Last fall, when Marsha Donahue, owner of North Light Gallery, showed a story in a Portland-based magazine to Holly Hamilton, manager of Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, both women had a similar reaction.
They were offended and a little insulted.
The cover story that offended them was titled, “Sex & The Wilderness.” The story’s theme was that conditions in the Maine north woods have finally become tame enough so that women can finally, safely travel there and enjoy the experience.
They knew historically that women traveling to the woods of Maine was not new to this century, but that they’ve been visiting the north woods since the 19th century. Hamilton had an idea to acknowledge those early exploring women.
“In fact, they had been climbing Katahdin since the 1800s and we ought to re-enact it to show how tough these women were,” Hamilton said.
The two adventurers hatched a plan to re-enact, in 1890s clothing, how those first women climbers would have climbed the Mount Katahdin. Hamilton checked with the park staff to be sure that their activity would not violate park rules, while Donahue showed up on the park’s opening day in January to reserve the Chimney Pond bunk house for four nights around the summer solstice to make their attempt.
They started looking for a “few good women,” as Hamilton put it, and rounded up three others to join them. So, this past Tuesday, Donahue, Hamilton, Barbara Bentley, Donna Gordon and Rachael Story set out from Chimney Pond in 1800s era clothing for Baxter Peak.
They had recruited three men: Bill Bentley, Barbara’s husband, as their photographer; David Little, an author and historian; and Steven Cooper, an employee of Katahdin Lake Wilderness camps, to accompany them and carry their lunches, emergency gear, and water.
They left Chimney Pond around 7:40 a.m. under a flawless blue sky and cool temperatures, a perfect day for climbing. Before leaving the pond for the summit, a little more two miles away and around nearly 3,000 vertical feet in elevation gain, via the Saddle Trail, they all had their photo taken.
Then, they started up.
All the women were responsible for their own clothing, which they researched for accuracy. Donahue sewed her blouse made of thin, white, handkerchief cotton.
“The clothing was much better than I thought it would be,” she said. “Four of the five of us had blouses made of thin, white handkerchief cotton, good for sun protection and very cool. The hats provided great shade from the sun.”
She wore a skirt she made and customized for the climb.
“I sewed two loops in the bottom hem of my skirt that attached to two large buttons at my waist, so that I could hook it up in front, leaving my legs free. Of course I had bloomers on underneath, as did Donna,” she said.
She explained that three of the five women opted for culottes, while the other two wore skirts. Hamilton added that Betts Johnston of Millinocket sewed her and Story’s outfits. Their footwear ranged from Hamilton’s high moccasins, which she had cobbled to attach rubber soles; to the tailored riding boots worn by Barbara Bentley. The other women wore more modern hiking boots.
They are all skilled in the outdoors. Hamilton has been a registered Maine Guide for the nearly 20 years. Donahue is a veteran of numerous outings, including reaching the summit of Mount Washington twice, and skiing Tuckerman’s Ravine.
Donna Gordon is a frequent visitor to Baxter Park and hikes there often. Rachel Story was a roving ranger in the park for the previous three years before becoming employed at the Katahdin Lake camps. Barbara Bentley is the current president of the Friends of Baxter State Park and has hiked extensively there.
Donahue, for all her experience, had never stood on the summit of Katahdin before, having only been as far as Chimney Pond on previous attempts before being turned back by foul weather.
“For me the hike was hard, hard, hard,” she said. “I was really busy the two weeks prior to the climb and didn’t get a chance to prepare adequately as I usually do before an outing. For that reason I was full of dread about this climb.”
Nonetheless, she and the others all made the top by around 11 a.m. and encountered curious looks from other hikers until the women explained the reason for their attire, then the onlookers were engaging and wanted to know more about their endeavor.
They all posed at the summit sign for another photo and after taking in the views, descended the Saddle Trail back to Chimney Pond. As in most hikes and particularly on a hard mountain like Katahdin, descending gives the participants a chance to reflect on their climb.
“The day was perfect for a hike. It was sunny, with a slight breeze to discourage the bugs and dry trail conditions,” Barbara Bentley said. “My skirt, based on historical design was of absolutely no hindrance even in the steep places on the trail. It flowed naturally. Never caught on a rock or tree. A white throated sparrow called repeatedly on the Saddle on the way up and was there in the same spot with the same clear song on the way down.”
For Donahue it was the feeling of accomplishment that moved her.
“I was unsure of my ability to make the summit,” she said. “In retrospect I’m pleased and amazed to have made it. This gives me confidence. A leisurely rest before descending found us all relaxed and enjoying the bright sun, warm air and cool mountain breeze blowing across the meadow. That moment encapsulated the tone of the day for me. What a way to start the summer.”
Holly Hamilton felt connected to the past.
“When we were all in our Victorian attire gathered on the shore of Chimney Pond, I thought to myself people have not stood here dressed like this in over a hundred years. It just put us back in time,” she said.
Back in the planning stages of the hike, historian David Little informed the women about the first two women who each claimed to be the first woman on the mountain, days apart in August of 1849. They were Hannah Keep and Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Apparently when Keep, and her newlywed husband Marcus Keep, arrived at Pamola Peak via a now obscured route, they found a letter in a bottle left there the day before by Smith.
Both accounts were published in the local papers of the day and history records that Smith only got as far as Pamola, while the Keeps continued across the Knife Edge to Baxter Peak. The controversy abated with Hannah Keep getting credit for being the first woman on the top of the mountain.
While more women take to the outdoors for adventure now than ever before, it’s nothing new. They’ve been at it for more than 150 years.
Marsha Donahue, Holly Hamilton, Barbara Bentley, Donna Gordon and Rachel Story have verified that.