Taking a Hike – Bigelow Range Backpack

My June “Taking a Hike” column has been published. The Hour, suffering a few systems issues after acquisition by Hearst, is for now publishing it in print and e-editions only. I am old-fashioned enough to really like the way the column looks in a newspaper. Even so, it will be nice to see it up on thehour.com again soon. Hersam Acorn had their own IT issues recently (an exploding website is what I heard), but “Taking a Hike” is now posted there as Backpacking Bigelow — A Test, Completed.

Day 0 - My camp on Flagstaff Lake

Pre-hike camp beside Flagstaff Lake, Bigelow Preserve, Maine

Your feelings about a hike change over time. During is always different from before. Right after is usually different from several weeks after. As the column recounts, halfway through the first day my confidence was a little shaky. You start to forget that kind of thing, and remember mostly the upbeat. Three weeks on, one of my best memories is not about breaking out onto a peak or drinking in a fine view. I remember my happiness at reaching Safford Notch just an hour or so into the hike. The air was dry and clean among the pines and boulders, the bugs gone. And there was a cell signal to send a message home after 18 hours incommunicado at my pre-hike camp.

March’s “Taking a Hike” is now available in full on this site. I stayed close to home that month; Redding CT’s Little River.

Bigelow Range Backpack

West Peak from South Horn, Bigelow Preserve

West Peak from South Horn

This was my first backpacking trip in 20 months. Maybe the hiatus is not such a big deal. Apart from a six-week trek the length of Scotland five years ago, I have been just an occasional backpacker. Recently, I’ve heaved on the big pack just once or twice a year, mostly for 2-3 night outings in New Hampshire’s White Mountains (see In and Out of the Wild River Wilderness and – four posts starting 9/30/13 – The Pemi).

I would backpack more if I had the time. Going out for several days requires greater preparation than a day-hike, and getting to backpackable places takes longer. But it wasn’t time that stopped me last year; it was a bad left knee. This Maine trip was intended to discover if my knee was up to supporting a 35-40 pound pack again. I chose a route that I hoped would be a good test but not knee-suicide. Thus the climb over rough terrain, but only for the one night.

Ten days after returning home, my knee is just fine. Next up, a 2-night backpack!

DATES: June 1st and 2nd.
START & FINISH: East Flagstaff Road at Round Barn Campsite, Bigelow Preserve (just east of Stratton, Maine).
ROUTE & MAP: Safford Brook Trail to Appalachian Trail. AT west to Horns Pond. Back by same route. I used the map that came with the AMC Maine Mountain Guide.
DISTANCE: 16 miles total, plus short side-trails to lookouts.
TIME: A little over one mile per hour including breaks (somewhat faster on the return leg).
TERRAIN: On the “out” leg, a cumulative elevation gain of about 3,750 feet. AT very steep in sections, and awkward underfoot (e.g. angled boulders). Limited scrambles. Safford Trail easy to moderate.
WEATHER: Mostly sunny and warm; but cool, even cold, summit winds.

MEALS: Trail food; Alpineaire Mesquite BBQ Seasoned Chicken with Beans & Rice (dinner); oatmeal and coffee below West Peak (Day 2 breakfast).

HIGHLIGHT: The views along the Bigelow Range from the various peaks.
LOWLIGHT: If I must think of something, campsite mosquito activity.
WILDLIFE: A red squirrel; trout splashing in Horns Pond; something large, but unseen, moving in the lower-elevation forest on the second morning (maybe a moose).
WORRIES: That I’d kill my left knee again.
BEST BIT OF KIT: Well, my stove gave me the most happiness, but I’d probably have missed my boots more.

MEMORABLE PEOPLE: Alain from Quebec, who was excellent company at the end of Day 1; Erin, the friendly and diligent Horns Pond Campsite caretaker; the four AT thru-hikers who had set out from Georgia in January!

Avery Peak, Bigelow Preserve

Mist below Avery Peak

Day Hike Notes – Acadian Mountains

Penobscot Mountain and Jordan Pond

Cliffs of Penobscot Mountain beside Jordan Pond.

I returned on Friday from five days up in Maine, a stay split between two very different hiking experiences. First, familiar Acadia National Park, where I joined my eldest daughter. Acadia is very beautiful, but well crisscrossed by roads, bike trails, and hiking paths. It is visited by millions every year. Even so, we had the first half of this hike almost entirely to ourselves (rain is a great killer of crowds), and the bare rock ridges felt wild and lonely.

Next, I drove 140 miles northwest to Bigelow Preserve. I will post about Bigelow later, but it is crossed only by rough trails, along which I met a half dozen people in 28 hours, and four of those were a group of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who passed by in a few seconds. They had set out from Georgia in January! I had an IT disaster with my Bigelow photographs, but hope they will be recovered in time for posts later in the week. In the meantime, here is our hike over Acadia NP’s more modest summits:

DATE: Monday, May 30th.
START & FINISH: Jordan Pond parking, Acadia National Park, Maine.
ROUTE: Penobscot Mountain > Sargent Mountain > South Bubble > return via Jordan Pond Path.
DISTANCE: 5-6 miles.
TIME: 5.5 hours (9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)
TERRAIN: Although Acadia has the feel of well-groomed nature, sections of our trails were rough indeed, especially in the morning rain. If, like me, your least favorite trails are those that go very steeply down, bits of the Sargent East Cliffs and Bubbles trails will be a challenge.
MAP: Map Adventures Acadia NP Trail Map.

