Lost and Alone: A Solo Thru-Hiker’s Perspective

20130922-213511.jpg

26 days lost, alone, and starving. Inchworm (Geraldine Largay) had gotten lost while backpacking along the Appalachian Trail and had survived for at least 26 days before perishing in the backwoods of Maine. I didn’t want to imagine it, but as I read the heart-wrenching words in her journal, imploring whoever found her body to let her loved ones know that she was dead and where to find her, I couldn’t help it. It’s the kind of thing that both tragic heroes and horror stories are made of.

I’d had similar thoughts in far less dire circumstances on my solo PCT thru-hike in 2014. Deep in the high sierra, alone, exhausted, hungry, and trudging through the snow with no trail in sight, no people in sight, and surrounded by nameless white peaks I was was overwhelmed by the realization that if I was truly lost, I might die out there and my body might never be found. I’d thought that I’d come terms with the risks and solitude of solo backpacking, but the thought that if something happened to me my family and the people I cared about might not even find my body… it haunted me as I doggedly plunged through the snow, postholing along the route where I imagined the trail to be.

IMG_3849

As it turns out, I wasn’t lost. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Sure, I’d like to imagine that my experience, my GPS, my map, and my compass, would prevent me from ending up in a situation like Inchworm’s, but I have enough experience to know that sh** happens, the mountains are unforgiving, and nobody is perfect.

Instead of second guessing Inchworm’s decisions and her personal character (read this article in the New York Times and this one in the Portland Press Herald if you want to reassure yourself that this could never happen to you because you’re a better outdoors-person than Inchworm was), let’s take a more objective look at how prepared she was.

Bushwhacking through the dense forest in Maine a couple of miles away from where Inchworm was found.

Did she have the “10 essential” pieces of gear every hiker should carry?

She had at least 9/10 of the essentials listed on the HikeSafe website:

  1. Map (yes)
  2. Compass (yes)
  3. Warm Clothing (yes)
  4. Extra Food and Water (yes)
  5. Flashlight or Headlamp (yes)
  6. Matches/Firestarters (yes)
  7. First Aid Kit/Repair Kit (yes)
  8. Whistle (yes)
  9. Rain/Wind Jacket & Pants (yes)
  10. Pocket Knife (unknown to me)

It looks to me like she was fairly well prepared (in terms of gear). Besides, she had enough stuff so that she was able to survive for 26 days after getting lost, which is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.

FYI: Many thru-hikers I know skimp on this list (especially the map, compass, and whistle). I didn’t carry an emergency whistle on my AT thru-hike until I was gifted one by the folks at the Mt. Washington Observatory on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I’ve carried it ever since.

Did she share her travel plan?

According to the HikeSafe website you should “tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.”

Inchworm shared her travel plan. Her husband knew her planned 3-day itinerary, saw her off, and planned to meet her at the next trail intersection.

Graphic: James Abundis/Globe Staff (Note that peak labeled Redington Mountain is not the 4000 footer; Redington Mt. is unlabeled)

Did she S.T.O.P.? (Stop, think, observe, plan)

If you get lost on an outdoor adventure, the general advice is that you should stop (or sit), think, observe, and plan (STOP). All of the evidence suggests that Inchworm did stop, think, observe, and plan, although it can be argued that she should have stopped sooner. The more detailed advice provided by Hike Safe says, “if the last known location is within a reasonable distance, try to go back to it. If you can’t find any recognizable landmarks by backtracking, stay put,” and further elaborates, “you may need to be on higher ground in order to identify landmarks such as streams and ridges.”

The evidence suggests that Inchworm followed this advice, perhaps to a fault. After realizing she was lost she headed to higher ground to try to get her bearings (and to try to get cell phone service) and then she stayed put. With 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to criticize her decision to stay put, but “staying put” and “charging on” are both considered reasonable actions after a few days of waiting for rescue according to some sources.

Did she do the “5 things” you should do if you can’t rescue yourself?

According to hike safe the 5 things you should do if you can’t rescue yourself are:

  1. Stay warm and protect yourself from the elements. If possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.
  2. Try to remain hydrated.
  3. Put bright clothing on, or put out something that’s bright to attract attention.
  4. Continue to blow your whistle at regular intervals
  5. Don’t lie on bare ground. Use the equipment you brought to protect yourself from the elements.

At first glance the evidence suggests that Inchworm did all 5 things. However, there’s that second sentence in step 1, “if possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.” Inchworm’s camp was in a warm and protected space, but it wasn’t readily visible from the air and ground. It seems likely that she looked for an open space and didn’t find one, so opted for higher ground not knowing that there was a nearby ATV road. There is evidence that she tried to increase here visibility by hanging her mylar blanket in the trees and there’s eveidence that she tried to light signal fires.

A campsite in an open area near the Appalachian Trail in Vermont

FYI: Open spaces can be hard to come by in New England’s backcountry, and most of us are used to pitching our tents under the cover of trees. This is especially true since we know that the fields are full of ticks (Lyme Disease is endemic), and camping is strictly prohibited in most other open areas along the trails in the Northeast. “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you” is a helpful reminder if you’re only hope is a helicopter rescue. It’s also important to know that most searches on the ground never get more than 1/2 a days hike from the nearest road, so if you’re backpacking in a remote area you’re best hope is probably going to be getting sighted by someone in the air.

Conclusion

Based on the Hike Safe Hiker Responsibility code developed by the White Mountains National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game, I’d have to declare Inchworm a responsible (and prepared) hiker. In TV survival shows like Naked and Afraid they drop people into the wilds and see if they can survive for 21 days. Inchworm survived for at least 26 days in the wild, and in my opinion that deserves a heck of a lot of respect. Misfortune, tragedy, and death should not be mistaken lack of preparedness, lack of moral fiber, or irresponsibility. Were there things that she could have done differently? Undoubtedly. Does the evidence suggest that she was ill-prepared, or incompetent? No.

Our Role: The Hiking Community

Although there has been lots of discussion about what Inchworm did wrong, and a lot of second-guessing of her actions, I haven’t seen much reflection on what we, as a hiking community, could have done better, or things that search and rescue could have done differently. Take a look at the reduced search area where efforts were focused after the first 7 days.

Map of the narrowed search area for Inchworm

Now take a look at the location where Inchworm was found.

Though earlier searches had come very close to her actual location, later searches focused on a different section of the trail. Why? How did they end up focusing on the wrong stretch of trail? I’m sure that there are a lot of reasons, but one contributing factor could be “a tip the warden service received about a hiker who reportedly stayed with Largay at the Spaulding Mountain lean-to the night before she was reported missing.” Certainly when I hiked through the area in late September the prevailing opinion was that she had gotten lost somewhere between the summit of Lone Mountain and the Carrabassett River (and I’d thought that the river might have done her in). We were all wrong.

She’d made a wrong turn at Orbeton Stream, and was found  much closer to the Poplar Ridge Lean-to than anyone expected (GPS Coordinates of her final location: N44 59.011 W70 24.099). When you look at the time, effort, and heart that went into the search for her by both search and rescue and the hiking community it’s impossible to find fault, but it is a reminder that we should be careful when trusting our memories, and with our reporting of events.

This map shows the tracks of searchers and the location where the remains of Geraldine Largay were found.

Heartbreaking map of the search areas, with a yellow dot showing Inchworm’s final location.

Yeah, but what did she do wrong?

Let’s take a look at the things people say that Inchworm did wrong.

Inchworm hiked alone. Inchworm started out with a hiking partner, but when her hiking partner got off of the trail due to a family emergency she decided to continue on. Although there is no guarantee that hiking with others will keep you safe, there is also no doubt that there is “safety in numbers,” and Inchworm was hiking alone when she got lost.  There are lots of reasons why people hike alone. I always invite other people to join me on my adventures, but when I can’t find people to join me, I frequently make the decision to hike alone. I love hiking and backpacking, and I have no intention of letting the fact that I’m solo deter me from following my dreams. For me, the benefit is worth the risk. That said, I try to minimize that risk as much as I can… lost, alone, and starving to death is not my idea of a good time!

Inchworm may not have known how to use her compass. Inchworm’s friend Jane Lee said that even though Inchworm carried a compass she didn’t know how to use it. Regardless of whether or not this assertion is true, it serves as an important reminder that your safety gear is useless if you don’t know how to use it. If you are a hiker that carries a compass, when is the last time that you used it? Chances are pretty good that a little practice and review with a map and compass would do you good. I think that it is also worth noting that most of the “concerning evidence” reported about Inchworm’s incompetence comes from the hiking partner who had to leave Inchworm and the trail because of a family emergency. As her hiking partner is human, it is incredibly likely that Inchworm’s disappearance was traumatic for her and that she was struggling to understand her friend’s disappearance and trying to bridge the gap between knowing that her friend’s disappearance was not her fault, and feeling like Inchworm wouldn’t have gotten lost if she had still been there hiking with her… Coming to terms with those feeling in the immediate aftermath of Inchworm’s disappearance may have caused her to overemphasize her concerns.

My impromptu backcountry campsite nestled under the trees near Mt. Abraham in Maine

Inchworm stayed in one place for too long. This criticism largely seems like a hindsight is 20/20 kind of issue. Inchworm followed conventional wisdom, sheltering in place, near water, and minimizing her hypothermia risks. I haven’t seen any guidelines that say that you should abandon your camp and move on if rescue hasn’t arrived within a day or two (please comment and share if you’ve found any). Bumbling around in the woods, especially after you’re been lost and when you have a dwindling supply of food, puts you at a high risk of injury and will cause you to burn calories and eat through your resources more quickly. I don’t think Inchworm stayed in one place for too long, it is more likely that she stayed in the wrong place for too long.

Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her. The missing person’s report states “SPOT@hotel.” Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her! Why? Why would it be listed as “SPOT@hotel”? Why didn’t she have it with her? My guess is that it’s absence from her gear and her person was 100% accidental. Why she’d taken it out of/off of her pack we may never know (perhaps to replace the batteries?), but this is the most tragic example of “your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you” that I have ever heard! Would Inchworm have been found? Would she be alive today if she’d had her locator device with her and activated it? Probably. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes! Your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you!

An InReach satellite messenger lent to me by my friend Root Beer Float

What would I do differently?

If I get lost, I want to get found!! When I think about what I could do differently one thing immediately comes to mind. I can carry some sort of personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger with me. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be found and rescued, (Kate Matrosova had a GPS, a PLB, and a sat phone with her when she perished in the White Mountains in the winter of 2015), but it certainly increases the chances.

The only question is, which device should I carry? Since I’m looking for a device/technology that my life may depend on, I’ve done a lot of research on the current SOS/locator/messenger technology and devices available. Stay tuned for my analysis, gear-review, and decision based on the three main options:

For more information on what you should do if you get lost and how to avoid getting lost, check out NOHLs “What to do when you’re lost in the woods” post.

USGS Topo Map showing the GPS Coordinates where Inchworm was found along with the AT and 4WD roads nearby.

Living On The Edge! Katahdin’s Knife Edge and More…

DSC07956

Treebeard traversing the Knife Edge after completing his AT thru-hike.

