Thursday, June 18, 2015

(Pre) Summer Solstice and the Bigelow Range

" It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we have everything before us, we had nothing before us, were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."- Charles Dickens 
Ok, so maybe my choice of quotes for this adventure is a little dramatic. While that is likely true, it carries some truth in describing our weekend adventure: conquering the Bigelow Range. The Bigelows are literally steps from our front door and I have had my eye on conquering the range for nearly 20 years. Turns out, you don't conquer these mountains. If you are lucky, you are granted permission to pass. While I have had aspirations of taking on the entire ridgeline in one outing for a long time it has proven to be my kryptonite. My first attempt was about 20 years ago... 

Sometime around 1995, my then-boyfriend Jeff and I set out to go the distance. We hiked up Little Bigelow and set up camp somewhere around mile 8. The verdict: too much stuff. Despite my brother having completed the length of the Appalachian Trail that same year, we were relatively inexperienced in the ways of long distance hiking. We packed it all. We had all of the camp chairs, deluxe sleeping pads, kitchen gadgets, lanterns and a water filtration system that we would need to survive the apocalypse in our poorly-fitting backpacks. Needless to say, foot-care was not on the extravagant packing list and the result was a mission aborted after the first morning of sliding leather boots over badly blistered feet. 
One of the first views as seen from Little Bigelow. Flagstaff Lake in the distance.

Flash forward about 15 years, a time period in which I gained some pretty significant experience in long distance hiking and trail running. My husband Dave and I set out for a 24-hour assault on the same ridge line. We had lightweight tents and supplies for an overnight, but aspired to start the trek early in the morning and finish late into the evening of that same day. After the first few hours brought an onslaught of bugs, the rain took over in torrential form. Buckets of water cascaded from the sky and flowed down the trail like waterfalls. By the time we reached the Safford Brook Trail, our spirits were as soggy as our feet. On the summit of Avery Peak, our escape plan down the blue-blazed Firewarden's Trail was hatched, and we had our thumbs out on the highway by dusk. Mission aborted.

This would be my third attempt to traverse the 5-peak range of mountains that make up the Bigelows. Having now competed in several adventure races and multi-day events, I proposed this adventure to Dave with a new twist. We would spend an overnight on the ridge, but not in tents. Instead, we would begin our ascent in time to catch sunset on the first summit and then continue along the ridge in the dark of night to reach the trailhead in Stratton before daylight. We would then jump in a canoe and paddle the return 16 miles by lake and catch the sunrise. While this may seem like an unusual plan, if you have ever hiked at night, you understand how keen the senses are in the darkness and a world only rarely seen is revealed. So, we left the tents at home and packed our bug jackets and only the emergency supplies we would need to complete the trek in a single effort. 

Stanely and I taking it in from the top of Little Bigelow. At this point, Stanley was going 2-3 miles to our every one. He would continue to do this for at least 10 miles of the journey.

We began the hike around 5 pm and enjoyed a beautiful evening hike up into the thinner air of Little Bigelow. On our way up, we encountered the only three people we would see for the entire journey. We munched on fresh cookies and beef jerky that I picked up from the local gas station and chatted about things to do, the summer ahead, and life. We reached the summit well before sunset and decided to continue on and enjoy the golden evening sunlight as we made our way toward Avery Peak, hoping to catch the final colors of sunset. 
The golden sunlight through the trees was surreal. One day, I'll get a camera that can capture how beautiful the light was.
In usual Koenig fashion, we misjudged the timing of the sunset and found ourselves climbing to Avery Peak as twilight approached. First civil twilight, then nautical twilight, and finally astronomical twilight approached as we reached the final steps of the climb. We enjoyed two or three minutes of the final colors of the day on the horizon before the complete blackness of night set in. We pulled out our headlamps and cracked open a couple of glowsticks that I attached to Stanley's collar in fear that he might wander too close to some of the insidious drop offs along the ridge line. From here forward, we would call him "disco dog" as he bounded through the night air.

Summit selfie. I appear to be really excited to be on the Summit of Avery Peak.
My best Marilyn Monroe imitation as the wind gusts grabbed my skirt on Avery. 

We made our way down off of the summit of Avery Peak in what was now complete darkness. Here was where I learned my first lesson of the night. As it turns out, dogs can't see in the dark. At least mine can't. In an attempt to hijack some of the light put off from my headlamp, Stanley now stuck so closely to me that I nearly tripped over him. When he wasn't in front of me, he was beside me squeezing me off of the side of the footpath.

We descended down past the Avery Col campsite and passed a few tents of sleeping hikers. In an odd twist, one of these hikers was our friend Waylon who we later learned had hiked up a blue-blaze trail with his dog to catch the sunset on Avery Peak. Unlike us, he would capture the breathtaking summer sunset on film from West Peak.

