Day One, Caribou Valley to Sluice Brook Logging Road, 11 miles
The fog has rolled in, but I have a good feeling about today.
It’s cooler and leaves are starting to change already. I reach the Carrabassett River right away and find one, sad, lone and quite narrow plank over the rapids.
It’s a late start for me since I needed a ride, so I meet many hikers coming down who all tell me to get water now. Seems a big silly at the start, but a big hill awaits.
I am definitely feeling better with no nausea whatsoever. I sing and whistle as the water filters, then head up.
I plod uphill, slow and steady with few breaks. Things feel easy until I reach boulders. White arrows and elbows show the way. I throw my sticks into one hand and use the other to pull myself up.
Each corner reveals another jumbly staircase. My god, the Appalachian Trail is insanely hard.
At one section I really need both hands and can’t quite see how it’s done. I fold up my sticks into my pack as I try to decipher the way when suddenly, a peak bagger appears.
Talk about trail magic! She goes first and shows me the holds, leaping as I grunt up. She even takes a few pictures.
I tell her how I prefer up to down and that my pants attest to it with holes in the butt. She says all her pants are ripped in the butt. Welcome to Maine!
She soon disappears into the mist as the trail opens briefly to the wind and fog parting long enough to reveal a few mountains. I swear I see a bit of sun spotting the cliffs.
Soon, the trail levels and I walk a long, muddy ridge. I rock hop and mostly keep my eyes on my feet. I think the phrase ‘embrace the suck’ was created on the AT.
Things are ‘cruisey’ up here and sun does appear through the trees. I don’t get views, but I do get the twee-twee-twee-twee of a Blackpole Warbler. What are you doing here so late in the season?
I enter a forest of birch and pine drapes in Witches Beard moss. It reminds me of the goblin forests in New Zealand. Not quite as dramatic, but lovely and spooky.
It reminds me why I came, to see this beauty and be inside it. To soak it in and take it with me into the rest of my life.
At a stream I stop for water and snacks. I feel so much better today. My body is tired but my mood is good. My oncologist told me that I need to take good care of myself. “Rest, nutrition and exercise, in that order!”
It’s steep up for a short way to 4,000 foot Spalding Peak. I take a short spur to a view. Not only is it non-existent but the sign puts its elevation at 3,988. What??!! Who is right here, my map or the sign? What a bust.
A few minutes later I reach the lean-to and a dog comes careening towards me with the sharpest, piercing bark. Ah, a Jack Russell. “He’s harmless,” says his laconic owner. I guess unless you want to preserve your hearing.
The air is perfect, the heat and humidity beginning to wane. The trail is easy through bracken fern lit in dancing circles of sunlight. I stop for another drink at Lone Peak (again no view) then head down gently through a gorgeous forest.
Again, I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be, in this fairyland of phytoncides and balsam, gentle breeze and dapples light.
Topping it off is Perham Stream beginning as just trickles into pools, then glorious music I follow on easy trail.
I lose the trail for a moment at a logging road and cross it three times, but the water feels good and I don’t care.
I lose the stream too, then connect with Sluice Brook, even more melodious and gorgeous as it carves its way through rock in one waterfall after another. The pools are deep and wide, a clear root beer as the sun plays on its surface.
Hikers pass me as I look longingly into these pools. It’s not the heat of yesterday so I don’t need a swim, but I am moving by fast and it’s a long way to where I plan to camp.
The brook enters a tight rocky flume, tumbling down into another impossibly clear pool before I reach a logging road where I fill up water before a climb.
That’s when I meet Probabilty. He’s a handsome and friendly young man traveling with Acuna, a dredlocked Triple Crowner. They’re headed south and The Jenns had mentioned me to them.
I notice they have started a fire and are camped on a closed part of the road. I eat up and say I better get going since it’s almost 5:00.
Probability does not think that’s a good idea. It’s 1,600 feet and it will be dark in 2 1/2 hours. “You won’t make it! Well physically, but not mentally.”
I start down the hill and it’s incredibly steep stairs to a river crossing. He’s right, this is stupid.
I come back up and set up with the group, which grows as more hikers arrive. It will make tomorrow longer, but walking in this type of terrain in the dark feels dangerous to me.
The real trail magic though is that by staying, I can spend time in those inviting pools, which I do finding one like a tub that fits my bottom and where I can soak by legs in cold water.
The sunset pierces the trees bringing a golden glow to my grotto. This is heaven. That sun will dip behind the peak and make the trail up even darker. I certainly made a good choice.
As I eat and then prepare for bed, Probability tells me a one-word piece of advice he received once: reassess.
I was so determined to get up to the next shelter so I could break up the tough day tomorrow. But timing and this perfect stream had other ideas.
So I let go of that plan and made a new one and am ready to sleep in pitch dark at 8:30.
