Friday, May 29, 2009

Maine Rain

Ugh! In the last three days since leaving Gorham, NH I have been faced with solid rain and temperatures in the mid-40's. Hiking lightweight as I do, that is pretty much the limit of what I can safely tolerate. Good thing that what held me up on a sunny day in Gorham was that I picked up my summer sleeping bag. Actually, the sleeping bag has been fine at night, it is being soaked all day that is the real issue. I hike, I shiver, I stick my hands under my clothes to warm them up. I have resorted to the trusty plastic bags on the hands trick, but that only works for so long.

On the first day leaving Gorham, I didn't make it 10 miles before having to head into a shelter, lay out my gear and dive into my sleeping bag. It took a good chunk of will power to get me to leave the warm comfort of my sleeping bag only to crawl out, put my wet clothes back on and trudge along for another 12 miles in the rain.

There is still plenty of wildlife to be seen on the trail. While ambling along the trail I caught sight of the ass end of a moose as it ran off (I saw another moose, but more on that later). I generally make a fair bit of noise as I hike and while I would like to see moose, what I would like more is to not see any bear. In certain sections the trail is so narrow that I have branches brushing my shoulders to the point where I have to put both hands in front of me to push through. I would really hate to come through a thick section of brush and surprise a bear. Snakes have been plentiful, though mostly the Eastern Ribbon Snake. Oddly enough I witnessed a mouse hopping along in the woods. I prefer to see them there than in a shelter when I am trying to sleep. Other than the odd disturbance by a deer or porcupine in the night, my sleep has been generally uninterrupted by wildlife.

The "other" moose I saw was in an area called Mahoosuc Notch. Mahoosuc Notch has the dubious distinction of being the most difficult mile on the Appalachian Trail. The section of trail is a large boulder field that requires the hiker to scramble over, under and around massive boulders. There were several sections that nearly required me to remove my backpack in order to squeeze through. Mahoosuc Notch was also the last place I had seen snow/ice on the trail and in the rain I tread carefully. The ice was actually beneficial as I could step across the hardened ice rather than having to bottom out in the ravine. Yes, the moose. The picture says it all. I guess that's why people choose to ride a donkey down the Grand Canyon and not a moose.

I have about 250 miles remaining and tomorrow looks as if the weather will be much improved (60 with showers), so I will take solace in that as I plod along.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mount Washington and the White Mountains

My not so evil plan of hurrying to cross Mt. Washington ahead of a storm that was several days out paid dividends in views and kind temperatures. Snow can fall any time of the year on Mt Washington at its 6,288 foot elevation, but worse still is that hurricane force winds are recorded at the summit of the mountain on average 110 days per year. Those aren’t very good odds if you are looking for a pleasant, still day.

I was on the summit of the mountain by late morning after the temperature had a chance to warm up from the low 30’s. There was only the slightest wind was making itself known. Before even starting the climb up to the summit, which involves little more than vigorous walking, there is a warning sign stating that numerous people have perished from exposure while climbing up the mountain, even in the summer months. I took note and continued on. On my climb up, it seemed that the temperature decrease as I gained in elevation (usually between 3 and 4.5 degrees F per 1,000 feet) were being offset by the increasing amount of warmth the sun was providing, creating a nice equilibrium in temperature. Add the warmth of the body heat I was generating and it let me stay in shorts and a short sleeved shirt until I took pause on the summit to observe the surroundings.

While on the clearest days on Mt. Washington it is possible to see Quebec to the north and even the ocean 100 miles to the east, I was able to see neither. I had no complaints though as visibility was still in the 70 mile range and the temperature was comparatively mild. Quite clearly visible and of interest to me was the Mt. Washington Hotel, down in Bretton Woods, NH. It was the location of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference that was held after World War II to agree on a new series of regulations in the global financial marketplace following the war.

