Thirteen miles in the Bigelow Forest Preserve.
Morning found me with tucked, cramped legs in the backseat of my Subaru; eager to stretch them straight after the prior day of long miles and steep climbing, with one deep breath to shake the seven hours that my watch claims that I winked, I received a dusting of frosty flakes from my side window – a reminder that it was colder outside than was predicted overnight.
I was hoping to wake up, clean up the back of the Subie a bit and maybe find a little breakfast before the sun really began to show its colors. I decided to call the Chapel parking lot at Sugarloaf my home away from home for the evening as I lay in my sleeping bag typing away until all the casual bar goers stumbled to their cars and made their way away from my camp spot parking lot.
This morning was absolutely stunning, I had a feeling that I was in for an even better day than yesterday – but with the tangerines and red raspberry sherbet hues beginning to trickle into the quickly fading deep blues of an overnight clear sky.
I had to hit the ‘autopilot’ switch on my morning routine just to get out of my warm cocoon, crawl to my front drivers seat, foot on the clutch, super cold keys in the ignition and as if it were still 80 degrees outside the boxer motor sprang to life and my seat heat was pumping hard while I finished getting gear prepped.
My new friends from the prior evening told me all about where to park and which unmarked road to be on the look out for as we descended Redington, which was now plugged into google maps on my phone, ready to guide me to my next big adventure of my long weekend in the Maine wilderness.
At the parking lot, the echo of two dudes in their frost-covered tent filled the air with deep bellowing laughter as I topped off my two water flasks, consulted my waterproof paper map one last time before it found its new home tucked in the smaller of my packs – the Black Diamond Distance 8L that I have grown to adore so immensely!
My go-to thru hiking Darn Tough wool socks helped my feet ignore the fact that my Lone Peaks were still dampened with crusty mud, once laced up – we were all ready to beat the crowds and hit the trails!
Trekking poles in hand, I began the slow shuffle to get the blood flowing once again – past the SUVs that just seemed to deposit themselves sporadically along the remaining drive to the actual trail head – the blackened, road-wide mud bogs must have intimidated the drivers of these luxury “off-road” vehicles.
In a matter of minutes, I reached the first bridged crossing – the outlet of Stratton Brook Pond where a youngster dressed in more goose down than an arctic expedition was fishing, trying to catch his fresh morning breakfast. We exchanged waves and ‘good morning’s as I let my feet chose the leisurely pace and continued down the most elegantly glowing trail; the morning rays softly illuminating the yellows and oranges of the forest canopy around me.
Feeling as if I finally found several square miles of pristine autumnal forest where the preceding windstorm had avoided, I tip toed across frosty wooden planks, gripping up the initial open rock slabs and two quick miles later, I found the intersection where I hoped to return later this fine day: The Fire Wardens Intersection with the registration box where it is recommended all hikers fill out a small tag with identifiers, helping to show how much traffic this area truly receives.
I decided to hike the loop this morning, ascending the steep Fire Wardens Trail, re-visit the Appalachain Trail again today (this time traversing South along the ridge), then descend the Horns Pond Trail back to this very intersection. I had originally planned of following the AT down off the ridge, but when my friends from yesterdays adventure highly recommended the Horns Pond Trail as being more gentle and picturesque, I was all about it!
The views behind me as I quickly climbed along the Fire Wardens Trail arrived within steps and did not leave my back until many miles later, I could see straight out to the ski slopes adorning Sugarloaf, the alpine zone high atop Abraham even further beyond was clearly visible, the Crockers were there too, wrapped in a blanket of fall foliage colors.
Several switchbacks and climbing later, I ran into a peculiar hiker standing atop one of the tent pads off a side trail, he stood there with a hefty pack by his side and an unlit cigarette in his hand asking me of my backpacking plans. Letting out a chuckle and thinking of my tiny pack on my own back, I admitted that I was only up here for the day.
My nicotine fueled friend advised that crews were out cleaning up large scenes of blowdown from the windstorms that rolled through in the days past. From the distance of where he stood all I heard was “thirty blowdown sections” and “Horns Pond Trail – impassable“.
I thanked him for the heads up about my planned escape route and we both agreed that as crews with chainsaws were actively working to clean up the Appalachian Trail, that this would have to be the trail I plan to pick up later in my day.
