Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gear Review

The gear review is finally here!

I did a gear update around 1500 miles. Most of my opinions are still the same; I'll reiterate here some of what I said then. I didn't cover everything though so this one should be more detailed. If you want to read the first, I posted it on July 25. And if you have any questions, I have steady internet access now and I can respond to comments!

I loved, loved my Osprey Atmos 50 pack. I went through two REI Flash 65 women's packs and the framesheet ripped out of both. I never carried more weight than was recommended with that pack so I'm not sure what the problem was, but I wasn't very happy about it. I ended up trading for the lightly used Osprey men's pack and I loved it. It was smaller but it fit me so well. I mentioned before that it was almost too small capacity-wise, but since my winter bag packed down smaller than my summer bag, I didn't have trouble fitting my winter gear into it. With a full food bag it was a tight fit, and I actually tried on an Atmos 65 at an outfitter in Vermont, but strangely it didn't fit me very well. I wish they made a 55 liter! But this pack has a perfect design--a main compartment, two front zip pockets, a front stretch pocket, stretch pockets on each side, and two waist belt pockets. It was perfect, and it held up through all the rock-scraping and other abuse I put it through.

My tent (Henry Shires Tarptent Moment) was sufficient. I loved the weight and size but had major condensation issues. Most mornings I would wake up, sit up, and the top of my head or my back would get wet when I was packing things up and moving around a lot inside. And the foot of my sleeping bag was usually wet as well. It wasn't so bad in the summer when it didn't matter, but waking up, crawling out of a warm sleeping bag, and accidentally rubbing the wall of the tent in cold weather was no fun at all. It was fine in light rain but in a storm I usually got wet; the bathtup floor didn't rise very high and it leaked at a few of the seams, despite my multiple efforts at sealing them. I carried the freestanding option pole the whole way, and used it enough to justify the weight to myself. It was nice for the tent platforms in the north, but using the pole didn't make for a good pitch, and made the tent even worse in the rain.  For a dry climate this tent would be amazing, but for the AT I would go with a double-wall. I mentioned the MSR Hubba earlier, and it's a great tent, but the Big Agnes Fly Creek is also freestanding, and is more spacious and significantly lighter; this would probably be my choice tent.

My Thermarest NeoAir was amazing. Pricey but totally worth it. It weighs less than a pound and packs up smaller than any other pad I've seen. I didn't like blowing it up but I could sometimes get out of doing that by getting someone else's (Bear Bag's ) water or something. But seriously, it's worth it. I was worried about it not being insulated enough for the colder temperatures but that wasn't a problem. I know Thermarest was working on another version of it with insulation but I'm not sure if it's been released yet. And I'm sure it's a bit heavier, but probably still lighter than most others.

I absolutely loved my Lafuma Patrol Lite 45-degree bag for summer. Synthetic, cheap, and functional. My winter bag was an REI Sub Kilo 15-degree down bag. It's a discontinued model but a decent bag for the price I paid. The only problem I had was that I got the women's version, and I was about an inch too tall for it (though I'm only 5'6"). On cold nights I got frustrated because I couldn't pull it up over my shoulder when I was laying on my side. I probably would have been happier with the longer men's version, but obviously it was good enough. My opinion is that a down bag is definitely the way to go; I was worried about it getting wet and not keeping me warm but that wasn't an issue at all. Even when it was damp from the inside of my tent, it was never wet enough that it didn't do its job. I just kept it in a dry sack and it was fine. I would have loved a down sleeping bag for summer too but I already had the other one; the compactibility and lighter weight of down makes it superior to synthetic insulation. It is more expensive though.

I loved my Trail Designs Caldera Cone stove as well. I was happy I went with an alcohol stove and this one was sturdy and perfect. My pot was an REI Titanium .9-liter and was perfect sized, although I mentioned before I would not get a nonstick pot if I were doing the trail again. I didn't have any problems with it but it wasn't very versatile. I used a plastic MSR spork with a long, foldable handle, and I think it was the only plastic utensil that made it the whole way! I loved it. When I dug into cold peanut butter or nutella I was always worried about it but it never failed me. I saw a lot of people switch to titanium spoons, which are also a great option and practically indestructible. I carried my fuel in a 16-ounce small-mouthed Nalgene bottle. The bottle I started with leaked and I was always concerned about the durability of a soda bottle...leaked fuel=cold potatoes and dry ramen. This bottle was pretty indestructible as well and I carried it from Hot Springs, NC to Katahdin. I didn't ever have trouble getting a fuel resupply; I preferred to just buy a yellow bottle of Heet when I could find it, but most trail towns had some place where I could buy denatured alcohol by the ounce. I usually carried more than I thought I would need just in case I couldn't find fuel in a town, or if I forgot to get some.

I wasn't sure in the beginning what clothes to bring but I was pretty happy with my choices. For cold weather, I wore a synthetic t-shirt and a synthetic long-sleeved t-shirt overtop, and running tights with running shorts overtop, and this was a good system. If it was really cold I would wear my rain jacket as well. I never hiked in my Patagonia Micro Puff synthetic jacket; I saved it exclusively for in-camp warmth, so it would always be dry when I needed it. I loved that jacket and would definitely buy it again. Patagonia's down jackets are much pricier but surely even better. I had a pair of Under Armor Coldgear thermal bottoms for camp which I loved...very lightweight and warm. I also carried a spare long-sleeved t-shirt and pair of running shorts for in town. I never wore these on the trail unless I absolutely had to, so that I would always have a clean set of clothes to put on after a shower and wear while doing laundry; my rain gear was dirty and smelly so I didn't like wearing that when I did laundry. For summer I sent home the thermals and my running tights, and switched out my spare long-sleeved shirt for a t-shirt. I sent home my jacket too. I carried two sports bras and this was enough; again I always saved one for town. I actually carried four pairs of underwear but that wasn't necessary; honestly I would have been fine with only two. In the beginning I carried three pairs of hiking socks and a thicker pair designated for camp use, which was nice in the cold weather. I sent those home when it got warm and only had the other three. Once I got to New Hampshire I actually carried another pair so I had four pairs to hike in. It was worth the weight to me; clean sock day was by far one of the greatest feelings on the trail. I usually wouldn't wear a pair of socks more than two days, and never for more than three, because the dirt and grime would start to irritate the skin on my feet. If the weather was warm, I would rinse my dirty socks and dry them on the back of my pack to wear again, otherwise I would just stuff the dirty ones away and use a clean pair. I also carried a fleece toboggan and fleece gloves for cold weather; I wore the toboggan from time to time and the gloves less frequently, but they were nice to have when I was just sitting around. I was usually warm enough hiking that I didn't need them. I started with a pair of waterproof gloves that I only wore a couple of times; if it's raining you're going to get wet anyway, so I sent these home and didn't miss them.

