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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 32 - Stratton, Maine and Crossing the Kennebec
A great sense of isolation was descending over me along with a sense of change.
I stood on some weathered planks on a covered wooden porch looking past a few trees to the raindrop dimpled surface of Long Pond. Rain had started falling on the afternoon of August 1st after we had hiked about 12 miles. The rain had started coming down hard just as we reached the pond. When we saw an unoccupied cabin with a wide front porch near the pond's edge, we decided to use the porch for some temporary shelter. There was no one around. Nearby, there were a couple other cabins, but they seemed deserted as well. As the afternoon passed the rain continued and we decided to use the porch as a shelter for the night.
While we waited out the rain showers underneath the porch's roof, Dave and I studied our maps and guidebooks. The terrain had become much easier than it had been through the Mahoosucs. With gentler slopes though, there were more spots where water could settle and create mud on the trail. We were starting to come across more muddy conditions than we had seen anywhere else on the trail. We were also encountering more ponds and lakes. For most of our trip from Georgia up until that point, we had noticed a lack of lakes and ponds, especially natural lakes. Growing up in New York and hiking and camping in the Adirondack Mountains, we were used to forests filled with lakes, streams, ponds, rivers, and swamps. We had found most of the Appalachian Trail to be much drier. There are very few natural lakes and only occasional reservoirs formed by dams on rivers – Fontana Dam in Tennessee just outside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one example. Now that we were in Maine we noticed that the nature of the forest had changed. We were reminded of the Adirondacks where water drains slowly, and the landscape, carved out by glaciers during the Ice Age, is conducive to the formation of ponds and lakes – some of which are quite large. It made for a different type of scenery than what we had gotten used to during the earlier parts of the trip.
We stayed on the porch for the night without incident and then we got up and started hiking though the wet woods the next morning. It was a short way to Sabbath Day Pond where there was a lean-to. We had to tiptoe and leap around several muddy sections of the trail between Long Pond and Sabbath Day Pond. We managed to keep our feet from getting too caked with mud, but the bright white sneakers that Dave had bought in Bethel after his boots gave up the ghost on Old Speck Mountain didn't stay white for long.
At Sabbath Day Pond lean-to we saw some people. They were the only people we saw all morning until we reached Route 4. After we crossed Route 4 we began gaining altitude and we ended up climbing a few mountains as the sun burned off the clouds and warmed us up. We climbed Saddleback Mountain, the Horn, and Saddleback Junior. As always, stopping to enjoy the views put me into a contemplative mood. The sky was a little hazy but as I gazed out from the mountain tops, I saw miles and miles of unbroken forest and glistening lakes. Gone were views that included a lot of farmland, towns, country roads, and villages. A great sense of isolation was descending over me along with a sense of change. I could feel the end of the trip was near. I had spent so much of my time on the trip thinking only of intermediate goals – the next shelter, the next mountain, the next road crossing where there would be a general store…. Now I was thinking about the final goal - Katahdin, but more than that, for the first time on the trip I was starting to think about what lay beyond Mount Katahdin. I was thinking about what would happen when the trip was over. I was registered to start my first semester of college at the end of August. It was less than a month away. 'What was college going to be like,' I was starting to wonder, and 'what was I going to end up doing with my life?' The thru-hike had created a sense of suspended time that had lasted for close to 5 months. Now that sense was starting to unravel like some kind of spell that was wearing off. I found myself to be alternately sad for the end of the trip, then excited and curious about what was ahead for me. When I found myself dwelling too much on those thoughts, I told myself that I had come too far to lose my focus. I still had many miles left to hike before I could start thinking much about college and my future.
By the end of the day we had traveled 20 miles. It was the first 20 mile day that we had put in since my return to the trail a week and a half ago, after being home for 11 days recovering from an illness. We stayed at Poplar Ridge lean-to that night – tired but satisfied with a good days hike.
Apparently she had experience with thru-hikers and she knew it was important to manage expectations in terms of quantity of food that would be available.
The Widow's Walk
The next day brought a little bit of rain and another significant mountain to climb. It was a fairly tough climb up Spaulding Mountain, but from Spaulding Mountain it was smooth sailing down to Route 27. When we came out onto the road we paused to consider our options. We had hiked 16 miles to that point. We knew that just down the road apiece was the town of Stratton, Maine. We had heard there was an inn that served dinner and breakfast for $10 per night and was known to be friendly to hikers. We hung around the intersection of trail and road trying to decide whether we wanted to hike 5 miles along the road into town to try finding the place which was called the "Widow's Walk".
