ONE HUNDRED DIVIDED BY EIGHT: DEEDRA ZEEH IN THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL'S 100-MILE WILDERNESS
Words & Photos by Deedra Zeeh
What do you tell others about a 100-mile walk in the woods? How do you describe it? Do you tell them that you feel more alive than you have in years? Do you tell them that there were days you hated it and convinced yourself you would never go back? Do you tell them about the distinctive sites, or is that a secret best kept for its discoverers? Then, what about the follow-up questions? Was it the people, the challenge and the pain, or the glory you felt having completed it? Was the green forest all you needed that day after all? Do you chase it again, or do you chase something new?
How do you start?
You just do.
It was a long trail day with a relatively flat landscape and some rolling hills, a few dips, and small climbs here and there. There’s a good variation to see from the start–waterfalls, an epic swamp, ridge walking with crickets popping up at you like hot oil in a pan. I was walking towards Long Pond lean-to.
Thru hikers were zooming by. Most of us ended up falling together at the waterfall, and everyone filled up on water. It felt like everyone here was more experienced than me. They had different shoes or different filters, but this was my journey anyways.
At some point, you enter an actual river crossing with a line tied across the way. Eager to continue my journey and keep up my pace with the rest of the crowd, I naively decided to cross by walking across the river while holding onto the rope. It didn’t occur to me until just about the moment I stepped out the other side–I probably should have changed into my water shoes. My excitement for the trail got the best of me, and I worried that this small error would make a deep impact in the days to come. For now, I wrung out my socks as best as possible and kept moving on. The day was decent weather, mostly sunshine. It hit down hard while crossing the ridges near the swamp but felt cooler under the forest cover. At the end of the afternoon, the Long Pond Lean-to never arrived. It must be close, I thought, just one more mile, and I’m sure I will make it. But miles were walked, and it still didn’t arrive. I’ve realized that this is one of the biggest let-downs of the hiking day at times- not living in the present. You get set on a mile or a location, and as much as this location can hold important aspects of survival (shelter, water), it’s imperative to stay focused on the world around you.
It started to rain heavily. I decided it was time to call it quits for the day, finding a decent spot off-trail to start setting up. Everything felt wet, but to my surprise, the things inside my Hyperlite bag were dry–even after the rain continued to fall. Just as I began to pitch my tent, the torrential downpour erupted and showed no signs of stopping. I panicked and got it up in no time, throwing in the rest of my gear and myself. It rained on continuously for another hour or so and eventually let up. Still, I was exhausted and beaten down by the meager weather and socialization through the day.
Whirlwind start. I was fighting the urge to continue showing my abilities to keep up with some of the thru hikers with the desire to relish every moment of the trail as I should. I leaned toward the latter, hoping it would be a good opportunity to prove my worth to myself. I strung my clothes on my back to help them dry, which would have worked wonders if conditions had been drier. Instead, I lost a pair of pants by unknowingly getting them hung up on a tree.
I met good people on the trail this day. “Firebow” was an AT thru hiker, and we exchanged pleasantries as we passed a few times. Climbing Barren Mountain was a chore, and it was lonely and miserable at times. I found relief when Firebow passed me, and the only words that came out of her mouth this time were “It’s fucking hot” as she huffed and puffed past me.
At the top of Barren Mountain, I met soon-to-be-named “Gourmet,” a fellow 100-mile hiker going a similar speed to me. We shared the feeling of being out of place with the rest of the thru hikers, so, after lunch, we decided to start hiking together. It was such a relief not to listen to my thoughts anymore.
We met up with Firebow along the way and camped at West Chairback Pond that night. I was so grateful to have good people around me.
*A big takeaway here: Learn to listen to your body, dedicate yourself to honoring your body with the movement and the experience of being out there. Our instincts know it is easy to learn fast with direct reinforcement–positive or negative. You touched a hot stove, and it hurt. What about the long-term game? How do you listen to your body when it doesn’t scream? You practice your limits. You stretch them a bit and know when to pull back. Breathe. Breathe. Drink water. What are your body’s initial signs of dehydration? How do you sense your energy levels are low? A fuzzy mind and a weak step can lead to a deadly tumble. You learn to listen.
