The AT guide and map warns hikers about the large streams in this area
northeast of Monson, part of a 15-mile section running from Hwy. 15 to Long Pond
Stream. I planned to do 14.3 miles of it today, where Jim was reasonably sure he
could get road access to the AT from the north.
We were also fore-warned by Diana and Regis Shivers. Regis ran the AT in
2003. Diana wrote: "He about drowned crossing Little Wilson & Big
Wilson Rivers....had lots & lots of rain and made them swift and deeper. Swept
him right under...very scary!!"
The elevation of this section is very low. The highest I would get is about
1,400 feet on Big Wilson Cliffs. The Trail was beautiful, traversing a series of
low slate ridges, some ledges with views, huge mossy boulders, and deep valleys
and gorges, all with streams. There were ponds, swamps, bogs, and spectacular
There were also innumerable "streams" to cross, especially after several
inches (apparently) of rain fell last night and this morning. We could hear the
hard rain all night but barely found any weather reports on TV or radio this
morning since it was Saturday and about all that's on is cartoons. The guide
warns about dangerous crossings of the larger streams if the water is high.
It was a watery, green world. And today it was a very dangerous place
to be. The hikers who holed up in Monson or in shelters were the smart ones.
When the alarm went off at 6:00 AM, I told Jim I wasn't going out on the
Trail today because of all the rain. I could hear it during the night even
though I wore ear plugs. He understood; we'd already discussed the creeks and
rivers on the course. We slept three more hours, then prepared to leave the
campground for one in Greenville, near Moosehead Lake.
On the drive to Greenville we passed the AT parking lot on Hwy. 15 about 11
AM. Who should we spot but "Steady Eddie" in "Charlie Brown's" little blue crew
car, heading out to get Charlie back at Moxie Pond.
By then the rain had nearly stopped. I already felt like a weenie for taking
another "rain day." I thought of the rivers and creeks that Ed had just
traversed, and made a snap decision to get on the Trail today, despite the late
It was the worst decision I've made the whole AT Run!
Jim pulled over at the next spot that would hold the camper. I changed into
running clothes and got my gear and he took me back to the trail head. Since it
was "only" fourteen miles and there was plenty of water (HA!) for Cody, I took
him with me. Then Jim headed back north to Greenville to set up the camper, find
the little roads to the rendezvous point, and come in 4.4 miles on the Trail at
the end to Big Wilson Stream to meet us.
I SHOULDA STAYED HOME
That was clear almost immediately. The Trail was one big creek and puddle
with all the run-off. Of course it occurred to me that the creeks would be
higher than normal, but I assumed it would take more time for the water to get
down to them from the Barren-Chairback Mountain Range.
Although Big Wilson might be a problem, the AT guide indicated there was a
"high water route" one could take by following the river downstream for 1.5
miles to a road, crossing on a bridge, and going back upstream another 1.5 miles
on the other side of the river. I assumed there was a clear trail to follow.
I assumed entirely too much today!
In fact, I should have turned around within the first mile when I saw how
much water was pouring down the Trail. I tried to call Jim to tell him to come
back and get me after unhooking the camper, but I had no signal. So I kept going.
Cody had a blast in all the water, racing back and forth in the puddles and
run-off. I felt good and was optimistic that I could negotiate the creeks with
patience and the two trekking poles I carried. The two branches of the
Piscataquis River weren't bad yesterday after a rainstorm. How bad could these
Pretty bad, I was to soon discover.
The first nasty little crossing was only three miles in, right below the
Leeman Brook lean-to. Cody and I had already successfully negotiated the swollen
outlet streams of a couple ponds, but Leeman Brook was a narrow chute full of
knee deep water moving very, very fast. Cody got across OK and I was able to
hold onto a fallen tree and large rock for balance. It unnerved me a bit,
though. We got up the steep, rocky
bank on the other side and walked up to the lean-to, soaked.
Inside were three hikers, reading: "The Honeymooners" and "Chainsaw."
Jim met Chainsaw at the Caratunk Post Office recently but this was the first
I've met him. All three intended to hole up at the shelter for at least today;
they were sufficiently convinced after hiking in three miles this morning from
Monson that it would be fool-hardy to continue.
I consulted The Honeymooners' map (Jim had ours) and tried to call Jim. No signal.
I knew by then he was probably on his way to the rendezvous point. If I didn't
get to the Big Wilson, how would he know I'd turned around? He wouldn't know
where I was and would be sick with worry.
Cody and I continued on.
