles short of the road, I pounded my feet and eventually worked my way to the car, finishing the 100 Mile Wilderness. As I approached the road, I heard the sound of cars whizzing by and realized, as I had on Whitecap, that I had indeed been in a wild area. This was the first car sound I had heard since entering Baxter Park, 8 days earlier. Also, it was the first I had turned on my phone since then. So what if there were lots of hikers in the Wilderness. I had successfully escaped the two largest influences of modern society for over a week. That’s as much as a modern American can really ask for.

After a few days in Baxter Park, Hans headed home and I started hiking south toward my car through the 100 Mile Wilderness. I gave an overview of the Wilderness a few weeks ago, but it’s worth repeating one major point– the name “100 Mile Wilderness” came about long before the National Wilderness Designation was created, and the 100 Mile Wilderness is NOT a National Wilderness. There are logging roads, shelters, sporting camps, and quite a few people in the area. As I started into the woods near Abol Bridge, it was apparent that this wouldn’t be a hike where I found solitude. I passed many northbound through-hikers in the first hours of the day, all chugging along determinedly to the end of their hikes.

Katahdin from Abol Bridge. This is the view greeting northbound AT hikers leaving the 100 Mile Wilderness.

Katahdin from Abol Bridge. This is the view greeting northbound AT hikers leaving the 100 Mile Wilderness.

I got a late start on day one, but I managed a fairly long day anyway, with a little help from the cool, dry air and partly cloudy skies. Walking along the lowlands of the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area (where the AT sticks to the vicinity of Rainbow Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever been on) was a delight. The terrain that the AT passes through in this area included two types that are unique on the AT to northern Maine– first, the dark coniferous forests with thick beds of moss below, and second, the lichen and blueberry covered granite slabs of Rainbow Ledges and Rainbow Mountain.

Rainbow Ledges, with granite bedrock and a thin layer of soil and lichens. On the AT, this environment is totally unique to Maine.

Rainbow Ledges, with granite bedrock and a thin layer of soil and lichens. On the AT, this environment is totally unique to Maine.

The day ended late, since I knew the weather wouldn’t be so great in the morning. I pushed on to the western end of Rainbow Lake, where I had found a spectacular campsite on my last 100 Mile Wilderness hike (five years ago). This was the kind of campsite you don’t quickly forget: a perfectly framed view of Katahdin over Rainbow Lake, lakeside camping, and practically no hikers. I was able to watch the clouds roll in over Katahdin in the evening, and in the morning I glanced up from my sleeping bag to see a moose silently walk around my tarp.

Rainbow Lake. Possibly the most beautiful lake on the entire Appalachian Trail.

Rainbow Lake. Possibly the most beautiful lake on the entire Appalachian Trail.

The rain started on day two sometime mid-morning, but I wasn’t terribly worried. The day’s hike was entirely in the lowlands of the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness and Nahmakanta Public Reserved Land. (As an aside, I just love the place names in northern Maine, which come from the language of the Penobscot Nation. Names like Katahdin, Piscataquis, Debsconeag, Nesuntabunt, and Potaywadjo grace the Hundred Mile Wilderness. Fun names from my home town further south include my favorite, the Passagassawakeag River. The lack of old white men’s names is a good reminder that Maine was “tamed” much later than most of the east coast).

Looking at Katahdin across Rainbow Lake, one of the least known campsites on the AT in Maine.

Looking at Katahdin from Rainbow Lake Dam.

Much of the morning had me walking along Rainbow Stream from the outlet of Rainbow Lake. Again, this section of trail is an absolute gem, going through densely moss-covered forest, along a shallow gorge with jagged stone walls. In a short time I passed the Rainbow Stream Lean-to, one of the dozen AT shelters in the 100 Mile Wilderness (not to mention at least half a dozen official tent sites) that are located in places of superb beauty. This one is in that dense, mossy forest on the bank of Rainbow Stream, right near tall rock walls of the gorge. A shelter doesn’t get much more picture-perfect than that.

My photos don't do this justice, but the mossy Maine forest is one of the most beautiful kinds of terrain on the AT.

My photos don’t do this justice, but the mossy Maine forest is one of the most beautiful kinds of terrain on the AT.

Unfortunately, this lean-to also showcased a problem that I saw all too often over the week. More than half of the shelters I passed had atrocious amounts of trash piled beside them. Stuff like food wrappers, medication bottles, clothing, broken trekking poles, sneakers– By the end of the trip I was furious with what I saw. There had been nothing like this on my last trip into the 100 Mile Wilderness. The reason, I’m guessing, is a combination of two things: first, just like the south end of the AT, many people start hiking with no clue what they’re doing, and ditch gear along the trail. Down south, there is a lot more activity on the trail, so volunteers and good samaritans can get in to clean the shelters more often. In the 100 Mile Wilderness, less road access means fewer people cleaning up after jackasses that leave their trash.

