bigelow

All posts tagged bigelow

As a backpacking instructor for NOLS, one of the lessons I try to impart on students is that we can’t take for granted the beautiful mountains and forests we play in. When I was first a student on a NOLS course, I spent three months in various wild areas, assuming that these remote mountains and canyons had forever been used only for hiking, paddling, backpacking, or other wilderness ventures. But with each area we entered, there were new cognitive dissonances. Paddling by oil derricks on the Green River, or hearing warnings of an angry, shotgun-toting neighbor next to a Forest Service trailhead in the Wind River Mountains. These things didn’t fit with the wilderness I thought I was in.

Since then, I’ve learned more about the trails that I hike on, and the land I recreate in. Most hikers still take for granted that the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail exist, meandering through scenic mountains for thousands of miles. They don’t give too much thought to who owns the land under them while they’re standing on a mountain or paddling a river. But who owns the land, and how it’s managed, and how it came to be like that, are issues that matter very much if we plan to continue visiting the mountains.

Maine's public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

Maine’s public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

These issues pop up mostly on the local level– they don’t get national attention when headlines are more concerned with high-profile political squabbling. I’ve been watching a few of these debates play out in Maine over the past year, mirroring debates from national lands in the west. You might not hear about these if you live outside the state, but I can almost guarantee something similar is going on near your home.

Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) is a well-regarded agency that oversees Maine’s State Parks and Public Reserved Lands. The Public Reserved Lands are analogous to National Forests, with the land being managed for wildlife habitat, recreation, and sustainable timber harvesting. BPL uses income from the timber harvest to pay its overhead, and most everyone is happy with the arrangement. Locals and tourists get beautiful mountains and lakes to visit, and management costs come out of sustainable logging, which doesn’t significantly impact the recreation or wildlife habitat. It’s a harmonious balance between the three primary goals of the Bureau.

Heading up Parker Ridge, with a view of Tumbledown Pond and Mountain.

Tumbledown Pond and Mountain, one of the most loved Public Reserved Lands.

But as with all balances between recreation and resource extraction, politics rears its ugly head. In the past several years our governor has tried to tip the balance in public lands more toward logging, which has led to increased harvests despite sustainable logging limits set by BPL. A few weeks ago came his latest attempt (as reported in Bangor and Portland), which involves dissolving BPL, and moving management of the Public Reserved Lands to the Maine Forest Service– an agency that is primarily concerned with logging on private lands, not recreation on public lands. Practically everyone sees this as a veiled attempt to cut more trees for short-term economic gain.

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

The reaction to the governor’s plan hasn’t been particularly positive (editorials in the Bangor Daily and Free Press, testimony by Natural Resources Council of Maine, and some backlash in Augusta), but the fight continues. There’s a lot of quick money in resource extraction and real estate development, while the economic benefit of recreation on public land is a bit harder to measure, so short-sighted politicians often see public land as a pile of cash being squandered by whiny environmentalists.

The Appalachian Trail touches five Public Reserved Lands (Mahoosuc, Four Ponds, Bigelow, Abraham, and Nahmakanta), which means over a thousand through-hikers each year visit these lands, not to mention various section hikers. More importantly, there are millions of tourists who come to Maine each year, most of whom spend at least some of their time enjoying the great outdoors. Whenever I meet someone from away, I hope they come to love the land as much as I do, and even come back again and again because of it. It’s harder to imagine that person seeing Maine as such a special place if the balance between conservation and resource extraction tips too far away from conservation.

Edit: I’ll post some articles about how the issue progresses as they come in.
3/23/15: A well-balanced article from the Portland Press Herald that highlights the history of BPL, the varied opposition to the plan, the governor’s plan for where the increased revenue would go, and his strong-arming tactics for getting a widely unpopular plan into effect.
4/4/15: Maine Legislature’s Agriculture Committee almost unanimously rejected the proposal in a bipartisan vote (the full legislature still has to vote on the proposal, but this is a good indication of where the proposal belongs). According to the committee chair, “We didn’t get any emails, calls, letters from anyone in the state who supported it… Every correspondence we received was opposed to it.”
4/16/15: The legislative committee gave a resounding and nearly unanimous NO to LePage’s proposal, and even added some extra rules to make his plans less likely to succeed.

