In May of 2019, I lead a group of backpackers from Hudson Valley Hikers on a trip in Southern Maine. Our plan was to hike from Rangeley to Grafton Notch, some 34 miles over rough mountains. Southern Maine has a reputation for being one of the most rugged sections of the Appalachian Trail. My biggest concern in the weeks leading up to this trip were late season snow conditions. The northeast had seen an unusual amount of snowfall in April and May. Many locals I spoke with warned me that snow in their yards had just recently melted. No one had any information on the trail at high elevations. There are no 4000 footers in this section, so no one had made any trip reports. We were going in blind.
My plan was to cover 34 miles and 10,581 feet of elevation gain in three days. 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.
We met at Grafton Notch Campground on Friday night. I like to get everyone together the night before we start hiking to make sure they are all prepared and well rested. Saturday morning we moved our cars to the Old Spec Trailhead in Grafton Notch State Park and met our driver from Sunday River Stagecoach Shuttles Service. He drove us to Height of Land where we would start hiking.
I’ve used Sunday River Stagecoach before. They are very reliable and flexible. I would highly recommend them for big group shuttles.
On the Trail
Our hike started off with a steep descent from Height of Land down toward Bemis Stream. Bemis Stream is just under a mile from where we started. I don’t know what this stream looks like most of the year, but in late spring it was swollen with snow melt. We took off our shoes to cross. We all arrived safely on the other side and started putting our boots back on. This is when our trouble started. One of our hikers lost a boot. I offered to call the shuttle driver, but he insisted that he could do the hike in his sandals. He’s a tough guy and I wanted to get this section done. I agreed.
Bemis Up Scotty
From Bemis Stream, the trail ascends 1,474 feet up to Bemis Mountain Second Peak over just 2 miles. That would normally be a pretty mellow climb, but with one guy hiking in sandals and several others out-of-shape from a long winter, we had a tough go of it. We huffed and puffed and made it to the top in about 1.5 hours. Ok, not bad. We took in the view, had a snack, and kept moving.
The next mile mile and a half were a level ridge-walk over mountain meadows. These meadows are normally beautiful and full of mountain flowers, but in late spring they were flooded. We were walking through a seasonal alpine bog. In our summer boots. One guy was wearing sandals. Yes, our feet got wet.
After walking through the bogs and flooded trails, we passed the turnoff for Bemis Mountain Shelter and started going up hill. This is where things got interesting. I spent weeks before this hike trying to get reports on snow conditions. I couldn’t find any. Now I had my report first hand: unstable monorail.
Hikers using snow shoes pack down the snow along the trail. By the end of winter, there is a hard pack of icy snow. As the weather warms up and the snow melts, this “monorail” of ice and snow remain. In early spring when the monorail has a good base, it is easy to walk on. Eventually, runoff undermines the base and the monorail becomes “unstable.” Sometimes it will hold you up, and sometimes you break right through it. This makes walking both difficult and wet. If you expect these conditions, waterproof boots, gaiters, and maybe even snow shoes are advised.
We pushed on in our wet boots and socks. One guy was still wearing sandals. We climbed up and over Bemis Mountain, trudging through the snow all the way. The trail going down the south side of Bemis wasn’t so bad. The south side of a mountain gets more sun. It was much dryer. OK, we can do this.
Well, the dry, easy trail didn’t last long. We arrived at the junction for the Bemis Stream Trail at about 3:00 PM. We had traveled just 7.3 miles and had 6.1 to go. This wasn’t working. We had been hiking for 7 hours and only gone 7.3 miles. I could only surmise it would take us another 6 hours to get to our proposed campsite. That didn’t work for me. That got us in at 9PM. We would be srambling down the steep and rocky trail from Old Blue Mountain in the dark. This isn’t the way to start a three day trip.
We hiked a little further to see if the trail would improve. Each time I stopped I had to wait longer and longer for the group to catch up with me. What did I see ahead? Endless unstable monorail.
The number one cause of death in the wilderness is sticking to your plan even though conditions no longer warrant it. You need to hike the trail that exists, not the one that’s in your head. You need to monitor conditions. What’s going on with the weather? What’s going on with the trail? How are my people doing? The trail sucked. Rain was coming. My people were slowing down. One of them didn’t have boots.
There were no known campsites ahead of us. Bemis Mountain Campsite was just 2.5 miles back. That had to be our destination. I got everyone together and told them we were turning around. They agreed.
Everyone was a little sad, but they realized it was the right decision. We found a comfortable place to have a snack and sat for a while in the sunlight. Snacks and sunlight cheer everybody up. I had some cell service, so I messaged Sunday River Stagecoach and asked if they could pick us up at Bemis Mountain Road the next morning. They agreed.
It took us two hours to backtrack the 2.5 miles to Bemis Mountain Shelter. That really helped justify for me that we were just moving too slowly to complete this trip as planned. We arrived at the shelter, set up our tents, and had dinner.
Rain was coming and everyone was planning on turning in early, but I insisted on gathering some wood and building a small fire. On top of helping you get warm and dry, fires cheer people up. Fires can be really difficult to get started in wet conditions, but that’s when it is most essential. You should practice this skill often. I think my number one advice for anyone interested in back-country travel is to learn to build a fire in the damp.
It rained heavily most of the night, but stopped by morning. By the time we had breakfast, weather was improving. The sun came out and everyone was in a good mood. We only had to hike 3.6 miles to our extraction point at Bemis Road. Our shuttle was coming at 11, so I let everyone have a fairly late morning in camp. We were on the trail by 8 AM. As the day wore on, the sun got brighter, the air got warmer, and the ground got drier. We were happy again.
We hiked fast that morning and arrived at our pickup point at around 10AM. We spent the time eating snacks, stretching, and joking around. Our bootless hiker showed us his feet. A few patches of frostbite. I was glad to be going home. The shuttle arrived and drove us back to our cars. We all went out for dinner and beer. Everyone was safe and mostly healthy. In my mind, that’s far more important than completing a trip as planned.