June 23, 2018
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Tales from Maine’s mighty Katahdin

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

I was 17 when I first hiked to Maine’s tallest summit, Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin, and time has wrapped the memory in a cloudy husk. Bits and pieces remain clear – the taste of peanuts and chocolate, the unrelenting summer sun, the mile-high summit of rosy, lichen-encrusted granite.

Since then, Maine’s great mountain has pulled me back many times. It’s a tradition. Each summer, my mother’s side of the family, along with friends that might as well be family, rent an entire campground in Baxter State Park and erect a village of tents.

I single out my first ascent, because therein lies the making of a tradition. None of the merry group feels obligated to hike, we do so with a thirst for adventure and challenge that gnaws at us year round.

Summer 2005

Early mornings breed short sentences. With stiff joints and skin sodden with dew, we crawled from our tents in the glow of sunrise and assembled under a canvas canopy to force down breakfast and stuff our daypacks in near silence.

My uncle Bruce Jordan checked supplies and steered us to the vehicles. The Baxter trip tradition began with his family of four in 1998, when my cousin Eben Jordan was just 6 years old, my cousin Eve Jordan, 8. Since then, the tradition has branched outward, finally snagging up my mother, Joyce, and myself.

A bumpy ride in a truck bed rattled me fully awake before being dropped off with our impressive group (10-15 people) at Roaring Brook Campground. We embarked on Chimney Pond Trail, a gradual climb more than 3.3 miles to Chimney Pond, a pristine tarn cradled in the arms of a mountain range. I remember watching the hiker in front of me – muddy boots navigating an increasingly steep route. I remember thinking, “This is harder than basketball,” and that perhaps I had gotten in over my head. Then I experienced the strange propulsion – family and friends ahead and behind, an energy pushing me ever higher.

A granola bar and swig of water later, we were on Helon Taylor, a narrow wooded trail that climbs gradually to Pamola Peak, which at 4,919 feet above sea level, guards the eastern end of the Great Basin.

Some peaks are meant for brief visits only — a triumphant whoop, a camera flash and a wave farewell. Pamola is one of those peaks. I’ve always felt that Pamola has a strange aura about it – as if the peak is merely tolerating your presence, and if you overstay your welcome, something otherworldly might befall you.

After a “no-horsing-around” lecture from Uncle Bruce, we stepped onto Knife Edge, a narrow 1.1-mile ridge that connects Pamola with its big brother, Baxter. My mother hiked behind me. Every once in a while, she’d call out in the strained voice of a worried parent, reminding me to hike slower, keep a hand on the rocks, “stop jumping about like a gazelle.” For good reason – Knife Edge narrows at some points to just a yard in width, the sides plunging down for thousands of feet. I remember being scared and thrilled at the same time, my heart beating fast but my legs steady.

We crept carefully to Baxter Peak, which has always seemed the friendlier of the two peaks. At 5,226 feet, it is the summit of the great mountain, marked by an enormous stone cairn and a sign that rangers swap out every 10 years before the chiseled lettering becomes unreadable from relentless wind and hikers compelled to leave their mark on Maine’s highest point. This is where we snack and rest, huddled in nooks between jagged rocks.

The Tableland, a flat, boulder-strewn plain, carpeted with stunted growth, led us to the Saddle Trail, where we descended, scrambling down scree. My toes jammed painfully against the tips of my running shoes (not having hiking boots so early in my outdoor endeavors). I paused several times to tighten the laces, but it was no use. I cried silently as we traversed 5.5 miles to the end. My toenails would later turn purple and fall off.

Back at camp, the sore feet and insect bites didn’t matter. I took out my custom long-sleeve T-shirt, courtesy of my Aunt Kerry and Uncle Bruce. On the front of the shirt were two hiking boots and the slogan “Not all those who wander are lost.” On the back, several destinations within Baxter State Park, and beside each, a box to check off. With a magic marker, I checked off “Pamola Peak,” “Knife Edge” and “Baxter Peak” before pulling it on over my head.

By the smoking fire, dead weight in a flimsy camp chair, I laughed and ate burnt marshmallows, knowing I’d return the following year, and the next, and the next.

Sandy Sabaka of Hope submitted an abridged version of her journal entry from the last day of her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2002.

