south branch pond

All posts tagged south branch pond

So far I had lived out of my backpack for four five days, and then we camped next to Tom’s car at South Branch Pond campground. We had left his car there on the first day in the park, in order to hike from the south end to the north end, but we still had another day in this less-traveled section. In the morning, I packed one more night’s worth of supplies that had been left in the car, and set off on another little-used trail. Tom and Chris would drive to another trailhead for a shorter hike to tonight’s campsite, while I explored a few more backcountry ponds.

Up on the short Barrell Ridge, a cloudy morning view of Bald Mountain and the other northern outposts of the park.

Up on the short Barrell Ridge, a cloudy morning view of Bald Mountain and the other northern outposts of the park.

The northeastern corner of Baxter State Park is mostly taken up by Grand Lake Matagamon, but there’s a cluster of small mountains and ponds just to the south of the lake. Most of the ponds have small campsites on the shore that are popular with anglers and folks looking to get away from crowds. We fit the latter category.

Not your "soft" granite of the White Mountains. Actually, I don't know what kind of rock this is, but the blocky chunks tear up the shoes faster than even the sandpapery granite I'm used to.

Not your “soft” granite of the White Mountains. Actually, I don’t know what kind of rock this is, but the blocky chunks tear up the shoes faster than even the sandpapery granite I’m used to.

But to get to that region, I first had to cross over the northern shoulder of The Traveler Range and into the basin of Middle Fowler Pond. On the way I crossed a few ledges and Barrell Ridge, a rocky mini-summit with plenty of bare bedrock and views into the east. As I walked up the sharp rocks, I reminded myself that I need to find the proper name for this kind of low-elevation rocky outcrop, covered in reindeer lichen, short alpine plants, and occasional krummholz. Internet to the rescue! Low- and mid-elevation balds, and rocky summit heaths are some of my favorite hiking terrains.

Middle Fowler Pond's north shore, with warm water and fine swimming before lunch.

Middle Fowler Pond’s north shore, with warm water and fine swimming before lunch.

After Barrell Ridge, I tromped through increasingly disused trail down to the Fowler Ponds, wondering how long it had been since someone had hiked this route. Lots of people might think of this as a bad thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude. On a bedrock slab at the north end of the pond, the water was so inviting that I just had to go for a swim. As with a few days before in Howe Brook, a quick swim in mountain waters was like jumping into the fountain of youth. Afterward, I lay out on the rocks in the sun for a while, relaxed as I could be. Two day hikers showed up after a while, but they were equally impressed by the silence of the pond. By the end of the day, I could count on one hand the number of people I’d encountered, so I still felt pretty good about the wilderness feel of the area.

The viewpoint furthest to the northeast in Baxter Park, Horse Mountain. The valley of the East Branch of Penobscot River is as densely forested as you can imagine.

The viewpoint furthest to the northeast in Baxter Park, Horse Mountain. The valley of the East Branch of Penobscot River is as densely forested as you can imagine.

Eventually I left Fowler Pond and continued through the woods, passing along several other pond shores on my way to the next short mountain. Horse Mountain, the northeasternmost mountain in the park, is quite short, and has no view from the summit since a fire tower was removed many years ago, but the cliffs on the eastern side of the mountain had a fine, quite view of the Penobscot River valley. While the view showed some evidence of humanity, in the occasional logging road or a float plane flying by down below, it was a fairly relaxed evidence of humanity. I sat and enjoyed the solitude for nearly an hour before heading back down.

An early evening campsite at Long Pond Pines.

An early evening campsite at Long Pond Pines.

I ended the day by meeting up with Tom and Chris once again at Long Pond Pines campsite, which many park rangers had mentioned as a favorite. A piney grove on the eastern edge of a small (but long) pond was only a few miles from the park tote road, but it felt like a purely wild area. We sat around a blazing campfire in the evening, listening to nothing more than the crackle of dry wood and the plaintive calls of a lone loon making his way up and down the pond. That was something I’d been missing all summer, since I hadn’t spent any time on remote mountain ponds in the northeast– a quiet pondside campsite, the lone loon calling, and the silence of the wilds make for the most relaxing kind of camping on a backpacking trip.

Long Pond, silent in the evening but for the cries of the loon and the whine of the mosquito.

Long Pond, silent in the evening but for the cries of the loon and the whine of the mosquito.

This would be our last night with a full day of hiking ahead of us, so I went to sleep knowing that the end of this glorious trip was near. Despite having had no contact with the outside world in almost a week, I had no desire to get back to it anytime soon. I could stay at this campsite all my life if I had to.

A bog next to Long Pond, separated by a tiny ridge (esker), which made for fine camping.

A bog next to Long Pond, separated by a tiny ridge (esker), which made for fine camping.

For the end of the first leg of our Baxter Backpacking trip, Tom and I set out over The Traveler Loop. I’d been admiring The Traveler for years, hearing about how gorgeous the mountain was, and looking at it from Katahdin. Traveler is a little over 3500 feet high, but two things are quite apparent when you look at it from Katahdin– first, its rocky alpine area is vast, and second, it is the highest peak in the northern half of the park (which also means it’s higher than any peak north of Baxter State Park in Maine).

