hiking

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Last week I had an opportunity to visit a place that is often regarded as one of the highlights of Maine’s public lands. It wasn’t Acadia, with the National Park and massive tourism infrastructure. It wasn’t Baxter State Park, with the state’s high point and the end of the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t even within a hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail. And I’d venture to say that most hikers who come to visit Maine have never heard of the Cutler Coast. Their loss. This was one of the most wonderful hikes I’ve been on.

Cutler Coast's trail system. The red dot on the inset shows the location of the trail area.

Cutler Coast’s trail system. The red dot on the inset shows the location of the trail area.

The Inland Trail passes beaver ponds and grassy wetlands as well as the dense forest.

The Inland Trail passes beaver ponds and grassy wetlands as well as the dense forest.

Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land is part of the Bold Coast region, which is the easternmost part of the Maine coast near New Brunswick. The Public Reserved Land unit was created 25 years ago and seems to have quickly become a poster-child for the system. In almost all of the recent news articles about the Public Reserved Land system in Maine, Cutler is one of the two land units mentioned as examples, the other being the Bigelow Range, which any Appalachian Trail hiker will tell you is one of the finest places on the AT. Both of these preserves have deep, primeval forests, and relatively quiet hiking trails, but while the Bigelows showcase some of the best that Maine’s inland mountains and lakes have to offer, Cutler shows off the beauty of the rugged coastline.

Rugged inland terrain.

Rugged inland terrain.

Primeval forests of northern Maine.

Primeval forests of northern Maine.

My friends, Angela and Ryan (yes, another Ryan), took a vacation to Acadia last week and finished the trip by heading to Cutler for a one-night backpacking trip. I’d been excited to see this area for years, so I jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant driving 4.5 hours each way for a ten mile hike. So after driving to what many people would consider the end of the world, and then continuing two more hours into the land of blueberry fields (according to Wikipedia, Maine produces 25% of all blueberries in North America, and most of them are from right here in Washington County), we arrived at a very well-maintained trailhead and began our hike.

Day one consisted of the Inland Trail portion of the loop, walking through deep forest and along coastal marshlands. It’s still early spring here, so the leaves were missing and the grass was brown, but that barely diminished the beauty in the area. And even though the trail walks along coastal terrain with no mountains, this was no easy walking– Maine’s forest floor is a jumble of rocks, roots, and moss, keeping you on your toes even in the flattest terrain.

We arrived at the three campsites on Fairy Head, all totally deserted on this mid-week evening, and chose what I think is the easternmost backcountry campsite in the continental US. Each of the campsites here looks out over the Bay of Fundy, the ocean crashing against the rocks just below. We were lulled to sleep by the sounds of the ocean, with a cool breeze coming off the sea. In the morning, I listened to loons and lobster boats in the pre-dawn hour, then watched the sun rise while I rested under my tarp. I haven’t had such a restful sleep in months.

Sunrise over Grand Manan from our campsite.

Sunrise over Grand Manan from our campsite.

Sunrise striking the Bold Coast.

Sunrise striking the Bold Coast.

After a long and leisurely time breaking camp, we walked the Coastal Trail. Again, it was only a short hike on “flat” terrain, but we barely broke one mile per hour. The jagged rocks of the coast require plenty of concentration to walk along without hurting yourself, but the sheer abundance of scenery slowed us down just as much. Cobblestone beaches, sixty-foot cliffs down to the crashing waves, jagged rock formations rising out of the water– we all agreed we could spend weeks here without getting bored.

I’ll let the pictures do the last of the talking, but first I’ll leave you with this thought– Maine’s Public Reserved Lands are managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which is in danger of being dissolved and the lands given over to an agency primarily devoted to logging rather than a mix of logging and recreation, entirely because of heavy-handed politics. The reaction to this plan from both sides of the political spectrum has been resoundingly negative, showing just how beloved the agency and the land it manages is to Mainers. I’ve written about this, and I’ll continue to update that post as the story progresses. Let this serve as a reminder, wherever you are, the public lands that are a benefit to all of us are also in need of constant protection. Visit them often, love them, and take care of them.

