Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Looking up at the Gateway.
Our ninth day, an eight or nine mile hike from Abol Bridge to the Katahdin Stream Campground at the southwest base of Katahdin, was the shortest of the trip.  The trail runs within the state park along the east side of the Penobscot for three or four miles, but the west side is private property, with a road only a short ways back from the river. We could see private houses here and there along the riverbank and hear the occasional car whooshing along. Eventually, the trail swung northeast along a tributary, slowly climbing toward the base of Katahdin itself. We ran into the Machine and her companion, ambling along nonchalantly with friends and relatives who had gathered to support them on the final push. RD also made a remarkable and unexpected comeback in our long-running fart competition, winning what was essentially the deciding Game 7 after I had dominated in the middle innings of our contest. In general, it was a quiet morning, however, as encounters with day hikers, conversation with a friendly ranger, and the sounds of civilization revealed that our time in the wilderness was over.

Katahdin Stream Campground holds only twelve spots for long distance hikers, and we hoped to arrive early enough to get a tent platform. In fact, we had actually signed in at a waypoint at the park entrance, presumably so that rangers can radio ahead to give their colleagues a heads-up about potential overflow. When we checked in around eleven with a ranger at the campground office, he informed us we were the first hikers to arrive. But as we walked the final quarter mile to the campsite, who should fall in ahead of us but the Machine, trotting along at a furious pace. Clearly, she been spooked when we passed by earlier in the morning and now, worried that she wouldn’t find space in the campsite, had skipped the ranger check-in. It turned out that there was only one spot to pitch a tent, so RD and I resigned ourselves to sleeping al fresco in a lean-to – for the first time on the trip, in fact. At least we would save time packing the following morning.

The campsite was shaded and chilly, so we returned to the campground’s central meadow, which had picnic tables, fire pits, and a good view of a shoulder of Katahdin that we would climb up on the morrow. Without any cares for the rest of the day, we spread out our things and began to nibble at what remained of our food supplies. Knowing that Rick, RD’s father, would join us with fresh provisions the following morning, we tried to polish everything off. We ate well for most of the trip but were now down to the dregs: nuts and seeds, carrots, a couple bagels, and plenty of peanut butter and jelly. Nearby, the Machine and her friends set up a real picnic; one woman kindly came over to give us some coke and a couple s’mores. RD and I must have sat at the table for six or seven hours, playing cards, daydreaming, and eventually building a fire (the rangers had wood for sale) to cook our final night of mac and cheese. In the late afternoon, several thru-hikers came off the mountain, delighted to be finished but reporting clouds on the summit. Indeed, even in the valley, the weather was a steady mixture of intermittent clouds, sun, and the occasional sprinkle of rain.

The gates to Baxter open at 6, so RD and I were waiting for Rick at the parking lot by bright and early the next morning. The sky was totally clear and the air a bit chilly – the best day for hiking of the entire trip. Soon, a long line of cars arrived all at once. Rick showed up shortly afterward, bearing our daypacks and food that seemed worth its weight in gold: sandwiches, two blocks of cheddar cheese, swedish fishes, chocolate bars, and other assorted goodies. For the first time in a week and a half, we could eat what we wanted, when we wanted. I immediately scarfed down a package of potato chips, which drew a quizzical glance from Jenkinson senior at this early hour. Then we hit the trail.

Katahdin has probably the most distinctive appearance of any mountain in the northeast because it rises up out of flatlands, at least when viewed from south. Its flanks are big and steep, but the top is actually quite broad and flat. I assume that this distinctive topography, somewhat similar to the Presidentials in New Hampshire, has to do with the thickness of glaciers that scoured the sides of the massif but did not reach the top.

Nearing the Gateway, with the Owl in the background.
In any case, the ascent up the Hunt Trail was steep and unrelenting, but our legs were now in great shape and particularly spry in the absence of our big packs. Rick, a veteran of the CrossFit training program, moved along at an impressive clip. The trail was crowded with people taking advantage of the fine weather and, as it ascends over some very large boulders, we often got caught behind other parties. Several times, we leapfrogged a young group of Mennonites, both men and women, though hiking in separate groups. They moved quickly and had little sense of trail etiquette, so we were glad to pass them for good about halfway up, when we got to the first of the open ledges.

Looking back across some of the ground we had covered in the wilderness. Lake Nahmakanta is in the distance.
The toughest part of the trail is the section known as the Gateway, which involves a lot of exposed scrambling on and around various boulders. At points, the climbing is semi-technical and is occasionally aided by iron rods that have been placed in the rock. By this point, the views were superb and the exposure a bit daunting. However, atop this section, we arrived at the Tablelands, a flat alpine region a couple square miles large that is populated by fields of alpine sedges and an indigenous butterfly, among other flora and fauna. The actual summit of Baxter Peak was a mile or two distant to the east. We stopped once at Thoreau Spring, where the writer/philosopher evidently tarried on his own visit to the peak in the 1840s. He excitedly described his explorations in The Maine Woods.

The Tablelands, with the summit beyond.
Looking South from the Tablelands.
The summit was a lively place. Several thru-hikers, all of whom were by now acquaintances, including the Machine, had hiked to the top earlier in the morning. Now, sprawling around the summit, which is surprisingly broad and flat, they rejoiced at finishing their trek. Cigars were lit and whiskey bottles uncorked. The Machine smiled. Hoss, a friendly young Iowan whom we’d met a couple days earlier, announced that he planned to drink up all the beer in Millinocket that night. Rick, RD, and I decided to venture out to the Knife Edge, the famously exposed ridge that connects Baxter and Pamola Peaks. Hoss declined our invitation to come along, saying he didn’t intend to hike another step if he could help it.
Chimney Pond from the summit, with Pamola Peak to the right.
Pamola Peak and the Knife Edge
We stopped for lunch at a small satellite peak on the Knife Edge itself. Our view stretched far across the forest toward southern Maine and into the bowl that contains Chimney Pond, as well as over the peaks that surround Katahdin itself. It is wild, rugged country, uniquely rocky, steep, and exposed in the northeast. Not wanting to have to climb back up, we decided to hold off on the rest of the Knife Edge and just sat around eating and taking in our surroundings.

Our destination for lunch.
Well, there’s not much more to tell. By the time we returned to the summit proper, it was swarming with several dozen hikers and had taken on a raucous atmosphere. Hoss and the other thru-hikers were still on top, holding court while they waited for a few other companions to join them. Rick snapped a picture of RD and me standing on top of the Katahdin sign, and then we started down. The descent was surprisingly quick and happened without mishap. I was very glad that we had gotten up early to start the climb when I observed the bottleneck that built up at the top of the Gateway. At the bottom, we had a small celebration of our own over a few beers that Rick had thoughtfully brought. I wouldn’t have trusted myself to climb down the mountain safely after one, to be honest. I hope all those thru-hikers did okay after their nips of whiskey – we never saw them again.  

The summit!
We spent our final evening at the Moose Inn, in Millinocket, where I had stayed with my brother on a trip to the north country perhaps 12 or 13 years earlier. It’s less rustic and charming now but remains comfortable, with plenty of good food and drink in the restaurant. We got off the mountain so early that we had plenty of time to lounge around. We were all in bed not long after sunset, as had been our habit on the trail. The Jenkinsons are an industrious pair, and we were up only a little time past the usual hour in the morning.

Descending through the Tablelands.
Before parting ways the next day, RD and I hatched some plans to do more backpacking in following summers, perhaps in the southern Appalachians next summer. I hope to include descriptions of those adventures here, as well. 

Hamlin Peak, Baxter's smaller neighbor.

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