AT Massachusetts – Baby Seal
October 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
Baby Harp seals have to be among the cutest most innocent looking creatures on the planet. I know, there are a lot of critters out there whose young are super cute, and that includes human critters as well, though let us be clear, sometimes, there are some real ugly babies. But this isn’t about ugly babies, it is about cute and innocent, and launching into something with the greatest zeal and perhaps over estimation of just where on the fitness scale one actually sits.
The Appalachian Trail is a National Scenic trail that runs the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine over the course of around 2200 miles. Thru-hikers (people who hike the entire trail) generally are able to cover that distance in 4-6 months, and more hikers hike the trail South to North, than the other direction. While there are many sections of the AT that are a nice pleasant walk, most of the AT is not really all that easy. In fact, it is pretty damn punishing at times. One thru-hiker we chatted up said he had been averaging about 10-12 hours a day walking South. That translated to 10-12 miles a day in Maine, and New Hampshire. Why? Rocks! The trail is so rocky in so many sections that you are literally walking the crowns of the rocks, so you have to have your eyes planted squarely on the ground in front of you, carefully selecting which crowns become your next step. That is for rocky sections that are fairly level. When the rocky trail climbs or descends, something it does a lot of in many states, but especially in Maine and New Hampshire, then you don’t move very fast, as the climbs are usually long and can cover 2-3 thousand feet of elevation gain/loss.
While Maine and New Hampshire are legendary, there are still plenty of rocks on/in the trail in all the states after that, and Massachusetts sure has its fair share. We begin this adventure at Race Brook in Massachusetts which is just North of the state line. We could have started just South of the state line at Mt Riga State Park, but since I started my SoBo journey at Race Brook last year, I felt like I could start my NoBo journey there again. As I remember it, the ascent didn’t seem all that bad, however I will admit it seemed harder than I remembered. Perhaps that was because of the higher humidity, and the warmer temperatures, which brings with it, higher body temperatures, and more sweating.
First we had to get to the Trail Head, and another factor I had overlooked in planning this adventure was if we started in the afternoon, all the day hikers may not have returned to their cars yet, and so the Trailhead parking situation may not be a favorable one. Fortunately for us, Kevin was up there a day prior and stayed at a nice Bed and Breakfast (Sheffield Lodge) just a half mile up the road from the Trailhead, and Kevin being the thoughtful guy he is, chatted up his host about leaving his car there, instead of at the trailhead. In fact, she not only allowed that, but she allowed us to park Terry’s truck there as well! Ali drove up that day as well, but was arriving later, and we felt that by the time he got there, spots would open up at the Trailhead. So, after feeding at the trough at The Stagecoach Tavern, and this place looks like it dates to Stage Coach times, we made our final decisions regarding gear choices, closed and cinched our packs, lifted them with grunts to our backs, grabbed our poles, took our selfies, said our goodbyes to our host, and set off for the trail.
The first thing I noticed was the very first creek we crossed was 100 percent dry, and looked like it hadn’t had a trickle of water run through it in weeks, and maybe a month. Fortunately that wasn’t Race Brook, as Race Brook is considered a reliable water source, and we didn’t have to ascend very far before we had to cross Race Brook for the first time. I stopped to fill my bottle with water, as I started with none, and it was already somewhat apparent that Terry had already lost the hop in his step. We spent 3 hours driving up, and he was so cute. His baby seal pup obsidian eyes melted your heart with innocence. He was so excited for what the week would bring us. We hadn’t been in the woods 30 minutes, and Terry was soaked head to toe in sweat. Head to toe. His shirt couldn’t get wetter if you submerged it in the creek.
All that water out, Terry was drinking his water in. At first he was a half minute behind. By the time we got to the falls, which weren’t very exciting, but they were falling, he was more than a minute. A little more time when we waited along the upper part of Race Brook, and then still again when we joined up with the AT. By the time Kevin and I summitted on Mount Everett, The trail was knocking Terry silly, and he joined up about 10 minutes later. “It’s okay” I thought. It’s downhill mainly to the camp site, and then a good night’s rest, breakfast, and then the next day is more downhill, then a valley hike for 4+ miles, and the day doesn’t get hard again until we have to climb out of the valley. “Terry has this!”
We finished the day’s goal at Glen Brook Shelter, which happened to be occupied, so we settled into the tent platform areas. Kevin and Terry set out to raise Kevin’s tarp over the platform, and I setup my Tyvek tarp on some level ground right next it. Between the guy lines from their setup, and the guy lines from mine, it was a trip hazard in places, and thank the ingenuity gods for the person who said, “We should weave in a few threads of reflective thread, so that under the lighting conditions of headlamps, campers can see where the guy lines are anchored”, and then got that idea pushed through into the manufacturing process. Those features make a campsite at night very safe.
