Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 5 - The Fastest Thing In The Woods

About the same moment the wasp stung me on the side of the neck, I realized just how relative pain can be. Most of the time in my life, I would have been crying for a medic and a first-aid kit, wondering if I had developed an allergy to the stings and would this be the final goodbye after all.
However, this was not like most of the time. I swatted the dying wasp onto the ground and sped back up, holding my hand to my neck, thinking I would keep running until I fell flat on my face. For the last 40 minutes, I had been the fastest thing in the woods. A bear would have given up chasing me, and some deer stood by in amazement at what this grizzled guy was doing. I had already done something unheard of for Paul and I. I passed by a couple of young women that were trekking along with their packs and a dog. And I passed them like they were standing still. It must have been a low point in their day, because we did meet up later and one of the women explained about a turned ankle and how the old dog was slowing them up.  Yes, I was flying for a certain amount of time and it was an adrenaline rush like no other. How was this even possible?
You see, through the tricky stuff, like rocks, streams, logs, and climbing, I am slow like a snail. I don't where to put my feet, and I have a quite realistic idea of what the consequences would be if I managed to break my ankle out there in the woods. But, put me on a flat trail, 5 miles from camp, and that is in my range, baby. I have a big pack on my back and a big reason to get there fast. I've heard it said many times that running is a mental thing, more than physical and I believe that to be true about backpacking as well. It's more about making yourself remember why you are doing it and why you need to keep going than about how much more your body can take. In this case, I was doing some simple math in my head. If I went 2 miles per hour, then it was going to take me 2 1/2 hours to get to camp. If I could keep up 4 miles per hour, I could shave off an hour from my hike. THAT sounded awesome. The added benefit was that both Paul and I had become concerned about finding places to camp. There were quite a few people on the trail and we started noticing that the campsites were filling up by 5pm. By the way, when I say 'campsites', you're probably thinking of a nice graded spot with a picnic table, water spigot, perhaps even a electric outlet to charge your electronics....nope, none of that stuff. What I was excited about seeing, was a nice flat spot on the grass near a stream, and an outhouse nearby. In Maine, this wasn't that easy to find, so concern over being the people that show up with no where to pitch a tent was legitimate.

We had figured out early on in the trip, that Paul with his ultralight pack, was superior climbing and I could do better with my long legs on the flat trail. Although we loved hiking together and talking, when we started seeing the time crunches, we developed a plan. Paul would surge ahead on the climbs and find the easiest ways up, and I would take off when we had a flat trail and needed to secure a campsite.

On this particular day, we somehow founds ourselves with a late start, knowing that a large group of through hikers was ahead of us, and probably filling up every campsite available. It was about 3 in the afternoon that we realized that we were in my kind of section of the woods, a flat, pine needle path, the kind you seldom saw in Maine. The camp was ahead, water, food, tent, resting, it was all there waiting. All I had to do was run for an hour. And that I how I came to find that the pain of a wasp sting was something bearable when so much was at stake.

Hours later, I sat at camp, sitting in my folding chair, watching Paul set up his tent and seeing the young women with their dog come by, trying to find a non-swampy spot to pitch their tent and I enjoyed that extremely rare smug feeling that for once, I was faster than somebody....

Monday, September 25, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 4 - When's It Going To Be MY Turn?

Many years ago, my Dad took us on a hike up Mount Washington, and I can still remember clawing my way uphill on hands and knees, and getting passed by a pack of little old ladies scampering up the trail. I was 18 years old and in total amazement. Well, here I was, years later, at age 63, crawling up an apparent rockslide of a trail on hands and knees, when suddenly I saw a young woman appear at the top of the ridge with a large smile on her face. I begged her please don't make it look too easy. Her smile widened and she said, sorry, but she had just downed a RedBull and proceeded to hop down those rocks like a mountain goat. I heard Paul grumble something about damned Parkour people as she continued down the mountain, never slowing for a moment. "When is it going to be MY turn!?" I said, mostly to myself.
Don't get me wrong, hiking is a sport about peaceful walks in the woods and seeing how you prepared you can be for extreme effort and survival. But, sometimes it seems to be a little bit like running. It's all you and doing your personal best, until you get passed by somebody that made you look like you were standing still. There were a lot of hikers on the trail this trip, and we probably didn't go an hour without meeting someone. They were almost always nice and friendly....and much faster than we were. It wasn't like it felt like a race, it was just we were already doing our best, and we saw how puny it was.
Probably the most extreme example of this was the time we were coming to the very top of Bigelow. We were above the treeline and saw nothing ahead but rock and a sign at the very top. I told Paul that there is no way that the AT could go up that way because it seemed something impossible to do with a pack on your back. We stood there for a few minutes, trying to figure out how in the world we could even climb up on the first rock to get up to the sign, all the while I was wondering if there was a cliff we had to scale down on the other side.

