Exile's_Home ©1997 George Steffanos



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Then The Hail Came

Last updated 2/12/97



(Monson, Maine to Abol Bridge, Maine -- The Wilderness)

MONDAY, 9/26/83, MILE 2030.5 --- My last lodgings on the Appalachian Trail turned into one of my fonder memories. Not only did the Shaws take me in on nothing more than my word that payment would be forthcoming in the morning, but they treated me like one of the family. They seem to take a genuine parental interest in the yearly progression of quirky dreamers who endure months of various hardships for one bright moment in the sun.

The food was great, and Mrs. Shaw just laid it all out on the table for guests to help themselves to as much as they wanted. For dinner, I had fried chicken, baked-potato, corn and peas, bread and butter, several glasses of milk, and a huge slab of banana cream pie. Burp. Has everybody noticed with what loving care I described each meal on this trip which was not backpacking food? Then you will not be surprised when I describe this morning's breakfast: orange juice, milk, eggs, bacon, toast, and donuts. All you can eat. Help yourself. I cannot figure out how they can afford to feed thru-hikers like this at such low prices.

I finished eating and waddled over to the post office. The package containing the work boots I purchased in Cloverdale, Virginia had arrived in time. My money order was also there. I cashed it, grabbed my packages, and brought it all back to the Shaws'. As I was sorting the items and loading my backpack, Mr. Shaw came into my room. He actually apologized to me for forgetting to offer to loan me spending money last night. He explained that thru-hikers often arrive in Monson with no money to their names until the post office opens up in the morning. He always lets them borrow a few bucks if they wish to go out and hit a few bars on their last night in a trail town on the AT. I assured him that I had just wanted to rest. I was just happy to be trusted for the bed and the meals. He was a nice guy, with refreshing check-out policy: leave whenever you are ready.

I finished loading my backpack and put on my boots. They had been a late emergency addition to my mail supply drop after I called from Rangeley to tell my family that my hiking boots had blown out. It was a relief to finally have some protection for my ankles once again after 154 miles of running shoes on slick, rocky Maine trails.

I went downstairs. Mr. Shaw sells Coleman fuel at cost to hikers who stay at his place, in whatever odd amount they require. I bought a pint to top off my reserve fuel bottle. That should easily get me to Katahdin. I paid my bill, which totaled $15.65 for the bed, a shower, the fuel, and my two meals. It was the best commercial deal I had encountered on the Appalachian Trail, and one of the more pleasant surprises.

I said good-bye and returned to the post office to mail the package back home with the items I did not need. I stopped at the general store to pick up batteries for the flashlight, candles, a final journal notebook, and a container of salt.

I hit the road north out of town at 11:45 -- a very early start considering how much I had to do this morning. It is unusual for me to be so businesslike when leaving a trail town, but lately the magnetic pull of Katahdin has become irresistible. The closer I get, the stronger the inner restlessness stirring within me becomes. Sometimes at night, it summons me from sleep. I return from the dark lands, the urge to be traveling ever northeastward so compelling that I lie awake for hours. This morning, for the first time on the Appalachian Trail, I did not need to drag myself reluctantly away from the pleasures and conveniences of a trail town. They would have needed to tie me down in order to keep me in Monson any longer.

Monson was a pleasant little New England village of neat, weathered old houses with big screened porches and nice people. It was the type of place where the general store had a big sign advertising a brand of live bait displayed prominently on the front door and a small collection of movies on video in the back. A network of dirt, gravel, and paved roads radiated out from the town's center to dozens of lakes and ponds of various sizes. Fishing was serious business in those parts.

It was a cloudy, hazy day with a threat of rain. That figured, as I intended to tent tonight. The AT followed the main road north out of town for a half-mile, and then another paved road, for another mile or so. After that came two-and-a-half miles along a gradually-deteriorating gravel road, ending at the point where a 1982 trail relocation by the M.A.T.C. began. The Appalachian Trail left the road and entered the woods, soon re-emerging at the shore of another beautiful mountain pond. Next, it followed a very rugged course with numerous ups and downs along some slate ridges. It was an interesting route despite a lack of views, but the constant short, steep stretches were hard on my body, particularly since I was carrying a pack loaded with ten days' worth of supplies after a long day yesterday.

I passed two more attractive ponds as I traversed those ridges for five-and-a-half miles, but toward the end I was growing weary of all of the climbs and descents. I was relieved when the Appalachian Trail came out at Little Wilson Falls, which were fairly spectacular. A large brook roared over precipitous slate ledges into a deep canyons The ledges were vertical twelve- to fourteen-foot drops connected by extremely narrow steps (which kind of describes much of the Appalachian Trail in Maine). I killed a lot of time taking pictures and simply enjoying the falls.

The descent to Little Wilson Stream was fairly sick -- another challenging trail brought to you by your northern New England Kamikaze dealers. The water was a bit high at the ford; my feet got a little wet -- no big deal. The highest water was ankle-deep over the submerged rocks. I did not even bother to remove my boots or socks.

About five minutes past the ford, the new 1983 Maine guidebook directed me to cross an old tote road which used to be part of the Appalachian Trail. Well, the AT turned right onto that road, so apparently the M.A.T.C. included another relocation they have not yet gotten around to finishing in the guidebook. That means I am on my own until Barren Slide; there is no description of the old trail in this guidebook. The point at which the AT turned onto the road was ten-and-a-half miles from Monson, so that is the distance with which I am crediting myself today, although I walked a mile or so further. The mileage will all sort itself out tomorrow when I reach the end of this section.