While we were considering our options we noticed that there was a steep bank that sloped down from the opposite side of the road next to the trail crossing. The bank was covered with wild raspberry bushes loaded with bright red berries. Soon Dave and I were wading into the raspberry canes, gorging ourselves on the plump berries. We moved carefully to avoid the thorns, but the berries grew so thick along the canes that we didn't have to move too far to get handfuls. We lost track of time and ended up browsing on berries for at least an hour. Finally we emerged from the raspberries back to the roadside with our fingers and T-shirts stained red from the berry-juice. We were back to the original dilemma – should we try hitching or perhaps hiking 5 miles into Stratton on the hope that we could find the "Widow's Walk"?
Our curiosity and love of hot meals got the best of us and we decided to go into town. No sooner did we shoulder our packs and start hiking down the road when a car pulled over and a dark-haired woman inside asked us if we needed a ride into town. We gratefully said yes and climbed into the car. She asked us where we were going and we replied that we were looking for a place called the "Widow's Walk". The lady just nodded and then informed us that she was the owner of the place and she thought that we might have been looking to go there. Sometimes things just seem like they are meant to be, and this was one of those times.
Before long we were pulling into the driveway of a large Victorian-style house with a very distinctive tower on one side of the building. The house had been built in the late 1800s. The current owners were running it as more than a bed-and-breakfast because they served dinner as well. Our host showed us to our rooms, informed us when dinner would be served, then left us on our own. One thing she emphasized up front was that dinner would only consist of one helping – it was not all you can eat!
Apparently she had experience with thru-hikers and she knew it was important to manage expectations in terms of quantity of food that would be available.
The dinner was delicious. We had pork roast, peas, and applesauce. I had never enjoyed eating peas – most of my experience with them was eating canned or frozen peas that were pale green, wrinkled, and mushy. The peas at the Widow's Walk were just picked from their garden. They were bright green, fresh, and plump. When I tried them, it was a revelation. They were lightly buttered and they popped in my mouth. They were so much better than any other peas I had ever eaten before that I think Dave got sick of hearing me tell him over and over that at first I had just eaten them to be polite but it turned out that I really liked them!
We were joined at dinner that evening by a guy who had hiked the trail in 1980. He was currently working at a hostel in the White Mountains which was run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Our conversation during dinner centered around hiking the AT, and eventually we started talking about many famous AT hikers and record holders such as Warren Doyle who at that time had done it the fastest, people like Ed Garvey and Grandma Gatewood who had hiked it multiple times, different ones that could have been the oldest (here Grandma Gatewood’s name came up again), and who might have been the youngest. The topic led us to discuss a recent National Geographic article about a young family that had hiked the trail a few years earlier. Their little boy who was six years old was acknowledged to be the youngest person to ever thru-hike the trail. There were varying opinions around the table whether or not it had been right for the parents to have their six-year-old son hike day after day with them for 6 to 8 months on a thru-hike. The conversation reminded me of some of my earliest hikes at about eight years old in the Adirondack Mountains with my father. I knew kids could handle hiking for miles over mountains – especially with a little energy boost. My memory of my first big hike was of starting out excited and full of energy, then running out of gas and dragging, followed by a surge of energy that lasted for the rest the hike after my dad gave me a Snickers bar. It had been a successful hike for us – overall I kept up with the group we were hiking with that day, but it had only been for a day. I did wonder what it must've been like for that six-year-old boy on those days when the he didn't want to hike.
That evening after dinnerwe were able to do our laundry and when we awoke the next morning, we were treated to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast with delicious raspberry jam. We left the “Widow's Walk” late – around 10 o'clock, and we couldn't get a ride to the trail so we had to hike the 5 miles back down the road. Once back on the trail we had a great day. The weather was beautiful and we enjoyed a fantastic view from the top of Avery Peak on Bigelow Mountain. We hiked right up until dark and we made it to Jerome Brook lean-to. It turned out to be a 21 mile day.
Hikers were expected to ford the Kennebec or find some other way to get across. There were no instructions. The trail simply led down to the water’s edge.
Dave and I knew that we would encounter a major trail landmark on the next day of hiking. Since we had started researching our trip, we had read and heard about the Kennebec River crossing. It was the only river on the entire trail where the trail did not go over a bridge to get across. The Kennebec at the place where the AT crossed was not a large river, but it was a river. It was not a stream. Hikers were expected to ford the Kennebec or find some other way to get across. There were no instructions. The trail simply led down to the water’s edge. There was a lot written about the Kennebec crossing, but very little of what was written was helpful. One report said that there was a hydroelectric plant upstream and a dam. When the plant opened the sluices on the dam, the current and water level increased and the river became difficult to cross. When the sluices were closed, the current was slow and the water level went down, making the river easy to cross. Of course there was nothing to indicate to us whether the plant had the sluices open or closed. Dave and I went to sleep that night at Jerome Brook lean-to hoping the weather would be nice and that something would tip us off when we reached the river's edge as to how we would get safely across. As we had so many times on the trip, we decided to keep our eyes and ears open and trust our luck.
