Tag Archive 'wilderness travel'

Sep 04 2009

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Weighty Matters

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Supply is the great challenge of the 100 Mile Wilderness.  This seems a rather abstract and unimportant consideration until you lift an all-too-heavy pack to your back and try to hike 10 miles with it.  Like many of those who have taken on this challenge over the years, I trimmed what I could from my load then shouldered the weight.  This decision set the tone for my trek.

AT thru-hikers running north from Georgia travel with the minimum amount of food and equipment.  Most of them have ultra-light gear and that alone sheds ten or more pounds from the load.  Since they’re accustomed to hiking 15 to 20 miles a day, they traverse the 100 Mile Wilderness in 6 to 8 days, sometimes less, even though there are signs posted at both ends urging backpackers to carry at least a ten-day supply of food.  I encountered one fellow who had only a four-day supply.  He was resigned to hiking long days and going hungry –– a regrettable strategy if anything goes wrong along the way.

Some backpackers get creative.  They have a support team that drives up one of the many logging roads in the area and supplies them on the run, or they pay the folks at Shaws Boarding House to do this.  Others take a side trail to Pemadumcook Lake, where they sound a horn and the folks at Whites Landing motor over by boat to pick them up.  At Whites Landing you can pretty much get whatever you want… for a price.  The owners advertise it as “an oasis in the 100 Mile Wilderness” and many hikers use them that way.

Make no mistake about it, the Maine woods are magnificent woods, and the 100 Mile Wilderness – that section of the Appalachian Trail cutting through the heart of it – is as wild and beautiful as any sprawling forest can be.  But its remoteness should not be underestimated.  I started into those woods with a 65-pound pack and cursed this ridiculous load all the way, even as it grew lighter.  Then again, I was completely self-sufficient, never having to rely upon AT shelters or anything else.  In that regard, it was a bona fide backpacking trip.

The logistic challenge of this trek was interesting enough, but next time I venture into the woods for an extended period of time, I’ll do things a little differently.  My big regret is that I spent too much time pounding the trail, racing against my dwindlng supplies.  Next time I’ll hike ten or twenty miles into the woods and land somewhere for a few days.  After all, what’s the point of being out there if you’re not going to take the time to groove on the wild?

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Aug 31 2009

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The 100 Mile Wilderness

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After a couple nights sleep in a bed, hot showers and an abundance of fresh food, my excursion into the Maine woods seems like something of a dream.  But l have a swollen knee and aching ankles, along with plenty of scratches, bug bites, bruises and rashes, to assure me that it actually did happen. I also have a journal full of notes to jog my memory, so you can be sure I’ll be writing about this journey in great detail during the months to come.  That is, after all, what I do.

The 100 Mile Wilderness is everything it’s touted to be:  a long, winding trail through the wild, northern forest of Maine, full of pristine lakes and ponds, roaring brooks, huge bogs, and rugged mountains.  All very boreal, of course, so moss grows on everything, conifers create a somber mood, and the trail is easily worn down to roots and rocks.  My boots never completely dried out and some of my hiking clothes, well, it was best just to throw them away when I returned home.  This is not a trail for the faint of heart.

The 100 Mile Wilderness isn’t a wilderness per se.  It gets its name from the fact that you can’t obtain supplies on the Appalachian Trail north out of the town of Monson until you reach a campground at Abol Bridge a hundred miles away.  That makes it quite a challenge, logistically speaking.  Everyone hiking this section of trail is either overloaded or running short of supplies.  This is considered the wildest, most remote section of the entire AT, and that is precisely why I wanted to hike it.

Most AT thru hikers blasting north from Georgia hike the 100 Mile Wilderness in 6 to 8 days.  The average section hiker does it in about 10.  I hiked it in 12 days because that was the maximum amount of food that I could carry for my dog and myself – 30 pounds total.  Between this weight, the ruggedness of the terrain, and my dubious physical condition, the trek tested the limits of my physical endurance.  That said, I only wish I could have taken more time to be out there, so that I could have enjoyed some of the beautiful places I visited more than I did.  Among my favorite places: the sandy beaches of Nahmakanta Lake, the crystal clear East Chairback Pond, Gulf Hagas Stream, and North Pond.  I easily could have spent several days in any one of those places.  Each is a slice of paradise.

I now understand better why Henry David Thoreau was fixated upon the sprawling forest of northern Maine during the latter part of his life, and why so many other outdoors enthusiasts are drawn to it.  Nowhere else this side of the Mississippi will you find such big woods – not even in the Adirodacks.  There were times when, standing on a mountaintop or exposed ledges, the wild stretched before me as far as the eye could see.  Loggers are hard at work in those woods, and guide service float planes aren’t uncommon, but this country is wild all the same.  It’s a country meant for all those who want, for a few days, a week or longer, to run feral. Bear and moose thrive there and, for 12 days, so did I.

