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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
 
 
Previous          Journal Topics by Date            Next
 
 
PHOTOS 11: BRIDGING THE GAP,
PART 4:  AND THEN THERE'S MAINE . . .
 
JANUARY 25, 2006
 
 
"The MATC (Maine Appalachian Trail Club) works to keep the Trail an unspoiled natural wilderness footpath on the most scenic and challenging terrain, so that hikers may enjoy the best possible hiking experience."
- The Official Appalachian Trail Guide to Maine, p. 17
 
 


Come on in! Typical creek in Maine without a bridge.

If you aspire to hike or run the Appalachian Trail in Maine, there are at least two skills you need to practice before you tackle the Trail there: rock climbing and swimming.

I discovered you'll likely need both!

I developed most of my rock climbing skills along the Trail from Pennsylvania north. That really wasn't adequate for Mahoosuc Notch, but I muscled my way through the boulder maze relatively unscathed mentally and physically (it wasn't real pretty!). The remaining rock challenges were less intense.

Fortunately, I already knew how to swim - or at least tread water a while. Even more fortunately, I didn't HAVE to swim all the way across any of the un-bridged streams in Maine, but I came awfully close four times.

Maine. The word conjures up both positive and negative feelings, even four months after finishing the Trail. What a challenge in so many ways, yet I can't wait to return!

In this essay I'll concentrate on the creek and river crossings since the last essays have covered the topic of bridges.

WET AND WILD

There are 281 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, 13% of the total Trail distance. Maine is second to Virginia in AT mileage (Virginia's 550 miles comprise almost one-quarter of the Trail distance).

Although Maine probably has fewer roads to cross than the other states, I'd bet it has the most stream crossings and wet areas like swamps and bogs.

And I'd venture to guess that Maine has fewer foot and road bridges than all the other thirteen states combined.

It's rugged. It's wet and wild. And no one seems interested in making it any safer or easier for hikers, as noted in the quote above. So just be aware of that going in, psyche yourself up for the challenge, and jump right in.

Literally!

Let's go back to the most basic of all bridges, the rounded log(s) put in place with no apparent carpentry involved. Here's what passed for a "bridge" across a deep "pond" outlet in Maine on Day 137:

Then there are the beaver dams or what look like beaver dams that "bridge" some wet areas.

I found several of these in swampy areas such as the one below on rainy Day 140. The Trail goes right over the dam on the left.

This is considered "bridging," as are the bog boards I showed you in the first part of this series of photos.

Here's a quick primer on Maine terminology:

  • "Ponds" = every size of lake from teensy to humongous
  • "Streams" = every possible width and depth of creek or river from step-over-it-in-one-leap to "Oh, my gawd!!" (the Kennebec comes to mind here)
  • "Bridges" = "What are those??"

Mainers are notorious for their understatements.

As mentioned in the essay on foot bridges, the next level of bridge sophistication is to simply lay flat boards from one side of a little creek to the other side.

I don't have a picture of that in Maine, but you get the idea from the photo below. These boards facilitate crossing another pond outlet, which is similar to crossing a creek because the water flows from the pond and becomes a creek.

I sometimes had to cross these outlets without benefit of even logs, boards, or rocks, so I was grateful when I found even a little "bridging."

In this case, the boards are placed on top of rocks because of the long distance across the outlet. The photo above is also from Day 137 - lots of water that day.  

The first bridge below is an anomaly along the AT for two reasons: it's a very nice, wide wooden bridge without handrails, and it's in Maine.

Yes, I'm picking on Maine because there are about four real foot bridges total on the AT in this state and I think I captured them all on film, er, pixels!

This bridge was the very last one I encountered on my adventure run (Day 148) near Abol Bridge.

