It was Day 200 on the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT) when I walked into Maine, my sixteenth and last state before entering Canada. Since a storm had moved in, Pipes and I took refuge at the Carlo Col shelter situated less than a mile past the state line. Derobing out of my water-drenched mint-green Columbia Tamani shirt and Patagonia baggies, I began to hang up all of my sopping wet gear on the wood pegs that had been driven into the log walls. Although I was cold and uncomfortable that first night in Maine, there was much excitement and relief having made it so far. The trail in southern Maine is filled with geological hurdles. Located at unusually steep grades were these cleverly built “chutes and ladders” that aid the hiker in making extreme drops over short distances. The most noticeable innovation on the trail in Maine was what might be termed the “chicken run ramp.” It’s basically a modified bog bridge in which wood boards slope downward to accommodate the hilly terrain. Cleats were nailed to the planks such that hikers could gain traction on an otherwise slippery surface.
The most technical part of southern Maine was Mahoosuc Notch—a one-mile section of trail that winds around, over, and under a maze of asteroid-sized boulders at the bottom of a deep cleft between Fulling Mill Mountain and Mahoosuc Mountain. Since there is much scrambling and rock-hopping, a hiker’s pace is drastically reduced. Mahoosuc Notch is appropriately called “the toughest mile.” There are numerous ten-foot drops, and; in five different places, I had to remove my pack and crawl on all fours beneath the gigantic boulders. Often I was on my knees crawling around as if in a cave, dragging my pack that weighed an embarrassing fifty-three pounds! Due to the sheer precipices above and deficiency of sunlight, snow and ice were still present beneath the rocks even though it was the middle of June. Squeezing and squirming through rock crevices, this “killer mile” was nature’s obstacle course. The Notch was such a unique experience as I climbed over and under boulders that were piled up within the deep mountain gap. Once Mahoosuc Notch is complete, a northbound hiker must then ascend the Mahoosuc Arm, one of the steepest ascents on the entire Appalachian Trail (AT). Hiking the Notch and Arm made for an exhausting morning, but I was having the time of my life!
Taking a rest break at a lean-to (a term used in Maine for a shelter or hut), I met up with several NOBOs and flip-floppers. Among them was Cast Iron, a twenty-something fellow who received his trail name from carrying a heavy cast iron skillet in his pack from Georgia all the way to Maine! Maine is one rugged place and so not an easy state to conquer. Vein-like tree roots invaded the footpath and branches brushed against sometimes sprung back and whacked me in the face! Maine is a tripping minefield. Rarely is there a flat spot to place one’s entire foot. While in motion, I found that I had to keep looking down so as not to get caught up in a root and take an injury-producing spill.
Ponds are ubiquitous in Maine and I walked alongside many of them, some of which had canoes and rowboats stored along their shores. Near one such pond, I pitched my tent next to a reflective body of water at a site which had a large fire ring and a rowboat. A sunset paddle along the water’s edge was a calm conclusion to a long day of hiking.
Since I had a sufficient supply of food and ample battery power, I blew passed the town of Rangeley. Further down trail on top of South Crocker Mountain, I hit two-thousand miles on the AT, which was a relief considering how far I’d come since Springer. Upon arriving to ME Route 27, I called Jen and Jen (yes, two Jens!) from Maine Roadhouse in Stratton and decided to stay a night. En route to the hostel, the Jens shuttled me to the general store in Stratton. While at the store, I placed an order for an extra bloody pepperoni pizza. Also, while waiting for my name to be called, I tried my first “whoopie pie.” The New England confection is comprised of two round mound-shaped pieces of spongy flavored cake with a sweet, creamy filling sandwiched between. It’s a calorie-packed cookie, pie, sandwich, and cake all in one! There are a variety of scrumptious flavors, including chocolate, orange, and scarlet, but my all-time favorite is the maple-flavored one. The whoopie pie, for sensible reasons, is the official state treat of Maine!
The Maine Roadhouse hiker hostel was remarkably clean and organized when I arrived. The bunk room upstairs had been specially fabricated to accommodate hiker needs. The bunk modules were a mirrored stacked design with a wall separating one row of bunks from another. Each individual bunk space had its own outlet, switched wall sconce, and partition curtain. The bed had been made up with a clean set of sheets and a pillowcase. Blankets on a nearby shelf were neatly folded. Peg hooks on the outer wall had been evenly spaced to hang several backpacks. Downstairs, beyond the kitchen, was a common area with a couch, ping pong table, musical instruments, and a wet bar. Shelves were lined with hiking-related books and trail maps. The hostel even had a resupply store with basic hiker supplies, such as Top Ramen packets, Pop-Tarts, replacement tent pegs, and isobutane fuel canisters. While at the hostel, I met two non-hikers who were on a 740-mile long-distance paddling trip of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in Maine. They portaged their canoe to the hostel, which was apparently along their route. A portage dolly cart had been strapped to their canoe to move swiftly along the highway around the shallow water section.