In the visitors center on the summit there are numerous displays relating to all manner of things, though mostly the weather. There is however one morbid plaque on the summit chronicling the circumstances surrounding the demise of dozens of people whose life came to an end on or near the slopes of Mt. Washington. The plaque was most recently updated in 2008.

In my mind, crossing Mt. Washington and the 20 miles of the Appalachian Trail that are above the tree line and in the Krummholz zone were the crux of the northern part of the journey due solely to the uncertainty of the weather that is found on Mt. Washington in the Presidential Range.

Hiking through the Presidential mountain range is like a history lesson in the woods, trying to recall the accomplishments of the Presidents for which certain peaks are named. I had to think long and hard about Mt. Pierce, named of course after Franklin Pierce, but why him? It is like Teddy Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore, probably the least of the contributors that are represented on the monument. Despite Franklin Pierce having the reputation as being one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, the mountain was named after him regardless, my supposition relating to the fact that he is the only president to hail from New Hampshire, home to the Presidential Mountain Range. Then again some of the mountains in the range are named after politicians who never held the office of President.

The Appalachian Trail is very poorly marked through the White Mountains as compared to other places, prompting me to be vigilant that I am on the proper trail, which oftentimes involves very deliberate reasoning in making decisions where trails meet and at times double and triple checking I am heading in the right direction. When the terrain is as steep as it is in the White Mountains, I would hate to have to go even a few miles out of my way. Miles are hard to come by in the White’s. Most people estimate that they cover a third less distance through the mountain range and were I not hiking longer days, my distance would be shortened to some degree as well.

I survived the initial salvo of spring insects and as I have been at higher, cooler elevations, haven’t been bothered. I generally don’t care to use bug spray as if it can melt plastic, I really don’t want it on my skin. Also, I can’t wash it off at the end of the day and if I do, it will run into a stream. That being said, as I dropped down to under 1,000 feet in elevation above sea level the mosquitos picked up where they had left off. If I stopped for more than three seconds they were all over me. Even while hiking at a brisk pace I had a fair number to contend with. I was told that it will only get worse. Awesome!

In rereading what I had just written, it doesn’t sound as if I have been having the most pleasant hike, but actually quite the opposite is true. There are vistas offered in the White Mountains that are like no other on the Appalachian Trail. Wildlife is abundant and while the wildflowers have shifted to bunchberry, mountain sandwort and cloudberry they are plentiful in patches between the snow.

I leave off just 18 miles shy of the Maine border. While I am not one to count fowl prior to emerging from an egg, I am forced to have to start planning for the remaining 298 miles of the trail, including the 100 Mile Wilderness. I’m off…

Friday, May 22, 2009

Welcome to New Hampshire

After my relaxing weekend I returned to the trail Sunday evening, putting in only a few miles which turned out to be my shortest day on the trail to date. Since then, the weather has been chilly, but cooperating in a lack of precipitation. The terrain has also gotten steeper…much steeper.

After leaving Woodstock, VT the trail took me to New Hampshire and the town of Hanover, home to Dartmouth College. The trail is routed directly through the downtown area and with school still in full swing, I might have seemed a bit of an oddity. While in town I did the wise thing and checked the temperature for Mount Washington; the highest mountain in the northeast and where I would be several days down the trail. The temperature for Mt. Washington was a balmy 24 Fahrenheit and with the wind-chill felt like 10. While I would be ill prepared for those conditions, I noticed a window of good weather coming up and would have to hurry to make it to Mt. Washington by then. I also bought a pair of gardening gloves to wear that would be covered by plastic bags should my hands get chilled.

