Days 145-147: The last of the Whites - The Kinsmen, Mt. Wolf, and Mt. Moosilauke (Eliza Brook Shelter to NH Route 25)
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Three sets of mountains remain in my trek through the White Mountains of New Hampshire: the Kinsmen, Mt. Wolf, and Mt. Moosilauke. Tenacious and Nighthawk warned me about the difficulty of South Kinsman when we were in Maine. "The sketchiest thing I've climbed, ever, " Tenacious christened it. So, it is not without some apprehension that I begin the long climb up the Kinsmen Mountains.
Lonesome Lake Hut, the southernmost of the AMC White Mountain huts, lies halfway up North Kinsman Mountain near the shores of Lonesome Lake itself. A wooden walkway borders the lake, and Cannon Mountain stands clearly reflected in the clear, still waters. I arrive at the hut just before lunchtime. To my delight, the crew has laid out the most impressive spread of baked goods that I've seen in the Whites. I savor a slice tres leches cake, still dripping with milk, and top it off with a slice of freshly baked bread. Thus fortified, I continue up the Kinsmen Mountains.
I crest North Kinsman first. The trail consists of boulders and rock slabs, many of which bear the unmistakable dents of trail maintainers' tools. Wooden steps are bolted to the steeper rock slabs, and some areas sport carefully constructed rock steps. The Franconia Ridge looms in the distance, majestic and unyielding, seeming so far away, yet only a day's hike from where I am.
The trail dips slightly before continuing to the summit of South Kinsman. Descending South Kinsman is quite unpleasant: not as steep as the Abol slide of Katahdin, but certainly 'sketchy' in some areas. I carefully slide down the rocks and make my way to Eliza Brook Shelter for the night.
For hours, I am alone at the shelter. The height of the southbound hiking season has passed, and fewer hikers frequent the southern tip of the White Mountains compared to those who hike Franconia Ridge or the Presidential range. Anticipating that no other hikers will arrive, I set up my tent in the shelter for extra warmth during the night.
As I finish my camp chores near sundown, I see another hiker walking up the hill to the shelter. His lean form looks vaguely familiar.
"Are you...Tree?" I ask as he sets his pack down on the shelter.
We'd started our hikes in Georgia on the same day. He is one of the few Asian hikers I've seen on the trail. He tells me he took a break from the trail for jury duty, and is continuing northbound for as long as he can before he must return for work. He carries what looks like one of the ultralight backpacks: while most Appalachian Trail hikers have traditional packs that weigh around 4 lbs, ultralight hikers favor lighter packs that weigh less than 2 lbs.
"I made my own pack," he says. He points to the sides of his pack. "This is a rice bag."
During his time on jury duty, he'd watched DIY videos and made himself a new pack from one-and-a-quarter 40-lb rice bags.
"The first bag only came up to here." He gestures at a seam near the top of his bag. "So I cut up another bag and sewed it on top."
That's resourceful, I think. Rice bags are light and built to withstand the weight of the rice within.
"I was in IT for three years, and photography for a lot...nine? I'm not going back...I'm going back to school. But it's not like any school you've heard of. I'm going to get my CDL. I'm going to be a truck driver."
The next morning, Tree grabs both our bear bags before we part ways. I will continue south over Mt. Wolf and Mt. Moosilauke, while he will head north over the Kinsmen and Franconias.
Mt. Wolf is not particularly difficult or memorable aside from a partially-obscured view of Franconia Ridge. The windy conditions today are slightly unnerving, but the abundant trees at this low elevation shield me from the brunt of the wind. I find the ascent of Mt. Moosilauke unpleasant. The ascent parallels an impossibly long series of cascades, and though I know the cascades are several feet from the trail, I feel the constant threat of falling down them.
Moosilauke, the last mountain in the Whites. Temperatures are freezing. Wind speeds should slow slightly tomorrow, but I may still face gusts up to 40 mph when I summit and descend Mt. Moosilauke. That night, I stop at Beaver Brook Shelter, which, at 3750 ft, stands just shy of the summit of Mt. Moosilauke. A couple section hikers kindle a fire that sputters and smokes in the wind. I huddle around the fire with them until nightfall.
