2019-Day 103: to the Birches edition

August 4, 2019 

I had a short and somewhat choppy night of sleep that was punctuated by our booming neighbors until the wee hours of the morning. Oakland woke up around 4:30 and had to pee too badly to wait until our 4:50 alarm. I grumbled and laid in bed until 4:53 when I finally managed to drag myself out of my warm sleeping bag. We got dressed by headlamp and then I headed over to the bathrooms to take care of business. A person entered right as I headed out the door, and my first thought was “Hiker! The Birches! Must beat her to the signup list!” As I walked away, I comforted myself by assuming that the large pile of clothes in her hands meant she was in a different outdoor universe than ours. Judgmental, but helpful at the time.

We shoved our gear into our packs, and I drank the rest of a green machine smoothie (my NERO day attempt at consuming “fruits & vegetables”). Oakland went off for her second bathroom visit while I prepped my feet and did a visual sweep of the space. I left our key on the bed and walked out of that weird little bunkhouse for the last time.

It was a sandy walk to the campground entrance. A white Audi coming from the birch pines parking across Golden Road slowed down as they approached us. The passenger rolled down his window and asked us where to find Abol Trail. I was too tired and internally pressed for time to give his question a second thought. I also didn’t know the answer, and I had no intention of looking it up for him. I decisively said, “We have no idea” without slowing down, and the car drove away.

We walked past a school bus and eventually turned left into the dim woods and stopped to admire the early morning light over Katahdin.

I got multiple mosquito bites taking this picture on the bridge:

The wooden planks were wet, but I couldn’t walk as slowly as my anxiety wanted to because of the vampires. When we got to the kiosk, the List was posted! We were the first people to sign in at 5:45 am. It was a ridiculous, but effective, idea to get up at the ass crack for our peace of mind. We took a quick look at the handwritten weather report, which made me feel like I was back in the Whites.

We had intended to relax on the kiosk benches and eat our breakfast, but the mosquitoes were abominable. We slathered ourselves in deet and kept moving. The wooded trail ran alongside a marshy area and the hordes of mosquitoes clearly had no other targets. I have never been so miserable in my life. Clouds of mosquitoes hung around each of us, searching for any patch of unprotected surface area. We had to reapply bug spray after about 20 minutes.

My shoulders stung with fresh bites as we hiked and slapped and cursed our way through the woods. We did 3 miles in the first hour. We were swarmed the second either of us considered slowing down for a snack. Thanks to the beautifully flat and groomed trail, I managed a few bites of a bar while we hiked, but I quickly gave up and shoved it back into my hip pocket without stopping.

The bugs eased up a smidge as we walked along the wide, fast moving Penobscot River. The morning light was beautiful against the waters edge.

We eventually stopped at a birch log and ate breakfast. The mosquitoes were present, but less eager than their swampy counterparts. A hiker passed us with nothing but a sawyer filter in her pocket. We were both exhausted from the first hour of walking under siege. We soaked in the view from our log before continuing north over a smattering of roots with the river to our left for another mile and a half.

Then the trail turned right and took us along the Nesowadnehunk Stream, which was fast moving and full of cascades.

Here it is in video form:

We admired the light on the water as we covered the occasional snarl of roots.

We arrived at a high water bypass trail sign surrounded by a cheerful bank of ferns and didn’t think much of it because there hadn’t been a ton of rainfall in the last few days.

We should have looked at guthook to see what we had in store. Little did we know, we would have to ford a deep, rocky stream. My heart sank and my legs wobbled as I surveyed the route options at the edge of the swift water. The picture does not do justice to the distance between the rocks in the middle of the crossing.

The rocks that sat closest to each other were clearly wet. The dryer steps went from high to low and pointy, which is a combination I refuse to tangle with. A medium sized log lay between two rocks with a rushing cascade below (out of the above frame to the left). I didn’t really fancy a potentially wet balance beam option either. Oakland offered to go first. She went out towards the high-to-low option and realized right away that it was a treacherous combination. She went upstream about 20 feet to assess the slipperiness of other promising rocks, and they were like snot. No dice.

We decided to explore our options upstream, so we clamored around in the brush, which had clearly been done before. I was prepared to take my shoes off and ford the stream, but the bottom was full of large slippery rocks and the water was moving quickly. It looked like ankle twisting hell. We walked at least 200 feet upstream and finally found a spot that looked like a reasonable ford. Oakland secured her shoes and socks to her pack and eased her way into the water.

She announced that there was a sandy bottom between the large rocks. Success!

