I was so excited to spend a few hours in the woods. There's a bike trail that's insanely popular with Central Maine NEMBA, but I never have time to run it on days with less mountain bike traffic. The advance of fall weather, plus a weekday, plus wet conditions combined for an opportunity to explore without encountering a crowd.
I'd had a chance to run it some before, but I had a tight turn-around time and had to head back to the trailhead before reaching the lookout. This time, I had an open schedule: running this trail was literally the only plan I had for the day. Not only would I be able to enjoy the lookout, but there was an extended loop that I was eager to add to my explorations.
Honestly, the first part of the run was great. Torrential rains had busted our local drought only a couple days prior and the hillside was still draining water. Although this made terrible conditions for biking, the trail construction allowed me to run the wet areas, sometimes even through running water, without damaging the trail surface. Even better, some CeMeNEMBA members had leaf-blown this section of singletrack so not only was it easy to follow, but also the leaves were not contributing to slippery conditions.
I made it up to the lookout and truly enjoyed it. I appreciated the cold air and the first sunshine Maine had seen in days. As I left the lookout to begin the extended loop, I immediately noticed that the leaf blowing had stopped. Honestly, I was stoked about this. The wilder the feel of the trail, the more fun I have. Even though I wasn't terribly far from civilization, the woods immediately felt more remote and the footing became more technical. Sliding on leaves and hopping around rocks and roots became part of the fun.
Mountain bike singletrack around here doesn't often have a ton of navigational markers. You're lucky to find signs periodically and you should never assume that the trees are blazed. I made it more than half a mile beyond the lookout when suddenly the trail disappeared. I'd been able to see the bench cult of the trail along the hillside or other users tracks through the duff, but I came around a corner into a glade where the downed leaves were suddenly inches deep and there was no distinguishing features on the forest floor to suggest the direction of the trail. None of my route had been blazed, which was not a problem until now.
I pulled out my phone and opened Trailforks. I could use the GPS features of the app to navigate my way, but I had plenty more trail left to cover. How much was I going to enjoy the wild feel of the trail if I had my nose stuck in the phone? How long before I could see the route again? And how long would my antique iPhone battery last on a cold December morning? And how cold were my wet feet going to get every time I stopped to check my bearings?
I turned around. The trail threaded behind me, clearly visible, headed back the way I came. Although I was sacrificing some tempting new terrain and the satisfaction of a loop, it was not the best choice for me. Some runners say that you never regret a run. Well, I would certainly regret hypothermia and frostbite. I consider myself a strong athlete and an excellent navigator, but sometimes it's just not worth it.
Next time, and I do plan to return, I know exactly what challenges I'm facing. I'm prepared for the distance and elevation of this run and I have a much better understanding of the navigational challenge. If I return once the landscape greens back up, that missing section of trail will magically reappear as a brown ribbon along the forest floor. If it's autumn again before I make my way back, I'll invite one of my trail sisters along for the adventure--two sets of eyes are going to navigate much faster and more accurately than one alone. Although I still have some unfinished business along this piece of singletrack, I got back to my car safe and warm, and I'm not going to beat myself up for quitting while I'm ahead.