Having been rained out the last two hikes that we had planned and considering that it was supposed to be a really nice (if not cool) weekend, I decided it was time for another long day hike. We had been to Tumbledown twice in before and had looked longingly at Little Jackson and the North Peak of Tumbledown both times. Despite our desire to hit these two, we had been thwarted both times by one thing or another. This would be what we would do: go directly to L. Jackson (instead of to the pond via the loop trail first) and then bushwack (our first attempt) over to North Peak. We'd see what time it would be from here and decide at this time how to get down.
As the week worn on, however, this plan didn't seem to really set our hiking juices flowing. We'd just been there...and, the road closes after 10-15. As I was unable to contact anyone to find out what that, exactly meant (isn't maintained vs. gated) I was a little weary about driving 2.5 hrs. only to encounter a gate...and an extra 2.0 mile hike on a dirt road. Change of plans...hmmmmmm. Since it had been quite a while since we did the Bigelow Loop...and LOVED it, we decided to hit this loop again.
Having left our house at 3:45 am, we drove the 2.5 hrs to Straton to begin our hike. I was very excited as this would be my first time to hike in the dark. I had my headlamp all ready. Being the newbie that I am, I was glad that the first bit of this trail was quite easy to follow as it is a dirt road that leads to a clear forest path. We got on the trail at 6:20 am. It was quite chilly (about 20.0 F)with a full moon to guide us. There was one car in the parking area. Obvious by the frost on the window, someone had spent the night somewhere up there. The beginning of the hike was uneventful and pleasant. We reached the col between Avery and West Peak at about 9:00 am.
Is that FROST up there or snow?!
Looking up at the peak, I began to get a bit intimidated; not only was it already cold and breezy (I remembered how cold it had been up there in August when we had come) but the peak wasn't the dull gray I remembered...it was more a...silver/white color. You know, like with snow or very heavy frost. Please remember, I've only begun hiking this year and am not equipt for winter hiking (yet)...no crampons, heavy winter gear, stuff like this. My husband, however, showed no apprehension about this and I trust him. So...we continued on, putting on the rest of our clothing at the Avery Camp site(no, I didn't have four extra shirts this time). The climb up to Avery proved me fears unfounded. The rocks were frosty (thickly in some places) but the footing was fine. It was also quite cold (we figured single digits to 0 with the wind) but we were comfortable. As soon as we began to come out of the wooded area and could appreciate the views, I completely forgot any aprehensions that I had and felt that this would easily be the best hike of my short hiking experience.
The frost thickened considerable the nearer the top that we got and gave quite a showing on much of the vegitation. With the sun coming in at an angle as it was, it was almost crystaline. Absolutly breathtaking. After a break and snack of gorp (out of the wind behind the fire tower) we began our treck over to West Peak. The picture of this peak from Avery promised more magnificance.
"Reggie" and "Martha"
While decending from Avery and discussing how blessed we were to have had such a great hike thus far, my husband stopped quite abruptly. Of course, me being the worry wart of our twosome, I'm thinking bear, moose, mountain lion. But no. We were being very carefully watched by two, white and gray birds. They were very curious and begn flying closer and closer to us "talking" to each other all the while. I quickly fumbled out my camera, figuring that they'd leave as soon as I moved. But, no. They got closer and closer at one time flying right between Bob and myself to land on a branch right behind me. This bird was literally within 6 inches of my hand. It was at this point that my camera battery decided to die. I did, however, snap a few pictures of these curious creatures. Unfortunately, I was so stunned by these "friends" I had my camera on "distant" so the pictures are not the best. We named them "Reggie" and "Martha" and spent most of our short hike back to the col imagining what they were saying to each other...mostly something about how "Martha" wanted new pets but "Reggie" said "no" as we were too big and would be difficult to feed.
We found out later that weekend that these birds are Gray Jays and are know for their lack of fear of humans. They are called "camp thieves" due to their habit of stealing food out of camps. The internet showed several pictures of these birds eating from a hiker's hand and one of a jay sitting a top the head of another hiker (taken on Old Speck, Maine).
We reached the summit of West Peak at about 10:30 am. Again, it was quite frosty and the views absolutely georgeous. I always find it quite "pretty" that the trail is bordered by stones. When we arrived, there was another hiker and his dog just casually sitting on the side of the peak, quietly absorbing the experience. I wonder if he was the hiker whose car we encountered this morning? Again, we sat and quitely breathed in the beauty.
Mountain House Cafe
The 2.2 mile trip from West Peak to the horns in always a nice break from climbing. Other than some fairly steep descents from West Peak, it is basically a gradual up/down walk in the woods. Although you can tell that the opening to the "outside" is just over there, you really can't see much. This isn't a problem, however, as the walk is so nice and the trail so easy to follow. It allows for good conversation.
The last time we were here, we found a little opening off to the left of the trail with a pretty view and just enough room to set up for lunch. We ate there again today. We dubbed it "Mountain House Cafe". Lunch consisted of dehydrated noodles and chicken/tuna and, of course, coffee. Bobby and I had disagreed the night before about our food choice. He wanted to go cold so we wouldn't have to take the stove/fuel. I won, however and I think we were both glad. Despite the fact that it had warmed up by this time (maybe into the high 40's), the hot food and drink was really quite wonderful. Lessons learned, however: 1. heat that water to REALLY boiling as it cools down quite fast in the cold weather (crunchy noodles anyone?). Don't get freezer bags that are TOO big...it's really difficult to get the food out of the bottom of that bag! :) Anyway, we're moving forward from our "spam and block cheese sandwich" days (yes, span in the cans. It's a long story).
The Horns and the last leg of our day
We left our special restaurant and headed off to our final destination, South Horn. As we had already done the North Horn, we decided to skip it this time so we could, perhaps, go a further down the AT from Horn Pond Campground before we had to head back to the car. For some reason, the trip up to the summit seemed to take a lot more effort than it had in the past. Perhaps the coffee and crunchy noodles were to blame? We summitted the South Horn and had a brief conversation with a threesome who were already there. We discussed where we had hiked and gave suggestions as to where to go next (isn't that what hikers always discuss?). The trip from South Horn to Horn Pond Campground didn't take us too long. We reached the campground at about 3:15. There must have been a Bigelow Conservation Group workday occuring as we met several groups of hikers who were there to "pack out" the caretaker and do other such things. The caretaker, and older gentleman with a long white beard was very helpful and seemed ready to talk about this range. As there was still about 2 1/2 hrs of daylight left, we weren't quite ready to head down yet. The caretaker mentioned a nice little "viewpoint" about 0.3 mi. further down the AT that gave a great view down onto Horn's Pond. We thanked him and headed for it. It was a short hike and very well worth it. This will make a great spot to eat during future hikes.
As it was now almost 3:30pm and it would be dark around 6:00 pm, we headed down, figuring about 2 hrs (kind of tricky getting down with all the leaves on the trail) down to the car. We wanted to have some light left to change before we headed out to eat.
I must say, the Bigelow Mountains are some of the best in Maine. They may not be the biggest nor the most challenging, but it is a whole package; views, some challanging areas, short or long hike, great trails. It is obvious from talking with the Bigelow Conservation people that they take a lot of pride in their work. They were proud of their (%$*#) stairs on the Fire Warden's trail, of their new lean to's at Horn's Pond, and of the maintenance of their trails. I have, and will continue to recommend this to anyone looking to fall in love with the mountains.
Until next time, I bid the Bigelow Range adieu.