2019-Day 87: the Crockers to Horns Pond edition

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July 19, 2019

I slept pretty soundly until I woke up to the sound of birds and much brighter light than I expected. I reached for my watch to see if I’d somehow missed the alarm, but it was only 5am. Oakland stirred as well, so I turned to say good morning. Then I had to crawl out of the tent to pee before getting through any other part of the routine. When I returned, Oakland dragged herself out of the coziness of her sleeping bag to head off to “the privy” as we sometimes call the woods whether there’s actually a privy or not. I took my turn in the woods as soon she came back. One of the NOBOs was looking around for a good spot when I came back down the trail that has formed from years of hikers in search of privacy. Oakland was 80% packed up by the time I returned and offered to go get our food bags so I could pack with extra space. The morning air was cool, but we didn’t need our puffies to stay comfortable. We sat on the log awkwardly facing the NOBOs’ tents because it was the most comfortable location. The older and chattier one named Clammy started asking us questions. While we prepped our feet, I told him about my 2017 arm break and Oakland totally blew my cover about my memory of the Spaulding to the river stretch trail being “not bad for Maine.” The other hiker (named Food Truck) was younger and vacant in a Keanu Reeves kind of way. They left as we filtered water. Oakland took a second visit to the woods while I wrote notes on a log to the sound of a vireo and the rush of water. 

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We walked up hill towards the logging road with light shining through the trees. The trail was easier than I remembered from yesterday, partially because going up is always easier for me and partially because I think my muscle memory for Maine was returning quickly.  We found a day hiker at the road. She asked us which entrance would get her to Sugarloaf while her dog gave us a piece of its mind. We pointed to where we’d just emerged from the woods and she moseyed along. I wondered how she’d made it up the logging road, but I didn’t bother to ask since we no longer needed to know!  

As we stepped back into the woods, I could feel the excitement of new miles. The trail was easy at first and then became more jumbled with the occasional waist-high boulder plopped in middle of the trail and periodic mucky sections.

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Near the turn-off for the crocker cirque campsite, we saw two of the hikers from the overlook near sugarloaf yesterday. We nodded in their direction as they stood around in the middle of breaking camp. The trail turned into a rock jumble a little over a mile from South Crocker summit.

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I was in awe of the views as we reached an open rocky area, and I tortured Oakland by taking a bunch of pictures. I could see metal glinting off the sugarloaf ski lifts and there were tiny hot pink mountain laurel flowers. You could also see the glacial cirque at the base of the mountain. I was a little sad we hadn’t made the extra trek to that tenting area last night because the small lake looked like a good place to see a moose. We continued picking our way up the trail until we reached another boulder area with a slightly different view, which of course required another picture break.

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After my extended gawking break, we checked our location and realized we were only a little over halfway up the South Crocker climb. We rolled up our mental sleeves and kept chugging along the rugged trail. 

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A garter snake skittered into the brush just as we turned onto the side trail for the summit. The sight lines at the overlook weren’t as good as the views on the ascent, and it was too early for a break, so we didn’t stick around long. 

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We hiked over the saddle to North Crocker, which had some moderate stretches and devolved into a rockier climb towards the top. Along the way, we saw a new wildflower and green cup lichen, which according to Oakland’s google search, is an uncommon mutualism between a cyanobacterium and a fungus. Raise your hand if you followed any of that. I also saw a faded lady slipper, which was quite the surprise to find near the top of North Crocker. 

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A sign post in a rock pile demarcated the otherwise unremarkable tree-covered summit. Fog hung over our heads as we dropped our packs to take a quick break.

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A peak-bagger with a giant jansport backpack asked if we’d “hit all three peaks.” Neither of us had any idea what he was talking about and frankly could have cared less. There’s a culture of “bagging” mountain peaks (usually at least 4k footers or 14k if you’re in the west), which I totally understand as a concept, but the “conquering” language doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not here to “hit” anything or “bag” anything or overpower the mountain in some way. I just want to push myself and see beautiful scenery along the way. We left the North Crocker summit earlier than we wanted to because of the hyper-masculine day hiker standing around. We passed another snake in the brush not far from the summit. 

