Maine Huts & Trails

Ever since Amina and I hiked the Grand Canyon, I’ve been wanting to do more trail running and explore running longer. My back put those goals on hold, but after successfully running 13 miles on trails in April, I let my friend Sam convince me to join a group of friends on a 30 mile trail run up in Maine.

I’d never run more than 13 miles at a time before. I’d never hiked more than 17 miles in a day. But I trust Sam, and knew she wouldn’t leave me, and I was curious about my abilities. So I made a reservation with our group at Maine Huts & Trails, and set about testing out backpacks and hiking poles. I also made sure to pack a headlamp, figuring that worst case I’d just slow down and finish really, really late.

Last Friday, we loaded our gear into two cars and headed north five hours to West Forks, Maine. Our journey included a lunch stop at Duck Fat for some carbo-loading, a couple of bathroom breaks, and a harrowing few miles on some poorly maintained logging roads. Once we parked, we had a mile hike to the Grand Falls Hut, the northernmost hut in the MH&T system.

13-13418892_10153840343339087_4391658206629460838_nPhoto credit: Sam

We had a lazy afternoon of board games, trail exploring, and hammock reading, and then a pasta dinner and a bonfire before turning in at a respectable 10 p.m.

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The alarm went of at 5:30 the next morning. After a bagel breakfast, we loaded our packs and hiked our stuff out to the car to be brought 30 miles south by our two selfless sherpas, Kelvin and Rebecca. The rest of us strapped on hydration packs and took off running.

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The first several miles flew by. The trail meandered along the Dead River, through tall grasses and birch groves.

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We saw lots of deer and moose sign, but no actual animals, probably because they could hear us coming from miles away.

The first 12.3 miles took just over three hours. We likely could have gone faster, but this was my first time doing this kind of thing and I didn’t want to push it too hard and get hurt or be miserable. So Sam and I kept a relaxed 15 minute pace, stopping to take photos, walking the inclines, and chatting.

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Toward the end of the leg my back and shoulders started tightening up, causing me to freak out a little bit. I knew there was a lake at the next hut, and promised myself that if I continued to push it, I could hop in for an ice bath as soon as we stopped. When we arrived at the Flagstaff Hut, that’s just what I did.

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Photo credit: Colleen

Water has never felt so good. I stood there for awhile trying to let as much of the cold soak into me as possible, but the water was frigid, and I didn’t last long. Still, it helped enormously.

The rest of the group took off pretty quickly as they were worried about tightening up, but Sam and I were already tight so we stayed back, stretched, and had a snack. I wasn’t in a big rush leave this view.

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Finally, we hit the trail again. We didn’t make it far before we had to stop to take in another gorgeous view.

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We made it another half-mile down the trail before spotting these beauties.

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Lady’s slippers are a species or orchid found across the Eastern United States. They take a long time to grow, and are a fairly unusual sight, so I was pretty excited to find them all along this stretch of the trail.

A mile or so later, we made radio contact with Kelvin. Since there’s no cell service in this area, each group carried a walkie talkie. We agreed to turn the walkie on at the top of each hour for 15 minutes so we could check in with each other. Sam and I had reached a trail junction just as we made contact with Kelvin, who was on a mountain bike. Kelvin advised us that the Hemlock Trail he was on was overgrown and boggy, so we decided to take the higher winter route and pass by the Halfway Yurt.

The going was pretty slow for the next few miles. The yurt was at the top of an almost 1.5-mile long hill. At one point, we worried that we’d lost the trail, as we seemed to be on more of a jeep road. Fortunately, because we were up high, I had cell service and was able to see that we were indeed still on the trail.

16-13423942_10153840345014087_2365236818565959756_nPhoto credit: Sam

Sam and I stopped for a few minutes in the yurt to have a snack and stretch again. But we knew we’d slowed down considerably, so got back on the trail pretty quickly.

We had a mile run downhill, and then crossed a road to find the last stretch of the trail that Kelvin had warned us about.

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Some parts were boardwalk, some was more boggy with logs for structure. Not much of it was runable. It took us more than 40 minutes to cover two miles.

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By this time, we were in sporadic contact with Kelvin via text. He advised that when we hit the dirt Carriage Road we should run down that instead of proceeding to Poplar Hut, as the trail was in similarly bad condition. Sam and I had enough water, so we didn’t need to stop at the hut, and we didn’t want to make our friends wait another two hours for us to arrive.

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So we took off down Carriage Road. And encountered some “only in Maine” signs.

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Kelvin met us halfway up Carriage Road. We’d cut three miles off of our run. But we’d run 24 miles, and had another steep, 3 mile hike to get to Stratton Brook Hut, where we spent the night. (Side note: the Maine Huts & Trails are pretty sweet, and I would totally go back in summer or winter.)

My legs were tired, and my back was sore, but overall I felt a lot better than I thought I would. I had no blisters or chaffing. Nothing was in major stabbing pain. My spirits were high.

Finishing this was a huge confidence boost for me, and made me eager to run more trails. Somehow, the miles go faster when I’m surrounded by trees, and while I doubt I’ll be running 25 miles every weekend, I’d definitely plan (and train for) another.

