Russell Pond Campground in Baxter state park

Chimney Pond –>Roaring Brook Campgrounds–>Lean-to at Russell Pond CG.
10.8 miles

Despite adding another hiker to our duo, we were able to started hiking today at 7:15 AM. We encountered dozens of hikers that were coming up the 3.3 miles ( and 1500′) from Roaring Brook campground to Chimney Pond.

Chris had come in on his own, and had the consciousness of a heap of throb after he lumped his 40 pound pack up here yesterday afternoon.  However this morning, he carried himself surprisingly well on the descent.  We stopped just once on the way down. Here is a video clip of Chris checking in with “The Daily Inventory of Pain”, a phrase and practice coined by my Canadian hiking buddy The Burglar.

When we reached our cars at the parking lot, Chris decided to take me up on my offer to look through his stuff and suggest what might be left behind to get his pack weight down.  I implemented the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, and clothes closet pile technique and watched him orient his gear in the proper categories.  Chris’ empty backpack/ day pack military ops combo weighted 6 pounds one ounce empty. He reluctantly replaced that with the 3 pound ULA Catalyst that I had given him.  Even his camp chair was dumped, shedding 2+ more pounds. In the end, Chris reduced his load to 28 pounds, a much more reasonable weight that included even more meals than he carried up last night.

Guthook was on his own today. He went back up high over Hamlin Peak then took the North Peaks Trail and ended up with us in lean-to #5 at Russell Pond.

Number 5 , Baxter style
Number 5 , Baxter style

I was hoping to meet up with the Russell Pond ranger, Brendan, who lives not far from my house, but Guthook met up with Brendan, who opted for the challenge of the high route as he was headed home for a couple of days.

The walking was especially great, and followed a big day of going up and down. I was transported back in time as we passed the huge glacial boulder known as Halfway Rock. My wife Auntie Mame and sons Lincoln and Arlo were in my thoughts today, as they were physically back in the 1980’s when our family traversed this and many other of Baxter’s trails on our annual Columbus Day weekends.  Today the trail was wooded, dappled in greens, and frankly, easy.  We were in the green tunnel all day long. Today, Chris and I took the right fork over the Wassataquoik Trail.

We made two fords: one little and another wider over Wassataquoik Stream, about 2 miles before we ended the day’s walk. It made sense to keep my feet bare and walk the 100 feet or so across a fairly soft footpath to the second ford, rather than putting the boots on and taking them off and then putting them on and off again a minute later.  I was shocked to find a leech already stuck to the heel of my foot, even though I had been in the water for less than a minute.

We were way off on our own in Lean-To #5 at Russell. 

Lean-To #5
Lean-To #5

Dead wood was scarce, and what few solid sticks we could find were some distance from our spot. I bear-bagged my food way up in a tree after I spotted a huge pile of bear crap beside a nearby blueberry patch.
The crowds are gone now that we left Katahdin.
We had our session of “cowboy TV ” on a small wooden bench in front of the  cracking spruce wood fire.
I was asleep before dark.

Katahdin and the Knife Edge Trail

Day 2
Chimney Pond up Cathedral Trail to Baxter Peak–>Knife Edge to Pamola Peak–>Dudley Trail to Chimney Pond
4.0 miles

It’s still a stirring call on that first morning in Baxter when I’ve signed in at the Chimney Pond register and write 7:10 AM on the going-up-to-the-top of Katahin column. If I make it, it will be the 17th time I have summited the 5,267′ mountain.
After Guthook and I checked into the Hiking Register, we headed up the most direct route to the top, the 1.7 mile Cathedral Trail. It’s initially a walk over increasingly large rocks, then a boulder scramble up the middle section. I highly recommend gloves, and leaving your hiking poles at the bottom.
It’s a tough walk that has parts that are definitely rock climbing. There are several times that foresight, picking a good line, and using your arms in pulling yourself up will be required. It’s a trail unlike many others, one that requires real focus and concentration.
” I’m calling this a primal trail,” I shouted out to Guthook as we took turns trading off leading the ascent. Primal in the sense that conscious thinking is not necessary, nor encouraged. Moving up here is best when instinctual- deciding foot placement, silently moving fingertips along the edges of rocks hanging above until a handhold is good enough.

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By 9:15 we reached the highest point in Maine at 5,267′ Baxter Peak, where we found just one other person, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who was just completing his 2,200 mile journey. Pics were snapped and then several other thru-hikers started coming up. All their heads snapped around to look at Guthook after he told one of them his trail name. One hiker said that he had found Guthook’s AT Hiker App very useful and accurate, and a couple of his pals chimed in with the affirmative.
But Guthook and I had other tasks to compete up above tree line. First off, Guthook wants to complete his first ever walk over the notorious Knife Edge Trail, a one mile traverse over a region of maximum exposure, where the trail may narrow to just a little point with the inside edges of both feet hugging the granite spine, as you experience a two thousand foot drop on either side of you.

