Deboullie: Backcountry Paradise

Back in fall 2015 when we decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2017, we realized that it would be good to do some practice hiking. Our goal wasn’t to do something as challenging as Katahdin and Baxter State Park, but we thought that it would be good to sample some varied terrain and get more hiking exposure.

We decided that Deboullie—22,000 acres of reserved public land—would be ideal. It is backcountry with forests, many ponds and some low mountains—what many refer to as the great northern Maine woods. There are 12 miles of hiking trails. Deboullie has 29 primitive campsites. It doesn’t take reservations—it is first come, first served. We figured that we would go in on a Sunday, when weekly campers would probably be leaving. We planned to come out on Tuesday. We decided to do our trek July 17-19.

We were a small group: Amy Chartier, Ethan Burke, Matt Bourgeois, P.J. Kinney, Chad McPherson, Saint and me. With only four men, we knew that the rotations would have to be longer and more frequent. We also were interested in how well I would do with only one Hospitality Hiker.

Deboullie or Bust

We left Presque Isle mid-morning on Sunday. We went into Deboullie through the St. Francis checkpoint. It’s longer than to go through Portage, but the mileage on dirt roads is much less: 8 miles opposed to 20+. We wanted to minimize the dirt road time since I was driving my van, whose conversion to make it adaptive gave it very little ground clearance. One of the things that I learned on this trip was how to drive an adaptive van on dirt roads: make sure that the tires on one side of your van are on the crown of the road or you will tear out the bottom of your vehicle. Going in through Portage, the roads are wider because they get much more use from the logging trucks. We didn’t meet any on our side, which was fine.

Deboullie is very beautiful. Chad, P.J. and Amy had been before but Ethan, Matt, Saint and I were all newbies. We didn’t really have any agenda. I marvel at how well this group gets along. We just really like one another and like spending time together. It’s really pretty neat since we don’t all hang out together or anything like that. But when we do gather, it’s as though we were just together a few days before.

Most of us had no preferences or ideas of where we would stay. We did find that, thankfully for us, there were not many people already there and camped. So we explored a bit and wound up staying at Pushineer, close to the water, in a wonderful clearing, perfect for setting up tents.

Day 1: Getting Acclimated

The weather had been predicted iffy for two of our three days—and it was. On Sunday and Monday, it was very warm, muggy and stormy. So we set up our tents and such before we took off for a hike. I had never seen anyone set up a tent before in real life, much less used one—so it was quite an adventure. Matt generously let Amy, Saint and me use his brand-new Coleman five-person tent. I learned that tent sizing is fanciful, to say the least. To get five people into that tent would have entailed stacking them like cord wood. It would have been great for three people, but no more. We had borrowed a cot for me to use (which we won’t do for the AT) because we thought that Amy alone might have a hard time getting me up from off the group if I didn’t have anything to grab onto. The cot fit into our tent nicely. And it gave me something firm to grab onto when I needed to maneuver. I don’t know that we’d want more than three people in such a tent. The entry flap—the door—is in the side of the tent. It doesn’t go down to the ground, probably as a safety feature from water and critters. So this means that someone needs to carry me in and out, which one or more of the guys always generously did.

We didn’t want to leave my wheelchair out overnight because of the rain and other potential issues. So someone would put it into the van at night and get it out for me in the morning. I explained that the easiest way to manage the chair was to sit in it to drive it. People were a little skeptical at first. Then they discovered how much fun it is to drive it. They had a great time. It’s a wonder we got out of Deboullie without anyone popping a wheelie. That probably would have happened if we had stayed any longer.

Another big plus for this camping area is that I was able to navigate all around it in my power wheelchair. This gave me much more independence than when we did Katahdin. Then, from the moment that we left Roaring Brook, I could not move beyond a fixed spot without help. On the AT, I won’t have my power chair but the special hiking wheelchair that Al has designed and that the students at NMCC are building will make me less of a physical burden: people won’t have to carry me all the time. And we’ll have a fabulous new design that can benefit many others who want to go off road.

Once we got the tents set up and grabbed a little lunch. Then we went down to the pond to savor the peace. The going was a little challenging in my wheelchair. The ground was muddy, so I wouldn’t have been able to assuredly make it down and back without help. But with a little help from my friends, we made it and it was very sweet. That’s when we discovered that Matt is a snake whisperer. He noticed little harmless garter snakes that none of the rest of us were to quick enough to apprehend. Then we set off on a hike. The guys are fit and very game. But carrying with our old carrier that doesn’t distribute the weight well, in the muggies with longer stretches, took a toll. We would definitely want five or six porters for the long haul. The guys got very hot very fast. Clinging to their backs, my body absorbed a good deal of the heat. So I was probably hotter than anyone. This brought home the importance of drinking water frequently—every time we had a switch of carrier. Also, I wear a cycling helmet to protect my head from falls or running into things. Although it has some cutouts, it really traps the heat from evaporating/radiating. At the same time, it’s important for me to wear long sleeves and long pants to protect from trees and rocks: the carriers try to be careful, but I stick out more than they do and so get rubbed up against things continually. So what worked for cooling down was pouring water over my head and on the back of my neck. During hot muggy times it’s important to do this at every rotation, too.

