russell pond

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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.

After two days of self-inflicted ass-kicking hiking over Katahdin, I was really looking forward to a day of long miles with little elevation. For many, this would mean a boring day in the green tunnel. For me, you could just replace “boring” with “glorious.” Tramping through the lowlands of northern Maine is, for me, one of the highlights of any backpacking trip up here. The dense forest floor is lush with sphagnum moss, reindeer lichen, and rotting deadwood. The forest looks and smells like life.

Lush trails in the deep woods near Russell Pond.

Lush trails in the deep woods near Russell Pond.

Early morning on Russell Pond. I didn't rent a canoe this time, but you can bet that's my plan next time.

Early morning on Russell Pond. I didn’t rent a canoe this time, but you can bet that’s my plan next time.

I started off ahead of Tom and Chris again, aiming to cover more miles than them. After walking around Russell Pond, I set out on the Pogy Notch Trail, which instantly led me into denser forest with a trail that seemed untrodden compared to those in the campsite. Pogy Notch is the only connecting trail between the southern end of Baxter State Park and the northeast corner, and seemed to get very little traffic. The moss and spruce needles making up the forest floor were still springy, not packed down by hundreds of boots over the years. As I walked north, I moved deeper into as pure a wilderness as you can get in the east. I imagine little has changed in this section of the park in decades– few people come out here, and the forest seems to bear little impact of humanity.

Thick beds of reindeer moss on the Pogy Notch Trail. Combined with sphagnum moss on trails in northern Maine, this is what tells me I'm home.

Reindeer lichen on the Pogy Notch Trail. Combined with sphagnum moss, this is what tells me I’m home.

Thick beds of moss coating streams in the deep woods. I'll never get tired of this.

Thick beds of moss coating streams in the deep woods. I’ll never get tired of this.

A little too soon, I came to Upper South Branch Pond, where we would be camping in the evening. I guess I had lost myself in my thoughts, and the miles had passed quickly. The day was becoming overcast, which didn’t bother me much because I would be staying low almost the entire day. I stopped at the shore of the pond to have lunch, then set out to walk the loop over South Branch Pond Mountain, a short (2500 foot) mountain next to our campsite. Of course, in the usual Maine fashion, the height of the mountain had little to do with the difficulty of the trail. I climbed straight up the side of the mountain, through scree and boulders, to reach the partially bald summit. The Traveler, the high peak of the northern end of the park, was thick with clouds by now, but I rejoiced at the view anyway.

Lunch break by Upper South Branch Pond, looking up at South Branch Pond Mountain. I'm going up there soon.

Lunch break by Upper South Branch Pond, looking up at South Branch Pond Mountain. I’m going up there soon.

Once atop South Branch Pond Mountain, the clouds are eating up the Traveler Range.

Once atop South Branch Pond Mountain, the clouds are eating up the Traveler Range.

Combined with yesterday’s long and difficult miles, today became exhausting a little earlier than usual. I plodded down the north side of South Branch Pond Mountain, around the northern end, and then back down the Pogy Notch Trail on the other side of the ponds. By this point I was running into a handful of day hikers, coming out from the northern entrance of the park, but compared with the (still reasonably light) crowds on Katahdin the other day I could count the trails as nearly deserted.

One of many water fall/swimming holes on the Howe Brook Trail.

One of many water fall/swimming holes on the Howe Brook Trail.

To finish the day, I walked up Howe Brook before returning to our remote campsite on the south end of the ponds. The Howe Brook Trail follows the brook up into a notch in The Traveler, ending at a pretty impressive water fall. That was a fine end to the day, but even better was the lower portion of the brook– a finer set of gorges, ledges and waterfalls I have rarely seen. In the first quarter mile of the trail I counted at least five world-class swimming holes, so on the way back down I took a few jumps into my favorite one. The air was not particularly warm, which made dunking in an icy mountain brook a little less appealing, but after the first jump I felt like a new man. All of my aches and pains from the past few days of backpacking melted away, and I practically ran the last mile to our campsite.

Here is Uncle Tom’s account of the day.

The falls at the top of Howe Brook. Another reminder that hiking doesn't need to be above tree line, or out in the open.

The falls at the top of Howe Brook. Another reminder that hiking doesn’t need to be above tree line, or out in the open.

On the way down, despite the chill in the air, I had to test out the icy mountain waters. I liked it so much I had to take two dips.

On the way down, despite the chill in the air, I had to test out the icy mountain waters. I liked it so much I had to take two dips.

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.