Dateline: Katahdin

I’ve been lucky to do some pretty magical hikes over the past year: from admiring the foliage on Mount Chocorua to exploring slot canyons in Utah to hiking from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back up in one day. None of that prepared me for Katahdin.

While most people know that Katahdin is the end of the Appalachian Trail, I don’t think people realize how absolutely grueling or divinely spiritual this mountain is. It is really a very special place. I hesitate to even write about it, since the Baxter State Park Authority already heavily regulates the number of visitors and with the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, I suspect traffic will only grow. From what I saw at Acadia and the Grand Canyon, that is a mixed blessing.


My group was pretty late in making plans, so we chose to hike on a Tuesday, figuring it would be easier to get lodging and parking permits. Anyone planning to hike Katahdin needs a parking permit. Maine residents can get one at anytime. Non-residents can register up to two-weeks in advance. There aren’t many to give out (27 permits at three lots = >100), so registering as early as possible is recommended.

The alarm went off at 4:30 the morning of our hike. After a night of enjoying the lake and enjoying one another’s company, it felt early. The only things motivating me were peer pressure and the knowledge that if we weren’t in the parking lot by 7 a.m., they’d give our spot away to someone else.

It was an hour’s drive to the Katahdin Stream parking lot. The sun was just rising as we pulled in. A quick bathroom break, gear check, and our group of eight was ready to go. We were on the Hunt Trail at 5:45 a.m.


The first mile was uneventful. We all hung together, chatting and ambling up a fairly friendly trail. We arrived at Katahdin Stream Falls (1.2) miles in what seemed like no time, where I realized that I’d forgotten to start my Garmin (hence the walk up is short on the screenshots below).

There was a pit toilet just past the stream, which I made use of knowing there was nothing else on the trail. I had zero desire to answer nature’s call above the tree line if I could avoid it.

The trail got steeper after the falls and the group started to stretch out. I was paired up with a girl from Maine who was pretty close to my speed. We made quick work of the next mile, even as the rocks on the trail seemed to get bigger. Around mile three we started running into thru-hikers who were on their last day of the Appalachain Trail. They were easy to spot as they hiked up the trail like it was nothing, with sizable packs on their backs. The culmination of the journey was surely a special day for them, and it made me wonder at the distance they’d come: 2,200 miles.

At around mile 3.5 we emerged from the woods above the tree line. The views were spectacular. 08-fullsizerender-12

Little did I know, the climb was about to get much harder. The next mile was more a climb than a hike. My walking sticks went into my backpack as I needed arms and legs to haul myself up over the rocks on the trail.


It was really a full body effort, requiring almost an hour to make it a mile.


11-fullsizerender-16Looking back at the hardest mile. 

The view was the saving grace.

Once at the top of this ridge, it was an easy walk past Thoreau spring and to the summit. After that mile of drama, summiting was almost anticlimactic.


Almost. But not really.

We summited at 9:25 a.m., 3 hours and 40 minutes after we’d started. I was feeling pretty smug and triumphant about the whole thing, thinking it wasn’t even 10 a.m. and the hardest part of my day was behind me.


We basically had a 360-degree view from the top. It was dramatically beautiful.


We started chatting with other folks on the summit while waiting for our friends to arrive. I tend to prefer loop hikes to out and backs and was trying to figure out if there was a way to avoid going down the way I’d gone up… you know, just to see something new. It was a beautiful day- not too hot and not to windy- and I had mixed feelings about hiking Katahdin and not doing the Knife Edge.

After consulting a map and our friends, my partner and I decided that we’d go down the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak and then take the Helon Taylor trail the rest of the way down. This would put us on the opposite side of the mountain from where we’d started, so we’d have to hitchhike back to town. Worst case, our friends could come back to get us if it got too late.

Looking towards the Knife Edge

Having just summited in under four hours, I figured the rest of the day would be a cake walk. I was so, so wrong.


The trail was hard almost immediately. The Knife Edge is an exposed ridge, less than three feet wide in some places. The trail drops off on either side rather dramatically, and with no other mountains of comparable size nearby, vertigo sets in. You feel like if you fell, you would fall forever. Almost immediately, I started having a mini-panic attack. I knew intellectually that I was not going to fall off the side of a mountain, but it sure felt that way.


The trail was rocky, and there was nothing to hang on to for support. Sometimes the rocks wobbled. Sometimes you had to use your whole body to climb up them. I just kept telling myself to put one foot in front of the other, to take is slow and steady.


It was nerve wracking. We inched along, taking deep breaths and focusing on the trail ahead.

Finally, we were near the end. The worst was behind us, I thought. And then we came to a cliff: 50 feet of near vertical scramble. We went down one, and then had to climb up another.


