By: Marian Van Vlack, Lifetime Girl Scout from Whitesville, NY
Today I write from a dock looking out at a beautiful lake in southern New Hampshire. I will be spending the next two days here as I reflect on the incredible adventure I have just completed and begin to look toward the future and joining the “real world” once again.
After leaving Stratton I tackled my lat big mountains before Katahdin, which became a running joke because there are still mountains farther north, they just aren’t quite as tall. My day over the Bigelow range was pretty fun and there were some great views that I was able to enjoy, although that day was pretty cloudy so I didn’t get to see as much as I would have liked to. I stayed at a campsite which had these massive boulders you could sit under, which was nice because it was raining. This was only about the fifth time I’d set up my tent on the trail and it was the first time it rained. I was getting very frustrated because it seemed that every time I took my tent out to set it up the rain would get worse.
The next morning was amazing though. There was enough wind in the early morning that it dried out my tent and the rain had left the forest looking rich and vibrant. I had a wonderful hike that day. I found several patches of blueberries and spent a long time picking and eating them. I ended up at the West Carry Pond shelter and when I got there I met a trail angel who was delivering a whole tub full of goodies. Apparently this man and his wife help maintain the shelter and his wife bakes cookies and bars twice a week for hikers to enjoy. The cookies were amazing! I also went for a swim in the pond with a few other people who were staying there, which was cold but very refreshing.
I found it to be completely unfair that on the one day I was in a time crunch I had to pass such beautiful places. Just before Caratunk, ME, the train crosses the Kennebec River. This river is much larger than most on the trail and the depth can fluctuate greatly due to the dams that feed into it. Crossing the river can be very dangerous so the AT has hired a ferry service to run during specific times all summer. Between 9-11 a.m. and 2-4 p.m. a man with a canoe waits to take hikers across the river. I had 14 miles to hike to get to the river and I needed to get there before 4. On my way I passed East Carry Pond, which has a nice sandy beach and is lined with blueberries. I could have stayed there all day, but I had to keep hiking. There were other spots along the way where I wanted to stop but I needed to keep going to make it to the ferry. I did end up making it with plenty of time, and it was so fun to cross the river in a canoe.
I decided to stay the night in Caratunk at the Sterling Inn. There’s not much going on in the town of Caratunk. There’s also no cell service, so my friends and I went to the post office where there is a public phone we could use to call the shuttle from the Inn to come pick us up. The Sterling Inn is a very nice place with soda and Ben and Jerry’s for sale as well as a massive selection of hiker foods to resupply. A group of us went out to dinner and when we came back we decided to watch Forest Gump. We discovered that the entire movie could be applied to hiking the trail. It was surprisingly difficult to leave the next morning, but we really did need to get back on the trail. My original plan was to spend three days hiking from Caratunk to Monson, but the people I was with got ambitious and we made it there in just two days, pulling a 21 mile day into town.
Monson is the last town before the 100 mile wilderness and everyone stops there to resupply and soak up all the luxuries of town. So many people I knew from the trail were already there, some I hadn’t seen in weeks. We all stayed at Shaw’s, which is an amazing place run by a couple who thru hiked a few years ago. I felt much more like a member of the family than a guest and I was so glad I had already planned to stay there two days.
Finally, it was time to enter the wilderness. The group I left town with didn’t get on the trail until 2 p.m., and we hiked about 10 miles to a shelter, which we didn’t get to until it was dark. There we met up with another group that had left earlier. We decided to hike together for the first few days. It was completely insane to have a group of nine hiking through the wilderness. We had a lot of fun, but eventually we broke off into smaller groups who had more similar hiking styles. I ended up hiking the whole wilderness with a guy named Sugar and two girls named Smoke Signal and Naptime. The second night we stayed at Cloud Pond, which was very pretty but also very cold. We decided to head to Gulf Hagas the following day, which is an area with lots of great waterfalls and swimming holes. This was the day we really discovered that the wilderness is not very wild.
Originally, the 100 mile wilderness was exactly what it sounds like. Now, however, there are roads and cars and day hikers. It is still a long way from any towns, but not quite as isolated as I had thought. The benefits of having lots of day hikers was meeting a very generous family who gave us some fresh baked blueberry muffins and zucchini bread. That night four of us camped just off the trail, setting up a tarp and our sleeping bags without a tent. Luckily it didn’t rain that night.
I had my first view of Katahdin from the top of White Cap Mountain. I almost didn’t see it because it was just so massive I was looking at the peaks that were much smaller. When I realized which mountain was actually Katahdin I was overwhelmed. It is an extremely impressive and intimidating mountain. After that view the trail flattened out and we were able to cover some pretty big miles. One night we found this sandy beach on this gorgeous lake and we just couldn’t leave, so we set up camp and went skinny-dipping and made a fire. That was my favorite night on the trail.
The next day we hiked 20 miles but we really took our time. We stopped at this beach for a long lunch, then after packing everything up and hiking a few minutes we found another beach and decided to swim for a while. We got to the campsite just before dark, but it was such a fun day that it didn’t matter. The next day we left the wilderness. Everything started to feel surreal as I kept seeing the mountain that I had been thinking about for weeks. We stayed at the Abol Bridge campsite in a bunkhouse, which was wonderful because it rained all night. The next day was my last day hiking with the full pack. We headed into Baxter State Park and took our time hiking those last 10 miles. It was beautiful hike and the trail was so well maintained it felt just like a walk in the park. We set up camp together for the last time and spent one last night together.
My adventurous parents met me in the park to tackle Katahdin with me. I put just the gear I needed in a day pack, which made me feel like I could fly up the mountain. We hiked the first part of the mountain together but I had to pick up the pace a little to make sure I would see everyone at the summit. The first part of the mountain is pretty easy going, then it gets a little steeper, then there are some rocky areas you have to really climb up, then above tree line there is a section with huge boulders that you just have to scramble over, then there is mostly just a nice ridge walk to the summit. I got to the scramble and I started to doubt whether my mom would be able to make it through that section. Apparently that is the point where a lot of people are forced to turn back because it is just so difficult.
When I was a mile from the summit I had so much adrenaline and as I got closer to the summit the smile on my face grew like crazy. The summit was insane! I saw so many people who I had hiked with off and on through the wilderness or had seen in Monson. It was like a big family reunion. The shear joy up there was an amazing thing to see. After lots of pictures and hugs, I started heading back down the mountain. My parents had told some people to let me know that they had turned back and would meet me at the base. The views on the way down were gorgeous and it was a weird feeling to take the same trail going down a mountain that I had taken on the way up. I met my parents at the base of the mountain and introduced them to some of my friends. We all piled into the truck and headed to Millinocket, the last trail town. We dropped my friends off at the hiker hostel where some of my other friends were already. We all hung around and celebrated for a bit, then said our goodbyes so my parents and I could head to New Hampshire for a few days on the lake.
It was a weird feeling this morning knowing that I wouldn’t be walking all day every day anymore. It still hasn’t quite set in yet, and I almost feel like I’m just taking a zero and I’ll be heading back on the trail soon. This has been one of the most challenging, exciting, and rewarding experiences of my life and I know I will continue to cherish it for the rest of my life, but there will certainly be more adventures to come.