Thursday, 26 June 2008

AT: Kathadin to Monson or I want to be hiking again

Rain and mist on Kathadin

I took the hostel shuttle to Baxter State Park, pitched my tent and met the first Northbounders on their last day. It was a funny coincidence that they were friends of Skittles - a fellow Triple Crowner who had told me about them and asked me to give them his greetings in case I ran into them. Although they were quite happy to see me (and hear about Skittles) they were exhausted and wanted their hike to be over with. That was a feeling I have never had at the end of a thruhike. On the contrary: I have always been sad that the hike is over now. Baxter State Park also has an interesting policy for thruhikers: People starting their thruhike have to make an official reservation for their campsite and also pay for it whereas hikers finishing their thruhike can stay for free and without reservation in a specific thruhiker shelter hidden in the woods. I guess there is very little abuse of this policy as rangers can easily tell the dirty, smelly UL thruhikers from the squeaky clean day hikers.
The official start photo

I summited Kathadin in a rain/snow storm. Nobody had warned me that this was more a climb than a hike. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn't know how difficult. Most of the time I was sitting on my butt trying to come down some vertical rock slabs. I was already thinking of turning back, but I finally made it to the top where I even found somebody to take my photo! Back down at Kathadin Stream Campground the sun was shining... and I was starting to wonder if the trail would always be difficult like this.

I asked a ranger would they do in case of a medical emergency in this difficult terrain. "Well," she said. "we used to helicopter people out to the next hospital. But now that we are fighting a war there are no more helicopters available. I guess we now have to carry out people on a stretcher...." How this is going to work in terrain where even hiking with just a daypack is a problem she did not elaborate on.

Then I hiked through the 100 mile wilderness and I must say that this trail kicks my ass. My body looks like a battle field after a bomb attack - depending on the form of the "bomb crater" it is a mosquito or black fly bite.... Hiking here is like an exercise in meditation: You have to concentrate very hard not to go crazy with 5 million bugs flying around you. DEET is my best friend now. Hiking with a head net is almost impossible because it is so hot. Luckily there is good swimming in lakes and streams but due to the mosquitoes this is a logistical exercise. First you set up your tent and get into it as quickly as possible. Inside your tent you undress and then make a mad dash to the water were you submerge yourself as quickly as possible. When done swimming and cleaning you get out of the water and run back to your tent. Drying yourself and dressing again can only be done inside.

I could only hike 15 miles per day because the footing is so bad - it is all slippery wet rocks, slippery wet tree roots and anythings else is slippery and wet, too. But I will not complain about the weather: After the initial rain on Kathadin it has actually been quite nice which means I am sweating like a pig. I drink 4 liters of water every day and my pee is still almost black (well, not quite black....) I have never hiked in a climate like this. This is my first town stop and instead of dreaming of good food I was dreaming of a washing machine to clean my clothes again. And that should tell you something...

100 Mile Wilderness
Unfortunately, I left all my hiking buddies way behind and hiked alone for a week. (I started out with 7 other people). But I met some nice section hikers and day hikers. I am still surprised how unprepared people come to start this trail... Two of the people I started out with have already quit. I am surprised how ill-prepared and unexperienced hikers are on this trail. I had expected that going Southbound would eliminate the rookies, but no: Some fellow hikers are carrying tins of sardines, dress in self-knitted sweaters and carry hand-carved wooden hiking sticks instead of trekking poles. I have already heard several stories of hikers losing their trekking poles in river crossing just because they had forgotten to stick their hands through the loops. And in the hostel in Monson I am next door to a guy who has already been here for over a week - his hiking boots have rubbed his feet down to open flesh wounds that he is trying to heal now.

Right now I am in Monson, ME. The place is so small that they don't have a decent store - and I have to do resupply for one week. Which also means that I will be outside civilisation for a week and there will be no further posts... Hopefully, this will soon become a hiking trail again! I am fed up with climbing...

Thursday, 19 June 2008

AT: Before the start

The famous sign on top of Katadin
Back in Dekalb with Raru I went through my stuff and started distributing it around the US by sending out parcels. I went to Chicago, spent an afternoon in the Chicago Art Institute and stayed at an airport hotel overnight because my flight to Bangor left early in the morning. And then all started to go wrong... The flight was overbooked and I was assigned to a different flight. I was shit scared about my checked bag! And of course they fucked up my reservation on their computer system and I had trouble getting on my new flight.... But in the end everything worked out. I arrived in Bangor and my bag was there - I could have kissed the Continental Airlines ground personnel when they handed me my backpack.

I then had my first experience of trail magic. I tried to find the bus stop and asked at the information desk which was coincidentially staffed by 2 German women. They took pity on me and gave me a ride straight to the bus station and a shopping mall where I could do all my resupply for the first stretch of the AT. I have met the first AT hikers already in the bus to Millinocket but I was not impressed. None of them seemed like an experienced long-distance hiker.