And tomorrow steeply up on exposed Saddleback Ridge with steep climbs and descents one after another? I guess I’ll just have to seriously embrace the suck.
Day Two, Sluice Brook to Main Route 4, 13.5 miles
I’m up at 5:30 just as it gets light. Acuna says “Bliss!” and when I look out, I see he and JP (“Just Paul”) are suited up and ready to roll. Probability is taking down his hammock, but he’s fast and will outrun all of us over this monster set of peaks.
The sky is clear and I stuff on warm jacket near the top before slinging on my pack and following them down hand-built rock stairs, so steep I reach for branches and roots to steady myself down to Orbeton Stream.
I was nervous I’d have to step into a dangerous and deep rapid, but the cross is a rock hop – and not the least of my problems.
The instant I am out from under tree canopy, it begins to pour. What?!? Maybe that orangish light was a sailor take warning kind of light.
I quickly put on my rain coat and begin climbing. I’m feeling strong and love pressing up towards Poplar Ridge. Mostly it’s rocks and roots, but mixed in are the giant slabs and boulders which require using my hands.
I grunt and hoist myself over these, glad I climbed for so many years and understand principles of balance and how not to burn out my arms. I pass Acuna who’s nursing a pulled muscle, then pass JP.
Up is definitely my thing.
It’s tiring and I breathe loud and heavy the whole way, but once in my rhythm, I keep moving.
And getting soaked through. There’s no such thing as a ‘breathable’ rain jacket. We all sweat and trap that dampness under plastic.
I also neglected to put on my rain pants thinking the trees would protect me. No such luck as I get soaked to the skin.
I hit a flat area, muddy and rooty. Large stones have been placed just so through marshy trail and I make up a song to show my gratitude. Then it’s one last press up to spectacular views – of mist – at Poplar Ridge.
It’s a small bit down back into woods when I hit a lean-to. Here, I get my rain pants on over wet hiking pants, fill up on water and smacks, and try to warm up.
All three soon arrive and do the same, except for Probability who says he’s warm in shorts and a short- sleeved shirt.
I begin to shiver.
Acuna tells us the heaviest rain isn’t expected until 1:00. That gives us five hours to walk over six miles with at least 2,000 feet of elevation gain and loss over a roller coaster of three summits – with nearly three miles of that above treeline and exposed to the elements.
Onward and upward we go, two practically running ahead and Acuna holding back once the trail really starts to climb.
I’m a plodder, moving steadily and always on alert over terrain you don’t dare take your eyes off of. Often I have to tuck my sticks somewhere above me on the boulder as I find a way to shoot up.
The rain has stopped now, though no views open up. Surprisingly, this rock is so full of grippy shapes I never slip even when wet. Most often I find hand and foot holds on the rock, but trees and roots extend their strength to me and I grab hold, push off or around or just touch as balance – always after checking their stability.
I must have already said I plod, but up is easy. Down is where danger lies. That’s because a body moving forward into gravity is far less stable.
This puts tremendous strain on your joints, particularly the knees. As well, the arms are so involved going down and up, the AT is an whole body workout.
I see the two men at the summit sign for Saddleback Junior. They are elated the mist clears long enough for us to see the ridge we climbed yesterday, sorta.
I take their photo then press on into a long, sharp descent that will eventually meet a tent site before heading up again, and higher into 4,000 footer territory.
All three pass me as I negotiate each controlled drop. It’s a wonder I haven’t fallen of injured myself yet.
I often make a plan of action and shoot for an arbitrary point along the way to accomplish my task. At the turnoff for the campsite, where several NOBO’s who pass say they spent the night, I camel up on water and remove my slightly too big rain pants. They work great, but my pack pushes them down and it makes me waddle slightly.
Free at last, I push up on very steep rock – sometimes in knobby slabs as if poured from a special cement truck, other-times in a jumble as if cubes were spit out on trail.
Rocks make movement slow to a crawl, maybe one mile per hour. But they beat the alternative of a mud slick with absolutely no purchase.
A man coming down says hello from a high perch seemingly above my head. I ask him the alpine cross was and he responds, “Fun!” Well, ok, let’s have some fun.
Slowly my spiral staircase of boulders meets the sky and the trees become stunted and incredibly strong. I’ve arrived at the Alpine Zone as a sign states as much adding to protect fragile tundra plants and stay on trail. No camping allowed next three miles!
The view is non-existent, but I enter a different world of far more slabby rock and tiny stunted trees called krumholz. Large rock cairns loom out of the mist and the wind picks up. I remove my jacket to dry the sweat, though tiny droplets from swirling fog cling to bits of fiber.
The third peak on the Saddleback system is The Horn. My descent between this and Saddleback proper is gradual along these ramps. I see no views, but the experience feels eerie and exciting.
