Mt. Katahdin, summit hike #14

Tuesday , 8/5/08

Back on top again.

Nothing much more satisfies to me than being a resident of Maine, driving for free through the southern gate at Baxter State Park, and heading on up to the top of Maine’s highest mountain, Mt. Katahdin. Those first steps up the A.T. ( Hunt) trail are always deeply centering.

The initial purpose of today’s hike was to celebrate Birdlegs’ birthday.

Ms. Birdlegs invited a gaggle of guests to top out with her today. Birdlegs completed 95 % of her own AT thru-hike last year, only to be derailed in Maine by a bizarre incident around Caratunk , where an unrelenting backwoods stalker persisted in generating enough concern that the State police strongly encouraged her to leave the Trail. Her well-written account of her adventures ( and there were many) can be accessed at her Trailjournals website .
Joining us on the hike were Bad Influence, Ohm, Quartermoon, Mother Nature, and two young hitchhikers who accompanied Zar. Each one of these folks is already moving well into legend status, in their own manner.

It was also no coincidence that just before we pulled out of the driveway, I checked my mailbox and found a zippered brown canvas bag, fresh from the Maine State Library’s Books-by-Mail outreach program, for those of us Mainers who live in towns that have no libraries . Inside I found a worn paperback copy of Earl Shaffer’s Walking With Spring, where he recounts his experiences as the first person to thru-hike the AT, in 1948. I tossed it into the Caravan.

We assembled our group in various stages from Saturday, 8/2, to today, when Zar and the hitchhikers met us at Katahdin Stream campground at 8:30 AM. The rest of the group made it to Millinocket yesterday, where 20 miles later, we rolled into the Abol Bridge Campground and my reservations allowed us to take up the last two tent sites.

To me, there are no coincidences in this world, and our sites, numbers 38 and 39 were the exact same sites that MEGATex had on the night before own our summit walk of Sept. 14, 2007. The account of that day can be accessed at my Trailjournal entry for that date . My memories of that day, almost a year ago were, rekindled by our presence here. I replayed mental tapes of how different it was then, how much colder the temperatures were, and what the site looked like with all those personalities, tents, and Bird Dawg’s hammock in place.

Recently I have been reading several books either written by or about Henry David Thoreau. In Bridget Besaw’s newly published book, Wildness Within Wildness Without, I discovered that Thoreau spent a night at this exact confluence on Sept. 6, 1846, where he described an interlude of trout fishing in the clear waters of the Penobscot River, with the majesty of Mt. Katahdin towering in the background. (Two recently published, highly interesting books about Thoreau are described on my page on my Goodreads site).

We were packed up and ready to leave by 8 AM, when we drove over to the Baxter entrance via an unmarked woods road detour cutting through the puckerbrush from the Golden Road

Photo by Mark Shaw, Clearstream Sound
Photo by Mark Shaw, Clearstream Sound

Today, there were no more available campsites at either Katahdin Stream Campground or The Birches, where there is a thru-hiker-only pair of lean-to’s just outside of KSC. We actually had two reservations ready for this caper. After some discussion at the gate with the ranger, we decided that our group would camp at Foster Field, three miles north of Katahdin Stream Campground. I gifted up tent site #18 at KSC to a group of thru-hikers that we never did meet. The ranger pinned our reservation to one of the thru-hiker’s backpacks, which were left on his porch, by the hiker who had borrowed day packs to make a group ascent. I felt fortunate that I was able to dispense some anonymous Trail Magic to that group.

The massif of Katahdin was socked in with ominous clouds. The weather prediction was for late clearing, and that was good enough for us. No matter what, I was truly looking forward to the ride.

