The foliage and trees in Maine in late September and early October are absolutely amazing. Although I’ve lived in New England all of my life and get to see the leaves change every year, seeing them from the trail day in and day out was truly extraordinary. Strolling through the northern part of the 100 mile wilderness I felt completely in my comfort zone. I’ve grown up wandering the woods of New England and have backpacked that stretch of trail at least three times in the past (starting when I was 13 or 14 years old). It was a perfect blustery fall day, the leaves and trees swaying slightly in the breeze (5-10 mph gusts) and a steady supply of bright red and yellow leaves drifting from the sky down towards the trail.
Suddenly I heard a creaking noise, I wondered if I was finally going to spot one of the moose that Maine is so famous for… I heard another creak… I was scanning the woods hopefully for a moose when I heard a really loud crack and saw a giant 180 year old sugar maple tree (tree ages determined by estimating their diameter at a position 4 feet above the roots and multiplying it by the growth factor for each tree species, this sugar maple was 3 feet in diameter and had a growth factor of 5) start tipping towards me as its roots ripped out of the ground. Oh sh**! It was falling towards me and the trail. With a burst of adrenaline I turned and darted back down the trail the way that I’d come. I was guessing that the tree trunk was going to hit the trail about five feet ahead of my initial position, but I wasn’t sure how much ground the branches were going to cover so I wanted to get well out of the way.
I easily evaded the falling tree, and from my new position of relative safety I turned and watched the glorious maple tree continue to crash down. I was surprised by how slowly the tree was falling, it felt like it was coming down in slow motion. I was transfixed by scale of destruction that was slowly happening before my eyes. As the maple tree crashed down, it sheared the top off of a beech tree that was about 20 yrs old and a white pine that was about 40 yrs old before careening into another sugar maple (about 120 yrs old) and cracking it in two. It was like watching dominoes topple down the hill, each newly cleaved tree careening into 1-3 more, which in turn crashed into 1-3 more. The big arbors slowing the descent of each tree and leading to the slow motion cascade. It seemed like the cascade of destruction went on forever and trees kept toppling until cascade was stopped by a stream a few hundred feet down the hillside. I was awestruck. I had never imagined that one tree could cause that much damage. I sat and stared at the carnage, trying to contemplate the immensity of what I had just seen. I found myself grieving for the sudden and unpredicted loss of so many trees, most of which had been standing in those spots since long before I was born… I was also trying to deal with the adrenaline that was still coursing through my veins as a result of dodging those trees, I’d come way to close to being somewhere underneath all of that tree rubble.
I looked up at the sky through the gap left by the second maple tree. The contrast of the bright blue sky, the green leaves of the trees that hadn’t turned yet, and the remaining maple tree aglow with yellow and orange leaves, was stunningly beautiful. I was reminded about just how small I was, and how unpredictable the world can be… even when you think that you are safely within your comfort zone. After a few more minutes of reflection it dawned on me… I’d darted south on the trail out of the way of the impending disaster, which meant that all of those fallen trees were between me and Katahdin. I was going to have to figure out a way to navigate through all of that new tree carnage. Walking around them wasn’t going to be possible, I was going to have to crawl/climb over, under, and around the half dozen or so trees that were now crisscrossing the trail. Don’t get me wrong, I love climbing trees, I just prefer to do it while they are still upright.
Eventually I made it through this newest of trail obstacles. Once I was north of it, I turned back once again to look at all of those fallen trees. I just stood there staring for a while, I had so many competing emotions. I was both thankful and a little bit sad that I (per usual) was hiking alone that day. I’m not sure if I’d been hiking with a group that everyone would have been able to get out of the path of destruction and I was thankful that no one was hurt. The experience had, however, shaken me and I wished that there was someone there that I could talk to about it, that could give me a hug, and reassure me that I really had survived that near miss and that everything was okay. I took another deep breath and started walking. If nothing else, the last 2100 miles of solo hiking had taught me how reassure and support myself, how to survive, and how to appreciate and savor all of the moments that I am lucky enough to have. I was alive and better than okay, I was living my dream, and I was doing what I love: wandering through the woods and having adventures.
P.S. When a tree falls in the woods it most definitely makes a sound.