My dirty little secret

Yes, I love hiking. Yes, I know how to prepare for any given non-technical hike. Yes, I’ve been to the top of Maine, the top of New England, the top of Africa. But okay, okay. There was a time when I didn’t know what I was doing.

Just as Maine Warden Sgt. Rick Mills was calling off Friday’s second-day search for two lost hikers due to heavy rain and fog at 12:30 p.m., state police dispatchers honed in on a 911 cell phone call, pinpointing the young men’s location.

“They’re alive and well,” a relieved Mills said in the Appalachian Trail parking lot of Grafton Notch State Park on Route 26 in Grafton Township, shortly after a dispatcher radioed coordinates to him for the two inexperienced day-hikers, Ryan Weeks and Michael Hawkins.

There used to be far more stories available, including on the Globe’s site, but most of them have fallen into the abyss of the ancient Internet. This happens to be one I hadn’t read until recently.

I literally had to laugh out loud when I read that first paragraph. During the cited cell call I found out they had just called off the search, but it just seems so much more absurd in retrospect. The whole experience was so surreal; it seems all the more strange that people were done looking for us because of fog (…the heavy rain was over at that point, so someone either gave or interpreted some inaccurate information).

Anyway, I wrote all about this experience for a local weekly paper back in 2006. I can’t get that link anymore, but I will reprint the unedited piece in the comment section.

5 Responses

  1. It all started out innocently enough. It was a simple hike to the top of a mountain. I wanted my revenge on this giant mound of earth and rock. It had beat me back from the top last year and that was unacceptable. But I knew from every other trip of mine that either ended in failure or at least involved some form of peril that I should at least bring an extra sweatshirt, box of granola bars, water, and two flashlights along with some gloves and a winter hat. This was October in western Maine, after all.

    Ryan, my usual hiking companion since the rest of my friends seem content to let their bodies go, and I set out around 8:15am Thursday morning. We were starting in Augusta and ending in Grafton Notch State Park near Newry. We lost a lot of time last year through missed turns and side-stops so the plan this time was to go straight to Old Speck Mountain and start the climb as early as possible. Other than overshooting the parking lot because of the overly close semi truck, the drive was uneventful – a great sign for us.

    We stopped at the painted trail map board around 10:45am and decided the Appalachian Trail was our quickest route to the top. This seemed like a huge improvement over simply going up the side of a mountain like we did last year. But it also seemed a lot less eventful, most likely why Ryan was prompted to ask, “Do you want to try some aggressive hiking?” Knowing it would get tiring to walk 5-6 hours even on a fairly gentle slope, I declined. Aside from that the ground was blanketed by wet leaves. I was feeling good, but not good enough to break an ankle somewhere on the third highest peak in Maine.

    The hike up was sprinkled with waterfalls and small wildlife, opening up to expansive views of the Mahoosuc Range, an extension of the White Mountains. The day, although cloudy, was going swimmingly. We finally made it to the summit. The air was chilly and we couldn’t see as far as we would have liked, but the views denied me the right to complain. We had defeated this peak and could now move on.

    Remember how I said anything uneventful is a good sign for us? Well, that’s true, but it’s boring, too. The best hike on which I’ve been was randomly going down the side of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia. A lack of heavy brush and trees, as well as a heavy tourist population made that possible. That is far from the story in western Maine, so the next best thing was to at least go down a different trail. Seeing a blue marker, we headed that way (I now know we were on the Grafton Notch Loop Trail).

    The trail was very easy to follow for the first couple hours. The same seemed to be true for the moose that takes this route, courteously leaving the majority of his droppings off to the side. Coming across things like a giant boulder, which Terry Karkos of the Sun Journal tells me is a “glacial erratic”, seemed like a good sign. A rock the size of a house would surely keep its momentum until it got fairly close to the bottom of the mountain right? Well, yes, technically that’s probably right. Unfortunately, I did not meet Mr. Karkos until well after I came across this boulder. I, therefore, did not know this was a glacial erratic and therefore did not know it was glacial ice that carried this behemoth to its current resting spot, not gravity.

    It quickly became apparent that this trail was not made to be the easiest route back to the parking lot. It meandered along the side of Old Speck, sometimes rising in elevation, sometimes falling. We knew it would be a mistake to go off the trail, but we needed something more direct. Then fortune seemed to shine upon us: two blue markers looked to be the start of an auxiliary trail that clearly descended more rapidly than our current path. We began our descent, pleasing the instincts that told us going down was our best bet. But that’s the problem with instincts: they tell you to make bets – they’re a gamble.

    An hour or so later we turned around and saw this 4,180 foot mountain shrinking behind us. We almost immediately made the decision to head back, despite the appearance of being on some sort of old path, perhaps a logging road from decades past. Having no compass (nor the knowledge to use one very well, anyway) we agreed to head toward Old Speck in a generally right-leaning direction, making directional judgments based on the sun. I still cannot tell you if we were going the right way, but it was the best guess anyone had for at least a couple mile radius.

    After losing two hours of daylight and a lot of energy climbing over ridge after ridge we finally rediscovered the trail. Things were looking up, even if it wasn’t a very direct route. At least it was a trail. An hour and a half later, however, we started heading up another mountain. Knowing for certain this was wrong coupled with the falling sun I finally pulled out my cell phone – with its one battery bar of life – and called 911, using analog service, which consumes the battery quickly and is generally not very good (for those wondering, normal service was not available).

    At this point the only reference mark we had was Old Speck. We didn’t know the name of any other mountain in the area, nor on which one we currently were. With the little sunlight we had left we headed back down the trail, getting as much on Old Speck as possible since the rescuers would start there.

