Maine

For my second annual Baxter State Park backpacking trip, I had planned to bring friends from all over the country to Maine late in the season to show off the parts of the park that few out-of-staters ever see. Most of my friends had to bail, but a small core group stuck with the plan, and we spent a large chunk of Columbus Day weekend hiking across the park. I take great pleasure in bringing visitors to my home state and acting as a sort of outdoor tour guide. Partially, it’s an excuse for me to take trips that are on my bucket list, but it’s also nice to be reminded how much of a treasure the state’s wilderness is.

Map of the backpacking trip through Baxter State Park (created with CalTopo.com)

Map of the backpacking trip through Baxter State Park (created with CalTopo.com)

Grant, the president of Gossamer Gear, his stepson, Ian, and my fellow Portlander, Hans made up the small group. Grant had last been in Maine at the end of his AT hike in 2002. Hans had been to Baxter State Park several times, but never as deep into the park as we went on this trip. Most of the hike was new terrain for everyone.

Day one consisted of driving four hours from Portland into the Park, then shuttling cars from Roaring Brook Campground to Nesowadnehunk Field Campground (by far the most beautiful and remote roadside campground in the park). Despite long hours of driving, there was plenty of good sightseeing along the road. And since it was a car-camping night, we had an epic feast of lobster-mac and maple-apple-cobbler to get the trip started right.

Day two started with a hard frost and sunrise views over Doubletop Mountain, then a long hike through deep forest to the newest BSP campsite on the west end of Wassataquoik Lake (Grant shortened the name to a more pronounceable “WTF Lake”). Foliage colors were a little duller than peak, but still gorgeous, especially as seen from a high ledge overlooking the lake in the evening. Once at the campsite, we spent a bit of time canoeing across the lake as sunset put the final light of the day on Turner Mountain.

Frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field Campground.

Frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field Campground.

A trailside bog on the Wassataquoik Lake Trail.

A trailside bog on the Wassataquoik Lake Trail.

Wassataquoik Lake from an overlook at the west end of the lake.

Wassataquoik Lake from an overlook at the west end of the lake.

Day three was a short hike to Russell Pond, with a perfectly timed day of cold rain. Despite the damp and cold, it was a beautiful hike along Wassataquoik Lake, with waterfalls and deep, mossy fir forests. We spent the afternoon and evening drinking hot cocoa and reading in our sleeping bags while the rain fell outside our lean-to.

Sunrise from the shores of Wassataquoik Lake.

Sunrise from the shores of Wassataquoik Lake.

Green Falls on the south shore of Wassataquoik Lake.

Green Falls on the south shore of Wassataquoik Lake.

Damp, mossy forest in the depths of Baxter State Park.

Damp, mossy forest in the depths of Baxter State Park.

Day four was the long day, climbing Katahdin via the North Peaks Trail (which started with an icy ford of Wassataquoik Stream) and traversing about six miles of frosty alpine terrain. The rain of the previous day had brought the foliage colors out with a vengeance, but also coated the summit in a thick layer of rime ice. I nervously watched the time all day, since we were taking one of the longest routes to Baxter Peak, and one of the hardest descents, but the tour-guide in me decided getting down from the mountain after dark wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. We took our time to enjoy the scenery and the biting wind, and got to the car at Roaring Brook an hour after dark, then took another hour to drive back to Nesowadnehunk Field for the night.

Early morning on Russell Pond after a day of rain.

Early morning on Russell Pond after a day of rain.

An icy ford of Wassataquoik Stream.

An icy ford of Wassataquoik Stream.

Climbing Baxter Peak on Katahdin despite the rime ice.

Climbing Baxter Peak on Katahdin despite the rime ice.

Starting Katahdin's Knife Edge in the afternoon.

Starting Katahdin’s Knife Edge in the afternoon.

Because of how BSP’s reservations system works, backpacking trips like this have to be planned in advance with an eye toward worst-case-scenarios. I got incredibly lucky for the second year in a row with this trip, having the rainy days fall only on short hiking days or on days when hiking only in low elevation forests. Even if it had rained for all three days of the trip, though, it would have been an enjoyable trip in some of the finest wilderness the east coast has to offer. I’m already thinking of plans for next year’s trip.

