April 22, 2018
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Critters play on hiker’s fears atop Orland mountain

Brian Swartz | BDN
Brian Swartz | BDN
Rising 1,030 feet alongside Alamoosook Lake in Orland, Great Pond Mountain thrusts its tree-crowned peak against the western Hancock County skyline. A 1.1-mile trail provides hikers with access to the mountain’s open ledges.
By Brian Swartz, Of The Weekly Staff

ORLAND — Ever felt something was watching you when you were all alone?

I certainly did recently — and in Orland, of all places.

I schedule an annual hike up Great Pond Mountain, the 1,030-foot peak that rises east of Alamoosook Lake and looms above the eastern horizon when viewed from the Fort Knox parapets.

The mountain provides great views of the lower Penobscot Valley and Hancock County. These views made the hike a worthy effort even on this blistering hot afternoon, when sane people would relax in a pool.

After all, I had the mountain to myself — or so I thought.

To hike Great Pond Mountain, turn onto the Hatchery Road or the Toddy Dam Road at the v-shaped intersection with Route 1 across from Toddy Pond in Orland. Observe the speed limit, which drops to 25 MPH when the road reaches the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery on Alamoosook Lake.

Drive through the paved parking lot and enter the graveled Don Fish Road, marked by a sign. Bear right and drive for 0.9 miles; the road frequently curves through the woods, so watch for pedestrians and approaching traffic.

Pull off the road by the “Stuart Gross Path” sign, past which a metal gate limits road access to Craig Pond. The Stuart Gross Path rises steeply through a hardwood forest, crests a rise, and then slips downhill to intersect the Great Pond Mountain Trail. Follow the directional signs.

Rated as “moderate,” the 1.1-mile Great Pond Mountain Trail rises gradually through woods and across granite ledges. Views soon open south and west; the Camden Hills jut above Penobscot Bay, and Blue Hill dominates the southern horizon.

Finally the trail turns sharply right (south) and rises steeply to emerge onto the widespread ledges along the mountain’s southwestern flank. Views unfold to the south and west.

I recommend that hikers also visit Great Pond Mountain’s bald summit, concealed within the peak’s tree-rimmed crown and marked only by a cairn and a rudimentary sign. Look for the unmarked, but obvious footpaths that extend away from the summit to overlooks providing additional views to the east and north.

My favorite destination on Great Pond Mountain is the southern ledges, also accessed by unmarked trails. The ledges provide dramatic views stretching some 180 degrees from east to west, from Lead Mountain in Township 28 to Penobscot Bay and Islesboro, the Camden Hills, and Cape Jellison in Stockton Springs.

Finding no other vehicles parked on Don Fish Road, I figured I was alone this particular weekday. Then, maybe 100 feet “up” the Stuart Gross Path, I discovered copious bear poop deposited in the trail.

Oh, great: Yogi’s on the trail.

But the ascent passed uneventfully, and as the scorching sun slid toward 5 p.m., I visited the southern ledges. Relishing the views and the silence, I soon hiked upslope toward the summit.

Glorious sunlight enveloped the mountainside — and suddenly a shadow flitted across the ledges and swept over me.

A big shadow: We’re talking a “blotting-out-the-sun” shadow, as in a humungous tur vulture riding the mountain thermals. For a moment I felt like pterodactyl prey from “Jurassic Park”: The shadow’s the last thing seen before oblivion …

Then I glimpsed the vulture, its V-shaped fuselage already circling beyond the ledges toward Craig Pond. My primal fear subsided.

Then another vulture appeared — and another — and another, finally six of ’em, evidently a family group scouting Great Pond Mountain. “Nothing to see here, boys. Move along,” I muttered.

Then one vulture, probably Grampa, detached itself from the formation and circled toward me. Like a Navy gunner targeting an oncoming kamikaze off Okinawa, I sighted my D200 on the vulture and watched it grow larger through the lens.

Then I opened fire with the shutter.

Flying directly overhead, the vulture gazed and hungrily at me before soaring effortlessly away. Was the raptor ordering “human to go” atop Great Pond Mountain?

Did I look dead in the July heat? A guy can’t even hike without the Clean-up Crew waiting for him to Bite the Big One?

The Vulture Squadron eventually soared away for better hunting grounds around Alamoosook Lake, and I eventually started for home. Eventually — a word that best describes what happens to people not paying attention to what’s happening around them — I noticed red squirrels emphatically protesting my presence in their forest.

Maine hikers usually hear a red squirrel here, a red squirrel there along the trail. Suddenly I heard lots of scolding red squirrels skittering through the underbrush. Must be hundreds of ‘em in there, watching and waiting …

Had the vultures sent the squirrels to complete the job botched atop the mountain? “Here’s a bag of peanuts to bump off that guy in the shorts,” I imagined Grampa vulture telling the squirrel assassins.

Chattering squirrels popped onto tree limbs left and right as I passed through a shaded corridor. Emerging into sunlight, I sensed what Obi-Wan Kenobi would call “a disturbance in the Force.”

“There he is! There he is!” the raucous squirrels suddenly hollered. I spun around — and there was a red squirrel, a rodent Stormtrooper, barreling straight at me down the trail! And another squirrel cheering him on from a tree just yards away!

Striking a Jedi knight pose with my hiking stick, I awaited the attack. The squirrel hurtled along Great Pond Mountain Trail for 30-40 feet, I shifted position as he drew near, and suddenly the squirrel broke left maybe 10 feet away and vanished into the undergrowth.

Maybe the vultures didn’t bribe the red squirrels to knock me off after all; maybe the squirrels only thought I was a walking, talking nut.

Susan certainly thought so when I got home later that evening and told her about all the wild critters on Great Pond Mountain.

I can’t wait to go back.

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