Getting through the 100 Mile Wilderness (HMW) was probably my hardest week on the trail. The night before I entered the wilderness we had a hard rain, soaking the trails and swelling the creeks and rivers.
I was 100 yards into the trail that first day and my feet were already soaked in mud. The trail was an unfriendly mix of mud, roots, and rocks. Combine that with numerous major river fords and my first day in the HMW was going to be a challenge.
I arrived at the first river crossing around mid-morning. The guidebook and several others mention that if the water is high, I may need to wait until the water recedes. This could be hours or days. But when entering the HMW you bring the food you think you will need for the number of days you will take to finish the HMW. I don’t have extra food for lazy days by a rushing river waiting for it to recede. So the decision is a tough one – risk crossing the river, or risk running out of food.
I studied the river for almost half an hour. Tentatively stepping in to test the water’s depth and speed. It is not a wide river, maybe 15 feet across, but it is moving swiftly and almost hip deep. Add to that, there is a waterfall 50 yards downstream – if you fall in, you might be going over the falls! The area where the trail actually crosses the river seems too deep and the current too strong but I found a spot a few yards upstream that seems better.
For safety’s sake I first unbuckle my pack in case I do fall in – the pack will float like a life vest, but because it is on my back I would float face-down. Unbuckled I can slip it off and swim for safety. I also empty my pockets and store everything in my pack – high and dry. In particular I want my phone somewhere that it won’t get wet.
I’ve thought about it enough. Time to go for it. My shoes have been wet all day so no need to worry about keeping them dry. I step in and the water soaks the bottom half of my shorts. Using my hiking poles for balance I wade cross without difficulty. I psyched myself out for nothing.
As I am standing there resecuring my pack another hiker comes along. "Baskets" is in her early 20’s, a thru hiker who started in GA and is almost finished with her AT hike. With hardly any hesitation she jumps in back where the trail crosses (where I chickened out earlier) and wades across like it’s nothing and is on her way. I watch in awe and hang my head in shame. Dang kids these days.
The next crossing comes in the early afternoon. As I near the river a couple of southbound hikers pass and one tells me to "be careful on the crossing, the water was up to my boobs as I leaned into the current". She also informed me that there was another northbound female hiker at the river who wanted to cross but did not want to do it alone. I knew Baskets was ahead of me but surely she, who so deftly crossed the previous river, was not concerned about this one? Now I was getting nervous about crossing this river and I had not even seen it yet!
A few minutes later I stood at the river and wondered if I could do it. Much wider, perhaps 40 feet across, much deeper, and much faster current. Realizing I had over analyzed the previous crossing I was now wondering what my schedule and food supply would look like if I waited until tomorrow on this one. And where is the girl that wanted company? Did she cross already? How did those southbound hikers get across this rushing torrent? I sat on a rock and pondered my fate.
Then Grace showed up. (I still don’t know where she was) She was eager to cross but didn’t want to do it alone. I don’t know if there is actually any advantage to crossing a river together – if one of us slips and tries to grab hold of the other there is a good chance we are both going down. But she was sure we could do it. I know Baskets had already come this way. I know the two southbounders had just crossed here. So it is possible to cross this river today. Did I have the courage to try? Or would this rabbit be chicken?
Of course, for Grace (and to keep my man-card) I would try. Grace didn’t have hiking poles so she spent a few minutes looking for a couple appropriate sticks. We prepped our packs and left them unbuckled. I tucked my pack’s belt up behind me so it would not dangle in the water. I tightened my shoulder straps to lift my pack higher. We were ready. Grace’s confidence was inspiring and she led the way. I was tight on her heels as we waded into the waist deep water. As the current swirled around us my hiking poles were vibrating. I was concerned they would break from the strain. We slowly worked our way across the river feeling with our feet for solid footing on the slippery rocks below. Feeling with our sticks for depth and using them to keep our balance and brace ourselves against the rushing water. Before long we were halfway across but the heaviest current was yet to come – a four foot wide area where the river is funneled through.
Grace stepped into it and I stepped in behind her. I looked away for a second and when I looked back Grace was gone! She had lunged forward and out of the current in a single step, leaving me behind. She rushed up the bank of the river, dropped her pack and then plunged back in to come back and help me! She could see I was struggling with the current but I was not going to give up. She was just a few feet away in calm waters and held out a hand to grab me if I needed it. I was not able to lunge through the current like she did but I managed to take a couple small steps. My poles, almost completely submerged, were humming from the rushing water. A couple more steps. It’s hard to find a good foot hold in the rushing water. My poles, reaching out in front of me reach the safe water. Another step and I am there.
Grace and I exit the water. All smiles, a congratulatory hug, we survived! We hang out for a few minutes reliving our feat, having a snack, getting drinking water, etc.
Grace and I would tackle several more crossings that day but none so harrowing as this one. The difficult ones to come would have ropes across the river to hold.
After my last crossing of the day I sat by the river bank and washed the day’s mud out my shoes and socks. The rest of my clothes were dry by this time and I was ready to make camp. Just 11 miles for the day but physically and emotionally I was spent.
Onward and northward,
Day number: 92
Miles hiked today: 0
AT miles completed: 1289
AT miles to go: 901
Average miles per day: 14.3