I remember crossing only a couple streams in Maine on rustic wood bridges on dirt logging roads. It was better than fording the creeks. Here is a  logging bridge in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness on Day 145 that is in good shape for a wooden bridge that bears the weight of heavy logging vehicles:

The largest bridge I remember crossing in Maine is on this highway  across the wide Penobscot River on Day 147, my next-to-last day on the Trail:

It is called the Abol Bridge. It has a nice wide pedestrian walkway (shown above) and is protected from traffic on the right by probably the tallest barrier of any road bridge I crossed on the whole AT.

I was very pleasantly surprised. When these folks build a real bridge, they build a good one!

I was captivated by the view to my left (north):

There it was, Mt. Katahdin, the physical end point of my long journey.

Although I'd seen it from several other vantage points on the Trail and from the marvelous campsites Jim found for us, being this close, just one day from the "end," was very emotional for me.

It was also cool to see our camper on the jut of land out in the river, just right of the green sea plane (which, unfortunately, isn't ours!).

DELIGHT → DREAD

Now you're gonna think I'm misleading you about Maine. Look at all the bridges so far!

Well, that's it - what you just saw is about the sum total of the "real" bridges on the AT in Maine!!

Until I got to northern New England, I loved to run and walk along creeks and rivers. Their melodies soothed me. Their waterfalls and cascades enchanted me. Their rocks and boulders entertained me as water joyfully danced around and over and through them.

But then I had to start fording more and more streams: Carefully inching my way across slippery rocks, even in clear water, depending on my trekking pole(s) for additional stability. Cautiously leaping or stretching from boulder to boulder above the water, hoping I didn't fall in and really get hurt. Worrying how deep the rivers would get in the middle, which I couldn't see from the banks.

Delight soon turned to dread whenever I came to a creek or river in Maine.

Why? Because there were so few bridges and so many creeks and rivers to ford, such as these two sections of the West Branch of the Piscataquis River on Day 140:

Each ford on either side of the island was about twenty feet wide, although that is hard to tell in this picture.

Fortunately, the knee-keep water was clear and I could see the rocks on the bottom. Two trekking poles helped me retain my balance on the very slick rocks in the river bed. The most challenging part of the river crossing was getting up the steep, eroded bank on the far side.

This is one of many rivers in Maine that is hazardous to cross after a storm. It had been raining some that day, so I was concerned about this branch and also the West Branch of the Piscataquis that I would cross in the afternoon. Fortunately, any rain that fell upstream hadn't yet reached this spot.

The Maine AT maps and guide warn hikers of most of the dangerous crossings. Every time I knew one or more were coming up the next day, I'd be nervous and have trouble sleeping.

Most times I worried needlessly because at normal flow, the streams are pretty manageable (it helps if you're tall). Except for Day 141, I got across every stream safely by myself.

But if it rains, watch out!

MORE RIVERS TO FORD

I'd like to show you several other examples of typical stream crossings in Maine - all sans bridges - when the water is at normal levels and two rivers when they were flooded (I wish I had photos of them at normal flow for comparison)..

The first is just a little creek like so many others when they are at normal levels (Day 138). The main challenge with creeks like this is avoiding slipping on the mossy rocks both above and under the water:

Now imagine that creek after several inches of rain have fallen in the mountains above it - or after the spring thaw when snowmelt reaches down here. Pretend that the water completely covers the rocks and is too muddy to see bottom. In deeper, churning water, it would be difficult to maneuver blindly around these rocks.

Some streams had large boulders that could be used as "stepping stones" for people with long legs (like me) or good balance and jumping skills (definitely not me).

The best example I can show you is the South Branch of the Carrabassett River on Day 134:

That's "Patch" napping on a huge boulder in the middle of the river. This is the only river I was able to photograph with a person to show some perspective of the size of the rocks.

This river rattled me because I could hear the noisy cascades from 1,700 feet up Sugarloaf Mountain and all the way down to the crossing - which was one listed as "dangerous" after it rains.

I made it across on the boulders OK, but it was literally a stretch. (I crossed just to the left of this photo where the boulders weren't as high and the water wasn't flowing as swiftly through a narrow channel.) I can't imagine trying to cross this river when it is flooded!