We passed more beautiful ponds and mossy rock outcroppings and trudged
through more watery trail, averaging more than thirty minutes per mile, slower
than my estimate. I knew Jim would worry when I was "late" at Big Wilson but I
just couldn't go any faster on the rough trail.
About 2:15 PM I started hearing the roar of Little Wilson Falls, a
spectacular waterfall that runs through deep charcoal-colored slate walls. This
is the highest waterfall on the entire AT and it was full of rainwater.
I was terrified,
knowing the "stream" crossing was only 2/10ths of a mile downstream. It was a
raging torrent up here; how could it be calm enough to cross down below?
It wasn't, of course. I was a nervous wreck, pacing up and down the area near
the crossing, trying to determine where the safest place would be to ford the
"stream." (Which looked like a river to me, as wide as it was - at least
feet, if not more.) I couldn't see the rocks on the bottom nor determine the
I wasn't aware of any other trails on my side of the river. I wasn't looking
for any because none was mentioned in the AT guide or map.
LEAP OF FAITH
Ah, what's that? A rope? Some kind soul had strung up a rope from trees on
either side of the river. It was nearly in the water on my side, but up high on
the far side. I waded in to test it. It seemed securely tied on my side, and
pretty taut. I wasn't sure if it would stay above water in the middle with my
full weight on it but I eventually got the courage to try.
What a leap of faith!
I spent about fifteen minutes making my decision to cross the river and
probably less than five actually getting across. I ordered Cody to stay, which
he did, and plunged in.
The water was knee-deep at first. I was holding onto the rope with my left
hand and held the trekking poles with my right hand, using them for balance
against the very strong current. I was smart enough to know to be on the
downstream side of the rope. I inched my way across, having to dodge a very
large, smooth boulder that hikers probably cross on top when the water is
at normal depth.
The current got progressively stronger and it became harder and harder to
keep my balance. About half-way across, just after I decided to hold onto the
rope with both hands (still holding my poles in the right one!), I lost my
footing because the current was too strong. By this time, the water was
chest-deep. I was hanging from the rope, face
Fortunately, the rope stayed above water! I would have been in deep, deep
trouble if it hadn't. I inched my way across with my hands now, instead of my
feet, until I was about knee-deep in water about ten feet from the far shore.
Ah, I could let go of the rope and stand now. I got on shore and looked for
Thank goodness he was still sitting where I told him to. He barked as if he
was saying, "OK, Mom, it's my turn!" I called him to me.
Cody is compact and strong, all muscle and bone. He is a powerful swimmer. If
I had any doubts about his ability to make it across that river, I never would
have crossed myself. Although he was carried by the current about fifty feet
downstream, he did a magnificent job swimming to the far side. He ran to me and
excitedly shook the water off, thoroughly enjoying his adventure.
I was shaking, too, not from the excitement or being cold, but from sheer joy
that I was still alive and hadn't been carried off downstream. I stood there for
about five minutes, looking at the swirling torrents of water, seeing another
falls upstream (not as big as the first one), taking photos of the river.
I still can't believe I did that. It's got to rank up there with the five
scariest things I've ever done in fifty-six years!
Then my thoughts turned to the Big Wilson. This was the Little
Wilson. How much worse could it get??
But I knew that there was a "high water route" ahead, so I continued on.
The next three miles were so beautiful. We climbed over lots of slate
outcroppings on the Big Wilson Cliffs and got high enough for a phone signal.
But Jim's mailbox was full and I couldn't leave a message. Finally, he called
me and we were able to talk.
He was able to drive to the AT crossing near Long Pond Stream all right
(although he dinged up one of the truck steps on a ditch running across the
road). He walked in about fifteen minutes and met his first obstacle: a
raging creek (Vaughn Stream) that is forded right above a twenty-foot
He could tell it would be dangerous to cross on the Trail; if he slipped,
he'd go right over the falls. Another hiker, "Bigfoot," was coming toward him,
going north. The two of them scouted for a safer place to cross upstream. Jim
decided to stay put while Bigfoot crossed safely.
They walked back to Jim's truck together, talking about the Trail conditions.
Bigfoot (who is well over six feet tall) had successfully crossed the Little Wilson, Thompson Brook, and the
Big Wilson, but he was spent. Each was progressively worse, he reported.
That's when Jim called me, to see if I was OK and determine my location. At
that time (about 3:00 PM) I was about two miles from the Big Wilson. Hearing
about Big Wilson, I told Jim I was going to take that "high water route" south
to the road and bridge on the map.
Jim agreed to go about forty miles around to meet me there. The road is
impassable for about a mile at the AT crossing so he couldn't just drive three
or four miles to that point. Nothing is easy in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness.