Sunset from West Peak, with North and South Horn in the distance. Photo Waylon Wolfe Photography.
West Peak came and went quickly (it is only a mile from Avery), and we continued on along the ridge line to South Horn. During this stretch of trail, we noticed that severe erosion had taken its toll on the trial. In an attempt to keep our feet (mostly) dry, we rock-and-root-hopped for much of the next 3 miles of trail. We were quite surprised to see that for much of this stretch of trail erosion had worked the trail down 12-14 inches below the earth's surface, making passage slower than anticipated. By the time we made it to the fourth summit, South Horn, the early-morning hours were upon us. It was here that we were first able to glimpse the glorious spectacle of constellations, planets and satellites shimmering in the sky. The panoramic view of the night sky felt like we were in a planetarium gazing at the worlds beyond us. We paused on the summit to enjoy the serenity of night, the stiff and cool breeze made us shiver as if to remind us that we were alive.

We descended another rocky outcrop of boulders and roots toward Horns Pond. Stanley and I had created a system where I would climb down over a few boulders and turn the light backwards to illuminate a path for him to follow. He seemed content with the arrangement and we continued on in silence through the night. I was grateful that he no longer insisted on deflecting me into the trees that lined the trail. We passed the Horns Pond campsite in the dead of night, knowing that this would be the last possibility of encountering other humans on our adventure.

Feeling a little blurry at South Horn. Good thing my Spandits! still look good.

It was at this point that conditions began to deteoriorate. What started out as occasional blowdowns from the winter storms quickly turned into a tangled mess of debris obscuring the trail completely. Downed giant hemlocks with thousands of branches tangled in several smaller trees made forward progress nearly impossible. Dozens of times we found ourselves searching the night air with our headlamps looking for a blaze, broken branches or any evidence of human passage. This would continue for the next three miles of trail. It appeared as though a tornado had ravaged the forest and no one had passed through since, although we knew the damage was the result of storms from the previous November. Our pace slowed to a crawl.

A typical section of "trail" from Horns Pond to Cranberry Pond.

While the terrain was difficult for us, it took the biggest toll on Stanley. He convinced me to give him $10 of jerky and we continued on, climbing around and (mostly) over debris for miles before coming to a section of trail that had been cleared by a trail crew. I desperately wanted to know who had cleared the trail so that I could express my gratitude.

While I normally find Cranberry Pond to be one of the most scenic portions of the trail, in the darkness it came and went without much notice. The ascent up the backside of Cranberry Peak was also surprisingly washed out, rendering the trail nearly unrecognizable as the trail I have come to know. It was now nearly 3 am; the dog began searching for a mossy bed pleading with us for sleep. Fortunately, his loyalty drove him to follow along despite his better judgement. Dave and I also shared his disinterest in hiking at that point... until we reached the clearing of the summit of the final peak of the journey. The view from Cranberry Peak was another breathtaking display of all that summer in the mountains has to offer. The stars were spectacular and the air clean and cool. We celebrated with a summit snack (most of which the dog also scammed) and photo opportunity before beginning the final descent.
Getting loopy on the summit of Cranberry Peak.

While hours of 3am to 4am are usually the most difficult for me, they are also my favorite hours of the day. As we descended the Cranberry Peak trail, the chirps of tree frogs and the metallic songs of birds announced morning's imminent arrival. As we descended, I felt keenly aware of how the darkness heightens the senses and awareness of one's place in nature. In between the twisted ankles, barked shins, and superman-style clumsy wipeouts that sent me cascading several feet off of the trail, I felt increasingly grateful for the opportunity to be present in this place. How lucky am I to have the privilege to live somewhere that has not been conquered by humans? How lucky to be free to explore, to be, in this moment?

As we made our way to the car parked at the trailhead, the first few hints of morning light began to illuminate the distant sky in a deep hue of blue. As it would turn out, we would never have the chance to watch the sun rise over the waters of Flagstaff Lake. What I though would be a quick detour at home for a cup of coffee turned out to be a snooze fest for both Dave and Stanley, ultimately ending our adventure a little prematurely. I am OK with what we accomplished; Dave and Stanley were great sports to come along with me as long as they did. The Bigelow Adventure, however, continues to elude me. I am pleased to say that I did not conquer this mountain range, nor do I intend to aim to conquer it again, for conquests such as that are just an illusion anyway. I only hope that I will be presented with the opportunity to experience the range in its entirety and perhaps watch the sunrise over Flagstaff's waters someday.

Until then...Maybe next year?

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