IMG_3406.JPG It is a route that is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. I assured Guthook that it was a perfect day for the experience, with dry rock, full sun, and no wind.
It took us about an hour and a half to walk, and sometimes crawl along the blue-blazed path. There was a bit of a pile up at the Chimney, the one place on the Knife Edge that I still fret about. I have long legs, and have learned to keep facing the rock, and trust that by lowering myself with both arms on a thin rock handhold and then stretching my lower right leg I can gain the last foothold before the bottom.
We reached the end at Pamola Peak, a superb place to soak up the day’s warming rays, air the socks out, and savor the view of what we’d just experienced.

IMG_3757.JPG It was funny, partly incredible, and astounding to me that not only does Katahdin host that knockout view of the massive cirque from the Chimney side, but it also has this very unique Knife Edge trail radiating east from Baxter Peak.

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Not done yet. I head down the ridiculously steep and bolder strewn Leroy Dudley trail back to Chimney Pond. It is so much easier to get down with gloves on.
It’s also useful to be ready, willing, and able to jump. Jump ? Yes, jump. I ended up jumping off drops six times on the way down. It was something that I have been training for in the last few weeks. Proper jumping with both feet coming down underneath you, and cushioning the impact by using your knees as shock absorbers is a much more efficient, and in some cases safer, alternative to skittering down on your butt, or clutching vegetable handholds ( trees and shrubs) and wrenching an arm or an elbow. Brief, light jumping sessions a couple of times a week have been associated with reduced risk for osteoporosis, especially for women.
Guthook was headed down to Roaring Brook and back to assist with his garnering more GPS tracks in the Park.
Back at the campsite, our neighbor had been telling us about the difficult he’s been having with his boots. He just bought a $180 pair of Asolos at LLBean. He finally discovered the source of the irritation that was troubling his Achilles’ tendon. It was a manufacturing defect involving an extra piece of inner fabric that raised a protrusion of exposed stitching. The stitches were rubbing skin to the point that he was hobbling.
He asked me what I though of him cutting that area away. I told him that it the only practical solution that would result in him being able to do what he came here to do- hike to the top and do the Knife Edge. I gave him my sharp Moro knife and he went at it.
IMG_3766.JPG I looked at his work and suggested he remove even more material so that none of the irritated/ inflamed area would hit the inside of the boot. He handed me the boot and the knife and said , “Do it”, so I did. When he put the boot back on his smile got wider and wider.
“We’re up at daybreak and heading to he top in the morning now!”
Four miles felt like 14 on this route today. It was enough for me.

Guthook’s account of the day is here.

Thru-hiking Baxter State Park – Day 1 of 7

3.3 miles

IMG_3417.JPGI welcomed myself back to Baxter State Park today. It’s been two years since I’ve been to this most unique setting. Katahdin’s fantastic granite glacial cirque is set within in a 200,000 acre public state park that is run with a management style that has been strictly preservationist. Decades old man-made structures are generally razed rather than replaced. Here is one place on earth that graces wilderness, showcasing it quietly.

Despite my friend Chris and I rendezvousing at Guthook’s house at 6 AM, we weren’t able to reach the Roaring Brook Campground until 2 PM. This trip involved a lot of driving. Guthook and I drove both our cars all the way up to Exit 264 on Maine’s I-95 and then wound our way through the backwoods hardscrabble of Patten, a tiny berg that is slowly being populated by Mennonites.

We eventually passed through the northern Matagammon gate of Baxter, and then I stashed  my Caravan in the parking lot at South Branch Pond Campground, where we each saved out three breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, as well as any snacks that we’d need for our last several days in the infrequently visited northeast corner of the Park. Then Guthhook and I got into his Jetta and he proceeded to drive us some 47 miles, and mostly obeying the 20 MPH speed limit on the Park Tote Road to the southern gate and then twelve more miles northeast to Roaring Brook Campground.
The trail from the parking lot to Chimney Pond Campground is not flat. I remembered it as very gradually going up for the whole 3.3 miles. It’s REALLY not flat, ascending 1,500 feet in that distance, most of the rise coming in the middle mile. It’s a pretty tough right out of the parking lot, especially with a sack full of gear and food in your back.
I am still stunned at the granite studded footpath, one interspersed with roots of all textures, depths, and angles that are criss-crossing the trail.

Our reservations tonight are in the Bunkhouse, which holds twelve. It’s functional, with an enclosed outer hallway with one common room that has a picnic table off to one side, a stainless steel clad cooking surface along one wall, and a big honking airtight wood stove in the center of the room. When I arrived at 2 PM, the place was loaded up with about 10 people, some playing cards at the table in 2 groups, and others laying around on the bunks chatting and sleeping. In a little while another group of 3 newcomers came in, along with even more people. It got really noisy. I wanted to claim a bottom bunk and just lay out for a while. That’s when I learned that most of this crowd had slept there the night before and had remained through the next afternoon. They were in no mood for giving us the spaces we had reserved four months ago. I had to ask a vacantly gazing teenage girl to please move her self and her gear so that I could set up my slotted space. It still took a couple of hours for them to clear out, and then things became much more enjoyable.

A young bilingual couple from Quebec, a three generation set of males from Benton, Maine, and a father and his son rounded out the evening’s other occupants. The place was quite dark, but had a couple of propane lights that illuminated and also heated the room a bit.
It was an early night.

