Clouds wrapped 4 a.m. in pitch dark. In Roaring Brook Campground, 10 groggy teenagers woke in lean-tos to the music of steady rainfall. Their hike would be delayed for at least an hour, the trip leaders whispered. They could sleep in — until 5.
The hike to Mount Katahdin’s lichen-encrusted Baxter Peak is the high point (both literally and figuratively) of the Maine Youth Wilderness Leadership Program, a nine-day backpacking trip sponsored by Friends of Baxter State Park in partnership with The Chewonki Foundation.
The weather wasn’t ideal Friday, but the ambitious group was determined to give it a try. After a week of backpacking, they were looking forward to testing their increased strength and stamina on the slopes of Maine’s tallest mountain.
“I’ve never hiked or done anything like this,” confided Maggie Sullivan, 17, of Falmouth, who along with several other teens in the group, hadn’t climbed the 5,267-foot mountain before. “It’s a big adventure.”
The rain stopped just in time. With headlamps shining on their foreheads, they gathered around a picnic table to eat bagels and filter drinking water for the long journey — 3.3 miles up the gradual but challenging Chimney Pond Trail; and from there, 2.2 miles up Saddle Trail and across the Tableland to the peak. Then of course, what goes up, must come down.
“It’ll take us about 100 hours,” joked Stephen Hand, 16, of Rockport, as the group divided up food and gear.
As a guest specialist to the program, I joined the group on the hike (with a camera and waterproof notepad) to teach them about outdoor writing.
During their week in the park, the students had met with a variety of specialists, including wildlife photographer Mark Picard, state geologist Bob Johnston, retired park ranger Chris Drew, botanist Glen Mittelhauser and Penobscot leader and educator Barry Dana, whose memorable lessons on culture had a profound affect on the teens.
“We did a ropes course thing in the woods at night,” explained Sydney Pellerin, 16, of Eliot. “We took off our shoes and were blindfolded and had to find our way through the course. It was really cool how you could just feel everything, and it was so quiet. I don’t know. There was just something about it that really helped you get connected.”
The five boys — the youth group always has an even girl-boy ratio — were especially impressed by Dana’s ability to start a fire with a bow drill. And the Penobscot leader also awoke in the group a love for foraging. Just before embarking on the Katahdin hike, the boys nibbled on sarsaparilla, a plant that has been used by Native Americans for centuries for its medicinal value.
“It’s supposed to give you endurance,” said Dustin Ramsay, 16, of Hampden, as he gnawed on the roots.
Chewonki instructors Ashley Nadeau and Matt Stern, the leaders for the 2012 program, registered the group at the Roaring Brook ranger station.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Stern said, and they entered the Chimney Pond Trail.
The 2012 group is the program’s fourth graduating class of 10 students, who are entering either junior or senior year of high school. The program is free for students, thanks to support from the Quimby Family Foundation and the Maine Community Foundation, but it’s also fairly competitive. This year’s participants were picked from a pool of 60 applicants.
“We’re concerned about the aging demographic of park users and concerned about the stewardship of the wilderness park in the future,” said Barbara Bentley, president of Friends of Baxter State Park. “If we could have 10 kids each year have a very good wilderness experience, that’s one way we could develop stewards of the wilderness for the future.”
“I had heard about [the program] from a friend who did it last year,” said Sydney, who had never backpacked or visited Baxter State Park before participating the program. “I just wanted to do something with my summer and not be stuck around southern Maine with nothing to do … I feel that most programs like this would cost thousands of dollars.”
After more than three miles of hiking, the group emerged on the shores of Chimney Pond, its waters calm and clear. Katahdin reared up behind, a thick cloud obscuring its ridges.
Huddled on rocks, the campers scoffed down “bricks,” Chewonki’s famous homemade bars, made from a secret recipe that includes oats, peanuts, molasses and lots of sugar and oil.
While they rested, park naturalist Jean Hoekwater and park wilderness educator intern Acadia Tripp visited to answer questions about park wildlife, and more specifically, what can be found on Katahdin — American pipits, the Katahdin Arctic butterfly, weasels, as well as the occasional moose on the summit, unexplainable flying squirrel and bear foraging for blueberries on Hamlin Ridge.
Rain clouds still loomed overhead as the group entered Saddle Trail. Keeping up an impressive pace, the group hiked through the forest and up Saddle Slide, a tricky slope of boulders and rosy quartz scree.
“I don’t even feel like I’m in Maine anymore,” said Wesley Crawford, 16, of Yarmouth, as they reached the Tableland, a treeless world of alpine flora. Following cairns through the clouds, they walked the final mile to Baxter Peak.
As is custom, the group posed for photos at the peak sign and enjoyed a quick snack at the highest point in Maine before beginning the descent. Clouds blocked the spectacular views from the summit, water clung to their hair and skin, yet the students were in high spirits.
“It could be worse. It could be snowing or lightning,” said Krista Marble, 16, of North Yarmouth.
Slick rocks slowed the descent — as well as an elaborate snack of watermelon, salami, cheese and crackers in the new Chimney Pond gazebo. By the time the students returned to the campsite, they were ready for a nap — the five girls crammed in one lean-to, and the five boys in another.
“I think a trip like this really helps bring people together, when you’re away from civilization,” said Rosie.
“It’s interesting when you’re removed from society,” added Krista. “You’re mentality changes. Materials — you start to view them as how useful they are. And you’re thankful for everything — sleep, water, swimming — most of the time that was a huge deal.
“You realize how lucky you are to have everything when you have to pump [to filter] every bit of water — The egos died a little bit I think.”
To illustrate the glamorous realities of a week in the wilderness, the boys drummed up the quotation: “We have enough grease in our hair to open a McDonalds.”
For the entire trip, the teens have worked on practicing Leave No Trace Principles to reduce their effect on the environment.
“I’ve always been conscious of the environment, but now I really appreciate this area. I’d never been here before,” said Andrew Hollyday, 16, of Cape Elizabeth, nicknamed TomTom for his ability to track their location on a map.
“Here [in Baxter State Park], you see everything and how it all works, and you don’t want to ruin something like this,” said Deanna Morris, 17, of Mount Vernon, who, along with the rest of the group, watched moose foraging in both Russell Pond and Bell Pond.
“I liked staying at Russell Pond the best because we had to hike in and there were less people,” said Andrew Holt, 17, of Orono. “And Grand Falls was the best swimming for sure.”
The majority of their days in the forest were hot, sunny and filled with memories — from the poet who gifted them with salami to the park ranger who played games with them late into the evening.
“We’re completely isolated from any of our friends here — no computer, no phone. We have to entertain ourselves among each other,” said Dustin. “And we come up with really fun things to do.”
“The trip really showed me how much fun I could have outside, especially with my friends,” he said. “We’re talking about coming back and having a reunion here.”
At the very least, all 10 students plan on connecting on Facebook.
Only students who are sophomores or juniors at the time the applications are due (mid-February) are eligible to apply. For information, visit www.friendsofbaxter.org/programs/youth.php or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An early version of this story requires correction. Just before embarking on the Katahdin hike, the boys nibbled on sarsaparilla, not sassafras.