Stevie Dembowski enjoys seeing world on foot

SP 52 stevie dembowski hikeBy Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Stevie Dembowski has found that the best way to see and experience the beauty of nature is by walking.

“I’ve been in love with the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I grew up on Sebago Lake, and went on many family hiking and camping trips,” said the Casco resident, who graduated from Lake Region High School in 2005.

Stevie attended summer camp at Camp Pondicherry in Bridgton and Camp Natarswi in Baxter State Park (years later, she would return to the camps as an employee), which sparked her appreciation for outdoor living.

“I hadn’t really done much backpacking until my sister suggested we do the 100-Mile Wilderness in 2010,” she said.

The 100-Mile Wilderness is the section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) just before Baxter State Park and is considered the most remote part of the Trail as it neither crosses a paved road or is near any towns.

“Our trip was a success and it was where I first got the inkling that hiking the AT was a thing I could do. It was a big time commitment though, so I put it on the back burner,” Stevie said. “My hike of the 100-Mile Wilderness gave me the confidence that I needed that walking across Ireland could be a viable option.”

After high school, Stevie attended Cornell University, where she graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in Animal Science. She went on to work for Pineland Farms Natural Meats in Fort Fairfield for a couple of years. Stevie realized she wanted to travel before settling down in a career and grown-up life.

So, in the fall of 2011, Stevie decided to realize a lifelong goal of visiting Ireland.

“Having wanted to go for so long, I realized that I had no idea what I wanted to see. I wanted to take in as much as possible on a rather meager budget. I decided the cheapest way to travel would be on foot. So, I researched long-distance walking paths across Ireland,” she said. “I found a ton and began planning my route. This resulted in a two-month backpacking tour across the country, covering 600 miles. At the close of my journey, I hopped a ferry to Scotland and essentially couch-surfed my way across Great Britain for a month, staying with old friends I’d made back in summer camp some years ago.”

After the trip, Stevie returned to the States, needing work and to replenish her finances. Hiking, however, became a passion.

“After backpacking and visiting all my old camp buddies, I recalled how important those summers had been to me and resolved to find some way to find the magic of summer camp during the school year. I discovered it in the field of Outdoor Education and traveled to Texas to work there. It was in Texas that I made friends with the girl who I would go on to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail with,” Stevie said.

Stevie felt she was prepared to take on this challenging excursion. She had experience as trip leader, having worked at Camp Natarswi and Camp Runoia (in Belgrade Lakes), and taught outdoor living skills at Pondicherry and Natarswi. She also participated in the Junior Maine Guide Program.

“While trip leading for Camp Runoia in the summer of 2012, a lot of our hiking and backpacking trips took place on the AT. I continued to meet thru-hikers and was further inspired,” she said.

On March 15, 2013, Stevie stood on the summit of Springer Mountain in Northern Georgia watching the sun set. After spending the winter making preparations, she was finally at the start of the Appalachian Trail.

Now, the only thing left to do was walk.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail was the longest hike Stevie would tackle. It runs through 14 states on the East Coast totaling 2,185.9 miles in length and, on average, the trail takes four to six months to traverse.

“I feel as though challenges and memorable occasions go hand in hand. I once overheard a guide say, ‘The trouble with good stories is that you have to survive them first.’ A lot of the people I met on the Trail started solo and made friends along the way. I started with a friend of mine, a girl named Jackie Lambert from Richmond, Va. We also finished together, which is the question most people follow with. After hiking Ireland by myself, it was a welcome change,” Stevie said.

The AT experience will always be a memorable one for Stevie Dembowski. There were good days. There were bad days.

“Everyone grumbles about the rocks of Pennsylvania, the place Bill Bryson noted, ‘where boots go to die.’ He wasn’t wrong. It’s the kind of rocks that they are that cause such damage,” Stevie said. “Being from Maine, I know a thing or two about hiking on rocks, so I loved every minute of my time in Pennsylvania. I think I was the only one.” After Pennsylvania, hikers battled bugs in Connecticut. Despite being in New England and so close to the finish, Stevie couldn’t fault anyone for dropping out there.

“They were maddening. Mosquitoes, swarmed by the hundreds, making it impossible to stop for water, let alone catch your breath or eat food,” she said. “Bug spray, even the good stuff, didn’t last long because it was so humid, you sweated it off in minutes. Or, it was raining. The bugs were still out when it rained.”

All along the Trail, at different points, hikers’ bodies started to fall apart. Women retained weight better than men, but their feet swelled and ached. Toes developed ingrown nails or blisters.

“I had a pair of shoes that blistered me up pretty good before I was able to retire them and get a new pair,” Stevie said. “My friend Jackie hiked her shoes to pieces. The lack of support messed up her legs until she got a new pair of shoes.”

Right after the Maine border, Stevie’s knees started to act up, no doubt as a result of her propensity to “bomb down hills.”

“The hills were quite steep in the section we’d just completed: The White Mountains. The pain never went away, but I was far too close to quit, so I just wrapped my knees, and carried on,” she recalled.

Rain can be a challenge to some, but after hiking Ireland, it wasn’t one for Stevie.

