In July of 2019, I took a small group of Argonauts from Hudson Valley Hikers up to Maine for a week. This was a real multi-adventure. We spent the first few days in Baxter State Park hiking the Appalachian Trail and climbing Katahdin. Then we took a day off hiking to raft down the Penobscot River. This post discusses the last leg of our trip: a 4 day backpack from Flagstaff Lake to Monson.
The Appalachian Trail from Flagstaff Lake to Monson covers 57 miles and climbs 8,586 feet. The path crosses a few moderate sized mountains, but for the most part it takes a meandering path past pristine lakes and through lush forest. If you’ve backpacked enough times to know how all your gear works, this may be a great section to start off with. It packs plenty of adventure with only moderate effort. (Just don’t go in July, the mosquito are awful!)
Making My Chart
When I plan a big trip, I make a chart with as many way-points as I can. I include all possible campsites, bail-out locations, and a few peaks. Then I add cumulative mileage and elevation gain for each way-point. From that information, I can calculate the cumulative hiking time from the beginning to each way-point using the formula (Miles + Feet/1000) / 2. This allows us 30 minutes for every mile and 30 extra minutes for every 1000 feet of elevation gain.
After I calculate the total hiking hours for the trip, I try to divide that evenly into the number of days we’ll be hiking. If we have a long drive home the last day, I’ll try to make that day a “half day” of hiking.
This hike was the last leg of a week we were spending in Maine. We spent the previous day rafting near Baxter State Park, then drove down to Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson. Monson is the last stop for Northbound hikers before entering the Hundred Mile Wilderness. It is the first major resupply stop for Southbound Hikers coming out of the wilderness. Shaw’s is one of a few hostels in town. The owner, Poet, runs a great gear shop and does a great job shaking down Southbound hikers who suddenly realize their original Walmart gear isn’t going to cut it on the Appalachian Trail.
We had dinner at the Lakeshore House. The Lakeshore House is a “Pub and Hostel” with great dinner and beer selections. They’re right on the lake with plenty of outdoor seating overlooking the water. They even have a few kayaks you can take out while waiting for your food.
After dinner, we went to bed early. We got up the next day and enjoyed Poet’s amazing breakfast of potatoes, eggs, and pancakes. Then we hopped in our pre-arranged shuttle for the drive down to Flagstaff Lake. Now all we had to do was walk 57 miles back to Monson!
Day One: Flagstaff to Pierce Pond
We started our hike at the southern end of Flagstaff Lake. This is where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The NFCT is a 740-mile long canoe trail that stretches from New York’s Adirondack Park across Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Canada. It’s my next big project!
The AT from Flagsaff to Monson passes many pristine lakes, some only accessible by foot. Most of them have official or unofficial campsites on their shores. We were doing this hike in July and it was hot. Daily temperatures reached 95 degrees. It was so nice to jump into these lakes to cool off.
A Well Maintained Trail
The Maine Appalachian Trail has a reputation for being remote and rugged. Some of it certainly is. Most of it is remarkably well maintained. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club boasts some of the best built and maintained bridges and boardwalks that I’ve seen throughout my entire journey on the trail.
Ten miles into our first day, we came to West Carry Pond. East and West Carry Ponds are named for a Revolutionary War expedition led by later traitor Benedict Arnold. His men carried heavy wooden boats across Maine to support an attack against Quebec.
We stopped at West Carry Pond for lunch and we all took a swim. The mosquitoes had been eating us all day, so it was great to get into the water where they couldn’t get at us. A hung my wet boxers from a tree to dry while I ate lunch.
We arrived at Pierce Pond Lean-to in the late afternoon. It would be our campsite for the night. I set up my tent, took another swim, and then had dinner.
I packed my Tarptent Notch so that I could squeeze into smaller tent spots along this route. I’ve had my Notch since 2015 and it is still my favorite tent. It sets up fast and easy and fits almost anywhere. It has just the right amount of space for one person. The generous vestibules store plenty of gear, but are a little tight for cooking. This tent now comes in either Silnylon or Dyneema fabric. The Dyneema version is almost 10 ounces lighter, but twice the price. I find the silnylon fabric is far more durable and it is still my preferred tent fabric.
I was lucky enough to get the very best tent space at Pierce Pond, right next to the water. The lapping water and howling loons made for a fantastic evening symphony all night long. I feel asleep to a gorgeous sunset right over the water.
Day Two: Pierce Pond to Moxie Road
We woke up early the next morning and I made coffee in my tent vestibule (with the door open). Maine in July is hot. Every afternoon we faced temperatures well into the 90’s. It is best to get up early so you can get most of your miles in while its cool.
Kenebec River Ferry
After hiking a few miles, we came to the Kenebec River. Crossing the Kenebec River requires a canoe ferry. The ferry operator explained that while the surface appears placid, there is a fierce undercurrent that could easily overwhelm anyone trying to wade or swim across, especially carrying a big heavy pack.
The canoe ferry is provided free of charge to hikers arriving between 9am and 2pm during summer months. Hours are reduced for spring and fall. Hikers arriving off hours should call ahead to schedule a ride, which must be paid for.
After crossing the Kenebec, we made a short stop at the Caratunk House. The Caratunk House is a Hiker Hostel with a great resupply shop and cafe. Their milk shakes are famous.
