Thursday, June 25, 2009

Finally...Morocco!

I finally have all the posts from Morocco up. I linked to the posts, so all you have to do is click on each link below and they will open up in a new window. The first two posts are not new, but for continuity, I figured I would include them as well.

March 22 - Casablanca, Morocco
March 23 - Rabat, Morocco
March 24 - Rabat II
March 25 - Fez, Morocco
March 26 - Marrakech, Morocco
March 27 - To the Mountains
March 28 - Atlas Mountains
March 29 - Jebel Toubkal
March 30 - More Marrakech
March 31 - City of Lights
April 01 - Au Revior

I have a little kayaking and hiking in the works, so stay tuned...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Leaving the Mountain

The beginning and end of each trip provides its own challenges and in this instance I would need to hitch a ride out of Baxter State Park to the town of Millinocket, ME so that I could take a taxi to the town of Medway, ME only to catch a bus to Bangor, ME where I could either catch another bus to Portland, ME and then hop a train to New York City, or catch a flight from Bangor.

I was standing on top of Mount Katahdin, reflecting on the 2,176 miles past when two guys made their way up the mountain via a different trail. I met Todd and Jason, who were on vacation doing some hiking in New England. Todd had hiked the entire trail in 2005 an offered up a ride to Millinocket, ME. A small wrinkle unfolded when it dawned on me that I had left a couple of things down at the ranger station. Unfazed, the two said “No problem! We’ll take you to go and get it on our way out”, which happened to be a 16 mile detour on a gravel road.

Catching a ride from Todd and Jason allowed me to hike the “Knife’s Edge” trail, which is a ridge line that at times is only several feet wide with steep drop-offs to either side. The photo here shows shows the trail, which runs along the top ridge. There was far more scrambling involved in getting down the Knife’s Edge than getting up the Appalachian Trail.

I enjoyed the trail and even more so as I reflected on the completion of my trip and the prospect of not having to eat another energy bar for the foreseeable future. The vistas were substantially similar to that from Mount Katahdin; plenty of green in the distance dotted with lakes.

Eventually we and after a few sprinkles of rain we made our way to the parking lot, 4.5 miles from Mount Katahdin. While I passed up a refreshment from the four guys fishing in the 100-Mile Wilderness, I wasn’t about to pass up a celebratory beer after hiking 2,176 miles. As we sat in the parking lot chatting, the question was posed as to where I would be going from Millinocket, ME. After mentioning that I had a flight out of Bangor, ME the following day, they said “We can give you a lift there; we are going to be passing by.” Again, I gladly accepted.

The fellows dropped me off at a collection of hotels near Bangor airport (thanks guys). I found myself a hotel room, ordered a pizza and watched some playoff hockey to celebrate my accomplishment. I didn’t take the roof over my head, the running water or electricity for granted. There is something about getting back to nature that can give a new found appreciation for what we consider the most basic of things.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Hike Complete

I got a late start out of White House Landing as it included an all you can eat breakfast and really, how could I pass that up. From the Landing I was planning on standing on top of Mount Katahdin in a day and a half, meaning I would have to cover 45 miles in that time.

While for the past few days the miles seemed to be coming slowly, they were now just flying past. I was 15 miles in my day before I even took notice of how far I had hiked. The only interruption in the morning was a moose fording a stream. I heard something splashing around and couldn’t figure out what it was until I saw the mangy moose crossing the river. I was later told that many moose look unkempt after a long winter as they aren’t able to take in the proper nutrients. It is also why they can be found near roads in spring, as they are licking the remnants of the salt runoff that had been spread on the roads in the winter snow.

I have been seeing the steady stream of Northern Ribbon Snakes, other Garter Snakes, a Red Bellied Snake, American Toads, Salamanders and all manner of other reptilian creatures on my hike. Bears were non-existent, which was just fine with me. The purveyor of information on moose also explained that the bears are not used to people in Maine and are therefore quite leery.

I had good information as to what lay ahead on the trail from all the hikers that I passed hiking the opposite direction. Some of the trail became quite muddy in the areas of the boreal bogs, but it was nothing new having to play hopscotch on rocks and tree roots to keep my feet from being covered in mud. My boots were certainly worse for the wear as not only were they entirely lacking in providing cushion to my feet and knees at this point, but my feet were exploding out of the sides of the shoes and the sole on the right shoe completely delaminated, leaving it flapping with each step. I would normally replace my shoes every 500 miles regardless, but this pair hadn’t even made it to 450 by this point. The only salvation for my shoes was copious amounts of duct tape. Anything I do I always try to do it with a certain sense of style, but the tape wound around my shoe robbed me of that. I just hoped it would last the remainder of the trip.

