A recent trip down Route 9 to Amherst has rekindled thoughts of a trip to the top of Maine in August with friend and co-worker Jim Goodness along with BDN outdoor feature writer and hiking guru Brad Viles.
The genesis for the hike up Mount Katahdin began a couple of years ago in conversations with Brad as I explained my longtime goal of ascending to Baxter Peak since I was one of a few Millinocket natives who had not accomplished the feat.
Viles, who has hiked Katahdin more than 100 times, was eager to assist in my quest, and I was also eager to have him as a guide since I am directionally challenged. My wife, Kathy, has absorbed the worst of this over our last 24 years, but it is something that has plagued me since my youth.
As evidence, I’ll hearken back to when I was 13 and wandered into the abundant woods around our camp at Cedar Lake to do some target shooting with my pellet gun. If not for luckily finding a blaze trail that led back to the lake, I still might be wandering those woods.
Another wrong turn occurred during a high school cross country meet in the Greenville woods when I was headed down a trail and started to turn left in pursuit of a Greenville runner who was out of sight. I was several yards into the turn when a Dexter runner at the top of the hill yelled and told me to turn around. It turned out to be one of the finest examples of sportsmanship I’ve witnessed.
Given that unenviable history, I was quite happy with Brad’s decision to act as guide and mentor for the Katahdin trip, but scheduling conflicts, an uncooperative back and my lack of preparedness delayed the trip to this past August, when I thought I had gotten in better physical condition.
Doing so consisted of walking a couple of miles each day along the streets of Brewer with a knapsack filled with several pounds of weight during the spring and summer months. Those days gave me a sense of accomplishment and a consistent smile as I thought of how much I was embarrassing my teenage children, Matthew and Tess, as their geeky dad traversed up and down the streets hauling one of their old knapsacks.
Jim, one of the pivotal staffers who works to make our section a well-detailed and readable one, was the lone BDN sports staffer who was interested in coming along on our trek. He had hiked Katahdin as a Boy Scout many years ago and had continued to nurture a love of the Maine outdoors over the years with his family and friends.
Taking the first step
After a light breakfast in East Millinocket, we arrived at Baxter State Park around 7 a.m. and began our hike from Roaring Brook campground. Even though Jim had hiked Katahdin, Brad referred to us as “newbies” and thus decided the safest and easiest hike to Baxter Peak would be made up the Saddle Trail.
Doing so meant we would hike 3.3 miles to Chimney Pond and then another 2.3 miles to the top of Maine. Being a bit on the naive side, it sounded doable and somewhat easy, but I quickly learned, as one of the Baxter rangers said at Chimney Pond, “there are no easy hikes up Katahdin.”
Luckily, it was a beautiful August day with no humidity and a slight, almost cooling breeze. That would be one of the few salvations of the day as we hit the rocky trail.
My expectation of a hike along a woodsy trail soon evaporated with each step on a rock and over a boulder. Katahdin, it seemed, was one gigantic piece of rock that was wreaking havoc on my 49-year-old body.
However, I tried to remain steadfast to my goal of finally getting to the top of Katahdin and was bolstered by the sights and sounds around us. Roaring Brook really does roar and the sights exuded Maine’s raw beauty.
Jim and Brad also boosted my spirits as they were great company and we managed to carry on pretty constant conversation despite some occasional gasps of breath. Jim and I tried to keep a steady pace, but it was impossible to keep up with Brad, who is a true mountain goat. He must weigh about 140 pounds soaking wet, but as one of my old coaches used to say of me when searching his brain for a compliment, “he’s wiry and deceptively fast.”
Brad is also a talker – a trait he shares with another one of our fine writers on the BDN sports desk, Larry Mahoney. Those conversations are later turned into their well-detailed stories on these pages and I marveled at the similarities Larry and Brad shared.
Up and down the trail, Brad never failed to engage in conversation with the many hikers who passed us. He would walk and talk with them for several minutes, leaving us in his dust, and then end up leaning up against a boulder, waiting for us to catch up.
