Bigelow Preserve: Avery, West and a Horn

Thirteen miles in the Bigelow Forest Preserve.

6:10AM

Morning found me with tucked, cramped legs in the backseat of my Subaru; eager to stretch them straight after the prior day of long miles and steep climbing, with one deep breath to shake the seven hours that my watch claims that I winked, I received a dusting of frosty flakes from my side window – a reminder that it was colder outside than was predicted overnight.

I was hoping to wake up, clean up the back of the Subie a bit and maybe find a little breakfast before the sun really began to show its colors. I decided to call the Chapel parking lot at Sugarloaf my home away from home for the evening as I lay in my sleeping bag typing away until all the casual bar goers stumbled to their cars and made their way away from my camp spot parking lot.

This morning was absolutely stunning, I had a feeling that I was in for an even better day than yesterday – but with the tangerines and red raspberry sherbet hues beginning to trickle into the quickly fading deep blues of an overnight clear sky.

I had to hit the ‘autopilot’ switch on my morning routine just to get out of my warm cocoon, crawl to my front drivers seat, foot on the clutch, super cold keys in the ignition and as if it were still 80 degrees outside the boxer motor sprang to life and my seat heat was pumping hard while I finished getting gear prepped.

My new friends from the prior evening told me all about where to park and which unmarked road to be on the look out for as we descended Redington, which was now plugged into google maps on my phone, ready to guide me to my next big adventure of my long weekend in the Maine wilderness.

At the parking lot, the echo of two dudes in their frost-covered tent filled the air with deep bellowing laughter as I topped off my two water flasks, consulted my waterproof paper map one last time before it found its new home tucked in the smaller of my packs – the Black Diamond Distance 8L that I have grown to adore so immensely!

My go-to thru hiking Darn Tough wool socks helped my feet ignore the fact that my Lone Peaks were still dampened with crusty mud, once laced up – we were all ready to beat the crowds and hit the trails!

7:14AM

Trekking poles in hand, I began the slow shuffle to get the blood flowing once again – past the SUVs that just seemed to deposit themselves sporadically along the remaining drive to the actual trail head – the blackened, road-wide mud bogs must have intimidated the drivers of these luxury “off-road” vehicles.

In a matter of minutes, I reached the first bridged crossing – the outlet of Stratton Brook Pond where a youngster dressed in more goose down than an arctic expedition was fishing, trying to catch his fresh morning breakfast. We exchanged waves and ‘good morning’s as I let my feet chose the leisurely pace and continued down the most elegantly glowing trail; the morning rays softly illuminating the yellows and oranges of the forest canopy around me.

Feeling as if I finally found several square miles of pristine autumnal forest where the preceding windstorm had avoided, I tip toed across frosty wooden planks, gripping up the initial open rock slabs and two quick miles later, I found the intersection where I hoped to return later this fine day: The Fire Wardens Intersection with the registration box where it is recommended all hikers fill out a small tag with identifiers, helping to show how much traffic this area truly receives.

I decided to hike the loop this morning, ascending the steep Fire Wardens Trail, re-visit the Appalachain Trail again today (this time traversing South along the ridge), then descend the Horns Pond Trail back to this very intersection. I had originally planned of following the AT down off the ridge, but when my friends from yesterdays adventure highly recommended the Horns Pond Trail as being more gentle and picturesque, I was all about it!

The views behind me as I quickly climbed along the Fire Wardens Trail arrived within steps and did not leave my back until many miles later, I could see straight out to the ski slopes adorning Sugarloaf, the alpine zone high atop Abraham even further beyond was clearly visible, the Crockers were there too, wrapped in a blanket of fall foliage colors.

Several switchbacks and climbing later, I ran into a peculiar hiker standing atop one of the tent pads off a side trail, he stood there with a hefty pack by his side and an unlit cigarette in his hand asking me of my backpacking plans. Letting out a chuckle and thinking of my tiny pack on my own back, I admitted that I was only up here for the day.

My nicotine fueled friend advised that crews were out cleaning up large scenes of blowdown from the windstorms that rolled through in the days past. From the distance of where he stood all I heard was “thirty blowdown sections” and “Horns Pond Trail – impassable“.

I thanked him for the heads up about my planned escape route and we both agreed that as crews with chainsaws were actively working to clean up the Appalachian Trail, that this would have to be the trail I plan to pick up later in my day.

I’m not a huge fan of changes to my plans, but honestly my attention to either trail had been about equal – driving east to Maine the prior morning I had already planned on descending the AT, that is until it was recommended that I focus on the Horns Pond Trail instead, in my mind, I could go either way really – the only downside was that taking the AT would add quite a few miles to my day: add more miles of clear sailing vs. faster descent through a jungle of fallen evergreens??

After leaving this mysterious backpacker and his tent pad, I found what had been referred to as “the longest staircase in existence” – indeed it was a long one, however, I was left doubtful of these lofty claims.

Four miles into my morning and I was now taking the southern facing flank of the Bigelow ridge step by step, exchanging more morning greetings with other backpackers just off trail as they packed up their tents and tried to wipe their sleepy eyes back to wake.

I could see up above that the horizon was coming quickly and within minutes I was fully immersed in the baths of morning sunlight as more ice and snow toppled from frozen tree branches – I was now on the Appalachian Trail and in the col between my next two destinations!

BIGELOW MTN. – AVERY PEAK ELEV. 4088FT.

8:52AM

Zipping past the quaint caretakers cabin, with no evidence of any inhabitants this morning, I began my final jaunt over to the open summit of Avery along some of the most jagged east coast granite I had ever experienced. Along the upper reaches of 4000 feet, the boulders were encased in a fine hoarfrost so fine that just collapsed underfoot and turned quickly to a slanted ice-skating rink that slid each well-thought-out footstep in every angle imaginable.

It was all worth the risky, methodical climb/crawl over these Appalachian Trail boulders because when the morning sun rays shone through and slapped my frigid cheeks, I was in a state of comfort that I had yet to reach this weekend. I stood on the high point of Avery peak next to the windswept orange summit sign for what seemed like eternity, my gaze slowly traveling from peak to peak, taking in the views.

I heard about the old stone remains of the fire tower, with the adorable single track path leading over – I took that brief trek over with a little bounce to my step.. playfully tapping off one rock after another, escaping my mind to a place of ridge running bewilderment.

Not expecting the lower, 4088′ Avery peak to be home to any of my sought after USGS survey markers, I almost cut my summit experience short as to spend more time over on the westerly summit; to my great surprise however, I found not only the one survey disc outside of the fire tower remains, but two more embedded in the rock inside of the square shelter! I was in a heavenly world of glory up on this sub-peak!

Once again, before making my way further into my day, I simply stood with no distractions – glancing all around, at the frost that adorned the alpine grasses and stubby trees, the cloud inversion melting through the valleys, the stringy linear clouds that streaked through the otherwise blue sky, the birds that hopped from ground to branch searching for their breakfast of seeds and twigs who otherwise did not know how lucky they were to call these great heights ‘home’.

These were the views that I don’t ever want to set slip from my memory banks..

Just as I turned to leave, I heard voices.

Two backpackers made their way up as I wanted to begin my trek down – we ended up talking for a brief minute about how lucky we were with the given conditions. Turns out they had been up here just several hours earlier to watch the sunset over the landscape – must have been remarkably stunning!

They mentioned that Avery peak was their very first 4000 foot peak, I congratulated them and mentioned that West Bigelow, hopefully in my very near future, would mark my 114th peak in the northeast – their excitement was tangible as they reached out to enthusiastically shake my hand upon learning this!

Wishing each other a lovely hike and remainder of our day out in the forest, I made my return trek down to the col intersection, hand over hand, bracing over the slick, frost covered boulders.

Already having all the photographs that I wanted to take, I blew through the intersection and ran nose to nose with a barking puppy dog, “don’t worry, she’s fine.. just going to bark at you!” said its young owner Captain Obvious, as I passed by.

I had all of the views now, it was hard to believe that only minutes ago I was standing upon the highest rocks of the green and gray mound behind me. I could still see the cross-shaped summit sign atop Avery Peak, but my friends evidently had moved on by now.

