Travel

Thoreau wasn’t wrong: The Hundred-Mile Wilderness is no picnic

A view from one of the peaks along Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness.

John O’Connor for the boston globe

A view from one of the peaks along Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness.

“It is even more grim and wild than you had anticipated,” Henry David Thoreau wrote of Maine’s north woods, where he spent two exhausting weeks in 1846 trying (and failing) to climb the 5,268-foot Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak. “[S]avage” is how the landscape struck him, “a damp and intricate wilderness . . . everywhere wet and miry.” The experience soured him on nature. Compared with his bucolic Walden Pond, Thoreau decided that northern Maine — particularly a stretch of rugged forest known today as the Hundred-Mile Wilderness — was a bit too wild: “Vast, Titanic, inhuman.”

Well, I wanted to see for myself. I seem to have a thing for foolhardy, backcountry escapades. So in June, I set off to hike the Hundred-Mile Wilderness with an old friend, Ben, and his husky, Lupita. We carried with us a week’s worth of food and gear and an abiding hope that Thoreau had perhaps overstated things. Arguably the toughest part of the 2,200-mile-long Appalachian Trail, the Hundred-Mile Wilderness is also the longest gauntlet of unbroken forest in the eastern United States — mile-after-mile of extravagantly dire terrain — and as far from a Taco Bell as I’d ever dared to venture. A sign at the trailhead warns hikers there’s nowhere to resupply until the end of the line. Still, how hard could it be?

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Before we left the car, a pair of moose — a cow and calf — crossed the road in front of us, which we took as a good omen. We headed south from Abol Bridge, near the base of Mount Katahdin, in high spirits, only to see them instantly tank. It turned out we were carrying far too much — around 40-pounds each; Lupita had 15-pounds of dog food in her saddlebags — and the strain of our packs was intense. The straps tore at my shoulders.

That alone might’ve been enough to spoil the trip at the moment it began, but we were distracted by the quiet perfection of the forest. The most radiant green, almost neon, engulfed us: spruce, birch, hemlock, white pine, groves of chest-high bracken ferns, and here-and-there wild lady slipper orchids painted kitchen-yellow. As the trail rolled pleasantly through shaded bog-land, we ambled along, entranced.

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“Hey, this is actually kind of nice,” Ben said. And it was. Even Maine’s famously vicious mosquitoes nibbled at us only half-heartedly. Clearly, Thoreau had been joking.

We lunched on a granite slab called Rainbow Ledges, where puffs of white lichen were bunched up in the cracks like cotton. Behind us, Katahdin lay hidden in gray, lumpy clouds. Aside from an occasional thru-hiker (people hiking the entire AT from end-to-end, whereas Ben and I were section-hikers), we had the place to ourselves.

It’s why so many hikers love the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. It was easy to forget that these woods are also a place of disorientation, where the trees close-in and bearings get lost. Each year, the Maine Warden Service conducts around 25 search-and-rescue missions for lost and injured hikers in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness and on the rest of the state’s 267-miles of Appalachian Trail. Most searches, but not all, end happily.

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In 1983, a hiker named Jessie Hoover embarked from Abol Bridge on a planned thru-hike of the AT and was never seen again. In his book “A Walk in the Woods,” Bill Bryson writes memorably of his profound unease here. He had section-hiked about 800-miles of the AT, but was so miserable in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness that he quit after just one day, partly out of fear of getting lost. “And once you were lost in these immense woods,” he writes, “you would die. It was as simple as that.”

But the trail was well-blazed and, for the most part, meticulously maintained by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. We were treated to log walkways that kept our feet dry in swampy patches, and to hillside staircases chopped out of granite. For better or worse, the Hundred-Mile Wilderness is no longer the untamed morass that so troubled Thoreau. We crossed logging roads buzzing with traffic, were briskly overtaken on the trail by Girl Scout troops belting out camp songs. When the mood struck, I could phone my wife in Cambridge and hear the clatter of garbage trucks in the background.

We camped that first night on a rise over Rainbow Stream, congratulating ourselves — two city boys — on an inaugural 16-mile day. After that, things were never the same.

The rain started and didn’t stop for two days, puréeing the ground. As the wind whipped the trees into a blur, the trail, defying the laws of physics, went up and never came down. We climbed and climbed, up into the clouds it seemed, cursing and sweating like farm hands. Every old soccer injury I’d ever had suddenly reasserted itself: knee, ankles, 12th-vertebra. Even Lupita began limping, and Ben had to carry her at river crossings.

On our map, the terrain looked reasonably hilly, an arduous country stroll. In reality, as Bryson so poetically puts it, “it was hell.” Without fail, every bend revealed yet another agonizing ascent, a tumbledown rock scree or solid granite wall to scale, or a gnarled worm-ball of shattered stones, exposed roots, and mud.

No doubt a special breed of robo-hiker prefers it this way. I recalled that it was a tireless Mainer named Myron Avery who was the principal architect of the Appalachian Trail back in the 1930s. His famously difficult personality matched the Dantean void he designed, at least in Maine. It was a trail that chewed you up and spat you out. Or swallowed you whole.

Though not everyone. We had breakfast one morning with four northbound thru-hikers headed for Katahdin who said they were averaging 25-miles a day. After four-months and 2,100-miles, they could smell the end.

But Ben and I slammed on the brakes. Lupita’s limp had worsened. Eventually Ben had to hitch a ride with her to a nearby town while I trudged on. (Back in civilization, Lupita made a quick recovery.) I slept near the crowded Logan Brook Lean-To in a clearing strewn with moose droppings. Alone in the dark, an unmistakable panic began to spread through my heart. I sat wondering what horrors the next 43-miles would bring. Thoreau had been right after all. I, too, wanted the pleasure of being in civilization again.

Eager to finish, it took me two-days to cover the remaining miles, of which eight or nine could charitably be called flat.

The views, it must be admitted, were spectacular. From outcrops on the Barren Chairback Range, I encountered some of Maine’s — if not the country’s — most stunning landscape. Loons, beaver, Blackburnian warblers with flaming orange throats, and a pair of mink popped into view.

Stopping only for a quick swim, I staggered toward the end, half-delirious in the falling light. I now saw what propelled those northbound thru-hikers — the siren-call of cheeseburgers and beer tends to ignite the afterburners.

When I finally stumbled from the trees onto Highway 16, there was no one there to share my triumph. I meekly raised my arms in the air, exhaled mightily, and kissed both biceps.

John O’Connor can be reached at jonocana@gmail.com.
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