If you are looking for one of the most spectacularly beautiful hikes in the Northeast, you should add Mt. Katahdin and the Knife Edge to your bucket list… but I have to warn you, it’s also one of the most rocky, brutal, and exposed hikes in New England. When I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike on the summit of Mt. Katahdin on October 4, 2013 I looked around and realized that the AT was missing some of the best parts of Katahdin and I knew that I’d be back. This summer (2015), after hiking all of the trails up Mt. Katahdin except for the Abol Trail (currently closed for repairs), I’ve finally decided on my favorite Mt. Katahdin day-hike, a hike that contains two of Maine’s official 4000 footers:

The view hiking up the Hamlin Ridge Trail 

Katahdin- Knife Edge Loop (Hamlin, Baxter, and Pamola Peaks)

    • Date: August 16, 2015 (Sunday)
    • Peaks: Hamlin Peak (4756 ft, official 4000 footer), Baxter Peak (5268 ft, official 4000 footer, AT terminus), South Peak (In the Middle of the Knife Edge), and Pamola Peak (4919 ft)
    • Parking: Roaring Brook Day-Use Parking Area (pit-toilet, ranger station sign-in with current weather report, no potable water). The roads into Baxter State Park are gated at night and open for Day-Use at 6 am. Parking is limited within the park, and spots may be reserved up to 4 months in advance. A small number of spots (5 for Roaring Brook) are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Prepare to get up early and wait in line at the gate if you are hoping to get one of the first-come, first-served spots, and have a back-up plan for enjoying one of Baxter’s other peaks, like North Brother, if the lots for Katahdin are full.
    • Conditions: Extreme Heat Warning! temps in the 90’s. 5-10 mph winds with gusts up to 20 mph
    • Total Mileage: 11.3 miles
      • Chimney Pond Trail- 3.0 miles. 0.2 miles to Helon Taylor Junction, 2.1 miles to North Basin Cut-off (originally planned to take cut-off, but water sources at junction were dry), 0.7 miles to North Basin Trail. Trail followed along roaring brook, below treeline with occasional views; rocky with constant, but relatively easy grade; crowded despite early (6:45 am start).
      • North Basin Trail- 0.4 miles. Large boulders,  below treeline (shaded), no water, no people
      • Hamlin Ridge Trail- 1.3 miles. First 0.2 miles below treeline; trail is rocky, with large boulders, rising steeply along the fin of the ridge to Hamlin Peak. Awesome views of Baxter Peak, the Knife Edge, and the North Peaks throughout; I didn’t encounter any people on this trail. (I’ve hiked all of the trails to Katahdin’s summit except the Abol Trail, and found the ascent up the Hamlin Ridge Trail the easiest)
      • Caribou Springs Trail- 0.2 miles. Rock-hopping from summit down to saddle, above treeline the whole way. Small clear spring located just off trail to the right as you descend and intersect with saddle the Northwest Basin Trail. Encountered 2 backpackers and 1 hiker while breaking for lunch at the spring. The spring was still freely flowing in late August.
      • DSC07915
      • Northwest Basin Trail- 0.9 miles. easy rock-hoping along ridge, above treeline, no people.
      • Saddle Trail- 1.0 miles. Slow and steady climb to Baxter summit, droves of people, some rock-hopping, some loose gravel, many false summits. Exposed with gorgeous views. Intersections with cathedral cutoff (0.5 miles), and later Cathedral Trail provide welcome evidence of progress along ridge
      • Knife Edge Trail- 1.1 miles. Put your trekking poles away, you will need both hands and both feet to climb up and over boulders, rocky slabs, and fins. Do not attempt in wet weather or with approaching thunderstorms. Not recommended for folks with full packs. Not recommended for those with fear of heights. Very exposed, and awesome!
      • Helon Taylor Trail- 3.2 miles. Above treeline for the first 1.2 miles. Large Boulders and moderate to steep decline for the first ~2 miles. Large stream with good flow ~1.8 miles down. Final miles fairly easy going.
      • Chimney Pond Trail- 0.2 miles. I took a break back at Roaring Pond and then finished off the rocky, but easy last 0.2 miles to the parking lot.
    • Total Duration: 10 hrs, 15 minutes: 6:45 am – 5:00 pm (1 hr break at Caribou Springs, 2 hr break at Baxter summit, 45 minutes at Avalanche Brook)
DSC07901

Mt. Katahdin at dawn as seen from Roaring Brook Road

Unlike most trailheads in the Northeast, the parking within Baxter State Park in extremely regulated, and you’re supposed to reserve your parking spot in advance (up to 4 months in advance). I was not that organized, so I was hoping to get one of the 5 first-come, first-serve parking spots in the lot at Roaring Brook. I’d heard rumors about people getting in line as early as 3:30 in the morning in the hopes of getting a spot but that was too early for me so I decided that I’d get up when I got up, and figured I’d take my chances!

I ended up waking up fairly early, just before 5 am, so I hoped I might actually stand a chance. Still in my pajamas I crawled out of my sleeping bag, rolled into my car, and drove over to the Togue Pond Gatehouse where the road into Baxter State Park was literally gated off. When I got there at 5:15 am there were already three cars in line (the people in the first car said they got there at 4 am), and by 5:30 am there were at least 10 cars in the line behind me. When the rangers finally arrived to open the park at 6 am the line of cars behind me stretched down the road, around the corner, and out of sight… It probably contained upwards of 60 cars, and 4 of the first 6 cars were hoping for the first-come, first-serve parking spots at Katahdin’s main trailhead! Although the rangers tell you to get there by six for the first-come first-served spots, on most popular days the folks arriving at six are already too late.

DSC07908

Taking a break to look back at the trail I’d just climbed along Hamlin Ridge.

By 6:10 am I’d filled out the paperwork for my spot and I headed down the dirt road towards the main trailhead. I was tired, but excited… The drive down the dirt road to the parking area felt like it took forever, but eventually I joined dozens of other cars at the lot, packed my bag, and by 6:45 am I was on the trail and headed off on my adventure!

DSC07902

The first part of my hike (the Chimney Pond Trail) was crowded with dayhikers, backpackers, scout groups, and camp groups, but as soon as I turned onto North Basin Trail I had the mountain to myself… I enjoy interacting with other hikers, but there’s something about being in the woods alone that I’ve grown to love. I reveled in the solitude and the joy of only interacting with the rocks, roots, earth, and sky… The going was rocky, but before long I’d turned onto the Hamlin Ridge Trail, and by ~8:30 in the morning I’d popped up above treeline where I would stay until ~4:30 that the afternoon.

DSC07906

Looking up the Hamlin Ridge Trail towards Hamlin Peak.

As I hiked I marveled at how lucky I was… the weather was picture perfect and I could see both Hamlin and Baxter Peaks rising ahead of me, with the Knife Edge in silhouette off to my left… If I looked very carefully I could see the ant-like people scurrying across the top of it’s ridge. It looked truly impressive!

DSC07904

Looking over at the Knife Edge from Hamlin RIdge Trail

When I reached Hamlin Peak I had the summit all to myself… The rocky alpine meadow up there was still  intact and seemed to stretch almost endlessly in every direction. “This is how the other summits should look…” I thought contemplatively and almost mournfully. Here, at the summit of Hamlin Peak, there was almost no sign of the erosion damage that is so pervasive on almost every other alpine peak in New England… There haven’t been enough travelers to trample the meadow and damage it’s fragile ecosystem (yet)… I found my irritation with Baxter State Park’s rules, gates, and lines beginning to melt away… “There need to be places like this, places where the foot traffic is limited, and some semblance of the native alpine environments exist,” I thought as I enjoyed the privilege of being there… It was beautiful and it was wild, and I hoped it would stay that way!

DSC07918

As I lingered at the summit I noticed the sign for ‘Caribou Spring.’ Was it really possible that there was a spring up here above treeline on one of Katahdin’s flanks and that I was going to be hiking right past it? It was late August in the middle of a mountain heat wave, and the thought of getting to top off my water bottles before continuing my hike across the exposed ridgeline to Katahdin’s Baxter Peak was more than a little bit appealing! I was skeptical though, in late August a lot of New England’s mountain water sources go dry…

DSC07917

The quiet of the mountains stayed with me as I continued towards the spring… I could see the crowds on the Saddle Trail headed towards the summit of Baxter Peak, but they were over a mile away. I lingered on my peaceful mountaintop trail, enjoying the solitude while it lasted.

When I got to the trail junction and looked around sure enough there was the little spring burbling away. I decided to sit there a while, eat my lunch, and top off all of my water bottles. It was hot and I still had a very long day ahead of me! While lingering there for lunch I encountered the only three people that I’d see on the trails around Hamlin Peak.

DSC07920

On the Northwest Basin Trail looking at the cloud enveloping the summit of Katahdin.

The difference in the number of people hiking on the Northwest Basin Trail along Katahdin’s ridgeline and the Saddle Trail was stunningly impressive… I had the Northwest Basin Trail all to myself, but I could clearly see a constant stream of people ascending and descending the Saddle Trail… I felt no need to hurry as I picked my way through the rocks… I’d get there soon enough, and no matter how many people I encountered, Katahdin’s majesty wouldn’t be diminished… The mountain and its ridgelines were breathtaking!

DSC07930

On the Saddle Trail looking back towards Hamlin Peak and North Brother.

I’d forgotten how rocky Katahdin’s trails are… They look so beautiful and well defined, that I’d somehow thought of them as being like the trails along Franconia Ridge, which almost feel like the gravel trails you’d find in a well-groomed park, but in truth they are much more like the rock-hopping trails that you find near Mt. Washington’s summit… beautiful, but definitely knee-busters…

DSC07928

On the Saddle Trail looking back at Hamlin Peak and North Brother

As I slowly, but steadily climbed the Saddle Trail I met and passed many of the same scouts and campers that I’d seen earlier in the day (back on the Chimney Pond Trail), and we cheered each other on. Sure, the solitude I’d been enjoying earlier was gone, but it was replaced by a sense of community and comraderie that was special in a different way.

“Is there an easy way down?” asked a bedraggled couple just beginning their descent and looking like the heat was getting to them. “Well,” I thought, “I think the Saddle Trail down to Chimney Pond is your best bet if your car is at Roaring Brook.” They looked at me and moaned, “That’s the way we came up!” They were radiating a sense of misery and defeat, that knew very well… I’ve been there before.

DSC07939

“Do you guys have a map? How are you doing on food and water?” I asked and encouraged them to step to the side of the trail for a minute. They didn’t have a map, so I took a break and showed them mine… It was their first time up Katahdin and it was a heftier climb than they’d expected, and the weather was a lot hotter than they’d anticipated as well. “I think we have enough water to get back to Chimney Pond,” they replied, “but we’re out of food.” I nodded, dug around in my pack and gave them the extra granola bars and packets of Oreo Cookies I had. “Thanks!” they exclaimed digging into the Oreo Cookies right away. “No problem, I always carry extra,” I assured them as we parted ways.

Approaching Baxter Peak on Katahdin all I could think about was the last time I’d been here… I didn’t notice the crowds of dayhikers swarming around me at the summit. I was lost in memories of my 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hike…

jj_summit

Standing at the summit of Katahdin in 2013 at the end of my AT thru-hike

Memories of my thru-hike, memories of the amazing adventures I’d had, and the incredibly people I’d met… Memories of the crew I’d celebrated with on summit of Katahdin in 2013, and grief over the loss of Shady, who I’d last seen here at this summit. I retreated to the rocks where our group had huddled for warmth two years ago on that day in 2013, and had a moment of silence for Shady… Remembering not just the grief of loss, but the joy of the times we’d shared…

DSC07214

The crew I celebrated with in 2013

While we’d huddled in this spot in 2013, Shady, with his ever adventurous spirit, had decided that finishing the AT and summiting Katahdin wasn’t enough, so he’d done a quick hike across the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak and back again. Remembering that brought a smile to my face… there was no denying that Shady was a Bada** Ranger with a heart of gold!

I slowly returned from my reverie and looked around… I was surrounded by day-hikers… There were at least 50 of them, but there was no sign of any thru-hikers, but wait… wait… “That’s totally a thru-hiker,” I thought in the second before I recognized him… “Treebeard!” I exclaimed realizing that it was the thru-hiker that had camped with me at Abol Pines Campground the night before. “Congratulations!”

DSC07942

Treebeard celebrating amongst the crowds at the summit of Mt. Katahdin

“Are there any other thru-hikers around?” I asked. “I haven’t seen any,” he shrugged in reply. When I’d summitted early on an October morning in 2013 the people at the summit were almost exclusively thru-hikers, I couldn’t imagine what it would have felt like to finish my thru-hike without any other thru-hikers or friends and family around… “Could you take some summit pictures for me?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied enthusiastically… I’d wished I’d taken more fun and creative summit photos at the end of my AT journey, so I was more than happy to help Treebeard get the photos he wanted!

