Katahdin: a weekend in the Maine woods; Owl Mountain, Baxter Peak via Cathedral, the Knife Edge... ~Mike Gradziel.
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Snow was still on the ground when my four friends and I first began thinking about a summer trip north to climb Katahdin. The idea grew as the year progressed, and we finally set a date at the end of June. Our final preparations were discussed as we sat around a campfire one night late in June. A few days later we packed our gear and supplies into Ben's suddenly tiny Buick Electra and hit the road early in the morning. We made good time, playing through our collections of tapes and telling stories. We stopped in Freeport Maine to see the L.L.Bean store and reluctantly left the masses of new camping gear to continue northward. At a small pizza and pasta place in Milo we ordered plates of spaghetti before moving on up the road into increasingly desolate country. Skies were mostly cloudy, so we saw nothing of the mountain that awaited us. Late in the evening we had almost reached the park road so we pulled aside into one of the numerous gravel pits to camp for the night. The mosquitoes were voracious. After setting up the six-man tent we sat around a fire for a while and snacked while battling the bugs. Once in the cramped tent, we thrashed around inside our sticky sleeping bags and listened to the whine of the mosquitoes outside, thankful at least to be free of them.
Dawn brought cloudy skies and light drizzle. We grabbed some food and headed into the park, intending to climb the peak and spend the next day exploring side-trails. Stopping at a ranger station, we learned that sunny weather was forecast for the next day, so we decided to postpone the hike by a day. After passing through the gate, we bounced over a dirt road for many miles, passing a moose in one of the ponds. We set up camp at Katahdin Stream campground, packed sandwiches in Jeremy's Alf lunchbox, and headed up the trail to Owl Mountain. The trees and shrubbery were wet from the rain and we were quickly soaked. We followed the Appalachian Trail for a ways and then broke off on the trail to the summit of Owl. The forest was primarily spruce with some softwoods and a cold, clear brook rushed down beside the trail. A sharp-shinned hawk was nesting at the cut-off and as the rangers had warned us, it dove repeatedly and flew inches above our heads in defense of its territory. Moving upward over slippery boulders and moss-covered tree trunks, we passed into an area of low-growing shrubbery. The trail steepened considerably, but we could not see far up the mountain through the fog. I spotted several rare lady's slipper orchids that had bloomed but were now past their prime growing in the green mossy tangle along the trail.
After a long scrambling climb we had become separated into two groups, Jeremy and Ben ahead and Steve and myself behind. The rocky mountainside dropped sharply into a windy gorge between Owl Mountain and Katahdin, and I longed to have my ropes with me. Fog and clouds rushed through the pass, and the wind whipped at our clothing. Climbing onto a rocky promontory close to the summit, I heard a shout looked upward through a break in the clouds to see Jeremy standing at the top of an immense cliff on the far side of a gorge, waving exuberantly. He soon vanished into the fog, and moving we soon arrived at the wind-swept summit. There were a few stunted spruce trees clustered among the rocks and just below the summit the trail had been cut through a dense thicket of spruce so it formed a tunnel. After a summit lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we made our way back down the trail. The weather cleared somewhat as we descended, and arriving on the flat trail once again we were surprised to see the steep rounded hill we had just climbed. We stopped for a dunk in Katahdin stream at the base of a waterfall and discovered that the water was numbingly cold.
Back at camp, we settled down to cook dinner and pack for the next day's climb. The mosquitoes were not numerous, much to our surprise. Our boots and clothing were wet, but we were able to dry some things under one of the pavilions in the grassy area beside our campsite. It was nice to have this roof to cook under because a thunderstorm passed through just after dinner and pounded the ground with heavy rain. We prepared for an early start and slept much better that night in the cooler temperatures.
Morning brought sunny skies with more cool temperatures and a stiff breeze. We happily loaded our packs and drove around the mountain to hike up the far side. The first few miles of trail were gently sloping through mixed forest and we reached Chimney Pond after an hour of easy hiking. There were beautiful views of the rocky ridges along the way, and the strong gusty wind kept the bugs away. Chimney Pond, a beautiful blue-green pool of water, was nestled at the base of the mountain. The ridge towered above, completely devoid of trees. We climbed over tumbled boulders at the bottom of the Cathedral trail and then scrambled up the steep face of the mountain. There were pockets of snow left in sheltered areas, and the paths of avalanches through the trees below were easily seen. We climbed out onto the three rock cathedrals as we came to them and looked across from these sharp projections at the Knife's Edge and Baxter Peak. The distance was farther than it seemed.
The trail extended endlessly upward, but eventually we reached the less-steep ridge and followed it to the summit. There was a beautiful view of lakes and hills below, and we could see the town of Millinocket in the distance. A distant mountain displayed rippled purple and green waves where the wind had blown down trees and new growth had sprung up. By this time the sun was becoming uncomfortably hot, and we began to suffer on the treeless slopes. We ate lunch a short distance away and then crossed the Knife's Edge to the lower summit. There was one section where the trail ran along a rocky spine barely a foot wide, but even then the jumbled masses of boulders alongside were an easy jump away. The broken brown rocks were covered with lichens, and springs dripped out of the rock below us and cascaded down the mountain. The trail crossed another narrow ledge with a precipitous drop on one side, and then descended sharply into a notch. The climb down was very steep, and we had to lower ourselves between ledges. The bottom of the notch was flat and sandy, the only flat area on the mountain. On the other side, about fifteen feet away, we were amused to see the trail blazes leading straight up a flat rock face. There were numerous holds, however, and we climbed the well-traveled face without difficulty.
After stopping on the peak to take one last look at Chimney Pond and the valley below, we descended via the long, gradually sloping Helen Taylor trail. Arriving at the car sunburnt and tired but proud of our climb, we returned to camp and jumped into the icy water for a refreshing dip. Along the way we paused to take some pictures at a beautiful view of the mountain. At camp we proceeded to collect large quantities of firewood for the evening, and as darkness fell we cooked up a feast of extra pasta, potatoes, sausage, and beans, all cooked and seasoned to perfection. We stayed up late into the night talking around the fire, and then turned in to rest for our long drive home.
The next morning was sunny as well, and we cleaned up the site and packed everything into the car. It became cloudy as we moved south, and our brief stop at Hampton Beach was cold and windy. It was a long drive home, ten hours, and we arrived after dark. It was back to work the next day, but the call of the mountain remained - ever present, predicting my inevitable return.
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