One of the interesting things about New Hampshire has nothing to do with hiking at all. It is that New Hampshire does not have any general sales tax or income tax on an individuals reported W-2 wages. The state needs to generate revenue in some fashion, so it is not a tax free environment, but most individuals aren’t necessarily subject to some of the taxes such as the Timber Tax, levied at 10% of stumpage value (with exceptions) or Gravel Tax that is levied anytime more than 1,000 cubic yards of earth is removed. The island nation of Bermuda is similar in that there is no income tax, but in opposition much of their income is from duty paid on items being brought onto the island. Bermuda is said to have the highest cost of living in the world and when a gallon of milk runs you around eight bucks and a magazine 12, I may not disagree.
It seems that other hiking groups have been my meal ticket in the past few days. While I have had enough food to survive, there is no way I can carry enough in the way of caloric intake to match what I expend on any given day, not least of which that on same days I am hiking for 15 hours. People have been kind enough to share their vittles, keeping this hungry hiker well fed. I will however begin carrying more food than I have been as the area will become more remote and I will no longer have any food fairies.

In New Hampshire there are a series of manned furnished huts (with full kitchen) that people can use for a fee. For people hiking more than a few hundred miles of the trail the huts are free if you help the keeper at the hut. The huts have been a nice place for me to meet people that are out hiking for several days. It is also one of the places where hikers that are only out for a few days have far too much food and don’t really want to carry it with them. In one instance, for dinner I had a one pound box of pasta, complete with an entire jar of sauce. One of the folks that baked some dessert asked if I would have room for some, which I of course did. He then sheepishly asked me exactly how many servings of pasta were in that bowl I just ate. It turned out to be seven. Between the pasta and sauce, I had ingested 2,200 calories in one sitting, most people’s daily recommended intake.

It was also in one of the huts where I was asked, “You do have snow shoes, don’t you?” I don’t but fortunately for me, warmer temperatures have melted much of the snow remaining in the mountains. In the picture here, that is the top of my hiking pole sticking out of the top of the snow, nearly four feet high. While most of the snow hasn’t been quite that deep it has been a slog at times. Most of the remaining snow is also frozen on the surface, allowing me to walk across the top. It does however provide a unique set of problems when descending a mountain. Things can go very wrong with one misstep. Worse still is when the ice on the surface of the snow isn’t enough to bear my weight and I sink through the icy crust to the softer snow underneath. While sinking in the ice on the surface cuts my shins to the point where blood covers the front of my lower leg and runs down into my socks. I was asked at least once if I required medical attention, but I tend to think it looks worse than it is.

I am still seeing quite a bit of wildlife. On the steep mountain cliffs, peregrine falcons circle nearby to see if I stir up and rodents in the underbrush. On Moose Mountain I saw, yup, you guessed it…a bear. Perhaps “bear” wouldn’t have been your first guess. I saw the bear sitting at the base of a tree before it saw me, so I was able to give it a good scare in making noise. The bear ran for about 100 yards, but unfortunately for me the trail looped around to the point where the bear was now standing in the middle of the trail. A bear may startle easily, but after that initial jolt, they don’t seem to want to move as readily as they just had. I was persistent in making noise and eventually the bear wandered off, but there was a period of time where I was a bit uncomfortable. I am sure it won’t be the last time.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Making Progress

I have hiked about 200 miles since setting off again and am quite pleased that I have nary a blister on my feet to show for it. In the last week the weather turned for the better, providing significant amounts of sunshine, though I wasn’t entirely without rain.

The warmer temperatures brought hikers out on the trail, but not in droves. I have seen more in the way of other people out on the trail, though there was an entire day that I hadn’t seen another person.

For the last few days I have been in familiar territory as I have hiked a portion of the Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail in 2007 with a couple of friends. I haven’t decided as to whether knowing the section of trail makes it feel longer, as I know exactly where the trail leads, or shorter, being that I see so many things that are familiar. Either way it was fun to reminisce about the past trip as I hiked along.

In the last week there wasn’t a day climbing over a mountain where I didn’t walk across snow. In some places it was just an inch or two, but on Killington mountain there are some places where the snow is still over two feet deep. It made for slow going. That being the case it is too early in this area for berries or mushrooms to grow on the mountain to supplement my food stock. There are however fiddlehead ferns for the taking, which are a New England delicacy. The only problem for me is that the ferns need to be boiled twice for 10 minutes each time, which is more than I am willing to subject my fuel supply to.