At the general store, I also purchased, with much anticipation, a 750 ml bottle of the ever-famous Allen’s Coffee Brandy, which is exclusively sold in Maine. The name is somewhat misleading because the product is not actually brandy. Brandy is distilled from wine but Allen’s is made from a grain spirit mixed with coffee bean extract and sweetener. Despite the misnomer, the drink is exceptionally tasty. The coffee-flavored liqueur is so popular it has been called “the champagne of Maine.” Mainers drink Allen’s prodigiously, and grocery stores here devote whole aisles to stocking the trend-setting libation. The fast-selling spirit is without question the number one liquor in the great state of Maine. It is also, at least in my wishful mind, a thru-hiker beverage tradition: 1) Fill frosted or ice-filled pint glass 1/3 with Allen’s Coffee Brandy (available exclusively in Maine!). 2) Fill the remaining 2/3 of the glass with cold whole milk. 3) Swish and enjoy! While in the hostel kitchen in Stratton, I sat around the table with several southbounders who were interested in Allen’s Coffee Brandy. They each had their own frosted glass, and so I poured in the Allen’s and cold milk to the tops. We gulped the milk-topped liqueur, and they flashed immediate smiles. They wanted seconds!
Out of Stratton I hiked a series of rugged mountains called the Bigelows, which afforded spectacular views of the lush treed lands below. Bigelow Avery Peak was the most dramatic with panoramic take-it-all-in views and colorful plant life. Avery Peak was named after Myron Avery, the architect of the Appalachian Trail and the figure responsible for bringing the trail through Maine. Thru-hikers like myself are beneficiaries of Avery’s leadership and foresight and are indebted to his restless spirit.
About four miles south of the Kennebec River, I had a frightful encounter as I was “aerially assaulted” by a red-eyed hawk that was out to defend her nest. The thought of getting clawed with hooked talons had not crossed my radar until hearing about the animal from Jen back in Stratton. Warnings had been diligently posted on trees and shelter bulletins, so I knew full well by this time what I was getting into. The greatest threat to my life would not come from a bear, cougar, or moose, but a northern goshawk—a bird! One hiker had already had his eyelid ripped up. While hiking AT mile 2038.4, I was quiet as a mouse when I was suddenly swooped upon twice by the territorial hawk. On her second pass, she picked up with tremendous speed and “dive-bombed” me, almost gripping my head and neck. The angry goshawk missed me by mere inches. By clapping my trekking poles above my head, I’d apparently deterred the flying creature. It all happened so fast; I felt like a kid in the little league batting cages, swinging with my poles way too late! One could potentially strap a foam sit pad around his head like a bonnet to prevent getting talon-clawed from behind! Admittedly, her alarm calls were loud and worked effectively as I ran out of Dodge. No other hikers that I know, some having similar accounts, have reported injury. In thru-hiking, one assumes the possibility of bodily harm; that’s just part of the package. Without risks, there can be no adventure!
Hikers are advised not to ford the Kennebec River due to its depth and fast-moving currents. Swimming with a pack can be a death wish, and stories of Kennebec drownings abound. Instead of fording or swimming, hikers are ferried across in a canoe. The ferry service is free to hikers going both north and south; however, there were limited hours (9-11am) when I went through. When I arrived at the crossing at 8:55am, Pipes and Thunderbird were already waiting there as were two section hikers. After signing a waiver, the ferry operator took hikers in groups of two along with their packs. Each hiker had to buckle on a life preserver and could help paddle if he wanted. The first two pairs of hikers went before me, then I went alone on the third canoe crossing. Once on the other side, I road-walked to Caratunk to the hiker-friendly Sterling Inn. Scott (Buckeye Blazer), with much generosity, had sent me a resupply box. The owner of the inn permitted me take a shower at no cost. Outside, I charged up my electronics on the porch outlets as I repacked my food bag. To quench my thirst, I tried out this carbonated drink from Maine called Moxie, which I thought was delicious. To me, the throat-cooling soft drink tasted like a thick and sweeter version of ginger ale; but others dismissed it, and said it tasted like cough syrup! Before departing the inn, I went into the snack shop and got a few more whoopie pies to pack out!
Fording and then hiking along the West Branch Piscataquis River, I met a scouting group that was headed for the Horshoe Canyon lean-to. There were numerous water crossings and lakes in the area and getting one’s feet wet becomes necessary. At one remote brook, I met a kind little amphibian friend who hung out with me as I filtered my water with my Sawyer. The frog lept onto a smooth half-sunken rock directly in front of me and just sat there patiently with his little green body and looked at me with its yellow-rimmed black eyes. The two of us shared a special few minutes together, then I had a moment when I realized I was talking to a frog!
A one-night stopover in the historic town of Monson proved worthwhile as I really wanted to stay at the legendary Shaw’s Hiker Hostel. This would be the last town before the big push through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. Upon arrival, I met the owners, Poet and Hippie Chick, then I was given a tour of the hostel and bunk garage. Each hiker is administered a complementary ice-cold pop or PBR!
After showering and laundering, I went over to Poet’s Gear Emporium and picked up a new Big Agnes torso-length air pad since my other pad kept deflating in the middle of the night. A couple hikers and I moseyed over to the Lakeshore House for some chow. Thunderbird and Pipes joined us and we all sat together outside, dining al fresco with live musical entertainment. The Maine lobster roll was exceptional, and the views of Lake Hebron at sunset made for a perfect ending to a productive day.