OMG, it was a zoo up there! Absolutely everybody wanted to get pictures with the sign at the summit of Mt. Katahdin… there was a disorganized line, and people were either calmly waiting their turn, or pushing their way to the sign and taking their photos oblivious of everyone else… We waited in line and eventually got to take a series of photos, some funny, some serious, and some with me joking with the crowd about thru-hiker modeling,”Work It! Work It!” I yelled laughing and snapping photos…

DSC07940

Eventually Treebeard got all of the summit photos he wanted and we prepared to set off. Since he and I were both planning on descending via the Knife Edge we decided to head of together. Nowadays I don’t get to hang out with fellow thru-hikers very often, so it was nice to get to relax into thru-hiker mode for a bit… From the summit the Knife Edge looked pretty intense, and I have to admit that I didn’t mind the idea of hiking it with another person instead of hiking it solo!

DSC07946

Looking out across the Knife Edge from the summit of Katahdin

Though I’ve hiked the Knife Edge before, I was surprised by how crazy, rugged, and awesome it was… I don’t know of any other trails in New England that are quite like it! As Treebeard and I slowly made our way across it we were constantly amazed by both the beauty of the ravines falling off to either side of us, and at the path that the trail took across the ridge.

DSC07945

Preparing to cross the Knife’s Edge

We were lucky that we had perfect weather crossing the ridge, and as we crossed we could see the people scurrying along it’s edge almost a mile away… “Wow!” I kept thinking, “just wow!” Since Treebeard is a 2015 thru-hiker and I’m a 2013 thru-hiker I figured he’d outpace me and be on his way before long, but we ended up crossing the whole Knife Edge together… The fact that he’d hiked 20+ miles to get there and was doing the Knife Edge with a full pack probably slowed him down a bit ;)

DSC07959

Treebeard stopping to look back at the Knife Edge trail winding it’s way down from Mt. Katahdin

“There’s nothing like this on the AT,” Treebeard exclaimed as we bouldered across the ridge and skirted narrow rock ledges. I absolutely agreed, but it felt kind of nice having someone who had just hiked the entire AT that summer put words to that feeling! As we threaded our way through Katahdin’s rocks we talked about our thru-hikes and some of our experiences on the trail in the lazy off-hand sort of way that sometimes comes with having lived through similar, but different, extreme circumstances.

DSC07958

We took it slow, taking pictures, and taking care with our footing… We’d both had long days and it didn’t seem like it was worth risking injury to rush through the Knife Edge. Nobody else seemed to be in a big rush either.

After spending a full day rock-hopping on Katahdin, I was feeling pretty confident with my balance and foot placements as we went across, but I was incredibly glad that I wasn’t carrying a full pack, and that I wasn’t wearing thru-hiker shoes (by the time thru-hikers get to Katahdin their shoes are usually falling apart). Treebeard seemed to be handling it with not problem, but admitted he wasn’t sure that he’d recommend that other thru-hikers go this way. “Actually, I talked to the ranger about it this morning,” he confessed, “and he said that they don’t recommend this to the thru-hikers…” He paused, “I can see why!”

DSC07955

It turned out that the most challenging portion of the Knife Edge for us came at the very end. It was a steep descent down a slightly jagged rock-face right before we got to Pamola Peak. As Treebeard and I approached we saw a group of people staggered at different spots, unable to figure out how they were going to get down, but confident that there was no good way.

DSC07954

The first section of the descent didn’t seem so bad and Treebeard and I quickly passed everyone, but I have to admit, we were a bit stymied by the final section… No matter which way we looked it didn’t seem good. Treebeard went down the way we’d seen a couple of people ahead of us go, but seemed to struggle with it, so I looked for an alternative. “Sh**,” an expletive floated up from down below as Treebeard almost pealed off of the rocks. “Nope,” I’m definitely not going that way I decided as I looked for a safer way to meet him at the bottom. Eventually I found a way that worked better for me, but it still involved one slightly risky move…

DSC07968

The last descent along the Knife Edge (look closely and see the people in the process of descending… I blew up that section for the next photo)

At the bottom Treebeard and I looked back at it, “Is this worse than Mahoosuk Notch?” I asked. The Mahoosuk Notch is infamously the hardest mile on the AT… It’s not as exposed as the Knife Edge, and certainly doesn’t have the same kind of spectacular views, but crossing it during my thru-hike had definitely seemed like a death-defying act. “Yup,” he replied, “worse than the Notch!”

DSC07968-2

Standing on Pamola Peak and looking back at the Knife Edge we’d just crossed Katahdin seemed like a mammoth of an awesome mountain… It felt strangely bittersweet though… All day as I hiked I’d had amazing things to look forward to, first Hamlin Peak, then Baxter, then the Knife Edge, but now the next stop was the parking lot… I didn’t want to be leaving Katahdin… I didn’t want to be leaving Baxter State Park… I wanted to stay up there above treeline soaking it all in, at least until sunset and the light went away.

DSC07951

Unfortunately, better sense prevailed… I’d been up since ~4:30 that morning, and had been baking in the sun above treeline since 8:30 that morning… It wouldn’t be smart to stay up there and I knew it, so I slowly began my descent down the Helon Taylor Trail. As we descended into the shadow of Katahdin we remained above treeline, but dropped out of the wind… Suddenly it was oppressively hot… It had been abnormally hot all day, but the temperatures were at their hottest now, and peaking into the 90’s even on the mountain.

DSC07952

The rock-hopping that had been fun just moments before began to get tedious… did every step really have to be this rocky? And though the views were still impressive, I began to long for shade… Shade that I knew wouldn’t come until I was within 2 miles of the end of my hike. As I continued to descend I noticed that I was getting unreasonable irritated every time the trail decided that the best route involved me dropping down 3+ feet in one step.

DSC07931

“Hey Treebeard, I’m going to have to stop for a snack and for some water,” I said as soon as we dropped below treeline and I noticed a bit of shade. “Ok,” he replied, “I think I’m going to keep going.” We exchanged contact information and headed our separate ways. It had been nice to hike with someone for a while. It was also nice that in true thru-hiker style there wasn’t any pretense or hurt feelings when we decided to part ways again when our needs differed.

I sat in the shade, taking a leisurely break, eating a snack, and double checking my water reserves… I had about a liter and a half left… “Wow, I’ve been going through a lot of water!” I thought. I’d started up the Hamlin Ridge Trail with 5L of water, and had topped off my water with another 2L at caribou Springs… It’s really unusual for me to go through 5+ liters of water on a hike, but it had been a long day, with temps in the 90’s, and a lot of sun exposure.

DSC07912

After eating my snack I felt energized and starting dancing down the rocks like I used to as a thru-hiker… Since I was down below treeline I could focus entirely on the rocks, roots, and finding the best foot placements amongst them… It was a weird sort of fun, but I enjoyed it. As I booked it down the mountain I passed a couple of guys that were looking truly miserable. “Are you guys ok?” I asked. The first one nodded his head, but the other one said, “We’re out of water, do you have an extra?”

My answer was unfortunately yes and no… Given the conditions, I was figuring that I needed a full liter of water to get back to the parking lot, so all I could give them was 1/2L to share. They took it gratefully, but I knew it wasn’t enough :-/ I looked at my map and it showed a stream crossing the trail in about 1/2 mile… “Do you have any water filtration or treatment stuff?” I asked them. “No,” they responded sadly. “Well, when we get down there if the stream exists, maybe I treat some for you?” I offered.

DSC07922

Hiking down towards the stream our paces were very different, and I was way way ahead of them within moments. The rocky downhill seemed to go on forever, but eventually I got to the branch of Avalanche Brook that crossed the trail  and happily discovered that it was running strongly. It takes 15-20 minutes to chemically treat drinking water using my system, so I immediately starting preparing one of my one liter bottles for the guys coming behind me knowing that they were far thirstier than I.

I set a timer for 15 minutes to make sure that the water would be all set before giving it to them and decided I might as well prepare some extra water for me while I waited for them to show up. I waited for them until the alarm went off and then started wondering if they were ok, or if I should just leave the water bottle in the trail for them or… Eventually I decided I would backtrack just a little bit to look for them.

Luckily I found them almost immediately. They were not having any fun at all. When they saw me they sunk down onto a rock and gratefully accepted the water. “We were beginning to think we might die out here,” one of them panted. I looked them over. They weren’t showing obvious signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion, but given the conditions it’s possible that they weren’t far off. “Do you guys have some water bottles?” I asked. “I could treat some water for you. You’ll have to wait 15 minutes to drink it, but after that it’ll be good.”

DSC07936

It didn’t take much convincing, and I filled up 2 more water bottles for them for their descent, explaining the process of treating the water as I went along. I ended up spending a half hour or so with them and gave them the last of my oreo cookies and topped off their water bottles before heading off. “Thank you sooo much!,” they exclaimed, looking much better as I prepared to head off. “No worries,” I replied, “It ends up happening to everyone at some point, I’ve certainly been there! I’m glad I could help!”

After taking that break I felt rejuvinated and zipped down the rest of the trail, completing my loop at the Chimney Pond Trail with a quick jump into Roaring Brook… I didn’t want the hike to be over because it had been so beautiful, but I have to admit that the air conditioning in my car was sounding mighty appealing at that moment… Civilization does have its perks!

DSC07926

P.S. When I checked out at the ranger station I told the ranger that there were a couple of guys that had been struggling on the Helon Taylor Trail, explained the situation and comments I’d heard from hikers that passed them after I left them… I figured they’d be fine, but I wanted to make sure that if they didn’t get back in the next couple of hours that the rangers would know where they were and go looking for them.

Treebeard standing at the top of Pamola Peak

Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 4: Gently Down the Stream?)

Part 4 of the story of my ill-advised whitewater kayaking trip down the Penobscot river picks up with me looking like a drowned rat at the base of Big Ambejackmockamus Falls (class IV). The first three parts of the story can be found at:

“Are you ok?” the kayaker on the rocky outcropping above me shouted, noticing me for the first time. I looked up, catching a glimpse of the tip of my kayak churning around in the whirlpool right behind her.

“Yeah,” I’m ok, “but I could use some help.” I had no idea how I was going to safely retrieve my kayak, or whether or not it was even still in one piece… it might just be mangled mess. The kayaker stared at me, unmoving, so I decided to wade from my rock, up to where she was standing. The water was knee-deep, but the current was strong and the rocks were slippery. I slipped once, falling back and bruising my butt (miraculously the only injury I sustained) on my way to her rocky perch.

By the time I joined her, another kayaker had arrived. They both looked at me, confused and said, “You don’t have the right gear for this.”

“No, no I don’t…” I affirmed. I knew that I was still in shock, but was surprised that they seemed to be as well. “I shouldn’t be here… there’s no way that I should be here… I shouldn’t be on anything harder than a class II,” I said while they looked at me silently, still befuddled. “I could use some help getting my kayak and paddle back.”

“Sure,” they said as we watched the kayak and paddle for a minute as they rotated around the pool for the fourth of fifth time. They talked briefly and one of them left, leaving the other to help me. We were only distracted for a minute, but by the time we looked back at the whirlpool the kayak was gone…“Where’d the kayak go,” asked the woman that had stayed… I studied the water, looking for the kayak’s white-tip, amongst the foam… “I don’t know,” I replied with the sinking feeling that it may have finally succumbed to the rapids and was now at the bottom of the river.

“There it is!” she said pointing to a spot about 100 yards downriver. I looked at the paddle, still in the whirlpool, and at the boat downriver… “What should we do?” she asked. I didn’t want to face that waterfall again, or the whirlpool below it, so I said, “Why don’t you go for the paddle, and I’ll go for the boat!”

Horse Race (Class II)

“It’s a nice day for a swim!” I yelled to the raft that as I swam past it. After the insanity of the swimming through class IV rapids, swimming with the current towards my boat was actually quite pleasant.

“You don’t want to swim this, it gets really shallow!” yelled the whitewater rafting guide as I approached. “The other raft has your kayak” he continued as I floated by him, “If you want we can give you a ride down to it!”

“Sure!” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, besides I could see the ripples of rocks ahead and my goal was still to have the least exciting kayak trip possible (which I’d completely failed at). “Just swim on over to us,” the guide instructed… I tried not to laugh… The raft was at least 20 feet upstream, and I was in the middle of the strongest part of the current… At my strongest and most rested it would have been pretty ridiculous to think that I’d be able to swim upstream towards them… At best I could try to get out of the current, swim towards their side of the river, and maybe slow down… if I was lucky! “You’re going to have to come to me,” I replied.”