Last week I had an opportunity to visit a place that is often regarded as one of the highlights of Maine’s public lands. It wasn’t Acadia, with the National Park and massive tourism infrastructure. It wasn’t Baxter State Park, with the state’s high point and the end of the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t even within a hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail. And I’d venture to say that most hikers who come to visit Maine have never heard of the Cutler Coast. Their loss. This was one of the most wonderful hikes I’ve been on.

Cutler Coast's trail system. The red dot on the inset shows the location of the trail area.

Cutler Coast’s trail system. The red dot on the inset shows the location of the trail area.

The Inland Trail passes beaver ponds and grassy wetlands as well as the dense forest.

The Inland Trail passes beaver ponds and grassy wetlands as well as the dense forest.

Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land is part of the Bold Coast region, which is the easternmost part of the Maine coast near New Brunswick. The Public Reserved Land unit was created 25 years ago and seems to have quickly become a poster-child for the system. In almost all of the recent news articles about the Public Reserved Land system in Maine, Cutler is one of the two land units mentioned as examples, the other being the Bigelow Range, which any Appalachian Trail hiker will tell you is one of the finest places on the AT. Both of these preserves have deep, primeval forests, and relatively quiet hiking trails, but while the Bigelows showcase some of the best that Maine’s inland mountains and lakes have to offer, Cutler shows off the beauty of the rugged coastline.

Rugged inland terrain.

Rugged inland terrain.

Primeval forests of northern Maine.

Primeval forests of northern Maine.

My friends, Angela and Ryan (yes, another Ryan), took a vacation to Acadia last week and finished the trip by heading to Cutler for a one-night backpacking trip. I’d been excited to see this area for years, so I jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant driving 4.5 hours each way for a ten mile hike. So after driving to what many people would consider the end of the world, and then continuing two more hours into the land of blueberry fields (according to Wikipedia, Maine produces 25% of all blueberries in North America, and most of them are from right here in Washington County), we arrived at a very well-maintained trailhead and began our hike.

Day one consisted of the Inland Trail portion of the loop, walking through deep forest and along coastal marshlands. It’s still early spring here, so the leaves were missing and the grass was brown, but that barely diminished the beauty in the area. And even though the trail walks along coastal terrain with no mountains, this was no easy walking– Maine’s forest floor is a jumble of rocks, roots, and moss, keeping you on your toes even in the flattest terrain.

We arrived at the three campsites on Fairy Head, all totally deserted on this mid-week evening, and chose what I think is the easternmost backcountry campsite in the continental US. Each of the campsites here looks out over the Bay of Fundy, the ocean crashing against the rocks just below. We were lulled to sleep by the sounds of the ocean, with a cool breeze coming off the sea. In the morning, I listened to loons and lobster boats in the pre-dawn hour, then watched the sun rise while I rested under my tarp. I haven’t had such a restful sleep in months.

Sunrise over Grand Manan from our campsite.

Sunrise over Grand Manan from our campsite.

Sunrise striking the Bold Coast.

Sunrise striking the Bold Coast.

After a long and leisurely time breaking camp, we walked the Coastal Trail. Again, it was only a short hike on “flat” terrain, but we barely broke one mile per hour. The jagged rocks of the coast require plenty of concentration to walk along without hurting yourself, but the sheer abundance of scenery slowed us down just as much. Cobblestone beaches, sixty-foot cliffs down to the crashing waves, jagged rock formations rising out of the water– we all agreed we could spend weeks here without getting bored.

I’ll let the pictures do the last of the talking, but first I’ll leave you with this thought– Maine’s Public Reserved Lands are managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which is in danger of being dissolved and the lands given over to an agency primarily devoted to logging rather than a mix of logging and recreation, entirely because of heavy-handed politics. The reaction to this plan from both sides of the political spectrum has been resoundingly negative, showing just how beloved the agency and the land it manages is to Mainers. I’ve written about this, and I’ll continue to update that post as the story progresses. Let this serve as a reminder, wherever you are, the public lands that are a benefit to all of us are also in need of constant protection. Visit them often, love them, and take care of them.

