2019-Day 90: over the Kennebec and through the mosquitoes we go edition

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July 22, 2020 

I slept pretty well until daylight, and then I kept waking up being vaguely worried that we were oversleeping. Oakland went to the privy first and gave a decent spider report. I tugged on my ankle brace and stepped out into the slightly cool morning air feeling wrung out and stiff. I hobbled the first few steps and then picked up some momentum into a smoother gait. I noticed one big spider in the broom corner, but it was otherwise good enough. I finished my morning duties and as I hovered to clean up (because it’s impossible to properly do so while sitting on the toilet seats that are always too high for shorter legs), I saw movement right below the front of the lid. Spider! I yelped and said Jesus Christ and then continued working on what I had been doing while freaking out that I had probably been THAT close to the spider the whole time. I went back to the tent to report my incident to Oakland, which of course gave her a good laugh.

We both moved slowly again this morning. We put most of our gear away and then had breakfast laying sideways on our sleeping pads because neither of us wanted to be bug bait. We were nearly out of food, which meant we had made the proper supply calculations and that we would have lighter packs for the first half of the day. Sunlight streamed into tent from the left until it got high enough for the treetops to block it. We packed up our sleeping bags and changed into our hiking clothes. Our plan for the day was to hike to the Kennebunc, cross the river in the canoe shuttle, make a long pitstop at the Caratunk house for laundry and resupply, and then hike 5.7 miles to the Pleasant Pond lean-to. I just wanted to stop at Caratunk for the night, but we both felt time pressure to keep moving. Oakland has a finite number of days to be in Maine before her return to work, and we needed to stay on schedule to allow for unknown setbacks like bad weather delays for Katahdin. During breakfast, I shared my disappointment that I’m not as excited about this as I wanted to be. The timing of it all felt like an overcomplicated machine. The terrain was beautiful but frightening, and I couldn’t seem to unravel the experience from my botched 2017 thru-hike with the present day hike. The mosquitoes had been oppressive and when we finish Maine, Oakland goes home while I still have a little over a hundred miles to finish in Shenandoah. When I get back to CA, Oakland will already be engrossed in her admirable, but time-consuming job as a high school teacher. Clearly, my mind was swirling as I ate spoonfuls of peanut butter with my clif bar. 

I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post that we found an abandoned bug net at one of the tent sites. Neither of us understood what the object was when we saw it on the ground, but when we realized what we’d found, we obviously snatched it up and made plans to buy a second one at the Caratunk House. We got out of the tent and packed it up. Despite the heaviness of my thoughts during breakfast, I felt excitemed about the canoe ride ahead of us.  

We started hiking around 7:30. The trail took us through piney section before dropping us down to pond level and over a rock pile that served as part of a dam. Oakland was horrified that I had walked that precarious path with my broken arm (welcome to the theme of the day because I covered all of these miles with Research in 2017). 

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Truth be told, I was also somewhat horrified. The woodpile to the right of water in the next picture is the trail.

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Oakland pointed out that there was no backup plan for the trail should the dam fail. We later found out that there is actually a high water detour that hikers can take that runs west of pierce pond stream and meets back up with the AT below the cascades. Anyway, we safely made the crossing and then went back down into the pine forest that ran alongside the water rushing down from the pond.

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The trail was closer to the water for longer than I remembered from 2017. The hiking was also harder for more of it than I remembered, which has been an amusing and frightening theme for the miles that I covered while injured. I blame that on what I like to call “Maine brain.”

Unfortunately, the bugs were so awful that I didn’t stop to take notes during any stretch of hiking today. I took a number of pictures to try to make up for the lack of descriptions, and I will try to piece it together, but it won’t be comprehensive (aka overly detailed and possibly boring for anyone but me and maybe halfway). We wound down through pines across footing that varied from springy needle beds to snarled and sprawling roots. Some were incredibly wide and had grown over each other. Not long after we dropped down from the pond, we saw several piles of bear scat (or so I assume) that went from one side of the trail to the other and off towards the water. I made a joke about how the bear had pooped too close to a water source. 

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We walked through the pines for a few more minutes before stopping to admire the series of cascades, which I remembered quite well from 2017.

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There were small ups and downs for a while. We stopped to hurriedly make a 900 mile sign out of tiny pine cones to make up for yesterday’s oversight. The bug’s were vicious, but we combined forces and got the sign done without too much bloodshed.

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We crossed through an especially mossy basin, and I was hit with a flood of sadness as I remembered how upset I had been in that exact spot in 2017.

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It had finally started to sink in that my traditional thru hike was over, and I didn’t know when I would be back to witness the beauty of this place. My 2019 self was overwhelmed with emotion for what I’d lost and how much I’d gone through to make it back. I thought about keeping the moment to myself, but I had a quick cry on Oakland’s shoulder about it, and then we kept moving because of the bugs. 

