An unforgettable first backpacking trip
Nahmakanta Lake is located in the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area / Nahmakanta Public Reserved Lands just to the south of Baxter State Park in Northern Maine. The area is part of the 100 mile wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail. From Wikipedia:
The Hundred-Mile Wilderness is the section of the Appalachian Trail running between Abol Bridge just south of Baxter State Park and Monson in the state of Maine. It is generally considered the wildest section of the Appalachian Trail, and one of the most challenging to navigate and traverse.
Out here you won’t find power lines, paved road crossings, the sound of distant boat or car motors, and you won’t find too many people either. You’ll also be lucky to find a cell phone signal. This area is extremely remote and the epitome of the back country.
This probably wasn’t the best area for me to choose for my first backpacking trip… my first solo backpacking trip.
After leaving Greenville, Maine it’s about a 20 minute ride north to the town of Kokadjo. The town consists of a general store / restaurant and a couple of camps. The town sign actually reads “Welcome to Kokadjo – population not many“. Kokadjo is about 15 miles south of the trail head or about 90 minutes away. The old logging roads / snowmobile trails to get out to the wilderness area are extremely rough; it’s definitely not a place you want to get a flat tire. Navigating through the labyrinth of narrow unmarked dirt roads was challenging at best.
The video does a good job showing off the trail and terrain of this hike. The majority of this hike was done on back country trails that don’t seem to get a lot of maintenance. This is fine as it does as to the appeal of really getting out into the wilderness, but it can also make otherwise easy sections of trail quite difficult.
The event that set this trip apart from any I’ve taken since was a mistake made while filtering my drinking water (actually, probably a few mistakes).
My water system consisted of two 32oz Sawyer dirty water bags, a Sawyer Mini water filter, and two 24oz Gatorade bottles to store clean water. The system itself is perfectly serviceable per se, but having only 48oz of clean water meant I was constantly stopping to filter water. It felt like each water crossing I came to I was taking the pack off and pulling out the water filtering gear. This is tedious enough, but 48oz of water doesn’t take you too far when it’s 80 degrees outside. On day 1, I got stuck on a section of trail a few miles which didn’t have any suitable water sources. I ran dry on my two Gatorade bottles and had to hike for quite a ways without any water. Due to this I became dehydrated and very tired – I believe it was this oversight which led to the big mistake for the trip.
After hiking through the dry stretch I came across a less-than-ideal water source. I very much needed water at this point so I filtered some out. It was during this fill up I somehow contaminated my clean water with dirty water and contracted giardia, a.k.a. Beaver Fever. It took about 90 minutes from this spot in the trail (marker #9) for the giardia to really have an impact. It almost immediately drained all my energy and made me very nauseous; so nauseous I was unable to eat or drink anything. This part of the hike went up and over a few exposed hilltops which made my inability to drink any water even more of an issue. Just after the last day 1 segment in the video, I got sick trail-side and lost what few calories I had taken in that day. I figured that’d help the nausea but it did not.
Once I had been sick I figured I’d gotten a bug and sat down to make a decision. At this point in the day it was about 3pm and I’d been hiking since before 10am. Knowing that I was ill, I had the option of hiking the 5-6 hours back to the truck, arriving at dusk, and trying to navigate the dirt path labyrinth out of the reserve, or hiking 2 hours to get to the campsite. If the truck had been parked on a nice paved road with a marked route out of the preserve I’d have returned to the truck. However, I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be able to make it out in the dark so I headed onward to camp.
After setting up camp I cooked my largest meal I had packed for the trip – an ~800 calorie, freeze-dried rice and beans meal (like a Mountain House meal, just a different brand). I knew I badly needed to eat, but as I sit in my hammock with my food and spork in hand, I simply couldn’t choke any of it down. The nausea much more powerful than my desire to eat. At this point in the trip I was no longer having fun – I remember feeling so very alone at the side of Nahmakanta Lake. I managed to get a bit of a cell signal and texted with my wife for a few. That was enough to pick up my spirits, though, I didn’t tell her I was ill as I didn’t want to worry her. So, my largest caloric intake of the trip got thrown in my trash bag and I crawled in the hammock just before sunset to try and catch some sleep.
I woke the next day after only a few good hours of sleep and made myself some Ramen. Not a breakfast of champions, but I thought something with a good bit of water and salt in it might be just what I needed after the day prior. It turned out to be just what I needed and I hit the trail with a good pep in my step.
The way I’d counted I thought I had about 10 miles to reach my truck. As it turned out, I had about 15 until I got there.