BIGELOW MTN. – WEST PEAK ELEV. 4150FT.

As I reached the final major summit of my day, I took a breath and in an instant of exaltation, recounted all of the one hundred and thirteen summits prior that led me destined for this fine moment. Two fellow hikers glanced over but did not muster up a single word as they passed, I simply wished them splendid travels. Contently now, I had the summit of West Bigelow and the surrounding summit rocks all to myself.

Once again here, the views did not disappoint – if forced to choose either to spend my day upon, it would unanimously be back on Avery, but this westerly peak had different vistas still, spanning even further down the ridge west, my next destination.

Trekking down the ridge, I was reminded of time spent on the Presidentials back in the White Mountains, sloping drop-offs on either side with a neat single track, easily runnable bumpered on either side and slightly built up with excess basketball-sized boulders – such a lovely path to find myself on this morning!

Once the steep descent was over and I found myself back in the forest canopy where it continued to rain down ice and slushy snow clumps, the going was slick, but oh-so-smooth and encouraged a hastened pace. From rock to log and from log back to rock my Lone Peaks bounded, quick-stepping to keep from plunging into the frigid standing puddles which lined my morning trail.

Despite hiking and running in many similar forests and mountain ridges, I caught myself numerous times persuading my thoughts, that this was truly the finest, remaining desolate and unencumbered wooded ridges that I had ever sunk a trail running shoe lug in!

Two miles of watching the sun glisten through the southern facing trees and traversing through snow and mud, even more up and over bare rock – I was all smiles at my ‘whole-body-running-and-climbing-escapade’!

Finally, after what felt like a dozen miles – I could glance back with the increasing elevation and peer behind me, now with summit number 114: the West Peak smiling back at me, tipping its hat in approval of my epic fun run!

BIGELOW MTN. – SOUTH HORN ELEV. 3831FT.

With the orange summit sign strewn across the trail, I glanced around and ahead down the trail, “looks like a sort of summit to me!” A few brief moments to soak in these views now at an even further angle and I was on my way, my thoughts going back to the looming four hour drive and.. not wanting to leave this magical forest, but my desire to just be home with Ciara and the boys.

Making quick work, I bounced effortlessly down the carefully laid rocks that became yet another staircase, luckily not slick this time – descending the South Horn over what seemed much further than the half mile estimated by the signage down to Horns Pond.

What a fantastical area tucked away in the woods – each entrance to the surrounding plot of land came complete with a laminated map designating which paths led to the pond, the group shelter area, various camping areas – a very complete, colored map containing hand drawn images of the area; I chose to continue along the white emblazoned trail, south along the AT.

Upon checking my AllTrails app maps that conveniently work even while in airplane mode – I discovered that I, in fact had not passed the 0.2 mile cut off onto the Horns Pond Trail.

Just as I questioned my options: keep going extra miles to the AT to descend off the ridge vs attempt the Horns Pond Trail not knowing the current state of blowdown hindrances, I heard voices coming my way! Three young men with the most adorable french accents, reminiscent of early explorers.

I questioned their tortuous ascent, they gave many descriptive attributes regarding the trail, being sure to include the bit about their friend almost dying in the blowdown.. unfazed by this I focused on the one word which reverberated through the darkest, most masochistic corners of my gray matter: “do-able“.

The instant these young lads informed me that this blowdown was treacherous, yet “do-able” – I was totally all in. I did not want to add an extra six or so miles onto my already longer than I would have liked day: I was going to visit the fresh blowdown, I was prepared for a bushwhack, I was tackling the Horns Pond Trail after all!

What started out as a ‘not so bad, what bushwhack were they actually referring to..?‘ kind of trek thus far quickly turned from hopping up and over 1-2 downed trees across the path at a time to – ‘whoa.. uhmm.. there is NO trail here..‘ and absolutely no indication of which direction it went under easily 8-10 feet of deforested matchsticks laying in utter chaos.

Stabbing pine boughs sticking in every direction, trees entangled and facing every which way, when I stood finally atop the chaos.. what was there to see? Not a one tree in this catastrophe remained standing for quite a surrounding distance.

I recalled the one section of blowdown we encountered as a child where my mother and father handed my sister and I up and over, down and under trees that very much resembled a similar circumstance.

I was able to spot several pieces of orange surveyor tape tied around branches, but completely uncertain of what they pertained to – or even how old they were, perhaps older than this debris and marking something else entirely?

Several times I had to guide myself off tree trunks into the abyss below, an entanglement of spruce boughs and all things cushy, yet still pointy and snapped off branches stuck in every direction imaginable. It was a portal straight to hell.

Eventually, while proceeding in a generally southern direction – I was completely unaware of where the trail emerged from this thick mess, and knowing that if I went in the wrong direction, even 2 degrees off course for long enough, I’d never find my way back to the blue blazed trail – I reluctantly consulted my AllTrails app. Turns out.. I was still on the actual trail, I could not believe it for a second, not a single icon of a used trail remained for as far as my eyes could see!

But knowing that I just had to continue through this mess.. I pushed on, determined as ever until I looked down and saw a blue 2 by 3 inch swatch of paint streaking along one of the downed trees, this was my path after all!

Another twenty feet or so showed me back to the beaten path – the original Horns Pond Trail. I had time to make up, and was now out of the path of absolute destruction; clear, soft and moss-covered as far as the eye could see: I took off with a sense of necessitated speed on my mind.

As I exited the thick evergreen slopes of the Bigelow preserve and entered the colorful deciduous leaved canopy of a lower altitude, I now knew that progress was being made and my sought after intersection would soon be in my sights!

Without even taking a half-second to say good-bye to the registration box, I slammed my direction to the right and proceeded back onto the original Fire Wardens Trail that would soon have me sitting in my Subaru – all I could think of was my hidden stash of fresh, juicy apples that Ciara and I picked the weekend prior, waiting to quench my thirst like the finest watermelon imaginable.

I met another couple as I continued running ‘home’, said “hello!“, as I ran past they let the steady stream of questions spurt out.. questions that could not be answered if I were to continue running. They asked where I had come from as it was somewhere around 12:30pm, I asked where they were off to this late in the day; backpacking somewhere after they ascend via the Horns Pond Trail that I had just tackled.

Without trying to scare the wits out of them, I softly let them know of the adventure that lay ahead – without missing a beat, the man of the group chose to respond with: “well.. I’ll have you know.. that.. that.. we CAME OUT HERE FOR AN ADVENTURE!!” I wished them well and a fantastic trek and thus began my final mile.

Having no reason to hold back, I was cooking down the trail, fully warmed up and perhaps sweating a decent bit now.

Past the bridge where Mr Goose Down was fishing earlier this morning, past the tight community of North Face tents that popped up along the road walk in, and scooting around the muddy bogs that enveloped what resembled road remnants.

No one was around as I slowed now to a walk, looked around for a hidden stash of Appalachian Trail water (from Trail Angels), of which I found none – but I had some in my car, so it was all okay! My jacket and shirt was the first thing to come off as it was not so frigid cold anymore, and I was now a hot, steamy mess!

Without service, I loaded my run into my COROS app to be transferred to Strava later, composed a loving text to Ciara that would be sent along once back in service down the road.

Once again: foot on the clutch, boxer motor hummed to life, google maps was set – and I was ready to beat the 4hr 8minute estimation that they set for me, it was more of a challenge then an estimation.. right?

The entire next 5 miles of on-road travel consisted of me staring intently in my rear view mirror saying quietly to myself ‘holy hot damn.. I was totally just up there!!!

Reflecting on my long weekend in Maine is hard to say sombering, but it was indeed an epic weekend of pushing myself beyond what I thought easily capable of: ~42 miles with 15,000’ of elevation gain with the opportunity to visit 8 incredible four-thousand foot peaks of the Maine wilderness.

I’ve wanted to do this for a while, lived for quite some time with the uncertainty of if a journey like this would ever actually take place – and now knowing that it has, I am left with one final thought: I have one four-thousand foot peak in the northeast remaining until I can count myself as one of the NE115’ers – I can recall being a 6-year old aspiring climber brainstorming this daunting feat, just thinking of all the excuses life would throw my way, all the reasons as to the why I was not cut out to hike all of these amazing summits.

