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With all the country’s attention stuck on the big issues in Washington, it’s easy to miss out on the little things that, arguably, make a much bigger impact on our day-to-day lives. I’ve been trying to keep up with Maine’s local public lands issues and get as politically involved as my short supply of patience allows. That’s led to some new experiences on my part, like a trip to Augusta last week to testify in support of a bill involving Maine’s public lands.

An almost identical bill was introduced to the legislature last year, passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, was vetoed by the governor, and then failed to get the supermajority necessary to override that veto. So the crafters of the bill made some minor changes to address the reasons the governor claimed he had vetoed the original, and are reintroducing the bill this year. Since our governor has the dubious distinction of having vetoed more bills than any other governor in the state’s history, and is known for his hostile attitude toward public lands, my guess is that the new bill will also be vetoed after passing, and so far it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the veto can be overridden.

Tunk Mountain, in the Donnell Pond Public Reserved Land.

The details of the bill are fairly modest, and are probably quite unsexy for anyone who doesn’t have an interest in Maine’s public lands, logging industry, and outdoor recreation. The background is that Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands is funded mainly by leases and sales of timber cut on Public Reserved Lands. PRL’s are managed for multiple uses, including logging/forestry, recreation, hunting, and conservation. (Readers of this blog may recognize a few of the Public Reserved Lands, such as the Bigelow Range, Cutler Coast, Tumbledown, and Donnell Pond.) Maine’s Constitution mandates that the money from the PRL’s can only be used for improvements to public lands, and education (and apparently for building churches? So I heard during the public testimony). Over the past few years, the governor has attempted to use the money in the public lands fund for non-related purposes, until Maine’s Attorney General made it clear that that wasn’t going to happen.

By last year, the public lands fund had a pile of cash (around $8 million) that had been building over the years, and the bill aims to use some of that in order to improve educational programs to train future loggers (by providing money to lease logging equipment and training tools), and to conduct a study to decide which parts of the public lands could use better recreational infrastructure (trailheads, signage, etc.). Pretty boring, and seemingly uncontroversial, right?

I guess it’s a sign of the times, but our governor often lets his hot temper make his decisions regarding policy (like last year, when he vowed to veto every single bill that came before him, just because he was pissed off). I’ve written about his distaste for public lands before. As I learned while listening to two also uncontroversial bills that came to the committee before the one I testified for, the governor’s office and appointees opposed every bill that came before the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry this year. It’s hard for me to listen to the administration argue that spending five million dollars to help local food banks feed needy families is too expensive even though the governor has been building the state’s rainy-day fund to over a billion dollars by refusing to spend money at every turn, but that’s where we are as a state and a country.

There are plenty of signs that the governor is going to scuttle this bill as best he can already, including the recent news that the Bureau of Parks and Lands (which is led by someone that the governor improperly appointed to the position) has been spending that money as fast as it can on unknown projects. And the governor will likely not suffer any political consequences from this because it’s not a big, hot issue that will get lots of people all worked up. It’s just something uncontroversial that will help a good number of people while hindering no one.

Sunrise from a campsite at the Cutler Coast.

This was my first time doing anything like this, and I found the experience to be pretty interesting and enlightening. Because of the two bills being debated before the one I had arrived for, I learned more about food banks and rabbit farming than I was planning, and, of course, about the legal process. It was time consuming, but if you’re lucky enough to have the time to spare, I’d highly recommend getting more involved in your local politics like this. Also, especially if you have hair on your head and it’s not grey, apparently legislators love hearing from you even more (not that I value young opinions any more than old, I’m just telling you what I heard).

I wouldn’t have known to come to the hearing on my own— I have the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club of Maine to thank for that. Whether you’re a member of a local environmental advocacy group or not, get on their emailing lists, talk to them about what you can do to help in the legislative process, and get yourself to the state capital once in a while. Who knows, you might find it as surprisingly interesting as I did.

Last week I took a trip into the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, a new addition to the National Parks system directly east of Baxter State Park. The Monument was designated in August, after years of effort by Elliotsville Plantation (the former owners of the land, a foundation set up by the philanthropist and former owner of Burt’s Bees to advocate for a National Park in the area) to donate the land to the National Park Service. There was, and to some degree still is, vehement opposition to the Monument from a loud and increasingly small part of the population in the region, but the local attitude now mostly seems to range from fully in support to indifferent, which is just fine by me.