One of many sluices and cascades on Rainbow Stream.

One of many sluices and cascades on Rainbow Stream.

I tried not to let the trashing of some of my favorite places bother me too much. The trail aside from the shelters was still beautiful and unspoiled. After leaving Rainbow Stream, I walked along Pollywog Stream, Nahmakanta Lake and finally Nahmakanta Stream, now in a steady drizzle. Only a few views were really killed by the low clouds– otherwise I mostly walked through dense forest with the large streams at my side.

Tumbledown Dick Falls, a new and very long side trail from the 100 Mile Wilderness.

Tumbledown Dick Falls, a new and very long side trail from the 100 Mile Wilderness.

The day got wetter in the afternoon, culminating in an intense downpour as I neared the end of Nahmakanta Stream. A conversation I’d had with two northbound section hikers the day before had given me the idea of staying at White House Landing for a night, and the nasty rain made up my mind. I took the side trail along the shore of Pemadumcook Lake, blew the foghorn, and got a ride across to a little Xanadu in the wilderness.

White House Landing, a welcome respite from the rain.

White House Landing, a welcome respite from the rain.

White House Landing is a Maine Sporting Camp that has been serving AT hikers for about fifteen years. Like most such sporting camps, it is off the grid, accessed only by logging roads or by water. Some hikers pooh-pooh the idea of interrupting the 100 Mile Wilderness with commercial accommodations, but a funny thing about the Maine AT is that the original trail had no shelters east of Caratunk– hikers stayed at sporting camps like White House Landing all the way from the Kennebec to Katahdin. Today, there are few of those camps still active near the AT, but White House Landing, like its owners, is resilient.

I enjoyed an early dinner (the famous one-pound burger) with a wonderful couple from Chicago. They were just starting their southbound through-hike, and it was great to see the enthusiasm they had for the hike. Bill and Linda, the owners of the camp, also provided great stories and conversation. Soon enough, though, I found myself fighting to stay awake– a battle I lost willingly at 7 PM.

Katahdin over Rainbow Lake, seen from one of The Nature Conservancy's campsites near the AT.

Katahdin over Rainbow Lake, seen from one of The Nature Conservancy’s campsites near the AT.

As I prepare to finish mapping the Maine AT for my smartphone apps, I’m faced with hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness for the third time. Planning this backpacking trip is normally not the easiest task– the trail is remote, and transportation between the two ends requires nearly three hours of driving each way. I’m complicating things even more by adding much more than the official Appalachian Trail route to my plans. I’d like to share some of my planning resources for anyone who wants to see more of this magical region than just the Appalachian Trail– this section of the AT is one of the most beautiful and rewarding of the entire trail, but it’s possible to add quite a bit more to the experience.

Jo-Mary Mountain over Cooper Pond, an obscure AT side trail.

Jo-Mary Mountain over Cooper Pond, an obscure AT side trail.

What is the 100 Mile Wilderness?
The word “wilderness”, and the 100 Mile Wilderness existed long before the National Wilderness Act, but people seem to have forgotten this. Many people from away imagine that the 100 Mile Wilderness will be a place free of motorized traffic, untouched by humans, undeveloped in any way. This is not the case. And yet, the area is still more wild than many National Wilderness areas.

The wilderness in question here refers to the most remote section of the Appalachian Trail– between Route 15 near Monson and the Golden Road near Millinocket, the trail crosses no major roadways, and hikers cannot access towns in the way that they can further south on the trail. But there is human development in this area– this region of northern Maine has historically been home to major logging operations, sporting camps, and homesteads, some of which are still present today. Hikers cross several maintained logging roads which are used by loggers as well as visitors to sporting camps and primitive campsites. Besides the AT the area is a wealth of lakes, rivers, and deep forests, all of which are popular with hunters, fishers, paddlers, campers, and hikers.

Nahmakanta Lake from Nesuntabunt Mountain.

Nahmakanta Lake from Nesuntabunt Mountain.

Who Owns the 100 Mile Wilderness?
Until relatively recently, the region was mostly privately owned by logging companies and individuals. Since the 1970s, there has been a big push to protect much of the land for conservation and recreation. Much of the land you see from Whitecap Mountain or the Barren-Chairback Range is still privately owned (though open to the public in most cases), but there is also a large patchwork of conservation land in the region. It can be confusing to sort out, but there’s plenty of information out there. In no particular order, here’s what I’ve found.

Hikers looking down on Billings Falls, part of the Gulf Hagas gorge.

Hikers looking down on Billings Falls, part of the Gulf Hagas gorge.

