Sleeping in the lean-to at Chimney Pond went much better than the bunkhouse, with colder temperatures and less snoring to keep me awake. In the morning, I bid Tom and Chris farewell (for a few hours, at least), and began my ascent of the north peaks of Katahdin. As with all trails up the mountain, the Hamlin Ridge turned out to be much like bouldering rather than walking. Extra bonus: I saw nobody on the trail. Double extra bonus: Hamlin Peak was my 66th of 67 New England 4000 Footers. I now only have one to go (North Brother, also in Baxter State Park).
Though Hamlin Peak, and then the North/Howe Peaks afterward are several hundred feet lower than Baxter Peak, there was something special and wonderful about all of them. I saw exactly zero people during the several hours I spent in the rocky barrens above tree line there. In contrast, I could see crowds of people milling about on Baxter Peak in the distance beneath a darkening cloud. All the while, I had acres of open land to myself in the sun. How much better than that can you get?
Between Hamlin and the North Peaks, the trail (which was recently reopened after years of being closed) seemed like barely a handful of people walked it each year. If you’ve hiked in the alpine zones of the White Mountains, you’ve seen that the rocks of the trails are formed into troughs where people walk, and the lichens and vegetation are worn off of the granite. This makes for a well-worn path and a relatively easy trail to follow. Not so on the north end of Katahdin. So few boots have scoured the rocks there that the normally fragile alpine plants, like diapensia, mountain sandwort, and alpine sedge, almost seem overgrown. Instead of a trough formed in the rocks along the path, there was no clear path to link the blue blazes, so I had to hop from rock to rock to avoid crushing much of the alpine vegetation. (Here’s an interesting resource I found about natural areas in Maine)
The North Peaks Trail continued through miles of the open, rocky terrain, eventually giving way to blueberry bushes and krummholz, and finally to a lush canopy of evergreens over beds of thick moss. I finally saw a group of three hikers coming up the trail, making the opposite trip from me for the day. A few minutes later I also ran into a Baxter State Park ranger making the same trek out over Hamlin for his days off. That did break my run of total solitude, but I didn’t mind. The silence continued after the short interruption.
Toward the bottom of the North Peaks Trail, I got into the characteristic lowlands of northern Maine, starting with an unexpected and pretty hairy river ford. Wassataquoik Stream (add that to my list of great Maine Native American names) follows a tradition in northern Maine of naming rivers and lakes as streams and ponds. What I had to cross was about fifty feet wide, with huge boulders and turbulent water that could have easily sucked down a careless hiker. So much for dry feet, but it was well worth the effort. After that, I had more water features to enjoy, like the Turner Deadwater (technically a swamp, I think, but when I talk about gorgeous swamps, this is the kind I mean), and Russell Pond.
I arrived at Russell Pond, one of the most remote major campgrounds in Baxter Park, late in the afternoon to meet Tom and Chris as they made their way up from Roaring Brook. It had been a long day for everyone, but a joyful one. We were finally away from the crowds of Katahdin, and ready to take on the denser wilds of the north end of the park. An evening campfire at our lean-to on the south shore of the pond put a peaceful end to the day.
Here is Uncle Tom’s account of the day.