Sunday, March 29, 2015

Winter Cabin Hiking in the ADKs

View From Giant
The Preamble
Most of my winter hiking has been concentrated in the areas closest to my home, including the White Mountains of NH & Maine, southern NH, the Catskills, the Berkshires, and super-locally, the Blue Hills and Middlesex Fells Reservations in MA. When my friend Emily started planning winter trips to the Adirondacks last year, she invited me along, allowing me to gain further knowledge and hiking experience in this vast, beautiful park and it's surrounding towns.

The Adironacks provide a challenge in winter (and really any time of year), with it's changable weather, steep descents between peaks and often ledgy, rocky areas that often require scrambling, ice axes, crampons, a short rope, or a mix of it all. Access into the mountains can also be a challenge, and this is where the Adirondack Mountain Club's Camps come in handy. While difficult to reserve due to their popularity, the cabins provide a heated base camp from which the High Peaks can be reached without having to brave the cold in lean-tos. This additional comfort of heat and shelter makes it well worth the low price and 1 year advance trip planning needed to secure a spot for a few weekdays. (We paid $99 pp for 3 nights, but it would cost even less if the cabin was at max capacity).

Last year was my first winter trip to the ADKs. Our group consisted of 5 experienced winter hikers from the Boston area. We stayed at a motel in Elizabethtown, NY before making our way into the difficult-to-reserve Grace Camp, a rustic, one-room cabin that sleeps six. The cabin, located 3.6 mi in from the winter parking lot in Keene Valley, NY, includes propane powered heat and lights, as well as a full kitchen where we cooked dinners and breakfast together. Our group's hiking goals included various 4,000 ft mountains within a day hike of the cabin, including  Big Slide, Upper Wolfjaw, Lower Wolfjaw and Haystack. We had a great time in generally fair weather, and afterwards I was ready to commit to another winter ADK adventure.

This year, Emily reserved the larger cabin, named Peggy O'Brien Camp. Located just a few hundred feet from Grace Camp, it provides beds for 12, features an indoor toilet as well as a full kitchen, separate bunk room, and several fantastic clothing drying systems on pulleys lowered from the ceiling. With the extra cabin space, our group grew this year to 7 hikers in all, which still allowed for lots of extra elbow room in the cabin.

Whiteface & Ester
That Sunday, four of our group mt up in NY to day hiked  to Whiteface and Ester together. It was a cool, windy day up high. While we saw many people on the sheltered trail to Ester, we saw no one else on going up or coming down from the summit of Whiteface that day. Hiking up Marble Mtn and Ester was relatively simple, with wooded summits and no view to be had on that day. The way up to Whiteface was more interesting, as we passed a chairlift and skier, finally popping out to the wind-whipped road to the summit and hiking along the ridge in 30 mph winds. The summit surprised us with its cluster of buildings, including its tall, shuttered observation tower and a mountain-shaped sign with the summit marked in feet. We hurried around for photos and movies and soon made our way down to the cars.


After our hike, we met the other 3 in our group at the Keene Valley Hostel, a perfectly good low-budget hostel for hikers and climbers in the heart of Keene Valley - home to the Noonmark Diner (great breakfasts) and nearly next door to the Garden trailhead, where we would start our walk into the ADK Cabin. The hostel runs on a self -service basis and has large kitchen, gear cubbies, laundry, showers and living room on the first floor. Upstairs is a dorm-style room with bed for 12. Not all the linens were washed that evening, so a member of our group did laundry loads of sheet and towels which we all benefited from.

Later we gathered at the ADK Cafe in Keene for one of the best meals you can get in the area. A credit card only place, the food was fantastic and prices reasonable for the quality and portions. Not only do they offer lunch and dinner, but also baked goods all day and night long! After dinner, we picked up muffins for the morning and made our way to the hostel. Do not pass through Keene hungry without stopping at the ADK Cafe (the ADK Market is great too)!

KV Hostel

Giant & Rocky
Hiking up Giant
The following morning we split into two groups; Alex and Tecla, who headed into the cabin early to hike up Big Slide, and the other 5 who hiked Giant & Rocky before heading to the cabin (including myself).

