This year's annual trip to Katahdin included first timers Rhon and Gabrielle Bell along with my good friend and long time climbing partner Scott Fisher. I'm a Registered Maine Guide and Scott and I combined have more than 30 years of mountaineering experience, including expeditions climbing Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams and Aconcagua, Mt. Katahdin, which put newbies Rhon and Gabrielle in good hands.
However, on this particular day the mountain did not easily give up its prized summit . . .
When first discussing this impending trip with Rhon and Gabrielle, they had expressed interest in crossing the famed "Knife's Edge," a narrow ridgeline between two of the park's highest peaks. This is a rugged hiking path: at certain points there is less than a two-foot wide path with shear drops on both sides. A stumble here would send a hiker plunging to his or her death a thousand feet below.
To begin this adventure, we start at Roaring Brook campground and begin our slow but steady trudge up the gradual incline of chimney pond trail. Over the next hour and a half we hike 3.3 miles and gain approximately 1,425 ft. in elevation. I demonstrate to Rhon and Gabrielle the "mountaineering step," a way of temporarily locking your knee with each step to save energy while climbing.
As the crystal clear waters of Chimney Pond come into view, it is a favorite treat of mine to watch the sense of awe and wonder emerge from the faces of first time travelers to this magical place. Chimney pond is technically a glacial "tarn," set into a cirque. Baxter Peak surrounds the small pond with impressive granite walls that reach upwards for well over a thousand feet towards the sky. The remarkable pristine beauty of the location stirs ones emotions and provides a peaceful and spiritually moving experience that is impossible to convey with words.
From chimney pond we begin onward to the summit via Cathedral Trail. This hiking path is a no-nonsense vertical path to the summit that is more ladder than hiking trail. It isn't long before we are all scrambling across the car-sized boulders and grasping for handholds. A light but steady rain begins to fall, making the lichen-covered rocks increasingly slippery. I tell Rhon and Gabrielle to make sure they are maintaining "three points of contact" with the rock at all times by moving each limb individually and keeping the other three limbs securely planted. This better protects you if there is a slip or if a particular handhold fails.
Clouds partially obscure our view of the countryside that stretches out below us. Occasional breaks in the cloud cover expose the deep greens of the trees and the pools of reflective blue water that dazzle and excite the senses. As far as the eye can see, there are no roads or power lines - - the small ranger cabin on the shore of chimney pond serves as the only sign of civilization.
At about 10am we're standing on the summit of Maine's highest mountain. At 5,267 feet it would be dwarfed by thousands of other American peaks but none of them can stir one's emotions quite like Katahdin. Thick fog blocks a majority of our view and I hope that the weather clears so that Rhon and Gabrielle can be treated to the breathtaking views hidden below.
A quick summit break for water and snacks and our quartet is up and ready to tackle the infamous "Knife's Edge." As we begin the treacherous crossing, fat raindrops begin falling almost immediately and a distant clap of thunder rumbles. In 30 minutes the winds have increased to almost 40 MPH. Scott and I are skipping across the slippery rocks with confidence, joking and singing, having been in much worse situations throughout our extensive climbing careers. Rhon and Gabrielle, however, are not reacting in the same fashion. They are both stepping outside of their comfort zones and beginning to feel as though they might be blown off the mountaintop. Having already gone too far to turn back, I take Gabrielle's pack so she can regain her balance and we navigate the worst stretch on all fours.
Driving sleet and hail start flying into our faces and the lifting fog reveals that we still have a fair distance to travel. If conditions had been different – even sunny – this would have been enjoyable. However, judging by the look on Rhon's and Gabrielle's faces I can tell that they are no longer having fun.
Rhon tells me that his chest is thumping and in his head he keeps repeating "three points of contact, three points of contact, three points of contact."
Foot by foot we slowly conquer Knife's Edge and the titanic dip know as "The Chimney," a 150-foot shear rock face that marks the end of Knife's Edge and the beginning of Pamola Peak. Scott and I take great care in making sure that Rhon and Gabrielle safely navigate this last major obstacle of the day.
Resting on the top of Helon Taylor trail the sun breaks out of the clouds and in less than 20 minutes all of our wet clothes are dry and we begin to strip off our layers. In an hour, I am sweating and the remnants of the storm that had previously threatened us is a distant memory. Rhon and Gabrielle begin smiling, telling jokes and laughing. The terror on their faces has disappeared and a look of elation appears. The remaining trek down Helon Taylor back to the parking lot at Roaring Brook is long and arduous for everyone's tired bodies but thankfully uneventful.
Rhon later shares with me that "pushing your boundaries, making yourself feel just a bit uncomfortable, trying something new and doing something that scares you can help you become a different person and have a better understanding for what 'hard' means." For him, Knife's Edge is a fond memory of a day where he pushed his physical and mental limits, a damn good story to tell, and a "one-up" on those who've hiked it in optimal summer conditions.
A trip into Baxter State Park will stir the emotions of even the most stoic and reserved individuals. There is a natural peacefulness found in this area and the remoteness of the wilderness inspires and reignites one's desire to reconnect with their more primal selves, living a life – at least for awhile – that is a bit more wild.
Visitors will find that the park has much to offer, with trails and viewpoints sure to match the skill and ability level of any and all adventurers young and old. Day hikers with the guts to face the challenges of the mountain's jagged granite and fickle weather will have the chance to stand atop the impressive peaks of Katahdin, Pamola, South Summit and Hamlin. These granite monoliths stretch out toward the skyline, making even the most confident and skilled hikers feel dwarfed by the shadow of their enormity.
Photographers will admire the beauty of the basin ponds with their early morning calm and late evening reflections of the sky and surrounding trees, making it difficult to discern the earth from the heavens. Sandy Stream Pond is an easy to access favorite spot for photographers and nearby South Turner Mountain is a photographer's paradise, boasting a short hike and impressive views of Mt. Katahdin. Just use caution as giant moose call this place home and roam freely throughout this wilderness area - - you never know when rounding a trail corner will put you nose-to-nose with one of these impressive beasts.
Campers staying at one of the park's many campgrounds will be treated to quaint lots with options for walk-in campsites that offer added privacy. These more remote lots offer additional peace and quiet plus the added benefit of being soothed to sleep each night by the wind blowing through the trees as it sings its softly whispered ancient lullaby.
All visitors to the park stare up with amazement at the star-lit heavens, scarcely able to fathom the endless expanse of the universe stretching out before their eyes. This is "Gods Country" and the night sky remains pure and unpolluted by the brightness of city lights, providing soul-quenching refreshment for those fortunate enough to experience this wilderness.
Yes, this is Baxter State Park and it inspires an overwhelming range of emotions that will leave its visitors with a thirst and desire to return year after year.