Dateline: Katahdin

I’ve been lucky to do some pretty magical hikes over the past year: from admiring the foliage on Mount Chocorua to exploring slot canyons in Utah to hiking from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back up in one day. None of that prepared me for Katahdin.

While most people know that Katahdin is the end of the Appalachian Trail, I don’t think people realize how absolutely grueling or divinely spiritual this mountain is. It is really a very special place. I hesitate to even write about it, since the Baxter State Park Authority already heavily regulates the number of visitors and with the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, I suspect traffic will only grow. From what I saw at Acadia and the Grand Canyon, that is a mixed blessing.

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My group was pretty late in making plans, so we chose to hike on a Tuesday, figuring it would be easier to get lodging and parking permits. Anyone planning to hike Katahdin needs a parking permit. Maine residents can get one at anytime. Non-residents can register up to two-weeks in advance. There aren’t many to give out (27 permits at three lots = >100), so registering as early as possible is recommended.

The alarm went off at 4:30 the morning of our hike. After a night of enjoying the lake and enjoying one another’s company, it felt early. The only things motivating me were peer pressure and the knowledge that if we weren’t in the parking lot by 7 a.m., they’d give our spot away to someone else.

It was an hour’s drive to the Katahdin Stream parking lot. The sun was just rising as we pulled in. A quick bathroom break, gear check, and our group of eight was ready to go. We were on the Hunt Trail at 5:45 a.m.

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The first mile was uneventful. We all hung together, chatting and ambling up a fairly friendly trail. We arrived at Katahdin Stream Falls (1.2) miles in what seemed like no time, where I realized that I’d forgotten to start my Garmin (hence the walk up is short on the screenshots below).

There was a pit toilet just past the stream, which I made use of knowing there was nothing else on the trail. I had zero desire to answer nature’s call above the tree line if I could avoid it.

The trail got steeper after the falls and the group started to stretch out. I was paired up with a girl from Maine who was pretty close to my speed. We made quick work of the next mile, even as the rocks on the trail seemed to get bigger. Around mile three we started running into thru-hikers who were on their last day of the Appalachain Trail. They were easy to spot as they hiked up the trail like it was nothing, with sizable packs on their backs. The culmination of the journey was surely a special day for them, and it made me wonder at the distance they’d come: 2,200 miles.

At around mile 3.5 we emerged from the woods above the tree line. The views were spectacular. 08-fullsizerender-12

Little did I know, the climb was about to get much harder. The next mile was more a climb than a hike. My walking sticks went into my backpack as I needed arms and legs to haul myself up over the rocks on the trail.

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It was really a full body effort, requiring almost an hour to make it a mile.

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11-fullsizerender-16Looking back at the hardest mile. 

The view was the saving grace.

Once at the top of this ridge, it was an easy walk past Thoreau spring and to the summit. After that mile of drama, summiting was almost anticlimactic.

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Almost. But not really.

We summited at 9:25 a.m., 3 hours and 40 minutes after we’d started. I was feeling pretty smug and triumphant about the whole thing, thinking it wasn’t even 10 a.m. and the hardest part of my day was behind me.

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We basically had a 360-degree view from the top. It was dramatically beautiful.

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We started chatting with other folks on the summit while waiting for our friends to arrive. I tend to prefer loop hikes to out and backs and was trying to figure out if there was a way to avoid going down the way I’d gone up… you know, just to see something new. It was a beautiful day- not too hot and not to windy- and I had mixed feelings about hiking Katahdin and not doing the Knife Edge.

After consulting a map and our friends, my partner and I decided that we’d go down the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak and then take the Helon Taylor trail the rest of the way down. This would put us on the opposite side of the mountain from where we’d started, so we’d have to hitchhike back to town. Worst case, our friends could come back to get us if it got too late.

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Looking towards the Knife Edge

Having just summited in under four hours, I figured the rest of the day would be a cake walk. I was so, so wrong.

