We broke camp on our last full day in the park unhurriedly and not sure what our plans would be. I hiked out to the road, taking my time and seeing a few ponds along the way. Even by the time we got in the car and started driving through the park, though, we hadn’t settled on a plan for the day. We drove down to Nesowadnehunk Field Campground (still my favorite road-side campground in the park) to get set up in our camp for the evening and have lunch, but even then it wasn’t even noon. We had beautiful, clear skies and a view up to Doubletop Mountain from our campsite. Soon enough, we decided to scrap our plan for an easy, low-elevation hike for the day, and move tomorrow’s plans up to this afternoon.

Hiking out of the northern end of the park via Lower Fowler Pond, with a view of Bald Mountain. The quiet of the north was great while it lasted.

Hiking out of the northern end of the park via Lower Fowler Pond, with a view of Bald Mountain. The quiet of the north was great while it lasted.

So after a quick lunch, Tom and I started hiking south from the Nesowadnehunk Field Campground toward the north peak of Doubletop Mountain. It was already hotter than any other day on this trip, although we still had fine weather and what promised to be fine views. The walk through the low-elevation woods was even quite pleasant, with a dense canopy overhead to keep us in the shade. Eventually the trail began to climb straight up the side of the mountain, eventually gaining over a thousand feet of elevation in half a mile of continuous scrambling. As always, the insane climbs of New England’s mountains are a joy to hike.

Starting up the Doubletop Trail from Nesowadnehunk Field Campground, with a fine view of the Brothers Range over the stream.

Starting up the Doubletop Trail from Nesowadnehunk Field Campground, with a fine view of the Brothers Range over the stream.

The best part of climbing Doubletop from the north was that the final short walk to the peak ended as we came out of the trees at the very top of the summit, with a sudden explosive view across the Nesowadnehunk Stream valley to the Brothers Range and Katahdin. The photographs don’t do the view justice, but it’s a stunning change in scenery– from alpine forest to suddenly a giant view with several incredibly large mountains right in your face. The view down to the valley was equally astounding, since the eastern side of Doubletop is a nearly vertical cliff, almost 2500 feet tall. We were able to see the tote road directly below us, at the bottom of a pretty dizzying drop.

Without any warning, we emerge from the trees on Doubletop to find this: a panorama of the Brothers, OJI, and Katahdin.

Without any warning, we emerge from the trees on Doubletop to find this: a panorama of the Brothers, OJI, and Katahdin.

Tom surveys the trail ahead to the south peak of Doubletop. He turned back here, since we already had the view. I continued on to see more terrain.

Tom surveys the trail ahead to the south peak of Doubletop. He turned back here, since we already had the view. I continued on to see more terrain.

We enjoyed the view for a while, and a completely empty summit, before Tom headed back down the way we’d come, and I continued south over the south peak and toward the ponds of southwest Baxter Park. The south peak of Doubletop is slightly shorter than the north, but with even more dramatic cliffs and views all around. Here I ran into three people, the only folks I’d seen on the top of the mountain, and chatted for a bit before I had to peel myself away from the incredible views. This would be my last great view on this trip, as we would leave the park early the next morning, so it was a bittersweet parting. Doubletop is one of the park’s hidden gems– just under 3500 feet tall, it seems like a much higher mountain with such a difficult climb and such tremendous views. Maybe the nearby Katahdin stops most visitors from even considering the climb, and that’s just fine. Oftentimes, the shorter peaks are even more rewarding than the higher, if they’re as beautiful as this one.

At the edge of the world on the south peak of Doubletop. Between me and Baxter Peak is a long drop down-- either straight down by the cliff, or almost straight down by trail.

At the edge of the world on the south peak of Doubletop. Between me and Baxter Peak is a long drop down– either straight down by the cliff, or almost straight down by trail.

The trip down the south side started with an 800 foot descent in less than a third of a mile, but then mellowed out into a long walk through idyllic forest. As with the northeast corner of the park, the southwest corner is mostly flatland with dozens of small ponds and trails running between them. I found my way to Kidney Pond to meet Chris for a ride back to camp for the evening, but not before stopping at four remote ponds between the base of Doubletop and Kidney. As always, the deep forests around the ponds were silent, peaceful, and incredibly relaxing. I even had a fine view up to Doubletop from a few of them.

Down below, at Deer Pond, an evening view of Doubletop and Mount OJI.

Down below, at Deer Pond, an evening view of Doubletop and Mount OJI.

