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I am an avid hiker. I also like to think that I am a fairly experienced hiker, although that particular conceit on my part was rather strenuously put to the test last weekend.
I convinced my friend, who is an enthusiastic newbie to the world of hiking, to join me in a hike in the western part of the state. She loves waterfalls and I found a hike to the top of a waterfall that looked just about our speed. I went to the chamber of commerce site of the town it started in and read their official description of the hike written by their resident expert on these things. He said it was a beautiful, moderate half hour hike that connected with the Appalachian Trail and was well worth it. It sounded perfect. We drove to the trail head and started out, all optimism and excitement despite the 87 degree heat. What did we care if it was hotter than satan's kitchen? We were hikers, gosh darn it, and we were going into the woods!
We were not on the trail long before we realized that the expert's definition of 'moderate' and ours might be somewhat different. The trail, which was barely a trail at all, was a narrow, steep, overgrown, unkempt pathway, the floor of which was covered with giant, tangled roots that looked like something you might see in a horror movie. The woods were ridiculously thick, so much so that we could hardly see the sky. It followed a river, which made sense given that we were going to a waterfall, but it climbed above the water and wove perilously close to the edge of a lot of sheer, wet cliffs of solid slate and granite. About 10 minutes into the hike we came across a wooden cross above a dangerous slope stuck in the ground with a name and a date in 2010 carved into it. We stopped.
“Adele.” asked my friend. “What is this?”
“Well,” I replied cautiously, “Sadly, it looks like someone died here.”
“No kidding,” she sneered. “You didn't say anything about anyone dying on this trail.”
“Neither did the chamber of commerce,” I pointed out.
We moved on, with a substantial amount of increased caution. The trail became even more intense. We had to hang on to trees to get around extremely narrow sections, clamber up roots, over and under fallen trees, and through mud holes of black goo. We stopped for a drink to access our progress. My friend pointed out that there were no markings on the trail, no brightly colored flags tied on branches or blaze marks painted on trees and there were numerous things that looked like trails branching in all directions. I told her that the expert hiker had told us to look for the white blaze that is the hallmark of the AT from Georgia to Katahdin.
“Oh, no problem then,” she said. “Of course, if we get on the wrong trail and never see the famous blaze it could be a problem.” She didn't seem very happy.
I told her that we would be fine if we just kept the river on our right and more or less in sight. This seemed like a good plan to me. I didn't mention that the woods were so thick that it was tough seeing 2 feet into them, much less down to a river. We really couldn't even listen for the sound of water since it had been so dry that the river was meandering lazily rather than moving with enough energy to make any noise. I didn't want to make the situation any more of a downer.
Finally, through more dumb luck than wilderness skill, we found what we thought was the white blaze on a birch tree. Unfortunately, birch trees are sometimes covered with things that look like white blazes so we couldn't be sure until we got up really close and my friend scraped off some of the paint with her thumbnail. We were losing confidence fast and kind of paranoid.
After a full hour and 15 minutes of climbing, scrambling, sweating, and occasionally bleeding, we made it to the falls. They were beautiful – we were not. We were red in the face from heat and exertion, bleeding from scratches, and drenched in so much sweat that our clothing was soaking wet. We took off our hiking boots, soaked our hot, swollen feet in the icy water above the falls, and wished we didn't have to go back down. Down is always harder than up in any climb as anyone knows who has ever done it, especially on a brutal trail. Your body, particularly your knees, take a serious beating. This climb down was absolutely torturous. We got lost 3 times and nearly fell twice. By the time we made it to our car we were exhausted and in pain, but we never wimped out and never thought about aborting the mission, so we were pretty proud of ourselves.
The next day I was stiff and sore but still went out for another hike. A ridiculously easy one of course. I went online to read other reports of this particular trail and discovered that the 'expert' was the only person alive who said that it was not a difficult hike. Every other description I read said that it was physically difficult, dangerous, rather brutal, and prone to getting people lost. One guy felt that we should all remember that the 281 miles of the AT that go through Maine are considered the most remote and the most difficult of the entire trail and the 100 mile wilderness section is the worst section of them all. Yippee.
I learned something in all this. Read more than one description of any trail before you attempt it. Also, be cautious in accepting the accuracy of anything the chamber of commerce tells you.
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