With this, we were there. We’d reached Pamola Peak.


Traversing the mile-long Knife Edge had taken an hour and a half. No speed records there.

It was sort of awe inspiring to look back and realize I’d walked along the top of all of this.


Still, I was glad it was one.

We embarked on the Helon Taylor trail, which was easier but still tricky. Lots of loose gravel and a few steep parts. The trail seemed to never end.

Finally, we reached Roaring Brook Campground, where we plunged our feet and legs into a frigid stream for as long as we could stand it. Even with the ice bath, my quads were sore for days.

A friendly family from Pennsylvania picked us up on the side of the road and reunited us with our group. There was celebratory steak and a sauna. And then, a very good sleep.

Baxter Peak (5,267 feet) and Pamola (4,919 feet)
Up: Hunt Trail
5.2 miles. 3 hours, 40 minutes

Down: Knife Edge (1.1 miles) to Helon Taylor (3.2 miles)
4 hours, 37 minutes (1 hour, 30 minutes on Knife Edge)


Dateline: Baxter State Park

When I thought about the things I wanted to do with my summer back in June, Baxter and Acadia were high on the list. I’d never been to either, which seemed weird after all this time in New England. But summer here is tough: there is so much to do in so little time.

It was pretty serruptitious when one of my new classmates approached me about heading up to Millinocket, Maine for some hiking and white water rafting. Of course I was in! I took the week off from work, did some research, and made plans to head north. While the rest of the group would arrive Monday, I made plans to drive up a day early to stay/camp at South Branch Pond and then hike the Travelers Loop, which sounded almost as beautiful as Katahdin. A classmate jumped in to join me, which made the seven hour drive north much more bearable.

04-fullsizerender-29Not my car

Sadly, the universe had other plans. We arrived at Baxter to a light rain, and a three-mile trail run showed me how treacherous wet granite could be. When I awoke to persistent rain the next morning, I knew I’d need to make alternate plans. The mountains were socked in with fog, and I had no desire to be above the tree line for hours in those conditions.


We broke down camp and were out of South Branch by 7 a.m. There wasn’t much reason to stay longer.

We decided to head south a different way than we’d arrived, following the park road west before turning left. It was beautiful, and we seemed to have the whole place to ourselves. I started to get hungry shortly after 8, so we stopped at a waterfall/picnic area to eat and take in the view. It was pretty nice, and I imagine on a hot day it’s very nice.


We started to see more people the further south we got, but it was never crowded. Baxter does an amazing job at crowd control, though it sometimes feels like they don’t really want you there. Camping is on a reservation system, there are limited parking permits to climb Katahdin/Baxter Peak, and there is no back country camping allowed. While Acadia felt claustrophobic, I felt almost like I had all 200,000 acres of Baxter to myself.

The highlight of the day was Kidney Pond. It was so unexpectedly lovely: beautiful scenery, a serene lake teeming with loons and frogs (and leeches), canoes, cabins…. I would have spent whole week there. By then, the weather was improving, so we signed out a canoe ($1/hour) and went exploring.


Kidney Pond is also home to the cutest library, full of old books, board games and puzzles. It reminded me of a cross between my grandmother’s house and summer camp, and the absolute anthesis of today’s screen run, connected world.


Which reminds me: There’s almost no cell service at Baxter. Like none. It’s kind of glorious, but it means you have to go old-school in the planning and communication. As in “We’ll be at the lake anytime after three… see you sometime.” That was pretty much the plan with our friends.

We headed out of the park at the southern entrance, pausing to take a look at Katahdin, which we planned to climb the next day. The mountain dominates the landscape, and factors prominently into the lore of the local native population, who believe that a winged storm god lived in the vicinity, creating wind.

I had no idea of the journey ahead the next day. At the moment, I was happy to simply take in the view.




Maine Huts & Trails

Ever since Amina and I hiked the Grand Canyon, I’ve been wanting to do more trail running and explore running longer. My back put those goals on hold, but after successfully running 13 miles on trails in April, I let my friend Sam convince me to join a group of friends on a 30 mile trail run up in Maine.

I’d never run more than 13 miles at a time before. I’d never hiked more than 17 miles in a day. But I trust Sam, and knew she wouldn’t leave me, and I was curious about my abilities. So I made a reservation with our group at Maine Huts & Trails, and set about testing out backpacks and hiking poles. I also made sure to pack a headlamp, figuring that worst case I’d just slow down and finish really, really late.

Last Friday, we loaded our gear into two cars and headed north five hours to West Forks, Maine. Our journey included a lunch stop at Duck Fat for some carbo-loading, a couple of bathroom breaks, and a harrowing few miles on some poorly maintained logging roads. Once we parked, we had a mile hike to the Grand Falls Hut, the northernmost hut in the MH&T system.