Tonight, I am at Little Wilson Campsite, on the bank of Little Wilson Stream about a mile downstream from the falls. The site is on a gravel road accessible by car, so, as is usually the case, it is slightly trashed out. On the plus side, it has garbage cans, which will enable me to leave here tomorrow without my first day's garbage. I will not get many chances to dump my trash in the days ahead.

Tomorrow, the Appalachian Trail follows roads all of the way to Long Pond Stream Lean-to, where the hundred-mile wilderness begins. When I take those first steps up Barren Mountain, I will finally be in the cool wilds of northern Maine, the Promised Land of fir and spruce and icy streams born out of the dreams and dust of a long, hot summer. There were more times than I care to remember when I thought the day would never come.

I can now barely remember a guy who used to quit everything when trying became a little too tough. Reliving that time is almost like thinking about someone I used to know. I look southward on the trail tonight, and, many miles away, I see a guy struggling towards a goal he has no hope of ever attaining, but who keeps going on for the simple reason that when a man makes his last stand, he owes it to himself to make it a good one. Even if it so clearly is a lost cause. And, for once in my life, finally, I kind of like that guy. Perhaps that was all he ever really wanted.

It has been a long, long road. Tonight, I feel the burden of all of those miles, so I think I will try to rest. Perhaps I will be able to sleep through the depressing sound of the first raindrops pattering against the fly of my tent.

TUESDAY, 9/27/83, MILE 2049.6 --- 88.9 miles to go. It is hard to believe. The number of remaining miles has diminished from more than two thousand to less than a hundred. Soon, I will be a through thru-hiker.

Last night at the campsite, I met a thru-hiker from Lime Rock, Connecticut. After backpacking from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Kent, Connecticut, he flip-flopped from there to Katahdin and began hiking south to Kent to complete his Appalachian Trail thru-hike. He was running very late in the season and needed to perform this maneuver in order to beat the snows which usually begin near the middle of October, closing Katahdin for the winter to non-technical climbers. Upon hearing my name, he broke out with the dreamy smile I have lately come to know so well, and told me he has been a big fan of my register entries since Georgia. I guess they did do some hikers some good.

Last night was unseasonably warm and muggy. I could not seem to get moving when morning came. I did not roll out of the sleeping bag until after 6:30, and did not make it out onto the trail until almost 8:00. The rain never had arrived, and last night's clouds were beginning to break up, although the air remained fairly humid. It appeared that another stretch of warm, hazy weather was on tap.

The Appalachian Trail was a roadwalk for the entire distance to the next shelter. I have no idea of how many miles it was, as this section was not in my guidebook, but it took me almost two-and-a-half hours to complete. Along the way, I crossed the tracks of the Canadian-Pacific Railroad. As I recall, that is the official southern boundary of the North Maine Woods, an enormous wilderness tract owned by several giant paper companies. There are few roads, towns, or villages. I also passed a rustic community consisting of a bunch of rude shacks surrounding a run-down mobile home. I had been warned about this place in Monson -- many backpackers have run into trouble here lately, but they did not mess with the Backpacker With No Name.

I passed three or four huge trucks loaded with timber coming from the opposite direction. The road deteriorated into a rutted logging track. I met four thru-hikers who had flip-flopped in Pennsylvania: two girls, a cat, and a dog. The cat would ride all day atop one of their backpacks while the dog ran alongside (probably a pithy comment on the relative intelligence levels of these animals, but I still love dogs). A short time later, I met a married couple who had flip-flopped in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. When I told them who I was, they both smiled and the man grabbed my hand and started pumping it. He said that he had been reading my entries and cracking up ever since Springer (you know, were I not such a humble man, all of this stuff could start going to my head).

His wife told me that all he has been talking about since they flip-flopped was how he was going to get a chance to meet me. The women in our lives have a tendency to overstate such things to our occasional embarrassment, but I think I have met my biggest fan. He was especially partial to one Virginia entry which I can barely remember about making it to a shelter at the end of a long, hard-day, dropping three hits of acid, and freaking out. I think I began babbling something about how in control of the experience I felt, except for those enormous mice with long, sharp fangs who were eyeing me ominously. It was okay, but drug humor is always fairly easy to create.

I know this will sound corny, but meeting all of these wonderful people lately and learning how much laughter and pleasant forgetfulness from the travails of the trail I provide for them, with absolutely no financial reward to myself kind of makes me feel. . . like I want to f___ing puke.

It was much easier walking after this, what with my big, fat swelled head buoying me up, relieving some of the weight of my heavy backpack. I reached the end of the roadwalk at Long Pond Lean-to at 10:30, and spent forty-five minutes zoning out. Today was just another one of those days when I could never get going. I was constantly taking long breaks for no apparent reason. I enjoyed myself, but I most definitely was not the LEAN, MEAN MILEAGE MACHINE. The fifty-odd pounds of supplies crammed into my backpack may have had something to do with that, or the culprit may simply have been Maine Disease. That is what northbound thru-hikers have taken to calling the condition which afflicts us in this state with a reluctance to speed the end which is now so near. We slow down to savor all of the sights, stop for the night early, and our daily mileage drops. It is time to stop and smell the roses.

