AT 2017: Day 164, ME Highway 27 (Stratton) to Safford Notch Campsite

Maybe when my turn comes I will have guessed

Narrow view of the mountains ahear

I’ve often heard that southern Maine is at least as difficult to hike as the White Mountains. The hiking doesn’t get easier until you cross a mountain range called the Bigelows.

I’m beginning to think this section is difficult in the same sense as the Smoky Mountains are difficult. In my mind, it’s not so much the terrain that is difficult. The trail is difficult when the terrain and bad weather combine to make it difficult.

Don’t misunderstand. Hiking in Maine isn’t easy. The Whites and the Smokies aren’t either. It’s my conviction, though, that they aren’t nearly as difficult in good weather as they are in bad weather. Weather determines your outlook of the trail and the degree of difficulty.

DateThursday, September 21, 2017
WeatherMostly sunny, with a high temperature in the mid 70s
Trail ConditionsMany rocks and roots
Today's Miles10.4
Trip Miles1992.8

I had thought of the Smokies in this way for a long time, but until now hadn’t made the same connection with the Whites and Maine. I must have just assumed they were challenging in their own right because that is what I was told.

I’ve now been hiking in Maine for nearly two weeks. The weather has been nearly perfect every day. Yes, the trail is difficult, but my feelings about the difficulty have been swayed by the weather. They trail doesn’t seem as difficult as I expected.

Hiker bear carvings at Stratton Motel

When it was time to leave Stratton Motel this morning, we waited outside next to three large, funky carvings of hiking bears.

Our driver was late. We hoped to leave at 7:30 for the short ride to the trail, but it wasn’t until 8:15 before we were back on the trail.

Leaves on a stream bed

Near the highway, the trail crossed a mostly-dry stream bed. Red maple leaves littered the rocks. The autumnal equinox is tomorrow, but this was a sign we were now full-on into autumn.

Footbridge on Stratton Brook

The weather today was once again wonderful, just as it had been every day since we entered Maine.

After a mile, the trail crossed a bridge on Stratton Brook. The bridge was named to honor Dick Brown, who was a valued member of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club until his death in 1998.

Beaver bog near Stratton, Maine

The trail remained mostly flat for the next mile, then began a modest climb. Along the way it passed a large beaver bog.

A crack in the rock on the Appalachian Trail

The character of the trail soon changed. The ascent became steeper, with giant boulders on the side of the trail, and in one case in the path of the trail.

First view of The Horns

The trail was heading to a pair of peaks called The Horns. I got an early look at them from a clearing on a knob a little more than a mile away.

View of The Horns and Horn Pond

After going over another knob, a closer view of The Horns revealed that a large pond was located at its base. The pond, also called a tarn, was formed thousands of years ago by a receding glacier.

The trail continued down to the pond, where there was a shelter next to the trail. It was identified as a “day use” shelter, probably to discourage camping there because it was so close to the water. It wasn’t in very good condition, so most hikers wouldn’t want to sleep here anyway.

Tengo Hambre filters water

We stopped at the shelter to eat lunch and filter water.

The trail then began a climb up the south peak of The Horn. Though the peaks are only a little more than 2,000 feet in elevation, they look impressive because they stand alone.

View of the Bigelows from South Horn Peak

The top of the peak provided more gorgeous views. This was the beginning of the Bigelow Range, and I could see the entire ridge of mountains from here.

Looking back to Horn Pond

Looking back to the direction I just walked, I could see the pond where we stopped for lunch and mountains we had crossed yesterday and today.

Canada Jay in a tree

As I followed the trail down from the peak, I passed a Canada Jay. I’ve walked past countless birds on the trail, but this one was notable. Even as I walked closer, it held its spot on a tree limb, fearlessly staring at me as I walked by.

This species is known for that, and because of this fearlessness they can be a pest in campsites. I suspect it knew I was carrying food, but I didn’t offer any to it.

Looking back from the ascent of West Bigelow

Continuing across the Bigelow ridge, when the trail began to rise above the treeline I looked backwards nearly as frequently as I looked forward. Impressive views were in all directions. Maine was putting on a mesmerizing show.

View of Flagstaff Lake from West Bigelow

Nearing the top of Bigelow West Peak, Flagstaff Lake came into view. Its name comes from an interesting incident of the American Revolutionary War.

As the story goes, troops stopped to rest at the lake's shore in 1775 during their march to attack Quebec. Their commander, Benedict Arnold, ordered a flagstaff erected on the shore.

The flag they raised there wasn’t the red, white and blue Star-Spangled Banner flag we’re familiar with today, and probably wasn't the Grand Union Flag, which was adopted in late 1775. Most likely, it was a Washington Cruisers Flag, also known as a Liberty Tree flag.

Flagstaff Lake is one of the largest lakes in Maine, but in Arnold’s day that wasn’t the case. It was a small, natural lake until 1950 when a dam was constructed on the Dead River. Electric power isn’t generated at the dam, but it is used to help regulate water flow to hydo-electric dams downstream.

The Bigelows are named for one of Benedict Arnold’s officers, Major Timothy Bigelow, who climbed these mountains in 1775 to scout the terrain ahead as the soldiers made their way north to Quebec.

View ahead from West Bigelow

From Bigelow West Peak I was also able to see where the trail would lead me in the next few days. One thing that caught my attention from this view was there weren't a lot of tall mountains ahead.

It seemed what I had heard about the Bigelows was right, the trail gets easier after this. I'll find out soon enough if that's true.

View of Little Bigelow Mountain from Avery Peak

I still had one more peak to go over today, and that was Avery Peak. From here I could see the rest of the Bigelow Range, including the ledges at Little Bigelow. I’ll be walking over that tomorrow.

Setting sun over the Bigelows

The time was getting late, now 5:15 p.m., but I lingered at the top of Avery Peak. Though the sun was sinking in the west, I didn’t want to leave. The views were so spectacular I wanted to make sure I would never forget them.

Another reason this summit was special was because it was named for Myron Avery, who was instrumental in taking Benton MacKaye’s vision for the Appalachian Trail and making it a reality.

The sunlight was fading as I left the summit, so I tried to move quickly.

That didn’t turn out to be possible, though, because the trail was rugged. During this slow descent I was losing time, but I had to stop anyway. I began to feel a little dizzy, so I stopped to eat a Snickers bar. Later, I had to stop again to put on my headlamp.

I knew to get to the campsite where Tengo, Stick and I planned to stop for the night, I had to make a turn at a side trail. The trail junction was located at Safford Notch, a gap between Avery Peak and Little Bigelow Mountain. Even with my headlamp, I had some trouble navigating down to the notch and finding the junction.

I failed to see any signs posted for the side trail and didn’t see the junction. Instinctively, though, I correctly turned and followed what turned out to be the side trail to the campsite. I wasn’t convinced I was headed in the right direction, but it seemed right. After stopping to check my location on the Guthooks app, I was able to confirm I was headed in the right direction.

Then I came to what appeared to be a dead end. In the dim light it looked as though the trail was blocked by boulders the size of small houses. The app had convinced me I was heading in the right direction, so I continued forward to the boulders. After scanning around with my headlamp I discovered a small opening between the boulders, which was where the trail went through.

When I finally arrived at the campsite at 8 p.m. I didn’t look for where Tengo and Stick were camped. I just looked for the first flat spot I could find and pitched my tent.

This had been a full and eventful day, and one of the most memorable of my hike so far.

Like him I'm tired of trying to heal
This tom-cat heart with which I'm blessed
Is destruction loving's twin
Must I choose to lose or win
Maybe when my turn comes I will have guessed


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.