First AT signpost in Baxter State Park
The hostel in Millinocket is offering thruhiker specials that I am taking advantage of. They pick you up at the bus stop, shuttle you to the hostel where you stay the night. And the next day you are shuttled to Baxter State Park after a huge breakfast. Good arrangements and nice hostel. Right now I am in the hostel in Millinocket and will get a shuttle into Baxter State Park in the afternoon. Tomorrow I will summit Kathadin. And guess what: It is raining......

Boundary Water Canoe Area Part 2

Beside getting "married" we also had a very serious experience: One day we were doing a portage when 3 boats approached the same portage that was there to avoid some serious rapids. The first boat landed ok, but then it happened: The second boat got into the current and went down the rapids. It was really scary and looked more like a stunt out of an action movie than a real event. But it was very real! The boat, 3 guys and all their equipment went down the rapids. Luckily the guys let go off the boat which then got stuck between two rocks right in the middle of the rapids. All their stuff was swept down the rapids, but luckily we could retrieve most of it later. 2 guys were washed ashore, but 1 guy was stuck on a rock right in the middle of it. This is when Raru went into action. The guy was too far away to grab his hand so Raru stuck out a big tree branch. The guy threw himself into the current again and was swept towards the branch. He grabbed it and Raru could pull him ashore. I bet the guy was pretty happy to be in "Raru's arms" then... Luckily there were 3 boats and 7 guys in this party so they had dry clothes and enough people to retrieve the boat. We paddled on and had a lot to talk about...

Most of our time paddling was spent reading and discussing literature. Raru is an English teacher and it tried to help him prepare next year's lessons. So we read and discussed Steinbeck's "Of mice and men" and Jack London's "To build a fire". Of course I gave him the feminist view on the books.... He also gave me the text of my favourite English songs and so we were happily singing "Rawhide" all the time. And I learnt that most rock songs don't make much sense...

After 2 weeks of seeing no car, no house and no power lines at all we headed back into civilisation. We were both pretty happy - it had been a very nice trip despite rainy weather and lots of mosquitoes. And I learnt a lot. If I have the chance again, I would definitely go paddling again, but I realised that I need a paddling partner for that (and a backpack to carry the stuff on the portages)...

The BWCA had been a great spot for a first long canoe trip: Despite some minor hassles with permits and boat registration things are very well organised. You are only allowed to camp at designated campsite - but you would not be able to camp anywhere else anyways because everything is so overgrown. And these primitive camp sites are everywhere - even if one is occupied you usually do not have to paddle much further to find an available one. Each camp site offers flat clear ground for camping, a fire grate and some rough seating plus an outdoor toilet (which usually is not much more than a hole in the ground). Because all those lakes and little streams are interconnected you can make up any route from a day trip to week long expeditions. We spent 2 weeks there and saw only about one third of the park!

Monday, 16 June 2008

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Part 1

I am back from my paddling trip! Everything worked out great - except for the rain of course....But I will start at the beginning: Raru picked me up at O'Hare airport in Chicago and we went shopping for our 2 weeks paddling trip. After a long day of repackaging food for 2 people for 2 weeks and going through all my stuff we finally left DeKalb in the evening of the next day. We broke up the drive up to Minnesota by staying at a US Forest Campground and finally arrived at Boundary Waters. I could not wait to sit in a canoe, but we first stayed the night at the campground there. And then we started paddling - and of course, it rained. Actually it was raining 12 out of 14 days, but I am sort of used to it by now.

Paddling was easy but I had not realised that there are so many portages - and they are long! Right on our first day we had to do a 280 rod (1 rod = 1 canoe length) portage, which meant that we had to go 5 times. We had so much stuff that we had to do 2 rounds for carrying the food (plus coming back) and the last round for carrying the canoe. The first day was also the worst: Too much stuff to carry and a lot of rain.... But then things became better. We got used to the portages and perfected our system. Also our food got less so that we could the portages with 3 goes instead of 5. And right now I am missing carrying a canoe over my head...

I also perfected my way of getting in and out of a canoe. You can still call me Ms. Grace and Elegance, but I look actually sort of professional right now doing it. And I also perfected the art of building a fire, which is a real pain in the ass when it is raining all the time. In the BWCA (=Boundary Waters Canoe Area) you have to stay in designated camp sites, which is not a problem because there are hundreds of them. Each camp site has latrine and a fire grate. Raru had bought a lot of fresh vegetables like onions and carrots that we would roast on our camp fire. The food was heavy but it tasted delicious. Raru also caught a couple of fish and nothing is better than a fresh fish prepared over a camp fire..

And there comes the first really funny story: I wanted to try fishing, too (which I then only tried once without any success) and therefore we bought a husband and wife fishing license. And believe it or not, right in the middle of nowhere in BWCA a game warden stopped us to see our paperwork. And when I produced our fishing license he asked very sceptically whether we are really married. Before Raru could open his mouth to admit the truth I had already produced a story about us just recently having married and being on our honeymoon! I even fantazised about applying for American citizenship. Raru would make jokes about me as his duelly wedded wife for the rest of the trip. We got fined nevertheless for not having a registration on our boat.... Shit happens!