2019-Day 101: stumbling our way to Hurd Brook edition

August 2, 2019 

I slept like a zombie because of the Benadryl. I wasn’t aware of waking up for any length of time, but I constantly rolled over to try to find a comfortable position on the uneven ground. I was in such a haze that I didn’t hear the alarm. Oakland stirred, which is what finally roused me. My eye was even puffier than the night before, so Benadryl clearly wasn’t the answer (nor was sleeping downhill). It was hard to get out of bed in the cool morning air, but I couldn’t ignore my bladder for long. Oakland returned from the privy while I massaged my blocky feet and donned my ankle brace. Then I stumbled my way across the tenting area, up a small hill, and warily opened the privy door. I was greeted by one large spider in plain sight and a wall of smell, both of which meant I left the door cracked for my duties.

I went back to our site and forced myself to change into hiking clothes and put away my sleeping bag. Oakland ate breakfast in the warmth of her bag and had a hard time giving up her cocoon when it came time to pack up. AB disappeared some time during breakfast without saying goodbye. We were both disappointed not to see him off. Our timelines are just far enough out of alignment that we may never see him again. We went through our packing and foot prep routines after a bug-free breakfast in the tent. I shoved my food bag and other extras out the tent door and reluctantly rolled my sleeping pad into a tight coil. I winced in pain as I shifted around on the network of roots underneath my newly unprotected rear. No wonder I had spent all night tossing and turning.

I finally crawled out of the tent and went to my pine tree alcove to rinse my cup. The privy was far too small to take care of that job. The cool air made washing my hands a loathsome project, but the mosquitoes were unperturbed by the lower temperature. They clouded around us as we broke down the rest of our campsite. The tent bottom was blissfully clean with a smattering of pine needles that we easily brushed away. We both covered ourselves in deet and took turns helping the other wash our hands (again). By the time we filtered water and made our way down towards the trail, nearly everyone else was gone. We had a shorter day planned, and I hoped that it would actually feel shorter, but that would depend on the severity of the terrain.

The morning started by crossing Rainbow stream across a manageable rock hop with steps that thankfully weren’t loose. Then we went up over piney hills with the stream to our left. I had to stop to remove what felt like a forest in my shoe (actual contents: one pine needle).

The water slowed as we continued upstream and entered an area known as Rainbow Dead Waters. A thick network of exposed roots covered the trail with the occasional collection of stones that kept us out of the muck.

I wondered if the trail maintenance had been in place when my friend Halfway came through in 2017 or if he’d contended with the mud wallows we passed. A southbound hiker came towards us wearing a tank top and shorts with no head net, and I couldn’t fathom how she wasn’t getting eaten alive with that much skin showing. 

We eventually came to a small hill and decided to remove our raincoats. We applied deet to our top halves, drank some water and kept moving through a slightly overgrown, greener section of woods.

I heard an outburst of loons nearby and tried to ignore my already growing hunger. Another loon trilled in the distance, and we paused to locate a couple of woodpeckers on a nearby birch limb, but it was far too buggy to admire them for long. Mosquitoes bounced off my bare calves two and three at a time.

We stopped at the side trail for the Rainbow Spring campsite to have an early break with good seating. I dug my calve sleeves out of the bottom of my compactor bag. Then I sat on a rock in dappled sunlight and took great pleasure in covering my legs with said sleeves. No more mosquito trampolining for me. Gnats buzzed our faces as we snacked. Members of a youth group tromped past us one by one to get water at the spring. My heart sank at the sight of them. Rather than ruminating about their evening destination, I decided to ask one of them where they were headed. Northbound, to the next shelter. Our shelter. We had no chance of staying in front of them, and neither of us wanted to rush yet again, so we gave in to the possibility of overcrowding. Mostly.

We continued north as the kids collected themselves at the intersection. They passed us after about 10 minutes. Here’s a terrible picture of the polite band of galumphing oafs, with their disproportioned teenage bodies shaped much like Woody from Toy Story.

I tried my best not to stress out about their existence or be resentful of their ability to hike so much faster than us, which is a state of grace I did not manage to achieve. We arrived at a small stream and stopped to check our water sources for the day to see if we should top off. The water at our feet was Donut stream, our not-quite-midway water source.

We decided to fill our bottles even though we didn’t really need to because it was more appealing than another round of lake water later in the morning. We drank a bit while we filtered and then continued north.

We walked along a rock slalom with occasional stretches of root snarls and blow downs. A large body of water sat to our left. I dipped down a rabbit trail to check it out. The sparkling, clear water looked so inviting even on this mild morning.

Sunlight glinted off the surface while I snapped a few pictures and checked the map to find that we were standing by Rainbow Lake (so many rainbows). Oakland seemed to be sagging. She pulled out a bar and said that she felt like she was running on fumes even though we’d just recently snacked. I had daydreams about eating an early lunch at the far corner of the lake, but I didn’t say it out loud lest I get shot down before I could handle the rejection. As we plodded down the trail, I planned my case for an early lunch. Soft light filtered through the trees as we picked our way over roots and admired giant boulders covered in ferns that looked like cartoon hair.

