November 23, 2017
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Maine teacher hikes deep into Baxter State Park to create new trail guide

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

TOWNSHIP 3, RANGE 10, Maine — A cool mist filled the air and coated the rock ledges below Big Niagara Falls on May 18, in Baxter State Park. It was a sunny day with a summer haze, the air temperature climbing into the mid-80s. But near the rushing water, where the constant roar of the brook seemed to drown out the rest of the world, the atmosphere was noticeably cooler.

“I was thinking we could have lunch here,” said Greg Westrich, edging closer to the dense forest to escape the mist. “There’s nowhere to sit at Windy Pitch.”

Westrich, an English teacher from Glenburn, has eaten many lunches in Baxter State Park. In recent years, over the course of numerous day trips and backpacking trips, he has hiked and mapped approximately 200 miles of the park’s 215 miles of trails while researching for his newest guidebook, “Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park,” released by FalconGuides on June 1.

The 209-page book, retailing at $18.95, features 37 day hikes in Baxter, and three suggested backpacking trips. Filled with color photos, detailed maps and written descriptions generated from Westrich’s firsthand experiences, the Baxter guide is the fifth Maine-based guidebook Westrich has authored for FalconGuides in the past two years (though he began his research for those books in 2013).

“I understand everybody’s obsession with Katahdin,” Westrich said, “but I think people need to really explore the park.”

Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, is by far the most popular hiking location in Baxter State Park. In fact, many park visitors don’t realize that the 200,000-plus-acre park is home to more than a dozen other mountains, and is rich in pristine ponds and lakes, scenic brooks and waterfalls and more than 300 campsites.

Westrich, on the other hand, has been exploring the park with his family for years, long before he committed to writing a guidebook. He and his wife, Ann, often go backpacking with their two children, Henry and Emma, in the park. And in 2010, Westrich started a multi-year endeavor to backpack from one end of Baxter to the other with Henry, who at the time was 8 years old. Over the course of multiple summers, they accomplished their goal, bagging many of the park’s peaks along the way, including Katahdin.

In writing the guidebook, Westrich re-hiked all of those trails — and many more — taking notes and photographs, and mapping each step with a handheld GPS. His goal was to explore even the least-traveled trails in the park, and in doing so, he discovered some truly beautiful and remote locations.

“What I found most surprising was, the kind of lowland trails that I’d never done, how pretty most of them were,” Westrich said. “You know I just kind of did them because I thought that I needed to, but then I found out they were really nice.”

On May 18, Westrich revisited one of these lowland adventures, one that required both hiking and canoeing. Wearing a yellow lifejacket and carrying a canoe paddle, Westrich began his journey at Kidney Pond Campground, following a trail around the scenic pond, over tangles of fat tree roots and along long sections of narrow bog bridges. Along the way, he pointed out side trails. He knew where they all led. He’d hiked them all.

At the south end of the pond, Westrich turned onto Lily Pad Pond Trail and followed it to a boat launch tucked in tall grasses at the edge of a stream. Using a key he had acquired at the park’s south gatehouse, he unlocked a chain securing three canoes to a frame of sunbleached wood, selected a boat and slid it into the water.

Last time he’d been on the stream, he’d seen a moose.

“I bet I saw a moose in every trip I came up here,” Westrich said. “but it’s not like you’re going to see them nonstop or anything … You just have to be outside a lot, especially in the morning, early in the morning, or towards sunset.”

Paddling steady downstream and around a bend, Westrich soon found himself in the 20-acre Lily Pad Pond, which he crossed to find an outlet and a barely visible landing on a muddy shore. There, the blue blazes marking the trail reappeared, beckoning him back into the woods — a place that has drawn to him ever since he was a boy.

Originally from Ohio, Westrich was 8 years old when he went on his first family camping trip.

“It rained all weekend, but the only thing I really remember about it was I saw a great horned owl on the trip,” Westrich recalled, “which my mom has no record of and thinks I made up.”

Later that summer, his family went on a longer camping trip in Smoky Mountains National Park, and from that point on, Westrich was hooked, and his outdoor adventures only became more ambitious. Throughout the years, he’s spent time hiking in a variety of places, including Red River Gorge in Kentucky and the Canadian Rockies. And after moving to Maine in 1996, he and his wife, Ann, hiked the Maine section of the Appalachian Trail together.

In addition to having a passion for the outdoors, Westrich has a love for maps, and writing, which makes a guidebook his ideal project.

Westrich earned an MFA in creative writing from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program, and he teaches writing at Husson University and Eastern Maine Community College. And at this home in Glenburn, his personal map and guidebook collection continues to grow.

“Maps speak to my imagination,” Westrich wrote in the prologue of “Katahdin, Henry & Me,” a book he hopes to publish some day. “They tell me stories of mossy forests alive with moose and fishers and orange salamanders that glow in the loamy leaf litter.”

The last section of the trail on May 18 was just that — a mossy forest of towering spruce trees and giant boulders. Following this narrow, winding trail south and downhill, Westrich found ledges overlooking both Little and Big Niagara Falls, two of the most impressive waterfalls in the park, roaring and churning at full strength after recent spring rains.

The trail then continued south a short distance to dead-end at Windy Pitch Pond, an 8-acre pool closely bordered by thick underbrush and rock ledges. And Westrich had been right. There was indeed nowhere to sit. After taking a few moments to enjoy the quiet solitude of the dark, still water, he turned and began the trek back.

All of Westrich’s books, including the new Baxter guide, can be purchased through his author website, www.gregwestrich.com.

 


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