“Over here,” Dakota Smith shouted above the roar of Katahdin Stream. He balanced on slick rocks, his camera poised over the water.
“Sorry. I’m getting sidetracked by the sedges,” said Glen Mittelhauser as he bushwhacked to Smith, who grinned and pointed to a cluster of purple and white violets growing at the edge of the stream.
Viola cucullata and Viola pallens.
Mittelhauser, lead biologist of the Plants of Baxter State Park Project, jotted down the names, which he knew off the top of his head, and entered the location into a GPS.
The project, now in its second year, is a collaborative effort to create the first ever complete vascular plant inventory of Baxter State Park, which encompasses more than 200,000 acres of Maine’s north woods.
“When doing a project like this, I try to think up what biologists 100 years from now would think was cool,” Mittelhauser said on Thursday while surveying plants with Smith, a volunteer and student at the University of Maine at Machias. “I’ve run across some really cool biologists who worked 100 years ago and left an amazing paper trail of stuff. I want to do the same thing.”
Baxter State Park — which includes Maine’s tallest mountain, Katahdin — was gifted to the State of Maine more than 80 years ago by former Gov. Percival Baxter, who wished that it “shall forever be retained and used for state forest, public park and public recreational purposes … shall forever be kept and remain in the natural wild state … [and] shall forever be kept and remain a sanctuary for beasts and birds.”
The park is a hotspot of plant biodiversity, harboring many rare and endangered species, yet a complete inventory of the park’s plants has never been attempted.
“We were expecting the number of [different] plants we’d come up with in the park would be about 500 total, and we’re already up to 750 total, and we’re still going,” said Mittelhauser. “So I’m a little surprised.”
Mittelhauser, director of the Maine Natural History Observatory in Gouldsboro, recently finished writing “Sedges of Maine,” set to be published in July, and is one of the four authors of the 2010 field guide “The Plants of Acadia National Park.”
In addition to creating a complete plant inventory for Baxter State Park, he and contributing botanists plan to compile a field guide, “Plants of Baxter State Park,” with a tentative publication date of 2017.
“[We’ll] try to make it user friendly,” said Mittelhauser. “Put enough detail into it so botanists like me can use it, but simple enough keys and color photos so anyone can use it, even those without any botanical background.”
On Thursday, Mittelhauser and Smith hiked along the park’s Blueberry Ledges Trail into T10 R2, a township with no previous plant records that Mittelhauser could find. He scribbled down Latin names as they walked, knowing many species by glance and stopping for the plants that needed closer inspection, such as blackberries.
“There are about two dozen species of blackberries,” Mittelhauser said as he inspected white blackberry blossoms. “But I made a key this past winter to help.”
Though at times the task of recording all of the park’s flora seems daunting, Mittelhauser is operating with the support of Baxter State Park and Friends of Baxter State Park, which have provided financial support along with The Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund and several private donors.
“A complete flora inventory of the park was really something I wanted to see happen, and I pushed very hard for it,” said Baxter State Park naturalist Jean Hoekwater, who proposed the project to Mittelhauser a few years ago. “We’re very enthusiastic about it, and really feel it’s one of those things that’s a long time in coming.”
“My first question was, ‘Do you have a plant list?’” Mittelhauser said. “There was some species list for the park, but no one knew how complete it was. So I decided to go camping at the park with my family, and I added several species [to the existing list] without even leaving the campground.”
Most botanists who have worked in Baxter State Park in the past focused on the alpine areas of Katahdin.
In the 1980s, Maine conservationist Don Hudson compiled “The Preliminary Vascular Flora of Baxter State Park,” which was published in 1988 by the Maine State Planning Office. Hudson focused on the park’s alpine areas, but his work served as a starting point for Mittelhauser when he entered the park in spring 2012 to begin the project.
During the first field season, Mittelhauser and 22 volunteers expanded the park’s plant inventory to more than 750 plant species, including 150 never before found in the park.
“It’s really good to get out there in the field and get something under your belt,” said Smith, who is a return volunteer from the first field season. “That experience you can’t really get in class.”
“There are some people on this trip who are really good with their plants, but I’m still learning,” he said. “So it’s great. Glen really helps out, making things seem a little bit easier to understand.”
Smith takes hundreds of photos of plants, from petals to basal leaves, each day in the field, hoping that some of his photos will help with the project.
This summer, volunteers like Smith, with the help of seasoned botanists Mittelhauser and trip leader Alison Dibble, will survey different sections of the park during eight trips. And project intern Abbe Urban, senior at the College of the Atlantic, will be spending 11 weeks working on the project, both in the field and the lab.
As dusk approached on Thursday, Urban met up with Mittelhauser at Abol Beach.
“I found Populus alba,” Urban said, as she walked to where Mittelhauser was leafing through a field guide at a picnic table by the pond. “I collected it and I took pictures of it. I was excited because it wasn’t in [the preliminary plant list].”
“Awesome,” responded Mittelhauser.
Urban reached the table and presented a sample branch of Populus alba, commonly known as silver poplar. The leaves were covered with white fuzz, which gave them a silvery appearance.
“We had a whole bunch of little ones right by the trail,” said Anne Huntington of Wayne, who along with Marilee Lovit of Addison, had spent the day with Urban inventorying plants along the shore of Abol Pond and nearby trails. Both were return volunteers from last year’s field season.
“We get a lot of repeat volunteers,” Mittelhauser said. “Over half the volunteers this year were volunteers last year.”
But people don’t need to attend a week-long trip in the park to contribute to the data. Park visitors are invited to help with the project by documenting plants with a digital camera and GPS while hiking along trails in the park — no plant expertise required. Learn more at www.friendsofbaxter.org.
People can also support the project by participating in the online art auction “Brushstrokes for Botany,” which begins on July 1, or attending “Governor Baxter Day: Bangor to Katahdin & Top of Bangor Tour” on July 24 in downtown Bangor. The full day of activities will celebrate connections between the Bangor, Baxter State Park and the Katahdin region.
“So how do you inventory 200,000 acres of park?” Mittelhauser said. “You can’t get everywhere. You can walk all the trails and roads and then off trail into some interesting areas, and eventually, we’ll call the flora inventory done and publish the field guide, but it’ll never be done.”