The hundred miles between Rangeley and Monson have been some of the wildest and most beautiful on the trail. The sharp edges of Mahoosucs have given way to smoother terrain as the path leads you from one lake to another. Mountain ranges rise from the forest like the crests of waves. It may not be the ‘Hundred Mile Wilderness’, but it’s close. Civilization reaches the heart of the Maine woods like a distant echo.
I started the week with the last big set of 4000 foot peaks before the final ascent to Katahdin. Over fifty miles, he scales four mountain ranges, one after another: Saddleback, Sugarloaf, Crocker, Bigelow.
Saddleback is the first of the great mountains and has the best views of them all. I climbed it on a clear summer day, starting again from my zero at Rangeley. At 3,500 feet you break through the tree line and emerge onto a bare alpine ridge. For nearly three miles, between the summit and the Horn, you remain above the trees, walking on top of the world with a maze of lakes to your left and a sea of low, rolling mountains to your right. Apart from Rangeley, far below, a few houses along a lake, no towns to be seen. You are alone with the earth, moving through the sun and the breeze.
Pan de Azúcar is the next great mountain range, after the deep and steep valley of the Orbeton stream. This is the highest peak in Maine after Katahdin, although it is a thousand feet shorter. Trees reach almost to the top, but the top is bare rock dotted with radio towers. Below you can see the ski slopes lacerating the mountainside and the grim structure of a ski lift a few meters away. And, across another deep notch, the twin peaks of Crocker Mountain.
two thousand miles
I’d had great weather up to that point, but as I came down from Sugarloaf, the sky turned dark and it started to rain. The drizzle turned to a downpour as he struggled up the steep incline toward South Crocker. It was one of the most miserable times I’ve ever had on the trail, and I was going up that hill at half my usual speed.
At the top, it stopped raining and I decided to perk up with a hot cup of tea. Mile 1999.9. But when I took the first few sips, the sky darkened and a wind picked up. I had to throw away my tea and frantically pack as thunder and lightning swept down a torrent of rain. My phone was so wet I could barely use it.
And so it was in the middle of an electrical storm that I reached 2000 miles. I was able to get an image, blurry, rain-spattered photographic evidence that it had made it this far. That even though I had nearly 200 miles to go, I had walked a thousand miles twice, here on South Crocker Mountain in the rain.
And then I kept fighting, over the mountain and down the hill to Stratton as the rain abated and the sun came out.
Stratton and the Bigelows
Stratton is a small town with a great hostel. The Maine Roadhouse, run by ‘the two Jenns’, is a new, well-appointed roadside spot a few miles outside of town. They came to pick me up in a big yellow school bus, which they had just assembled and started to drive their hikers.
I spent another full zero there, doing some Instagram Trek stuff (thanks to everyone who joined my live stream!) and riding around town. There is a general store, a small grocery store, a bar, and a post office. Everyone seems to know everyone. The police chief hangs out in the parking lot and makes magical trails. And the breakfast at the hostel is amazing.
By late the next morning he was back on the trail, climbing the last great mountain range. The Bigelow Range rises three thousand feet above Flagstaff Lake and has alpine views on the summits to match Saddleback. It was a sunny Sunday and all day hikers were out when I first arrived. Then I came down from Avery Peak (named after one of the founders of the Appalachian Trail) and suddenly I was alone; They must have gone down a different path. Since then I have only seen night hikers on the trail.
lochs and loons
The trail descended from the mountain to the eastern shore of Flagstaff Lake, a huge body of water that looked like an inland sea. He could hear the hawks screaming in the distance as the waves hit the shore. The path then wound east through the trees to Carry Ponds, an old inter-river shipping route that jumped between small lakes.
At West Carry Pond, I saw the first loon floating in the water. There will be many more to come, and I have come to expect his unearthly cry in my ears as I drift off to sleep. I swam for a while at West Carry Pond, on a narrow sandy beach littered with driftwood. Then I moved on to the next pond, and the next.
At the end of the day I walked over to Pierce Pond, where the ‘attack hawk’ was said to live. He was afraid of this bird, which had injured several hikers by swooping down on them from the sky with its ferocious talons. I was guarding a nearby nest, and I guess goshawks aren’t good at learning that ramblers aren’t a threat.
I tied my hat to my backpack, crossed my poles over my head, and kept running through the area as fast as I could. I was lucky: there was no sign of the bird at all. It may be late enough in the season that she has finished protecting her nest. Or maybe I was just really lucky.
crossing the river
Three miles beyond Pierce Pond is the Kennebec River. Unlike other rivers on the trail, the Kennebec cannot be crossed or forded. The only way to cross is by boat.
A boatman guides a canoe back and forth across the wide creek, taking hikers two by two. The passenger in front receives an oar to help the shuttle on its way. And you have to keep to the boatman’s schedule, so you can’t cross before nine.
Instead, if you head north, you can have breakfast at Harrison’s Camp, an old hunting lodge just steps from Pierce Pond. There’s a dusty moose head on the wall next to a pool table, and a generator hums in the shed by the porch.
They make some of the best pancakes on the road, with rich wheat flour and cooked apple slices.
After breakfast, you walk down a cascading creek to the river, which suddenly opens out of the rocky forest like a wide swampy clearing. And then the canoe comes gliding down the creek to take you away.
On the other side, there is a road and a small town about a mile away. I didn’t stop to see Caratunk, but continued deeper into the forest.
Back to Big Miles
That day I was determined to break the ‘low mileage curse’ that had haunted me since the whites. He hadn’t driven more than 18 miles a day for nearly three weeks. So I went over another lake (Pleasant Pond) and over another mountain (Pleasant Pond Mountain), hoping to prove that I could do more miles in Maine.
I kept an eye out for the aggressive grouse I had been warned about, but it never showed up; I later found out that a Quebecois hiker named Pop Tart had hit it with his sticks. At some point the weather changed and it started to rain again, but I kept walking. Moxie Bald Mountain was a miserable, windy, wet slab of rock, but I made it. And on the other side, twenty-two and a half miles from Pierce Pond, I called it a night.
I hiked eighteen sodden miles after that, down along the Piscataquis River and back up through the rolling, swampy hills. The forks of the river were swollen from the rain, and I had to wade through thigh-deep water several times. I still had good weather, sailing with my wet shoes, and at two in the afternoon I was heading down towards Monson.
Monson, the last town along the way. The last place to rest before the end. This little town in the desert, guarding the southern edge of the Hundred Mile.
The lodge here, Shaw’s, is a magical little oasis. It is the first way station for those traveling south, dazzled by achievements after their first difficult week, and the last for us traveling north, almost in sight of the end of our journey. There is a lot of energy here, the energy of beginnings and endings.
I’m in the heart of Maine, this endless wild place, and it’s the beginning of the end.