I have never been so close, and in due time will never be aspiring for this goal ever again.

A truly incomprehensible list of gradual check marks.

What an incredible journey it has been, and will always continue to be.

There was a time when nothing made me feel like a real person, no will to experience life, until I re-discovered mountains and met an amazing gal with two fuzzy puppies in tow, butt-sliding her way down from the Lyon Mountain fire tower in the NY Adirondacks and literally knocking me off my feet.

Here’s to many more outdoor adventures, may they help you also feel alive inside!!

Happy trails, Happy climbing!

– Erik


Overall stats for the day:

Recorded with COROS Pace

  • 13.01 miles
  • 4,281′ elevation gain
  • 5hr 8minutes
  • Bigelow – Avery Peak – 4,088′
  • Bigelow – West Peak – 4,150′
  • Bigelow – South Horn – 3,831′

A long day out.

Sugarloaf via ski resort to Spaulding to Abraham, back to Spauling via the AT North to South Crocker to North Crocker, back to South Crocker to Redington via a mean bushwhack.

Or at least that was the lofty plan running though my excited mind at 1000mph as I made the drive from western New Hampshire to Central Maine Saturday morning at a cool and calm 2:45am. The sun would not rise for many hours, which would allow my mind to race, jump, hop and skip all the way along the 186 mile commute – heck, I was even convinced for a brief moment that I had actually witnessed a goat walking down the side of Rt 16 in pitch darkness.. “what the heck even was that doing out here..?“.. I never will find out what creature of the darkness was I had just witnessed.

As I sit here in a post-weekend haze with bruised legs still dotted with dried blood, hearing fellow hikers reiterate all of the ‘do not even attempt to cross the Carrabassett River‘ warning signs,  I am still not even sure that a trek like this was possible.

7:30AM 
Relieved to pull into the Sugarloaf Ski Resort parking lot to find that the morning onslaught of frigid rain drops had tapered during the preceding 5 minutes – I grabbed for my larger of two running packs that this weekends trail-fest would see, laced up the almost-still-pristine Altra Lone Peaks, once the two beeps signaled from my watch indicating that both GPS signal and my heart rate were found (sometimes its the smaller accomplishments in life that we need to focus on.. like having a pulse this fine morning!), hit Start, and with trekking poles in hand – I began up that hill.

I stopped several times during this initial 2,553 foot climb; not far into my day and I could still look back.. I could nearly reach out and touch the bottom of the cloud layer, like a whisping cotton candy awaiting my entry. Once in, however, my beautiful post-fall-foliage mountain scape was replaced with gusting winds, the unbearded spots on my face bombarded with sideways travelling snow and ice chunks – I desperately wanted to reach for my sunglasses, but hoped I could just topple over the summit rocks before removing my pack.

The 4,237ish (look around – each source you check will list a different elevation..) summit cone offered little to no escape from the torrent of weathering ice pellets, with squinted eyes I tried to discern some indication of where the path dove into the cover of the forest and henceforth to the Appalachian Trail.

Once on the Sugarloaf Side Trail, time slowed down and the one half mile trek to the AT south seemed to last an eternity. A lifetime of frosted over boulders and trees shrouded in glistening hoarfrost. Just to add a little consequence to this mornings outing, the winterized trail of course would not be complete without the ice water trickling down the middle of my path – “dunk a toe now and you will be wearing ice bricks for the remainder of the day, you won’t make it anywhere..

Still I managed to enjoy my time in this Northeast Winter Wonderland, bear bells jiggling, all I needed now was to recall a few good carols to keep the wildlife at bay.

Admittedly, I was completely unsure if my day would be what I had hoped, I was busy readying my mind for the ‘abort mission‘ phase and retreat back to the warmth of my heated Subaru seats.

Up ahead, the burnt orange hue rang through the blinding plainness of all-white-everything.

SPAULDING MTN. 150 YDS. M.A.T.C.

Steep, bouldery, more steep, super slick rock, still with the steep, and here is a bit of a view finally over to the Crockers.

Precisely how the so called 150 yard jaunt up to Spaulding went, in fact the summit was so unremarkable that I continued on.. completely unsure of when I had reached the summit until the trail topped out and began steeply once again – descending the other side.

I had found my second summit of the day, when I returned from the frost-covered boulder descent I was faced with the next question.. push on down the white trackless trail into even deeper wilderness, far from the safety of any rescue mission, or turn back now with the hopes that I could retrace my footsteps in the morning, perhaps with warmer temps and more sunshine?

My legs, still brimming with early morning energy, made the decision for me and with no time lost at the junction – I was on my way deeper, heading toward a peak containing the largest alpine zone in the state, second only to that found on the highest reaches of Katahdin.

I was now fully immersed in moose country, later in the day many hikers asked enthusiastically if I had seen any bear. If I had ran face to face with any large wildlife, I would have been spooked.. but ready for it, I was tip toe-ing through their front yards, after all!

With about a mile to go south on the Appalachian Trail, my gaze was struck from straight down to one more cast in the distance, through the trees I now saw the massive ice-covered bare granite rock faces that adorned the northern slopes of Abraham. Just then it hit me, there was no option – I was going over to that mound of rock.

I met the junction with open arms and excitedly joined the Abraham Side Trail, remnants of footprints in the grass that harked back to the wildest herd paths of the Adirondack Mountains. I wanted to run these trails, but decided to save the effort for the return trek, agreeing to focus on my footwork over the still frosty boulders.
My frozen herd path soon opened up to a jagged boulder-field, which I wasted no time auto-piloting up. Only a handful of foot prints were laid down before I glanced to my left.. the massive rock cairns continued left, not straight up this mount of shattered rock.
“Ohhhh… I see now”, I thought to myself and to my disbelief what I saw appeared to be dozens of miles in the far distance – Abraham was over there, not over here.

Over some rocks and through some woods found me now on the side slopes of Abraham where I found the hiding wind, I had not even experienced wind thus far into my day until I began up the final ascent of Abraham.

Putting my trekking poles to good use, I found myself bracing at every step ‘three points of contact at all times‘, I reminded myself before taking each well-thought out step onto frozen boulders, not a single step on this peak was flat or easy going – and I adored this mountain for that!

I would admit in hindsight that I hung out on the summit cone for a few minutes too long – but the incoming wildly whipping cloud layers were absolutely mesmerizing; initially I had my first officially clear views of the day, all the way to Spaulding and beyond to the second highest in the state, to where my day had begun.

More than once I had almost been blown away like a rag doll from the rocks high atop Mount Abraham, and somehow deep inside, I remained calm to this fact – I was where I wanted to be, I was in the right place at the right time.

The return trip was more of the same in reverse, employing my trekking poles every step along the way to keep what little balance that I still had, retracing my Lone Peak foot prints back down to treeline.

Now was the time to throw some coal to fuel the fire; coal that is, in the form of dates washed down the hatch with several gulps of water. By now the sun had rose to an angle that warmed the icy white hats atop every tree around, each second that passed found swatches of ice and snow falling to the earth which, to my heightened senses had me assuming that moose and bear were now coming at me from every angle – not in a paranoid sort of way, but now the forest simply breathed the sound of life.

One would think living in rustic New Hampshire, where I have had many black bear and moose using my driveway to reach the other side of the forest, that I would have experienced the sound of a moose call – I had not, until Saturday morning at 11:40am, that is. I don’t think I have ever experienced something that has raised the hair on my neck so abruptly, what a true treat of nature – the way its call just echoed through the valleys, I knew I was not in its path – but I had just witnessed the magic of nature, 110%.

Then, to even further my surprise this morning, I heard yet another rarity this far into the depths of pure wilderness – people. Thinking it was only a quick encounter, I simply told Ryan and Yvonne about the ice and wind, but incredible views that awaited them, and just as soon as we ran up on each other, our paths widened. Once again I was alone with the sound of creaking trees straining to remain upright from the weight of ice and snow in their boughs.