Haskell Deadwater on the Penobscot River, with Bald Mountain rising in the distance.

I had been into Katahdin Woods & Waters twice in the past few years before it was a National Monument, but only for short day-trips. Now that it’s officially part of the National Parks, I wanted to do a longer trip into the wilderness before the wider world started showing up in larger numbers. So for my goal of finding some quiet time in the deep woods, the trip was a wild success. I saw only a handful of people on the first day, but only one person (my friend Tom) during the three days after that.

Haskell Pitch on the Penobscot River.

Aside from the fine solitude in the Monument, how was the rest of the visit? While the Monument doesn’t have quite the wow-factor that Baxter does in many cases, it has plenty to offer.

On their own, KWW’s trails and campsite are pleasant in a low-key way. The trails I saw were mostly old logging roads, groomed so that Tom (on his fat-bike) and I (on my cross-country skis) could cover plenty of ground. There are several lean-tos and tent sites in the Monument, many of them on the shores of the Penobscot River, accessible by foot, bike, or canoe, and I figure they are quite nice, and fairly easy to get to. There are also two cabins, complete with wood stoves and bunks. I stayed in one of the cabins for this trip, which, of course, is the most popular option in winter.

Wood stove in Big Spring Brook Hut.

The Monument has a few fine viewpoints, although I only made it to one on this trip— a low mountain called The Lookout, with a nice view of the southern half of the Monument and some of the peaks in Baxter. You’ve probably heard from some of the naysayers that the only attraction in the Monument is a view of Katahdin, but you can just call them grumpy spoilsports. There’s plenty of beauty to be found on trails along wild rivers and ponds, and through deep northern forests. Some people will always complain about the Monument because of their own political leanings, and they’ll probably never enjoy it. That’s their loss, but I won’t waste my time trying to convince them otherwise.

From The Lookout, over the southern half of the Monument.

Another aspect of the Monument experience that I need to mention is staying at a Maine sporting camp. There are several lodges and sporting camps near the Monument, which are an old Maine tradition for hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, and other outdoor recreationists. Think of them as semi-rustic hotels, generally small and family-run operations, with family-style meals and tons of local knowledge to mine. I stayed at Mt Chase Lodge for a night on either end of this trip, and it really added to the whole experience.

One of the primary arguments for the Monument has always been that it would boost the local economy by bringing visitors to the area to spend money, so I see staying at one of the lodges as a concrete way of showing my support for public lands in general, and KWW specifically. And what do you know, since the Monument designation, there has been an increase in sporting camp visitors, real estate sales, and new investment in the area. Imagine that.

Tom leaving Big Spring Brook on his fatbike after a cozy night by the wood stove.

So, one other point.

Our governor, who is known for many of his boneheaded statements over the past six years, is also known for being consistently opposed to just about everything related to public lands and conservation. I’ve talked about this before, so I don’t want to rehash too much. He’s always been opposed to the Monument, despite the fact that the majority of the people in Maine support it. He even took it upon himself to ask the president to revoke the Monument status, even though it’s unclear that that’s even possible, none of Maine’s congressional delegation supports that, and even local politicians who were opposed are now more interested in moving forward with the Monument.

The governor loves to claim that the Monument will hurt local businesses, and that “it’s nothing but a cut-over woodlot” (meaning it was logged recently and the forest is mostly new growth). It’s easy enough to see that local businesses haven’t been hurt, although they weren’t exactly in a strong place for the decades before the Monument. As for the wood-lot claim, the governor seems ignorant of the fact that another famous park was also mostly clear-cut before being bought by a wealthy philanthropist and given to the people of Maine: Baxter State Park. The most valuable part of the Monument, as I see it, is the fact that the forest within it will be preserved for future generations. Without one very forward-looking individual, Baxter State Park wouldn’t be what it is today. Give it a hundred years, and it will be just as wild as Baxter’s deep forests. In the meantime, it will still be a perfectly pleasant place to spend some time in the deep forests of northern Maine.

