2019-Day 96: tent city edition

July 28, 2019  

I slept fitfully, but managed a few decent stretches throughout the night. The breeze died down in middle of the night and I had to take off a layer. The creak of a nearby tree and the rattling tent in the early morning gave me nightmare visions of marauding squirrels getting into our food bags. My alarm went off at 5am as part of our attempt to get an earlier start. We have many potentially rocky descents to creep down today. Oakland crawled out of the tent and went in search of cat hole options. I lingered to stretch my feet and put on my ankle brace before heading downhill in search of my own “privy.” The ground was spongy and somewhat hollowed out by the vast network of roots below the surface, which made for relatively easy digging. The harder part was finding a location that couldn’t be seen from the trail. I finally gave up and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t be spied by any early birds.

Oakland had already retrieved our intact food bags by the time I returned. Success! We packed most of our gear and settled in for another breakfast in the tent. Chances are high we talked about the day’s miles and how tired we were, but that’s a guess because I didn’t take any notes. Oakland went out for a second privy visit. A few minutes later, two northbound hikers made their way past our tent site with a friendly hello. Oakland came back mortified. Apparently, they had said hello to her while she was burying her letter to congress! I couldn’t help but laugh at her near debacle while we took down the tent. Then we rushed through our teeth brushing and applied a gallon of deet for the already hungry vampires. I reluctantly went off in search of a second privy adventure. I usually try to avoid the extra time and effort, but this morning my stomach had other plans. Oakland kindly filtered all of our water while I was gone. We finally headed north at 6:50am with clear skies overhead.

It was only 0.3 of a mile to the peak of Columbus mountain where we found a sneaky flat section that didn’t seem to match the elevation profile in guthook. We stopped to admire the early morning skies over a backdrop of mountains.

Then came a trail re-route that turned to the right and snaked down through the pines over roots at a moderate grade. We stopped to take our jackets off and applied deet to the upper half of our bodies. It was much cooler without the raincoat sauna (each morning we try to prolong the deet usage by wearing our raincoats as mosquito barriers until it gets too hot).

The trail wound us down to the Chairback gap lean-to, which now sat right on the trail. We went past the hikers that had nearly caught Oakland in the proverbial rhodies earlier and another hiker still in their sleeping bag. We gave a cursory hello and went down a set of stone steps that seemed on the newer side. The trail took us across the shelter’s water source, which wasn’t nearly as pitiful as the woman had made it out to be yesterday. The trickling stream would have been classified as good in VA. We then went right back up in elevation at a moderate grade full of the Maine special (roots & rocks galore).

The two guys caught up with us on a downhill where we stood to the side to let them pass because they were clearly faster. The first one said in a British accent “and we’re doing this for fun??” We laughed and agreed. The second guy wasn’t as fast as we thought, but we stayed behind him anyway. We went up and over a few more rock scrambles and wound our way over rock slabs covered in small laurel and different kinds of moss.

We made it to the top of Chairback proper sooner than I expected. The morning light was hazy and bright yellow. The two guys were on the ledges taking pictures. They asked if we wanted a picture and we reluctantly said yes, thinking of our parents (I usually say no).

The two guys left just ahead of us. A handful of teenage boys arrived as we were headed away from the view. I assumed they were unchaperoned because there were only 4 of them. The trail hugged the edge of the slabs for a short distance.

Then we went down a steep set of jumbled stone steps that quickly devolved into a literal rock pile of giant, jagged boulders. We saw the two guys slowly working their way down and across the “trail.”

About halfway down, we heard the teenagers coming and decided to let them go first rather than have them galumphing on our heels. The four we saw at Chairback came down and then we saw the rest of the line, which was about 10 kids long with two counselors. If I’d known there were so many of them, I might not have suggested we wait. We stood out of the way and watched them totter down the rocks with wobbling ankles and no poles. It was so frightening to watch them all slop around. The last hiker in line was a counselor who was wearing Chacos sandals. I bit my tongue and said you’re welcome as he thanked us on his way by.

Then we carefully made our way over the rock pile. You can see the forward pitch of the boulders if you look at the angle of Oakland’s feet in the picture above. I had visions of falling, but didn’t come close to it. Once we were on solid ground again, the trail eased up and led us through a series of slabs covered in laurel and blueberries. We snacked on a few ripe ones as we recovered from the boulder field. 

After the slabs, the trail turned into an average Maine descent with rocks and roots and the occasional mucky section.

