Sometimes hikes are listed as “Strenuous” simply because of their length or isolation. Often, it is because of rapid elevation gain, water crossings or the chance of inclement weather at altitude. Mount Abraham (4,049 ft) in Mt. Abram Twp., one of Maine’s fourteen 4,000 footers, combines all these factors, but still remains an attainable challenge of a day hike, approximately 8.2 miles round-trip out from trailhead to summit and back. This was about four hours total time on the recent July Saturday I hiked it (I moved quickly because of weather – allow up to six hours or so, based upon your own hiking level), and I used the Maine Mountain Guide and Maine Trailfinder to research the hike.
The mountain itself is in the Mt. Abraham Public Reserved Lands Unit, and contains the second-largest (to Katahdin) alpine zone in Maine. As of July 2019, the roads were passable all the way to the trailhead, which is at the T-intersection at approximately latitude 44.96817, longitude -70.26049.
From Kingfield, head north from “downtown,” and take a left on West Kingfield Road from Route 27. Continue straight about six miles (road turns to dirt, and becomes Rapid Stream Road enroute), and take a left at the fork. After crossing two bridges, take the right fork for about a mile. At the T-intersection, the trail will be slightly to your right (trailhead sign is set slightly back in the woods), and parking will be by a sign to your left.
The path, marked with blue blazes, showed signs of recent trail work (thanks, trail crew), and had been re-routed out of lower-lying areas. Recent moose tracks and droppings were frequent, but I did not see the elusive animal on this day.
The Fire Warden’s Trail is pleasantly rugged, a steady, grinding uphill climb across a number of mountain streams, requiring a quick dance across wet, mossy rocks in some spots. The deciduous forest was thick and humid, an almost jungle-like green tunnel, dense with mosquitoes. The forest thinned out gradually with elevation, and evergreens substituted in for leafy greenery during the ascent, with a campsite and privy available at about 2.6 miles.
The breezes and open air of the alpine zone were a brief reprieve from the muggy forest before the steep, rocky climb to the top. On the summer day I hiked past the cairns lining the ascent, I was racing afternoon thunderstorms, and could see dark clouds rapidly moving, so did not waste time in the mostly unprotected half-mile between the treeline and the summit.
I did, however, enjoy the smaller evergreens crowding the narrow trail, the flowering alpine plants across the ridge, and the views of the surrounding mountains and the Carrabassett Valley. The fire tower and shelter at the summit were knocked over and caved in, and a line of cairns marked the connector trail to the Appalachian Trail.
After a quick snack and an obligatory change of socks at the windswept summit, I headed downhill, for a much easier descent back to the trailhead. The trail was lightly traveled- I saw nobody else on the way up, and only six to eight hikers headed up while I was on my way down (pleasantly light for a sunny Saturday in July).
Where to eat in Kingfield? In addition to beating the storms, my early-morning start allowed me to lunch at the incomparable Rolling Fatties. I opted for the delicious Falafel Fatty Bowl, packed with fresh greens and crispy falafel, enjoying it with a Maine Beer Company Woods and Waters IPA at an outdoor table in the sunlight.
Mount Abraham is a pleasantly demanding hike, close to the attractions of the Carrabassett Valley, and paying off with commanding views from Maine’s tenth-highest Mountain.
I first heard of Jeffrey H. Ryan’s book Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America’s Trail, (Down East Books, 2016) at an engaging February 2017 talk Ryan gave at Frontier Cafe Cinema and Gallery in Brunswick, Maine, complete with a slide show of photographs from his almost thirty-year journey in sections of the Appalachian Trail (AT). The timing was perfect – in the teeth of the Maine winter, I saw again the possibilities of getting on the trail.
Ryan, having thru-hiked the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) in the early 1980’s, began his Appalachian odyssey with a hike of Mount Katahdin with eight friends, including eventual AT companion Wayne Cyr, in September 1985. Hikes on the AT in Vermont and Massachusetts followed, and Ryan realized that he was completing the AT in sections, beginning a twenty-eight year quest to finally complete the 2,181 miles of the trail.
