Finding the trail in the 100-Mile Wilderness

John Gause tries to find the trail across slippery rocks on a day hike with his wife up Mount Abraham earlier this summer, Gause recently completed a solo hike of the 100-Mile Wilderness.
John Gause | Courtesy of Phoebe Gause
John Gause tries to find the trail across slippery rocks on a day hike with his wife up Mount Abraham earlier this summer, Gause recently completed a solo hike of the 100-Mile Wilderness.
By John Gause, Special to the BDN
Posted Oct. 29, 2013, at 11:15 a.m.

“It’s northwest, right?,” I said jokingly to my friend Eric as he drove past me on his way back to Bangor. We had spent the morning hiking Katahdin, and I was starting my trek to Monson, a solo trip that would take me through the 100 Mile Wilderness.

“Yeah, just point your compass and go,” he answered with a smile but also a hint of concern. Eric drove on, and his taillights disappeared around the corner. Then it was just me, and it got awfully quiet.

When you hike with someone else what you hear for the most part are voices. I love hiking with my wife and kids for that reason. Even if I am in front or behind them, I still hear the soothing chatter of their voices. But when it is just you out there, all you hear is the wind, foraging animals or silence. It can be unsettling at first.

The “100 Mile Wilderness” is the most remote section of the Appalachian Trail, a hiking trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. The Wilderness runs southwest from Baxter State Park to the town of Monson, just south of Greenville, and it includes the White Cap and Barren-Chairback mountain ranges. A popular topic among hikers, doing it had been a goal of mine for a while.

The following sign greets you as you step off the Golden Road at Abol Bridge at the start of the 100 Mile Wilderness:

“CAUTION: It is 100 miles south to the nearest town at Monson. There are No places to obtain supplies or help until Monson. Do not attempt this section unless you have a minimum of 10 days supplies and are fully equipped. This is the longest wilderness section of the entire AT and its difficulty should not be underestimated. Good Hiking!”

As I tunneled deeper into the forest and acclimated to my new environment, it occurred to me that each step was increasing the distance between me and nearly everyone else. I realized that the trail under my feet was my lifeline, that I was entering a vast, remote area in which I could easily get lost, possibly for good, if I strayed from it. I paid close attention to where I was going.

The AT is marked by blazes, which are two- by six-inch stripes of white paint on trees and rocks. Their frequency and clarity vary. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which does an impressive job maintaining the trail, generally meets its goal of having them visible from one to the next, meaning you can usually make out your next blaze. Still, there are times when a blaze is nowhere to be seen. The Club’s volunteers also keep the paint fresh for the most part, but nature takes it course. I occasionally found myself stopping and staring at a splotch on a tree that could just as easily have been a discoloration in the bark as a faded blaze.

I made it to my first lean-to just as it was getting dark. In my mind, I had conjured a group of fellow travelers waiting for me on benches around a campfire sharing stories, one of whom would hand me a cup of hot chocolate and show me to my bunk. As it was, the bare wooden platform with three walls and a roof was empty, as was the case with all of the lean-tos I saw on my trip. It was a creepy place. Picture the scene on planet Degobah in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker met Yoda and you know where I spent the night.

As if to complete the scene, at 1 a.m. I awoke to what I thought was a giant mechanical spider scampering across a linoleum floor. Click, click, click, click.

I cautiously peered out from my sleeping bag to see a spotlight darting from rock to rock across the brook in front of my lean-to. It stopped directly beside me and shone its light first at me and then at the sign on the wall. After a painfully long silence in which I imagined it was sizing me up, click-click-click, it was gone. Coming to my senses, I assumed that the late-night hiker with headlamp and trekking poles was contemplating whether to spend the rest of the night or gun for Baxter to try to make the cut-off day to hike Katahdin (he was a day late).

I awoke again at 4 a.m. to get an early start on the trail. After a cup of hot coffee and bowl of oatmeal, I packed up and headed across the brook myself, also armed with headlamp and poles. I quickly confirmed that hiking in the dark is, as you would expect, a frightening experience, particularly in autumn. At higher elevations, the trail during the day was usually discernible because conifers do not shed leaves to obscure it. At night, a headlamp only gives you linear segments of the trail at a time, and it is easy to drift off it. Lower down, the trees were primarily deciduous, and the fallen leaves evenly blanketed the forest floor, including the trail, making it a challenge day or night but more so in the dark.

I had so little fun that I decided to avoid nighttime hiking again. Unfortunately, I was on a schedule, and my afternoons were spent pushing hard to reach a destination before dark. The sounds and the scenery gave way to a race to beat the falling sun. Some nature trip.

An epiphany came on my last day that was the takeaway from the whole trip. I had spent the previous night in a mountainside lean-to 26 miles from my car in Monson.

The spot was special because my son and a friend of his had just been there the week before on a shorter hike, and I liked the thought of sleeping under the same roof. But it also meant I was in for a long last day because I needed to make it home the following night. To my dread, the prospect of hiking 26 miles meant that I would need to hike in the dark in the morning and possibly in the evening if I was slower than expected.

It turns out I was.

I got up early again and started before dawn. I was up high, so leaves were not an issue, and I plodded along slowly without incident. That evening, though, with a little less than three miles to go, I came into a forest of beech trees just as it got dark, and the trail seemed to disappear. I looked out full circle, and I could not make out the trail. If I concentrated directly in front of me, I could just see it. I crawled along, occasionally shining my light forward to seek confirmation from the blazes that I was on the right track. Usually they were there, but sometimes they were not.

Then, for the first time, I started to pay attention to the way the trail felt beneath the leaves. I started to feel the things that make a trail a trail. All of the people who had walked on it before me had packed the ground hard. Leaves were brushing my ankles, but it was otherwise clear of debris. I veered slightly off trail and suddenly the ground softened and I felt little twigs grabbing at my ankles. I backed up immediately and was back on trail.

When someone puts an orange or a banana in your hand, you know what you are holding immediately without looking at it. Feeling the trail is similar. If you pay attention, you know when you are on it and when you are off. Because I was in a low area that was free of roots and rocks, I stopped looking down at all and started to look forward into the darkened forest. I turned off my headlamp.

For half a mile, I spent the last part of my hike in near darkness. Head up, I soaked in the sounds around me. I had found the trail in the 100 Mile Wilderness. It had been touching my feet all along.

John Gause is an attorney and avid hiker who lives in Bangor.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/10/29/outdoors/finding-the-trail-in-the-100-mile-wilderness/ printed on September 17, 2014