I’m not a huge fan of changes to my plans, but honestly my attention to either trail had been about equal – driving east to Maine the prior morning I had already planned on descending the AT, that is until it was recommended that I focus on the Horns Pond Trail instead, in my mind, I could go either way really – the only downside was that taking the AT would add quite a few miles to my day: add more miles of clear sailing vs. faster descent through a jungle of fallen evergreens??
After leaving this mysterious backpacker and his tent pad, I found what had been referred to as “the longest staircase in existence” – indeed it was a long one, however, I was left doubtful of these lofty claims.
Four miles into my morning and I was now taking the southern facing flank of the Bigelow ridge step by step, exchanging more morning greetings with other backpackers just off trail as they packed up their tents and tried to wipe their sleepy eyes back to wake.
I could see up above that the horizon was coming quickly and within minutes I was fully immersed in the baths of morning sunlight as more ice and snow toppled from frozen tree branches – I was now on the Appalachian Trail and in the col between my next two destinations!
BIGELOW MTN. – AVERY PEAK ELEV. 4088FT.
Zipping past the quaint caretakers cabin, with no evidence of any inhabitants this morning, I began my final jaunt over to the open summit of Avery along some of the most jagged east coast granite I had ever experienced. Along the upper reaches of 4000 feet, the boulders were encased in a fine hoarfrost so fine that just collapsed underfoot and turned quickly to a slanted ice-skating rink that slid each well-thought-out footstep in every angle imaginable.
It was all worth the risky, methodical climb/crawl over these Appalachian Trail boulders because when the morning sun rays shone through and slapped my frigid cheeks, I was in a state of comfort that I had yet to reach this weekend. I stood on the high point of Avery peak next to the windswept orange summit sign for what seemed like eternity, my gaze slowly traveling from peak to peak, taking in the views.
I heard about the old stone remains of the fire tower, with the adorable single track path leading over – I took that brief trek over with a little bounce to my step.. playfully tapping off one rock after another, escaping my mind to a place of ridge running bewilderment.
Not expecting the lower, 4088′ Avery peak to be home to any of my sought after USGS survey markers, I almost cut my summit experience short as to spend more time over on the westerly summit; to my great surprise however, I found not only the one survey disc outside of the fire tower remains, but two more embedded in the rock inside of the square shelter! I was in a heavenly world of glory up on this sub-peak!
Once again, before making my way further into my day, I simply stood with no distractions – glancing all around, at the frost that adorned the alpine grasses and stubby trees, the cloud inversion melting through the valleys, the stringy linear clouds that streaked through the otherwise blue sky, the birds that hopped from ground to branch searching for their breakfast of seeds and twigs who otherwise did not know how lucky they were to call these great heights ‘home’.
These were the views that I don’t ever want to set slip from my memory banks..
Just as I turned to leave, I heard voices.
Two backpackers made their way up as I wanted to begin my trek down – we ended up talking for a brief minute about how lucky we were with the given conditions. Turns out they had been up here just several hours earlier to watch the sunset over the landscape – must have been remarkably stunning!
They mentioned that Avery peak was their very first 4000 foot peak, I congratulated them and mentioned that West Bigelow, hopefully in my very near future, would mark my 114th peak in the northeast – their excitement was tangible as they reached out to enthusiastically shake my hand upon learning this!
Wishing each other a lovely hike and remainder of our day out in the forest, I made my return trek down to the col intersection, hand over hand, bracing over the slick, frost covered boulders.
Already having all the photographs that I wanted to take, I blew through the intersection and ran nose to nose with a barking puppy dog, “don’t worry, she’s fine.. just going to bark at you!” said its young owner Captain Obvious, as I passed by.
I had all of the views now, it was hard to believe that only minutes ago I was standing upon the highest rocks of the green and gray mound behind me. I could still see the cross-shaped summit sign atop Avery Peak, but my friends evidently had moved on by now.
BIGELOW MTN. – WEST PEAK ELEV. 4150FT.
As I reached the final major summit of my day, I took a breath and in an instant of exaltation, recounted all of the one hundred and thirteen summits prior that led me destined for this fine moment. Two fellow hikers glanced over but did not muster up a single word as they passed, I simply wished them splendid travels. Contently now, I had the summit of West Bigelow and the surrounding summit rocks all to myself.