"My specialty is the Cold War...there were so many engineering problems they had to solve. Like flying over the North Pole. No one knew how to do that before the Cold War."
That night, I wear every layer I own - two pairs of pants with a couple shirts and three jackets - and still feel cold inside my sleeping bag. The wind howls all night, snapping branches that fall onto the roof with muffled cracks. I count the hours until 5:00 am - the time I can reasonably rise - as I struggle to get warm.
I move quickly to generate body heat when I get up. Forcing some breakfast into my mouth, I shove my filter down my chest to keep it from freezing, and take off in the dark.
Fog shrouds the trail in the dim morning light, casting a sickly yellow glow on all my surroundings. I walk through a graveyard of broken pines and listen as the wind blows through their barren limbs.
I switch on my music when I reach treeline. The theme from Pirates of the Caribbean blares in my ears, competing with the sound of the wind. The wind blows sharply against the rocks; everywhere it touches, I see delicate, feathery formations of ice. My jaw drops. I saw pictures of these frost formations in the museum on Mt. Washington: rime ice, created by crystallizing fog. The summit sign is so peppered with frost that I can barely read it. As I look down, I find the beginnings of ice crystals growing on my clothes and hair. I feel like I'm slowly turning into an icicle. Quickly, I take off my gloves, snap a picture, and leave.
There is a palpable difference in temperature below treeline. Below 1500 feet, I even see day-hikers walk past in t-shirts and shorts.
"I bet it was beautiful up there," one man remarks.
"Um...it was foggy and icy when I was there," I tell him.
His eyes widen.
"It's probably melted by now," I say. Blue skies had emerged about 10 minutes after I got off the summit.
I hike quickly, bolstered by the thought of finishing the Whites and getting real food in town. As the trail flattens out, I pass a man eating an apple. He points out several apple trees by the side of the trail.
"This was an old orchard," he says. "I'd come here in the winter and take cuttings from the trees and graft them to root stock -- keeps the varieties going."
Curious, I approach one of the apple trees. The good apples are too tall for my reach. I try gently shaking the tree with little success, but content myself with a few bites from a small, misshapen apple down below. The apple is crisp and different from the varieties I'd tried in supermarkets - less sweet, perhaps.
Then, at 11:00 am, I reach the parking lot, where Mom awaits me. A sense of victory surges through me. I made it through the Whites!
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Mom starts driving me back to the Crawford Notch trailhead at 3:30 am, too early for my brain to register what I'm doing. My fear of heights remains an obstacle, but getting an early start on the trail forces me to deal with it. I enjoyed a few precious days of easy hiking in Maine. Now, I must hike south through the rest of the White Mountains. I expect rugged terrain. Mom watches me as I walk out of the parking lot and into the woods, her form getting smaller and smaller with each passing moment. By the time I fully realize I'm in the Whites again, I'm halfway up Zealand Mountain with no phone service. Lovely.
The AMC maintains several huts and campsites in the Franconia Ridge area. As in much of New Hampshire, hikers must pay to stay at each hut or campsite. I stop by Zealand Falls Hut for lunch, then continue on. I plan to refill my water a few miles later at Guyot Shelter, which my map lists as 0.2 miles from the trail. Unfortunately, the water turns out to be 0.8 miles downhill. There are no other water sources in the vicinity.
So, I end up hiking the 0.8 miles down to Guyot Shelter, getting in an hour before dark. Normally, a caretaker lives at the shelter and collects a fee for camping. Today, there is no caretaker or fee collection bin, so I pick a tent platform and set up next to a couple of section hikers. Another hiker arrives after dark.
The next morning, it takes me 40 minutes just to get back onto the Appalachian Trail from Guyot Shelter - partly because I spend so long watching the sunrise over Mt. Guyot.
After grabbing a cinnamon bun at Galehead Hut, I continue toward Mt. Garfield. The trail follows a small waterfall up a wall of rocks, so that when I reach Garfield Ridge Shelter, my pants are muddy and wet.
There is no caretaker at Garfield Ridge Shelter, either; I have the place to myself until a trail maintenance crew shows up halfway through the afternoon. I spend an hour on the caretaker's platform, taking advantage of the phone service there.