The last hurrah for the trip came at Deer Pond near the end of the day. After falling into a creek while crossing (oops), and then sinking into a muddy bog up to my knee while trying to get a good picture of Doubletop and Mt OJI, I was startled when a large creature crashed into the pond directly next to me. I jumped away, but then realized I might be able to get a good picture if I could sneak up on it. I slowly made my way through the trees next to the trail to find a bull moose no more than twenty feet away, wading in the grassy edge of the pond. He looked a little wary of me at first, but after a few minutes he resumed his grazing and ignored me. I stood and watched for more than fifteen minutes, until I realized I was going to be late for my ride. That was the first time I’ve been able to watch a moose for more than a few seconds without it running away, so I was in bliss for the rest of the night.

I startled this beast leaving Deer Pond, but after the initial shock wore off he let me watch him for about fifteen minutes before I left.

I startled this beast leaving Deer Pond, but after the initial shock wore off he let me watch him for about fifteen minutes before I left.

We had a nice, cool night at Nesowadnehunk Field, with a star-filled sky and a deep contentment from having spent a most excellent week in one of the greatest places on the planet. In the morning, as most people were rushing into the park for a chance to climb Katahdin, we drove out to Millinocket for a big breakfast, and then headed home.

Here is Uncle Tom’s account of the day.

So far I had lived out of my backpack for four five days, and then we camped next to Tom’s car at South Branch Pond campground. We had left his car there on the first day in the park, in order to hike from the south end to the north end, but we still had another day in this less-traveled section. In the morning, I packed one more night’s worth of supplies that had been left in the car, and set off on another little-used trail. Tom and Chris would drive to another trailhead for a shorter hike to tonight’s campsite, while I explored a few more backcountry ponds.

Up on the short Barrell Ridge, a cloudy morning view of Bald Mountain and the other northern outposts of the park.

Up on the short Barrell Ridge, a cloudy morning view of Bald Mountain and the other northern outposts of the park.

The northeastern corner of Baxter State Park is mostly taken up by Grand Lake Matagamon, but there’s a cluster of small mountains and ponds just to the south of the lake. Most of the ponds have small campsites on the shore that are popular with anglers and folks looking to get away from crowds. We fit the latter category.

Not your "soft" granite of the White Mountains. Actually, I don't know what kind of rock this is, but the blocky chunks tear up the shoes faster than even the sandpapery granite I'm used to.

Not your “soft” granite of the White Mountains. Actually, I don’t know what kind of rock this is, but the blocky chunks tear up the shoes faster than even the sandpapery granite I’m used to.

But to get to that region, I first had to cross over the northern shoulder of The Traveler Range and into the basin of Middle Fowler Pond. On the way I crossed a few ledges and Barrell Ridge, a rocky mini-summit with plenty of bare bedrock and views into the east. As I walked up the sharp rocks, I reminded myself that I need to find the proper name for this kind of low-elevation rocky outcrop, covered in reindeer lichen, short alpine plants, and occasional krummholz. Internet to the rescue! Low- and mid-elevation balds, and rocky summit heaths are some of my favorite hiking terrains.

Middle Fowler Pond's north shore, with warm water and fine swimming before lunch.

Middle Fowler Pond’s north shore, with warm water and fine swimming before lunch.

After Barrell Ridge, I tromped through increasingly disused trail down to the Fowler Ponds, wondering how long it had been since someone had hiked this route. Lots of people might think of this as a bad thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude. On a bedrock slab at the north end of the pond, the water was so inviting that I just had to go for a swim. As with a few days before in Howe Brook, a quick swim in mountain waters was like jumping into the fountain of youth. Afterward, I lay out on the rocks in the sun for a while, relaxed as I could be. Two day hikers showed up after a while, but they were equally impressed by the silence of the pond. By the end of the day, I could count on one hand the number of people I’d encountered, so I still felt pretty good about the wilderness feel of the area.

The viewpoint furthest to the northeast in Baxter Park, Horse Mountain. The valley of the East Branch of Penobscot River is as densely forested as you can imagine.

The viewpoint furthest to the northeast in Baxter Park, Horse Mountain. The valley of the East Branch of Penobscot River is as densely forested as you can imagine.