About this time, a young heavyset woman with a large pack on her back came up beside us and we stood there with our mouths hanging open while she hopped up on the first rock and scurried up to the sign while we tried to imagine how someone that didn't even look like a fit hiker just did something that Paul the long-term hiker hesitated at. I was already to pull out my old-person card just in case I needed it, but unfortunately we had already been passed earlier that day by someone that could have been my father.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 3 - Living After Midnight

Our first night on the trail was at the Horns Pond Lean-tos. One of the great reasons to do the backpacking thing is that you work so hard all day long that the mere act of getting to sit down and go to sleep before it even gets dark, sounds awesome. In fact, something you hear about frequently is "Hiker Midnight" which is 9pm. Believe me, if you hiked up mountains all day long, and then had a no-fire evening in the cold, you would be heading for the sleeping bag as well. I know that it seems that I am not exactly extolling the virtues of this kind of vacation, but what it does is make small things seem fantastic. For example, while hiking along, you happen to find a mint in your pants pocket, well that's almost like finding a $100 bill in normal life. You feel like a lottery winner, and go on smiling for about as long as you can suck on that mint.
So it is, that after hiking all day long, and you come to a grimy, old wooden, 3-sided structure that is totally open to the elements, it feels like home-sweet-home.

After covering about half the distance we had planned, we were exhausted. Walking into the camping area, we were surprised to find tents everywhere but few people in the Lean-tos, in fact, Paul and I had one to ourselves. A few people came by later, looking and took a look at us and kept moving on. I'm pretty sure we didn't smell that bad at this point, maybe it was the scowl on my face, or Paul's eagerness to share some of his stories. Regardless, we settled down to a hot dinner of Mountain House freeze-dried food, and let me tell you, that stuff is like eating a big steak dinner at home. Hikers tend to find this kind of food expensive and at $7-$9 a meal, it is, but when you are only going for a week, Ramen noodles don't quite cut it for a meal after a long day of hiking. Another positive about the freeze-dried food is that it weighs very little. Ramen noodles weigh less, but there is dubious nutrition value and plenty of sodium which results in drinking a lot of water and then having to get out of that sleeping bag at night and go into the dark of the woods and hope that you can relieve yourself before some wild animal gets you.
I was excited on this trip to try out a new piece of gear. Instead of a sleeping bag, I brought a special quilt that was called a "jungle snugpak", well, at least it sounded manly when I ordered it. It came in a army green camouflage color and packed down really small. I was quite proud of myself for saving space and weight for this trip. Something I did not count on though, was the temperature dropping down way below what a Floridian would call a cool evening. In fact, we decided during the trip to totally disregard any information concerning difficulty of hiking or temperatures coming from anyone from Maine or Canada. All I can say about that first night was that I kept getting up and adding more clothes as the night went on, feeling for sure that I would be found frozen in the morning. Paul had loaned me a thing called a "sleeping bag liner", which is kind of like a sock for your whole body. The one he had brought for me was to raise your body temperature 10 degrees in an emergency. That thing was my best friend the whole rest of the trip. Instead of freezing to death, I was able to lay there shivering all night. The only issue I had was that while inside the liner, I couldn't really feel where the quilt was, so many times I would jump up suddenly to find that I had somehow kicked the quilt off. The first night taught me something else....the reason everyone was sleeping in tents instead of the Lean-tos, was that the tents add one more layer of warmth. I used my tent frequently after that first night...

Friday, September 1, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 2 - The Famous Last Words

Paul and I sat next to a beautiful stream in the woods, slightly sweating, even though the temperature was quickly dropping below 50 degrees F on this August evening in Maine. It would have been a great time to reflect on how lucky we were to have escaped city life and the oppressing heat of summer in Florida except for one thing: It was 12:30 at night and we could find no level ground to pitch a tent, only rocks, boulders and roots.

I was out of energy and out of ideas, and suggested to Paul that we take turns napping by the stream while the other person stood watch. That was my BEST idea. Paul suggested that we keep hiking until we find something flat to pitch tents on...something we had yet to see in Maine...
Not even 12 hours earlier, I had remarked while cheerfully hiking down the trail from Stratton to Monson, that I could keep this pace up all day long. I was feeling great. I had my pack weight down to 32 pounds, including my stash of muffins, and my body weight, although slightly higher than I like it to be, was going to be good insulation for the upcoming cool evenings we had seen in the weather forecast. Looking back, Maine actually gave us the best conditions she had. We had no rain, a minimum of bugs, and much cooler temperatures than Florida. In fact, if you sat down for too long, you would start wanting warmer clothes to wear. This turned out to be a good thing, that the Maine weather was so fair, because what passes for easy hiking in Maine made me think of serious mountain climbing.

Paul, in addition to joining the ranks of "ultra-light" hikers, had the desire to plan everything to the ennth degree, and he had factored into our food and water supply that we would average 1 1/2 mph hiking to the next re-supply destination. Actually, that was a very conservative number and I knew we could easily do 2 1/2 mph on any given day. Well, that turned out to be not conservative enough and we learned a brand new lesson that first day: When the going gets rough: 1) you go slower 2) you eat more 3) you drink more. And this is how it came to be that by day 2, we were 10 miles behind schedule and running low on food. Our intended speed walks down woodsy paths of pine needles were instead rock scrambles up what appeared to be dried-up waterfalls. The first time I saw one of those, I said "You're kidding, that cannot be the trail!" It was after about 3 of these ascents that I began to see the wonder of ultralight backpacking, as Paul climbed up the rocks, and I tried to figure out how I was going to do it without falling over backwards because of that 32 pounds on my back that wanted to do nothing more than fall to the ground.
The ascents were slowing us down to the point that by the first night, as we climbed into the lean-to and pulled out our sleeping gear, we said that "we'll make the miles up tomorrow". Little did we know that the climbing we did on the first day was the ascent of the "Little Bigelow"....