Baxter State Park – Two Short Hikes

Before and between my longer Baxter hikes (Traveler loop, Pogy backpack, and The Owl), I took a couple of shorter walks, both about five miles.

SOUTH BRANCH MOUNTAIN TRAIL to Black Cat Mountain (2,611′) and back was mainly notable for a high ledge with fine views over Upper South Branch Pond to The Traveler and the other summits I planned to climb the next day. Black Cat summit, like most of the rest of the hike, was wooded in.

Between my Traveler hike and Pogy backpack, I took it easy on FOWLER BROOK TRAIL and its extensions to Middle Fowler Pond. These were gentle trails leading to two scenic ponds, popular with brook trout fishermen and inhabited by outsized tadpoles.

Before I wrap up my Baxter posts, my latest “Taking a Hike” column was of course about the trip. Click for “Endurance and Delight in Baxter State Park” in The Norwalk Hour and Hersam Acorn Newspapers. Farewell to Baxter until the next time!

Day Hike Notes – Baxter State Park, The Owl


Katahdin seen later in the day from across Daicey Pond, The Owl looking small to its left

I had walked over 45 miles in Baxter State Park since arriving late on Sunday morning. Leg-weariness from those miles was one reason I wasn’t sure about climbing Mount Katahdin on my final day in the Park. The other was crowds. Friday’s forecast was great, and sun and warmth would draw multitudes to Maine’s highest peak.

If I didn’t climb Katahdin, I told myself, I’d do The Owl; 1,600 feet lower than Katahdin and utterly unfabled, it would surely draw next to no-one. I didn’t need to bag Katahdin either; I’d reached its socked in summit on a climb 12 years ago. I went back and forth about Katahdin v The Owl until the very last minute, at the trail register for both summits. Countless groups had already struck out for Katahdin; for the Owl, there was just one register entry.

DATE: Friday, June 15th.
START & FINISH: Katahdin Stream Campground, Baxter SP, Maine.
ROUTE: Appalachian/Hunt and Owl trails to The Owl summit; return by same route.
DISTANCE: 7 miles.
TIME: 5-6 hours (roughly 8:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.)
TERRAIN: Elevation gain from Start to summit = 2,571 feet; a steady climb growing in rockiness and rootiness, then a little bare-rock clambering, and finally a stroll to the summit.
MAP: AMC Maine Mountains from the AMC Maine Mountain Guide

WEATHER: Sunny and increasingly warm, high in the 70s.
WILDLIFE: Nothing of note.

BREAKFAST: Oatmeal and coffee at my campsite.
LUNCH: Tortillas, cheese, peanut butter atop The Owl.
UPS: Close-up views of Katahdin, huge views across Maine.
DOWNS: None.
KIT: I packed layers for the summit but didn’t need them.
COMPANY: A friendly threesome of Bostonians—dad, middle-aged son, a friend. We met on the way up and again on the summit. Funny men. Otherwise, a few scattered parties, including a couple from London.

Baxter State Park – Pogy Backpack


THU – The end for me, but an apt warning

Pogy Notch Trail connects Baxter State Park’s less visited north with its Mount Katahdin-dominated south. Pogy is a relatively flat, low-level trail; its highlights are ponds—Lower and Upper South Branch, Pogy, and finally Russell. I had visited Russell 12 years before, hiking north to it from beneath Katahdin. Hiking south to it now gave me the satisfaction of connecting on foot the distinct worlds of Baxter’s north and south. I don’t think it’s a popular activity, particularly in bug season. I chose this trek to see Baxter’s deep woods and hopefully some of their “charismatic megafauna”. I met a lot of utterly charmless microfauna. I would repeat this hike, but in the fall.

DATE: Wednesday and Thursday, June 13-14
START & FINISH: South Branch Pond Campground, Baxter SP, Maine.
ROUTE: Pogy Notch, Grand Falls, and Wassataquoik Stream trails to Wassataquoik Stream lean-tos; return via Wassataquoik Stream and Pogy Notch trails.
DISTANCE: About 24 miles (13 out, 11 back).
TIME: 8:45 a.m. Wednesday to midday Thursday.
TERRAIN: Mostly level or gently up and down; mostly dry underfoot; two thigh-deep streams to wade at Wassataquoik Stream lean-tos.
MAP: AMC Maine Mountains from the AMC Maine Mountain Guide.