Ryan’s book breaks up this journey with Cyr into twenty-four chapters, including photographs, maps, gear lists, and salient historical facts about the AT and its surroundings. The anecdotes and (often self-deprecating) trail stories are excellent, and my personal favorite was the saga of a hungry Vermont porcupine, and the havoc it wreaked on the underside of Ryan’s parked vehicle, punctuated by the instructive note entitled, “Why Porcupines Love Working on Cars.” Ryan concludes the chapter describing his unexpected porcupine encounter with an understanding:
Because it’s the unexpected that fills life with excitement, joy and gratitude. When you let go of your expectations and allow journeys to unfold before you, you discover they are filled with wonder – clouds screaming past the moon, climbs to summits with vistas beyond belief, hoards of black flies that send you into the tent, porcupines that eat vehicles and strangers that give you a lift to the hardware store just when you need it most, I wouldn’t trade one bit of it – not even the black flies, the forced vacation or the $900 repair bill – for a more predictable and less fulfilling walk through life.
Throughout the book, we continue to see this theme resonate, and readers of the right age can nod, and remember not being able to reach people by cell phone, or puzzling over a map, prior to the advent of GPS and Google Maps. The appeal of returning to a new section of the trail each year for Ryan seems to include this passage back to a world of limited priorities, of perspective, of strictly the essential.
While many trail journals are immersive, and discuss the alternate thru-hiker universe, Ryan’s is different, as he also explores the physical and emotional challenges of getting on and off the trail in sections over the years. The physical effects of residual stress from work and travel, the betrayals of aging and benefits of maturity, and even the changes in technology on the trail over time are currents running through this book.
In following Ryan and Cyr through the years and miles, it’s impossible not to start seeing it through their eyes and pick up the trail shorthand they use. “First flat spot” to a hiking partner is a three-word utterance that says all that needs to be said about exhaustion, and the need to pitch a tent and call it a day. Ryan’s inner “drill sergeant” is the alternately self-motivating and abusive internal voice that drives him up and down hills when his reserves of energy are gone.
A brief encounter with a solo thru-hiker at the Sawmill Overlook in Virginia who admits to having the “Virginia Blues” causes Ryan to re-evaluate the mental load being carried by himself and Cyr on the trail. The Virginia Blues are the result of a formerly ambitious thru-hiker’s realization during a 550 mile section across Virginia of the realities of the length and deprivations of the trail, a two thousand mile endeavor with a 75% dropout rate. Ryan’s thoughts on the Virginia Blues are an unmistakable metaphor for the trials of middle age, the broader trails we all walk alone and together, and the societal supports we all need.
These times of exhaustion and doubt, however, are like the low points in the rolling “sawtooth” terrain Ryan crosses in his section-hiking journey – left in shadow by peaks bathed in sunshine, unexpected kindnesses from strangers, hot meals, and special places inaccessible except by the AT. Ryan conveys tricks of the trade in breathing, arranging gear, and staying in the game mentally, and says this about continually moving forward:
But my greatest source of strength was the reason I was out here in the first place. From the beginning, I have felt that it is a privilege to walk through some of the most fascinating and inspiring places on earth. It is something that makes me feel more complete and connected to nature than any activity I can imagine. Trying to do it for as long as I can is the greatest gift I can give myself. Yes, there are tough days. There are also many more glorious ones – just like life in general. And experiencing them out here helps keep things in perspective when I return to the man-made universe of projects, deadlines and the like.
Every person who punches a clock can understand Ryan’s realization that “my greatest challenge in getting to the trail wasn’t the travel, it was carving out the two week chunk of time I would need to make the trip happen.” But Appalachian Odyssey shows a blueprint for finding a balance between the things we must do, and those we dream of doing.
With the right preparation, the 100 Mile Wilderness (100MW) can be a challenging but enjoyable eight-day hike (and for thru-hikers and experienced “speedhikers,” who can rip off 20-mile days, substantially less). Dad (41) and daughter (12) completed this in two segments in 2017 and 2018. We definitely allowed ourselves extra time to enjoy places we liked, or to recover from wet gear or injuries, so plan on ten days. Our 100 Mile Wilderness journey finally complete, we took a look back and came up with a better plan of attack. So, here is our guide, with a suggested itinerary, and a packing list.