I sat on the rocks near the bank and took off my annoying combination of lower layers. I attached my shoes to my pack, took a deep breath, and stepped into the stream. There was one tricky spot with a deeper step and a faster current. I was worried about my poles getting ripped out of my hand, so I held onto nearby rocks for stability until I made it to a shallower depth.

I had a hard time getting out of the water because there weren’t any reasonable steps for my sensitive, shoeless feet. I turned towards the middle of the stream and lowered myself down in place to avoid the pointy painful steps. I dried off my legs and my feet with my calf sleeves as best I could, and put everything back on.

We walked down a social path towards the trail, which gave us more evidence that we were not alone in our struggles to get across the stream. When we made it back to the AT, I checked guthook for other high water crossings and found out that we had one more to navigate 0.9 miles away. The precarious looking picture in guthook left me on edge as we hiked north with rushing water to our left the entire way there. It no longer felt like a relaxing layer of white noise; it had transformed into a menacing sound that reminded me of yet another opportunity to fall at the next crossing. I’ve never really liked difficult rock hops, but with my somewhat wobbly and fragile ankle, I’d grown to hate them even more. I couldn’t stop picturing myself twisting something as we made a small climb over roots and pine needles. My quads protested after so much flat walking yesterday and today. The bump in elevation felt like a PUD because we immediately went back down.

Back down at water level, we admired the raging stream cascading over giant red slabs of rock. The trail took us slightly up through blueberries and granite.

When we arrived at the purported water ford, I was relieved to find a quiet stream filled with massive boulders that made for a 20 second rock hop to the opposite bank.

We paused to admire a sedate section of the stream before arriving at the other end of the high water bypass trail. We poked fun at ourselves for not having considered the bypass and veered left to stay on the AT.

With all of the major crossings behind us, I could once again appreciate the sound of rushing water as the trail weaved alongside the Nesowadnehunk Stream. An unmarked social path leading towards the raging stream caught our eye, but a quick map consult kept us on course for the official path towards Big Niagara Falls. I stood at the woods’ edge while Oakland walked towards the wall of white water, dwarfed by giant boulders (today’s top picture). After getting some shots with Oakland for size perspective, I, too, walked out to the falls. The sound was deafening and mesmerizing (turn your volume lower if you plan to watch the videos).

We took a few minutes to poke around on the rocks and check out the calmer upstream views. Ferns peeked out of cracks in the rocks, and I found a new white flower growing near the edge of the woods.

We were both hungry, but we decided to hold off on a snack break until Little Niagara Falls in 0.3 miles. I hadn’t realized just how intensely root covered the side trail was until we headed back to the AT and saw this view:

The AT turned into a sidewalk-like slab for a few minutes, which made for a quick trip to our next stop. It took a small scramble over boulders to get out onto the large slanted rock that looked out over a bend in the stream with a tiered drop-off that created Little Niagara Falls, which dropped into a basin that looked like it would have made for a great swimming hole. Our upstream view was a mountain framed by the trees.

We settled onto the slanted rock face and handled all of our gear with intense concentration to prevent it from skittering into the water. We ate snacks as we watched birds grazing in the brush on the rocky bank across the stream. Bonus feature: I had 1 bar of cell service! so I sent out a few texts before we packed up.

On our way back to the AT we ran into a couple of day hikers, which was confusing given the remoteness I had just felt sitting by the water. We passed several other day hikers, some with fishing poles and babies in adventure backpacks. The trail was a gloriously flat, piney path for over a mile. I stopped briefly to admire this tree that had grown up and over a boulder. I’m forever impressed by the way plants figure out how to thrive in what seem like inhospitable circumstances.

I was excited to see Katahdin Stream Campground etched onto a wooden sign at an intersection where we turned left to follow the AT. It felt so surreal to finally be this close to Katahdin. The footing devolved into roots and bog boards until we popped out of the woods for a right turn that led past a fancy privy with toilet paper.

We stopped to partake of the unexpected luxury and laughed at how excited the sight of toilet paper made us.

After our dash of civilization, we crossed a Baxter State Park employee parking lot and headed back into the woods. The trail wound us around the northern half of Daicey pond. We slowed to admire the occasional frog and flowering lily pads that sat atop clear water.

As we walked, we talked about the impending transition off the trail. Oakland expressed curiosity about how I planned to navigate the inevitable post trail depression and my ambiguous professional landscape. Not exactly a light discussion for a beautiful day in the woods. We paused to scan an amusing number of signs, one of which told us we had 1.3 more miles to KSC.

