Annually I hike some crazy mountains in Maine with my teaching buddy Paul. We’ve busted a gut for five hours hiking the Appalachian Trail to Old Speck Mountain; we challenged Borestone Mountain near Monson. Today it’s Tumbledown Mountain near Weld, north of Rumford.
At 430A, I wake, polish off a bowl of oatmeal, and head north from York – an hour by car to meet Paul. Our first order of business is to find a small town breakfast place. Heading north on route 4, we cross over the Androscoggin River from Livermore Falls into the town of Jay. Immediately on our left, we see a sign for the Mill Street Café. Lisa welcomes us in to what was once the old office building of the main mill when making paper by International Paper ruled the roost.
With the Café all to ourselves, we ponder our breakfast choices. For me, pancakes are a temporary, deceptive pleasure; delectable because of their cake-like nature, but I’m left hungry an hour later; that will not do when we are hiking Tumbledown Mountain, a three thousand foot peak, on a 90 degree day. When breakfasting out, my default meal is two eggs over easy, home fries, and the most exotic toast they have. Today it’s multi-grain.
To top it off, Lisa is a $5 waitress. Though the total bill is a very modest $12, we bump up the tip because of her engaging personality and excellent service. She’s just a pro.
Traveling north on route 142, we stop at the town of Weld to resupply. At 9A it’s already 85 degrees with temperatures across the state of Maine today going north of 90 degrees.
Driving 5.8 miles down the Byron Road (a dirt road), we park, lather on the sunscreen, and load our backpacks with extra water, turkey sandwiches, apple slices, gorp, and cut-in-half baby carrots. The trail begins a mere 150 feet from the parking area.
The guidebook says the 1.9 mile Loop Trail to the summit has 1900 feet of elevation gain and takes an hour and forty-five minutes. Walking into the woods, we thankfully find the trail almost entirely shaded, though very rocky.
Following the blue blazes, I use my trekking sticks for balance as well as it being an added workout for my arms. In short order we go from a slight elevation gain to stepping up and over rocks.
And then it gets serious. Without a slide rule we estimate the trail to be at least a 60% incline. Grabbing handholds in the rocks, we scramble over mini-boulders and feel all of the 90 degree sun in our soaked shirts. Wearing Under Armour rather than cotton, I find my shirt wet, but not clammy and clingy. My lightweight Nike shorts keep me cool and, I know what you are thinking, make you cool!
As I trod/climb/grasp upward, all I see is rocks, the sloped ground in front of me, and occasionally a glimpse of Paul’s hiking boots. Putting away my trekking sticks, I find them of little use at such a steep angle. I know that the trekking sticks will be a godsend on the way down for these creaky knees of mine.
The trail levels off in sight of the top, but another steep climb lies before us. We have decided there is no way we’ll climb down this mountain. Though it means an extra mile and a half walking on the Byron Road, we can double back by way of the Brook Trail after getting to Tumbledown Pond.
This is no hike. This is a Himalayan climb sans Sherpas. The pitch is severe and we grab rocks to make our way to the top. We have heard stories about the “Fat Man’s Misery” crack through the mountain. It’s a side trail that we mistake for the main trail. Paul, ever fearless and intrepid, heads in while I sit back thinking there is no way in God’s green earth I am going in that hole/tunnel of rock. I’ll climb back down before I enter that devil’s den. Paul returns with news that this can’t be the trail for it ends with a fissure to the outside.
Relieved, but wondering what the hell Paul has got me into, I follow him as we backtrack and push upward. And then we see “The Chimney” opening. The guidebook describes this tunnel through the mountain as not safe for novices, children, or dogs. Really! 65 year olds beware. With nowhere else to go, Paul heads into “The Chimney” and I follow.
There are three rungs of rebar strategically placed within the ascending stone tunnel of mountain. Paul takes his backpack up, then returns for mine. He’s just a flat out stud. Draw your own conclusions about me. I have no choice but to enter the maw of the monster.
I bang my head on the overhang rock but maintain my balance. Paul, a spry 50-something, made it; there’s at least a chance that I can. Grabbing the first rung to my left, I see light coming from above. I’m trusting it’s not my Maker calling my name. So far so good. A couple feet higher to the right is the second rung. I step on to the first and swing my foot up to the second. Needing all my flexibility, I do reach it and push up with my right foot. I reach for the third rung and see daylight above. I am not going to die.
Pulling me through, Paul beams his amazing grin that broadcasts, Isn’t this the best!
It’s very cool. And Paul, you got me through! It took us two hours and fifteen minutes, 30 more than what the guide book says. It must have been a mountain goat that wrote this entry.
On ridge trails, we luxuriate in their levelness and head to the right towards Crater Lake, now named Tumbledown Pond. Spotting swimmers on the island in the pond, we are later told that it is the highest pond in Maine.
Snaking our way down to the pond, we find this hiking to be child’s play after the Loop Trail.
High school kids and families dot the shoreline. If they are here, descending the Brook Trail clearly is doable. We relax over lunch with our feet in the pond with a light wind and an air temperature a comfortable 80 degrees.
At first the 1.9 mile Brook Trail has us scrambling down boulders, but soon it gently slopes through the forest and eventually takes us on an eroded, rock strewn trail that was once a logging road.
We see families and young campers pass us on the trail heading for an afternoon swim. As we near the end of our hike, I think how one-to-one hiking is just the ticket for we introverts. We make it to the Byron Road in 75 minutes, exactly an hour less than our ascent.
Since we have come down the Brook Trail, we have 1.5 miles of walking on this very sunny, very dusty, very gravelly Byron Road ahead to Paul’s Honda.
I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed hoping a car will pass our way and pick us up. Though, walking this hot, dusty road is a small price to pay for not descending the vertical hell of the Loop Trail. After 10 minutes, the first car rumbles by and we yell. The driver pauses, thinks we are kidding, and starts to pull away; so we whoop it up even louder and he gets the point that we’d love a ride; as a fellow hiker, he welcomes us into the backseat. Today we all are fellow members of the community of hikers.
Packed and ready to head for home on the coast of Maine, we have one final stop. The west fork of the Swift River.
Paul has always wanted to pan for gold and I think “What the hey.” The water is refreshingly cool as we dunk ourselves in the rushing stream.
A gold panning family offers us tips to swirl the water in the pan and let the heavier gold settle to the bottom. It takes far more patience than I have and in the end we leave with some fool’s gold and mica. Keep your day job if you think panning for gold will bring you riches.
Spent, we head for home. Let’s not mince words: The Loop Trail is a tough, rugged, nasty hike. It takes your soul. It’s just mean.
That said, we did it!
Click on this “one minute video” of the Loop Trail hike to Tumbledown Mountain. What the filmmaker describes as “Fat Man’s Misery” is in fact “The Chimney” that I described. It’s not the walk in the park the video might suggest.