Baxter State Park - Memorial Day Wknd

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Apr 1, 2004
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Baxter State Park, May 28-31, 2004

Our trip to Baxter State Park in Maine began with the usual car-full of stuff that we just hoped had everything we would need. It never does, but we always seem to pack plenty of stuff we never touch. For example, I brought one pair of heavy socks, but 3 cotton t-shirts. Huh?

Our primary goal for this trip was to bag the four peaks on the New England 100 Highest list: North Brother, South Brother, Mount Coe and Fort Mountain. If the mountains allowed us to climb all four that would put our total at #72 with more plans for the rest of the summer...of course Danielle has more plans for the summer!

After sneaking out of work in North Conway, NH at about 3:00 pm, we began our trek north. After a stop at Pizzeria Uno in Bangor, we wandered around the Bangor Mall parking lot and adjacent sprawling roads looking for 95 North. Apparently, Bangorians only drive south because there are no signs for 95 North. Doesn't anyone want to go to Presque Isle? Eventually, we made it to Hidden Springs Campground at 9:00 pm. Confirming the reports we had, the folks at Hidden Spring were very nice. We were slated for site #25, but the “camp-keeper” informed us that our site was directly across from the teepee, which was open for the night. Let’s see: set up the tent, so we can break it down in 7 hours, or have the experience of sleeping in a teepee? Teepee it was. But, when we arrived at the teepee we realized that it was already occupied—by the biggest spider in existence, just clinging to the outside of the tent. Have you ever seen one of those campy movies depicting prehistoric times in which the grunting humans in ragged loin cloths fight off terrible beasts with torches and rocks? Well, this spider was about that big. After dispatching the beast and calming a quivering Danielle, we climbed into the teepee for the night. (For all you animal rights activists out there, I didn’t actually dispatch the spider, but shooed him away with a sneaker.) I guess I’m understating the “quivering Danielle.” Lucky for me, she possesses an intense fear of spiders. So much so, that I thought I would be driving back to Pizzeria Uno. Somehow, I convinced her that there weren’t any more and he wasn’t likely to come back with all my snoring. It worked and I didn’t have to drive any more that night.

Now, we are primarily backpackers, and don’t stay at many campgrounds, which is why it was strange for us to woken up by the sound of a hair dryer coming from the Shower House a few yards away. (Hidden Springs is a classy joint, so they don’t call it a “bath house.”) So, at about 7:30, we were on our way to Baxter.

We had reservations for Abol Campground, which was cool because we had never stayed there before. By 8:30, we were setting up shop in site #23. Abol is your typical Baxter campground: nice sites, not too crammed together, no running water and outhouses. I was all ready to climb into the tent and sleep the day away, but we had peaks to climb and adventures, off to the Marston Trail it was.

It was a beautiful morning in northern Maine: 41 degrees and drizzling at the trailhead—typical weather for us. If we were at home I would have cowered in bed until the last possible moment, convincing Danielle that we should cook a big breakfast, eat slowly, do something homeownerish, and then explain why it was too late to go hiking. But not today, we had our reservations, we were in the Park, and we were going for it.

Our original plan was to start on the Marston Trail, take it to North Brother, bushwhack to Fort and back, then backtrack down the Marston Trail to the upper Mount Coe Trail junction, follow the Mount Coe Trail to the South Brother spur, hit South Brother, then continue to Mount Coe, and then out for a simple 14 or so mile day. Things don’t always go as planned.

I don’t think we had any real rain this day, but it wasn’t dry either. The trees were wet and everything was just damp. Not a bad day to be out the trail, but not sparkling either. The first 1.3 miles to the junction were fairly benign—a couple grouchy blowdowns, but nothing to get upset about. We reached a pond at about 2 miles, and got our first views of Fort Mountain. It looked like a typical rounded peak in New England, and the sun started to peek out a bit. Our spirits were high. Looking back, I think the peak was just baiting us. After chomping down a Power Bar apiece, we started the climbing in earnest. The Marston Trail gets step for about a mile or so as it climbs to the saddle between the Brothers—definitely a huffer and puffer. Great views along the way of Doubletop just to the west and Coe and South Brother to the south. Once at the height of land the trail winds its way through dense pine forest, and this where things began to get interesting.

