Katahdin: My First Guiding Experience

I recently completed my first experience as a paid Maine Guide. In June, I launched a web page for Uncle Tom’s Guided Adventures, where I am offering a group backpacking trip a month in Maine during August, September, and October.

In July, I received a request from a client to guide them up the 5.5 mile ( 11 miles round trip) Hunt Trail (Appalachian Trail). My suggestion to alter their route choice and make the summit trek less demanding by spending an overnight at Chimney Pond, and choose either the Saddle or Cathedral Trail was declined.

We made it to the top of Katahdin.

However, I learned a lot on that day:

-An advanced backpacking course from the Sierra Club that includes summiting Mt. Baldy, outside Los Angeles, at 10,064 feet may not be sufficient preparation for that hiker to reach the top of the 5,267 foot Katahdin.

-Trails in California tend to employ switchbacks that make going up easier.

Birdlegs ascending lower Hunt trail ( 2013 photos)
Birdlegs ascending lower Hunt trail ( 2013 photos)

The Hunt Trail goes straight up.

-Clients appreciate guides that will carry that client’s 3 quarts of water.

-Trails out west tend to have limited rocks, boulders, and roots to walk or crawl over.

Birdlegs, Bad Influence, and Quarter Moon in Hunt's  boulder field (2013)
Birdlegs, Bad Influence, and Quarter Moon in Hunt’s boulder field (2013)

The Hunt Trail has plenty of obstacles, which may also have streams running down them.

-The 10-12 hours that Baxter Park suggests it takes to summit and return via the Hunt Trail out of Katahdin Stream Campground may not be sufficient for some parties. We left Katahdin Stream at 6:55 AM and returned at 10:30 PM. Our round trip took us 15.6 hours.

-There is a reason why Baxter State park has many rules, including this one: “Hikers must carry a working flashlight.” I learned that having a client read this rule, and be reminded twice to pack the headlamp in the day pack, does not ensure that the light will be in that pack when it becomes pitch black out.

-If two hikers share one headlamp, that the headlamp should be worn by the hiker in front. The guide needs to give that headlamp to the client and walk close behind.

-Upper body strength is needed to ascend the Hunt Trail, when walking becomes insufficient at the 2.9 mile mark. It is particularly necessary when the hiker needs to extend their arms overhead, grasp the first iron rung that is imbedded in a tall boulder, and pull, hard. There is more than one of these iron rods at the base of a giant boulder field.

-Hikers with shorter inseams may benefit from assistance in ascending these boulders from other hikers. The aspiring hiker may need to step on body parts of the assisting hiker, for example, placing one’s foot on an implanted knee that is secured against a boulder or even walking on the other hiker’s back.

-Bring a wind shirt, even in the summer. It may get windy on the Hunt Spur.

Hunt Spur
Hunt Spur

For example, on our day the wind was steady at 20-25 mph with gusts to 40 mph.

-The Hunt Spur is above treeline. The upper portion is unusually exposed.

Heading down in 2013
Heading down in 2013

Hikers with a fear of heights will be challenged on this portion, particularly if the wind is gusting to 40 mph.

-Some hikers find It considerably easier to ascend than to descend the Hunt Trail. In our case, we had a 1 PM turn around time. While we made it up a few minutes after 1 PM, within the expected 6 hour window, our descent took close to 9 hours. This is why spare batteries and even a spare headlamp should be considered.

-It’s good sense to turn back when you feel you are “ over your head” on the Hunt Trail. We met several parties who were in this situation, and wisely chose to head back down. If the famed walker Henry David Thoreau can retreat just below the Tableland in 1846, so can you.

-It is quite difficult to get up and down Katahdin on the Hunt Trail. A reputable source told me that while number of Southbound thru-hiker wannabees had increased by 40% this year, 90% of them went home. Some failed to make the summit, others made the summit but tore up their feet, or they underestimated just how hard it was to keep walking in the woods after their big day heading up to the top.

-When it is pitch black out, and crawling on the ground becomes a viable option, have a bunch of trail tales to tell and maybe a few songs to sing. Humor lightens the load.

-Consider yourself fortunate to be with a hiker who is able to maintain a positive attitude despite the long, steep, and tough nature of the Hunt Trail.   I did.

-It’s really satisfying to assist another hiker to the top of Katahdin . My client told me that,  ” I couldn’t have done it without you.”

The actual inspiration for my  AT tattoo
The actual inspiration for my AT tattoo

– Think long and hard about guiding an individual up Katahdin’s Hunt Trail.

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