Cobblestone beach at Black Point Cove.

Cobblestone beach at Black Point Cove.

Ryan standing on the cliffs next to our campsite.

Ryan standing on the cliffs next to our campsite.

The trail along the coast.

The trail along the coast.

Hiking through another cobblestone beach at Long Point Cove.

Hiking through another cobblestone beach at Long Point Cove.

After leaving Black Point Cove, we climb the cliffs over it.

After leaving Black Point Cove, we climb the cliffs over it.

Rock formations in an unnamed cove.

Rock formations in an unnamed cove.

More clifftop walking over coves and ocean.

More clifftop walking over coves and ocean.

Many inaccessible coves at the bottom of high cliffs.

Many inaccessible coves at the bottom of high cliffs.

The closest overlook to the parking area, with dizzying drops on either side into the ocean.

The closest overlook to the parking area, with dizzying drops on either side into the ocean.

Last year, I found a forum thread on Whiteblaze with a debate about “what is the steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail?” I thought about it for a while, then decided I might use my elevation profile data for the AT, plus my programming knowledge, to analyze the climbs of the AT to come up with a good estimate of what really is the steepest part of the Appalachian Trail.

My method for measuring the steepest climbs requires a little bit of explanation: the program broke the trail down into 0.5 mile segments (initially 1.0 miles, but I decided 0.5 would give better results), including overlapping segments (0.0 to 0.5, 0.1 to 0.6, 0.2 to 0.7, etc.). It first sorted through all segments to find the largest elevation change in any segment, then discarded any overlapping segments (if 2.0 to 2.5 was steeper than 2.2 to 2.7, the latter was discarded). Shortening the length of a measured segment might provide a more accurate measure of the absolutely steepest climbs, but I had to make a cut-off somewhere, since if we looked only at 0.1 mile segments we might just find flukes in the elevation data, like a single ladder that climbs over a boulder.

More recently, I applied the same measure to the PCT as a fun way to compare the two trails. Obviously, the steepness of the two trails doesn’t entirely reflect the challenges, but it’s fun to look at. Also, since my apps have the same vertical exaggeration for all elevation profiles, we can look at the profile of the AT and PCT and really see how they compare.

Here are the results:
Edit: Bobcat requested I run the numbers for the CDT as well, so I’ve added them as of 1/6/2015. The Overall gain/loss is calculated only with the CDT Proper, while the steepest climbs include the various alternate routes as mapped by Bear Creek Survey.
Overall elevation gain/loss on Appalachian Trail: 917,760′ over 2185.3 mi (avg: 420’/mi)
Overall elevation gain/loss on Pacific Crest Trail: 824,370′ over 2668.8 mi (avg: 309’/mi).
Overall elevation gain/loss on Continental Divide Trail: 917,470′ over 3029.3 mi (avg: 303’/mi).

Fifth Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #5: Mono Creek toward Silver Pass (a section of 550' in 0.6 mi)

PCT #5: Mono Creek toward Silver Pass (a section of 550′ in 0.6 mi)

AT #5: O Joy Brook to the Tableland on Katahdin (2100' in 1.4 mi, with a 860' climb in 0.5 mi)

AT #5: O Joy Brook to the Tableland on Katahdin (2100′ in 1.4 mi, with a 860′ climb in 0.5 mi)

CDT #5: The climb to Grays Peak Summit in CO (about 800' in 0.8 mi)

CDT #5: The climb to Grays Peak Summit in CO (about 800′ in 0.8 mi)

Fourth Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #4: Descent from Smedberg Lake (725' in 0.9 mi)

PCT #4: Descent from Smedberg Lake (725′ in 0.9 mi)

AT #4: Mt Garfield's North Shoulder (970' in 0.6 mi)

AT #4: Mt Garfield’s North Shoulder (970′ in 0.6 mi)

CDT #4: The descent from Knapsack Col in the Knapsack Col alternate (1400' in 1.3 mi)

CDT #4: The descent from Knapsack Col in the Knapsack Col alternate (1400′ in 1.3 mi)