Eventually I left Fowler Pond and continued through the woods, passing along several other pond shores on my way to the next short mountain. Horse Mountain, the northeasternmost mountain in the park, is quite short, and has no view from the summit since a fire tower was removed many years ago, but the cliffs on the eastern side of the mountain had a fine, quite view of the Penobscot River valley. While the view showed some evidence of humanity, in the occasional logging road or a float plane flying by down below, it was a fairly relaxed evidence of humanity. I sat and enjoyed the solitude for nearly an hour before heading back down.

An early evening campsite at Long Pond Pines.

An early evening campsite at Long Pond Pines.

I ended the day by meeting up with Tom and Chris once again at Long Pond Pines campsite, which many park rangers had mentioned as a favorite. A piney grove on the eastern edge of a small (but long) pond was only a few miles from the park tote road, but it felt like a purely wild area. We sat around a blazing campfire in the evening, listening to nothing more than the crackle of dry wood and the plaintive calls of a lone loon making his way up and down the pond. That was something I’d been missing all summer, since I hadn’t spent any time on remote mountain ponds in the northeast– a quiet pondside campsite, the lone loon calling, and the silence of the wilds make for the most relaxing kind of camping on a backpacking trip.

Long Pond, silent in the evening but for the cries of the loon and the whine of the mosquito.

Long Pond, silent in the evening but for the cries of the loon and the whine of the mosquito.

This would be our last night with a full day of hiking ahead of us, so I went to sleep knowing that the end of this glorious trip was near. Despite having had no contact with the outside world in almost a week, I had no desire to get back to it anytime soon. I could stay at this campsite all my life if I had to.

A bog next to Long Pond, separated by a tiny ridge (esker), which made for fine camping.

A bog next to Long Pond, separated by a tiny ridge (esker), which made for fine camping.

For the end of the first leg of our Baxter Backpacking trip, Tom and I set out over The Traveler Loop. I’d been admiring The Traveler for years, hearing about how gorgeous the mountain was, and looking at it from Katahdin. Traveler is a little over 3500 feet high, but two things are quite apparent when you look at it from Katahdin– first, its rocky alpine area is vast, and second, it is the highest peak in the northern half of the park (which also means it’s higher than any peak north of Baxter State Park in Maine).

There was rain in the night, and low clouds when I awoke in the morning, which was discouraging. Yesterday had been cloudy, but today was the only chance I had for a climb on The Traveler, and it looked like the view would be a bust. Tom remained optimistic, though, and after a slower-than-usual breakfast we were rewarded with clearing skies and cool temperatures. Conditions couldn’t possibly have been better.

Starting up the Center Ridge Trail, we're almost immediately climbing high above Black Cat Mountain and Upper South Branch Pond.

Starting up the Center Ridge Trail, we’re almost immediately climbing high above South Branch Pond Mountain and Upper South Branch Pond.

The Center Ridge Trail starts from a cliff on the east side of Upper South Branch Pond, and climbs immediately on jagged rocks up over the pond. The forest around us was as beautiful as we could have imagined, though. Tom and I both agreed that this was our favorite kind of hiking– the trails out here don’t pander. You hike on their terms, or not at all.

Getting high on Peak Of The Ridges, looking far into the vast northern wilderness.

Getting high on Peak Of The Ridges, looking far into the vast northern wilderness.

In less than a mile, we had already broken above tree line on the ridge, with a breathtaking view down to the South Branch Ponds. It soon also became apparent that most of the clear skies were directly above us– a huge bank of clouds was stacked on top of Traveler, but breaking as it continued west. More clouds were forming to the west of us, and further south was the same. Tom claimed my hiking karma must have been in top form, after dealing with the sweltering humidity in Virginia early this summer and the somewhat stressful NOLS course. Whatever luck I had, I’ll take it.

The last ascent to Peak Of The Ridges. The clouds are opening only right above us.

The last ascent to Peak Of The Ridges. The clouds are opening only right above us.

We reached Peak Of The Ridges, the first peak in the loop, for our first stop. The peak is lower than Traveler, so the view east was blocked by the higher peak, but we still had some amazing views from the cliffs down into southern Baxter Park and north far outside of the park. It was silent except for the wind. And we noticed another remarkable thing– try as we might, we couldn’t see a single sign of humanity from the peak. No roads anywhere. No tiny reflections of light from windows of remote cabins in the deep woods. No airplanes, no patches of the forest lightened from logging, no people at all. Even in the densest wildernesses of the east coast, it’s almost impossible to find such a complete void of human existence. Usually I can at least spot a thin strip of a logging road from the peaks in northern Maine, but this time there was nothing. This is what we strive for.