There was some uncertainty in my mind as to what I should do for my last night on the trail. I had initially planned on staying in a shelter that would leave me about 18 miles from the end of my journey, but rethought the idea. I had plenty of daylight left as it didn’t really get dark until just after nine, so I kept going and figured I would find myself a nice tree under which I could perhaps find some slumber for the night.

I continued through the woods, out of the 100-Mile Wilderness and across Abol Bridge, from where I was able to see the top of Mount Katahdin. It wasn’t an imposing peak like some, but more of a tabletop with the steepest sections on its flanks. It was however the goal that has been hanging over my head since beginning the Appalachian Trail over 2,100 miles and a year ago.

Just prior to entering Baxter State Park I happened upon a small campground. While I didn’t have a tent, across from the campground right on the Penobscot River I was able to find a shelter, similar to the three-sided shelters found on other parts of the trail. It would be my home for my final night in the woods. And similar to most other nights, I would have it all to myself.

I wasn’t planning on sleeping much as I wanted to get started well before dawn. I was hoping to complete and have made my exit from the trail by early afternoon. This was for two reasons: I wanted to beat the afternoon rain that was in the forecast and I was trying to give myself the best opportunity to find a ride out of the park and to the town of Millinocket, ME, some 25 miles distant. As there is no public transportation to or from the park, I would again have to rely on luck.

I woke at three to clear skies, a full moon and temperatures in the low 40’s. It was chilly, but otherwise a perfect night hiking scenario. I quite enjoyed night hiking on the southern sections of the trail and up north was no different. The trail looks different, sounds different and feels different. The focus is on what can be seen in the beam of light emanating from my headlamp. As there was a full moon though, there was sufficient ambient light to illuminate much of the trail. When there was no tree cover overhead I was able to shut off my light and guide myself solely by moonlight, far more than what my headlamp could accomplish.

Nighttime quickly yielded to the sun and I no longer needed my own light source by 4:30. The perfect nighttime conditions turned to perfect early morning conditions leaving me to thoroughly enjoy my last morning on the trail, remembering the smell of the forest, the sound of the birds and the look of the ponds as the surface was disturbed by a light breeze. It was starting to hit me that by the following day I would be in a major metropolis, a far cry from where I spent the last month of my life. I just didn’t want to forget any piece of it.

I stopped by the ranger station in Baxter State Park to try and hit up a ranger for some information as to what I could expect for the last 5.3 miles of the trail on my way up Mount Katahdin. The ranger however was awfully late for work as there wasn’t a soul around during a time that was allegedly included in what the ranger’s office hours should have been. Hikers are generally encouraged to leave their packs behind to climb Mount Katahdin, taking only a loaner daypack from the ranger station. While I didn’t want to forego my pack entirely I did decide to leave my cook set and sleepmat behind before setting off.

The first mile of the trail was nothing more than a slow and steady incline. Soon after though, the trail became far rockier and was a series of boulders that required lifting my feet up 12 to 18 inches on average each successive step. I plodded along in a slow and steady fashion until the rocks turned larger and essentially the climb up was a scramble over boulders. There was also some snow still hanging around, but none directly on the trail.

Once the trail took me above the tree-line, the view opened up dramatically showing thousands of square miles of forest, riddled with lakes. While it was somewhat hazy and clouds began billowing in, the view was still remarkable.

The trail became steep amidst the boulders to the point where metal handles and footholds were fastened to the rock. On one particularly difficult section I thought to myself, “Wow, that has to be really difficult for some people”. It was only then that I realized I had gone off the trail and when I reconnected with it, the trail was leading me back down the mountain. When reconnecting with the trail I should have zigged when I zagged. With a shake of my head I corrected myself and again began putting more distance between myself and sea level. As I was climbing up I thought about the fact that I hadn’t seen anyone, which would make life difficult trying to find a ride to town, much less take my photo when I reached the top.

