Ron Chase of Topsham is the author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England.” His latest book, “The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” is scheduled to be released by North Country Press in 2021. Read about more of his adventures on his BDN blog, Seniors Not Acting Their Age. Visit his website at ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Situated in western Maine’s Carrabassett Valley, the Bigelow Mountain Range is one of the state’s premier mountaineering venues. Paralleling the south shore of consequential Flagstaff Lake, Bigelow has six significant peaks. The Appalachian Trail traverses much of the range, seductively lending itself to excellent backpacking options.
Bigelow Mountain has the distinction of possessing three of the Appalachian Mountain Club designated 100 highest peaks in New England; South Horn at 3,805 feet and two 4,000 footers, Avery and West peaks. As a result, it’s a must climb for peak baggers in pursuit of 4,000 footers or the 100 highest.
Often forgotten is the eastern-most prominence in the range, Little Bigelow. Like many hikers, I was initially attracted to the highest summits on Bigelow. After more than a decade exploring them, I “discovered” Little Bigelow in January 1990. A solo trek breaking trail with snowshoes led to an alpine setting with glorious views of the surrounding area. During the subsequent 30 years, I’ve returned four times with friends, just infrequently enough so I’m always pleasantly surprised with the exceptionally scenic mountain ridge.
The most effective way for me to find hiking companions is to post a Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society email message announcing a trip. Shortly after declaring my intention to climb Little Bigelow in early December, frequent outdoor accomplices Suzanne and Gary Cole enthusiastically agreed to join me. Since a number of years had passed since any of us had hiked the 3,040-foot peak with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain, the outing would be comparable to climbing a new mountain. Given my aging memory, anything occurring more than a year ago is brand new.
The sun was shining and the temperature around freezing when we met at the trailhead on East Flagstaff Road about 18 miles north of North New Portland. Well-marked and in good condition, the entire 6.2-mile roundtrip hike is on the Appalachian Trail.
Initially, the path rose gradually in a predominantly conifer forest. Shortly after the gradient steepened, we arrived at a spur trail on the right leading to a sturdy lean-to that appeared recently built. The present location of the lean-to is a puzzle to me. I’m almost certain the shelter was formerly situated on the left side of the trail when I passed on snowshoes three decades ago. Possibly contradicting that distant recollection, my Bigelow Preserve map dated 1993 places it at the current site. This may constitute a record-shattering, 30-year senior moment. I won’t be contacting the fine folks at Guinness World Records anytime soon.
A nearby mountain freshet forms a series of pools called the Tubs. It’s difficult for this cold water sissy to imagine jumping into them in any season. Several days of backpacking with temperatures in the 90s might engender sufficient motivation to stand in a shallow section, timidly splashing water on me and calling it a bath.
Departing from the shelter, the route narrowed, twisting precipitously to an extensive overlook with an impressive view of the southeastern terminus of Flagstaff Lake. A careful analysis identified the Katahdin massif in the distance. Periodic exceptional vistas followed for the remainder of the climb on Little Bigelow Ridge.
Encountering a continuum of hard packed snow and ice after leaving the overlook, everyone donned microspikes. Only invented about a decade ago, how we survived without them in the past is perplexing; an abundance of slipping and falling was the norm.
A trail maintenance aficionado, Gary carries a small saw to remedy obstacles confronted while hiking. At one location, he effected removal of a four inch diameter tree that had fallen across the trail. Suzanne and I supervised. I provided about two-cents worth of actual assistance pulling the cumbersome obstruction off the passageway after Gary completed the cut.
Following what seemed a long half mile from the first overlook, we arrived at a barren cone that afforded phenomenal views of the remainder of the Bigelow Range. Enjoying sunny skies and light winds, the majestic location that may be the East Peak of Little Bigelow provided an ideal site for lunch and a long break. Mesmerized by the wondrous environment, we inadvertently departed without proceeding a little farther west to the actual high point.
On the return trip, I speculated that the lean-to used to be in a different location. My friends’ silence seems to validate the senior moment theory.