From Caratunk, we climbed Pleasant Pond Mountain and enjoyed the fantastic views The rock on this mountain was jagged and uncomfortable to walk on. The day was getting hot and from here we would find ourselves taking frequent breaks before finally arriving in camp at Moxie Road.
Winters are harsh in Maine and vegetation relies on complicated ecosystem to survive. Above 1000 feet in elevation, almost all of the ground is covered with a carpet of reindeer moss. This lichen is actually a combination of algae and fungus living in symbiosis. The algae captures energy from the sun, while the fungus provides a protective layer and maintains the moisture required for the algae to survive. Lichens can survive on rocks and poor soil, but as they grow and die they produce better soil underneath. Larger plants can grow out of this accumulating mat on the ground, which eventually gets thick enough to support trees. You should be cautious not to step off trail or set up your tent on this delicate ecosystem. The living ground takes hundreds of years to develop, but can be killed with a single footstep.
Camping at Moxie Pond
Our second night’s camp was at Moxie Road. There is a small hiker parking lot here, and one of my guide books told me there was a place to camp. It was OK, but too close to the road. It wasn’t a great place to build a fire, which really disappointed Publish, and we could here a dog barking all night.
I took a dip at Moxie Pond to cool off, then we enjoyed dinner on the rocks at the nearby river flowing into the lake. It was nice to soak our feet in the cold water after the long hot day. As usual, the mosquitoes were brutal. Publius started a little fire in his wood stove just next to the water. The smoke helped a little with the bugs.
Day Three: Moxie Road to Horseshoe Canyon Lean-to
We got up early at Moxie Road and skipped breakfast. We wanted to get away from the road and get some miles under our feet before the day heated up. We stopped in about 2 miles at Bald Mountain Brook Lean-to where we refilled water and ate a later breakfast. Having breakfast a few miles into your day could be a good strategy, but it does take up some time.
From there we went up Moxie Bald Mountain, the toughest climb in this section. The trail here is heavily eroded, so you’re walking up rock – sometimes its a scramble. Toward the top there are a lot of bare slabs that cold be slick when wet. Portions of the trail here have been re-routed, and there is also a bad-weather-bipass. It is easy to get lost, as one of our hikers did.
While this mountain was a strenuous climb, it was really the heat that was taking its toll. According to the thermometer at a nearby shelter, it was already 95 degrees well before noon.
From Moxie Bald, we climbed down to Bald Mountain Pond Lean-to where we took another generous break to cool off. From here the trail was actually very easy, mostly following old logging roads. A few of us were making very good speed, but we kept having to stop and wait for one of our friends who was tired and moving slowly. It isn’t all that unselfish to wait for a slow hiker. It gives you a chance to rest and it sure beats walking back a great ways to find them.
Lots of River Crossings
Over the rest of the day we crossed a number of streams and rivers. A few of these required removing shoes. It got a little frustrating after a while to stop and take off shoes and put them back on so frequently. I guess that is better than walking in wet boots and socks.
You must be very careful when wading across rivers. Use your trekking poles to probe the bottom ahead of you. Face slightly up-stream to help fight the current – this also gives you a warning of changing conditions. Unbuckle your pack so you can get out of it more easily in the event of a fall. Tie your shoes carefully to your pack so that you don’t lose them!
Backward on the Moving Sidewalk
The last few miles seemed like going the wrong way on a treadmill. We walked fast, but never seemed to get there. I think we were all just very thirsty. Even though we drank a lot, the heat was exhausting us. When we finally did get to the shelter, it was a steep climb up to the campsite and other steep climb down again to get water.
I don’t have any photos from Horseshoe Canyon Lean-to. I was done at this point.
Day Four: Horseshoe Canyon to Monson
In my mind, Day 4 was going to be really fast. It was only 9 miles and 1500 feet of elevation gain. At this point we had eaten almost all out food and our packs were light. By my math, this should take no more than 5 hours, probably less. However, after 3 days of hiking an average of 15 miles per day, one of our friends was getting tired and slow. So it took a little longer. More time in the woods.
We got back on the trail along the river, and then of course we came to another shoes-off water crossing. This was the last one, I think.
Our last 2 days of this hike we saw a lot of butterflies sunning themselves on rocks and open ground. I assume they recently emerged from their cocoons and needed to dry their wings before they could fly.
About halfway through the day, we arrived at the South Shore of Lake Hebron. This was a bit of a tease. Our destination for the night was actually at the other end of the lake. We felt so close, but we still had about 5 miles to hike to Maine 15.
While we rested at the lake, we noted the behavior of fish swimming in the water. These male Pumpkin Seed Sunnies were clearing nests in the sandy bottom. Male sunfish build and defend their nests. Females then come out of the deeper water to lay their eggs. Each female may lay eggs in more than one nest and more than one female may lay eggs in each nest. Males fertilize the eggs after they have been laid.
After another couple of hours, we arrived at Maine 15. Publius had run ahead. He actually finished the hike, ran all the way to the hostel a couple miles away, took a shower and bought some drinks before coming and getting us with his car. He’s fast, but not fast enough to keep us from getting rained on for about 5 minutes in a heavy down poor.
Our hike was over. We were back where we ended the Hundred Mile Wilderness a year earlier. We packed into Publius’ car, took showers at Shaw’s, and went out for a celebratory dinner.