Eventually the raft pulled up beside me, “Hop on in!” they instructed… I grabbed the safety rope, which ringed around the outside of the raft, and floundered as I attempted to pull, push, and kick my way over the ginormous lip of the boat… It just wasn’t happening… “I’m gonna need some help!” I exclaimed, tightening the side straps on my life jacket so they could grab it to help pull me in… Even with their help, it took two more tries before I managed to roll up over the side, and into the raft.

“What happened? How did you end up here?” the guide asked as I perched on the edge of the raft. He was also clearly baffled by my presence… “Well, a friend dropped me off upriver. He said I should expect still water with occasional class II’s, but that,” I shook my head, “that wasn’t a class II!”

“Class II?!” chimed in one of the rafters, “These are Class IV’s and V’s, maybe your friend is dyslexic.. He saw the 5 and thought it was a 2?”

“Are you ok?” the guide interrupted. “Well, I’m a little shaken up,” I replied honestly. “But medically speaking,” he pressed, “Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” I said lifting up my arms and looking myself over, “medically speaking, I’m fine.” I was actually surprised that I didn’t see any bruises on my arms and legs after all of that!

“So what happened?” he asked again. “It looks like it must have been pretty epic! When we spotted you, you were already down passed our photographer at Ambejack’s second drop…”

“Well, considering my kayak doesn’t have a skirt and I was only expecting class II’s I did ok, but there’s no way I should have ever ended up there…” I began, and regaled them with my tale of kayaking and then swimming through what I learned was Ambejackmackamus Falls. “You’re photographer probably got some crazy photos of me as I went by!”

“Our photographer didn’t even see you,” the guide replied rather solemnly. “Really?” I was surprised, I’d gone through the falls right in front of her… How could she have missed me?

“When we first saw you we thought you were a bag of trash,” one of the guys at the front of the boat said, joining the conversation. “Yeah,” interjected another, “we were wondering what kind of jerk would throw their trash into the river!”

“Well, I guess I am hiker trash,” I laughed, thinking that it was kind of fitting and realizing I should get brighter and more obviously colored gear…”What DO you have in your backpack?” the guide asked. I’d forgotten that I was even wearing a backpack, but clearly the green and black backpack was what they say and thought was trash. “My camera, a first aid kit, and a towel,” I replied… “Do y’all have any water? I took mine out of my pack before hitting those rapids and now its long gone.”

“No, we don’t, but you can have this beer we found floating in the river,” suggested one of the rafters. “Really?” I asked… Somehow beer wasn’t what I was expecting to be offered. “Yeah, A whole, unopened beer!” a different rafter chimed in, holding up a pristine looking can of PBR… “It’s been in the river though, you probably don’t want to drink it.”

“I’ve swallowed plenty of river water already today, I’m not worried about what might be on the edge of the can!” I laughed, looking at the beer… “Sure, I’ll take it… rafting down a river with a PBR in hand… I might as well embrace my hiker trash roots!”

As we continued floating down the river the barrage of questions continued, “Who dropped you off?”… “A friend”… “What kind of friend would do that? Were they trying to get rid of you?”… “No,” I replied, “but come to think of it, they were hoping to restore my faith in God!” As I reflected on it some more, the morning bible study (psalm 147) my new friends had had around the campfire that morning and the conversation surrounding it was eerily relevant to my day… “What is the lesson that you learned from this morning’s bible study?” the father had asked his son Noah at the end of the lesson. “To be humble,” he had replied. To be humble… My experience on the river that morning had definitely reinforced that lession! Humbling… that was definitely the word of the day!

Afterward: Nesowadnehunk

At the base of the Horserace rapids the raft that I was on finally caught up with the raft that had my kayak. They were all going to skip the Nesowadnehunk Deadwater. It was too calm to be of interest to them, but sounded perfect to me. It was still early in the day, and a nice relaxing paddle along the river still sounded nice. I checked my kayak, it was still river worthy. It had survived the class IV rapids and was still watertight!!!

“What’s the river like between here and Abol Bridge?” I quizzed the 6 rafting guides as they herded their rafters onto buses to skip the boring part of the river. “Well, there’s two miles of this Nesowadnehunk Deadwater, which is an easy paddle, and then there’s Nesowadnehunk Falls, a class IV waterfall with a big drop, but there’s a portage around that. Then, after that there’s maybe half a mile of class II shallows before you get to the Abol Deadwater, which will bring you the last 3 miles down to Abol bridge.”

“All of that sounds good, but I sure as heck don’t want to go anywhere near the falls!” I replied. “How do I know when I’m getting close to it? How do I make absolutely sure that I avoid it? Where exactly is the portage?” I must have sounded like a broken record as I quizzed them over and over and over again about avoiding the falls… They were going to stop for lunch at the other end of the deadwater, and that would be my first clue… the portage would be on the left after that, and it would allow me to carry my kayak around the falls and put in down below in the gentler waters.

“Ok,” I replied when I felt like I had a good mental picture of the river and its major hazard… Since the portage was on the left side of the river, so I figured I would paddle the rest of the way hugging the left shore, and the minute I saw anything that looked like a portage or whitewater I’d be outta the water and onshore faster than you could say, ‘rapid.’

After a gently, uneventful paddle, I got to the end of the deadwater where my new rafting friends were stopped for lunch. I wasn’t in a hurry, and I was still a little nervous about the falls ahead, so I stopped to chat with the river guides again.

“So, can you tell me more about the portage around this next falls?” I asked, still unable to remember or pronounce the names of any of the landmarks along the river. “It’s coming up on the left side of the river. It’ll have a sign for it, just like the last one up at Ambejack.” I gave him a worried looked… “Uh-oh, there was a sign for the last one? I definitely missed it… How do I make sure I don’t miss this one?”

“The sign has a canoe on it, and it’s about this big,” the guide made a small square with his hands, indicating that the sign was about 6 inches by 8 inches, “and it’s tucked back into the brush on shore.” It didn’t sound encouraging… no wonder I’d missed the last one.

“You could do that,” one of the other guides interrupted, “but I’ve done it… the trail is overgrown, and the put-in sucks.. it’s full of brush… If I were you, I’d take-out over at the other rafting groups lunch spot, which is right before the falls. Then all you have to do is carry your kayak up to the Golden Road, walk a couple hundred yards along it, and then follow the trail back down to the falls… It’s shorter than the official portage and the put-in is right at the base of the falls and is way better!”

“Where’s their lunch spot, and how will I know when I’m getting close to the falls?” I asked, trying to get as much information as possible before deciding to get back on the river. “They’re the second take-out down on the right, on the side of the river that we’re on now, and they’re right before the falls. You’ll know the falls are coming because you’ll hear them!” I asked a few more questions, but was eventually convinced that the ‘golden road portage’ was the best option for me.

“Good luck!” my new friends cheered me on as I nervously got back onto the river, paddling so close enough to the bank that I could reach out and touch it… I carefully studied the river and its shoreline as I carefully proceeded… Everything was still gentle and quiet. As I rounded the next bend I saw first one, and then two small sandy spits on the right side of the river… They were obscured by brush and looked about 3 feet wide, certainly not as big as the last rafting groups lunch spot, but as I got closer I could definitely hear the distant roar of waterfalls. I didn’t see any signs of whitewater, and wasn’t sure that this was the rafter’s lunch spot, but I was definitely pulling myself, and my boat, out of the water there!!

As I pulled my kayak onto the bank, I still wasn’t sure that I was in the right place… All I could see were the encroaching laurel bushes, and a steep jeep road rising into the pines… “I guess I’ll find out!” I thought as I lifted my kayak up onto my shoulder and started hiking up the road… By the time I’d taken five or ten steps the brush fell away, and was looking at a picnic area in where someone was busily preparing paella for about 100 people. This was definitely the right spot! I paused briefly to say hi, and continued up the steep slope of the jeep road.

“What are you doing on this side of the river!” a guy stuck his head out of his van, and yelled at me as I approached the Golden Road. “The portage is on the other side of the river,” he continued condescendingly.

“I know,” I replied setting my kayak down for a second, “but I heard that the portage on that side was brushy and that going this way was better.”

“No, it’s not… It’s really long to go this way,” he said pointing to where I was headed. “You should really go back and portage on the other side of the river.” I stared at him blankly… Was I going to trust the dude in the van, or the river guides? I picked up my kayak, turned away from him, and continued towards the Golden Road.

“Suit yourself!” he yelled after me… I didn’t even pause… So what if he was right? Long walks I could handle… Accidentally missing a portage spot and going through more class IV rapids, no way… Let me tell you how many miles I would walk to avoid that… All of them!!!

I probably walked less than 100 yards along the golden road before I spotted a parking area on the right and a large trail on the left. I set the kayak down and asked two people that were crossing the road if this trail led to the falls. “Yup,” they replied.

As I picked my kayak up, the kayakers that helped me out earlier pulled up and started to unload, “You found it!” they exclaimed gleefully as I headed down the steep trail to the sandy put-in at the base of the falls… “Yeah,” I thought as I got to the river and looked back at the falls, “I found it, and I portaged the fu** out it!”

The waterfall looked insane… I was really glad not to be kayaking over it, but I have to admit, when the rafters got there and started to play on it, I was jealous… I wanted to borrow a helmet, jump into one of the rafts, and play on the class IV rapids the right way!

THE END

P.S. From there to Abol Bridge is the 3-mile section of stillwater (nothing worse than Class II) that runs along the Appalachian Trail that I had scouted before, and thought that I was getting myself into! The AT runs so close to the river that at one point I saw some long-distance hikers, and they helped me take a picture of my kayak on the trail that I call home… I was definitely looking forward to getting off of the river and back into the mountains… The mountains may be scary, but they’re my kind of scary…

IMG_7264-0

Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 3: Taking the Plunge)

Nesowadnehunk Falls (class IV) rapids on the Penobscot River

“And finally, there’s the Penobscot – lovingly referred to as the Nob by many. What it lacks in repetitive quantity, it makes up for in terrifying quality. The bigger rapids are heart racing and undeniable Class V… or stronger. This is a river you don’t want to swim.” -Review: U.S. Rafting – Penobscot River

Here’s Part 3 of the story of my accidental whitewater kayaking trip through Class IV rapids (Big Amberjackmockamus Falls) on the Pebobscot River… It’s continued from: “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 1: The Calm Before the Storm” and “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 2: In Over My Head.” If you are afraid of water or have had a near-drowning experience etc, you may want to skip this post. Otherwise, let’s pick up from where we left of…

I knew that as soon as I paddled through the crest of the wave in front of me, water would spill into my kayak, and it would capsize… but the only hope I had was in embracing my fate… besides… maybe I was wrong…

“Whoosh” the sound of roaring water filled my ears, and surrounded my body as the water pulled me out of my kayak and into its depths. I wasn’t afraid… I was too busy fighting for my life to be afraid… I was being tumbled just below the surface of the water in what felt like a giant washing machine… I worked with the downstream current to kick my way towards the surface. Succeeding briefly, I took a giant gulp of air before getting pulled back down under the surface and into the spin cycle again.

“Resistance is futile,” I reminded myself not to struggle against the current, but to try to guide my body through them instead…I bobbed to the surface briefly and won a second gulp of air… I was still in the spin cycle, but I was moving downstream, away from the original thing, the original trap, and into something new.

The third time my head bobbed to the surface I was able to keep it there. “I love my life jacket,” I thought as I took in a real breath of air. My life jacket was saving my life, and I knew it! With my head above water I was finally able to look around for my kayak… It was less than 10 feet away, upside down, with about a quarter of the bow visible above the water… My kayak was sinking.

I swam to it, grabbed the neoprene loop attached to the bow, and rested for a second enjoying the buoyancy that the kayak had retained. I looked at the river ahead of me… it looked like there was some really big whitewater and another big drop coming up… “I love my life jacket, but I sure wish I had a helmet,” I thought as I realized I wasn’t out of the danger zone yet.

I tried to pull the kayak towards the rocks on the left side of the river where I could see the kayaker stopped, and still taking pictures, but I couldn’t get the kayak to budge… at all… It was half-sunk, it was heavy, and it was completely under the river’s control.

