Kicking off a September Week of Hiking at Baxter State Park

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate make my 20th summit hike to  Maine’s highest point via the newly rerouted Abol Trail.

I returned last week to hike in my favorite backpacking destination, Baxter State Park, joining my Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails hiking pal Guthook as we explored some of the lesser trails in the park – ones that are usually bypassed in favor of ascending Katahdin,the crown jewel of the wildest state park east of the Mississippi.

It’s the third week in September and the humidity that has dogged coastal  Maine for the past two months has followed me up here to Baxter State Park.

Leaves  are turning colorful
Leaves are turning colorful
The technicolor fall foliage show is just getting to the beginning Kodachrome stage, delayed this season, likely due to a drought.

Tonight, we’re settling into Lean-To #3 at Neswadnehunk Camp Ground for a fresh roasted veggie/kielbasa dinner cooked to perfection on a cheap portable gas grill.

The view from Lean-to #3
The view from Lean-to #3
We’re here after a 10 mile afternoon walking the Park’s Kettle Pond, Cranberry Pond, and Rum Pond Trails.

Hiking Near the Southern Gate
Hiking Near the Southern Gate
These low lying trails are the among the first the hiker encounters after entering Baxter through the Togue Pond Gatehouse.  Even these relatively benign,  unfrequented forays were satisfying sojourns from my multi-tasking life.

img_8381 The softness of the ground, and the textures of the kaleidoscope of greens and greys of the leaves and the trees are  immensely satisfying.

Our  reservations for the first three days are at Lean-do #3 at the Neswadnehunk Field Campground.   It’s a drive in site with a view toward the incomparable Doubletop, at 3,489′ a distinctive mountain, with a short ridge connecting the two prominent exposed granite points on top.  Approach trails reach it from either the north or south. I went up for the second time two years ago, so I’ll appreciate it from afar this time.

The ranger here told us we are the only campers tonight. It’s just Betsey and us, enjoying the Milky Way star show.  $12 purchased us enough dry split wood to see us through for an evening fire each night.

The weather looks to be mostly dry and warm, and we are very pleased to be here.

Lift Off !
Lift Off !
September is a superb time to find yourself enjoying the wilderness, especially anything away from the perennially packed approach trails to Katahdin where 90 per cent of people who come this Park congregate.

Baxter State Park: Day 1 of 6

There is something mammalian about avoiding going outdoor when it is raining sheets.  I voiced this point to Gaspedal and Rokrabbit, while I was driving them through the rainstorm above Bangor on I-95 this morning.
We’re on schedule for day one of a week in Baxter State Park.  I would hike in this hard rain all day, if necessary, but my innermost core recoils from the image of my self at the end of a day of rain, especially when I am also run down from long miles of hiking through the woods.
So I conjure up a whacky Plan B for today that would not require any hiking in this rain.  We would get a motel room in Millinocket  and wait it out. Tomorrow morning we would drive to the north Matagammon Gate and begin to dance around our reserved space camping itinerary.
However, life would be much simpler if we just stuck with our original  plan, which we did when we walked out of the Appalachian Trail Cafe and saw that the rain had stopped and the skies were starting to clear.

We only encountered four other hikers today walking into Russell Pond from Roaring brook.

FullSizeRender 4 copy 2

The young woman of  couple #1 said that the ford of Wassataquoik Stream was waist high. I could have told her that. Her long pants we’re still drenched as she spoke to us.  We also met a couple of Maine women who we also headed to Russell Pond for the night.

Puncheons !
Puncheons !

I’ve hiked the Russell Pond Trail at least a half dozen times over the years. A few things stood out today.
#1- Wassataquoik Stream rises quickly after a strong rain of an inch and a half.  The water was up to my waist during the ford. I have always experienced lower water levels coming through here. On the positive side, it was painless to do the fords with bare feet, even including the short walk along the trail that was on land that connected the two.
#2-  This is moose country.  Walking through the alder patches in an area known as New City, Gaspedal, who was walking point, turned silently gave us a hand signal.  One second later, a bull  moose with full rack of antlers crashed off into the brush. This was the first moose that either of my two traveling partners had ever seen in the wild.

I’m a Licensed Maine Guide who is guiding these two folks from Boston through their first visit to Baxter.

Boulders abound
Boulders abound

Last year I guided these two repeat customer plus one more though the north 50 miles of Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness. Our walking itinerary here is less demanding than out on the Appalachian Trail, but our trek up to 5,267 foot high Katahdin on our last day should test the tendons.
If I make it, it will be my twentieth summit of Maine’s best shot at reaching the heavens.

