New Appalachian Trials Gear Review: Arc'teryx Bora² Mid GTX Hiking Boots

It isn’t often that I put on a pair of shoes and feel like I’m wearing a piece of cutting-edge technology. Humans have been protectively wrapping their feet in leather (and other dead animals) since we first stepped onto an overly-sharp pine cone. My go-to boot for the past few years—the Keen Targhee II Mid—has a reliable simplicity to it that, although undeniably comfortable and sturdy, feels like it is just a refined version of the same boots my ancestors wore.
When I strap on the Arc’teryx Bora² Mid GTX Hiking Boots, on the other hand, I feel as if I have stepped into a completely new phase of boot development.
That may seem a bit hyperbolic at first, but even a brief glimpse at the Bora² shows you that it is, at the very least, nowhere near your granddaddy’s boot.
And that’s a good thing.

New Appalachian Trials Article: A Year After the Appalachian Trail

After 136 days, 2,185.3 miles, four pairs of boots, approximately five-million steps, approximately five-hundred face-plants, and dozens of lifelong friendships forged in sweat and blood, I touched the sign marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, perched on the summit of Maine’s tallest mountain, Katahdin.
And then it was all over.

A.T. Thru-Hike Day 136 - July 21, 2014

Destination: Baxter Peak, Katahdin
Starting Location: Katahdin Stream Campground
Today's Miles: 5.20
Trip Miles: 2185.30

I woke up at 4 AM, instantly awake.

Today was the end, the final climb, the culmination of over four months of literal blood, sweat, and tears.

I had my clothes and gear ready within minutes, even though the Baxter State Park entrance wouldn’t open for another three hours. I just couldn’t sit still anymore, so I filled the hours of waiting by stuffing myself full of food—oh, the magic of freshly-cooked eggs and ham! Alison was up and about shortly after I was, and we watched the sunrise together over tea and coffee. I would not replace the time I spent on the trail with anything, but having her here only made me more excited for the grand finale.

After we had waited for as long as I could stand, we finally started heading toward the park at around 6 AM. This turned out to be a good thing, as there was already a line forming at the front gate. We watched as the line of cars behind us grew steadily longer and longer, until finally the queue snaked around a corner and out of sight. Since there is a limit to how many people are allowed into each parking area at BSP, we realized how lucky it was that I was so anxious about arriving early.

The gates opened right on time, and within twenty minutes we found ourselves back at Katahdin Stream Campground and at the base of the last mountain, its immensity filling up the majority of our view. Birdman, Nails, LoJack, and Ranger were there waiting. Everyone was shifting around awkwardly, both out of anticipation and from the awkwardness of hiking without our full packs—today was, in reality, a day hike, so everyone had borrowed day packs from the ranger station. We all gathered for our obligatory “beginning of the end” photograph, touched the sign pointing us to Baxter Peak, and then we began our ascent.
Birdman, Alison, and I hiked together at first, yet as fit as she was, Alison simply did not have the hiker legs that we thru-hikers had developed over the preceding months. Thus, Birdman flew on without us, and I shared a day in the life of a thru-hiker with my wife. While the slower pace was hard to adjust to at first, having her there to share in the adventure definitely made up for it. Up until now she had only been able to experience it through my journals and pictures; now she was getting a taste of the real thing. Judging from the near-constant smile on her face, I think the hiker life may agree with her.

The climb up Katahdin was surprisingly abrupt—I’m not sure when we started going straight up, but within twenty minutes we went from a relatively flat trail to steep incline almost instantaneously. Yet where some of the climbs before this were tedious or overly strenuous, Katahdin seems to give just the right amount of challenge, keeping my muscles stimulated without making my pulse race and allowing me to soak in the scenery. And what gorgeous scenery there was to take in! For the first two miles or so, the trail carves through a pristine alpine forest while following the path of Katahdin Stream, snaking up the mountainside and providing a constant background noise of rushing water. We had to stop and guzzle a liter of this irresistible source, and since Alison brought along my Steripen from back home, we were able to quickly quench our thirst and get back to the climb. The forest around us was so thick that the air stayed cool until we broke treeline, allowing us to avoid sweating too much and save our water supply for the tougher climbs ahead.

It wasn't until we broke tree line that the trail began to bite back, with near vertical Boulder scrambles for miles ahead. Parts of the trail weren't so much physically demanding as they were perplexing, forcing us to stop and figure out how to successfully tackle a section. Here's my favorite example: there was a vertical rock wall directly in front of me with a white blaze painted on it; just above my head (read: I am 6'3" tall) is one half of a rebar handhold; directly next to it is another 3-4 inch sliver of rebar. Solve for "X." It was like I was climbing the equivalent of the A.T. final exam, where I had to use all of the skills I had learned over the past four months in order to successfully navigate the mountain and graduate as a thru-hiker. It made Katahdin, without a doubt, my favorite ascent on the entire trail.

