Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Carrabassett Valley Backpacking 5/24-5/25/14

Working title: Welcome to the land of snark and obscenity

Peaks: Mt. Abraham, Spaulding Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Mt. Redington, South Crocker Mountain, North Crocker Mountain

Trails: Rapid Stream Road, logging road, Mt. Abraham Trail, Abraham Side Trail, Appalachian Trail, Spaulding Side Trail, Sugarloaf Side Trail, Caribou Valley (Pond) Road, logging roads, herd path, bushwhack

Mileage/gain: ~26.2 miles, ~8700' of gain

Two months ago, an opportune email hit my inbox, and the plan-hatchery began. She-who-shall-not-be-named (or pictured), heretofore referred to as Swsnbn, "needed" these six peaks for her 100 Highest list, and invited several folks to join in the fun. Seeing as I "needed" three of them myself, I figured it was as good an excuse as any to get out and snag them.

With a rather damp forecast leading up to the trip, the day came to pass. A fairly early morning meeting in Gray netted two of my companions for the weekend, John and Swsnbn, but our third sadly had to cancel at the last minute. This terrible triumvirate of ours pointed the cars northward, and hit the road. After dropping Swsnbn's car at the AT lot on ME 16/27, I drove us around to the end (where two bridges are out) of the very rough Rapid Stream Road. About 0.8 miles from the end, there was a ~3 foot wide washout, that the locals had filled in with several birch trees... while my car made quick work of this obstacle, Swsnbn's wouldn't. More on that fun at the end of this yarn.

Hefting our packs (and boy, did they feel heavy!), we set out, right out of the gate crossing Ladd Brook on rocks. A hundred-or-so yards later, was Rapid Stream, which required taking off shoes and wading across, in ice cold, knee deep water. If we weren't awake yet, we surely were now!

John finishing the Rapid Stream crossing

A short walk up the disused logging road, brought us to the Mt. Abraham Trail, and the real beginning of our trek. Having already layered down, the sweat-fest began, with the sun occasionally poking through. The trail is pretty mild in it's lower ~3 miles, winding gradually up the northern slopes of the mountain. Swsnbn made a comment at my expense, and promptly went down in the mud... serves her right! Not long after this, we came to a small brook crossing, and I started chuckling about her falling... so I followed suit, dunking both feet in the brook. Karmic? I think so.

Leafing out on the Mt. Abraham Trail

Reaching the tentsites and privy near where the firewarden's cabin used to stand, the real climbing started. We ran into some sections of snow and ice, but all were easily passable. Breaking treeline, it started to drizzle, but there were still some decent views from the talus fields as we ascended toward the summit. Tiny cairns led the way, the trail occasionally ducking back into the scrub, then popping back into the open.

Redington and the Crockers over the shoulder of Spaulding

Northeast view from the talus

Before long, the skeleton of the old fire tower appeared, and we stood on peak #1 for the trip. It had been almost two years since I last hiked to this peak, and for a second time, it didn't disappoint. I was certainly glad it was less buggy than last time, when they nearly drove me off the peak. A well deserved break was in order, soaking in the views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. If you haven't climbed this peak, do it. While it lords over past and present (and I'm sure future) logging operations, it has a wilderness character all its own.

The peaks of Saddleback to the south

Dour clouds looking toward the area known as Barnjum

The wild trail-less ridge of Abraham

My compatriots at the tower

Awesome clouds!

Westerly view down the ridgeline we'd be following to the AT

Surprisingly, our summit stay was punctuated by the arrival of a pair of guys out on a day hike. I'm sure we entertained them, ridiculous as we were. Break over, we headed down the Abraham Side Trail, some weather quickly approaching. While descending the scree, the peak became obscured by cloud, the temperature dropped, and as we ducked into the scrub we were pelted by hail and sideways rain. This was, however, short-lived, one of many weather episodes we dealt with over the course of the trip. Running into some more significant stretches of rotting snow and ice, we passed over several bumps and talus fields, with attractive sections of trail in between. Moose apparently rule out here, as this particular trail was very well marked with moose dirt.

Looking back at Abraham after the hail

Southwest view from one of the talus fields

Building clouds

A particularly attractive section of Abraham Side Trail

Reaching the AT, I noticed a fairly obvious old road continuing straight ahead, confirming for me, the possibility of loop options down to the CVR (Caribou Valley/Pond Road). I'll need to do more digging before I check it out for myself! Turning north, we decided to carry on to the Spaulding Mountain Lean-to before taking another break. Ever on the lookout for wildlife, we climbed slowly through wet areas and deep mud, to the junction and rolled into the shelter, shocked to see someone else there.