Levi passed us on a downhill and was super chipper about his new shoes. His long steps and fast pace sent me down a spiral of resenting tall, male-bodied people for their physical advantages relative to our compact stature. I feel resentful of tall people in general, but more so the male-bodied variety because they bring up other issues of privilege that are impossible to un-see. We went through a series of doodley-doos, which for Maine means short stretches of pine needle bliss and a series of sharp ups and downs like this. 

Around 9:30, we took a break on a log in a piney section where there were miraculously not that many bugs. We were tired and hungry but in decent spirits. We went over a few more ups and downs into hardwoods until we hit the consistent downhill towards Katahdin Ironworks road. It turned into pretty easy walking until the grade steepened over leaves and dirt. My knees protested. Oakland’s shoulder and left arch were both bothering her and the hill didn’t help.

The woods were pretty quiet until we saw Levi and the two guys sitting alongside a stream. I yelled out to greet them and asked if they knew where the youth group was going. Answer: the next shelter. We intended to camp at a tent site past that shelter, so we walked with a sigh of relief. It was beautiful, easy hiking from the road to the west branch of Pleasant river where we had another ford.

A few hikers laughed and loitered on our side of the river and the youth group sat on a log on the other side of the wide, shallow river. A woman in a hammock was practically yelling despite her conversation mate being 3 feet from her. I judged her for being so loud as I took my shoes off. An older white guy said something about the cold water feeling good on one’s feet, and I said “yeah, I have sensitive feet, so this is a beautiful river and it’s going to hurt.” He pushed back by informing me that the rocks on the bottom “look flat.” I held strong to my point by saying I have sensitive feet, and it doesn’t matter how flat the steps are, they’re still rocks. He seemed intent on having me look forward to the experience. Thankfully, he gave up after my tone sharpened just enough. Something about his persistence made it feel like he was essentially telling me to smile, which always evokes a special kind of rage.

Oakland crossed ahead of me and moved at a decent pace. I went across at a snail’s pace, feeling grateful that the water was shallow with good visibility. The rocks were indeed a bit flatter, but I still had several painful steps. When I reached the other bank, I sat on a rock to dry my feet/legs and put my gear back on. A loud troupe of four SOBOs sidled up to the stream. The lead hiker announced to his group, “we usually just leave our shoes on for this.” The hiker in back said, “Yeah! what’s the point in taking them off!” in a super macho voice. They hardly broke stride for the first few feet, and then they all began sloshing around as their shoes slipped over the rocks. Oakland and I rolled our eyes at their bravado. She talked to the youth group counselor while I put my gear on. We collected/filtered water from the stream despite the slow and frequently traveled source. Levi and the two guys blew through in their camp shoes. I continued to be really jealous of their ability to do that while simultaneously uninterested in the extra weight. Though it did seem like carrying them for the state of Maine would have been a good idea. Three northbound day hikers crossed the river with two dogs. One was a giant barking doodle and the other one was a tiny, curly-haired muppet.

We left the populated stream bank and continued north over flat, beautiful trail with easy footing. We turned left and went through stand of virgin pines that were far taller than any pine I’ve ever seen with a smattering of goliath birches as well. The trail was easy for the next mile and a half, and we both reveled in the simplicity of taking many steps in a row without having to contort ourselves over roots.

We eventually came to another intersection where the trail turned right and the fast-flowing Gulf Hagas Brook stood in front of us.

We decided to have lunch on the rocks at the edge of the brook. Little did we know the world would tromp through. After struggling to find a comfortable spot, I settled down to make my peanut butter wrap. I bemoaned my dwindling chip supply as Oakland worked through her tuna wrap setup. The trio of day hikers with the dogs stood at the intersection for a minute before heading our way to cross the stream. It didn’t look like the easiest crossing, and the dogs got all of the stepping stones wet. I cringed as the humans stepped down onto the newly soggy rocks, but everyone managed to get across without slipping. Another day hiking couple bumbled across with a hyper springer spaniel that decided to go for a quick swim. The troop of mostly tall, gangly teens came through in their crocs and took various routes across the water. A small family with two tweens that appeared to be twins with very different haircuts and a dog also made it across uneventfully. It became comical how many people walked past us, but the number of dry crossings also brought up the dreadful memories and shame of having taken a spill yesterday.

The water’s edge was thankfully not very buggy, but I did manage to get a mosquito bite on the front of my ankle that I then had to cover with many layers of material making it impossible to scratch. When we stood up to head back to our packs, I realized how sore and tired my body was. We took a moment at the trail intersection to judge the teenage boys for the way they threw their gear down (it felt messier in person).

The trail was nice for a little while as we followed along to the sound of the brook running to our left. We gradually gained elevation, weaving towards and away from the water.