Direction: There are arguments for going south to north (like we did), or alternately, starting at Abol Bridge, and finishing in Monson. The northern part is substantially flatter (read: faster) terrain, so starting with a heavy pack might be easier north-south, eating up food weight as you move south. But starting from the south, and climbing over the Barren-Chairback and White Cap ranges might make your tired legs want to finish with the more gently rolling terrain of the north.
Timing: When we started the 100 MW, we did so at the end of June/beginning of July. Once we got down from the higher elevations, the heat was oppressive, and the bugs were brutal. We later finished the 100 MW at the end of September, and it was cold at night, but pleasant during the day, and there were no bugs. I think a happy medium would be the beginning of September (assuming your work/school/life allows this), which would still be warm enough to enjoy dips in the lakes and streams, cool enough at night to sleep well, and at the very tail end of bug season. One caveat to this plan – AT Lean-To’s and tent sites may be fairly full, as many thru-hikers will be making their last push to Katahdin. Some water sources may also be dry by this time of summer, depending on the rains.
Resupply: We didn’t do this, but it’s worth considering. Some purists believe that it’s cheating, but lightening your pack enough to enjoy your walk in the woods might help a great deal, and it’s your hike. Shaw’s Hiker Hostel (Monson) and the Appalachian Trail Lodge (Millinocket) are two reputable providers who can coordinate food drops for you along the 100MW. They can also provide advice, shuttle service, help you stage your vehicle at either end, and provide a place to stay before and/or after.
Day 1: ME-15 in Monson to Wilson Valley Lean-To (10.4 mi)
Overview: Day One is a rolling hike, getting used to a heavy pack, and fording several streams.
Highlight: Little Wilson Falls, a sixty-foot waterfall (mile 6.6)
Day 2: Wilson Valley Lean-To to West Chairback Pond (14.1 mi)
Overview: Day Two is a longer day (start early), with a ford of Long Pond Stream, and a a steady, strenuous ascent of Barren Mountain, to an up-and-down traverse of the Barren-Chairback Range, ending with a tent site on West Chairback Pond (.2 mile side trail).
Highlight: Views from Barren Ledges (mile 6) and insectivorous pitcher plants in Fourth Mountain Bog (mile 10.4).
Day 3: West Chairback Pond to Carl A. Newhall Lean-To (11.8 mi)
Overview: Completion of Barren-Chairback traverse, and descent to the fording of the West Branch of the Pleasant River. The afternoon ascent up Gulf Hagas Mountain along Gulf Hagas Brook will feel long, without many landmarks (note: camping or campfires are prohibited south of the Gulf Hagas Cut-off trail to north of the West Branch of the Pleasant River).
Highlight: Dizzying descent of Chairback Mountain, and a welcome downhill hike through pine forests to Gulf Hagas and the tall old-growth pines of the Hermitage.
Change-up:AMC Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins, on Long Pond, accessible via Third Mountain Trail or K-I Road. This AMC Lodge is a place to rest, get clean, relax, and enjoy the wilderness.
Day 4: Carl A. Newhall Lean-To to East Branch Lean-To (10.8 mi)
Overview: A long ascent of the White Cap range, then a descent to the East Branch of the Pleasant River.
Highlight: Cold, clear spring water from the spring near the Sidney Tappan Campsite (source of Gulf Hagas Brook). Summit of White Cap (3,654 ft), with great views (on a clear day) that include Katahdin.
Day 5: East Branch Lean-To to Antlers Campsite (16 mi)
Overview: A climb over the saddle between Big and Little Boardman Mountains, over Little Boardman, a long walk past Crawford Pond and Cooper Pond (watch for moose) to Antlers Campsite on Lower Jo-Mary Lake.
Highlight: Swimming in Crawford Pond (5.1 mi)
Day 6: Antlers Campsite to South End, Nahmakanta Lake (11 mi)
Overview: Short climb over Potaywadjo Ridge, pass Pemadumcook Lake, walk along Nahmakanta Stream to south end of Nahmakanta Lake.