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We also caught a decent view before the evergreens closed in around us:

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A few minutes later, we passed a SOBO who asked whether we were NOBO thru hikers. When I said “not exactly,” she said “okay” and gave a wave. It felt as if the only answer she cared about was “yes” and anyone other than thru-hikers didn’t warrant a follow-up question. The descent from North Crocker was reasonable (i.e. no four-limbed bouldering required), but exhausting and slow going. About halfway down, we stopped for water at a pooling spring with bugs skating across top and zipping around our heads. We set our bags down on the springy moss on the other side of the trail and felt dejected by our slow pace and the distance we still needed to cover for the day. The water was cool and surprisingly clear given the appearance of the source. 

The trail eventually evened out into a section with fewer evergreens, but tons of roots and rocks. We passed a gaggle of SOBOs eating lunch on rocks across the middle of the trail. They scrambled to make room, for which we thanked them and kept moving. We’ve both gotten so leery of the hierarchy between thru-hikers and section hikers that it wasn’t very appealing to plop down in their lunch spot for a chat. We found our own lunch rock a little ways down the trail. Oakland made herself a tuna wrap while I happily ate a package of blueberry pop tarts with a nice breeze to keep us company. My right arch was not happy, but I did my best to avoid the runaway train narrative that comes so easily when you’ve dealt with chronic injuries. 

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After lunch, we begrudgingly left our perch and continued north over roots and rocks that eventually transitioned into better footing. It seems that with a reprieve from one variable comes an amplification of another one, and this time it was BUGS. As we lowered in elevation heading towards the crossing at ME-27/Carrabassett Drive, the gnats and mosquitoes came out in full force. I felt the occasional sting of a mosquito biting me through my clothes. Little did I know how familiar that feeling would become. Here’s a few pictures of small sights that made us happy as we grumbled our way down the trail: 

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We made it to the road feeling sticky and itchy, which was the perfect moment to see a small gravel parking lot with someone doing trail magic! We walked towards a woman who had her trunk open with 2 folding chairs setup next to her car. Her name was Gracie and she was giving hikers orange gatorade in honor of much needed trail magic that someone had given her one day.

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We gladly drank a cold gatorade and posed with her so she could add us to her scrapbook of hikers. The mosquitos feasted on us while we stood in the parking. Between that and our remaining mileage, we decided not to stick around any longer. 

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We crossed the somewhat busy road road and went back into the buggy woods. The footing was moderate for awhile as we made our way over rolling hills and the occasional stream crossing. We had blue skies and big puffy clouds hovered over the treetops.

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We eventually stopped to get water in a bend of Cranberry stream. There were tent sites nearby, which felt tempting, but we both wanted to get more mileage out of the day, so we filled our tanks and kept moving.

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Sadly, the trail devolved after the stream with crumbling bog boards resting in thick mud and a long, rocky “stairmaster” hill where two weekend hikers tromped past us with fresh legs. 

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Not long after the couple hoofed it out of sight, we stopped for a break because we were both exhausted. We ate snacks to the sound of distant vireos and felt grateful for the light breeze. We had 2.6 hard miles to go at 4pm. My feet throbbed and Oakland was having shoulder problems. As we searched for the motivation to get up, we heard two long rumbles of thunder. There was enough signal to check the weather, which showed a storm with an array of rainy pockets to the north that put us squarely in the zone of getting caught in a passing shower. Nothing like the threat of rain to cut a break short.

The trail sharpened significantly and the grade continued to get crazier over the next 2 miles. We chugged uphill over pine needles at an Achilles straining angle. I said aloud that I wished we had rocks to break up the foot placement, and shortly thereafter we did indeed get brief stretches of rocks with our ascent. We eventually skirted the edge of the beaver bog, which was an exciting sight for Oakland. I had hoped for bullfrogs, but it was a quiet scene.

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We ran into a southbound biker who told us we had some climbing ahead of us because the trail was about to go “straight up.” That didn’t seem to be the case until it was very much the case. Here’s the point at which we thought he was over-exaggerating:

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And here’s the point at which we knew he had been spot on: 

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If you look at the blaze closest to you on the boulder and scan a bit up and to the left you will see the teeny tiny white blaze way the hell up that steep ass hill. And that was just the beginning. We began to crane our necks looking for the blazes as the trail rose at an outlandish grade (something like 17% in places). The topsy turvy pine trees were often rooted in and around boulders with little traction to hold them in the ground during high winds.