TRAUMA BY TRAIL
A mile later I met a drenched "Kokomo," the thru-hiker about my
age that I mentioned yesterday. He was on his
way back south on the AT. He was a wreck. Twice he tried to cross the Big
Wilson, and the second time he went under the water. He lost his poles and
nearly lost his life, he said. He watched as "Santa" and "Bigfoot" got across but he gave up trying after being swept under.
He's lucky he didn't lose his glasses -- or his life.
Kokomo also tried finding the "high
water route" and turned back, but I didn't fully understand why until several
days later. I'm glad I didn't talk with him further about it at that point
because I probably wouldn't have gone that way, and I'm not sure what
would have happened then.
Kokomo was concerned about contacting "Stumblefoot," the woman who's crewing for
Bigfoot and him. His cell phone was damaged in the water and mine didn't have a signal. (I
put my phone and camera in separate zippered sandwich bags and they survived
several dunkings today.) He planned to return the nine miles to Hwy. 15 and get
to Monson. I don't think he could have gotten there before dark.
Kokomo was so upset, he said he isn't going any further on the AT. He refuses
to step foot on the Trail again.
Wow, I thought. That must be some flooded river up ahead!
He told me about another nasty stream crossing before I'd get to the Big Wilson. Oh,
great. Well, at least I'd know when I got to the correct river.
I came to a 90-degree left turn in the Trail and could see what I assumed to
be Big Wilson "Stream." Oh, my. This wasn't the crossing but I could tell it
wasn't going to be any less wide, deep, or swift half a mile upstream where the
AT crosses it.
This was no "stream," just like Maine's "ponds" aren't ponds. Mainers are the masters of under-statement.
I was on a nice, smooth path now for the first time. It was formerly the Big
Wilson Tote Road. I came to Thompson Stream where it dumped into the Big Wilson,
and wasn't keen on crossing it if I didn't have to. Although it was only about
twenty-five feet across, it was also raging and I couldn't tell how deep it was.
I remembered seeing a double-track "road" at the 90-degree turn. It went the
right direction and might be the "high water route," although it wasn't marked.
I back-tracked a quarter mile to it and headed south along the river.
What a mess! It was muddier and wetter than the AT had been. I followed it
about ten minutes, came to multiple streams from the Big Wilson, and thought,
"This can't be right. Maybe that's not the Big Wilson."
I retraced my steps, crossed Thompson Stream (waist high, difficult), and
came to the AT crossing of the Big Wilson.
No way in creation was I going across that!!!
At 4:30 PM on September 17, let it be known that the Big Wilson "Stream" was
well over 100 feet wide, who knows how deep, and raging wildly. And there was no
rope to cling to. No wonder Kokomo was traumatized!
In my fright and haste I forgot to take a picture at that spot, but took one farther
downstream that was similar:
Now I was in a total quandary. My phone didn't work. I didn't know if Jim was
able to get to our new rendezvous point. I didn't know if I could follow the
river downstream because there was no trail discernable in all the water on the
tote road, which seemed to peter out where I'd stopped earlier and turned
around. It would be dark if I went back to Hwy. 15, Jim wouldn't know where I
was, and I sure didn't want to cross the Little Wilson again.
At moments like this, you have to decide something. I used my best
judgment, headed south on the tote road again, and hoped it would be less than a mile
Two hours later I reached the road, bridge, and our truck. It was a grim
walk. The tote road was mostly under water. I was knee-deep in many puddles and
had to cross several more streams near their emptying point at the river. At one
point I was on a decent path and could see footprints. There were a couple of
slick, rotted log crossings over water that Cody and I negotiated carefully,
then the trail ended.
I was in an old logging area. I followed a few footprints in the mud, making
left turns at intersections to keep the Big Wilson within earshot. This process
also took an enormous leap of faith. The only reason I thought I might be
going the right way was seeing some other footprints in the mud. The logging was
long done so I assumed the footprints were from other hikers doing the same
thing I was - looking for that bridge. (In retrospect, they may have been just
Kokomo's footprints, coming and going.)
DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN . . .
Then I came to another river about 70-75 feet across, very close to its
merger with the Big WIlson. Again, I couldn't tell
how deep it was. The current looked less strong than the Little Wilson
(certainly much less wild than the Big Wilson). I scouted upstream a ways but
didn't see any better place to cross. There were lots of railroad ties on the
other side, as if someone was intending to build a bridge here sometime. Or
maybe it had washed out; there were two concrete pilings under water that I
could detect because of the way the water flowed around them.