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Aug 05 2009

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Taking Chances

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Over dinner last night, Judy used the “f” word.  She asked me point blank how I intended to ford the bigger streams during my upcoming trek, considering all the rain that has fallen this summer.  I was hoping to avoid this conversation but there it landed in my lap, between a bite of hamburger and two swigs of beer.  My wife recently googled “100 Mile Wilderness,” so there was no point trying to make light of the matter.  The sin of omission: I was caught in the lie that I didn’t tell.

Fording and dread.  That’s the name of a great essay by Jim Harrison, which is more about steeling oneself for action than the actual mechanics of river crossing.  “Where is the best place in a river to get across?” Harrison asks, and here we have the perfect metaphor for all the obstacles that we face in life – perfect because it underscores risk and good judgment as well as resolve.  And yes, fording does involve risk.  Anyone can see that.

I like to hike alone, deep in the forest.  I’m getting older, more brittle, less sure on my feet.  I fell down a month ago and my side still aches from it.  My physician recently gave me a clean bill of health, but all bets are off when one is trekking a muddy, rock-strewn path with a sixty-pound pack.  I’ll be taking chances when I hike the 100 Mile Wilderness.  It may be a foolish undertaking, but I’d be even more of a fool if I denied the risks involved.

The other day, when I picked up my patched hiking pants, the tailor asked me if I was worried about bears.  I laughed at that.  The chances of being attacked by a bear are roughly the same as being struck by lightning.  But hikers slip and fall in the mud all the time.  Broken bones are common on the trail.  Gaining wisdom isn’t about avoiding risk, but knowing where the risks are.

I use trekking poles nowadays, whenever I hike more than twenty miles.  I carry a large first aid kit, food, water and enough gear to get by for days wherever I land, in whatever weather.  I know my limits when it comes to climbing mountains or fording streams, and am not too proud to abort.  More importantly, I know how to assess risk.  “Just do it” is a credo for children and fools.

Judy knows what I’m up against, and I don’t insult her intelligence by denying it.  Yes, it has been a very wet summer and those streams will be running high.  Maybe I’ll get across them, maybe I won’t.  According to my map, there’s a logging road running parallel to the trail for the last 15 miles.  I’ll drop down to that if I have to.  One must be prepared to fail.  In real life, contrary to the movies, it happens all the time.  The trick is to not let it defeat you.

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Jul 14 2009

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Planning a Trip

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A month from now, I’ll be commencing a long walk through the Maine woods.  Since this particular trip poses several logistical difficulties, it’s not too soon to prepare.  The section of the Appalachian Trail that I intend to hike is called the 100-Mile Wilderness because one can’t resupply along the way.  That’s means I’ll have to carry everything, including all my food – a true challenge for a hiker who moves as slowly as I do.  To further complicate matters, I’ll be taking my dog, Matika, with me.

To a casual observer it would appear that I like to make things difficult for myself.  Truth is, I’m willing to go to great lengths to spend a big a chunk of time in deep woods.  As for taking Matika with me, well, I couldn’t deprive her of the experience.  She loves the wild as much as I do.  Besides, she’s the ideal hiking companion.  She doesn’t talk.

Dog food is bulky so I’ve introduced dehydrated food to Matika’s diet.  I thought she’d resist it but, to my great surprise, she gobbles it right down.  Altering my own diet won’t be so easy.  After working out some calorie-per-pound calculations, I have reached a conclusion that is sure to make the readers of my Long Trail book laugh:  I’ll have to carry a lot of nuts.  Back in ’95, I swore I’d never do this to myself again.  But nuts are the perfect solution to the logistical problem at hand.

Clothing isn’t as much a matter of weight as it is bulk.  The solution is simple.  It’s all about the ability to stay warm so cottons must be kept to a minimum.  Cotton is comfortable but useless when it’s wet, and this is a wet year.  Besides, it takes forever to dry out.

Cooking.  I’ll build campfires whenever I can, carrying as little stove fuel as possible.  But, like I said, this is a wet year.  Hope I don’t regret this decision.

Shelter: a tarp only.  To keep it from tearing apart in a storm, I’ll reinforce the grommets with duct tape.  This spark of genius came to me while I was driving home from work a few weeks ago.  What’s that?  You think I’m crazy?  Hey, don’t underestimate the power of duct tape.

Luxuries, only one: binoculars.  I expect to see some wildlife on this trip.  Okay, maybe two: a disposable camera.  No, my journal isn’t a luxury.  That’s how I stay sane, both in and out of the woods.

What else?  There are a thousand details.  A long walk in deep woods isn’t quite as simple as it sounds.  A first aid kit, an emergency blanket, a full set of maps, a backup compass, a solid-shank knife, water filter, and water purification tablets just in case.  Yeah, I can’t wait to get out there.  I like being completely self-sufficient.  It feels like… freedom.  There’s really no other word for it.

