I had this thought while hiking on Labor Day: “This summer is getting away from me,” it went. So was my hiking partner, Diane Dow. She can flat out hike and was out of sight on the trail up ahead. I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise, since I had been warned that she hiked fast.
Our friends, Heather Ravenscroft, who informed me about Dow’s hiking speed, and Susan Whittaker, were on another trail. They decided that the 10-mile Traveler Loop Trail, which Dow and I were hiking, was more miles than they wanted to take on that day. That left Dow and me hiking together. Although “together,” in this instance, was relative. We were on the same trail, so I guess that qualifies as hiking together, only she was up ahead, nowhere to be seen.
We started from South Branch Pond in Baxter State Park early that morning, around seven. The day was made for a long hike. The wind blew strong as dark-bottomed clouds raced above the peaks, but the sun was warm, whenever it appeared. Before we got to the top of Center Ridge, our hope was that the wind would die off so we could stop to take in the views. At least that was my hope.
The loop around the three peaks that make up the Traveler Mountain range is known among hikers as challenging. There are three major descents and ascents between three 3,000-foot summits that form the range, and the footing can be tricky in places over talus covered slopes. But, if you’re looking for an uncrowded trail with outstanding views, it’s tough to beat. So far that morning we had seen just two others; a couple of women whom we passed traveling in the same direction we were.
Dow, 39, and an experienced hiker, is the owner of Golden Acres nursing facilities in Franklin and Hancock. She was waiting at the first summit, the Peak of the Ridges, when I climbed the final approach to the top and she greeted me on arrival.
“Where does the trail go from here?” she asked. “Let’s keep moving,” she said. I took a minute to catch a breath before answering. “Follow me,” I replied, and with me in the lead for the first and only time that morning, we descended the rock ridge known as Little Knife Edge to the sag between Traveler and Middle Traveler. Descending the gnarly, rock ridge reminded me of my last trip up Katahdin in early August.
I was hiking with Chris Hansen from Vermont. He and I met at the start of the Abol Trail. He had five days of food in his pack and was climbing Katahdin before the start of his through-hike on the International Appalachian Trail. The veteran of several long distance hikes, including the Appalachian Trail, Vermont’s Long Trail and others, he expected to be hiking for 45 days and hike 450 miles or more. We crossed Katahdin’s Knife Edge together and parted company at Roaring Brook Campground. He headed north on the trail.
Somewhere on the climb up Middle Traveler, Dow again sped away, with me wondering how she did that. Soon after she left, another series of summer memories began drifting through my head. There’s something about hiking across a difficult landscape that opens up the mind to memories. This hike was proving that.
Climbing Middle Traveler’s rock-strewn slope I recalled an earlier hike this summer on Big Spencer Mountain. It was over the Fourth of July weekend and I met a small family of cordial, polite hikers. There were three generations of them. The grandparents had a camp on Ragged Lake, nearby. We sat around on the top and were all wowed by the scene from the summit laid out beneath our feet.
“That mountain is nothing like this one,” I thought, and the day on Spencer couldn’t have been more different than this day. It was much warmer, then, and now that the wind was picking up, clouds blocked the sun frequently, making it colder. The Spencer hike was fairly short, only around five miles up and back and only took a couple of hours, where this one takes much longer and is more difficult underfoot.
Dow was waiting on Middle’s summit when I finally arrived. “How long have you been here?” I asked. “About 10 minutes,” she said. “I almost left a few minutes ago. I was getting cold,” she said. We agreed to find a place out of the wind for lunch and rested for about a half hour. We talked, ate and took in the view of the lakes and mountains all around us. Too soon it was time to hoist the packs and move on.
That was the last time I saw her on the range. We were about halfway around the loop. Again a summer memory charged through my thoughts while descending the summit cone of Middle Traveler toward an incredible birch glade that lies in the saddle before North Traveler. I recalled my hike on Doubletop Mountain, a mountain that I could see from this loop.
My yearly hiking miles were adding up by then and the hike was strenuous, but I made pretty good time to the top. Partway up I met a brother and sister who hiked around the same pace I did. We climbed the last half of the trail to the top together. They were great companions, we had a great hike, and we still keep in touch.
I didn’t catch up with Dow until I got to the parking lot at the campground at South Branch Pond. I finished the 10 miles in about six and a half hours. She finished in a half-hour less than that. I didn’t stop hiking once after lunch on Middle Traveler. She was backing up the van with our friends Ravenscroft and Whittaker inside when I got to the lot. We agreed to meet in Millinocket for pizza.
When you hike, you make memories. Memories of hiking, mountains, scenery, views of the landscape and the people you’re with. On Labor Day’s Traveler Loop hike, those memories are of hiking strong, sure-footed and fast, and trying to keep up. The varied landscape and terrain on the range will stay in my memory for a long time. Now that summer has passed, it’s one I’m going to hang on to. Until next summer. Because, with the arrival of fall it’s time to hike more miles and create autumn memories.