A split second later the kayak started to pull me forcibly as the front end of it went over the next drop… I pulled back on it, desperately trying to save it, trying to keep the kayak from completely disappearing into the rapids and under the water forever. “It’s so expensive, I can’t afford to loose it!” was the first thought that ran through my mind.

“I don’t want to let go, I don’t want to,” I pleaded with the water, still reluctant to let it go even though I knew that I had to… The boat was going down, perhaps to the bottom, perhaps to stay there, and that was not where I wanted to go!

“Just let it go…” I calmly released the kayak to its fate as I said the words, and came to peace with it… All of life seemed distilled into that moment… On the river, in a fight for my life, and I had to pause to make the conscious decision to just ‘let go’…

It seemed so apropos to my life… Needing to let go in order to find my way through troubled waters… Recognizing that holding on isn’t always the right choice… Realizing that there’s no sense worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow, when you’re drowning today… First things first, you have to figure out how to keep your head above water!

The tip of the kayak disappeared over the edge, and my moment of clarity was gone… I had just enough time to take a deep breath of air before the water carried me over the edge of the second drop and pulled me under.

I couldn’t breath… all I could see was foamy white, all I could hear was “ROOAAAARRRR.” The water churned me and tumbled me… I would go where the water took me, and I didn’t have much choice in the matter… It took me to the surface briefly and I drew in as much air as I could, knowing it wouldn’t last long… I got pulled under again before I had any sense of where I was or what was coming next…

Control was an illusion… I had none… I was at the mercy of an unmerciful river… As I bobbed to the surface again, and again… each time gasping for air… I thought of apples bobbing in the water and was slightly jealous of them… The apples got to stay near the surface of the water most of the time… I didn’t seem to be that lucky…

I suddenly felt like I was 9 years old again… Caught in the undertow at Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island… I loved Misquamicut Beach because it had gigantic waves, but every once in a while one of the waves would hit me wrong, and instead of riding on top of it, I’d end up riding inside of it… Getting caught inside one of those massive waves meant getting caught in a nasty cycle where the surf would crash me against the shore, the undertow and rip current would then drag me back into the surf, and if I was lucky there would be a brief window where I could gasp for air before the next wave came, tossing me back towards the shore and sending me through the ringer all over again in what felt like an endless cycle…

I laughed a little to myself as the whitewater swirled me around below the surface of the river and thought, “When most people talk about the outdoors making them feel young again, I’m sure that this isn’t what they envision!” … But honestly, I couldn’t (and still can’t) think of any other experience where I have so thoroughly felt like I was a kid again…

My head bobbed up to the surface, and this time I was able to get a full breath of air, the giddiness of hypoxia still clinging to me, I once again thought, “I love my life jacket!” My life jacket was saving my life and making my experience less harrowing than my nine year old experience… It made it so that I always knew which way was up, and that made a world of difference!

For the first time since I let go of the kayak I was able keep my head above the surface long enough to see where I was… I was right in front of the kayaker taking pictures of the rafters… I had no idea where my kayak was, but I was almost out of this crazy whitewater… There was just one last massive drop in front of me… Before I could try to communicate with the nearby kayaker, or do anything else, I got pulled back under the water and over the edge of the third, and final drop…

I went down, then bobbed up through the whitewater, gasping for air at the surface… My lungs were starting to get tired of this sh**… I got pulled back under again… when the upward current finally grabbed me and started pulling me upwards again, I tried to use it to swim both upwards and outwards… When I surfaced, gasping for breath, I was noticeably further from the drop this time… I got pulled under one last time before finally making it up to the surface and being able to stay there…

Still gasping, I looked downstream for the closest place that I could safely swim to shore, and immediately started making my way towards it. Each breath seemed to hurt, which annoyed the heck out of me… I finally had all this good clean air to breath, but my lungs were revolting, they just weren’t ready for it yet… they were still mad at me for the ordeal I’d just forced them through.

“Are you ok?” Shouted the rafters downstream. I was still out of breath, so I lifted my hand out of the water, smiled, and gave them a thumbs-up… I couldn’t tell if they saw it, or not… I was ok, but my mission was to make it to shore… I needed to focus on that, and couldn’t afford to waste time reassuring them.

I crawled out of the water, onto a rock, stood up, and started to catch my breath… I was exhausted and I knew it… I needed to take a few minutes to rest… “Well, I survived it,” I thought, “and I love my life jacket!” I’d worn a lifejackets religiously, every single time I’d gotten into a boat for all of my life, hundred if not thousands of times, and until today they’d always just been bulky annoyances… but today… today I loved my life jacket more than anything else in the world!

After a couple more breaths I began to wonder about my kayak… Had it survived? If it had, how was I going to get it back? I was pretty confident that the paddle would be long gone. I looked downrivier… nothing… I looked upriver… It had survived! It hadn’t sunk to the bottom of the river and disappeared forever… at least not yet… and even more amazingly? The paddle was floating right beside it!

The kayak, was full of water, and standing almost vertically at the base of the falls… Just the tip of it visible above the surface and as I watched, both the kayak and paddle slowly began to rotate in a large circle around the pool at the base of the waterfall… they were caught in a whirlpool… How in the world was I going to get them out? Especially the kayak, which filled with that much water was going to be really, really heavy?

I turned my back on them and looked downriver… It didn’t matter… I wasn’t going to try to get them now, because that would be completely and utterly stupid… I needed to give my body a few minutes to recover before I considered doing anything else! One thing at a time!

TO BE CONTINUED in “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 4: Gently Down the Stream?”

blogger-image--1808886956

An article about the first know passage through Ambejackmockamus Falls

Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 2: In Over My Head)

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 4.04.03 PM

Spot Locator Coordinates from the start-, and end-points of my whitewater kayaking trip!

I had no idea what awaited me as I kayaked down the West Branch of the Penobscot River towards my campsite at Abol Pines… I thought that I was headed for a relaxing day of still water, and class II (novice) whitewater… If I’d had the slightest clue that I was headed towards ledges, waterfalls, and class IV (advanced) rapids with my collapsable ORU kayak, I would have turned around and run the other way… Instead, I was happily, if somewhat cautiously paddling downriver from Big Eddy, and looking forward to my newest adventure… (Check out “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 1: The Calm Before the Storm” for the back story)

Little Ambejackmockamus Falls (Class III+)

As I paddled down the river I continually scouted ahead of me looking for whitewater and drops (the places where the water drops out of sight, below the horizon)… I didn’t expect to see any, but ever since encountering surprise rapids and drops on a tubing trip on the Nolichuky River in Tennessee, I always keep an eye out for them… especially on unfamiliar rivers.

After paddling for about a mile, I saw some whitewater ahead. It looked a little rougher than I expected for Class II, but not too scary… My brain started calculating trajectories, trying to figure out the least exciting (safest) path through the whitewater… From where I was it was clear that the path to the left had the most obstacles, so I followed the open channel in the middle towards the bend… As I paddled through the channel the next stretch of whitewater came into view… the left side of the river definitely looked rougher, so I veered to the right where I figured I’d be able to avoid the worst of it…

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 5.21.52 PM

I paddled through the easy chutes, dips, and waves, and found it absolutely exhilarating! My brain was constantly modeling, mapping, and optimizing my route while my body made-it-happen… I was in the zone! I’d always thought of kayaking as a relaxing, low-energy sport, and had never considered taking up whitewater kayaking, but as I fought my way through what felt like a challenging line I thought, “This could be a lot of fun!” The route-finding aspects of it reminded me of rock-climbing, but with more engineering… and my college fluid dynamics classes were finally coming in handy!

IMG_7262

The view Penobscot River as viewed from Abol Bridge, ME

“This is why people kayak with skirts,” I had thought when the first wave had crashed into my boat and left a small deposit of water. Each successive wave had similarly felt the need to leave a souvenir in my boat, so by the time I got to the end of the first rapid (Little Ambejacmackamus Falls) I was sitting in an inch-deep puddle of water… I wasn’t in any danger of capsizing, but the water was changing the way my kayak handled, so I decided to play it safe, pull over, and take a break.

I dragged my boat out of the water and looked back at what I’d just come through, it didn’t look like a Class II to me… I’d felt comfortable and in control as I’d gone through it, but I would have guessed it to be closer to a Class III… “I wouldn’t want to be going through anything rougher than that, but that was kind of fun,” I thought as I emptied out my boat.

Selfie taken on a section of stillwater on my kayaking trip down the Penobscot River

With a smile on my face, I got back in my kayak and headed down the river. The water was relatively calm, and I relaxed into the steady rhythm of paddling… It was really great to be outside again! After about a mile, I could see the signs of some whitewater down by the next bend… From a distance it looked fairly similar to what I’d just gone through, but I wanted to check it out so I paddled towards the right side of the river. I hoped that from there I’d be able to get a sneak peak of what lay around the corner. It didn’t really help… It was a tight corner and I couldn’t see much, but it was clear that this water was definitely more violent than what I’d just gone through…

“Oh sh**! That’s definitely not class II,” I thought as the current propelled me forward and I got a closer look at the frothy water ahead… I scanned the banks looking for a place to portage, but didn’t see anything… Nothing!… I’d gone towards the right-side of the river to try to scout out the bend, but now a steep rock ledge was rising up in front of me, fast… There would be no bail out points on this side… and I still didn’t see any bailout spots on the other side…

  • “Portage or portaging is the practice of carrying water craft or cargo over land, either around an obstacle in a river, or between two bodies of water. A place where this carrying occurs is also called a portage.”-Wikipedia

Even though I didn’t see anywhere to portage on the far side, the shore looked brushy, not cliffy there, so I hoped that I might be able to make something work… Could I safely cross to the other side of the river? I did a quick assessment of the river and its currents… No, I couldn’t safely get across… I’d committed too far to the right side of the river while trying to scout the rapids… Now, to get to the other side of the river before the rapids started I’d have to cut an almost perpendicular line across it… I’d end up broadside to the current, a sure recipe for capsizing my kayak, and then I’d end up swimming the entirety of whatever lay ahead… that seemed like a bad plan.

In the blink of an eye, the rapids started, and my dreams of portaging around whatever lie ahead disappeared…

The view of Katahdin from my Oru Kayak after I’d gone through some of the rapids on the Penobscot River in it!

Big Ambejackmockamus Falls (Class IV)

I had passed the point of no return, so I braced myself and prepared to face the unknown…

I entered the rapids with laser focus, there was no room for doubt or uncertainty… My brain was calculating, my body acting, and both were engaging with my environment in a perfect symphony of effort… As the waves crashed around me, all conscious thoughts were replaced… It was all calculations, actions, and reactions… My movements were smooth, and my lines were good… I was through the fist 90-degree bend in the river, through the straight-away, and coming into the next bend… This was well beyond my skill level, but I was doing it!

“Fu**!…” I whimpered. I was coming up on the second 90-degree bend in the river, when I finally caught a glimpse of what was ahead… I started to panic… My boat was filling with water, the worst was yet to come, and I was already at the top of my game…

“Don’t Panic! Panicking never makes it better! Don’t… Panic…” I reminded myself, quelling my panic and getting back to the task at hand… It didn’t matter if my plight was completely and utterly without hope… I would own it, and there was a certain kind of hope in that… I took a deep breath, paddled through the wall of water in front of me, and went over the first drop…

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 5.20.45 PM

The whitewater surged around me, but miraculously, my kayak and I both made it through the drop in one piece!… In between waves I could now see a whitewater kayaker pulled ashore to the left side of the rapids ahead of me, and I could see a couple of rafts full of people further down… The end was in sight, maybe I would somehow make it all the way through?… Or even better, if that kayaker could pull out of the water over there, maybe I could too?!  My origami kayak had gotten me through more of the whitewater than I could have ever imagined, but it was almost completely full of water now, and I had no way to stop and empty it… I was in way over my head… If I could get off of the river and out of these rapids I definitely would!

