Dear reader, please accept my apologies for keeping you waiting. It was not my intention to have a gap in my messages and chain you. However, as you will read in future posts, the end of the trail swirled around and twirled me enough to make my head spin. I just ran out of time to post them even though I had written them. Dodgy cell service didn’t help either. Anyway, the messages are written and they arrive. Enjoy and thank you for your patience.
Fourth Mountain Bog at Logan Creek Shelter
Peace Needle Camp at Another mountain camp
AT miles: 22.6
Total mileage: 2127.9
Altitude change: Gain of 7418 feet, loss of 6772 feet
And then there was only one mountain left. After completing the Traverse of the Chairbacks and then the four peaks of the Whitecaps, Katahdin is all I have left of the major AT peaks. He also feels like the biggest. Big Mama K, or the Special K as some hikers prefer to call it, has been on my mind for years, ever since I learned to pronounce its name correctly from a former AT while hiking the PCT in 2015. For most of the years that followed, I didn’t even expect to see the mountain, let alone in the final days of my own hike. The TA seemed like a long shot, very low on my list of cool things to do, but one thing led to another, and now I’m here. Katahdin casts a long shadow and is a strong presence that is felt even atop Springer Mountain, about 2,200 miles to the south. It was never taken for granted as a mere terminus. And to say that I’ve driven all those miles without ever seeing it for myself seems odd now that I’ve done it. The mountain has been such a big part of my life for so long that I feel like I know it. Or at least I know the quivering anticipation she inspires in my stomach. However, when the time comes, I know that I will be ready to face it. If I wasn’t sure about that on Springer after years of musing, then I am today after three months of living on the AT.
The sun was shining down on my tent with cool morning light when I finally propped myself up on one elbow and started shuffling all my possessions. Between naps, I had watched the little specks of sunlight fall from the tips of the trees to my place on the soft forest floor, and now it was finally time to move. I was packed and hiking at 9am, a bit later than usual after a particularly strenuous night’s sleep, but at least I was hiking. Still moving north.
The morning was calm and peaceful. Not a breath of wind, just the sun and a few songbirds and chattering squirrels. A bright walk through the bog blew away any remaining mental cobwebs before the trail plunged me back into the forest to begin the first roller coaster ridge of the day. New cuts and new fires guided me around the fourth mountain rather than over it, as the line on my map led me to expect. It was a bit odd to be off the intended route, but I was convinced that the effort required to create a false trail was so great that it stopped even the sneakiest villains from trying to misdirect the hikers. Also, the new trail had yet to be worn down and was glorious in its untrampled character. The deep moss and thick moss bounced like a trampoline with every step, and I felt guilty enjoying it so much, knowing that this quiet corner of the mountain was just beginning to learn the destructive power of humans. Chainsaws and my footsteps were just the beginning. Spruce needles would be ground to dust with moss by millions of footsteps, poo would be buried, wrappers thrown away. There would also be laughter and quiet contemplation, but even these forces of good and joy were not natural inhabitants of the forest. What is the use of squirrels and trees for the pleasures and galleys of hikers? The humans were here, and this narrow strip of mountain would never be the same again.
The dirt and rocks of the old trail hurt my feet as I rejoined the old path heading north. Still, it was comforting to be back where I expected to be. I followed the trail up Third Mountain and then Columbus Mountain over the classic mix of roots and rocks, and my morning legs didn’t complain about the exertion. There was a view or two, but most of the time I walked away, wondering what was making that distant engine noise. It looked like a jet ski, but no one had ever ridden a jet ski this long before. At the top of Chairback Mountain, the last peak of the Chairbacks, open ledges gave me great views of a deep valley, a long pond, and another mountain ridge I didn’t recognize. Through the crystal clear air, detail and color all popped up in a vibrant display of textures and subtle shifts in hue, but it was the blue of the sky that made my heart soar. It was mega-blue. Cobalt, sapphire, use any fancy synonym you want, it was crazy blue. Brilliant white bands of feathered clouds made the color even richer. The lemon poppyseed bar in my hand made it even more delicious.
