Thousands of people hike Mount Katahdin in Maine each year, so much so that Baxter State Park—of which Katahdin is included—throttles admission to it in an attempt to keep it pristine. If you’re from Maine, Katahdin represents a nadir, a rite of passage, a reason to stretch your arms and draw your fists mightily against your chest. I hiked Katahdin, you might say. Now I’m grand.
As Maine’s tallest peak, Katahdin stretches skyward 5,267 feet, which is 511 feet higher than the second tallest peak, its cousin Hamlin Peak in the same massif. The third largest peak in Maine, Sugarloaf, stands a measly 4,250 feet, so to people in Maine, Katahdin is goddam tall. To people who live out west, it’s not goddam tall, but life’s all about perspectives and fortunately, Katahdin has a lot of other things going for it.
Chiefly, it’s beautiful. Katahdin bursts from the skin of the earth like a broken mirror, a cacophony of sharp lines and dangerous angles. It’s rugged in a way that many people associate with Maine. Its summit affords wonderfully sweeping views of the remote, heavily-wooded expanse surrounding it.
You see what I'm saying now.
Despite its charm, Katahdin is neither safe nor inviting. Not only can the mountain maim you in 12 different ways, its governing authority, Baxter State Park, clearly does not want you there. Consider this entry from Wikipedia:
“Access and use are strictly regulated in accordance with Gov. Baxter's [the park’s progenitor and benefactor] expressed desire to keep the park ‘forever wild.’”
“Strictly regulated,” indeed. In contrast to the actual experience, hiking Katahdin isn’t a pleasant thing, administratively. You can’t just get up in the morning and decide it’s a nice day to bag it. One needs to reserve a parking spot months in advance. If you traverse the rough road through the woods 15 miles from the pavement’s end to Roaring Brook Campground, Katahdin’s unofficial trailhead, just to find there are no spots, you have no real choice but to turn around. They won’t let you in. If you want to overnight at one of the popular camping spots, good luck—you can enter a lottery, or stand around with the other hopefuls at the ranger station in hopes of getting a reservation before anyone else. And lest we forget, this is the same park authority that brought charges against Scott Jurek for celebrating atop the mountain after completing a record breaking Appalachian Trail run in 2015.
All that said, Katahdin is breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful. That’s why I’ve hiked it nigh on 20 times throughout my life, and that’s why, this past October, I found myself on it once again.
The Chimney Pond Trail is the popular route to Chimney Pond, Katahdin’s unofficial halfway point marked by a smallish body of water sitting in a basin. On a good day, the trail is busy, and it’s busy on a rainy day, too. The trail is rocky and well-worn, similar to portions of the AT (Katahdin is the official NOBO terminus of the AT, though the Chimney Pond Trail is not part of it).
My uncle is a sort of svengali when it comes to Katahdin. He’s been hiking the thing for as long as I can remember, which is several decades and then some. Multiple times a year, he gathers a troupe of regulars, irregulars, newbies, and old goats and makes the trek up Katahdin in every season and condition imaginable. He’s been up and over the mountain so many times he’s probably recreated Don Fendler’s path in much the same way monkeys recreate Shakespeare.
Our party started out on a dreary Saturday morning from Roaring Brook Campground for a two-night stay at the bunkhouse at Chimney Pond, from which we’d push to the summit proper. The group consisted of my uncle; his friend, Jack, a personal trainer I knew from a mutual gym; and Stella and Ginny, cousins of mine of which at least one had a tenuous relationship with a frame pack.
We made it to Chimney Pond in a moderate amount of time, taking the regular opportunities to stop at the overlooks and marvel at the majesty of angry rain clouds bearing down on us from the peak. It hadn’t yet started to rain, but it was fixing to.
In the bunkhouse, we took stock of our supplies. Lots of food. Adequate water and purifying equipment. A magnesium stick that I hoped we’d never have to use. And, after some gathering, enough wood to keep the Burning Man festival in bonfires for days.
But the alcohol situation was downright distressing.
There’s a malady that afflicts anyone that’s ever packed anything, and it’s called the I-think-I-forgot-somethings. We all had it leaving. And now, it came to bear fully on our party. We had scant alcohol to last us even a night.
I’ll stop here and remind you that alcohol is a very important part of any outdoor trip in which you can make room for it. Even complete teetotallers will imbibe if they feel they’re sufficiently in the woods enough to escape the hoary gaze of their supervisor/spouse/God. It’s a lubricant down the slope towards feeling more “at one” with nature. So when you find yourself in a cabin for two nights with ill weather looming and your alcohol reserves are inadequate, you begin to make plans.
