Monday, February 25, 2013

Winter in Baxter 2/21-2/24

Working title: "We'll be back, next time with shovels"

Peaks: None

Trails/roads used: Williams Pond Road, BSP Tote Road, Marston Trail

Trip mileage: ~34 miles (~12 pulling a sled), ~4500 feet of total elevation gain

As with most things, you can't always get what you want, but you sure can try. Here's an account of the valiant efforts of four strong hikers, facing winter in Baxter State Park.

This trip was a couple of weeks in the making, and would be my first hike with the Meetup group, Random Group of Hikers. It would be Michael and Monica (the Organizers for the group), Alex (an AMC trip leader), and myself, feeling inexperienced by comparison. I've done winter hiking, but never into Baxter, and never overnight, especially for three nights! It was down to the wire, but I managed to get everything I needed, and then some, and had it all ready to go when Michael called me on Wednesday afternoon. I met up with the group in South Portland, we made a stop for lunch, and a stop at EMS (of course), and then started for Millinocket. We stayed Wednesday night at the Pamola Motor Lodge, where the snowmobiles in the parking lot outnumbered the cars. After a delicious dinner at Millinocket House of Pizza (excellent calzones), we retreated to our rooms for last minute packing, and sleep.

Early Thursday morning, we arose, readied our sleds, and made our way to the AT Diner in "downtown" Millinocket. The food hit the spot, and proved to be good fuel for the trek into the park. The trip in had been in question up until a day or so before, as we weren't sure if we would use the 6 mile approach from Williams Pond Road (off Telos Road, off the Golden Road, off the summer access road to Baxter), or the 12-14 mile approach from Abol Bridge. Thankfully, we received word that we could use the Williams Pond approach, and were told to bring a shovel in case we got plowed in. Fair enough, a shovel is well worth shaving off 6-8 miles towing a sled! A light snow was falling as we drove up the Golden Road, being passed by a couple giant logging trucks, hauling giant logs out of the woods. Telos Road was easily found, and we soon found the plowed area at the end of Williams Pond Road. Things were looking good!

The beginning of Williams Pond Road
Road walks are always uninspiring, to me anyway, but this one wasn't terrible... just kind of boring. There was winter wonderland all around, as we followed a snowmobile track, which conveniently lead us straight into the park.

Having a sled in tow was quite a bit of work, even on mild uphill sections, and it's something I look forward to doing again. After what felt like forever, but what was likely a couple of hours, we reached the end of Williams Pond Road, and hooked onto a cross country ski trail. Crossing the BSP boundary, we wound down through the woods, and popped out at the back of the walk in sites at Nesowadnehunk Field, right where I surmised we would come out. The lightly falling snow played over the landscape, and clouds obscured any views we may have had. Across the bridge, and past the ranger cabin, lay Camp Cozy, our home away from home.

We immediately started a fire in the tiny wood stove, set up our bunks, and sat around for a while warming up. The cabin certainly lived up to its name, as we were able to keep it nice and toasty, some might even say hot, for most of our stay. We all sacked out fairly early, after preparing our packs for the following day.

Friday morning dawned. I was very warm throughout the night, and never even bothered zipping up my sleeping bag, but I was quite comfortable and well rested. Breakfast was cooked up, lunch was prepared, and we all rolled out the door a bit before 8, to hike the ~3.5 miles to the Marston trailhead.

Camp Cozy, aptly named

Looking toward Coe and OJI from Nesowadnehunk

Enough snow for you?
The walk on the Tote Road was a bit more interesting than the walk in on Williams Pond Road. Not only was the Tote Road more winding, but it wasn't snowing, so there were some views along the way. This isn't to say that the walk wasn't boring, monotonous, and something to be dreaded on the return trip.

OJI, with Coe in the clouds

Doubletop from Marston trailhead
After about an hour and twenty minutes of undulating road walking, with a few inches of fresh snow covering a packed snowmobile track, we arrived, mercifully, at the Marston trailhead. Thin clouds hovered around 3400 feet, as the summit of Doubletop was just in the clouds, but peeks of blue sky could be seen. We checked the register at the bottom of the unbroken trail, and my jaw dropped. The last party to sign in was on 1/20, more than a month ago! This was going to take some work. Thankfully, I'd readied my trail breaking legs last week on the Wildcats, so I was pumped and ready to go.

I took the lead out of the parking lot, and started up the trail through about four inches of fluffy powder on top of a firm base.

No mathematics was involved, no switching lead after so many steps, just break trail up front until you get tired, then step aside. Thankfully, the snow was light, and we weren't sinking in a lot at first, so the first 1.3 miles to the southern junction with the Mt. Coe Trail went fairly well. Our troubles were just beginning. The next section works a sidehill that climbs towards an unnamed pond, in a small bowl beneath the South Brother/North Brother col. There are some nice open woods through here, and the veiled sun warmed up the day. Snow depths increased to 6+ inches, and at one point, I heard a deep thump high up on the slope. When I asked what it was, Michael said it was snow slabs high up on the slope settling, due to our trail breaking... avalanche conditions!