Oct. 13, 2002 – Friends had gathered and come by on their way up, sure I would be zooming past them shortly. But in the end, I caught up to no one and was only caught by C. He helped me up some of the long reaches in the boulders above treeline. I cried with frustration at one point when I couldn’t see a way up ‘I’ll be the only thru-hiker to not summit Katahdin because it’s too hard.’ My brother had stopped before the Tableland to wait for us. The three of us continued across that rocky, flat stretch. The day was clear up there, brilliant, and we were able to see people on the summit. I had wanted the last hike to last forever, but now I wanted the celebration to start. I left them behind as I hurried towards the top. I thought I had it under control until I saw the A framed sign, the stuff my dreams had been filled with for months. Clint was just coming down and caught me sobbing. He gave me a hug — “It’s up there, waiting for you.” I nodded and continued up. The crowd started cheering, I cried harder. It was really done. The sign was mine; I had to touch it.

Pictures were taken; I had missed the group thru-hiker picture in my non-haste to get there. Others were on their way down. I fumbled with my Springer stones and tucked them into the cairn with a blessing. Champagne was uncorked; I tried to eat something. Strong hiker friends were telling me they were proud of me. Any one of them could do this or out-do me any day. I had just chosen to make this my year, finally.

Slowly, people left the summit. It was a beautiful day, but they had been waiting for a while. I knew I had to get down, and there was weather coming in, so with one last look at the sign, I turned my back on it and for once, hiked South on the AT, following the white blazes for 5 more miles.

Sabaka plans to be married at Katahdin Stream Campground September 2012, “in the shadow of the mountain.” Her fiancé is a Baxter State Park ranger who Sabaki met during one the summers she worked as a ridge runner on the AT out of Baxter State Park. Read more of her thru-hike journal at trailjournals.com.

Jay Robinson of South Woodville remembers hiking Katahdin in 2003 with his 81-year-old father, Wilmot “Wiggie” Robinson.

I’ve climbed Katahdin 12 times now in my 56 years. But two most memorable hikes, one in 2003 and another in 2007, will forever be etched as foremost in my memory.

The first hike I mention, in 2003, I had the honor of hiking the mountain with my 81 years young dad, Wilmot “Wiggie” Robinson. To so many, he was a friend and well known personality in the outdoor arena of Maine, but to me, he was just my dad.

Dad was in a party of hikers including Bill Irwin, the noted blind hiker who had previously completed the entire Appalachian Trail with his guide dog, Orient, in 1990, and then later documented it in his book “Blind Courage.” Bill’s new dog, Colby, nobly served his master. Their chosen route up was the 5.2 mile Hunt Trail, also known as the final leg of the Appalachian Trail. For my ascent, I would be climbing up via the Abol Trail and then onward along the Tableland to the peak.

By 10:30 a.m. I had arrived a couple of hours before they did, but from several hikers who had met and passed his party, I was receiving a steady stream of ongoing reports of their whereabouts. Finally, along the open expanse of the Tableland, perhaps 200 yards away, I could make out their slow but steady progress with Bill and his dog, Colby, leading the entourage. As they approached, with each stride words alone here cannot express the sheer emotion welling up inside me. I watched with pride as my smiling 81-year-old Dear Ol’ Dad drew closer until finally that memorable moment when we embraced atop mighty Katahdin amid a ringing applause from perhaps 50 people gathered at the peak. Of all the many memories we had shared over the years in the great outdoors surrounding Katahdin’s shadow, this would certainly rank among the top!

When it finally became time to leave, my dad and I, together with his friend and faithful companion Ray Boland began our descent down Abol Trail. Along the way, on that glorious, sun-splashed, late August day with hopes held high, my dad made a vow to attempt another climb up Katahdin in four years, in his 85th year of life on this earth. In that moment, I never doubted him in his will and determination to succeed with that goal. It would have been the three of us — my 14-year-old son Michael, myself and Dad. What a memorable trip that certainly would have been!

But, sadly, it was not to be, as my dad passed on from this earth of a heart attack shortly after his 85th birthday on June 29, 2007. The early summer day had a beautiful, blue sky. He was at his beloved camp with my mom tending to gardening chores when God called him home, in full view of the mountain he cherished so much.

In 2007, my son Michael and his friend Zack made plans to honor that commitment despite the sad circumstances. In a larger sense, Michael and I both knew that Grampy would still be along with us in spirit on our journey. For one so dear, that person’s memory is never too far away.