By the way, the answer to the above riddle was as follows: hold onto the rebar handle, use your weight to swing a foot onto the rebar sliver, lift your body up with that leg while finding a decent foothold with the other, and lizard-crawl your way onto the boulder directly above you. Don't forget to avoid the 100-foot drop to your left. That would earn you an "F" for sure.

At about mile 3.5, as we were nearing the top of our extended boulder scramble, I heard an all-too-familiar catcall above me. I looked up to find Spider-Man and Socks smiling down at us, taking a break on the the flattest rock they could find. They had begun their climb in the early morning to see the sunrise atop Katahdin, and we were meeting them on their way back down. They served as our personal cheerleading squad as we pushed on toward the summit, promising us that the end was almost upon us.

They were definitely right, as within a few minutes Alison and I crested the top of a huge boulder and found ourselves on a long field of completely flat terrain. We had just entered "The Tablelands," a mile-long section on the back ridge of Katahdin covered in flat rocks big enough to skip across. We were given 360-degree views of the surrounding Maine countryside, filled with lakes, forests, and almost nothing else. The sapphire sky was the perfect compliment to the green below us, and the sun was warming us as a cool breeze nipped at our skin. Yet all I could focus on was a concentration of small shadows in the distance, all of them convened at the top of the tallest peak around me.
Baxter Peak was within my sights.

The last mile over the Tablelands seemed to take forever in spite of the easiness of the terrain. While beautiful in its desolation—its boulder-riddled field and lack of hardly any vegetation made it feel almost eerie—my eyes and mind were focusing almost exclusively on the goal up ahead. We stopped briefly at Thoreau Spring, located exactly one mile from the summit. The spring was named in honor of the quintessential American author Henry David Thoreau, who visited the mountain years ago and praised the area for its rugged wilderness and solitude (though it was unlikely that he made it this far up Katahdin). I had planned on grabbing a sip of water here, in some way communing with one of our greatest writers, but was ultimately disappointed when the spring was little more than a glorified mud puddle. My desire to ingest equal amounts of dirt and water was not particularly high, so we moved on.

Slowly the path began to turn upward once again, and I knew that I was on the home stretch. Alison decided to hang back a bit, letting me complete my final climb alone. It was very much appreciated—now it was just me and the trail, communing alone one final time. The rocks near the summit had a beautiful shade of pink to them, their surface craggy from years of exposure to Maine’s harsh weather. Up ahead I could now make out the faces of those waiting at the summit: Birdman was there, as was Ranger, Sloth, Nails, LoJack, and several day hikers, all of them enjoying the views from Maine’s greatest mountain. Beside them was the all-too-familiar weathered wooden sign marking the summit of Baxter Peak, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and the end of my thru-hike.

I pressed on. My friends cheered me on as I pushed slowly toward the top. I seemed to be traveling simultaneously fast and slow: why was it taking so long, and will it really be over so soon? Birdman was standing by the sign, waving me on. It was time.

I stood beside the sign and ran my fingers over its dimpled surface. I laid my face on it and breathed a deep sigh. After 136 days, I was finally there. My thru-hike was complete.

I greeted my friends, all of us now officially thru-hikers. Birdman and I embraced and congratulated each other on our success. Alison arrived and celebrated with us as we all took turns having our pictures made with the sign. Nails and Sloth opened bottles of champagne and showered the summit in alcohol before passing the bottle around. I was also told that Sloth and Ranger produced a badminton racquet shortly before my arrival and proceeded to launch their remaining Clif bars into the valley below—we hated these things by now, having eaten so many on the way to Maine. It was our first celebration as thru-hikers, our last celebration on our thru-hike. Though bittersweet, as all great accomplishments must be, the excitement of having done something truly great was undoubtedly felt by all of us.

Slowly, one by one, everyone started to realize that it was time to say goodbye to Baxter Peak and make the long trip down Katahdin. Nails, LoJack, and Sloth were retracing their steps back to Katahdin Stream Campground. Birdman, Ranger, Alison, and I were taking a more ambitious route down: we were going to cross over the Knife’s Edge and journey down the opposite side of the mountain. Knife’s Edge is an incredibly narrow, rugged strip of trail that forms the backbone of Katahdin; on either side of the path—sometimes as narrow as three feet—is a sheer drop all the way down to the base of the mountain. I’m not sure if we truly comprehended the difficulty of this section, but seeing as I had arranged for my parents to pick us all up at Roaring Brook Campground on the other side of the park, we had committed to tackling this beast of a trail.

