Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (Katahdin Loop Road)

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During a visit to Baxter State Park, dad and daughter found ourselves with sore legs and a half-day to explore, and we decided to check out Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument via the Katahdin Loop Road.  We got our direction from a Katahdin Chamber of Commerce visitor’s guide and a pamphlet from Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), but we had followed the progress of the Monument since its creation in August 2016.

The standard route into the South Entrance is via Route 11 from E. Millinocket/Medway to the Swift Brook Road along the Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway, but we were feeling adventurous, and took the Stacyville Road north from Millinocket to where it meets the Swift Brook Road.  We savored the lonely ride along this quiet logging road, occasionally startling game birds (this is not the way to take a low-clearance or non 4×4 vehicle).

The 17-mile loop of Katahdin Loop Road is punctuated by meadows, bogs, and ridges, and the south and west parts of the loop boast excellent views of Katahdin and the surrounding area.  This is an opportunity to see the Monument and cover distance in a vehicle, while having the chance to get out and explore at a variety of hiking paths and overlooks.  The best map of the loop we found (which I wish we had when we were there, as it is also an excellent interpretive guide) was from the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, and can be found here.

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Lynx Pond

The Lynx Pond Walk is shortly past the Loop Road Gate, on the right just past the Mile 2 marker.  Shortly after the trailhead is a parking area on the left of the Loop Road.  This is a very short walk through the woods to a small boardwalk by the pond, and a spot for quiet reflection and wildlife viewing.

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Looking south from The Overlook on Katahdin Loop Road.  The large lake is Millinocket Lake.
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Views of Katahdin from The Overlook on Katahdin Loop Road

Katahdin towers over the loop, and there are multiple spots around the Loop Road with views of the lakes and mountains to the west and south, particularly The Overlook, between Miles 6 and 7, which conveniently has a picnic spot and a toilet.

We continued around the Loop Road, and got out to stretch our legs again at the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) and trail to Barnard Mountain, passing over Katahdin Brook and by the IAT lean-to.  This wide logging road made for a sunny trail, and though we did not make the turn towards the Barnard Mountain summit, we enjoyed the walk, and the familiar plants and animals that inhabit newly overgrown woodcuts, with blue jays diving across our path and into the trees.  The Barnard Mountain trail itself is a moderate 4-mile round trip with summit views of Katahdin and Katahdin Lake to the west.

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Late summer flowers and plants along the IAT

The IAT continues from the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at Baxter Peak across Maine, into Canada, across to Greenland, and Europe, to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.  For a great exploration of the concept of the IAT, see On Trails by Robert Moor, reviewed on this blog.

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Moose tracks and droppings on the IAT

There are seven mountains in the Monument to hike, including Barnard, as well as paddling opportunities and waterfalls.  The Loop Road was quiet, as were the trails, with natural sounds, and only a few others exploring the area.  A bumpy drive back down Stacyville Road took us to Millinocket, where we devoured a Hawaiian pizza without remorse at the Millinocket House of Pizza.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is a special place, and we will be back there for hiking, biking, and paddling.  The views during peak foliage season must be spectacular.  Ensure you plan ahead, bring maps, and a cooler with water and snacks, as there are no facilities at the Monument, and cell coverage ranges from little to non-existent.  But that’s probably what you’re looking for in the first place.

Morse Mountain to Seawall Beach (Phippsburg)

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Your five-year old could do this, but everyone in the family will love it. It’s the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area near Phippsburg, Maine.  Wife here again to report that I think I may have found my favorite “hike” so far! (Full disclosure: while I love the outdoors, I am not on the hard-core side of the hiking spectrum, preferring instead to walk at a steady pace for up to three hours in nice weather. Furthermore, I do not get an adrenaline rush from dangerous climbs so I avoid them.) Hike is in quotations here because this particular adventure may be more of a beautiful walk, given the minimal altitude (433 feet) and the terrain (paved) and the distance (3.8 miles round trip). This hike checks all the boxes for me. Let’s begin!

This trailhead is well-marked. From Bath, you follow Route 209 south to Route 216 to Morse Mountain Road where there is a small parking lot on your left. We chose a peach of a day and arrived early, which is a necessity because parking is limited. When we arrived at about 8:30 am on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, people were trickling in but there were still plenty of spots available. When we left about noon, there was one car waiting for a space, as all the spots were full.  There was a friendly attendant there, giving maps, selling crafts and answering questions (donations accepted).