1:13pm, mile 15

I was quickly approaching the most important decision of my day: continue following my beloved Appalachian Trail north, or call it a day; retrace my steps back up the steep slopes of where my morning had begun – to retreat up and over the mighty Sugarloaf?

I was not afforded the time necessary to debate with myself the options, ‘see you in a couple of mountains!!‘, I greeted and sped by the intersection: my feet had subconsciously made the call: I was now headed AT North.

Not an inch shy of 1,000 feet is all I now had to descend to reach the river crossing, run across the old logging roads and quickly make the 1,800 foot ascent up to South Crocker.

That’s all I had to do, with what I had already tackled.. those miles didn’t seem so bad!

This is where I really hit the line of traffic; kids, parents, friends, a thru-hiker, plus several pups slowly crawling up the flooded trail as I tip-toed cautiously from rock to rock, avoiding the chilly foot bath below me at every well placed step.

The Carrabassett River thundered from down below in the ravine, all of the melted ice and snow finally making its way and adding their droplets to the white capped roar slamming down the river bed.

I had heard reports of a plank now spanning the river, creating a tight rope of sorts and an extreme sport on top of this pre-winter climbing! To my delight, the plank remained in place, held by a series of cables on one end.

One foot onto the old weathered plank. As soon as I found myself mid-span along this old piece of drift wood, it was evidenced that neither end of this plank was fastened to anything! 

Left foot led as the plank began to roll, completely off kilter – the rogue waves crashed underfoot as I tried to escape my mind from the sights and sounds below; I was off balance and there was nothing I could do about it. 

Using a trekking pole, I jammed that sucker into a nearby rock as hard and fast as my reflexes could muster up – pushed off and began to run using pure, raw instinct. No way was I going into that ice bath below – because had I not regained a slight smidgen of balance, I’d be washed away for sure far down stream!

Once on the distant side of the river, I stopped to thank whatever forces helped me traverse this mess – I did not even want to think about my return trip, all I knew was that I had to cross back while there was still daylight – that gave me about five hours to cover the next twelve miles over three summits.

I had my bail out options, but none of them were easy: ascend South Crocker to North Crocker and bail out by continuing north along the AT and add far too many miles to my day vs. return now back across the river and pick up my trekking in the morning vs. ascend these three linear peaks while following the logging roads back to civilization.

I continued weighing my options during the coming miles. 

I was greeted by many hikers now descending the South Crocker trail past the Cirque as I pressed my way from one boulder to another, through the mud and frost, clawing inch by inch to the next summit of my day.

Every step higher brought this hiker closer to views where I could see the surrounding peaks, Sugarloaf now appearing to be light years away!

As the trail topped out and leveled off, I found myself super relieved to finally reach the summit signs:

SOUTH CROCKER MTN. ELEV. 4010 FT.

As the ice continued to pelt down around me, I took a chunk to the top of my head.. stood there momentarily in disbelief and thought: “hmmph.. so this is how I get broken on this trek, I bleed to death from my scalp by falling ice.. oh the irony!

To my delight, I did not bleed much and the wack did next to nothing to alter my determined pace, South Crocker had been checked once and what appeared too far away must have been North Crocker; “they call that a mile?!

Turns out this mile absolutely flew by, concentrating on one step at a time – the trail was covered in fresh soil from the waterbars that trail crews had recently dug out in anticipation of the ‘nor-easter’ only days prior.

Fresh blackened soil, decorated with a delicate white layer that resembled permafrost and strewn with softball sized rocks made up the trail, steep down for half a mile, steep up for half a mile – with some upper body use to crawl up and over some erratics blocking my path.. that’s really all it was!

NORTH CROCKER MTN. ELEV4168 FT.

The summit of North Crocker was not quite the open views that I had read about, in fact.. I really quite enjoyed the enclosed peak! Took a walk down a short spur path to get the Northwest vistas while I chewed up the remaining dates that became my afternoon snack. All trees that encircled the orange signage indicating I had indeed reached the highpoint of this loop spur were encrusted in ice and snow, which continued to crackle, pop and drop into the surrounding forest – it sounded truly alive and not so lonesome in that moment!

The run back to South Crocker was exactly that, I had fuel back in my belly and several swigs of water from what I had been conserving (of course I had my Sawyer water filter had I actually run out, and plenty of sources along the trail from which to filter..), and I was jamming right along. Concentrating on not catching a toe on any rocks or roots, it was more like a fast cadenced dance than an actual run for the one mile back to the main junction.

My intuition told me to head out toward a herd path that was labelled as “view point”, turns out I had actually gone past the cut off for the bushwhack over to Redington! Glancing back over my shoulder, I caught glimpses of orange surveyors tape strung up in one of the trees, this lone tie indicated the start of ‘into the deeper woods’.

Initially the trail zig zagged, a few branches reaching out in attempts to jab eye sockets and tear flesh – several branches had their way with me as I could feel the sting of sweat mix with fresh red blood – simply battle scars, I suppose!

To my utter surprise, I met another couple on the return bushwhack who boosted my confidence even further as they assured me the path ahead was certainly ‘followable‘, just what I needed to hear as the sun crept even lower still in the sky above.

The so-called bushwhack actually reminded me of some of the ‘unmarked’ herd path trails that I had hiked on my pursuit to becoming an Adirondack 46er, certain seasons might require better route finding skills – but today, simply being aware and looking around provided all the evidence one needed of a trafficked pathway.

Reaching the col between South Crocker and Redington, the bushwhack spat me out to a dozer-wide old logging road; there was absolutely no question of which direction to trek though, with all of the arrows and cairns made from rocks and logs guiding the way!

Perhaps a quarter mile had passed and I began to wonder if I had missed the junction to where the bushwhack re-entered the mountainside and leaves old road, I had not. Spirits were super high as I shot a few more photos and picked up my pace into the woods once again, my day was going okay!

Weaving through standing trees, zigging and zagging, trying to keep flesh away from each sharp pointy thing, that sense of seeing the blue sky over the horizon crept in once again and I knew that the infamous summit canister should be looming very near!

Of all places, I heard voices yet again. Which really should not have been a surprise as it was Saturday in the 4000-footers of Maine, but what really perked me up was the sound of: “HELLOOO AGAIIIIN!!!!“.

Nobody but my old pals from the other side of the river, Ryan and Yvonne, making their way down from the summit – we talked for longer than I would have liked, but they were such amazing and kind folks! They confirmed that the summit was just up ahead, told me all about their terrible bushwhack down from Spaulding Lean-To up to Redington.. best part of all: Redington was officially the final, 67th summit for Yvonne – and just like that another NE67er was birthed!

Once at the summit, I found a wooden “Redington 4010” sign that had seen many snowstorms and probably more terrible storms than I had years! Just off to the right, through yet another herd path was where I located the white summit canister strapped to an old tree.

All the years that I’ve seen pictures of this hidden gem, wondering if I was capable of such a feat as reaching this coveted location boiled down to this instant, the fact that I did it. This was a huge moment for me, that canister, as simple as it is buried deep in the forests of Maine, on a summit with no official trail, represented so much for me. I did it. I did it for me. I took each step in that unmarked forest for each day that I struggled. These are the moments I live for, the mountains that take me home, the mountains that help me breathe life.

I stayed long enough for some photos, trying to forever burn this image of this summit into my memory bank – and then I turned to leave, so quickly and it was over.

Running back down the trail, I had a rad couple of trail runners to catch up to! My new friends informed me of yet another side trail that led more directly (once hacking my way through super dense forest that had grown back in!) down to the logging roads. Before we went in opposite directions they had suggested that, “if you are not trying to reach a certain mileage today.. we are more than happy to show you to our car.. and give you a ride back to yours!”

Eventually, turn by turn through this thick canopy, I began to hear their voices. Once caught back up, we re-entered the openness of old logging terrain, running off and on, the two strangers of the woods told stories of hiking this area almost a decade prior, truly an entertaining bunch!

The low trickle of the river soon turned into a roaring river once again, indicating that we were nearing the gate of the old logging road, and thence their Subaru hatchback.

They stopped their watches: 13 miles for the day.

