Ambush On The Long Trail

For our annual backpacking trip in 1991, my best friend Noel voted to hike a portion of the Long Trail instead of adding another segment of the Appalachian Trail to our tally. We chose what appeared to be a gentle-looking segment of the LT starting at Appalachian Gap and ending at Middlebury Gap.

Allowing five days for about thirty miles promised a leisurely stroll in the late August sun. Unfortunately, years of stressful jobs had taken their toll, and we had to push steadily every day to reach our goals. Summiting Mount “Abe” was the hardest part. To my eye, Noel, even though she carried more and more of the load, danced from one slippery, house-sized block of talus to the next, while I inched along, gasping on the way up and clinging to trees on the way down.

On our last night of the hike, we came upon a fully-enclosed cabin at Skylight Pond and were delighted to find it clean and empty. We wouldn’t need to scout for a level, rock-free spot to pitch the tent before dark. As the clear light faded, we feasted on left-over cheese and noodles, and watched two moose wading quietly in the pond under a full moon. Soon after dark, we stowed our packs inside and decided to sleep in the loft.

I had fallen into a deep sleep when Noel elbowed me awake. Always a light sleeper, she rarely got much sleep if she was anywhere within a football field of my bear-like snoring, so I assumed she was nudging me to roll over. I was grateful for the interruption because I had been dreaming of a really tedious and loud talk radio show, and was about to mutter, “Hey, Buddy, can you turn it down?” when Noel clapped her hand over my mouth and whispered,

“There’s somebody out there.”

 “Plenty of room,” I said.

I settled back into my sleeping bag, but Noel, hands cupping her ears, signaled for me to listen. A loud man’s voice seemed to come from the direction of an old logging road we had noted on the way into camp. This was the source of the “talk show”. Catching a few disconnected phrases, I noticed that there was something disturbing about the monologue. Who was he talking to? In tones both hectoring and convincing, he seemed to be over-selling the attractions of the spot to his silent or, possibly, imaginary companion.

“Private…. Nobody within miles…just tonight….It’ll be fine.”

Soon they were close enough for us to hear another person’s responses, a young-sounding male. He was saying in a dull, flat mumble,

 “Oh? Yeah. Um. Really? But we don’t have any gear.”

Noel’s finely tuned antennae sensed something sinister: these weren’t late-arriving hikers. No hiker needed to be convinced that this was a spectacular spot. The monologue lacked any similarity to hikers’ conversations, which generally involve a little boasting and reminiscing about steeper, longer, “badder” trails we have known, usually peppered liberally with teasing. As in,

“Heck, that scrape on your knee is nothing compared to the one I got in Patagonia…”

Without exchanging a word, Noel and I understood that our presence would be both unexpected and unwelcome. No need to discuss it: the loft was a dead end. There was only one ladder to the lower level, one door to the outside, and a good fifty yards to the relative safety of the forest. We silently slid out of our sleeping bags, pulled on our pants, and laced up our boots for a hasty exit. Noel unfolded her two-inch pocket knife and gripped it like a dagger. I grabbed my can of pepper spray from under my pillow and jammed it into my front pocket. Now what? Noel mimed kicking the ladder or the head of its climber - hard. I nodded.

By this time, I was certain the pounding of my heart was audible, and it didn’t help that we had scared each other to death the night before discussing real and rumored murders of women on the AT. Unable to sit tight and wait for the sound of steps coming up the ladder, I started to talk loudly in different low voices to create the impression of a cabin crammed to the rafters with football player-sized he-men.  Better yet, football players in lousy moods. Although Noel preferred silence and invisibility, she joined me as we growled in our best “real guy” voices,

“Who the hell is that making all that noise?”

“I dunno. Tell ‘em to shut the hell up.”

But no one heard us, or the “salesman”, turning bully, would have stopped speaking. Just outside the wall of the cabin, we heard him say,

“Oh, come on. Won’t be light for hours.”

We were out of time: heavy footsteps thumped the ground on the windowless side of the cabin. As ready as we could be, we crab-walked closer to the edge of the platform. I leaned forward as much as my tight pants would allow and peered through the window on the lake side: all I could see were tree branches lacing star-filled skies. Noel was about to slide down the ladder when a loud hissing sound stopped her in her tracks. This was immediately followed by a roof-shattering screech. I knocked her aside, flung myself over the edge, and slid down the ladder missing every single step.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh, God!”

Screaming enough swear words to make a sailor blush, I plunged through the half-open door and ran straight down to the pond. I didn’t stop yelling until I was waist deep in the freezing water. I stayed there until my legs were numb, and my crotch had settled down to a pounding ache. Looking up the slope, I could see that there was no one at the cabin. Not even Noel.

As the first light turned the sky from deep blue to lavender, Noel appeared at the edge of the forest. She approached the pond silently at an oblique angle, pausing frequently to look over her shoulder at the cabin and trail.

“They’re gone. Totally gone,” she called out to me.

“I guess they took off after you started screaming.”

More likely they got the message when I rammed them with the door, I thought.

Reaching the edge of the pond, Noel asked,

“Why did you DO that?”

I was already squelching out of the freezing water, pants around my knees. I sprawled in the mud, doubled over in sobs and helpless giggles.

“Margie, are you OK? What happened?”

Between gulps of air, I tried to explain.

“The pepper spray went off in my pocket.”

- Margie Winslow


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Longtrail 100

VPR is marking the 100th anniversary of The Long Trail with a month-long series of reports and essays. Through this series, we'll explore the history and future of The Long Trail and introduce listeners to the people who built, maintain and hike it today.