BY GARY THORNBLOOM
Katahdin is the Abenaki word for “greatest mountain,” and Mount Katahdin is the centerpiece of Baxter State Park, just north of the center of Maine.
Ice sculpted the Katahdin landscape. Glaciers scoured the mountains, carved deep cirques and arêtes, carved U-shaped valleys, and left tarns and moraines. It all can be seen from trails both easily accessible and very challenging.
The 210,000-acre park includes 48 mountains, 64 ponds and lakes, and some major streams, and Charles Tuner was the first to ascend the mountain in 1804.
Early 19th century climbs were mostly research based. By mid century, logging roads and camps improved accessibility. Railroads spread north to open the area more. This led to sporting camps. Hunting and fishing were part of the attraction, and visitors also came to experience the north woods wilderness. The park is a hiker’s dream with more than 200 miles of trails traversing a wide spectrum of north woods hiking. My recent visit included two weeks of backpacking and hiking. I will focus on part of our visit. We backpacked in the Wassataquoik Valley for four days. Our first day was 7.5 miles to Russell Pond. There are numerous stream crossings on wooden walkways, by boulder hopping and one by ford. Whidden Pond, at 1.4 miles, has a magnificent view of the east side of Katahdin and its three cirques. As we stood admiring the mountain we heard the sound of a female moose moaning, calling for a mate. Russell Pond is the site of an old sporting camp built in the 1920s by members of the Tracy logging family to accommodate an increased interest in people wanting to visit the north woods. Today there are leant-tos, tent sites, a bunkhouse and a ranger station, as well as canoes for exploring the pond. Long and short hikes radiate like spokes from the campground. Moose sightings are common. Day 2 was a leisurely 2.2 miles of backpacking to Wassataquoik Lake, a jewel set between steep mountain cliffs of South Pogy Mountain and the slopes leading to Bald Mountain. Our lean-to was on an island. A canoe comes with the reservation. Along the lake a trail leads to Greene Falls, with water falling over a huge moss-covered rock face into a pool surrounded by moss-covered boulders. A loon family floated by our leant-to, and later while canoeing they emerged next to our canoe. We sat silently as they began calling, a sound that many link to the north woods. Day 3 found us camped on Wassataquoik Stream after 4 miles. We had to ford a wide, slow-moving section of the stream. This lean-to faces upstream with a mountain, including bold cliff faces, forming the backdrop. Sunset turns the stream gold, and then the sky, as the sun drops behind the mountain.
On Day 4 we returned to Roaring Brook and our car over 6 miles. Our evening visit to Sandy Stream Pond rewarded us with a moose at the first viewing area along the pond. At the next viewing spot, a large boulder with great views of Katahdin, we saw another moose and its calf stepped out from behind her. We watched them feeding on aquatic plants long after enjoying another beautiful sunset behind Katahdin. We backpacked from Roaring Brook to Chimney Pond for 3.3 miles. Chimney Pond has lean-tos, a bunkhouse and a ranger station. The pond is part way to the top of Mount Katahdin. We stayed three nights so we could choose the day with the best weather to climb to the state’s highest peak and the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. Summit day dawned clear, but windy. By 7 a.m. we were on the Saddle Trail. The 2.2-mile trail is the easiest trail to the top, but easiest is a relative term. The trail begins in dense conifers and soon enters an enchanting scrub birch forest. The trail follows a rock slide out of the Great Basin. You thread your way over and around large boulders. Footing is precarious on the often shifting rock debris. Cresting at the Tableland, a vast plateau that stretches a couple miles to the precipitous drop into the Northwest Basin, we should have been rewarded with a vast view of mountains on the west side of Katahdin. Instead we were engulfed in fog and wind, and we donned rain jackets for protection from the wind-driven mist that condensed on us. Rock cairns marked the gradual climb over the last mile. Walking across Katahdin has always put a smile on my face. It is vast and elemental. It is mostly rock with a few alpine plants, some flowering. Four people and a large raven welcomed us to Baxter Peak, elevation 5,267 feet, and still enveloped in fog. After a break we started across the Knife Edge. My hiking partner disappeared into the mist as it rolled up to and over the rock ridge-line that faded before us. The Knife Edge is a narrow, spectacular 1.1-mile arête connecting the main peaks to Pamola Peak. To the east it drops 2,000 feet, sometimes vertical but always steep, to Chimney Pond. The drop is nearly as dramatic to the west. The arête reminds me of the profile of a Stegosaurus’s back. We repeatedly ascended and descended sometimes climbing with hands and feet. At times the top was only two feet in width. At Chimney Peak you descend into a very steep col, and then climb to Pamola Peak. Watching hikers negotiate the far side of the col can be intimidating. Once on the wall, and climbing, you find good handholds and footholds.
We ate lunch on Pamola Peak. Dudley Trail was the shortest route to Chimney Pond, but it was closed because the huge boulders that comprise the 1.3-mile trail are ripe for a landslide. Winter normally brings a deep freeze to the mountain. Recent winters have been warmer and resulted in repeated freezing and thawing. Spring rains arrive and the solid freeze of the past is not present to keep rocks in place. Instead we retraced our route to Baxter Peak. After an hour our patience was rewarded when the fog lifted. The Tableland, Klondike, mountains to the west — North Brother, South Brother, Coe, OJI, and Doubletop, and lakes of all sizes lay scattered across the lowlands beyond the mountains. Our day on top was perfect. We experienced the mystery of Katahdin enshrouded, and we stayed long enough for the shroud to lift revealing the glorious view. Katahdin is there for us to enjoy because of one man’s vision. Percival Baxter tried, from 1917 to 1925, first as a legislator and then as governor, to convince the state of Maine to acquire Katahdin. He failed, changed his focus, bought the the mountain and gave it to the people of Maine. The 6,000-acre parcel included Katahdin. From 1930 to 1962 Baxter purchased 29 adjacent parcels of land that totaled 201,018 acres. Each parcel was deeded to a trust that holds the land “forever wild” for the people of the state of Maine. Baxter wrote that the park is to be “… held as a great primitive recreational area … a wild mountainous country now forever set aside and held in trust … as a public park, forest reserve, and wildlife sanctuary. … Katahdin always should and must remain the wild, storm-swept, untouched-by-man region it now is … a place where nature rules and where the creatures of the forest hold undisputed dominion.” Short hikes, day hikes to the many peaks, and backpacking are ways to enjoy BSP. There is a remarkable range of hiking, paddling and wildlife viewing opportunities that will fit an equally wide range of interests, skills and abilities. Baxter also wanted to ensure access for ordinary people to enjoy, for “… those who love nature and are willing to walk and make an effort to get close to nature.”
Gary Thornbloom is the Co-Chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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