THE WILSONS AT THEIR WORST

By far my most harrowing day on the Appalachian Trail was after several inches of rain apparently fell in the mountains. Although I got in some rain on Day 140, it didn't seem like much. I didn't realize how much came down in the next section northbound.

We had been warned that streams in Maine are more dangerous AFTER rain has fallen than WHILE it is falling.

Believe it. It's critical that you remember this admonition while hiking in Maine!

I initially decided to take a rest day on Day 141 because the Big Wilson River, which is in that section, was reported to be dangerous after it rains. It didn't mention the danger of other streams like the Little Wilson River, Vaughn Stream, or Thompson Brook. If you haven't read that journal entry, go back now and read it. You'll understand better why I changed my mind late in the morning and got on the Trail with Cody.

When I approached the Little Wilson Falls after three hours of soppy trail and several tricky stream crossings, I about panicked. This is the highest waterfall on the entire AT and it was flooded. The roar of the falls in the 100-foot deep slate canyon was deafening.

The falls would have been fascinating except for one thing: I knew I either had to cross that river a quarter of a mile downstream or return seven miles to the trail head where I began. Neither option was appealing to me, anxious as I was to make forward progress. I was so near the end of my journey!

Relentless forward motion, the ultra runner's creed. I kept going, determined to see what I was up against.

The Little Wilson crossing probably isn't much of a big deal on a normal day. It's not even on the "dangerous in high water" list. But after all the rain made its way down to the AT crossing, it WAS a big deal. It was 35-40 feet across, the water was churning and brown, and I had no idea how deep it was. I could tell several large boulders were submerged in the water:

The river was up to my chest when I crossed, trusting my life to a tiny rope that was strung between two trees. You can barely see it in the photo below, which I haven't included in this journal previously.

When Jim came to this crossing, thinking it was the Big Wilson River, he didn't see the rope. It was upstream from the Trail about fifteen feet. He went back from whence he came. Smart man!

I lost my footing halfway across and inched the remaining distance to the far shore gripping that rope, legs pointing downstream. I was damn lucky the rope stayed above water, because I was facing down.

Obviously, I made it across - or I wouldn't be sitting here writing about it! But it was traumatic and was only the first of four nasty stream crossings that day before I finally found my way to the little road where Jim and I rendezvoused after dark.

After crossing the churning river I was immensely relieved but could only think, "If that is the LITTLE Wilson, what does the BIG Wilson look like??" I plowed on ahead, twice crossing a more narrow, but fast-moving, waist-deep creek (Thompson Brook) that emptied into the Big Wilson.

Three down, one to go . . .

I lost my nerve when I saw the Big Wilson River, above. It would have been suicidal for me to try to cross it, and hikers later said it was even higher the next day.

I can't imagine it being any more intimidating than when I saw it. Thru-hiker "Kokomo" made two attempts to cross it. He nearly drowned in the Big Wilson on his second attempt, a few minutes before I got there. He was badly shaken and vowed to get off the Trail and stay off of it. (Fortunately, he had a change of heart and finished the same day I did.)

I decided, "Enough of this, I'm taking the by-pass" (that's another story).

The second crossing that I had to make of the Little Wilson (on that unmarked "by-pass") was wider and just as deep two miles downstream where it dumped into the Big Wilson River, but the current wasn't as strong there.

The lower crossing was the closest I came to having to swim any stream on the AT, as I lost my footing again on the far side and had to lunge about six feet for the bank (no rope there). I didn't photograph it because my camera was wrapped up and in the back of my pack. I was in a hurry to find the road before dark and didn't take time to pull it out again.

Jim saw it from the other side and again thought it was the Big Wilson, not the Little Wilson River. He didn't attempt to cross it and still can't believe I got across that river the two places he saw it!