Overall, it was a decent day of hiking. The weather was hot and humid, but the path for the day offered fewer challenges than the previous one. The only complication here was that the descent from the Chairback Mountains the previous day left us with sore knees and feet and some newly formed blisters. A river crossing by the Katahdin Iron-Works Road was exciting! The water was low enough that it was easy to walk across. A few small day-trails were in the area, and it felt foreign at this point to see clean, fresh-smelling day hikers come through, even just a few days into my journey! Multiple areas deep within the forest were covered in green and moss, so much so that it wouldn’t be out of place to see a dinosaur egg sitting amongst the branches and mushrooms.
We moseyed on for miles and miles, where eventually, the map showed a small pond a couple of miles up ahead that looked like a good landmark for a tent site. Unfortunately, this distance that looked like just a couple more miles turned into another mile and then another until the glorious pond appeared and disappointedly ended up just being a large bog. “A beautiful pond just up ahead” became a running joke over the next couple of days.
We pushed on to the closest lean-to, just before the ascent to Gulf Hagas. It had decent water, the Taj Mahal of outhouses, and pine needles covered the ground. I felt my first sense of being settled here. I was able to hang up some laundry. The people around me were ones I had become familiar with, so having a sense of community put me at ease.
Met a few new characters “Far-Far,” “Rainbow,” “In and Out,” among others.
I left the Lean-to site for Gulf Hagas with nerves about the day’s climb. Gourmet and I continued hiking together, both with hopes of reaching East Branch River lean-to and seeing FarFar and Rainbow there again. I had four mountains to go up that day, with little access to water. This meant starting the day with a full capacity of water to carry over the multiple mountains, including the highest peak of the entire 100 miles, White Cap.
The first two mountains went by with surprising ease, so much so that we missed the sign for West Peak and kept climbing to find Hay Mountain. After our intense climbs in The Chairbacks, we were ecstatic when we reached the peak of White Cap around noon. There was a good breeze up there–the first good one that had occurred since the start.
Eventually, we made it to East Branch River lean-to, which had decent water and facilities. Our same familiar faces showed up that night, and a few new characters as well, including a few SOBOs.
Additional Note: We found out that you can get a food drop set up by the Shaw Hiker Hostel to meet you on Joe-Mary Road. DO THIS. To find out that we would have only needed to carry half the food for all those peaks was frustrating!
The day started pleasantly enough. The weather was still heavy and hot, but I knew I would have decent access to water and little challenges regarding elevation. Gourmet and I set off again with the goal of reaching the Antlers Campsite. We had heard it was a supreme spot, and our other hiking companions were also hoping to reach it. The idea of staying next to a body of water that held the slight chance of being able to swim and rinse off kept us going. The blisters that had developed from The Chairbacks were persisting–so much so that Gourmet had a bad infection in the toe and other areas across the foot. Despite wrapping and bandaging these extensively, it was a struggle to keep anything clean. My own blisters were throbbing at times, but the pain dulled if I kept moving. I took care not to hyperextend my knee to protect whatever ligament I had pulled going down The Chairbacks.
Eventually, we reached the campsite and met some new faces once again. Old ones were present as well. The water proved to be quite swimmable, and my spirit and those of the other hikers were high. It was foggy and misty, but the site itself was still one of the best of the trail. I would have loved to experience a sunset/ sunrise there.
Before retiring that evening, my hiking partner, Gourmet, decided that it was unwise to continue on the trail due to the shape of his foot. I couldn’t have agreed more. Luckily, his wife’s family had a camp that wasn’t too far away, so he was able to call a boat in from a nearby camp and arrange a way to get picked up.
The day started out on a bit of a bittersweet note. I was happy to continue, but it felt odd without my hiking partner. On the other hand, I knew I had to make it to the Golden Road around noon in a few days, where my husband would pick me up. So, the goal was to put enough distance in to make sure that was an attainable timeline but that I wouldn’t have to hit crazy mileage on that last morning. So, I hiked.
There were beautiful rivers and streams along this route, some of the freshest water I have had the pleasure of drinking and seeing. I enjoyed miles and miles of nice flat trails alongside them.
The heat this day was unbearable. I had heard from another hiker the previous day that they were forecasting an insane heat index, so I had an idea it was coming. I kept hiking. It felt very lonely as I was by myself for the first time in days, and I was already tired of my own thoughts. Most of the thru hikers were already ahead of me, so I only saw a few glimpses of people.