A bunch of hikers roll in later that night, including Fancy Free, whom I'd met at The Cabin in Maine. She tells me about her thru-hike several years ago and shares her mashed potatoes, which she spices up with raisins.
I catch the tail end of the sunrise on Mt. Garfield. Four concrete walls on a stone platform, the ruins of an old fire tower, stand atop the summit. As I admire the view, a girl pops up from the center of the walls, circles around the summit, and hops back into the ruins.
Huh. She must've slept there, I think. Cool spot to spend the night!
The trail between Mt. Garfield and Mt. Lafayette is rocky, with one sketchy slide down a one story cliff and a long climb up rock slabs to Mt. Lafayette. I throw myself at one particularly smooth rock slab, hoping my boots have enough traction to keep me aloft. Mt. Garfield is visible during most of the climb. I crest false summit after false summit. At the summit of Mt. Lafayette, the trail becomes a dirt path with just patches of rock, and the views -- the views render me speechless
Aside from several dizzying drops down sheer cliffs lying but a couple feet from the trail, I enjoy a pleasant walk over Mt. Lincoln and Little Haystack.
Along the way, I meet a man who thru-hiked in 2005. His trail name was Three Cats.
"Do you have three cats?" I ask.
"We did at the time. Now, we have one. Attrition, you know."
I reach Liberty Springs Campsite in the mid-afternoon. Located just past Little Haystack, the campsite holds the first water source I've encountered since morning. There are no hikers there except a southbounder named Twin, who's walking around in his underwear. With the lack of rain in the past week, the water is barely a trickle; it takes 9 minutes to fill my Powerade bottle and 20 to fill my Camelbak water reservoir!
That evening, I reach Whitehouse Brook. Tomorrow, I'll reach Lonesome Lake Hut fairly early in the day and continue over North Kinsman and South Kinsman. I'm not particularly excited about the Kinsmen, but I'm already looking forward to baked goods at the hut.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
I take a few days off after finishing Maine to rest up before New Hampshire.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
My last three days in Maine pass in a blur of excitement tinged with sadness: excitement at finishing Maine's 282 miles of trail, sadness at parting ways with my trail family when we reach Monson. The owner of Sterling Inn joins us for breakfast, talking nonstop about the hikers who've passed through.
"One thing about opening a place like this is you meet lots of people," he says, leaning back against a countertop. "My favorite story is probably this one guy who came here in 2013. He'd hiked all the way from Georgia and he fell on Moxie Bald and had to be airlifted out. So the next year -- he had to start over."
We will pass over Moxie Bald ourselves in a couple days. The trail beyond Caratunk is tame compared to the terrain in southern Maine. Dirt, interspersed with roots and rocks, makes up the majority of the trail here. On our first day out of Caratunk, we hike over Pleasant Pond Mountain to camp at Bald Mountain Brook, where we find a lovely selection of flat tent spots. The other hikers on the trail have continued to Bald Mountain Brook Shelter; some days in Maine, the number of hikers I see parallels the crowds I'd passed in Georgia. It's nice to have this humble campsite to ourselves.
Nighthawk gathers armfuls of firewood as I put up my tent. Tenacious circles the area to pick out a campsite devoid of dead trees - widowmakers - that might crash down at night; it's a routine she repeats every day. We each gather water from the brook nearby, walking through knee-high undergrowth obscuring a small wasp nest in the ground. Luckily, none of us gets stung. With our camp chores complete, we gather around Nighthawk's fire for dinner. As the sun begins to set, the fire flickers and dances, filling the air with the aroma of campfire smoke. I can still smell the strangely comforting scent of campfire smoke on my clothing when I retire to my tent that evening.
I'll hike 15.4 miles tomorrow and 6.7 the day after that. Then, time to celebrate with some Maine lobster!
As I hike over Moxie Bald Mountain the next morning, I listen to the last chapters of A Walk in the Woods: Bill Bryson describes hiking from Moxie Bald to the Chairbacks during his section hike of the Appalachian Trail. It's a surreal - and rather funny - experience listening to someone describe the terrain I'm hiking. At one point, Bill Bryson writes about losing his friend in the rocky Chairback Mountains. In my mind, I can picture the exact locations that he describes.
