Sluice Brook to Route 27
Moose Camp to Aspen Or Birch Camp
AT miles: 18.7
Total miles: 2009.1
Elevation change: 6004ft gain, 6073ft loss
First moose and mile 2000. Now that is a winning combination and the foundation of one of the rootinous and tootinous days I’ve had in a while. The views were limited and timid when compared with the vastness of the Saddlebacks yesterday, but the vibes, oh the vibes, were so freaking pleasant all day. Even though all that I did was walk up and over two humongous mountains, the amount of sweat that I paid was not unreasonable and the final smooth descent had me feeling like I was flying. It was not the perfect day. It was not the grandest either. However, it was friendly and gentle, which was exactly what I needed after so many that were epic and harsh, great as the views may have been. It was a return to the good ol’ days, to a time before The Whites taught me to be as suspicious of the flats and downhills on the elevation profile as I was of the ups. That hasn’t changed after today, but I’m optimistic that those wounds will mend if this good stuff keeps up. C’mon, Maine…
The moose visited me in the night. As I kneeled outside my tent to pee with just the dim glow of my red headlamp, I heard something shuffle to my left. Something big. I turned my head, still in a sleepy daze, to see the unmistakably wide-set eyes of a herbivore glowing red at me from the dark. It was a moose for sure, no doubt about it. A startled moose. I blasted it with my high beam just to make sure, not knowing what else to do. We stared at each other, and I dimmed my light, deciding too late that I didn’t want to blind the poor creature. From my knees it looked huge, and I probably would have reached the same conclusion had I been standing. I looked down, looked up, and it was gone, crashing through the forest undergrowth. After lying back down, I realized how vulnerable I had been. If the moose had charged, there wasn’t much that I could have done, half-wrapped in my quilt as I was. What makes a moose charge? Bright lights? I was too tired to give it much consideration, and fell back to sleep, unconcerned that it might return.
The moose encounter felt like a dream when my alarm buzzed me awake. The day was bright, the stream rushing, and I was alive. Good enough reasons to start the day, I thought. My tummy was ravenous, and I ate handfuls of trail mix as I squirmed around and got ready to hike. At 8:45am, I shrugged on my pack, said thanks to my campspot, and got moving.
The trail started uphill, but it was gentle as could be, and resplendent with visual flourishes to distract my mind from the slight humidity draped over the land by the high gray clouds above. The classic mix of bright green beech and greasy red maple filled the forest from floor to ceiling, and bunches of painted trillium watched me pass with their unsettling red eyes. Eventually these visions of spring gave way to dense spruce as the trail climbed back into the mossy world of the subalpine.
The trees closed in, grabbing at my sleeves as I finished up the final steep push to Lone Mountain. There was nothing waiting on top besides satisfaction and a small sign marking the wooded summit, so I kept moving after a gulp of water. The following ridgwalk was straight forward and uneventful except for the numerous blow downs lying across the trail. It was actually kind of surprising to me to see how many trees fall down over the course of a year or two. More surprising was how difficult it was to get around them. The small trees were dense, often holding hands, and I reaped a greater appreciation for the trail that cut a relatively easy path through the thickets of wood and needle.
The steep side trails to the peaks of Abraham and Sugarloaf did not interest me in the slightest, even as summit-crazed as I am, so instead I followed the trail for the long descent to the notch between this high mountain and the next. The wind wailed and howled through the trees on this aspect, and I was exposed to its full force on an open traverse of a crumbly slope. It pushed me around, and I laughed and pushed it back. Steep scrambles on broken stone were reminiscent of The Whites, but soon enough I was at the bottom, feeling athletic and accomplished. I crossed the rocky Carrabassett River on a wooden plank, then plopped down next to a boulder for lunch. One mountain down, one to go.
Full on all but a few scraps left in my food bag, I struck out to climb the Crocker Mountains at a measured pace. I knew I had a long way up to go, so I took it easy, deciding that a long easy climb was better than a short sweaty one. Once again, I rode the transition from green to dark green as I climbed. The trail was steep and rocky at times, but never required my hands, so I felt like I was actually hiking rather than climbing. And soon enough, not out of breath or dripping sweat, I crested the forested summit of South Crocker Mountain. A short spur trail gained me a sweet view of everything that I had already hiked in the morning, from Sugarloaf to Abraham across a deep valley of wind. Lenticular clouds layered in stratified bulges of different gray hues hung in the sky, unmoving and solid looking relative to the lower whisps of frayed cloud that scooted up the slopes of distant ridges.
The down and up to North Crocker was a breeze, as was the mega-descent to the highway on the other side. Written in stones along the trail, just a short distance from the top, was “2000”. I was surprised to see it, unaware of the impending milestone, and stared at it blankly. What did it mean? Nothing to me today. Not when the hiking was finally so smooth. Not with Katahdin, the ultimate milestone, so near. Before I could get bogged down in the mess of the existential, I let my feet do the thinking during the bouncy decent to the trailhead. I danced on roots and rocks, through leaves and across stepping stones. With the speed came the unavoidable toe stubs, but they were all worth it to feel the freedom of open trail again. Forget milestones, it was the thrill that mattered. With long pole vaults across tricky ground and weightless hops over high roots, it sometimes felt as if I were levitating, or maybe flying. At least as much as a flying fish, flying squirrel, or Buzz Lightyear.
Near the bottom, my whistle coaxed the distant Tango to turn around and race up the trail to meet me. He bounced around, then blitzed back to SpiceRack, proud to report that he had found me. When I caught her, she handed me a bagel and sweet tea, fuel for the final half-mile to home. Upon reaching Blackbird, I showered and settled in with a bag of chips and a tub of hummus while the waffle fries, then pizza baked in the oven. Aspen leaves quaked in the wind, and the mosquitoes forced us to close up for the evening. I watched them float on buzzing wings, drunkenly bouncing and bobbing as they do, but was not jealous of their ability, for I had flown today as well.