There are at least two different ways to hike the Appalachian Trail.
The first is to mark each mile on the trail as an obstacle to be overcome. Focusing on daily mileage as the solitary goal is something the northbound thru-hikers have perfected by the time they reach Maine.
I’ve been talking to and hiking with these folks for three days now. They are fiercely focused on their goal of summiting Katahdin. Forty-mile days and even night-hiking are not unheard of in this last stretch of the 100-mile wilderness south of Baxter State Park.
They are whipcord thin constantly hungry and they carry the grime and aroma of hundreds of miles of tough trail on their bodies and gear. They are single-minded.
And who can blame them. They are within a few miles of completing a feat that few people would have the mental and physical stamina to do. Something that only 15% of their fellow hikers who set out from Georgia last March will complete.
You have to admire them but I wonder if they are even seeing what is around them at this point.
As I set out from Nahmakanta Camps last Friday on the AT, and the first few northbounders flew by on the trail, I found myself instinctively picking up the pace. But I slowed down as soon as I came within sight of the first set of falls on Rainbow Stream. And I resolved at that point to make this a different kind of AT hike.
It has been some of the most satisfying, relaxing and yes…slowest, hiking I have ever done.
If you only do one long hike on the AT in your lifetime – the section from Nahmakanta Lake to Katahdin (see DeLorme Map 50) should be on your short list. Go in the late summer or early fall when the air is dry and the nights just begin to cool off.
Take every side-trail that offers itself to you. Hike in to Bear Pond or Beaver Pond and fish there both late in the evening and early in the morning. When a sign points out a side trail to Rainbow Lake Dam or Rainbow Spring – don’t hesitate. Stop there and soak in the ever-closer view of Katahdin.
And swim in the lake at every opportunity – the water is crystal clear and still warm enough to linger while getting a water-level view of the huge trees lining all sides of the lake. Find a comfortable exposed rock and feel the heat of the stone compete with the sun to dry your body as you nap.
I did all these things and more. One side-trail led to Rainbow Lake Camps, an 1890′s era sporting camp that sits on a point in the middle part of the lake and is accessible only by float plane. The camps are privately-owned and not open to the public – but I had made tentative earlier arrangements for a tour.
I met the caretakers Richard and his wife Gail. And after a walk around the impeccable log buildings and grounds we had lunch on the porch of the Main Lodge overlooking the lake.
I walked through miles of cathedral like stands of pine, hemlock and spruce – with fern-covered, erratic house size boulders.
I don’t really know if any of the thru-hikers saw any of this. I’m not sure I would have seen it either if I was rushing to make the next campsite.
Finally, this morning, I could hear the big trucks on the Golden Road as I approached the West Branch of the Penobscot. Tonight I am camped at Abol Pines, a small self-service Dept. of Conservation campground near Abol Bridge. I have a lean-to shelter to myself, the West Branch is a few feet away from my picnic table. The weather is holding clear, dry and warm with a southwest breeze.
I only need to get as far as Katahdin Stream Campground tomorrow.