Sunday, July 10, 2011

Take a Hike: A Walk in the Park

Views from summit of Pemetic Mountain
Taking an opportunity here to repost a few samples from the photographs I've been steadily uploading to the "Down East" web-album on Picasa. Also check out two blogs that have been inspirational and helpful to me as far as great hikes in Maine: "Hiking in Maine With Kelley" and "Eric Explores."
 So far I’ve undertaken about a couple dozen hikes, the majority solo, most happening over the past few months, covering maybe just around half of the trails on Mount Desert Island (which total approximately 120 miles). They’ve averaged about 5-7 miles each and usually take five or six hours of the day, and I’ve been systematically working my way westward across the island, moving away from the zones of high congestion towards the relatively unpopulated areas. When things get really insane here in this neck of the woods we've begun to supplement the selection with things "off the menu" - meaning a road-trip up the Coastal Highway (Route 1) and explore for example Quoddy Head State Park, Petit Manan NWR and the Bold Coast (incidentally all my top three ranked hikes to date in the state of Maine).

(More mullings below the fold)
I like getting dropped off first thing in the morning at a trailhead, as besides avoiding rush hour with the inevitable herds hoofing it across Acadia, hitting the ground running at an early hour is a good idea in this neck of the woods, seeing as how nearing any summit will invariably mean exposure over open ground with no shade in sight. Not like I’d ever complain about the phenomenal weather we’ve been having, but the sun can get brutal, and heat exhaustion is a factor, especially when there’s a cool ocean breeze that covers up the medium-rare broil. There seems to be a weather pattern of punctuated equilibrium in that a couple of bright spots will break up the prevailing overcast or light drizzle, alternating in turn with some spectacular thunderstorms.

Oceanside cliffs: Great Head Trail

It’s been a slowly evolving goal to piece together the complex layout of this park and be able to identify by sight and name all the various physical features. What’s helped is surveying the land from up on high, and recognizing all the places I’ve already been, and plot the next journey from there. I hesitate to use the word “summit” as the perspective of an Alaskan entitles some scoffing at the idea that anything around a thousand feet in elevation essentially qualifies as a foothill. Still, aside from being overweight and outta shape, it’s all relative, and technically, you are starting from sea (well, ocean) level.

As someone with years of experience in the backcountry of Alaska, it’s been a process of readjustment to hiking A) trails (as there isn’t really much of those to speak of up North) and B) being submersed in a comparatively urban environment. The latter point is disconcerting when one is rarely out of either earshot or eyesight of some human activity: traffic and construction noises really carry, and it serves as a constant reminder that this place has a symbiotic relationship as a popular tourist destination. As far as noise goes, most noticeable are the roving bands of bikers: the symbolism of Harley-Davidson obviously still means you don’t give a damn what anybody else has to listen to. Then there's the squeals and screams of feral children echoing across the valleys- it’s actually awesome to see parents turning their kids onto nature, getting them unplugged from the digital teat and unleashed outdoors. And just last week my whole opinion of and faith in the human race was redeemed by passing a youngster on the trail, and after I said "Excuse me" and "Thank You" he replied "You're welcome." Might not seem all that much of a big deal, but sometimes it's the little things, and in this case, the little people. I've been in the bush for eight, ten, fourteen days at a stretch without talking to another human being, and those first impressions upon returning to the race can leave an indelible impression. As can random encounters on the trail.

Crabby blogger at low tide

But by no means is this necessarily restricted to kiddy conduct: in today’s society of self-entitled narcissists, sharing the planet can be about as harmonious as sharing the road. Problem is there’s about as much peace and quiet in the woods these days as there is in movie theaters and restaurants. And anyone who doesn’t think we evolved from monkeys has never watched the behavior of packs of humans out in the wild while they think they are unobserved. But for the most part folks are friendly and courteous, and I’ve had far better conversations with random hikers than I would in any supermarket or gas station. Even so, I’d much rather listen to the song of a thrush, or calling loons, or just the wind or the waves, than the same cacophony of voices and noises we are constantly immersed in all day, every day, everywhere we go. That also includes the insane yodel of the Pileated Woodpecker – which by the way, I finally came down on the side of it being pronounced “pile-ee-ated,” as in the Latin root “pileus.” Whatever.

Common Meganser with chicks

The juxtaposition of so many people and so much park-land leads to some curious results. In fact, the very proximity of civilization can lead to a causal indifference to many potential dangers of hiking around, as I’ve already had a handful of encounters with folks out on the trail not only without any maps, but with absolutely no idea where they are, where they are going, or of how far it is back to their car. Visitors are never really in any serious danger of being lost, for long, as one is rarely more than a mile (at most a few in some of the farther outposts) from a road. But being able to jump off into the woods at a moments notice is a false sense of security and makes for some haphazard decisions. It can catch people woefully unprepared, mostly in the form of being under-dressed for conditions (which can change very quickly on the coast), poor footwear and being dehydrated from not carrying any, or not enough, water. My Ranger neighbors constantly recount weekly examples of having to carry victims of these misadventures out of the woods for an unplanned, extended vacation in a hospital.