Cobblestone beach at Black Point Cove.

Cobblestone beach at Black Point Cove.

Ryan standing on the cliffs next to our campsite.

Ryan standing on the cliffs next to our campsite.

The trail along the coast.

The trail along the coast.

Hiking through another cobblestone beach at Long Point Cove.

Hiking through another cobblestone beach at Long Point Cove.

After leaving Black Point Cove, we climb the cliffs over it.

After leaving Black Point Cove, we climb the cliffs over it.

Rock formations in an unnamed cove.

Rock formations in an unnamed cove.

More clifftop walking over coves and ocean.

More clifftop walking over coves and ocean.

Many inaccessible coves at the bottom of high cliffs.

Many inaccessible coves at the bottom of high cliffs.

The closest overlook to the parking area, with dizzying drops on either side into the ocean.

The closest overlook to the parking area, with dizzying drops on either side into the ocean.

Last week seemed like a good time to take an alternative weekend and head to the mountains, so on Thursday morning I took off for the town of Weld, not knowing exactly what I was getting into. The plan: hike up to Tumbledown Pond and camp for the night by myself. The difficulty: there’s no winter trailhead for Tumbledown, since the Byron Road isn’t plowed in winter. Even more difficult: almost nobody attempts Tumbledown in winter, so there’s no info online about parking or attempting the hike.

The Tumbledown-Jackson ridge from a farm on the north shore of Webb Lake.

The Tumbledown-Jackson ridge from a farm on the north shore of Webb Lake.

After calling Mt Blue State Park, I knew it was possible to reach the trail, although parking was still unknown. Once I arrived in Weld, I stopped at the General Store and found a trove of information from Jerry, the owner. He and another local there at the time were both on the area’s Search And Rescue team, so they were happy that I stopped in to let them know my plans. If you want to try a winter attempt at Tumbledown like this, I’d highly recommend letting Jerry know your plans, just in case he has any local news about parking, or in case anything goes wrong on your hike.

Parking at the east end of Byron Road might have been possible with a high-clearance vehicle, but I wasn’t going to chance it in my Jetta, so Jerry’s other suggestion was parking on the West Brook Road, where the town snow plows turn around at the end of the last driveway, just after crossing West Brook on a small bridge. This isn’t a trailhead parking area, just a space where one or two cars could pull off, and it wouldn’t be a good place to park if snow is coming, since it would block the plow truck. I chose a day with a clear forecast, and parked as far into the corner of the turnaround as possible.

From where I parked, I had about three miles of walking along snowmobile trail, first on West Brook Road, and then on Byron Road. This was easy going on icy, packed crust. I tuned out for most of this section, although near the junction of the two roads is a large gravel pit that has some nice views of the Tumbledown-Jackson ridge and the Walker-Whaleback ridge across the valley.

Busting through the snow.

Busting through the snow.

Once at the Brook Trail, it was much slower going. There was a very old set of snowshoe tracks ahead of me, but it was old enough that I had to break my own trail. The snow had melted and refrozen in the past few days, so there was about an inch of crust on top of loose sugary snow, which makes for some painful postholing, even in snowshoes. It wasn’t too bad until about halfway up the Brook Trail, when the trail begins to climb steeply. This last three-quarters of a mile took almost two hours to climb, with every step twisting my ankles and punching through mostly solid ice.

All the postholing slowed the hike down considerably. This little bit took almost five minutes to walk.

All the postholing slowed the hike down considerably. This little bit took almost five minutes to walk.

Finally up top, I found the pond frozen solid as expected, and a stiff wind kept me hunkered down in the trees most of the afternoon. As with my other overnight trips this winter, there was no liquid water anywhere, so I would have to melt snow for drinking and cooking. I busied myself with building a home for the night, complete with a small kitchen outside my tent, and a wind-break wall. I had planned to climb the high point of the ridge, but the wind and cold convinced me to take the more cautious approach and enjoy the views from the pond itself.

Finally at Tumbledown Pond, wind-blasted and frozen.