15-13418642_10153840344914087_2679253614674407249_oPhoto credit: Sam

Overview:
24 miles
7 hours, 26 minutes (moving)
18:35/mile average pace

Gear:
Nathan running vest (Amina’s)
2 liter water bladder
headlamp
chapstick
inhaler
Salomon trail runners
Smartwool socks
NB fitted tights
tank
long sleeve shirt
trucker cap
hiking sticks

Nutrition:
1 pb&j
5 energy balls (made by Sam)
3 energy gels
1 Gu chomps
1 Nuun tablet
1 package tropical pork jerky
~4 liters water

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Capeing

The best thing about a sprint tri: you’re finished by the time most people wake up!

After the Wellfleet Sprint Triathlon, we had some much needed breakfast and a nap. IMG_9462The house we were staying in was conveniently located next to a Wellfleet classic: The Beachcomber.

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We spent the afternoon sitting in the sun, sipping rum drinks and slurping oysters. (I highly recommend the tequila oyster shot!)

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We finished the day on the beach below, watching seals and doing our best to pretend like it was summer.

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The Cuba no one talks about

Attachment-1After more than a decade of thinking about going to Cuba, I spent the weeks before my trip trying to temper my expectations. I didn’t want to be unfairly disappointed because I’d fallen for images of old cars and palm trees. While I understood intellectually that the country was poor and under the control of a dictatorship, I had a hard time imagining how that would play out in real life.

IMG_7920Let me quantify what I’m about to say with a bit of background: I am no stranger to poverty or hardship. I’ve travelled through out Latin America and have spent time in some of the poorest parts of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I was in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward six months after Katrina, and have walked through communities shortly after they were leveled by tornadoes and hurricanes. Cuba was something else.

IMG_8286As I rode through towns and walked the streets, I kept reminding myself to take photos of not just the beautiful things, but of everything. Much has been made about the slackening of the U.S. trade embargo, and the opening of tourism. But what that means for the average citizen remains to be seen. A bike taxi driver pointed out several sites along Havana’s Malecon where hotels will soon rise. “Mientras, las casas de los Cubanos estan cayendo,” he told me. Meanwhile, the houses of the Cuban are falling. He wasn’t exaggerating.

IMG_8301Across the country, in cities and in small towns, people live without light, without running water, with holes in ceilings, and windows that don’t close. Black mold grows up walls inside and out, including at the hotels.  My sinuses and throat were coated in a matter of hours; it took me a week to recover.

IMG_8411As Cuba prepares to welcome Americans en mass, I fear that both sides are woefully unprepared for what they are about to encounter. Cuba doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a huge increase in tourism. And many Americans don’t have the patience to deal with the delays and shortages that are a regular part of life there.

IMG_8355The airport, with its two baggage carousels and one luggage cart, can’t keep up with the flights arriving each day. I waited three hours in an un-air conditioned terminal with few seats and no amenities for my suitcase. There was one bathroom for the hundreds of people waiting for their luggage: three of the toilets in the ladies room were functional. None had toilets seats. Paper was rationed by an attendant.

IMG_7893The old cars are quaint, but dilapidated. No seat belts, no a/c, and abominable gas mileage. Two out of the three times I took a taxi from Havana to my hotel (about 25 minutes), we had to stop for gas.

IMG_8112 While I understood (in the abstract) that the country is communist and run by a totalitarian government, it was surprising to see it all in practice. The government owns almost everything: the hotels, most restaurants, the tour buses, the rum factories, the drink companies… everything. Menus offer “state soda,” soft drinks that are produced by the government. Coca Colas are few and far between, and usually cost more than twice the state “Kola.” In partaking of these things, I felt I was literally consuming communist ideology.

IMG_8122Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a big deal, if it wasn’t evident how the government also controls its citizenry. There is no First Amendment in Cuba, and no free press. The state-owned newspapers print the date on the front pages in years corresponding to time passed since the Cuban Revolution. As in “March 21, 58 years after the Triumph of the Revolution.”

FullSizeRenderWhile I loved the absence of advertising, the Communist propaganda that stood in its place was a constant reminder of the values and positions of the government. Billboards proclaimed, “Our dignity is not for sale” and “Your blockade, our broken dreams.” Images of Che Guevara (Hasta la victoria, siempre!) and Hugo Chavez (“El major amigo de Cuba!”) were everywhere. School children wore red neckerchiefs of the Jose Marti Pioneer Organization, a communist version of the scouts.

FullSizeRender-3The biggest shock though was the food. There isn’t enough of it. Store shelves are often empty. According to this story, as tourism increases, citizens compete with tourists for the necessities: eggs, meat, bottled water, and soft drinks. Those who can pay more win, but it’s hard to know that some family is going without because you could afford to pay more for your meat and bottled water.

IMG_8478I’m not writing all this to be a cynic or a downer. I say it because I worry that America’s romanticized Cuba doesn’t take into account the realities of life. Yes, there are some very, very good parts and people. But don’t let visions of rum and palm trees cloud your idea of what you’ll encounter once you get there.

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