As I climbed I could see the top, or at least what could have been the top of the mountain. As the summit of Mount Katahdin was on a tabletop though the “top” was a false summit. From there the trail lead over a steadily rising trail for the last mile with basketball sized rocks strewn about. The hike wasn’t taxing, but I had to think about where I was going to step as there was little space between the rocks.

As I walked along the tableland I could see the actual summit of 5,267 foot Mount Katahdin and the sign that sits on top. I had the hardest part of the trail behind me but wasn’t going to consider any part of it a foregone conclusion. Even with the last little climb I was ever so careful. When I finally did reach the summit there were several people there as I reached out and clutched the sign atop of Mount Katahdin, signaling that I had officially hiked the entire 2,176.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Final Outpost

The town of Monson, ME was the last I would encounter until after Mount Katahdin, which meant it would be the last before completing my hiking journey. My uncanny luck of finding a way to where I need to go paid off again as when I was on the edge of town a gentleman offered me a ride three miles down a dirt road back to the trailhead where I came into civilization two days prior. As it turned out, “Buddy” was a local chap that ran a business driving shuttles into the 100-Mile Wilderness for hikers using logging roads. Any reservations I had of having to hike through an area named the 100-Mile Wilderness were quelled when Buddy mentioned that in the past he has made pizza and beer deliveries to hikers. He gave me his number and while I hoped I wouldn’t need it, it was good to have an out should I encounter any problems.

When leaving town I had far too much food, or at least that was what the weight of my backpack was telling me. My backpack felt legitimately heavy, or at least the heaviest I ever remember it being. It didn’t take long though for me to get used to the heft on my back. I was also taking it easy so as to really drink in my remaining days on the trail. At one point I found myself sitting next to a pond, nibbling on some of my excess food.

The terrain had initially become more rolling than it had been to the south of Monson, ME, but it helped that the weather was absolutely perfect; in the mid-60’s and only enough in the way of clouds to make photos that included the sky look interesting. In addition to the hills there was also a series of four or five mountains I would have to cross on my way north, but by and large the terrain was much simpler than in New Hampshire. While Maine claims to have a wilder section of the trail than other states, it seemed that there were steps up and down the mountainous sections. As I wandered along I met a trail crew working to build yet more in the way of steps. I stopped to have a bit of a chinwag with the half-dozen trail workers and as I was speaking, one member of the group recognized me from a barbecue at Hog Pen Gap, GA when I was on the trail the year prior. Of all the places to be recognized, I didn’t think it would happen while on the Appalachian Trail.

I saw far more in the way of people than I thought I would in the 100-Mile Wilderness. I began to regularly see hikers on the trail, all of them heading south. I crossed paths with upwards of 20 people on one particular day, more than I had seen on the trial combined since leaving from Great Barrington, MA a month ago. When I crossed one of the logging roads there was a group of four guys that had driven in and were fishing and drinking beer…or drinking beer and fishing. I’m uncertain as to what their primary activity was, but in any event I had a pleasant conversation about the area and declined the offer of a refreshing beverage. Further on I met another pair at a different logging road that was doing a governmental study of the ponds in the area, comparing those with fish populations to those without. Tax dollars at work.

Since my snowy interlude in the mountains the weather had warmed nicely, especially in the evenings. There was one particular evening though where it was just too warm. The mosquitos were out en masse and the only way to keep them at bay while trying to sleep was to wear my head net and cinch up my sleeping bag around my head. While it was an effective deterrent for mosquitos it had the secondary effect of functioning as a sauna. I simply sweat to the point where my sleeping bag was soaked and opted to unzip and feed the mosquitos. The following day saw me hiking in 65 degree temperatures wearing my wind pants, fleece shirt, head net and gloves so as to avoid adding to the mosquito bite collection that grew markedly overnight. Much like the night previous I just had to cool off, so I removed all ancillary clothing and again made a meal of myself.