It was a weird day, what with a severe dose of Maine Disease and that magnetic pull of Katahdin battling it out for control of my mind and my body. Apparently, they reached a sort of a compromise, because I moved very slowly and stopped frequently all day, but I kept pushing onward until after nightfall and put in nineteen miles.

Maine Disease notwithstanding, the Barren-Chairback Range was a hike which demanded extra time. The Appalachian Trail traveled a rugged course with constant sharp ups and downs through high, windswept forests. Dusky fir and spruce rose above black, spongy ground cluttered with masses of dark gray boulders. Moss and ferns in vivid greens brightened the perspectives. The traverse began with a long, arduous haul up Barren Mountain from the Long Pond Stream valley.

The trail's first breakout from the woods was about halfway up the mountain at the top of Barren Slide, where fractured slate cliffs trailed a jumble of boulders far down the mountainside, leaving a path of destruction which had obliterated a huge chunk of forest. I took another long break there. Lake Onawa's long, irregular shoreline dominated the remote, forested valley below, with Boarstone Mountain's swaybacked ridge culminating in the striking massive double hump of its summits rising above the far shore. Bordering the lake's inlet stream was the Bodfish Intervale: a flat, broad swathe of bottom lands amidst a broken country of ridges and ravines. It was a gray, overcast, humid day, but clear enough for the eye to enjoy some views. There was not much for my camera to pick up, however.

Up at the top, an old firetower featured sweeping 360-degree vistas limited somewhat by visibility conditions today. The blurred vastness of Maine's famed Sebec Lake was barely discernible several miles to the south. A line of mountains to the north beyond the narrow S-curve of Long Pond were mere ghosts in the haze.

The trail continued eastward along a humpy and hummocky ridge. Masses of slender downed fir limbs and plenty of dead trees lie amongst the moss and rocks -- a tough neighborhood for trees. Cloud Pond lay on a small plateau tucked below the narrow ridgecrest just past Barren's summit. A quarter-mile side trail led to a tiny, dirt-floored shelter perched upon its shore. The first glimpse of the pond was a shallow pocket cove at the eastern tip. Tall strands of water grasses rose above the surface of the water. Sunlight on the rippling waves was reflecting moving lines on the grasses -- a gentle strobe effect which was rather hypnotic. Lily pads bobbed in the shallows, while rocks and driftwood lined the shoreline. The dark spruce and fir surrounding the lake were gnarled and shaggy, their trunks covered with a grayish, scaly fungus. A hummingbird hovered briefly in the sunlight beside me, and a weasel skulking through the shadows stood on its hind legs to check me out.

A string of lovely little bogs between Barren and Fourth Mountains, vividly green amongst the darker, more somber spruce and fir forests, struck me as some kind of alien landscape. Old log walkways weathered a pale gray traversed carpets of peat and quiet brown pools. Marsh grasses, ferns, and at least a dozen species of moss grew among gnarled dwarf spruce. Shaggy, stringy mosses hung from dead trees like long gray beards. The last bog was the largest -- channels of brown water twisting through stunted spruce and full-sized cedar, tall ferns turning autumn browns and golds, and innocuous-looking carnivorous flowers. The silence was broken only by the drone of a few flies and occasional bird calls. Hints of mist above the pools loomed eerily through the deepening twilight.

Fourth Mountain was a mother climb, and the summit ridge a series of rugged knobs, but there were some nice views to the north and east. Third Mountain was scenic, but a five-star pain in the butt for a backpacker. Its entire ragged length was a series of abrupt knobs separated by strip bogs nestled in dry ravines, pocket rock-garden meadows, and open rock ledges with views back west toward Fourth and Barren Mountains. When I finally staggered up to its main summit beside an impressive line of cliffs, I saw some great views of the entire range from Barren Firetower to Columbus Mountain and East Chairback Pond with Whitecap Mountain beyond, but traversing that mountain chewed up all kinds of time -- the one commodity I could least spare.

Daylight was fading fast as I descended into the gap between Third and Columbus Mountains. Nevertheless, I could not resist following a venerable, grassy logging road off of the Appalachian Trail for a quarter-mile to check out West Chairback Pond, snuggled between their broad shoulders. Much larger than Cloud Pond had been, most of this heart-shaped body of water was hidden from the trail by a large peninsula with a wooded island just off its tip. It was another lonely, lovely spot, but it probably would have been more sensible to skip the long detour (yeah, like that ever stopped me before).

The overcast finally cleared as I climbed the day's final mountain. From the top of Columbus, I had haunting visions of the deepening colors of the post-sunset above the trees to the west and a good view of twilight settling over the ponds and mountains north and east. I needed my flashlight along the short drop into Chairback Gap, which made for slow, hazardous going on the rough footway.

When I finally reached the shelter, three campers were already there -- equaling the total number of persons with whom I have shared shelters in the entire state of Maine up to this point. There was still plenty of room, but it seemed almost cramped in comparison. My shelter companions were a guy from Belgium and a Boston couple with a dog who were hiking south through the wilderness to Monson. The Boston couple was exceptionally nice. The man had a warped sense of humor similar to mine, and we giggled all night. His wife told me about a couple of must-see spots on the trail ahead. They offered me a hit off of their joint, but, having learned down south how the munchies can decimate a food supply, I declined. I have come too far and face too many more miles of wilderness to screw up now.

Speaking of screwing up, I finally dragged into this lean-to at 7:30, well after nightfall. I enjoyed my day, but Maine trails are too rough for that kind of risk, especially with me being this close to Katahdin. It is time to get serious. For almost two months now, I have known that I was not going to quit, but I can still be defeated. I have made my last night hike on the Appalachian Trail.