Tom surveys the land from the mini-Knife Edge between Peak Of The Ridges and The Traveler.

Tom surveys the land from the mini-Knife Edge between Peak Of The Ridges and The Traveler.

The clouds coming over The Traveler from the east clear just as they break over the peak, but it's hard to tell if the peak will be clear when we get there.

The clouds coming over The Traveler from the east clear just as they break over the peak, but it’s hard to tell if the peak will be clear when we get there.

After tearing ourselves away from the scene, we continued around the loop. First, we had a miniature knife edge to traverse, then a quick dip into the trees between Peak Of The Ridges and Traveler. The rocky parts of the Traveler Loop are a more extreme version of what I found on the north peaks of Katahdin the other day– while you can see the next blaze when you’re standing at one, there is no clear route between the two. You have to choose your own adventure, and hope it’s the right one. And then, when we dipped into the dense, moss-covered spruce forest between the peaks, we entered the kind of forest that seems to me like something from before humanity. Stunted, gnarly trees, with moss covering the ground so thickly you think it might swallow you whole. Tom called it the primordial forest. I think that suits it just fine.

Back into the primordial denseness of alpine trails of northern Maine. Upward and onward to The Traveler!

Back into the primordial denseness of alpine trails of northern Maine. Upward and onward to The Traveler!

The last ascent to Traveler was slow enough that the clouds continued to open for us, and our views from the top were everything I’d hoped for. With a better view to the east, we were finally able to see some small signs of humanity (the single logging road here, the shine of a cabin on a lake there), but it was still about as wild as you could wish for. As we continued on, we only stayed in the trees for a few minutes at a time, coming out on the wind-scoured rocks of the ridge between Traveler and North Traveler, and then the exposed cliffs on the ridge coming down from North Traveler to Lower South Branch Pond. We saw not a single person until about 4 PM, when we were close to our finishing point. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.

Here is Uncle Tom’s account of the day.

There’s not much more I can say that the pictures don’t, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

Finally atop The Traveler, and the clouds have broken to give us a full view of the range, and deep into the northern Maine wilderness.

Finally atop The Traveler, and the clouds have broken to give us a full view of the range, and deep into the northern Maine wilderness.

Back into the primordial wilderness, a mossy and tangled mass of stubby trees and boulders.

Back into the primordial wilderness, a mossy and tangled mass of stubby trees and boulders.

Now we're starting down from North Traveler, with the open ridge of the trail laid out below us.

Now we’re starting down from North Traveler, with the open ridge of the trail laid out below us.

Just before going back into the trees, we look down on South Branch Pond, our destination for the night.

Just before going back into the trees, we look down on South Branch Pond, our destination for the night.

After two days of self-inflicted ass-kicking hiking over Katahdin, I was really looking forward to a day of long miles with little elevation. For many, this would mean a boring day in the green tunnel. For me, you could just replace “boring” with “glorious.” Tramping through the lowlands of northern Maine is, for me, one of the highlights of any backpacking trip up here. The dense forest floor is lush with sphagnum moss, reindeer lichen, and rotting deadwood. The forest looks and smells like life.

Lush trails in the deep woods near Russell Pond.

Lush trails in the deep woods near Russell Pond.

Early morning on Russell Pond. I didn't rent a canoe this time, but you can bet that's my plan next time.

Early morning on Russell Pond. I didn’t rent a canoe this time, but you can bet that’s my plan next time.

I started off ahead of Tom and Chris again, aiming to cover more miles than them. After walking around Russell Pond, I set out on the Pogy Notch Trail, which instantly led me into denser forest with a trail that seemed untrodden compared to those in the campsite. Pogy Notch is the only connecting trail between the southern end of Baxter State Park and the northeast corner, and seemed to get very little traffic. The moss and spruce needles making up the forest floor were still springy, not packed down by hundreds of boots over the years. As I walked north, I moved deeper into as pure a wilderness as you can get in the east. I imagine little has changed in this section of the park in decades– few people come out here, and the forest seems to bear little impact of humanity.

Thick beds of reindeer moss on the Pogy Notch Trail. Combined with sphagnum moss on trails in northern Maine, this is what tells me I'm home.

Reindeer lichen on the Pogy Notch Trail. Combined with sphagnum moss, this is what tells me I’m home.

Thick beds of moss coating streams in the deep woods. I'll never get tired of this.

Thick beds of moss coating streams in the deep woods. I’ll never get tired of this.