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Every now and then, the trail would settle down to an average uphill or something approaching “flat,” which I jokingly called a Maine switchback. Thus began the ritual of yelling out “switchback” whenever the trail went from batshit to simply challenging (with no actual switchback in sight). A NOBO passed us at a tricky scramble and muttered to us that he was tired of the incessant climbs. He then proceeded to spiderman his way up the rock chute with ease. We both cursed his long limbs when he was out of earshot. Here are pictures with and without him for scale (he was close to 6′ tall by my estimation) 

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It started to sprinkle right as we put our poles away and chose a route that was longer, but more accessible to our shorter legs. We kept our poles stowed for a little while, but I retrieved mine because the trail eased up just enough to make them useful. The rain fell harder as we inched our way up. We were tempted to stand in the cover of pine trees, but we both figured we should keep moving in part to maintain our body heat and to get closer to the end of our day. We still had a mile left, which at our current pace could take upwards of an hour.

We continued climbing, crossing over the occasional stretch of wet slab with a very *Maine* view of the trail as an uphill vanishing point. It rained even harder and the trail flooded into pine needle puddles. We tried to skirt the edges of the path, but it was somewhat pointless to avoid sloshing through the water. We navigated a short, slippery descent that made me dread the longer downhill stretch we had coming. We finally reached the horns pond overlook as the rain slowed to a sprinkle. Oakland stayed put on the trail so she could move her long sleeve layer into a dry bag. She was too cooked to have the mental space for an overlook. I, of course, couldn’t resist because it was supposed to be a high view of the lake (see today’s top picture – the little white blobs are rain drops). Here’s a view of the surrounding mountains and another rain cloud: 

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It was worth the trip, but I didn’t stay long because I was too drenched in sweat and rain to stand still, and I didn’t want to keep Oakland waiting. We continued down the trail with about 0.3 miles left to the shelter. Just past the pond overlook, we reached a ridiculous descent over slanted boulders. I wish I had taken a picture of it, but I was too intent on being DONE and my hands were too cold. We stood at the top of the drop-off, soaking wet and not believing what we had to navigate in order to reach the flat stretch before we were done for the day. We surveyed our options, disliking all of them, and finally decided to take the boulder-heavy route versus a network of tree roots that had a much steeper drop off towards the bottom. I made it safely down, despite getting a tricep cramp along the way. Oakland carefully followed suit and we trudged onward. There were a few more small downs and then the trail finally settled into a flat section that led us to the horns pond lean-to area.

We ran into the stairmaster duo sitting in a small wooden day-use shelter that sat at the turn-off for overnight camping. They’d also gotten caught in the rain, but they seemed less perturbed about it. We checked out the rudimentary shelter map before heading down the path.

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There were several group campsites that we didn’t bother to explore, two shelters, and two brand new (gigantic) privies. There was supposedly a caretaker, but we surely couldn’t find them. In our soggy, exhausted, and hungry state, we were overwhelmed by the scale of the campground. We decided to walk towards the lean-tos. Along the way, we passed several pond-like tent sites and a wooden tent pad that was sadly already occupied. There were no other wooden pads to be found, and Oakland didn’t want to deal with bugs in the shelter (understandable), so we made do with a very small and partially flooded site right next to the footpath. I later realized that the person camped on the wooden tent pad had actually set up on what was supposed to be the cooking area. Nice move, jackass.

We had difficulty pitching the tent because, while the site had drained somewhat, the useable portion of the site was still quite small. My hands were damp and freezing, and I was close to a full meltdown, but I shoved snacks in my mouth as we suffered through our setup. We finally got the tent up, and we crossed our fingers that it wouldn’t rain again because it was a mediocre pitch at best. Earlier, I’d seen the person on the wooden pad with a plastic bucket labeled with a site number. Guthook comments mentioned squirrels and using lidded buckets to store your food, so I went off in search of said buckets. I found one at a tent site around the corner from us and Oakland went off in search of a second bucket because our food bags were way too large to cram into a single 5-gallon bucket. With food storage squared away, we decided it was high time to change out of our wet clothes. This is an onerous, but very necessary process. We tugged off our wet shoes and took turns peeling off our hiking clothes and replacing them with dry wool layers and puffy coats. I wrung out my socks, but I didn’t bother changing them because I still had to use my soaked shoes to walk around until bedtime. This is the only time when I really regret not having camp shoes, but, as I’ve griped about before, I don’t want to carry them especially because I can’t wear most of the flimsy, lighter weight options thanks to my highly sensitive feet. 