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The trail followed the water from varying distances, sometimes only in ear shot and other times running right alongside it. We made the single beam stream crossing without a hitch.

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Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the log crossing that I had intended to detour because I’d slipped on the log in 2017 with my broken arm and had no desire to go back over it this time. Sadly, the rocks to the right that I had remembered as being passable by foot were too far underwater to make it any less treacherous than the log. Oakland went first and then took my picture as I carefully made my way across in pretty much the same crouched position.

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I had to work hard to control my internal wobbles because I could remember slipping and falling so clearly. I made it across without incident (turns out to be easier with 2 arms). In a way, I’m happy I was forced to do it again rather than letting it loom in my mind as this impossible task, but I still would have preferred a rock hop. Make a better log bridge, Maine! After congratulating ourselves, we stopped just past the bridge to admire a large tree at the water’s edge.

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Here are few pictures from the next half hour including some crazy mold that looked like melting ice cream scoops on a tree trunk:

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We eventually made it to a rocky stretch at stream level where the water widened to our right. Ironically, this is one of the parts that I remembered as being difficult, but this time it wasn’t much effort at all. Go figure.

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I kept my long sleeves on to slow down the mosquitoes even though the temperature had warmed up enough to remove that layer. We eventually went down a short hill through a tunnel of thin scraggly pines where I stopped to pee before we arrived at the river crossing. Then came a short but steep climb that wound back around itself to take us back down to the river. I continued to field a flood of memories while trying really hard to stay present for this hike.

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The sky had cleared into a partly cloudy day. We made it to the edge of the Kennebec River and saw the ferry operator sitting in his chair. We waved to him and he waved back. I assumed he would get up to fetch us, but he remained seated.

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We weren’t sure how long we would have to wait, so we sat on the long log next to the shore and ate a snack. He got up after about 5 more minutes and paddled his way through the fast moving current to our shore. We filled out the waiver paperwork, and I gave in to the temptation to ask if he remembered me as the person he’d ferried with a broken arm. Sadly, he had no idea what I was talking about. Oakland pointed out later that it doesn’t make sense to hike in a cast, so maybe he tuned out that information. He also probably ferries a large number of people each season, so why remember someone from 2 years ago? 

We tossed our gear in the foot of the canoe, put on the bulbous life jackets, and took the short and beautiful trip across the river (today’s top picture). I took his picture (again) with permission.

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It was tempting to sit up front to paddle this time as a nod to the fact that my arm is fully functioning, but I wanted to take pictures more than I needed that symbolism. We said goodbye as he prepared himself for another trip across, and I played keep-away with his dog Maggie for a minute. 

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After tearing myself away from the exuberant dog, we walked through the pines to the busy road where we had to wait for two large passenger trucks before we could cross safely.

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We walked down the Main Street of Caratunk to the Caratunk House hostel/B&B where Research and I had stayed in 2017. The block felt frozen in time.

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A handful of hikers sat outside by the tent/hiker area. There were more hikers inside getting squared away with their bill, so we waited on the porch to ask about our packages.

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When the doorway had cleared, we went inside and Paul, one of the owners, looked virtually the same to me. I asked about laundry and the machines were open right then, so we swooped in. We picked out our ridiculous loaner clothes and compiled our laundry in the small shower area designated for people passing through. The upstairs bathroom must be reserved for overnight guests. I could see the rocky ground through a crack in the floor below the sink pedestal. There were old signs everywhere, which is their antique curator aesthetic. Oakland showered first while I delivered our laundry. Sadly, I realized I was wearing my spandex after our laundry was in progress. Paul suggested I wash them in the sink and have them ready for the dryer. That felt better than nothing, so I took his advice.

While I waited for Oakland to finish showering, I met a guy named Levi who seemed to already know us. I was confused, but then I realized he was the guy smoking the spliff at the overlook on the north side of Sugarloaf. He was an amiable person, and I found his story pretty interesting. He started a NOBO thru-hike in 2011 and made it to New Jersey before having to stop because of an ankle injury. Eight years later, he sold his house to be able to afford the trail and to pay for college tuition after the trail. He decided to start in Jersey rather than doing the whole thing over, a decision I could completely understand. Finally, someone who could empathize with the section hiker vs. thru-hiker label! At least somewhat. I don’t think the hierarchy perturbed him as much as it did me, but he also checked a lot of the other hiker boxes (white, cis male, tall, high mileage). Maybe his overall sense of belonging sheltered him from some of the alienation I felt. 

Oakland delivered my “washed” shorts to Paul for our dryer load, and I took a shower, which felt amazing even though I knew it would be null and void the minute we walked away from the hostel. After my shower, we sat around outside in our full loaner regalia. We met a 78 year old section hiker who asked us how long we’ve been together. He’s from Annapolis, so I mentioned the half marathon I did there with my mom. He mentioned that they’d had their first gay pride parade, which made me think he might be part of “the family” like Paul (many people in the gay community use that term to indirectly identify/label other gay people), but it turns out I was wrong. 

