To the End of the Trail
By Cindy Ross
In Maine’s wilderness, a Pennsylvania Venturing crew tackles the final 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, finishing with a climb to the top of Mount Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus.
I met up with the Venturers of Crew 241 from Knauers, Pa., as they were completing Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness portion of the Appalachian Trail (AT). They looked as if they had been in a war, legs and arms covered with scratches, scrapes, bruises, and welts from blackfly bites.
But they were all smiling broadly, a good sign considering their day had started at 4 in the morning, in order to cover 16 miles of trail to reach our rendezvous point by 1 p.m.
They were on the 10th day of an ambitious 12-day trek last summer that included covering the AT’s final 100 miles of wilderness and then climbing 5,268-foot Mount Katahdin, the highest point in Maine and northern terminus of the 2,175-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
Almost every day of the trek had been a struggle against the clock, Crew 241 associate Advisor Curt Fitterling acknowledged.
“On Day 2, we had already begun to fall behind schedule,” he noted. “We thought we were prepared for these mountains. For two and a half years we held monthly training hikes, including 20-mile day hikes and backpacking weekends—and the mountains still knocked the wind out of us.”
The news came as no surprise because the Maine wilderness is the most remote stretch of the entire Appalachian Trail, which extends from Georgia to Maine. Access to the trail in this area is so limited that hikers must carry all the necessary food and supplies for 10 days in their backpacks. And a single day’s hike can include scaling multiple mountains between 3,000 and 4,000 feet in elevation.
In the shallow soil of Maine’s boreal forest, footpaths are choked with roots and rocks. Nor does the trail contain gradual switchbacks for easy climbing. Instead, hikers often have to make their way upward like rock climbers, only to be faced with a knee-pounding descent.
“To train, we attempted to hike long-running inclines, but needless to say, that wasn’t enough to prepare for this,” Fitterling lamented. “In fact, even wilderness backpacking at [New Mexico’s] Philmont [Scout Ranch] didn’t prepare us for these conditions.”
Having to cross streams swollen by days of hard, cold rain also added to the crew’s challenge and frustration.
This was made clear when, as the rugged conditions caused the crew to fall behind schedule, an associate Advisor made the mistake of voicing doubts that they would be able to finish the trek as planned. The negative thought seemed to have an opposite effect on the Venturers, who expressed their resolution to make it all the way to the top of Mount Katahdin.
Humor helped them get through difficult moments. For example, from an elevated point on the trail called Barren Ledges, they spotted a fire tower rising above a faraway ridge.
“Is that where we are going tomorrow?” someone asked. “No, that’s where we are going today!” was the reply, and everyone laughed.
In their pre-trek planning sessions, the Advisors talked about the temptation to succumb mentally “to the dark side” if the going became difficult. Such a negative frame of mind can set in just once or often and last 30 seconds or all day, they warned. The important thing on wilderness hikes is to recognize and deal with it promptly.
Once the trek was under way, no one was immune from negative thoughts. Even associate Advisor Fitterling acknowledged feeling a “dark side” emerging on a day which saw the crew encounter a bridge missing at a river ford, while he experienced severe diarrhea, and then later fell into a swamp!
Sometimes the menu of trail food from their backpacks wasn’t enough to handle the hunger demands caused by the physical exertion of hiking such a rugged route. Food was constantly on the minds of the Venturers.
Associate Advisor Barry Noss discovered that three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—which he had vacuum packed in a plastic bag and brought along as a personal snack—were in great demand. “I could get my lawn mowed for the rest of the year if I had accepted some of the offers for these sandwiches,” he said.
The Venturers soon noticed that a sizable puddle had formed on the corner of the Advisor’s pyramid-shaped shelter during the night.
“We filled nine 70-ounce water bladders and nine liter bottles without walking a step!” crew member Vince Bruno reported.
Despite being tired from the rugged hiking conditions, they never failed to appreciate the natural beauty of the Maine wilderness.
“Sometimes it felt like we were in a scene from ‘Lord of the Rings’ or climbing up boulders in ‘Jurassic Park,’” said Minnich. “To have the opportunity to see a perspective of the mountains that not many people ever have—unless they hiked where we just did—makes it all worth it.”
To the summit
The climb is formidable—4,000 feet in less than five miles with half of that distance above tree line.
Then the entrance to the world above timberline is a forbidding place called “The Boulders.” Because it is so steep, a half dozen iron handholds, spaced about as far apart as one can reach, have been hammered into the granite boulders.
In addition, Katahdin is a “cloud factory,” where weather rolls in before your eyes and can include snow on any day, even in summer.
After their struggles on the wilderness trail, it only seemed natural that Crew 241 should experience it all—clouds, rain, sleet, snow, and 30-mile-per-hour winds with temperatures in the 40’s.
The crew’s spirits remained upbeat, however, and they headed up the mountain with the same fervor they showed on the trail.
Rock piles of varying height, called cairns, were placed close enough together to guide the hikers through the thickest fog and helped keep the group on course.
On Baxter Peak, a large wooden sign marked the summit, and the crew gathered for a celebration photo.
“I can see a huge difference in their confidence level,” observed Curtis Fitterling. “As they performed the same things over and over—descending cliffs, fording streams, and scaling mountains—you could see them grow stronger and more skilled every day.”
Venturer Brendon Minnich, 18, agreed. “One night, after we were well into the 100-Mile Wilderness, as I pulled out my sleeping bag—my ‘trail bed’—I realized that I was carrying everything I needed on my back. And I thought: After this hike, it’s hard for me to imagine what I can’t accomplish.”
“The idea of going into the wilderness and coming out 100 miles and 12 days later…felt so big,” said Brendon’s brother, Joshua, 14. “Like something Daniel Boone would have done, something people did 200 years ago.”
The positive impact of the experience on the self-confidence of the Venturers was most evident when Brendon Minnich and others talked about the future.
After graduating from high school, they asked, why not hike the AT’s entire 2,175 miles?
Why not, indeed?
A frequent contributor to Scouting magazine, Cindy Ross is the author of A Woman’s Journey (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 1996), a journal-style account of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.
ON THE WEB: Read Cindy Ross’s account of another Scout group’s adventures in the mountains of the Northeast (the Adirondacks) at www.scoutingmagazine.org/issues/0401/a-adir.html.
Copyright © 2007 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.