We signed in our party at the trail head and at 9 AM started up the 5.2 mile AT ( Hunt Trail).
I experience the Trail up as being divided into 5 separate zones, each roughly a mile long. We quickly moved up the relatively flat first section ( 400 ‘ elevation gain) when we ambled along the rushing waters, and eventually walked across the footbridge over Katahdin Stream. Normally, this is the last dependable water you’d encounter on the way up, but it would be a different story today, after a couple of weeks of regular rainfall . Quartermoon told us that on his way up last September he briefly bathed in the frigid deep pool just under foot. Today it looked like a frothing malestrom. The sheer hugeness of Katahdin’s presence manifests even here, as the roaring of the falls above told me that this could be the wettest of all my walks up to the top. We left the Trail and went over to get closer to the Falls. Unfortunately, I got tangled up in my Leki poles backing away from the slippery, rooty overlook and fell, breaking the second section of my left pole, and drawing blood on my knee. No big deal. I am sometimes a mobile Band-Aid repository.

Just 0.1 of a mile above the footbridge and up over a bare ledge the real work begins. This second zone leaves Katahdin Stream Falls and steadily ascends 1900 vertical feet in 1.5 miles, through increasingly stunted tree growth where tree line ends and the Hunt Spur begins. Almost a mile of this section was done walking in a stream bed, with clear cold water dumping onto the AT from numerous small rivulets above.

Now we are in the climbing zone, featuring another unique challenge thrown at us by this mountain. The first third of this section is following the white blazes that weave up, over, and around huge boulders.

At this point, I stash away the broken and the intact trekking poles and put on light gloves, mainly to prevent abrasion of my hands. There are several iron rungs permanently attached to some of the trickier sections to assist with the climb. It is real work to haul yourself up. After the boulders are left behind, all that remains of the very steep Spur is exposed walking, sometimes even crawling, over the jagged, worn granite spine.

Still no views. We are in Cloudland. The visibility made it impossible to anticipate reaching the Gateway, the entrance to the Tableland.
All these difficult step have their purpose, and eventually all of our group trudged up the last vestige of steepness and sat and snacked on the lip of The Tableland, a relatively flat area nearly 4 miles long, with drop- offs abruptly falling away away on all sides for at least 1,000 feet. Grassy areas predominate, but everywhere are boulders, the scattered remnants of receding glaciers. It was at this point that the clouds dissipated, and we could look most of the way over the mile long path ahead across the Tableland where Baxter Peak was still enshrouded in thick clouds.

On the way over, we passed Thoreau Spring, which was flowing strongly. The Trail for a quarter mile in either direction was inundated. Generally, when I have been up here, the spring is dry. I needed water, so I leaned over and filled my bottle from a tiny waterfall. I drank up immediately.

Baxter Peak seemed elusive today.
The last section is the one mile, and 1,000 foot elevation gain approach from Thoreau Spring to Baxter Peak (5,267 feet), where the skyline and Trail were punctuated with colorful moving dots of humanity. Toward the final approach we were back in the clouds, and thankfully free from the winds that normally accompany these cloudy conditions.

Eventually we all reached the top, where we viewed the ancient worn sign and 13 foot high cairn that brought the top of this pile of rock to the one mile elevation mark.

The requisite photos were taken, tall tales retold, new one reformed, and I connected to my repository of images of past ascents, and even some degree of hope welled up that this level of deep experience could somehow continue for me.

Birdlegs took her birthday photos.

Today had a special meaning, perhaps for others up here? Today was the 60th anniversary of Earl Shaffer’s historic first thru-hike of the Appalachain Trail.

Bad Influence persistently encouraged me to speak for Earl, to make a summit pronouncement to the some 75 hikers who were gathered up here at noon today. I was reluctant to do so. I respect that others may be deeply in thought or feelings and that they might not appreciate me directing their attention to my own possibly myopic agenda.

I eventually relented and shouted out.
“ Folks, today is a historic backpacking date that is being celebrated in other parts of the country! Exactly 60 years ago today something significant happened up here at this summit. Anyone up here know the significance of this date, August 5, 1948?”
“ Anyone here ever heard of Earl Shaffer?”