I was still on the right-side of the river, but the kayaker was on the left bank of the river so I shifted my heading slightly, hoping to slowly make my way towards them. As soon I began to alter my course, my kayak suddenly slipped into a hole… a small, seemingly still spot, surrounded by walls of whitewater… The wave in front of me looked huge! It must have been at least five feet tall…

  • Hole or hydraulic: “A river feature created when water flows over a rock or shelf in the river, drops, comes back up, mixes with the air and travels upstream back toward the obstacle that it flowed over.  This creates green water that is flowing downstream and a foam pile or backwash of aerated water that flows back up and into the green water creating a continuous flow cycle.”

Time seemed to stop then, with the gigantic wave hanging above me… I looked at the level of water in my boat, it was almost completely full… All of the stories I’d ever heard about small boats taking on water, and facing giant waves flooded through my mind… For the first time in my life, I felt like I truly understood what they must have been going through…

My kayak was brilliant… It wasn’t sinking, but the water had given it a critical instability… Any more water, and it was going to tip… It didn’t matter how well I handled the looming wave in front of me, the physics of it were impossible… The boat was going to capsize! I was going to end up swimming…

“I know the physics are impossible, but maybe I’m wrong… maybe somehow this will work,” I mumbled as time resumed and I started to paddle out of the hole, towards the crest of the wave… I knew that as soon as I went through the crest, water would spill into my boat and it would capsize, but the only hope I had was in embracing my fate… besides… maybe I was wrong.

TO BE CONTINUED… See “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 3: Taking the Plunge”

Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 1: The Calm Before the Storm)

DSC07856

Sunrise over Abol Bridge Campground and Mt. Katahdin, ME


 Knowing what I know now, I would have made different decisions… I may be an expert hiker, but when it comes to kayaking I’m still a novice and I know it. There’s absolutely no way that I would have knowingly chosen to kayak through class IV (advanced) rapids in my origami kayak (Oru Kayak), never mind doing it alone, and without a spray skirt!! No way! So how is it that I ended up in way over my head on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, swimming through Big Ambejackmockamus Falls?

Setting the Stage:

“What’s your plan for today?” asked the woman sitting across from me at the picnic table. She and her family had invited me to share their campsite late last night after seeing me wander around the campground hoping to find a non-existent empty spot. This morning when her family invited me to join them for breakfast, I’d found their kindness and generosity (not to mention the smell of bacon) irresistible.

“I don’t know, I’ll probably just lounge around all day,” I replied stifling a yawn as I watched her four boys romp gleefully around the campsite. As the youngest (~2 yrs old) dodged towards the river, it occurred to me that my kayak was in the trunk of my car… The Penobscot River, which was right there in front of me, looked like it had a really strong current (actually ~2300 cubic feet per second, cfs)… Much stronger than the currents in the rivers I was used to (100-300,cfs), but a relaxing paddle on a nearby lake could be nice, so I added, “Maybe I’ll take my kayak to one of the lakes around here later.”

DSC07862

Five tents crammed into a site at Abol Bridge Campround across the river from where I stayed at Abol Pines Campground.

Sitting still has never been my strong suit, so as the morning warmed up and it became apparent that my new friends were going to stick around the campsite for a bit, I asked them if they’d be willing to keep on eye on me while I took my kayak out for a quick spin on the swiftly moving Penobscot River… They heartily agreed, and Gabe, their nine-year-old son, offered to help me carry my stuff over to the small launch point at Abol Bridge.

“Is that really a kayak?” Gabe asked as I pulled my folded up Oru Kayak out of my trunk. “Yes,” I replied smiling, “It’s a folding kayak.” He looked at the box I claimed would open up into a kayak with skepticism as I handed him my paddle… Finally he shrugged, clearly tired of trying to imagine how that box could possibly be a kayak, and said, “If you say so…” and walked off, heading towards the river.

The launch point at Abol Bridge Campground is one of the most beautiful spots that you can drive to… it’s a small sandy riverside beach with a gorgeous view of Mt. Katahdin towering behind it. As I unfolded my Kayak and explained to Gabe how it went together I couldn’t help but sneak occasional glances at Maine’s most majestic mountain… They were predicting thunderstorms that afternoon, so I was going to wait for a different day to climb Katahdin, but the mountains were the real reason I was there.

DSC07868

Mt. Katahdin as viewed from the Penobscot River near Abol Bridge.

“Wow, that’s a good looking kayak,” Gabe finally admitted as I cinched up the last few straps of the kayak and installed the seat… “Thanks,” I said, dropping it into the water. “Do you want to wait until I get in and launch it, or do you want to head back to the campsite now?”

“I’ll wait,” he said grinning ear-to-ear, “that way I can race you!”

I laughed, “You’re on! Just be careful crossing the road! Make sure you stop and look both ways first!!” He nodded seriously, as I climbed into my kayak, and pushed into the water… “See you there!” he yelled, his feet already moving as bolted off. The race was on!

I carefully steered my kayak out of the still-water at the launch and into the current… I’d kayaked in water like this before, but not in my Oru Kayak… Could it handle it? Yes! The handling with great… The current was fast, the water was a bit turbulent, but it was well within my comfort zone… It felt a lot like kayaking in Boston harbor. I could just relax and enjoy the scenery.

IMG_7357

Gabe took this picture of me with Mt. Katahdin in the background right before I set off!

As I looked around, I spotted Gabe dashing through the woods trying to beat me to the campsite. He was going to win.

“Ha! I beat you!” exclaimed Gabe triumphantly and at least a little bit out of breath, as I pulled my kayak up along the riverbank at the campsite. “Can we help?” he asked as he led his brothers tripping down the steep bank to the kayak. “Sure,” I replied, assigning each boy a task… Though I could have done it alone, their help made the whole process a lot more fun. Before long we paraded into the campsite full of smiles.

A Decision Is Made…

“We’re going to head out and go swimming pretty soon, but we could give you a ride upriver so that you could just paddle back downstream to the campsite if you’re interested…” It was a generous offer and I was tempted, but I was also a bit hesitant. “Do you know what the river is like up above?” I asked. “I’m ok paddling on water like this,” I continued, pointing back up towards the bridge, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable on anything much rougher…”

DSC07866

A loon hanging out in the middle of the Penobscot River!

“Well, there are some big rapids up at Cribworks. That’s where the whitewater rafters go to play, but we can drop you off down below that, where the canoes usually put it… it’s mostly still water from there… except for Horserace, which is a class II.”

That sounded pretty good, but before agreeing to it, I took a minute to think about my experience, skill level, and comfort level, “As long as none of it more than a class II, I should be fine,” I replied. “I have a map, can you show me where you’re thinking about dropping me off?”

“Sure, we can drop you off at Big Eddy, it’s just a couple of miles up and mostly Class II’s from there,” they suggested as I spread my map out on the picnic table. “Well, it’s over here, just off the edge of the map,” the dad said, his finger trailing onto the wood of the picnic table. “It’s about a 10 minute drive from here,” he continued, looking up at me, “and the road follows alongside the river the whole time.” I felt uncomfortable not being able to at least see the route on the map, but with the road running alongside the river I figured it would be ok… “Besides,” I thought, “I’m not proud, if I run into anything I’m uncomfortable with I can always get out of the river, fold up my kayak, and walk the rest of the way back!”

  • hamartia: “a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.” –google dictionary

After some more discussion, I accepted their offer, we loaded the kayak into their van, they prayed for me, and we were off. As we drove along the river there were some sections that were obscured by trees, but as promised the road seemed to wind along the river and the river looked pretty calm, there were occasional riffles here and there, but it didn’t look too bad… I still had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into…

DSC07858

The Penobscot River, ME

Big Eddy’s Nuisance Bald Eagle

As I prepared to launch my kayak at Big Eddy, I was struck by how picturesque the river was… The white-capped rapids tapered off above me, two fly fishermen stood knee-deep in the water rhythmically casting their lines, and the Maine woods extended from the far bank of the river endlessly into the horizon… It was a great day to be outside!

“Woah! Is that a…” I asked, the fly fisherwoman beside me, my voice sticking in my throat as the giant bird dove at us… “BALD EAGLE?” I finished, able to speak again as it swooped away, sticking it’s bright white tail in my face. I continued staring at it as it perched in a nearby tree, it’s eyes seemingly trained on us.

“Yes,” the fisherwoman replied with exasperation. “The damn thing’s a nuisance bird,” she continued vehemently. “It hangs out here trying to steal our fish. Just watch!” she exclaimed pointing to the other guy’s fishing line… As soon as he started pulling the line out of the water the bald eagle dove towards it, “If he’d had a fish that eagle would have taken it right off of the line!”

“Wow!” It was incredible, I’ve seen a lot of bald eagles over the years, but I’d never had one fly this close to me, never-mind having it do so repeatedly… I’d also never heard of a nuisance bald eagle, but like a nuisance bear, it seems to have associated humans and that particular location with food… I thought about taking my camera out to get some pictures of it, but I was anxious to get moving… I didn’t want to be on the river that afternoon when the predicted thunderstorms cropped up.

As I paddled away from the bald eagle at Big Eddy, I had a smile on my face and a heart filled with happiness… The water was fast, but as I paddled down the river I was at peace… My eyes, my ears, my lungs, my body, and my thoughts were all full of the here and now, full of the river and the woods, full of the outdoors… I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I rejoiced in it!

TO BE CONTINUED in “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 2: In Over My Head”

DSC07871

Sunset over the Penobscot River, ME

Growing Tensions: Baxter State Park, The Appalachian Trail, and Scott Jurek

“We really don’t think that the top of Katahdin should smell like a bar…” – Jensen Bissell, Baxter State Park director.

Champagne wasn’t the only thing that erupted as Scott Jurek celebrated his new Appalachian Trail speed record at the summit of Mt. Katahdin last week… The ongoing tensions between the long-distance hiking community and the Baxter State Park Authority erupted too…

The relationship between long-distance hikers and Baxter State Park has been under increasing strain in the past decades as the number of thru-hikers has exploded from between 5 and 40 a decade (between the 1930’s and 1960’s) to almost a thousand a year (2013, 2014).

With these increasing numbers, Baxter State Park has seen an increase in ‘bad behavior’ amongst AT hikers, and hasn’t been shy about voicing their displeasure. In November of 2014 the director of Baxter State Park sent a letter to the director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, specifically citing the following grievances (amongst others):

As a ‘modern AT hiker’ I thought that Baxter State Park was being a little harsh, and I found myself getting really defensive as continued reading their list of grievances, “I’m not like that… Most of the AT hikers I know are not like that!” But I have to admit that some are… and we were all getting grouped together in the eyes of Baxter State Park… The folks at Baxter State Park have done a lot to accommodate AT hikers over the years, but they were getting sick and tired of dealing with unappreciative AT hikers that didn’t respect their rules and their mission… It was amidst these escalating tensions that Scott Jurek’s summit photos were released…

Scott Jurek celebrated on the top of Mount Katahdin after setting a new record for the fastest hike of the entire Appalachian Trail.

Photo by Bob Najar, iRunFar.com

Champagne exploding, people cheering, and Katahdin’s sign were all prominently displayed in Scott Jurek’s summit photos… I cringed and thought, “Uh-oh… This is why we can’t have nice things!” The most publicized hike in AT history, and a perfect (and I’m sure completely unintentional) disregard of Baxter State Park’s rules…

A couple of days later Baxter State Park posted a scathing note on Facebook (in a tone similar to the previous letter), informing everyone that they’d issued Jurek citations: “for the drinking of alcoholic beverages in public places (BSP Rule 7 and Maine State General Law), for littering (BSP Rule 4.5) and for hiking with an oversize group (BSP Rule 2.2).”

Photo by Chris Kraft. From Runner’s World…Scott Jurek signed in with an official group size of 12 people.

The first citation, about public drinking, has been an ongoing issue at the summit of Mt. Katahdin. Even though I don’t blame Jurek for wanting to celebrate his accomplishment with a bottle of Champagne at the summit, I certainly can’t blame Baxter State Park for issuing him a citation for such a blatant, and public, disregard for their rules! The second citation, however, seemed like a bit of a stretch… the ‘litter’ that Jurek is accused of leaving in the park is spilled champagne… “The littering occurred when champagne sprayed into the air hit the ground.” Covering the summit of Katahdin with a gooey, sticky mass of champagne, soda, and/or Gatorade would significantly detract from the wilderness experience, so I can sort of see where Baxter is coming from, but is it really litter?

