Archive for August, 2009

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 20 2009

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He’s off

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Hello everyone.  I’m Walt’s stepson and admin for this wonderful blog.  Walt is off hiking in Maine for a while and we thought we would share these pictures depicting his departure on the 100 mile trail.  I’m sure everyone is looking forward to his blog posts about the trip when he returns.  I know I am.  Enjoy!

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Aug 14 2009

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A Sacred Place

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I visited a sacred place the other day – a place I hadn’t visited in a long while.  It’s a wild and beautiful place tucked away in the woods.  Oddly enough, it’s not far from a road.  I’m sure others know about it but I’ve never seen a boot print there, much less another person.  It’s hard to say whether I intentionally sought out the place or simply ended up there.  As soon as one uses words like “sacred,” the mind unhinges from a strictly rational view of things.

A place isn’t sacred just because it’s wild and beautiful.  An aesthetic reaction to a place shouldn’t be confused with deep reverence.  I’ve made that mistake many times.  Yet you know a place is sacred when you sense the presence of the divine in it – the presence of something unspeakably real.  You know you’re in a sacred place when suddenly you sense life’s merry-go-round coming to a screeching halt.  It’s best not to ignore this signal.  As such times, in such places, the world itself is calling you.

A sacred place can be a mountain outcrop, a meadow, or a gorge along the brook.  In such a place I find it very easy pray, meditate, reflect, or simply contemplate existence.  I’ve found many things in a sacred place: morsels of insight, a good idea, a sense of perspective, sometimes even a profound sense of well being.  But sometimes I find nothing at all, and that’s okay.  What you won’t find in such a place is that self-destructive madness that some people call sin.  That’s why the word “sacred” is appropriate here, I think.

What’s that I hear?  – More rational minds are scoffing.  A psychologist tells me that it’s all in my head.  A logician points out the apparent flaws in my thinking.  Others insist that I’m just being emotional.  Yeah, I’ve heard it all before.  But none of this means anything on those rare occasions when I stand face-to-face with the divine.  At such times, I put my faith in the unspeakable, fully aware that reason has its limits.

I didn’t linger the other day.  I stayed in that place long enough only to reacquaint myself with the real.  But when I walked away, my life began anew.  When I was younger, I used to think that every encounter with the sacred necessarily triggers great change.  Now I know better.  It only signals a fresh start, similar to getting out of bed in the morning.  Yet somehow that’s enough.

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Aug 09 2009

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Unexpected Encounters

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Earlier this week my granddaughter, Kaylee, and I found a couple crayfish in a sinkhole next to a stream.  While sitting on our porch, my wife and I spotted a yellow flicker in nearby trees – a bird I haven’t seen in years. I saw some kind of blue orchid in full bloom while hiking Jay Peak the other day.  A barred owl suddenly appeared a few yards off trail while I was hiking Aldis Hill a few weeks ago.  I saw a red fox and her two kits there once.  I want to say that such sightings are uncommon but that’s not the case.  They occur on a regular basis.  It’s just that they always catch me off guard.  Why is that?

Often I venture into the woods with binoculars or a field guide in hand, looking for the rare and beautiful.  I am usually disappointed.  Nearly every attempt I’ve made to track down large animals – bear, moose, or deer – has come to nothing.  Yet I bump into wildlife frequently enough.  I’ve never been able to see a mink on cue, but I see them every once in a while as I’m fishing.  Same goes for eagles, otters and pine martens.  I can spot a chipmunk or squirrel a few minutes after stepping into the woods, but running into a coyote is always a fluke.  It’s almost as if I see more of the wild when I’m not looking for it.

Why are these encounters so unexpected?  I’m not sure but I suspect it has something to do with the assumptions that we make.  We go about our business, immersed in a world of our own making, going in and out of buildings, negotiating a complex network of streets and roads, entertaining ourselves electronically, and it appears that existence is all about us.  Everything else is peripheral.  Everything else is, well, inconsequential – there only to meet our needs.  The whole universe revolves around us.  Isn’t it obvious?  In this context, it’s hard to imagine plants and animals having a life of their own.

We go to zoos to see animals, and gardens to see plants.  But we venture into the wild to be surprised.  Sometimes we are surprised by what we don’t find there.  Almost always something pops up that we haven’t anticipated.  Remarkably, we often miss the unexpected because our thoughts are elsewhere.  This is the curse of having so much gray matter between the ears.  Our lives are more abstract than we realize.

As a philosopher – a ponderer of things to the point of absurdity – I am more guilty than most of missing what’s right in front of me.  Consequently, when I’m in the woods I am more surprised.  The wild never ceases to amaze me.  Waterfalls, rainbows, red efts on the trail, and bizarre-looking mushrooms arising overnight – all this should be expected.  Yet I’m surprised.  Oddly enough, encounters such as these are what I live for. Go figure.

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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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