In the early stages of the roadwalk this morning I passed the 19/20 point of the Appalachian Trail. Just past Long Pond Stream Lean-to, along the climb up Barren Slide, the number of remaining trail miles dipped below a hundred. Nevertheless, I still have yet to see Katahdin. That bites. Every time I climbed a mountain purported to provide a view of that long-sought dream, either the visibility was limited or I was just unable to pick it out from the other tiny specks on the horizon, never having seen it before. Now that I have seen wild moose up close, this is my one big disappointment in Maine. There is supposed to be an excellent view from Chairback, the first mountain I will be climbing tomorrow. This evening's late clearing has given me hope for good conditions in the morning. I am close enough now that Katahdin should be unmistakable. The saga draws toward a conclusion.

WEDNESDAY, 9/28/83, MILE 2068.1 --- It was a raw, bitter night, once again ending a string of warm nights after one in a row. I could not get myself out of the sleeping bag this morning. It was 7:00 when I finally dragged my lazy butt out. By the time I hit the trail, it was 8:30. Some things never change.

The climb of Chairback was easy, and a long cliff-walk around the summit had the best views of the entire range. Conditions were perfect. Apparently, a dry cold front moved through last night and pushed the warm, hazy air out to sea. It was a crystal-clear, blue sky day. Nevertheless, I could not pick out Katahdin from Chairback. The great mass of the Whitecap Range blocked most views in that direction, but a few peaks rose above the surrounding foothills. One of them must have been Katahdin, but it was not apparent to me which one. I had been chasing one faded dream for two thousand miles, and it still was just a dream. Did it even exist? Maybe the whole thing was just an elaborate joke.

After a short, but very steep drop over loose chunks of blasted shale down the sheer cliff face which gives Chairback Mountain its name, came an easy, more gradual descent to East Chairback Pond. I spent a lot of time taking pictures on the mountain's summit and along some open ledges near the edge of a plateau below the cliffs. Autumn colors were finally beginning to break out in earnest. Everything about my hike seems to be timed perfectly lately.

I took the side trail, such as it was, to East Chairback Pond. The path had not yet been cut or cleared, but the future route had been plotted out and marked with ribbons tied around tree trunks. It was a steep descent, and virtually a bushwhack, but the difficult access enhanced the pond's heady aura of isolation. As journey's end draws near, I am filled with a growing compulsion not to miss a thing. My own personal strain of Maine Disease, I guess. I can live with it. My side trips in Maine always turn out to be worth the extra time and effort.

At the bottom of the long descent from the Chairback range was the second-biggest water ford on the Appalachian Trail: the West Branch of the Pleasant River. Twenty-five yards across and barely knee-deep, it was no real challenge to a backpacker who had so recently waded the Kennebec. Nevertheless, a refreshing wade through icy waters always gets me humming the theme song from "The Magnificent Seven." Da-daaa. Da-da-da-daaa.....

On the far side of the river, the Appalachian Trail followed an old logging track called the West Branch Road through and beyond the Hermitage: a stately grove of soaring white pines with massive trunks surrounding a small clearing with bits of an old cabin's foundation. About a mile-and-a-quarter past the river, the AT turned off the road, which continued ahead as the start of the Gulf Hagas Trail.

I was running late again, for all of the same reasons as yesterday, but I could not pass up "the Grand Canyon of Maine." I followed the side trail Across Gulf Hagas Brook and followed the stream down towards the gulf. Along the way, I passed Screw Auger Falls, where the wide stream created futuristic rock sculptures as it carved a deep canyon through the dark gray slate. Two twenty-foot-high waterfalls connected by smaller cascades flowed into huge rock bowls forming deep pools with water so clear I could pick out individual rocks along the bottoms. A cedar and hemlock forest grew right up to the rim of the canyon, while grasses, ferns, moss, and small trees grew like lush oases in thin layers of duff collected in crevices and on tiny ledges along the rock walls. The walls of this impressive miniature gulf rose more than sixty feet above the narrow channel in spots. The canyon soon faded into a milder series of smaller cascades, flumes, mini-falls, and shallow pools as the ground leveled and the brook continued onward through a shallow, rocky channel.

I took a one-and-a-half mile round trip to Hammond Street Pitch: a high cliff overlooking the deepest portion of the chasm. The West Branch of the Pleasant River roared over cascades and flowed through pools a hundred feet straight below. The opposing cliffs were even higher -- massive dark gray walls of broken slate with pine and hardwoods clinging to tenuous footholds along their face. Although heavily forested and smaller in scope than the more spectacular canyons out west, Gulf Hagas was impressive in its own right. Like so many other thru-hikers, I made a vow to return some day and explore the remainder of the place.

It was 1:30, and I had not exactly been burning up the trail thus far. The next shelter was ten miles away. I really wanted to stay there tonight. The lady from Boston at Chairback Gap Lean-to last night had told me that the location was beautiful and the structure less than two weeks old. The one small obstacle between me and some exceptional trail accommodations was the entire Whitecap Range. I needed to do some serious stepping to get there by dark.

I hiked eight miles, climbing three mountains, before stopping for my next rest break. When this trip is over, it is going to be tough to look back and select its finest hour, but this stretch of hiking will certainly be a finalist. It sometimes seems as if I am trying to make up for a lifetime of quitting in five months, which I suppose I am, come to think of it.