Highlight: Swimming at sand beach on Lower Jo-Mary Lake (1.7 mi), and Lake Nahmakanta (11 mi).
Day 7: South End, Nahmakanta Lake to Rainbow Stream Lean-To (10.7 mi)
Overview: One last mountain to cross, Nesuntabunt, then a long, forested walk to Rainbow Stream Lean-To.
Highlight: Swimming holes near Rainbow Stream Lean-To (10.7 mi).
Day 8: Rainbow Stream Lean-To to Abol Bridge (15 mi)
Overview: Last day, peaceful walk alongside Rainbow Deadwaters and Rainbow Lake, a short ascent and descent of Rainbow Ledges, and a last push across rolling forest and bog to Abol Bridge.
Highlight: View from Rainbow Ledges (9 mi), and finishing.
We will assume that, if you are hiking the 100 MW, you have already chosen your pack and boots, know if you want hiking poles (yes, please, especially on wet, rocky descents), and know how you will cook and purify water. We overpacked, and this list (with links to what we used) cuts out non-essentials like a mini-fishing rod (we didn’t catch anything), and firestarter sticks (we only made two fires – in designated areas, of course, and birch bark worked nicely). Dad had a 75-liter, sixty lb pack because he didn’t want to come up short on supplies with a kid in the woods, but this can be done with a much lighter pack. Remember to leave no trace (empty meal pouches make great trash bags to carry with you). Also, waterproof Stuff Sacks are essential to streamline your packing, keep items dry, and double as bear bags to suspend your food at night. Would recommend at least two (one each for clothing and food).
Solar lantern (lightweight, collapsible, and lights up interior of tent at night)
Tent and ground cloth (we used Kelty Salida 2 two-person, with ground cloth). Some try to cut weight by just using a sleeping bag and pad, and using the AT shelters, but we found that they were crowded and noisy, and the tent gave us the option of finding a beautiful spot early, or pushing a little further, and just finding a flat spot at night.
Ivory soap in Ziploc (99.44% pure, and it floats. Perfect for cleaning up in lakes/streams)
Gold Bond foot powder
Bug spray w/Deet
First Aid kit: tweezers, bandaids, moleskin, itch cream, ibuprofen
Duct tape (mini-roll)
USB solar charger (this is pretty neat, lightweight, and recharges while you hike, using the sun. Great way to keep juice in your phone for photos or proof-of-life text messages when cell service is available)
2 pairs Ex Officio underwear (quick-drying, anti-microbial)
2 t-shirts/tank tops
2 pairs convertible pants/shorts
Clean long-sleeve t-shirt/shorts in Ziploc (to wear at night/in camp)
Lightweight shoes (I can’t wear Crocs, but people love them. Flip flops are no good for river crossings. Happy medium may be barefoot trailrunning shoes)
1 jacket or heavy shirt
Food (plan on 1.5 to 2 lbs per person per day, and realize you will be sick of most of it by Day 3, so variety is good. Get rid of bulky packaging before you hike, and in the morning, take out the food for each day, placing it in more accessible pouches on the outside of your pack):
Mountain House freeze-dried meals or packaged (Annie’s) mac and cheese (dinner)
Tortillas/lavash bread (use with pepperoni and cheese sticks to roll up)
Peanut butter and/or Nutella
Mixed Nuts (mix in with oatmeal, also mixes with dark chocolate are great)
Pre-made PB +J sandwiches
Granola/Energy bars (rotate flavors)
Starbucks Via instant coffee and/or hot chocolate packets
There will always be better ideas, lighter gear, more efficient plans. These are simply lessons we learned, and feedback is appreciated. The itinerary above is intended as a guideline, but there are side trails aplenty, and if you look at our journey, we adjusted to slow down and dry out our gear, avoid lightning and dangerous river fords, and speeded up to push ahead on better days.