The entire trail is paved, as this is a service road, so it is wide enough for a bunch of people to walk together and chat (I doubt you will need a trail map, but if you do: Morse Mountain Map). Shortly after departing the lot, you notice the area is quite well maintained by the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Corporation with members from the St. John Family (who originally conserved the area), Bates College and the public.

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We enjoyed the views of the Sprague River Salt Marsh.

Based on the reviews by other hikers, bugs can normally be a big problem here. There was enough of a breeze that they didn’t seem to bother us too much. We are Deet fans, so that also helped to keep them away, too. About halfway into the hike, you will see a fork in the road and you head right to get to the summit. “Morse Mountain” is really not much more than a hill, yet there are fantastic views at the lookout: the snaking Sprague River, the cliffs in the distance and the gorgeous…drum roll…beach and ocean!

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Yeah, I really can’t wait any longer to tell you that this hike ends at Seawall Beach and for those of you who thought you died and went to heaven when you saw nearby Popham Beach, you will be counting your blessings when you see this two-mile stretch of gorgeous sand that is Seawall Beach. After you leave the summit and return to the main path, you have roughly a mile to go to reach the beach. Then, kick off your shoes and enjoy this huge, uncrowded beach. We headed right upon entering the beach area and walked for approximately a mile to the “red pole” which is marked on the map and signals the end of the conservation area. Try to hit this beach at low tide if you can so you will have plenty of room to roam. Daughter loved the large clam shells, sand dollars, sea gulls, ospreys, and little plovers.

Since access is limited, there are so few people on this beach! For three people who hate crowds and love the ocean and the sand, it was kind of hard to leave. The trail is easy and beautiful so the 33 minutes it took to walk back were very pleasant. Here is my advice for your trip to Morse Mountain:

  1. Go to the bathroom before you get on the trail and do not plan to drink much liquid unless you are a camel. There are no restrooms and since the trail was fairly crowded, you cannot just “pop of the trail” and go behind a tree very easily without being seen. You also cannot just “pop” into the ocean unless you are part seal. It’s freezing.
  2. Bring bug spray.
  3. Consider staying a while at the beach, which means that you might need a towel, sunscreen, hat, and snacks! The beach is that good.
  4. Go early in the day to get a parking spot.
  5. Try to hit low tide.

This truly is a Maine gem and when visitors come and ask where to go, this is going to be on the top of my list as it showcases the beauty that Maine has to offer without the crowds. A little exercise, fresh air, woods, marsh, beach, snacks, family and friends – you can’t beat it.

Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, by Porter Fox

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In an age of technology and enlightenment, physical borders remain enigmatically relevant.  While information and intellectual property pass by on hidden virtual pathways, we are confronted daily with news of aggressive border incursions, walls, migration and separation.  Porter Fox’s book Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border (W.W. Norton and Company) navigates these troubled waters in a modern pilgrimage along the U.S.-Canadian border from Maine to Washington State.

Fox’s adventurous journey along the border (which splits both man-made and natural features, and has constantly been re-drawn and argued by the U.S. and Canada) was conceived during a 2014 lunch with Fox, his editor, and his agent, and brought to life “three years and four thousand miles later” by canoe, freighter, car, and foot.  The fourth dimension of this journey is the history of tribal peoples and European exploration, which Fox weaves skillfully alongside his own narrative.

Fox divides the journey into five parts from east to west: the Dawnland, the Sweet-Water Seas, Boundary Waters, Seven Fires, and the Medicine Line.  Not by accident, the origin of most of these names is drawn from the native populations who are omnipresent in the narrative, their proximity to the border a fateful combination of ancestry and displacement.

Fox finds commonality in all the populations banding the U.S.- Canadian border: social and personality traits mandated by the climate, economy, and the very nature of the stark world between two countries which these “northlanders” straddle.  These commonalities include “[e]thnic communities with centuries-old histories, small towns that modern America skipped over, forgotten industries and Old World professions that rely on hands, not machines.”

The saga of these northlanders is not the only origin story: the birth of many things, from the U.S. Coast Guard to Thousand Island Dressing, is hidden within these pages.  Fox takes the best approach in a travel book, making himself an observer, rather than an actor, and documenting the stories of those he encounters.  This is not navel-gazing, this is journalism.  Fox’s own story only emerges during brief memories of his own northland origins in Maine, or in humorous or poignant interactions with people along the way.

Fox also refrains from preaching or taking sides – any reasonable person can make their own conclusions regarding the effects of global warming, incompetent border management, marginalization of native peoples, or over-fishing and deforestation, making a diatribe superfluous.  Fox observes:

It looked like night.  The sky and land were dark.  Flames blazed above tall, cylindrical smokestacks, casting orange light on the ship.  The waterfront was barricaded by dunes of iron ore pellets and coal.  It was nine in the morning.  The water was oily green.  I looked through the porthole in my cabin and saw a truck pour molten slag into a ditch.  A bright-orange splash flew into the water and incinerated a duck swimming by.