Rain gear. Oh, rain gear. Is there such a thing as good rain gear? I started with Marmot Precip jacket and pants. The pants were okay and kept me pretty dry. A lot of people sent their rain pants home for summer but I carried mine the whole way, although I didn't use them much. The jacket was another story. It soaked up water and took awhile to dry, not to mention it didn't keep me dry. I wasn't very happy about this but it wasn't such a big deal in the summer because I usually didn't wear it in the rain since it was so hot. Once I got to Maine I switched it out for an older White Sierra rain jacket, and I wished I'd had that earlier. As for a pack cover, I didn't start with one because I couldn't find one that fit properly, so I bought one at Neels Gap. I'm not sure it was waterproof, probably just water resistant, but it was fine. I lined my pack with a garbage bag as well, and most of my gear was in dry sacks, so I never really had a problem with wet gear. You can only do so much in the rain though; when it rains, you get wet and your pack gets wet no matter what.

I wore Keen Targhee II waterproof boots for the first 600-ish miles and then switched to Keen Voyageur hiking shoes, which I preferred. The shoes were more comfortable, and I don't know if I'll ever hike in boots again. I loved the rubber toe cap on both models and the shoes fit my wide-ish foot very well. They didn't dry quickly at all though, which was one downfall. I saw a lot of people wearing Salomon trail runners and they were all very happy with them; looking back I wish I would have tried a pair because they were light, supposedly supportive enough, and they dried very quickly.

I carried a 20-liter food bag which seems big but it was perfect. It was a Sea to Summit ultra-sil drysack and wasn't really durable enough to use as a food bag; I went through two and my second one had holes in it for probably 1000 miles. Sea to Summit makes more durable dry sacks so I would recommend one of those...a dry sack was nice because I did not enjoy sticking my arm into a wet bag and hoping my food wasn't mushy. I packed all my food in ziplocs inside my food bag for added protection. Most of my other dry sacks were the same kind and they worked perfectly. I carried two Outdoor Products (the Walmart brand) "dry" sacks, and these were not waterproof...water resistant at best.

Some things, such as my guidebook, notebook, camera, and phone, I just carried in ziplocs, which I would replace as necessary, and these worked fine. I double-bagged most things and didn't have any problems.

For water, I used a 1-liter Platypus Hoser system and carried two 1-liter Platypus PlatyPlus bottles. These were great and I only had to replace my hoser once; I was expecting these to be less durable than they were. One bottle had a normal cap and the other had a sport-bottle cap so I could use it as a little fountain for brushing my teeth; it was perfect. I said before it would have been nice to have a container for camp that held more water to avoid making multiple trips to a water source, but I made do without. I only had to carry three liters of water a couple of times, but it was nice to have that capacity just in case, and the bottles weigh next to nothing and pack down small. The only problem is filling them in poor (many) water sources, so I would borrow someone else's bottle for dipping when needed, or use the lid from the container I carried my stove in.

As for water purification, I started using Aquamira and switched to bleach in Harpers Ferry. Aquamira was fine; it had a slight but not unpleasant taste, but it was expensive and the five minute wait for the chemicals to mix was annoying. In Harpers Ferry I rinsed out one of my old Aquamira bottles and filled it with bleach, and used that the rest of the way--3 drops per liter, 4 if the water is pretty questionable, and wait 30 minutes. Overall the wait was longer but I didn't have to stop on the trail and wait before I could even put it in my water. I'm pretty sure bleach does not kill giardia (Aquamira can but it's not "extremely effective"), the biggest safety concern with water on the trail, so I wouldn't recommend using it. That being said, it was easy and lightweight and I didn't have any problems with it; neither did three other people I hiked with who used bleach. Steripens seem like a good option but every Steripen I saw on the trail was accompanied by complaints from the owner. They seemed to have trouble mostly in cold weather. There were several filters out there as well, but I didn't want to deal with the hassle and maintenance of one.

I didn't carry much for first aid, and thankfully I didn't need much. Neosporin was a must, and medical tape. I used all but one of my antiseptic wipes as well. I carried some bandages but used maybe two or three the entire time, and I carried moleskin but it never really did its job for me. One of the best options for blisters is Band-Aid brand blister bandages. They are expensive but are the only thing I found that would stick on my foot and stay there, and they assisted with healing as well. I carried a few safety pins and some guaze, and used them sparingly. For repairing things I brought a couple of needles, thread, and McNett Tenacious Tape, all of which I only used once. Of course I carried duct tape but I didn't use that very often either. I carried Immodium and Benadryl the whole way and never used them, but I definitely used the Ibuprofen!

I carried sunscreen and only used that a few times in the beginning when there were no leaves on the trees. I carried sunglasses but didn't use them much and could have done without. Bug spray was an absolute must...I carried some all the way to Maine (there were a couple of weeks where I was going through an 8-ounce bottle every 5 days or so), and made the mistake of throwing it away in Andover; the mosquitoes bothered us basically all the way to Katahdin. I never used my ear plugs and actually gave them away in Virginia I think; some people loved them but I slept fine without them.