If you are taking on the 100 Mile Wilderness, train to do so beforehand, hiking over rough terrain with a heavy pack, and doing multi-day hikes, breaking in all your gear, and finding out where your hot spots/blisters/chafe marks accumulate. There is no gym replacement or substitute for this. Our train-up was a fun couple months in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire, increasing distances and pack loads the entire time.
Additionally, have an exit strategy for the 100 Mile Wilderness. You may sustain an injury or find yourself in a situation beyond your control – that’s why it’s a wilderness, and this is a challenge. Be realistic, and don’t let pride goad you into bad decisions. But above all, have fun, and get outside.
[Note: this is the ninth and final part of a series begun in summer 2017 of an attempt at the 100 Mile Wilderness by dad, 41, and daughter, 12]
Should it take ten days to do the 100 Mile Wilderness? Probably not. Should it take eight days in 2017, and two days in 2018? Doesn’t matter- it did. As described on the 100 Mile Wilderness page, we started in 2017, had a great time together, but dad and daughter decided after 75 miles that we would continue some other time. This summer, we were dying to get back out there, and when the last weekend in September 2018 opened up for us, we jumped at the chance to complete the final 25 miles.
By definition, it’s a wilderness, so starting 25 miles south of Abol Bridge took logistical support. For that, we were helped by the friendly people at the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket, a hostel open during the hiking season until October 15th. We were greeted by Ole Man (these are trail names) upon our arrival, stayed at the Earl Shaffer Room (clean, two twin beds, shared bathroom, WiFi) for $55 the night before, got delicious breakfast sandwiches and a massive chocolate donut down the street at the Appalachian Trail Cafe the morning we left, and used the reasonably priced Appalachian Trail Lodge shuttle service to leave our truck at Abol Bridge, and get dropped off at the south end of Lake Nahmakanta. We swapped shuttles halfway, as the larger van we rode back to Millinocket from Abol Bridge was needed for the eager thru-hikers headed to Baxter State Park, and we traveled south in an SUV that had recently been repaired after a charging moose had broken off the driver’s side mirror.
We learned a lot on our shuttle ride from NoKey, a 2012 AT thru-hiker working at the Appalachian Trail Lodge, who was friendly, professional, and added all kinds of value to what otherwise would have been just a cab ride over logging roads. We had just missed a large bull moose on the Golden Road, of which NoKey showed us a picture. We got the scoop on good (most) and bad (very few) shuttle services/guides, places to stay near Millinocket, the effect of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on tourism, area wildlife and history, saw a lynx crossing the road, got an update on bear activity in the area, and even got a lesser-known trail recommendation (Turtle Ridge Trail in Nahmakanta Public Lands). We also passed a large encampment by Cooper Brook, which was the location of an L.L. Bean promotional “Trail Magic” campaign along the AT.
With that preamble, we got a mid-morning start at the south end of Lake Nahmakanta, and after a nostalgic moment on the windy beach, started walking north through the remote Nahmakanta Public Lands. Quickly, we saw large moose tracks and fresh droppings along the trail, and quickened our pace to try to see this animal, without success. We grudgingly adapted to having the heavy packs on our backs, and adjusted our day-hiker pace downward to accommodate the extra weight (we packed too much food). We stopped briefly at Wadleigh Stream Lean-to to crack open our Peanut Butter M&M’s, and noticed a plaque inside the lean-to honoring a hiker named Buffalo Bobby, who had passed away near this spot exactly 7 years before, 38 miles from finishing his third AT thru-hike. Wow. Rest in peace, BB.
By about 1 pm, we had reached the north summit of Nesuntabunt Mountain, and took the short side trail to view Nahmakanta Lake and far-off peaks. Then we sat down to make ourselves lunch, the same peanut butter, banana, and Nutella wraps we had used for energy on Katahdin a couple weeks before. A quick descent took us to the base of the mountain and around Crescent Pond to Pollywog Gorge.
