[No photos for this leg unless someone comes up with any to share]
[Instead, here's a fun graphical video "flyover" of the course, along with links to other race videos, if you're interested]
We started off in the early morning hours on foot, trekking near Flagstaff Lake on a trail aiming toward the "pancake oasis" at a hut. I led the way at a fast walking pace, always motivated by the promise of food. A nice trail took us up to a beautiful building with the checkpoint flag hanging out front. Inside we found friendly folks serving delicious pancakes (with real maple syrup!) along with lemonade, coffee, and dessert treats. The hut was beautiful, large and open, with real bathrooms and running water. I'm not sure whether we were more excited about the bathrooms or the food. Or maybe that was just me.
I was intrigued by the composting toilet system, so much that I forgot my Camelbak bladder in the bathroom and had to run back and get it later while the guys were inflating the packrafts. Sorry y'all! We did eventually get moving, getting all the paddles and packrafts ready at the shore of the lake and casting off toward the opposite shore.
Wind was blowing diagonally at us, but nothing too bad, and the Sevylor packrafts handled the lake just fine (and the patch held, yay!). Dima and Val managed to stay ahead of me and Druce, until Druce figured out that he was causing drag on the boat by having his feet in the water. Then his legs started cramping up, so we had a bit of a pause waiting for that to go away while I kept the boat straight and inching forward.
Coming into the little bay with the next checkpoint, we discussed whether we should packraft the long distance to the next point or try using the aerial map of the land in front of us to navigate on foot. We were all for trekking instead of battling the wind and water for several miles, so we decided to check out the woods and see if it might be clear enough to give it a try.
First we had to find the checkpoint - off the water by maybe 50 meters, amid wet and marshy bushes. After a few minutes of searching, we found the checkpoint, then got our packs loaded up since we liked the look of the woods beyond.
I started on a bearing north of west, and soon we hit upon an old overgrown logging road. This showed some promise, except for the mosquitoes we scared up as we pushed along it. This was the start of the real mosquito issue, something that wouldn't let up until we left Maine it seemed. The "trail" went in the right direction, punctuated by shoe-sucking mud at times, but eventually it turned into the trail we were seeking and I could follow it on the aerial map. So that was cool.
Occasionally some breeze helped lessen the number of bugs flying around us, but we did a lot of swatting along the way. As the trail got better we could speed up the pace, and soon we found a trail heading to the south, across a large puddle of water. We opted for the southern of two possible routes, but I suspect the other way would have been faster. It looked on the map like more of a backtrack, but the route we took was circuitous and slow/sandy in places. Once we finally popped out on a main road (like with cars driving on it and everything) it was obvious the northern route, with a lot of it on this very road, might would have been better.
We found a decent spot to head back down to the lake where we inflated the rafts again and looked across a short inlet to the location of the next checkpoint. Another team came down the road as we were putting in, and they found another spot to prep their boats.
As we were starting out paddling across the lake, a motorboat approached and asked if we were team #12? It turns out that our Spot tracker was sending 911 calls without our knowledge (bad Spot!) so we were asked to turn it off unless we actually needed to make an emergency call. We would get a new Spot at the next TA. Bummer, I was enjoying imagining people watching our tracks and getting to compare to other teams later.
We found the next CP just inside the woods, then came around the inlet to the main part of the lake. Our arms thanked us for trekking to that area instead of packrafting the whole way. Trying to figure out the next bearing, we started off too far to the right initially. We were switching from one map to another, and it was rather difficult trying to line it up on the fly. Eventually Druce figured it out and we corrected our course toward an island to the south.
A couple other teams were just leaving this CP, and the team behind us was making good time toward it as well. Druce took us around the island to the left and we landed perfectly, as close to the checkpoint as possible (and it was in the middle of some thick vegetation). Nicely done.
Now it was time to cruise up the south shore for a ways and then find a good take-out spot near an old road. The other rafts were a bit faster, and they all landed a bit further ahead from where we decided to get out. We managed to find a way to shore amid some floating logs and debris, then took a minute to clean the worst of the crap out of our shoes while packing everything back up again.
A bit of pushing through trees, then we located the little road and started trekking. It was a nice morning, a decent path, and we were off the water and starting the "real nav" section. Time to get serious ... or something.
The trail nav was straightforward, and we located one checkpoint near an intersection. We passed a machine that was grading the road, which seemed out of place in the middle of nowhere. We stopped to refill water at a nice flowing stream under a bridge and got attacked by mosquitoes for our effort. We saw a couple other teams, but once we reached the "jump-off point" from the trail everyone headed off in different directions.
Druce and I had a conversation about strategy for finding the correct creek going up the side of the steep mountain ahead of us (the big "up and over" about one third of the way through the flyover video in the above YouTube link). There were 2 parallel streams and we really didn't want to head up the wrong one.