I started carrying two MSR PackTowl Ultralite towels, one for general use and one I kept clean for showering on the trail. I lost the first one and replaced it with a cheap bandana, which worked just as well for washing up in the evenings. The second I carried the whole way and it was nice to have when I showered at a place that didn't provide a towel.

One of my favorite pieces of gear was my closed-cell foam sit pad. The same piece of foam went with me the entire way. It was perfect for sitting on the ground, sitting on wet rocks, and sitting on dirty shelter floors. My Leatherman Micra multitool was perfect as well. I really only used the scissors, and mostly only for cutting medical tape. I lent it to some of the guys for mustache trimming as well! I carried knock-off crocs for camp wear and they were great, although they lacked traction, so I learned to go get water with my hiking shoes still on.

My Petzl Tikka XP 2 headlamp was perfect--super bright and a red light for nighttime in shelters. More importantly it felt good against my head. I replaced my batteries for the first time in Harpers Ferry; after that I had to change more often but I was very impressed by this thing.

As for guidebooks, I loved AWOL's AT Guide. This seemed to be the favored book on the trail as well; the people with the ATC Thru-Hiker Companion complained about it a lot, and liked to look at other people's profile from the AT Guide. AWOL's book had detailed information about water sources, shelters, and landmarks, and included an awesome elevation profile and detailed town maps. The Companion seemed to leave out necessary trail information and gave more historical information. I reccomend AWOL's book for sure.

And finally, possibly my most crucial piece of gear: my trekking poles--Leki Khumbu Aergon Speedlock. These things were amazing. They are about the cheapest Leki poles you can find but they saved my life more times than I can count. I was happy I went with the speedlock because I saw a lot of the twist-lock poles fail. I had to replace the tips twice but that's to be expected, and my poles never bent or caused me any problems (once I figured out how to tighten the fastener to keep them from collapsing), and I depended on them to support my entire weight probably thousands of times. Whenever I think about trekking poles I remember the Smokies when we were hiking through snow. Fiber was behind me and I heard him slip on the ice. I looked back as he steadied himself and breathed a sigh of relief, and then he brought his poles to his face and kissed them. I laughed at the time, but as many times as they've helped me, I think my trekking poles deserve a million kisses.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Fingernails Are Clean

I've been home for a week now and I'm just starting to readjust. It's been strange, but sad in a way how easily the routines have been coming back to me.

I got a horrible feeling when my plane took off out of Bangor. I don't think it felt real until that moment that this was really over. I saw the forests and the lakes below slowly fade out of my vision and drop below the clouds. They were gone, or rather, I was going.

The first morning I was home I got out of bed and went out to the kitchen. I stood in the middle of the room for a few minutes not knowing what to do. There was nothing to do, there was no where to go.

I expected driving to feel very weird, but it felt like I had driven just the day before. Going back to work was a similar feeling; it was almost like I never left. And it's been going well, and I'm thankful.
I'm also not sure how to get into an exercise routine. I haven't done much since I've been home and my legs are restless. I tried to run the other day but the impact was so hard on my knees and ankles that I had to stop. Instead I walked for a while and did the steps on the bridge where I trained before I started. The steps felt like nothing for my legs and lungs. I know I need to increase my activity to maintain my stamina but I don't know what I can do right now that is low impact. And I don't know when my body will stop feeling the effects of 2,181 miles.

My shoes don't fit me either! I'd read before my trip about how your feet can grow along the way, but I guess I didn't believe it until it happened. My shoes are snug not only length-wise, but width-wise as well. And the bottoms of my feet are peeling. It doesn't hurt but it doesn't look very nice either.

So, do I miss the trail? You bet. I miss the peace, the freedom, the people. Do I miss the rain? The mud? The ache in my feet? Of course not, but really I don't think of those things. The good outweighs the bad by far.

Well...this didn't really turn out to be the post-trail blog I was hoping for, so I'm sure I'll write more. And I'll talk about my gear in a future post as well. Aaaand, I'll stop being tired and stiff one of these days, right?

Friday, October 14, 2011

The End of a Journey

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Success! 2181.0 miles in 211 days
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October 12