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The trail was hard almost immediately. The Knife Edge is an exposed ridge, less than three feet wide in some places. The trail drops off on either side rather dramatically, and with no other mountains of comparable size nearby, vertigo sets in. You feel like if you fell, you would fall forever. Almost immediately, I started having a mini-panic attack. I knew intellectually that I was not going to fall off the side of a mountain, but it sure felt that way.

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The trail was rocky, and there was nothing to hang on to for support. Sometimes the rocks wobbled. Sometimes you had to use your whole body to climb up them. I just kept telling myself to put one foot in front of the other, to take is slow and steady.

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It was nerve wracking. We inched along, taking deep breaths and focusing on the trail ahead.

Finally, we were near the end. The worst was behind us, I thought. And then we came to a cliff: 50 feet of near vertical scramble. We went down one, and then had to climb up another.

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With this, we were there. We’d reached Pamola Peak.

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Traversing the mile-long Knife Edge had taken an hour and a half. No speed records there.

It was sort of awe inspiring to look back and realize I’d walked along the top of all of this.

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Still, I was glad it was one.

We embarked on the Helon Taylor trail, which was easier but still tricky. Lots of loose gravel and a few steep parts. The trail seemed to never end.

Finally, we reached Roaring Brook Campground, where we plunged our feet and legs into a frigid stream for as long as we could stand it. Even with the ice bath, my quads were sore for days.

A friendly family from Pennsylvania picked us up on the side of the road and reunited us with our group. There was celebratory steak and a sauna. And then, a very good sleep.

Baxter Peak (5,267 feet) and Pamola (4,919 feet)
Up: Hunt Trail
5.2 miles. 3 hours, 40 minutes

Down: Knife Edge (1.1 miles) to Helon Taylor (3.2 miles)
4 hours, 37 minutes (1 hour, 30 minutes on Knife Edge)

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DPI-659: Reading response 1

“Here Comes Everybody.”

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I’ve been passively aware of the ways in which the ways in which the internet and new technologies have (and continue to) shape mankind, but Clay Shirky’s book makes my implicit impressions explicit, explaining not just what is happening, but the sociological and psychological underpinnings that drive massive changes in the ways in which humans interact.

For eons, geography was a key organizing principle. We communicated best with those who were in close proximity. The further away someone was the less we communicated, and the further away an event was, the less aware we were of it. Technology has broken down those barriers, enabling long tails of society (abuse survivors, scifi fans, or Mormon housewives-turned-entrepreneurs) to connect.

Our ability to connect on a grand scale has changed the ways in which we interact. Shirky notes that the growth in sharing that we see today is a difference so large that it has become a difference in kind. Conversations that once took place in private, or one-to-one are now broadcast on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat for friends real and virtual. In the course of sharing online, average people now break news, and elevate stories.

As a result of these connections, the average person has increased power. We the people can now embarrass (if not topple) oppressive regimes, demand change, and put pressure on drug comapnies, from the palms of our hands, without leaving home. This is amazing.

However, the use of that power goes both ways. “When you improve a group’s ability to communicate, you change what it’s capable of. What it does with that power is a separate question.” While there are many benefits to this connectivity, it can be used for good as well as evil. Terrorist groups use the internet to connect and indoctrinate new recruits. Teenage girls with eating disorders use it to swap thinspo and tips for starving. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, a well-meaning Reddit search for suspects turned into an online witch hunt that vilified innocent people.

How do we manage the bad, while maintaining the good?

In a world as boundless as the world wide web, I’m not sure we can. Norms about free speech vary from country to country, and without a central power to create or enforce norms online, these values collide. In the United States, we vilify China for restricting access to YouTube and Google, but for years banned photojournalists from taking pictures of flag draped coffins of U.S. soldiers.

Shirky notes that no effort at creating group value can be successful without some form of governance, but there is no universal virtual code of conduct (a ridiculous name). The norms that govern Wikipedia are very different from those of Facebook or Twitter.