One of the more exciting things that transpired on that familiar section of trail is that I spotted a moose. In all the time I spent in Vermont and driving past all the moose crossing signs along the road I had yet to see an actual moose in the state. The moose was right on the trail and at first, looking through the trees, thought it was a person with a big backpack, so I continued ambling on. After a few more steps though I thought it might be a bear but wasn’t sure. It was only when the moose turned sideways and began walking that I recognized it for what it really was. I was about 80 feet away and watched the moose for a solid five minutes as we both stood still. It was impressive to see something that large in the forest. I hope it isn’t my last moose encounter.

In trying to schedule my arrival in Killington, VT I had to put in a 30+ mile day. On the trail last year 30 miles was about an average day, but as I am still getting my hiking legs under me I have been cautious in how much distance I will cover in a day. The thought did ever so briefly cross my mind that if I hiked an additional 20 miles through the night I could take the following day off in a nice warm bed in Killington.

When I arrived at a shelter after 30 miles, it was crowded with kids from a high school in the area. I decided to stay for the night and have a chat with the kids. At this point it is not often that I can have an ongoing conversation. When I see someone on the trail it is usually limited to “Where are you coming from?”, “Where are you going?” and “Have a good hike!”, so the conversation was welcome. In addition, they had far too much food and were all too eager to share so they wouldn’t have to carry it the following day.

I was out in the morning before anyone was up and it turned into a cold, windy day. The day also included some rain, but were there a finite amount of rain to fall on me for the remainder of the trip, I would have chosen that very day to get much of it out of the way. I knew that by the end of the day I would again have a roof over my head and a hot shower at my usual pad in Killington. Bring on the rain!

Laura was going to be meeting me along the trail and we decided that Woodstock, VT would be a good location. With her driving up from New York City, I even had time to get a full day hiking in. Now unless I am going to put in some massive miles there really is no need to hike in the dark as there is usable daylight from about 4:45 AM to 8:45 PM; 16 hours of it. The problem I ran into though was that I couldn’t find a taxi to take me back to the trailhead at a reasonable hour in the morning. Killington is a ski town and as the mountain closed two weeks ago, everyone is on vacation. The lone available taxi driver in town would be able to bring me the five miles to the trail, but it would have to be at 3:45 AM as he had to pick someone up in Albany, NY.

I have always enjoyed night hiking as the trail looks, feels and sounds different. I was only going to get in an hour in the dark, but it was a nice reminder of what night hiking was about.

With my early departure I arrived in Woodstock, VT well ahead of Laura, but it gave me time to hit up a small shop near the trail road crossing for some ice cream and a chat with the proprietor. Following my snack I was invited by Dan to sit on his porch and relax. Dan resides right on the trail where it meets the road and like Jim from last week is a friend to all who pass. Jim had to head to town proper later in the day where he dropped me off and Laura picked me up.

While I only took off one day from hiking, finishing at noon on Friday and starting at four on Sunday made me feel as if I had far more time off than I really did. Laura and I had a quiet weekend and other than getting myself resupplied for the trail and eating a few fantastic meals, little was on the agenda.

Laura also brought me a pair of replacement hiking shoes as those I was wearing have had better days. I generally try not to use a pair of shoes for more than 500 miles as they become compressed and offer little cushion for the feet, putting more stress on the joints and muscles. It was only in the last few years that I ever contemplated having to replace a pair of shoes every 500 miles or a bike chain every 1,000.

I am getting back on the trail late for a short day, but should be in New Hampshire the day tomorrow. From there I will still have about 440 miles to my destination at Mt.Katahdin in Maine. In between I will still have Mount Washington, NH, where it was 17 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and the 100-mile wilderness in Maine, which offers pretty much anything you might want providing it is, well, wilderness.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hiking Along

I am no longer used to falling asleep to the sound of owls & coyotes and waking to chirping birds and the odd woodpecker prospecting for a meal, though I am sure it won’t take me long.