A little too soon, I came to Upper South Branch Pond, where we would be camping in the evening. I guess I had lost myself in my thoughts, and the miles had passed quickly. The day was becoming overcast, which didn’t bother me much because I would be staying low almost the entire day. I stopped at the shore of the pond to have lunch, then set out to walk the loop over South Branch Pond Mountain, a short (2500 foot) mountain next to our campsite. Of course, in the usual Maine fashion, the height of the mountain had little to do with the difficulty of the trail. I climbed straight up the side of the mountain, through scree and boulders, to reach the partially bald summit. The Traveler, the high peak of the northern end of the park, was thick with clouds by now, but I rejoiced at the view anyway.

Lunch break by Upper South Branch Pond, looking up at South Branch Pond Mountain. I'm going up there soon.

Lunch break by Upper South Branch Pond, looking up at South Branch Pond Mountain. I’m going up there soon.

Once atop South Branch Pond Mountain, the clouds are eating up the Traveler Range.

Once atop South Branch Pond Mountain, the clouds are eating up the Traveler Range.

Combined with yesterday’s long and difficult miles, today became exhausting a little earlier than usual. I plodded down the north side of South Branch Pond Mountain, around the northern end, and then back down the Pogy Notch Trail on the other side of the ponds. By this point I was running into a handful of day hikers, coming out from the northern entrance of the park, but compared with the (still reasonably light) crowds on Katahdin the other day I could count the trails as nearly deserted.

One of many water fall/swimming holes on the Howe Brook Trail.

One of many water fall/swimming holes on the Howe Brook Trail.

To finish the day, I walked up Howe Brook before returning to our remote campsite on the south end of the ponds. The Howe Brook Trail follows the brook up into a notch in The Traveler, ending at a pretty impressive water fall. That was a fine end to the day, but even better was the lower portion of the brook– a finer set of gorges, ledges and waterfalls I have rarely seen. In the first quarter mile of the trail I counted at least five world-class swimming holes, so on the way back down I took a few jumps into my favorite one. The air was not particularly warm, which made dunking in an icy mountain brook a little less appealing, but after the first jump I felt like a new man. All of my aches and pains from the past few days of backpacking melted away, and I practically ran the last mile to our campsite.

Here is Uncle Tom’s account of the day.

The falls at the top of Howe Brook. Another reminder that hiking doesn't need to be above tree line, or out in the open.

The falls at the top of Howe Brook. Another reminder that hiking doesn’t need to be above tree line, or out in the open.

On the way down, despite the chill in the air, I had to test out the icy mountain waters. I liked it so much I had to take two dips.

On the way down, despite the chill in the air, I had to test out the icy mountain waters. I liked it so much I had to take two dips.

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).

Starting up the Hamlin Ridge, yet another stairmaster of a trail on Katahdin.

Starting up the Hamlin Ridge, yet another stairmaster of a trail on Katahdin.

Near the top of Hamlin Peak, a fine view to the North Peaks and North Basin.

Near the top of Hamlin Peak, a fine view to the North Peaks and North Basin.

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?

An alpine delight on Hamlin Peak, my 66th of 67 New England 4000 Footers.

An alpine delight on Hamlin Peak, my 66th of 67 New England 4000 Footers.

Looking across the alpine tundra from Hamlin Peak to Baxter Peak.

Looking across the alpine tundra from Hamlin Peak to Baxter Peak.

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)

Hamlin and the North Peaks Trail were overgrown with Diapensia Lapponica, which is one of the rare plant species in the alpine zones of Northern New England.

Hamlin and the North Peaks Trail were overgrown with Diapensia Lapponica, which is one of the rare plant species in the alpine zones of Northern New England.

Mind-boggling views from Katahdin's North Peaks, looking north to The Traveler and Turner Mountain.

Mind-boggling views from Katahdin’s North Peaks, looking north to The Traveler and Turner Mountain.

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.

An unexpected ford of Wassataquoik Stream, and slightly nerve-wracking.

An unexpected, and slightly nerve-wracking, ford of Wassataquoik Stream.

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.

Turner Deadwaters, near Russell Pond. This is why I think swamps are beautiful.

Turner Deadwaters, near Russell Pond. This is why I think swamps are beautiful.

Russell Pond in the evening, looking up the north peaks of Katahdin, which I came down earlier in the day.

Russell Pond in the evening, looking up the north peaks of Katahdin, which I came down earlier in the day.

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.