Thus continues Fox’s story of his journey from the Saint Lambert Lock in Montreal up the Saint Lawrence Seaway through the Great Lakes (Ontario, Erie, Huron, Superior) to Thunder Bay, Ontario on the Algoma Equinox, a 740-foot freighter, reading like the opening of a post-apocalyptic version of Ben E. King’s Stand by Me.

It is in this excellent section on The Sweet-Water Seas that Fox truly hits his stride, capturing the chaotic, spooky world of the Equinox and its crew, as well as the unforeseen benefit of only traveling ten miles an hour.  Fox writes beautifully, carefully, and sympathetically about the people and places along this route, interspersing modern vignettes with the movements of glaciers, floods, Champlain, La Salle, and inexorable commerce.

The book is full of these interactive moments that capture so much.  Fox visits the Boundary Waters of Minnesota with Paul and Sue, legendary guides and explorers, watching Sue swing a canoe onto her shoulders for portage, “like putting on a sweater, except the sweater was a sixteen-foot Kevlar hull.”  In North Dakota, Fox visits the Standing Rock protest camp of the Sioux Nation, against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and in Idaho, interviews a militia leader, who gives him “the kind of cheery welcome you’d expect from a car salesman.”

An otherwise-mundane guided tour (“The tour group itself was a thing of antiquity.  I was the only one under the age of eighty.  The comb-over on the man beside me was a work of art.”) of the Glacier Park Lodge in Browning, Montana yields an unexpected insight when the tour guide shows Fox and the group a large-format black-and-white photograph shot in the late 1800s:

The image was of two Blackfeet riders on a grassy knoll.  Behind them were a forest and a few high peaks.  Their hair was braided.  The one in the front wore deerskins; the one behind wore blankets.  Mist covered a valley at the foot of the mountains.  There was no sun – just a dark line between earth and sky.

Amid the cedars, buffalo skulls, and antique china, the photo was indeed the only object in the lodge of extraordinary value.  It was a split second in time from a lost world.  “I like showing people this last,” the guide said.  “I like them to know that we weren’t the first people to live here.”

By the time the journey ends, on a coastal Lummi tribal reservation at the western end of the border in Washington state, the reader has skillfully been transported stride-by-stride with Fox through the past, and across the northland.  In his introduction, Fox explains that he wanted to visit the northland again before it changed for good.  The borderlands seem to change more slowly than the center, giving us a glimpse into the past.  In these margins, we see the cost of progress, and the stark natural beauty of the land that was, giving us pause about the right way forward.

AMC Maine Mountain Guide, 11th Edition, Compiled and Edited by Carey Michael Kish

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The hardest part about replacing my earlier (10th) edition of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide, 11th Edition (Appalachian Mountain Club Books), compiled and edited by Carey Michael Kish, was carefully transferring all of my handwritten notes and highlighter marks.  The smashed mosquitoes and coffee stains I will have to replace as I go.  Kish recently posted an article on Maine Today regarding the new edition.

As referred to many times on this blog, this indispensable book has been the starting point for countless adventures over the last couple years.  According to the back jacket of the new AMC Maine Mountain Guide, this new 11th edition features 175 new trails, 50 new mountains, and 17 additional in-text maps, “capturing Maine’s booming trail building and expansion during the past five years.”  Additionally, the existing trails include more details and updates, including more than 450 trail revisions.

In his Foreword, Carey Kish relates his hiking history, with the interestingly prescient detail that Kish bought his first Maine Mountain Guide in 1976.  The Acknowledgements section shows the true breadth and depth of the book, with tips of the cap to AMC staff, Maine state departments, and a long list of names from “Maine’s incredible community of land trusts, conservation organizations, environmental agencies, trail clubs, trail advocates, outdoor recreation groups, and other good friends of Maine trails.”  And it really must take a village to compile this book.

The introduction includes helpful information and advice for hikers specific to Maine, including descriptions of Maine geography and geology, climate, vegetation, animals, and trail etiquette.  For map and GPS nerds, the section on Maps and Navigation (at the tail end of “How To Use This Book” is packed with reference books and maps to use as companions to the guide, with a short segment on LiDAR data, and how it has been used to correct the summit height of peaks.  There is even a sample packing list (you are going to want those convertible pants), and a common-sense primer on backcountry hazards.