The initial ascent of the Whitecap Range was fairly gradual. The Appalachian Trail passed through a varied and interesting forest of hardwoods and conifers, mostly on old abandoned tote roads. I made excellent time along this stretch. After three-and-a-half miles, the AT crossed a stream known as Gulf Hagas Brook, wound through a bog, and leapt straight up Gulf Hagas Mountain on a very steep, rocky path. The time I had made up on the lower portion of the climb drifted away like flotsam on the tide.

The summit of Gulf Hagas Mountain was partially open. The ridgecrest appeared to have been either burned-over or clear-cut in the not-too-distant past. Covered with a low, dense tangle of scrubby growth, it sported some decent views back to the south. I paused very briefly at the summit to take it all in before turning back northward and starting down the other side. Suddenly, I was frozen in my tracks.

I had been zoning out at the time, moving ahead on autopilot. My mind was wandering distant pathways, tuning out a snowballing mass of fatigue. I had no idea why my feet had abruptly stopped, why the hair on my arms, legs, and neck was spiking like the quills of a porcupine. I returned to the present, blinking like a man waking from a dream. Then, I saw it.

Ahead of me and to the left was a vision drawn from the mists of dreams, a legend of long ago summer nights kept alive by the aspirations and longings of a tired wanderer. A myth made real by the sweat and blood of two thousand weary miles.

"Yeah, that sure is some mountain."

I turned to face the speaker: a steely-eyed backpacker with a grizzled beard, a gore-tex serape, and a little burned-out stub of a cigar in the corner of his mouth.

"Then that's it?" I asked. "We made it?"

"Yep," he replied. "It's been a long road."

"Long and hard. But it was worth it."

He smiled. "By the way, you don't have to worry about the General any more. After today, we're doing things my way. You look like you can use a rest." He turned to leave.

"By the way," I said. "Who are you?"

He turned around. "I'm you, you a_____e." He pointed to the General. "So's he." He peered into my eyes. "I think you've spent too much time alone in the woods."

I smiled as my gaze returned to the mountain. So many miles behind me. It looked so close. It was getting late. I headed down the ridge.

Beyond the summit, the crest of Gulf Hagas Mountain was a descending progression of small knobs. Viewpoints along the ridge were actually better than at the summit. I dropped into a grassy gap between Gulf Hagas Mountain and West Peak. An official M.A.T.C. campsite was there, but it wasn't much -- just a couple of mowed patches amidst the higher scrub. A spring was supposed to be two hundred yards downhill, but I could find no marked trail. Even the Appalachian Trail was poorly-blazed and lost in a muddle of herd paths. I lost about ten precious minutes stumbling around trying to locate the route northward.

I finally found the trail and began the long, steep climb up West Peak. An exhausted hiker topped that summit, but I kept going and the good views gave me a bit of a lift. There were even better views along the descent into the next gap.

The climb up Hay Mountain was fairly reasonable, but I was absolutely spent even as I was making it. It was the third consecutive major mountain I had climbed without stopping at the tail-end of a three-day marathon. Good thing the General will not be around to talk me into any more of these. Hay Mountain was considerably wooded, but there were a few partial views near the top. I pushed on grimly, descending into the sag between Hay and Whitecap, and even managing to climb part of the steep slope on the other side. Finally, I had to sit down for ten minutes, although the sun was setting. I ate a granola bar and drank some water.

Resuming the climb, I caught an intense second wind at exactly the right moment and roared up to the summit ridge of Whitecap. After that, it was simply a gradual ascent through dwarf spruce to the top, at which I arrived slightly before sunset. I was just in time to experience the deep, rich colors from a mountaintop along the Appalachian Trail for the second consecutive evening (I know I said only yesterday that I had made my final night hike. I have been full of s___ before, and I imagine I will be full of s___ again many times).

The summit was a clutter of radio transmitters, a couple of tin sheds, and the ruins of an old firetower, but the views were amazing. I saw Katahdin one final time as I swung around the north side of the crest and started down.

I went as far down the mountainside as I could before stopping to get my flashlight out of my backpack. The batteries had died, so I was treated to the adventure of locating my spares and installing them in the dark. When the job was finished and I turned on the light, the bulb blew, so I had the privilege of reliving the entire experience one more time. Ten minutes after stopping, I was finally able to continue my hike with a working flashlight.

I arrived at Logan Brook Lean-to at almost 7:30. Few homes had ever been such a welcome sight. The structure is brand spanking new and in mint condition. It was built to replace the old Whitecap Lean-to, which has been recently relocated off of the Appalachian Trail. Until this year, the AT did not go over Whitecap Mountain, but descended off of the ridge from the sag between Whitecap and Hay. AT hikers were compelled to walk more than a mile on a side trail to reach the summit. That was one excellent relocation, and I am glad it was completed in time for my thru-hike.

The shelter is located in a pretty little wooded canyon on the north slope of Whitecap Mountain. Logan Brook runs just below the shelter on the floor of the canyon -- a nice sound to which to fall asleep. This is a beautiful spot, and I have it all to myself tonight.

It is hard to believe I am only seventy miles from the end of the Appalachian Trail. It is hard to believe the trail has an end after following it for such a long time. But I have seen the legendary mountain, so apparently it must be true.