Katahdin: My First Guiding Experience

I recently completed my first experience as a paid Maine Guide. In June, I launched a web page for Uncle Tom’s Guided Adventures, where I am offering a group backpacking trip a month in Maine during August, September, and October.

In July, I received a request from a client to guide them up the 5.5 mile ( 11 miles round trip) Hunt Trail (Appalachian Trail). My suggestion to alter their route choice and make the summit trek less demanding by spending an overnight at Chimney Pond, and choose either the Saddle or Cathedral Trail was declined.

We made it to the top of Katahdin.

However, I learned a lot on that day:

-An advanced backpacking course from the Sierra Club that includes summiting Mt. Baldy, outside Los Angeles, at 10,064 feet may not be sufficient preparation for that hiker to reach the top of the 5,267 foot Katahdin.

-Trails in California tend to employ switchbacks that make going up easier.

Birdlegs ascending lower Hunt trail ( 2013 photos)
Birdlegs ascending lower Hunt trail ( 2013 photos)

The Hunt Trail goes straight up.

-Clients appreciate guides that will carry that client’s 3 quarts of water.

-Trails out west tend to have limited rocks, boulders, and roots to walk or crawl over.

Birdlegs, Bad Influence, and Quarter Moon in Hunt's  boulder field (2013)
Birdlegs, Bad Influence, and Quarter Moon in Hunt’s boulder field (2013)

The Hunt Trail has plenty of obstacles, which may also have streams running down them.

-The 10-12 hours that Baxter Park suggests it takes to summit and return via the Hunt Trail out of Katahdin Stream Campground may not be sufficient for some parties. We left Katahdin Stream at 6:55 AM and returned at 10:30 PM. Our round trip took us 15.6 hours.

-There is a reason why Baxter State park has many rules, including this one: “Hikers must carry a working flashlight.” I learned that having a client read this rule, and be reminded twice to pack the headlamp in the day pack, does not ensure that the light will be in that pack when it becomes pitch black out.

-If two hikers share one headlamp, that the headlamp should be worn by the hiker in front. The guide needs to give that headlamp to the client and walk close behind.

-Upper body strength is needed to ascend the Hunt Trail, when walking becomes insufficient at the 2.9 mile mark. It is particularly necessary when the hiker needs to extend their arms overhead, grasp the first iron rung that is imbedded in a tall boulder, and pull, hard. There is more than one of these iron rods at the base of a giant boulder field.

-Hikers with shorter inseams may benefit from assistance in ascending these boulders from other hikers. The aspiring hiker may need to step on body parts of the assisting hiker, for example, placing one’s foot on an implanted knee that is secured against a boulder or even walking on the other hiker’s back.

-Bring a wind shirt, even in the summer. It may get windy on the Hunt Spur.

Hunt Spur
Hunt Spur

For example, on our day the wind was steady at 20-25 mph with gusts to 40 mph.

-The Hunt Spur is above treeline. The upper portion is unusually exposed.

Heading down in 2013
Heading down in 2013

Hikers with a fear of heights will be challenged on this portion, particularly if the wind is gusting to 40 mph.

-Some hikers find It considerably easier to ascend than to descend the Hunt Trail. In our case, we had a 1 PM turn around time. While we made it up a few minutes after 1 PM, within the expected 6 hour window, our descent took close to 9 hours. This is why spare batteries and even a spare headlamp should be considered.

-It’s good sense to turn back when you feel you are “ over your head” on the Hunt Trail. We met several parties who were in this situation, and wisely chose to head back down. If the famed walker Henry David Thoreau can retreat just below the Tableland in 1846, so can you.

-It is quite difficult to get up and down Katahdin on the Hunt Trail. A reputable source told me that while number of Southbound thru-hiker wannabees had increased by 40% this year, 90% of them went home. Some failed to make the summit, others made the summit but tore up their feet, or they underestimated just how hard it was to keep walking in the woods after their big day heading up to the top.

-When it is pitch black out, and crawling on the ground becomes a viable option, have a bunch of trail tales to tell and maybe a few songs to sing. Humor lightens the load.

-Consider yourself fortunate to be with a hiker who is able to maintain a positive attitude despite the long, steep, and tough nature of the Hunt Trail.   I did.

-It’s really satisfying to assist another hiker to the top of Katahdin . My client told me that,  ” I couldn’t have done it without you.”

The actual inspiration for my  AT tattoo
The actual inspiration for my AT tattoo

– Think long and hard about guiding an individual up Katahdin’s Hunt Trail.