Third Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #3: Descent into Stubblefield Canyon (900' in 1 mi)

PCT #3: Descent into Stubblefield Canyon (900′ in 1 mi)

AT #3: Galehead Hut to South Twin (1130' in 0.8 mi, with about 900' in only 0.5 mi)

AT #3: Galehead Hut to South Twin (1130′ in 0.8 mi, with about 900′ in 0.5 mi)

CDT #3: The climb to South Peak on Columbus Gila alternate (1900' in 1.8 mi)

CDT #3: The climb to South Peak on Columbus Gila alternate (1900′ in 1.8 mi)

Second Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #2: Near Surprise Creek, WA (about 700' in 0.6 mi)

PCT #2: Near Surprise Creek, WA (about 700′ in 0.6 mi)

AT #2: Asquam Ridge to Kinsman Notch (2200' in 1.7 mi, with one 930' climb in 0.5 mi)

AT #2: Beaver Brook Shelter to Kinsman Notch (2200′ in 1.7 mi, with one 930′ climb in 0.5 mi)

CDT #2: The descent from Temple Pass to Temple Lake on Cirque of the Towers alternate (900' in 0.6 mi)

CDT #2: The descent from Temple Pass to Temple Lake on Cirque of the Towers alternate (900′ in 0.6 mi)

Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #1: Old Snowy Mountain (about 700' in 0.6 mi)

PCT #1: Old Snowy Mountain (about 700′ in 0.6 mi)

AT #1: Pinkham Notch to Wildcat E (2000' in 1.5 miles, with one 1000' climb in 0.5 mile)

AT #1: Pinkham Notch to Wildcat E (2000′ in 1.5 miles, with one 1000′ climb in 0.5 mile)

CDT #1: The climb to Parkview Mountain in CO (1400' in 1.1 mi)

CDT #1: The climb to Parkview Mountain in CO (1400′ in 1.1 mi)

Here is my original response on Whiteblaze with more detailed AT results.

What are your reactions to this silliness?

My childhood friend, Jeremy, was back in Maine for a long weekend, so we decided to bring back an old tradition– “Let’s do something stupid.” Jeremy and I have a long history of coming up with hiking plans that are way too ambitious, and failing spectacularly. The plan I came up with this time was to walk from the village green of Bar Harbor to the marina in Northeast Harbor, summiting each of the six 1000-foot peaks in between (about 18 miles of rugged, rocky, steep trail).

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it's not so green right now.

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it’s not so green right now.

We probably could have succeeded handily if not for the snow that fell on Friday, but November is a rough time for hiking in New England; you never know exactly what you’ll get for conditions. On Saturday morning, as I got in my car in Belfast (only 40 miles from Bar Harbor) there was a dusting of snow left on the ground. But those few miles made a big difference in snow levels, with up to six inches in some places by the time I arrived on the island. Neither Jeremy nor I was prepared for serious snow, but we figured we’d give it a shot anyway.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

After about three miles on roads from downtown Bar Harbor to the Orange & Black Path, we started wading through the snow in earnest. By stepping carefully, we were able to climb at a decent pace onto Champlain Mountain, with only a few detours off trail since blazes and cairns were buried. We also had to make a few slight adjustments to the trail since Kacey, my parents’ dog, was along (this was a last minute decision, since she had insisted on joining us. She’s a mighty resilient animal, but slick ice on steep rock can be tricky for her). By the time we arrived at the summit of Champlain, it was already 11 AM, which didn’t bode so well for our 18-mile challenge.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren't just staying indoors by the fire today.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren’t just staying indoors by the fire today.

