The Call of the Trail comes my way again. This time, I was packed and ready for two whole days before Marcia ( trail name = Auntie Mame) and I headed up toward Kingfield/Stratton to spend three days backpacking a section of the Appalachian Trail that she needed to fill in during her 6 month period of churning up miles on the fabled path.
The Bigelow range is a very familiar place to me, as I have made at least a half dozen previous trips up there, both in winter and summer. The hike is considered by many as the most spectacular high-elevation traverse in Maine outside of Baxter State Park. What made it our final choice was the ability to take just one car, and complete a circuit hike.
We left the house at 9 AM, and finally reached the tiny parking area at the end of the rutted, but passable access road just before 1 PM. Out first mini-challenge was to negotiate the stones placed in the outlet stream, but no problems for us. I reminded myself that here on the left as you head down the path is a great campsite with ample water and a fire ring. Just the thing for some future night arrival. We found a second, “official” campsite just at the point where the signage for the Firewarden’s Trail begins. From there we enjoyed a one mile gradual uphill saunter until we reached the intersection of the Horns Pond Trail, which veers off to the left. I was more than content to follow Mame up on this walk, she was making good progress, and I was off my best a bit.
The total distance from the parking area to Avery Peak was approximately 5 miles. We continued on up the Firewarden’s Trail, as it gained more elevation through a beautiful hardwood forest, with water still plentiful in the streams that passed over and near the trail. We soon learned why the FWT is the most direct route up to the Bigelow Ridge, after we passed the Moose Falls tent sites and commenced the last mile of lung busting action. The elevation gain on this trail was about 2700 ft – from around 1300 ft at the parking area to 4088 ft at the peak. I call this section the “Stairway to Heaven”, with hundreds of man made granite steps and twisting stairways, but always up.
I ate some kind of bar on the way up. It must have made a difference, as I was able to take the lead and do the whole last mile without stopping, plodding along, but eventually collapsing at the junction with the AT for a brief wait for Mame to reach me. It was near the top that we saw a father and young son backpacking down. They appeared to be in some world of hurt, as their comments revealed that they bypassed a trip up to Avery Peak, even though it was an unusually clear sky day.
It was Mame’s first time to the top of Bigelow ridge, so I pointed out the Bigelow Col tentsites, the Firewarden’s cabin, and the winding way up to the 4,088 foot Avery Peak.
It is a relatively short, but rocky climb up through small trees to the actual bare rocky summit where Flagstaff Lake to the north and Sugarloaf Mountain to the south revealed themselves. We both needed water, and my gamble that the boxed spring on the AT below the summit was active was correct. I expected there to be people up there, given the Labor Day holiday, and the clear crisp skies, but nope, we were all alone and it stayed that way.
This was a trip where we hadn’t planned our complete itinerary, leaving ourselves the luxury of following our whims once we reached the top.
We decided to continue north on the AT, toward Safford Notch tent site, two miles and some 1700 feet in elevation drop down. We had spent a night together there in the company of V8 last fall, and I had previously spent a Aug. 31 evening there in the company of MEGATEX on my 2007 AT thru hike. I love the spot, some .3 mile off the AT in a copse of leafy tree cover. There is a huge rock we were able camp next to, and water nearby.
After Mame and I set up our Tarptent, we proceeded to boil up some water to reconstitute my first attempt at freeze dried backpacking chili for two. I brought along a 1 quart ziplock bag that consisted of a can of kidney beans, can of pinto beans, cup of hamburger, cup of salsa, and chili seasoning, all dehydrated, of course, and weighing in at just 12 OZ for the two of us. Adding 5 cups of water and about 10 minutes of slow simmer not only made it palatable, but downright excellent, with enough left over for me to repack it in a baggie and have it on a bagel for lunch the next day.
We weren’t the only visitors to the camp site. A group from Harvard University camped on one of the tent platforms nearby, and we learned that they had departed Boston, MA that same morning after rising for “inspection” at 4:45 AM. It was a group of freshmen on their first day at Harvard , understandably looking shell-shocked , as they were devoid of any degree of the usual spirited joviality that these college groups are famous for. They were fast asleep by 9 PM, and we were too.