Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Church, a Sibling, and a Citadel 10/9 - 10/11/13

Working title: Baxter Blowout!

Oh Baxter, how I've missed you. It's only been a little over two months. It's striking to me that after an absence of ten years, I've visited Baxter five times in the last year or so. Making up for lost time? It's anyone's guess. This was originally planned out as a solo trip, but some happenstance led to some solo hiking, some hiking with friends, and some hiking with a stranger.

Day 1: Wednesday

Peaks: None

Trails: Sandy Stream Pond Trail, Nature Trail

Mileage/time: 2.1 miles, maybe 100 feet of gain, book and actual times don't matter

Getting out of work early to start a vacation is a pretty awesome feeling, even if it's midnight. I don't believe I thought my master genius plan all the way through, and was apparently still in the mindset of "I have to carry everything".

I somehow managed to not get out of Portland until after 11 am, but I did get in a nice little nap, and breakfast. Flying along I-95, I arrived in Millinocket around 2. Oops! I sent out a text to my friend Samantha, who was staying a couple of tentsites down from me with her friend Nate, and found that they were just pulling into Roaring Brook. Good timing! Pulling into the park, and heading up the road to Roaring Brook, I stopped short after rounding a corner. I've never seen a bear in all my time hiking, and this was a first! A juvenile was on the road as I came along, perked up its head, and scampered off into the woods, clambering up a tree. What a great start to the trip!

Pulling into the campground, I went and checked in with the ranger, Meagan, and then went about setting up my decidedly minimalist camp. Mere minutes later, my tiny one man tent was up, and I wandered over to see what Samantha and Nate were up to. They were about to take a short hike out to Sandy Stream Pond, and check out the apparently not much used Nature Trail. Here are a few pictures from our short foray.

South Turner

Hamlin and the Howe Peaks from Sandy Stream Pond

After returning to camp, I cooked up my dinner, ate it, and wandered over with some beers to hang out with Samantha and Nate. Here was where I felt unprepared... as they had all sorts of car camping luxuries, which I had apparently forgotten about. We figured out our plans for the next day, and eventually, I wandered back to my tent, where I settled in for a cramped night.

Day 2: Thursday

Peaks: Katahdin (Baxter Peak), Katahdin (Hamlin Peak)

Trails: Chimney Pond Trail, Cathedral Trail, Saddle Trail, Northwest Basin Trail, Hamlin Ridge Trail, North Basin Trail, North Basin Cut-off

Mileage/time: 11.7 miles, ~4300 feet of gain, book time of 8:00, actual time of 10:54

I can't recall when I set my alarm, but Samantha had said they'd be walking by around 6:30, so I made sure to be up and about. As I was finishing up, they strolled by, and I quickly joined them. We signed in at 6:43 and started up. A mere 0.1 miles in, they turned off on Helon Taylor Trail, bound for Pamola and the Knife Edge. I had other ideas. Having taken a look at some pictures of Cathedral Trail, there was no way I couldn't go there.

Now alone, I rolled up the trail to Chimney Pond, passing a couple of guys that had started just ahead of us. I love the new sign they put up on the trail, in contrast to the yellow alpine zone signs in the Whites. This one simply tells you this:

You are entering Maine's largest wilderness
* Your safety is your responsibility
* Set a turn around time and stick to it
* Your destination is your safe return to the trailhead
* Rescuers can be many hours in arriving

Warming up quickly, I reached the first viewpoint, and turned down it. Looking at my feet to get through the wet area at the beginning, I was then stopped in my tracks. Not ten feet in front of me, stood a giant cow moose, eating just next to the trail. She paid no attention to me whatsoever. This was about the best picture I could get of her.

Resuming the hike up to the pond, I caught back up with the guys I'd passed earlier, and they heard a bull moose on the other side of the trail. I stopped by Basin Pond and took in the views, and caught a nice reflection from the not so aptly named, Dry Pond.