Last week, some old Appalachian Trail buddies went to the east end of the Bigelow Range to put on their annual Maine Trail Magic hiker feed, which has been yearly event for them since 1998. Mad Mike, whom I met on the AT in 2010, and his friends, Hydro and Fig, camp out at East Flagstaff Road on the AT from the Wednesday after Labor Day to the Sunday, feeding hikers as much food as they can, and generally enjoying some great company. This was my first time at the hiker feed, which Mike has been trying to get me to attend for three years now.

Hikers loading up on burgers and snacks.

Hikers loading up on burgers and snacks.

I showed up after my hike on Cranberry Mountain, late in the day but still early enough to enjoy the beautiful drive through remote Maine forests. I had been here before, when skiing on the Maine Huts trail network, but never without snow. While driving in on the Long Falls Dam Road, I got a very solid appreciation for how remote the area really is. I wonder if all the AT hikers here noticed that, too. In many ways, this area is more remote than even the 100 Mile Wilderness, since east of the Bigelow Range there are no major features that draw in large numbers of adventurous day hikers, and this area isn’t on any backpacker bucket-list.

The view from my campsite, at the east end of Flagstaff Lake.

The view from my campsite, at the east end of Flagstaff Lake.

The old gravel pit where the hiker feed was set up, which had been converted into a campsite by the Maine Forest Service as part of the Bigelow Preserve, was hopping with activity when I arrived. Hydro had brought a trailer full of food, tables, chairs, and a pavilion, making a little outpost for hikers. There were at least half a dozen through-hikers seated around the tables and the campfire, with Mad Mike grilling burgers and Hydro making sure everyone had plenty of drinks and junk food. More hikers showed up as the day drew on, most of them setting up camp in the area to take advantage of the dinner and breakfast combo.

Fig, Mad Mike, and Hydro manning the grill.

Fig, Mad Mike, and Hydro. Grumpy old fahts manning the grill.

Friday night, my first night there, we had about fifteen through-hikers camped at the gravel pit. It seemed very busy to me. Mike mentioned that they’d had their busiest year so far, so at least I wasn’t the only one noticing the trend. Most of the company was fantastic, though. I met a few hikers who had used my apps, and listened to their experiences, as well as just listening to stories from the trail as a whole. Sometimes as I hike, I only see the numbers of people and get distraught at how crowded the trail becomes, but at times like this, when I can sit down and relax with a group, I can get over that and just enjoy the company of individuals.

River Song and Bittergoat packing up after a big breakfast.

River Song and Bittergoat packing up after a big breakfast.

The big numbers of hikers this year, it turns out, are a measurable change from previous years. Mike and company had kept track of the number of hikers stopping by their trail magic setup (all hikers stop there, since it’s directly on the trail and irresistible). 2012 had been a record high with 50 hikers stopping in. 2013 is now the record high with 65 hikers. That’s a 30% increase over last year’s high water mark, and who knows what it will be next year– although you can bet the numbers won’t be going down. With all the hiking I’d done this summer on the AT, I had been distressed by the sheer numbers of people on the trail, and after last weekend I finally see that it’s not my imagination.

The last round of through-hikers helped pack everything up by noon on Sunday.

The last round of through-hikers helped pack everything up by noon on Sunday.

Regardless of how you see the crowds, it was a wonderful weekend. Nice, cold nights; clear skies day and night; relaxing days in camp; and bit of that feeling of community with the hikers. When Sunday morning rolled around, we cooked up lunch for the last few hikers to pass through, then dismantled the entire campsite, packing it all into Hydro’s trailer over the course of the last hour of the morning. By noon, the only sign we’d been there was a wet spot on the ground where we’d dumped some ice from a cooler. And then I was on my way back home, looking forward to hearing from some of my new friends when they reached Katahdin in a few weeks.

Life has gotten in the way of hiking and blogging recently, leaving me tired and pretty stressed out. Luckily, one of my Appalachian Trail buddies, Mad Mike, had invited me to join him at the Bigelow Range near Stratton, Maine. He and a few of his friends put on a large hiker feast for the weekend every year, and this would be my first time attending. But first, I had to stretch out my legs. I decided on Cranberry Mountain, the smallest of four peaks in the Bigelow Range, and the only one not traversed by the AT.

A beaver pond along the AT, fine scenery on such a gorgeous day.

A beaver pond along the AT, fine scenery on such a gorgeous day.

