I woke up before it was light, a first for me on this trip with the super long days of Maine just before the solstice. The other guy who had been asleep in the shelter when I arrived didn’t even budge as I packed up. I imagine he was exhausted because he hadn’t risen to say hello last night when I showed up after dark. I envied his ability to sleep through the torrential rain and me unpacking and packing but imagined it may come back to haunt him with some late night wildlife encounters.
I thought he’ll probably think he dreamed me up, thinking there was no way someone had arrived after dark and left before sunrise, but I was real, and really grumpy too. I was running a pretty uncomfortable sleep deficit and the pain in my legs was really setting in. My hips became so tight that I woke up nearly every hour with excruciating cramps in my upper thighs. I would stretch as best I could, spread my legs apart to avoid tension on the muscles and do my best to fall back asleep. I carried compression sleeves to help maintain blood flow in the night, but with this much soreness I think they were decently overwhelmed.
With headlamp and poncho on, I began working my way toward the Kennebec River. The Kennebec is the largest unbridged river crossing on the Appalachian Trail and with several dams upstream, boasts the most dangerous ford on the trail as well. Because of that and a hiker fatality, the MATC hires a ferryman to paddle hikers across in a canoe at certain times of the day. Today the ferry would run from 9am-11am. I woke up early enough that on a blowdown free trail, I would arrive there a little after 9. But I expected it wouldn’t be clear so figured I’d arrive closer to 11. I knew the water would be high because of the incessant rain, but seriously hoped the ferry was still running. If I missed it on a normal day, I’d just ford/swim across. But if the ferryman considered it too dangerous to paddle a canoe across, I’d be trapped on the north side of the river to wait till the next morning.
Of course the trail on Pleasant Pond Mountain was uncleared and made for slow going, which I anticipated. Fortunately the rain let up and the sun came out and felt amazing. I made it to the ferry at 10:45, a little close, but not too much to stress about. Walking alongside the river for a half mile before reaching the ferry, I looked down at the muddy, raging water and thought for sure he wouldn’t be paddling today. But sure enough as I got closer I saw the wild man rodeoing some hikers across. Absolutely elated I practically ran down to the water to sit on the warm beach and wait for him to make it back across. Sitting there I had the companionship of a little ragged mutt who came down to sniff along the bank. I missed my dogs tremendously so it was a pleasure to have the little guy let me hug all over him.
On the way across I learned the ferryman had been doing it for 9 years and had paddled some 10,000 hikers across the Kennebec. I remember riding across with him 6 years ago and loved getting to travel some of the distance using my arms rather than my legs.
Across the river I threw on my food laden pack and began working my way toward the Bigelow range, or the start of the rugged south Maine. Maine is very distinctly two different types of trails. North Maine is rugged, rooty, marsh with knee deep mud and many, many hairy creek fords, especially this early in the summer with this much rain. South Maine is marked by constant undulation on the high alpine mountains. Despite the rugged, rocky climbs of south Maine, the miles pass by mostly with ease because of the terrific beauty of the area.
But for now I was still in the swamp of north Maine. On the gentle climb up to the picturesque Pierce Pond I passed the last group of true SOBO thru-hikers that I would see. One of them was a VMI grad who was good friends with one of my classmates from high school. We hiked together for a mile or so with me acting as his seeing-eye hiker because he had to remove his contacts because of irritation. Coincidentally, he had accidentally left his glasses at my high school classmate’s house just before he left. Another was a med student who had also just finished his first year. I applauded him for accepting just doing a section and not gunning it to hike the whole trail over summer break.
After a 10 minute nap at Pierce Pond Lean-to, I enjoyed a short conversation with the other hikers and they donated some delicious LIttle Debbie cakes and some more anti-inflammatories which I had run out of again. I soon got back to hiking and wished them the best of luck. With the early rise and rush to get across the Kennebec, I was fairly relieved to be on the south side of a critical point which I know hung up Karl Meltzer on one of his thru-hike record attempts. In the months leading up to this trip I had several nightmares of getting stuck north of the Kennebec for days. But now I was across and realizing that the things I worried about wouldn’t be the hurdles that would hold me up.
I made it to Little Bigelow Lean-to a little after 8pm after icing my legs and feet in the chilly creek running alongside the climb up to the shelter. Having passed nearly all the SOBOs and not yet hit the NOBO bubbles, I enjoyed a solitary night in the shelter which I had spent the night in alone 6 years ago. I remember I had cooked up a near inedible bowl of couscous here back when I was 19. I reflected on that now and think I would have scarfed that warm meal down like it was a five star dinner. For the day I traversed a tame 36.4 miles.