MILLINOCKET — I first felt Katahdin’s pull in 1976. I was dating a girl at the time, and when she said, “Let’s climb Katahdin,” I couldn’t refuse.
We camped on Omaha Beach, on the bank of the Penobscot’s West Branch. The next day we climbed the mountain. It was June and there was snow on the ground. I wore a jean jacket and used an extra pair of socks for mittens. I almost froze. We made the summit, and that was the start of everything.
Last Tuesday was nothing like that first time. It was a flawless blue-sky day, the sun was high up in the sky by 7 a.m. and a cold front had lowered the humidity the night before. It was actually cool in the shaded forest on the way up to Chimney Pond from Roaring Brook Campground, 3.3 miles away, and around 1,000 feet higher.
The miles passed by pretty quickly as I hiked past the ever-roaring Roaring Brook, which tumbles over boulder drops. I soon reached Basin Pond, where I stopped to take in the view of the mountain. A family from Maine was loading up to leave. After a few cordial intros we hiked off together.
I hiked with the dad and we chatted about the day, when we weren’t out of breath from climbing. I found out he was a former Army Ranger and he’d climbed the mountain about 10 times. We remarked on what a great day we picked. At Chimney Pond, elevation just short of 3,000 feet, we were met by the ranger there, Cathy Lusk.
She welcomed us and directed the family to the pond. Next to the cabin sat a great, big, burly guy who asked me whether I’d mind if he and his wife hiked with me. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.” I took a break first, then we left. It was a little after 9 a.m. when we headed up the Saddle Trail toward the summit, two-plus miles away and 2,000 feet up.
I got ahead of the burly guy, Doug Daugherty, and his wife, Wendy, from southern Illinois, and caught up with a family of five, from Montreal. They were a mother and dad with three girls, ages 8 to 12 or so. They played hockey, the dad said. I said, “Great, you’ve got a first line.” He told me he didn’t, because one was a goalie, the other played defense, and one was a winger. We talked awhile, then I let them go ahead while I waited for Doug and Wendy near the middle of Saddle Slide.
I looked down the trail and eventually they showed up. I climbed up to the top of the saddle to take a break. A few more hikers arrived, including one group of women guided professionally by Wendy Polstein, an area guide. We chatted awhile about the wildflowers and the scenes spread out before us as we rested in the cool breeze blowing across the mountain landscape.
A few wildflowers were blooming, cinquefoil and mountain sandwort here and there. Arctic sedge waved in the strong breeze, but mainly the mountain is a world of rock. Lichen covered rock of every shape and form. If Doug and Wendy were coming, it wouldn’t be long before they showed up, so I left for the top a mile away.
There were quite a few people at Baxter Peak, elevation 5,267 feet, when I arrived. There are five major trails to the top from different approaches, and all of them were used that day. And the day didn’t disappoint in sheer summer beauty. A smattering of clouds dotted the sky far above the summit. The strong breeze was cool.
There was a veil of haze that blocked a distant view beyond 60 or 80 miles, but there was still plenty to be seen. All of Chesuncook Lake was in view, as well as Chamberlain Lake to the north. The features were too numerous to list, but included every major lake and mountain in the region. I sat and took it all in.
The greatest view of all was of the mountain itself. There’s the adjoining South Peak and its rock-jumbled cone, which at one time was mistakenly thought to be higher than Baxter Peak. There’s the Knife Edge, a gnarly rock spine that has to be crossed safely by those with no fear of heights. All of the mountain’s features were distinctly sharp on that bright, summer day.
I waited for another hour, and finally Doug and Wendy made it. “What a climb,” Doug said. We sat for about a half-hour more, while I pointed out some features surrounding us. Soon it was time to load up the packs and head down.
As I look back on my first summit hike in 1976 I realize how lucky I was to have made it to the top. It was cloudy, gray, and I was shivering that day. It was nothing like this most recent hike. Then, I was cold by the time I got to the top. This time it was as near perfect as it could be. Short-sleeve weather.
The first time was memorable. I’ll never forget it, like the people for whom it was their first time on Tuesday. I’ve climbed it lots of times since then, and it’s always memorable, but maybe not with as much detail as that first time. This last time was my 98th, and I’ll never forget it either, one way or another.