A college-aged girl traveling from China was at Shaw’s that evening and taught the hikers how to play a game similar to hacky sack. The game involved standing around in a circle and hitting a weighted feather object with one’s foot. It’s called jianzi and the object looks something like a shuttlecock used in badminton. On the outside hostel premise, there was a slack line that had been ratcheted around two trees and some of the hostelers were practicing their trapeze-like balancing acts as they carefully moved across from tree to tree. In the yard, there were two cornhole boards, which also provided a great way for hikers to pass time.
Breakfast at Shaw’s was served the following morning around 8am and consisted of eggs, bacon, and hash browns, all cooked in cast iron skillets. The plates were prepared by the staff and brought out to each hiker in the communal dining room. Poet brought out his famous tiered-stacked blueberry pancakes, one stack for each table. The pancakes at Shaw’s were, without exception, a special touch! Before departing that afternoon, after waiting out some drizzling rain, I zipped over to the Monson General Store and ordered the Trailblazer—a loaded meat sandwich. On the return, I requested a double scoop of the popular S’mores ice cream from the parlor window.
Hippie Chick shuttled me back to the trail junction where I left off before the Monson stop. From there I walked a few miles to the start of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness; the spot is marked by a sign admonishing hikers to carry ten days of food. It was time for another self-directed hiking challenge! The challenge this time was to hike the entire Hundred-Mile Wilderness of Maine in only three days. The “Hundred-in-Three Challenge,” as I called it, would begin at ME Route 15 (mile 2079.8 ) and extend to Abol Bridge (mile 2179.2). The challenge would conclude just before the entrance to Baxter State Park. The “Hundred-in-Three Challenge,” was a push to get to Katahdin and finalize my journey on the AT. After stealthing that night, I left at 4:00am sharp the following morning. My challenge would be successful, but there would be three long hard days of hiking through mosquito-infested wilderness.
The Hundred-Mile Wilderness was punishing at first as the first forty-two miles are rugged with the Chairbacks and then White Cap Mountain. Trail maintenance workers had staged a base camp and were conducting trail work in one section. Logging roads cut through the wilderness as do ATV trails and some Jeep roads; however, there was little civilization in the hundred-mile stretch. It was silent except for the chirping of birds and the successive clicking of squirrels. The sand-and-pebble beaches were perhaps the most delightful part of the wilderness with views of expansive waters. At the Carl Newhall lean-to, I took a late morning break. Inside the plastic sack that contains the shelter log was an enlightening book entitled The Appalachian Tale: The Adventures of the Poetry Man by Don Hirsohn. The quirky but poetic entries caused me to chuckle out loud. Toward the end of the wilderness section, I met Yack, a thru-hiker who was yo-yoing, hiking north from Georgia to Maine then turning around and going back in the opposite direction.
After completing the “Hundred-in-Three Challenge” around 4:30pm on the third day, Pitstop picked me up at the trailhead near Abol Bridge. He took me back to Katahdin Streams Campground in Medway where he had a reservation with his camper. After overnighting there, I was dropped back off to Abol Bridge the following morning to begin my hike in Baxter State Park up to The Birches. The Birches is a campground just for NOBO hikers who are summiting Baxter Peak (Mt. Katahdin). Crossing over the Penobscot River on Abol Bridge is a camp store where I had a cup of coffee before the short ten-mile day up to The Birches. It was there I met Paul and his chocolate lab who I’d seen in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness while hiking. He and his dog were sectioning from Gorham to Katahdin. Stopping at the ranger station on the outskirts of Katahdin Shadows Campground, Ranger Sean issued my permit for Katahdin and explained the route up the Hunt Trail on a relief model on the porch of the ranger cabin.
The Birches site had two lean-tos, a privy, a picnic table and fire pit, and a pulley-cable system to hang food bags out of reach from bears. That evening, Thunderbird and Pipes—who’d summit with me up Katahdin the following morning—walked in to The Birches. That night we sat around with grins, joshing with one another and exchanging stories relating to our seperate AT journeys. On summit day, the three of us woke up in the dark hours of the morning and, with our headlamps strapped to our heads, started up the Hunt Trail in Katahdin Shadows Campground at 3:30am. Three hours later, at 6:30am on Saturday July 2nd on Day 214 of my ECT journey, I ascended to the top of Baxter Peak (5,267 ft). This marked the northern terminus of the AT and I was ecstatic. The AT had concluded, but I still have 1,600 miles remaining to complete my thru-hike of the 5,700-mile ECT from Key West, Florida to Belle Isle, Newfoundland.
In his 1934 work, In the Maine Woods, Myron Avery—who is credited as the person most responsible for the completion of the Appalachian Trail—wrote:
To those who would see the Maine wilderness, tramp day by day through a succession of ever delightful forest, past lake and stream, and over mountains, we would say: Follow the Appalachian Trail across Maine. It cannot be followed on horse or a wheel. Remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, it beckons not merely north and south but upward to the body, mind and soul of man.
The AT treated me well.