Climbing Katahdin on a Monday morning a couple of weeks ago I was struck with this thought. I really love this mountain.
I was on the Helon, (pronounced “heel on”), Taylor trail and it was a perfect autumn day. It was the autumnal equinox, in fact. The sky above was a brilliant, dazzling blue, the sun shone brightly and the air was cool. A Canadian cold front had just breezed through Maine a few days before.
The front set cold temperature records all over the state before departing. The winds that accompanied the front had subsided and by Monday morning here I was hiking through the mixed birches and spruce forest on the lower slopes of my favorite mountain.
Every hiker will tell you about their favorite hike, mountain or trail. Mine is Katahdin. It is for a lot of hikers. I can’t speak for others, but for me there are plenty of reasons. I faced an image of one of them as I broke through the trees to an open boulder field on a flat section of trail. Ahead of me lay Pamola Peak, Chimney Peak and the Knife Edge in clear detail. It’s that view that kept me hiking, climbing up the trail.
Soon after the view, the trail enters the forest and gives way to climbing through boulders up a steeper slope. At the top of the slope, I break out of the trees again on a prominent knee of the ridge that leads to the top. Of all the trails on the mountain, this one has become my most hiked. It only takes a little more than an hour to reach tree line and the start of even better views.
If I plan to take a long day and take in all of Katahdin by crossing Knife Edge and over to Baxter Peak, then Taylor’s the way I climb it.
On this day I’m climbing only as far as Pamola, elevation 4,902. It’s partly due to the fact that I got a late start. I started late, around 9:30, because I knew I could, and still have enough daylight so that I wouldn’t end up hiking after dark getting back to the truck. I planned to hike to the view into the Great Basin, hang around the summit in the sun for an hour or so, then hike Taylor back down.
If it’s true that you experience something different with every visit to the outdoors, then it was certain on this hike. The mountain cranberries were as ripe as they’ve ever been in my memory and I ate my fill as I stooped to pick them from near the side of the trail once I reached tree line.
The view of the mountain itself was soon replaced by a view of the lake country that borders Katahdin to the south. All the lakes were there, just more to wonder over this mountain. There was Ambejesus, Pemadumcook, and others whose names I have yet to learn by heart.
Turning away from the view, I continued winding my way up to the top of Keep Ridge. Now, I was above any trees and all that was under my feet was solid rock, rock shards or boulders. The only exceptions to the rock were the blueberry bushes beside the trail. The berries were all past their season, but the leaves had turned a deep red, painting the mountain red wherever they appeared.
Something caught my attention to my right. It was a view of the valley north toward Traveler Mountain. Off the ridge, in the valley, the landscape had begun its yearly progress toward the hardwoods changing color. The colors were just a hint of the foliage still to come.
By now I was close to Pamola. The most dramatic view of the rest of the mountain opened up when I reached the peak. The vertical granite walls that form the Great Basin are really something to behold. It’s like looking inside the mountain. Gazing across to Baxter Peak, they are near vertical for more than 2,000 feet. It is so steep that on the near side, my side, I can’t look into the floor of the basin without leaning over the edge. I sat on the top in the bright sun and watched other hikers crossing Knife Edge toward me.
I dug a sandwich out of my pack and looked out over the expansive view. Neon green lichen covered every rock surface near the rock depression where I sat, half-lounging. There wasn’t a cloud forming anywhere across the sky. The visibility was so clear I could make out the round hills of Mount Desert Island and Acadia to the southeast. When I turned north, Traveler Mountain and South Branch Pond were only a couple of the more prominent features in the view.
I relaxed and took it all in. The sun made its slow traverse and appeared to travel only a few degrees above the Knife Edge. There must be places up against those walls in the shadow of Katahdin that only see a few hours of sun, and then only in summer, I thought to myself. But it wasn’t summer, it was autumn and what a fitting way to send off the season, it occurred to me.
I managed to hike quite a few miles this summer, and stand on a few mountains in the process, but one last climb up Katahdin really puts a finish on a hiking season.