The snow settling, caused me to be unsettled through this section, though the angle of our slope was fairly low, we still had to be alert to what was happening above us. I was happy to arrive at the pond, with views up the bowl, clouds ringing the top.

From here, the steeps began, and our progress slowed. The snow was deeper still, upwards of a foot, and increased steadily as we made our way up the ridge toward the col. While breaking trail out in front was hard work, being in with the rest of the group wasn't easy either. I'd say it was almost as difficult, as the further unconsolidated snow being churned up by the person in front of you, was very soft, and our snowshoes struggled to find purchase.

Breaking out the steeps
There's a blaze down there!
Long story short, it was a lot of work, and it took a long time to work our way to the col. Blue skies had opened up as we climbed the ridge, and it turned into a beautiful, bright afternoon. Once we were there, the snow was still super deep, and even on the flats, the going was slow. When we reached the junction, the sign was nowhere to be found, but we took a break anyway, and discussed our options.

North Brother from the col
After eating and hydrating, the decision was made to make an attempt on North Brother, 0.8 miles away. Here's where our pace became slowed dramatically, not to say it had been fast up to this point. The Marston Trail from the junction was thick, and difficult to follow in spots, not to mention the ever deepening snow around us and clinging to the trees. Spruce traps, and sinking in up to your thighs and hips with each step was the norm. We wallowed, seemingly swimming at times, and managed (according to Michael's GPS) about 0.2 miles an hour through this area. Exhausted, we threw in the towel, about 0.2 miles (as the crow flies, probably about 0.4 trail miles), and 250 vertical feet from the summit. It was disappointing, but it was about 5pm, the sun was low in the sky, and we probably had at least another hour of climbing ahead of us. It had taken us more than 7 hours to go ~4.1 miles. We resolved to return the next day, with shovels, and dig our way to the summit if necessary.

View from high on North Brother

South Brother
Dejected, we wound our way back along the trough we had made through the woods, and began to descend the ridge. Partway down, the headlamps came out, but we had some nice colors and partial undercast.

The skies cleared completely on our descent, the moon was out in a nearly full state, and it was very bright once we reached the pond, having just risen over the col. Moonlight lit up the woods as we went, and once back to the road, we turned off the headlamps, and had a very peaceful, if not somewhat reflective walk back to the cabin. The moon lit up the slides on Doubletop, and highlighted the landscapes around us as we walked. We were all pretty spent. A fire was kindled immediately, and we bustled around, changing clothes and hanging up things to dry. Dinner was made, and bed was quick to follow.

Saturday was a repeat of Friday, with the long slog back down the road to the trailhead. The day started sunny at the cabin, with impressive views over the field to Strickland Mountain.

Conditions did not stay that way, and as we left the campground, clouds rolled in, and the winds picked up. Unfortunately, Michael's knee began to pain him within the first 1/4 of a mile from the trailhead lot, and we decided to abort. I know myself and Monica could have made the summit, but I can only imagine what my legs would have felt like for the walk out the next day. We slowly wandered back to Nesowadnehunk, meeting many snowmobiles along the way, and spent the afternoon and evening laying about the cabin, chatting, and eating, and being generally warm.

It snowed lightly through the late evening and night, and was still snowing when we arose Sunday morning, with about an inch or so new accumulation. We ate and packed our things for the return down Williams Pond Road. Once our preperations had been made, the cabin swept out, wood boxes refilled, and the last check for missing items made, we departed. Up the hill to the west of the stream, following the fresh snowmobile tracks the rangers had made that morning, then down to meet the end of Williams Pond Road. Here, Alex put his skis on, and I barely saw him for the next couple of hours, until we got to the cars.

Light snow fell the entire way, but we made the trip in fairly quick time, barely stopping, trying to make up for the lack of exercise the previous day. Once we got everything into the cars, we made stops at McDonald's in Millinocket for Michael and Alex... I was tempted, but I did not break... and to get gas. Then it was on to Dysart's Truck Stop for a proper meal. This is where we parted ways. My drive back was interesting, as I ran into heavy snow at some points along the highway, and smooth sailing in others. By the time I got back to Portland, it wasn't doing much, and the streets were fairly clear... so much for the 8-12 inches they called for. Also, there was a parking ban, which led me to dropping my stuff off, and having a 1/4 mile walk back to my house. Good times.

All in all, even as a "0-fer", this was an awesome trip, with three awesome people, who I hope to hike with again soon. Thanks to Michael, Monica, and Alex, for your company, and for all the knowledge you dropped on me! It'll take a while yet to process all of it.


  1. Wow, great write up. A group of 4 of us are heading that way Wednesday, so many thinks for the trail breaking!

  2. I was part of that Jan group. You guys had way more snow to contend with up high-swimming in powder on steep slopes is really hard work. Nice job. I'm with you-just being in BSP is the reward, whether you climb anything or not!