For the most part, Knife’s Edge isn’t more demanding physically than any other part of the climb up Katahdin; rather, it’s the constant psychological strain of knowing your imminent death (or at least maiming) was just one misstep away. That made for especially slow going, with each of us making extra sure that our footing was solid before pressing onward. At first I was kicking myself at having Alison come along, as her hiker legs were not as used to this terrain as ours were. Yet whenever I looked at her, she still had the same great smile on her face as before—she was handling the stress better than I was! Adrenaline was coursing through my veins as we dipped up and down on this rocky ridge, the path little more than a collection of relatively stable rocks mashed together, and I probably said “slow and steady” so many times that Birdman, Ranger, and Alison were probably ready to push me off the side.

Still, once we got going, it was all really a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, and before too long we found ourselves approaching the grand finale: Chimney Peak and Pamola Peak, the last two climbs before our descent. We had passed by a day hiker who had described this section like this: “Be ready to get your Spider-Man on.” He wasn’t kidding, as ascending both of these peaks was pure rock climbing. Adding to the atmosphere was a poor, unprepared section hiker who was gripping the side of “the Chimney,” too petrified to continue on. Her children were also on the mountain with her, and you could hear the pure fear in her voice as she called for them to be careful. Another hiker was helping her slowly ease her way down the path, so we squeezed by them and continued our climb into and out of the Chimney. The final push up the side of Pamola was a 30-40 foot vertical rock wall, and as we crested the top and rested on the first relatively wide flat spot in over a mile, we sat and enjoyed the view of our accomplishment.

After we had taken a few more pictures and snacked on top of Pamola Peak, we began the final descent back toward tree line and the true end to our journey. Birdman and Ranger once again pushed on ahead as Alison and I took up the rear guard. There was no need to hurry, and we took our time enjoying the views of Katahdin behind us and the lakes surrounding us—I don’t think I could ever get tired of the scenery in Maine. Eventually we went below tree line and found a small spring, and we sat and devoured most of our snacks while guzzling fresh water. Due to the adrenaline of climbing Knife’s Edge, neither of us realized how much energy we had used, and we only had a few peanuts left by the time we had refueled. At long last, we finally reached Roaring Forks Campground, where my mother, father, and Birdman sat waiting for us (Ranger had hitched a ride back over to Katahdin Stream to meet up with Sloth). It had been months since I had seen my parents, though we were all so tired from our journeys that I can’t remember much of our conversation. In truth, my mind was still back up on Katahdin, replaying my final moments as a thru-hiker.

After collecting our car and giving Birdman, Sloth, and Ranger a lift into Millinocket, all of our hiking group convened at a steakhouse in town. Everyone was there, including Spider-Man and Socks, and all of us ordered a huge meal to celebrate the occasion. The mood of the evening was quiet, though, as we were all physically and emotionally drained by the day. We inhaled our food, shared a few stories, and then headed our separate ways for the evening.

I was in bed within minutes of my arrival back at the Big Moose Inn, my body simply unable to move another step. Still, before I closed my eyes for the most satisfying sleep I have ever had, I reviewed one of my favorite photos from the day: a ragtag group of hikers, worn down and exhausted, gather around a lonely wooden sign on top of a rocky mountain in Maine. Their eyes and smiles reflect the gentle joy of accomplishing a long-set goal, of realizing that after months of long days, cold nights, and countless obstacles, they gathered on that peak in triumph.

Special thanks to LoJack for the incredible video.

New Appalachian Trials Article: Baxter State Park vs. Scott Jurek

On July 12, Scott Jurek stepped onto the summit of Mount Katahdin and into the record books: after 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes of hiking, Jurek officially broke the speed record for an assisted thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
The world record was not the only thing he earned, however. According to a post on Baxter State Park’s Facebook page, Jurek was issued three summonses by a BSP ranger while celebrating his victory atop Baxter Peak, the Northern Terminus of the A.T. The post states that Jurek had been cited for the following offenses:
…for the drinking of alcoholic beverages in public places (BSP Rule 7 and Maine State General Law), for littering (BSP Rule 4.5) and for hiking with an oversize group (BSP Rule 2.2). In addition, media personnel were issued a summons for violation of a commercial media permit which prohibited filming within 500′ of Baxter Peak.
The Baxter State Park Authority (BSPA) has made no secret of their concern for the influx of thru-hikers over the past several years—in particular, the unwanted behavior that sometimes accompanies some of the thru-hiking community. In late 2014, the BSPA issued a letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy voicing these concerns, concluding that if there was not a “commitment to [the] sustainable use of the AT and preserving the wild experience along the trail,” then “[r]elocating key portions of the trail or the trail terminus would be another option.”
In other words, if the ATC and thru-hikers are not able to find a way to coexist with the conservation efforts of the BSPA, the northern terminus of the A.T. may have to find a new home.

