Grafton Notch Loop – Lessons Learned

On Friday, May 8th, Earl and I embarked upon a 3-day adventure. We were hiking the western half of the Grafton Notch Loop. This portion of the loop is approximately 17 miles long and crosses the summit of Old Speck Mountain, one of Maine’s 4000-footers.

We started hiking at 8:15 a.m. on Friday morning. We got back to our car at about 4:45 p.m. on Sunday. Each day eight or nine hours of hiking gained us about six miles of distance.

It was the most difficult hike we’ve done. It was also an amazing experience!

Today I’d like to share with you some of the lessons learned from this outing. Some are serious, some are silly. Some are original and some are lessons we’ve learned elsewhere and were able to apply or appreciate over these three days.

Lesson 1: Sometimes the best sight to see is that of a painted blaze on a tree. 

Blow-downs across the trail
Blow-downs across the trail made it difficult to determine if we were still on the trail.

Seeing a blue blaze was always a wonderful thing!

We were surprised by the tremendous damage winter had wreaked upon the mountain. Splintered trees blocked the trail at frequent intervals. We had to circle around, crawl under, or carefully climb over the debris.
Finding our way back to the trail was challenging at times. We made best guesses and hoped we were going the right way. It was funny because whenever we saw a blaze our steps would quicken and we’d walk with a sense of purpose. We knew where we were going and we were ready to get there. When we were uncertain about our path, we slowed down and kept scanning the trees for confirmation that we were on the right path.One tip we learned was this: When looking for blazes don’t forget to look behind you. Trails are marked in both directions. The closest visible trail blaze may be a few steps behind you.

Lesson 2: Overestimate the difficulty of trail conditions and underestimate your physical condition.

When we got back to civilization and started sharing our adventure on Facebook, Earl made the comment that we overestimated our abilities. I countered that I think we underestimated the trail conditions.

Overestimate the difficulty of the trail condition

We opted to NOT carry snowshoes. We didn’t think we’d need them and didn’t want to haul the extra couple of pounds on our packs. The reality is that we wouldn’t have been carrying our snowshoes for a significant portion of the hike. We would have been wearing them!

Likewise we were unprepared for the blow-downs that covered the trail. Detouring through the snowy woods required more time and energy than walking on a relatively clear path. Because we were hiking so early in the season, we hadn’t considered that the trail would be is such disarray.

It takes time and energy for trail maintainers (and hikers) to keep trails in top condition. Sometimes you’ll come across storm damaged areas. They will slow you down and require you to expend more energy than you anticipated.

Underestimate your physical ability

Likewise, we had hoped to hike ten miles the first day. We made it six. Luckily hiking six miles each day allowed us to complete the 17-mile hike in the three days we’d allowed for it. If we had planned a three-day 30-mile hike based on ten miles a day, we would have been in trouble. Even having brought enough food for four days, we still would have been hungry by day five.

Build extra time into your hiking schedule to allow for a slower hiking pace.

Lesson Three: Take advantage of every water source

We failed to take advantage of this fast running stream at Bull Run campground for a water source.

On Saturday afternoon we were anxious to reach the Bull Run campsite. We headed off the main trail and started descending quickly on what we hoped was the path to the campsite. We heard the roar of the stream that would be our water source. The temperature seemingly dropped with every step. There were no signs of a campsite. We quickly made the decision to head back up to the trail and find a place to camp.

Unfortunately, we failed to check our water supply before we headed back up to the trail. We did have enough water to drink, but we did not have enough water to cook our dinner or make a hot breakfast or beverage in the morning.

Lesson Four: If the thought of a moose tramping through your campsite freaks you out, hang smelly socks in the trees to ward them off.

I'm convinced these socks kept the moose away while we slept.

I don’t know if the smelly socks kept the moose away, but they did offer me a sense of comfort. I think my snoring also helped scare them off.

Lesson Five: The mantra “Just one more step… I can take one more step” helps during those tough moments when your feet are soaking wet, and your legs hurt, but you know that quitting is not an option.

Hiking is simple. Put one foot in front of the other. Repeat as necessary.

As I wrote above, this hike was the hardest one Earl and I have accomplished. We were climbing over and walking around fallen trees. Ice cold water was slopping around in our boots because we were post-holing in thigh-deep snow.

On Sunday it took us four hours to hike less than two miles. But we did it because we kept putting one foot in front of the other. It really is as easy as that.

Lesson Six: Camp shoes are AWESOME!

When we did our overnight practice run, neither Earl nor I brought camp shoes. We scoffed at the notion of carrying an extra pair of shoes. When you have to carry everything you need on your back, you start to think about what you really need.

During that overnight trip, I discovered that I hated sitting around camp at night in heavy boots. I hated crawling out the tent in the morning and forcing my feet into damp boots. I don’t walk barefoot in my home, I’m not going to walk barefoot in the woods!

This time we both brought camp shoes and how sweet and wonderful they were!

Having camp shoes allowed us to take off our wet boots and socks once we stopped hiking for the night. They gave our feet protection around the campsite while also allowing air to dry our feet.

Camp shoes can be a hot topic on hiking forums. Like many things about hiking it comes down to personal choice.

My choice is that several hours of foot comfort are well worth the extra 1 lb 4.3 oz I carried for 17 difficult miles.

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