“I Wish to Speak a Word for Nature” – Personal Experiences of the Wild Part 3

Baxter State Park

Around 1960, in late summer, my friend Roger and I drove to Maine to climb Katahdin. We drove to the trailhead for Chimney Pond Campground, obtained approval from the ranger to camp there, hiked the trail and arrived around dusk at the camp site. A number of people were there, waiting for the chance to climb the mountain. Some had been there for several days but bad weather had prevented them from reaching the top.

The next morning was clear, cool and somewhat windy, ideal conditions for the climb. We went up the Dudley Trail to Chimney Peak, across the Knife Edge to South Peak, then to Baxter Peak which is the real top of Katahdin. Little did I know that this was the shortest, steepest ascent. In some areas we climbed on ladders. My legs were screaming as we reached the first peak. On the Knife Edge there were places where you had to go on hands and knees with huge drops on either side. There was one place where paint marked a step over the abyss. I said “oh well” and took the step then went on. We reached the top, exhausted, and looked around.

The view from Katahdin is like no other that I have experienced. There seem to be just forests and lakes for hundreds of miles around. Although we know there is lumbering, the effects are not very visible. Other peaks seem small by comparison. Katahdin, the Penobscot name, means “highest land”. The mountain is sacred to the Penobscot tribe, and they hold an annual camp and retreat there in honor of Pomola, the jealous god who lives there. 

We descended by the Cathedral Trail, from which we saw a black bear in the blueberries. We reached the camp near sunset with virtually no energy left. After exchanging stories with other climbers, we slept very soundly that night. The next day we drove home.

This experience was always in the back of my mind, but over the years I never had another occasion to go there until 1997. A member of the Thoreau Society organized a Society trip to climb Katahdin or just to explore the area in honor of the 150th anniversary of Thoreau’s ascent of that mountain. (I know, it was a year late). We stayed in a hotel in Millinocket.

The next day those of us who planned to climb the mountain, wholly or part way, arose about 4 am to a continental breakfast arranged by the hotel. The hotel also provided sandwiches and other food for our trail lunch. Our party drove to the park to line up as it opened; we saw a moose on the way, contentedly chewing away in a stream providing a good photo opportunity. We had, foolishly as you will see later, planned to climb the Abol Trail, which is closest to the line of Thoreau’s ascent. When we told the officials at the entrance of our plan, they said that they had closed the Abol due to previously heavy rains that were still running down the trail making it too slippery. So we went on and gathered at the foot of the Hunt Trail. 

Although there is no easy climb of Katahdin, those with experience say that the Hunt Trail, which is the terminating portion of the Appalachian Trail, is the best for first-time climbers. I feel that it has the right combination of distance and lack of excessively steep places to suit the human body, especially during the difficult descending phase when the legs are very tired. 

It was another beautiful day, with mild temperatures. Being older than most in our party, I was not confident that I would make it all the way, but found the climb rather pleasant; I had prepared by taking long walks around Concord, knowing from the previous trip how challenging it would be. I was well prepared but short of water; I did not know that the park had no potable water, which was a change from earlier times. Fortunately, one of the party had the foresight to bring in a large supply of bottled water which was available to the climbers as we returned.

There were fifteen to twenty people in our party. I believe most of those who had intended to climb to the top were able to do so. 

Everyone had the same exuberance and awe at the top that I had experienced on the earlier climb. Most of the people who were no longer young were surprised at the degree of difficulty of the climb. One party from Texas continued years later to talk about this trip, although they were experienced hikers in the Rocky Mountains. 

As expected, the descent got more and more difficult as tired legs went down the steep places. We helped shorter people at some locations. The Hunt trail seems to go on forever in the forest below the slopes before you reach the parking lot.

After a pleasant, exuberant, catered dinner at the hotel, the longtime superintendent of Baxter State Park, Buzz Caverly, arrived and talked about Governor Baxter and his vision for the park. Baxter started by purchasing the Katahdin peak area in 1930, and continued to add sections until his death. The State of Maine and other groups have steadily added areas to the park until it now encompasses about 210,000 acres.