Speaking of Paul, he was super friendly every time I went in and out of the resupply area and the front desk. I finally told him I was the idiot who had hiked with the broken arm 2 years ago, and he said I’d looked very familiar when I walked in. He told me a story about a German woman who hurt her arm and hiked 30 miles, including the Bigelows, before going to hospital to find out it was broken in 3 places.

We decided to eat frozen pizzas for lunch. Paul kindly offered to toast them for us and delivered them to us in the hiker tent outside. We ate those with chips and orange soda, which is basically our version of hiker heaven. A string of young SOBOs arrived who were all beside themselves to see a guy named Shanty. There was on particularly loud kid who was the kind of hot mess that I find irritating. His shoes were torn to the point of needing stitches and his tent had a hole in it that he loudly proclaimed couldn’t patch. None of that makes him inherently irritating, but the humble bragging he did about his various maladies pushed me over the edge of caring about him. 

After the new hikers cleared out of the store area, we ordered a chocolate milkshake to finish off our “town food” binge.

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We met a nice flip flopper named Fossey (after Diane fossey). She was in her early 30s, and I found her highly amusing. We vacillated between talking to hikers and working on our Shaws scheduling debate. We decided to tentatively take a NERO there instead of a zero. I used Oakland’s wifi calling feature to make the reservation. Our laundry came out with a few partially dry socks, so I hung them in various sunny spots in the hopes that they would dry while we organized our food adjacent to Fossey who was also knee deep in resupply matters.

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Oakland bought a second head net. Based on what we keep hearing and what we’ve already experienced, it was well worth the $4.99. After getting our food squared away, we reluctantly changed back into hiking clothes. I stepped inside to say goodbye to Paul and took a picture with him.

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He seemed somewhat taken by us whether it’s because of my arm story or the fact that we’re all gay. I decided to make one last trip to the bathroom (goodbye running water), and Oakland told me to get my electronics from the porch. I affirmed her suggestion and proceeded to walk past them on my way to the bathroom because there were hikers huddled on the bench in a way that made my gear hard to reach. I enjoyed the wall art in the toilet area:

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When I got back outside, I wanted to post a couple of pictures before we left, so we social media’d for about 10 minutes. We linked to Fossey’s account and she linked to each of ours. We finally left around 3:10, which was about an hour later than we’d intended and long after the sky had clouded over. I joked with Fossey as we put on our packs, asking her if she was ready for it to rain because we were about to start hiking.

We said our goodbyes and walked back to the busy road and turned right to go up a paved driveway that led to the trailhead parking. I saw a new yellow flower before we stepped into the woods.

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The trail took us up a short hill that eased up and then returned, but it was gentle compared to what we’d seen in the last few days. I felt tired and heavy from all of the packaged food we’d eaten at the hostel.

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We crossed a logging road and continued uphill. Right as the trail leveled out again, I realized that I hadn’t retrieved my charging gear from the porch. I stopped in my tracks and turned to Oakland to let her know. We’d gone about a mile from the road, which meant a 2-mile roundtrip to fix my mistake. There was nothing to do but go back. Given the time, we decided to divide and conquer. I gave Oakland the tent, and she agreed to get us a spot at the shelter. This was the first and only time that we hiked separately for Oakland’s entire 600 mile stretch. 

I turned south feeling cranky and tired. In an effort to get my errand over as quickly as possible, I picked up my pace and got to the parking lot in 20 minutes. An employee at the hostel greeted me as if I was a new arrival, but when I said I’d already been there, she remembered our milkshake order. She gave me two sugar snaps from the garden. They were huge and sweet. After I collected my phone charger, I bought a granola bar for a snack because I realized I was short an afternoon snack. Then I signed the logbook, which we’d also forgotten to do, and headed back to the trail. The mosquitoes were markedly worse the minute I entered the woods. They bit me anywhere that wasn’t covered in deet, regardless of clothing: my stomach, my shoulders, all over my thighs and squarely in my butt cheeks. I put more deet everywhere that I could manage.

The trail was easy for awhile, and just as I remembered it when Research and I hiked this way for a few miles in 2017. At the top of long descent, I stopped to smile at the ground where Oakland had drawn a heart in the dirt for me.

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It felt really good to be back on the trail heading north with purpose after having covered these miles with such sad desperation in 2017, but I was so pestered by the bugs that I could hardly concentrate on the gravity of the situation. The second I stopped, a thick cloud of mosquitoes descended on me. After the long descent, the trail took me alongside a stream through a few rocks and small stretches of mud and past a gigantic blowdown.