So what changed? The first Section is on Maine’s showpiece, Baxter State Park and Katahdin, and the new layout is apparent.  The Suggested Hikes, which were previously at the end of each Section, are now at the beginning, in order from least difficult to most.  The Trail Descriptions of the sixteen trails to the six major summits of Katahdin are now each prefaced with a table showing distance, elevation gain, and projected time to allow yourself.

These information-age upgrades haven’t changed the narrative, however, or characterizations such as that of the Knife Edge: “The dizzying height, sheer cliffs, and extreme exposure combine to make this one of the most spectacular mountain trails in the eastern United States.”  This descriptive prose, fortified with weather warnings, sources of water, and historical notes on the trails, is the continuing magic of this guide.

The Sections of Maine have been broadened from ten to twelve, with stand-alone sections for Mahoosuc Range and Grafton Notch (Section 5), and White Mountain National Forest and Evans Notch (Section 6).  It really is an expansion, and I skipped to some recent hikes I’d done to see the differences.  I noticed subtle edits in the Downeast hikes I’d done recently, and updated road names added to trailhead directions.

Viewing the Southwestern Maine portion (Section 8), I noticed six brand new in-text maps in that section alone, with popular trails Bradbury Mountain State Park, Douglas Mtn. Preserve, Bald Pate Preserve, Burnt Meadow Mtn., Mt. Cutler, and Mt. Agamenticus all getting their own cartography.  New trails also debut, like the 47-mile Hills to Sea trail through eastern Waldo County from Unity to Belfast, which was opened to the public in 2016.

The book ends with Appendices listing alphabetical contacts for the trails and lands listed in the guide, from the Appalachian Mountain Club to the Woodstock Conservation Commission, and checklists for New England 4,000 footers and New England 100 Highest.  And in the back of the book are two pull-out map sheets, containing a total of six large-scale trail maps of Baxter State Park, Maine Woods, Bigelow Range, Camden Hills, Eastern Mount Desert Island, and Mahoosuc Range-Evans Notch.

The 11th Edition of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide has been completely revised and updated while maintaining its essential character, an impressive achievement.  This is truly the hiking handbook for the state of Maine, and a must-have for outdoor explorers of all levels.

Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path: 35 Trails Waiting to be Discovered, by Aislinn Sarnacki

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When I first looked through the 35 trails listed in Aislinn Sarnacki’s book Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path: 35 Trails Waiting to be Discovered, (Down East Books, 2018) I remembered how much in Maine is left to be hiked, a realization which is both humbling and encouraging.  Sarnacki, the outdoor columnist for the Bangor Daily News, has assembled an eclectic, formidable line-up of trails spanning the Pine Tree State.  Her introduction to the book spells out her goal in writing this book, starting with her journey into hiking, detailing a mixed experience ascending Katahdin at age sixteen, when she was “far from hooked on the activity.”

Sarnacki discusses how hiking subsequently got her through tough times, culminating in an undergraduate thesis on the positive ways it can affect a person’s holistic health, and a job at the Bangor Daily News writing Outdoors features.  Sarnacki explains the changing map of trails in Maine, and her navigation of information provided by state parks, land trusts and other non-profit organizations to find these trails (did you know there are more than 40 other peaks besides Katahdin in Baxter State Park?  I didn’t).

Sarnacki continues the introduction with a wonderful explanation of the value of Leave No Trace, with a description of Abol Pond during a Leave No Trace trainer course, and the change in enjoyment of natural beauty with the observation of the policy, versus without.  She then provides helpful sections entitled Staying Safe While Hiking (all good tips – “Spoil Your Feet” and the limited use of helpful technology in particular) and At War With Ticks (common-sense strategies for dealing with an emerging problem).

The 35 hikes described by Sarnacki are spread across the state, bracketed by Wells Barren Preserve in in the south, Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge to the east, Scopan Mountain near Presque Isle to the north, and Aziscohos Mountain in Lincoln Plantation to the west (man, I hope I got that right).  Each includes a detailed description, detailing the Difficulty, Dogs (permitted or no?), any Cost or fee, Access (accessible overnight?  four seasons?), Wheelchair accessibility, Hunting, Restrooms, How to get to the trailhead, and precise GPS coordinates.

Each trail has a clear, accurate map (take a photo of the map with your cellphone if you don’t feel like carrying the book with you on a hike), and excellent photos that give you an idea of the trail’s surroundings and vista points. Sarnacki describes the plants and animals to be encountered, gemstones and rocks, trail markings (or lack thereof), interpretive signs, and everything in between.  To the extent there are land trusts, a town office, or other caretakers of the trail, Sarnacki provides web addresses and telephone numbers for more information, and personal notes with helpful anecdotes for the area or the trail.