More important than the size of the park is the terms of the Trust document under which Baxter deeded the land to the State of Maine. The park is not part of the State Park system but is separately administered by three top state officials under terms of the Trust. Also, Baxter left a large trust fund for park maintenance, anticipating that state funding tends to go up and down depending on the economy and politics. The land is to be managed principally as a wild area with human visitation being second. Caverly knew Baxter and said he was always making decisions based on Baxter’s philosophy. The most important result of this philosophy is that the pressure for human access has been resisted, something that is difficult to do in a normal public park system.

I went away with a new understanding of the balance between people and the natural ecology. My views were reinforced later as I returned to Baxter Park on a series of Thoreau Society trips in 2005-2008. The Society was now reserving a group camp site for a Thursday through Sunday excursion in August of each year. In 2005, after several years of thinking about making another trip, I signed up and brought my son along. We were at the Nesawadnehunk campground. I wanted to climb Katahdin again via the the Abol trail, and he was agreeable to this plan. 

We decided to ascend via the Abol and come down the Hunt. I now knew that the Abol was very steep and my legs would suffer coming down such a grade. We took a bicycle with us, left it at the Hunt trailhead, and parked the car at the Abol trailhead. My son could then ride back and pick up the car after we had finished.

As we climbed we had an amazing vista. My lucky charm worked again; the weather was clear, dry and temperate. The trail goes up a rock slide which undoubtedly becomes a stream after rainfalls, but was quite dry and accessible that day. But it certainly bears out Thoreau’s description in his essay “Ktaadn”, part of his book The Maine Woods:

“We were in a deep and narrow ravine, sloping up to the clouds, at an angle of nearly forty-five degrees, and hemmed in by walls of rock, which were at first covered with low trees, then with impenetrable thickets of scraggy birches and spruce-trees, and with moss, but at last bare of all vegetation but lichens, and almost continually draped in clouds. Following up the course of the torrent which occupied this – and I mean to lay some emphasis on the word up – pulling myself up by the side of perpendicular falls of twenty or thirty feet, by the roots of firs and birches, and then, perhaps, walking a level rod or two in the thin stream, for it took up the whole road, ascending by huge steps, as it were, a giant’s stairway, down which a river flowed, I had soon cleared the trees, and paused on the successive shelves, to look back over the country.”

Of course, the difference was that Thoreau climbed along the Abol stream, which was wetter and more vegetated than our route. But his emphasis on UP and on the “giant’s stairway” certainly applied.

The route was so steep as to constrain us to a very slow pace – it seemed like slow motion. I took a number of photographs which show the astounding landscape. The giant stairway seemed to never end. Near the top of it loomed the barren rocky slopes below the South Peak, which some historians think was the direction of Thoreau’s higher ascent in the fog. We finally came to the beautiful plain, covered with mosses, that contains the Thoreau spring, and rested a while. 

We joined the rest of the party, who had come via the Hunt, at the top. There were six of us in all who made the ascent. We just missed a little party at the top where a group of climbers in tuxedos celebrated completing the Appalachian Trail end-to-end hike. The peak experience was as awesome as ever. We all went down together. The state of my legs told everything. I decided then that I’d been three times lucky, and not to attempt this climb or anything like it again.

In 2006 through 2008, the Thoreau Society group camped at the Trout Brook Farm campground at the northern end of the park. This is a beautiful, quiet area, with some respectable mountains but most prized for canoeing opportunities, a chain of lakes to walk around and swim in, streams with pools, short climbs with views. All of us who went in those years have prized the camaraderie, the quiet and restful atmosphere, the moose through the meadows and the beavers in the nearby stream. I enjoyed easy walks and climbs with friends, talking about philosophy and history.

Visiting Baxter State Park is a beautiful experience. The limit on visitors in any one day creates a sense of wildness but also a sense of ownership. Visitors are treated well; the campgrounds are well maintained, well planned, with a new generation of latrines designed for easy maintenance and relatively little odor. Once in the park you can go on any trail after registering, or for an afternoon swim. You can also sign in for canoes which are located at entry points on the lakes and streams. 

I do not think there will ever be another park like Baxter. Pressure always exists for more access. The experience of wildness can be obtained now in the national wilderness areas, but you have to rough it completely. To sit in the camp with stove equipment, fixing meals, then to see the stars in a completely dark sky since there is no electricity, and know only a few cars will be coming down the road – this is pretty special. It makes us feel like “an inhabitant of Nature.”

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