We were up at 4 as planned and on the trail at 5. I had saved a clean pair of socks for today and they felt wonderful on my tired feet...nothing like clean sock day! The trail began how we left off yesterday: flat and smooth. But...of course it didn't last. The trail got rougher as we went and then we came to a stream. In the dark. The water was flowing good and probably waist-deep, but we thought we could rock-hop across. I was about 5 feet from the other side and the next step was a big one. I took the leap and my right foot slipped as soon as it made contact with the rock. My whole foot went underwater, and to catch myself I had to put my left foot down as the water. Two soaking wet feet for Katahdin!
About a mile later we came to another crossing of a branch of the same stream. The morning was gray by this time and Bear Bag found what he though was a good route across. I suggested we go downstream where the rocks were more dry, but he stepped out onto a wet rock and guess what happened...he slipped and both feet went about knee-deep into the cold water! So, we both had soaking wet feet for Katahdin!
The next few miles went fairly quickly, and I got a rush of excitement when we arrived at Katahdin Stream Campground at the base of the mountain. We walked to the ranger station to sign in as thru-hikers, and the ranger told us that the mountain was a Class 1 (the best rating) today and we should have beautiful weather up there! So happy about that! We were numbers 578 and 579 for northbound thru-hikers this year.
We took a bathroom and snack break and then started up the mountain with our packs. It's common to take only a daypack up Katahdin, but I carried my pack the entire way without slackpacking so I was adamant about taking it up Katahdin. And Bear Bag followed suit by taking his full pack as well. I was full of emotions; I was excited but at the same time I didn't want to finish because I knew reaching the top meant the trip was over. The first mile was gently uphill and very simple. We came to a footbridge crossing Katahdin Stream and I admired the incredibly clear water below...coming right off the mountain! We passed a falls and then the trail took a turn for steep. It got gradually rockier until we were making our way up and around boulders. We reached the treeline and it was all rocks from there...big boulders and tricky maneuvering to make our way up. There were a few sections with rebar and we had to pull ourselves up. It was slow going and I was getting frustrated. In my mind this was the hardest climb of the entire trail but I was completely overwhelmed at that point and I think my judgment was a bit skewed. Still, it was hard and I kept thinking that we were going to have to come down all of this stuff too...
We could see the top of the section we were on, and I thought we were almost to the tableland, meaning about a mile and a half from the top. But, when we got to the top I looked up and saw blazes going straight up another rocky mountainside! Again, it was frustrating, and the ridge was breezy. The sky was still sunny though and I was thankful for it; the climb would have been even more difficult in worse weather! We finally made it to the top of that climb to the tableland, a flat ridge walk for about a mile. Neither of us said much as we made our way across; we were both caught up in our own thoughts and emotions. I thought about starting on Springer and feeling horribly discouraged as I laid down in my tent that first night. I thought about sitting around the campfire at the cheese factory campsite with the group I hiked with for so many miles. I thought about the pain in my knee for those first few weeks, and the awful foot pain I limped on through Virginia and beyond. I thought about meeting Bear Bag and hiking with him for so many days, about the stifling heat of summer, about the consecutive days of rain, about the return of my foot pain and doubting that I could walk through it again. I thought about saying goodbye to my friends when I went home for a week in July, and the struggle to find motivation and strength when I returned. I thought about the mountains and the views and the heat, the cold, the rain and mud, the mosquitoes, the sweat and tears, the stumbles, the laughter, the campfires, the friendships, and the mental and physical strength it took to get myself to this point. I was crying already.
We came to a sign that said the summit was just a mile away, and we could see it and see little dots of people on top. That last mile seemed to last forever. We passed some other thru-hikers coming down and exchanged congratulations; everyone was smiling in excitement. We had the final climb to the top, and as we crested the rise I saw the outline of the sign in the distance. We stopped several feet short and waited for some other people to take pictures. When they finished, we both walked slowly over to the sign and I reached my hand out and touched it. I broke down in sobs as my fingers felt the weathered wood and my eyes read the word I'd worked so hard to see: Katahdin. Bear Bag was crying too and the other people must have wondered about our tears because they asked where we had hiked from. We told them we'd come from Georgia and they couldn't believe it. They took pictures of us with their cameras as well as ours. Bear Bag had his little photo shoot and then it was my turn; I climbed up on the sign and put my arms up in the air, a permanent smile on my face. I did it.
I got out both of the rocks I'd carried from Springer Mountain, touching one to the summit and leaving one right beneath the sign. I'll keep the other; I picked up a rock from Katahdin to keep as well.
The summit was breezy so we sat out of the wind and ate lunch, enjoying the beautiful views. Around 2:30, after about an hour on the summit, we knew we had to start heading down. Clouds began rolling in and we wanted to get off the mountain before sunset; it took us 4.5 hours to get to the top so we assumed it would take about as long to descend. Bear Bag convinced me to collapse my poles and go down without them, and it was much easier maneuvering down the boulder scrambles using just my hands. I also used him as a handhold in a few spots; I wanted to do the trail by myself so I wouldn't accept help before, but I was done with the trail and it didn't matter anymore! Haha! Going down wasn't nearly as terrifying as I dreaded it would be, and we made it down in 3.5 hours. It was just getting dark when we got back to Katahdin Stream Campground to find my parents waiting for us there.
We drove to Millinocket and Bear Bag and I were starving so we got a quick meal at McDonald's; tomorrow we will celebrate with a lobster dinner on the coast! We checked into the Baxter Park Inn and got laundry going. The two of us have kind of just been sitting around in some kind of daze. I'm exhausted but I don't want to sleep.
I don't think it's set in yet that we're finished, and I'm not sure when it will. I plan to write a reflection at some point, and probably another gear review as well, so stay tuned!
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October 11

It was a chilly morning; we were up at 5 and headlamped it until daylight, around 6:40. We had a climb right off the bat but it wasn't as difficult as it looked. The terrain was more rugged today than it was yesterday, but still pretty flat. We set out for 22 miles to Abol Bridge, and hoped to get a few miles farther.
We passed Sky High and Icebreak this morning going southbound! Apparently they flip-flopped from Monson. They warned us of mud and more Maine terrain ahead, and that's exactly what we found...I was just thankful it hasn't rained for several days because the mudholes would have been even worse! The terrain slowed us down to about 2-2.5 mph. I was lucky to avoid stepping in much mud but Bear Bag slipped off a log and his foot went in up to about mid-calf!
It was another beautiful sunny day...a bit cooler than yesterday but still nice. I hurt feet were killing me from the long day yesterday and the miles seemed to take forever.
We got to Rainbow Ledges and got another view of Katahdin...only 20 miles away this time! We had about 6 more miles to Abol Bridge where we saw the mountain yet again, framed beautifully by the Penobscot River and the setting sun. It was gorgeous, and it was sad.
We stopped at the camp store at the bridge and got cheeseburgers for last feast before the end! We got some snacks for tomorrow as well and then headed out with headlamps for a few more miles, to shorten tomorrow.
The trail was flat and smooth and wonderful; we made great time. We crossed into Baxter State Park and I was feeling good...I felt like I could just keep walking all the way to Katahdin! But, we stopped around 7:30 and found a nice spot to camp. We're getting up at 4 in the morning to do the 7-ish miles to the base of Katahdin and then the 5 miles up (and 5 back down!).
We've had so many conversations about the end the past few days. What will it be like to go back to "real life?" To stop hiking? How can we explain to people what we've seen out here, what we've learned out here? How can anyone else understand?
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Thursday, October 13, 2011