Finally at Tumbledown Pond, wind-blasted and frozen.

The view from my tent. Tumbledown Mountain and Pond.

The view from my tent. Tumbledown Mountain and Pond.

It was a long night, but the wind finally calmed and the clouds cleared after the sun went down in a spectacular sunset. The near-full moon lit up the night enough that I could read a book without any artificial light, had I remembered my book. Instead, I holed up in my sleeping bag and stayed warm. It was hard to stay warm, though. The evening’s low temperature was predicted to be around 4 degrees, which shouldn’t have felt as cold as it did.

Clouds cleared after the sun was below the mountains, and I was treated to this at dinner time.

Clouds cleared after the sun was below the mountains, and I was treated to this at dinner time.

Early morning sunlight over the West Brook valley.

Early morning sunlight over the West Brook valley.

When I got back into town the next morning, I spoke with Jerry and some other locals again, and discovered that the temperature in the valley had been measured between -9 and -20, and that was about 2000 feet lower than where I had been camped. Maybe taking this trip as a solo wasn’t the smartest decision, but it turned out well and turned out to be a highlight of an already stellar winter.

Mt Washington, the Mahoosuc Range, and Baldpate in the morning from the outlet of Tumbledown Pond.

Mt Washington, the Mahoosuc Range, and Baldpate in the morning from the outlet of Tumbledown Pond.

Yesterday's tracks still well-defined. The wind must have been non-existent at the bottom of the mountain.

Yesterday’s tracks still well-defined. The wind must have been non-existent at the bottom of the mountain.

Clear skies and another view of the ridge from where I parked.

Clear skies and another view of the ridge from where I parked.

The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

Last weekend I took a trip far into the north woods, almost to the Matagamon Gate of Baxter State Park. Rather than entering Baxter, though, this trip went into the adjacent, and less well-known, Elliotsville Plantation trails along the Penobscot River. You may have heard of Elliotsville by other names in recent years– particularly in reference to a Maine Woods National Park. For this trip, I joined a group from the Natural Resources Council of Maine to cross-country ski several miles into the northern portion of the Katahdin Woods & Waters park and see what the area had to offer.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

The drive into Matagamon highlighted the reasons that this area would be ripe for increased tourism. Along the road to Patten, we were treated to stunning views of the entire range of ice-crusted mountains in Baxter Park, from Katahdin all the way to the Travelers. As we neared the gate, the Traveler Range loomed high above. We passed dozens of snowmobile trails and several businesses that catered to snow travelers. They seemed plenty busy on this cold, clear winter day, but the group of skiers added several customers to their ranks.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

It was a fairly late start from the northern trailhead, but skiing along groomed trails directly beneath Billfish and Bald Mountains made for speedy travel. The trails were originally logging roads, and are now modeled after Acadia’s carriage roads in terms of recreational opportunities (biking, horseback riding, and walking in summer, skiing and snowshoeing in winter), so the views are a little different from what you’d be used to in Baxter State Park. Rather than high mountain views, we looked up at the mountains from old clear cuts, and at the river from campsites along the banks.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Some of the oppositional commentary I’ve heard about the National Park idea has focused on the fact that the most spectacular scenery in the region is already in Baxter, but those ideas seem curmudgeonly and stubborn once you’ve had the opportunity to lose yourself in your thoughts in the deep woods here. I, for one, would love to walk the length of the Katahdin Woods, then paddle back along the Penobscot for a woods and waters version of a loop. I can imagine thousands of other visitors benefiting from the same kind of experience. For the long-distance hiker, there’s also the possibility of a sixty-mile loop, combining the International Appalachian Trail in Katahdin Woods & Waters, and several trails in Baxter. This would take some advanced logistics and planning, but would make for a lovely week in the woods.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

The trek ended at Haskell Hut, one of several campsites within the park. This was a renovated logging camp at the edge of a deadwaters on the river, complete with bunks, wood stove, and a fine view over the marsh. I imagine that in the summer and spring, this place would be prime for watching birds and other wildlife. For winter, it’s a great spot to stop in and warm up before heading back to Matagamon.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

The ski out was just as pleasant as the ski in, with more views of the Travelers and Bald Mountain, and the sun dipping low to the horizon as we neared the cars. The day’s miles had extended a little further than planned, which made for either the longest or second longest day of cross country skiing I’ve ever done. The gentle grades of the old logging roads, and the freshly groomed trails certainly helped, but I still needed a few days of rest after this one. I am still a little exhausted, but it was worth every second of aching muscles to be out there.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.

