I was regretting not bringing two cans of Baxter Brewing Co’s Pamola Xtra Pale Ale for us to shotgun once we reached Pamola Peak, one of the summits that is part of Mount Katahdin. I had been waiting to hike Katahdin, located in Baxter State Park a few hours south of where we live, ever since moving to Maine in 2009. For some reason, it had just never worked out in the past. This wasn’t terribly problematic, given that I instead hiked many of the other trails in the park and have experienced the kind of solitude that seems rare atop Katahdin. But it was time.
We took a roundabout approach to the mountain, starting off from the Roaring Brook Campground and hiking in to the back country Russell Pond Campground. Despite my woodsy lifestyle, this was actually my first backpacking trip. Other than a one-night stand in Baxter’s managed corner of the park, the SFMA, back in 2011; which doesn’t really count, I don’t think.
This trip was serious. Seriously challenging, because we had to cross a raging stream, full following the seemingly endless rain we’ve received so far this year. And in that stream crossing, I did slip. And my shoe, I did lose. Luckily it was just a sandal, and one that I was considering chucking to boot (a ha. hah). So I chucked it downstream. Eff you lame-o no-traction sandal. I’ve since replaced you with a new pair of Chaco’s – take that for letting me down.
So I was out some camp shoes before making it to camp, and I managed to soak myself and my hiking boots, and sort of my pack too, in the process. I’ve learned my lesson for trying to be cheap when it comes to shoes…. oh wait, no I haven’t. My hiking boots were purchased used in New Hampshire the other week, and you know what? They’re awesome.
My soggy clothes got that perfect fire-dried aroma by late evening. My boots… stayed wet, because there are limitations to the magic of 20 buck boots.
Russell Pond was a gem of a spot, with five lean-tos and additional campsites. The place was relatively packed because of the holiday weekend, but by packed I mean there were a few people around and they were friendly and quiet.
We noticed pretty quickly that some of the wood used to build our lean-to had the marks seen in the above picture, which means that the wood was felled with a processor. Processors are harvesting machines that cut trees down, take the limbs off, and then buck them up into smaller lengths. We guessed that this wood came from the aforementioned SFMA part of the park, the Scientific Forest Management Area, which conducts relatively small-scale well-managed logging operations.
You can only talk about logging operations for so long though, before it’s time for s’mores. Lazy spur of the moment s’mores made with some craft chocolate and über thin Wasa crackers. And bolstered by plastic cups full of boxed wine.
Our next day followed up on the lazy trend. We slept in, loafed about, talked about what hurt (me: shoulders and injury from a mountain biking crash, eli: bad ankle), took a little canoe ride, fished with an impromptu tree sapling and fly line, and got schooled by the ranger who told us it was time to kick our rears in gear. So we picked up in a hurry, and set off through what seemed at the time to be a terrible minefield of bugs. Mosquitoes everywhere. Neither of us usually wear bug spray in the woods, and I definitely longed for the lonely can of Deet wasting away in my work truck back home.
I started having a bit of a freakout, breaking off a switch of balsam fir and constantly slapping myself in a soon-familiar pattern: left leg, right leg, right arm, left arm, back of neck; repeat. On the plus side I was distracted from my heavy pack weighing me down. Lunch came quickly, along a gorgeous rushing river where the mosquitoes were replaced by black flies that were just as fierce and more numerous in number. We refilled our water bottles in a clear stream and I was appreciative of the anti-iodine pills we had bought that would allow our water to remain most delicious tasting.
We forded another stream, where I had a temporary relapse to the day before and initially balked at crossing shoeless. That mountain water is just so fricking cold, it numbs your brain instantly. So cold! I felt like a big ole wuss. We met some guys on the other side of the stream who upon finding out our destination, said “Enjoy the bugs!” in a disconcertingly cheerful manner, before taking off quickly in the opposite direction.
The bugs. I had managed to forget them for a few minutes, but those little bastards were not to be forgotten. We hiked for another hour or so, maybe longer, with a bit of a slippery and steep ascent near the end of the short day of hiking.
The Davis Pond lean-to was nestled into a gorgeous high-elevation bowl of land, but hot damn the bugs were bad. I think I brought it upon myself, because only the day before I had fondly reminisced on the World’s Worst Mosquitoes, which we experienced in Florida’s Everglades back in 2011. They drove us into our tent by 2pm. I was all “that is my absolute favorite tenting memory everrr!” What a fool.