Once again here, the views did not disappoint – if forced to choose either to spend my day upon, it would unanimously be back on Avery, but this westerly peak had different vistas still, spanning even further down the ridge west, my next destination.
Trekking down the ridge, I was reminded of time spent on the Presidentials back in the White Mountains, sloping drop-offs on either side with a neat single track, easily runnable bumpered on either side and slightly built up with excess basketball-sized boulders – such a lovely path to find myself on this morning!
Once the steep descent was over and I found myself back in the forest canopy where it continued to rain down ice and slushy snow clumps, the going was slick, but oh-so-smooth and encouraged a hastened pace. From rock to log and from log back to rock my Lone Peaks bounded, quick-stepping to keep from plunging into the frigid standing puddles which lined my morning trail.
Despite hiking and running in many similar forests and mountain ridges, I caught myself numerous times persuading my thoughts, that this was truly the finest, remaining desolate and unencumbered wooded ridges that I had ever sunk a trail running shoe lug in!
Two miles of watching the sun glisten through the southern facing trees and traversing through snow and mud, even more up and over bare rock – I was all smiles at my ‘whole-body-running-and-climbing-escapade’!
Finally, after what felt like a dozen miles – I could glance back with the increasing elevation and peer behind me, now with summit number 114: the West Peak smiling back at me, tipping its hat in approval of my epic fun run!
BIGELOW MTN. – SOUTH HORN ELEV. 3831FT.
With the orange summit sign strewn across the trail, I glanced around and ahead down the trail, “looks like a sort of summit to me!” A few brief moments to soak in these views now at an even further angle and I was on my way, my thoughts going back to the looming four hour drive and.. not wanting to leave this magical forest, but my desire to just be home with Ciara and the boys.
Making quick work, I bounced effortlessly down the carefully laid rocks that became yet another staircase, luckily not slick this time – descending the South Horn over what seemed much further than the half mile estimated by the signage down to Horns Pond.
What a fantastical area tucked away in the woods – each entrance to the surrounding plot of land came complete with a laminated map designating which paths led to the pond, the group shelter area, various camping areas – a very complete, colored map containing hand drawn images of the area; I chose to continue along the white emblazoned trail, south along the AT.
Upon checking my AllTrails app maps that conveniently work even while in airplane mode – I discovered that I, in fact had not passed the 0.2 mile cut off onto the Horns Pond Trail.
Just as I questioned my options: keep going extra miles to the AT to descend off the ridge vs attempt the Horns Pond Trail not knowing the current state of blowdown hindrances, I heard voices coming my way! Three young men with the most adorable french accents, reminiscent of early explorers.
I questioned their tortuous ascent, they gave many descriptive attributes regarding the trail, being sure to include the bit about their friend almost dying in the blowdown.. unfazed by this I focused on the one word which reverberated through the darkest, most masochistic corners of my gray matter: “do-able“.
The instant these young lads informed me that this blowdown was treacherous, yet “do-able” – I was totally all in. I did not want to add an extra six or so miles onto my already longer than I would have liked day: I was going to visit the fresh blowdown, I was prepared for a bushwhack, I was tackling the Horns Pond Trail after all!
What started out as a ‘not so bad, what bushwhack were they actually referring to..?‘ kind of trek thus far quickly turned from hopping up and over 1-2 downed trees across the path at a time to – ‘whoa.. uhmm.. there is NO trail here..‘ and absolutely no indication of which direction it went under easily 8-10 feet of deforested matchsticks laying in utter chaos.
Stabbing pine boughs sticking in every direction, trees entangled and facing every which way, when I stood finally atop the chaos.. what was there to see? Not a one tree in this catastrophe remained standing for quite a surrounding distance.
I recalled the one section of blowdown we encountered as a child where my mother and father handed my sister and I up and over, down and under trees that very much resembled a similar circumstance.
I was able to spot several pieces of orange surveyor tape tied around branches, but completely uncertain of what they pertained to – or even how old they were, perhaps older than this debris and marking something else entirely?
Several times I had to guide myself off tree trunks into the abyss below, an entanglement of spruce boughs and all things cushy, yet still pointy and snapped off branches stuck in every direction imaginable. It was a portal straight to hell.
Eventually, while proceeding in a generally southern direction – I was completely unaware of where the trail emerged from this thick mess, and knowing that if I went in the wrong direction, even 2 degrees off course for long enough, I’d never find my way back to the blue blazed trail – I reluctantly consulted my AllTrails app. Turns out.. I was still on the actual trail, I could not believe it for a second, not a single icon of a used trail remained for as far as my eyes could see!
