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When Laura Rushfeldt stepped onto the Appalachian Trail near Caratunk, Maine last weekend, she wasn’t looking for an epic. Rushfeldt, a 38-year-old Boston-based hiker who goes by the trail name “TypeTwo,” was more than a year into her quest to piece together the AT, and she had already experienced just how tempestuous the trail’s northernmost state could be. The previous fall she had kicked off the Maine portion of her hike by backpacking the trail’s notoriously difficult Mahoosuc Notch section in 35-degree sleet. Since then, she said, the weather hadn’t let up; she had backpacked in zero-degree temperatures and trudged through inches of fresh snow.
“It seems like every time I go up to Maine it’s throwing something new at me,” Rushfeldt says.
Her latest trip, she expected, would be different: Rushfeldt’s plan was to hike 34 straightforward, rolling miles through the woods from Caratunk to Monson, covering that distance with her dogs Wylie and Wolfie in a leisurely two and a half days. But from the get-go, her hike took a turn for the worse.
— lrushfeldt (@LRushfeldt) June 19, 2023
Rushfeldt had expected rain, but her first day on the trail, it poured. A storm dropped more than 3 inches of precipitation in 12 hours. Her tent wasn’t able to stand up to the downpour, and by the time she gave up and broke camp at 4:30 a.m. the next day, she, her dogs, and her sleeping bag were all soaked. Rushfeldt hoped she could reach the next shelter early enough to dry out her wet bag. For miles, she waded along flooded trails like “shin-deep canals” and carried her gear and both dogs across two branches of waist-high Marble Creek. Finally, just one big obstacle stood between Rushfeldt and the safety of her next campsite: the west branch of the rain-swollen Piscatquis River.
“It was roaring as if it were a waterfall,” she says.
Maine has experienced an unusually wet start to the summer. In a tweet, meteorologist Keith Carson of Portland NBC affiliate News Center Maine noted that early-summer storms had dropped rain across swathes of the state every day but two in June so far. Besides juicing up rivers and sparking flood warnings, that moisture has also thrown hikers’ plans into disarray. On June 20, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy announced that the canoe shuttle that usually ferries hikers across the Kennebec River would pause until further notice due to “extremely high-water levels,” leaving thru-hikers to hitch or hoof the 30-plus-mile detour. In another post, the ATC warned hikers that high water levels across New Hampshire and Maine could make other crossings difficult or even impassible.
“Hikers should exercise extreme caution at crossings,” the ATC wrote. “Hikers may need to seek alternative routes to safely cross, wait for water levels to go down, or turn around and hike back to the nearest road. Hikers should pack extra food and supplies in case they are delayed due to the high water. Throw a stick into the water and see how rapidly the water carries it away. If you cannot walk as fast as it is moving, then it is not safe to cross.”
Northbound hikers on the final stretch of the Appalachian Trail have to negotiate a bevy of river and stream crossings, with the AT’s Maine section alone traversing more than 20 that are 30 feet or wider, many of them unbridged. The Kennebec in particular is so hazardous, The Trek writes, that the ATC and Maine Appalachian Trail Club established a seasonal canoe shuttle after a drowning in 1986 and made it free in 1994. While drowning deaths are rare on the AT, they still occur, as in 2018, when military veteran and thru-hiker Michael Camiso died while trying to swim the Kennebec.
About 4:30 am, we gave up the fight. The last dry part of the sleeping bag was rapidly taking on water, and we had enough light to pack up. I figured we could get to our next campsite VERY early, and have time to dry out in the shelter cabin before others arrived. pic.twitter.com/t9JRWqRckC
— lrushfeldt (@LRushfeldt) June 19, 2023
While Rushfeldt was skeptical that she and her dogs would be able to cross the Piscataquis River—she was already wading through hip-deep floodwaters by the time she reached where the banks would normally be—she decided to test it. Holding onto a tree, she stepped into the river and immediately sunk up to her chest. When she tried to find her footing, the current swept her under. Rushfeldt was only able to pull herself to safety thanks to her grip on the trunk.
It was only later, after she had backtracked and bailed out to safety on a logging road, that Rushfeldt realized just how lucky she had gotten. In a post on her Twitter account, Rushfeldt shared a chart showing the discharge of the Piscataquis River. Where the waterway usually runs at roughly 90 cubic feet per second in mid-June, the river’s flow that weekend peaked at nearly 3,000. The ordeal seemed to have made an impression on Rushfeldt: In the same thread, she jokingly posted that she was “never going outdoors again.”
Reached by phone a few days later, however, she was already walking that back.
“I said that the first time I did a winter hike too, and now I do multiday, overnight, winter hikes and I’m doing a 350-mile ski race across Alaska in February,” she said. “So clearly I’m a liar.”