It seems the drought in California is over for the moment, as we’ve watched snow and rain pummel the state in the past few months. While the water was much needed in the state, up to a point, it’s likely to make things a little more difficult for Pacific Crest Trail hikers in the high elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountains. If you plan on hiking the PCT or JMT this year, you should read Andrew Skurka’s excellent overview of what to expect with the snow this year.

Hikers approaching Muir Pass in June 2010.

I won’t recap Skurka’s points, but I’ll add something that my partners and I have talked about frequently in the past few years.

2010 and 2011 were the last years with above average snow pack in the Sierra. In 2012, we released the first edition of Guthook’s Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail. Three weeks later, Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, was published. In the past five years, the numbers of hikers on the PCT and JMT have skyrocketed as a result of the book and movie, social media accounts from through-hikers, and an overall increase in popularity of through-hiking. At the same time, navigation became easier as the number of hikers with GPS units went from a small handful to just about everyone hiking the trail (regardless of which app they’re using).

Travel through the High Sierra section of the PCT in those years, from what we’ve heard from many hikers, has been vastly easier than what many of the 2010 and 2011 through-hikers experienced. With less snow, there was less need for difficult route-finding over snowfields and fewer dangerous stream crossings. When there was snow to travel across, abundant GPS options made finding the trail a simple task. And, whereas hikers in higher snow years strategized and schemed to delay their entry into the Sierra, recent hikers have had to pay little attention to timing when passing through the high elevations.

My fear, hopefully unfounded, is that after years of relatively easy hiking in the High Sierra, through-hikers this year may be a little too complacent of the dangers posed by above-average snow depth. Hopefully I’m just being a little paranoid, worrying without reason, but for everyone planning to hit the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, please be careful out there!

Crossing streams raging with snowmelt in the Sierra.

Remember, you will probably be fine as long as you spend a little extra time during your hike to prepare mentally and physically for the most dangerous parts of the trail. You don’t need to be an expert mountaineer for the Sierra section of the PCT in order to safely get through and have a great time, but be open to learning from others with more experience, changing your plans on the fly, and taking time to avoid unnecessary risks.

A few basic pointers to get you started:
1- Take your time in the beginning of your hike if you want to avoid hiking too long over snow. The longer you wait, the more will melt. You can always make up time north of the Sierra.
2- The PCT fords dozens of streams and creeks in the Sierra that will likely be raging with snow melt. Be extremely careful with these! Two of my friends in 2010 were swept downstream, and were lucky to get out without serious injury. It often pays off to scout up and down stream for better crossings, or to wait overnight to cross early in the morning.
3- Though an app will make it easier to find where the trail goes, if you’re walking across an expanse of snow, the exact location of the trail may not matter. Sometimes, where the trail goes under the snow is not the best place to walk. And sometimes it is. Decide based on the conditions.
4- Always have a backup plan. As they say in peakbagging circles, “the peak is optional, the car is mandatory.” For through-hiking, we can modify this to “moving forward is optional, getting home is mandatory.”
5- Know how to navigate without your phone. Bring maps, compass, star chart, whatever is necessary to navigate without the use of electronics. Whatever you bring, know how to use it because you may have to rely on it in unforeseen circumstances. Remember, your phone isn’t indestructible or immortal. Neither are you.

Is it too late to reflect on the year that was 2016? Heck with it, I’ll do it anyway! We’ve been so busy here at the Guthook’s Guides team that we never got a chance to shout out about our most eventful year yet, so here goes.

See ya later, 2016. I got places to go, people to see, things to do!

The first big development for the year was that we have a new name (sort of) for our company: Atlas Guides. If you click on the “Trail Guide Apps” link at the top of this page, it brings you to our new, snazzy website. We’re still the same three people working on all of the apps, and the apps in the stores will still be sold by Guthook Hikes (iPhone) and High Sierra Attitude (Android), but most of our new business is going to use the new name. Confusing? No worries– you can still find our most popular apps by searching for Guthook.

And speaking of apps, my goodness we’ve added a bunch in the past year!