As I approached Nahmahkanta Lake, I knew there would be a small climb, but nothing I was worried about compared to the previous days. Of course, this small incline turned out to be a totally sharp one despite some decent steppingstones. I was approaching about 14 miles when I got there, and the heat made it brutal and extremely slow going. It took me twice the time to climb this elevation than it would normally have. The mental game truly started to wear me on this one- I missed my husband and my dog and really hated listening to my thoughts. Yet, I was too tired to dig out my earphones to put on music.
At the peak, I was a bit relieved to see some of the AT thru hikers that had started at the Antler’s campsite with me. They comforted my complaints about the heat with their own, and I felt justified in the amount of time I took to summit. Left to my own at the peak, I was able to get a grand view of the lake below. I checked my phone for a chance of cell phone service, and I was happy to see I had enough bars to call home. The conversation was wonderful and gave me new energy for the most part, but also reminded me more of what I was missing.
I kept going knowing that the dark clouds up ahead would bring rain at some point this evening. I wanted to find a place near the water but knew I didn’t have enough energy to make it onto the Rainbow Stream lean-to.
On I went, even though I reached a decent pond site. The map showed Polywog Stream just ahead. The hike there proved to be longer than I anticipated. Polywog Gulch offered small climbs but some spectacular views.
The descent from the peak of Polywog Gulch brought more frustration and nerves. The thunderstorm was looming, and I was still feeling the mental drag of isolation. Then, all along the descent, baby toads hopped around like crickets, tens of them! I happen to love toads, so these little babies bouncing around almost felt like Mother Nature cheering me on. I was able to do 17 miles with this extra boost and eventually landed a sweet tent spot by the river with fresh water and flat, comfortable ground. I was able to tuck in before the rain showed up.
My goal for my last full day of hiking was to cover enough mileage to make sure I set myself up for success on my last half-day. I knew Rainbow Lake would be a site along the way, and I thought about setting up near the lake or making it to one of the last lean-tos.
My mental state was poor. I couldn’t focus on the present and was too worried about the past and the future. I wasn’t enjoying the hiking around me and instead thought too much about counting miles. It wasn’t what I wanted for my journey, and that mindset was something I had been actively working against on my hiking training. I was out there to experience the world around me, and that wasn’t happening.
Around mile eight, I found a wonderful spot by Rainbow Lake. I stopped to take a breath and eat some lunch and accepted the idea that I would set up my camp here and call it a short day. It was glorious. I was able to completely dry out items of clothes that had been wet since Day One. I read my book and sat in the sun, and took in the wildlife around me. I watched crawfish tackle seven-inch leeches in the fight for their dinner. I saw Merganser ducks swim within feet of my rock perch while looking for fish underneath them. I took the time to be present on my last night in the woods.
A couple of others tented in that same area. One of the gentlemen (Bird Watcher?) lived in Biddeford as well, and it was his eighth time completing the 100-mile stretch. We chatted a bit about the area and our experiences. It was lovely to talk to someone!
I woke up at four a.m. to see if the sky was clear. There were a few clouds, but it was the clearest night I had on the trail as every other one had rain or mist. The Persoid meteor shower peaked that week, and I took the time to crawl out on my rock-perch on the lake to catch a handful of the celestial passers-by and watch the sunrise. It was perfection.
I knew I was early to start to meet my husband at noon, but I had enough time to rest and wanted to move my limbs again. I packed up camp and said goodbyes, and headed out into the woods again. It felt bittersweet to have the journey come to an end. But I was also so happy that it was over. The last eight-ish miles went easily and quickly. There were a couple of ledges to walk on, and the wonderful Blueberry Ridge offered peeks of Katahdin and the surrounding mountains. It was sunny but calm, and the blueberry bushes were stuffed. It was an amazing early morning! As the miles passed underneath me, I appreciated the easier terrain that nature gave out on these last steps.
The sky clouded over the course of those hours, and in the last mile, a loud crack of thunder was followed by a sudden downpour. I stopped to put my rain poncho on at what turned out only to be a half-mile from the Golden Road. As I exited the forest, I saw my husband’s car parked and waiting. Somehow, he knew to arrive a couple of hours early with beer and warm, clean pajamas in hand.
Goodbye Mother Nature–until we meet again.
WHAT ABOUT GEAR? MY JOURNEY AND MY ADVICE
With the advent of the modern internet, we have a world of research at our fingertips which can be both useful and overwhelming. If you’ve never slept outside before, dive into this wealth of information deeply so you don’t go hurting yourself. Start small.