While the previous weekend had the holiday, this weekend had the fine weather– definitely the better deal. I started hiking at the Appalachian Trail where it crosses Maine Route 27, under clear skies and the coolest temperatures we’ve had since the spring. There had even been a frost the night before, a sure sign of the coming end of the season. So as I set off on the trail, the sun and cold air made for some of the best hiking conditions I could have asked for.

Cranberry Pond, with Cranberry Peak looming in the background.

Cranberry Pond, with Cranberry Peak looming in the background.

After running into two through-hikers at Cranberry Stream, I quickly diverged from the Appalachian Trail and headed to Cranberry Pond. I’d been on this stretch of trail once before, five years ago, but I remembered Cranberry Pond being a swampy beaver bog. Memories are often very wrong, and this was definitely the case here. The pond, like The Horns Pond nearby, is a gorgeous glacial pond, nestled in the dense forest between Cranberry Mountain and the ridge near the Horns. There was a group of locals enjoying the shore, but otherwise it was totally tranquil. I can imagine this must be a popular spot for adventurous anglers, but I would be surprised if AT hikers ever saw this little patch of paradise.

For the next mile and a half from the pond to the peak, the trail was in much better shape than I remembered, passing through deep, dark coniferous forests, replete with jagged boulders and thick beds of moss. Most of what I love about the Bigelow Range, and Maine hiking in general, was on fine display in the area. There were even a few ginormous glacial erratics alongside the trail, a good reminder of just how small I am compared to the mountains up here.

Looking back on Cranberry Pond and The Horns from Cranberry Peak.

Looking back on Cranberry Pond and The Horns from Cranberry Peak.

I arrived at the summit to find a few other day hikers, and a beautiful, clear view down to Flagstaff Lake. Sugarloaf, the Crocker Range, the Horns, and dozens of other, smaller mountains made up the horizon– I could even pick out Pleasant Pond Mountain, fifty AT miles to the northeast. There was a bit of haze in the distance, so I couldn’t see Katahdin, but that’s hardly something to complain about. The brisk wind at the summit was actually cold enough to make me put on a jacket, which is something I haven’t had to do in quite a while. It seems summer is drawing to a close.

The classic view to Flagstaff Lake, this time with Stratton on the shore.

The classic view to Flagstaff Lake, this time with Stratton on the shore.

The hike down from Cranberry Peak was fairly easy compared to the rest of the Bigelow Range, although certainly not a walk in the park. I’m sure plenty of day hikers come out to visit this mountain, which is very nicely situated just above the town of Stratton, but it still felt like I was discovering something new. Aside from the small group at the summit, and the other group at the pond, I saw no one on the trail. It’s easy to lose myself in thought while wandering along the trail with no one to draw my attention, and it’s wonderfully meditative. This is exactly what I needed after the past few weeks.

On the way down from Cranberry Peak, a last look at some folks milling about up top.

On the way down from Cranberry Peak, a last look at some folks milling about up top.

The day finished with a short hitchhike back to my car, and then a drive to the other end of the Bigelow Range, where I met Mad Mike, Hydro, and Fig at their annual Maine Trail Magic hiker feast. There’s more to say about that in another day or so. All in all, this was yet another glorious hike on one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the state. Another reminder of why this is my favorite state for hiking.

On Monday, my mom and I took a trip to the Bigelow Range near Stratton, Maine, for a long day hike on the Fire Warden’s Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Horns Pond Trail. There had been a fairly long stretch of cool, clear weather in the past few weeks, so peeling myself away from the computer was certainly in order. Despite traversing the range three times on the AT, I’d never been on the Bigelows for a day hike before, which meant much of the day’s hike would be new territory for me.

Stratton Brook Pond and Sugarloaf Mountain from the beginning of the hike.

Stratton Brook Pond and Sugarloaf Mountain from the beginning of the hike.

We arrived with an early start at the Stratton Brook trailhead and made quick work of the first few miles. We passed the beautiful, tranquil Stratton Brook Pond near the beginning, a small pond with lots of marshy wetlands surrounding it. I was a little surprised to be walking on mellow, low-grade trail for the first few miles. The trail was still an old road at this point, with a nice view into the wetland— no moose or other wildlife, but a peaceful and pretty scene anyway.

Reaching the summit of West Peak, with Avery Peak and Flagstaff Lake in the background.

Reaching the summit of West Peak, with Avery Peak and Flagstaff Lake in the background.