The cliffs surrounding the gorge were impressive, but we were beginning to wear down, and didn’t linger. We crossed Pollywog Stream on a bridge, and made our way up Rainbow Stream to Rainbow Stream Lean-to a little before 5 pm, where a male thru-hiker and two female multi-day hikers we had seen earlier were getting ready for the night. This made it only a 10.7 mile day for us, but it felt like a lot more. The lean-to area quickly filled up with thru-hikers as the sun set. The thru-hikers we saw were exhausted, broken, and profane, but unfailingly friendly, polite, and focused on the last stretch of trail to Katahdin.
We set up our tent, which was complicated by a broken pole, repaired with a mostly ineffective combination of duct tape, twine, and tent stakes. We lay out our bedding, refilled our water, cooked dinner (Chicken Teriyaki Mountain House meal), hung our food in a bear bag, and were in our sleeping bags by 7 pm, fading into sleep despite the loud conversations by the lean-to campfire.
It was a cold night, and we were uncomfortable, with neither of us sleeping well. Our sleeping bags and pads were up to the task, but we both agreed in the morning that we need to figure out how to pack pillows with us. Also, dad’s snoring woke up daughter, and daughter poking dad to stop his snoring woke up dad, creating the worst sort of perpetual motion machine throughout the night.
Daughter explored the campsite area in the morning, finding a precarious log bridge across Rainbow Stream to an animal den in a rock cave, possibly the former resting place of a bear. We peeked inside the den, seeing the small skull of an unfortunate prey animal. Dad made instant coffee and mixed in one of daughter’s hot chocolate packets for some more flavor in an attempt to wake up.
We packed quickly and got moving around 7:30 AM, moving along the edge of the Rainbow Deadwaters. The trail was beautiful, and we marveled at spiderwebs covered in dew, and the unique morning light in the North Woods. We also heard late-season loons calling from Rainbow Lake.
Daughter said that the Hobbit movies could have been filmed here, a recognition of the dramatic, colorful terrain that we tend to associate with movies, and so rarely see in person. We saw a root formation overtaking a tree that looked like a giant spider. As far as mythical creatures go, the west end of Rainbow Lake was the site of what can only be described as a beaver Armageddon, with fallen trees every which way across the trail.
We stopped for a break by Rainbow Spring Campsite. The privy there was filled with trail graffiti, including the signature of someone whose trail name was “The Privy Destroyer.” This harkened back to irreverent trail names scrawled inside the Appalachian Trail Cafe that had amused daughter, including “Swamp Butt.”
We continued past side trails to Rainbow Mountain and Big Beaver Pond in the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area, stopping to check out Rainbow Lake (the largest lake on the 100 MW) from several rocky openings along the trail. On one stop, we cooked a Mountain House chicken and rice meal for lunch, and let it cool while we walked. When we sat down about fifteen minutes later to eat, it was perfect. Daughter was already sick of the Nutella and lavash bread, so the hot lunch was a good change-up. We also used this time to air out our feet, and change into clean, dry socks.
Rainbow Ledges was a steady climb, with colorful foliage and views from the high point back to the White Cap range, and forward, towards Katahdin. We remembered crossing the White Cap range a year ago on the 4th of July, and the pea soup fog that hindered our summit views that day. Sadly, we ran out of Peanut Butter M&M’s during this Rainbow Ledges ascent, which had a devastating effect on morale. From here, we descended through the ever-changing forest and down well-set rock staircases to Hurd Brook Lean-To.
The last few miles seemed to last the longest, as they always do. There weren’t many landmarks on the home stretch to Abol Bridge. The descriptive note, “Interesting area of large boulders and large hemlock trees,” on AT Map 1 at 2.2 miles from Abol Bridge, seemed superfluous after 100 miles of interesting rocks and trees. Suddenly, we were faced with a sign warning us that we were 100 miles north of Monson, and that we should have a minimum of 10 days supplies if we were heading south. We realized we were almost done, and saw the Golden Road peeking through the trees ahead.
We trudged across Abol Bridge in the late afternoon, completing our 15 mile day. We stopped by the Abol Bridge Campground store to buy some Gatorade, then got back in our truck, and drove out the Golden Road towards Millinocket. The Millinocket House of Pizza is daughter’s restaurant of choice, and she called in an order enroute for a large Hawaiian pizza as soon as cell service returned.