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A few minutes later, I came to the stream crossing where Research and I had dipped our feet into the water and cried. I remembered the stream clearly, and I had hoped to stop there to take in the moment, but a hiker in boxers giving himself a partial bath made the location less hospitable. Then came intermittent bog boards through a muddier and buggier zone of misery.

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I finally got so mad that I pulled my pants down in the middle of the trail and sprayed my thighs and my butt with deet. I was hiking so quickly that I felt like I was nearly running. I’m not sure I’ve ever hiked that fast with the exception of my near sprint to reach the Galehead Hut in the Whites.

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There were many boggy sections broken up by a large swath of blow downs and a rocky, rooty section that I had no memory of dealing with in 2017.

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I tripped a couple of times and my left foot got tangled by a stick that then scratched my right thigh as it flung away from my body. I ordered myself to be more careful, but the bugs and my intense desire to be done for the day kept me moving at a fast clip.

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I crossed another gravel road and a small stream and eventually made it to the overgrown parking area where Research and I had exited the trail in 2017. The landmark meant I had 0.3 miles left. I went down a long straightaway that took a sharp left and devolved back into rocks.

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I crossed another small steam and checked to see if it was the water source for shelter (no). The trip to the shelter turn-off felt much farther than 0.3 miles felt, but I finally turned onto the rocky side path. After reflexively griping to myself about the continuation of rocks, I saw the metal roof of the lean-to where Levi sat talking with two older men.  He directed me to the tenting area past the small stream that was our actual water source. I crossed the decrepit metal beams running over the water and saw Oakland putting on her shoes in the tent. I gave a whippoorwill whistle, which is our new call sign for when I need her to stop or get her attention in general. She jumped out of the tent and was very happy to see me. I congratulated her for a job well done on setting up camp and thanked her for hanging our bear lines.

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She helped me get water while I came down from my state of rushing. The mosquitoes thankfully not nearly as bad in the tenting area as they’d been on the trail.

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We ate dinner on log stumps while Oakland told me about her afternoon and expressed the desire to never hike alone. She’d gotten pretty spooked once we parted ways. Nothing in particular happened with the exception of being asked about distance by a southbound hiker dressed in camouflage pants (he’d asked me the same question when I passed him about a half mile from the parking lot). I assured her that we didn’t need to hike separately again.

A trio of SOBOs returned to their tents which were only a few yards from ours. One of them boasted about how they’d cooked on the dock even though there were signs prohibiting it. His exact phrasing was “whatever, we’re thru hikers, and we won’t be back here, so who cares,” as if there weren’t any consequences to their actions. Needless to say, I found him obnoxious, which is an impression that only worsened by the food hanging process that followed. The boastful one threw a line right into a tree right behind where we sat, so we had to get up to avoid being in the line of fire. This was annoying on two accounts: 1) don’t throw things near PEOPLE and 2) don’t put your food bag THAT close to multiple tents. My standards are definitely lower than they used to be, but this was too close for my comfort. They were also using a carabiner as the “rock bag,” which just seemed like a recipe for getting it tangled on a tree branch. We did our dishes and had a few Doritos while trying not to pull a muscle from rolling our eyes at the idiotic SOBOs. I’d had to buy new chips at the hostel because the bag in my resupply had a tiny hole, which had resulted in deathly stale chips. We had chocolate for dessert rather than eat our oatmeal cream pies on the first night. Food sidenote: I’m having pop tarts for lunch tomorrow! I bought them at the hostel in an effort to make my peanut butter last all the way to Shaws in Monson, ME. With no need for wraps, I’d given my tortillas to Fossey who was happy to take them off my hands.

We brushed our teeth and flossed in the waning light and rapidly dropping temperatures. Then we walked to our food bag location, which was farther than usual up an overgrown bob sled trail. I laughed at the distance Oakland had traveled while also praising her limb selection. I ended up tying the end of my line to a tree to angle my food bag farther away from a lower branch that seemed like a squirrel highway. Then we went back to the tent where I still had to setup my bed. Here’s a picture of poor Oakland’s calf covered in a fresh round of mosquito bites: 

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We changed into warmer clothes and went out for our last pees of the night. Then came the dreaded task of notes. Motor boats hummed on the nearby pond and the screaming of playing children lasted well past nightfall. I’m finishing this to the sound of Oakland breathing heavily, the slight trickle of water from the stream about 50 yards away, and thankfully NOT the sound of screeching children. 

Mile 2036.8 to mile 2046.5 (9.7, or 11.7 if you’re me and you’ve forgotten something) – Pleasant Pond Lean-to

Checklist total miles: 915.1 

Oakland total miles: 437.7 

Creature feature: a few squirrels, Maggie the ferry operator’s retriever mix, a trio of adorable dogs down the street from the hostel, and BUGS. 

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