At the AT crossing the Big Wilson River appeared about double its normal width. I'm not sure I'd want to cross it on a normal day, but I do want to go back and see both the Wilsons again when they are at normal flow, both out of curiosity and for the sake of "closure." This is a day I will never forget.

INCREDIBLE LUCK, INTERESTING IRONY

I want to point out two cases of pure luck that helped me reach my destination on Day 141. I'm not sure either example will help future hikers in Maine, but perhaps there's a lesson or two to be learned.

First, the rope across the Little Wilson River at the official AT crossing was the ONLY such rope across a stream that I saw on the entire Appalachian Trail.

I don't know who put it there, but I'm eternally grateful to them. I would not have stepped into the water without it - and that took an enormous leap of faith on my part. Although it was only about 1/2" in diameter, it was secure and held my 135-pound weight above the flooded river. I don't know if the same would be true the next day, when hikers said the water was even higher. I was incredibly lucky.

Second, Kokomo told me later that he also took the two-mile "high-water route" along the Big Wilson River until he came to the Little Wilson River again (where it dumps into the larger stream). He turned around because the water was over his head where he tried to cross - next to two concrete bridge supports in the middle of the river, all that was left of a bridge that had washed out!

I chose to cross twenty or thirty feet upstream from those pilings to lessen the chance of getting swept into them. The water was up to my waist, then chest, but no higher.

I don't know what I would have done if I'd tried to cross where Kokomo did. I might have been too defeated to try another place. I wouldn't have tried to swim all the way across because I could have ended up out in the even-wider, wilder Big Wilson (the Little Wilson was about 70-75 feet across here, the Big Wilson perhaps double that).

The kicker? The road and bridge both Kokomo and I were separately aiming for was only one-quarter of a mile from this crossing. He was so close, but turned around. I was just plain lucky that evening to get across safely and finally reach our truck; I had no idea it was so close or that I was even going the right way (not much real trail to follow along the river).

Meanwhile, Jim was literally "up the creek," looking for me along the wrong river. Go read about it if you haven't already . . . what a day!

INTENSE FINAL WEEK OF FORDING STREAMS

The remaining six days on the Trail really rattled me. Would it get any worse? After that hellish experience, I didn't know if I would be brave enough to ford any more flooded rivers.

They don't call this the "Hundred-Mile Wilderness" for nothing. I had nightmares about drowning for several weeks, even after getting back home. [Note in 2008: I still have occasional nightmares about that day.]

Here are three more streams I crossed soon after "flood day."

Jim came to Vaughn Stream, below, on Day 141 when he was trying to reach the Big Wilson River from the north side so he could help me cross it. He never made it across Vaughn, let alone to Big Wilson (which was good, since I couldn't cross there anyway and had to meet him somewhere else.) Jim didn't have his camera with him that day so we don't have a picture of the creek when it was flooded.

This is Vaughn Stream two days later at a more normal level when I returned to the Trail on Day 143:

Pretty little creek, right?

When Jim saw it, none of these slippery slate rocks were visible. He and thru-hiker "Big Foot," who was headed northbound, scouted upstream (toward the top of the photo) for a safer crossing because there is a waterfall pretty close on the right (downstream). After watching how hard it was for Big Foot to cross, Jim decided the water was flowing too hard for him to cross safely. He called me, and that's when we discussed a different rendezvous point.

Yes, I was nervous approaching it two days later. Even then, the smooth slate on the bottom was extremely slick and I forded the creek very carefully. I didn't want to get swept over the falls either!

The photo at the very top of this page, and the one below, are also from Day 143 across Long Pond Stream. This was one of several "double" creeks with islands that I crossed.

The first part was pretty easy. The second part, shown below, was 15-20 feet wide where I crossed above that downed tree trunk. I scouted up and down the creek to find a wider, more shallow section - to no avail. The water was up to mid-thigh level, which is over two feet deep on me. The rocks were slick, of course, and the current was fast, as you can tell from the cascades. I got across slowly but safely using trekking poles.

