Day mileage: 31.5
AT total mileage: 2,030.5
Time: 12.5 hours
As usual the sunrise came far too early. Starting to pack up camp around 6:30, I woke up Santa so that he could also begin packing. We were joined as we sat eating breakfast on the pine needle floor by a weekend camper who wanted to hear about our adventures on the trail. Talking with her for a short while we then said our goodbyes and headed for the trail. With a very long day ahead of us it was important to get some good mileage in quickly.
The first order of business for the day would be a 2,100' climb up to Horns Pond lean-to where we had intended to be the night before. The climb was steep and very rocky, making me exceptionally happy that we didn't attempt it in the dark with headlamps. A mile out of the campsite we came across a small wooden carved sign on a tree marking the 2,000th mile of the 2014 Appalachian Trail, an incredible milestone in my hike. To think that I've walked 2,000 miles is almost unnerving, but there's an immense sense of pride in having done so. With only 185.3 miles to go, we trekked on after snapping a few photos. For those that have a keen eye for detail you may have just picked up on the fact that the trail is 2,185.3 miles long and my website is 5.3 miles short... In the interest of full disclosure I figured it was easier for people to remember a website where the digits ended in a multiple of ten. Anyways, we climbed the boulder-ridden ascent and made it to the shelter in an hour and a half. Nestled between two large ponds was an entire compound comprised of tent sites, a caretaker cabin, a day-use shelter (originally constructed in 1936 by the CCC), and two large sleeping shelters. Santa and I stopped at the sleeping shelters for a bite to eat and talked with a SOBO hiker for a little while before hiking on. From Horn Pond we would ascend 1,000' in under a mile to the summit of North Horn mountain, then dip down a few hundred feet and climb back up to the summits of the Bigelow mountains. Relatively simple but strenuous climbs, we first summited West Bigelow peak at an elevation of 4,145 feet above sea level. Both this and Bigelow Avery peak will be the last two mountains over 4,000' in elevation until we reach Katahdin in a week. Comprised of rocky summits, both mountains are clearly marked with alpine zones where fragile vegetation clings to rocks. As such it's clearly marked to stay on trail to avoid disturbing the plant life. Descending to a low ridge and climbing back up to the second peak, Bigelow Avery peak, we stopped at a plaque explaining the name of the mountain. These peaks provided some truly incredible views, impeccable panoramic sights of mountain ranges and endless lakes, ski mountains and small towns in the distance, an amazing reminded of why we hike the trail. The solitude and beauty of these alpine ridges provide a view on life that many will never experience.
A quick and as-accurate-as-I-can-manage-without-Google history lesson... While Benton McKay is viewed as the father of the Appalachian Trail, proposing the idea in the 1920s after a day hike in Vermont, it was also largely thanks to Myron Avery that the trail actually became a reality. The two worked together throughout a decade with the CCC to bring the idea to life, though Avery is much less of an A.T. household name than Benton. This peak was marked with a nice bronze plaque dedicating the mountain to Myron, which after reading we turned north and descended down the mountain.
Our next challenge would be Bigelow Junior, a mountain some 7 miles later, but first we would lose 2,000' in elevation down to Safford Notch where Santa and I would eat lunch. As we came out of the alpine zone we descended into a thickly wooded pine forest with many many boulders. The lower we got the larger the rocks became, until we found ourselves face to face with boulders I can only describe as the size of icebergs, mammoth hunks of rock strewn about gvttvtdddthe forest floor, towering over us as dcefffcdppwe hiked around and through them. We stopped for lunch in the Notch, bombarded by mosquitoes that Santa enjoyed spraying with 100% deet and freezing them in place. Finishing our food break and heading on, we began a long gradual climb to Bigelow Junior, the last real peak of our day. At just over 3,000' in elevation it paled in comparison to the larger Bigelow peaks, and offered no amazing views. As such we continued on beginning a long descent to Flagstaff Lake in the valley below. The 5th largest lake in the state, Flagstaff is a popular destination for weekenders and boaters, but was remarkably calm for a Saturday in July. We would follow the trail around the lake for a few miles before climbing two successive 'hills' - 400 and 800 feet respectively, then dropping down to another lake where we would find the shelter at which to eat dinner. We carried an amazingly quick pace on the forgiving trail and arrived at West Carry Pond lean-to around 1830hrs. At one point I asked Santa if he was comfortable with the pace to which he replied "No, but it feels productive so don't slow down." We were moving. Talking with a NOBO hiker named Glitz as we ate, we then packed up and headed on. With 10.2 miles remaining and darkness only 90 minutes away, we knew night hiking was going to be a reality. Grabbing my headlamp, we hiked on into the night.
The thick forest cover made it difficult to see as dusk settled over us, and even with the headlamp the thick vegetation growing into the trail was cause for caution. Mud and puddles made for slippery terrain, and caution was exercised as we went along. At one point shortly before 2100hrs I was stepping onto a foot bridge over a boggy area when my right foot slipped out causing me to fall. My right ribcage smashed into the bridge, made of two halves of a tree next to each other, and I twisted my back when I fell down onto the ground. My first concern was of course the dSLR camera on my waist belt after which I rolled over, not unlike a beached whale, and lay there for a while as Santa repeatedly asked if I was ok. Having hurt my back a week ago slipping on rock while still in New Hampshire, I again hurt the same muscle that I had hyperextended the first time. He helped me up and we sat there for a while as I embraced the inevitable pain. Hiking on we were much more cautious and though it became difficult in the thickly wooded darkness, followed the trail and arrived at the shelter around 2230hrs. Though I wish I could say I was surprised, three people occupied a shelter with space for 8 so haphazardly that there was no room for us to fit in. This made me rather angry as I inflated my air mattress to cowboy camp for the third night in a row, and I passive-aggressively wrote in the shelter's log book about the issue of SOBO hikers occupying shelter space like it's their own bedroom.
We'll sleep next to the shelter tonight, again, and tomorrow will attempt another long day. There's apparently a lodge of sorts nearby that serves pancakes in the morning, so we might try and swing by there to get a good start to our day. All in all, having not hiked a 30+ mile day in over a month, I feel good. It's really nice to know I'm still physically capable.
Bed now, under dark skies and bright stars.