But knowing that I just had to continue through this mess.. I pushed on, determined as ever until I looked down and saw a blue 2 by 3 inch swatch of paint streaking along one of the downed trees, this was my path after all!
Another twenty feet or so showed me back to the beaten path – the original Horns Pond Trail. I had time to make up, and was now out of the path of absolute destruction; clear, soft and moss-covered as far as the eye could see: I took off with a sense of necessitated speed on my mind.
As I exited the thick evergreen slopes of the Bigelow preserve and entered the colorful deciduous leaved canopy of a lower altitude, I now knew that progress was being made and my sought after intersection would soon be in my sights!
Without even taking a half-second to say good-bye to the registration box, I slammed my direction to the right and proceeded back onto the original Fire Wardens Trail that would soon have me sitting in my Subaru – all I could think of was my hidden stash of fresh, juicy apples that Ciara and I picked the weekend prior, waiting to quench my thirst like the finest watermelon imaginable.
I met another couple as I continued running ‘home’, said “hello!“, as I ran past they let the steady stream of questions spurt out.. questions that could not be answered if I were to continue running. They asked where I had come from as it was somewhere around 12:30pm, I asked where they were off to this late in the day; backpacking somewhere after they ascend via the Horns Pond Trail that I had just tackled.
Without trying to scare the wits out of them, I softly let them know of the adventure that lay ahead – without missing a beat, the man of the group chose to respond with: “well.. I’ll have you know.. that.. that.. we CAME OUT HERE FOR AN ADVENTURE!!” I wished them well and a fantastic trek and thus began my final mile.
Having no reason to hold back, I was cooking down the trail, fully warmed up and perhaps sweating a decent bit now.
Past the bridge where Mr Goose Down was fishing earlier this morning, past the tight community of North Face tents that popped up along the road walk in, and scooting around the muddy bogs that enveloped what resembled road remnants.
No one was around as I slowed now to a walk, looked around for a hidden stash of Appalachian Trail water (from Trail Angels), of which I found none – but I had some in my car, so it was all okay! My jacket and shirt was the first thing to come off as it was not so frigid cold anymore, and I was now a hot, steamy mess!
Without service, I loaded my run into my COROS app to be transferred to Strava later, composed a loving text to Ciara that would be sent along once back in service down the road.
Once again: foot on the clutch, boxer motor hummed to life, google maps was set – and I was ready to beat the 4hr 8minute estimation that they set for me, it was more of a challenge then an estimation.. right?
The entire next 5 miles of on-road travel consisted of me staring intently in my rear view mirror saying quietly to myself ‘holy hot damn.. I was totally just up there!!!‘
Reflecting on my long weekend in Maine is hard to say sombering, but it was indeed an epic weekend of pushing myself beyond what I thought easily capable of: ~42 miles with 15,000’ of elevation gain with the opportunity to visit 8 incredible four-thousand foot peaks of the Maine wilderness.
I’ve wanted to do this for a while, lived for quite some time with the uncertainty of if a journey like this would ever actually take place – and now knowing that it has, I am left with one final thought: I have one four-thousand foot peak in the northeast remaining until I can count myself as one of the NE115’ers – I can recall being a 6-year old aspiring climber brainstorming this daunting feat, just thinking of all the excuses life would throw my way, all the reasons as to the why I was not cut out to hike all of these amazing summits.
I have never been so close, and in due time will never be aspiring for this goal ever again.
A truly incomprehensible list of gradual check marks.
What an incredible journey it has been, and will always continue to be.
There was a time when nothing made me feel like a real person, no will to experience life, until I re-discovered mountains and met an amazing gal with two fuzzy puppies in tow, butt-sliding her way down from the Lyon Mountain fire tower in the NY Adirondacks and literally knocking me off my feet.
Here’s to many more outdoor adventures, may they help you also feel alive inside!!
Happy trails, Happy climbing!
Overall stats for the day:
Recorded with COROS Pace
- 13.01 miles
- 4,281′ elevation gain
- 5hr 8minutes
- Bigelow – Avery Peak – 4,088′
- Bigelow – West Peak – 4,150′
- Bigelow – South Horn – 3,831′