Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wild River Backpacking 10/15-10/16/14

Working title: There's no escaping the wet

I thought that I knew wetness, after the prior week in the Dry River. I was wrong. My friend Whitney put it best, that you have to have shitty days, to make the good days great days. Balance. Now I have sunny day credit.

Wednesday 10/15: Wild River Trail to Perkins Notch Tentsite

Peak: None

Trail: Wild River Trail

Mileage/gain: 7.1 miles, 1690' of gain

New redlining miles: 3.6

This was the third annual outing with my buddy Will from work, last year was a backpack on the Montalban Ridge, and the year before was in Baxter. We regrouped after work at Will's, as he finished getting himself ready, saw his wife and kids off, and we got headed to the woods. The day turned out to be very nice, but was quite humid, and also quite warm. I started in shorts and a t-shirt, and was comfortable all the way to the tentsite.

Our task for the day, was a lot of comfortable walking up the main line of the former Wild River Railroad. Rampant logging out of the unincorporated village of Hastings, Maine in the 1890's left great quantities of slash throughout the valley, a recipe for disaster. A dry spring in 1903 followed by some careless campers at No-Ketchum Pond (where we'd be staying), set in motion wildfires that would sweep north up both sides of the valley, burning not only the slash, but any remaining merchantable timber. Subsequent heavy rains (which put out the fires) caused massive flooding, destroying much of the railroad infrastructure above Hastings, effectively ended all logging in the valley. The remains of the railroad were dismantled the following year, and the former main line and its numerous spurs now make up a good part of the trail network in the valley.

In 2006, Congress designated 24,000 acres in the area as the Wild River Wilderness, encompassing most of the valley, reaching to within a stones throw of the surrounding ridges. Like most all eastern wilderness areas, they are not truly wilderness in the sense that they're not virgin and untouched. The hand of man has laid heavy on these lands, and the scars are still evident, pleasing though they may sometimes be. We have the fires to thank for the gorgeous birch glades that exist on the valley slopes, and we have them to thank for lapping up and over the Baldface Range, which would otherwise be wooded. Fire isn't just about death and destruction, it heralds renewal and regrowth. This is what we can take from the eastern wilderness; that our forests are more resilient than we've ever given them credit for.

Our ascent to Perkins Notch Tentsite was fairly mundane, made more interesting by our lack of sleep, crunchy leaves underfoot, and the parting shot of fall color. The old rail grade is wide and has good footing throughout, except where storm damage eroded the tread (near the beginning), and where the river took a section of the grade downstream. The forest on the valley floor is predominantly hardwoods, mixed in with spruce and fir for variety. Maybe due to my lack of sleep, I noticed a lot of stuff I didn't see the last time I was on this trail, including many logging era artifacts, some right on the trail, others hiding in plain sight. We took a nice long break in the sun on river, at the crossing just before the three-way junction of Wild River, Black Angel and Highwater trails.

Alone in the river

The shoulder of Shelburne Moriah from the Wild River

The river was running low (the lowest I've seen it at this crossing), so we crossed and followed the continuation of the rail grade, on to new sections of the trail. I "needed" the sections between Black Angel/Highwater and East Branch Trail, so this would complete the Wild River Trail for me. I very much enjoyed the section out to Eagle Link, as the mixing of forest types became more noticeable, contrasting with the yellows of the beech and birch leaves. The footing continued to be good right up to Eagle Link, where things took a turn for the worse (still decent). It should be noted that we found non-conforming wilderness signage, in two places... at the junctions with Eagle Link and East Branch, the signs all had mileage on them! Out to East Branch Trail and beyond, the rail grade petered out and the trail took on a wilder character, transitioning to mostly spruce fir woods, becoming a bit brushed in, and heralding the appearance of vexing and pervasive mud. Clouds moved in and the temperature started to drop the closer we got to No-Ketchum Pond.

The grade slipped into the river

Hiding in plain sight

Non-conforming signage!

Hitting Perkins Notch Tentsite, we checked out the tentpads, selected one and started our setting up. Of course, just as we got our tents out, it started to rain lightly. I have yet to have decent weather when coming through here, last year it was snow and intense cold in mid-December, so mild temperatures and rain were a change of pace at the very least. I still found myself wishing it was snow.