It gets messier when you look across not only platforms, but countries. In a nation that holds freedom of speech as a hallowed right, how do we respond to the Chinese government’s (and many others’) views that such speech is a threat to national security? And how do we feel when the tables are turned and terrorists are advocating action against Americans? Where do we draw the line?

Another example of the dark side of this connectivity is the trove of absolute lies on the Internet: from the birther movement to 9/11 conspiracy theories to recent reports of Hilary Clinton’s death. Even the smallest pieces of the internet’s long tail can now find one another, enabling even the craziest crazies to find likeminded individuals to reinforce their views and add strength to their arguments. Is there a policy solution to shutting down untruths on the internet or is this protected free speech? Many would say it’s the latter.

While traditional news media acted as filters for truth, the average citizens needs to be much more savvy in evaluating information today. How can we ensure that users are informed enough to protect themselves not just from untrue news reports, but to internet scams (as in, no, that guy in Africa does actually not want to give you a million dollars)?

Trial, error, and experience will help us as a community to establish norms (which will likely evolve and change as fast as the internet does). But there will always be casualties and trolls. I don’t think the web would have it any other way.

Dateline: Baxter State Park

When I thought about the things I wanted to do with my summer back in June, Baxter and Acadia were high on the list. I’d never been to either, which seemed weird after all this time in New England. But summer here is tough: there is so much to do in so little time.

It was pretty serruptitious when one of my new classmates approached me about heading up to Millinocket, Maine for some hiking and white water rafting. Of course I was in! I took the week off from work, did some research, and made plans to head north. While the rest of the group would arrive Monday, I made plans to drive up a day early to stay/camp at South Branch Pond and then hike the Travelers Loop, which sounded almost as beautiful as Katahdin. A classmate jumped in to join me, which made the seven hour drive north much more bearable.

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Sadly, the universe had other plans. We arrived at Baxter to a light rain, and a three-mile trail run showed me how treacherous wet granite could be. When I awoke to persistent rain the next morning, I knew I’d need to make alternate plans. The mountains were socked in with fog, and I had no desire to be above the tree line for hours in those conditions.

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We broke down camp and were out of South Branch by 7 a.m. There wasn’t much reason to stay longer.

We decided to head south a different way than we’d arrived, following the park road west before turning left. It was beautiful, and we seemed to have the whole place to ourselves. I started to get hungry shortly after 8, so we stopped at a waterfall/picnic area to eat and take in the view. It was pretty nice, and I imagine on a hot day it’s very nice.

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We started to see more people the further south we got, but it was never crowded. Baxter does an amazing job at crowd control, though it sometimes feels like they don’t really want you there. Camping is on a reservation system, there are limited parking permits to climb Katahdin/Baxter Peak, and there is no back country camping allowed. While Acadia felt claustrophobic, I felt almost like I had all 200,000 acres of Baxter to myself.

The highlight of the day was Kidney Pond. It was so unexpectedly lovely: beautiful scenery, a serene lake teeming with loons and frogs (and leeches), canoes, cabins…. I would have spent whole week there. By then, the weather was improving, so we signed out a canoe ($1/hour) and went exploring.

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Kidney Pond is also home to the cutest library, full of old books, board games and puzzles. It reminded me of a cross between my grandmother’s house and summer camp, and the absolute anthesis of today’s screen run, connected world.

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Which reminds me: There’s almost no cell service at Baxter. Like none. It’s kind of glorious, but it means you have to go old-school in the planning and communication. As in “We’ll be at the lake anytime after three… see you sometime.” That was pretty much the plan with our friends.

We headed out of the park at the southern entrance, pausing to take a look at Katahdin, which we planned to climb the next day. The mountain dominates the landscape, and factors prominently into the lore of the local native population, who believe that a winged storm god lived in the vicinity, creating wind.

I had no idea of the journey ahead the next day. At the moment, I was happy to simply take in the view.

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