By Jon Duresky
This is my tale of hiking in the 100-Mile Wilderness and up (and then down, because, well, once at the summit, you have to go somewhere!) Katahdin.
I have been section hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) in small bites since 2010. I was a latecomer to the hiking party. I am a 23-year retired Air Force pilot who then flew for an airline, so big chunks of time were hard to come by. Even though I grew up in Virginia, I had zero knowledge of the AT until my son started skipping class to go hiking while he was at VA Tech in his senior year, 2006. Being the straight-A student he was, my wife and I didn't yell at him and I thought, "How cool." So the seed was planted in my brain, but as I was just starting my airline career, the time wasn't right.
2010 was my first tiny section hike on the AT, along with that same son, one of my brothers, and my son-in-law. We started at Springer Mt, here in my (now) home state of Georgia. Springer is the southern terminus of the AT. Our hike was about 55 miles, and I loved it. Even then, I wondered about the northern terminus in Maine.
Fast-forward a few years. I had a health issue (or two, or three) that I was not expected to survive. In one of my ICUs, I saw a poster of a mountain on the AT with some motivational statement written on it. A physical therapist said to me, "Jon, we'll have you walking again, but you will need a cane." I thought, "Cane my ass!" In the PT's defense, she didn't know who I was before, still was, and my new motivation to show her, others, and well, everybody, that I wasn't done living by a long shot. So I got back on my feet, in the gym, on the track, the road, and eventually back to sectioning the AT.
A couple years later, I met a guy living in my general location. We did some training hikes and some section hikes. Dude was a total machine and I was not sure he was even human, being 72 years old, ten years older than myself. I'm a fast hiker and he is step for step, through all terrain from the rocks of Pennsylvania to steep mountains in Virginia. In July 2021, we'd just finished a brutal section in VA, with the heat index close to 100 degrees every day. Of course it was record heat! Mother Nature loves to laugh at our plans.
We stayed at a hostel in VA, and my buddy Rik started talking to the hostel owner, who asked Rik if he'd done the Whites in NH, or Maine and specifically, Katahdin. Rik has a goal of completing the entire AT; with about 1300 miles under his boots. The owner says to us, "You might want to think about going up there while you still can." Rik, for once feeling those seven plus decades, says to me, "Wanna go to New Hampshire or Maine next summer?" To which I immediately replied, "Absolutely!"
Last year, about this time, the plan started to take shape.
There were lots of moving parts to get us from the couch in Georgia to the trailhead in Maine. Plane tickets (fretting about cancellations and lost luggage), shuttles, hostel in Millinocket, ME, and the coveted lean-to spot in Katahdin Stream Campground. We even considered a second night there as a "weather backup." My 30 years as a pilot and watching the weather was on full display. We left Atlanta on August 1st, 2022 and returned on the 10th. Logistically, everything went smoothly.
We inserted 75 miles in at AT south in the 100-Mile Wilderness of Katahdin on August 2nd. Other life commitments did not allow us the time to do the entire 100. We had a great hike to Katahdin Stream Campground, climbing small mountains, fording streams, eating wild blackberries and reveling in the beauty of the state.
We later welcomed a third hiker into our little group. If I had thought I was all that after coming back from health adventures and being an "old man of 61," and if 71-year old beast Rik hadn't shown me real strength, well, I was about to be gobsmacked by this hiker.
She was 65, about 5'5'', a buck 25 tops, and was doing the exact section that we were doing. For her, however, this was to complete her 12-year quest to finish the entire AT. I'm thinking, "Damn, I'm in the company of two incredible people." She went by her trail name, Coyote.
We hiked together and leap-frogged for the next five or so days, but we had lean-tos reserved for the night of Sunday, August 7th, planning on climbing Katahdin the next day. Weather forecasts hung our plans in the balance, however, Coyote had life commitments and had to climb on the 8th. She really wanted someone to climb with her and asked us if we would walk in the forecasted rain with her. Weather backup? Naaah. Our weather plan was to plow through any and all. The 8th was the target day.
It rained heavily throughout the night of the 7th. We barely slept. Rain stopped at about 4:30 a.m. We got up 30 minutes later, after final checks and prep we started up the mountain about 6:20 in a heavy mist and fog. For the next four and a half hours Mother Nature danced around rain, mist and fog but saved the best for last!
As we stood on the peak by that long-anticipated on-line sign, the actual weather was 43 degrees F, heavy rain with occasional sleet, and wind gusts up to 50 mph. This is not an exaggeration. My I-phone camera, despite being in a waterproof Otterbox and in a ziplock bag was rendered inoperable by the marvelous weather. I had no proof that I had climbed the mountain! Rik and Coyote, my heroes, later sent the pictures and they are truly incredible.
However, the mission was not nearly complete. We were standing at the sign and knew the tough, tough climbing that we had just completed, but still had to live to tell about it. In those weather conditions, it was not a guarantee. To get down, we audibled to the Abol Trail, thinking that it might be less hazardous. The descent was exhilarating! The first mile down was a 1500', four or five points-of-contact controlled (mostly) by slide-down, rain-slick granite boulders, and scree ranging from pebble to baseball in size. The mist and fog continued, but blessedly, the heavy rain and whipping wind had abated. We made it below the tree line with all body parts intact. We praised ourselves knowing that if we slipped on the rocks, we would only do a soft-ish face plant or limb-sprain or bone-break and live. Compared to the aforementioned slide, where a loss of concentration and fall could very well have been fatal. Given the conditions, that’s no exaggeration either.
And the entire time, I was saying to myself and to them, "This is the best day of my life!" In many ways it was, for all three of us. Coyote had completed a 12-year quest, Rik had put us youngsters in our place, and I was just along for the ride. Speaking of ride, when we got to the Ranger station at the Abol trailhead, we still had a two-mile muddy road walk to the Katahdin Stream Campground/Hunt Trail trailhead where we’d shuttle back to Millinocket. Ugh. We had no sooner started our trudge when a Ranger pulled up and said, "Hop in the back of the truck."
We were soaked, cold, tired, but happy as hound dogs in the back of a pickup after treeing bears and raccoons. We were soon deposited by our shuttle, which took us to the hostel, and somewhat unfortunately, the real world.
I bought my American Backcountry shirt the next day at a shop just outside of the entrance to Baxter State Park. It was an olive green long sleeve with a small logo on the left breast, and a depiction of the mountain on the back.
It is still really hot here in Georgia, so I haven't had a chance to show off my shirt. I hope someone asks me about the shirt and the mountain and if the hike is hard. I'd tell them how awesome I am, in jest, but really highlight what fantastic people I hiked with this August in Maine, and all the great people that I have met over the years in various states and various trails. I'm not sure where my next adventure is. If I see an American Backcountry shirt afterwards, I'm getting it.