  • The National Park Service has acquired a strip of land around the Appalachian Trail for most of the Maine Appalachian Trail where it doesn’t run through other public land. For most of the AT in Maine, this is a narrow strip of land, at least 1000 feet wide around the AT. It also surrounds the entire Gulf Hagas trail system in the 100 Mile Wilderness, since the Gulf is a National Natural Landmark.
  • Baxter State Park is the crown jewel of Maine’s parks, originally centered around the state’s high point, Katahdin. The park, nearly 210,000 acres, is not exactly a state park– it receives no state funding, but is instead funded by visitor fees and a private trust set up by Governor Percival Baxter in the 1930s. As such, the rules and regulations of the park are similar but different from the rest of the state park system in Maine. The park is home to several massive lakes, huge tracts of forest, and many of Maine’s highest and most rugged peaks.
  • The Nature Conservancy owns the massive Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area just south of Baxter Park, and almost as large. The Wilderness area has fewer mountains, but makes up for it with equally gorgeous forests and lakes. The AT passes through the area, but there are dozens of primitive campsites and boat launches, as well as some hiking trails besides the AT.
  • The Appalachian Mountain Club recently become a major player in the conservation of the southern end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. They’ve gone about it in their usual fashion, which involves reviving several old sporting camps and building miles of new hiking trails to make the area a full-fledged outdoor recreation destination. Many uninformed AT hikers get all up in a huff about this, thinking the AMC is going to take over the AT like in the White Mountains, but this is not the case. AMC’s camps and trails are separate from the AT, though the trails do intersect and are open to the public
  • Maine Bureau of Public Lands holds a large parcel between TNC’s Debsconeag Lakes and AMC’s Roach Pond lands, centered on Nahmakanta Lake (link here, search for Nahmakanta Public Reserve Land). The Nahmakanta Land has many miles of hiking and multi-use trails, several campsites, and many opportunities for backpacking and paddling.
  • North Maine Woods is the most confusing part of the picture for me, but they basically collect tolls for access to the maze of private roads in the 100 Mile Wilderness area. NMW is an organization that consolidates the fees and regulations of several private landowners (mostly logging companies) in order to provide recreational access.
Rainbow Stream Lean-to on the Appalachian Trail.

Rainbow Stream Lean-to on the Appalachian Trail.

Are There Strict Regulations?
With the various land owners in the 100 Mile Wilderness, planning a trip isn’t quite as easy as many places on the Appalachian Trail. Due to Baxter Park’s reservation system and North Maine Woods’s checkpoints, you’ll likely end up paying fees for day use and camping in the region, but I’ve decided this is a good thing– remember, Baxter Park receives no state funding, and all of the roads in the 100 Mile Wilderness are private, open to the public as a courtesy. The money for maintaining NMW campsites and boat launches comes from checkpoint fees, and the money for Baxter Park’s campsites, trail system, and other operations comes in large part from those day use and camping fees.

If you’re planning to hike from Monson to Katahdin, without driving in on any of the roads between, your only worries will be camping in Baxter Park, and getting home afterward. There’s a trailhead near Monson where you can leave a car, and you might be able to leave a car at Abol Bridge campground (a private campground at the south edge of Baxter Park). Hikers ending their trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness at Baxter Park can register when they arrive at the Katahdin Stream Campground to camp at The Birches campsite, but otherwise all overnight camping must be reserved ahead of time. The Baxter Park Authority is great about helping you make a reservation, though, so this is quite easy. Just don’t wait until the last minute to reserve a site– the more popular campgrounds fill up very quickly.

Boarstone Mountain and Lake Onawa from the Barren Ledges.

Boarstone Mountain and Lake Onawa from the Barren Ledges.

For road access to any of the rest of the 100 Mile Wilderness, you’ll likely pass through a North Maine Woods checkpoint, which means you’ll need to pay a day use or camping fee. NMW’s website is much more helpful now than it was a few years ago, though, so figuring out the best way to deal with fees is not hard.

Looking at Long Pond and Baker Peak from Monument Cliffs on Chairback Mountain.

Looking at Long Pond and Baker Peak from Monument Cliffs on Chairback Mountain.

What Maps and Guides Should I Get?
If you’re planning to hike the Appalachian Trail in the 100 Mile Wilderness, there is no better map and guide than the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s Appalachian Trail Guide to Maine. This is the official ATC guide for Maine. I must say it is, by far, the best official ATC map and guide set out of the bunch. The maps have just the right coloring and detail level, with great elevation profiles. And on the back of each map is a trail description, with mileage and just the right amount of trivia for various points of interest along the way.

For more info on hiking trails in Baxter Park, Map Adventures’ Katahdin Map and AMC’s Baxter Park map are both great. AMC’s map also details AMC’s extensive new trail system in the area near Gulf Hagas and the Barren-Chairback Range.

For a great overview of the 100 Mile Wilderness region, get AMC’s Southern Piscataquis Recreation map, which isn’t waterproof but is a great resource. And, of course, you should check out AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide for good trail information for the area, not to mention the rest of the state.

That’s all for now. Get out there and enjoy the trail!