Caratunk to Stratton: The Bigelows

I woke up early (but not my normal “trail early” of 4:30am) and went down stairs in the main area of the Sterling Inn to enjoy some breakfast before I evened up with the owner. We talked about the trail in years past and how he and his son enjoyed the few years that they had been running the inn. And after some nice conversation, I had to head back upstairs to begin packing all my soaking wet things that I had strewn all about the entire room. Everything, and I mean everything was wet. It looked like a gypsy had been running a hobo marketplace in my room. I am the ultimate procrastinator when it comes to packing my things in town. But I really needed to get all my shit together because John was on his way to pick me up. The Kennebec River crossing was my next obstacle and the canoe ferry/shuttle that is sanctioned by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was out of season and I had no other options for getting across the river safely. Fording was not an option. And I don’t mean just because the ATC adamantly is opposed to any river fording, even in summer. I mean, the river was a death trap for me on this day. I wasn’t even remotely considering a ford. Screw that shit. The owner of the inn mentioned there were many hikers who did it this past summer and because word travels up and down the trail easily/quickly, other hikers were feeling like they needed to do so as well. The whole, “Well, if they did it, I also have to,” kind of thing. I don’t feel this kind of pull in any such way. Hike your own damn hike, man. I believe in that to the core.

When John arrived I still  had a little packing to do because, as I said before I am a great procrastinator, and I was still dickin’ around a bit. But eventually we got out of dodge and John drove me south where there is a bridge across the river. We got me back to the trail as best we could using the roads that were available to us that were open and not in disrepair or closed from wintry conditions. And where I got back on, I just went south. I didn’t want to hike back to the Kennebec River and then double back. I just didn’t want to. So I didn’t. Those miles mean nothing to me. There was no elevation gain, it was all mostly flat. No mountains to go over. I’m good on all that. Forward motion. The Bigelows were on deck anyways and I wanted to get into them, badly. They were looking majestic from afar as John and I were driving north back to the trail.

This was the end of the line for John and I, at least until I was to return to do Katahdin after making it to Springer Mountain in Georgia (Lord willing). Even though he had already done too much for me as it was, he still offered to come and get me all the way to the border of Maine if I needed anything. There was no way I was going to continue to put him out any more than I already had. He meant it though and I could tell. It always amazes me and is incredibly humbling when people want to bend over backwards for you to help you on your journey in ways that you can’t even repay. We said our farewells and I expressed as much gratitude as I possibly could. We had some good times together when I was off trail. Particularly a night of beer-fueled hilarity at a Guilford watering hole. It was as in the heart of central Maine as you could get and we just spent the entire night people watching and making comments and laughing to ourselves like a couple of idiots. And we were.

Back got to the trail though. It’s like a switch that you flip. One minute you’re living one way off trail and then BOOM you’re back in it. You have to forget the comforts of the off-trail life. Especially in my current circumstances. My on-trail comforts didn’t even exist in this wintry environment and climate. It is a far different mentality than summer hiking. I am adapting as well as I could hope to, I suppose.   But having said that, my mentality while hiking each stretch is, “Just make it to the next town.” And that’s it. That’s the trick. That’s all you have to do to be a long distance hiker. You don’t have to think to yourself,” Holy shit, I have 2,000 miles to go to get to _______.”  You’ll psych yourself out doing that. My goals are small. Everyday I just have to get to where I am camping, and then I can be warm and dry. And then finally after a few or several days I am in the next town where I can get a shower, clean and dry my gear, eat some righteous grub, a lot of it, and on a gluttonous level too.  That’s all it is. Focus on those small goals and the bigger goal will take care of itself. Having said that, the White Mountains have been in the back of my mind since day one. But I will deal with that in due time.