In the spring, when snowmelt first fills the rivers and streams, hikers must ford many of the rivers in Maine. Some rivers can reach knee or waist height. I wait for Tenacious at the Piscataquis River, where a skull mounted onto a stick marks the trail. Luckily, in this dry September season, the water levels are low enough to expose a log-and-rock bridge that we hope across. We proceed to hike 5 miles along the same river in the muggy, gnat infested heat, only to cross back to the same bank we'd started on.
Totally logical, AT, I think with some amusement.
Tenacious majored in film and photography in college; she tells me how to develop film manually using things like stopper fluid and developer. Very cool!
When we get to camp, Nighthawk is blasting the full Hairspray soundtrack over another campfire:
But my feet tell me go!
It's like a drummer inside my heart
Oh, oh, oh
Don't make me wait
One more moment for my life to start...
Then, all too soon, my mom is picking me up at ME 15, Nighthawk and Tenacious are continuing into the 100 Mile Wilderness, and I am on my way back to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
The trail is flat! Dirt trail, road walks, sturdy board bridges across alpine bogs - is this even Maine?! Gone are the rugged rocks, the barren mountaintops, and impossible slopes. In their place, a robust canopy of leaves tinged with the first hints of autumn overlook dense forests, streams and beaches, and gravel roads.
At East Carry Pond Beach, I set down my pack to wait for Tenacious. A leech drifts toward the shore, twisting and contorting in a bizarre dance. It is my first time seeing one, and despite feeling slightly disgusted, I find myself oddly fascinated by its movements. When fully contracted, the leech looks slug-like and chubby, no larger than the tip of my pinkie. A second later, it elongates itself into a fine line as long as my middle finger.
Good thing I'm not swimming in there, I think.
Tenacious and I tent on a somewhat-flat piece of land beneath a copse of young pine trees. The yips and howls of coyotes continue all night; around 11:30 pm, I even hear the soft pad of dog-like footsteps by our tents. There is a pause, a sniffing noise, and then the padding steps fade away. Tomorrow, we will cross the Kennebec River, then rendezvous with Nighthawk in the town of Caratunk.
We walk by streams and waterfalls along nicely graded trails to the Kennebec. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has provided a free ferry service across the river since Alice Ference drowned while attempting the ford the river in 1985. The crossing is 400 ft wide and the current, swift; a hydroelectric dam upriver releases water into the Kennebec each day, causing water levels to rise several feet in the span of minutes.
When I get to the Kennebec, I find a line of six hikers waiting for the ferry. A one hour wait time. No matter; I take a seat on a rock and get some journaling done.
An hour later, Tenacious and I carry our packs down to shore and fill out a couple liability waivers. We watch as the ferryman - Robert - paddles over from the far shore. He hands us a couple life jackets before coaxing Tenacious into the canoe with precision, encouragement, and humor.
"I know hikers don't have sea legs," he says. "Here's what you're gonna do. You're gonna hold on to the sides..." He puts both hands on the sides of the canoe, stabilizing it. Both feet go in; he walks to the back. Then, he lets go and flails around, pretending to not have sea legs as he rocks the canoe back and forth alarmingly.
"Don't do that - don't do that!" Tenacious shouts.
"In all my years, I've found that if you have a fear, go after it," he tells us.
I get into the bow, and Tenacious slides into the middle. Robert pushes us into the river, lowering his oar into the water.
"Should I be paddling?" I ask as we approach the middle of the Kennebec. I have one of the oars in hand.
"That depends. Are you enjoying yourself?"
"Then don't worry about it."
We reach the far shore. Robert carries our packs up from the boat, explains how to get to Caratunk by scratching a map in the dirt, and sends us on our way.
After stopping by the post office and Caratunk B&B for milkshakes, we call the Sterling Inn for a ride. The Inn is clean and quaint, with each room named for a landmark in Maine: the Kennebec, the Penobscot, Katahdin, the Dead River --
We relax, do laundry, and watch a movie. The washer breaks, so the owners end up doing our laundy for us in the employee washer. Our clothes have never been cleaner!