I spoke up again and told a very brief version of the saga of Earl. I was content to roust a cheer out of most of the group. Some returned to mumbling into their cell phones.
The long distance hiker community is a tiny one, and it took a call from Queso a couple of days later to remind me that only recently has the ticker registered the 10,000 AT thru-hiker. That’s over the space of 71 years! I understand that there were decades as recent as the 1970’s where fewer that 10 persons a year thru-hiked. I need to recognize that we are a tiny club.

On August 5 1948, Earl stood exactly here, four months after departing Mt. Oglethorpe in Georgia, a man on a mission everyone thought to be impossible. He was initially walking to shake off the negativity of the World War II. I read Walking With Spring before I thru-hiked the AT, and thought that read nothing special. In the past 2 days, I have re-read the book and found it impossible to put down.
Mr. Shaffer was a gifted writer and I particularly enjoyed charting his emergence as a man totally given up to wildness. As he moved North, he found himself increasingly drawn to stick to the Trail, and forgo towns, houses, and materialism.

As my benefactor and perennial Northeast Trail Angel Paddy-O has stated with tongue-in-cheek many times, “That damn AT ruins many people’s lives.” Paddy-O is exactly right on. In the process of change, we shed our our former beliefs, routines, and habits. For me and many others who have hiked the AT, not much of my old life is intact. I am still trying to figure out what happened to me during those five and a half months. All I know is that it is huge.
Walking way up here today was a big deal for us.

Despite his best intentions, Thoreau never made it up here to the top of Katahdin. For the rest of his short life, he longed to reconnect with the power and majesty he experienced on his frightening two visits up through the clouds. In The Wildest Country, Huber states that “Eleven years after his excursion to Katahdin- and after he missed his last opportunity to return- he revealed to a close friend that the experience was still very much apart of him; ‘I keep a mountain anchored eastward a little way, which I ascend in my dreams both awake and asleep’.”

The image of Earl standing here in 1948 needs to be recognized for what it truly is. Throughout history, we see solitary individuals standing on stage after their own dangerous and arduous paths through life. Earl Shaffer has made it possible for some of us to reach for undefinable gifts.

7 thoughts on “Mt. Katahdin, summit hike #14

  1. Rangoon

    Awesome Tom! The one year anniversary of my thru hike is coming up shortly and a year later I am still at a loss as to what has really happened to me. I may never truly understand it, but there really aren’t that many days that go by that I don’t think about it. I guess as Paddy-o said I am one of those people who have been “ruined” by the trail. I must say that I am perfectly fine with that. God bless the A.T.!


  2. Michelle

    Once again you’ve done a wonderful job painting a picture of a day in the mountains. Thanks for the great day and the thoughtful re-cap. I’ll always remember those denim clad tourists on top of Katahdin yelling, “Hello Earl!”


  3. Queso

    Thanks for the write up U.T. That hit the nail on the head. Like Rangoon, I’m ruined as well. Each day I think of one more idea/habit/feeling that changed along the Trail. I’m picking up my copy of Walking with Spring… It’s been looking at me for 11 months now and I’ve been scared to pick up. The time has come – Queso


  4. Chris Corey

    Hello again Uncle Tom,
    Once again, a wonderful piece about your latest Katahdin adventure with Birdlegs. How wonderful to hear she has finally completed her thru-hike. I check her journal from time to time hoping to see an update indicating she finished or summited Katahdin. Thanks for sharing it with us; it is great news for many out here in the hiking community. Take care, _-Chris


  5. Kevin Carter

    That tattoo looks familiar… I could swear that I saw that tattoo sitting on a bench in Alma, NB, Canada this morning… The man wearing this tattoo appeared to have spent last night camping somewhere within Fundy National Park.
    Coincidence ?

    Kevin Carter
    Monday, Oct 13,2008


  6. David Z

    Thank you for the wonderful post. I live in York, PA, Mr. Earl Shaffer’s hometown. When he died in 2002, it was carried in the news media. I wish that I had met him.

    I want to thank you for ‘educating’ the other hikers about Earl Shaffer and his achievement. He was the first to thru-hike the AT in each direction, and at age 79 celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first thru-hike by thru-hiking the AT yet again!!

    Thanks again! David


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