A.T. Thru-Hike Day 135 - July 20, 2014

Destination: Katahdin Stream Campground
Starting Location: Hurd Brook Lean-To
Today's Miles: 13.40
Trip Miles: 2180.10

We emerged from the woods to find that, at long last,
we were on the doorstep of Katahdin.
The early morning sun cast a familiar orange glow through the silnylon rain fly of my tent, waking me from a deep, restful sleep. While my mind was rushing from a wave of emotions and memories, my body's biological clock still has the ultimate say.

I am well rested and immediately excited, knowing that I will rest in the shadow of Katahdin by day's end. Though I was the first one up—the usual for this group—the campsite was soon a bustle of activity. Even Birdman was up relatively early today, which always means that something different is in the air.

Breakfast was inhaled and everything was stashed in my pack on automatic pilot; I could probably pack it in my sleep now. My pack was super light due to my complete lack of food, as everything was gone other than a few granola bars for the day.

Plus, due to our proximity to Abol Bridge, no one was particularly worried about being hungry for three measly miles. My last day will definitely be one of my lightest, as our constant proximity to water also means I have no reason to camel up water for the hike.

LoJack and Nails were the first two on the trail, but Birdman and I quickly caught up to them. The last three miles of the Wilderness were uneventful topographically, offering smooth stretches through evergreens and moss-covered boulders. I feel as though this stretch is one of the best reminders of the desolate beauty we are leaving behind, a quiet refuge from the modern world. Or maybe it just seemed that way when we hit "Golden Road," the official northern border of the 100 Mile Wilderness. While this road by no means a superhighway, we immediately saw several trucks speeding down this semi-paved roadway, spraying up clouds of dust and asphalt chunks in their wake. Yet even this couldn't detract from the grand sight from Abol Bridge itself: Katahdin, less than 10 miles away, was illuminated by the morning sun, its entirety reflected again by the waters of the Penobscot River. Birdman and I were transfixed for at least ten minutes, staring at the immense goal for which we had striven for over four months now. Eventually our appetites pulled us away, however, and we pressed on to Abol Bridge Campground.

The view from Abol Bridge was even more beautiful than I could have imagined.
Katahdin, hosting its own cloud, rested peacefully in the distance.
The campground was packed with RV’s and huge pop-up tents, a stark difference from our comparatively tiny backpacking tents. We didn’t stop to chat, though, as we were immediately drawn to the camp store. Though the restaurant inside was regrettably closed until lunchtime, we were still able to fill up on chips, muffins, chocolate milk, and fresh coffee, more than enough to fuel us up for the last stretch. We sat with LoJack and Nails, devouring our wares while staring back at Katahdin. After our hikes, we won’t have the excuse to eat unlimited amounts of food—though I suspect my metabolism will stay “crazy fast” for at least a few weeks, I’m sure that having a pint of Ben & Jerry’s as an appetizer will probably be bad idea.

After we satiated our appetites (somewhat) and Birdman bought supplies for his last night in woods, we loaded up our packs, continued down Golden Road for a short while, and then veered back into the woods. Before long we came across the official entrance to Baxter State Park, where we signed the register and looked over the park map. As we rested, two section hikers came up and asked if we were thru-hikers. “That’s amazing, you did it!” they said, thrilled by their luck of seeing such a rare breed of hikers. While I guess they were technically correct, I certainly didn’t feel like a thru-hiker yet—and I doubted that I would until I touched the terminus sign atop Baxter Peak.

The remainder of the trail today followed the Penobscot River, making for easy, flat hiking and a constant white noise of water crashing over rocks. We had to cross the river twice, though true to form, Birdman and I spent a ridiculous amount of time searching for a place where we could rock-hop across rather than taking off our boots. That added at least 20 minutes to our day, and both of us nearly slipped into the river and got completely soaked, but we eventually reached the other bank and laughed at those who mocked our rock-hopping skills. Of course, such hubris always has its price, and shortly afterward Birdman took his final tumble on the trip with a loud “thud!” While he was fine, one of his trekking poles was bent at a 45-degree angle. It was terrible timing, seeing as he might actually need his pole tomorrow.