Soon, the Fire Warden’s trail began to climb more steeply, increasing in grade little by little. Still, it wasn’t nearly as steep as much of the AT in the Bigelow Preserve. Once we got to the real climb, I was happy to see that the Maine Appalachian Trail Club had installed one of their endless stairways. MATC is well known (or should be, if not) for their incredible stonework on steep trails, where they often spend five to ten years at a time building a single stairway to fix the major erosion on the old trails. Judging by the moss on these steps, they had been in place for several years already. I didn’t measure the distance, but I’d guess the stairway was close to half a mile long, with close to 500 feet of elevation gain.

I will never tire of the view of Flagstaff Lake from either of Bigelow's peaks.

I will never tire of the view of Flagstaff Lake from either of Bigelow’s peaks.

Soon after arriving at the Appalachian Trail between the two peaks of Bigelow Mountain, we ran into the MATC caretaker for the Horns Pond Campsite. He was on his way to the Bigelow Col campsite, where the Fire Warden’s Trail reaches the AT and where the fire warden lived until fire watchtowers became obsolete in the 1970s. We had a nice chat with Ian, the caretaker, about the entertaining (and sometimes frustrating) life of an AT caretaker. Today, he was doing a cleanup trip to the Bigelow Col campsite to haul out a load of trash that had been buried by the fire wardens– apparently, from 1905 to 1975 the accepted practice had been to leave trash in a pile in the woods (this was also accepted practice for hikers for most of that time period as well!), so Ian had taken it upon himself to pack out hundreds of pounds of trash during the summer, on top of his usual work load.

Looking down from South Horn onto Horns Pond and Cranberry Peak.

Looking down from South Horn onto Horns Pond and Cranberry Peak.

We decided to only climb one of the two peaks, since we weren’t sure how long the rest of the hike would take, so we quickly arrived at West Peak and found a wind-shaded spot for lunch. The climb up the south side of the mountain had been hot and hazy, but once we crested the mountain, a blustering north wind brought the temperatures right down to an autumn-like chill. There was still plenty of haze, but it’s impossible to diminish the amazing views from the Bigelow Range. If you’ve never been there, I can’t recommend it enough.

The cliffs on Horns Pond. It was a little too cold for a swim today at 3000 feet.

The cliffs on Horns Pond. It was a little too cold for a swim today at 3000 feet.

After lunch, we traversed three miles of Appalachian Trail from West Peak to the Horns Pond along the high ridge line. In those three miles, we crossed paths with over a dozen through-hikers, but only four section- and day-hikers. The through-hikers were mostly in high spirits, having just crossed the 2000-mile mark on one of the last major mountains of the trail in good weather. Amusingly, of the rest of the hiking crowd, I was the only day-hiker below the age of 60. One of the section-hikers was over 70, and nearly finished with his section hike of the entire AT. Mom, who is a very active 62, was very entertained by the age spread.

A little marsh beside Horns Pond Trail had a nice view up to South Horn.

A little marsh beside Horns Pond Trail had a nice view up to South Horn.

The climbs down from West Peak, back up to South Horn, and down to Horns Pond, were rugged and steep as I’d remembered from my previous hikes. We moved slowly and steadily, enjoying the high elevation spruce and fir forest, the crisp air and chilly wind, and the tremendous views from the peaks. Once down to Horns Pond, we stopped for a quick break with a view of the pond, then got ready for a long descent back to the car. But we were in for a pleasant surprise– the descent from Horns Pond to Stratton Brook was unusually mellow, with a pretty low-intensity descent through more beautiful forest and a few nice views and mountain brooks to cross.

Back down at Stratton Brook, a nice view up to the twin peaks of Bigelow Mountain.

Back down at Stratton Brook, a nice view up to the twin peaks of Bigelow Mountain.

I’d never been up the Fire Warden’s Trail and Horns Pond Trail to the Bigelow Range before, but I must say it was a really lovely hike. It wasn’t exactly easy, but definitely not as hard as the traverse of the full range on the AT. For day-hikers, I’d highly recommend this loop, with the steep climb up to the col in the morning and an easier descent via Horns Pond Trail in the afternoon. Here is a link to detailed directions at MaineTrailFinder.com, which is the best online resource for hikers in Maine.