I was elated on the afternoon I reached Whitehouse Landing, or rather the lake shore across from it. Whitehouse Landing was the lodge where I had planned on spending a night and dining on “people” food. The only way for a hiker to get to the lodge is by boat, so the owners leave an air horn attached to a tree for hikers to use as a signal. I gave a honk and got a pick up. I was excited for several things at Whitehouse Landing: food, kayaking and a place to sleep absent of biting insects; precisely in that order on a time basis. I started with a pint of ice cream and then couldn’t decide between the one pound hamburger and a 16” pizza, so I just went ahead and ordered both. To burn off dinner, as if I wouldn’t the following day hiking, I took a kayak out for a paddle at dusk. I was told that there was a marsh area around a bend in the lake where moose liked to feed in the evenings, but nary a moose did I see. I was however attacked by black flies. I was just pleased that I didn’t have to contend with them as I dozed peacefully throughout the night.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Two Long Days

In the past two days I worked a little overtime and managed 70 miles of hiking. I had a few goals set out for myself and in knocking off those miles in two days I accomplished one, having a day off in Monson, ME and set myself up to hit the mark on two others.

The weather has made a 180 and has just been fantastic the past two days. The next few days are looking pretty good as well with no complaints on my end. As I mentioned once before, the upside of the rain is that it tempers the black flies and mosquitos, but I will take bugs over rain any day. Someone had asked me how the bugs have been the last couple of days and I could only say "numerous and persistant". It doesn't help that I am walking through boreal bogs for a good part of the day.

I was hoping to pick up a replacement section for my broken hiking pole in Caratunk, ME, but my support staff dropped the ball on shipping. My support staff has been fantastic throughout my travels with so many things that I couldn't possibly criticize one oversight. I also sent a small food parcel to be picked up at the same post office, but wasn't going to need it until I hit the next town, 35 miles away. Instead of taking delivery of the package I had it forwarded to Monson, ME where I was going to meet my package and take that hard earned day off. The woman at the Post Office joked with me that if I was going to walk the 35 miles to Monson in one day, I would beat the US Postal Service Priority shipping and be in town before my package. I did and I was.

One thing that has become prevalent in Maine is having to ford rivers. Most of the rivers aren't raging, though I have heard people say that they are impassible at times after a heavy rain. To this point none have been more than waist deep and have been relatively gentle. It is somewhat time consuming preparing for the ford, having to put away electronics and the like. I have also generally been fording in bare feet which is a no-no. The rocks are awfully slick and one slip can mean a broken ankle. As an avid fly fisherman I like to think I have the proper experience for judging when I can cross a river sans shoes. That being said, once while fishing in New Zealand I was swept down river after my foot lost its purchase on a rock underwater. It is a rather helpless feeling being washed away and one that I would not like to repeat.

There is one river that has to be crossed in Maine, the Kennebec, where it really isn't ever safe to ford. At least one hiker has died trying and several other have had close calls. That being the case the Appalachian Trail Club mans a canoe to ferry hikers from one side of the river to the other. It's the official crossing of the Appalachian Trail.

So I find myself in the town of Monson, ME with a day off. I certainly needed to resupply as I am approaching the 100-mile wilderness, but I wanted the day off for another reason. Shortly after starting to hike the trail in Georgia I took a day off to do a bit of kayaking. Shortly before ending my hike I wanted to do the same. So I paddled around Lake Hebron for a few hours to scratch the kayaking itch.

Much as Spanish Moss is neither Spanish nor Moss, the 100-Mile Wilderness is not 100 miles nor is it wild; at least not as wild as it used to be. For those of you that have read Bill Bryson's book "A Walk In the Woods", relating to his hike of parts of the Appalachian Trail, technology has changed things somewhat since the time of the books writing. There are now also logging roads that cross the trail and cell phone service is available from the tops of certain mountains. Add the two together and you can have someone drive supplies in should you need them. I'm pretty sure that Dominos wouldn't bounce down 25 miles of rutted dirt road to deliver a large with pepperoni, but the area isn't as remote as it once was. There is also a hunting camp a few miles off the trail where I hope to spend one night.

After my run to the town of Dexter, ME, home to the shoe company of the same name, I am fully supplied with food for what I hope will be the last five days of the trail. I once again found myself behind the steering wheel of another persons car to make the run and probably bought more than I should have. This will be the most food I have carried at any point on the trail.

And while the replacement hiking pole section mailed to me is still somewhere in limbo, there was an outdoor store in the town of Greenville, ME that had exactly what I needed. For a well spent 20 bucks I am all set with my hiking poles and no longer have to use a stick as a poor mans substitute to an aircraft-grade aluminum hiking pole.

118 miles to go...

The Rain Has Ended...

