Guideless in the Backcountry: First-Time Hikers

When I started travelling in the backcountry I was fortunate to have my uncle, the original Suburban Mountaineer, be my mentor when I was only eleven.  Having a mentor like my uncle was an advantage because of all the trails he’d covered and his talent for sharing lessons like I was a buddy rather than a nephew. 

As I have noticed from ads at the local outfitter around here in Peaklessburg, a lot of people new to hiking learn how to be prepared for a day hike or an overnight trip through instruction at an Eastern Mountain Sports, REI or Erehwon, for example.  Despite the way I learned, a lot of people don’t just go hiking.  They prepare — as they ought to. 

While we all need to know the Ten Essentials, how to navigate, how to tend to blisters, and how to keep our food and ourselves safe, which can be taught in the classroom, getting the feel of a hike — especially a long one — can only be gained truly by experience.  I always recommend new hikers read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.  His thoughts and reactions of the trail are true.  I also recommend Jeff Alt’s A Walk for Sunshine.  Both are about hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Regardless of whether a new hiker plans to do a through hike, the lessons and experiences from a long hike can be analogous to our shorter hikes. 

Author and Thru-Hiker Jeff Alt has done a number of slide shows, particularly in Shenandoah National Park, where he shares pictures and his stories from his hike. He has also come out with a DVD of the slide shows, A Walk for Sunshine Appalachian Trail Show.  It is definitely something I would have enjoyed watching when I was just getting into hiking; maybe I would have shared something with my uncle. 

Well, thanks again for visiting.  If you enjoyed this post, please consider becoming a fan of the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or following me through Twitter (@SuburbanMtnr).

Mount Katahdin

It has been a long, good journey, which is why I have not posted a new article in over a week.  I just completed a 2,000-plus-mile road trip in our new Subaru Outback, covering some of the Maritime Provinces and all of the New England states.  On the drive up north from Peaklessburg, I took in Mount Katahdin for the first time.

Before I go on, I must confess that I once underestimated this mountain.  Katahdin is Maine’s highest peak in Baxter State Park (an hour-and-a-half drive from Bangor, Maine) with an elevation of 5,267 feet / 1,605 meters and is the final destination of thru hikers of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). Unfortunately, based on the photos I’d seen years ago, stories from Adirondack hikers I met, and the fact that Katahdin rises as mainly the sole mountain massif from what I once considered a dull, featureless forest made the peak completely uninteresting to me.  I was wrong to make such judgments.

In terms of the AT, Katahdin’s mountain features overtake all other peaks on the Appalachian Trail south of Presidential Range.  For instance, Clingmans Dome, a tree covered peak in the Smoky Mountains, is gently rounded; in fact, an auto route was constructed to its summit, like that on massive Mount Washington.  Katahdin by contrast, is like a miniature version of Mount Logan in the Yukon Territory.  Okay, that might be a big stretch.  Katahdin is not covered in glaciers and snow year-round.  However, both stand alone on plains and rise and stretch at length rather than a beautiful conical peak.  On Katahdin, the peak ascends through a combination of moderately sloped arms alongside deep cirques created by former glaciers.  In addition, the forests of northern Maine are beautiful too, and I would think crossing such country without a maintained trail would be a challenge in its own right.

While the AT route takes thru hikers up the Hunt Trail straight to the summit, the most spectacular path on the mountain is the Knife Edge Trail, which links Katahdin’s South Peak (5241 feet / 1,597 meters) and Pamola Peak (4,902 feet / 1,494 meters).  A local told me that the trail was so narrow on either side at times that it had to be straddled with one leg on each side.  Truth be told, it is not that narrow.  However, when the south flank of the mountain is on one side and the South Basin (with a drop of approximately 2,000 feet over half-a-mile) on the northern side is separated by a mere several feet (two or three at parts), the route is extremely dangerous and should be attempted only in relatively calm winds and dry weather.  There are alternatives to getting around this trail by heading north from South Summit instead and taking the Saddle Trail.

Now back in Peaklessburg I can say that Katahdin is well worth the visit – not for settling for lower standards or because it is the terminus of the AT or because I have been in the city too long.  Katahdin stands as one of the northeast’s formidable mountains in its own right.  If you have climbed its summit I would love to hear your story, so please leave a comment or email me.

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