I am back on the Appalachian Trail, having started hiking again on a cool, rainy day. Actually, of the five days I have hiked on this northern portion of the trail so far, four of them provided me with some rain. The rain though wasn’t my real concern. I focused more on how changeable the temperature can be as I will be at varying levels of elevation and the temperature can be a crap shoot this time of year in any case. I had agonized over the decision as to whether I should take my sleeping bag rated down to 32 degrees or add some further heft to my pack and take the sleeping bag I had on the kayak trip, rated to 20 degrees. On hikes in the past if I woke up in the middle of the night shivering I would pack up my gear and start hiking. Perhaps I am getting soft, but I wasn’t interested in doing that for the remainder of the Appalachian Trail. Not only that, but on top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, it can snow any month of the year. The 20 degree bag has found its way into my pack.

Most nights have been cool to the point where I am wearing all of my clothes (short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, rain jacket, shorts and wind pants). While it isn’t nearly as chilly as it was on many of the nights of the kayak trip I did decide to have a fire one night. I didn’t necessarily need the fire as on the kayak trip, but I wanted to see if I still had what it takes to start a fire when everything is wet. I guess it’s like riding a bike as I was warm by my fire.

Along with the creatures that either lull me to sleep or wake me in the morning there is an abundance of wildlife. There are numerous birds, chipmunks, squirrels, ducks, herons, beaver, deer, porcupine, turkey and bear. It took less than 24 hours being back out on the trail for my first bear sighting and in my opinion was the perfect meeting. There bear and I noticed one another at about the same time from 50 yards away. I began slowly walking backwards and made some noise that the bear seemed to be disgruntled by, so he turned tail and ran off into the brush. It was a great reminder that there is an active bear population in the area and I need to be especially mindful of hanging my food each night.

On the animal front, there is one that I haven’t seen and would like it to remain so, but also one I haven’t seen and hope to spot. I have been pleasantly surprised that there has been no evidence of mice; no droppings, no nests and no pitter-patter of tiny feet in the shelter when I am trying to sleep at night. What I do hope to see though is a moose. I have yet to see a moose while out hiking and hope that changes on this trip. I have already seen plenty in the way of moose droppings on the trail even as far south as central Massachusetts, but other than a plastic moose gracing the front of a business in town, no moose as of yet. I will have to keep my eyes open.

As I hike along there is certainly no shortage of wildflowers either. With every step I notice violets, forget me nots, trout lilies, trillium, the odd dual blooms of the hobble bush and all manner of other colorful flowers that were I a botanist would be glad to name for you.

I may romanticize the journey somewhat in its sylvan solace, but there is always the down side. If the mosquitos have been persistent, the black flies have been absolutely ravenous. Whenever I stop on the trail for more than a few seconds a swarm of black flies zero in on me and begin biting away. They are relentless and just in hiking along I inadvertently eat about a half dozen a day simply due to their overabundance and my heavy breathing as I ascend a mountain. One of the upsides of the rain is that is does mitigate the black fly activity to some degree. Another insect incident involved a spider that decided to set up camp under my shirt while I was sleeping in it. In the morning I evicted the spider, but only after my chest looked as if I had a case of chickenpox. It has been those brief moments of sun and the quiet of the forest that reminds me of why I am spending this time walking in the woods.

While I am on par with the number of biting insects and amount of mud I expected, I have seen far more people on the trial than I had anticipated. I estimated that there would be nary a soul on the trail this time of year other than perhaps the occasional weekend hiker, but I have seen at least one person each day. I have still had the few shelters that I have slept in to myself, but I have seen people.

