Day 2: Completely different

Katahdin Stream Campground to Rainbow Lake – 17 miles

It is clear already that hiking in the Appalachians is very different than any hiking I’ve done before.

Other than the mechanics of putting one foot in front of the other, very little is the same. Rather than the gentle, easy stride of a well-graded trail, the Appalachian Trail has me squelching through muddy bogs, balancing over slick granite slabs, and tip-toeing through tangles of roots so steep they feel more like kicking up a boot pack on a Cascade volcano. Precisely when you think ‘this can’t possibly be right’ because you are about to dangle by a tree branch or mantle onto a ledge, you see a white blaze ahead marking the route.

When I learned to build trails with Student Conservation Association, we were taught to cut gentle switchbacks to minimize erosion over time. The AT was clearly constructed with a different philosophy in mind because it consistently violates every trail building mantra I know. Most importantly, to keep the water off the trail and keep the trail out of the water.

At first I thought Maine trailbuilders to be extraordinarily lazy. Then I learned that in constructing the AT, folks simply linked together existing fire lookout trails. This explains the seemingly pointless ups and downs; fire patrollers wanted the most direct route to the top of every major peak. After a while, this aggressive style of hiking became tradition and a point of pride.

There is often no defined trail tread, just a narrow patch of dirt stomped down by many sets of feet passing over it. Sometimes the understory is so overgrown it’s hard to find the path. I now understand those stories of hikers getting lost in the woods after stepping off the trail to pee. Thankfully, there are white blazes painted on the trees every few feet. From home, I thought this marking method was excessive, and now I understand it’s necessary.

With so many obstacles on this trail, you have to have a sense of humor or you won’t last. When I told a northbounder named Coyote about our climb on Katahdin she said, “sounds like you’ve experienced a bit of everything this trail has to offer. Welcome to the AT.”

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