I stopped my watch and yelled out “Nooooo!!! I have to jump around for TEN more feet!!”, was my response when I read 9,990 feet of elevation gain for the day.

Joking of course, I humbly tucked my muddy Lone Peaks onto their sides as to not get the hearty black Maine Mud all over Ryan’s Subie interior.

Super thankful for helping me along with the final miles of my day, we all talked of seeing each other some day, somewhere out on the trails. They invited me to a celebratory BBQ, I politely declined, opting instead for the spinach salad with bread and garlic hummus that I had stashed in my trunk.

I had accomplished in a round about way, what I had set out to do and quickly settled into my home for the night with dinner and a change of clothes in my near future. Life in the backseat of a Subaru Impreza was not so bad as the sun quickly set and the frigid evening temps quickly set in.

Sugarloaf, Spaulding, Abraham, South Crocker, North Crocker, Redington. 

This was my day, this is what I drove 186 miles for, this is my time with nature that I craved.

Now I settle into my sleeping bag, try to stretch out stiff limbs and get ready, for.. tomorrow I will do it all over again.

Tomorrow I will be in the Bigelow Forest Preserve for the first time, and certainly not the last time. 

What a wild, wild ride I had in these hills – and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

Happy Climbing!

Erik


Overall stats for the day:

Recorded with COROS Pace

  • 27.55 miles
  • 9hr 54 minutes
  • 9,990′ elevation gain
  • Sugarloaf Mtn – 4,250′
  • Spaulding Mtn – 4,010′
  • Mt Abraham – 4,050′
  • South Crocker Mtn – 4,050′
  • North Crocker Mtn – 4,228′
  • Mt Redington – 4,010′

*summit heights provided by AMC

 


 

Saddleback & The Horn

I write this from the back of my Subaru; wrapped up in a sleeping bag and munching on bananas, fresh off the trail and spending the night in Maine – which is quite fitting as I am recounting my excursion from last weekend.

Saddleback.

The name of an old time favorite back in the Adirondacks, I’ve seen that Great Range gem in every season – and it never gets old in my humble opinion! But with an epic steep climb up an old landslide resulting in some of the finest views one could possibly hope to find anywhere in the Adirondack state park.

However, this is of a different Saddleback, this is the Saddleback of Maine! Turns out this was not even my ‘first pick’, in all honesty, I suppose I had just simply not thought of it! All of my sights were tuned into the big brothers in the area, with names like Bigelow, Sugarloaf and Redington (which is an almighty bushwhack!).

As per my typical planning regime: I began checking the weather the instant that I returned to work on Monday morning. Knowing that most accurate mountain weather apps generally do not broadcast that far out into the future, I just could not resist the temptation to day dream even for just a moment on this Monday work day!

Weather looking good, my sights quickly switched to researching trails – I was in the mood for something out of the ordinary – my destination didn’t have to be the steepest trail, or even the longest hike imaginable, sometimes I just want different – such as several weeks ago – Ciara and I went for a spontaneous sunrise hike in Vermont, turns out not far off the trail was an old airplane fuselage from a mountain-side crash landing many moons ago (spoiler alert: the pilot lived!).

When I realized that I was contending with a +4 hour car ride one way to hike any of these far away four thousand footers, I knew I had to re-organize my thoughts.

Saddleback was the closest of them all; I sat there at my laptop with several tabs of google-maps open thinking nearly out loud, “why had I not looked into this by now?

At about 3 and a half hours one way (still seems crazy as I type and hear the words aloud in my head!), Saddleback would afford me an extra hour and a half of time back into my day – which was perfect because this was one weekend when I need to get there and get back to spend time with Ciara and the doggies!

So.. what’s so ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ about this Saddleback place?

First off, it’s a ski resort. I really didn’t look into the details, but after returning from hiking via the ski slopes.. I almost want to dig in deeper! The resort is closed, but all of the quickie google.com searches for Saddleback Mountain have informed me that there is a person or group actively trying to re-open the resort for the 2020 season.

The resort itself appears to remain in great condition, only a wee-bit eerie when I pulled into the lot with not a soul to be found, no sounds, just pure silence – and as I peered into the windows as I passed, the chairs were all up on the tables but everything else has been removed: 110% eerie.

Second cool factor is that there are multiple ways to hike this hidden gem! The Appalachian Trail traverses the summit ridge and continues over to other series of bumps and rocky outcrops, the nearest being also one of the 4000-footer summits of Maine, wicked Bonus!

As I returned from my morning jaunt up along the ridge, I had several people (from different groups of hikers) asking me where the pesky trail was! Trying to be helpful, I pointed them to the slopes around back of the lodge to where I began my ascent, “it’s back there, you can’t miss it.. but if you do.. just keep climbing until you can’t climb no more!

The talus-filled ski slope that made up my trail.. and it was much like a trail after all, began as a muddy single track width of boot and trail runner prints quickly sprawled out onto a poorly maintained maintenance access road – and got steep, real quick!

About 20 solid minutes of warm up climbing was all it took, and within minutes the once sprawling fall foliage vistas were completely shrouded in white mist as I quickly ascended into the blanket of ominous cloud cover – but for those few brief moments of incredible views – I could tell Maine was darn close to Peak Foliage around there! The yellow birch leaves and deep reds mingled with the rusty orange hues, all offset by the spruce and evergreen needles sprinkled throughout just seemed to spread out and unroll across the countryside like the most vivid quilt ever quilted!

Nearing the ridge line, the winds masked the sounds of thru-hikers who made their beds in one of the shelters just off the crest of the ridge – the scent of their bacon and maple syrup wafted through the air. Now over 4,000 feet, the air was growing more and more tumultuous, whipping the heavy cloud layer all around, whirl-winding that sweet maple syrup right up my nose!

Once out on the ridge line, visibility narrowed to a slim 15 feet in any direction, the whipping wind was alive and in full force now with 40-50mph gusts forcing me to brace each step with my trekking poles – mildly nerve-racking to say the least while trotting down open granite slab with a drop off to the right that disappeared into who-knows-what kind of abyss far below.

I was very pleasantly surprised with my inaugural break-in of my first pair of Altra Lone Peak 4.0s! They seemed to grip the bare rock better than any other shoe I had hiked in, I expected them to give up their hearty traction and send each of my legs flailing in varying directions.. I can pleasantly say that the Lone Peaks did stellar – now I just need a bit of snow and ice to test them in!

It really was not difficult at all to follow the ridge despite being shrouded in a thick undulating cloud layer – the AT was marked very well – and the notorious white blazes almost appeared to have been recently repainted! There were of course large rock cairns every so often to follow when the snow flies and the visibility is reduced to footprints.

I thoroughly enjoy a hike where I can employ my arms and legs both – and Saddleback was definitely the hike for that! Heading over to The Horn just over a mile away saw a lovely granite sidewalk that was easily runnable (even when wet!), rocky scrambles, a deceptively thin wrought iron ladder that looked as if I would step through each rung, and boat loads of rocky outcrops that would have made great resting view points had I not been over four thousand feet up in the clouds!

Once up the last steep pitch to the summit rocks of The Horn at 4041′, I quickly spotted the burnt orange MATC signage surrounded by boulders helping to keep it upright in these torrential wind gusts. I have grown accustomed to the dark brown signs with yellow text found in the Adirondacks, the rough wood plank signs of the Whites, but the uniqueness of these bright orange trail signs found on Maine mountains still seem so exciting and new to me!

The summit of the Horn is one that there could be fifty people stuffed onto the summit rocks, and with such an open summit, there would be plenty of space between groups as to not be jammed on top of one another.

After several photos and slamming gusts of wind later, my fingers made the call that it was time to pack up shop and head back to warmer pastures found in the treeline!

After a run through the col, and beginning back up the Saddleback side I was quickly stopped dead in my tracks. Just several quick moments of when the sun began to shine through the clouds, even from up so high the views to the west began to shine through the cloud that I reluctantly called my ‘home on the ridge’ for this morning.

I could literally see the water droplets that made up this cloud wiz past my face, but now they were so few and far in between that the most colorful artists palette of fall foliage shone through – to the untrained eye, a passerby may assume that the cold wind was whipping tears across my face, I might just say that it was such a magical experience to be there in that moment!