Hiking to Giant starts off  steeply from Rt 73, located just a few miles south of Keene Valley. The day was warm and sunny, a welcome difference from yesterdays' cold and wind. We walked up in Microspikes most of the way, donning snowshoes to navigate the deep drifts near the top. We met another small group up there, and after enjoying the fine views from the ledges and summit, we dropped down ~800 feet and right back up to Rocky, where additional 360˚ views greeted us - possibly seeing as far off at the White Mountains in NH. More photos and summit cookies were had, and soon we found ourselves climbing back up the steep trail to Giant and down it's sun-splashed slopes with views of the High Peaks and Dix Ranges in front of us.
From Giant

From Rocky

After our fabulous day hike, we reorganized our gear in the Garden parking lot in Keene Valley and started our walk into the cabin. Some of us brought sleds to haul in our food and hiking supplies, while others carried the weight in their backpacks. It was a well oiled group of 5 and we all soon met at the cabin, enjoying our first night of appetizers & wine from Alex, as well as a pasta dinner cooked by Emily. Tecla topped it all off with a Dutch Apple pie for dessert which she made and Alex hauled in on his massive sled. What a great group of foodies!

Peggy O'Brien Camp

Cabin Interior

Dutch Apple Pie

Basin and a Bonus
The first morning of our cabin adventure we hiked together to Basin Mtn. The weather was warm with light rain, which quickly changed to snow as the winds increased and the temperatures dropped. The hike started with a gentle uphill slope over the course of ~4 miles. After that we faced a decent uphill climb, a short downhill, and back up steeply, over a wooden ladder and ledge, and finally to a rocky summit. At that point we gathered for pictures and summit cookies and hid from the wind and blowing snow. Two of our group continued forward to tackle 4 additional peaks, including Saddleback via the cliffs, Gothics via the cables, Armstrong, Upper Wolfjaw and down. All the snow on the ground had benefited their hike where ice or exposed rock had thwarted other hikers. Their success was a great one and we were happy to see them back at teh cabin just a few hours later. Our group went back the way we came, the slightly longer and  easier way.
Hiking to Basin
Slant Rock
Emily up the steeps

Basin summit
Later that evening, we enjoyed another spread of cheese and crackers,  chicken ginger soup & bread for dinner, with leftover pie as well as new desserts by Laurie.


Alex and the apps

Our last day and night
Our final day hike from teh cabin took all of us to Upper Wolfjaw, and for some, to Armstrong and Lower Wolfjaw. It was a bitter cold day with strong winds, though the hike was mostly sheltered on all 3 peaks. We had some steep climbs over small ledges and our ice axes were useful in spots.
Upper Wolfjaw

Bundled up on Armstrong
From Upper WolfJaw, where Tecla and Laurie turned around for the cabin,  the rest of us visited  Armstrong - where additional  views could be seen. Emily and I hiked down after summitting Armstrong while Jeff, Karine and Alex went a mile further up Lower Wolfjaw and back. That night we played Bananagrams, ate our final Chili dinner cooked by Karine with various desserts, hot cocoa and the eating and drinking of everything that was still leftover.

Peggy's bunks

Drying out

Toast with dinner
ADK Pancakes
Emily cooked everyone a pancake breakfast on our last morning at Peggy O'Brien Camp. We cleaned up, packed out and were soon bounding down the trail with feather-weight sleds and lighter backpacks. It was a beautiful sunny day, a great day for more hiking (Jeff and Karine) or for a leisurely drive home (everyone else). Thank again to everyone for making this such a great trip from the food to the company and camaraderie.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Backpacking through the AT in Maine

Bald Mountain Pond
A little history
My friend Judy and I have been on a roll for the last 9 years, leading backpacks for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Boston Chapter, all of them in Maine, for a total of 9 trips. While many leaders from Boston travel outside MA to hike the bigger, more challenging mountains to our north, many choose to play in the more popular White Mountains National Forest and surrounding areas of New Hampshire. But both Judy and I have been drawn to Maine with it's rugged trails, less popular peaks, and beautiful ponds perfect for backpacking. When I met Judy, she had already section-hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) through the state of NH, and she wanted to do the same in Maine. Little did I know I would join this strange little quest.

