Earlier this month I had to finish one last section of the Maine AT for my iPhone apps, so I planned yet another big trip to the trail. This was going to be a tricky logistical operation, since it involved the Hundred Mile Wilderness and Baxter State Park. Luckily, my friend, Hans, had a chunk of spare time. We made plans to camp in Baxter State Park for three nights, leave my car at the south end of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, and then set me on my way south. My next few blog posts will detail the entire trip, which turned out to be one of the best outdoor experiences of the summer.
After dropping my car in Monson and hiking in Gulf Hagas for a day (report on this coming later), we drove the long road to Millinocket and then Baxter Park. I had made reservations for our campsite only two weeks in advance, something I’d always assumed was impossible. As it turned out, the rangers at Baxter, on the phone and in person, were incredibly friendly and helpful for figuring out the reservations system (it’s much simpler than I’d figured). As we drove into the park on Friday night (July 19), storm clouds were gathering with ominous thunder and high winds in the distance. The 17 miles on the park tote road, a narrow and winding gravel road, took over an hour in part due to our rubbernecking. The drive brought us past some awe-inspiring views of Doubletop Mountain, plus a few ponds and river views.
The clouds passed without much action, and we ended up at Nesowadnehunk Field Campground. I’d only ever been into Katahdin Stream Campground in Baxter, which is densely forested throughout, so Nesowadnehunk was a shock. The fields are bursting with wildflowers and rabbits, views of mountains near and far. Our campsite was a lean-to with a perfect view to the backside of Doubletop Mountain and a resident bunny. The campsite was quiet, relaxing. Even with a few other people camped in the nearby sites, it was silent throughout the night. Except for the mosquitoes and noseeums, that is.
The weather for Saturday was iffy, so we decided to stay in the lowlands with a loop of the Appalachian Trail and Blueberry Ledges Trail. It would be a long day, but with no major elevation change. Since much of northern Maine is lakes and lowlands, Baxter Park’s trail system takes equal advantage of the rivers and lakes and swamps as it does of its bounty of high peaks. A good river walk in northern Maine is just as awe-inspiring as any high peak– I will never tire of the uniquely wild forests, with their thickly coated mossy boulders and dark coniferous woods.
The Appalachian Trail in Baxter Park, before climbing Katahdin, meanders along the Nesowadnehunk Stream (the best pronunciation I could find is nuh-SAD-uh-hunk), taking in some epic waterfalls and streamside ledges along with that beautiful Maine forest, before turning along the West Branch of the Penobscot River until Abol Bridge. We moseyed through the deeper part of the forest, stopping countless times to ooh and aah at the rock formations along the stream (unfortunately, it’s much harder for me to get decent pictures of this kind of view, so you’ll just have to go see it for yourself). As we got close to Abol Bridge, though, that iffy weather made up its mind to rain.
We hung out at the Abol Bridge store to avoid the rain for a little while, and to chat with some of the AT through hikers who were a day or two away from the end of their journeys. The excitement that northbounders feel when they’re hanging out at the Abol Bridge store is so thick in the air that you could cut it with a spoon. Fifteen miles away from the end of their 2200 mile trip– the end is never so clearly in sight.
Eventually the rain quieted down and we returned via the Blueberry Ledges Trail, a route that AT hikers sometimes use to cut some miles off the end of their trip. I don’t think the short cut is worth missing the walk along Nesowadnehunk Stream, but the namesake of the Blueberry Ledges Trail is one amazing spot. My photography skills just can’t do it justice, but it’s a wide section of Katahdin Stream where the soil has been scraped clean down to the granite bedrock, so the stream is probably only ankle deep for a wide area, but it cascades over all this smooth rock with few trees anywhere in the little valley. It’s one of those places that few people visit because it’s not a big mountain with distant views, but the beauty is just as stunning as any rocky outcrop.
The rest of the trail, however, was a bit of a slog through new birch growth. We eventually found our way to The Birches, a through-hikers-only campsite near Katahdin Stream, where we rested for a while, chatting with a nearly finished AT hiker. Listening to him recount stories of his hike over the past several months brought back quite a few memories. A funny thing about the hikers only five miles from Katahdin compared with those at Abol Bridge– at the store, fresh out of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, hikers are giddy with excitement. At The Birches, they seem sort of shocked, as if those ten intervening miles have pushed reality in their faces: you won’t be hiking much longer, and you need to get back to life off the trail.
We finished the day by walking past several beautiful ponds, then driving back to Nesowadnehunk Field, the clouds clearing in the evening and bringing in some mercifully cold air. We saw a giant moose just before entering the campsite, which was a treat. And finally, after a hearty dinner and a campfire, we were asleep by 8:30 with the full moon already on the rise behind Doubletop.