Throughout the entirety of Maine, I didn’t run into one person on the trail. It may sound lonely, but it’s actually a rare treat to be able to have these remote but heavily used areas all to yourself. The 100 Mile Wilderness is a section of trail that traverses a section of Maine known to be the most remote on the entire Appalachian Trail.
When I entered the Wilderness, it was already cold. I knew that despite its untamed nature, it was a fairly easy section of trail. However, as I found out, my last segment of the AT was anything but boring.
Immediately I was faced with extremely cold nights. I had borrowed a down bag from a friend, but even with a base layer, bag liner, down bag, and solar blanket, I was cold at night. Not to mention the fact that the cold weather forced me to sleep with my boots, fuel, and anything else I wanted warm in the morning. It was miserable.
It is easy to take a hike in 20 degree weather. It’s easy to go skiing. But when you’re in the cold 24 hours a day, it begins to suck the life out of you. During the day you hike to stay warm and try to keep dry. At night, you just wait for the morning to come so you can hike again. Winter months bring short days and long nights which make it even worse. The key to survival is to keep moving.
The sun during the day offered a small bit of warmth, but not enough to thaw me out. My boots were tough or frozen every morning along with every piece of gear I didn’t sleep with. Sweaty socks turned to icy blocks and all of the daily tasks I was proficient at became new challenges. Everything takes longer when you’re cold. My normal time of 20 min to break camp with breakfast expanded to 90 min.
In short, the last few days on the trail were miserable. The only though that kept me going was the thought of finishing. I summitted my last peak in the dark to stay on schedule. I was in pure survival/get-outta-dodge mode. I’m actually surprised I found my way down some of these barren peaks in the dark. Fortunately, the ice-luge that is the winter-trail guided me.
Then there was the added challenge of Maine itself. Maine is unique in that they don’t build bridges over rivers, they expect you to ford them. In the summer, this can be a refreshing dip in the cool water, but in the winter it sucks. I was pretty used to rock hopping and crossing quickly. My strategy was to just walk straight through at the shallowest point, quickly wring out my socks and empty my shoes, and then keep hiking. Before I would jump in, however, I would scout around to see if I could hop across.
The daily high plummeted and I was introduced to a new convenience- frozen water. The mud puddles were now solid ground and sometimes I could cross a pond or a stream on the frozen surface. It has to be noted that I know very little about doing this safely. I grew up in Southern California. I know that if you stomp on the ice and it doesn’t break, it’s probably good to go. You only need a few inches. Which brings me to my last ford on the Appalachian Trail.
It was a narrow river that widened out into a pond that was frozen over. I gently eased out onto the ice and stomped around…no cracks. As I began to cross, a crack streaked across the ice from my foot clear across the pond. I gingerly retreated and tried again in a more solid spot. After some attempts, I crossed the river, feet dry, and came to the other shore.
I should have counted my blessings and moved on, but I didn’t want to bushwack along the shore, so I continued on the ice back up the pond. That shore was different from the opposite bank. It was a sharp drop-off where a slight bend in the river kept a slightly stronger current flowing. I was about 5 feet from the bank when BAM! The ice cracked with boom and I was in the water.
I thought to myself as I clawed my way to the bank, “Wow, that happened just like in the movies.” Cursing and swearing, I bushwhacked my way back to the trail, wrung out my pants and socks, emptied my boots, and pressed on. To spite getting wet and having to bushwhack, it was still my last day on the trail, and I just survived falling through ice into a frozen river. My only regret, besides my extraordinary lack of judgement, was that I didn’t have my GoPro out to film the debacle.
I stayed that night in a warm B&B that I didn’t bother to check the price of. It was warm. Heated floors and good food. The next day I walked along back roads and train tracks into the town of Millinocket. Most people finish the Appalachian Trail at the summit of a mountain, I finished it road-walking….just the way I started.
But I wasn’t finished yet…….