13-13418892_10153840343339087_4391658206629460838_nPhoto credit: Sam

We had a lazy afternoon of board games, trail exploring, and hammock reading, and then a pasta dinner and a bonfire before turning in at a respectable 10 p.m.

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The alarm went of at 5:30 the next morning. After a bagel breakfast, we loaded our packs and hiked our stuff out to the car to be brought 30 miles south by our two selfless sherpas, Kelvin and Rebecca. The rest of us strapped on hydration packs and took off running.


The first several miles flew by. The trail meandered along the Dead River, through tall grasses and birch groves.


We saw lots of deer and moose sign, but no actual animals, probably because they could hear us coming from miles away.

The first 12.3 miles took just over three hours. We likely could have gone faster, but this was my first time doing this kind of thing and I didn’t want to push it too hard and get hurt or be miserable. So Sam and I kept a relaxed 15 minute pace, stopping to take photos, walking the inclines, and chatting.

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Toward the end of the leg my back and shoulders started tightening up, causing me to freak out a little bit. I knew there was a lake at the next hut, and promised myself that if I continued to push it, I could hop in for an ice bath as soon as we stopped. When we arrived at the Flagstaff Hut, that’s just what I did.

Photo credit: Colleen

Water has never felt so good. I stood there for awhile trying to let as much of the cold soak into me as possible, but the water was frigid, and I didn’t last long. Still, it helped enormously.

The rest of the group took off pretty quickly as they were worried about tightening up, but Sam and I were already tight so we stayed back, stretched, and had a snack. I wasn’t in a big rush leave this view.

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Finally, we hit the trail again. We didn’t make it far before we had to stop to take in another gorgeous view.

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We made it another half-mile down the trail before spotting these beauties.

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Lady’s slippers are a species or orchid found across the Eastern United States. They take a long time to grow, and are a fairly unusual sight, so I was pretty excited to find them all along this stretch of the trail.

A mile or so later, we made radio contact with Kelvin. Since there’s no cell service in this area, each group carried a walkie talkie. We agreed to turn the walkie on at the top of each hour for 15 minutes so we could check in with each other. Sam and I had reached a trail junction just as we made contact with Kelvin, who was on a mountain bike. Kelvin advised us that the Hemlock Trail he was on was overgrown and boggy, so we decided to take the higher winter route and pass by the Halfway Yurt.

The going was pretty slow for the next few miles. The yurt was at the top of an almost 1.5-mile long hill. At one point, we worried that we’d lost the trail, as we seemed to be on more of a jeep road. Fortunately, because we were up high, I had cell service and was able to see that we were indeed still on the trail.

16-13423942_10153840345014087_2365236818565959756_nPhoto credit: Sam

Sam and I stopped for a few minutes in the yurt to have a snack and stretch again. But we knew we’d slowed down considerably, so got back on the trail pretty quickly.

We had a mile run downhill, and then crossed a road to find the last stretch of the trail that Kelvin had warned us about.

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Some parts were boardwalk, some was more boggy with logs for structure. Not much of it was runable. It took us more than 40 minutes to cover two miles.

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By this time, we were in sporadic contact with Kelvin via text. He advised that when we hit the dirt Carriage Road we should run down that instead of proceeding to Poplar Hut, as the trail was in similarly bad condition. Sam and I had enough water, so we didn’t need to stop at the hut, and we didn’t want to make our friends wait another two hours for us to arrive.

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So we took off down Carriage Road. And encountered some “only in Maine” signs.

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Kelvin met us halfway up Carriage Road. We’d cut three miles off of our run. But we’d run 24 miles, and had another steep, 3 mile hike to get to Stratton Brook Hut, where we spent the night. (Side note: the Maine Huts & Trails are pretty sweet, and I would totally go back in summer or winter.)

My legs were tired, and my back was sore, but overall I felt a lot better than I thought I would. I had no blisters or chaffing. Nothing was in major stabbing pain. My spirits were high.

Finishing this was a huge confidence boost for me, and made me eager to run more trails. Somehow, the miles go faster when I’m surrounded by trees, and while I doubt I’ll be running 25 miles every weekend, I’d definitely plan (and train for) another.

15-13418642_10153840344914087_2679253614674407249_oPhoto credit: Sam

24 miles
7 hours, 26 minutes (moving)
18:35/mile average pace

Nathan running vest (Amina’s)
2 liter water bladder
Salomon trail runners
Smartwool socks
NB fitted tights
long sleeve shirt
trucker cap
hiking sticks

1 pb&j
5 energy balls (made by Sam)
3 energy gels
1 Gu chomps
1 Nuun tablet
1 package tropical pork jerky
~4 liters water

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