Tucked in my pack that day, in a very personal matter, I carried along a portion of my dad’s ashes in a small container. I planned to scatter to the wind those contents, in his memory, to the mountain he so loved and played a role in his life in Katahdin Country. But as I climbed that day with each moment closer toward the top, my emotions grew. Finally atop the mountain, I reached for the small container tucked away in my backpack. As I closed my eyes and listened to the wind, I held it in my hands for the longest moment and whispered a silent prayer. I couldn’t do it. I just wasn’t ready to let go. Once again, my Dad and I made the trip back down our mountain.

Michael Brown, originally from Hampden, Maine, and now living in Boston, Mass., relates his trip to Chimney Pond on February 2011.

We were skiing into Chimney Pond last February a day behind three of our good buddies. Arriving at dusk after hauling our sleds the requisite 16 miles to the base of the mountain, we headed into the Ranger’s cabin to check in and settle our sleeping arrangements in a nearby lean-to. He was having what seemed to be a very serious phone conversation with a search and rescue crew. When he hung up he said, “Glad you guys could make it, we might need your help hauling a dead body or two off Pamola.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” was the thought in my head. Immediately we thought of our three friends who were attempting to summit that day via Pamola’s Fury.

We quickly cleared up that it was not our friends, but rather a group of students from the University of Maine who had summated via Helon Taylor from the Roaring Brook campsite. The mountain was pretty socked in with 70-mph winds and high avalanche danger, not the best day to be summiting anything. It turned out that the last of the four hikers was blown off the trail. The next day we summited Hamlin peak while watching a helicopter, airplane, and ground crews work to find the missing hiker. Arriving back at the campsite in the early afternoon the Ranger remarked, “If we don’t find him by tonight then he won’t make it.” The temperatures were expected to reach well below -20 degrees with the wind chill.

Luckily, they found him that afternoon and air-lifted him to the hospital. There were a few major mistakes that the group made that led to their accident but none bigger than forgetting to thank the search and rescue crew who saved his life. In his interview after the fact, he recounted the survival tactics he learned from watching Bear Grylls on television as the reasons for why he survived. What he didn’t say was that had there not serendipitously been a search and rescue training group already in Baxter State Park that day, he would be dead right now.

Mike Flynn of Ripley, Maine, has hiked to the summit of Katahdin 81 times in the past 35 years. He relates some of his amusing Katahdin experiences.

One day, I was resting on top when I noticed a rainsquall heading this way from Chesuncook. My friend and I packed up and headed down the Hunt Trail. We were almost at the edge of the Tableland when the rain started. There was an 18-inch opening at the bottom of a ledge with a small chamber. We crawled in, hauled our packs in and waited for the squall to pass. We were eating gorp [“good old raisins and peanuts”] and conversing, when some hikers passed by outside of the crack. They could hear our voices but couldn’t see anybody. One of them remarked that Pamola must be talking to them. When we crawled out of the hole, we thanked Pamola for providing us with the shelter.

Hoping for an early start, we were sleeping in the back of my truck at the gravel pit outside the park. When we had an unusual wake up alarm. We awoke to the sound of tapping on the hood of my truck. After a couple of minutes listening to the tapping, I looked out the window. Standing in front of my truck was a cow and calf moose. It was blackfly season and when the calf wagged its tail, it tapped on my good. A unique alarm, indeed.

The rugged grandeur of the mountain, with its towering cliffs, clear, cold running streams and host of animals inhabiting its slopes, makes Mount Katahdin one of my favorite hiking destinations.

Dale Murray of Windham, Maine, has never hiked Katahdin, but it has long been a part of his life.

I can’t remember when Katahdin entered my life. I have never climbed it, never hunted or fished its flanks. I have never even entered Baxter State Park. The mountain was simply always there, ethereal, just beyond true comprehension. It was and remains mystic, spiritual.

In the 1950s, Katahdin was a vague concept to me, but I knew it was important. A mile high! That in itself impressed a pre-teen, especially after Dad pointed out that laid on its side it would stretch from the high school to Breton’s Store. Back then few from Greenville climbed the mountain so there was little lore for guidance. As a Boy Scout with a troop associated with the Katahdin Area Council, I didn’t connect. Katahdin had nothing to do with my scouting adventures around Moosehead. Its meaning was as shrouded in mist as Katahdin itself often is.

I first saw Katahdin when my parents decided to visit the Tweedie family at Rip Dam. The drive to the dam was quite different from today, though it is more similar since GNP stopped maintaining the roads. The rutted ride from Kokadjo and the endless tree line bored me. Then, something magical occurred. Out of nowhere appeared a paved road, right smack dab in the middle of the forest! Elated, I perked up. Still, I was unprepared for what lay ahead. We rounded the corner that descends to river level, and the mystic became real. I was awestruck. Still am every time I see it.