The first trip we led together was in 2006 on the Grafton Loop Trail East side which does not travel on the AT. This trail had just recently been completed, and it wasn't often one got the chance to travel on a new trail in New England. I had helped build a tiny portion of it's West side three years earlier, so it was exciting for me to see it's other side. We had a wonderful trip and I've gone back a few times to hike all of the loop several times. After that trip I was hooked on Maine, happy to be backpacking again after a short hiatus, and hungry for more.

In 2007, I decided to join Judy in her quest to backpack the entire AT in Maine, starting with the Bigelows. Since then, we've led one Maine AT trip per year, always in autumn, and almost always on Columbus Day weekend. I've hiked some small sections without her, and I missed one trip in 2012 due to a cold, but we've backpacked nearly all of it together. This year we finished our 7th Maine AT backpack, from Flagstaff Lake to Monson, ME. 

The numbers
With 54 miles, 4 days, and several water crossings, it was bound to be epic. There were 4 of us starting together, 1 of us would meet up midway, 3 cars, and some of the loveliest weather I've experienced in Maine! Lucky for us, it hadn't rained in quite a while, so the water was low and crossings would  be easy.

AT Backpack No. 7
The group met at Balsam Woods Campground in Abbot, ME and had dinner at The Lakeshore House in Monson, a classic AT hiker destination, complete with the 100 mile wilderness food bucket for only $25 delivered. The Lake Shore has an open mic night on Thursdays, so we figured we'd enjoy some entertainment as well. Little did we know our fellow hike participant, Tim, was a recent music major graduate. Just after eating, he slipped out of his chair, and before we knew it, he was playing banjo for three songs with the band!
100 Mi Feed bucket

Tim joins the band

Maine bathroom decor
Trail Magic
We awoke around 5:45am for an early, cold start,   spotted a car in Monson and drove 2 hours to the Flagstaff Lake trailhead. The day was sunny, windy and brisk. We had a 16+ mile day ahead of us, generally flat with easy ups and downs. It was lovely walking along the lake and smaller Carry Ponds. When we arrived at the West Carry Pond shelter, we had out first taste of trail magic from Mary Ann, a local who lived along the Carry Ponds somewhere. She left a box homemade goodies (as she does every 2.5 days!). There was also gum, nuts and other treats in another box. We took a little and left some for the next, though thru-hikers are few and far between on the AT in Maine in October.

crossing the 2000 mi Mark near Flagstaff Lake
We carried forth till 5:40pm to our first overnight location, Pierce Pond Shelter. The spot is a gem, right on the pond with lots of spots to camp just above the shelter.  The night was cool and the moon waning just past full. It got dark while we were eating at 6:30pm and we soon we gave into the darkness, serenaded to sleep by the loons, as they did t us every night on the trail.This IS the way life should be.

Pierce Pond Shelter
Canoe Trip
Our second day we awoke to an overcast day, though mild. Our hike today would be the shortest of the trip, but we were up early to reach out to the Kennebec River by 10am and catch a ride on the canoe-ferry. When we arrived at the shore, our ferry-master quickly spotted us. We greeted, filled out the necessary forms and helped paddle our way across the wide, swift-current crossing that is not recommended to ford (crossing via canoe is the officially sanctioned AT way to cross). We were brought across in groups of two, thanked our helpful ferry man, and carried on to Pleasant Pond Shelter. With lots of extra time on our hands, we relaxed by the pond, gathered dead wood and built a lovely fire that lasted beyond dinnertime. Just after dinner, we were surprised by boyfriend Chris' arrival (he/we were not quite sure which day he would join us). Not only did he arrive sooner than we thought, but with fresh-baked treats from the Abbot Bakery - more trail magic! We gratefully ate our dessert, watched the fire die and went to bed by 9pm (hiker's midnight;). Chris had already hiked the previous AT sections (all the way from Georgia over the years) - so he came to Pleasant Pond to join us for the next 2 days north to Monson.
Vinny making use of the handrails

Judy canoeing across the Kennebec

I should really run, I already got the signs
Pleasant Pond Shelter and fire
Fall color
Summit Day
At 5:30am I awoke to the sound of a barred owl... "who hoooooot who hoooooooooooot!" Then the honk of geese, quacking of ducks, the loons... ok, ok, I'm up!