The trail mellows out as it nears Chimney Pond, and soon, I was there. I chatted with Mark and Jennifer, the rangers up here, for quite a bit before continuing on. Mark is a riot, and a good story teller to boot. After chatting for a while, I bid them goodbye, and started the climb. A climb was exactly what it was.

The trail starts out easily enough, rock hopping fairly easily for a couple of 1/10th's, then drops you at the base of a jumble of talus, your first objective towering above.

The climb up to First Cathedral is intense, with big boulder scrambles, and interesting moves to get you up certain areas. Views were immediate and impressive, though the sun was low in the sky, and I was in the shade for some parts of the climb.

Once reaching First Cathedral, Second Cathedral looms above you, barely 0.1 miles away. If you haven't realized it already, this is where you see how much work you still have in front of you. More intense scrambling, stop and go, foothold, grab a rock and pull. There should be laws against having this much fun. There's still more work to be seen as you top out on Second Cathedral. This trail is the real deal.

Above Second Cathedral, I can't say it moderates, but it does become a bit more manageable, instead of constantly scrambling. Progress was still slow, but it was easier hiking, as I neared Saddle Trail.

The last 0.2 miles to the summit were the easiest hiking of the day to that point, and I was greeted by somewhat gusty winds, and a few people hanging around. On the summit, I chatted with Michael (trailname Scratch), who had just finished up a 1500 mile "section" hike, and he shortly took off over the Knife Edge.

I found a spot out of the wind, donned a jacket, and settled in to enjoy the summit for a while, as I waited for Samantha and Nate. Not only was it nice to hike alone for a while on Katahdin, but it was even better to get to hang out on the summit, as a bevy of thru-hikers finished up the AT. The visibility was incredible, easy over 100 miles, as I could pick out Mt. Abraham, Spaulding, Sugarloaf, the Crockers, and the Bigelows.

Around noon, I recognized some figures rock hopping over from South Peak, and was soon joined by Samantha and Nate. They had a fun trip across the Knife Edge, and now were looking forward to a break. Sure, I'll spend more time up here! After a fashion, the three of us took off down the Saddle Trail, where we'd make the decision to head over to Hamlin, or to head down. I didn't "need" Hamlin, so I was just going with the flow, planning on heading wherever they decided to go.

In the end, they decide to hit it, seeing as it was right there. The climb passed quickly, and we were soon on the summit, where they both cracked beers... wish I had thought of that! Not sticking around long, we started our very rocky descent. I don't know of any trail that comes off of Katahdin that is easy to descend, but if I had to choose one (that I've been on), this one ranks among the easiest. That said, easy is a relative term, as rocks reign supreme here.

We slowly made our descent, and after a break at the junction of North Basin and North Basin Cut-off, we made our way back towards Roaring Brook. Beers and food were waiting, and well deserved.

Arriving back at camp, and following my previous nights routine, I made my dinner, and after eating, made my way over to their campsite to hang out and drink a few beers. For all the relaxing I did, I was tired, so I soon made my egress back to my tiny tent. I didn't set my alarm, but planned on being up early-ish, so I could drive around the park to hopefully make an attempt at what has become my nemesis, North Brother.

Day 3: Friday

Peaks: North Brother, Fort Mountain

Trails: Marston Trail, bushwhack

Mileage/time: ~10.2 miles, ~3600 feet of gain, book time of 6:55, actual time of 7:57

I woke up just before 7, impressive considering I'm a creature of the night during my work week, and after breaking camp, which took all of about five minutes, I got in the car and took the leisurely drive around the park to the Marston Trail. Initially, I wasn't feeling it. Though as I drove, I started to feel better, and decided to go for it. Arriving at the trailhead, I boiled some water, and made myself some breakfast.

