Katahdin Stream Campground to Roberts Road
Overwhelming Stress Camp to Stuck In The Mud Camp
AT miles: 9.3
ECT miles: 8.3
Total miles: 2207.5
Elevation change: 5515ft gain, 5279ft loss
Holy moly, what an eventful day. Not only did SpiceRack, my brother, and I go for the summit of Katahdin, but the first phase of the ECT north of the mountain kept us all awake and on edge until the wee hours of tomorrow. It was adventure that we were seeking, and it was adventure that we got. Lost in all the excitement were any profound emotions or revelations relating to me completing not just my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, but also the Triple Crown. I am too savvy to have expected a life-changing epiphany after being left blank at the end of the PCT and CDT, but I did hope for a little more tingle and feels when I finally did put my hand on that famous summit sign. However, that stuff will come, I am sure, as it always does when I least expect it. In the moment, there was still too much confusion, unease, and stress in my brain. My heart was locked in a cage of fight or flight, unable to pass all but the tiniest glimpse of what it all really meant to the surface. The rest will bubble up in time when I am ready. While I dance along the edge of sleep, or sip tea from the couch as I watch the clouds swirl and change. Maybe it will all shake loose the next time I see Katahdin at the start of Spice’s sobo thru-hike, or maybe I receive tiny arresting gems one by one over the next few weeks or years. Perhaps, there is nothing else. Perhaps I already gained all that I will gain when my feet were on the trail, somewhere between Mexico and Canada, then between Canada and Mexico, and this time between Springer and Katahdin. Thru-hiking has always been about the journey for me anyway, not some prize or sense of achievement waiting at the end. I may have already received my coronation gifts, long before reaching the top of Katahdin, even though it will take me some time to figure out what they are, if I ever do. Either way, I will carry them with me north of Katahdin, beyond the trail. May every rustle of leaves remind me of the wisdom of the woods. May each rocky step remind me to move mindfully. May each staircase or clap of thunder remind me to be humble. May each new begining remind me to take a chance. May every dank burrito remind me of my good fortune. Katahdin did not disappoint. It was the perfect place to finish one journey and start another. Am I ready for the next? Only one way to find out…
I was awake and anxious well before my summit-day alarm sounded. The morning was bright and there was much to do. The neighbors in the next campsite rustled their gear and slammed their car doors. Should we be doing the same? I lay wondering, envisioning, going over the plan in my head. Then the alarm buzzed and it was time to put it into action, to see how it would all shake out.
Between mouthfuls of peanut butter toast and coffee, we packed up and moved Blackbird 100 yards to the the trailhead parking lot. It was already half-full at 6:30am, buzzing with activity. Lots of day hikers with tiny packs and shiny shoes that made me feel raggedy and worn in the best way. The first wave disappeared up the trail before I had smeared on my sunscreen and Spice had braided my hair. Summit braids. A little after 7am, all three of us followed, dipping into the trees after a final, intimidating look at the clouded summit high above.
The trail up Katahdin Stream was wide and relatively flat for the first two miles, which only meant that the next few would be all the steeper. Still, as I learned many states ago, an easy mile is always a good thing despite the deferred cost, so I embraced the warm-up through the dense mossy green of the old wood. Then, as if on cue, a slip just before the steep marked the true beginning of our adventure. Spice wrenched her shoulder as her foot slid on a damp root. Fortunately, she stayed upright, but I could see the agony in her face briefly before I dropped my pack and plunged into the stream with a slip to grab the wayward pole that had flung into the current. It was all an ungraceful blur, but everyone was safe and all poles accounted for. I was reminded of the time Spice jacked up the same shoulder after a slip on some ice on the CDT, and was not surprised when she again demonstrated her tremendous toughness, grabbed her poles, and kept hiking. What a boss.