I’m surprised to see two backpackers coming toward me. This is the trouble just now. The forecast calls for at least five straight days of rain. Thru-hikers are burning out and want to get this done before the cold weather moves in, so they press on in bleak weather, hoping for better days ahead.
It’s clearly not the best way to check these peaks off a list. The mist is awful, but not particularly dangerous unless you have to stop in it, say from an injury. I take a small survey of the tightly packed krumholz to see if one could wait out help setting a tent inside there.
I shudder at the thought.
At the low point, I meet a couple with their friendly blond lab, Summit. They ask me if I’m berry picking and I realize day hikers access this from a trail called “Berry Pickers Trailhead.”
Sure enough, plump sweet berries tuck in the rocks at my feet. I eat several before one last climb. Nothing is as delicious as Maine berries.
The summit peaks out through the damp and I have a few more awkward climbing maneuvers. Two bright orange slugs like gummy bears rest on a boulder at eye level.
Another thru hiker comes down wondering how many NOBOs have come up today. A lot more than expected.
I take a selfie at the sign just because it is there, then notice three grouse hanging on the trail. They’re even more unexpected than idiot thru-hikers (like me)
One places himself on a pedestal-shaped rock, giving me the side eye. I do not want to fly, so maybe if I look mean enough, she’ll just go away.
No such luck. I even take their photo before two fly and Mr. Pedestal does a half run/half wing flap.
It’s been interesting and I’m so glad I came, but the wind is picking up and more moisture attaches itself to my shirt. The last thing I want to is stop and faff about in my pack, so J just keep moving. The treeline’s gotta be here somewhere!
But it goes on and on and with no views becomes monotonous. I’m not cold yet, but this is no place to be alone. The lovely friends I made are far ahead by now. It’s not their responsibility to keep me safe anyway. It’s mine.
Just as the thought crosses my mind that I could die up here, a young gal wearing nothing more than a sports bra and shorts marches up. I tell her what had just transpired and we have a laugh. She will be just fine I’m sure especially without 58-year-old knees.
Soon I’m back in forest and trying to stay upright on rock cliffs. At one particularly horrid one, someone placed a ladder. I take it but wonder the whole time if it’s even less safe.
Down and down. It’s five miles of this to the end. Still, I’m laughing and whistling a bit so fairly happy and healthy even knowing this will be a grueling test of my strength in all ways.
I hear voices and wonder which group would head up this late in the day. But, wait, it’s behind me. It’s the three men, JP, Probability and Acuna!
They tell me they took a break at the campsite off-trail before the Horn. I likely couldn’t see them when I continued up.
They asked hikers they passed if they had seen me, the only woman heading south. Everyone had, of course, but apparently I was ‘miles ahead!’
I find that very hard to believe, but they called me ‘Speed Demon’ nonetheless –quickly revoking the name as they all skip past me on the treacherous downs.
This is after we exchange numbers. They ask where I’ll stay and I mention Hiker Hut with caretaker Steve. The Jenns recommend this Buddhist, off-the-grid massage therapist hostelier though he got criticized in our hiker app for being “touchy feely.” I tell the boys I’d welcome touch feely right now.
It wouldn’t take me long to meet them at Eddy Pond where four hikers set camp. One comes right up to me to offer a handful of Salt and Vinegar chips as if he could read my mind.
They’re a lovely group and still have good spirits in spite of the weather. One tells me he lost 70 pounds walking. Wow!
I share some apple and strawberry crisps and then prepare for more descending. The gal in the group tells is it’s a gentle descent on pine needles.
Boy, is she wrong. It’s a rocky, root-filled mud fest perhaps not as dangerous as the rockslide, but laying a trap to break an ankle or hand or face.
Perhaps in comparison to what they’ve been through thus far. It’s certainly not that steep.
I embrace the suck and keep moving passing beautiful Ethel Pond and getting water at the final lean-to.
Probability told me the last hour of hiking can color your entire day, so I try to stay positive even as my body rebels.
I have slight confusion at the end seeing footprints in deep mud leading one way and a bridge another, but eventually find the road and hitch to the hut.
It’s magical filled with flowers, painted rocks, funky little buildings and Steve, who lives in a tiny A-frame painted as s sunflower.
He sees I’m dead tired and offers me an embrace, then feeds me a black bean burger and rice. I wash at his outdoor shower right next to the Sandy River.
Restored, I cuddle into a shed-sized cabin where raindrops ricochet on the metal roof. My entire body is buzzing with fatigue. Maine is incredibly hard. It can be enjoyed in more bite-sized bits, but thru-hikers tend not to take on trails in this manner.
Still, I’m proud of what I did and so happy I returned to experience the trail before everything closes up for the season.
And the boys? No cell service here off the grid, but I hear today beat them up too and a zero is on the table.