April 20, 2018
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Winter hiking lessons learned on Mount Megunticook

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

Some mornings, I wake up and choose a mountain. That’s how Friday began.

Glowing on the computer screen in the early morning was Mount Megunticook, the tallest mountain in Camden Hills State Park. It sounded majestic and challenging, perhaps because I had a tough time pronouncing the Native American name.

Camden Harbor was first called Mecaddacut, meaning “big mountain place,” by the Wawenock tribe that frequented the area, according to author and trekker Steve Pinkham. The warring Tarratine tribe changed the name to “Negunticook” when they defeated the Wawenocks, and the English modified it further to “Megunticook.”

An hour drive from my home brought me to the base of the 1,385-foot mountain, which features several ledge viewpoints and a flat area called the tablelands near the top.

The first lesson: If you’re visiting a park to hike, bring some cash. A small entrance fee usually helps keep the party going, so to speak, and ranger stations don’t have ATMs. Winter visitors to Camden Hills State Park place $1.50 in a green box by the park gate (though children under 12 get in free).

Snow fell on my Santa hat as I embarked on the footpath that winds up the south face of the mountain 1.7 miles to the summit, which is marked by a cairn crowded by evergreens (and before the recent rain was marked by a snowman, which I made and left there). The higher I climbed, the deeper the snow. The fresh, frozen carpet recorded the routes of squirrels and rabbits that had passed through earlier in the day. Finally, the world looked ready for Christmas.

Mine were the only boot prints in the snow. I had the mountain to myself — all the better reason to be prepared. Any activity has a risk factor, and for hiking, the risk of injury usually increases in the winter due to ice and freezing temperatures.

On day hikes, I bring a number of things: layers of clothing, a small medic kit, a compass whistle, a headlamp, more water and snacks than I really need, a fleece face warmer, my cellphone, a map, and of course, my camera.

It takes about an hour to reach the summit of Mount Megunticook, but in the winter, that time increases. Walking in the snow is sort of like running in the sand. Both shifty substances slow things down and make you work harder.

I could hear my heart thumping faster as I steadily gained elevation. People tend to drink less in cold weather, but it’s important to stay hydrated. Water and snacks keep you sharp, coordinated and less grumpy.

On my first drink break, halfway up the mountain, I forgot my mitten and didn’t notice I’d left it behind until much later. Near the summit, my hand started to burn with cold and my fingers were clumsy while working my camera. The fleece face warmer in my bag saved me from suffering. I kept it wrapped around my hand for the rest of the hike.

Lesson learned: always keep a spare pair of gloves or something versatile, such as a face warmer, in your pack on cold days. Also pack extra socks. Frostbite attacks the extremities first. That’s why it’s also important to wear a hat that covers your ears.

The footpath to the summit of Megunticook mingles with brooks, which means ice was a factor. I learned firsthand. The experience went something like this:

Step, step, slip, bam, ugh, slide, groan.

I was lucky to land on the flat patch of ice that catalyzed my fall and then slide down a mercifully smooth boulder to quickly regain my footing. But I can think of several spots where a fall would have resulted in a few tears rather than a chuckle.

Lesson: if you don’t wear ice cleats, be extremely careful of your steps while winter hiking, especially during the beginning of the winter when the snow has yet to pack into several layers on top of the ice.

I sometimes hike solo because it’s a risk I’m willing to take as an outdoor enthusiast, but I always feel safer with a hiking buddy. If you hike alone, make sure to tell someone where you’re going and when you should be expected back from your trip. If you don’t consider this rule important, watch the movie “127 Hours.”

There’s nothing worse than feeling panic in the woods, and one way to avoid that is to take control of some elements that can harm you.

A headlamp is my number one anxiety reducer. You don’t want the winter sun to be your only source of light, and you definitely don’t want it to dictate how fast you hike down the mountain. Bring a headlamp and take your time getting down. More people fall while descending a mountain than ascending.

A chocolate bar is a great emergency source of instant energy.

Using leaves or moss to cover a bleeding cut is a good way to feel desperate. It’s also a good way to start an infection. So bring a small medic kit that contains bandages and antiseptics.

And carry your cellphone in case you get into a situation you can’t control or fix without help. If you don’t have reception, it’s OK because you told someone where you are, and they will come save you. Right?

I found my mitten and made it back to my car with only a bruise on my shin, which I gained by slipping on the wide bridge at the end of the trail.

For a video of this hike, visit actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com/2011/12/27/one-minute-hikes/one-minute-hike-mount-megunticook-camden-me.

Hiking Mount Megunticook in Camden, Maine

Difficulty: Moderate. A steady, gradual climb to the summit. If using the Megunticook footpath up and down, the hike is about 3.5 miles total.

How to get there: From Camden Center, go north on Route 1 approximately 1 mile. Camden Hills State Park is on the left side. Park in the large parking area and walk past the gate, straight down the road until you reach the sign for the Megunticook footpath on the left. A map at the far end of the parking area can also help you locate the nearby trailhead.

Information: Mount Megunticook, with an elevation of 1,385 feet, is the second tallest coastal mountain along the Atlantic and is the tallest peak in Camden Hills State Park. Most of the mountain is covered with trees (including the summit), but two rock-ledge lookouts, Maiden Cliff and Ocean Lookout, provide expansive views over two bodies of water.

Personal Note: I hiked the mountain on Dec. 23, and I slipped a few times because of icy spots. To avoid falling in the winter, I suggest wearing ice cleats if not wearing snowshoes.

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