Cody plunged on in and was across before me. This time I took off his collar,
which I should have done crossing the Little Wilson the first time. He could
have gotten it snagged on a tree limb and drowned.
I say the "first time" because my hunch was correct: this was the
Little Wilson again, about to become one with the Big Wilson!
Thank goodness the current wasn't as strong here and there were fewer
large rocks. There was no rope.
The water was up to my ribs (I'm tall, 5'9") on the far side. I was close enough
to the far side when the current was the strongest that I felt I could just swim to
it if I lost my footing. I didn't really have to swim but I lunged the last six
feet to the bank as I lost my grip on the river bottom.
Whew! I was relieved to get across yet another flooded "stream" safely.
Soon after this I came to a better dirt road. I turned left and found myself
very close to the Big Wilson. Suddenly Cody went off on a short trail toward the
river, wagging his tail excitedly like he does when he is tracking either Jim or
me. That gave me hope, although I realized he could be tracking a moose or bear
instead of Jim! He did it again at a little tent site.
Then I saw a car. That made me so happy, knowing I was getting close to a
real road. I was even happier to see the bridge and our truck!
Unfortunately, Jim wasn't in it. I got into some warm, dry clothes, wrote him
a note, grabbed my light and phone, and took off with Cody. Where could Jim have
gone to find me?
Turns out Jim stayed on the decent dirt logging road that went back to some
tent sites. He took a right on the short, muddy logging road full of puddles
that ended at the Little Wilson (where I had just crossed it in the second
location) and he thought it was the Big Wilson. He
returned to the better road and went north on it, paralleling the Little Wilson
for at least a mile until he saw the double AT blazes at the place I first
crossed that river on the rope.
He didn't see the rope or he might have known he was following the wrong
river since I had mentioned when we talked that I'd crossed the Little Wilson on a rope. And I didn't see the trail he used when I crossed there. I don't think I
would have taken it anyway. It wasn't on our map and I would have had no idea
where it went. Although it was rough it was significantly better than the route
I bushwhacked along the Big Wilson.
Jim thought he was at the Big Wilson crossing. He figured I should have come
to that point by now, but waited until after six for me. When he finally left he placed
one pole, half a food bar, and a Hammergel flask on the trail to show me the way
I reached the truck at 6:08, an hour before dark. I returned at 7:00, unable
to find Jim on the road he took. I was so afraid he would have to cross the
Little Wilson nearby in the dark, which would have been super dangerous. He
didn't even have trekking poles (I didn't know about the ones he borrowed.).
I sat in the truck with the heat on and my phone plugged in, recharging it.
There was a weak signal but all I got was Jim's voice mailbox (he'd emptied it
out after I told him it was full). I was worried sick about him, hoping he'd
soon return to the truck. I left a light on inside so he could see it down the
road a bit and know I was back.
About 7:30 he finally got back to the truck. We both broke down in tears and hugged
each other. Our worst-case scenario almost came true today. We've been concerned
this whole trip that something would happen that we wouldn't connect at the end
of the day, and it almost occurred today. (Actually, "worst-case" would have
been one of us drowning out there.)
We figured out pretty fast what happened (that he was following the Little
Wilson upstream to the AT, not the Big Wilson), and confirmed our suspicion back
at the camper when we consulted the AT map. Jim had the map on him when he was
searching for me but didn't realize he was following the wrong river.
NIGHTMARES OF DROWNING
We consider ourselves extremely fortunate. I'm a bit traumatized by my
experience, but not so much that I won't get back out there again in a day or
two and finish up the last 104 miles to Katahdin. I've come too far to give up
the dream now. I just need to let the "streams" subside to their normal levels.
I'm writing this on Sunday morning in the safety and warmth of our camper at
the Moosehead Family Campground near Greenville. I woke up in a sweat several
times during the night in the middle of vivid river-crossing nightmares. I
finally got up after eight hours of sleep to work on this entry, hoping that
writing about it will be therapeutic.
I'm glad I had Cody with me. He did fine in all the creeks and rivers,
clamored over the rock ledges better than me, and helped keep my mind off my
woes. I had another life to save and that kept me more focused and calm.
Jim and I are both sore today. Even though he didn't go through any raging
creeks or rivers, he had a tough hike up and down that rugged trail. My shoulders and arms
are sore from the death grip I kept on my trekking poles going through the
strong currents and from using the rope to cross the Little Wilson the first
time. I can't believe I was able to hold on to it with my full weight and the
weight of my pack (which was full of water by that point) with my arthritic
hands - and I was holding the two poles in my right hand, too!
I now know for sure that I am capable of doing things I never thought
possible. I don't want to recreate this situation ever again, though.