October 10

I had a horrible dream last night that tomorrow called for 3.5 inches of rain! We didn't get up until 4:30 and were on the trail with headlamps about an hour later. We had two climbs in the first three miles or so and they were slow going...would we make the 30?
After that the trail flattened out (I wish you could see the drastic change in the elevation profile) and it was amazing. There were still rocks and roots and mud but we were just walking. So wonderful. We started to pick up the pace, and took a break at Cooper Brook Lean-To around 9:00. From there we busted out 8 more smooth miles and stopped for lunch at a campsite on Jo-Mary Lake. 15.9 miles done by noon! We were there longer than expected since we both took privy breaks and left around 1. More beautiful walking and then we came to Pemaduncook Lake. Through the trees we saw beautiful clear water and rocks scattered across the shoreline, so we took a short side trail for pictures. And guess what else we saw...Katahdin! And guess what ELSE we saw...a moose! She was at the edge of the lake about a hundred yards away but we could make out her features and got lots of happy I finally got to see a moose! And the view of Katahdin in the distance was incredible; it was so much closer than it was yesterday! The end is starting to feel real.
More walking and we came to a stream that was supposedly a ford but we rock- and log-hopped across. It was about 4:30 when we took a break and only had 6.6 miles left! Those last few were hard though; my feet ached and my entire body was ready to be done! The trail followed the shoreline of Nahmakanta Lake for awhile, and we saw the full moon already up and illuminating the water. So beautiful. Darkness came fast though and we filled up water by headlamp, passed a shelter, and knew we had only one more mile to go. We made it to the spring just before 8, and we had done 30.3 miles!! My biggest day by almost 4 miles! Exciting but exhausting.
Tomorrow we have to do at least 22 miles, and hopefully a little further, so we can summit on Wednesday.

I ripped the last page out of my guidebook tonight, to keep in what I call my "cheat sheet" in my hip belt. I've been doing this for 7 months and all that remain are two pages. I cried. 37.2 miles left; I'm not sure I'm ready.
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October 9

We were up at dark and on the trail a little after 7. The morning was windy but warm and clear. We had 5.5 miles of gentle uphill that were pretty easy and we took a break at a shelter before we started really climbing. I used the privy and feared the entire time that it was going to fall over; it wobbled from side to side. An exciting event for sure.
We started the first of four climbs today, up Gulf Hagas Mountain. It wasn't too difficult and I felt a million times better than I did yesterday. Next was West Peak, the longest and steepest climb of the day. We took a lunch break at the bottom and kept moving, up Hay Mountain and finally White Cap, at 3500-something feet. We had a gorgeous view from the top and guess what we saw from the northern side! Katahdin! It's a huge, huge mountain in comparison to the flatlands surrounding it. I got chills looking at it; it really does exist!
We saw more day hikers (where do they keep coming from?) on the way down, and I realized that we had crossed 2100 miles today! We've come so far.
Cheddar was the only other thru-hiker we saw today, at a shelter...are we the tail end?
We came to the east branch of Pleasant River, listed as a ford in the book, but we were able to rock-hop across and decided to make camp on the other side. We had potatoes, alfredo, and ramen for dinner split between us and I am ready for sleep! Tomorrow we are going to try for a 30-miler...something neither of us have done yet, but we're trying to summit on the 12th to avoid some approaching rain. Time for bed so I can get up at 4!
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October 8

My theory that something good always happens on a bad day holds true.
We got up around 6:30 (later than intended but not too bad) and left an hour later. We had a climb first thing, up Barren Ledges, and I was hoping for some good views to reward the tough climb, but the views were on a side trail. "I stopped taking side trails to views in North Carolina," said Bear Bag. I agreed--not worth it. So we kept going; the trail was flat for awhile (and very sloppy) and then we had more climbing up Barren Mountain. I was exhausted already...could I do the 22 miles we had planned?
At the bottom was Fourth Mountain Bog. I'd been dreading this section since I saw it in the book. Were these going to be the bog bridges that everyone falls through into the muck? We got there and I was so glad to see that some maintenance had been done! There were several obviously new planks and we easily walked across; I sighed in relief when we came out on the other side. Walking through knee- and waist-deep muck did not sound very appealing!
We then climbed Fourth Mountain and had ups and downs for miles and miles. I was so, so tired, and I don't know why. The day was gorgeous and nice but I started to get really frustrated at the trail. It seemed to take us up over every little hump and bump and mountain, and through every mudhole, and down the steepest sections, and through a near-vertical boulderfield. And I hurt; with every step I feel the past 2100 miles in the bottoms of my feet, in my knees, in my back, and even in my hands from gripping trekking poles. I admit, today was the first time I actually looked forward to the end. It was rough.
We had a long and painful descent to the west branch of Pleasant River, and forded the water at the bottom. It was wide but only knee deep and a simple ford. We got to the other side and there were a couple of day hikers there (yes, more day hikers in the "wilderness"). Mike and Jeff gave us tons of food! Bread and turkey, peanut butter and crackers, candy, apple juice...and they said they had more goodies in their car, so Bear Bag followed them back and returned with a huge bag of homemade cookies, little candy bars, and fresh apples...amazing! It was the perfect ending to a not-so-perfect day. We sat and feasted on turkey sandwiches and cookies and I felt good. It totally turned my day around! It was dark by that time and we set up camp for the night right by the river. We didn't make 22 but hopefully we can make that up in the next few days. Tomorrow we are supposed to get a view of Katahdin if the weather is clear!
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October 7

