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.

Day two started early, with plenty of loud snoring through the night in the bunkhouse. After a while, I gave up trying to sleep and just made breakfast and packed for the day’s hike up Katahdin. Tom’s and my luck held strong– there were some clouds up top when we started up the Cathedral Trail, but mostly plenty of sun and blue skies.

Starting the Cathedral Trail, with the North Basin off to our right.

Starting the Cathedral Trail, with the North Basin off to our right.

Like most trails up Katahdin, the Cathedral was more akin to bouldering than walking, with just as much use of hands as feet. The nice thing about starting at Chimney Pond, though, is that we had all of the approach out of the way– rather than start with three miles of walking along fairly even hiking trails, we got started with the climb immediately, and poked out above the trees within minutes. Climbing the boulder field gave us instant views into the basins of Katahdin, and east to the Turner Mountains.

Tom demonstrates some of the moves necessary for climbing Katahdin on the Cathedral Trail.

Tom demonstrates some of the moves necessary for climbing Katahdin on the Cathedral Trail.

As we approached the final ridge to Baxter Peak, the alpine zone spread out before us like a vast tundra transplanted from somewhere in northern Canada. Clouds broke over the western side of the mountain, shrouding us in fog sometimes and other times leaving us with the longest views in the state. Another bonus of starting the day at Chimney Pond was that the summit was almost deserted when we arrived– just two through-hikers finishing their journeys from Georgia, soon joined by two more. We enjoyed the views and the company for half an hour at the summit, with never more than half a dozen people in company. There was no noisy crowd, just a bunch of people thoroughly stunned by the magnificence of the setting.

Clouds breaking over Hamlin Peak as we reach the summit of Katahdin.

Clouds breaking over Hamlin Peak as we reach the summit of Katahdin.

This was my fourth time to Baxter Peak, but this time I was finally about to do something else besides go straight back down. Our next path was across the infamous Knife Edge to Pamola Peak. As the name implies, the Knife Edge Trail walks along the sharp ridge between the two peaks, with a nearly vertical drop into the Great Basin to the north and a similar drop to the south. The pictures tend to look much more dangerous than the reality, since there’s plenty of space to walk, but a missed step and a tumble off the side would make a very bad end to your day. As we walked the mile of trail, we passed at least thirty people going in the other direction. It seems we had chosen well in our route, avoiding any serious crowding. By the time we reached Pamola Peak, it was completely deserted. We had some fine solitude to go with our views of the Maine woods before heading back down.

Next up, after the highest point in Maine, walking the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak.

Next up, after the highest point in Maine, walking the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak.

There’s so much that is amazing about Katahdin. Beyond just the incredibly difficult trails to the top, the immensity of its alpine zone, and the fact that it towers so high above everything around it– it’s also a remarkable testament to the human spirit. First, the fact that the mountain and park were protected so thoroughly by one strong-willed individual shows some of the most amazing foresight imaginable. It’s worth reading a bit about what Baxter State Park really is, since it’s not technically a State Park.

The Knife Edge Trail has a steep drop down into Chimney Pond always on the north side. Footing wasn't so bad, but a wrong step would be bad news.

The Knife Edge Trail has a steep drop down into Chimney Pond always on the north side. Footing wasn’t so bad, but a wrong step would be bad news.

Then there’s the fact that so many people actually visit the summit, despite (unlike New Hampshire’s, Vermont’s, and Massachusetts’s high peaks) the lack of an easy, motorized route to the top. It turns out that if something is worth visiting, people will actually go through the hard effort required to visit it.

Just before Pamola Peak, a drop into Chimney Notch. Note the down-climbing hikers on the opposite wall.

Just before Pamola Peak, a drop into Chimney Notch. Note the down-climbing hikers on the opposite wall.

Tom surveys the Knife Edge from Pamola Peak.

Tom surveys the Knife Edge from Pamola Peak.

After a long day of not many miles, carefully stepping from one jagged rock to another, we ended at Chimney Pond again. Tom’s friend, Chris, joined us at this point, and we enjoyed a chilly, crystal clear night far from the “other world.” I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The end of the day, back at Chimney Pond to watch the sun disappear over the ridge.

The end of the day, back at Chimney Pond to watch the sun disappear over the ridge.

You can find Tom’s account of the day here

I returned yesterday from seven nights of backpacking in Baxter State Park with my friend, Tom. The trip had been more than six months in the planning, with campsite reservations made carefully in April and travel arrangements scheduled as tightly as possible. When the day arrived, last Monday, I was jittery with excitement. I’d been to the park three times before, but never hiked anywhere but on the Appalachian Trail. This week-long trip would be all new terrain for me.

