Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Breathtaking trip up and over Hamlin Peak on Mt. Katahdin

Worried about an approaching storm, Austin and I woke up at 5 a.m. to begin our ascent of Mt. Katahdin. We knew that rain was on the way eventually, but that was the extent of our knowledge. The South Branch ranger was gone when started our trip, the Russell Pond ranger was training the whole time we were at that site, and there’s no ranger at Davis Pond, so there was no one to get an updated weather report from. We didn’t know what to expect.

I picked my way around an annoying stream that had rerouted to the path and made my way up a somewhat steep route in the woods. Then treeline broke and I saw that the sky was clear. We could see for miles across the park. There were no signs of urbanization to disturb the beautiful view, just miles and miles of forests, ponds and smaller mountains. The sight took my breath away.

View of the basin of Mt. Katahdin from Hamlin ridge, coming down the
trail from the peak.
And then the wind took my breath away. After navigating over a boulder field, we emerged on the plateau and were immediately met with powerful gusts of wind. We were walking head-on into them. They must have been close to 40 mph. The wind was frigid too, so we bundled up with our GORE-TEX jackets, winter gloves and hats.

My camera is blowing in the wind -- I was so grateful for
that GORE-TEX jacket!!
We pushed against the wind and made it to the rock pile marking Hamlin peak. We could see the marker for Baxter peak standing tall in the distance. Then it was time to go down. The wind was still pounding as I began the steep descent down the exposed Hamlin trail. Now the wind was at my side, and it would push at my backpack and threaten to topple me over. Sometimes it was so ferocious that Austin and I would both stop in our tracks and sit down on the granite to avoid being pushed off the steep ridge. Straps on my backpack whipped so violently that they hurt my cold face. We crouched behind boulders to get shelter from the gusts when we needed a break for water or a Clif Bar.

The whole thing was exhilarating. Hamlin has been my favorite Katahdin trail so far because of the way it drops off on both sides, offering gorgeous views of Katahdin’s basin and north peak on the left and the cathedrals, Baxter Peak and Knife Edge on the right. I was enamored by the views the entire time. 
Knife Edge
Even though I had been worried about having a 30-pound backpack on some of the more technical spots, I found I had quickly adapted to the pack. I even used it to my advantage by swinging it with my body for momentum.

Finally we were below treeline and sheltered from the continuous wind. And before I knew it, we were at Chimney Pond. This campground is partway up the mountain bordering the small, alpine pond. The sight of the steep cliffs of Katahdin over the pond amazed me, especially since the last time I visited the fog was so thick that you couldn’t tell there was a mountain there. You could see the detailed outline of the cathedral rock formations along Cathedral Trail, as well as the Knife Edge ridge backdropped by an overcast sky.
Katahdin over Chimney Pond
We met Austin’s parents and gratefully feasted on the food they carried in. The next day, we took the 3 mile path to Roaring Brook campground to spend our few remaining days relaxing. I didn’t want to leave. I was sad to think that the next time I’ll be there will be (hopefully) October of next year, after a successful trek along the Appalachian Trail. After that memorable week, I was both confident and eager for this challenge.

Another moose at Chimney Pond campground!

After 5 days roughing it in the wilderness, I'm at the foot of Mt. Katahdin

The West Basin of Mt. Katahdin towers over Davis Pond

The trail to Davis Pond was a pretty tame 5.3 miles, but it was a wet 5.3 miles. Right at the beginning we came to a pretty wide river we had to rock-hop. I almost made it safely across, but then I landed in a marshy section by the bank.

The trail followed above and alongside the river for a while. We were travelling between two small mountains through a valley that led to the base of the largest mountain in Maine, Mt. Katahdin. Then, the trail dipped back down and we had to cross the river again. Though, the point marked by blue blazes as the crossing spot was pretty flooded. We had to trekked up the side of the river, clinging to the scraggly pine branches poking out from the banks. It took us about half an hour to get to a better crossing, and I still slid off a particularly slippery and slanted rock and fell waist-deep in the cold rapids.

We had a lunch of GORP (Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts, a hiking classic) at a clearing in the woods where a huge slab of rock shimmered in the sun. A thin layer of water ran down the face of the rock, which stretched over 50 feet, and made it shine. After we ate, we followed the trail as it scaled this rock.

The Davis Pond lean-to was as isolated as it gets, but I didn’t see a single critter. Austin and I were truly alone in the middle of Baxter State Park and in the shadows of Katahdin. The views of the mountain as it rose sharply over the litter alpine pond were impressive. Near the top of the mountain you could see a glittering waterfall from the melted snow.

I began to worry about the intimidating hike planned for the next day. We were to take the Northwest Basin trail up to Hamlin Peak and descended along the exposed Hamlin ridge. I had never done a hike that technical with such a large backpack. Rain was in the forecast and could really complicate things. But rain or shine, we had to make it over that mountain.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Close encounters with wildlife at Russell Pond

The most monotonous day was the 7.5 mile hike to Russell Pond campground. On the way, we stopped to have lunch at the Pogy Pond lean-to, which was one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in the park and offered great views of Mt. Katahdin over the pond. 

