In the final months of my graduate program, I started thinking about taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip to mark the accomplishment of earning a PhD. I dreamed of hiking on glaciers, and researched taking a trip to Alaska – I found week-long guided adventures hiking on glaciers and sea kayaking around them, which sounded perfect. But I was just finishing school and I needed to find an apartment to rent in the expensive and broker-controlled (read: high fees) NYC real estate market. So financially I could not make it to Alasaka. Instead I decided on a more accessible northern destination. Examining a map of Maine, I found a large green patch labeled ‘Baxter State Park’ in the middle of it, and pegged that for my destination.
A little research revealed to me that Baxter State Park is home to Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Katahdin’s highest peak is Baxter Peak at 5,268 feet high, connected by the ‘Knife’s Edge’ ridge to secondary peaks Chimney Peak and Pamola Peak.
So in September 2008, I took a weeklong solo trip to Baxter State Park. This was mostly a moderate trip – some car camping, no more than 2 nights in a row ‘backcountry’, and only at campgrounds with onsite rangers. Camping at Baxter requires advanced reservations, so there is only one party per site, tent site or lean-to. Canoes are available on many of the lakes for a nominal rental fee. I tried one out – a hilarious endeavor were anyone watching me trying to figure out what to do with a one-bladed paddle (I am a kayaker and used to two bladed paddles), alone in a two person boat. A second canoe available next to the one I tried out was reserved only for campers with a reservation on Wassataquoik Lake Island – a site with a single lean-to. Staying there means having an entire island to oneself! I wanted to come back and camp there.
I visited Baxter right around the first day of fall, but my first night there felt more like winter. Temperatures dropped to the mid-20’s. I only had a 32 degree sleeping bag, but wearing every piece of clothing I brought along, I was warm enough to sleep. The following day was so warm that I was hiking in shorts and a tanktop, and near the end of the trip I even jumped into a pond to cool and rinse off. Fall weather in Maine runs the gamut from cold to hot!
I was lucky to get a last-minute reservation at Chimney Pond, the campground on Katahdin that most hikers use as a base when summiting the mountain. Hiking to the campground, I was not sure if I would climb the mountain or not. I am comfortable hiking alone, but not in extreme circumstances, and Katahdin seemed pretty extreme. The next morning I checked the weather at the ranger station, and it was a beautiful day. While there, I chatted with another hiker who said he and his son would be climbing the Cathedral trail to the peak, so I knew others would be on the trail. Also the rangers at Baxter check the hiking register at sunset each evening to make sure all the hikers reached to their destination. Knowing help would be at hand if something went wrong, I decided to hike to the peak.
Climbing the rock scramble that is Cathedral trail was an other-worldly experience. The hiker I spoke to must have changed his plans, no one else was on the trail. As I ascended higher and higher, and the ranger station below began looking like a toy, I felt like I was alone, the only person on a strange, rocky world. I was convinced that I would not see anyone else all day. I had forgotten a number facts I had known back at the ranger station: 1) my destination was the destination of all northbound Appalachian Trail hikers, 2) it was the prime season for completing northbound AT hikes and 3) there was a notification at the ranger station that a low flying aircraft would be passing by Katahdin – an unusual occurrence that required special permission.
The spell of believing I was the only person in the world was broken as I rounded the top of the Cathedral trail, where it terminates at an intersection with the Saddle trail leading to the peak. As I climbed to the top of the ridge, a man came into view – he was crouched down on the trail, wearing a Santa Claus hat. He asked “have you been naughty or nice this year?” Lost in my reverie of being alone in the world, I did not know how to respond – I smiled and continued on my way. Another thru-hiker was already at the peak when I arrived, basking in his accomplishment of completing the Appalachian Trail while enjoying the view from Maine’s highest peak.
That view is the point of this story. I unfortunately don’t have any pictures from that trip, but that view is burned into my memory. The system of lakes and ponds gave the appearance of a wetland, surrounded by a vast forest of red trees. I wanted to explore that land – to walk among the trees and sit on the shores of those lakes. Most of the forest is logging forest, not open to the public, but the Appalachian Trail traverses that land in a narrow corridor of parkland called the “100 Mile Wilderness”. That day on the peak of Katahdin the seed was planted for the adventure John and I recently finished.
I sat on Baxter Peak marveling at the view for over an hour. As I was sitting there, more and more AT thru-hikers arrived. Watching them overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of the sign designating the peak of Katahdin was a powerful experience. Once there were about 20 thru-hikers celebrating together, I felt like a voyeur and moved to the side of the peak, near the Knife’s Edge. Hiking it was tempting, but I concluded I should not do it alone, and again had another reason to revisit this park. Eventually a camera crew hiked up the mountain via the AT, and the low-flying aircraft started flying by. It turns out there was a documentary being filmed following a man hiking the Appalachian Trail, and he finished the day I climbed Katahdin. As I left, the group at the peak were re-enacting the man’s finish over and over again for the camera in the plane. I never was able to track down the film.
It took several years before I was able to find the right companion to revisit Baxter State Park to hike and camp the places I missed out on the first time. Last year, just a few months into our relationship, John agreed to take weeklong backpacking vacation with me. At this point he had very little backpacking experience, mostly from Boy Scouts, so this was a big undertaking for him. I was impressed that he agreed.
We planned the trip to do the things that I had wanted to come back for: hike the Knife’s Edge and stay on the Wassataquoik Lake Island. We had amazing weather for the Knife’s Edge Hike (and oddly saw another thru-hiker at the peak with a Santa hat!)
After climbing Katahdin, we hiked up and over the ridge to stay at Davis Pond in the Northwest Basin (Chimney Pond is in the South Basin). As we were hiking, a storm rolled in, with winds so high on the ridge that we struggled to walk through them. We arrived safely at the shelter, and stayed safe and dry in the lean-to as the winds whipped around us, thankfully coming from the direction opposite the lean-to opening, and the rain pounded down on the roof. In the morning, there were several new waterfalls on the steep mountainsides, and the pond was over a foot higher than when we arrived the previous day.
The following night we were scheduled to camp on the Wassataquoik Lake Island. To get there, we had to cross Turner Brook. A brook – that sounds easy enough. After walking for hours in pouring rain through trails that were now streams, we came to the “brook”. It was a raging white-water river – there was no way we could safely cross it given how high the water was. So we turned back and stayed at Davis Pond again. We didn’t get an island to ourselves, but we did have a mountain basin to ourselves, completely cut-off by a mountain ridge on one side and a raging river on the other. The nearest person was at least five miles away. It was quite an adventure, the first big adventure John and I shared together.