There was rain in the night, and low clouds when I awoke in the morning, which was discouraging. Yesterday had been cloudy, but today was the only chance I had for a climb on The Traveler, and it looked like the view would be a bust. Tom remained optimistic, though, and after a slower-than-usual breakfast we were rewarded with clearing skies and cool temperatures. Conditions couldn’t possibly have been better.

Starting up the Center Ridge Trail, we're almost immediately climbing high above Black Cat Mountain and Upper South Branch Pond.

Starting up the Center Ridge Trail, we’re almost immediately climbing high above South Branch Pond Mountain and Upper South Branch Pond.

The Center Ridge Trail starts from a cliff on the east side of Upper South Branch Pond, and climbs immediately on jagged rocks up over the pond. The forest around us was as beautiful as we could have imagined, though. Tom and I both agreed that this was our favorite kind of hiking– the trails out here don’t pander. You hike on their terms, or not at all.

Getting high on Peak Of The Ridges, looking far into the vast northern wilderness.

Getting high on Peak Of The Ridges, looking far into the vast northern wilderness.

In less than a mile, we had already broken above tree line on the ridge, with a breathtaking view down to the South Branch Ponds. It soon also became apparent that most of the clear skies were directly above us– a huge bank of clouds was stacked on top of Traveler, but breaking as it continued west. More clouds were forming to the west of us, and further south was the same. Tom claimed my hiking karma must have been in top form, after dealing with the sweltering humidity in Virginia early this summer and the somewhat stressful NOLS course. Whatever luck I had, I’ll take it.

The last ascent to Peak Of The Ridges. The clouds are opening only right above us.

The last ascent to Peak Of The Ridges. The clouds are opening only right above us.

We reached Peak Of The Ridges, the first peak in the loop, for our first stop. The peak is lower than Traveler, so the view east was blocked by the higher peak, but we still had some amazing views from the cliffs down into southern Baxter Park and north far outside of the park. It was silent except for the wind. And we noticed another remarkable thing– try as we might, we couldn’t see a single sign of humanity from the peak. No roads anywhere. No tiny reflections of light from windows of remote cabins in the deep woods. No airplanes, no patches of the forest lightened from logging, no people at all. Even in the densest wildernesses of the east coast, it’s almost impossible to find such a complete void of human existence. Usually I can at least spot a thin strip of a logging road from the peaks in northern Maine, but this time there was nothing. This is what we strive for.

Tom surveys the land from the mini-Knife Edge between Peak Of The Ridges and The Traveler.

Tom surveys the land from the mini-Knife Edge between Peak Of The Ridges and The Traveler.

The clouds coming over The Traveler from the east clear just as they break over the peak, but it's hard to tell if the peak will be clear when we get there.

The clouds coming over The Traveler from the east clear just as they break over the peak, but it’s hard to tell if the peak will be clear when we get there.

After tearing ourselves away from the scene, we continued around the loop. First, we had a miniature knife edge to traverse, then a quick dip into the trees between Peak Of The Ridges and Traveler. The rocky parts of the Traveler Loop are a more extreme version of what I found on the north peaks of Katahdin the other day– while you can see the next blaze when you’re standing at one, there is no clear route between the two. You have to choose your own adventure, and hope it’s the right one. And then, when we dipped into the dense, moss-covered spruce forest between the peaks, we entered the kind of forest that seems to me like something from before humanity. Stunted, gnarly trees, with moss covering the ground so thickly you think it might swallow you whole. Tom called it the primordial forest. I think that suits it just fine.

Back into the primordial denseness of alpine trails of northern Maine. Upward and onward to The Traveler!

Back into the primordial denseness of alpine trails of northern Maine. Upward and onward to The Traveler!

The last ascent to Traveler was slow enough that the clouds continued to open for us, and our views from the top were everything I’d hoped for. With a better view to the east, we were finally able to see some small signs of humanity (the single logging road here, the shine of a cabin on a lake there), but it was still about as wild as you could wish for. As we continued on, we only stayed in the trees for a few minutes at a time, coming out on the wind-scoured rocks of the ridge between Traveler and North Traveler, and then the exposed cliffs on the ridge coming down from North Traveler to Lower South Branch Pond. We saw not a single person until about 4 PM, when we were close to our finishing point. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.

Here is Uncle Tom’s account of the day.

There’s not much more I can say that the pictures don’t, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

Finally atop The Traveler, and the clouds have broken to give us a full view of the range, and deep into the northern Maine wilderness.

Finally atop The Traveler, and the clouds have broken to give us a full view of the range, and deep into the northern Maine wilderness.

Back into the primordial wilderness, a mossy and tangled mass of stubby trees and boulders.

Back into the primordial wilderness, a mossy and tangled mass of stubby trees and boulders.

Now we're starting down from North Traveler, with the open ridge of the trail laid out below us.

Now we’re starting down from North Traveler, with the open ridge of the trail laid out below us.

Just before going back into the trees, we look down on South Branch Pond, our destination for the night.

Just before going back into the trees, we look down on South Branch Pond, our destination for the night.