Day 76: Abol Campground to The Birches Shelters (10 mi)
I had a pretty rough sleep last night because Fresh Feet tossed and turned the entire night. #marriedlife #tentlife
I set an alarm for 4:45 am (first alarm in what seems like forever!) so we could get to the Baxter State Park kiosk to sign up for The Birches shelter first thing in the morning. The Birches is limited to only 12 hikers at the site, and is first come first serve on the day of. Basically, it’s a race to the kiosk to secure your spot the day you want to stay at The Birches (the base camp for summiting Mt. Katahdin).
Biscuits was REALLY looking forward to the all-you-can-eat continental breakfast buffet that was included with our campsite, so we planned to go back to Abol Campground after signing up for the shelter at the kiosk. The kiosk was only 1 very easy and flat mile from the campground and we had an easy day ahead of us with only 10 flat miles to our base camp.
Last night, the Campground manager advised us to be at the kiosk very early, and told us about a shortcut back to the campground/restaurant for breakfast (which was at 7 am). He told us that tons of people go to sign up before 6 am to make sure their name is on the list. If we didn’t get our name on the list we would have to hitchhike into Millinocket (a town 1 hour away) and then hitch again in the morning and have to wait in the car line, for which the car gate doesn’t open until 7 am. Anyway, the obvious preference was to stay at The Birches.
My alarm went off and it was still very dark and quite windy. To my surprise, the tent rainfly was totally dry from all the wind despite the complete downpour last night. I went to the bath house and brushed my teeth in a sink and did my business in a flush toilet! Woohoo! I came back to our tent and packed up quickly. Biscuits and Fresh Feet packed up in record time as well! We started walking the 1 mile to the kiosk. It was the flattest easiest 1 mile EVER! As I crossed the small footbridge into Baxter State Park I watched a very large turtle waddle into the water from a beaver dam right next to me.
I got to the kiosk and found a pencil and jotted down my name - first name on the list! Not long after a hiker named Walmart Special rolled up and then Fresh Feet and Biscuits just behind. We then took the shortcut back to the restaurant and waited about 30 mins for breakfast with a bunch of other hikers. I ate oatmeal and fruit for breakfast along with my soylent and was quite full.
We then started our day. It was an extremely flat, easy and BEAUTIFUL 10 mile day. The path hugged various rivers and river branches almost the entire time. The water was so fast and gushing and the waterfalls powerful and loud. It was a majestic feeling and felt so different from the AT path we had been hiking! 95% of the trail was Hollywood trail with a soft pine needle surface. And despite all the rain from the night before, the path wasn’t wet at all! No mud! Woohoo!!
We had two river fords and the first one was where Fresh Feet caught up to me. I watched him rock hop and then I attempted. The water was SO strong and it was hard to use my poles to help me balance. My shoes were slippery on the slick and smooth rocks and at one point my left foot slipped off the rock and went all the way in the water. Ugh! I told myself that next time I would just take my shoes off and ford instead of trying to rock hop. However, the next river ford seemed more tame and the rock hop easier, so I rock hopped and made it across with dry feet. Hooray!
When we arrived at the ranger station at the base of the Hunt Trail (bottom of Mt. Katahdin), no one was there. We needed to pay our fee and get permits to summit the next day. We signed in our names and headed to The Birches (shelter site) and figured the Ranger would surely hunt us down in search of our $10 camp fee and to cross check The Birches sign up sheet from this morning.
We set up our tent on the one double tent platform and I went to fetch water (down by the ranger station, 0.3 mi back). We saw various hiker friends coming down the path as they had just finished their summit and hike! It was so exciting to greet and congratulate them all!
The crew of us that stayed at The Birches (only 9 of us!) all gathered around some benches and we built a fire. The rain/wind from yesterday brought cooler weather and today was actually perfect temperatures and even a bit chilly! The warmth from the fire was nice and we were able to connect with new faces that we would summit with tomorrow.
