Hiking The Barren-Chairback Range: Sixteen Miles in the Hundred Mile Wilderness
David C. Merritt with Frank M. Altimore
lans for our expedition into the Barren Chairback section of the Hundred Mile Wilderness began over the phone last year in July. I was anxious to get out of town for a while and Frank wanted to backpack in the beauty of The Hundred Mile Wilderness before Plum Creek's development venture sets in, possibly changing the experience forever.
Our southbound three-day 16-mile hike traversed five of its mountains: Chairback, Columbus, Third, Fourth and Barren.
We were somewhat over-loaded, but invigorated, as we fell into a relaxed and easy pace up the Chairback ridgeline. The climb was uneventful, and from the mountain's summit we were rewarded with spectacular views of East Chairback Pond, Long Pond, Big Spencer and Baker Mountains and the White Cap Range.
Our ascent up Chairback took us from 750 feet to 2219 feet in three pitches, the descent to about 1950 feet. Arriving at the sag between Chairback and Columbus Mountains, we soon found ourselves at the bottom of a cliff. The Appalachian Trail continued up the cliff past a sign with an arrow that read "Chairback Gap Lean-to 150 feet" and pointed straight up. We found a couple of tent sites below and took advantage. As night fell, I set up the kitchen, looking forward to a hot meal, but I had trouble with the gas canister. We got out a flashlight and made a discovery: wrong gas!
How to heat dinner was a minor problem compared with the question of how to treat our drinking water. We had planned to boil it, but it now looked like we must accept the risk of giardia. Luckily, I did bring the Sterno Stove I had used as a Boy Scout, so we popped the Heinekens and put supper on.
As I packed Sunday morning, Frank searched out the spring, got some water and struck out ahead. I finally caught up with him at the falls some mile and a quarter past Columbus's summit. We had a laugh and a snack, and he struck out a few minutes ahead. Next thing I knew, I was lost.
Where the AT intersects West Chairback Pond side trail, I got confused. Instead of climbing Third Mountain, I chose another descending trail. Noticing a new narrowness and low overhanging trail quality, I became suspicious when I lost the AT blaze. After doubling back a couple of times, I went back to the intersection and resumed my climb up Third Mountain. It was exciting being lost off the AT, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Later, at an overlook atop Third, I stopped to catch my breath, took a sip of water and made a few notes, wondering if I would catch up to Frank again before camp. Moving on, I came to an even better ledge with an even better view, and there sat Frank. He was hanging out in the sun with great views toward the west. We laughed at the surprise and settled down to lunch and an extended break. It was a beautiful day on top of the mountain, though you could see the distant weather of Hurricane Ernesto that would be moving in later.
Frank finished ahead of me, and the next time I saw him was at the campsite. Ernesto had set in at the sag between Third and Fourth Mountains. In the steady rain, we set up camp by a large moss covered rock that served as kitchen. We put on the meat sauce that we had intended to eat with spaghetti, but due to the fuel situation we substituted pita bread for pasta in the cold but light drizzle. The blueberry wine Frank had carried for two days served as an excellent compliment to our meal, and as the storm worsened, we toasted ourselves for having backpacked in The Hundred Mile Wilderness during a hurricane.
Awakening Monday to the peppering of raindrops upon my tent fly, I emerged into the clouded dawn light to greet the day. Frank soon stirred to life and the morning meal and chores began. Reluctantly, we soon came to the realization that we had come only 8 of 16 miles in two days and had about 7 ½ hours to complete the other half of the hike and meet our shuttle.
From the sag, the trail steeply ascends some 600 feet in eight tenths of a mile to the summit of Fourth Mountain, and Frank struck out ahead again with me not far behind. A steep 400-foot descent follows toward the next gap at about 1950 feet. The slippery and muddy conditions were just another fact of life on the Trail, and having kept up a pretty good pace for such strenuous traveling, the wooded crest of Fourth Mountain was a relief to achieve, though at the summit I was dragging ass. Resting briefly, I began the descent.
The bog between Fourth and Barren is known to harbor such insectivorous plants as the Sundew and the Pitcher Plant, but I had no time to dally and saw nothing but split log bridges and one hiker. Barren was a forgiving ascent compared to Fourth, and I paused briefly up top at 2670 feet to admire the derelict remains of an old fire tower, readying myself for a steep descent.
Before reaching bottom, I was out of water but could hear the low roar of the of Long Pond Stream's falls. When I finally caught sight of, it was from the edge of a huge boulder that formed a natural sluice containing the stream for a hundred feet or so. There was no safe way to access the water at that point, but I was in desperate need of a drink. I dropped my pack and decided the way along the knife-edge top of the boulder was too dangerous, making my way down the Trail to the bottom of the falls. There I proceeded over several slippery rocks to where I could access a fast running rivulet of cold water and dipped my bottle in. I drank heartily of nature's refreshment and was grateful.
Not three minutes later, I saw Frank unburdened coming up the trail. I was relieved to hear our shuttle was waiting, and let him take some of my gear. We made our way down the trail, fording Long Pond Stream where the weight of my pack nearly threw me in as I took a long stride between boulders.
When we finally reached the car, I got out what was left of my Blueberry Oak Reserve wine, and we each took a shot in celebration of a hike well done.
Though it hadn't come off as smoothly as we had imagined, our experience in the remote Maine wilderness had been all we could have hoped.
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