Other than that, the trek was uneventful but beautiful. The sun shined through the evergreens and a gentle breeze kept the mosquitoes moderately at bay. Just after noon, we began crisscrossing other trails that laced through Baxter State Park, and we skirted around the huge ponds that rest at the base of our last mountain. Finally, after crossing over one last dirt road, we found the sign pointing us to Katahdin Stream Campground, and we found ourselves directly in the shadow of Katahdin. We made our way over to the nearby ranger station, where we found LoJack and Nails talking to the ranger on duty. We all packed into the small cabin office, which was filled with a large 3-D map of Katahdin and dozens of different paper brochures. One by one, we reported our names, starting dates, and personal information, and then we were given our thru-hike completion numbers—I was number 56 to complete a thru-hike that year. I signed in as number 288 at Amicalola, meaning I had somehow passed 232 people on my way here. I honestly wasn’t in that big of a hurry, but I guess I understand why people kept saying that I was flying down the trail.

And then we were done.

All that is left is our final 5.5-mile ascent to Baxter Peak, reportedly one of the most strenuous climbs of the entire trip. None of us are intimidated, though, as our veins are coursing with adrenaline in anticipation of our grand finale. Nails shared a few tears of joy before she and LoJack made their way to the road, hoping to find a hitch into Millinocket for the night. Birdman and I shook hands on a successful adventure, then parted ways—he will be staying in the Birches tonight (the shelter reserved solely for thru-hikers), whereas I will be picked up by Alison and taken to our hotel. However, when Alison arrived a few hours later (fashionably late, as always), she had several cases of soda and beer in tow—she had one last opportunity to be a trail angel, and she performed flawlessly. We dropped these wares off at the Birches, where we also met up with Ranger, Spider-Man, and Socks. We shared a drink and some stories, already reminiscing about days gone by.

I’m now resting at our hotel, the Big Moose Inn, just a few short miles from BSP. We’ve already warned the hotel staff that we will be leaving early, so we should have a great breakfast ready for us before heading to the park. We will be running into Millinocket to do laundry and grab some snacks for tomorrow’s trek, as my supplies are pretty much nonexistent at this point. I’m not sure how well I will sleep tonight—it already seems unreal that the end is practically here.

Who am I kidding? I'm going to sleep like a baby.

After six days in the 100 Mile Wilderness, we finally caught sight of pavement.
While Golden Road may not seem like much to some of you, it was almost alien to us
after being surrounded by nothing but trees and hiker stink for so long.
Abol Bridge gave us easy passage over the Penobscot River on our way to the final resupply point.
The Penobscot was gentle enough to offer a mirror reflection of Katahdin,
doubling the excellent view.
The Abol Bridge Store had just opened when we arrived—now that we woke up with the sun,
it was hard to keep track of when most people were out and about in the "real world."
While other people flocked to Abol Bridge for the campsites, we were much more interested in the ice cream and other snacks. Birdman, who is staying in Baxter State Park for the night, also needed to purchase his final resupply.
The countdown has begun. On a normal day, we could be on top of Katahdin by sundown.
Of course, these next two days are nowhere near "normal" for us thru-hikers.
We turned off of Golden Road onto the gravel road leading into Baxter State Park.
Established by nature enthusiast Percival Baxter, BSP serves first as a wilderness preserve and second as a recreational area.
So leave the bikes and poochies at home, kids.
The Nesowadnehunk Stream was supposed to be our final ford. Stating :tradition," Birdman and I searched for at least
30 minutes for a path that would allow us to keep our shoes on. Keeping tradition intact, we eventually succeeded.
We are in single digits! Repeat, we are in single digits!
You know that you are close to the finish line when every sign is designed for southbound hikers.
If we get lost at this point, we don't deserve to find Katahdin.
See the motion blur in this picture? That's because you couldn't convince me
to stop moving and take a picture of this gloriously flat trail.
We emerged from the woods one last time. This is what we saw.
And with that, we officially have 5.4 miles left to walk on the entire Appalachian Trail.
That, my friends, is what bliss looks like.
Katahdin Stream was irresistibly clear—I must have drunk at least a gallon of this before the day was over.
We tromped over to the ranger station to make the completion of our thru-hike official. LoJack and Socks were there
just before us, and we all walked in together to finish our hikes.
And with that, I became the 56th northbound thru-hiker in 2014.
There's just one more thing I gotta do...