  • Mammoth Tracks, the official Ice Age National Scenic Trail app, was released in early spring in partnership with the Ice Age Trail Alliance.
  • We produced an app for the Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier with guidebook writer Tami Asars. The Wonderland Trail is also available in our Pacific Crest Trail app.
  • We replaced our South Downs Way app with Trailblazer Walking Guides. Both are made in partnership with Trailblazer Guides of England. The new app will house several long-distance trails in Great Britain– so far, we have West Highlands Way and South Downs Way. Soon we’ll be adding Cape Wrath, the North Downs Way, and The Ridgeway, and eventually even more.
  • For our most international app yet we released the Te Araroa Hiker, for New Zealand’s long-distance hiking trail.
  • Continuing the international trend, we released an app for Canada’s Great Divide Trail.
  • We’re teaming with Australian Cycling Holidays to make the CycleWayz app, with dozens of bicycling routes in Australia and Tasmania, and soon to be many more.
  • And, while the New England Hiker was released in 2015, we expanded our coverage of the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire to include almost the entire hiking trail system, including the Presidential Range (the rest should be finished this summer).

My goodness, that was exhausting.

But wait! There’s a lot more in store for 2017. While we will hopefully slow down in the breakneck pace of new apps and trail guides, we’re hard at work on lots of new features for our apps, including a major upgrade to the iPhone app’s look and feel, with a new main menu, improved settings, and an overall improvement in use. It’s the biggest interface change we’ve made in the iPhone version yet.

That’s what we’ve been up to, and what we are currently up to now. I’ll try to keep you informed with news about the apps and other things a little better this year than last. Most small pieces of news will be shared on our Facebook page, so keep an eye out there. In the meantime, get outside and work those legs!

Later this month I’ll be taking my third annual week-long trip into Baxter State Park, home of Maine’s highest peak and northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. BSP has been in the news in recent years because of friction with Appalachian Trail hikers who are used to very light management of the land the AT passes through– because of how the Park was created and its focus on preservation of the wilderness, the Park adopts a very strict management system. I feel strongly that the heavy management is part of what makes the Park such a special place, but I’ll admit that it does turn sometimes turn off first-time visitors.

With that in mind, here’s my advice to folks planning to visit to Maine’s most wonderful wild place. I’m writing this in September 2016, so if things change in the future, I’ll try to keep this up to date.

Chimney Pond Campsite on Katahdin

Chimney Pond Campsite on Katahdin

First, let’s start with two important links.
1- Baxter State Park’s Hiking Map page has an overview of the park, including campsites. Currently, the map is a little out of date, with some backcountry sites not shown, but there is a link to the Park Store, where there are very good map options. The Baxter State Park Map is the most up-to-date, since it is produced by the Park and updated frequently. The National Geographic and Map Adventures maps are both good, as well.
2- Baxter State Park’s Summer Reservations Guide has all the nuts-and-bolts information on how to make a reservation for a campsite in the park. You should refer to this once you’ve read the information below.

Day-Trips into Baxter State Park

If you’re just going in for the day and not camping, you’ll want to arrive at the Entrance Gate early, since the Park limits the number of vehicles allowed in each day. Many people drive up from points south and sleep in their cars in line at the Entrance Gate in order to get ahead of the line. This is more common at the Togue Pond Gate (south, access to Katahdin) than Matagamon Gate (north, access to Traveler and other parts). This is also not the way I recommend enjoying the Park, so that’s all I’ll say about it for now.

Camping Reservations in Baxter State Park

The best way to experience the Park is to make a campsite reservation and spend a few days in there. Reserving a campsite ensures that you have a place to stay, guarantees you entrance to the Park, and cuts down on the morning drive to trailheads.

Start planning by looking at the available campsites on the map, and deciding which are closest to where you want to visit. The closest sites to trails up Katahdin are most likely to be filled, so also try looking for campsites that are a little further away.

Once you have an idea which sites you’d like to camp at, and you know the dates of your trip, go to the Reservations site (see link above) and see if those sites have already been reserved for those dates. It may take a few tries to get things just right, but once you have a list of sites and dates that they’re open, then comes the next step.

Call the Park Office. You can make the reservations online, but I can’t stress enough that calling the Park is the best way to make reservations. The staff there is super friendly, they can help you make sense of the process, and they’ll offer helpful advice along the way. Phone lines have been pretty busy through the summer recently, so you may need to be patient, but trust me– it’s worth the wait, especially if this is your first or second camping trip into the park.

Newowadnehunk Field Campground in Baxter State Park.

Newowadnehunk Field Campground in Baxter State Park.