A lady named Cindy was busy getting ready for her day, and while I was eating, another solo trekker arrived. He introduced himself as Dave, and asked me what my plan for the day was. His was just planning on hitting North Brother, but said that if I caught up to him, that he might be interested in going over to Fort with me. When I asked how fast he hiked, he said "very fast", which led me to believe that I wouldn't be catching up. Cindy took off before both of us, bound for OJI, Coe, and South Brother, and Dave took off shortly thereafter. I was easily 20 minutes behind.

The lower Marston Trail climbs steadily, through the throes of late fall colors, with leaves crunching under my feet. For whatever reason, the lower part of this trail has beaten me down each time I've been on it, I can't properly explain it, as it's not really steep anywhere!

Reaching the lower junction with Mt. Coe Trail, the hiking got easier, and I soon ran into Dave. Apparently I hike fast! I didn't take many pictures on the way up, as Dave and I conversed at length. Passing the pond, and the steeps thereafter, we soon reached the upper junction with Mt. Coe Trail. Up to North Brother we went, the climbing becoming steep in the trough that mother nature has eroded, with running water the obvious culprit. I think I found the spot where our group turned around back in February, but it was hard to tell, what with the snow depths being what they were. Popping out above treeline, we made a beeline for the summit. The third time is the charm, and were the views ever worth it!

It was still before noon, so Dave decided to join me. There are a couple of small cairns leading north into the scrub off the summit, and we followed these downward. It had been a while since I'd been bushwhacking, and I was glad for the company, though in retrospect, it would have been easily doable solo. From what I understand, there used to be a trail over to Fort, and the "bushwhack" follows the remnants of it. There are definitely thick spots where you have to push through, and you can't always see the footbed, but all in all, it was fairly easy to follow. There are two spots where you appear to have an option to go in different directions, on the way out go left, and on the way back, go right. There is some flagging tape here and there, of various vintages, in the thicker sections, and even some old paint blazes and arrows on rocks as you near treeline. There are even some open sections that are indeed trail-like!

We ended up reaching the summit of Fort, 41 minutes after leaving North Brother! Fort now ranks in my top 5 favorite summits, along with Mt. Adams, Katahdin, Garfield, and Chocorua (in no particular order). The views were impressive, particularly over to Mullen Mountain (which is on my short list), north to the Traveler, and into the heart of the trackless Klondike. It was hazy, and the views lacked the clarity of the previous day, but I couldn't care less, it was still spectacular. We touched both of the western summit knobs, even though I think the westernmost one is the highpoint. I had read, and seen pictures of, a radio unit that had been dragged up to the ridge (from the 1944 C-54 crash site on the southeast side of Fort), but it was sadly missing, with only bits and pieces remaining.

A short break later, and we were off again, back into the thickness. It took a bit longer on the way back, due to some navigational issues, and just pausing for the views on the way back up North Brother. We were back to the summit by 2 pm, and then began our descent. Along the way, we ran into a pair of Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), of which the female took off, and the male put on a show for us, letting me get within about four feet of him. Such good luck with wildlife on this trip! I also found a short herd path off the upper Marston Trail, that led to a small ledge looking over the unnamed pond in the basin below the Brothers.

Down we went, back into deciduous woods, and the palette of autumn. Dave told me that he stays at Katahdin Stream Campground the week before Columbus Day every year, and that I should come find him next year. Sounds awesome to me! We ended our day around 4:40, with plenty of daylight to spare. I'm definitely going back when the days are longer, so I can go check out the plane wreck. We soon parted ways, and headed to the campground, where I was staying the night as well. 

I checked into the campground, and set myself up in my lean-to, quite a far cry from my cramped quarters of the two previous nights! I ended up eating, and doing some reading, while Katahdin Stream burbled not 20 yards from where I sat. When the light faded, I faded, and slept soundly all through the night.

I awoke the next morning, refreshed, yet looking forward to heading home. Once back in Millinocket, I called my friend Nate from college, and met up with him in Bangor for breakfast. A great end to a great trip, and I still had another week off from work!

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