THURSDAY, 9/29/83, MILE 2087.3 --- I took my time preparing to leave the shelter this morning. The place was even nicer in the daylight. I was out of my sleeping bag at 6:30, but it was 8:30 on another cool, crisp morning when I took one final look at my fifth-to-the-last home on the Appalachian Trail and started hiking the remainder of that long steep slope down to the lowlands.

The AT descended moderately along the floor of the canyon for almost a mile, then slabbed the side of the slope for a brief while before dropping sharply to the foot of the mountain and crossing a gravel logging road. A two-mile stretch of nice, level terrain brought me to a fording of the East Branch of the Pleasant River. It was nothing -- my feet did not even get wet. This was followed by a steep climb up a spur of Boardman Mountain. A viewpoint at the crest looked back over the flat river valley to Whitecap, looming two thousand feet above me. I took a half-hour break, simply because it was a nice spot and I felt like it. I surrendered to Maine Disease at every opportunity, and the day drifted pleasantly. I imagine the General would have relished slapping me. Katahdin's magnetic pull had ebbed considerably following its long-awaited first sighting yesterday.

A relatively-level ridgewalk led to Mountain View Pond. Across the small lake, Boardman's slopes were aflame with fall colors. Water and sky were an incredible blue, while conifers and late-turning hardwoods added some nice green tones to the mix. The five-month trek was climaxing nicely.

From the pond, the Appalachian Trail climbed very gently along an old, grassy tote road before leaving the road and shooting straight up the steep slope of Little Boardman Mountain. It crested the ridge at the top of some ledges with great views, and then passed another ledge which had even better ones. The air was dry and clean with no haze or pollution. Little smoke-puff clouds stood out in 3-D against the deep blue sky, and individual trees were discernible on ridges miles away. Wind ripples on the surface of Mountain View Pond were deep, precise etchings on its perfect surface. Little Boardman's summit was heavily wooded, but I caught another glimpse of Katahdin through the trees. The entire trail from the East Branch of the Pleasant to beyond this point was another 1983 relocation -- making two great relos in a row.

The trail dropped off of the little ridge and returned to the true lowlands, where it skirted one of the many large lakes for which this portion of Maine is famous. This one was called Crawford Pond. At one point, the AT touched shore at a tiny but perfect sand beach, perhaps twenty-five square yards in area, with views back across the lake to Little Boardman Mountain and a number of other low ridges. Five or six fishermen were out on the water in small boats -- quite a few people to see all at once in this remote part of Maine.

After following the south shore of Crawford Pond for about a mile, the Appalachian Trail trod old abandoned tote roads along the course of Cooper Brook for eight miles, usually out of sight of the stream. The forest was rather attractive, but this stretch was fairly dull compared to the preceding trail, and I made my best time of the day along it. I passed Cooper Brook Lean-to, which sat beside an attractive cascade, and brushed against the shores of several ponds.

When the AT finally swung away from the brook for the last time, it crossed several outlets of a large, marshy lake called Mud Pond. Some of the fords were a little tricky. Eventually, I ascended a low ridge overlooking the pond. It was much prettier than its name implied.

There was no third consecutive night hike at the end of this day, but I did not miss it by much. At 6:20, the Appalachian Trail passed a small peninsula thrust into an enormous expanse of water. Along the eastern edge, a string of about a dozen aging wooden cabins slumbered beneath giant pines of even greater antiquity along a gravel shore. When I took breakfast at Carrying Place Camps near Pierce Pond, on the morning I would ford the Kennebec, I mentioned they were the first of three sets of old hunting camps still on the AT. This was the second: Old Antlers Camps on Lower Jo-Mary Lake.

Unlike Carrying Place, these cabins were long ago abandoned to the forest. Most were ruined shells, gradually crumbling through slow years of neglect. However, two were still habitable. Near the point of the peninsula, cabins #1 and #3 had been rescued from decay. Two men were set up in #1 when I arrived, but #3 was empty. That is my new home for tonight.

This was the second of two stops which came highly recommended by the lady from Boston I met two nights ago. She was especially enthusiastic about this one. She and her husband found an indescribable quality here which drew them in and captured their hearts. I could not exactly see the attraction at first. These were no luxury accommodations. My cabin was dusty and dilapidated; a lumpy naked mattress on a ramshackle bunk gave off a slight, but distinct, musty aroma.

The place gradually won me over. A timeless quality resides here -- an aura of having stepped into the past. From an old wooden chair on my screened front porch, I watched loons drifting upon quiet waters fading into a deepening twilight. When darkness fell like a theatrical curtain ending the show, I lit a candle on an old table inside and began this entry. Usually, I must write sprawled out on the hardwood floor of a shelter. This is better.

I have three quarts of drinking water from a spring I passed three miles back, and plenty of lake water right outside for cooking. I have a comfortable berth upon which to lay down my sleeping bag. I have a rustic old cabin from a vanishing era in time. I have a vision of beauty waiting for me just outside my window when morning breaks over miles of gently-lapping waters stretching eastward from the point.

I also have but 51.2 miles of remaining trail.

FRIDAY, 9/30/83, ---
MORNING, MILE 2087.3 --
This morning, I faced a decision which had been postponed since Monson. I had a choice of taking two more long days or three short ones to reach Baxter State Park and its campgrounds at the foot of Katahdin. I chose to spend the entire morning of the last day of September savoring old Antlers Camps. It was a relaxing and soul-restoring interlude. It is now 11:00, and soon I must depart to begin hiking the thirteen miles to Wadleigh Stream Lean-to.