View up to "Rainbow Ridge"

The rain stopped after we'd gotten situated, so we made ourselves dinner and settled in, passing out not long before the light was out of the sky. Will unfortunately found that he was missing his phone, so the Wild River Wilderness now has an iPhone 5S (and no service). The alarm was set for 5am, as I still had hopes of getting up and across the ridge to the Imp Campsite for the night, just like in the plan. Plans, however, are subject to change.

Thursday 10/16: Perkins Notch Tentsite to Nineteen Mile Brook trailhead

Peak: Carter Dome (4832')

Trails: Wild River Trail, Rainbow Trail, Carter-Moriah Trail, Carter Dome Trail, Nineteen Mile Brook Trail

Mileage/gain: 8.3 miles, 2541' of gain

New redlining miles: 0

Waking to my alarm, I had a bit of trouble rousting Will in the pre-dawn darkness. Fog hung low, and drizzle fell, a most unwelcome way to usher in the day. We ate breakfast, and got to the business of packing up and heading out. Unfortunately we took a lot longer than I expected, not rolling out of camp until almost 7:45. No worries as I was in familiar territory. We quickly reached the junction with Rainbow Trail, which would take us up to Carter Dome. Into the birch glades we climbed, and they were downright eerie in the fog and wind, but beautiful all the same.

The pace slowed significantly, whereupon Will mentioned his right leg, saying it had been bothering him for about a month... something I wish I had known sooner. His knee started locking up on him, every few steps, and our pace slowed even more. The early-ish start was negated, and the drizzle became rain, which intensified as we climbed. Transitioning over to spruce woods, the trail got a bit steeper, but was never terrible. Despite his pain, Will wanted to keep going, so that's what we did. The viewpoints along the way were all socked in with rain of varying degrees, and the summit of Carter Dome was a rock strewn puddle in now heavy rain.

The summit was no place to be, so we left as quick as we came, and dropped down to the Black Angel Trail junction. It was decision time as Will's leg wasn't doing much better with downhills, and any more uphill was out of the question. A long 7.4 miles back to my car (with a crossing of the Wild River), or make a phone call and see if I could arrange an extraction. Will wasn't going to make the longer distance, so the call went out, and Mike answered. Thankfully he was around, and was headed to Gorham that evening, so we arranged to meet at the Nineteen Mile Brook trailhead at 3:30. Gingerly we got going, the rain picking up again.

We stopped to eat just down from Zeta Pass, set up the tarp, and got out of the wet for a bit. A noticeable chill had set in, so we got moving again as quickly as possible. It was definitely a slog down Carter Dome Trail, Will's leg bothered him quite a bit, and we didn't make very good time. I got a text off to Mike from the Nineteen Mile Brook junction at 3:15, should have told him to be later! We did make good time down to the road, making it in just under an hour, where Mike was waiting patiently.

Though wet, we warmed up quickly in the vehicle, and headed north. For their troubles, I bought Will and Mike dinner at the Dynasty Buffet, and there was much rejoicing. Afterwards Mike drove us over to Wild River Road, where the rain fell in sheets, and the river ran fast. It would NOT have been fun to cross the river the next day, a complication in my plan. The hiking in the rain part is fine, though my gear suffered, especially my camera. My camera bag got wet even under the pack cover, because water got in and collected in the bottom of the cover. Some water got under the lens cap, and onto the front element, which then migrated into the lens itself. I must find a better camera carrying solution!

With what I now know, this trip should have been postponed. That said, playing in the rain is a hell of a lot of fun, and with the right gear setup it can be much more pleasurable. In the meantime, here's to sunny days ahead!

Thanks Will for another memorable annual trip, looking forward to executing it better! Thanks also to Mike for bailing us out, it's always good to have friends in upland places.


  1. I can't decide if you guys are plain crazy or just very courageous! Love the pics. Love that Mike can be counted on. And happy to share your trip through your blog and photos. Enjoy the trails.

    1. I think it's a bit of both JoAnne! Thanks very much!