Tom arrived at my place at 6 AM, and we set out from there. Breakfast at Dysart’s was our only stop, but even so, we didn’t arrive at the northern gate of the park until around 11:30. After leaving Tom’s car at the northern end of the park, we drove my car 45 miles along the park’s dirt road to Roaring Brook, finally arriving at 1:30 PM. I was prone to outbursts during the drive, like “TOM! WE’RE F***ING DOING IT!” I was pretty excited about this trip.

It had rained in the morning, but all that remained of that were clouds covering Baxter Peak in the afternoon. It felt so good to be on a classic New England trail again, with its granite boulders and inconveniently placed roots. Between the excitement and the feeling of being on my home terrain for the first time all summer, I sped up the Chimney Pond Trail ahead of Tom, and didn’t even bother stopping to check in.

Instead, I made a quick left turn on the Dudley Trail to climb Pamola Peak. The Dudley climbs 2000 feet in just under a mile, straight up the giant boulders to the eastern peak of Katahdin. I may have overestimated the shape of my muscles as I began the climb at 3:30 PM, marching right up to the top by 4:30. By the time I arrived, the clouds were just finishing the process of enveloping the summit, and then letting loose a weak drizzle. I had thought of maybe crossing the Knife Edge at this point, but instead I listened to my better judgment and descended as I’d come up. The down-climb was even more difficult than the climb up, more like rock climbing and bouldering than walking. There were plenty of places where I used only my hands, and no feet to get down.

At the bottom, my legs were shaking and weary, but my mood was still ecstatic. The forecast was better than it had been all summer. I joined Tom in the bunkhouse and settled in for the night.

Here is Tom’s account of the day, with slightly more sensible hiking plans.

A view into the Great Basin on my way up the Chimney Pond Trail.

A view into the Great Basin on my way up the Chimney Pond Trail.

Starting up the boulder field of the Dudley Trail, looking down into the Great Basin and Chimney Pond.

Starting up the boulder field of the Dudley Trail, looking down into the Great Basin and Chimney Pond.

Pamola Peak and the Knife Edge just before being swallowed by a cloud.

Pamola Peak and the Knife Edge just before being swallowed by a cloud.

That's where we're going...

That’s where we’re going…

I just finished my first summer of being a backpacking instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), working two two-week courses in the Palisades Range and the Wyoming Range, both on the Idaho/Wyoming border. Both courses were Adventure courses (for students aged 14-15 years), and they both opened my eyes quite a bit about the school.

NOLS has a reputation for teaching ultra-heavy backpacking, and perpetuating the idea that heavy packs are the only way to hike. While there is some truth to the reputation, there’s a lot more to how NOLS teaches backpacking, and the school does pay attention to weight. But there are many more factors than weight and hiking distance that influence what goes into a NOLS student’s pack.

How heavy are the packs?
For both of my courses, I used my ULA Circuit pack, and one of my co-instructors used a 2nd generation Gossamer Gear Mariposa. The students generally use large packs, which weigh between 4 and 6 pounds empty, but the total weights of their packs were between 30 and 37 pounds at the start of the course. That includes about 11 pounds of food and a few pounds of fuel in each pack, so base weights were probably around 20 pounds. Hardly back-breaking.

River crossings with a NOLS course.

River crossings with a NOLS course.

What is NOLS’s attitude toward lightweight backpacking?
As far as I can tell, NOLS doesn’t have an institutional opinion on pack weights, other than that they shouldn’t exceed 40% of the student’s body weight. Individual instructors have opinions on lightweight backpacking, for sure, but there seem to be more and more who are interested in carrying less. The main reasons for carrying more weight are that there is a lot of camp time rather than moving time on a course, and that certain course locations and seasons require more equipment for safety reasons (my instructor course in 2012 was very snowy, so we packed more fuel, insulation, and cold-weather gear). Summer courses in the Rockies, or spring and fall in the southwest, see little rain or frigid temperatures, so they are able to carry less equipment.

Why doesn’t NOLS use lightweight packs and tents?
NOLS sends hundreds of students into the wilderness each year on backpacking courses (not to mention mountaineering, paddling, climbing, and other course types), many of whom have no prior experience in the outdoors. Courses are either two or four weeks long, with no trips into town to replace broken gear. Resupply happens on trail, but only food and fuel are sent in. Backpacks and tents need to be sturdy enough to survive the stresses of novice hikers (14 year-olds in this case— not an age group known for taking good care of their possessions) for that time period. We sewed several tears in equipment and replaced several zippers in the field, both common fixes for NOLS backpacking equipment. Between courses, we patched many more holes in tents and fixed more rips in backpacks. Since most students rent packs from NOLS, those packs need to stand up to years of heavy use before retirement. As durable as my lightweight packs have been over the years, they wouldn’t hold up to the level of use NOLS packs see for very long.

