Maine Mountains, Moose and More

12-15 Jun 2007 - by Debbie Bulger

Our decision not to bring a tent to save space on our transcontinental flight to Maine seemed less of a good idea the first night in our lean-to at Baxter State Park. Richard Stover was buried deep in his bivy sack, while my head was swathed in a too-small scrap of mosquito net held in place by a baseball cap brim and some bear cord. Mosquitoes and black flies competed for our blood. Not ideal.

Having been relatively inactive the week before at a professional conference, we decided to do a warm-up hike before attempting Mt. Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine. Not that we needed warming up. We definitely were not used to the warm temperatures (80s) and high humidity of inland Maine. I was too warm to get into my sleeping bag at night, a fact that exacerbated the bug attacks.

We had our first significant encounter with Maine wildlife just beyond the trailhead for Mt. Coe. As we tramped through an open, leafy wood, we startled a huge animal, bigger than a horse, that had been feeding on the young greens. It noisily galumphed away. Our first moose sighting.

We were on the Marston Loop, a seriously-eroded trail that passes by several peaks on its 8-mile course. Did I say trail? In Maine trails are marked by splotches of paint on rocks. If there is a rock in the trail, it is looked upon as a blank canvas suitable for future paint. No trail crew will move it or dynamite a smoother path. Switchbacks appear to be unknown. Paint splotches go straight up.

One is encouraged to stay on what are called trails by strategically placed poison ivy or dense brush. There are also exquisite flowers, many not seen in California: Mountain Laurel, magenta-hued Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense), Painted trillium, Wild lily-of-the-valley, Dewdrop, Red Baneberry, and Bunchberry.

We scrambled up wet, gravel-covered granite slabs and, on the summit of both Coe and South Brother, were rewarded with fine views of the Katahdin massif. Wanting to save some of our energy for the next day, we skipped North Brother. The day's hike taught us why viewpoints are marked on Maine maps. Most of the way was through forested terrain with no clue as to where any mountains might be found. The tunnel vision helped us focus on the interesting flora and fauna.

And then, Katahdin. I had purchased an excellent park map at a supermarket on the way to Baxter State Park. We were camped at the Abol campground, the trailhead for the Abol Trail, which enabled a convenient early start. Again, the painted blazes proceeded straight up. In less than three miles we had climbed more than 3000' to the plateau 600' below Baxter Peak, the highpoint of the Katahdin massif. The clouds were swirling around us, and I was reminded of hiking in Scotland. Even the rock cairns mimicked those we had seen on Ben Nevis.

On the summit there were quite a bustle of folks, a giant cairn, benchmarks, a sign noting the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and a bronze plaque commemorating Governor Baxter's gift of the expansive park to the people of Maine in the 1930s. Every once in a while, the clouds would part and we caught a glimpse of the lake-dotted, very green landscape below.

Mt. Katahdin is comprised of several peaks along a long, curved ridge. The westernmost peak, Mt. Baxter, is the highpoint with South Peak, Chimney Peak, and Pamola progressively to the east along the Knife Edge. We had chosen our route so as not to have to traverse the notorious Knife Edge, in case it proved too difficult. Seeing the arte allayed our concerns, so we decided to do the Knife Edge and descend the Helon Taylor Trail which would afford us continuous views. It would also place us at the Roaring Brook Campground14 miles from our camp.

The traverse added another 1000' or so of elevation gain with its up and down course. For the most part, the arte was broad enough and the drop offs not precipitous. Where the route narrowed, there were adequate handholds. The scary-looking, short climbing sections were solid third class on good granite. Right before Pamola, we encountered the most difficult spot for someone with short legs: a downclimb that required a bit of a stretch. Although the summit of Katahdin is only 5267', the total elevation gain for the full climb was over 5000'.

After photos and a snack on Pamola, we headed downslowly. Our knees protesting most of the way. Again, I hesitate to call the rock scramble a trail. To our delight we spotted many elegant Lady slippers, a flower I had not seen in 50 years. At the campground, our luck held, and we immediately got a ride to the Entrance Station from a camper who had forgotten to pack contact lens solution. Only 6 miles to go. After half an hour, Richard was able to hitch a ride in an almost full car back to our camp to get our rental car. The 12-mile round-trip drive took him over an hour on the 10 mph posted dirt road.

The rest of our stay was spent photographing moose, renting a park canoe for $1/hour, glimpsing a rarely-seen mink, and identifying other interesting marvels such as the insect-eating Eastern Pitcher Plant and some itsy-bitsy spiders still in their cocoon.

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