On the morning of May 29, I left the computer and my house to get away and clear my mind for a few weeks. In the past several weeks since getting home from the backpacking trip in New Jersey through Massachusetts, I’d been programming like a madman, going through map info, studying different programming languages, and generally overworking myself. It was well past time for another hike. 200 miles of Appalachian Trail in Maine should do the trick.

Day 1: Big Rivers
My mom dropped me off at the AT crossing near Monson, the skies clear and hazy despite the 80% forecast for rain. I moved quickly south, trying to make time before the rain came. The clouds and rain moved in, but luckily the entire day was in low elevations, below trees and alongside rivers and ponds. Things were mostly uneventful until the Piscataquis River.

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With almost two weeks of rain prior, the ford of the East Branch was deeper than I remembered, up to my crotch. Later, the West Branch was downright scary, coming up to my waist and nearly blowing me over. Bald Mountain Stream wasn’t so deep, but it was powerful and swollen with fresh rainwater. Add Marble Brook, and I forded four very gnarly rivers– more than I remember from last time I was here.

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I did manage to see a moose crossing the river, although didn’t get a photo. And I saw the first thru-hiker of the season, a Brit who’d started in January. Must have been a cold and lonely hike, but a heck of an adventure. He’s the only person I saw today, and I’m camping alone at Bald Mountain Pond Lean-to. In bed by 8, with the rain coming down outside!

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Day 2: Big Little Mountains
The rain finally hit in the middle of the night, then the early morning sun turned all that water into thick, steamy haze. The initial climb up to Moxie Bald Mountain was disgustingly humid, but the wet leaves and moss glowed like magic. Then the clearing fog on Moxie Bald added some more to the ambiance.

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The day’s hike over Moxie Bald and Pleasant Pond mountains is one of my favorites of the entire AT. Three small mountains (counting Moxie’s north peak, which is the best and least visited of the three), none higher than 2700 feet, but they are all rugged climbs with amazing views. The scenery is classic northern Maine, with deep forest as far as the eye can see, and scarcely any sign of humanity. Speaking of which, I’ve seen only three people in the past two days– two hikers and one passing car on a dirt road. Not many places where that happens on the AT.

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The black flies and mosquitoes are out in force, now. I guess that was inevitable. At least they can’t seem to keep up with me while I’m hiking, so there’s an extra excuse to keep moving.

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Day 3: Lots of Water
It seemed like it would be an easy day, with no major climbs and no significant elevation change, but the trail can be tricky that way. The first part of the day was a part I always forget, the walk down to the Kennebec River, but it’s six miles of trail, which is never a small thing. Even though it was almost all downhill, the rocky, rooty trail never gives you an easy step.

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After taking the ferry across the Kennebec (one of the most unique experiences on the AT), came a long walk along Pierce Pond Stream. The stream was still very swollen from the weeks of rain earlier this month. The waterfalls near the trail were so powerful, it was scary to be anywhere near them. The strength of the rivers and streams here is pretty astonishing.

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The rest of the day wound around big ponds (Pierce Pond and East and West Carry Ponds), separated by deep, remote forest. The ferryman said he thinks this section is wilder than anything in the 100 Mile Wilderness, and I’m inclined to agree. I crossed a few logging roads along the way, but otherwise it was just the forest and me, with not even a whisper of humanity around.

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Day 4: The Bigelows
The black flies and mosquitoes were joined by noseeums in the night, so once I awoke I had to get moving fast. On the trail by 5:30, and on my way to Flagstaff Lake. I crossed a few of the trails of the Maine Huts system, reminding me I’ll have to come back here again soon.

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Clear skies in the morning gave way to passing showers in the afternoon, but I still had some fine views from the peaks along the way. The AT in the Bigelow Preserve is one of the most spectacular sections of trail anywhere, not to mention one of the most difficult. The steep climbs and the rocky mountains slow down even the hardiest hikers, even without the day’s sweltering heat and humidity. I could have done without the last bit, but the mountains themselves never disappoint.

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My intended goal for the night, the Horns Pond campsite, was positively crowded (three people, plus the caretaker), and would have made for a great night’s stay, but I had visions of a stay in town in my head. I’ll have to come back to this campsite sometime soon– great hikes and views all around, and apparently great fishing in the pond. For now, though, I hurried down the AT and got a ride into Stratton, one of my favorite trail towns. Of course, hurrying through this area is a bit shameful, with how gorgeous everything is, but I’ll try to make it up by coming back later in the summer. For now, my feet could use a day off.