It had been so long since Mark and I had seen the sun, we started to speak of it as if it were legend. The air was relentlessly waterlogged and the low foliage soaked us as we brushed against it. The fall colors were at their peak and the damp washed a hard shell hue on the yellows and reds. Mark and I spooked a mama moose and her baby that morning and I failed to reach my camera in time to get a picture. It was an uplifting sight on an otherwise dismal day.
I think we were getting used to the wet as we hiked a fast 11 miles to Piazza Rock Shelter despite the weather. Knowing there was a dry spot waitng for us helped quicken our pace. Lido Bandito, California Dave and Figgy Newton were already in residence filling the shelter with the familiar smell of trail food, stove fuel, camp farts and body odor. It was the welcome stench of a dry night under the roof of our temporary Appalachian Trail home. Mark and I settled into the shelter and added a few of our own odors. The topic of the evening was the weather. It was unanimous… we were all sick of the rain.
Maine is beautiful when the sun is shining on it. We woke to a heavy fog shrouding the shelter but the sun burned it off before we hiked our first mile. Our spirits lifted with the mist as we hiked through the colorful forest. We enjoyed a lively ascent of Saddleback but the clouds hung at the summit and the icy wind sent us on our way. A bit later, atop Saddleback Jr, the views were awesome. The clouds were thick in the low spots and it felt as if we were much higher than the 3900 feet stated on our map. We absorbed the commanding vista for quite awhile taking time to mentally catalog all the impossible colors of the foliage. We were dizzy with optical overload when we stumbled into Poplar Ridge Shelter a few miles later.
The second highest peak in Maine is off the Trail but we made the detour. Near the summit, Sugarloaf Mountain hosted a large gondola lodge to serve the skiers in the winter. Now it was empty and we moved right in for the night. The winds howled and a piece of plywood covering a window hole fell inside with a startling crash. Later that evening, our camp stove caught fire and I feared an explosion of compressed Coleman fuel. After a few panicky moments, the blaze went out and soon we were settled in for the night.
Instead of taking the AT into Stratton, Mark and I decided to walk down the ski slope to the road into town. After a knee damaging descent off Sugarloaf Ski Area, we poured onto the main drag and hitched toward the food. We arrived in Stratton, got a room at the Widow’s Walk ($10.00 for a room and breakfast!) and proceeded to feed. We retrieved our mail drop, repacked and prepared for more magnificent Maine. In the morning we stuck out our thumbs and hitched back to the Trail under the rare Maine sunshine. It was a great day for hiking and we were about to climb into one of HAE’s favorite hunks of wilderness!
Mark and I ascended the peaks of Bigelow enthusiastically. It seemed every turn in the Trail opened up onto an overlook and great big eyefuls of brilliant autumn color. The surrounding terrain was splotched with many huge lakes. The ski slopes on the scarred face of Sugarloaf Mountain was our view south across the valley all day. We ran into thruhikers Highlander and Mike on our way to the summit. We all lingered a bit on a particularly nice ledge then hiked on to Avery Memorial Shelter for the night. Aside from a resident rabbit and one of those annoying Canadian Jays, Mark and I had the place to ourselves.
The following morning we got up at dawn and started the climb of Avery Peak with the sun still close to the eastern horizon. The views from the summit were outstanding. Great masses of clouds seemed to be eating the landscape far below. The valleys were stuffed with cottony wisps and tendrils of mist followed the river cuts on the mountainsides. The camera worked overtime as I struggled to capture the Kodak moment. No film could represent the vista from the peak that morning. This was such a great stretch of Trail that HAE would return to Bigelow Range for a couple of outrageous winter adventures!
The Kennebec River was the largest river we had to cross without a bridge. The stories of peril and even death as a result of wading across haunted the Trail registers. The extra rain was also a concern as we approached the swollen river. Not to worry… the wonderful state of Maine provided a “ferry service” for Appalachian Trail hikers. It was a low budget program featuring a scruffy guy and his trusty canoe. According to rumors, he would be there twice a day to perform his service. A bunch of hikers hung out patiently on the south bank. While we waited we saw a motor boat being plopped in the water. We were all sure this was our ferry. As we watched, the gomer standing in the boat pulled hard on the motor’s starter cord. Like a graceful figure skater he spun about and the boat launched out from under him. He hit the water on his back and the boat drifted downstream. We watched as he clumsily retrieved the boat, suggesting among each other that maybe we should wade across. Just as we were contemplating our swim to the other side, we saw our ferryman with his canoe waving from the north bank. Thankfully this guy appeared more competent as a boat handler. He was a likable man who loved his cushy state job. As he paddled us across he told us his reason for wearing a life jacket was “to keep from drowning in the gravy”.
We spent that evening with Cookie Monster, Peter and Judy at Pleasant Pond Lean-to just outside Caratunk, Maine. The following day we walked 13 more miles through yet another day of rain. Mark and I were soaked through to the skin by the time we poured into Moxie Bald Shelter. We were 16 miles shy of Monson, the last Trail Town and the gateway to the Hundred Mile Wilderness. Half Ass Expeditions had less than 130 miles of Appalachian Trail left to walk northbound!
…continue the expedition, read: Saving the Best for Last: the Hundred Mile Wilderness [link]