These detailed vignettes brought back the best part of talking about hiking and trails, the part that is mostly lost in the technical focus of apps and guidebooks: word-of-mouth referrals for hidden outdoor gems, and personal stories about these special places.  It is these connections that keep us coming back, and Sarnacki’s writing does an excellent job of capturing that idea.  Having just come back from the Grand Lake Stream area, where we enjoyed the Baxter Outdoors New England Trail Series Downeast Lakes 5-Miler, I particularly liked Hike 25, the Little Mayberry Cove Trail, managed by the Downeast Lakes Land Trust (I agree with Sarnacki that the tiny silver and blue trail signs are aesthetically pleasing), and the photos capturing the changing light along the trails.

Reading through this book, I found myself continually reaching for my Maine Gazetteer to look at the hikes, and running through road trips in my head.  As a result, this new book is already dog-eared and bookmarked with ideas, which is the mark of a truly adventurous guide.  As Sarnacki concluded in her introduction, I was inspired “to get out there, off the beaten path.”

Peaked Mountain

In August 2018, we hiked Peaked Mountain (1,160 ft), also known as Chick Hill, in the Clifton-Amherst area off Route 9.  For years, we had observed the massive cliffs of Peaked and Little Peaked Mountains looming over the Airline, and hiking to the top was a great experience.  We took our instructions from the AMC Maine Mountain Guide, as well as a November 2017 Portland Press Herald article by Carey Kish on Airline Road hikes.  We did this 2.2 mile up-and-back hike during a sweltering heat wave, with temperatures in the nineties, and it took us about an hour, total.

The trail route provided by the AMC guide needs no addition – we easily followed the logging road (fire road 32) from the trailhead, past the turn-off for Little Peaked Mountain, and turned into the woods at utility pole 18.  A steep trail through the woods (which felt like a jungle on this hot, humid day) leads up to the open areas below the summit.

Mom/wife and daughter reached the cliff edge below the summit, and enjoyed the cooler breezes, while Dad continued to the top and looked at the expansive views.  The longer alternative, taken by another group of hikers while we were there, is to take the road all the way to the summit cell tower.

The trip down the mountain was much faster than the way up, descending the gravel road with occasional stops for raspberries and blackberries.  Little Peaked Mountain would have to wait for next time.  Most importantly, a stop on Route 9 in Aurora at Mace’s American Snackbar for cold Gifford’s ice cream capped a great hike.

River Point Conservation Area

Off the West Falmouth exit of I-95 (exit 53), tucked behind the Hannaford plaza, is a hidden gem.  You can find a detailed description of the land and its history at the Town of Falmouth site regarding the River Point Conservation Area.  This 1.4 mile network of trails also links to the Cross Falmouth trails and Portland Trails, as well as being accessible by canoe from the Presumpscot River.

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On the cloudy late July afternoon we visited the trails, mosquitoes were thick, and ticks were abundant in the tall grassy areas, so plan appropriately with insect repellent/gear.  This did not hamper our enjoyment of the flowers and birds throughout the conservation area.  Also, stay on the trails to avoid poison ivy.

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Interpretive signs along the trails.

The interpretive signs along the trail would be good for scavenger hunt-type activities with kids, and provide insight to the area, its history, and the flora and fauna that inhabit it.  The signs also disclose that the trail is sponsored by Dunkin Donuts, which has a location at the adjacent shopping center.

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A massive beetle encountered on the trail.

According to the Town of Falmouth website, River Point was used for thousands of years as a campsite by Native Americans as they traveled seasonally from Sebago Lake to the ocean. The first white settlers homesteaded the original 151-acre property in 1775, and farmed there until 1883, establishing a brickyard and shingle mill on the property. In 1859, the Kennebec & Portland Railroad line bisected the property.  The bridge, the only bridge in Maine built to connect to just one house, provided access to Route 100. The town acquired River Point in 1995 when the shopping center was developed. The Town Council designated the 41-acre property as a conservation area in 2009.

This small conservation area, with a short, flat loop trail, is perfect for a lunchtime or after-work walk in the greater Portland area, and the open fields, with birdhouses, are excellent places to observe songbirds (and in the evening, bats).  The town of Falmouth lists allowable uses as: Hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, fishing, and nature study.  For those with pets, just check the signs beforehand, as pets are not allowed when birds are nesting.