I was tired and hungry, and I hadn’t been doing a good job of drinking water, so the last 30ish minutes of hiking dragged on. The slump didn’t stop me from taking the time to duck down a side trail to check out the shoreline of Grassy Pond and the surrounding mountains.

The canoes stored at the water’s edge made me wish we had more time in the park for unstructured adventures. I tried to get a pano of the view, but the water was weirdly warped every time, as if some mysterious magnetic force was throwing off my camera settings.

We continued picking our way over roots while the bugs threw themselves at our bodies. The trail ran alongside a branch of Katahdin stream for a few minutes. An older man headed southbound with a fishing rod in his hand and a woven basket strapped across his chest. Twenty more minutes over roots and bog boards, and we finally reached the road crossing for the campground.

We crossed the gravel road, turned right and went through a grassy picnic area next to a parking lot. We found the ranger station on the other side of a footbridge that spanned another branch of Katahdin stream.

We couldn’t find a ranger and didn’t really understand the sign in system, but we tried our best. I looked for halfway’s contribution in the massive trail logbook, but the entries only went back to 8/27/17. I did manage to find Norsemen (one of the hikers who kept me company on the way down sugarloaf with my broken elbow) and a few other hikers I recognized from 2017.

It was bittersweet but satisfying to see their names. I also checked for people I/we knew from this year (2019). I saw Levi, but I couldn’t find a signature from adventure boy, which made me wonder if he’d used his real name (something we never knew).

After toodling around on the porch, we decided to head to the Birches to claim our spot and try to find a ranger later. We walked up the dirt road, took a left to follow the signs for the campground and made a right turn at an intersection with another fancy privy much like the one we’d seen earlier.

The Birches campsite consisted of two medium sized lean to’s and 1 large wooden tent pad. Neither of us wanted to sleep in the shelter, but the ground tenting options were dismal, and we weren’t really sure if we were allowed to setup somewhere other than the wooden tent pad.

We finally decided to go for the safe option and went about the tedious, but successful, process of pitching our pole-free duplex on the wooden pad. Neither of us know much about effective knot tying, so Oakland fashioned a good solution for several of the guy lines, and I used a rock to bang tent stakes in between the wooden slates where there were no eyelets. The resulting pitch was better than some of our nights on the ground.

Then came our slightly overdue lunch at the picnic table. We feasted on packaged food and enjoyed having the place to ourselves. After lunch, we located the bear cables and hung our food bags so we could move about freely without worrying about a hungry visitor. Both of us were a mixture of horrified and proud of our remaining food, which looked like we had raided a vending machine:

Then we set up our beds and somewhat unintentionally took a nap.

I awoke to someone calling both of our trail names. Adventure Boy! He had made a detour back to the Birches after his Katahdin summit to say hello/goodbye to us and reassure us that the hike was manageable. Given the differences in our physiques and his excited, almost manic tone of voice, I had my doubts about his assessment of difficulty, but I was grateful for the visit nonetheless. He left us in search of a hitch to Millinocket with plans to drive a rental car home tomorrow. As Adventure Boy disappeared down the path, two tall men with the sparkling shine of section hikers showed up. One of them announced that they were The Daves and proceeded to talk a mile a minute at us as we sat on our tent pad. I was overwhelmed by the intensity of Chatty Dave’s patter. Quiet Dave felt much more my speed as he smiled at us from a distance. They went off to find their tenting spots, and we conferred about whether to retreat to our tent or make the trip back to the stream for our water supply. We opted for water to get a bit more quiet time before interacting with our new neighbors. It was a dusty walk back to the footbridge.

We made a pitstop at the ranger station and found a couple of people in the back yard working on a lumber project. They told us to come back during the posted office hours (after 5pm) and turned their attention back to their task with little in the way of niceties. We kept our grumpiness to ourselves as we crossed the bridge and scampered down a small trail to the water’s edge. There wasn’t much standing room, so we took turns collecting water. I took Oakland’s picture from the bridge and watched hikers chow down on trail magic in the picnic pavilion while I waited.

Another group of hikers emerged from the far side of the small field and a woman reading in a chair popped up to greet them. My mind wandered to tomorrow’s descent, which I feared far more than the climb. We filled an extra 2L platypus of water to get us through all of the evening’s requirements and our summit hike. Why bother with so much water? The sources for Katahdin are somewhat awkward with Katahdin stream in the first mile, a seasonal stream near treeline, and a seasonal spring on the Tablelands that the ranger had advised us not to use because there had been accounts of people urinating in the water. I hate humans.

With a full water supply, we went back up the dusty road to our campsite. We started a game of golf on the tent pad, and Chatty Dave beckoned us to move our cards to the table so he could join us. We taught him the rules while Quiet Dave opted to watch.