With water pumped, we set about to finally relax and take care of dinner. By the time I returned from getting water, Ali was with us, and I stopped him from setting up his own tent, as there was plenty of room under my tarp set up in Shed Dormer mode. When it comes to going into the woods for 8 days, there really isn’t room in the weight allowance to bring in anything but some bourbon or scotch, however, Ali hiked in a 6 pack of Sierra Nevada Hazy Little Thing IPAs, as well as two 16oz cans of Solace Brewing Partly Coudy IPA, though to be honest in telling the story, one of those Partly Cloudy IPAs didn’t make it to camp. Ali, didn’t have any water, and didn’t stop for any, and since he started late he was in a hurry to make it to camp before the sun set. However, thirsty and drier than sand paper, he stopped on a rock, and drank one of the IPAs on the hike up the mountain, just as some day hikers, a couple of judgmental older ladies, came by and gave Ali the “Good Grief Charley Brown” look of disgust. The Persian Prince may have been stereotyped at that exact moment.
Anyway, we weren’t carrying any of this beer any further than this campsite, and we didn’t have any fire going, so we simply sat around chatting after we ate and steadily exhausted our supply of IPAs. Then along comes a youngerish wooman in a biking outfit looking for the water source. She and a friend had just ridden in, both these shelters are close to the parking area for the hike to the top of Mount Everett, and were setup at the other shelter, which was unoccupied, and she was looking for the water source. I told her to come over and take some of our water as it was already pumped and we had plenty. She and her friend were up out of the city for the weekend, and were doing a kind of out and back with an overnight. We chatted a little more and she returned to her friend.
Tired enough, we all turned in and let our bodies healing powers take over while we slept. One of the drawbacks to drinking beer just prior to bed is that guarantees at least a couple of get up in the dark sessions to take care business. That was easier to do when I was in my forties, and not so bad in my fifties, but now I am in my sixties, and I would rather just sleep, but once the urge begins, then there is nothing but dreams of me needing to find bathroom, and then my brain still holding out and saying “No, you really don’t want to do what you want to do right now”, and eventually my sub-conscious awakes enough to realize what is happening, and tells the rest of my brain to awake and take care of the issue properly.
It wasn’t all that cool that night, but as cool as it was, it was still more comfortable to lie warmly ensconced in the bag than to arise into the cool air and begin the day, but, we had a big day ahead, and we needed to get started, so all it takes is for one person to get moving and then everyone gets moving.
Everyone handled their own breakfast needs, we broke down camp, packed our bags, transferred pumped water to anyone that needed it, and then we walked North out of camp to begin our second day on the trail. Everyone looked okay at that point, and there was no indication that any of that would change until we started to climb later in the afternoon. That last statement assumes, that descending isn’t as hard on your body as ascending is, because we had a fairly long ridge hike North until we reached the spine of this ridge, and started the long descent. I don’t recall the ridge being all that bad. It was cloudy/overcast, and though there were a few vistas along the ridge, we were lucky to get much of a break in the clouds to see anything worth our while. When the trail started to descend it wasn’t an easy descent. It wasn’t as rough as the ascent from the day before, but with full packs, we still basically gave up all the elevation we had gained the day before, and that puts more of a hurt into your legs, than the climbing does.
Everyone still seemed pretty fine once we got off the mountain. No one was really struggling, nor straggling, so we set off into the valley. The valley wasn’t flat, but it was rugged either, and I did set a pretty fast pace to get across it. The faster we got across, then the more time we have for breaks up the other side. There was also the possibility that when we crossed Route 7, there might be some commercial establishment nearby that we could grab some decent grub out of, so I had that thought driving me.
Then Terry started to struggle. To be fair, Kevin was starting to lag a little as well, but not as bad as Terry. It was probably a little bit of everything. Maybe Terry didn’t sleep as well as he had hoped, and it was still a warmer day, and more humid than it was the previous day, and Terry ran out of water at some point. Every water source we came upon was dry, and even at road crossings where Trail Angels had left water in jugs, those were empty as well. We hadn’t yet stopped for lunch, and maybe he was a little hungry as well as being soaked through again in his only dry shirt. I think he mentioned that he was feeling a little unsteady on his feet, and was therefore making sure all his foot plants were solid ones. On valley floors, there are still wooded areas with a lot of roots. At some point I gave Terry what water I had left, and then when we crossed a swamp with standing water, I stopped and steri-penned another liter, and after drinking that, we waited on Terry to catch up, and I gave him that water as well, and then loaded up again.