The mind blowing color shots did not last long, as I traced my steps and ascended back to the peak of Saddleback, I found myself alone again on this pile of rock. I did some exploring now though, checking out the old stone shelter that rose several feet off the backside of the peak. I was able to find an old USGS survey marker and for a change, just simply stop in time, walking slowly and intently, simply taking in the sights that surround my feet; looking at the colors of the alpine moss, watching grasses sway in the breeze, even birds all around that tried to defy wind speeds – it was all an incredible experience.

When I had my fill of playing explorer, I recalled my three and a half hour drive home. I met many families with youngsters making their way up, I wished them all a safe and fantastic trek up to the summit; most saw me still wrapped up in my Black Diamond wind jacket and eventually asked about the weather up top. It was only then that I admitted how strong the gusts were, how bone chilling the water droplets screaming by any bare skin had felt, but most importantly – I wanted each person who ascended after me to have the same magical experience that I had, whether they saw the clouds part or not! 

The Altra Lone Peaks make super quick work running down the boulder and mud slopes while heading down to my car, I have been thoroughly impressed by them – and not too sure why it took me so long to get around to taking them for a spin on the mountain-side!

Another hugely successful and enjoyable day – Saddleback along with the epic Horn traverse was my 5th and 6th four-thousand-foot peak in the incredible wilderness of Maine.

I am truly excited to venture back here again soon and see what other gems lay waiting for me and my Lone Peaks!

 

Until then,

Happy Climbing!

– Erik

 


Overall stats for the day:

Recorded with COROS Pace

  • 6.8 miles
  • 2hr 29 minutes
  • 3,255′ elevation gain
  • Saddleback Mt – 4120′
  • Saddleback Horn – 4041′

 


Baxter State Park, Maine – Day 2

With day one successfully written in the history book of my epic memories, I was softly jarred awake by my alarm.

It was 4am: game time once again.Katahdin

One thing seemed to be missing though: for days leading up to my Baxter State Park road trip the weather waxed and waned, clear skies with low wind to heavy precip with plenty of gusting winds.

Which would it be?

I sat motionless, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the fact I was awake once again, and in the darkness of a backwoods Maine morning – “hmmph, well that’s rad”, I thought as I reached for the french press to start my morning rituals; luckily for myself, it appeared that the weather folks were wrong once again (for now!) – the rain had held of so far and the cry of 10,000 peepers on the lake battled with the ominous sounding loon, both making their early morning presence known.

Still surprised by the rain not beating down on the fly of my tent as I thought it would be, the stove got fired up and coffee would soon be further brightening my day!

The previous evening had me on a mission to find drinking water – turns out I was not alone in this search: 3 other campers passed by, each stopping to ask about water in the park, I had unfortunately found none to tell them of. I would have been content using my MSR filter to strain out some potable lake water, but when could not get beyond the murky sludge along the shore I knew this disorganized summer camp must have something available to its patrons (..at least I hoped they would!).

Empty nalgene bottles filled my left hand and a single glass growler dangled from the other, I walked in circles trying to find a spigot to fill up at and continued to attract questioning glances from other campers (at least one fellow camper assumed I was toting around a 1/2 gallon glass jar of beer through the recreation area). Being left nearly ’empty-handed’ and refusing to not find water in this campground, I happily broke into their kitchen (okay, fair enough.. I merely walked right into the ’employee only’ area..) and stole some tap water that I hoped was not straight up pond water.

Mission accomplished.

With coffee firing up on the stove and to my very pleasant surprise – a moon overhead, the camping gear swiftly began making its return back into my trunk from whence it came! I could sense the minutes ticking by as the morning grew closer and closer to 6am when the park gates were said to open for the day!

I could not believe my luck – there were indications of a purple and orange sherbet colored sunrise cast directly on the slopes of Katahdin, my lovely view as I fought the biting bugs and patiently waited for the gates to open. Other folks in line cooked breakfast on the trunk of their cars, some changed clothes, it was a regular boondocking Woodstock scene as we waited patiently for those green gates to let us go play!

Eagerly parked next to the only other car in the Abol day-lot, gear once again got jammed into my Salomon hydration vest, water flasks were filled, gaiters and Altra’s got laced up, and my watch got set to track those satellites in Trail Run mode.

Gently warming up and stretching the quads through the sleepy Abol campground, it sure seemed like a Sunday as other trekkers were already awake, packing their vacation homes into bundles of tent.

First mistake of the day came when I missed the cut-off for the actual Abol trail, but that’s okay because the 0.8 mile trek down to Abol falls was such an incredible piece of single track trail, still I had to turn back and return to the campground to catch my correct trail – which, in my defense, was basically camouflaged behind a lean-to, with signage down the trail beyond.

First ‘oh shit’ moment of the day occured about 1 1/4 miles into the Abol trail after departing the campground for the second time in the form of one super-sized thunder clap. I stopped briefly to collect a few thoughts.. the rain had not yet begun, so on I continued down the trail – I decided I would simply hike on until the rain came in.

It did not take long before there were several flashes, more booming and then came the rain drops. I pressed on into the storm. First, a father with three daughters passed by likely retreating to safety. In a matter of minutes several other trekkers had passed by, we were all going the opposite direction.

The rain intensified now into sheets blowing through the trees, the thunder remained steady which had me settled – when I became nervous I would return, defeatedly back to the trail head – for now though, I was okay.. simply exploring new trails, for the moment.

Peering up the switchbacks I could see a neon green pack cover, moving slowly despite still ascending, the hiker appeared determined. I set my short-term goal to just catching up and saying “hello!” to this other crazy trekker out in a thunderstorm on the shoulder of Katahdin.

Turns out this fellow with the green pack cover was named “Joe”.

Joe was section hiking the Appalachian Trail and trying to grow his ‘trail legs’ before he retired from a life of 9-5 jobs and adopted the trail-life full time. Today found Joe ascending up to the Thoreau Spring where our trail converges with the AT, if he felt the conditions were safe enough – he would ascend Baxter, and if not – well, he still had to reach the AT where he would descend west and cut down to Daicey Pond where his wife would be waiting for him.

His options proved limited, ascend that trail!

Offering his tarp to cover up, my new friend stopped to add a rain jacket to his layers, this would be the last time that I would see to Joe today – I proceeded out onto the rock slide where I climbed above the low-hanging rain clouds.

The thunder continued but now echoed in the far off southeastern distance! The torrent of rain drops now ceased. The mountainside was completely silent. Hand over hand, I slowly put this rock slide beneath me. I cannot say this rock slide scared me; I only remember being hyper-alert to my every movement, ensuring every footstep was meaningful and was 100% glued to the rock below – with every step I reminded myself that I was now alone up on the highest peak in Maine – on my own up here.

The images of warning signs posted up back on flat ground reminding hikers that self-rescue was a necessity began to float through my mind, all worries of my car, my bank account, my rent, everything that was not right here in front of me in this minute, on this mountain had slipped away and my mind elevated to the most “in the moment” state.

Hand over hand I climbed.

The weather continued to just float on by, right around my feet – skirting through the surrounding valleys as I reached the top of the slide and back onto flat land.

Glancing toward the west, searching for the Brothers from yesterday’s adventure – I may have shed a tear.. it may have been rain water from my soaked hair, but there is a high probability that I may have actually shed a tear – what I saw in the sky was blue!

From left to right my eyes scanned the now mostly flat horizon from 4,600ft. What an absolutely stunning landscape laid out before me – directly northeast was my path, but beyond all of that I found a certain A-frame.. this was the summit of Baxter – the very northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail!

I could not waste any more time – I ran along this martian terrain, bouncing off the tops of rocks, splashing through the mineralized red puddles; next stop the 5268′ summit that I searched for in so many of my childhood dreams.

My watch his 9am as I stood atop Baxter Peak and Katahdin, the highest location in the state of Maine. I had done it!

The rain continued to hold off as I snapped photos of the bronze-colored USGS survey marker, the distant ‘Knife Edge’ trail, and beyond the valley to Hamlin peak. Time to pack up and move on.