We had a small bottle of coffee brandy, a six pack of beer, and a bottle of wine (earmarked for the next night’s meal). It became evident we needed to make plans.
So I volunteered a beer run.
When my uncle woke up the next day, I was already eating instant oatmeal at the shared table. The sky was overcast, and the forecast was all thunderstorms and rain. No one was summiting Katahdin in thunderstorms. That’s not adventure, that’s a death wish. We looked to be cabin-bound.
“You getting ready for your beer run?” I could tell he was joking.
“I am.” I was not joking.
“I thought you might have been joking. Maybe it was the coffee brandy talking.”
“Nope,” I said. “I came to hike.”
“And drink, apparently.”
And so I emptied my pack and left the warmth of the bunkhouse to start down the three-and-a-half miles to the trailhead. From there, I had about a 20 mile drive to the North Woods Trading Post, the nearest store.
Almost immediately, it started pouring. I donned my Marmot Precip, grit my teeth, and made it to the bottom in an hour and a half.
Because of Katahdin’s enduring popularity both in Maine and beyond, the trail is littered with all types of people. Experienced endurance hikers zip in between groups of uneasy day hikers wearing light sneakers and cotton shirts. It was no different on this day, but in the rain, there were a lot more people going down than coming up.
After visiting the store and returning to the Roaring Brook campground, I began my ascent. The rain hadn’t let up; it was falling in sheets. My feet, at this point, were soaked. My waterproof Vasque St. Elias hikers had done their job, but the trail was washed out and I couldn’t stop the water from sloshing over my ankles and into the boots. I looked forward to hanging my socks over the fireplace.
On the way up, I met an older man coming down the trail. He had a wiry white handlebar mustache and was wearing an army green parka. He stopped to let me cross the log bridge we were found ourselves on. He told me he had come up the mountain from the backside and was heading to the Roaring Brook Campground.
“Where you going in such a hurry?” he asked.
“To the Chimney Pond bunkhouse. We’re staying there. I had to run out for beer.”
He looked at me incredulously.
“Well, you’re lucky I don’t mug you for that beer,” he said after a moment.
“Then I’ll take that as my cue to leave.” I gave him a smile and continued along the trail, boots sloshing in the mountain rain.
The next morning came early. We awoke at 4:30 a.m. We had resolved the night prior to make for the summit at dawn. The beer was all but gone.
It’s thought by some that Katahdin is the first place in the U.S. to feel the sun’s rays each morning, but in fact this is incorrect. While there’s a lot of debate on where this actually might be, the U.S. Naval Observatory has identified a few possibilities, many of them in Maine (and if you’re interested in knowing for yourself, you can click here).
There’s no doubt, however, that Katahdin is one of the first places in the country to see the sun each day. Furthermore, it’s absolutely beautiful. So we saddled up our packs, affixed our headlamps, and made for the summit in the black predawn void.
About midway up the Saddle Trail, the sun began appearing from behind Katahdin’s Pamola Peak, throwing reds and oranges across the fall landscape. Rivulets from the previous day’s rain ran between the trails rough granite boulders. Slowly, the morning began to warm.
Up Katahdin's Saddle Trail.
When we made the summit, we found it to be socked in with only an occasional parting of clouds to allow views. We were the only ones to have made the trek. The winds were light, considering the cloudy conditions. We took the opportunity for a short break.
After about ten minutes, a figure appeared ascending Katahdin’s backside via the Hunt Trail. The Hunt Trail is the AT’s final push towards the terminus, and it’s considered by many to be one of the route’s toughest stretches. Strewn with jagged boulders and sheer rock faces, it could be considered a “non-technical climb” even in the best conditions. The previous day’s wet weather made the rocks slippery and dangerous.
The lone hiker’s knee was dripping blood. His knee was coated in scarlet. He was from North Carolina, he said, and had been hiking the AT since May. He had been given the trail name “Hot Sauce,” apparently due to his predilection for putting hot sauce on his trail food. He had fallen coming up the Hunt Trail, he said, his only injury of the entire trip. His father was waiting for him at a campground at the bottom.
After congratulating Hot Sauce, we started back across the Table Lands, the vast, lonely expanse dominating Katahdin’s massif, before descending sharply back to Chimney Pond. The clouds began to part as we made our way across the bleak terrain. The morning sun we had begun to see on our ascent threw rays across the rich reds and oranges of the landscape’s fall foliage.
“Well, there’s the sun,” someone muttered as they slipped on loose granite scree.
And there it remained.