The Bigelows are some burly peaks to go over even in summer. I was about to tackle them in late December, which admittedly could be a much more difficult prospect in any other year. Last year at this time, the towns and the lowlands had several feet of snow on the ground. All the locals had been telling me that the previous year was brutal. I suppose I couldn’t have picked a better year for this. But I gotta tell you, at the higher elevations on trail can be a stark contrast to the weather and temperatures that are occurring in the towns. The Bigelows were about to be a shining example of this for me. You start the ascent up to Little Bigelow Mountain from around 1,000 feet above sea level. It was fairly mild at the bottom. Not much snow on the ground. It feels so tame and so pedestrian. It’s very deceiving. I knew this wouldn’t last but it toys with your insides. By the time you get to the top of Little Bigelow Mountain, it’s a very different world. The wind was stuff, everything is covered with ice and snow. You can’t walk anywhere without your micro spikes on. All the slab rock is coated in ice and is on such a slant that you’re looking at bruised and broken limbs from one little fall without the proper traction. You’re sitting at 3,000 feet. It’s much colder than the valley floor and the sun is going down. It’s only getting colder. I had hopes of potentially making it over Avery Peak in the dark and making it to the Bigelow Col campsite where there were tent pads and a water source but the winds were picking up too fast and there was a little bit of snowy precipitation beginning, nothing to write home about down at 3,000 feet but Avery sits at almost 4,100 hundred feet. That is a significant difference in terms of the difference in weather conditions. I decided that as it was getting darker that I would just camp at the Safford Notch Campsite. There were tent pads here also. It was a couple of a tenths of a mile off trail but as I was making my way off trail before the sun set to scope out the area, the side trail takes you through a bit of a cave. Really its just a massive boulder waged up against an overhanging cliff wall. It creates a pretty awesome wind barrier. And the darker it got, the windier it was getting. I had fully intended on setting my tent up on a tent pad this evening but the wind was just frigid. I decided that even though the “cave” was slightly uneven, it was worth it to be out of the wind. Plus I set my air pad up on top of my foam pad. It did a pretty good job of breaking up the uneven rocks. I actually had a pretty good sleep. I didn’t even cook dinner this evening. I just had a hand full of trail mix and a few handfuls of chips and slammed some water and called it a day. I wanted to make sure that I got a good nights sleep. I knew the next morning I was about to experience some true winter alpine first thing in the morning. The view I had of the main peaks from Little Bigelow was an indication of what I was about to have. They were socked in by their own micro climate. Things were about to get interesting. I could sense it.

As I began my initial ascent from the notch, it was pitch black, as usual. I have grown extremely accustomed to this at this point. There were a few flurries falling from above. I couldn’t tell if it was the wind shaking snow from the limbs above or if it was fresh. The higher I climbed out of the notch, the more I could see of the valley and the surrounding environment. Just below “The Old Man’s Head” (if you had an aerial view of the mountains, you would notice that the mountain looks like an old man laying down), there was an outcropping of snow with a window to the east that displayed a red horizon right down the line from Little Bigelow Mountain. The snow had picked up, I could look up at the Old Man’s Head and see the cloud line above it. So it was snowing on me, but I stood there in amazement for awhile as I watched the red ball of fire emerge from its glow of red clouds on the horizon of distant mountains. I didn’t linger too long as I knew that I had a long day ahead of me and the weather was only going to get worse. I was just thankful to have a moment of calm and a view of the sunrise to start the day. It really felt special to watch that sunrise. I can’t explain it. I often can’t. I suppose that’s the reason I do this. Because no description with words or pictures can ever quite put you in those moments. There is no substitute for being there and FEELING it.

I turned my back on the sunrise and knew that I was saying goodbye to the safer world below. I began my climb up to  Avery Peak which was 1,000 feet higher than where the Old Man’s Head sat at 3,110 feet. The snow was goin’ pretty damn strong by the time I reached the Old Man’s Head. But I was still below tree line at this point. The pines that shield the trail do an excellent job of blocking the winds that were howling outside my narrow tunnel. But further up I went and the further I went, the less shielding the pines did. Finally you reach the point where the pines are no taller than you are and the trail is fully exposed to the elements. The snow was deep in these sections, at least a foot as I was still ascending to Avery. Then the trees disappeared altogether, except for little runt shrubs that were basically entirely covered by snow anyways. The wind was ripping at this point and the snow was thick. I couldn’t see more than a hundred feet in front of me minus a few pockets where the clouds seemed to almost clear but only to toy with me briefly. Once I reached the top it seemed as the the snow levels dropped considerably, I can only imagine that this is because of the pure power of the wind at the top. Everything was a wind swept ice world up here. It was beautiful. The environment felt powerfully unfriendly, however. I had a few moments to “enjoy” up here before I knew I had to keep the body in motion.

