I have always loved camping. Being out in nature for days at a time brings me deep inner peace. Nearly all of my camping experience has been of the car camping variety, usually along the Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains. As much as I enjoy car camping and the luxuries that go along with it, I always envied the backpackers emerging from the woods with everything they needed strapped to their backs. Last year when my co-workers John and Tim invited me on an overnight backpacking trip I jumped at the opportunity. I learned some hard lessons my first time out, such as the effects of a poorly adjusted pack, and packing too much weight. Despite the hard lessons I enjoyed the trip and looked forward to my next adventure out in the woods (once my shoulders, legs, and feet forgave me the first excursion.)
The opportunity for a second trip came as another invitation from John and Tim for a four day, three night backpacking trip through Baxter State Park in Northern Maine. The trip would take us around, up, and over Mt. Katahdin which is the highest mountain in Maine and the end of the AT. I once again jumped at the opportunity, though I was somewhat nervous. The trip would be 24 miles in total, much longer than I had ever hiked before, with a punishing third day with some very steep elevation gains and very rugged trails. Despite my concerns I was very excited as I packed and then repacked my backpack. I managed to get my pack down to about 34 lbs including 3 L of water and all my food. The next day after work I drove to meet Tim, John, and John's son at a Park & Ride along I-95. There was concern whether all our packs would fit in the trunk of the car we would be carpooling in, but amazingly everything made it in. From the Park & Ride we headed north, stopping along the way for dinner. The total drive time to our motel was 6 hours, most of which were at night. We passed much of the time listening to an audiobook and keeping our eyes peeled for moose on the highway. We arrived late at our motel in Millinocket and quickly went to our rooms to get some sleep for an early morning.
We were greeted in the morning by a beautiful sunrise as we left our motel and headed out to find breakfast. After eating our fill at a local cafe we headed into Baxter State Park only to be stopped by a ranger at the gate and told we had made a mix-up and were a day early. Baxter State Park requires reservations and it wouldn't be possible to change our reservations to start that day. We decided to spend the day exploring the area and took a short hike to one of the ponds in Baxter State Park with stunning views of Mt. Katahdin. No sooner had we finished our short hike then the sky opened up and it began to rain in earnest. We headed back to town to enjoy an exhausting day of eating and lounging while the rain poured. We all agreed that the mix-up in our reservation dates was truly a blessing as we would have been drenched and likely miserable had we been out hiking. When our motel receptionist was asked what there was to do in Millinocket she replied "literally nothing." It seems that Millinocket was a mill town and has been in decline ever since the last mill went bankrupt and closed some years ago. We went to bed early after eating way too much food and awoke early the next morning.
There was no beautiful sunrise to greet us in the morning, but the clear blue sky was actually a more welcome sight. We ate breakfast again at the local cafe and then once again headed into Baxter State Park. This time all our paperwork was in order and the ranger waived us through after going through some rules and regulations. Baxter State Park is rather strict as to what you can and can't do in the park. The park itself was given to the state by a former governor of Maine along with the strict conditions for its use. The drive from the gate to the trailhead was longer than we expected, but with the fall colors out in force we enjoyed the surprisingly smooth ride on a long dirt road. At last we arrived at the trailhead, put on our packs and headed out into the woods.
The morning coolness clung to the forest despite the sun having been up for several hours. The trail was mostly flat with some ups and downs that were just enough to make us shed a layer or two, yet still keep our gloves on. We had expected our hike to take place after peak foilage, but it seemed the colors had changed later this year and were nothing short of spectacular. We continued on commenting on how fortunate we were not to be hiking in the pouring rain and pausing to take a picture every now and then of small streams or impressive glacier erratics.
Soon our trail brought us to an opening near a pond with breath-taking views of Mt. Katahdin. We could make out snow on the top, though the forecast was for warmer weather when we would be making our summit attempt. We saw very few people on the trail. One fellow was heading the opposite direction and warned us of a deep river crossing the way he had come. We soon reached a fork in the road with two trails that would take us to our destination for the night. We opted to take the Wassataquoik Stream Trail which is longer, but we hoped would save us the river crossing. The trail soon followed a river and we decided that since we were on the right side of the river we would stay dry. Unfortunately, we were wrong.