Katahdin over Pogy Pond
The trail was flat and repetitive, and I was so excited when I caught my first glimpse of the pond that I let out a loud gasp.

We had a two-day reservation on a tent site a short walk from the water. While the roomy lean-tos looked tempting, we decided we wanted to put our new tent to work. We had picked out the newest model of the two-person L.L. Bean Microlight, and so far have been nothing but pleased with our little home. It is surprisingly light and affordable.

This is when the pizza infatuation set in. After only a few days of eating backpacking-friendly meals, I was craving pizza straight from the oven. The House of Pizza in nearby Millinocket makes some of the best pizza I’ve ever had, and I couldn’t stop thinking about getting a big, greasy pie as soon as I left the park.

I saw more wild animals at Russell than in the whole trip combined. Deer, hummingbirds, and chipmunks came out to enjoy the springtime warmth. We saw at least three different moose come to cool down in the pond at dusk, the best time for moose sightings.
Just hanging out by the dock
I had a close encounter with a moose in the woods, too. I was crouched on a log washing dishes for dinner when I heard twigs crunching behind me. Thinking it was Austin returning from filtering stream water, I looked over. Instead, it was a huge bull moose walking through the bushes. Alarmed, I stood up quickly. He stopped in his tracks and stared at me, head cocked. I imagined him thinking, “That’s a funny-looking moose …” and I remembered Austin telling me literally a few moments before how moose might attack if threatened. I started running out of the woods, and the moose started running in the opposite direction. Seems like we were both surprised by the encounter.

Enjoying the sunset over Russell Pond
Austin and I canoed leisurely around the pond on our zero day, and dropped each other off on granite rocks in the middle to bathe in the sun while our partner paddled around. It got so nice we considered going for a swim, that is until we noticed the huge leeches drifting around. We decided to pass.
Thinking about going for a swim ... this was before I saw the leeches

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Waterfront property on Upper South Branch pond, lots of privacy!

Our first stop in Baxter State Park was only a 2 mile hike in, but we were weighed down with packs that were heavier than they should’ve been. We stopped at a cliff to look out over the South Branch ponds, and caught a distant glimpse of the towering Mt. Katahdin. We would be atop that summit in a week.

Upper South Branch is one of the most peaceful places in Maine. There is a sole lean-to on the upper pond, and you have to hike or canoe in to get to it. The little shelter sits on the edge of the woods about 20 feet from the pond. Looking out across the water, it’s very apparent you’re alone aside from the thriving wildlife.

We spent two days enjoying the tranquility of the site and feasting on our heavier food items – we needed the carbs for the upcoming trip. On the first night I enjoyed a fierce thunderstorm from the warm and dry safety of my sleeping bag inside my tent inside the lean-to. The cracks of thunder were some of the loudest I’ve heard, and rocked the forest around us.

The next day we hiked six miles to admire some waterfalls along Howe Brook Falls Trail, but I have to admit they didn’t compare to the falls of Pennsylvania. One of the few things Pennsylvania trumps Maine at.

Then the miles began …

Our waterfront view, such a peaceful spot.

The lean-to (from my last visit here, obviously wouldn't have be able to
carry all that stuff on my back haha)

Austin's Gore-Tex Katahdin Hikers from L.L. Bean make their debut. They
held up so well in the wet sections we came across later on ... may have to
get myself a pair.

Fog lifts over some planks heading to the lean-to site. Upper South Branch
pond to the right.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Backpacking in Baxter

23 miles seems like a long ways to hike, especially if you throw in large packs and Maine’s highest mountain. But it’s only about 1 percent of the ground I hope to cover next year.

Last week I completed a week-long backpacking trip in the remarkable backwoods of Baxter State Park in Northern Maine. This little excursion was one part escape from reality, one part training for the over 2000-mile-long Appalachian Trail. It gave me a chance to test my equipment and see what worked and didn’t work. And partly to see if I could really survive out there.
Here I am at Hamlin Peak, at the top of Mt. Katahdin. I had to travel a long ways to get here, though. Read about it in my next posts!

It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life! More meaningful than the practice I got setting up camp and carrying a third of my weight on my back was the peacefulness of being in the wilderness. It sounds strange to say it, but there’s this huge sense of relief of having everything you need on your back. 

The weight of a full pack relieves the weight of the world. 

Baxter State Park is truly a unique and enchanting place. There is no running water, no electricity and no cell phone service. It really forces you to be self-sufficient. More importantly, it gives you a rare chance to get away from civilization. It is a protected piece of unspoiled nature, which is hard to come by in our culture. The ability to experience that isolation, to just sit and enjoy the sounds of birds chirping and spring peepers peeping is priceless.

My trusty sidekick Austin joined me as always, and we daydreamed of when we’ll be heading to Georgia to start the AT a year from now. We had a series of adventures, but we mostly just sat and took it all in.

Read all about our adventures in my next posts, coming soon!