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Gloriously big, strenuously humbling, Katahdin rules

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / August 9, 2003

MILLINOCKET, Maine -- Approaching Katahdin from the west, Charlie Cirame had scrambled his way above tree line. The work glove on his right hand was proper protection from the tricky, harsh boulders along the trail, and he stopped along the alpine moonscape to admire not only the highest peak in Maine but also those it dwarfs.

"The mountain has so many faces," said Cirame, 52, a former Millinocket mill worker who grew up in Somerville, Mass. "I've been looking at it for 28 years and it's never the same."

How true. Silence is followed by an ear-numbing beat, that of a hiker's heart. The weather can change dramatically and drastically. Severe winds above tree line can stop travel, as Pamola, the man-eagle-moose Penobscot Indian storm god, guards the terrain along the mile-high mountain.

The "Greatest Mountain," as the Penobscots called it, can also stand below stunning blue, windless skies, the sun radiant in Maine's remote North Woods. Humbling and gratifying, Katahdin is the most challenging, strenuous, and remote of New England's high points.

Glacial cirques called basins, vast flats on the tablelands, steep pitches, and razorlike ridges make up Katahdin's domain of forest, lakes, ponds, and rivers in Baxter State Park. The mountain stretches for four miles and it is Katahdin's Baxter Peak at 5,276 feet that is the roof of Maine. OK, so a towering cairn at the summit makes it a mile high.

Not much is easy about Katahdin. Not climbing it, not even getting there. There is no train, no van, no toll road to the top. Forget about ordering a burger at the summit cafeteria, because there isn't one. No road, no building has graced its summit. It's pure sweat, done the old-fashioned way on foot. Maybe it was Pamola who beat back Henry David Thoreau when he tried to climb it in 1846, foul weather knocking out his attempt. Today, hikers can be squashed even before they reach the park entrance, as once Baxter's parking lots are filled -- and they can get that way early on summer and fall weekends -- entry is curtailed. On days of hazardous weather, rangers have closed trails to the top. There are cutoff times for ascending the peak.

The 200,000-plus-acre park has narrow dirt roads and no running water or electricity. The 10 campgrounds fill up quickly, and campers have been known to camp out in the near-Arctic chill of a Millinocket New Year's Eve in order to secure reservations when the office opens for the new year. Leave the pets at home, the long RV too. They're restricted.

It was Percival P. Baxter who worked to protect Katahdin and its surrounding lands. In 1930, the former governor (1921-25) made the first of his land purchases, donating it to the state. Baxter State Park was named in his honor in 1933.

Baxter once wrote: "Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all its glory shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine."

With 46 peaks and ridges, 18 of them above 3,000 feet, it is still Katahdin with its array of summit options that is the draw of Baxter through the gates of the southern Togue Pond entrance.

The plan, on the day after Father's Day, was to hike Katahdin from the east, making a loop from Roaring Brook Campground along Chimney Pond Trail, up through the basin on Saddle Trail and return to Chimney Pond along Cathedral. Cirame, whom I had met in fall 2000 while bicycling from Baxter to Georgia, had climbed Katahdin about 30 times and suggested the easiest route.

But at the park entrance, after asking for an emergency contact phone number -- gulp! -- the gatekeeper pointed to a sign. Saddle Trail was closed. Too much snow and ice. And this was June.

So Plan B was quickly hatched. The precarious, narrow Knife Edge Trail, where the ridge spans just about three feet in places, was quickly vetoed. Neither of us wanted to do battle with the steep slide on Abol Trail, so the choice was made for a 10.4-mile round-trip, all-day workout on Hunt Trail: the last five miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Katahdin is the northern terminus of the 2,168-mile Maine to Georgia white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Park visitors in fall are likely to share the footpath with hardened and weatherbeaten thru-hikers who started in April from Georgia's Springer Mountain and are finishing their intrepid walk through the woods.

The spirit of Benton MacKaye, the man who envisioned the trail along the Appalachians from the South to Maine, is alive and well. Walk in the footsteps of Earl V. Shaffer who was the first end-to-ender (1948) and did it again 50 years later, or just with other hikers who signed the register book at the trail's beginning.

Even at 7:22 a.m. we weren't the first ones on the trail that day. The weather forecast called for partly sunny skies throughout the day. Carrying water and packs with food, guidebook, foul-weather gear, matches, flashlight, and other emergency items, we headed up through the spruce-fir forest along Katahdin Stream. Pink and gray granite boulders littered the woods, pink becoming dominant as after three miles the climb bursts out above tree line on a boulder-laced spur. Climb, squeeze, grab, and scrape through the sardine tin of rocks, a few iron holds in place for leverage.

The dizzying bird's-eye view of birds in the thermals sees them above the ponds and mountains below. Two granite slabs signal the "gateway" where the terrain relatively levels out on the flat treeless tablelands desert.

At Thoreau Spring, filtering water, was Justin Rigler, 24, a veterinarian technician who had driven 12 hours from Frederick, Md., to climb Katahdin on his birthday. With his wedding coming soon, Rigler wanted to get in some life experiences before walking down the aisle.

"There is nothing like this back home," he said, surveying the terrain. "I wanted to do something big, and Katahdin is big."

A handful of hikers started to walk by, and after Cirame borrowed Rigler's filter to replenish his water supply, we continued upward to the top of Maine. Melting pockets of snow held on to the mountainside as we walked the barren jumble of rocks to the summit. There, other hiking parties took turns snapping pictures by the towering cairn and sign declaring both the peak's summit and the AT's northern end. A couple took a chain of multicolored paper peace cranes and draped them over the sign. A father and two sons had lunch with a view. A group of four hikers congratulated themselves.

From the summit, Katahdin shows another face. The spectacle of the Great Basin and serrated ridge of the mile-long Knife's Edge share the horizon with northern ponds and rivers. Don't overstay your visit, or Pamola might start in.

With that in mind, we started down, meeting Nelson Daigle, 64, a retired Millinocket mill worker who uses Katahdin as an outdoor gym. On this day, he was on climb 184 of the mountain. Although he uses various routes, he prefers Hunt Trail and usually tackles the mountain after two or three days of rest in between.

"A lot of people think going down is harder," Daigle said. "Going up is harder on the lungs. Going down is harder on the knees."

Passing a trail crew out restoring knocked-down cairns, Cirame was quick and agile on those spur-exposed rocks, while a few hikers -- including me -- preferred the butt slide approach in places, gingerly taking leaps of faith.

But after nine hours of hiking, the ground finally returned to a horizontal position and Pamola didn't seem bothered at all that day.

Marty Basch is a New Hampshire-based writer and author of several books, including "Winter Trails Maine" (Globe Pequot Press). He has climbed four of the six New England states' high points.

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