Scheduled to lead a late February Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society outing, my preference was to ski. An untimely freezing rainstorm limited the choices. As late as the day before, I was still searching for the ideal skiing option. My final decision was motivated by my son, Adam, who preferred the alternative suggestion, hiking Cranberry Peak, the western-most summit in the Bigelow Range. Despite the late notice, two others signed on for the 6.5-mile roundtrip excursion to the 3,213-foot mountaintop.
My experience suggests it’s usually snowing in Carrabassett Valley in the winter. Clear for most of the drive, contrary to the forecast, steady snow began once Route 27 joined the Carrabassett River near Kingfield. Doddering old people like me don’t like driving in stormy weather. We can’t see well, and incipient senescence has diminished our reaction times. Concerned about our limitations, we nervously creep along on slippery roads. Invariably, youngsters start tailgating us. In short, we don’t have a good time.
The snowfall continued uninterrupted until we arrived at the winter trailhead at the end of Currie Road in Stratton. The probability of enjoying the phenomenal views the summit had to offer appeared unlikely.
The small parking area at the winter trailhead is bewildering since there are no trail signs. The Bigelow Range Trail leading to Cranberry Peak and beyond doesn’t actually begin for another 0.3 mile. Rather, an active snowmobile super highway must be carefully crossed first.
An inspection of the trail indicated a couple of inches of fresh powder covered a surface previously packed by snowshoe traffic. The usual debate about whether or not to wear or carry snowshoes ensued. Three of us began wearing them while one member chose trail crampons. By the time we finished, everyone was toting their snowshoes.
The beginning of the trek was arguably the most hazardous part of the expedition. Eluding a seemingly endless continuum of speeding snowmobiles was required to reach the summer trailhead. The snow abated and glimpses of sunshine penetrated the cloud cover as we proceeded up a moderate gradient on a narrow path in a predominantly conifer forest.
After about a mile, we encountered the first of several fallen trees that blocked the trail. Crawling under the impediment was the only option. Shortly after, we began climbing steeply up a twisting attenuated incline.
Persisting through a constricted passageway between a series of massive boulders, we emerged onto a succession of partially open ledges with limited views of nearby Flagstaff Lake. While the top of the escarpment deceptively appeared to be the mountain’s high point, the actual summit was still more than a mile away.
The gradient moderated as we began advancing through an extended rolling traverse along the rugged north slope of a substantial prominence. Persisting easterly, we periodically observed Flagstaff Lake on our left. Pivoting south, we ascended precipitously in stunted mountain scrub to a ridge where the barren Cranberry summit was visible in the east.
Energized after identifying our goal, we confronted a new obstacle. Powerful northwest winds gusted over the partially exposed height of land, causing severe wind chills. Everyone huddled in a sheltered decline to add parkas and protective gear before attempting the final ascent.
Persevering cautiously up the abrupt summit cone, we were distracted from the stupendous views by forceful winds and arctic cold. Attaining the blustery alpine peak, we struggled to savor the wonderful surroundings in the otherwise inhospitable environment. A panoramic vista of frozen Flagstaff Lake was the backdrop for a hurried photo. The summits on the Bigelow Range could be discerned extending farther east, and Sugarloaf Mountain and the peaks of western Maine dominated the landscape south and west.
Hastily retreating below tree line for refuge from the piercing wind, we paused for an overdue snack, which provided needed sustenance before beginning our descent. Once below the ridge, winds moderated allowing for a relaxed return.
The continuous roar of snowmobile engines could be heard during our approach to the summer trailhead. Fortuitously, none of the streaking machines were encountered during the final segment of the journey. While unpacking and preparing for the ride home, it began to snow. That made sense; after all, we were in Carrabassett Valley.