    After waiting an hour I called back to check on the search. The operator instructed me to hang up and wait for a ranger to call me. I knew this was fruitless because of the analog service, but I waited 15 minutes before turning off my phone to save what little battery life it had left. We had a choice. Stay put or try to get even closer. We made the stupid, latter choice. It wasn’t long before we completely lost all signs of the blue markers. We tried backtracking to the last one we saw, but it was no use. We weren’t finding these markers and were now not even close to the path, somehow.

    I’m not a gambling man; never been to Vegas, but something told us we needed to gamble on our instincts again and go down: get to the lowest elevation possible. We’re pretty sure we know the general direction of the only road, Route 26, which goes through Grafton Notch, so we’re bound to hit it as long as we keep descending in one direction.

    The thick brush and tough terrain took its toll. After about two hours I was ready to bunk down. The ground was wet, but not soaked. The skies were clear. We found two spots among the trees and tried sleeping. Thirty minutes later at exactly 10:30pm we awoke to a soft rain. We had to keep moving now. We continued down.

    Two and a quarter hours had passed and we were feeling the stress. I could no longer keep a respectable pace. My left leg was in so much pain I actually hurt more than I was cold, despite the rain and reported flurries (although I do not remember any). We had to try to sleep again, even if for a little while. We found a fallen tree and tried to cover ourselves as best we could. We managed to make it to 1:30am before the rain soaked us so thoroughly we had not only made ourselves much colder, but we had added significant weight to our travels. We vowed to keep moving no matter what, only stopping for a minute at most. During one such stop I discovered I could not locate my cell phone anymore.

    Our instincts kept us going down, and now we were running into streams. Any flowing body of water to this point had been too quiet and small to follow well. Now we were running into water loud enough to force us to issue ‘what’s?’ if more than five feet separated our ears. This also meant we had to cross a lot more water. One by one we would go from rock to rock until we reached the other side. This continued all night whenever the terrain on one side would become too steep.

    I recall three times where the cold of the mountain water re-chilled my already soaked feet. The first time was caused by the darkness. I thought I was stepping on something white and solid, but it was just foam covering six inches of water. The second time my left leg simply could not muster the power needed to make the jump. Both legs went in this time, water engulfing not only my boots, but half of my shins as well. When the third time came around it didn’t even matter anymore. We had gone down a very steep embankment and were faced with the grim sight of a stream without any close rocks or shallow points. There was no choice but to walk through the cold flow.

    As the hours slowly passed we came by two random things: one was a mouse. It seemed highly unlikely that we would happen to shine the Mag-Lite right where he was sitting, but we did, causing him to dart away. The other thing was a barrel. It was tipped over with heavy dirt inside. This was the best barrel we had ever seen. It must mean there is some form of civilization nearby. It was maybe 2:45am now.

    We carried on in the rain for over another hour. Finally, after any hope that barrel had provided us with entirely gone, we found a water line. This made that barrel look like moose droppings. It was fantastic. We followed it along the stream until it suddenly crossed over a very steep drop-off which may have just led to a part of the water too wide to traverse. We had to stop following the line, but it appeared to be easy terrain the more we went to the side. And there it was. A road. A real, live road. It wasn’t overgrown and abandoned. It was an active road. Short of perhaps the birth of a child, this will likely be the best moment in my life. My leg ached like I’ve never felt before; I was soaked; I was cold; and I was exhausted. We both just wanted to get out of this place.

    Following the road we came across a cabin. Our incessant knocking and shouts proved no one was home. We decided to continue on for another half hour and if we didn’t come to a paved road we would return here. That’s exactly what happened, but while on the road I started seeing things. Ryan had the Mag-Lite – perhaps the best flashlight ever made: it had a steady nine hours of use on old batteries in the cold rain and still works (on the same batteries) right now – but because of my leg he would outpace me and then wait for me to catch up every few minutes. This made the light play tricks with me. I thought there was a constant supply of rocks blocking the road just feet ahead of us while a fallen tree appeared to be between us at all times. At one point I thought I saw that mouse from the prior hour run out of the brush and under Ryan’s foot. At another point we were joined by a frog, according to my eyes. We needed to get back to the cabin.

    Once we shouldered in the door around 5:15am we started a fire, found some blankets, and began drying most of our clothes. Then we slept. It only lasted a few hours (which, non-coincidentally was how long it took before the fire started dying), but it felt great. When we awoke we searched for our last granola bars, finding my cell phone at the bottom of the box (don’t ask me why it was there). I tried 911 again, but could not get through. After another few hours of intermittent sleep and clothe-drying we got our limited gear together and headed back out on the road where my cell phone finally reached a 911 operator. An hour later, near 1:15pm, the media arrived, shortly followed by a warden. Funny enough, a member of the media, Terry Karkos, actually drove us back to the base parking lot five to ten miles away because the rescuers with a vehicle were still making their way off the mountain. And everyone says the media is just a bunch of vultures. They seemed like doves to us.

    So things didn’t go as planned. And they were more eventful than we ever wanted. But if anything we can take solace in the fact that we were lost in a general mountain range, not on a specific mountain. Take that Old Speck.

  2. I was just out on a search Friday night.

    It surprises people how often this stuff happens (I mean a full scale search) but I’ll tell you its just as, if not more, often the guy that knows what he is doing than the guy who doesn’t.

    We tend to take more risks when we know what we are doing compared to “amateurs” .

    Stay vigilant! Support search and rescue, get lost!

  3. When you look back at your youth it’s easy to see all the places where you managed to slip through the death traps that other people didn’t. Sucks to be them.
    Enjoy.

  4. Maine has fog?

  5. Great read, Michael. I had not heard the whole story. Quite the adventure.

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