We came across a small stream that we had to cross, but there was no bridge or stepping stones. Resigned to our fate we took off our shoes and made our way across the frigid calf-high water. About three steps in I realized I could no longer feel my feet, but if this was the only crossing it was no where near as bad as what we had been warned about. We reached the other side easily, but before we dried our feet John decided to scout ahead. Sure enough, there was another crossing. A short walk around a bend and the river widened significantly. Unfortunately the wide river did not mean the crossing would be shallow. A party who had crossed just before us shouted across that it was about thigh-high. There was nothing to do but cross so once again we braved the bone-numbing water which sure enough was fairly deep. On the other side we stopped in the sun to dry out and enjoy our lunch. The sun felt wonderful after the freezing water and by the time we had finished lunch we were dry and in good spirits.
We came across several other rivers or streams on our way to our campsite, but fortunately these all had log bridges which meant we could keep our boots on. The trail was very easy going and before long we arrived at Russell Campground: our stop for the night. When we arrived we used a scale to weigh our packs. Surprisingly our packs all came out to about 35 lbs. We setup camp in our lean-to and then explored Russell Pond which is famous for its moose sightings. Unfortunately there were no moose, but the scenery was beautiful. Dinner was dehyrdated meals which aren't something I would eat on a regular basis, but always seem to taste great after a full day of hiking. After dinner we pumped water for the next day, hung our food up on a bear hang, and then marveled at the stars. Tim experimented with his camera taking long exposures of the night sky to show the star trails. Tired from our eight mile hike we settled into our sleeping bags and called it a night.
I generally don't sleep well the first night someplace new whether it's camping or in a hotel. That said, I felt relatively refreshed and after breakfast was raring to go. My exhuberance was partly due to the first day being easier than I had expected and partly due to the knowledge that this day would be a shorter hike with only some moderate elevation gain. Shortly after breakfast a light rain began to fall and we decided to take our time packing up camp knowing we had a "easy" day ahead of us and hoping that the rain would stop. The rain did let up, though the sky remained oppresive as we headed off. The trail began easily enough, crossing some water that was easy to cross via rocks, before heading up a slight incline through a forest in peak fall color. As the trail continued it gradually became steeper, but nothing difficult, as it followed along one stream and then another. The weather decided to remind us what our original departure day would have been like by with occasional rain showers and cold temperature swings. We stopped for lunch under the shelter of some pine trees near a roaring stream. We had followed the stream for some time and were hoping we wouldn't have to cross it. After lunch we headed along the stream with the trail getting wetter and wetter. At times we found ourselves hopping from one log to another and trying not to slip and fall or get a boot full of water. We came across another hiker heading in the opposite direction and Tim commented on how lucky we were not to have to cross the river. The hiker responded "well..." with a big smile. No sooner had we gotten past the hiker then we came to the edge of the stream and sure enough the blue trail blazes went right over the rocks. Had the water been a little lower we probably could have rock hopped, but with the on and off rain the stream was high and fast flowing. Off came our boots and we crossed the fast moving water in our camp shoes which had dried out the night before only to be soaked again. The water was as cold as the first day though not as deep. John made three trips so that he, his son, and their packs made it safely across: the cold did not seem to bother him in the least. Soon our feet were dry and our boots back on and we began a somewhat steeper climb up towards our campsite. We came across more water, but fortunately there was no more wading. The going became steeper and steeper the closer we got to our destination which caused me to slow down significantly. I definitely need to work on my conditioning to better handle the steep sections. At the top of the steep climb we were greeted with tremendous views. We were in a bowl surrounded on three sides by cliffs with two mountain ponds that served as the source of the stream we had crossed earlier. We made camp in our lean-to later than expected and after making dinner we soon were in bed fast asleep.