The mosquitoes were dreadful as we picked our way over mossy rocks with the occasional boggy sections. We passed a southbound hiker with mud stains up to her ankles. That did not feel like a good sign. We crossed several small streams that fed into the brook. Every now and then, the trail took a sharper uptick and then leveled back out to a gradual climb.

We were passed by an older man who asked us if we were northbound. We both said yes, and in his mind that made us thru hikers. He asked how long we’d been out, and I gave a vague answer because I didn’t feel like going through the full details with someone who started the conversation out in such a narrow way. Oakland specified our timeline, but I don’t think the man was listening because he congratulated us (as if we were NOBO thru-hikers) and kept walking. Oakland and I chewed on the interaction for a little while. I’m so tired of the thru hiker question. ASK A DIFFERENT QUESTION. Here’s a nice waterfall from the gulf hagas brook to distract you from my rage:

We heard faint rumble of thunder. I checked our location and found that we were 0.9 miles from the next shelter. Not exactly close enough to beat a passing shower, but we picked up our pace anyway. A large crack of thunder and drizzling rain made us walk even faster. After a few more rumbles overhead, I went into rain pace, which is my version of fast. And then… the rocks and the mud hit (no pictures because of rain and urgency). We immediately slowed to a crawl for a tenth of a mile as we navigated large, and now slightly wet, boulders surrounded by mud and/or water. As soon as we could manage it, we sped back up and then the trail threw roots at us. We slowed down again, but kept pushing with the hopes of at least beating a downpour even though we hadn’t managed to stay dry altogether. We came to a small stream that required a tricky rock hop because of the spacing and the rain, but we both made it safely across. We heard voices as we went up a hill and took a left at the shelter turn-off.

We found 6 people hunkered down in the lean-to: Levi, the two guys we’d leapfrogged with all day, two other women hiking together, and both of the older men who had passed us between Gulf Hagas and the shelter. Everyone kindly shifted gear around so we could put our bags down on the front edge of the shelter. We climbed inside and ate fruit snacks while making short bursts of small talk. The rain waxed and waned for a few minutes as the sky brightened. It was hard to decide if and when to leave cover. One of the older men humble bragged about having hiked until 8:30pm the night before. Oakland asked one of the women about footing from the shelter to Sidney Tappan Campsite (our intended destination), and she reported that yesterday she’d done 17 miles after 11am. I balked as politely as I could. Her description of the rocky footing and the fact that 3 other people planned to stop at our camp site made us the second people to leave. We went out into the dripping world and felt mostly good about our choice as we spotted patches of blue in the sky. Oakland said she wanted to beat the guys to the campsite, so went at “beat the tall men” pace, which is just a hair slower than “beat the rain” pace. The only trick was, we had to go straight up, which is why Oakland likes to tell this story as me “running up a mountain.” There were a few scrambling spots, but we had long stretches of stone steps that made for easy footing as we raced towards Sidney Tappan. One of the older guys caught up to us sooner than I expected. We unofficially started calling him “8:30” to identify him. At a slightly wider spot in the trail, we stopped to let him pass before the steep climb narrowed again. He stopped just below us to wipe his brow and catch his breath. He asked us how long we’d been out. I said I was doing a thru-hike in two sections because I broke my arm the first time around, and I’d started on April 24th. He nodded, and said, “oh, well, that’s how you’re so strong” as if he was trying to make sense of how we could get up the mountain so quickly. I told him “Up” was my strongest gear as he went by us. He wasn’t going that much faster than us until we hit another patch of trickier footing. Then he disappeared altogether when the trail flattened a bit.

When the trail plateaued, we walked through thick ground cover that felt like VA, especially with the oppressive humidity that hung in the air after the rain shower. Sadly I don’t have any pictures of the climb or the ridge walk because we were in such a rush and my phone was tucked safely in a ziplock in my hip pocket. We walked over small ups and downs past sweet smelling plants. My right foot slipped on a downhill, and I couldn’t keep myself upright, so I took a slow, controlled fall onto my right elbow and butt. No damage incurred. Thankfully, I didn’t strain my shoulder when I dug my pole in during my attempt to stay upright. I brushed off the dirt and we kept moving.

There were a few scoochable descents and then a series of stone steps led down to the campsite that sat right along the trail. We could hear voices before we got all the way there, and we both worried about space. We rounded a corner to find dozens of people milling around and tents everywhere. Two people leading a girls’ youth group apologized profusely to us about the amount of space and resources their group was consuming. We thanked them for the sentiment. They were both former thru-hikers and apologized with the knowing tone of people who understood what it was like to arrive to crowded chaos after a long day of hiking.