Clammy and Food truck arrived as we spread out our clothing in the trees and the tent peaks in an attempt to air them out (oh, the futility). They’d gone to town for a meal and to resupply and then hiked the 5 miles up from the road. They felt kind of like Bill & Ted space cadets, but they were friendly and didn’t seem to use phrases like “crushing miles,” so we were happy for the occasional bits of conversation we shared as they set up right next to us. After changing clothes, we were warmer and somewhat drier. The next order of business was DINNER. We reluctantly put on our wet shoes, grabbed our dinner gear and zseats, and sat on a log in an adjacent tent site that was vacant. Our log was rather tippy, so Oakland pulled a big rock from the trail and wedged it behind the log for stability. We both put together chili mac and were cranky zombies while we waited for the food to cook. Oakland was swarmed by small buzzing things that seemed like they might bite. They nearly pushed her over the edge and into the tent, but she stuck it out. We congratulated ourselves for getting through the day so far. The chili mac really hit the spot and felt like it was gone way too soon. A bird I refer to as the “Star Trek bird” sat in the top of a nearby pine tree and made its echoey metallic call. I have no idea how to look it up, but someday I will figure out its name. Someone I assumed to be a NOBO walked by trying to find water. He passed us no less than 3 times, making it seem as if he was getting water one bottle at a time, which felt like a colossal waste of energy.  While we ate dinner, we heard Clammy cursing because his gravity water system had leaked, which meant he had to go back down to the pond for more water. Food truck ate ramen and gloated about how much couscous he’d bought in town. 

We did our dishes and moved on to our Frito course. Somewhere along the way we’d started structuring dinner this way because it was super unsatisfying to end the experience with drinking dishwater. It was much more enjoyable to put that process in the middle and end with dessert! We each had more snickers before moving on to dental hygiene. My head ached and my feet were very angry with me. We put our food bags and toiletries in our buckets and stashed them in a small alcove amongst the pines just across the trail in the event that a bear came trundling through looking for snacks. We had to leave our food bowls outside the tent because there wasn’t enough room in the buckets, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave them in the tent. Then we forced ourselves to go get water. We’d heard other people asking about the alleged spring on the caretaker’s trail, but no one could seem to find it, and they had all been collecting water from the pond. We saw the signs for the spring, but we also came up empty and did not have much energy to put into a thorough search. Instead, we walked down to the pond and filled our sawyer bags while taking in the beautiful view. I hoped we would spot a moose, but no dice.

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We lingered a bit to see if the clouds would deepen into a richer pink, but it was 8:30pm, which is late in the land of exhausted hikers, and we still had to set up our beds. We headed back to the tent and saw that same NOBO come back for yet another round of water. I don’t understand what that guy was doing. The walk up the short hill was much easier than the way down, but I could tell my legs were tired. I was not looking forward to more climbing tomorrow, and I definitely wasn’t looking forward to the descents.

We got back to the tent site and did our final bathroom breaks for the evening. Oakland went all the way to the privy, but I squatted along the side trail just out of sight. Clammy and food truck hung their ursacks right next to their tent in a spiky pine tree, which was an amusing process to listen to. They’ve clearly been hiking around each other for awhile. We considered leaving our wet packs outside, but ended up bringing them in because it seemed easier. Oakland blew up her mattress first and then she laid back with her eyes closed while I worked on my bedding. She seemed to be attempting zen mode to avoid a bedtime meltdown. To make matters even better, we both had giant headaches as we settled in for the night. We each took some Aleve and hoped that we weren’t experiencing dehydration (a likely suspect). Today was really hard for both of us. I definitely thought about quitting during the rainstorm and in the aftermath of being soaked while trying to make it through tent setup. Once I was done shuffling my gear around, Oakland pulled out her sleeping bag and tucked herself in. There would be no checking of paper maps tonight. As I prepared myself to work on my daily notes, I made the unfortunate discovery that my electronics dry bag had failed. My phone charger and other bits & bobs were damp to the touch. This nearly sent me into a full-on tailspin. It felt like everything was breaking all at once. I did my best to dry everything off, and took a few deep breaths before suffering through a mediocre attempt at chronicling the day. I’m finishing this to the sound of Oakland breathing heavily, a strong breeze blowing through the treetops, and bugs bouncing off the tent. 

Mile 1995.4 to mile 2008.9 (13.5) – Horns Pond Lean-to 

Checklist total miles: 877.5

Oakland total miles: 398.1

Creature feature: tiny squirrels that seemed like babies, a wide range of frogs, a new but nondescript bird, two snakes! 

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