I decided to walk back to the Ranger station and pay our fee and get the permits. I asked her all my questions (How much water to carry? Poles or no poles? How hard is it really? Best place to catch a hitch to town after?) and she was super friendly and sweet. She really changed my perspective on the rangers in Baxter as I had previously had the idea they weren’t super friendly or supportive of the AT thru hikers. Not the case for us on this day!
We ate dinner around the fire, and all went to bed early with the idea of getting an early start to beat the day hiker traffic and have a more intimate summit experience.
The excitement and emotions of us all sitting at The Birches the night before our summit was a special feeling, and something that brought us all closer and connected us in a unique way as each person (with the exception of Fresh Feet and I) was culminating their thru hike and taking turns feeling all the feels that comes with that. It still felt like a finale of sorts for us as we wrapped up the northern chapter of our experience.
Day 77: The Birches to Millinocket, ME (10.4 mi) Katahdin Summit Day!
Omg today was 100% epic!
I woke up quite cold at 4:24 am and got up to pee (it was 42 degrees)!! Once I was up and moving, the decision to get going up Katahdin had been made. Biscuits and Fresh Feet got up and packed up with a mission this morning. Baxter SP encourages hikers to only take essentials up Mt. Katahdin (no cowboy camping allowed), so most thru hikers leave sleeping gear and cook wear at the ranger station and take up a light pack since it is an out and back to the summit and back to base camp. Biscuits was an exception to this rule and brought up his full pack!
Fresh Feet and I had all of our non essentials in trash bags and left them behind at the ranger station. Our packs felt super light! I still brought most of my clothes with me because the temperatures can be quite bitter at the summit with high winds. I also carried 1.25 L of water (because lately it has been so hot/humid), as well as 4 bars. We drank our morning smoothies and left the bottles behind as well. Wow. Light packs felt so different!
We hit the trail at 5:30 am and Biscuits took off. The first mile was a total cake walk. It was so groomed and easy, I was still wearing my hat, long sleeve and puffy jacket.
The second mile I started to warm up with the climbing, but the terrain wasn’t technical. It had a lot of stone staircases and a little bit of bouldering.
After the second mile it got a little more tough. I had to use my hands for some climbing moves, but it felt fun! Having such a light pack made a HUGE difference for me in my ability to climb and scramble with ease and even enjoy it!
The middle section, just above tree line was the toughest part, but because we had just come up above tree line we had our first views of the day. At this point we were hiking with Walmart Special, who hadn’t had ANY views in the entire northern section of the trail (horrible weather for all the white mountains and southern Maine) and was absolutely blown away! The views were spectacular and we were just getting started! It slowed us down a bit as we continuously stopped to take in the surrounding beauty, savoring each moment.
We got SO lucky that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! So many people have inclement weather on their Katahdin summits and we seriously lucked out and took the time to bask in the glory of the endless views. It was a crisp morning, no humid haze, not too cold, not hot at all, and we took the climb slow enough to enjoy it and the views that we didn’t even work up a sweat.
The technical section involved some rebar hooks and a bar which marked the “monkey bar” section. It was tough but SO much easier without the weight of my pack throwing my balance off. It didn’t even feel scary.
We had some more scrambling to do up a rocky ridge but the views were so breathtaking it didn’t even matter. At this point we became a posse of four as we were joined by Handyman. The four of us had such a nice climb and were grateful to have each other to share the experience with and be in awe of the epic climb we were having together.
After the steep ridge rock scramble, we got up to the tabletop, a nice plateau, and we only had 1.5 miles left to the summit! The tabletop was at least 1 mi and it was smooth sailing ridge walking with some rocks in the trail.
The last part was a bit more steep and scrambly, but not bad! We could see other thru hikers at the top as well as the infamous Katahdin sign, marking the summit of the mountain (where every NoBo has a photo shoot and some emo moments).
Walmart Special and Handyman weren’t quite ready for the climb to be over so they slowed a little and Fresh Feet and I summited and took a few pictures with the sign. Then they came up and I took pictures for them as they had their moments of glory for being DONE with their thru hikes! One by one, more thru hikers came through, and it was pretty special to be a part of their summit experience knowing that they were done with the entire Appalachian Trail. I felt excited and like a huge sense of accomplishment just having finished the northern half, but all of the hikers at the top have hiked twice as long! Incredible.