A confusing rockslide and three leg-burning riffles in the ground slowed my descent from the Chairbacks, but then it was easy to descend to the West Arm of the Pleasant River. I strapped on my fangs for the wide, knee-deep ford, then unfolded my cushion on the opposite bank for a late lunch break. Mosquitoes were pleasantly absent on the North Shore, so I ate in relative peace, watching six yellow butterflies dance and hunt.
Two miles later I turned off the AT on the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail. The temptation to see the “Grand Canyon of Maine” was too strong to ignore despite the extra miles the excursion would add to my day. Recognizing that I wasn’t in the best frame of mind to objectively observe the mighty Hagas, I was frustrated and annoyed when I finally returned to the TA. The side trail had added a tough 2.5 miles to my already tough day and didn’t live up to my expectations. Granted, they were unreasonably high for a place with such a great name, but any place described as the “Grand Canyon” of something must be shamelessly dope, IMHO. The deep stone gorge of The Jaws was cool and Buttermilk Falls was a wonder, but my hiker brain couldn’t let go of the miles. Maybe I will return one day more open to the experience, but I ended this visit disappointed and late. What schedule, you ask? Nothing specific, but there is always a planning gear spinning in the back of my mind, beholden to mileage expectations and water sources.
Finally back on the AT, I charged through the heat and cobwebs for a few miles and along Gulf Hagas Brook. The climb was gradual and I had a good time, but I was working too hard, too soon. The hard stuff was still to come, and I wasn’t holding anything back. Sweat poured, then poured more as the incline intensified to reach the top of Gulf Hagas Mountain. It was steep now, and carefully crafted stone steps eased the charge, leaving no obstacle to my effort except my own threshold of pain. Beech turned to spruce and I gasped at the summit panel. No top view, but the cool, bug-free air was enough for me. I ate a bar and swallowed some water. It’s roller coaster time number two.
The trail dipped then rose sharply to West Peak. Again, no view, but the forest was nice enough and I had earned another short descent. Hay Mountain was next, and I made quick work of the low summit with good old rock n roll jammed in my ears, helping me ignore my fatigue and dehydration. Finally, there was only one more climb to Whitecap itself. It was the longest, but knowing it was also the last, I lessened my urgency. My legs would do what they do, and any extra brain oompfs weren’t going to save me much time. Plus, I absolutely enjoyed the gravity of the moment. Whitecap was the penultimate ascent of the AT. When I reached the top, not only would I have my first view of Katahdin, but there would be almost nothing left but Katahdin. My anticipation grew with every step as the trees thinned near the top. I turned off my music to experience the evening with all my senses.
The view from the summit scree field was truly awe-inspiring, and I saw the Bigellows in the distance, but the one I wanted was just a little further up the north side of the mountain. Katahdin hurriedly appeared on a rock. It was huge, and much closer than I imagined. I found a different, more comfortable rock to sit on. I ate a sea bass, finished my water, and thought. Even from a distance, the mountain has humbled itself. The vertical ascent was no joke, and the towering bulk of the broad ridge left no doubt in my mind that this was a mountain to be respected. He looked the part, and my expectations hadn’t done him justice. They couldn’t have.
A mile later, I pitched my tent in sight of the next shelter. I was alone, but the potential for mosquito visitors prompted me to erect my lattice walls. I was jostled after the long day, but satisfied with the effort and the reward. Chairbacks, Whitecaps, and even Gulf Hagas were a mix of effort and good looks. Maine at its grandest, some might say. But it was Katahdin in my head as I ate couscous. How could it be otherwise? Not only was it bigger than my lofty expectations that had been built on a heap of anticipation, but it was all that was left. Just a few days and a big mountain. That’s all.
This article was originally published on my blog randofordays.com. Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including CDT and Sierra High Route.