As we walked across the summit in the snow, I heard Jeremy say “I think we lost a dog”. I turned around and saw that there was a hole in the snow where Kacey had been. Uh oh! The snow had been deep enough to cover a six-foot deep crevice like an old-school booby trap, and Kacey had vanished without a sound. When I looked down in to see her staring bug-eyed up at me, she seemed more confused than hurt (“what the hell happened?”), which was a good sign. I threw off my pack and squeezed down into the hole to wrestle her out while Jeremy lifted from the top. The whole process took about five minutes, after which Kacey did a little sprint around the summit, almost falling into the pit again, but ultimately calming down after a big handful of treats.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

We continued down Champlain Mountain by the Beachcroft Trail, which took longer to descend than our ascent from the east side of the mountain, owing to slick, wet snow. By the time we arrived at The Tarn between Champlain and Dorr, it was clear we probably wouldn’t hit all six summits, but we still might walk to Northeast Harbor and at least get to two more summits. The temperature was on the rise, though there was still plenty of snow. The ascent along the Schiff Path turned out to be much easier than either the ascent or descent of Champlain Mountain, so our optimism came back once again.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

The gorge between Dorr Mountain and Cadillac Mountain is pretty shallow, so it was a quick descent from Dorr, though still pretty tricky. With many steep, rocky sections still covered in deep snow, we had to lead Kacey around in several places where in summer she could have easily leaped from rock to rock. It was still fairly early in the day when we reached the bottom, then made our way to the ascent. Not more than a hundred feet into the climb, however, we were thwarted by a heavily snow-covered boulder field. There was no good way around for Kacey to get up, and we decided that this would be our last good opportunity to bail out and walk back to Bar Harbor.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

So out we walked via the Gorge Trail, not the least bit disappointed in only completing two of the intended six summits. We still ended up with ten miles of hiking through deeper snow than anticipated, and fully succeeded in our goal of trying to do something stupid. And we could be happy in the knowledge that we would have made the goal easily if not for the snow conditions. No loss of pride, no damage to reputation, no serious injury. I’d say that’s a good outcome all around.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.

A recent conversation with fellow Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador, Wired, reminded me of a major reason why I love the Appalachian Trail (and most hiking in the Northeast) so much. “This is the most relaxed trail I’ve done,” she said.

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The past few days on the southern section of the Appalachian Trail have been a perfect example of how relaxing the trail is. Joe and I started at Watauga Lake on Tuesday, forty miles south of Damascus, VA, and promptly started chewing up the miles. But we weren’t keeping a frantic pace– instead, the soft tread and gentle grades of the southern trail lent themselves to a mellow, steady walking pace. We just cruised along through the lush Appalachian forest, soaking in the sounds and smells of nature.

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Two major factors combine to make the AT so relaxing for me. The first is the ease of navigation– since the trail is so well marked and well travelled, it’s almost impossible to lose your way if you pay attention just a little bit. The second factor is the feeling of remoteness, and being away from people. You may be thinking, “the AT isn’t remote, and it’s totally crowded!” In many ways that’s true, but the illusion is just as important. The trail over the last few days stayed up on a ridge and only crossed a few mountain roads. And even though we passed dozens of hikers throughout the days, I was alone on the trail almost the entire time. Between meets with other hikers, there was plenty of time for me to be lost in my thoughts and to enjoy the dense forest around me.

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The crowds grew as we approached Damascus, until we ended up at a campsite with more than forty people on the last night before arriving in town. That many people packed onto the trail in one place killed the relaxation for me, but in the morning it was back to a calm walk in the woods again, as I saw only a handful of hikers on the trail. I’m sure in the next few weeks there will be plenty of crowding along the trail, and less time for me to be lost in my thoughts, but I’m pretty sure it will still be enough.

With the snow in the northern mountains disappearing into slush, I headed south and west to find dry, low elevation hiking last weekend. The trails were far from dry, but they were more than adequate to test out my legs on some long backpacking in preparation for this summer’s AT hike. So on Thursday night, I drove to western Massachusetts and camped at the Falls Brook Shelter on the Tully Trail, aiming to hike the entire 22-mile loop on Friday.

A dizzying drop into Royalston Falls.

A dizzying drop into Royalston Falls.

The Tully Trail was almost entirely new territory for me– for about a mile and a half it coincides with the New England Trail, which I’d hiked five years ago, but that short distance was fairly uneventful, aside from stopping at the same lean-to. The rest of the trail circles around Tully Lake and a few low mountains, stopping to admire several of the Trustees Of Reservations’ fine natural areas.