WEATHER: Cloudy with showers, then brightening up in the afternoon. High in low 60s.
WILDLIFE: None that I remember.

BREAKFAST: Oatmeal and coffee at Blackwoods Campground.
LUNCH: Trail food eaten piecemeal.
UPS: Having Penobscot and Sargent mountains to ourselves.
DOWNS: I slipped and fell on a slick ledge beside the Sargent East Cliffs Trail. No harm done though.
KIT: Poles, as usual, were mostly a blessing, but a pain on scrambles.
COMPANY: Katie, almost no one else until Jordan Pond, then plenty (though short of crowded).

Glacial erratic on Penobscot Mountain

Glacial erratic on Penobscot Mountain.

The Great Autumn North Woods

Mt Washington from Mt Webster, decorated with rime, mid-October 2007.

Mt Washington from Mt Webster, decorated with rime, mid-October 2007.

I mentioned in Heading Back to Baxter that I’d visited that state park in 2006. The trip took place at the very end of summer (September 20-22), but it was definitely autumn up there. The following year – mid-October this time – I escaped the office again for a few days and based my hiking out of New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch. I was catching the bug for the Great North Woods in fall.

" ... but woke to a glorious dawn". Zealand Ridge, October 2012.

” … but woke to a glorious dawn”. Zealand Ridge, October 2012.

Work and other matters got in the way for a few years (although I did find time to get Lost in the Adirondacks with my youngest one September). Then, three years ago, I returned to the October White Mountains for a backpack from Crawford Notch to Zealand Ridge and back. I pitched my tent on the ridge in gloom and rain, but woke to a glorious dawn. It was likely on the trek back to the Notch that I decided to make a habit of a short fall adventure up north.

Thoreau Falls Trail, Pemi Wilderness, October 2013.

Thoreau Falls Trail, Pemi Wilderness, October 2013.

Two years ago, I circled and crossed the Pemigewasset Wilderness over the course of four days. Last year, I spent the same amount of time in and around the Wild River Wilderness. Both treks left inerasable and sustaining memories.

Which is why I am very reluctant to let this year’s expedition be scuppered.

Sunrise lights up the White Mountains, October 2014.

Sunrise lights up the White Mountains, October 2014.

The troublesome knee I talked about in my last post is still troublesome, very much so at times. The orthopedist did not offer a quick fix. There are, he thinks, several things wrong at once. He also said that, short of running a marathon or playing a lot of basketball, I cannot do it much further damage. That leaves pain as the limiting factor. Right now it is limiting me to getting around little and slowly. I am hoping that a cortisone shot will change that dramatically, and allow me to enjoy Baxter later in the month, even at the price of restricting myself to its lower, flatter, joint-friendlier parts.

Heading Back to Baxter

Sunset on Katahdin Range from Sandy Stream Pond

Sunset on Katahdin Range from Sandy Stream Pond

I don’t like packing for hiking trips. I don’t care much for putting my gear away afterward either. What I do enjoy is the planning – the reading up on trails and landscape; the thinking ahead about weather, amount of daylight, challenges and risks. I am happily in that phase now.

Last weekend I completed camping reservations for Maine’s Baxter State Park, so, barring force majeure, I will be heading there in late September for a full week of day-hiking.

For anyone unfamiliar with Baxter, it sits bang in the middle of the hump of Maine, the bulge that sticks up into Canada. At 327 square miles, it is larger than Singapore, and one third the size of Rhode Island. It has no paved roads, and no permanent human inhabitants (just, to quote the park’s website, “moose, deer, bear, otter, mink, marten, fisher, weasel, coyote, bobcat, beaver, muskrat, raccoon, woodchucks, snowshoe hare, squirrels, chipmunks, flying squirrels, mice, and voles”).

Stream crossing on the Wassataquoik Stream Trail

Stream crossing on the Wassataquoik Stream Trail

I have been to Baxter twice before, once with two of my daughters long enough ago that they were then seven and five years old. Even the second time – quite fresh in my memory – is now nine years back. Both times I did not stray from the southern half of the park, around the base of Katahdin, the park’s emblematic mountain that is also the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The photos in this post are from that second trip (the first predated my digital camera).

This time, I will spend three days in the north of Baxter, based at South Branch Pond. The idea is to explore the Traveler Range and the “splendid U-shaped valley running north to south from the Travelers to South Turner” (park website’s words again). The Google Earth image below shows that topography rather nicely – the foreground mountains are Center Ridge and The Traveler, the ponds are South Branch (upper and lower).

Midweek, I will drive south on the Park Tote Road to Katahdin Stream campground, and likely meet A.T. thru-hikers facing the last, steep leg of their hike. I hope to climb Katahdin again too, as well find other trails to explore in the southern half.

More Baxter posts to follow for sure.

The Traveler Range -- Google Earth

The Traveler Range — Google Earth