Kennebec River to Moxie Bald Mountain
In Need Of A Ship Camp to Sunset Breeze Camp
AT miles: 17.1
Total miles: 2062.8
Elevation change: 4659ft gain, 2549ft loss
The challenges of thru-hiking are varied and ever changing. They manifest as both physical and mental tests, with one often leading to the other. A grueling climb burns the legs, and that fire eventually works through the body, past the neck, and into the mind. The struggle becomes mental just as much as physical. Other times, the body and mind cover for one another. A poor night of sleep may dull the brain, but if the trail is forgiving, then the legs can carry the day. And once one challenge is temporarily overcome, there is always the next, waiting to levy a different tax on the strength and fortitude that remains. Yesterday, the humidity and slippery rocks and roots took the place of intense physical exertion as Maine flattened out north of the Bigelows. The day before, those mountains threw the book at me when I was at a mental high, harvesting what energy they could from my deep well of stoke. Well today, all challenges stayed away, except for one. I’ve been fortunate with the biting insect situation so far on this journey, but today the hammer dropped, whatever that means. Mosquitos and biting black flies were relentless in their pursuit of my yummy blood, and drank the very essence of my life, leaving itchy welts as thank you notes for what they’d taken without consent. Fortunately, outrunning and swiping at them when I did pause briefly was the only real obstacle of the day. Maine was gentle as could be, and even threw in some good views as a bonus. Not to mention the boat ride, burrito, and salad. Today was not a perfect day, the bugs made sure of that, but I’ll take it over a sleepy grind over a mountain in dense humidity anyday. Bugs suck, literally, but not that much.
The ferry across the Kennebec River did not open for business until 9am, so I was allowed to approach the morning at a slightly more leisurely pace than usual. Despite the bright sunshine and clear sky, I hunkered in my tent, cautious of striking my camp too early only to be eaten alive by mosquitoes while I waited for the boat. When I did finally meander down to the water, I realized that I had been wrong to worry. There were no bugs. The steady breeze kept them grounded, or maybe they were being kind, giving me the peace of morning as a gift to help me enjoy the glorious day. There was not a cloud in the sky and the humidity was gone, replaced by a dry coolness that deserved no mention besides saying that it was perfect. The sun reflected bright off the passing water as it had hours before, turning my tent into a blinding lantern as I tired to snooze away the morning.
I could see a tiny SpiceRack and a tinier Tango on the opposite shore. She sat, he inspected. We shared a wave and a holler, then Greg, the ferry operator, slid his canoe into the water and began to paddle in my direction with Maggie the golden retriever at the prow. When he safely docked amid the rounded river stones, I signed a waiver, clipped on a life jacket, and loaded in. I was his first hiker of the season, he said, which felt like an honor. I did my best to kick off his season well, pulling long and strong on my paddle as we drifted back to the eastern shore. The cruise was over in just a few minutes, but it was a good few minutes. A nice change from hiking. Once I was safely ashore, I thanked Greg for the smooth passage and accepted the victory bagel from Spice. Tango accepted a few pieces of his own, which was trickle down economics at its bagely best.
A half-mile later, it was time for a break. The boat ride had been super intense, after all. I dropped my stuff outside Blackbird, kicked off my shoes, and planted on the couch. The tufted seeds of cottonwood (probably, maybe, probably not) floated in the air, giving visual form to the drifting currents of the indecisive breeze. I watched them glow and bounce as Spice fed me fresh cookies, an awesome salad, and a burrito. I was soon too full to hike, and so remained reclined while my belly juices did their thing. Finally, at 1pm, with less than a mile to my name and resupplied for the next 40 miles, I struck out to see what Maine had in store for me for the rest of the day.
The trail was as easy as could be for the first few miles. Not only was it flat, but the tread was smooth and dry, and my legs immediately remembered the speed of the Mid-Atlantic. I flew through the shady pine, feeling fast, feeling strong, feeling happy. The grade steepened, but just slightly when I turned up Holly Brook. The coolness of the nearby water canceled out the extra heat that I was generating on the mellow uphill. I had a long chat with a passing trail runner, then raced ahead, trying to earn back those minutes with a little extra push.
And push I did up the steep slope of Pleasant Pond Mountain. I never saw the pond, but I got a good look at the roots and rocks of the peak. Gradually, the trail eased as it traded blazes for cairns on the slabby top of the mountain. Big views way back to the Bigelows and beyond opened up behind me as the breeze caught and twirled my pinwheel. On top, I had another satisfying conversation with two day hikers, and when I left them to enjoy the fresh air, we were all wiser for our time together. There’s a turkey vulture for everyone…
All this boating, lounging, and chatting had put me in a deep hole mileage wise, and rather than let go of my expectations, I hiked harder to give my legs a chance to surprise me yet again. The trail was mostly complicit in this quest, and I sped down the long, gradual ridge from the summit across flat stone and soft pine needles. I even got to speed on a quarter mile walk along a dirt road. It doesn’t get faster than that. The smell of a campfire reached my nose. The aspen leaves quaked in the breeze.
On the far side of a rock hop across Baker Stream, I entered mosquito hell. Who knows why they were all hanging out there, or if they knew I was coming, but they were more than happy to ride my wake. As long as I was moving, there wasn’t much that they could do, but if I ever stopped to snap a picture or sip some water, I immediately received a face full of gangly legs and probing proboscises. They went for my forehead and ankles. The rest of my body was covered by treated clothing, so they didn’t have much choice. I was a poor buffet, but they didn’t seem to mind.
Through the flat forest I flew, stopping just long enough to filter some water to cool my burning engine. I killed dozens of mosquitoes, but was bitten by probably half as many anyway. There were just too many. Eventually, the trail gently lifted from the marshy flats on the ascent to the top of Moxie Bald Mountain, and the bugs disappeared by the handful. Leafy dirt gave way to stone sidewalks through the moss, as maple turned to spruce. This familiar transition was welcome as it promised a breeze and view.
The sun was dipping low by the time I burst out of the trees near the summit. The bugs could do me no harm up here in the light wind, so I stopped, turned, and stared. So many mountains, some familiar, most not, spread across the horizon like a loosely crumpled blanket of dark gray velvet. Ponds and lakes gleamed in between the folds. One in particular was blinding as it reflected the sun straight into my face.
I drank in the Moxie vista, sucking it for all it was worth like the mosquitoes had sucked my blood. I could have stayed all night, watching the sunset-to-stars glory, but camp was calling me two miles further in what was surely another pit of mosquitoes. Wait a minute, why not just camp here? Spice had put the idea in my mind during our visit in the morning, and now it seemed better than ever. I turned around and marched the 100 yards back to the top. There was enough puddle water to get me through the night, and just enough flat to pitch my tent. It took a few rocks where the sand wasn’t deep enough to sink a stake, but my tent soon fluttered and flapped in the wind, just barely stable enough to give me confidence that it would make it through the night.
I filtered puddle water and sat on the wide summit slab with my couscous as the sun finally dunked below the horizon, leaving a bright dot burned in the middle of my vision for minutes afterwards. The warmth of the day drained from the sky and air, and I bundled under my quilt after watching the first stars sprinkle above. I chuckled to myself as I finally gave in to sleep. It was like Spice had planned it this way, the queen of sunshow camps that she is. All the food that she fed me to keep me from hiking. Was she in cahoots with the day hikers and mosquitoes too? I couldn’t rule it out, and I thanked her for putting me in this spot, in this moment.