“Thunderstorms are no joke, but sometimes you can’t help where you are when they hit and the only safe thing to do is hike on,” she said.

The biggest challenge came in Maine, right after the group’s entrance into the 100-Mile Wilderness. Along the way, Stevie met many people from all backgrounds and vary in hiking styles and speeds.

“Some stick with you for an hour, some for months. A boy who’d been walking with us since the halfway point in Pennsylvania slipped and fell and was having trouble putting weight on his foot. Thinking it was just a sprained muscle, he’d be able to power through, we fixed him with an ankle brace we had with us and he said he wanted to press on,” Stevie said. “Remember now that there are no roads and towns in this section of the Trail.”

After about half the day had passed, the group had barely gone five miles (on an average day, the merry party could do 15 to 20 miles). The boy decided that he couldn’t do the rest of the Trail. The group only had enough food for five days because that’s how long they knew it would take them to travel the distance (barring any disasters). At their current pace, they wouldn’t make it. By a stroke of pure luck, they happened across a gentleman who had a map of the area that showed an old logging road nearby.

“We were able to escort our friend out. When it was all said and done, our friend, who we later learned had broken a bone near his ankle, hiked eight miles that day. Without him, we only hiked a few more, but we would have to hike much farther in the following days to get to Abol Bridge Campground, on the other side of the Wilderness, to get more food,” Stevie said. “We were successful, but, the fact that we were so tight on food had us scared. Hikers need a lot of food to get by. They burn way more calories than they consume.”

Trudging down the road from Franconia Notch State Park, the hikers planned to make a pit stop in town for a chance to eat, do laundry and take much-needed showers. The hikers hoped to hitch a ride into town, but there was absolutely no traffic heading the way they wanted to go. The sun was boiling. Just when they thought the day couldn’t get worse, a car pulled up alongside and asked the hikers if we needed a ride. The three hikers piled in and the driver asked them where they wanted to go.

“Showers had been on the forefront of our minds. But that was at noon. Now, all we wanted was food. I told the gentleman at the wheel that my sister had told me about this place called the Woodstock Inn. It was a microbrew and I knew we could all use a beer. When we rolled out of the car and as we eyed the place, I had immediate doubts about being let in. It looked kind of classy, and that was the opposite of our current condition. Our chauffeur informed us they he would find us a way in and a seat outside so we wouldn’t offend the patrons with our smell,” Stevie said. “He returned a short time later and led the way to the patio. Then this charming fellow, by the name of Adam Britton, took a seat alongside us and listened to us as we regaled him with stories of our adventures. He told us of his time over in Japan where he’d been stationed for some years.”

When it came time to order, Stevie found the largest burger on the menu — 36 ounces of meat, topped with a BLT that she hoped would quell her hunger.

“When it came time to pay for the check, I realized I didn’t even know the cost of the monstrosity I had ordered. I had been too hungry to care. Then, the most amazing thing happened. Despite watching three dirty thru-hikers eat like savages, the wonderful human that is Adam Britton paid for our meals and our beers,” she said. “There are so many great stories of folks showing kindness to hikers, an act referred to on the Trail as ‘trail magic.’ I could talk for ages about all the good will received despite the look and smell of us. There are days that are hard. There are days you wouldn’t believe if you hadn’t been there yourself. But there are also days that are magical, that renew your faith in humanity, or leave you baffling in awe at the beauty of nature. At no point in my journey did my hardships outweigh the wonder. I would do it again in a heartbeat and I would recommend it to all who are able.”

On Aug. 16, five months and a day after her start from Georgia, Stevie and her hiking companions woke up in the wee hours of the morning to climb the final mountain: Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT.

“Our hike was made mostly in the dark in order to reach the summit in time to watch the sun rise. With that final ascent, not only did I successfully complete my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I was rewarded with a beautiful sunrise,” Stevie said.

The trip did not disappoint in doling out adventure. Stevie saw snow in four of the southern states. She climbed mountains in thunderstorms, gale force winds, clouds of bugs, and extreme heat and humidity. She experienced southern hospitality, moonshine, and delicious barbeque.

“I scrambled across rock fields, slogged through mud, and forded rivers—and stopped to sample as many microbrews in New England as I could,” Stevie said. “Along the way, I made lasting connections even though I lost track of some of my traveling companions. Part of the magic of the AT is its ability to bond people together regardless of age and background.”

After such a lengthy trek, some folks hang up their hiking boots forever. Others immediately start planning their next hike. As for Stevie, she is still as much in love with backpacking as she ever was. Many who continue their love affair with hiking after the AT go on to walk the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast.

“It looks like fun but I feel no reason to limit myself to just this continent. There’s a big world out there that I’d like to continue to explore,” Stevie said. I know I do my best work on foot.”

Stevie hopes to continue to pursue her love of backpacking and the outdoors.

“I would like even more to find a job that is conducive to such hobbies. That is currently where I stand: on the search for my next adventure and the funds to make it possible,” she said.

Stevie is the daughter of Paul and Theresa Dembowski.

 

 

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