Last night wasn't as cold as I expected and I was warm, although there was a lot of condensation in the tent even though the vestibule was open. Nothing new.
I don't know what happened to us today. I'm not even going to say what time we got up because I'm slightly ashamed. All I'll say is that today was a zero (nero?) in the woods. In the 100-mile wilderness. On October 7. Sigh.
It got to maybe 50 degrees today but the sun was out so it wasn't so bad. We walked upstream a bit to find somewhere to sit in the sun and came upon a nicer campsite right on the water, fire pit included. So, we hauled our stuff up the trail. So technically we did hike today, although it was about 100 yards. Haha! We sat by Long Pond Stream for awhile and skipped some rocks in the sunshine. We took a nap this afternoon, cooked an early dinner, and made a fire this evening to keep us warm. A perfect day.
The funny thing is that we met a day hiker today. In the 100-mile "wilderness". He drove his car back an old road and hiked up to Barren Ledges. It's comforting but depressing at the same time.
So, it doesn't bother me to get to Katahdin a day later, but I am worried about the weather. I have a flight home booked on the 15th so if we have bad weather and can't get up the mountain when we get there, I may have to re-book. But money is the only problem there and it's just money, right? Ha, right.
Last one to Katahdin wins!
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October 6

Rebekah and her husband took us back to the trail around 7:30. I was expecting a total mudhole like we had coming into town, but the trail really wasn't that bad. Very happy about that! Still swampy and muddy in places but it was bearable. It was a lot rougher than I expected though and we didn't make very good time. The day was mostly sunny (finally!) But cold, in the 40s. We had three river fords today. The first was about seven miles in. There was a huge tree that fell across the water, and Bear Bag actually shimmied across that to the other side. I tried to do the same but my inner thighs weren't really enjoying it. I decided to ford. My legs went numb in probably three minutes from the cold, cold water. I got about halfway across and my shorts were getting wet from the depth. The current wasn't super strong but enough that I feared I'd lose my footing. I had a brief moment of panic and then Bear Bag actually came in a few feet from the other side and offered a hand. I was thankful for it and made it to the other side. The air was cold on my wet legs! There was another small section I had to wade across and the water felt warm once I got back in...not good! Once we got moving again I was fine and we stopped in the sun to eat lunch. More roots and mud and rocks until we came to the second ford, Big Wilson Stream (first was Little Wilson). This was wider, maybe 25-30 yards, but we could see the bottom all the way across. We were in the water for awhile but emerged unscathed on the other, so cold! We knew we had one more ford but rock-hopped a couple of streams until we came to Long Pond Stream. It wasn't very deep or wide but swift and white...we made our way carefully and the current felt strong against my legs; this crossing just barely reached the bottoms of my shorts. We knew we were within a mile of the shelter but saw a beautiful campsite down by the stream, so we decided to stop. Dinner was amazing; we split some mashed potatoes and then made chicken noodle good on a cold night! It's supposed to be in the 20s tonight; it will be hard to get up in the morning!
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October 5

Will beds become less luxurious when I can sleep in one every night?
Bear Bag grabbed us breakfast from the convenience store--ready-made hash browns and sandwich things, and donuts. Perfect. We ate and packed up and...decided to stay in town for lunch. Always a horrible decision. We got cheeseburgers, chips, and a woopie pie from the store and sat in the laundromat below the hostel eating. And, we dared to suggest another zero. Zero it was.
It has actually been raining off and on throughout the afternoon, even snowing for a few minutes! We're in the middle of a little cold spell. We watched some tv and ate dinner at the pub downstairs. A few more people have come into the hostel; it makes me feel better that there are still people behind us! The rain should be done though and I'm looking forward to hiking in the sunshine again!
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October 4

The attic was hot and stuffy and I didn't sleep that well. We got up around 7 and walked down to Shaw's, where we were expecting an all you can eat breakfast. The problem was, we thought Rebekah here at the Lakeshore House had called us in, but she hadn't. So, they had no food. They did have denatured alcohol though and I bought a few more ounces for my stove. Then the three of us walked to the convenience store and picked up some ready-made sandwiches. Not the best breakfast I've had in town! Once we got back, it started raining. Yes, more rain.
We got laundry going and walked to the general store for resupply...our last resupply! So sad. Pace and Sundance were there, and Snowy expressed what everyone was thinking and drew a "Z" with his finger in the air. We walked back to our room in the rain and contemplated options. Today was supposedly the last day of rain...and wouldn't it be nice to not hike in the rain??
So, we stayed. Snowy moved down the street to stay with Gumby, Pace, and Sundance, and Bear Bag and I moved into a different room downstairs. I'm not sure anyone hiked out rained steadily until 4:30 or so. I've had enough rain!
We got a pizza for dinner and I've been eating so much junk today; it's the last trail town and the last time I can eat without feeling guilty so I have to take advantage of it!
As I said the rain is supposed to stop but it should be a little cooler for the next few days...lows around 30!
Tomorrow starts the 100-mile wilderness, so we are carrying 7 days of food. That means heavy packs for the first few days!
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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Closing In

The hours I spent preparing for this trip surely added up to weeks. I prepared physically, tangibly, and I prepared mentally for a change of lifestyle. The adjustment didn't take long and it's been an incredible ride for the past 6.5 months.
I haven't thought much about the end. The entire time I've been telling myself to keep going, and keep going, and keep going...and now it stops? The end exists? How do I stop?
As much preparation as I did before, I haven't prepared much for the transition back to "real" life. Maybe those thoughts will come later, or maybe they won't come at all, but I know that removing myself from this simplicity will be a big adjustment.
I've been getting chills since Georgia when I look at Katahdin in my guidebook. It's really up there?
I hope I see it. I hope I make it. I need to feel it.
As much as I want to get there, the hardest part is going to be turning my back to that sign and walking back down.
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October 3