Tomorrow we hike Katahdin. I am always nervous about how I will do. Could  be a Knife Edge day.

Guthook’s own blog entry for this day is here

Katahdin’s Knife Edge – Day 2/3

I had a poor night’s sleep in lean-to #5.  The wind was loud, and I was concerned that it would affect our plans.  #5 is rumored to have once encountered wind so ferocious that it once tipped over.  Tenzing took advantage of his own awakening, when he made a 1 AM foray back down to Chimney Pond where he watched the stars, saw a couple shooters, and took this picture of the moon over the ridge.

Moonrise over Ridge –
all photos by John Clark

At 8 AM we signed in with the Ranger and started our arduous ascent of the Cathedral Trail,  a 1-and-3/4 mile strenuous climb up to Baxter Peak ( 5,271’).  The trail ascents 2,300 feet in that distance , a ridiculously steep challenge, and the shortest way to the summit from this campground. I am not sure if there is anything in New England this steep. It’s not even a walk. Better described as a boulder scramble, working the top half of your body as much as your legs. It’s tough!

Uncle Tom negotiating the start of the Cathedral Trail

Once up on the heights, it was difficult for us to recognize where the First Cathedral ended and the Second began.

First Cathedral
I highly recommend wearing full-fingered gloves for this trail.  Tenzing bloodied both his thumbs that morning.

When I reached the top, I preceded six Appalachain Trail thru-hikers who were just arriving- running, and then kissing the iconic summit sign. One shirtless fellow was running BAREfoot to the finish. Baxter Peak is the northern terminus of the 2,200 mile AT.

Tenzing, Uncle Tom, Roy, and Mike Gundel
All four of us summited, and after our obligatory group photo, Tenzing, Mike and I decided to continue over the mile-long Knife Edge.  Roy wisely elected to head back down the Tableland and exit via the Saddle Trail.

The Knife Edge traverses the ridge between Baxter and Pamola Peaks. Katahdin has claimed 19 lives since 1963,  mostly from exposure in bad weather and falls from the Knife Edge. For about 3/10 of a mile the trail is  a mere 3 feet wide, with a 1,500 foot drop-off on either side. Rangers post announcements that the Knife Edge is closed during periods of high wind.  Last year, General Lee, Bill Gifford and I completed it while enshrouded in a cloud, rapidly moving to avoid the rain and thunder that arrived as we reached Pamola.
We took our time today, but moved steadily.

Uncle Tom and Mike traverse Knife Edge
  I do fine with this trail, except for the short drop while descending the cleft known as the Chimney.  One hiker I met told me it is a Class 4 section while headed in our direction, and I have read that hikers have turned back at this point rather than risk a fall. I do not understand why there are multiple steel aids on the rocks along the Hunt Trail ( AT) on the other side of the mountain, and not even one placed here.
I was in the lead today, so I had to get myself down myself.  First, I lowered my day pack to a ledge below me with the aid of my Leki pole, then tossed the poles to the floor of the Chimney. Then I remembered General Lee’s advice last year encouraging me to turn around, face the wall, search with my right hand for a lower hand hold, and then stretch my right leg  waaaay down until I felt it reach a blade of a rock that was the key to completing the move.  Who knows if I will ever pass this way again?  This was my fourth time on the Knife Edge.

The last uphill segment to Pamola
One more steep section to go-  It did not help to watch another hiker scale his way up there ahead of me, very exposed, and scary to me- I remember freaking out on the Cannon Mountain tramway ride as a kid.

After settling our heart rates on top of Pamola (4,919′), we descended the Dudley Trail back to Chimney Pond. No one talks much about this 1-and-1/4 mile trail, originally blazed in 1910 by Leroy Dudley. Now, we’re dropping the 2,000 feet we labored to gain.  I packed away my Leki poles, donned the gloves again, and shifted into survival mode.  Surviving the jumps, leg stretches, and lemon squeeze passages between the thousands of boulders on the way down was my goal.  A few times, the loose crumbled talus under foot caused skids that could have been disastrous.  This was total focus hiking.  I was out of water ( 2 quarts), and eventually gulped down a bracing half quart I collected from a dripping bare root coming out of a emerald patch of moss, close to the end.

Sometime, and somehow, we safely reached Chimney Pond in mid-afternoon, where we signed out with the ranger, and headed over to the 10- person Bunkhouse, and rendezvoused with Roy.  He saved us three lower bunks in one of the two sleeping areas.  The place had a few windows, but was very dark within.  Two gas lights were on the walls in the group room, and they were turned on well before it was dark out.
I loved my supper- a MRE ( military meal ready to eat).  That suspicious-looking Escalloped Potatoes and Ham, went down just fine with the addition of a tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce, crackers, jelly, fruit drink, applesauce, hot cocoa, and chocolate covered brownie.
Our bunkhouse mates were a young couple from Worcester, MA and three older guys from Dexter who were headed up the Saddle Trail tomorrow. The woman from Worcester had the most amazing MassHole accent I ever heard.  She was too freaked out to even complete that Saddle Trail up. I trust the Dexter trio will have better time of it tomorrow.

John Clark’s Knife Edge photo album here.