At about 3500’ feet or so we saw a bit of snow on the trees. The novelty of fresh snow at the end of May was intoxicating. We laughed, giggled, snapped photos, and generally marveled at the wonders of Mother Nature. Mother Nature can be a real bitch.

We paused for a chilly lunch at the upper junction of the Marston and Mount Coe Trails, and contemplated our ascent of North Brother. As we looked through the trees to a snow covered Katahdin, we knew that North Brother had the potential to be very interesting. Plus, the wind had started to pick up. It had been present off and on all day, but now it was officially getting windy.

The trail to North Brother needs some love—heavy erosion. In some places, it is totally washed away.

One lesson we learned on this trip was the true difference between water resistant and waterproof. Waterproof jackets, but water resistant pants. Since we left the car, every fir tree we passed had left a bit of water or snow on our pants, and by the time we got to North Brother we were a little damp. Not wet, but damp. Enough to realize that our pants were not optimal for the conditions. It was a lot like walking through a car wash without any of the brushes moving.

Needless to say we pressed on, till treeline. The views from the summit cone of North Brother were almost as breathtaking as the wind. The wind never actually knocked either of us over, but it came close a couple times. We made our way to the rime ice covered sign at the summit of North Brother, and slapped our traditional high five. North Brother was #69 off the list.

We quickly turned our attention to Fort Mountain; because of the wind, we wanted to get off the summit as fast as possible. From the top of North Brother the beginning of the herd path to Fort is very easy to find, and in about a minute we were on our way. I guess, the bushwhack to Fort isn't a true bushwhack because there is a herd path that you can follow. Well, when it's in the high 30's, both temperature and wind, and everything is wet, it's a bushwhack.

Remember our pants? Well, about 2 minutes in the bushwhack we were soaked. (This begins the admittedly stupid portion of the program.)

“Well, we can’t get any wetter,” I yelled above the wind. This was a mistake that Danielle has been making fairly consistently for the entire of our five-year marriage: She listened to me.

Actually, we could get much wetter. Danielle has an art history degree and I hold an English degree; in other words, we don’t know anything about anything useful in the real world, such as physics. We were smart enough to wear gaiters for our hike—the tall ones that reach the top of the shin. What we didn’t realize is that when your pants become saturated by the millions of water droplets contained in each branch that one passes through (we passed through approximately 3,271,986 branches) the water makes its way down your pants and into your socks until your boots go squish with every step.

So, wet and tired we pressed on, testing the adage: “It’s not an adventure, if you having fun while it’s happening.”

Did I mention this was our first real bushwhack? We have already climbed another trailless peak, but Mount Nancy doesn’t count. We did some bushwhacking in Denali National Park in Alaska, but that was just wandering over the tundra...not many blowdowns on the tundra! Fort Mountain came with its share of blowdowns. So, for us, it was baptism by fire.

The distance from North Brother to Fort is only about a mile, but it took about an hour after we left the summit of North Brother for us to hit treeline on Fort. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire” isn’t really the right cliché here because of the temperature, but you get the picture. We scrambled as fast as we could up the side of Fort, tagged the summit (literally) and spun around. The wind had picked up from earlier on North Brother, and it was cold. Wet pants were not a good fashion choice. Of course, we looked marvelous...

To be continued...
Part Two...

Once back in the spruce, we began to come to the realization that we had to go back up and over North Brother. Wet trees also make polypro glove liners wet. I won’t go into the rest of the details of our trip on “hyperthermia highway”, but we shivered and gritted our teeth over North Brother and beat a hasty retreat back to the upper junction of the Marston and Mount Coe Trails, 0.8 from the summit of North Brother. To put the temperature in perspective our snack at the trail junction included semi-frozen Fig Newtons. We also changed our socks here. The earth moved and angels wept...that's how great it was to put on a dry pair of socks. Of course, two seconds later I was cast out from my heavenly perch as I slid them into my very squishy shoes. No South Brother or Mount Coe for us today...all we wanted was the car heater full blast. Not so fast, though, as we still had the 3.7-mile descent down the same Marston Trail we just climbed up, and it's share of blowdowns. At every blowdown, I yelled, "No more whackin'!", which became our mantra for the rest of the trip, and I'm sure will make cameo appearances on every hike for the rest of the summer...especially the whacks!