That’s when the loudest, ear drum shattering thunderclap I had ever experienced rang out just above my head, somewhere within the clouds which layered just feet above my head. I jumped, hair on my neck stood straight – I figured this was mother natures cue to stop dicking around on her mountain top and move along. I was lucky today.

A full on sprint began as I turned away from the summit rocks, descending toward The Saddle about a mile away – it seemed that I encountered every type of rock on earth here, the most brutal being the section of red softball-shaped rock-balls that seemed to disintegrate underfoot – I more-or-less skied through these over-sized ball bearings.

From The Saddle around mile 6.5 I motored through the next mile, gradually ascending over wet rocks, new puddles of red mud, and soon disappeared into a scrubby alpine forest where all branches had it out for any open eyes.

Minutes later, heading down the Hamlin Peak spur trail and over a 1/4 mile sea of jagged rocks – I stood at the cairn marking the high point of this landmass. It was still early enough in the morning to roam around, take in some sights and walk over toward the trails drop-off point before making my return to New Hampshire.

The high point of Katahdin where I had stood only thirty minutes earlier was now shrouded in cloud cover. My timing could not have been any better!

The rain again picked up, which was my cue to move along and keep warm. Upon returning to the col of The Saddle, I glanced back to where I had just stood – another high point in which I once stood now tucked deeply into a cloud layer. For what I was dealt, this climb could not have gone any better.

Finger joints grew stiff as I made my way back up those red softball-like rocks from earlier, searching for the cut-off and fearing with every fiber in my body that I had missed it completely – I totally did not want to ascend Katahdin once again in this weather, but at least the thunder and lightening had not yet returned!

Now my trek was completely in a cloud, vision limited to maybe 25 feet in any direction as I found the cut-off trail and took off, sloshing through every puddle. There was no time to turn the Katahdin trails into an obstacle course and hop rocks to avoid the freshly re-hydrated muddy puddles, fingers continued to grow stiff in the chilly alpine air as the rain beat down in soaking sheets.

So relieved to finally see signage! Finally, back at the Thoreau Spring junction – I looked around but found myself still shrouded in dense cloud, nothing else to do now but continue back where I had ascended earlier this morning: back down the Abol Slide!

This was even more of an upper body ordeal now that the rocks had been soaked, puddles had formed and one could even see where thousands of mini-streams had pushed aside sand particles, rushing off the cliffside in the dumping rain as I was on the other side of the mountain only minutes earlier.

It was nice to be back on familiar turf, making good time again running the switchbacks.

I snickered to myself at the sight of flat-bottomed Converse All-Stars and said a warm “good morning!” to three dudes making their way up the hillside, I wished them a very nice day and good hike!

Five hours and fifteen minutes after I had departed the day-lot, I was able to put a check mark next to my name at the trail register. I was back. I was safe. I had done it. Nearly thirty years of dreaming of this moment and I finally defied my fears to stand among on the summit rocks of Katahdin.

Super pumped that my weekend in Baxter State Park had worked out; I had all the gear that I needed to run, hike, camp, explore and be safe here in the park, but most importantly of all – I had a lovely lady and two pupper-dogs to get home to nearly 350mi away.

These runs, climbs, treks, and crazy getaways are the moments I can remind myself of everytime that I get bummed out – what an absolute joy I have turned my life into, one decision at a time, one foot step at a time. Heck – two years ago, I never could have imagined that I could feel so good to do what I truly enjoy.

Of course – thanks to Ciara for encouraging me to be a kick-ass human being, pushing the limits of what I was confined to yesterday, stepping out on that ledge to see what else I can accomplish today.

Thanks to you for following along my epic journey through this life!!

Got a question or just want to tell me how silly I was to keep climbing Katahdin in a thunderstorm? Hit me up with a comment below or follow along daily on Instagram!

Where will life take us next?

Just be sure to enjoy the ride!!

Much love,

-Erik

 


 

Overall stats for the day:

Recorded with COROS Pace

  • 13.45miles
  • 5hr 29minutes
  • 5,833′ elevation gain
  • Baxter Peak, 5268′
  • Hamlin Peak, 4756′

 

 


Favorite Gear of the Day!

 

While it’s a marvel of technology to have maps on our phones, what happens in the winter when our batteries get zapped?

Paper maps to the rescue!

My go to for any trails – National Geographic maps are not only water-proof but also tear resistant for getting stuffed back into your pack and being open and folded back up for many years to come.

 

 

Baxter State Park, Maine – Day 1

As if I never even drifted to sleep, I jumped out of bed at 2am to the sound of Led Zeppelin blasting from the four 16″ JBL’s directly beneath my pillow.

This was how the Hamilton’s knew it was time to shovel in some apple cinnamon oatmeal, wash it all down with several tall glasses of fresh orange juice, lace up our Merrill boots and pack like sardines into the ’91 Toyota Corolla with all of our gear. Our weekend routine looked a little something like this for many years, making the trek to our secret hiking and camping destinations that my father would give tantalizing clues about; with names like “Giant” or “Hurricane”, my 6 year old brain would run wild – assuming these were the hidden spots where dinosaurs still ran wild.

Our hiking adventures back then all took place pre-internet, so the bookshelves where I was known to nap (I could still fit behind the books!) were filled with huge manuals and text books; one could find my fathers college books, early writings of astronomy – and also by far my favorite cluster of books: the Mountains. He owned books on climbing, backpacking, snowshoeing, a small library of maps and Appalachian Mountain Club trail guides, and several books recounting early expeditions up Everest; tucked neatly next to the Everest texts, one would find the guide to Maine mountains and trails along with crisp maps of Katahdin.

Back in those days this mammoth pile of rock was no different in my mind than.. say.. the book it butted up against: Everest. They were both beyond my scope of understanding – I only knew each mountain as one and the same: they were big, scary and they killed those who did not respect the mountains.

Fast forward nearly thirty years later and still no one in my family had attempted this hike, granted it was quite a drive to get to – pushing +11hours one way from where I grew up, there were so many other summits to relax on and lovely trails to explore in our own backyards!

Ciara and I made a list of ‘goals’ for 2019, wrote these goals on pieces of paper and tacked them on the wall where they hung out in plain daylight to glare us in the face, as if to mock us for not attempting them yet. One of our recycled pieces of paper simply read: “Katahdin, 5268ft”.

Honestly, it was a reminder for myself that I had always wanted to stand atop its summit, but knowing that it was still a 7hr drive from where we now resided in New Hampshire – I did not consider it to be a likely goal for 2019 – unless I could get Ciara to join, but overall I did not know how to tackle this as dogs are not allowed within Baxter State Park, but yet the recycled piece of paper remained there glaring at me, laughing at my longing to attempt Katahdin.

It may have been a combination of checking mountain-forecast.com, baxterstatepark.org, and knowing that Ciara was working all weekend – but finding a decent weather forecast for Sunday, realizing that the entire parking lots where the three main Katahdin trails initiate – I jumped on a $5 parking pass for the Abol trailhead as the lot where I had done all of my research thus far was sold out deep into the future every day.

I was happy with my decision, it signaled my trip to Katahdin as officially ‘begun’, knowing that I.. if nothing else.. I now held a parking pass for Baxter State Park – should the cards fall in my favor and I actually take the long trek North. This literally was the only planning set in place up to this moment: well at least I had Step One checked off – so pumped to actually be the proud owner of a Baxter State Park parking pass! I assumed that I would simply sleep in my car, or better yet, drive up the night before and not have to find a place to rest – just drive up, hop on the trail, summit this behemoth and drive back home, seemed easy enough to me if I turned on my stubborn genes and just get the task done!

The following day found me looking around for a small tent spot, at the request of my lovely adventure partner! Finding all of the campgrounds were booked to the max within the State Park, I ended up with a $30 site at the New England Outdoor Center – despite having no campground map or being able to choose a particular site, it looked promising based solely on the quality of the website. I would find out if this still proved true upon my arrival Saturday evening.. assuming the plans continued to unravel in this positive direction.

