SPOON was a 100 Mile Wilderness thru-hiker. Like many of his (or her) Appalachian Trail (AT) and 100 Mile Wilderness thru-hiking companions, SPOON maintained communication with other hikers by scrawling messages in notebooks kept at AT maintained shelters. Most hikers adopt trail names. RAGS, RidgeRunner and Whatdoesntkillyoumakesyoustronger, were a few recent contributors to the journal found at the Carl Newhall lean-to in the conservation lands of north central Maine. Some journal entries exposed intimate stories of why the hiker chose the challenging corridor. Other entries bemoaned of sore feet. And some entries, like SPOON's, alerted others to mischievous local wildlife.
"Beware of the squirrels."
The erratic piles of pinecone bracts along the trail to Gulf Hagas were evidence of red squirrel activity, as described by SPOON and others. And the angry chatter and clucking from the trees were a small, but constant reminder that 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine is just that - an uncultivated region dominated by wildlife. A narrow trail ribbons through the 100,000-acre swatch of land that is the final stretch of the AT from Monson, Maine to Mount Katahdin. Moose outnumber people three to one in this region, and you're more likely to encounter a small snake slithering across the trail than another human being along this corridor into the wild.
My hiking companions were Matt and our six-month old Shepherd/Husky, Pemi. We encountered not one, but four snakes during our approximate 8-mile route past Billings, Stairs and Buttermilk Falls, to the Gulf Hagas summit. Fondly known as the "Grand Canyon of Maine," this 4-mile long gorge is often the destination hike for day trippers. Many day hikers leave from Hay Brook or West Branch parking areas, and travel through the remarkable stand of old growth white pine called the Hermitage. They then cross Gulf Hagas Brook to reach Screw Auger Falls, the first of the falls when entering from the east. Matt and I had chosen the less popular western approach, for which we were rewarded. By the end of the trip, our wildlife count included seven snakes, four moose, one (dead) mole, a handful of toads, countless hummingbirds and too many red squirrels.
Spiced rice was the hot menu item of the night. Since we had the spot to ourselves, we decided to cook at the lean-to, but set up our tent across the river at the designated tent site. Matt filtered water at the brook, I dug through my pack for the tent and Pemi rested in the wooded shade. Even with full packs, the hike to the campsite had been relatively forgiving. Elevation gain was gradual, and the trail was well-kept. The major elevation changes occur during the last mile to the summit and back down to the campsite.
During dinner, I flipped through the journal we found at the lean-to. Forever nosy, this is an activity I look forward to whenever we stop to rest at an AT shelter. My favorite entry was written back in October: "My girlfriend broke up with me about the same time my buddy broke up with his. So, I came here with his ex. She is amazing, can't wait to see what the future holds." As this hiker found out, the Maine woods welcomes those who are looking for respite from everyday complications. Maine backcountry makes you more resilient.
After satiating my hunger with hot rice, and my curiosity with other hikers' stories, we made our way back to the tent. Sleep came quickly, interrupted only by the sporadic sounds of small animals scampering past us to the head of a nearby game trail. Despite the nightlife, we slept well. The musky smell of Maine woods drifted through the tent, lulling me back to sleep.