We awoke to clear skies the next morning, but I had a lump in the stomach. The end of the previous day had proved much more challenging than I was expecting and yet it was a piece of cake compared to what was ahead. As soon as we left our campsite I knew the trail became nearly vertical as it went up and out of the bowl our campsite was in and up onto a ridge. While eating breakfast I stared up at the ridge which was even more imposing than the day before. It was difficult to make out how a trail could even go up what was mostly cliff faces. But there was nothing to do but continue on. The trail was indeed steep, but actually turned out to be not as bad as I was expecting. Before I knew it we were out of the trees and on a boulder field. After the boulder field we stopped for a snack and to take shelter from the wind which was whipping hard against us. We put on more layers and continued into the wind and up on the exposed ridge. The landscape was very different from the forest floor of the previous two days. Here there was almost nothing but rock and more rock with some grass and other alpine plants. The views were impressive though it was hard to take them in with the wind as strong as it was. We sheltered in a small grove of gnarled trees for lunch before continuing on to a trail junction and a spring. I figured I had about 2.5L of water and didn't need to refill, besides I didn't want the extra weight knowing that the summit of Mt. Katahdin was ahead. As the trail turned toward Mt. Katahdin I was taken aback. Studying the contour map the night before I was sure that the initial climb out of the bowl and up onto the ridge would be the most difficult part of the day. Having made it to the top of the ridge and onto was is called the Table Lands I had already been ready to claim victory on the day. But Mt. Katahdin loomed looking almost as high as all the elevation we had already covered, and then some. However I had come this far and I was not about to miss summitting, especially as the clouds began to break and the wind died down. We made our way through the Saddle and started the moderate climb up to the summit. The trail was very rocky, but most of the rocks were small and not too difficult to navigate. I took several breaks to take in the views (and to catch my breath) along the way. Climbing mountains in New England can be disheartening due to the number of false summits one comes across. Looking up one sees what must be the summit not too far away, only to arrive there and find yet another steep incline, and then another, and another. But at last we made it to the very top and posed with the sign and talked with some AT thru-hikers who had just finished their journey along the entire AT having started in Georgia. Once again I prematurely claimed victory on the day thinking it was all downhill hiking from there which I find easier.
We couldn't linger on the summit as we were behind schedule and the sun was lower in the sky than we would like. So began the trek across the infamous Knife's Edge. Now is a good time to mention that I don't like heights. Okay so I really dislike heights. Okay so maybe I am terrified of heights. Part of me had been hoping that the weather wouldn't be good enough and that once we reached the summit of Katahdin we would turn around and make our way to our campsite via an easier trail. But the weather was good and the wind had died down and my co-workers were game. I knew that if I decided not to go I would be giving into my fears and at the same time one of my co-workers would probably come back with me the easier way and I was not about to deny them the opportunity to cross Knife's Edge. So I soldiered on without a word, thinking it couldn't be too bad. I had done my research and while the guidebook said the trail was "not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights", I had watched videos on YouTube taken from GoPro cameras that looked scary but doable. I was bolstered by the comments which said that the videos made it look much worse than it was. Well, the comments were wrong. The "path" across the Knife's Edge is not really a path. It is simply the only way to navigate up and over an extremely rugged and rocky ridge. In many places the ridge narrows to only a couple of feet with a 2,000 ft drop on either side. Nearly all of the deaths and injuries sustained on Mt. Katahdin have been along the Knife's Edge. About half-way through I met up with John and Tim who noticing my slow pace nicely asked if I had blisters or if my legs were sore. It was at that point that I admitted that the heights were filling me with "abject terror". But I was commited at that point. With the sun setting there was no choice but to move forward as quickly as we (or I should say I) could. We had to get off of Knife's Edge before it got dark.