All was for naught, as we emerged upon Route 7, and Terry caught up again, you could see the resignation in his baby seal obsidian eyes, that he was done. The Harp Seal fisherman that is the Appalachian Trail had thoroughly crushed Terry’s dreams as easily as they bash in the skulls of those cute Harp Seal pups (Let’s us note, that I do not approve of that hunt in any way, but I do find pleasure in comparing the carnage of such an event with the carnage that gets dished out in spades by something like the AT) on the ice floes of Canada. Blood and brain bits everywhere, it was hard to tell where the brain bits ended, and Terry existed. “I’m done” said the crushed soul, and I transferred Joe Sokol’s number to him, and soon he was on the phone with Joe, and Joe was going to make some easy cash. We decided to eat some lunch, with Terry as Joe drove over, and we said our goodbyes, and then three of us moved on to Tom Leonard Shelter.
At least so we thought. Route 7 was the low point, elevation-wise in the day, so after leaving Terry, and getting away from the road, we had to navigate a section of the trail along the Housatonic to a point where we could cross that PCB laden river (Thanks GE!!!), and soon we started the first of the shelf climbs. I think there would be four shelf climbs in all. A Shelf climb is just how it sounds. You gain some elevation going up, and maybe over a high point, but you don’t drop very far, and you end up on a higher “shelf” than where you were. There would be four shelf climbs to get to the Shelter and we were in the flat section of the second shelf when we crossed the last road we would hit before the final assault on the shelter. That road was Brush Hill Road, and that was where Kevin sat down and wouldn’t get up again. Kevin was not displaying broken baby seal skull bits, but he had been playing the longer day over and over in what was left of his baby seal brain, and this day of 14.5 had him beat and he hadn’t completed the day yet.
I pleaded with him to keep going; used all kinds of sweet derogatory language constructs; asked if there was anything he wanted me to carry. All of that was met with “He was sorry, he thought he had trained enough, but this was a bite too big”. And so, I text Joe Sokol’s contact information to yet another baby seal, and Ali and I stood by when Joe found out he was making another pickup. Ali and I said our goodbyes; gave Kevin our apologies for bashing his head in, and leaving him to the gathering scavengers; hoisted our packs and set off up to the third shelf. We left Kevin with the idea that he may just hang around for the week, and hike down to meet us on our last night. If that happened, it would be great. When Terry abandoned me, that was my ride home. Kevin stepped up and had offered to fill those shoes, and though he was bagging out, he was clinging to the notion that he would meet us later in the week.
Now we were two. We still had about 4 miles, maybe a little less to get to Tom Leonard. I read the map wrong in that I saw the two shelfs, and then thought we would be ridge hiking most of the rest of the way. I think I was zoomed out too far, and just couldn’t see the 20′ grade lines, so it looked flatter than it actually was. Along the way we caught up to Rosie who we had met at the memorial to Shay’s Rebellion. She had just started that day and had hopes of spending her 5 days off hiking North. She was a young woman hiking with her mother’s old Jansport External Frame pack, which didn’t look like it had one of the nice modern hip belts, and looked pretty bulky. At least she had it well wrapped against the weather. Any she passed us like we were standing still, and now here Ali and I caught her at the first real vista at the top of shelf 4. We were getting down the to final miles, and Rosie was pretty sore and taking some time without the pack and already re-thinking her plans for the next 5 days. The trail and the Jansport baby sealed her real good.
We decided to hike together to the shelter, and off we went, and quickly ran into a reality check. We still had two miles to go, and it was not a ridge hike. In 50′ gradients, there can be a lot of 49′ changes in elevation, without grade lines showing up as being crossed, so what looks pretty flat on the map was actually pretty hellish on the ground. Every time the trail dipped down it was followed by another rocky climb back up, and when we were in the last mile, then the psychology of “Are we there yet?” kicks in, and the last half mile feels like two miles. Just keep moving. Eventually we did arrive at Tom Leonard Shelter, and it was empty. The shelters are big, and we offered Rosie the loft, but she was set on her hammock camping, and we settled in. Water was not all that easy peasy, as the trail to the water descended quite steeply at times. I would estimate the hike was about .2 of a mile to water and that was all down hill, however, it was a pristine water source, and both Ali and I sat down to work. I sent the pump home with Terry, so we sat and steri-penned 5 liters of water. While we were sitting there, unbeknownst to us was a fairly good sized frog sitting just out of the water in the rocks. I guess it saw us, and froze, and then while awaiting our egress it finally panicked, and jumped into water right in front of me, thus sending a giant splash of water (Ker-ploohey) up into the air and partially wetting my legs. Surprised we were both. The frog settled in under a rock looking out at us, and we finished our business and climbed back to camp.
It was too late to gather wood for a fire, so we ate our dinners, chatted the sorrows of losing our compatriots, ate a creme brulet dessert, toasted our accomplishments with Bourbon, and then turned in for a long recovery night, vowing to get an earlier start the next day. It was only day two and we had lost two companions, and we still had a big day looming ahead of us on Tuesday. Tomorrow would be an easier day, and hopefully the trail wouldn’t be cruel.