Ah, Katahdin. I hadn't been to Baxter State Park in something like 28 years. My brother was about to head southbound on the AT, so we chose a couple days to spend up there to allow for weather, but there was no need. The weather was spectacular. We stayed in Millinocket the first day, stocking up on carbs (LaBatt's Blue to be specific), and woke up early to be at the gate as they opened. Even though it was a Monday, I didn't want to take any chances. We spied some snow patches on the way in, not surprising, and no worries with parking, there were only 4 or 5 cars in the lot.
We signed into the log, surprised at the number of groups already ahead of us, including one that had left at 3 AM. Shazam. The Hunt Trail started out very mellow and we quickly arrived at the Owl Trail, my destination for the next day. It was cool enough this morning, for now, and I was pleased with the number of bugs: zero. We came to Katahdin Stream Falls, which was very nice.
There were occasional small scrambles to be dealt with, but nothing too major. We were making good time, and looking forward to treeline at a mere 3400 feet. The trail got steeper, the trees got shorter, and the trail got even more steeper. The awaited treeline came, we found rocky outcrops, and then some rungs. Hmmm. This sucker's steep. Is there any non-steep way up Baxter? Some interesting moves, and comments about not looking forward to coming back down this way. Oh, how little we knew then. The views most definitely did not suck, however.
“Oh, that's Doubletop! That looks cool! I gotta do that!” “Oh, that's O-J-I, Coe, the Brothers and Fort! I gotta do that!” “Oh, there's Barren, I hear that's a nasty bushwhack! Oh crap, I see why..., maybe not.” In fact, I had been spying the woods all day, gauging what they were like. In general, it looked to be like 75% closed in stick woods that would be a PITA to whack in. Suddenly any thoughts of doing any off trail travel around here cooled off. A lot.
It was slow going, now I was starting to understand the 8-10 hour round trip times given out in the guide. Scramble, scramble, scramble. Where it wasn't so steep, it was rough footing. Shades of last week. We climbed and climbed, gaining a mere 400 feet before coming to a nice little plateau.
Oh hell's bells, we still have to get up that?! “This is not going to be a fun descent.” OK, another 700 feet to the Tableland. Lots more scrambling, lots of rests, lots more “this is going to suck coming down” but at least some great scenery to look at. I was amazed at the amount of fir waves, and how low they were. Nasty, nasty, nasty!
Slowly, ever so slowly, we finally hit the Tableland. Oh what a lovely sight!
We were now hikers, not rock climbers. Heck, we'd call it a stroll if we weren't walking at a normal hiking pace. I lit up a smoke enjoying actually walking on flat ground and not having to stop. Such a sight I must be. I looked at Baxter off in the distance, forgetting it was still a ways off, looked at the final slope, and said “pfft, it's gotta be easy after all that!” I took it all the gorgeous sights on the way over, including Hamlin Peak. Since that first time up here I've vowed to do the entire Tableland/NW Plateau traverse as it looks like the best alpine ridge walk east of the Mississippi.
We spied the snowfields we had seen on the drive in, pretty cool. I was just amazed how every single peak I looked at had steep sides to it. I had forgotten so much.
Well, that final slope wasn't easy at this point. It was a huffer and puffer, but we chugged along, and finally that cairn that seemed to slowly grow was in front of us. So here we were, at the start (or end) of the AT. It scared me greatly.
The summit had a fair crowd on it, perhaps a bit surprising given it was a Monday, but not too bad. “Oooh, the Turners! I gotta do that, too!” I realized I would be making more than a few trips back up here, and soon. I saw Chimney Peak, and again doubted that I'd ever do the Knife Edge, I get terrible vertigo with dropoffs on one side or worse, both (Chimney is the sharp rise just right of the peak on the left, Pamola).
And then there's the dizzying drop to Chimney Pond. Hard to believe I went down the Cathedral Trail.
The Owl looked very low now, and there beyond it lie a bounty of peaks.
We turned back and headed back on down, picking our way carefully until the flat section. I had a chuckle at the guy with a fanny pack heading up. Apparently signs stating help is many hours away meant nothing, nor did any maps he might have seen showing nothing around here. Except sharp drops. I got some excellently cold water near Thoreau Spring, that water filter is the best purchase I made in a while. And then, then end of the world, back to the top of the plateau, and the dread was full on now.
Long story short, it SUCKED. It was just as slow going down, more so in some sections, trying to fight gravity. Drop, walk a few steps, drop, walk a few steps. Argh. The Gateway (the small flat area) seemed so close, but never seemed to come. Once it did, we enjoyed the little bit of flatness before dreading the rungs to come. Trudge, trudge, grunt, grunt, please let it end. The rungs weren't as bad as we'd thought once Dan found a good method down. The rest was pretty straightforward, though slow in spots, but we plugged on down, and once we got on decent terrain, I went ahead so as to get camp setup. Oh did it feel good to finally be able to move fast on good terrain.
I couldn't wait for an ice cold beer, but I wanted to get checked in at the Ranger Station first. A few people milling around, crap, no ranger! He was late. I waited for a while, went back in to see if the postings would be helpful, only to have some Swiss dude tell me to go ahead and take one, the ranger will be around. Errr, no, that's not how I do things. Then he told a dude to take any site. I kept my mouth shut, knowing most of the sites were specifically reserved. Finally I noticed under his pack a logbook and asked him to move his stuff. Self sign-in! Dammit! I signed in, moved the car and broke out the cooler. AHHHHH!
We were right on the stream which was running in riffles through there, making the most pleasant sound. Oh yeah, I like this campground!
We got camp setup, had a nice meal of steak, fresh veggies and broiled taters. Besides the brook, the only other sound was folks in one of the walk-in sites constantly breaking sticks and logs. And I mean constantly. Dark came, and we both turned in early. Sure, a lot of complaints, but boy, what an awesome, awesome hike. Well worth any inconvenience.