Last night after dinner, I lay back on my bunk and listened to the cries of the loons floating over the lake, accompanied by the mournful song of a lone coyote drifting down from the hills. The magic I discovered on a similar night at Pierce Pond returned to me, and I grew to love old Antlers.

I just lay in bed for a half-hour after awakening this morning. Loons were still calling, and the rising sun was creating long, undulating ripples of gold upon the gently-lapping waters of the lake beyond my screen door. Why get up?

The two men in cabin #1 left very early. I had a chance to talk with them before they went. They were members of the M.A.T.C. I found out that the lady who maintains this section of the Appalachian Trail adopted this place several years ago. Discovering that two of the cabins were still structurally sound, she replaced doors and windows, cleaned them up a bit, and even put up curtains in my cabin. Her vision was responsible for one of my finest memories of the entire AT.

They left, and I had the whole place to myself. I am whiling away the morning sitting beside a wooden table on the front porch of #1, relaxing and enjoying a show. Loons are swimming and diving for fish out upon the lake. The tall pines are teeming with songbirds. The undisputed stars of the show are the red squirrels. Gathering up fallen cones, they race high up into the treetops, dropping pine cones to the rocks below. The shells smash, and the squirrels come tearing back down, dashing around like maniacs, gathering up the meat. Stuffing their cheeks until they resemble miniature rodent Don Corleones, they sprint back to their nests. They are growing bolder about my presence by the moment. One just ran past not three feet from my toes. Winter smites these northern woodlands early and hard. This is no place for slackers or the faint of heart.

In actuality, the Appalachian Trail's hundred-mile wilderness is somewhat of an illusion. Traces of man exist throughout, but the absence of civilization's heavy hand creates a wilderness of the mind -- an aura of untouched primeval forest. In its way, Old Antlers is the heart of this wilderness -- a romantic echo of a rather unromantic and basic lifestyle.

It seems only fitting that my long trek should end in autumn. These forests' ultimate virtues exist in the brief, ethereal moments just before the season of death and long sleeps. This wilderness is, in effect, a woodland of autumn -- a region which has attained its greatest enchantment as lingering, relatively-intact fragment of a vast primeval forest which has passed away. Just as spring is a happy, vibrant time of excitement and growth, autumn is a time of beauty tinged with sadness, of dazzling colors that would soon, too, pass away. Because we tend to love most deeply that which we have lost, the things we love grow most precious towards the end. My long odyssey has become very precious to me here, near the end of the trail. The climax has turned into a drifting, idyllic dream.

My sojourn at old Antlers has come to epitomize the dream. Like Flagstaff Lake, I find this place to be haunted by ghosts. However, these are peaceful spirits, remnants of something which has quietly faded away rather than been extinguished. Old Antlers' long decline had been arrested at the very doorway to its winter of death. The place possesses considerable charms which it must certainly have lacked during its thriving summer. It is now at its best, suspended in a timeless autumn captured by one woman from Maine with a dream of her own.

LATER, MILE 2100.8 -- I left Old Antlers at noon. I wish I had enough food for a fourth night on the trail -- I would have spent it right there. One of the M.A.T.C. fellows told me that the proprietors used to canoe people out to this place from nearby Millinocket, Maine. That gives me a great idea for a future trip. I will be back. [Note: Several years ago, I learned that the cabins had been removed. Old Antlers Camps exist now only in the memories of those of us who were touched by them. I never did make it back.]

The first one-and-a-half miles of trail lingered near the shoreline of Lower Jo-Mary Lake. It was a pleasant walk, and the going was easy. I could see the deep blue waters of the lake through the trees as I walked. Just before the trail turned away from the lake, I passed a lovely little beach of soft sand. The afternoon was almost warm enough for a swim. It was hazy and humid, and the temperature must have climbed into the seventies. I had worked up a fairly-impressive sweat. This has been a strange year for weather, and I have been right out here in the middle of it all. The two M.A.T.C. guys told me that it generally rains two out of every three days up here this time of year, and yet I have seen only two partial days of rain throughout the entire state. Now, I am enjoying a summer-like day in northern Maine on the last day in September.

I was in a great mood today, another stupid smile on my face for most of my walk. The trail made a nothing climb over Potaywadjo Ridge and descended to Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to, where I sat for an hour, leisurely flipping through the register and sampling the finest water on the Appalachian Trail. The spring bubbled out of the ground six yards in diameter, and it was cold and delicious.

After the shelter, the AT descended for a half-mile to Pemadumcook Lake, which was even bigger than Lower Jo-Mary. A short side trail led to a point along the shore with an awesome view of Katahdin across the lake, but only the dimmest outline of the mountain was visible through the haze. It looked so close, but it still seemed like a dream.

The ensuing two miles skirted the shore of the lake. I ran into several M.A.T.C. work crews and told them how much I enjoyed the new relocations. They deserve a good word. Many thru-hikers write snotty comments about their trails in the registers, and they are a small club doing a damned big job. I was just as whiny a little snot as anybody when I started on the Appalachian Trail, but frequent contact with the hardworking people I have met along the trail has changed my attitude.

Not long after this meeting, I almost bumped heads with my fourth moose on this hike, a female. Two weeks ago, I was worried I would go through Maine without seeing one moose. I'm satisfied.