I left camp at 6am heading for the camping/rest area at the southern tip Namahkanta Lake. I reached my destination just after 10am. I took advantage of the nice picnic table and made myself another package of Ramen. Mistake #2 began to present itself just after my early lunch.
When packing food for the trip, I figured I’d pack a little light to keep the weight off of my back and maybe burn a little bit off of myself. However, I packed too light and left myself at a pretty steep caloric deficit. I didn’t have enough food even if I hadn’t gotten sick. Add the sickness to an already insufficient amount of food and things began to look a little bleak.
I had a few snacks on day 1, and a few the morning of day 2. After eating my Ramen at the lake, I was out of food for the day. I still a good number of miles to cover including the largest elevation gain of the two days.
I left lunch at about 11am and joined back up with the AT. From here, I had ~6-7 miles to get to where I had parked. I made my way through the trail, again stopping at nearly every water crossing to filter more water. It wasn’t until I reached the Wadleigh Stream Lean-to that exhaustion really began to set in. From this point forward each step was a true test of will. Each step up Nesuntabunt Mountain was painful. Once passing the lean-to there were still about 5 miles left to the trip.
Once I had finally made the peak of Nesuntabunt (and the last elevation gain on the trip) I was nearly delirious. With almost no food over the last two days, and a pretty vicious stomach bug still nagging at me I had put myself into a pretty dangerous situation. Hiking back down the mountain I was in a trance. I’m very fortunate I didn’t have to deal with anything unexpected – slipping on the side of the trail, animal encounter, or any sort of technical climbing. My judgement at this time was very poor and that is being quite generous.
I finally made it out of the woods around 4pm and got back to my truck. I thought the worst was over, but sadly, it was not.
I had instructions on how to get out of the wilderness preserve, however, in my near delirious state I wasn’t able to follow them. 30 minutes after leaving the parking area I came to a junction for which I was unable to determine the correct path. I ended up taking the incorrect road and followed it for another 20 minutes until the road began getting narrower and narrower. Eventually the dirt road turned into a small dirt path, then to a grass trail. The trail had narrowed to the point where I was unable to turn the truck around and head back to the junction. I continued to head forward looking for a safe place to turn around. This point of the return journey got a bit scary – I was stuck down what I now know to be a snowmobile trail, with a trail so narrow that brush and branches are constantly screeching and scratching down the side of the truck. If I were to have gotten stuck or popped a tire it would have been half a day before I could get someone out to find me – I just wanted to be home.
I managed to find a spot to spin the truck around and had to drive through the scratchy gauntlet from which I’d previously emerged. Once back to the main road, I took the proper turn and headed on my way. By this time it was nearing 5pm on Memorial Day and I had another hour or so until I would be in Kokadjo. I was really hoping the general store would be open so I could get some food into me before I had to drive on public roads; I was quite concerned about the safety of driving considering the condition I was in.
I impatiently drove the 10mph or so require to make it out of the preserve and made it to Kokadjo. Lucky for me, the store was open. I hobbled into the store a stinky, pale, desperate version of myself to try and score some soda and candy bars to spike my blood sugar enough to safely get me home. I grabbed a couple of Coke’s, and a handful of whatever candy bars happened to be by the register. I managed to pay for my items and leave the store using the bare minimum social etiquette acceptable – pleasantries weren’t really an option at that point.
If the nice lady who rang me up had watched me get back into my truck, I’m sure she thought me insane. Like a starving monster, I devoured two candy bars and chugged one of the Coke’s in about 2 minutes. Then I laid back for another 10 to relax and let some food work through my system.
I got back on the road and took it slowly for the next 90 minutes to reach home. Once home my wife saw the condition I was in and had more than a couple questions for me. I answered them as best I could between taking a showing and nibbling on few bits of food. As much as I wanted a proper meal, I didn’t have it in my to stay awake any longer. I hit the sack around 8:30pm and slept until about noon the next day.
Even after 16 or so hours of sleep I wasn’t in any good condition to go back to work. It took me 2 more days of eating and drinking water to get back to “normal”.
If you’ve made it through this much text, thank you for staying with it. Let my poor planning and mis-adventures be a lesson you don’t have to learn. Take great care in treating your water, and be very mindful of the amount of food you pack. I’d packed ~1800 calories per day for this trip (23-25 miles) which would have left me exhausted even without my bout with sickness.
Thanks again for coming along on this one and I’ll be sure to have a cheerier story for our next adventure.