Advice for Specific Cases

If You’re Finishing the 100-Mile Wilderness or Appalachian Trail

Long distance hikers heading north and finishing at Katahdin are the only overnight visitors exempted from the reservations rule, since you are allowed to camp at The Birches near Katahdin Stream Campground. However, long-distance hikers are required to register with a park ranger and get a permit for entering the park. If you don’t see a ranger upon entering the park near Abol Bridge, make sure to find one at Katahdin Stream Campground to get the permit.

Either way, you should also check in at the Monson Visitors Center, which opened recently (2016) to provide detailed information for through-hikers heading toward Baxter. You can pre-register for a permit here, but you still need to see a ranger when you arrive in the Park. For now, you can get more information on the permits here.

If You’re Meeting Someone Finishing the 100-Mile Wilderness or Appalachian Trail

Many families and friends stay in the Park or go in for the day to pick up a long-distance hiker. If you know the exact day your friend is finishing, you can always go in for the day and pick them up at the end of their hike. If you’re making a campsite reservation far in advance, though, you might be in the Park with no cell signal when your friend shows up. So I recommend, regardless of where you end up camping, to coordinate with your friend before he or she leaves Monson and the 100-Mile Wilderness to set up a time and place to meet. Again, I highly recommend getting a map of the Park to help in the planning.

As for campgrounds, Katahdin Stream Campground is by far the most popular for this kind of thing, since the AT passes right through it. But there are a lot of other great options: Abol Campground is a few miles away and also quite popular. Daicey Pond has cabins right on the AT. Kidney Pond also has cabins, and is a short hike from the AT. Nesowadnehunk Field Campground is a half-hour drive from Katahdin Stream, but almost always has unreserved sites. Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond are very popular, but they can make for a more interesting hike for the AT hiker since they can go up one side of Katahdin and down the other.

If You’re Only Planning on Hiking Katahdin

You’ll be missing out on so much that the Park has to offer, but I understand. I visited the Park four times before I finally did anything else besides hike Katahdin. If you want to climb via the Appalachian Trail (aka The Hunt Trail) or Abol Slide Trail, camping at any of the campgrounds from Nesowadnehunk Field to Abol will set you up for a relatively quick drive or walk to the trailhead in the morning. If you go up from the east side of the mountain, you basically have two options: Roaring Brook Campsite or Chimney Pond. Chimney Pond is a great option for the easiest ascent: hike three moderate miles to the campground on day one, camp overnight, and then do the strenuous 2.5 to 3 mile climb to the peak on day two, then descend and either spend the night again at Chimney Pond or go all the way back to Roaring Brook.

If You Want To Maximize Your Chances of a Clear Summit

Imagine you’ve reserved one night in the Park, and you arrive on a sunny afternoon to set up camp, then the next day– your day to hike Katahdin– the mountain is stuck in rain clouds dumping sleet and freezing rain. That’s not an uncommon situation. The more days you reserve in the Park, the better chance you have of finding one good day to hike to a beautiful summit. My recommendation is to camp at one of the roadside campgrounds for two or three nights, and plan on arriving early on the first day. That way, you can spend some time enjoying low-elevation trails along lakes and streams on cloudy or rainy days, and check the weather each day (Rangers post weather reports each morning) to decide what to do the next day.

One of the Fowler Pond Campsites in the northeast corner of Baxter State Park.

One of the Fowler Pond Campsites in the northeast corner of Baxter State Park.

Backpacking Trips Through the Park

This is my favorite way to enjoy the Park, but it requires a lot more planning than your average backpacking trip, since even backcountry sites must be reserved ahead of time. One bonus to backcountry sites is that, unlike roadside sites, most have only one lean-to or tent site, so if you reserve that spot you can be reasonably sure you’ll be the only group camping within a few miles.

To make a backpacking trip itinerary, there are two general rules I like to follow. The first is to aim for campsites that are closer together than you think you can hike in a day. That way you can hike further by adding side trips each day, but you aren’t required to hike very far in case of nasty weather. The second general rule, also related to bad weather or injury, is to make sure you don’t absolutely need to go over a peak to keep your itinerary. If you’re at Katahdin Stream Campground one night, and you have to be at Roaring Brook the next, you wouldn’t want to have to go over Katahdin in a thunderstorm to get there.