Continuing to check the weather daily, almost obsessively as the clouds turned to rain which then turned to ‘chance of t-storms’ Sunday afternoon, I still remained hopeful as the weather never seemed settled for even 5 minutes leading up to the weekend!

When a new waterproof National Geographic map landed in my Post Office box Thursday evening – I think this was the realization that things were getting pretty serious, my pilgrimage to northern Maine would indeed take place!

Friday evening all I wanted to do was teleport home from my work day to begin the task of packing; I foraged through all of our running, tenting and backpacking gear – throwing anything and everything that I thought might be useful in an “organized” pile: if I thought there was a chance I would want a certain piece of gear out on the road, I packed it. I had my entire Subaru Impreza for all of my junk (*very important gear..), so I filled that sucker up with anything to make my weekend top-notch (and a successful one)!
The drive was literally 6 hours and 47 minutes from our cabin to the entrance to Baxter State Park, which consisted of one stretch of asphalt upon entering Maine that my GPS rattled off in a robotic SIRI-esque voice “continue straight for ONE HUNDRED and EIGHTY MILES!!” All I can say is – thank the good heavens for the Rich Roll Podcast and for snacking on peaches, apples and my 5lb bag of carrots that I had picked up in Plymouth, NH during my grocery run earlier in the morning!

Saturday was most definitely the better-weather-day, the Subaru read 91 degrees outside and sunny, some humidity.. nothing brutal and all enjoyable! Driving straight to Baxter State Park and informing the gate attendant of my parking pass for Sunday, he asked “are you sure you still want to enter the park today??”, heck yeah I still wanted to enter the park today! It was just barely 1pm, which meant my day still had plenty of time for exploration.

I held secret a desire to scope out several other summits should I arrive in time on Saturday, which I did, so bring on the dang mountains! Being on my internal radar for days prior, I researched the loop beginning at the Slide Dam parking lot/trail head and trekked up to and over North Brother, South Brother and one I had never heard of – Mount Coe.

From the gate house the parks Tote Road began west, circling under and around the massive bump in the earth known as Katahdin. I was able to see the other parking lots as I made my way, the Abol campground and day-use lot where I would begin the next morning, as well as several ponds that all looked rather lovely for a picnic.

What the actual hell is that?!“, I exclaimed to myself – peering through the trees at a slab of gray rock that appeared to be pushed up damn-near vertical rising up from the forest floor. Checking the map to see where I was directed and trying to narrow my options, I guessed it to be an anomaly in the topography marked appropriately on the map as ‘Doubletop’. Remembering that I had heard its name tossed around in some trail guides or text somewhere or another – the climb looked epic!

I began to fall deeply in love with this part of Maine and the forest where I now found myself!

I must have been wearing my lost puppy face as the State Park Ranger left his truck and walked over to my side of the car. Being totally prepared for him to break the sad news that this lot was full and that I would unfortunately not be able to adventure in the forest surrounding these Brothers that I had read so much about after all – nope! I found myself speaking with one of the kindest Rangers yet as he talked highly of the campground where he was care-taking (in the park) and how special these mountains and trails were to him.

Asking if my intention was to climb North Brother, I sighed and confessed that it was and I could clearly see that I showed up just a few minutes too late. He pointed to a spot of grass next to a white BMW and said “there you go.. just don’t hit the trees!”

My love and respect for Baxter State Park continued to grow!

Quickly prepped the gear, filled all water flasks and hit the trail before the sun could get any higher or hotter in the sky!

Instantly, I stepped my Altra’s onto what I would not hesitate to claim were the ‘sweetest’ trails I had ever run on.. up to that moment! Of course, they had their share of rocks, roots, and streams running underfoot – these northern Maine trails had me reminding myself that I was indeed still in the east.. and not running somewhere in Oregon, truly a magnificent place!

I stopped in the sun to watch a beaver drift by with absolutely no sense of urgency around his pond, craving my own switch to a more relaxed mindset, perhaps that of the floating beaver!

Departing the beaver pond I continued up the Marston Trail climbing beyond the 2400ft contour line, passing several hikers in the opposite direction. Finally found myself catching up to a gentleman heading up to the summit rocks of North Bro who said hello and immediately directed his complaining to the “bushwhacking” that he found himself doing to make any progress up the trail, this was where he confused the heck out of me, as I found nothing but smoooooth sailing up these incredible Maine trails!

The summit of North Brother at 4143ft is completely exposed with open boulders making for a scramble that would have made any agile youngster on the playground screech with joy! The Altra’s clearly giving ample traction as I leapt from one rock to the next, making my way to the weathered wooden sign at the high point of the mountain!

After soaking in the views, getting my first real glimpse of Katahdin and thinking “ehh..it really isn’t that mean looking!”, I retraced my steps, wished my new bushwhacking friend an exceptionally great day and continued due south to my next Brother of the day.

Within what seemed like minutes I reached my next destination, the signage indicating that I now take the spur trail and cut southeast to the 3942ft summit cone of South Brother. Again, leaping from boulder to boulder (admittedly I was searching for any signs of an old USGS survey marker!) taking in the sights, soaking up the vitamin D and attempting to outwit the blood suckers of the mountaintops!

Between South and Coe is where the trail really showed any signs of blowdown or insecure footing – but dang did I continue to grow fonder by the footstep of these mountains and trails!

What I knew was that the loop trail basically passed directly over the peak of Mount Coe, and that was about it. Despite being a mere 3795ft at its high point, Mount Coe’s views definitely did not disappoint!

Peering back to where my feet had taken me, the sights were breathtaking! Glimpsing off to the east at tomorrows task, the views were completely reminiscent of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, these ginormous beasts of mountains spiking up above tree line and their ever-reaching shoulders seemingly stretched for miles and miles in either direction!

Atop Mt Coe, I just by chance turned my phone off of airplane-mode after snapping a few panoramas and videos – despite what the brochures read, I immediately found full bars – which led my thoughts straight to Ciara! I sent several messages to let her know where I was and that I had survived the mind-numbing drive, I think she was relieved to hear from me!

But as a precaution, I don’t ever assume that service will be there.. I just happened to be completely lucky to find it around 4000ft with no trees to block the signal!

Not long after leaving the summit rocks of Coe, I found myself standing tall among the scree and bare slabs of an enormous old rock slide (perhaps the ‘J’, of the O.J.I trail.. named for its neighboring slides?). The slide had its share of mini-waterways trickling down the bare rock which made my mind on high alert before trusting any footsteps!

Believing that all of my epic ‘west coast style’ trails were behind me for the day, I reached the end of the slide..and yet again onto an even more beautiful trail heading back to the junction! This time I was graced by the calming sound of rushing stream running directly next to my feet, an even more welcome perk amongst this mid-summer heat!

What was a joy to run on during the beginning of my trek heading in was now an extreme blast to let loose and cruise  for the final miles of my day! I somehow had soaked both feet making the jaunt up and down North Brother so by this time I was in a playful ‘go-mode’, splashing and cooling my tootsies off in the fast flowing streams.

The parking lot was near-empty as I finished my first day of running the mountains of Baxter State Park. Drippy shoes were ripped off and strewn out in my backseat with hopes that they would dry ever so slightly before stuffing stiff feet back into them tomorrow morning.

Following the dust storm from a pick-up truck heading back to the main entrance of the park, I couldn’t help but notice how sore my face had become – that’s what a day of laughing and big ol’ grins will do, I suppose my situation could have been worse!

My park exploration of day #1 had come to a close as I pulled onto the NEOC campground road and tried dearly to figure out how this place operated. Convinced that it was a ‘free-for-all’, ran by high schoolers – yet happy enough to have a place to watch the sun drift behind the mighty Katahdin, and a flat piece of earth to rest my tired eyes for the evening.

Tomorrow would be an even more epic day.. 

 


 Overall stats for the day:

Recorded with COROS Pace

  • 10.56 miles
  • 3hr 59minutes
  • 4,163′ elevation gain
  • North Brother, 4143′
  • South Brother, 3970′
  • Mount Coe, 3795′

 

 

 


Want to continue on and see what happens, I’ll tell you…

Katahdin happens, that’s what. Read all about it.. HERE!!!