Slowly but surely I made my way along the ridge. It was impossible not to look down in many places as the ridge was so narrow that simply putting one foot infront of the other meant looking down 2,000 ft to the valley floor. The views however were some of the best I had ever seen. The setting sun cast a beautiful light on the valley dressed in reds, oranges, and yellows. But there wasn't time to stop and admire the views. As we made our way along the ridge the sun began to set behind the mountain. About three quarters of the way through the ridge I suddenly found the heights weren't so bad. I certainly wasn't comfortable with them, but I no longer felt panic surging through me threatening to freeze me in place. The Knife's Edge seemed to go on forever though with very few level spots. It was a constant up and down various rocky knobs along the ridge. But at long last we made it to Pamola Peak!
I once again, somewhat foolishly, claimed victory on the day thinking that the hardest part was now over. From Pamola Peak there was only 1.3 miles of trail to our campsite, surely we could make it down before it got too dark. John and his son started ahead and Tim and I soon followed. Darkness soon enveloped us and we switched on our headlamps. However instead of the relatively easy 1.3 mile hike we had envisioned, the trail began to fight us every step of the way. The small loose rock at the top of the Pamola Peak quickly turned into larger and larger boulders. With the darkness it quickly became a chore simply to follow the blazes. The boulders turned into the size of cars and some were even the size of houses. The "trail" led up and over and down these huge boulders. We lowered ourselves from one boulder to the other, squeezed through chimneys, and in some cases slid on our butts. At this point I had run out of water and Tim very graciously shared what little he had left. It wasn't long though before we had run out and only had our dehydrated meals which meant we had no food until we found a water source. As we decended fatigue, dehydration, and hunger began to overtake us. At one point we stopped to share a small amount of condensed milk at Tim's insistence: apparently I was slurring my speech. At one of our stops Tim realized that his camera must have slipped out of his pocket while squeezing between boulders and was gone. We couldn't search for it in the dark or in our condition so we continued from one boulder to another. We could see lights around the pond at our camp, but they were always agonizingly out of reach. Each time we completed a boulderfield and entered some trees Tim was ever the optimist would declare that we were almost there. Except the trees offered no reprieve from the boulders and always opened into yet another boulderfield. After what seemed like forever we heard John's voice telling us we were nearly there. It was then that we realized that it had taken us over four hours to cover a single mile.
We stumbled our way to the pond at our campground to get water. Tim and I were somewhat delerious as we pumped water for Gatorade and for our meals. More than once I forgot what I was doing and would ask Tim who would reply after a very long delay. Somewhat rehydrated we made our way through the darkness to our lean-to in the woods. John's son was fast asleep as we began preparing dinner and setting up our sleeping bags. Diner tasted excellent, but was no where near as good as climbing into my sleeping bag. I was asleep almost as soon as I lay down. I was too tired to claim victory on the day.
We got up somewhat begrudgingly the next morning. The daylight revealed what the darkness of our descent had hidden: massive cliffs and boulderfields that we had navigated the previous day. We went back to the pond to get more water and then made our last breakfast before heading off. Compared to the previous day the trail really was a piece of cake. Being able to put one foot infront of the other without having to test each step or figure out how to lower oneself down a 10 ft drop was such a blessing that I quickly got too far ahead of the others. I stopped and waited for the others and then we continued our trek out of the woods at a steadier pace. We passed many dayhikers on our way out on what is one of the more popular trails. Every river crossing had a wide bridge across it which made the going even faster. We paused every so often to take in the fall colors, but as the sky began to look like rain our mission became to reach our car before the sky opened. Before I knew it we were back at the car stuffing our packs in the small trunk and were heading out of the park to an out-of-the-way but great restaurant.
This trip was one of the most difficult things I have done and yet was one of the most rewarding. I stubbornly refused to give in to my fear of heights and overcoming this fear was an amazing feeling. I was really happy I went and was blessed with great views, great company, and relatively great weather. I think everyone has different reasons for hiking. Some just want to walk. Others want to conquer the mountain. For me it is witnessing the beauty of the nature and on this trip we were surrounded by it every day. I am already looking forward to my next backpacking adventure.
More photos of the trip are available on Google Photos.