Jim and I scouted out this creek the previous afternoon, a rest day to let the flooded streams subside. The creek is close to a logging road so we could drive in to it pretty easily. The water was so high we could barely see these rocks. I don't think I would have crossed it then.

What a difference a day makes - either for the good or for the bad.

Another river that concerned me was the wide West Branch of the Pleasant River, below. It was also at the beginning of a section, so Jim took me to see it the afternoon before I crossed it.

Jim, the dogs, and I all went across it "for practice." That alleviated my concerns and allowed me to sleep well. I actually enjoyed crossing it the next morning (Day 144), three days after my harrowing experience with the Wilson Rivers. Jim, that was a great idea!

This "branch" (another understatement, eh?) was about a hundred feet wide, but it was only about fifteen inches deep in the middle. Although there aren't very many large rocks in the streambed, I wouldn't want to cross it when it's flooded.

It's so much easier to cross these things when the water is clear and isn't screaming past you!

CAVEAT EMPTOR

What is the solution to Maine's sometimes-dangerous river crossings? I can't help but wonder how many hikers have drowned in these rivers.

Should the status quo be maintained so hiking through Maine continues to be wet and wild? Should the MATC build more foot bridges for hikers? Should the Trail be re-routed in some areas to allow hikers to cross on existing road bridges? Should hikers always travel in pairs or groups for safety? Should they simply hole up a day or more and avoid all stream crossings after it rains?

I don't have the answers. The bottom line is that each hiker has to understand the risks and be responsible for his/her own safety.

Caveat emptor.

UNIQUE FERRY SERVICE

The most novel solution to the problem is suitable for its location, but probably wouldn't work on any other river crossing in Maine.

I'm talking about the "ferry" service across the Kennebec River near Caratunk.  My canoe trip on Day 137 was memorable and one of the highlights of my entire trek. What a blast!

The Kennebec rises and falls daily with the unpredictable release of water upstream at a hydro-electric facility. When it's very low, some hikers manage to cross the river a little ways upstream where it is "only" about 175 feet across with knee-deep water.

"Charlie Brown" was quite pleased with himself for doing that one day we were in the area;  he lucked out and got there when the river was at its lowest point.

But most of the time the river is too deep, too wide, and too swift to ford safely.

After the death of at least one hiker in the Kennebec, a "ferry" service was instituted in 1985 and the ATC encourages every hiker to use the free morning or afternoon shuttle. Some macho hikers continue to want to ford the river. The guide who took a group of us across on Day 137 regaled us with tales of hikers (and dogs) who have been swept downstream and nearly lost their lives.

My attitude was that I had nothing to prove to anyone. I saw the canoe ride as a novelty and would have taken it even if the river had been safe to cross when I arrived. It was fun!

Following are several photos Jim and I took of this experience. Because of the number of hikers waiting to cross, Jim and the dogs had to stay on the far side of the river. But they got to watch the action as the guide ferried us in the canoe across about 230 feet of fast-moving, seventeen-foot deep water (the guide said it would be even deeper and wider in another hour).

There are Jim and the dogs on the far side as I waited for the canoe to come over (I had my camera zoomed in part way for this shot, and they still look tiny over there):

Here are the hikers, including me, patiently waiting for the ferry on the far side of the river (Jim took the next three shots):

Now I'm in the canoe, heading for Jim's side of the river (he zoomed in closer on this one):

And here's Cody "helping" the guide get the canoe to shore:

Although it was a windy day, the guide seemed in total control and I had a great ride across the Kennebec. Thank you, MATC, for providing that service the past twenty years!

Hiking the AT in Maine will certainly get your adrenaline going. There's little to be bored with there, and fording rivers is only one reason. I hope you get the opportunity to run or hike there. It's an experience you will never forget. I can't wait to go back!

Next up, still on the topic of "structures" along the AT "Come Sit a Spell: Benches in Inviting Places." (This one will be much shorter.)

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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