Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Guess What We Did Last Summer

This summer, like the rest of my life, was busy, but as always, in good ways. 

It was also a milestone summer for my newly adult, formerly-homeschooled daughter, whom you all have come to know as "Big Little Sister." 

She graduated from our homeschool last May, and with no plans to go to college, she found a full-time, summer job.  Then, she found a full-time year-round job at a newly opened Rock Climbing gym.  She was one of their first employees.  A year and a half later, she is a manager in charge of their children's programs. 

While much of her youth was spent learning outdoor skills, she never really seemed to like it all that much.  She didn't complain, exactly.  That's not her style.  She would just not be interested.  So, we stopped forcing those types of classes.

Imagine our surprise then, when she applies for a job in an industry that promotes outdoorsmanship. 

But not only that, when she begins telling us her plans to hike the Appalachian Trail.  What?  The what? 

Can't get her outside on a beautiful sunny day to walk the dog ... plans to through-hike the Appalachian Trail by herself ... with her dog.

Aside:  Oh, did I mention that we adopted another dog?  She was small when we adopted her.  She's the second largest dog we have now.  If you're keeping count, the dog total is up to four.  That's almost one dog (all of which weigh over 40 lbs) per person. 
That's over 200 lbs. of dog I'm holding with one hand

And, then, she did!

Not all of it and not alone. 

Being fussy and nervous parents, we thought it would be best to encourage our daughter to do a test hike, before she committed to doing the entire Trail ... alone with her dog.  Plus, her dog sustained a pretty serious injury that resulted in surgery in the late spring, and it wouldn't have been good for her to be alone, with the dog, if the dog wasn't able to walk.  So, Deus Ex Machina took a couple of days off work and planned to go with her. 

In August, I drove with my family four hours north to Millinocket, Maine. Millinocket has the distinction of being in the vicinity of Baxter State Park, which is home to Mt. Katahdin, which is the end (or beginning, depending on one's starting point) of the Appalachian Trail.
Mt. Katahdin from the Abol Bridge
For Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister, it marked the beginning of their trek through what is, arguably, the most difficult section of the Appalachian Trail.  The terrain is pretty hardcore - even for seasoned hikers.  Most people start out down south, where the going is a bit easier and work their way up to this tough part.  My daughter says that 25% of northbound (NOBO) through-hikers finish.  Only 23% of southbound (SOBO) through-hikers finish.  But four times as many people start down in Georgia and come north.  I met a couple of NOBOs on the Abol Bridge when I was walking back to my car.  They shared some interesting information with me.   

It's not just the walking that's tough for the SOBO's, though.  Not only is the terrain up here in Maine challenging, but this section of the trail near Mt. Katahdin has been dubbed "The Hundred Mile Wilderness", because there is nothing - no towns, no shops, no lodging (mostly, more on that later), no resources for 100 miles.  In fact, signs caution hikers that they need to have with them 10 days worth of provisions.  Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister heeded that warning.  Their pack weight, combined, weighed more than she does.  

Starting at the Abol Bridge, they began walking south toward Monson, Maine.  The plan was for me to pick them up in Monson, which is the end of the 100 mile wilderness. 

A few things struck me as interesting in the fifteen minutes I stood at the trail head with them.

It's a busy place. In just that fifteen minutes, we met three other hikers.

As much as this sign (not the one we saw, because this is posted at the southern end of the 100 mile wilderness) cautions that there is no resupply, when we came up on the trail, we knew it was the beginning, because there was a couple sitting there with their truck. We didn't know why they were there, and it wasn't until after I spoke with the NOBO hikers I met on the Abol Bridge that I learned about "Trail Magic" (more on that later).

The point where Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister entered the Trail had no warning (although Deus Ex Machina told me that he saw the warning sign further down the trail). 

Sign near the Abol Bridge where I left DEM and BLS

Ready to go!
I was, at once, jealous, because they were getting to practice all of those survival skills we've been learning all of these years, and thankful that I didn't have to carry one-third of my weight on my back for 100 miles. 

I was also really excited for them.  What an adventure!

We were tracking them via a GPS tracking device, which turned out to be pretty interesting.  That part of Maine is both mountainous and very wet with lots of lakes and marshy areas that need to be walked around. 

In three days, they hiked thirty miles of the trail (which was about 10 miles "as the crow flies").

Then, the dog started limping, pretty badly.  Big Little Sister made the difficult call to leave the trail.

As luck would have it, there actually are some resources that the guide books don't tell you about.

One is called "Trail Magic", and basically, it's people who sit at areas where the trail crosses logging roads. They will have food and water - often hot meals - or comfort food items. 

So, wait ... the "Trail" crosses roads?!?  

When we envisioned the "100 Mile Wilderness", just the name evokes some secluded pathway through deep woods, barely seen by human eyes.  Make no mistake.  It's not a leisurely afternoon stroll.  It's tough going in many sections of the trail (especially with the equivalent weight of a first grader on your back), but the notion that there's nothing and no one for 100 miles is more mystique than reality.

Some other things  "they" don't tell you:

1.  During the summer, there is a steady flow of foot traffic, i.e. other hikers.  Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister ran into a lot of hikers and never spent one night alone at a campsite. 

2.  That part of Maine is a web of private logging roads.  Yes, it would be wicked easy for a person in a car to get pretty lost on those logging roads (yes, yes, I did), but for someone who is from the area, they're just like the roads I travel every day.  Those places become familiar. 

"They" also don't tell you that there are points where the trail is accessible from campgrounds.  Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister met an older couple who had walked from their campground to the Trail and were just taking a leisurely day hike (!?!). 

"They" also never mention that smack-dab in the middle of all that wilderness is a sweet, little, off-grid resort on a lake where hikers can get hot meals, take hot showers, and spend the night sleeping in a real bed.  This gem is called Whitehouse Landing, and that's where Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister decided to leave the trail - and where I picked them up after a Stephen King-worthy drive down winding, too-narrow, rutted dirt roads (road is a kind, if not entirely accurate, description) and a mile hike through woods, unsure if we were even going in the right direction. 

So, in the end, Deus Ex Machina, Big Little Sister, and the dog completed 32 miles of the 100 Mile Wilderness.

They learned lots of what-to-do and what-not-to-do, and even more about what to take ... and the extreme importance of weight limits *(which has translated into a very careful review of our "Bug Out Bag" lists).

They're planning to attempt it again next summer, and then, after they finish the 100 miles, Deus Ex Machina will come back home and Big Little Sister will continue on her way to Georgia. 

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