Since that first time, I have contemplated the mountain from all directions. I often join my brother in Fort Kent for fishing trips and have explored every northbound route. I have viewed the mountain’s backside from the Telos Road and marveled at its majestic southwestern vista from the Golden Road where it virtually looms overhead. I have embraced the majesty of its eastern panoply from the farm at the Stacyville corner on Route 11, the northeastern vantage from the turnout off I-95 near Sherman and the stunning view from the hill that descends into Sherman Station. Always, to this day, I’ve marveled at its magnificence. It remains a mystical, spiritual monolith.

Mary Margaret Colman, who teaches in the Music Department at Rowan University in New Jersey, plans to retire in Maine in two years, and she has memories of doing trailwork on Katahdin.

My fondest memory of Mount Katahdin is back in the ‘90s when I used to do annual volunteer work with Lester Kenway. He was the hardest worker and most caring person and experienced in every way when it came to reconstructing the rugged trails of Mount Katahdin. In the mid-‘90s, a team of volunteers cut huge rocks on the Hunt Trail and built up the two sets of rock steps that exist there today. About one mile in on the Hunt Trail, there was one particular rock that they hammered out to create 38 new rock steps on the Hunt Trail. We worked in damp, cloudy, rainy weather for three days in a row and stayed in volunteer cabins at Katahdin Stream Campground.

When Lester was about to place one huge “heart rock” in place about 1-2 miles in on the Hunt Trail, we all gathered around in a circle and watched him place it. It stopped raining at that moment, and we all clapped when it fell into place.

I told him I had a collection of over 500 heart rocks that I collected over the years, and he thought that was grand. I can still “spot” that rock today on the Hunt Trail that has “two sets” of rock steps. I believe the first set has 60 steps, and the second set of rock steps (about 2 miles in on the trail) has 63 rock steps that Lester built over a three-year period with many volunteers. It was grand to watch the progress.

And my most scary moment was when I had to cross Katahdin Stream about 3 miles in on the Hunt Trail to get batteries for Lester, who spoke with the volunteers across the stream with walkie talkies as we heisted the rocks up from where we were digging to carry them in the heisted boxes across the stream to the Hunt Trail.

Hikers walking on the Appalachian Trail would never know that so much work has gone into these steps as they hurry to finish their last few miles of their spiritual hike from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin. I will never forget Lester’s yellow boots. We called him “The Rubber Duckie.”

I worked with two friends Marjorie Stratton (town manager of Vinalhaven, Maine) and Mary Knowlton (retired from University of Maine Human Resources).


Donna Sewall Davidge of Island Falls relates what the natural beauty and history of Katahdin means to her and her family.

Mount Katahdin means the “Great One,” as the Indians called it. It rises majestically as you view it from the scenic overlook on I-95 or from various points in Island Falls, where Theodore Roosevelt started from when he climbed it. It means wilderness and wildlife and, thanks to the vision of Mr. Baxter, it meant preserving it for Maine and its people.

When Theodore Roosevelt climbed it, he was with my great grandfather William Sewall. It means a lot to me to keep the tradition alive — of friendship that can be made in nature, which doesn’t judge you for what you have or who you know. Nature treats all equally.

Involved in the battle to keep the wind turbines from harming our wildlife and hilltops viewed from Mount Katahdin, I never thought the day would come that the area is so jeopardized. Even if [natural landscape] is ruined nearby (if a miracle happens, the people of Maine may wake up and rise up and say, “Please do not change the way of life we have known all these years.”) the mountain will remain unchanged, even as everything around it does not remain the same. If [Katahdin] had a voice it might cry out, “What are you doing to the brothers and sisters I look out at every day? What is the blasting and the machines as high as skyscrapers? What purpose will they make? How will they serve my beautiful land and woods?”

I climbed Katahdin 1999 and again in 2010. The second time, I was with a guest who returned to my great grandfather’s home in Island Falls, where we host people as he did. She was determined to climb Katahdin. She had climbed mountains as far away as Ecuador and lived in California. I always say Susan Hopp made me go to the top. It was a glorious October day. I so hope and pray the next time she returns we will have the same views, free of industrial wind turbines that would ruin our experience of nature.

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