Day 136: Caratunk, ME

Day 136. This northern Maine terrain is something else. A couple days ago, I’m trudging up impossibly steep mountains with nothing to hold on to, and now I’m running down well-groomed trails of soft needles. The Appalachian Trail sometimes, I just don’t know. Do I love it or hate it? More often the former, though too close to call some weeks.

My 10 mile hike today went way quicker than I expected. We didn’t actually get up in time for the sunrise, but I was packed up and on the go by 6:30. After that, it was a very casual and very swift romp through the woods in just 3 hours. I wasn’t even trying to speed, but I averaged nearly 3.5 mph the whole way by taking leisurely steps. It helped that most of the trail followed a flattened path around lakes and streams, providing almost no elevation change. And at times, there were even stretches with no rocks or roots to stub my toes on. I was amazed to realize I could look up and see the forest most of the time. That felt oddly unusual …

After passing many beautiful ponds and waterfalls, I quickly arrived at the Kennebec River around 9:30am. I was even able to stop and appreciate many of the woodland and waterway views as well. I was especially amazed at a section of the trail that walked along a man-made dam on the edge of Pierce Pond (below).

When I reached the river, I found a line of people all waiting for the ferry. At two passengers per voyage, it is not the most efficient vessel during rush hour. The ferry captain (canoeist) took people back and forth from one side to the other, battling the growing force of winds on the 500 foot wide river passage. The Kennebec is huge, especially where the trail crosses it, as it is the joining of both another river and an upstream lake. And it’s deep too, as I towed across, I saw the middle to be at least 15 feet deep. No, you cannot ford this river. And with the rushing speed of water and waves, you definitely can’t swim it either.

Unfortunately, not everyone respects the danger of this river. In talking to our captain, I learned someone did die already trying to swim it this year. Future hikers, don’t be dumb, don’t try to cross this river on your own. It is so dangerous in fact, that you have to sign a waiver form just to get in the canoe for your lift across.

One positive spin on this whole death trap thing though, the canoe ferry is officially considered part of the AT, as is signified by the white blaze on the bottom of the boat. If you want to be pure to every inch of the trail, the ferry is the trail to take. I had to get a picture of that (below) before thanking our oarsman and moving on (cover photo).

After that, it was a nice leisurely walk up a short hill to “town”. The township of Caratunk is basically a few houses (one of which is a Hostel), a B&B, and a couple white water rafting companies. Each rafting company has a restaurant/bar attached to it, but all these structures are a few minute’s drive from each other. I tried to get a bed at the Caratunk House hostel, the one place within walking distance … but they were full. So, instead I am lodging at the Sterling Inn B&B a few miles south. Both were nice, though the latter is definitely a step up for roughly the same price. I decided to splurge and get a private room fo $45 instead of a bed in the shared bunk room for $30. The trip is almost over, I think I can pamper myself a bit now.

The Sterling Inn is very nice, and has its own little general store for resupply to boot. They sell everything a thruhiker could need, and at decent prices, so I bought a couple days of food for my next leg of the hike. Only 2 days to Monson and the entry point of the 100-mile wilderness. After shopping, I took a leisurely nap, watched some TV, and jumped on a shuttle to the Kennebec Brewery for dinner. Decent food, fantastic beer … but crowded with rafting tourists.

The night ended with a group viewing of the final film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the Inn’s living room … I won’t waste your time explaining why this franchise is an AT hiker favorite, as any of my readers can surely see the similarity of my hike to Frodo’s march on Mordor and Mt. Doom. Seriously, it’s a great comparison and every AT hiker knows it well.

After the past week, Caratunk was a welcomed day of rest and relaxation. My ankles and knees needed a break to strengthen up again, and my soul needed some hot food and cold beer to recharge. Tomorrow morning I head out again, and I feel ready to take on what’s next. Only 150 miles to go! Inching forever forward, one day at a time….

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start Mile: 2029.4
  • Start Time: 06:25
  • End Mile: 2039.7
  • End Time: 09:30
  • Miles Hiked: 10.3
  • Miles to Go: 151.2
  • Lodging: Sterling Inn (Caratunk, ME)

Day 135: East Carry Pond

Day 135. Big day today. Bittersweet day today. Big bittersweet day today. I climbed my last big mountains, I saw my end goal, I fell more, I made a rookie planning mistake, and I experienced a perfect evening at a new favorite campsite.

But first things first. Last night I mentioned the search and rescue team that came in looking for a hiker. Well, early this morning I learned that she was indeed found about an hour later, atop the exposed Bigelow West Peak. She fell and hurt her ankle badly around 5pm and couldn’t hike down from the alpine summit. Not sure if I was broken or just badly sprained, but when they reached her around 11pm they bandaged her up and stayed with her until the morning. The rescue team considered carrying her down, but it must have been pretty bad because they called in a helicopter to med-evac her instead. Everyone within 10 miles heard the helicopter come in, so word of the story spread among hikers quickly. Sounds like all is well, and hopefully she isn’t too badly injured. Crazy experience though. If it makes the local papers, I’d like to read up more.

