Mount Katahdin

9-Jun-03

By: Bill Oliver


Adventuring on Maine’s Highest

No one in Maine wears a cowboy hat! Be that as it may, all the Mainers I met seemed friendly enough and reasonably trustworthy. Although not really surprising, I suppose, I was startled to notice that none of the place names here use Spanish words. However, places are likely to have names with far too many letters and that are quite impossible to read from a moving car. Stopping the car doesn’t help much!

Maine must mean “lots of woods” in some native tongue. I could not believe the pervasive, dense tree coverage. Indeed, Maine is second only to Alaska as our most wooded state. How can so many different trees all grow so closely together? Maine also has an abundance of ponds and creeks. In short, if you’re into the out-of-doors, this state rocks!

I was in Kennebunk for the weekend attending a national Sierra Club outings meeting. Kennebunk is almost a beach town, except too many trees. One of the spouses claims to have seen George and Barbara in nearby Kennebunkport. Kennebunk is also the home of Tom’s of Maine, although none of us claimed a sighting of Tom. These places are in the far southern neck of a pretty large state - large by Eastern standards anyway.

By 1:00 pm Sunday our business was successfully concluded and I was heading north on I- 95. It’s interesting to drive this highway — especially if you are a tree hugger. Imagine driving it through some of Maine’s largest cities and seeing nothing but — you guessed it, trees. I was heading north some 220 miles to the Millinocket off ramp — gateway to Baxter State Park and Mt. Katahdin. Enroute I made an obligatory stop in Freeport, the home of L. L. Bean. Their large, modem store is open 24/7/365 — plus leap year days. I think it must always be bustling.

At 5267 feet, Katahdin is the highest point in Maine. In the local native tongue it means “greatest mountain.” As state governor in the mid-l920’s, Percival Baxter was unsuccessful in his efforts to bring this special wilderness area into the public domain. Unlike Alaska, Maine is 95% in private hands — mostly lumber company hands. Undaunted and wealthy, over the course of thirty years Baxter personally purchased Katahdin and over 200,000 adjoining acres. He deeded this land to the people of Maine with the stipulation that it remain forever protected and wild — thus Baxter State Park.

[Technically, the high point of the Katahdin Massif is Baxter Peak.] Rather than bring a lot of camping gear and incur the risk of bad weather, I opted to reserve a $39 cabin. So I only had to bring my sleeping bag to spread on the mattress. Way cool cabin: two beds, a propane lamp, a wood-burning stove with wood, and a porch with a rocker - all set twenty feet from a splendid large pond with a Katahdin backdrop. And the area was almost deserted of people. Oh, and get this — both in the evening and early morn, I heard the distinctive lone call of a loon (or some other water critter). Color Bill stoked.

I’m grateful Sunday afternoon was clear, as I was never again to see Katahdin. Monday I was up at 4:00 am — light enough to move about outside without a headlamp. On the short drive to the traithead I was blessed with two close moose sightings — a cow and an adolescent. I assumed it was an adolescent, as mom seemed to have trouble in keeping it in line.

By 5:001 had signed the Hunt Trail register and was headed up 5.2 mi (4150’ gain) into a damp heavy overcast and uncertain weather. And I was a little bummed. I would have much preferred to take the Knife Edge Ridge route on the other side of the peak. As noted in the park brochure, this mile-long ridge “is perhaps the most spectacular route in New England, but it may also be the most dangerous.” However, with rain forecasted at 50%, and with no time to return the next day, I finally opted for the route offering a greater probability of success. Among several summit routes, the Hunt Trail has the distinction of being part of the Appalachian Trail. The southern terminus of the AT is Springer Mtn in Georgia. A stout 2160 trail miles away, Katahdin is the northern terminus. Accordingly, the Hunt Trail is very well “blazed” — for which I would be grateful.

Trust me - walking through a Maine woods in “gloomy” weather is better than a clear day saunter in almost any other place. I wish I was better at identifying the wide mix of conifer and leafy trees. I loved the paper thin “trail trash” scattered about by the many birth.

Considering that my home in Colorado is over a 1,000 feet higher than Katahdin, it would be easy for me to underrate this peak. According to Paul Zumwalt, however, author of “Fifty State Summits,” the Hunt route provides “the most difficult climb of the 26 state summits east of the Mississippi.” In any event, I never approach a peak with a view of conquering it. Rather, I seek only to connect with it and to ascend as high as the mountain spirits deem me worthy. I’ve found that staying on the good side of mountain spirits matters!

By 7:00 I had abruptly left the forest and hit the “rock wall.” Because of the dense mist I could only see about 50 feet ahead. I was surprised then and delighted at the sustained low-to-moderate 3rd class climbing that lasted over an hour. My pace was slowed some by the need for caution on the wet rock. Then I was finally on the broad, barren, gentle ridge to the summit — somewhere ahead in the gloom.

The wind was not very loud, but it was strong and plastered the dew against me as if it were raining. I paused to remove my soaked convertible pants and to put on dry polypro bottoms and rain pants. My rain jacket had been out for an hour. Did it occur to me to turn back? Get real! Short of a thunder storm, why on earth would I turn around?

Anyhow, I now had extra incentive to be in tune with the mountain spirits, as I headed up into the near white-out. You might say this route is way too heavily marked. I wouldn’t! Hey, 9:20 and I finally bumped into the elaborate summit sign. All right! I could only imagine the grand view laid out in all directions — and the daunting knife edge ridge to the SE.

I quickly snacked and vainly tried to wring out my thick, windproof and water resistant fleece gloves — now past soaked. True to their oath, however, they still provided some warmth. Before departing, I almost forgot to do something that greatly matters to me. As loud as I could muster it above the wind, I shouted “YES”! Did you hear me?

The very wet wind picked up on the descent, and I know it would have loved to knock me off my feet. No way, Jose or Joe. The down climb of the rock buttress was careful and steady. I expected to see no one all day. More than halfway down, however, what a treat to encounter a group of four: two college-age couples from N. Carolina. I facetiously asked if they were finishing the AT today. No — but they hoped to start today atop Katahdin and to finish five months later in Georgia. They appeared in good spirits and determined. I hope they made it. If not, the next day should have offered much better weather.

By 1:00 the mist had finally turned to a light steady rain. I assure you, however, that my saunter through the forest remained delightful. [Dude — it’s Maine!] 1:25 and the car was mine. All right. It would take me about four hours to drive south to Bar Harbor — the entry to Acadia National Park, a hot shower and a place .to finally lay out my wet gear.

Earlier in the day, ascending through the Maine woods, I was somehow inspired to recall an e. e. cummings poem. It was one I used to recite every day. I was perplexed to account for how it had fallen into disuse. For this most amazing day - I thank you, Lord For the leaping greenly spirit of trees And a blue true dream of sky And for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.


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