The worst kind of deja vu nearly broke my spirit last Friday. I was traversing the logging roads of Katahdin Iron Works, bouncing in the passenger seat of my Subaru Forester, when I was hit by that eerie wave of instant knowledge. Inside my head, the ominous whisper: “I’ve been here before.” At a widening of the road, I realized that I had done it again; I’d gotten lost while trying to find White Cap Mountain.
“Uh-oh,” I said, followed by a long sigh.
“What?” asked Derek Runnells, my usual hiking companion, tapping on the brakes.
“I remember this place, and I couldn’t find the mountain before,” I said, glancing over at him. “But it was a really foggy day so maybe we’ll figure it out — lets keep going.”
I first endeavored to hike White Cap Mountain on a dreary day in the spring of 2009. The old warden’s trail to the summit is accessible from a specific point on the logging roads of Katahdin Iron Works near Brownville. With directions I’d gathered off the Internet, I set out with hiking buddy Garrett Curtis, fully expecting to reach the summit before lunchtime. But we failed to find the trail head — though we tromped through the woods trying to locate a blue blaze — and returned home soggy and disheartened.
The definition of frustrating is driving for miles on rough gravel roads, continually reversing direction with 5-point turns, and watching the sun sink, snuffing any hope of hiking that day.
I’ve hiked trails throughout Maine, from Old Speck Mountain on the border of New Hampshire to trails along Cutler’s Bold Coast Down East. I’ve scraped my knee on Knife Edge, the narrow ridge of Mount Katahdin, and I’ve gashed that same knee open while descending Cadillac Mountain (a bit too quickly). But the only thing that has ruined a hike for me, so far, is not finding the trail head at all.
Two years after my first “hike fail,” with a little bit more navigation experience under my belt, I decided to resume my search for White Cap, the highest point (3,654 feet above sea level) on the Appalachian Trail between Bigelow Mountain and Mount Katahdin.
The only detailed directions I found were on the Appalachian Mountain Club website. They read: “From the gate of the Katahdin Iron Works, bear right and cross the West Branch of the Pleasant River. At about 3 miles, fork right. About 5.8-miles from the Iron Works, the road crosses a high, narrow bridge over White Brook. Follow the gravel road for 3.8 miles. Taking the main branch at each fork and park well off the road where it crosses two brooks.”
First of all, I don’t blame AMC; those directions may very well be correct. But when you’re out there, you see overgrown roads all over the place, and the “main branch at each fork” is often a game of “eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
The most confusing part is the end of the directions, where the road “crosses two brooks.” We saw brooks and bridges, but not a bridge over two brooks running side by side, which I think would be a geological phenomenon; or is it the second bridge over the second brook?
Needless to say, I got lost for the second time. But this time it was even worse because it was a clear day. West of Silver Lake, White Cap loomed ahead of us. We could have bushwacked to the summit, but I’ve yet to purchase a handheld GPS (and will be sending this article to Santa).
Derek and I tried to hold it together while trying several roads and dissecting the directions, but things grew tense. I snapped at his request for trail snacks. (To me, there’s nothing more depressing than eating your hiking food while sitting in a car.) Every new road we took seemed to be leading us away from the mountain. All the bridges looked the same. Where was this “high, narrow bridge”? Why were the only signs for snowmobiles?
We called it quits after turning around on a dead-end road packed with working lumbermen. The yellow glow of late afternoon sun lit the mountains surrounding us, not to be climbed, as we headed back to the gateway. And just as we were about to escape the logging labyrinth, and idea dawned on me.
A bullheaded Taurus, I told Derek to turn left. Can’t keep track of the turns? Good. Now you understand what I went through.
This time, I knew where I was going. We were headed to the trail head for Gulf Hagas at the West Branch Pleasant River Parking Area. We found that trail head quickly and launched into the woods, finally.
Instead of heading north on the AT, we headed south, and therefore didn’t have to ford the river. We turned left and hiked about 1.5 miles to East Chairback Pond, a beautiful stop on the way to the summit of Chairback Mountain.
Our spirits lifted as we climbed. Snow was falling steadily by the time we reached the pond, about 1,515 feet above sea level. We sat on the frozen shore and ate trail snacks where they should be eaten, in the wilderness, then headed back. Halfway down, our adjusting eyes gave in to the darkness and we turned on our headlamps to light the snowy path back to the Subaru Forester.
The hike was worth the drive.