So we came up with a bearing that we agreed with and started bushwhacking up the hill. A while later I started to realized exactly what Druce had been saying, so we stopped to confer about where we each thought the creek confluence was located on the map. It turns out we had differing ideas about that, but the resulting strategy worked either way. That was pretty funny! Eventually we had not hit a creek on the bearing we were on, so we moved to the right and found it, now certain that it was the right one. I won't say who was right, except that this was NOT the reason Druce owed me a beer after the race :)
Climbing up through the vegetation wasn't too bad, just a bit slow, at least until it got steeper. The creek crossed a road that wasn't on our map, which was terribly enticing even though it went uphill in the wrong direction. Forget it, we have to keep pushing on next to the creek. Another team was taking a break on the road, and they then joined us in the uphill trek. Druce eventually followed the creek by climbing up in it, and after a while the checkpoint appeared. Score.
I remember telling Val that that was the easy part. Up ahead: Lots of steep uphill, for much more elevation gain.
We left the creek and climbed to the right. Eventually we wanted to find the saddle at the very top of the ridge to the right, but without getting into the steep slope of the drainage on that side in the lower part of the mountain. Dima led the way with the general idea of going up and slightly to the right.
The slope got steep. The vegetation got thick. Both got worse. So commenced the "bushwhacking" portion of the race. Dima did a masterful job of finding ways through the stuff, as we all climbed over, under, and through bushes, branches, trees of all sizes. A rare downed tree that we could walk along for a few feet was cause to celebrate. I tried hard not to knock my left shin (which I had whacked with a bike pedal the previous afternoon) but I was reminded of it whenever I brushed it against something. We were all careful not to get hit in the face with anything.
We had to take occasional breaks to catch our breath. Sometimes we could see a little through the surrounding trees, and the ridge was still way high above us to the right. We could never see the top above us, the slope just kept going and going. I was really looking forward to the view we were promised in the pre-race literature...
Dima exclaimed that he had found the Appalachian Trail! Oh, except that was just a rare clearing. Created from a large tree falling over, with now-empty space behind the root stock. Ah well, I guess we have to get back to work. Pieces of vegetation down the back of my neck. But hey, at least we're finally high enough that the mosquitoes are gone! Or maybe they just couldn't reach us through all the leaves and branches surrounding us.
We were at the point where we wanted to get further to the right so we wouldn't have to climb quite so high up the peak before hitting the top of the ridge. Dima kept trying to push to the right, but the vegetation kept leading us ever upward. Amazingly, when we finally (FINALLY!!) hit the AT on the ridge, we were only slightly higher than the saddle. Well done, Dima!
Phew, it was such a relief to be on a trail for a couple minutes. So much that I missed a cue for turning off the trail to go down the other side, but we didn't pass it by too much. It was great fun being on the AT in Maine, ever so briefly! Even though we had zero view, darn it to heck. Back into the woods. The south side was steeper (if that were possible) but at least the vegetation was more sparse and we moved a lot better on the downhill slope.
We were now looking for another checkpoint in a creek, except this creek started a little ways down and seemed a bit vague both on the map and looking at the contours around us. I kept thinking that there seemed to be an actual drainage over to the left, but it was more of an optical illusion. Druce and Dima found a tiny bit of water flowing, and they grabbed onto the idea that this was the creek we were looking for.
I was skeptical, and wanted to spread out a bit in the generally left-going direction. But wonder upon wonders, my teammates were exactly correct, and CP18 was directly below us on this tiny bit of water flowing downhill. Wow, I believe I would have had lots of problems with this one if I had been by myself. Awesome job guys!
Time to get off this crazy mountain (and we were so thankful we completed that section in the daylight). I was a little slow in following the guys down, babying my knees and the bottoms of my feet. Hot spots on our feet were starting to be a bit of an issue. We made it down to a trail and followed it down to an actual creek, then up the creek a short ways to CP18B. Back to trail nav again.
Signs of civilization at the bottom! A couple of hikers and dogs, also photographer Vlad at the trailhead. Nice to see people again!
We still had a ways to go to get to Sugarloaf and the next TA. Our feet were starting to hurt, the mosquitoes were back, and we just wanted to get there. Eventually we found our way out to the main road, and the pavement didn't really help matters.
Oh wait, I do have one photo for this section! As we approached the entrance to the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, a woman and her son were hanging out watching for teams and cheering for them. Their enthusiasm was fun, if not a bit puzzling (mid-pack teams aren't used to much fan following on the course unless it's someone you drove up with). They asked for a photo so we posed in front of this sign for them. Somehow this picture made it back to us on Facebook - thank you!
One more walk up a road, and we were "home" to the TA base for the next couple of sections. More later (after some more post-race sleep)...