I can't remember the details about Jerome Brook lean-to, but I do remember that many of the lean-to's in Maine had an unusual characteristic. Whereas most lean-tos we had seen both on the AT and in the Adirondack mountains had flat plank floors, many of the lean-tos in Maine had floors made from rows of wooden poles that were about the width of baseball bats. “Baseball bats” was what everybody called them in the shelter logs. There was an awful lot of griping about the "baseball bat" floors at many of the shelters. It was true that getting a good night’s sleep on the “baseball bats” was a challenge. To this day I don't know why they made the shelter floors that way. I suspect that it was cheap, readily available stock produced at the many lumber yards in Maine. At any rate, the floors provided great fodder for creative hikers to gripe about in the log entries.
As we hoped, the next day was also good weather. We made good time in the morning and we approached the Kennebec around noon. About a mile and a half away from the river we met a couple coming in the other direction. We asked them what the water level was on the river. They assured us the water was low and that we would get across with no problem. We were elated and we increased our pace to get to the river even faster before conditions could change.
Fear clutched at my stomach for a moment. I flailed my arms and kicked my feet, trying to keep my head above water.
When we reached the river we saw a stretch of water about 50 yards wide. From the water's edge it looked to be fairly shallow. There were no rapids, but we could tell there was a current over a rocky bottom due to the ripples on the surface. Sunlight glinted off the rippled water. The sky was blue and there was a short steep bank on the opposite shore rising up from a narrow gravel strand. At the top of the bank grew a line of trees, their green leaves fluttering in the breeze. The opposite shore looked very close, and very inviting.
Dave and I instantly swung into action. We had a plan for getting across. First we took off our packs and took off our shoes and socks. We then put our shoes (boots in my case, sneakers in Dave's) back on without socks. What we had learned during the course of our trip was that it was better to have dry socks if you had to wear wet boots, and we knew from experience that it was best to have protection for our feet as we waded across a rocky riverbed.
We also took out some black garbage bags and covered our packs, just in case we fell in so that our packs wouldn't get soaked all the way through. Then we put the packs back on with the hip belts unfastened so we could slide out of our packs straps quickly and easily if the need arose. Last, I found a good sturdy stick to hold in my free hand while I held my regular hiking stick in the other to help support me as I walked across. Dave did the same.
With all our preparations complete, we gripped our sticks and stepped into the cold water. At first the current was manageable. We felt the pull against our legs, but we could step through it and maintain a grip on the bottom. Once we got about 10 yards out into the flow two things happened. First, the strength of the current increased, and second, the characteristics of the bottom changed. The rocks on the bottom became loose and round. We started to slip and roll on the rocks like a couple cartoon characters rolling across a floor covered with giant greased ball bearings. Within moments my extra walking stick was lost as I reached out my hands to catch myself when I lost balance and plopped into the water. The string loop that I had strung through the handle of my regular hiking stick kept it secured to my wrist so I didn't lose that one as well. Instantly the current started bearing me away. To keep myself from being carried off, I grabbed one of the bowling ball sized rocks on the bottom, but it just started sliding across the bottom in my hands. After a moment I regained my footing, but I knew that if I tried to take another step, I would be borne away again.
Dave was having similar struggles. He was able to gain a foothold next to me. We both clung there with our feet wedged against some rough rocks anchored to the river bottom. We leaned against the current, both of us gripping our hiking sticks tightly with the ends wedged against the river bottom like our feet were.
I remember being bewildered – our plan wasn't working at all and I didn't know what to do. Dave apparently noticed that the black trash bag I had used to cover the bottom portion of my backpack had mostly come off and now it was filling with water and creating extra drag for me. Dave tried to reach over and pull the trash bag off my pack.
He shouted over the rushing water, "Let me clear this thing off your pack! It's not doing you any good now!"
For some reason, I didn't want him to. "Just leave it, just leave it!" I shouted back.
With a shrug he yelled "Okay!", as if to say ‘Have it your way, then.’
Not long after that the current swept him away from my side. I still clung to my spot, wondering what to do, but I turned my head to watch where Dave went. Within seconds he was dozens of yards away flailing in the water but somehow moving toward the middle of the river even as he was being swept downstream. Suddenly I saw his head disappear below the surface as his big brown pack slipped up high onto his shoulders to cover the spot where his head had been. For a couple seconds that seemed to last minutes, all I could see was the backpack until finally the pack surged into the air as Dave's soaked head rose up from underneath the pack. Dave's wet hair whipped in a short arc through the air, trailing a stream of water. I saw him gasp for air before the current swept him too far downstream for me to discern any more details.