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Feb 05 2009

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Dreaming of Wilderness

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Last week I purchased a set of maps for the Maine section of the Appalachian Trail.  The first three maps, heading south from Mt. Katahdin, cover a patch of wild country known as the 100-Mile Wilderness.  Not a wilderness in the true sense of the word, this is the most remote stretch of the AT.  Hikers are told to carry 8 to 10 days food when going through this part of the Maine woods because there’s nowhere to resupply.   That’s music to my ears!  When I first learned this, I vowed to hike the 100-Mile Wilderness someday.  Well, now I have the maps in hand, and that day is less than seven months away.

Since acquiring the maps, I have pored over them with such intensity that I’ve practically memorized the route.  For a hundred miles the trail skirts lakes, follows streams, winds through wetlands, traverses two significant mountain ranges, and fords rivers.  And I’ll be deep in the forest most of the way.  This is my idea of a good time.  Most people dream of sleek cars, beautiful new homes, and lounging on Caribbean beaches.  I dream of a long, sweaty, bug-ridden slog along a muddy trail with a 60-pound pack tugging at my aching shoulders.  Maybe I should have my head examined.

My wife, Judy, is all for it.  She knows I need to get away like this every once in a while.  She’ll drop me off at Abol Bridge and pick me up 12 days later at Monson.  That’s a lot of driving, but she’s willing to do it for me.  Yeah, I’m a lucky man.

Matika will be going with me, of course, and her pack will also be fully loaded.  No chasing squirrels on this outing.  Matika and I are both soft and fat now, but diet and exercise will whip us into shape during the next six months.  The main thing right now, in the dead of winter, is to cut back on the treats.  No peanut butter biscuits for her; no jelly beans for me.

Some people hike long distances for the fresh air and exercise.  Others for the brag of it.  I hike as an excuse to spend a big chunk of time in deep woods.  That’s why I’ll be doing this section of trail in 12 days instead of the recommended 8 to 10.  That means carrying more food, but I don’t care.

Right now it’s a few degrees above zero outside, there’s a foot of snow on the ground, and my body is fighting off a cold virus.  The upcoming hike seems far away.  But six months goes by quickly when you’re my age, so I’ll be standing on Abol Bridge soon enough.  Until then, I’ll be dreaming of wilderness… and getting ready.  The single biggest question is this:  Can Matika get by on dehydrated dog food?

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Jul 14 2008

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On Disappearing

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Every once in a while, someone comes at me with the dramatic tale of some starry-eyed pilgrim dying in the Alaskan wilderness. Few things upset me more.

In 1992, a bush pilot dropped me on a gravel airstrip near the Endicott River Wilderness, about forty miles northwest of Juneau. I set up camp next to the river and stayed there for two weeks, completely cut off from the rest of humanity, learning the hard way what it takes to keep body and soul together in a truly wild place. It was the best two weeks of my life.  It was a truly life-changing experience.  But it left me with a profound intolerance for the kind of stupidity that so often passes for backcountry adventure.

Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a prime example of that kind of stupidity. In that book, Krakauer writes about a young man named McCandless who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness and died there. Many people are fascinated by the story. Some find the affair tragically romantic; others get a big kick out of survival dramas regardless of the hero’s fate. Others, I suspect, use such tales to justify their own risk-taking or lack thereof. When I read Krakauer’s book, I saw only a woefully unprepared backcountry traveler with no real plan.

I spent a year and a half preparing for my venture into the Alaskan wild. I had skills. I had 125 pounds of food, clothing and equipment. I was as careful as anyone can be while I was out there and still came close to becoming food for the ravens.  The wilderness is a dangerous place.

Right before I went into the wild, I read in the Juneau newspaper about some guy who had disappeared up Eagle Creek two weeks earlier. Only the remains of his camp were found. When I asked several native Alaskans what they thought of this, I got the same response: “People disappear in the bush all the time.” And that’s that. There’s a steady stream of starry-eyed pilgrims coming up from the Lower Forty-Eight.  They slip into the Alaskan backcountry and some of them are never heard from again.

Lord knows I’ve taken more than my share of risks. I’ve been traveling alone into deep woods for decades. I’ve had many close calls. As a result, I’ve learned to treat the wild with great respect. First and foremost, I carry with me the tools I need to get out there and back in one piece.  And I know how to use them.

I can’t with good conscience recommend going it alone, but with a track record like mine, I can’t discourage it, either. All I can say is this: Be as prepared as you can possibly be before stepping into backcountry by yourself. Use your head. Don’t disappear. There’s nothing the least bit romantic about a premature and unnecessary death.  The bush is littered with the carcasses of fools.

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