What a day!
Apparently it poured down the rain last night but I slept right through it! I woke up at 5:30 and tried to get Bear Bag up but that didn't work until 6. Snowy got up as well and we packed up and left around 7. It was drizzling slightly and the trail was a mess! Even more concerning was the fact that the brook right in front of the shelter had risen significantly. I knew we had a couple of river fords today and I was worried about how they would be...
We climbed Moxie Bald Mountain in misting rain (day three of rain...) The climb was easy but the trail was full of water and made for slow going. The top was just rock slabs--unbelievably slick rock slabs. Bear Bag took a fall up there but Snowy and I were able to avoid that. We headed downhill and met a guy going southbound. We asked about the ford and he said it was thigh deep yesterday, before the heavy rain we got. My stomach jumped. We took a break at the lean-to below and Pace and Sundance passed us. Then it was flat walking and we came to a wide stream. This wasn't listed in the book as a ford but there was no rock-hopping it, so we waded across without incident. And then, the trail turned into a river. We've been through Irene and Lee but I have never seen so much water on the trail. There was a good 10-12 inches of water literally flowing through the trail. Everywhere. We started rock- and root-hopping (very slick and I fell in once), but all of our feet were wet anyway so we just started walking through it to make better time...we had 22 miles planned for today!
And then, I heard the river. If you've been reading you know that water crossings are not my favorite. Add to that two and a half days of rain on top of an already wet season. The crossing was where two small rivers converged into the west branch of the Piscataquis, a total of about 35 yards across. There was an island in the middle and the water was obviously higher than normal and VERY swift. The guidebook says that the river is normally knee-deep but fording can be dangerous in periods of heavy rain. With as wet as it's been, I think this qualified as dangerous.
Snowy started across upstream a made sense to cross before the streams converged, right? He got past the first section but had to turn back because the second was too deep. So, we decided to try to cross where the trail came out. Bear Bag used one of my poles, I used the other, and Snowy found a stick in the woods to use. We started across, Snowy upstream a few feet from us. The water was incredibly strong; we got to the strongest part and I could barely hold myself up. Our steps were shuffles on the slick rocks beneath our feet. We got about halfway across the first section before the island, and we couldn't see the bottom anymore. The water was already mid-thigh deep. I looked up at Snowy and he was using all his strength to support himself on the stick and hold himself upright. He was shaking and I saw fear in his eyes. He moves quickly and easily over even the toughest terrain without any problems, and at that moment we all were feeling pretty weak. Bear Bag was beside me holding my arm. He kept reassuring me that his footing was steady but I could see that he was afraid as well. We stood like that, out in the middle, for several minutes, the water gushing around us. Do we try to keep going? Do we turn back? Watching the water swirl past me made me anxious and uneasy, disoriented. Snowy later said he was on the verge of panic. We finally decided to go back to shore and see if we could find a better route.
Snowy scouted downstream for a few hundred yards while Bear Bag and I waited on the shore. And then it started raining. Of course. He came back with nothing; the river turned to rapids and there was no good place to cross. We didn't know what to do. We couldn't wait for the river to go down; we knew it was supposed to rain for the next few days and we'd run out of food. So Bear Bag took his pack off and grabbed my trekking poles and headed out to scout a route across. He angled downstream to follow a more shallow (still thigh-deep) route and once he got in front of the island, he walked upstream to it. I was relieved that he made it across; the second section past the island didn't look as swift. We couldn't see him in the water on the other side and I kept watching at the end of the island, half expecting him to come floating down the river uncontrollably. I was scared. But then, we saw him on the other bank! We knew it was passable. He made his way back across. I couldn't watch and was so relieved when he stepped foot on our shore again.
So, knowing it could be done, we knew we had to do it. Bear Bag went first and I followed, holding onto him. Snowy was behind me. It took all my strength; at the deepest the water was about crotch-deep. With every step/shuffle my leg would get sucked back into the current and I had to pull it forward. We inched our way across, completely focused. One misstep would be total disaster. I was so relieved to climb up onto the island. Snowy was still in the water, again he was shaking. He stayed still for a few minutes collecting himself, and finally made it up on the island with us. The second section was only about 15 yards across and not as swift. It was slightly deeper though, but it felt like nothing compared to what we had just come through...I called it the "kiddie pool"! We made our way across and I cannot express how good it felt to reach the shore on the other side of the river. We all sat down, in some kind of shock almost, but feeling strangely calm. We did it.
By this time it was almost 3 and we still had 12.5 miles to go. I doubted we'd make it to Monson as planned but if we averaged about 3 mph we could make it just after dark. So, we got moving. The terrain was pretty flat but still muddy and sloppy. We had crossed the river in our shoes for better traction so we continued to walk through all the water on the trail. We made our 3 mph and got to the east branch of the Piscataquis and I was so relieved to see that it wasn't nearly as swift as the west branch. We used to same procedure as before as we inched across the cold water. This river was deeper, up to about my waist; the bottom of my shirt got wet, but I had tightened my shoulder straps to elevate my pack and it stayed dry. We made it across and continued on our way. Around 6:30 we only had 3.3 miles left and Snowy called the Lakeshore House hostel to arrange a ride from the road. We got the headlamps out and sloshed our way through more mud and muck. With each step I was afraid my shoe would get sucked off! We were filthy and exhausted when we finally made it to the road after 22.1 miles. It was 8:00 and we waited a few minutes for our ride. We arrived in Monson and got settled into our room up in the attic. We went to the convenience store, the only place open, and got burgers and fries. Next was an amazing shower and I am completely exhausted...time for sleep!
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Monday, October 3, 2011

