knife edge

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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.

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