Baxter State Park’s backlash reflects larger issue?

It’s Party-on meets the Guardians of Wild time here in Maine.

photo from Runner's World
photo from Runner’s World

For the past week, there has been a heated and expansive  discussion on Facebook, Twitter, and  gear/outdoor adventure-related  blog/websites in response to the legal action that Maine’s Baxter State Park has initiated against Scott Jurek.  Jurek recently completed the fastest known supported thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

In case you were engaged in focused partying in Barcelona over this past week (a location which is also in the process of beefing up it’s own regulations regarding celebratory behavior), here’s BSP’s initial post about the event, which as morphed 616 shares, and 717 comments to date on Facebook.

I live in Maine, am a dues paying member Friend Of Baxter State Park, and have put in as much as a week of my time volunteering for maintenance up on top of the Saddle Trail.  I generally hike there every year. Just last year I spent a week on a “thru-hike” of Baxter State Park.

I treasure BSP.  I have summited Katahdin 17 times, dating back to 1970.  At 20 years of age, I was stunned that I couldn’t just drive in there and start walking around. That’s when I first learned about the details list of The BSP Rules.  I am going to try and reach the top again in two days, and will be following all those rules when I am there.

I was ( and according to my wife continue to be) one of  the great unwashed who completed my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2007.

Me atop Katahdin in 2007
Me atop Katahdin in 2007

I was a member of MeGaTex, a group of 7 , who had our own celebration in the cold blowing mist and fog on September 16, some 5,268 feet in the sky.

Something is going to change, not just about what you can or can’t do in BSP, but about the whole AT experience.  Twice in the past 4 years, I have returned to Virginia for a week to backpack some of my favorite sections of the AT.

In 2014, I did not enjoy my last week as much, due to large doses of inconsiderate behavior that I experienced from other hikers on the trail.  Twice, I came upon one of the shelters at the end of the day, after a long day of hiking, expecting to settle in for night, only to find that shelter filled with over a dozen thru-hikers, most of who were unapologetically smoking cigarettes (Smoking hand-rolled tobacco is a recent thru-hiker trend on the AT.)  One of those guys sat right beside me and proceeded to boil up his dinner. He was too busy with too many things at once, and knocked a pot of boiling water into his lap. It then drenched my gear, including part of my sleeping bag.  He scalded his thigh, which I knew would result in  a second degree burn, but he shoofed off my recommendation for immediate treatment.  The group hung out there for two hours before they thankfully moved on and I was able to spread out my bedroll for the night.

I think about Scott Jurek and the extreme discomfort and heroic effort that it took for him to cover over 200 miles on his last 4 days on the AT as he approached Katahdin.  I rooted for him.  Scott also slept only 10 hours over his last 4 days. In the end, Scott had to be only marginally coherent and cognitively intact- how could it be otherwise ?  He was not capable of steering the Jurek ultramarathon machine at that moment,  and maybe nobody in his party was either.

But, you gotta have rules.  Baxter State Park has the most rules of anyplace that an AT hiker has to contend with, and that’s a problem to many hikers who has dreamed, sweated, fallen, and bruised themselves as they labor toward their final footsteps in the sky.

How does a place with a unique vision and mandate do with hundreds, and now possibly a thousand or more people who have lived the past half-year with no one telling them what to do ?  They have one or two last days of freedom before they re-enter the ” shower world” again.

The numbers on the AT are expected to balloon big-time for 2016.  Jurek’s media coverage is definitely pumping interest.

So is the recent release of Trail Magic, the new film about Grandma Gatewood, the 67 year old woman who was the first female to thru-hike the AT, back in 1957.

Grandma Gatewood
Grandma Gatewood

So is the long-awaited movie derived from Bill Bryson’s best-selling book A Walk in the Wood’s, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.   It comes out in September.

Discussions had already begun last year,  exploring the possibility that the Appalachian Trail may be re-routed around Katahdin and linked onto the International Appalachian Trail.

I’ll still going be able go up and go into Baxter State Park , due to living here in Maine, but others from places and even continents far away won’t find it easy to do so. They may not be able to stand on top of Katahdin to experience the most fitting end to their extended time out in the great forest.  It would be a sad conclusion for sure.

This clash between preservation of the wild versus big numbers of users, corporate footprints and media is not just playing out on on isolated granite massif in Maine Maine- it’s going on all over the world right now.  Check out today’s New York Times feature–>> – The Revolt Against Tourism.

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.