Life is a funny thing. We survived our cold and soggy 11-mile day and found ourselves back safe and sound at site #23 in Abol Campground. We were treated to the hilarity of the group across from us preparing their tent for a volcanic eruption or other such cataclysm. First they put a huge tarp down, no doubt to keep the giant worms (which, incidentally are closely related to the spiders from Hidden Springs) from coming up through the floor. The tarp was at least double the size of the tent floor. Then they staked each corner of their four-person dome dent and placed a rock on each stake. Above the tent, they suspended another tarp, which after using about 300 feet of rope, they got it just where they wanted it, which apparently was with a slight sag in front of the tent door from which any rain would puddle and eventually drip onto the aforementioned tarp beneath the tent, which would conveniently direct any water beneath the tent. Then, just to be certain that once all the water that seeped into the tent would not evaporate; they placed a blanket of clear plastic directly on top of the tent. In the time it took them to accomplish this, we arrived in camp, made dinner, ate dinner, cleaned the pots and filtered 6 bottles of water. I guess, everyone has a different adventure.

Sunday dawned similar to Saturday: Cold and windy, but the sun was out. (Needless to say, our neighbors were not yet stirring.) OK, it wasn’t quite as cold; it was a balmy 43 at the trailhead. (I have to confess that all this whining about the temps is for dramatic effect, I’m a winter person. You think I’m whining now, wait ‘til it hits 80. I whine more than a newborn puppy.) But, it was back to the Marston Trail for us for round two. This time we took a right at the first junction onto the Mount Coe Trail and headed for the Mount Coe slide. We had a great walk into the draw that separates Mount O-J-I from Mount Coe with great views of Coe, the Brothers and Fort. Once we hit the bottom of the slide and we were out the trees, our old friend the wind decided to make an appearance. But, since it was dry, we simply exchanged pleasantries and carried on about our business. Today’s first order of business was getting up the Mount Coe slide, which is no easy task. Since it was late May, the obligatory melt over every rock slab was making things slippery. Plus, the “trail” was difficult to follow, but sporadic blazes seemed to indicate a path that hugged the left side of the slide. As we climbed, we discussed the description of the trails in the Maine Mountain Guide, which we decided should be renamed the "Maine Mountain Understatement Collection." The Mount Coe Slide barely gets a mention in the book, but it a formidable climb, and certainly not something that someone without a parachute would want to descend. It was slow going as we picked our way to the top, at which point Danielle announced that she didn’t like climbing slides...for the 83rd time that morning. Let’s just say she’s not a big fan of exposure. But, any “enclosed” climb and I can barely keep up. Our original plan was to come back down this way since we had descended via the Marston Trail yesterday, but neither of us wanted to tackle that slide in the opposite direction. So, we psychologically prepare ourselves for déjà vu all over again from the redundant redundancy department for the Marston Trail again. But first, we set our sights on the summit of Coe, which was just above the slide through a steep, wooded section.

Compared to our experience from the previous day, the summit of Mount Coe was a lazy day on the beach in Aruba, all that was missing was the fruit drinks with umbrellas in them. Windy, but not as cold, and certainly drier! As usual, Danielle had to drag me from the summit, as I would have lingered for hours taking in the view. But we still had a few more miles to go.

The trail descends quickly from Mount Coe offering fine views of South Brother along the way. Then it meanders to the col, but then climbs more than we had expected. We were starting to get hungry for lunch, but we pushed on to the spur path for South Brother.

"Oh Brother, where art thou?" (I haven’t actually seen the movie, but it seemed appropriate.)

Eventually, we hit the spur path and downed the PB&J bagels that had been squishing to just the right shape in my pack for the last couple hours. The spur path to South Brother was an easy climb save a couple tricky boulders, and the view was awesome. South Brother gave us the perfect combination of stunning views and strong winds. Not strong enough to knock you over, but strong enough to get the adrenaline up to make the view that much better. What a day!

