AT Sobo Part 2 – From Millinocket to Katahdin is a Shock to the System!
There is no snore like a tired hiker’s snore, and I was in the middle of a snore-storm. Routes to the the revered mountain of Katahdin had been closed until 15th June this year due to unusually bad weather, meaning that the hostel in sleepy Millinocket was filled to the rafters with hikers who had already started the trail a while ago. They had ‘flip flopped’ (to use the correct term) for the day – back up to Katahdin from wherever they’d gotten to – in order to complete this iconic starting ascent, and would then transit back to wherever they’d left from.
The summit is the beginning of the whole trail and a very sacred site to the Native American peoples; especially the Penobscot. It is not to be missed! So I stepped around a number of bearded, smelly men sawing logs in their beds, and headed for my 05:30 breakfast in the AT cafe. Alice had decided not to join me for the ascent today as it was too technically difficult, but would meet me in Baxter State Park in the evening. We’d then head into the wilderness the next day.
Gathering at 6:30am by the truck to ride to the park, I was struck at the different types of hiker standing around. A beautiful, petite couple from the British Virgin Islands with tiny rucksacks and tidy bear canisters; a large young woman with fear etched on her face clutching her maps with white knuckles, and most spectacularly; a Canadian Asian guy in his early 20’s who was getting ripped by the founder of the hostel as he tried to lift his rucksack onto the truck. “What the heck is IN this thing?” He levelled at Ling accusingly. Turns out that Ling had earnestly packed all his food in tin cans, and had also put in a huge hatchet for good measure – just in case he had to chop blow-downs and clear forest. Ha! He refused to remove anything, so his 80 pound pack was thrown in the back by the tutting hostel-owner and off we went; driving the long dirt road to Baxter Park Ranger Station.
Miles from anywhere, we stepped from the truck. Immediately a swarm of mosquitos and black-fly descended onto every inch of bare skin. They flew up my nose and into my eyes as I struggled to pull out my head net. After getting the annoying bag over my own head, I turned to see everyone doing the same, and we filed into the wooden Ranger Station at the base of Katahdin whilst applying Deet in panicked desperation. One by one we dropped our large packs, picked up loaner day-packs, transferred our essentials and signed in with the Ranger for safety. I was almost the last to leave and headed across the bridge and up the mountain path with a feeling of swelling excitement and anticipation. How hard could this climb be?!
The answer is bloody hard. An initial upward hike on dirt paths seemed simple enough, but once this elevation increased in intensity it became much tougher. The sun beat down as I grabbed branches on either side of the path to help leverage my too-heavy body up slick rocks and mudslides. I figured this was hard but doable, so I wasn’t quite prepared to emerge into the full sunlight and be faced with a level 4 or 5 vertical boulder climb, all the way up the Hunt Spur section of the 5 mile ascent. Wow – hanging on by fingertips over sheer drops. No health and safety here; just the understanding that you had done your research and were ready to take this level of danger on.
I pulled myself up and over, again and again, looking down and out over views of pine forests as far as the eye could see in every direction, peppered across the range with reflective silvery lakes. Finally I reached the false summit at the top and completed the mile and a half boulder field hike across what is known as the ‘Tablelands’ to the summit of Katahdin. I climbed the iconic sign that I’d seen on so many other hikers’ social media, and then made my way gingerly back down to see Alice.