A major issue along the trail has been with downed trees. Early in the year a massive ice storm caused a record number of trees and/or branches to fall to the ground. I have met a couple of volunteer trail crews with their chainsaws clearing the path, but they have a lot of work ahead of them. The forest was just destroyed. There was a two mile stretch where I couldn’t walk on the actual Appalachian Trail for more than 50 feet at a time as it was completely blocked by downed trees. I spent more time looking for which direction the trail went than the time I spent on the trail. Having to navigate or clamber over the downed trees slows me down quite a bit, but in the grand scheme of things my goal remains the same. It may just take me a little longer to reach it. I am just thankful that those volunteer trail crews are our there to restore the trail.

The section of trail I am currently hiking runs in the vicinity of civilization. I wouldn’t say they are urban areas, but I have walked through the middle of three small towns in a span of two days. One of those towns was Dalton, MA, which happens to be home to Crane Paper Company. Why would Kevin care about a paper company you ask? Crane Paper fabricates the paper for those U.S. Dollars that you have in your wallet and has done so since 1879. For my international visitors, fear not, Crane Paper also produces the paper for several other world currencies. I have seen some rather poor as well as really good counterfeit banknotes and with the low cost, high quality printing technology readily available, it is all about the paper. Not too surprisingly, the plant is off limits to visitors.

The kindness of people extended on the kayak trip continues on my hike. First up was a gentleman by the name of Tom. Tom has been associated with the Appalachian Trail for the last 25 years when he first offered a lone camper permission to set up a tent in his back yard. The following day, word of mouth brought three other campers seeking permission to stay for the night. Since then Tom has been part and parcel with the trail in the northern Massachusetts area, taking in and shuttling hikers to and from various parts of the trail. Tom picked me up and dropped me off in the town of Cheshire, MA, a ten mile hike for me, a ten minute drive for Tom. I was even afforded the comfort of the guest room. Thanks Tom!

I pushed across the border to Vermont and in the town of Bennington stopped to pick up some food. While looking for a motel for the night I stopped at the info center where John, the gent working there, offered to drive me around to have a look at several motels in the area. I quickly settled on the Knotty Pine Motel in a more developed part of town where I could run my errands, but the laundromat was a distance away. The woman running the motel offered me her car so that I could drive down to do my laundry and then go have dinner. When I had mentioned this later to someone I was asked if I thought it was odd being offered a car by a complete stranger. It's nearing double digits the number of times it has happened, but with the level of helpfulness, kindness and selflessness that I had the pleasure of experiencing in my travels I honestly had to say "no".

I made the right call on staying in a motel for the night as when I turned on the TV there was an emergency broadcast coming across the screen that mentioned something along the lines that “hail, damaging wind, frequent lightning and torrential rain” will be moving in to the area and that people should “move to a sturdy shelter until it passes”. If you are watching a TV wouldn’t you think that people are already in a sturdy shelter? Then again they do put warning labels on collapsible baby strollers to not fold the stroller with the infant in it.

As I head further north in the Green Mountains of Vermont and into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the mountains themselves, (some still snow covered) will get taller and steeper. I have been taking it fairly easy so far, but will slowly start ramping up my efforts.

Also, the computer I am using at the motel is unable to read the memory card from my camera, so I will have to add the pictures from the first section of the trip next weekend when I know I will have some solid computing power. Until then…

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Getting Underway...Again

For the Appalachian Trail I have 667 miles left and must be in Los Angeles by June 19th, so I have my work cut out for me. I will be taking it a bit slower than I had before being driven off the trail with an injury last July, so I won't be hiking any 61 mile days. I am not planning to anyway.

I am looking at the remainder of the hike in two parts: from Great Barrington, MA to Killington, VT and from Killington, VT to Katahdin, ME. The mileage division is about one quarter to three quarters, but having spent so much time in Killington, VT it is like a second home. Not only that but Laura, the girl I have been dating since pretty much the conclusion of the kayak trip will be meeting me in Killington the weekend of May 15th, so I am in no particularly hurry to arrive in Killington before then. From there on though, I will on the dash to Maine.

Here I go again...