I learned most of this while I too was at the summit of Bigelow and then Avery mountains (about 1 mile apart). Like I said, word spread fast. At the summit of both were a handful of people either heading south or day-hiking, and I sat chatting for some time. A very nice mother and daughter sat with me for some time, and gave a nectarine and turkey sandwich to me. Fresh fruit?! Real meat?! I was in heaven.

But I was also a bit sad, as I knew these were the last big mountains on my hike until Katahdin. Both were over 4,000 feet … but after today, I won’t rise much above 3,000 feet elevation again until Katahdin. There is one section towards the end that gets above treeline (White Cap Mountain), but that appears to be it. Oh well, that should make for better trail/hiking conditions.

I also had a great moment at Bigelow’s summit, when I saw my destination for the first time in the distance! There was a time earlier that it was supposedly visible, but this time I saw her myself. Katahdin is within sight! As you can tell in the photo above, I was slightly excited. Slightly…

I did fall twice today though. That was annoying. I mean, come on! I was so graceful for so long, then NH and Maine come along and turn me into a clumsy clod. Ugh, sooooooooo frustrating. The first fall was coming down Avery, and only scratched the palm of my hand a bit. But the 2nd, time … owe. Little Bigelow is a small peak after you get down from the big ones, and I took a bad step on a small rocky area of the descent. One of those ankle breaking steps I just talked about. But instead of letting it snap my ankle, I somehow knew to let myself fall to the side instead (#LeanIn). Unfortunately, that brilliant thinking led to painful results. There was nothing to soften my fall but more pointy rocks, and I banged myself badly in multiple places. Thankfully nothing broken, but my legs are grossly scratched up again. I threw my poles in anger and screamed, “COME ON!” to nobody.

I seriously don’t get it! I don’t think the trail is that much harder right now, in fact it’s mostly quite pleasant in this part of Maine. But I think my ankles have loosened too much or its simply gone to my head. Like a professional athlete with a bad case of the yips.

Maybe I need to just accept it. Falling is simply a part of me now, and I need to anticipate it and embrace it. So, I brushed myself off (painfully) and told myself I can handle a fall or two. That I won’t let this trail beat me. And I meant it. The AT will not break me, not so close to the end.

… Then I had to go retrieve my poles, angrily, which were 20 feet down the side of the slope.

When I arrived at the West Carry Pond Lean-to at 5:30, I realized I had made a huge mistake in my planning of this day. I put in 18 miles already today, with some tough climbs … but stopping here put me in a pickle tomorrow. I would be 14 miles from the Kennebec River, which can only be crossed by “ferry”. It is extremely dangerous and stupid to attempt to ford the Kennebec. Remember those times playing Oregon Trail as a kid? When you choose to ford the river, only to see your wagon sink? And then learn you lost 3 oxen, 4 bags of clothing, and that little Jimmy died?!

Well, this is basically the place where real-life Oregon Trail outcomes occur. People have lost gear or even died by foolishly trying to ford swim the Kennebec. It’s over your head in the middle, and an upstream dam can release rushing water quickly without warning. This is why a volunteer uses a canoe to bring people across during hiker season. But this “ferry” only runs from 9am to 2pm. Hiking 14 miles by 2pm, even in good conditions, would be risky timing. I didn’t like the chances of arriving in time, and missing it would mean I have to wait until the next day. I don’t have a spare day right now to wait for a ferry.

So, long story short, I hiked on. I decided to go an extra 3.7 miles to the East Carry Pond, and setup camp at a well-established stealth spot near a sandy beach. I did those 3.7 miles in under 90 minutes (hurray for flat trails!) and soon found the campsite.

And what a campsite! This pond is actually a huge lake with private cabins and boats on it, and the beach was incredible. Not too big, but with clean white sand at a low-grade entry, which allowed for a pleasant late-night swim and bath. If I could own a summer home in Maine, this is where it would be.

A trio of ladies are here as well, who hiked the AT a few years ago when they retired. They came out for a week of hiking together in Maine and made sure to include a night here, their favorite spot. I thanked them for letting me share it with them, and we all sat on the beach, watching the sky darken as the sun set behind us. We agreed to wake up early tomorrow and watch the sun rise over the water together as well. This place is something special.

I feel much better hiking 10 miles from here to the ferry by 2pm. Especially if I’m starting just after sunrise. On the other side of the Kennebec River is the town of Caratunk and a planned hostel/resupply stop.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start Mile: 2007.8
  • Start Time: 08:15
  • End Mile: 2029.4
  • End Time: 19:30
  • Miles Hiked: 21.6
  • Miles to Go: 161.5
  • Lodging: East Carry Pond stealth site