We did a couple of mile hike on Sunday. By the time that we finished, it was raining and the thunder and lightning were getting close. Fortunately, we had also put up a tarp before we left, so we had a good place to sit and chat. We had brought a combination of stoves and cookware. This was a great time to try out some of the dehydrated meals that I had bought. People really enjoyed those. P.J. had brought a kayak and once the weather had cleared, everyone (but me), individually, went for a paddle. That night, we sat around a campfire and talked. This was my first experience being around a campfire. It was lovely just to be out under the stars and talk with good people. The stars were incredibly close.

Using the tent was wonderful. Unlike last year when I was in a lean-to, the tent kept the bugs at bay. (Actually, the bugs were really not much of a problem on the trip in general.) It was very peaceful sleeping in the woods, listening to the trees sighing and moving gently. There was always a nice breeze. I had never seen or heard loons in real life, so that was terrifically neat. We saw bear tracks but had no problems. We were careful to stow all food in vehicles before we went off to hike.

We Climb Another Mountain

Monday we took our longest hike: we did the loop up and down Deboullie Mountain, probably about 6 miles plus. It certainly wasn’t as hard as Katahdin, but it did have some tricky, steep stretches. And unlike with Katahdin, the rocks and tree roots were very wet and slippery. We made it to the top of the mountain in good shape and got a great view. When we had started out it was raining, but it cleared and became very sharp. The top of Deboullie Mountain is the one place in the reserve that has cell phone service. So people took advantage to send texts, make calls, get updates. We had a bit of lunch on the top of the mountain. We signed the guest book and most of our team climbed to the top of the old fire tower to savor the view.

We didn’t want to tarry because thunderstorms were predicted any point from 2 p.m. on. So we set off. There were some views on the way down. By the time that we got to within a half mile of camp, it was storming steadily. So we pressed on with purpose. We got back to camp before the thunder got scarily close.

Amy tried carrying me on this second day and did well. She said that she felt the pressure on her shoulders—which is the problem for everyone. But she said that it was OK and that she could have done for a longer. It was good to learn that a fit woman who is not uncommonly strong could also take a turn carrying.

Mostly Amy looked after Saint. Saint was on a skijoring harness so that the hiker had hands free. Saint is used to being on a very short leash, so the longer leash combined with all the alluring wild smells made her want to explore and wander. I was very pleased that she did so well with the hiking, though. I wondered how she’d do with the heat and the distance. She certainly got hot (as did everyone else), but she did fine. She did get into something the first night that we were there. She came to see me proudly with some substance in her mouth. As is my custom, I asked her what she had (she was so delighted with what she’d found) and pulled it out of her mouth. It was indescribably putrid. If I had been able to amputate my right hand at that moment, I probably would have. I cleaned out her mouth and then wiped my hand off as best I could then. Back at camp, I washed that hand with dish soap then used waterless cleaner repeatedly. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that I could still smell it. (But, again, I really do know better.) I learned from this (well, it was really a reinforcement) that service dog or not, we must continually watch Saint and not let the dog in her take over.

The guys stayed as they had ridden: P.J. and Matt, Chad and Ethan. They were pretty beat after that long hike so the guys went to rest. Amy and I went in our tent and read. Everyone was extremely hungry for dinner. I even ate more than usual—some good vegan stew. Amy broke out M&M’s for dessert. We had another great evening sitting around the campfire. Again, the weather cleared by evening and this time it really cleared and the air changed. It got very windy as a new front moved through. The air dried and turned much cooler. By the morning we were all in jackets and hats. The hot coffee and oatmeal tasted great. Amy taught us that you can add the hot water to the instant oatmeal right in its little pouch and save on dishes.

Our Final Hike—For Now

After breakfast, we packed up. We took down the tents, packed up the cookware and stoves. We were leaving that day, but wanted to do one more short hike. So we drove over to Red River Camps. The owner, Jenn Brophy, was very kind. She didn’t have anyone staying in the cabins that week so we were able to park right there and hike around that pound—a mile or so. This was the most bushwhacking that we did. Because this is leased land from the land bureau, it does not maintain it so well and so it is quite grown up and it is easy to lose the trail. There were times that we got a bit lost, but we knew that we needed to just follow the water. This was our muddiest day and Saint, as a true Lab, went for every puddle in sight. The hike was relatively flat, though, so Amy decided to give the carry a longer try out. I was on her back as we finished our loop and wound up back at Red River Camps. That’s where we have a few full group shots.

Jen let us check out the cabins. Amy would like to bring her family up to stay. We made a pit stop and headed out.

I thought that it would be nice if we all had one more meal together. P.J. and Amy were pressed for time but thought that we could do it. So we stopped in Ft. Kent and the Moose Shack. It’s a really nice little place with wonderful furnishings from large slices of wood. Everything is made fresh and very good. It was nice to be able to sit and eat together one last time for now. This will be our last time with Ethan for a while at least since he is off to grad school in August. But Ethan left us with quite an impression. Besides his maturity, humility, strength in all ways, good humor and all sorts of wonderful qualities, he was also our champion eater. When we had done a training the previous May and had gone to dinner, Ethan had ordered and eaten an entire large pizza by himself. He ordered another large pizza this day and I reminded of his previous achievement. He repeated it. We were all awed by this. He said that he could probably enter and win some eating contests. He said that he definitely would not need dinner. He said that he his hunger was satisfied after many slices but then his pride kicked in. There are definitely many things that we’ll miss about Ethan. For the rest of the folks, as the Jac Pack gets completed, I hope that we can get together on a fall afternoon and try a hike up and down a mountain to try out the new design and get feedback for necessary adjustments before setting out on our truly great adventure.

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