WEATHER: Wed—sunny, warm, humid (70s); Thu morning—rainy and cool (upper 40s).
WILDLIFE: Of the bug variety.
MEALS: On Wednesday, oatmeal for breakfast and freeze-dried beef & veg stew for supper; otherwise, the usual trail rations.

UPS: (1) Making good time through the rain on the return leg. (2) The mountain views from pondsides and riverbanks.
DOWNS: After the first hours, I didn’t really enjoy Wednesday. The bugs were a plague and, when they were not, you knew it wouldn’t last.
KIT: I occasionally made use of a head-net that I packed at home at the last minute. Drawback—too hot to wear when actually hiking.
COMPANY: None at all in 27¼ hours.

Day Hike Notes – Baxter State Park, The Traveler Loop

Descending from North Traveler Mountain

Descending from North Traveler Mountain

The first of what I hope will be 3-4 posts covering four hikes plus a short backpack in Baxter State Park, Maine, earlier this month.

DATE: Monday, June 11th.
START & FINISH: South Branch Pond Campground, Baxter SP, Maine.
ROUTE: Pogy Notch, Center Ridge, Traveler Mountain, and North Traveler trails (counterclockwise loop).
DISTANCE: 11.1 miles.
TIME: 8¾ hours (7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
TERRAIN: Elevation gain from Start to The Traveler = 2,569 feet; total gain on the loop = 3,700’. Ascent from/descent to Lower South Branch Pond are steep and, in places, scrambles. Careful attention required to foot-placement on several stretches.
MAP: AMC Maine Mountains.

WEATHER: Warm and sunny, high in the 60s.
WILDLIFE: Bear scat on Center Ridge.

BREAKFAST: Chickpeas & chorizo (yep, for breakfast!) at my campsite.
LUNCH: Tortillas, cheese, nuts, etc. on Traveler Mountain.
UPS: Feeling strong on the morning climbs of Center Ridge and The Traveler.
DOWNS: The final descent off North Traveler was tough, the bugs and warmth increasing with lower elevation.
KIT: 2.5 liters of water, sunscreen.
COMPANY: All alone all day.

Traveler Loop Montage

Top: The South Branch ponds from Center Ridge; trailside rock formation. Middle: The Traveler summit; North Traveler summit; Trillium. Bottom: Trail up The Traveler; Mount Katahdin from Center Ridge

Pain, Disappointment, Some Perspective

It looks like a beautiful evening up in Piscataquis County, Maine.

The sun will be setting soon, after having the sky to itself all day. The night will be clear and cool (low, 40 degrees). Season and weather would be perfect for camping next to a pond in the forest and mountains, getting rested before a day’s hiking.

Whidden Ponds, Baxter State Park, September 2006

Whidden Ponds, Baxter State Park, September 2006

And that is what I had hoped to be doing this evening. There might even have been time, after the day-long drive from home to Baxter State Park, for a pond-side walk to listen out for loons and spy for moose.

I think it was on Saturday that I finally accepted that the trip would not happen. My big hope for a serviceable left knee – even just temporarily – was a cortisone shot. I had it on Thursday morning, and waited for the miracle. By Saturday morning, I was convinced the doctor must have injected me with his tea by mistake so unchanged were my symptoms.

This morning, when I should have been driving north, I instead called Baxter to cancel my six nights of camping. Now, compared to the pain and sadness that can afflict humans, my missing out on the north woods this year is small potatoes. Unlike some pain, mine probably has a cure. I am off to speak to a surgeon about that tomorrow.

It is a pretty evening in Connecticut too. I am going to limp outside to enjoy the last of it. Maybe I’ll find my wife already out there. We won’t hear a loon, but maybe an owl.

Perspective and compensations, but disappointment nonetheless.

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