You drop a few hundred feet, and below tree line, to the Bigelow Col Campsite. The exact instance in which you set foot below tree line and out of the wind, you can feel a dramatic difference without the wind. Your body almost physically gasps a sigh of relief. I didn’t really think about how fast the winds might have been blowing at this point or what the temperature was but I knew it was cold. My beard was a solid piece of ice at this point. If I swayed my head back and forth, it felt like the weight of a wrecking ball was on the end of it, pulling at the follicles on my face. Noticing the campsite, I couldn’t have imagined camping at this altitude the night before. Even without precipitation it would have been a windy and frigid experience. And obviously, I’m all about that comfort. I mean that’s why I decided to hike the “pedestrian” Appalachian Trail…in winter. But no seriously, screw camping here the night before. That would have sucked. At any rate, I had to climb back up into the alpine from here, up to almost 4,200 feet atop West Bigelow Peak. This is the highest point on the AT in this range, and it felt like it. If I thought it was cold and windy on top of Avery, I had another thing coming. The winds on top here were nearly knocking me off my feet. I estimated the winds to be between 50-70mph. The windchill stung my face. I could feel the exposed skin on my cheeks, nose, and forehead going numb. I knew that my time up here had to be as limited as possible, so naturally I decided to take a few pictures and shoot a video. The longer I was up there, the more the wind began to pick up. It was almost sucking the fresh air out of my mouth before I could breathe it in. Upon reaching the summit, the clouds broke enough to see the tree line further ahead. The wind died down momentarily, but as soon as I started south off the summit the wind shifted and became a head wind. It intensified even more with each step. I was honestly struggling to stay on my feet. It was extremely powerful. I was fighting tooth and nail over top of sheets of ice to make progress toward the tree line, I maybe had two tenths of a mile to go. About half way I had to stop and turn away from the wind to give my face a break. Even the tactic of screaming in the face of it did little to stop the burn from the wind. After a couple seconds I turned back into the wind and was determined to make the tree line without stopping. When I finally made the tree line it was a real fucking relief. I knew I was probably toying with frostbite if I had been exposed any longer. I do carry a balaclava in my pack but there simply was no point in stopping to dig it out in those conditions. Lesson learned when approaching alpine in those conditions, have my balaclava handy, especially if I know I am going to be exposed for a longer duration, i.e. the White Mountains.

After making sure that I didn’t have any real damage to the skin on my face (using the rear facing camera on my cell phone), I pondered what those temperatures must have been with the wind chill. I may be underselling it but i figured around -20. I would later learn that the adjacent mountain of Sugarloaf experienced gusts of up to 90mph that day. So that would give you an idea of what I was experiencing. After dropping to 3,350 I had to climb back up to 3,800 feet to the South Horn and during my ascent, the clouds lifted. All of them. And the wind died down. It was like I was meant to have that experience up there. And then once I was out of danger, the world changed. The skies opened up and the sun shone big and bright. I could see the ice world I had just come from. I could see every where that I was going. I could see the distant lakes and the far off mountains. I could stand and enjoy it all. There was still treachery ahead. Massive sheets of ice covered the entire steep trail off of the South Horn all the way down to Horns Pond. The micro spikes I wear have literally been lifesavers. But I think it’s getting to the point where I should really be wearing crampons.

I made it to the highway that goes north into the town of Stratton. Instead of push another 6-7 miles to a designated campsite with tent pads, I decided that after a burly frozen day that I deserved a cheeseburger. So I pulled a Jabba and called the Stratton Motel and arranged myself a ride into town. Made friends with the two winter managers there, Foxfeet and Marching Band. They were both section hikers this year that stuck around the area and made friends with the owners of the Farmhouse Inn in Rangeley who also owned the Stratton Motel. They informed me that they were going to see the new Star Wars movie the following day in Farmington. I told them that I would be needing to get back on trail in the morning around 6am. They said that wouldn’t be a problem. At 5:45am I woke up and instructed them (while they were still in bed) that the ride back to the trail wouldn’t be necessary. In fact my exact words to Marching Band in the dark bedroom were,”You know how my hiker name is Jabba? Well I’m coming to Star Wars, you can go back to bed.” The rest is history. I enjoyed a zero day. Made a couple of friends along the way, too. In fact, a girl who works for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (Amanda) who also lives at the Farmhouse Inn in Rangeley who reached out to me a couple weeks prior offering any help when I get to the area, was ALSO going to see Star Wars and we all met up prior to the movie and then had Thai food afterwards. She was also friends with Marching Band and Foxfeet. I seriously love this life. When you just let things happen and say yes to adventure, it just unfolds in the most amazing of ways. 24 hours before seeing Star Wars I was on the verge of frostbite. And then I was in Farmington, a town I didn’t know existed, laughing and joking making friends eating Pad Thai as warm and dry as could be….wearing skin tight leggings in public like a weirdo. I like to think that’s a slam DUNK!

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3 thoughts on “Caratunk to Stratton: The Bigelows

  1. I know this is a naive question, but do you ever get scared out there? I’m just a local hiker so there’s no real fear element. It just seems that the potential for danger has got to be such a thrill… Like I said, naive, but I’m so curious. What sets off your danger alarm? Thank you so much for documenting your journey for others to read. I’m completely engrossed.

  2. I met Foxfeet when i hiked the Bigelows last year. I thought she was going to keep going South 🙂

    My Gf wondered if anyone attempted to do a through hike in the AT in the Winter. Now we know.

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