I asked Oakland if she was okay, and she said she was having trouble with her balance, and she felt like she couldn’t look up because the footing was too tricky. The concentration was wearing her down even further. I floated the idea of an early lunch, and she expressed interest in taking a break sooner than later. Yes!

We made it to the far end of the lake around 11:15. There were small patches of standing water near the shaded rocks that would make the best lunch seats. I worried that we would have to deal with extra bugs, but it turned out to be no buggier than anywhere else. We dropped our packs on dry ground and set about making our respective lunches. I ate Pop tarts with a beef jerky & cheese stick combo and Fritos. Oakland had a tuna wrap, which is her favorite. As we ate, she shared the challenges of her morning. She was physically exhausted by the hiking itself and emotionally tired of feeling invisible in the long distance hiking community. The anxiety of tent space also kept tugging her out of the present moment. I, too, was exhausted and anxious about space, but I was somehow in a better mood than Oakland (an unusual turn of events). It was hard for me not to feel dragged down by the weight of her mood, but I did my best to take in the beautiful lake while also giving Oakland my full attention and empathy.

After eating, we stuck around so I could draft a few texts because we realized after reading a guthook comment that we were about to enter the land of no signal until Katahdin. We needed to coordinate a few more details with HQ for our retrieval plan, and I wanted to warn our other parents about the communication disruption.

We left around 1:15 and made our way up to rainbow ledges, which was a gentle climb with various terrain and the company of a little snake.

We came across more drainage work, for which we were both grateful. The footing eventually transitioned into rock slab, which felt almost like walking on a sidewalk with frosted green moss on either side of trail and more blueberries!

I was very wrong when I told halfway the bushes weren’t productive yet. Texts popped through my phone as we got closer to the ledges. I paused to send out the slew of drafts I’d created at the lake so people might have time to respond before we headed down the other side of Rainbow ledges.

We were eventually greeted with a characteristic wooden trail sign at the edge of the ledges. The temperature was much hotter on the somewhat open rock face than in the shaded woods.

A few texts buzzed through, but none of them were from HQ. We loitered on the ledges for about 15 minutes idly checking our phones and generally being lumps, but we eventually had to keep moving. I sent HQ another text telling her that we would be in touch via GPS. About 5 minutes and a few more blueberries later, we saw Katahdin framed in the trees to our left.

The massive mountain looked as tall as ever. Oakland’s face seemed tight as she looked at it, and I said, “It’s just another mountain.” She scoffed a bit, but it’s true: the infamous Katahdin is just another mountain, and we will climb it. It might take 12 hours, and we will be frightened at times, but it will happen. Obviously, I was terrified and also trying to convince myself of this whole equanimity charade, which is hard to do when you’re the one who broke your arm, thus changing the trajectory of your entire hike in a matter of seconds.

We let mama K out of our sight and continued down the ledges. We saw an older hiker headed our way, and we waited for him to creep up a large step in front of us. I told him to be sure to look to his right at the top of the hill because he seemed to be very focused, and I was worried that he might miss the view. He thanked us and continued with his rickety gait. The descent was manageable. There were a few long steps and roots with some stone steps mixed in. We reached a piney section that continued the monotonous feeling of being stuck in a never ending agility drill made of roots and rocks. I stopped short at the sight of a bird sitting on a root in the middle of the trail. My guess is that it was a thrush fledgling? or maybe a dark eyed junco fledgling? (corrections welcome) I took its picture, and then it hopped/flew off the trail about two feet. Good instincts, kid. 

Here are a couple more pictures from the rock treadmill:

After about thirty more minutes of stumbling, we came to a jumble of giant boulders surrounded by dark water and trees with roots grasping onto rocks. We had to cross the wide stream in order to reach our evening destination, Hurd Brook Lean-to (the last shelter in the 100 mile wilderness).

We stopped to survey the options and about 5 mosquitoes landed on my legs. I killed two of them with one slap to my right calf (somewhere along the way I must have removed my calf sleeves because I can remember seeing the blood and the instant fiery itch of those effing mosquito bites). There was no time for pickiness about our route. I took the right hand option and Oakland went left. We ended up at same point at the same time and congratulated ourselves for a swift retreat from yet another mosquito Mordor. Then came a smattering of boulders and tree roots and another boulder hop across sludgy water right before the shelter.

We saw (and heard) the youth group loitering by the shelter with their tents set up to the right of the trail. I was very happy to see that they hadn’t infiltrated the tenting down an unmarked trail that’s mentioned in guthook. We walked past the shelter, but couldn’t find said trail. After a bit more hunting around with the teenagers as our audience, I saw what looked like packed dirt, and decided that we should follow it because it mirrored the notes about the tenting being upstream from the shelter. Success! Minus the fact that I tripped on a downed log and wanted to punch something.