The steep forest scrambling that followed was challenging and fun, and it wasn’t until we reached the treeline that we got to see what it was all for. We were well into the mountains now, almost level with the cliffy point of The Owl across a deep valley of banded conifers. Katahdin and most of the nearby hills were bathed in sunshine, but the rest of Maine appeared to be blanketed in a puffy quilt of low clouds. At our altitude, we were even with them and so I felt as if we were on an island, distant from the rest of the world and trail. Looking up, I couldn’t see the top of the mountain, but the final ridge of steep boulders shot to meet the sky in a dramatic point. A flag cloud billowed and clung to the southern slope, making the scene about as epic as I could imagine. It looked just like one of so many pictures that I had seen of the summit of Everest taken from Camp 4 on the South Col, the steep triangle trailing a plume of snow scraped free by the jet stream itself. Tiny day hikers crawled like ants over the big blocks of granite above, which was actually a comforting sight.
Then it was our turn. The scrambling was fun more than anything else. Good hand holds and an iron bar or two where I needed them gave me confidence on the grippy granite. We all moved together, laughing and farting our way to the top. Well, Arthur did enough farting for all of us. Spice didn’t complain once about her shoulder if it was troubling her, and climbed strong. Speed was not the name of the game, and we took our time, making sure to enjoy the widening views from each epic vantage point. A cloud broke free from the mass below and blew across the sun occasionally, but the day was warm, perfect for a summit.
The poles came back out when we topped out at The Gateway, which was nothing as epic as it sounds. The boulders disappeared behind us over the mountain horizon, and the wide expanse of the summit plateau spread to the sky ahead. The terrain was much like that of the Presidential Range, rocky and licheny, and rose in a long gradual swoop to a distant ridge where more ants clambered. One of those little prominences was the end, just a little over a mile away.
I hiked in front, moving purposefully, allowing my mind and soul to adjust to the feeling of being so close to the end. I was not eager to dive into the deep end all at once, instead acclimating step by step into the shallows of the pool of emotions. I wanted to savor the moment and be open to whatever feelings bubbled to the surface. I even tugged at my own heart strings, remembering the beginning and end of the PCT and CDT, in an attempt to jostle my heart loose from the steadfast grip of disbelief. At this point, within sight of the terminus, I finally let myself believe that I was going to make it. However, aside from a few shudders of nostalgic melancholy that brushed my mind like a sputtering two-stroke, I felt nothing. Tired and grateful, but nothing that felt worthy of the situation.
Nearing the top of the final rise, the summit sign A-frame sprouted from the rocks. That gave me pause. It was surreal to finally gaze on it for myself after seeing so many pictures taken by others. And like McAfee Knob before, the pictures had not done the top of Katahdin justice at all. The tall wooden sign was cool, but the summit panorama was enough of a marker for me. Katahdin needed no adornment to flaunt its significance. Still, once three dudes stopped talking about fishing long enough to vacate the hallowed ground, I stepped up the weather beaten wood and felt the weight of the journey settle on my shoulders like so many thousands before me. I was here. I was one of them. It was done.
We all three settled nearby to soak it in and cook up some ramen. If I was disappointed about my numbness to the situation, then the others seemed to feel that as well. They asked me how I felt and this and that, but I had nothing for them. I had nothing for myself except for a desire to get down and rest. The revelations would come, or not, and there was still much to do today.
My armor broke a little bit after the break, and I even cracked a few jokes after we all posed on the summit again. Then Arthur turned back the way we had come to collect Blackbird and Tango from his sleepover, while Spice and I continued along the ridge to traverse the Knife’s Edge and connect to the International Appalachian Trail (IAT). The rest of the ECT still lay ahead. I was only maybe halfway done.
From Katahdin’s summit I had gawked in sick fascination at our route down the eastern ridge of the mountain. I believed that there was a viable, non-technical route that navigated the serrated clifftop, but on faith and trust alone. My eyes certainly told a different story. The Knife’s Edge looked ludicrous, but if I had learned anything from the intimidating passes of the Sierra High Route, it was that cliffs are usually easier to climb than they appear from a distance. There is always a crack or ledge camouflaged amongst the shadows, always the perfect handhold to unlock the solution. Sure enough, there were more ants moving with careful slowness on the blade itself. They could do it, Spice could do it, I could do it.