The soreness in our shoulders and knees and the chafing from the packs would fade in time, but completing the 100 Mile Wilderness together had been important to both of us. The cool, bug-free fall weather and colorful foliage were unexpected bonuses. To immerse yourself into the Wilderness, to walk there, sleep there on the ground, listen to the sounds of birds, bathe in the lakes, and then bring back out everything you came in with, is to feel shared ownership of this special place, where most people never go. Even in our weary haste at the end to finish, we had talked about new challenges, and also bringing memories of this hike back with us. As we split the pizza, we talked about our hike, and planned a lazy day for tomorrow.
We had hiked Katahdin, but daughter had never taken the legendary Knife Edge Trail, the narrow 1.1 mile stretch (and Maine rite of passage) from Pamola Peak to Baxter Peak. At age 12, it was time. On September 9, 2018, we hiked together to Baxter Peak on Mt. Katahdin via the Helon Taylor Trail to cross the Knife Edge. On the way down, dad and daughter took the Saddle and Chimney Pond Trails (total R/T appx 10.2 mi). (For maps, other routes, and links to Baxter State Park’s great resources, see our September 2017 Mt. Katahdin post.)
On the way in to Millinocket the night before, we stopped at Hannaford to stock up on supplies before staying at the Parks Edge Inn. In preparation, we went with a chocolate and peanut butter theme, and for our lunches, wrapped Nutella, peanut butter, and bananas in lavash bread like some Willy Wonka burritos, and grabbed peanut butter chocolate chip Larabars and peanut butter M&M’s to snack on.
To get into line at the Baxter State Park gate the next morning, we woke up around 5 am, and signed in to start hiking at Roaring Brook at 6:47 am. The $5 Day Use parking pass for Maine residents has to be the most value Mainers can get for $5. This easy online step is essential to guarantee a spot in the park, which is kept wild in many ways, including the limitation on daily access to the park.
The climb up Helon Taylor Trail was steady and tough, but we took our time, and enjoyed the changing vegetation and ubiquitous chattering of red squirrels, often looking back to enjoy the views behind us to the east, as we slowly emerged from the forest, patches of scrub pine, and finally above the tree line, reaching Pamola Peak around 10 am.
The first step of the Knife Edge was the descent into the chimney adjoining Pamola, then a quick climb back up, setting the tone for a fun traverse. We saw several other groups of people crossing the Knife Edge, including some coming from the direction of Baxter Peak, one of which contained the only other child we saw, a nimble little boy, younger than daughter, leaping from rock to rock.
After the climb up Helon Taylor, exposed to the wind, and steeply ascending until our legs ached, we agreed that the Knife Edge was more mentally than physically challenging, and stopped frequently to gaze down into the bowl created by the steep cliffs of Katahdin, look at rock slides down the cliffs to the south, and watch ravens wheel and glide on the air currents below us.
We did not spend long on the summit of Baxter Peak, which was crowded with thru-hikers and large groups, with a long line to take pictures at the summit sign. Millennial-types used the cell service available due to the summit’s elevation to FaceTime with friends (“You’ll never guess where I am right now”) and send Instagram pictures ad nauseam. Daughter waited for a quick break in the action and snapped a ghost summit photo.
Much more interesting was our meeting on the way down to the Saddle Trail with a Baxter State Park ranger, who educated us about the fragility of alpine plants. She told us that even a small patch can take up to one hundred years to grow back, and can be killed by as few as seven footsteps on it. We asked a number of questions we had gathered during our hike, including why some slides looked different- she explained that the slides where the trees were laying downhill were caused by avalanches in the winter, but that when the mountainside was denuded of vegetation, it meant that a rockslide had occurred. This ranger, from Asheville, North Carolina, works at Baxter from May to October educating hikers, conducting rescues, and sometimes climbs Katahdin every day.
Our descent of the Saddle Trail was slowed by the onerous process of passing what looked like a large school group, and we got to Chimney Pond around 1:40 PM, where we took a long break to enjoy the sunshine, air out our feet, and birdwatch.