The tenting area was rooty and pretty lumpy. We put our packs down to fully survey the options. None of them were good. We finally settled on the best of the worst. There were roots in all the wrong places and the ground sloped to one side, but we wouldn’t be sleeping with our heads downhill, so maybe my eye wouldn’t swell as much. We sat on nice high rocks and ate snacks and drank water before dealing with tent. One must always consider the hangerbeast when doing evening chores. We cleared the ground and put towels down on the sharpest roots before putting the tent up with ease. Then we sat on our rocks and ate more snacks. We were both starving and ready for dinner, but it was only 4:30pm. I decided to see if I could access the marshy pond that flowed into our water source with the hopes of spotting a moose. I walked towards an opening in the trees and found a series of large boulders that led to a long, narrow pond with blooming lily pads and tall grass that seemed like good moose bait to me (today’s top photo). I called out to Oakland to come find me and she popped out of the woods a minute later. She rock-hopped to where I sat taking pictures of flowers (shocking, I know).

It was so peaceful, and a light breeze kept the bug quotient lower. We lingered for a few minutes before heading back over the rocks towards our tent site. I stopped to take another picture and a piece of trash popped out of my coat pocket and floated downstream. I watched it get caught against a log, so I rock hopped over to retrieve it and found a green frog like the one we saw at the Thunder Hill Shelter’s cistern.

As we returned to our tent site, an older hiker arrived and expressed glee at having found more hammocking options. She asked us if she could join us in our “private” tenting area. We said, “of course!” assuring her that it was not private in the least. She disappeared for a few minutes and returned with all of her stuff. Oakland got in our tent and put together her bed. I loitered outside until her pad was in place and then did the same. We fell asleep for a little while, to the point of snoring (for me). We decided it was time to get water for the evening. Rather than revisit mosquito hell, we went back towards the pond and followed a social trail towards the sound of moving water. The ground was moss-covered and springy with the hollowness of root networks just below the surface. The trail led us to the edge of the slow moving water coming from the pond. We tried to rock hop towards a faster flowing area, but the footing options weren’t great so we settled for what amounted to pond water. It seemed dark, but it came out of the filter clearly and it tasted fine. It also wasn’t as cold as I had hoped it would be and there were minnows all over the place, but it was better than heading downstream.

We returned to find our new neighbor settled onto a rock by the fire pit about to make her dinner. We decided to join her rather than be insular. I was sad to leave our higher rock perches for the low logs around the fire pit, but we had an enjoyable time getting to know a bit about Mary Jane. She’s 67 years old, is a retired traveling nurse with grandchildren, and she hiked 436 miles of the trail last year and started at Katahdin a couple of days ago. She said she’d been excited and dubious about the project, but her husband and children had been supportive of her abilities, so off she went. We all happened to have ramen for dinner. Oakland and I ate tuna packets with ours, then a few Fritos and half a snickers each. Mary Jane kept describing her last section hike as horrible, so I finally asked what had kept her going. She said “Determination, I guess.” Aka sheer stubbornness, which is pretty much a requirement for long distance hiking.

The bugs were getting to Oakland, so we didn’t loiter much past the end of our meal. As we wrapped up, Mary Jane made herself a cup of tea and offered us a “groovy cookie” to help us sleep, but we declined. I put all of my energy into controlling my face as I watched Mary Jane putter around her hammock site, pulling out one single-use item after another. It hurt my feet just watching her scrounge around her mountain of gear. We put our food in the tent, which still felt so wrong and frankly, adds to the clutter. Then we put on our raincoats and grabbed our zseats to go on a moose cruise by the pond. Mary Jane joined us with her tea and her pot cookie, but the lowering sun shining in our faces was too hot for her (or maybe she didn’t feel like sharing the space). Oakland and I settled onto a big flat rock with a good view and watched the minnows and frogs while straining our ears for the sound of moose. It was peaceful but a bit buggier than before. I heard a big crash that had to have been a moose, but one never appeared. Oakland eventually had to escape the bugs. I waited for about 15 more minutes, but no dice.

I even walked around the far right edge to see if I could catch a better view of the opposite corner. I heard a squeak as a frog flew through the air, legs akimbo, and fell back into the water. I hoped that I hadn’t accidentally stepped on it. I reluctantly went back to the tent where Oakland lay massaging her feet without having to be badgered by me. Mary Jane stood brushing her teeth in her long johns. I got in the tent and changed clothes, which Oakland had wisely already done. As we shifted around, she accidentally kicked me in my bad ankle. There was a sharp pain from the impact followed by a dull ache, and I had trouble letting my leg rest against the sleeping pad. I felt so tired of being constantly vigilant about my damn ankle. Oakland’s sleeping pad was balanced between roots because she was too stubborn to let me take that side of the tent. We heard loons making their evening salute as I wrote notes in the waning light. It turns out Mary Jane is a snorer. Thankfully she’s far enough up the hill for it to be a low rumble. I’m finishing this to the sound of water rushing over rocks, Mary Jane snoring, Oakland sleeping next to me, crickets, and a plane somewhere in the distance. It’s our last night in the 100 mile wilderness! 

Mile 2161.9 to mile 2173.4 (11.5) – Hurd Brook Lean-to

Checklist total miles: 1042.1 

Oakland total miles: 564.7 

Creature feature: frogs! on land and in water, two small snakes, loons, minnows, and teenage boys 

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