What was even more shocking, was the fact that it was an AT thru-hiker, and a northbounder at that! His trail-name is Pan, and he started in Georgia on March 1st, planning to be done within 100 days. He said he "only" did an 8 mile day (from Poplar Ridge) so he wouldn't have to take a zero day, as he was meeting up with a friend in Stratton the next day. From Georgia to the New Hampshire border, he said he averaged 25 miles a day, and had averaged 15 miles a day since then... and that there were two guys a day or two ahead of him! Amazing and inspirational to say the least.

After picking his brain about many things, and filtering some water, we bid farewell to Pan, and continued our slog toward our stop for the night... which was looking more and more like it would be Sugarloaf. The spur trail to Spaulding soon appeared (someone scratched "no view" into the sign), and we climbed its steepness to a decent viewpoint, a lying summit sign (it says 3988'), and a cut viewpoint down a herd path.

The steep Spaulding Spur

The peaks of Saddleback from Spaulding

Northwest from the viewpoint

I had read somewhere on the internets, that the old gondola station near the summit of Sugarloaf used to be open to hikers, but wasn't sure if that was still the case. Considering the time, I mentioned that it might be an option, if we weren't feeling the descent down to the CVR after hitting the summit. We passed by a plaque on the side of the trail, commemorating the completion of the final link in the AT, finished near that spot in 1937. After checking out an airy viewpoint, with clouds encroaching, we reached the Sugarloaf Side Trail, and started what would be our final climb of the day.

Thank you New Deal

Airy perch overlooking the cloudening

Remnants of winter remained low on the spur trail, then some boot sucking mud and silty areas, before finally breaking treeline just shy of the summit and towers. The views were dramatic, with clouds beginning to wrap around the summit. Checking out the building, it was closed up, sort of... but the view we got inside was less than appetizing. Deciding against descending in our tired state, we opted to set up tents near the top of Timberline lift. This is probably not kosher, though I've found no information that says it's illegal or otherwise. That being said, we practiced Leave No Trace camping, and I think we did a most excellent job of minimizing our impact on an already impacted, and downright trashed summit area.

Tents up, stoves out and boiling, we got to dinner and some imbibing. Meanwhile, Mother Nature decided to put on a spectacular sunset show for us, with barely a puff of wind in our very exposed locale.

Burnt Hill from Sugarloaf

The Bigelows from Sugarloaf










Bagging up all our food, we hung the bag from one of the chairs on the chairlift... that's what I call effective use of infrastructure! Not long after all the color drained from the sky, we retired to our tents, exhausted.

Day 1 mileage/gain: ~10.9 miles, ~5200' of gain

I can't say I slept well, any little sound woke me, and the low background hum of the communications towers up on the summit was a constant. The wind picked up slightly in the night, and rustled my tent more than once. I woke to the sound of birds singing, close by in the scrub, and upon opening my eyes, saw there was light in the sky.

Upon opening my tent, clear skies greeted me, and the sun was not yet up. Quickly, I put my still damp shoes on, layered up, and grabbed the camera. Sunrise was as ethereal as any I've witnessed, made more so by low level clouds. I ended up wandered around the summit area for a good 40 minutes, taking in the morning. The early bird really does catch the worm.

Pre-dawn Bigelows

Close!

A cloud draped Burnt Hill

Here come the sun

Abraham

The Crockers

The shadow of Sugarloaf over Caribou Pond

Little Bigelow amid the clouds

My companions got themselves up and going, we retrieved our food bag, ate, and set about breaking down and repacking our packs. Continuing back down to the AT, we were soon passed by Pan, moving quickly, as we came around the crest of Sugarloaf's western cirque. Great views were had from a couple viewpoints along the way, into the cirque itself, and up the valley toward the Redington Pond Range and Caribou Pond.

AT

The western cirque of Sugarloaf

On the AT looking toward the Crockers

The South Branch of the Carrabassett River

Leafing out

A really steep descent followed, and after a bit of a meander along the river, we reached the crossing. I've been turned back twice by this crossing, trying to climb Sugarloaf from the CVR, but in colder conditions, where getting the feet wet wasn't an option. We ended up wading across in thigh deep, fast moving, water, and spent a few minutes on the other side, drying our feet, and admiring the scene. A group of 10 came down to the crossing as we were preparing to leave, and some of them tried to find a dry way across, while others heeded our advice and crossed where we did. Leaving them to their devices, we headed up to the CVR.