Otter Point (from Gorham Mountain Trail)

In a related incident, I had recently lost my keys while out on the trail, which I'll also point out with pride has been reduced down from the ridiculous clanking wad of urban armor I used to carry down to two: a truck key and an apartment key. Now when I discovered the empty pocket, one part of me started to immediately panic about the stressful situation, while another part sagely observed that who the hell needs keys anyways way out here in the woods. As it turned out, a family found them and turned them in to the trail crew, one of which happened to be a neighbor of ours, and so 48 hours later I had them back (small world, even in a National Park). 
At least I travel light - unfortunately many folks are so intent on staying connected with the world that they're supposedly taking a break from, they still stay safely ensconced in a technological bubble, like some sort of existential condom for the soul, effectively adding another layer of desensitization and distraction with all their accouterments and gadgets. You can also see this phenomenon with the large contingent of folks who are anesthetized to any exposure to nature and so cut off from where they’re at, that they actually prefer driving through the park with their windows rolled up and the AC on.

Now being in a National Park is weird enough, what with all the regulations and restrictions in place, but as I’ve mentioned before, they are crucial at stemming/shunting the tidal wave of people who would effectively trammel the park out of existence given unfettered access. Many a time I’ve noticed while flying at night across Alaska how the ratio of isolated outposts of people, as represented by solitary pools of light surrounded by the void of darkness, switches around when flying over the Lower 48. On a micro-scale the state of Maine is analogous with its comparatively enormous areas of unpopulated forest and the few pockets of people hugging the coastal communities.
That said, with some planning (aka foreplay with a topo map) and effort, and usually after gaining some altitude, it’s possible to get away from the omnipresent backdrop of civilization. As the tourist season ramps up, the exponential increase in herds out on the trails keeps climbing, there are many off-the-beaten-path and alternative options to explore when the congestion reaches maximum density.  

Porcupine Islands (viewed from summit of Mount Champlain)

There are some herculean trails networked about Mount Desert Island, constructed for the National Park by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. Several times I’ve come across members of the trail crew working on repairs and restoration in the most ridiculous locations – aside from having the ultimate office with a view, these folks are truly laboring under some crazy conditions. Tons of granite are laid in for creating epic, mind-blowing staircases (Mount Doom caliber) with miles of flagstones paving some truly impressive paths. A few even sport iron ladders and rungs sunk into the stone so as to assist a hiker’s progress across some of the more treacherous spots. At times it borders on the truly bizarre lengths that are taken to facilitate a cultivated experience of groomed nature and domesticated tranquility. There are, however, many comparatively primitive trails that require actual dexterity as opposed to sheer gruntwork. And it is a perverse delight at times to just enjoy a simple saunter without having to carve out a way through the woods for once.
I am at times reminded of the perspective I finally accepted in Alaska that just because there is evidence of human impact doesn’t necessarily negate or diminish the quality of the outdoor experience. It’s like maturing enough to see how beautiful a partner is even after the years have taken their toll by maybe adding some weight – you still love what’s inside, underneath the scars.
After being “spoiled” up in Alaska there’s a concurrent sense of enlarged personal space distorted to the degree that coming across another hiker on the trail is viewed as an intrusion (which overlooks the fact that chances are better than good that anyone encountered out there is more than likely somebody who you’d share many common interests with). Hiking for me has long been either a solitary activity or one shared with just a handful of individuals whose company I valued almost as much as being out on the trail.

Eagle Lake (viewed from Connors Nubble)

The alpine trails are at times hide & seek, with intermittent cairns and blue blazes, the trails run as much as possible across exposed bedrock so as to lessen impact from all the Vibram-shod trekkers. It takes a combination of a keen eye and some intuitive guesswork to pick out the path at times, and there’s been a few times this daydreamer has been caught up short after charging off into the brush while losing the way. There’s a metaphor somewhere about Life…
The intermittent blankets of fog are another aspect to consider. Just the other day I was traversing one summit ridge (Pemetic Mountain) and being blown away at the spectacular view of the surrounding features. A couple days later I set out to explore those very same intriguing landmarks (in this case, the Bubbles) and never saw a damn thing due to the heavy fog. It might be counter-intuitive to hike when one can’t actually see anything, but trust me, you can still sense it sight unseen, all around you in the mist. Indeed a subtle side is revealed to the character of a place when experienced in all its manifestations and moods. This is the distinction between pornography versus erotica: one shows all in epic shots of the usual landscape centerfolds and the other is a quieter, unassuming invitation into the mystery and wonder. 

The "Bubble Rock" (perched over an 800' drop)

Can’t recall ever seeing any richer shades of green anywhere else in my life, from South East Alaska to even the Okeefenokee Swamp. The range of blues from deep ocean indigo to aerial pastels sets off a complimentary color scheme that would sorely test any painter’s palette. At least it beats my box of crayons. Yes, even almighty Photoshop cannot compare, much less the feeble attempt at somehow capturing the sweeping immensity and immediacy of some of the scenes I’ve seen with a camera.

The diversity of species is at times bewildering to a newcomer, as of late even the identification of just evergreens has proven to be a challenge: Eastern White Pine, Balsam Fir, Larch, White Spruce and Hemlock. One of my favorite interludes out on the trail always comes from spontaneous infusions of intense cedar, an organic aromatherapy that spreads a balm over any rough edges I’ve picked up after a long week.
Speaking of, we were returning from a short jaunt the other evening at dusk through a deep hemlock grove when we became surrounded by a cacophony of Barred Owls all engaged in call & response. It was a real thrill being triangulated by the hot & heavy hooting.

I’ll close with a great quote from a recent book that documented the experience of hiking these trails in this park over all four seasons in a year with an insightful, personal and contemplative perspective by Steve Perrin in “The Soul of Acadia”:

“Some hike to cover the ground, some like to dis-cover it.”

"Hey I know... let's call this trail Wonderland"

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