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Why doesn’t NOLS use lighter stoves?
One of the most universal classes at NOLS is cooking. Not freezer-bag cooking, or one-pot-meal cooking, but serious camp cooking. Pizza, cinnamon rolls, cobblers, fudge, and lasagna are just a few of the complex meals that get cooked on a whisperlite stove on NOLS courses. Alcohol stoves wouldn’t cut it, and canister stoves would generate tons of trash to haul out of the field. Whisperlites are easy to fix in the field, and they’re versatile. I doubt NOLS will go with anything else for backpacking anytime soon.

Will the school ever truly go lightweight?
I talked about this often with my co-instructor. For now, NOLS summer packs are “light enough” in that they don’t totally crush the students (at least when the instructors are into lightweight packing enough to teach the students not to bring ten pairs of socks, three fleeces, and so on). Gear will get lighter because of the industry trend, but the big equipment that students get from NOLS (packs, sleeping bags, tents, cookware, etc.) won’t get lighter until the school can be certain of getting many years of hard use out of each item before retiring it. Any school needs to make money to survive, and buying packs that would only last a season or two would basically be throwing money away.

What about NOLS lightweight courses?
NOLS actually offers lightweight backpacking courses, but there are few compared with the number of standard hiking courses, and they are restricted to students 23 years and older. I’m hoping to work on one of these courses next year, so hopefully I’ll have some more to report on them next year.

Last year, my buddy Tom and I went to a talk by noted Maine outdoor journalist Carey Kish about his end-to-end hike of Baxter Park. We both got pretty excited about the idea, so for my last big hike of the summer, Tom and I are heading to Baxter for our own long backpacking trip (starting tomorrow morning). Planning such backpacking trips in the park is no small task— Baxter Park’s regulations are pretty strict in order to maintain the wild character of the forest and mountains, so we’ve been planning this trip since March.

Chimney Pond and north from Baxter Peak. Time for exploring!

Chimney Pond and north from Baxter Peak. Time for exploring!

The first challenge of planning a backpacking trip in Baxter park is that you need to reserve specific campsites about four months in advance. There’s no leeway for missing your campsite, so we had to plan on campsites that are relatively close together, and either don’t have major obstacles between them, or have alternate routes. For instance, I plan on hiking over Katahdin on day three to get from Chimney Pond to Russel Pond, but if the weather looks particularly bad I’ll have to hike down from Chimney Pond to the road, then take a riverside trail to Russel. Sticking around for another night at Chimney Pond isn’t an option.

The second major challenge is that Baxter is pretty remote, so we won’t be coming out of the park for resupply at any point. There are no options for resupply in the park, so we need to have all of our food in the park from the start. To allow ourselves not to carry a full seven days of food at first, we’re using one of Carey’s strategies— we’ll leave a cooler of food in one car at the north entrance of the park, so we can resupply from that about halfway through the trip.

The third challenge was figuring out a cost-effective hiking strategy. Each campsite at Baxter Park has a reservation fee (and if your car is from out of state, you also have to pay an entrance fee to the park). Campsites are between $14 and $30 per site depending on popularity and proximity to roads, but you can fit up to four people at a site. The only major exception is the Chimney Pond bunkhouse, which is $10 per person. We’ll stay at the bunkhouse on night one, then at campsites each other night. We found one person to join us at the last minute, but we were prepared to split the cost between the two of us. For seven nights split two ways, this came out to about $90. In my younger days I would have balked at the price, but now I see it as a way to find the most solitude possible on popular hiking trails, and to support the trail maintenance at one of my favorite places on the planet.

The last challenge will be choosing how to hike once we’re in the park. Since we planned our campsites to be close to each other, the strategy is to have short minimum hikes (campsite to campsite) but long optional hikes (side trails and alternate routes between sites). I want to hike as many trails as possible to see as much terrain as I can. I’ve never been north of Katahdin in the park before, so I want to see The Travelers, Grand Lake Matagamon, Russel Pond, Black Cat Mountain, Davis Pond, and so much more. So even though our campsites are only an average of 5 miles apart, I’ll probably be hiking 15 to 20 miles each day if conditions allow it. I can’t wait.

You can check out our itinerary at Tom’s blog. I’ll be putting up detailed trip reports after the trip is done. If you want to plan a similar hike, drop us a line, or you can always call the park office— the rangers have always been super friendly and helpful for me when I’ve tried to reserve campsites at the park.