The skies were bluebird perfect with cool temps - another perfect day for hiking. We made our way up Pleasant Mtn, down to Moxie Pond, over a crossing of Baker Stream, and up and over Moxie Bald Mt. Both of the day's summits had beautiful views in all direction - the fall color glowed orange, red and yellow. This was a favorite of the days due to the weather, views and variety of terrain, from mossy corridors to open slab summits. We stuck around on both peaks for a bit before hiking to the shelter on Moxie Bald Lean To - possibly an even nicer shelter location than Pierce Pond! We cooked and ate diner right on the granite slabs that edge into the water - camping in tents only a few feet away.

A Trio of Gossamer Gear Packs (Type 2, Mariposa 2014, Mariposa 2012?)
On Pleasant Mtn
View from Pleasant Mtn
View from Pleasant Mtn
Vinny on the Baker Stream crossing
Moxie Bald Mtn

The gang
On to Monson
It was a chilly 34˚F in the morning... but a river otter swimming by as the fog rolled over the breakfast scene made it sweet. We had a 15 mi day ahead of us, so off we went by 7:30am, passing through Horseshoe Canyon, crossing the E & W Piscataquis a few times without incident and walking through the glowing color of autumn leaves all the way to Monson. The day grew quite warm by the afternoon, and pretty soon everyone was down to shorts and t-shirts. To have summer-like weather with the fall colors all around was a real treat.

Crossing the Piscataquis

Chris in action

Watch out - hungry hikers coming through

Moxie Time!
When we finished in Monson, we jumped into the cars and drove to Pete's Place, a small, general store with some hiking/backpacking gear, sandwiches and ginormous cinnabuns. We celebrated the weekend with food and Moxie, while 2 stuffed river otters watched over us on the wall above. (That's Judy with the Schweppes!)

Next year, we plan to return to Maine to complete the Maine AT, hiking through the 100 Wilderness and Katahdin at it's climax. Thanks to Tim, Vinny and Chris for sharing the miles with us!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Magical Moments on the Maine AT

Connecting the dots in the Bigelows
View of the Bigelow Range from the summit of Little Bigelow

My friend Judy and I have been section hiking the AT in Maine since 2006, slowly, and now deliberately, with a backpack trip every fall. Judy had already done all of NH's AT, and once we started leading AMC trips in ME, she had a new goal and I happily fell into the section-hiking tradition with her.

This particular weekend was not our annual ME AT backpack, but a make-up weekend catching up on the little bits we had missed. The Bigelow Preserve contains the popular Bigelow mountain range including Cranberry Peak, the Horns, West Peak, Avery Peak and Little Bigelow. Flagstaff Lake sits in it's southeast corner, once a winding river with the town of Flagstaff scattered at it's side. This now large lake was created by damming the river, flooding the town, with some bits and pieces possibly still deep underwater. The lake is a now a major outdoor activity resource for swimmers, hikers, canoes, kayakers and whitewater rafters/kayakers downsteam from it's damn, waiting for the big water release days.

Fall foliage on Rt 27
Judy and I have hiked the Bigelows numerous times as a traverse, but that path doesn't begin on the AT, which is how we missed a few parts. Judy and I arrived at the Cathedral Pines Campground in Eustis, ME to be surprised with one of the most lovely, viewful sites in the whole campground! We were placed right on the lake with perfect views of the range, sunset, and the glow of sunrise on the mountains - the magical backdrop to eating, trip preparing and just hanging out in the hammock. The sites here are spacious (you actually have elbow room and privacy), have a variety of amenities including a pool, swimming beach and free hot showers, as well as a few well-placed tent site on the lake! We set up our tents and headed to The White Wolf Inn in Stratton, ME, an infamously delicious eatery and motel known to locals, thru-hikers, bikers, and people who are smart enough to stop in on their way by. Everything I've ever had here is big, delicious and made with love!

