It may come as a surprise, but Nova Scotia wasn’t necessarily on my original itinerary. I had hoped that it would work out, but hadn’t realized just how far away it was. Then, my mom decided to join me for my northeast section. She had always wanted to hike Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak. Once she was on board, we decided it would be worthwhile to visit her sister as well. Our main event still remained though… climbing Katahdin.
To get the timing right, we had to drive late into the night from Front Cove, arriving outside of Millinocket, ME around 11:30 PM. After dozing off for a few hours in an I-95 rest stop, we woke up a little later than we should have, but ready to hike. We buzzed into Millinocket and stopped at the Appalachian Trail Café, where I was mistaken for a thru-hiker. Happily, the mistake led to a great conversation with a pair of thru-hikers, one with a totally dislocated shoulder who was continuing north on the International Appalachian Trail. For him, Katahdin was just another waypoint.
As we drove through Millinocket towards the park, we noticed tons of signs emblazoned with the words “National Park NO” or “National Park YES”. Although the Scott Jurek vs. Baxter press had gone viral, a much more important and interesting discussion was taking place in the area. Jurek’s experiences in Baxter are indicative of the parks unique status in Maine. It is a state park, but is managed exclusively by an endowment that religiously follows the rules set down by Percival Baxter between 1931 and 1962. This protected area maintains its status as “wilderness” by limiting group sizes, access roads, electricity usage, and practicing sustainable forestry etc. It feels much more wild than most state or national parks I have come across. In fact, Percival Baxter protected it so that it would remain “forever wild”.
Now, Baxter’s “wildness” is potentially endangered by another potential land grant. Roxanne Quimby wants to donate over one hundred thousand acres to the park. She will only do so, however, if the combined lands are inducted into the National Park System. To most people, this seems like a no-brainer, but it is wildly controversial in Maine’s north woods. Usage rights and access to the park would no doubt change drastically under National Park Service management. I haven’t had a chance to look into the controversy as closely as I would like, so I will withhold judgment until I have done my homework. It was fascinating, however, to see the divide among the people of Millinocket firsthand.
After spending far too long in Millinocket, we finally headed towards Baxter. As we entered the park, the ranger warned us of our late start and of the potential for inclement weather. We only had one shot, however, so we started hiking from the Roaring Brook trailhead towards Chimney Pond. My previous experiences on Katahdin had been windless, sunny, and fast. Now, it was overcast, windy, and slower. The rain from the night before made the rocks slick, which slowed our scramble up the mountain. By the time we had reached Chimney Pond, I was worried about timing and weather. In the past, I had sprinted up the formidable mountain with a crew of competitive, adolescent guys eager to bag the peak. Katahdin’s ugly side had never impeded our treks.
It became clear to me as we navigated the boulder fields up Katahdin’s Cathedral Trail that I had been exceedingly lucky on my other ascents. The peak was shrouded in cloud and the wind was whistling through the trees around us. We quickly realized that the boulders of Cathedral were far more formidable for my mother’s 5’3” frame than mine that was nearing 6’. Some scrambles were far more difficult to navigate and some faces just a little too tall. Our progress slowed and we became worried about the potential of getting back down this precipitous trail. In the end, we retreated to Chimney Pond where we sat enjoying our local-fare from Halifax and watched the wind dance across that secluded pond. We looked up at the Dudley Trail, the Knife Edge, and Baxter summit itself. The mountain had finally humbled me.
Our decision to abandon the summit had been a wise one. We had started way too late in the day. We had gotten unlucky on the weather. As we looked up at the summit, we could see the clouds, but other hikers had reported winds gusting from between 25 mph to 50 mph. Some of that may have been hyperbolic, but the conditions had clearly not been optimal. Those two factors would have been enough to turn anyone around. For me, however, there was another factor at play. My two previous summits had been nearly perfect. The wind and weather had cooperated and my groups had been intrepid and speedy. Each time had been a 4-5 hour round trip hike, which is exceedingly rare for Katahdin. We had jogged up Helon Taylor and tumbled down Cathedral. Without recognizing it, both hikes had diminished my respect for the mountain. Katahdin is a formidable peak. The majority of your ascent is a hand over hand climb through boulder fields full of massive slabs of granite. Pair that with thousands of feet of elevation gain and erratic weather patterns and you’ve got yourself quite a mountain. Add in the fact that Katahdin has seen snow every month of the year, and you really have to prepare for just about anything. My mom and I hadn’t been. We had handicapped ourselves with a late start, and then the mountain started kicking us while we were down.
After lunch at Chimney Pond, we started back down the trail, admiring the handiwork of trail crews and their beautifully crafted bridges as we crossed stream after stream. The Basin Ponds reflected the true power of Katahdin in their windswept waters. Time became less of a factor as we wandered back down, which meant we had more time to explore and unpack our decision to turn back. In the end, it was more enjoyable than a rushed and risky ascent.
Once back in the car, we eagerly plugged in for the last chapters of Ocean at the End of the Lane as we headed for Bar Harbor. We arrived late that night, the darkness hiding our surroundings from us. We awoke on Mount Desert Island, staring off into the calm ocean that surrounded us.
Cartographic Illustration of the Day