Moss and ice at Falls Brook.

Moss and ice at Falls Brook.

The first of these, on Friday morning with ice still forming in my water bottle, was Royalston Falls, a downright scary-looking waterfall flowing down a gorge not far from the shelter. The falls are less than a mile from the northern parking area for the Tully Trail, so they seem to be a fairly popular spot to visit. But the Tully Trail is in what may be the most remote corner of Massachusetts. Look at the area on the map, and you won’t see much of anything but forest, which is just the way I like it.

The trail continued along Falls Brook through deep, dark evergreens, until coming out onto old woods roads through more remote forests. Much of the trail for the day was re-purposed woods roads, probably from pre-19th century homesteading and logging. The trail is relatively flat compared to more mountainous regions, but the trail has its own set of challenges. As I soon discovered, several areas along the trail were partially flooded, making dry hiking nearly impossible. At 9 AM, before the crust of ice had melted from many puddles, I had to wade through ankle-deep flooding near a beaver bog. I guess it’s never too early in the season to hike with wet feet.

From The Ledges, looking out at Tully Mountain and Tully Lake.

From The Ledges, looking out at Tully Mountain and Tully Lake.

The next Reservation in the Trustees’ Easter basket was Jacob’s Hill, with two viewpoints across the Tully River valley, and another tall waterfall. By this point I’d hiked more than ten miles and seen not a soul, though the views from Jacob’s Hill and The Ledges looked out over miles of forest and wetland. Aside from the dam on Tully Lake, and a bench at The Ledges, there were no signs of humanity at all. This kind of wilderness isn’t something I usually imagine in Massachusetts, but if you search hard enough, you can find it.

Spirit Falls coming down from Jacob's Hill.

Spirit Falls coming down from Jacob’s Hill.

More woods roads eventually brought me to Tully Lake Campground, and around the lake itself. I ran into my first people of the day there, a few of the campground staff working on getting the area ready for summer crowds. The lake is surrounded by recreational opportunities, with the campground, a picnic area, and boat launches, but on a weekday before the full season begins, it was a quiet as could be. I chatted for a bit with some of the campground staff before moving along the lakeside, imagining an easy part of the walk.

The trail around Tully Lake was a little wet.

The trail around Tully Lake was a little wet.

Instead, I found that much of the lake had flooded, submerging large sections of the trail around it to near waist-depth. As my feet were just beginning to dry, I opted not to wade. Instead I had to bushwhack, road walk, and rock hop around some flooded areas. So much for easy walking.

More flooded trail thanks to the beavers.

More flooded trail thanks to the beavers.

The last big scenery for the day came atop Tully Mountain, with a small cliff overlooking the valley below. I couldn’t quite pick out Jacob’s Hill, where I’d been earlier in the morning, but it was definitely out there. Tully Lake was easier to see, as was Monadnock, striking an imposing figure on the northern horizon. When viewed from any of the low mountains in the region, Monadnock is absolutely awe-inspiring. These mountains have a pastoral charm to them, but the rocky top standing above southwestern New Hampshire is every bit as rugged as the high peaks of the north.

Tully Mountain, looking down at the Tully River valley.

Tully Mountain, looking down at the Tully River valley.

The last ten miles of the day were quiet and uneventful, with more walks along old woods roads, gushing brooks, and forested hills. Part of this hike was meant as a wake-up call for my body as I prepare for a much longer hike in May and June. According to my GPS, the day’s tally was just over 28 miles after taking side trails and backtracking into account. I felt surprisingly good after that mileage, the longest day I’d hiked since early last summer, but I promptly fell asleep at 8 PM back at the lean-to. There were a few other people there that night, but I was out cold.

Another gorgeous brook through deep forest.

Another gorgeous brook through deep forest.

For most people, I’d recommend doing the trip in two halves, starting from Tully Lake Campground, hiking to the Falls Brook shelter on the first day, then back to the campground on the second day, since the shelter and campsite almost perfectly split the trip into two halves.