Yeah right! Cross here?!

The South Branch of the Carrabassett River

Now came the easiest part of our day, the hike in to Redington. My friend Dave described this route to me, and said it was the easiest 4000-footer he ever did. I'll save the details, as directions are published in no less than half a dozen different places on the interwebs, but it involved a lot of logging road walking. All turns were marked with small cairns, or arrows made of wood on the ground, and occasional flagging tape marked the way once off the road portions. Sadly, once we hit the obvious herd path portion, the rain had started and kept going almost all the way to the summit... leaving us all soaked. There were also some more significant areas of snow, which contributed to our already wet feet.

Redington sports a small cleared area, with views west and north, where some testing occurred in the late 90's/early 2000's, for a wind farm project that met with much local opposition. At first, we couldn't find the canister, but while taking pictures, standing on a stump, I spotted it off in the trees. The last group to sign in was from March 9th.

The steel of this bridge on the CVR was manufactured by a rail car manufacturer!

Redington from the logging roads

A marked turn

Redington Pond Peak

The Crockers from Redington

Northwest view from Redington

Now came the fun! After our break on the summit, where the sun warmed us, and we talked of lingering here for the rest of the day, we had to move on. Back down the herd path, there was a bit of flagging on a tree... the beginning of our path to South Crocker. There is a fairly obvious footbed that winds through the woods (complete with flagging), down to the col between South Crocker and Redington, that's not to say that it doesn't get a bit thick. In the col, we popped out onto a logging road, and searched a bit for the continuation of the herd path... which we found a significant way downhill to the northwest.

This side of the path was far less obvious, and took a lot of care to stay on. At one point, we lost it, then I thought I found it (but it meandered away from the peak), then John found something more likely. This lead to a full on bushwhack, complete with curses, head banging, and bloodletting. After thrashing for a while, we picked up the now obviously worn path coming up from our right, and followed it all the way to the summit viewpoint.

There IS a path here

View from the col

The continuation

Sugarloaf from South Crocker

Spaulding and Abraham from South Crocker

As we reached South Crocker, thunder boomed in the distance. We soon figured out that it wasn't heading in our direction, though it would have been fitting seeing the other weather we'd encountered. What we hoped would be the final climb was ahead of us, after a descent of course. Swsnbn zoomed ahead, just wanting to get it out of the way. John and I hit the wall, and slowly trudged our way up to the peak. Glad to get our packs off, we checked out the viewpoint, then sat for a bit. John broke out the rest of his whiskey, which we gladly helped him finish off, before getting ready for what would prove to be a dubious 5.2 mile descent.

North Crocker view

Dropping fairly steeply off the peak, we made our way toward Swsnbn's waiting car. We had consulted the map, and it appeared there was a long section that contoured around the side of Stony Brook Mountain. What wasn't apparent from the map, was the fact that the trail had an innumerable amount of ups and downs. So after the drop off the peak, we were stuck in a seeming purgatory for what felt like miles and hours. While the scenery was gorgeous, it was all I could do to keep moving, with every down accompanied by another up. Exasperating! Finally reaching the end of our endless contour, the trail dropped steeply down a ridge, with a couple minor ups for good measure, and we soon heard the sounds of civilization. A 12 hour hiking day was in the books, and we were glad to get those packs off our backs!

Great vista along the AT beyond North Crocker

Gorgeously infuriating trail around Stony Brook Mountain

Swsnbn drove us around to Rapid Stream Road, and since her car wouldn't make it, I said I'd run to get my car, 0.8 miles down the road. All I can say about that, is OUCH! I did manage to get the car and get it back to where she had turned around and pulled off, in about 20 minutes.

Day 2 mileage/gain: ~15.3 miles, ~3500' of gain

The long drive back home ensued, and after a quick shower, I was treated to a hot meal, and good company for the rest of my evening.

A huge thank you to Swsnbn for planning this trip, and to John for joining us. Thanks also for the associated laughs, insults, and vulgarity. Also congratulations to you both for knocking off six new peaks on your respective lists! For myself, all that's left for 4000-footers in New England, are in Vermont. Looks like that's where I'll be headed this summer!