  • litter: things that have been thrown away and that are lying on the ground in a public place (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

The final citation was for group size… and I have to admit that the group-size rule confuses me in these contexts… What defines an affiliated group?… Were there more than 12 people at the summit of Katahdin to celebrate Jurek’s accomplishment? Yes! Were they an affiliated group, or were they a mass of individuals independently inspired by Jurek’s achievement? If a group of 12 (or more) is intentionally climbing Mt. Katahdin together, that’s a pretty cut-and-dry group. On the other hand, if 12 or more people are inspired to climb Katahdin by the same thing does that make them a group?

  • affiliate: to closely connect (something or yourself) with or to something (such as a program or organization) as a member or partner (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

When I climbed Katahdin as part of my thru-hike, I climbed it with two fellow thru-hikers, but when we reached the summit 8 to 10 thru-hikers were already there… By the time I left the summit a couple of hours later, there were closer to 20 thru-hikers there… Are all of the thru-hikers that happen to show up on a given day considered a group? How would that be different from classifying all of the day-hikers that show up on a given day as a group?

Baxter State Park has been controlling access to the area for the last 25 years by limiting the parking spaces, and overnight campsites (which they did on the day of Jurek’s hike as well), but this strategy hasn’t been effective for limiting the number long-distance AT hikers that are walking into the park, sometimes more than 15 miles, to reach the summit of Katahdin.

In addition to the ongoing issues with AT hikers, Baxter State Park’s Facebook post raised new issues about corporate sponsorships, blasting Jurek for hosting a ‘corporate event’ on the summit of Katahdin… In a world where social media is capital, the lines between personal, professional, and corporate are starting to getting blurry…

Look at the clothes that you hike in, they’re probably covered with corporate logos and names… If you wear them, does that mean that you’re hosting a ‘corporate event’? For hikers/adventurer that are searching for ways to make ends meet as they pursue their dreams full-time, its not uncommon for them to seek corporate sponsors. For most, these sponsorships don’t come with a salary, or any $$s at all! Instead, they come with free gear (a pair of socks, shoes, a pack, or a tent), and a nifty new title as a brand ambassador. Although high-end athletes like Scott Jurek probably get better sponsorship deals from companies like Clif Bar and Brooks, the issues surrounding sponsorship, ‘corporate events’, and social media are bound to get more and more heated, and apply to more and more people, in the coming years!

Luis Escobar | Reflections Photography Studio

In their November letter (long before Jurek completed his thru-hike), Baxter State Park suggested that, “ Options to address these concerns would require a commitment to sustainable use of the AT and preserving wild experiences along the trail. Permit systems are in place on other popular long-distance trails in the U.S. Relocating key trail portions or the trail terminus would be another option.”

For those of us that have had the honor and privilege of including Mt. Katahdin in our Appalachian Trail thru-hikes, the idea of having to re-route the trail so that it terminates elsewhere is absolutely heartbreaking… but being able to terminate our AT thru-hikes at Katahdin is a privilege… If we lose that privilege, it won’t be because of Scott Jurek (even though he did manage to step right into the middle of this steaming mess with cameras rolling)… He may be a very visible example of some of the issues between the AT hikers and Baxter State park, but he didn’t start the problem, and he won’t be the one that the staff at Baxter State Park have to deal with tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day.

Slide1

~6% (9/153) of thru-hiker summit pictures I found by googling “thruhike Katahdin”  featured alcohol…

Large trail-related media events like Jurek’s accomplishment (Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’, and Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods”) lead to surges in park use, which intensify ongoing issues between wilderness management and recreational use. It is up to us to help the parks and other landowners along the trail with their efforts to preserve the the trail and all of the wild places that we love… If you are planning on hiking on the AT in Baxter State Park, please familiarize yourself with the park’s rules, let the staff know that you appreciate their efforts, and treat the park (and it’s staff) with respect.

Related Articles:

Updated Timeline:

Baxter State Park Facts:

  • Staff: ~22 year-round staff, ~61 staff members on site during the summer. 1 staff member is dedicated exclusively to aiding thru-hikers, and is positioned near Abol Bridge for 15 weeks.
  • Governance: Baxter State Park Authority, a group of 3 public officials: the Commissioner of Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Director of the Maine State Forest Service, and the Attorney General that works closely with Baxter State Park Advisory: a group of 15 dedicated citizens.
  • Wildlife: 75% of the park (156,874 acres) is a wildlife sanctuary, 25% (52,628 acres) of the park is open to hunting and trapping.
  • Foresty: 14% of the park (29,537 acres) is set up for scientific forest managements (read that logging)
  • Recreational Use: 215 miles of hiking trails, 8 roadside campgrounds, 2 backcountry campgrounds

Additional Baxter State Park Rules Especially Relevant for Thru-Hikers:

For the original Scott Jerek photos, deal with the obnoxious ads, and check out:

New England’s 4000 Footers

Mt. Katahdin, October 3, 2013

Mt. Katahdin, Maine: October 3, 2013

New England’s 4000-footers showcase some of the most rugged trails and most spectacular views in the Northeast! So far, I’ve climbed 14/14 Maine 4000 footers, 35/48 New Hampshire 4000 footers, and 5/5 Vermont 4000 footers. As I continue hiking the peaks of the Northeast, I will post the links and pictures from my 4000 footer adventures here! If you have any questions about which mountains, trails, and hikes are my favorites, or if you have suggestions about additional information you’d like me to share, please leave a comment below!

Maine’s 4000 Footers (14/14): I completed 14/4 Maine 4000 footers during my 2013 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike. The remaining Maine 4000 footers I need to hike are: Hamlin Peak of Katahdin and North Brother, both in Baxter State Park, and Mount Abraham and Mount Reddington in the Carrabassett Valley.

  1. Katahdin, Baxter Peak – Baxter State Park, on AT (Completed: October 4, 2013: AT Day 149)
  2. Katahdin, Hamlin Peak – Baxter State Park
  3. Sugarloaf – Carrabassett Valley, 0.6 miles from AT (Completed: September 22, 2013: AT Day 137)
  4. Crocker Mountain – Carrabassett Valley, on AT (Completed: September 23, 2013: AT Day 138)
  5. Old Speck – Mahoosuc Range, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 17, 2013: AT Day 132)
  6. North Brother – Baxter State Park
  7. Bigelow, West Peak – Bigelow Range, on AT (Completed: September 24, 2013: AT Day 139)
  8. Saddleback – Rangeley Range, on AT (Completed: September 20, 2013: AT Day 135)
  9. Bigelow, Avery Peak – Bigelow Range, on AT (Completed: September 24, 2013: AT Day 139)
  10. Mount Abraham – Carrabassett Valley (1.7 miles off of the AT)
  11. South Crocker Mountain – Carrabassett Valley, on AT (Completed: September 23, 2013: AT Day 138 )
  12. Saddleback Horn – Rangeley Range, on AT (Competed: September 20, 2013: AT Day 135)
  13. Mount Reddington – Carrabassett Valley
  14. Spaulding – Carrabassett Valley, 150ft from AT (Completed: September 22, 2013: AT Day 137)

Mount Washington, NH: February 2015

Mount Washington, NH: February 2015

New Hampshire (35/48): I hiked 20/48 New Hampshire 4000 footer during my AT 2013 thru-hike (some of them required short side-trips). 15/48 I completed with friends and family during day-hikes and shorter backpacking trips, but need to verify dates of those hikes (luckily mom has kept track, so I’ll have to check in with her). I guess that leaves 13 NH 4000 footers for me to explore for the first time!!

  1. Washington, on AT (Completed: September 10, 2013: AT Day 125)
  2. Adams, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed with mom, date=?)
  3. Jefferson, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed with mom, date=?)
  4. Monroe, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views!
  5. Madison, on AT (Completed: September 11, 2013, AT Day 126)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views!
  6. Lafayette, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  7. Lincoln, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  8. South Twin, on AT (Completed: September 8, 2013, AT Day 123)
  9. Carter Dome, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  10. Moosilauke, on AT (Completed: September 5, 2013, AT Day 120)
    • Sunrise/Sunset: July 2015: Trip Report
  11. Eisenhower, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views of Presidential Range
  12. North Twin, 1.3 miles from the AT (date? with Josh)
  13. Carrigain (date?: with Josh)
  14. Bond (date?: with family)
  15. Middle Carter, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  16. West Bond (date?: with family)
  17. Garfield, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  18. Liberty (date?: with Josh)
  19. South Carter, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  20. Wildcat, A Peak, on AT (Completed: September 13, 2013, AT Day 128)
  21. Hancock (date?: with Josh)
  22. South Kinsman, on AT (Completed: September 6, 2013, AT Day 121)
  23. Field
  24. Osceola
  25. Flume (date? with Josh)
  26. South Hancock (date? with Josh)
  27. Pierce, < 0.1 from the AT,  (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124 )
  28. North Kinsman, on AT (Completed: September 6, 2013, AT Day 121)
  29. Willey
  30. Bondcliff (date?: with family)
  31. Zealand (date?: with mom)
  32. North Tripyramid (date?: with Josh)
  33. Cabot
  34. East Osceola
  35. Middle Tripyramid
  36. Cannon
  37. Hale
  38. Jackson, on AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
  39. Tom
  40. Wildcat, D Peak, on AT (Completed: September 13, 2013, AT Day 128)
  41. Moriah (date: with Josh)
  42. Passaconaway
  43. Owl’s Head (date?: with mom)
    • No views, isolated wooded summit
  44. Galehead (date?: with mom)
  45. Whiteface
  46. Waumbek
  47. Isolation (date?: with Josh)
  48. Tecumseh

Sunset at Lakes of the clouds, NH

Sunset at Lakes of the clouds, NH

Vermont (5/5): I hiked 1/5 Vermont 4000 footers during my 2013 AT thru-hike, however, I hiked all 5/5 during my 1998 end-to-end hike of the Long Trail.

  1. Mount Mansfield, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  2. Killington Peak, on AT, on Long trail (Completed: August 1998, and August 2013)
  3. Camel’s Hump, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  4. Mount Ellen, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  5. Mount Abraham, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)

Thru-Hike Camera Review

The camera that I primarily used on my 2013 AT thru-hike was the:

  • Sony NEX-5N with the 18-55mm/ f3.5-5.6 OSS lens.
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Separate Flash
  • Weight: 1lb 2 oz
  • Charger: 3 oz
  • MSRP: $699.99
Sunset in the White Mountains caputured with my Sony Nex5N

Sunset in the White Mountains (Sony Nex5N)

Overall thru-hike review: 9/10. It was a bit heavy by thru-hiking standards (weight: 7/10), but seemed to be the perfect compromise between the much bigger, heavier, and more expensive DSLRs and the smaller (but poorer photo-quality) standard point-and-shoots. I was a little concerned about how it well it would do when faced with the brutal treatment and conditions I knew I was bound to subject it to on the trail, but it held up impressively well (ruggedness: 10/10). I carried that camera from Georgia to Maine and used it every day! The battery life was also really good. If I used it exclusively for pictures it easily lasted me 5-7 days between recharges, using it for video sucked up much more battery, but was not the way that I usually used the camera (battery life: 9/10). I had only two complaints about it on the trail, 1) I didn’t feel comfortable using it in the heavy rains that I experienced fairly often (waterproofness: 6/10) and 2) the 18-55 lens didn’t give me enough zoom to take good, high quality photos of the wildlife that I encountered along the trail (zoom: 7/10). Overall I loved the Sony Nex, it was easy to use, relatively convenient, and allowed me to take the kinds of photos that I wanted to document my trip with (Check out the series of photobooks, Parts 1-5: Walk it Off that I made after returning from the trail, they pair the photos I took with the Sony Nex-5N with the blog posts that I made for the same days).

part5b

In addition to the Sony Nex-5N, I also used my cell phone as a camera:

  • iPhone 4S
  • Weight: 6.4 oz
  • MSRP: $450

Overall thru-hike review as a camera: 6/10. The iPhone was convenient for taking pictures and sharing them on my blog and on facebook whenever I got to town (10/10). The size of the phone and the fact that I used it for multiple purposes also made it incredibly convenient (10/10). Some of the downsides to using my cell phone as my camera were that the photo-quality wasn’t nearly as good as the Sony Nex (5/10), and it took a long time to boot up if I had it powered down (5/10). Leaving my cell phone in airplane mode allowed for better response time, but drained my cell phone battery more quickly (6/10). If it was raining and I wanted to take a picture, I used my cell phone camera. The only technical problem that I had with the iPhone was early in the trip (my first week in Georgia) when I discovered that it didn’t power down correctly, which drained the cell phone battery really quickly. After contacting Verizon, they sent a replacement phone to my next maildrop. The replacement phone lasted me for the rest of the trip to Maine. Overall thru-hike review of the iPhone 4S as a phone: 10/10. Though my iPhone didn’t get great reception everywhere on the AT, it had good coverage for most of the tip (typically much better coverage than other providers). Keeping the phone in airplane mode, I was able to use it as a quick and easy camera without draining the battery too much. I also used it to send and receive text messages and to write my blog posts from town. I even used it as an mp3 player occasionally when my radio died. Overall it stood up to the wear and tear of the trail and functioned admirably.