Chatty Dave (pictured above) made outrageous gambles that followed none of our proposed strategies and resulted in him losing spectacularly the entire time we played. Quiet Dave eventually joined in, faring better than his friend. The mosquitoes decided it was time for an afternoon snack around 4:30pm, so we escaped to our fabric fortress for awhile. I donated a few pages from my section of AWOL to help Chatty Dave with his fire starting project.

Oakland puttered on her mattress while I forced myself to write a few notes in our down time. Around 5, we decided to take another stab at finding the ranger to register our summit hike. Halfway there, a truck slowed to a stop in front of us and out popped the ranger on duty. She had been on her way to the Birches to find us. Luckily, there was only one road to get there, so we hadn’t missed her again.

She took our information down in a logbook and she asked us the ever complicated question of what type of hike we were doing. Oakland replied that she was a section hiker, and I briefly laid out my emotional ties to the question. The ranger kindly offered to circle NoBo on my Katahdin permit card and record me as a section hiker for the park records. I felt sheepish about still holding such strong thru-hiker bias, but I was also grateful that she’d understood. We asked her several questions about how the loaner pack system worked and thanked her for all of her help before she backed her truck down the narrow gravel road towards the ranger station.

When we got back to the Birches, another hiker had arrived. He looked vaguely familiar, but he also looked like all the other twenty-something, cis male, brunette hikers I’d seen on trail, so I didn’t think much of it. We all sat around the small fire that Chatty Dave tended and made the usual small talk. The new arrival turned out to be the NOBO who had sat next to me like a silent lump on our second morning at Shaw’s. Apparently, he’d gotten really sick while he was there and stayed for like 4 days before he felt well enough to continue.

We all started making food around 5:45. Oakland chose chili mac as her last trail dinner of the trip. Neither of us could believe that she would be done hiking as of this time tomorrow (barring extenuating circumstances) and on a plane to CA by the end of the week. Chatty Dave talked about their experience of the hundred mile wilderness. He kept describing his friend as safe and cautious, so I threw out the suggestion that maybe the other Dave should be called OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). Quiet Dave took a shine to the name, but I have no idea if it stuck. We made it through our dishes and dessert and then stepped away from the fire pit to brush our teeth and re-hang our food bags (thank you, functional bear cables).

We decided to live on the edge and returned to the fireside conversation for a little while. We were in good company for our last night in Maine with the exception of Chatty Dave. He had begun to wear on both of our nerves, especially with his constant aggrandizing of thru hikers as super human. Our new NOBO friend, on the other hand, was amiable and didn’t exude any of his compatriots’ typical bro vibes. I’m sad I didn’t write his trail name down. I felt like I had someone who could relate to being on trail for so long without the need to one-up each other about daily mileage or other hardships.

We finally dispersed for our respective evening routines around 7:30. I went to the privy and was happy to find zero visible spiders. I can’t say I felt the same way about the large population of mosquitoes. When I got back to the tent, I realized that we had left our bug spray in our packs. We decided to go rogue and not bother relocating the spray to the bear cables. Or so we had hoped until we realized we had also left our afternoon snack trash in the tent. That was one step too far for both of us, so I went back to the bear cables and put all of our misplaced smellables in my food bag. We filtered some of our water to save time in the morning and then tucked ourselves in the tent. The crisp evening air called for long johns. After changing, we sorted out the gear we would take for our day hike. The elevation and exposed mileage on Katahdin called for multiple layers to stay comfortable and safe. We had decided that one person would carry their own water and our joint food supply and the other person would carry their water and our collection of extra clothing.

Around 8:30pm, the ranger parked at the entrance and walked through the campground with a flashlight counting hikers to make sure we hadn’t exceeded the strict 12 person long distance hiker limit. We paid our fees ($10pp) and she was on her way. As we settled in for the night, we talked about the winding down of Oakland’s trip. She said she was ready to be done and also incredibly sad to leave, which feels like a common set of contradictions for long distance hikers. The daily hardships add up, but there’s grief in the ending, no matter how ready you are for a real bed and running water. I’m finishing this to the sound of Oakland breathing deeply having already fallen asleep, bugs popping off the tent, a slight wind in the trees and the occasional car crunching down the gravel road. It seems late to be driving around in the middle of the woods, but what do I know. 

Mile 2176.9 to mile 2186.8 (9.9) – The Birches campground

Checklist total miles: 1055.5  

Oakland total miles: 578.1 

Creature feature: birds darting over the rivers, a small snake, many frogs, and mosquitoes forever

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