We began our descent, although there was no wind at the top so we really didn’t feel cold and hung out for quite some time. I was aware that descending some of that very difficult terrain in the middle would probably be harder and sketchier than climbing it.
The descent went as well as it could have! I was surprised with how the tough parts with the rebar came somewhat naturally to me. Climbing moves were just SO much easier with a light pack and I felt more in control of my body and weight.
We cruised through the last few miles and about 1.5 mi from the bottom we encountered a couple (day hikers) and the man’s shoe sole had completely come off his hiking boot! Something similar had happened to Fresh Feet with his Hokas in the Whites, so he offered to duct tape the man’s boot and sole back together to get him the 1.5 miles down. They kindly offered us a ride into Millinocket in return for the duct tape help, which is a 1 hour drive! Their kind offer saved us from having to hitch hike our way out of the park with people who were leaving to Millinocket. It was beyond generous and kind for them to take us to our hostel in Millinocket.
After we finished the descent we went back to the ranger station to get our belongings when we saw a huge group hanging outside the station. It was a college orientation trip! They had leftover spaghetti and red sauce and NUTRITIONAL YEAST and we were quite hungry so Fresh Feet and I helped them finish off their leftover pasta. Watching the incoming college freshmen on their wilderness orientation trip reminded me of my own college orientation trip, LandSea, where we spent 3 weeks in Canada backpacking and canoeing/portaging. What a very special experience for young adults, and I watched and smiled from a short distance and chatted a little with a sophomore, who was a trip leader.
Then we waited for our Trail Angels to return to their lean-to and got a ride in their nice rental car into town.
We checked in, did laundry, went to find food, found Walmart Special at the restaurant and he ate with us, and we had a nice evening.
Just as we returned to the hostel to turn in for the night, Biscuits texted Fresh Feet that he wanted to go out and celebrate, so Fresh Feet went out with Biscuits and other hikers for a late and celebratory night (I was totally wiped out and crashed). Our ride to the Bangor airport in the morning with Biscuits fell through but we were able to book a shuttle last minute with two other hikers.
Day 78: Millinocket, ME to Philadelphia, PA. Zero day - THE FLIP
We woke up and packed up for our 7:30 am shuttle ride to Bangor airport. As we were packing up to leave, Fresh Feet dropped his smoothie bottle in the driveway and the bottle completely broke! Good thing we have time to get a new one before hitting the trail again.
Gizmo and Mr. Maps joined us for the shuttle ride and we chatted and shared stories the whole way.
Once we arrived at the Bangor airport, we got in touch with aunt Debbie in Philly and she helped us figure out all of our Philly logistics. We are SO grateful for her mastermind to think for us and help us put our needs into action. We were pretty tired and cashed mentally.
We got to the Philly airport and found cousin Jenn’s car in the parking garage for us (she dropped it off a few hours earlier as she had a flight out that morning). We were SO grateful to have a car to drive around to do all of our city errands and are filled with gratitude for Jenn’s generous offering. THANK YOU JENN for letting us borrow your car!
We went to two different shoe stores in the suburbs of Philadelphia (thanks to Debbie’s recommendations) and finally each bought a pair of new shoes for the SoBo half. Fresh Feet got another pair of Hokas (Stinsons) and I tried on the Hoka Torrents, loved them, but ended up at the second store and got a pair of Salomons. I was getting to a place of no return with my hunger level towards the end of shoe shopping, so we left to go get lunch just around the corner at a very cute place, Terrain (thank you for the suggestion Debbie!).
After a delicious lunch at a beautiful cafe we returned to the shopping plaza where I got a new pair of shorts (to have a second pair for camp - I had given my spare pair to Red Stripe in the 100 mile wilderness).
Aunt Debbie (superstar magician) also scheduled us 90 minute massages nearby! Getting our bodies worked on was MUCH needed and absolutely fantastic!