While I was watching Dave, the current had been slowly peeling me away from my anchored position. Ready or not I was going to have to brave the flow because I couldn't hold onto my spot forever. Suddenly my footholds gave way and I was swept away. I tried grabbing another round rock but it just bumped along the bottom with me. I still had no idea what to do, but after a few moments, instinctively I turned from facing the current to facing the direction it was taking me. With my back now to the flow, I stuck my feet out in front of me. As the current swept me downstream I started pushing off on the bottom with my feet, directing myself bit by bit to the far side of the river. All seemed to be going well for a few moments until I hit the first deep pocket. Suddenly I couldn't touch bottom and I understood what had happened to Dave earlier. Fear clutched at my stomach for a moment. I flailed my arms and kicked my feet, trying to keep my head above water. I had better luck than Dave because my head never went under. Luckily there wasn't much time for the fear to take hold. Just seconds after the bottom dropped out from under my feet, it was back again and I continued pushing off it toward the far shore. The bottom dropped out a time or two more, but like the first time it was only for a few seconds. Before long I had pushed myself into the shallows along the northern shore of the river. There the force of the current dropped away and I was able to stand up. I looked around to see that I had been swept about 25 to 30 yards further down the river than where Dave ended up. He was on the shore next to the river with his pack lying on the ground next to him. I made my way over to where he stood.
When I reached Dave, he told me two things – first that he had lost his hiking stick in the river, and second that he had said the Lord's Prayer for me as he had watched me being swept downstream. It must've worked, he said, because before he did, it looked like I was going to be swept away out of sight, but after reciting the Lord's Prayer I had suddenly started moving across to the shore.
There was something very calming about talking to her after such a hair-raising experience earlier in the day.
A Calming Influence
We figured we had been swept about 100 yards downstream. We spent a good deal of time recounting our harrowing adventure, pointing to places in the river where we believed that different things had occurred such as where Dave's head had been pushed under by the weight of his pack, or where we had found a foothold for a few moments and Dave had tried to tear the garbage bag off the bottom half of my pack. I felt like it was such a relief to be on the northern side of the river. Dave seemed like he felt the same way. We were giddy – talking loud and fast and unfocused. We ended up changing our clothes on the bank of the river and we strapped our wet clothing to the outside of our packs so the sun and breeze could dry them out as we walked.
We clambered up the bank and found that there was a road on top. Just a little way down the road we came across a little general store at a place called Caratunk. That little store was a welcome sight and we stayed there for most of the remaining hours of the afternoon eating snacks and drying out various items from our packs in the sunshine. In the evening we hiked three more miles following the trail mostly along a road.
The shadows were stretching across the road we were hiking on and onto the fields that we were passing when we looked ahead of us to see an old woman standing at the end of a driveway. She stood watching us approach with a curious expression. When we came up to her she greeted us in a quiet voice. She wanted to know where we were going and where we had come from. We told her all about our hike. As we spoke to her I estimated that she was in her late 70s or early 80s. She leaned on a walking stick that might have been made from an old broom handle. She showed a lot of interest in our trip. After a while she told us that she was from Texas and that she had been coming to Maine every summer for the past 34 years. When she heard about our river crossing and how Dave had lost his hiking stick, she immediately offered him her hiking stick. He insisted that she should keep it. He didn’t really need one, he said. He only cared about it because he had carried it all the way from Georgia. As it turned out, Dave never bothered to find a new stick. He finished the trip without one.
The woman told us that the trail continued along the road for another 2 or 3 miles before it went back into the forest. We knew that not far past there was Pleasant Pond shelter – our destination for the night. The woman asked us if she could drive us up the road to where the trail entered the woods. We agreed. She then walked up her driveway, got into a truck, and drove it back down to the end. Dave and I put our packs in the back and climbed into the front with her. It was a short ride. She dropped us off with well-wishes and we were on our way to Pleasant Pond for the night.
All in all it was probably a 20 minute encounter with the woman. It was like many other encounters with interested strangers we had met during our hike, but the timing and the personality of the woman had a certain effect on us. There was something very calming about talking to her after such a hair-raising experience earlier in the day. The conversation slowed our racing minds and brought us back down to earth. As we hiked to our destination for the evening, we could contemplate our situation. We had passed another trail landmark, probably the most harrowing one so far. The Kennebec River was behind us now and we knew that the last obstacle between us and Katahdin was the stretch of trail known as the 100-mile wilderness, probably the most isolated and wildest section of the entire Appalachian Trail.