We eventually found out that there were 3 different youth groups at the campsite along with a handful of hikers. We decided to cram ourselves just to the edge of the trail with our tent spilling partially ON to the trail because there weren’t any other options. The two counselors came over to say hi again and offered us chocolate. They asked about our hikes, which is how we found out that they had thru-hiked in 2017, but neither of them looked familiar to me. They moved on so we could keep setting up. We cleaned the area of tiny pine cones and added some pine needles to the most concave section to try to flatten it out. We had to break off some lower partial branches on the pine tree on one side of us to avoid puncturing the tent door on that side.

The two guys we had leapfrogged with finally showed up about 45 minutes after we did. They walked around wide eyed at the density of hikers, and then plopped their tent along the other side of the trail across from us. We were all a bit frazzled. Today’s top photo is a view of tents crowded around the AT (the mossy rock is in the middle of the trail).

Oakland and I went down to get water because the sky looked dark in places and we wanted to get that chore out of the way before it rained again. We found an older Asian man, shirtless and giving himself a partial bird bath. When he came over to scoop water, I asked what kind of hike he’s doing, and he reported that he’s doing an 800 mile section. He said that last night there were multiple youth groups at his shelter 18 miles south of here. They apparently only go shelter to shelter most of the time, which was good information to have, but there wasn’t any way of knowing how many youth groups were ahead of us to make crowd predictions. I felt so cranky about their existence and wished that they were required to coordinate so that only 1-2 groups could stay at a shelter to reduce their burden on the resources.

We took our full supply of ice cold water back up the spring trail and dropped it next to our tent. We were about to go find the privy when it began to drizzle. Inside the tent we went. We closed the doors and immediately opened them again because the humidity was out of control. The rain picked up, so we closed the doors again until it sounded like most of the water was coming from trees and not the sky. I finally decided to brave the privy because I’d had to pee since before we went down to the spring. My crankiness grew as I walked past several gigantic tents and a cooking tarp that was taking up precious real estate. I opened the door to the privy and was met with a cloud of flies. I closed the door to consider my options without a barrage of flies. A kid arrived just as I began deliberating and wordlessly stepped into the privy without asking me if I was waiting. I decided to just pee next to the privy while he was inside. Then I went back to find Oakland who had finished her bed setup. It was early for dinner prep, but we decided we should make food while it wasn’t really raining. Neither of us wanted to cook in or near our tent, so we asked a gaggle of teens if we could use the log space they had just vacated. They all politely said yes as they huddled under their cooking tarp while their group leader made burritos with a Cast iron skillet.

Oakland mused about the fact that she had no desire to take teenagers into the woods while we boiled water. Look how happy she is (not):

I can’t say camping with teenagers is at the top of my list either, but I was grateful that the group closest to us had both racial and gender diversity. Thus far, the groups had been nearly all white and separated into M/F binaries. We made dinner and loitered on the logs since the teens seemed content to stay under their cooking tarp. One of the kids cried out with envy when he saw that we had Fritos, which made both of us chuckle to ourselves. The nano-second we went back to our tent, the teens swarmed the log benches. We brushed our teeth and made the collective choice to cram our food bags inside the tent. There was so much bear bait around us that it didn’t seem necessary to bother searching for a mediocre tree option. Oakland went to get more water because she had consumed more than usual with dinner. I forced myself to set up my bed while she was gone. The bathtub at the head of our tent was very low to ground. I crossed my fingers that we wouldn’t get a downpour because the rain would definitely splash right over that slim edge.

We were settled inside our tent by about 6:45pm, which felt amazing. We changed clothes without flashing the world as best we could because closing the doors took more energy than either of us had. Oakland puttered over the map, and I looked at my pictures while a swirl of inane teenage conversations went on around us. Oakland fell asleep around 8pm while I typed haphazard notes and tried to stay warm in the damp evening air. I’m finishing this to an array of zipper sounds, kids attempting to be quiet and erupting into giggles, counselors gossiping in their tent, the wind rushing through the pines, and the occasional plop of moisture on our tent. Now that it’s dark, I can sneak out for one final pee and go to sleep at a decent hour for the first time in Maine. Fingers crossed we don’t have any uninvited guests looking for tent snacks overnight.

Mile 2102.5 to mile 2115.2 (12.8) – Sidney Tappan Campsite

Checklist total miles: 983.9 

Oakland total miles: 506.5 

Creature feature: several dopey dogs, minnows, the sound of a pileated woodpecker, so many mosquitoes 

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