After Pemadumcook Lake, the Appalachian Trail crossed a logging road and followed Nahmakanta Stream for five miles. The stream was wide and scenic, presenting numerous different faces to me as I followed its meandering course. There were swift little cascades, slow-moving stretches over gravel bars, and placid deadwaters. The birch trees along the banks were bursting into their autumn fires and the spruce smelled wonderful. This was another recent relocation -- off of that logging road which I crossed. Three great relos in a row.

The AT came out onto a beach on the lower end of Nahmakanta Lake just as I was finally beginning to tire of following the stream. The trail swung around the western shore, often climbing well up the slope and then dropping right back down to the lake -- something which would probably have annoyed me on another day. There was one nice view from a ledge at the top of the final climb, just before the Appalachian Trail swung away from the lake for the last time.

A short side trail led back to the lake at a small beach of fine gravel, where the guidebook mentioned a spring. Its location eluded me for a while, but I finally noticed what appeared to be a puddle in the pebbles near the shore. Spring water was running beneath the gravel, and the "puddle" was a small hole which someone had dug to provide access. I filled my water bag. I was a half-mile from Wadleigh Spring Lean-to, and I had read in the last shelter's register that its spring had dried up.

Three people were here at the shelter: a man and two women who all somewhat resemble refugees from the sixties. They are good company, and I still have half of the shelter to myself, as they are all on the other side. Gee, and I used my deodorant back in August.

It is K minus three and counting. I passed the 2100-mile mark today and have less than thirty-eight miles to go. Somebody pinch me. Ouch.

SATURDAY, 10/1/83, MILE 2120.5 --- The first day of October in the North Maine Woods was a warm one -- even warmer than yesterday. It was not even a bit chilly when I awoke.

The trail today was fairly rugged for this flat lake country. The initial two miles were a climb to the north summit of Nesuntabunt Mountain. The name was bigger than the mountain, but it was still a hell of a little climb. The trail was steep and the footway was terrible. In the warm, humid air, I was soaked with sweat by the time I reached the summit. A short side trail led to an impressive view of the lake below and Katahdin up ahead. The guidebook said Baxter Peak was sixteen air miles away, although I still had thirty-four to walk. The haze had thinned somewhat since yesterday, and Katahdin looked a bit more substantial.

After descending, the Appalachian Trail passed a small, wild beaver pond and continued ahead to some low bluffs overlooking Pollywog Gorge. My favorite portion of the day was the half-mile that the AT wound along the bank of Pollywog Stream. It was a cheerful, giggly little stream (or maybe that second part was just me -- I'm losing my sardonic edge lately as I near Katahdin), and the fall colors were the best I had yet seen.

After crossing this stream on a logging road bridge, the AT proceeded to Rainbow Stream, which it followed for a good distance upstream, passing a long series of cascades and small waterfalls. After two miles, I reached Rainbow Stream Lean-to, where I took my first real break of the day. I had eight miles under my belt, and had climbed the second-to-the-last mountain on the Appalachian Trail. I kicked back with the register for a half-hour.

When I set out again, I crossed Rainbow Stream and followed the opposite bank past the three Rainbow Deadwaters. These were small pond-like stretches, along which the stream widened and the current became very still. The scenic qualities of the lake country has been a pleasant surprise.

After the deadwaters, the Appalachian Trail came out on the southwest shore of Rainbow Lake. The haze of the morning had cleared, and there was an absolutely fantastic view of Katahdin across the lake in the distance. The trail followed on or near the shore of the enormous lake for the next five miles.

Along this stretch, I passed Rainbow Spring, which was even bigger than Potaywadjo and almost as good. I spent fifteen minutes relaxing there, guzzling water and watching dark clouds begin to move in from the southwest. It figured. I will probably get a terrible day Monday for my ascent of Katahdin. This nice weather has just been setting me up for a huge disappointment. After all of those miles, I was kind of hoping for fair weather for my big day.

After the spring, the AT continued along the shore, passing Rainbow Lake Camps, the third and final of the three sets of hunting camps which are still on the trail. These are now private cabins of no use to AT hikers. Something big must have been happening there tonight. Numerous float planes were landing on and taking off from the middle of the lake.

At the far end of the lake, the Appalachian Trail climbed a ridge known as the Rainbow Ledges (whoever named all of these places worked that rainbow theme to death, don't you think?). A large burned-over area near the top had good views. Katahdin seemed almost close enough to touch. So did the thick, black clouds drifting sullenly across the sky. My one remaining hope is that it rains tomorrow and gets it all over with before Monday.

As the Appalachian Trail followed a wooded portion of the ridge over some knobs, I spotted moose #5. She was moving so slowly and quietly through the darkening forest below I almost missed her.

After a long descent, I Arrived at Hurd Brook Lean-to at 6:00. This is the final shelter on the Appalachian Trail, although Baxter State Park rents out similar structures to campers in the two campgrounds through which the trail passes. I read in the register numerous stories about backpackers compelled to climb Katahdin with a screaming dose of the trots after sleeping here, so I boiled all of the water which I consumed tonight, and some extra for the trail tomorrow morning. I still had plenty of Tang left to kill that nasty, ashy boiled-water taste. I also had a pint of good water in my canteen from Rainbow Spring, so I was able to hoist a cup or two of cold Tang with my dinner.

It is K minus two. I remember a dream I had long ago of standing in that campground in Baxter State Park at dusk, gazing up at the fading alpenglow around the summit. Tomorrow evening, perhaps, that vision will come to life. Tomorrow. If the weather improves.

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©1997 George Steffanos


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