So, it was down the spur path, and then back to the Marston Trail that we had gotten to know so well the day before. Of course, it was a different day so the trail was uniquely different than the day before. No snow this time, and we cruised to the bottom. OK, so we didn't exactly cruise, as this was the end of our second 11-mile day in a row, but we did make it to the bottom. On the way, we stopped at the pond for a snack and were greeted by a mink that was just shedding his winter coat. I tried to bribe him with gorp for a ride to the trailhead, but to no avail. Minks are very honest creatures.

It was a balmy 56 degrees when we returned to the car and Abol Campground. That night we debated our options for our last day in the park. We wanted something mellowish, so we came up with two options: a meander through the ponds to the west of Katahdin Stream Campground or a climb up the Owl. We decided to wait and see how we felt in the morning.

You know when you really want to climb something that even though the topo lines are close together, you convince yourself that it can't really be that steep? Well, that was the case with the Owl as we found out shortly after we turned left off the Hunt Trail the next morning.

Monday was the best weather day by far: Sunny and very little wind. So, we parked the trusty (and now quite stinky) Matrix in the day use lot at Katahdin Stream Campground and made our way up the Appalachian Trail. As of 9:00 am, we were the only group on the trail not climbing Katahdin that day. We both thought about it for a minute, but knew that we were pretty tired and looking forward to another day of solitude in the hills. We’d only seen three people on the trail the previous two days. Yeah, no one else was bushwhacking to Fort, how strange. (Actually, we half expected a crowd, since last summer when we climbed Owls Head, we found a dozen people at the summit.) Besides, we had already climbed Katahdin, and there's a pretty good chance we'll make it back again soon.

Well, our mellow day turned into a fairly stout climb up the Owl, but certainly worth it. The Owl Trail is either flat or really steep, on in between. Plus, it features so frisky exposed ledges and rock puzzles. For most of the morning we had a decent view through the trees of the western ridge of Katahdin—the false summit of the peak that breaks the wills of those unaware climbing the Hunt Trail. Eventually, we learned that the Owl has a false summit of its own, which is at the top of the trickiest part of the climb. But, the true summit is only another 5 minutes further on. Lunch on the summit, out of the wind taking in Katahdin from a very unique and up-close angle. We could see hikers on the AT making their way up the ridge. We had great views of Katahdin, the surrounding peaks and a fantastic perspective on the peaks we climbed the previous two days. Despite being 1500 feet shorter than its larger and more famous neighbor, the Owl is a great hike and well worth devoting a day to. Plus, you get to make a hoot noise at the top.

Needless to say, we were reluctant to leave the summit, knowing that every step we took was bringing us closer to the end of our trip. We took our time on the descent, and I didn’t even come close the 20 mph speed limit on the Tote Road as we meandered out of the Park.

So, that was our trip to Baxter. Capped of with a pair of Black Forest Strudels from the exquisite bakery case at the Irving in doesn't get any better.
trailbiscuit: Thanks for sharing. It made my morning coffee a bit more enjoyable!!
trailbiscuit: what I got from the write up is that you had a great time. I really enjoyed reading it. The Owl is one that I have missed so far. Gotta get back to that one!

Ok, it's been almost a week to let it sink in. Weren't Fort and the Coe slide a blast?
Um...yeah...BTW...sorry for the length...I just kept typing and it got a little out of control. :eek:

SherpaK: Yeah, I'm definitely ready to go back to Fort...but it has to be a dry day. The Coe Slide was great...I love stuff like that, but it would have been nice to know it was coming. It was psychologically difficult for the first few minutes.

BTW, the online order was placed yesterday for "real" rain more procrastinating here. :D
Re: Part Two...

trailbiscuit said:
Plus, you get to make a hoot noise at the top.

So nice to see that I'm not the only one who does things like this! My kids think I'm nuts, of course, and my usual hiking partner, a psychiatrist (yes, really) simply tolerates me. :D