My childhood friend, Jeremy, was back in Maine for a long weekend, so we decided to bring back an old tradition– “Let’s do something stupid.” Jeremy and I have a long history of coming up with hiking plans that are way too ambitious, and failing spectacularly. The plan I came up with this time was to walk from the village green of Bar Harbor to the marina in Northeast Harbor, summiting each of the six 1000-foot peaks in between (about 18 miles of rugged, rocky, steep trail).

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it's not so green right now.

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it’s not so green right now.

We probably could have succeeded handily if not for the snow that fell on Friday, but November is a rough time for hiking in New England; you never know exactly what you’ll get for conditions. On Saturday morning, as I got in my car in Belfast (only 40 miles from Bar Harbor) there was a dusting of snow left on the ground. But those few miles made a big difference in snow levels, with up to six inches in some places by the time I arrived on the island. Neither Jeremy nor I was prepared for serious snow, but we figured we’d give it a shot anyway.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

After about three miles on roads from downtown Bar Harbor to the Orange & Black Path, we started wading through the snow in earnest. By stepping carefully, we were able to climb at a decent pace onto Champlain Mountain, with only a few detours off trail since blazes and cairns were buried. We also had to make a few slight adjustments to the trail since Kacey, my parents’ dog, was along (this was a last minute decision, since she had insisted on joining us. She’s a mighty resilient animal, but slick ice on steep rock can be tricky for her). By the time we arrived at the summit of Champlain, it was already 11 AM, which didn’t bode so well for our 18-mile challenge.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren't just staying indoors by the fire today.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren’t just staying indoors by the fire today.

As we walked across the summit in the snow, I heard Jeremy say “I think we lost a dog”. I turned around and saw that there was a hole in the snow where Kacey had been. Uh oh! The snow had been deep enough to cover a six-foot deep crevice like an old-school booby trap, and Kacey had vanished without a sound. When I looked down in to see her staring bug-eyed up at me, she seemed more confused than hurt (“what the hell happened?”), which was a good sign. I threw off my pack and squeezed down into the hole to wrestle her out while Jeremy lifted from the top. The whole process took about five minutes, after which Kacey did a little sprint around the summit, almost falling into the pit again, but ultimately calming down after a big handful of treats.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

We continued down Champlain Mountain by the Beachcroft Trail, which took longer to descend than our ascent from the east side of the mountain, owing to slick, wet snow. By the time we arrived at The Tarn between Champlain and Dorr, it was clear we probably wouldn’t hit all six summits, but we still might walk to Northeast Harbor and at least get to two more summits. The temperature was on the rise, though there was still plenty of snow. The ascent along the Schiff Path turned out to be much easier than either the ascent or descent of Champlain Mountain, so our optimism came back once again.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

The gorge between Dorr Mountain and Cadillac Mountain is pretty shallow, so it was a quick descent from Dorr, though still pretty tricky. With many steep, rocky sections still covered in deep snow, we had to lead Kacey around in several places where in summer she could have easily leaped from rock to rock. It was still fairly early in the day when we reached the bottom, then made our way to the ascent. Not more than a hundred feet into the climb, however, we were thwarted by a heavily snow-covered boulder field. There was no good way around for Kacey to get up, and we decided that this would be our last good opportunity to bail out and walk back to Bar Harbor.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

So out we walked via the Gorge Trail, not the least bit disappointed in only completing two of the intended six summits. We still ended up with ten miles of hiking through deeper snow than anticipated, and fully succeeded in our goal of trying to do something stupid. And we could be happy in the knowledge that we would have made the goal easily if not for the snow conditions. No loss of pride, no damage to reputation, no serious injury. I’d say that’s a good outcome all around.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.