I followed this logical routine and started small, and worked my way up. Pleasant Mountain here in Maine was a good start. It’s close by for me, challenging but quick and rewarding. I kept building up from there, doing as many long weekend hikes and overnights as I could before my big trip.
During your training journey, practice adding more and more gear and weight as much as you can until you get used to carrying everything. Choosing the right gear is the next logical barrier in your venture to the mountains.
It is one hundred percent worth it to buy quality gear. People will tell you, and you will listen, but you might not convince yourself due to the frugal part of your brain. I’m telling you now, don’t cut yourself short on the trail when you are relying on the gear that sits on your back. I was often surprised at how many people complained about bags breaking (except everyone I met with a Hyperlite bag). An equipment failure is the last thing you need on the trail when trying to get enough gumption to climb a mountain and take on 16 miles.
- Keeping your gear organized is also highly recommended. You know where to find the right items in an emergency. You also know how to quickly access your favorite snacks at the end of an exhausting day. I highly recommend see-through or partially see-through stuff sacks when you can use them (Pods, anyone?) They make it easy to find everything without digging.
- I liked storing the heaviest and least needed items toward the bottom of my pack to keep my center of gravity strong.
- Get used to adjusting your backpack during the day. You may not feel as comfortable with the same strap length across the day. Variations in the amount of water you are carrying, or the amount of climbing / heavy breathing you are doing, may require you to adjust straps slightly. This is okay if your essential form stays true.
- Preventing blisters comes down to the right accessories for your feet and natural conditioning over time. Your feet naturally swell after walking all day. I highly recommend sock liners along with your good hiking shoes. I was given some advice to tie them a little looser than normal as this would allow my hot swelling feet to have a little more freedom to move. This has to be balanced with still having the right support. Of course, you should have worn your shoes previously (for many miles) so that they are broken into your feet.
There are plenty of other hiking experts on this site that will give you fantastic advice regarding food and water. Read every one!
MY GEAR LIST
Pack and Accessories
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider 55
- HMG Versa Fanny Pack
- HMG Shoulder Pocket
- HMG Drawstring Stuff Sacks (three sizes)
- HMG Small and Large Pods
- Big Agnes Solo Trail SL1
- Nemo Disco 30 Sleeping Bag
- Therm-A-Rest Sleeping bag liner
- Sea to Summit Escapist Ground Sheet
- Therm-A-Rest Egg Crate Pad
- Jetboil Flash
- Sea to Summit Pour-Over Cups
- Ursack Bearbag
- Grayl Geopress Water Filter
- Sea to Summit 4L Watercell
- Socks and Sock liners
- Base shirt layer
- Hiking pants/ shorts
- Mid-layer jacket
- Water/Camp shoes
- Rain Poncho
- Biodegradable Soap
- Plastic bags (for trash)
- Toilet paper / Wet Wipes
- Toothbrush/ toothpaste
- Sunscreen/ Bug spray
- Anti-diarrhea supplements
- Allergy supplement
- Solar Tent Light
- Knife with Built in Whistle
- Trekking Poles
- Ear plugs
- First Aid Kit
- Gear Repair Kit
- Fire starters- (homemade)
- Bic lighter
- Find Me Spot Locator Beacon
My best last piece of advice involves both people and the trail. When you run into someone on the trail, talk to them for two minutes if they are willing. Ask about their journey and their life. You never know who you will meet along the way.
When planning your distances and days, go for a balance between hitting your distance goals and taking in your beautiful surroundings. It’s easy to get wrapped up in making it to a certain location because you said so or because everyone else is. Don’t forget you are out there to see what “out there” has to offer. If you just wanted to walk 16 miles in a day, you could have done that on the sidewalk at home.
You go in the woods and the mountains and the swamps for the complete experience. You go back again, or you go someplace new. Why are we out there? What do we choose next? The answer is simply yes. What you are looking for is all there.
Deedra Zeeh enjoys learning how the details work and using that knowledge to create and connect with people. Off trail, she’s an electrical engineer, brewer, machine builder, and commercial project manager. She’s hoping to use all this knowledge to someday design something impactful for the environment. A lifelong Mainer, she enjoys doing the things Maine people do like woodworking, welding, obsessing over dogs, fishing, and enjoying The Way Life Should Be.