Which Camera should I use for the PCT?

Cedar Waxwing (Canon Powershot)

Cedar Waxwing taken with the Canon Powershot

When I returned from the AT, I wished my camera had been better at taking wildlife pictures so I experimented with a camera with more zoom. Over the winter I tested out the:

  • Canon Powershot SX50 HS
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Built in lenses and flash
  • Weight: 1lb 6.4 oz
  • Charger: 2.8 oz
  • MSRP: $429.99

Overall thru-hike review: 6/10. What I found was that the Canon Powershot was really good at taking pictures of birds, and was, in many ways, superior to SONY Nex 5N for this purpose. The image quality wasn’t as good as what I’d grown used to with the Sony Nex, but the zoom and image stabilization for the Powershot were definitely impressive. If I wanted to take pictures of anything other than birds (people inside with low light, or landscapes), my SONY NEX 5N was better, hands down. A downside that I anticipate with the Powershot as a camera for thru-hiking is the number of moving parts and fancy electronics involved with all autofocus the camera. Knowing me the camera would get damp and covered in dirt and grit like the Sony Nex did, and I’m not sure that it could withstand the kinds of abuse that I put my cameras through on backpacking treks). The battery life for the Powershot also didn’t seem to be as good as it was for the Sony Nex 5N. Overall backyard birding review: 10/10. Even though I wasn’t convinced that this was the camera to take on the trail with me, it is definitely an awesome little camera and does an amazing job when it comes to taking pictures of stationary birds in good light, even when they are far away! Check out the book that I made with all the fun bird pictures I took over the winter:

WinterWildlife

Final decision for PCT:

Ultimately I have decided to go with the Sony Nex 5N for my upcoming PCT thru-hike. Since my biggest complaint about it was the lack of zoom, someone helped me fix that glitch by giving me a new lens:

  • Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 Telephoto lens
  • Weight: 12.8 oz
  • MSRP: $349.99

This new lens gives me the added zoom that I’m looking for, so hopefully I’ll gett even better wildlife pictures on the PCT than I did on the AT. I found that trying to exclusively use the telephoto lens was annoying for pictures of scenery and people so I splurged on a small wide angle lens for the camera as well:

  • Sony 16mm f/2.8
  • Weight: 2 oz
  • MSRP: $249.99

Between these two lenses I hope that the Sony NEX 5N will meet all of my needs as I hike the PCT. A definite downside is that my camera gear has gotten heavier between my AT hike and my PCT hike. The total weight of all of my camera gear (including chargers, lenses, and camera body) is now:

  • 1 lb, 12.8 oz

Making my camera gear a rival for the heaviest thing in my pack!

My 10 Most Awe Inspiring Hikes

Someone posted a link to Outside Magazine’s 10 most Dangerous Hikes on my Facebook Timeline a couple of weeks ago, which got me thinking about what my version of that list would look like. Weather and lack of preparation can combine to make almost any hike dangerous, but when The mountains are beautiful and amazing, but they should always be approached with respect, proper preparation, and a malleable plan so that you can adapt and deal with the unexpected. When I think back on the last 20 years of hiking and backpacking that I’ve done around the country and around the world there are a some hikes that stick out in my memory as having filled me with awe… Here is the list of my top 10 most awe-inspiring hikes:

1. The Daikiretto in the Japan Alps

I was awed by the heights, the exposure, the foreignness and the beauty of this trail. The Daikiretto in Japan is a climb along one of the most beautiful, most exposed, and most adrenaline-inducing knife edges in the world (from Mount Hotaka, 10,466′ to Mount Yari, 10,433′). Full of tough rock scrambles, skittering scree, precipitous drop-offs, rusty iron chains to grasp, and blasted footholds in sheer cliff faces, it manages to get everyone’s adrenaline pumping for the hours it takes to get from one side to the other. Accidentally kicking a rock and watching it go careening down thousands of feet reminds you that if you don’t respect the mountain and your position on it you’ll end up like one of the dozen or so hikers that die there each year.

2. The Bisse du Ro in Switzerland

I was awed by the heights, the exposure, and the history of this route. The Bisse du Ro carried water through the mountains to Crans-Montana from the 15th century until the 1940’s and was maintained by local villagers throughout that time. Crouching under the overhangs with nothing more than two wooden planks separating you from the sky is not for the weak at heart (they even have a sign posted to that effect at the beginning of the trail). Plaques commemorating both the people that died while maintaining the aquaduct and the people that died hiking it are inset along the cliff-face with dates ranging from the time it was constructed through the present, and provide a not so gentle reminder about why your adrenaline is pumping.

3. Crater Lake, Oregon.

I was awed by the solitude and the sheer volume of snow on my midwinter backpacking trip. Crater Lake in the Southern Cascades of Oregon gets an average of 44 feet of snow each year as it is transformed into a winter wonderland. Setting off into a world of white and shadows in the middle of a blizzard made me pause, our car sat alone in the parking lot, letting us know that we truly would have the park to ourselves as we set of into the expansive white nothingness. There was no trail, no road, no views, just white shadowy dunes of snow constantly shifting and sliding around us and transforming the world into a winter wonderland of it’s own design.

4.Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland

I was awed by the freshness of the mountain, still glowing red and venting ash, and the contrast between it and the surrounding glaciers. Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption, less than a year before I visited, had caught the world by surprise. Surrounded by ice and fire, hiking over such newly formed mountain was a truly incredible experience! Realizing at the end of the day that the soles of our shoes, the tips of our hiking poles, and in some cases even our packs had been singed or melted as we hiked added some sobering perspective. Retracing our steps on a night hike later that evening revealed that the trail was still glowing red hot in many places!

5. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

I was awed by the strangeness, the altitude, the beauty, and the people. At over 19,000 feet, the sheer altitude of Kilimanjaro sticking up out of the surrounding plains is awe-inspiring. Struggling for breath as you wander through her glaciers at dawn with everything sparkling from the ice, the light, or perhaps just a pinch of hypoxia is truly amazing. I found that Kilimanjaro also left me in awe of the giant chasms in privilege and wealth between those climbing the mountain and those living in the surrounding areas.

6. Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Switzerland and Austria

I was awed by the history, the scenery, and the weather. The Alps are the birthplace of mountaineering, and as a mountain climber, I had been hearing about them since my childhood. Hiking in the alps was, as I anticipated, breathtakingly beautiful, and arriving at mountain huts and being offered cold beer and fresh cheese was certainly awe-inspiring. The summer blizzard that rolled in as we were hiking, quickly concealing the trail and any sign of other hikers or civilization inspired an awe of a different sort. As we hiked along bouncing between the border of Switzerland and Austria, I concocted my worst case survival scenarios, which included using the sound of the distant cowbells to guide me off of the mountain and enacting a scene similar to Luke Skywalker and the Tantuan’s Belly… Somehow I managed to keep us on the trail and get us out of the mountains, but I hope to never be in a position of seriously considering a Star Wars based survival plan ever again!

7. Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica

chirripo

Cerro Chirripó

I found being able to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the summit of a single mountain to be awe-inspiring. Most of the hikes I do somehow make the world feel like a impossible big place, standing on one place and seeing both Oceans seemed to make the world feel a little bit smaller and more connected and in a good way. Though the elevation Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Cerro Chirripó, at 12,533 feet doesn’t land it amongst the tallest mountain I’ve climbed, going from swimming in the ocean one day to the summit of Chirripó less than 48 hours later made the altitude (and it’s effects on my body) more obvious than on some of the much taller mountains that I’ve climbed. The changes in the flora, fauna, and terrain as you hike can be as stunning as those on Kilimanjaro.

8. Mount Rainier, Washington

The glaciers and snow on Mount Ranier (14,409′) as well as it’s spectacular beauty were awe-inspiring. Watching the sunlight hit the glaciers at dawn while roped up to your closest friends to make sure that nobody disappears down into the crevasses is an amazing experience. The sheer beauty and power that the glacier, the ice, and the cold have to shape our world is awe-inspiring. The fact that these glaciers are slowly melting or sublimating away and may not be there for the next generation helps me face the cold (I hate being cold) and inspires me to do my part to preserve them.

9. The Appalachian Trail (Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine)

Doing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail has to be in your list of most awe-inspiring hikes if you’ve done it. During my five months of hiking there were so many amazing moments with amazing people at amazing places that I can’t list them all here. There are moments that push limits you didn’t even know you had, and moments that you just sink into and enjoy. There are a few places and moments on my journey that stood out as getting my adrenaline pumping more than others: the Tornado Sirens and thunderstorm I got caught in outside of Pearisburg, VA,  severe weather on Mount Washington, NH, crossing through Mahoosuc Notch, ME with a full pack right before/after it turned to ice (but not during!), attempting to ford the Carrabasset River, ME after a flash flood, and summitting Mount Katahdin after walking there all the way from Georgia.

10. The Grand Canyon, Arizona

Heading into the Grand Canyon for a backpacking trip I was filled with awe at the sheer immensity of it. Seeing it on TV and standing on the rim only doesn’t prepare you for how amazing the canyon really is. Spending a night or two down in the canyon at Indian Garden Campground or Bright Angel Campground as you hike rim-to-rim-to-rim is a joy as long as you remember to carry enough water and don’t burn yourself out on the way down because the only way to go from there is up!

Honorable Mentions:

I consider rockclimbing and caving to be close relatives of hiking and mountaineering and couldn’t finish this post without these two honorable mentions:

11. Red Rocks, Nevada

Rockclimbing at Red Rocks I found that both the terrain and the exposure were awe-inspiring. It was three pitches up on a climb at Red Rocks that I learned that I have a fear of heights. It was beautiful and exhilarating, and I was absolutely terrified. I was dangling off of the cliff face, responsible for both my life and the life of my climbing partner, hanging from a bolt in the rock, and it was a very *very* long ways down.

12. Grutas Calcehtok, Mexico

I find that the complete absence of light and sound deep within the heart of a cave is awe-inspiring. As the guide turned out the lantern in a cavern deep within the Calcehtok caves we were enveloped in complete darkness and an almost oppressive silence. We sat there in awe, there were just three of us and the only noise was that of our heartbeats and our breath. There was absolutely no light. If our guide abandoned us there, would we be able to find our way out? We’d been on an adventure in the caves for well over an hour at that point, simply following the guide with his gas lit lantern as he led us through countless turns, intersections, and obstacles. Most of my caving adventures have been done with Spanish speaking guides, and I’ve learned that the darkness and silence are eerie, but I don’t get really spooked until the guide utters the phrase “pecho a tierra,” chest to the ground. When the only way to get through a passage is by wriggling or squirming on my belly, I can’t see where the rock opens up on the other side, and I’m not confident that I could successfully wriggle backwards out of the crack, that’s where I start to dislike confined spaces.

These ten hikes (and two honorable mentions) are the first ones that come to mind when someone asks me about my most awe-inspiring, incredible, and/or adrenaline-inducing hikes. The thing that unifies them all is that they forced me out of my comfort zones and helped me to think about myself and the world in new, beautiful, and amazing ways.