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Hiking the Appalachian Trail

As a teenager I participated in an Outward Bound summer program in Maine (and earned my pin for those of you who are alumni).  10 kids and two young adults hiked the Appalachian Trail 100-mile wilderness to the base of Katahdin.  There we picked up canoes and paddled the Allagash Waterway to Canada.  While my time on the AT was hard work I often look back on it as one my most important accomplishments.  So when I saw we published The Appalachian Trail Reader, edited by David Emblidge, I immediately ordered myself a copy.  Below is an excerpt from Myron Avery’s journal (he took sixteen years to finish the trail from 1920-1936).

Katahdin in Maine is the beginning of our journey.  Only thirteen feet under a mile in height, this mountain is a transplanted bit of the High Sierra, rising abruptly from a forest-mantled wilderness, broken only by the sheer myriad lakes which seem to heliograph to the summit.  The master architect so skillfully sculpturing this massive monolith was the glacier which stood down over New England and overrode its highest summits.  Long after the continental ice sheet had receded, local glaciers persisted on the slopes of Katahdin, and the freshness of the cirques scoured out by them tell us they departed but recently; if we say they were still active only 15,000 years ago, no one can quarrel overmuch with us…

If has been a day’s journey to reach Katahdin from the railroad.  We may have followed the historic route taken by Marcus R. Keep, a wandering missionary whose devotion to this region led him, in 1848, single-handed to blaze the first trail, “The Keep Path,” to Katahdin.  The church influence was then strong in mountaineering, for one of the first parties to be guided over the new trail was composed of ministers.  Sunday, on the mountain, was devoted to preaching.  The Bangor Democrat (August 18, 1849) faithfully reprints the very lengthy sermon which details the story of the creation and ascribes the creation of Katahdin to the sixth day.

Katahdin can lay claim to a literature scarcely equaled in extent by any other mountain in the United States.  However, an exploded myth is that Katahdin is the first point in the eastern United States to great the rising sun.

The northern half of Maine is an utter wilderness where travel is by canoe and “tote-roads”.  Not until it reaches Monson, 114 miles west of Katahdin, does the Trail approach a settlement.  Were we to stray from the route, it would be many days and entail crossing large lakes and rivers, before we should-with good fortune-reach the towns to the south.  So it might be expected we would leave Katahdin with heavy packs.  But instead we plunge into the Maine wilderness along the Appalachian Trail with only a toothbrush and a handkerchief.  This seeming incongruity of finding accommodations each night on a twenty-four day journey in the wilderness is explained by the existence of sporting camps, a form of hostelry peculiar to Maine, which add much pleasure of travel along the Appalachian Trail in that state.

We leave Katahdin between two stone monoliths, termed the “Gateway”, and descend to Daicey Pond, on which is the first sporting camp we encounter.  The route is distinctly indicated by the Appalachian Trail markers.  These are either diamond-shaped galvanized iron or square copper markers, which carry the “AT” monogram and the legend, “Appalachian Trail- Maine to Georgia”.  The main reliance in trial marking, we soon discover, is a series of white paint blazes, facing the direction of travel.  The titanium oxide paint used not only assures an existence of four to six years for the marking but its luminous quality aids travel at night.  A further reassurance is the “double-blaze”, which prevents-through inattention-failure to notice a turn.  Cairns built so as to be obviously aritificial, and pain on rocks indicate the route where other marking is not possible.

The Trail leads from Daicey Pond along Nesowadnehunk Stream to the West Branch of the Penobscot River, a dark rushing river, 200 yards in width gathering momentum for its leap over Nesowadnehunk Falls with the ominous roar which, some distance back, warned of its proximity.  The river is filled with “pulp”, a mass of four-foot spruce and fir logs.  It seems as if our journey along an unbroken trail for 2,050 miles might here reach an abrupt ending.  By resort to the Guidebook detailing the route in Maine, we find, however, that here a cable bridge, built by the CCC, solves the problem.

The crossing of the West Branch has brought us in close contact-almost too much so-with the lumber industry, whichi n the Maine woods has passed through three stages: the primitive old pine times, the long spruce logs, and now the pulpwood.

Cut in the deep snows of winter, the logs were “yarded” on the ice and banks of streams, whose swollen torrents in the spring carried them to the mills.  The hardships of the men who broke the jams, ran the logs, “sacked” the rear, and stood waist deep in the ice-cold water from daylight to dark, and “camped” beside the rivers in the melting snows, developed a distinct type-at his best in white water and where danger threatened.  The story of the river driver, with all his fortitude, courage, and even his shortcomings, has been graphically told by Mrs. Fannie Hardy Eckstorm in The Penobscot Man

Regretfully we leave the West Branch with its vivid past, cross several low ridges and descend to the long irregularly shaped Rainbow Lake.  Its shores have been burned and the resulting desolation impresses in an unforgettable fashion the need for care in the forest.  The Rainbow Lake Camps, however, are in a wooded oasis in the burned lands.

The third day is an effortless journey to Nahmakanta, most remote in the Maine wilderness.  If anywhere there is peace and isolation, is it at Nahmakanta, encircled by high hills.  Even the loggers have been gone from here for a decade.  Nahmakanta is Indian for “Lake of the largest fish”, but its piscatorial qualities- which we do not test- fade beside its other allurements…

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