Having heard of the beauty of Maine's backcountry, and wanting to spend some time outdoors in less hot/humid conditions, I made the drive up to Maine both to explore the state and complete the Grafton Loop trail. After a few days visiting with an old friend from college, I picked up Doug at the airport, and we embarked on our journey. We knew we were in for some rain, but the storm that presented itself Friday night was the worst I've ever encountered on the trail.
Grafton loop is situated close to the AT in western Maine near the Baldpates and Old Speck Mountain, and shares the trail for 7 of its 38 miles. We started up Old Speck under partly cloudy skies, and saw several other hiking groups (both day and overnight) on our way up. We even crossed paths with a thru-hiker who was moving with the intensity of someone who knew he only had a few weeks more to go to reach his goal. The trail gave us a lot of awesome looks with exposed granite, waterfalls, and lush greenery. It was humid, but with a few hints of sunlight through the clouds, it was not entirely unpleasant.
We summited Old Speck, and were greeted with nothing but fog. Grafton Loop takes hikers past six summits, so while I knew there would be other chances to take in views, it was a little disappointing nonetheless. After a quick break, we left the AT for the blue blazes of the Grafton Loop, and started a long and steady descent. The trail is of fairly recent construction, and helpfully, the makers put in many footbridges and steps for some of the more treacherous portions of the path. It was an interesting contrast, though: while some areas seemed beautifully maintained, other sections looked carved out by machetes and chainsaws, resembling a tornado's path through the woods more than a hiking trail. It was on one of these sections that the rain began, with some hints of thunder.
The rain was more or less constant from then on, although certainly nothing outside my realm of experience from previous hikes. We made it up to the Sunday River Whitecap, which, given the number of lookout spots, must have afforded some incredible views of the surrounding areas (once again, these were totally fogged in). As we descended off of the summit, the rain began to pick up slightly, and once we reached the camping area, it was clear that something steady was moving in. The trail has several designated campsites near water, and our site had tent pads, an outhouse, and a bear box, which were all luxuries as we set up for the night. I was comforted by the fact that I had dry clothes in my bag, but my wet hiking gear, and the chill of the wind and rain meant that Doug and I turned in about an hour after we had set everything up.
It was about 8:30 when the downpour began, and it didn't really let up until after 11 (with the rain finally stopping around 5 AM). The air was so saturated that even my dry clothes began to get damp, and water invaded my sleeping space by small degrees: the spit of rain hitting the ground reflecting back in, the condensation jarred loose by the pounding deluge, and even the fabric of the tent itself seemed to be leaking, betraying the feeling of security that I had hoped it would bring. My first ever backpacking trip involved a flash flood on the trail, but at least then, we were able to hike back to the ranger station for the night. Here, we just had to tough it out, although in a first, having cell reception in the backcountry allowed me to reach out and fulfill the need misery has for company. After things finally let up, I was able to get some fitful sleep.
Doug and I made an early start on Saturday, although our packs were weighed down by the extra water our tents and gear had absorbed. Everything was soaked through, and we decided to just finish the western portion of the trail and then hike back up the road to the car: more rain was rolling in, with no relief in sight until Monday. We made the most of the hike back, though, enjoying the lack of rain that morning. The trail meandered down to the road over several miles, with many stream crossings, although the trail itself became an impromptu stream in places. Dry clothes and a dry car were a great reward, and we further celebrated our 24 mile journey with some great beer once we got back to Portland.
While definitely disappointed by the bad turn in the weather, the trail itself is one that I want to return to and finish someday. I have a feeling that the views will be worth a second trip under better conditions, and there is enough to see and do in Portland to extend the trip out to five or six days and pick the best conditions from that time to attempt the hike. So keep an eye out for this trip again in the future; I guarantee it's worth a visit!
PS: For those interested in experiencing the rain, I have a short video on my photo page you can listen to. It doesn't fully capture the moment, but if you loop it 10 or 12 times, it might come close:
Umm ... wow ... DC UL trips have been getting some interesting weather recently. (Looks warily at Iceland.)
Laura and I were entertained by your text messages as we sat, warm and dry, watching the Olympics!
Although when you first posted the trip, I hadn't been on my first outing with the group, I thought I might try it out. Then I went to the Black Forest Trail, with similar weather conditions. Glad I didn't go to Maine with you, I might have started to think it was me!