In the past year, I’ve walked in tears, I’ve walked in awe, I’ve walked in sweat, I’ve walked over ice, but this weekend, I walked in glory.
Initially, it seemed that the idea of this hike was vaporizing me, hanging on my horizon, never really real. General Tso, Rangoon, and I set up this weekend adventure a couple of months ago. We wanted to hike together, something we had missed doing after the three of us spent our last day together on the AT as a trio on May 10 during our thru-hike in 2007. But now it was time. We were fortunate enough to squeeze the best of 3 days out the the neighboring 10 on the Memorial Day weekend.
The car aimed north, up to Bethel, in the western Maine mountains last night, after the three of us rendezvoused at Bikeman, Tso’s work place, in Woolwich, ME. Our digs for the night was the Bethel Village motel, located through Wingfoot’s Thru-Hikers Handbook. Cheap, walking distance to a supermarket, and hiker friendly.
The evening quickly slithered its way along in typical AT town fashion, where we hit the grocery store about 8 PM and bought all kinds of food and drinks that we proceeded to attack in our motel room in downtown Bethel: junk food, including REAL Whoopie Pies, kettle chips, and beer. The TV sat silent. We were fine with catching up on old time, places, and horizons.
On Saturday, I was ready go go at 6:30 AM, but there was no apparent rush from Tso and Rangoon, who were content to zzz away the hours as the morning inched on. We eventually collected our gear, found a breakfast diner off Route 2, and then rumbled north up Route 26 for 12 miles to the lower parking lot for the Grafton Loop Trail ( GLT), where we shouldered out backpacks and launched into the great outdoors at 10:15 AM. Well, almost the great outdoors. The trail head for the western half of the GLT is a 0.6 mile road walk south back down Rt. 26, where a prominent sign beckoned us into the newly cut trail. By the way, the map is wrong, in placing the parking lot on the western side of 26, heading north. It’s actually on the eastern side of the road.
We weren’t sure exactly how many miles we had to do. The new trail connects to 8 miles of the AT at two points on either side of Grafton Notch to create a giant loop, 43 miles in length. The design is intended to connect a series of scenic peaks, woods and streams with a trail that will provide a 3- to 5-day, semi-wilderness experience for backpackers, while also providing an alternative route to AT hikers, drawing people away from the heavily used AT. We did it in a little over two days. It was not an easy backpack. Nope, anything that has 8 miles of the AT from this section of Maine is going to be tough. I have hiked all 2,175 miles of the AT. The 48 mile slice from the Maine border to Rt. 17 outside of Oquossoc is the toughest section of all, and we were doing 8 of those miles.
The GLT is a historical mini- event in the Northern New England backpacking world. For the AMC, the Grafton Loop Trail west leg was the first major trail constructed by the club since the building of the Centennial Trail in the Mahoosucs in 1976.
The eastern half was completed by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. The trail is beautifully laid out, and rock stairs are occasionally evident. We are even provided the relatively rare experience of holding on for deal life through grasping metal rungs on particularly dicey mini-cliffs.
“This is probably the longest stretch of loop trail in the State of Maine,” noted Steve Spencer, designer and recreation specialist for the Bureau of Parks and Lands in the Maine Department of Conservation. Steve also did the design work on the Wright Trail to Goose Eye Mountain, which quickly became a popular and heavily used trail. According to literature published by the Maine ATC, the estimate of the cost of this trail was initially $7,000 per mile, with reduction in that cost to be provided by the volunteer force that turned out to construct the actual trail.
“We put in over 15,000 hours of professional trail crew time and over 10,000 hours of volunteer trail crew time to get this done,” said Andrew Norkin, AMC’s director of trails and recreation management. “Our biggest challenge was the terrain of the Mahoosucs. We spent a lot of time making sure our work done on Sunday River Whitecap was of a high standard, because it is an alpine peak. At the time, there wasn’t any trail up it, except bootleg trails,” he said. Those volunteers deserve a huge shout out.
My watch’s altimeter register 720’ at the trailhead. The first mile of walking was nice. We’d never see this elevation until we reached the car again. It was still cool out. Ample water was evident throughout the loop, present at all of the campsites. There are two on this western loop, at Sargent Brook and Slide Mountain, but we passed them on our quest for some decent mileage on this first truncated day. I never carried more than a quart of water all weekend.
I started out riding caboose, following Tso and the Goon.
After leaving Rt. 26, the path crosses the Bear River on an out of season snowmobile path, complete with suspension bridge. Then it crosses two fields and enters the woods, following an old road south. Out first high point was Bald Mountain, some 3.2 miles from the start. The trail was graded nicely, considering the fact that we were still headed toward the top of 2730’ Stowe Mountain. Eventually we got there, with rewarding views from open ledges skirting the summit.
We remarked on the excellent foot path. The trail is so new that it still retains that cushiony feel each time we stepped over the ground. Someday the footpath will be packed and hard, like any heavily used trail, but right now our feet and knees were loving it. The trail then shot toward a traverse of Sunday River Whitecap.
We had no goals for the day, other than putting on some good miles. Doing the math, the whole loop is 40+ miles long, and we were putting in at 10 AM on Saturday, coming out two days later on Monday, so we needed to average 13+ a day, which should not have been too bad. Except, today offered big elevation gains on the uphills, a tough pull any day of the week for a seasoned hiker, let alone ones who were out of form.
Wait, now I know why the first day was tough. It would actually demand that we ascend close to a mile in direct elevation gain, coming up over three major mountains.
After Sunday River Whitecap, the trail skirts the slide on Slide Mountain, descends into the upper Bull Branch (of the Sunday River) valley, and finally climbs the southern flank of Old Speck to reconnect with the AT.
We surprised even ourselves by reaching the Spec Pond Campsite by 6 PM or so. There were a half dozen people hanging around the lean-to when we arrived. One couple with a tent was set up in the lean-to. When the group realized that at least two of us were considering sleeping in the shelter, most retreated to tent platforms, except for one woman who slept in the lean to with her dog by her side.
“ Hey, I don’t even remember whether I stayed at this shelter. I am drawing a blank,” I said.
Tso offered, “Here is the register.”
I didn’t think it would be reflect last hiking season, as the shelter registers I had read in Virginia a week ago were all from 2008. But, there was my brief entry, on August 23, 2007, written at 9:30 in the morning as I was was just passing through. Later I remembered that MEGATEX spent the night before I reached here last year at a campsite “au sauvage” at some flat spaces at the north end of Mahoosuc notch, well out of range of the stench from a decomposing moose carcass smack dab in the middle of the trail at the entrance of the Notch.
I decided to sleep in the shelter, as did Rangoon. Tso was in his hammock. We slept really well. I downed four ibuprofen before bed, as I felt my body needed some cushion from the day we just completed . More oscilloscope profile hiking ahead of us tomorrow.