Although he never seemed tired, he was good at granting us short breaks and we took a much-needed half-hour break at Chimney Pond while the daunting Katahdin peaks loomed in front of us.
To this point, we had teased Brad about when we would actually feel like we were ascending the mountain but were quickly silenced when we began our hike from Chimney Pond up to the base of the Saddle Trail. Saddle, I then learned, would be the toughest part of our hike as it inclined upward over huge boulders with little to hold onto except for an occasional tree branch or bush.
Unfortunately, I didn’t heed Satchel Paige’s advice and looked back several times, each time spurring me to keep going up while also wondering how the heck I was going to get back down.
Again, Brad amazed us with his agility and ease over the boulders on a trail that was formed by a rockslide. He showed off climbing skills that rivaled Gollum’s in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
It was through Brad’s tenacity and encouragement that we finally, and safely, reached the top of Saddle. And then, it was all up hill to Baxter Peak.
We took another much-needed rest, and although even more tired than that one challenging day I picked potatoes on my father-in-law’s farm, I was determined to reach the peak.
Although it was another rocky ascent, it was much easier compared to the Saddle and we were motivated by being so close and by being in awe of God’s handiwork.
A great sense of relief, accomplishment and more awe of the surrounding beauty hit me when we reached Baxter Peak. We took all the usual photos I had seen so many others take, sat on the summit with about 20 other hikers and fully absorbed each sight with a renewed appreciation of nature.
Brad took us precariously close to the edge to enjoy a lunch on the top of Maine after we took turns on my cell phone talking to family members and friends. Brad’s plan was to take a fairly long break at the peak and then head back down; however, I was eager to hit Saddle again because I was truly worried about the descent and wanted to get the final, hardest part of our hike over with.
I was experiencing new aches and pains as we headed down the summit toward Saddle and later figured that it was due to not properly hydrating despite drinking four, 20-ounce bottles of water and eating several bagels and chocolate bars.
I had lots of apprehension of going down Saddle due to its steepness and my professed lack of coordination. One of my aunts always referred to me as a “gommy cow” during my youth – of course with a good dose of affection.
Brad and Jim worked steadily down and I followed, mostly by slowly sliding down the boulders on my butt until finally reaching the bottom. Doing so gave me the incentive that the toughest part of the hike was over and a bit of a second and third wind to make the final several miles back to Roaring Brook.
Nose to nose, almost
Brad, who repeated early good advice about taking shorter steps and trying to walk heel to toe. took the lead to drag us back down the trail. Jim followed, and I plodded along last, again being passed by several hikers. During the trip I adamantly adhered to Brad’s advice to stay on the trail and I was a bit chagrined when, to my right I heard some rustling noise off the trail. I was ready to give a hiker an admonished glare when instead I spotted a huge bull moose about 15 feet away.
I yelled to my fellow hikers and they scampered back to watch as the huge beast plopped down in a little swamp and posed for photos by Jim and Brad. We felt the trip was complete now that we had spotted a moose and had the good fortune of almost literally running into another, this one a cow, another mile down the trail.
As the sun started to set, Brad kept encouraging us that Roaring Brook was close and he was true to his word as its pouring echoes lured us back to our final destination at the campground.
Through the trip back to Millinocket and a tasty meal at the Scootic Inn in town, the sense of what we had done started to set in. I didn’t experience any epiphany on the mountain top, nor did I expect to, but the weeks and months that have followed have led to many inspired conversations about the hike while the images of the mountain remain vivid and provide a mild adrenaline rush.
Those images were beckoned again when Jim and I traveled down Route 9 a few weeks ago to pick up some solid oak chopping blocks waiting for us through the generosity of Terry Farren, another top-notch BDN employee who diligently works behind the scenes to make this a fine newspaper.
During the trip, Jim pointed out several small mountains where we – and hopefully fellow BDN perennial standout, assistant sports editor Pete Warner – can hike as we prepare for another trek up Katahdin next summer. It will be a much better way to get in condition for that arduous quest.
The only problem is that I won’t be able to embarrass my kids by again hiking around the streets of Brewer.
Oh, the sacrifices we make for our children.