…and the snow has begun. Perhaps I should have been more specific when I was hoping that the rain would cease; no precipitation whatsoever. Following the rain the evening prior the wind picked up significantly and it had become decidedly colder. I didn’t realize just how chilly it was until one of the several times I was woken by the wind blowing down a tree or large branch, as I would evidence on the trail the following morning. As I sat up to evaluate what was happening given the noise I heard I looked out of the lean-to and noticed the ground was white. I really didn’t expect to have snow to ring in the month of June.

While I made the switch to my summer sleeping bag back in Gorham, NH, my bag hung tough. I can’t claim to have had a warm nights sleep, but for the temperature range the bag was designed I was as warm as I could possibly expect with the mercury hovering around 25 Fahrenheit. One word of advice to all you future hikers out there: spend as much as you can afford on a good sleeping bag. If you are buying it from someplace that ends in “mart”, reevaluate your decision.

Getting out of the sleeping bag in the morning was an effort. Before doing so, I made a mental checklist of the things I had to do and in what order, until I would be on the trail, hiking along generating body heat. My boots were frozen, my rain jacket was frozen, the knot holding my bear-bag in a tree was frozen, my water bottles were frozen and I was, well, rather chilly. From the time I unzipped my sleeping bag to the time I was hiking was less than five minutes. It was one of those rare times I was glad my day began with a 1,000-foot climb.

My biggest concern was my feet, not least of which that I was starting the day with my boots frozen solid, laces and all. It would be very important for me to keep my feet dry. The snow made reading the trail quite difficult, not only in staying on the trail following the white marks emblazoned on trees, but if the trail was solid ground or a sheet of ice with six inches of water hiding underneath waiting for me to plant my foot in the wrong spot. For the most part though, the freeze firmed up the trail.

What I was looking least forward to was having to ford a river early in the day. It would have been an unpleasant task, but fortunately I was able to make my way across the river using a board someone left chained to a tree. While in Nepal I once had to swim across a river of glacial runoff from Mount Everest and it was an experience I hope to never have to duplicate. It gave me a new basis for the word “cold”.

While I didn’t have to ford any rivers along the southern part of the trail, Maine likes to think it is more rugged, so there are no bridges over certain rivers. In truth that is only partly the case. It is also because of the extreme weather that bridges get destroyed over winter. In one of the shelters there was a notebook left by a gentleman who takes care of the trail and was involved in setting out the Appalachian Trail in the area back in the day. In the book were answers to many questions that people have asked over the years, lack of bridges being one of them. There have been bridges built, in some cases ten feet over flood stage that have still been destroyed after winter storms. I got a kick out of the picture of a shelter being dug out of a January snow where the caretaker had to dig down three feet…to find the roof!!! He mentions that 15 feet of snow isn’t uncommon in the winter and that several years ago in mid-June there was still four feet of snow on many parts of the trail in Maine.

If the weather hasn’t been enough I have also had a mishap with my hiking poles, i.e., breaking one of them in half. When it happened it was a good thing I had my elbow and that slab of granite to break my fall. While I resisted hiking poles for years, I finally learned how they make things much easier on my knees. With the absence of one of my poles not only did it feel awkward, but my knees were taking a larger portion of the strain. Having already had one knee surgery, I would really like to avoid another. In that the hiking poles are in three sections all I needed was one replacement section. It was fortunate that 1) I had a spare section in storage, 2) I knew exactly where it was, 3) I had cell phone service, 4) my support staff is awesome, and 5) the post office was open. Within an hour of breaking my pole, the replacement section was in the mail on its way to meet me a few days up the trail in Caratunk, ME.

The last few days haven’t been all adversity. I did have a close encounter with a porcupine climbing a tree as well as playing peek-a-boo with a moose. I was above the tree line when I spotted the moose on the ridge below me, took a few grainy photos and figured that would be it as moose are skittish. I tried to stalk the animal and when I got to where it had been foraging figured she was gone. I thought that with the little rinky-dink camera I use the only way to get better pictures of a moose would be to climb up a tree and wait for a couple of days. Just then the moose poked his head out from behind a tree. I didn’t get a clean picture, but rather several of the moose looking like Wilson, from the TV show Home Improvement.

There have also been times in the last two days where the blue sky hiding behind the clouds made a rare appearance and it was an unbelievable pleasure to stand in an environment of absolute silence only to be interrupted by the chirping of a bird or the rustling of treetops in the breeze.