From there, it was a downhill walk over rocks and roots to Roaring Brook and our car, getting back around 3:30, for a total of almost nine hours of hiking. During this last stretch, one of dad’s hiking poles snapped, but our hike was otherwise uneventful.
So what worked? Obviously, chocolate and peanut butter. But daughter felt good about her hiking and running in the weeks leading up to the Knife Edge, and it got her into shape for the climb.
Mentally, we had talked about the challenges, and even used technology to our advantage, watching YouTube videos of the Knife Edge (the volume was quickly muted) to dispel fears. We started hiking with the agreement that we would not stupidly try to push through bad weather, and even reserved another parking spot for the following day, just in case.
We had a ton of water, using our 3 Liter Osprey hydration systems (Dad still ran out with a mile or two left to go). Dad carried a light pack with extra clothing layers and food. Daughter stayed with a Camelbak pack that allowed her to carry water and a few energy bars, but didn’t hinder her while climbing.
We shared a great hike, and daughter enjoyed being the tallest thing in Maine, even for a few seconds. With the right attitude, preparation, and training, the Knife Edge can be an incredible, unforgettable experience for kids, as part of an exploration of Maine’s tallest mountain and the limits within themselves. Even an unsuccessful attempt, safely and properly handled, can create a goal for future conquest, and build decision-making and risk management skills.
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.
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.
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.
The IAT and trail to Barnard Mountain
IAT Lean-To (toilet is behind lean-to)
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.
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.
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.
Thru-hikers can have many different reasons to attempt the Appalachian Trail (AT), whether it be the fulfillment of a dream, a personal challenge, or any number of life events, and in Hike It Forward: Hiking the Appalachian Trail Strong, Safe and in the Spirit, (self-published, 2015) David Rough recounts his successful 2014 thru-hike from Georgia to Maine, as part of an “unavoidable call” and an effort to improve tuition assistance at the Christian school system in Ohio of which he was Academic Dean at the time. Rough blogged about his hike in the Hike It Forward blog.
Rough (trail name: Rowdy) details his preparations for the hike, and how these preparations stood up to the 2,186 mile test, including gear and clothing. In addition, Rough’s book includes three bonus features: Trail Preparation, Trail Journal, and a State-by-State guide. A bibliography includes everything from A Walk in The Woods to The Lord of the Rings.
Rough breaks down AT lingo, most importantly explaining the HYOH concept: Hike Your Own Hike, respecting the different goals, motivations, and methods of other hikers. Rough also converts the “trail magic” concept to “trail blessings,” which reflects Rough’s Christian faith. Most of the blessings involve food, which is central to the thoughts and well-being of thru-hikers.
The book reveals a daily life on the trail containing surprises, nasty falls, and unexpected acts of kindness. These vignettes range from uplifting conversations with other thru-hikers, most of them referenced by trail name, to lighthearted musings on moose encounters, to an incident with a peeping tom at a hostel.
These stories illustrate lessons learned by Rough, and his trail journal provides a sense of scale regarding the sheer mileage of a thru-hike, and its effect on his mood. Additionally, Rough is careful to credit his wife and sister, and the many others who supported his hike, showing that while an AT hike is inherently a solitary endeavor, the added motivation and encouragement to see it through can be the difference between success and failure.
Rough also discusses the challenges faced in adjusting to normal life again after his AT experience, and how small things like shoes, being inside, and changing his diet caused stress, and how Rough dealt with this, and how reconnecting with friends from the AT cushioned some of the loss felt upon leaving the trail. Rough concludes:
The Appalachian Trail is forever etched into my life. God allowed me to experience a path that few have walked. My hike was so uniquely mine and the spiritual journey so personally embraced me that words cannot describe its intimacy. A one hundred and fifty-two day walk incorporates 3,648 hours of experiences and people and blessing and adversity and adventure. To capture it in a book, to recall it in words, to reflect it in pictures, or even to fully understand it myself seems to evade my abilities.
Overall, Rough’s narrative effectively describes his initial romantic view of the trail being replaced by hardship, but then re-forged, one step at a time, hiking his own hike, into an appreciation of the trail as it is.