The sun was high in the sky when I left civilization behind and walked into the woods at the foot of Bigelow Mountain for my first night alone in the wilderness. Any small doubts I originally had about the trip were swept away when I reached the beat-up, wooden sign marking the Fire Warden’s Trail — a footpath I’d traced on maps many times. To me, the sign was a small victory, one for which I had waited several years.
Even before I set eyes on the 4,000-foot Bigelow Mountain, I’d read about it in guide books. In March 2012, my determination to hike the mountain was fortified when I saw it from the snowy shore of Flagstaff Lake. The jagged mountain range rose above the frozen lake, deep blue and seemingly immense. I imagined myself standing on the ridgeline, looking down at the lake.
But life got in the way, and it was two years before I reached the long-awaited trailhead to the Fire Warden’s Trail and began the climb.
The route I chose totalled 12.5 miles, which an experienced and physically fit hiker could tackle in a day. Yet many hikers split the journey up into at least two days, staying overnight at one of several free campsites along the way. That’s what I planned to do. I didn’t want to be overly ambitious or optimistic about my pace.
Before driving to Stratton, I reported to my mother and boyfriend my plans and when to expect me back — an important practice for any hiker, but especially a solo hiker. If you get injured or lost, people need to know where to look for you. (This lesson is driven home in the book “Between a Rock and Hard Place” by Aron Ralston, a true story about a mountain climber who becomes trapped under a boulder while canyoneering alone in Utah.)
In my Osprey Ariel 65 backpack, I packed all the necessities — insect repellent, trail snacks, a first aid kit, two headlamps, a lightweight MSR Hubba Hubba tent, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a light jacket, an extra camera battery, a fully charged cell phone and six bottles of water (which accounted for much of the pack’s weight). With a Thermarest sleeping pad fastened to the outside of the pack, I was all set for a night in the woods.
The weight of the pack, distributed between my shoulders and hips, nearly knocked me off balance as I crossed bog bridges, rock-hopped over brooks and climbed granite steps on my way up the increasingly steep Fire Warden’s Trail on July 22, a sunny day with temperatures in the mid 80s.
I was soon sweating through my T-shirt. My legs muscles burned. The difference between my usual day pack and the overnight pack became clear. The weight was slowing me down.
A rustle of leaves drew my attention trailside, where I knelt to find a toad. From that point on, to distract myself from the strain of hiking, I counted toads. By the end of the hike, the total was 14.
The last mile of the one-mile trail was the steepest. It was while climbing that section that I resorted to counting my steps, a trick I learned from my mother, who is likewise a stubborn hiker. I counted 50 steps, then stopped for 10 deep breaths; 50 steps, 10 breaths. Onward and upward. At one point, I wrung sweat out of the bottom of my shirt.
The Fire Warden’s Trail ends where it intersects the Appalachian Trail at Bigelow Col, a forested dip in the ridge between the mountain’s West Peak and Avery Peak. It was there that I found the Avery Memorial Campsite, a group of wooden tent platforms for hikers to use for free. A hand-drawn map posted on the caretaker building showed me that the campsite also had a privy and three nearby water sources.
Noisy crows wheeled overhead. I was the only one at the campsite and felt very much alone, so I dropped my heavy pack and hiked 0.4 mile to the nearby Avery Peak, where I looked out at the mountains of western Maine, identifying Sugarloaf Mountain by the ski trails that scar its face, as well as the sprawling 20,000-acre Flagstaff Lake, the state’s largest manmade lake. At the peak, I met up with four hikers and two dogs. Their company for just a few minutes made all the difference.
Back at the campsite, I set up my tent on a platform and ate a questionable supper: cheese-filled crackers, chocolate chip cookies and water. I had rushed when it came to packing food. But in the woods, almost anything tastes good. I had plenty of trail mix and protein bars to keep up my energy, and that gave me peace of mind.
After eating and changing into clean clothes, I returned to Avery Peak. From 4,088 feet above sea level, I watched the sun sink and morph from golden to a deep red that bled into the clouds and the waters of Flagstaff Lake. A strong, warm wind picked up as I sat on the old stone foundations of the fire tower near the peak. With a hood sheltering my ears from the howling wind, I waited until the red orb disappeared behind the dark green hills.
Back in the tent, shielded from the black flies, I balled up my jacket and other odds and ends that would serve as a pillow for the night. With my headlamp set to dim, I wiggled into my sleeping bag with “The Red Badge of Courage” (the smallest book I had been able to find on my bookshelf).
As I read about the Civil War, music cut through the silence. Someone camping at a tent platform nearby had some sort of stringed instrument. I smiled, feeling more at home, and fell asleep to a stranger quietly singing Jack Johnson.
I blame my crappy makeshift pillow for my intermittent slumber. Never again will I tent out without a proper pillow. Every time I woke up that night, I simply stared at the winking stars overhead and listened to a critter that was relentlessly gnawing on the trees around me (or that’s what it sounded like). I prayed that whatever it was, it wouldn’t find my tent appealing.
At 6:30 a.m., I crept past three other solo tents (including the musician’s) and headed south on the A.T., traveling more than 2 miles along the ridge through a mossy forest of stunted evergreens. Along the way, I passed four hikers headed in the opposite direction. They had camped at Horns Pond Lean-tos.
Walking through a thick fog, I summited West Peak (4,145 feet above sea level), where I struggled against an alarming wind that nearly knocked me sideways. I carefully descended from the peak and continued to South Horn (3,831 feet), where I met two more hikers — middle-aged men who were disappointed about the fog blocking what would have been a wonderful view.
Somehow, I found the energy to take a 0.2-mile side trail to North Horn (3,820), where the sun broke through the fog and revealed the hilly, green terrain below, as well as the nearby Horns Pond, my next destination.
Continuing south on the A.T., I descended to Horns Pond Lean-tos, which by late morning was empty. Sitting at the edge of the pond, I admired the yellow pond lilies and ate trail mix.
Descending the mountain on Horns Pond Trail, I came across a middle-aged woman hiking alone. Her brother-in-law would be joining her soon, she said. He had taken a detour to check out Cranberry Pond. She was from North Carolina and had come to Maine simply to hike Bigelow with her family. Though her pace was slower than mine, I enjoyed her company and stuck with her for about a mile.
Soon after the intersection of the Horns Pond Trail and Fire Warden’s Trail, we parted ways. I sped down the trail, my mind on the pizza I’d no doubt find in Kingfield. At the parking lot, I jumped in my Subaru, escaping a swarm of deer flies that had zeroed in on me during the final leg of the 12.5-mile hike. Covered in sweat, bug repellent and dirt, I drove out of the wilderness.
At a nearby convenience store, where I successfully located two slices of pepperoni pizza, I sent my mom and boyfriend a text reporting I was safely out of the woods, unscathed, tired but with a bit more self-confidence.
As it turns out, tenting alone wasn’t as scary as I’d anticipated. Sure, it took some getting used to. After all, with modern technology, it’s a rare occasion that I’m truly alone for any significant length of time. It felt odd to be cut off from society, completely self-reliant, even for just 24 hours. But I think it’s an experience worth having, and more than once. Certainly there are risks in solo adventuring, but next time I shoulder my heavy overnight pack and head into the woods alone, I’ll do so with more certainty and the anticipation that I might watch a beautiful sunset with no one to share it with but the mountain.
To watch a video of the experience, visit the post: “1-minute hike: Bigelow Mountain near Stratton.”