This was a similar situation, but with black flies. I’m really not sure which is worse. I assembled the tent in record speed and dove inside, killing flies for the next ten minutes that had entered with me or on me. Eli joined me in the tent and I got to have another brief killing spree. Sadly, we had to emerge to make dinner. Maybe they’ll be better? Nope. We found a cool large rock that rose high above the pond and hoping for a decent breeze, climbed to the top of it to cook our dinner. No dice, but it was a sweet view.
The hordes of flies followed us everywhere, including into our bowls of delicious pasta mush. Protein and stuff. We were driven back into the tent after the world’s fastest-ever rock-top pond-side dinner service. Another twenty minutes of killing the bugs that had entered the tent with us, and then we could settle down and focus on the important stuff: another box of wine and even lazier s’mores than the night before – untoasted mallows sandwiching squares of chocolate.
We ogled the flies on the outside of our tent for amusement, and wondered how much the next day was going to hurt.
Box of wine for scale, plennnty of light left in the day.
We rose early the next morning, as the threat of afternoon thunderstorms had us wanting to summit Katahdin as quick as possible. We had plans to descend back to our starting point on an exposed and rocky trail, and had been warned against taking it if poor weather conditions were lurking.
The hike started out strenuous, with just over a mile of some pretty vertical ascent. It was over before long, however, and we had made it above the treeline. That means we had mostly lost the dratted bugs. After that, the rest of the ascent was relatively easy and straightforward. Nothing tricky, nothing challenging other than marching upwards and onwards.
Off in the distance you can see the trail we took to ascend Mount Katahdin. Pretty enjoyable and dare I even say somewhat anticlimactic after the way Katahdin had been drummed up as supes difficult. There are more difficult ascents than this trail, which I’ll have to try if I ever find myself back in the saddle (which conveniently, is also the named feature seen along the trail between the foreground and the mountain).
A few black clouds materialized and threatened rain, but they dissolved before anything became of them.
We approached the summit, and saw a few other people just ahead of us. Topping a rise, there were suddenly people everywhere. And we had reached the top.
It was all much, uh, rockier than I had imagined. So jagged and rough. I had heard of the Knife Edge before getting there, but I guess I hadn’t really put two and two together. Must have been a combination of cold water brain freeze + bug bite overload + missing sandalitis. The rocks were rocky! Knowwhatimsaying? Yes. Yes you do.
We navigated the Knife Edge Trail, which follows the ridge line from Baxter Peak around to Pamola Peak – it’s basically everything you can see in the background of the above photo. It was tricky in a couple of spots because of our large packs, but mostly it was just narrow and sort of precarious, and I was glad I wasn’t nervous about heights. Baxter State Park’s website gives you some insight into the Knife Edge Trail, and also into what seems to be their overall unfriendly Maine attitude (they’re just trying to cover their asses, I get it)(love you Maine):
This route is completely exposed and several people have died or have been seriously injured while attempting a traverse in inclement weather and/or high winds. Do not attempt to leave the ridge once you have started. Hiking Knife Edge across and back is not recommended due to its difficulty and the amount of time it adds to the hike – it takes approximately 1 to 1½ hrs. one way.
Seriously though, I did wonder at several points along the Knife Edge how this could be a sanctioned trail in one of the most visited spots in Maine. If the wind picked up, you could be swept off the ridge line no problem. I’m convinced. So that was neat!
We rounded the ridge to Baxter Peak, and headed down the unending Helon Taylor Trail. After what seemed a bit too long for 3.2 downhill miles, we reached the end of the trail and were soon reunited with our trusty car. I felt like I could do another lap, but I’m glad we finished when we did.
Three nights after getting home, my legs are still recovering! I clearly didn’t feel it much at the time, and I didn’t feel too awful on Monday. Sore legs hit me like a semi truck on Tuesday, and are just now recuperating.
What a seriously incredible hike. I’m so glad we made the time to do this loop, visiting the backcountry and seeing a few spots we otherwise wouldn’t have. We’ve been talking about this trip for three or four summers now, so it’s all sorts of catharsis to finally make it happen. And now it’s finally legit, and I can read Backpacker magazine without feeling like a fraud.
Plus as a little bonus, look at those snow patches! Winter lurks around every corner up here.