Sunset at the campsite
After a filling dinner, we checked out an interesting glow near our campsite. What looked like a thousand fireflies was actually a mini digital laser light box one of the RVers nearby had pointed into the canopy of the towering pine trees the campground is named for. The site of it perplexed me, filled me with delight, and pretty much blew my mind. I spoke to the campers briefly to get the info I needed to buy one myself. Only bummer is you need  a plug (fine for car camping, but what about our upcoming backpack!?)

Campsite sunrise
Towering pines in the morning

The next morning the Bigelows glowed orange in the sunrise, the loons called in the distance, and a cacophony of more waterfowl were squawking away. We ate breakfast and soon Judy dropped me off on Caribou Valley Rd so I could hike 7.8 miles up & down the Crockers. I had the trail to myself, all the way up to North Crocker. I checked out the viewpoint, sat down and listened to the wind howling around the summits and was startled by the sound of small twig cracking. I turned to see who it might be and to my surprise, a giant bull moose crashed through the woods behind me, only 30 feet away, heading downhill and opposite of my next path. Absolutely amazing I thought, maybe one of the biggest moose I had ever seen, and all to myself. It was a magical moment as I sat in awe of the animal, too shocked and amused to grab a camera, and watched him disappear into the forest. Magic! In a few hours I met Judy hiking opposite me on the downhill side of South Crocke. We finished our hike together around 12:30pm, ate lunch trailside and I decided to hike the other 6.2 mi section across the street. I first drove Judy back to the campground where she read, showered & relaxed. ON the hike I ran into a whole bunch of thru hikers, some of which we saw the night before eating huge fried food plates at the White Wolf. At my turn around point, I stopped briefly to clamber up onto a large boulder grouping and sat in the sun, eating a second lunch and listening to the sound of thru hikers passing below me.

I returned to the campground with 2 desserts from the White Wolf I picked up on my way by, a Peach Rhubarb Surprise and Chocolate Molten Cake! Judy and I did a little strategic planning for our upcoming backpack before dinner, watched the spectacular sunset once again, and went to bed with our magazines in hand.

Sunrise #2
The next morning the same spectacular sunrise occurred, the birds sang and the humans went hiking. I dropped Judy off at the Safford Brook Trail so she could do an A to B hike of Little Bigelow. Meanwhile I checked out the Round Barn Campsite (lovely lakeside sites) and hiked the AT SB up Little Bigelow towards Judy (6.2mi RT). I ran into the same thru hikers as yesterday, and a few new ones all headed north the Katadin, only ~165 mi away. On the summit, I met a thru-hiker, Rockman, with a Gossamer Gear Pack. He talked excitedly about it and could hardly find a fault, minus some slippage of the orange cords when pulled tight, and a little rubbing on one side. He was having a lovely time hiking the trail and admiring the peak foliage. After the gear talk, he was off with friends to Baxter with a smile and a wave.  I waited about an hour for Judy, chatting with other hikers, basking in the 80˚F sun, snacking and staring into the autumn colors. When Judy arrived, I almost missed her passing by! But she circled back and we admired the color and together hiked down to the car. Before finishing, I noticed a bunch of plants along the trail side with three leaves and little purplish-blue berries. I thought maybe it was a late stage of a trillium, but Judy pointed out they were Cucumber Root and pulled one up to show me. It looked like a mini white radish but tasted like cucumber - how lovely! We finished the day with a quick dip in Flagstaff Lake (refreshing, not too cold) and a Subway sandwich, surprisingly good.

Cucumber Root finding
This was truly a memorable weekend. It wasn't because the trail was new, exciting or epic in length - but for the great company, summer-like weather, peak fall foliage, amazing campground views, electric fireflies, dry air... oh man, it was just perfect!