I stepped away from the summit sign, leaving the white blazes behind me for good, jumping ship for the blue blazes of post-AT life. We followed them along a narrow ridge of talus and boulders over another sub-peak of Mount Katahdin, then dropped steeply into the jigs and jags of the true Edge. The air was perfectly calm, the blinking sun warm, bordering on hot. The rubber of my soles stuck to the coarse granite with satisfying solidness. My poles rubbed my spine uncomfortably where I had slid them between my back and backpack to free my hands.
We moved together, then apart, taking careful steps and holding tight when we needed to. Progress was slow, but it was steady, and there were only a few spots that were truly life-threatening. Mostly it was just a ton of fun. The sketchiest portion on the far side of the Chimney was the last careful obstacle before the hands-on scramble up Pamola Mountain, the end of the Knife’s Edge. Looking back, my spirit soared. Katahdin looked even grander from this side, steeper, cliffier, wider, and more wild. More awesome peaks wrapped around to the west, heading north, and I found myself smitten. Baxter State Park had so much more to explore, so much to call me back.
Spirits remained high on the gradual, yet careful descent down the Helon Taylor Trail to Roaring Brook Campground. By the time Spice and I stumped into the parking lot, the bugs were back at us and I was struck by a vicious afternoon lassitude. It felt as if the day should have been over, like Arthur would be waiting for us with Blackbird next to a smokey fire. But that was for the other campers. Our day, as complicated and fulfilling as it had already been, still had some questions that needed answering, and it was on us to find them.
The IAT connector route dipped off the camp road about a mile later onto the Katahdin Lake trail that followed an old dirt road into the dense heart of the woods. The mosquitoes were thick, but it was the mud that stole the show, and Spice’s shoe when she stepped into the deepest of oozes. I reached into the swallowing muck as she stood like a flamingo on one leg, pulling up the unrecognizable blob, dripping and brown. I scooped what I could from the toe box, but it was with squishy steps that Spice continued on.
We took a short break at a strangely abandoned wilderness camp along the shore of the lake. The scattered cabins sat uninhabited and locked, but the plastic adarondack chairs on the beach were fair game. Spice rinsed off the mud. I sat. Mosquitoes buzzed. Katahdin already looked distant to my left, although it still felt fresh in my mind. Still, I could not get excited about my accomplishment. Not yet. I was more concerned with finding the officially nonexistent, yet supposedly existent, blue blazes to the true start of the Maine section of the IAT. We had just a vague comment on which to go by, and the sun was working low, doing that awesome thing where it warms the day with color just as the temperature makes its first refreshing dip towards the coolness of night.
The trail was hidden in the tall grasses that swayed in the quiet breeze. Once we were on it, however, it was easy to keep underfoot the wide cut through the densest forest imaginable. We burrowed through young beech that linked arms above our heads, catching the light and deepening our shade. Even younger beech carpeted the dirt two-track, sometimes rising to face level where it clawed at my ears and beard. Spice and I both agreed that this all felt like a true adventure, a fun one that engaged the body and satisfied the soul by keeping us on our toes, observant and shrewd. It was a completely different vibe from that of the well-trodden AT. Who knew when someone else would come this way?
The high of total success was intoxicating when I touched my first official IAT trail crest upon reaching Katahdin Loop Road. All of the things that had to go right had gone right. Spice and I were out of Baxter, embarking on a mysterious international adventure to one of the many tips of the continent. We were healthy. We were happy. That’s what was important, and we were replete with both. We laughed and hollered for Tango as we approached the trailhead of our planned rendezvous with Arthur. Any second now we would round the bend to see that pink tongue lolling from that foxy face as he bounded toward us. On a whim, I turned on our Garmin InReach to search for messages. It was our only mode of communication with the outside world in the Maine flatlands. The device beeped on, then chimed with a new text. I read it and stopped in disbelief. “Stuck in mud. I tried getting her out for about an hour. Walking into town, it’s 10 miles. But I just got service and so will try to call someone.” So much for everything going according to plan. Everything had changed, and now we were stranded in a remote corner of the Maine wilderness with just a single sleeping pad and quilt between us, not to mention just a few bars and a handful of trail mix to get us through the night. You wanted adventure, and now you got it…