Debbie also found a very cool vegan Chinese Buffet event for us to have dinner at! Sarah, Ethan, Gray, and Debbie all joined for dinner and it was casual, very packed, and TONS of options at the buffet, and ALL VEGAN! It was a very unique dinner experience! We also enjoyed sharing stories with the cousins and Deb and stayed at the restaurant for 2.5 hours!
We finally landed at Debbie’s house on a farm (Mill Hollow) in the burbs of Philly and being there just felt like absolute paradise. We watched a tiny part of the 10+ hour Aretha Franklin funeral and visited and shared pictures/stories with Debbie. We stayed up past midnight, were exhausted, but hearts full from so much love and connection with family.
It was so odd to watch the Aretha Franklin funeral and find out about McCain’s death as well, because on the trail we are completely unaware of what is going on in the world. Then we enter the world of cell service and we get bombarded with news. It can be overwhelming to take the phone out of airplane mode. Texts, emails, news, logistics, and just the general access to information feels like an insane amount of stimulation compared to our general state of isolation. It makes me rethink how much “being on the grid” and “being connected” really does take its toll with its chronic undercurrent of stimulation. It can so easily be ignored or overlooked when existing in the “real world”, but once deprived from internet access for months at a time it is jarring when suddenly you are reconnected to the world.
As we went to bed, the orchestra of crickets was alarming. We had just come from Maine, where it was pretty quite at night with the occasional loon call, and the cricket concert was SO loud here in PA. It’s interesting to think of how much more in tune we are with the sounds of the ecosystem now. There were also owl calls, which is something we hadn’t heard in a while.
I laid down in THE MOST COMFORTABLE BED EVERRR and just sighed a proud, fully relaxed sigh of relief. The North was over and I felt like I could breathe again without dreading the soul-crushing and often fear-inducing rock climbing terrain of New England. Phew!
Day 79: Philadelphia, PA to Elizabethtown, PA. Zero day - Flip day 2.
We slept in the most comfortable bed at Debbie’s farm house!!! The mattress, pillows and bedding just swallowed me up and I felt like I was in absolute heaven! Sleeping in that bed was complete luxury and comfort. I had such a heightened sense of appreciation for the sweet feeling of the clean cotton sheets on my skin and the plushness of the pillows and heavy comforter on my body. The environment at Debbie’s house helped me enter a new level of relaxation.
I took a long salt bath and a shower. Using conditioner for the first time in at least a month felt so nice in my hair. The wonderful soak and shower helped many of my bites begin to heal and my legs started to look like normal-ish summer legs (instead of diseased legs!)
We ate fresh berries and a banana with granola, seeds, nuts and raisins with delicious coconut yogurt for breakfast, while drinking tea and sitting and visiting on the front porch watching the occasional rain shower.
Jamie went to visit his uncle who was in the hospital while I caught up with my parents on the phone.
Our time frame was super tight to make it to the train station when Jamie came back from the hospital and we ended up missing the train by about 45 seconds. Without hesitation, Debbie spontaneously offered to drive us the 1.5 hours (one way) to Elizabethtown, PA, which was beyond generous and kind and gave us more quality time with her to visit and catch up. THANK YOU DEBBIE FOR YOUR OPEN HEART AND GENEROUS SPIRIT!
We arrived at Cindy and Jim’s house in Elizabethtown, PA and had about an hour to settle in. Cindy threw us with a picnic welcome home party with a crew of her friends from Elizabethtown who have all been following along virtually on our journey via the blog and GPS tracker.
All the friends began to show up and each one made their signature dish with a vegan twist! Nancy made her baked beans vegan (without bacon), Kathy made her infamous 7 layer dip totally vegan, and Cindy made us grilled portobellos (marinated in balsamic) with a sweet corn, tomato, basil salad. We feasted and shared stories from the trail and after some technical difficulties were able to show a slide show of pictures while Jamie told corresponding stories. We also had mango and raspberry sorbet with fresh cantaloupe for dessert!
We felt so loved and supported from the Elizabethtown community and once again, our hearts full from the loving encouragement of friends and family.
I then spent some time organizing some of our stuff, threw some items in the laundry as well as the dishwasher, and got a resupply ready for the next few days as we embark on our SoBo portion of our hike.