October 2

It's hard to leave town, let alone leave town in the rain! The inn had cereal for breakfast and we talked with Wallace while we ate. Last night was their final night this's a good thing because we probably would have stayed if we could have! He also told us info about the trail ahead. It rained while we ate but started to slack off. We packed up and when I came downstairs with my stuff, Bear Bag was sporting a new pair of shoes! Apparently Wallace had seen the pair he was wearing, all torn up and falling apart, and had given him a pair that he had bought but didn't wear! Amazing. Such a nice guy!
He gave us a ride back to the trail and we said our goodbyes. It wasn't raining anymore but of course everything was soaked and the trail was sloppy. The first 6 miles or so were pretty easy though. We crossed Holly Brook three times. The first time we walked across a log, the second we rock hopped, and on the third I had to take my shoes off and wade across, but Bear Bag and Snowy found their own routes upstream. We got to a shelter and decided to take a break, and guess who we found there! Sundance and Pace only made it 6 miles yesterday! We got moving again as it was getting cold, and it starting raining again. Luckily it wasn't too heavy and I stayed mostly dry in my rain gear. We had a climb up Pleasant Pond Mountain and then a 4.5 mile downhill to Moxie Pond. We had to ford the south end of the pond, where a river runs into it. So out came the crocs and we picked our way across the cold, knee deep, murky water. It was maybe 30 yards across and the current was flowing but not dangerously strong. From there we only had 3 more miles, an easy, flat-ish stroll, to Bald Mountain Brook Lean-To. The five of us are the only ones here. It's drizzling now and there is a chance of rain for the next three days...ugh! Maybe we'll get lucky. Tomorrow is an ambitious 22 miles to Monson, our last resupply. Maybe we'll get lucky there too!
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October 1

Okay, okay, I personally take full responsibility for this third (AND LAST (Bear Bag inserted that) ) zero.
We stuck around for the breakfast buffet this morning, and it started drizzling as we were packing up. If you didn't know, I hate to hike in the rain. If it rains at night it's not a HUGE deal; a wet tent is basically the only result. If it rains while you're hiking, everything gets wet. And you can't stop because you get too cold, and you don't want to touch anything because your hands are wet, and you and your gear smell even worse than normal. Rain downright stinks.
But two zeros were enough, right? We are on kind of a tight schedule...
We stood out with Snowy for a hitch. "If no one stops by 10," I said, "We're staying." No one agreed but no one objected. But, what do you know, a guy pulls up at 9:59:50-something. No joke. So he took us back to the trail and I practiced by reasoning skills while we stood in the rain. "Even if it rains tomorrow, one day of hiking in the rain is better than two." "Don't you just hate putting on cold, wet clothes in the morning?" "It's already after 10; we won't do many miles today so waiting until tomorrow wont make much of a difference. We'll still get to Monson on the same day."
I got them.
We decided to stay at the Sterling Inn, one mile from the trail. We started walking and tried to hitch, but no luck. The mile seemed like three in the rain on the road but we finally arrived. The place is a bed and breakfast...a huge, old house. "You know, this has the makings of a horror movie..." Snowy pointed out. It did.
There was no one there but a sign was posted on the door that phone numbers were in the kitchen. We went inside and Bear Bag called Nancy, the owner, who told us to pick a room and make ourselves comfortable. We watched some tv for a bit until her husband, Wallace, came back. He gave us a ride to the restaurant at Northern Outdoors and to the general store. Wallace is an interesting, old-fashioned fellow who wears flannel shirts and has lived in small town Maine his entire life. He told us about his love for the mountains and wilderness, and how he doesn't like the moose hunts because he's afraid they'll die off and he doesn't want to see that happen. I like him.
We got back (still raining) and sat around for the rest of the afternoon. We ate popcorn and other junk for dinner and played some cards this evening. And it's still raining...the trail is going to be a mess!
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September 30

Or maybe I wasn't kidding about a double zero...
Breakfast this morning was delicious...the restaurant here is good and cheap! And then...
And then, Sundance, Pace, Snowy, Bear Bag, and I all talked ourselves and each other into a zero.
Northern Outdoors didn't have any lodge rooms available but they did have a "logdominium" for just a bit more per person. There are beds for five and a small kitchenette...this really is a nice place. We needed some food to eat today to save money as opposed to eating at the pub again, so we stuck our thumbs out for a difficult 5-man hitch. It took awhile but finally a woman in a minivan pulled up...perfect! She took us to the general store and we bought some snacks, and then it was thumbs out again to get back to the room. This one didn't take long; a couple of guys in a pickup pulled over and we all jumped in the back. It was dirty, full of junk, and everything was covered in grease. The joys of hitchhiking! It was a cold ride but much better than walking!
This afternoon Snowy, Bear Bag, and I took three kayaks out on the lake nearby; it was so peaceful on the water but the mosquitoes were horrible! The warmer than normal weather has allowed for another hatch and they are vicious! I was sitting in a puddle by the time we were done (due to paddle drippage) but it was a good time!
Later, Bear Bag and I went to the pub and shot some pool (I won both times legitimately!) and then Snowy joined us for more food and more drinks. Pace and Sundance came up after a bit (they had cooked dinner in the room) and we listened to the live entertainment for a few songs before heading back to bed. I'm exhausted again and this bed feels amazing!
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September 29

Oh zero, how I love thee.
An unpleasant forecast and a full belly led to a zero in Caratunk. Breakfast down at the pub was delicious. We had to switch rooms and found out that Snowy, Sundance, and Pace were just getting into town, so we invited them to stay with us, since there are beds for 6. And only $12 per person on the already low base rate. Stretch is bunking here too so it's a full house!
The day was lazy, as a zero should be. My knee was hurting a bit this morning from the big day yesterday but the rest today surely did it some good and it hasn't been bothersome this evening. We hung out in the pub for food and drinks, shot some pool, and enjoyed the hot tub. So nice on a chilly night! It's been raining off and on throughout the day and evening; hopefully it will stop by tomorrow.
Being the worrier that I am, Bear Bag and I called Baxter State Park to confirm that it only closes for overnight use on October 15. Of course, there isn't any reason (except a serious injury or something) why we shouldn't get there several days before, but in case we have to wait for a decent summit day, we won't be out of luck. We'd just have to get a shuttle into the park and back out on the day we summit. But, that's the worst-case scenario. And, I feel a million times better knowing this. Maybe even two million. Double zero? Ha, just kidding!
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