Mt. Katahdin, Baxter State Park ME
11/30 – 12/6/11
By Alan Cattabriga
Morning light touches the summit of Baxter Peak after a light snow.
Katahdin, late November. Doug, Fred, Chris and I are booked. All our friends thought we were nuts. I think the Baxter State Park Rangers did too. I guess I don’t blame everyone. After all, early season ice is a gamble, never mind the fact that this seasons start has been an on again, off again affair. To roll the dice on something being climbable in this remote place with the commitment needed? Ok, perhaps a little nuts. But there is something still very intriguing about going into this mountain with the earth still brown.
However, snow is a beneficial ingredient, one can ski in with a towed load. And it would not take much snow to ski the road to Roaring Brook. As our departure date closes in, the park is still without snow. We would have to get crafty on getting the gear in. And with the chance of conditions being entirely different getting out, a quiver of special gear must come with us.
Sleds, Skis, Wagons, Bikes & Cars – photo Fredwardo
I know one thing, I’m not carrying a huge pack to Roaring Brook. Just the amount of wine, whiskey and food out weigh me. Add in the other gear and I’m totally out horse powered. From RB to Chimney Pond is only 3.2 miles so thats fine. I can make two trips if necessary.
On the day of our departure Doug gets a call from Ranger Rob. The gate is open and we can DRIVE to Roaring Brook! There is one tiny catch, we can’t leave the car there for if it snows, we’re screwed. Our orders are to park at the visitor center after we unload the gear. No problem, I’ll bring my mountain bike and ride the 8 miles back to RB. We laugh at this news and think “Now who is crazy for going in so early!!!”
Rob has one more piece of info though, it rained recently and most of the ice that was forming, fell. Yeah, who is crazy now. But ice is not our only goal, for Katahdin offers many wonderful adventures.
The places and the characters in the story below are a blend of both fact and fiction. Some events have been changed. Any resemblance to places, people, alive or deceased is pure coincidence and a dirty shame.
After an insane night in Millinocket, a night of partying with inked, edgy, Russian chicks, a bar fight and racing across the road in front of logging trucks, the day dawns blue and cold. A healthy serving of eggs & hash at Angelos Pizza Grill is consumed and we are off. There is not a speck of white to be seen along the drive in. We pass the gatehouse and motor the dirt road to Roaring Brook. A quick unload of our stuff at the bunkhouse ensues. Plastic bottles are filled with the plethora of liquors we brought. Jagermeister, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Makers Mark, Fireball Whiskey, Root and Laphroaig. Alas, the amount of alcohol to empty bottle ratio is way off.
Essentials of the trip – photo Fredwardo
I move the car back to the visitor center. After a few belts of Makers Mark and a heavy application of green wax, I’m on the bike riding like it’s my job. Except I’m not a bike rider. I arrive back at Roaring Brook with burning thighs and a slightly abused ass. But that was nothing usual.
The rangers are not around much. I recall hearing something about firearm, taser and truncheon practice needed for the coming season. We were left a radio and asked us not to burn the bunkhouse down or get killed. We told Rob would do our best.
Our first full day at Chimney Pond opens socked in with undercast. After multiple coffees, ramen with tuna and many smokes with Man with Smoking Face, we are ready. The Machine wakes with a sore knee and decides to lay low for the day. Fredwardo, Smoking Face & I, not knowing what ice is climbable decide to hike up to the Cilley/Barber to see if we can tell what is going on. Our paper work is hung on the clipboard at the ranger outpost and we’re off.
With the pond not frozen we must bushwhack along the right side. And for added spice, it snowed a few inches during the night. This causes us to move like hooded, clumsy thieves thru the fir and spruce. Once at the headwall we get some views, the best hope for some ice looks to be along the Cathedral side on the slabs under Dougal’s Delight. Once above these slabs we would work right and slide up Gully #3 to the Cathedral Ridge then down that trail.
Our perfectly filled out paper work – photo Fredwardo (click to enlarge)
The view from Pamola to the slabs
Thin but very climbable ice is ascended for hundreds of feet. A unique talus field greets us high on the mountain above the ice. As we weave thru its huge stones, our voices ring out with admiration of this beautiful place.
Gully #3 is and order of the Northeast Special. Snow, ice, turf, alders and rock. However we do possess some environmental ethics and not wanting to hurt the little plants, climb onto the ridge forming the right side of the gully as soon as we can.
Fredwardo working on the slabs
We return to the bunkhouse and find the Machine engrossed in a book. The book speaks of the mythical being, Pomola. Our friend reads us a few of its short chapters as we sip whiskey.
The Book of Dudley – photo Fedwardo
My mind entertains the thought of this winged beast. I move from one reality to another, to that of what we call a dream, though I’m fully awake. Day turns to night quickly this time of year. Even on a sunny day, this aspect of the mountain, denies the light from entering. We all step outside. The clouds have departed, a strong wind has pushed them away. I watch the crescent moon above Pamola Peak. The stars are bright and the myth beckons. With the ice being compromised by the mild air, tomorrow we shall walk in Pomola’s realm.
Day four is beautifully clear. A stout wind caresses the place we hike in. We are all together and on the Hamlin Ridge. This ridge amazing, for the location splits the North and South Basins. The basins of light and dark respectively.
Machine and Man with Smoking Face, Hamlin Ridge
Our pace is leisurely. Moving in this place on a day such as this, with just my three companions, is an experience to savor. The clouds are in rare form. Their shape, colours and depth are wonderful, once again I feel as if I’ve slipped into a dream state.
However there is not a hint of Pomola. From Hamlin’s summit I gaze to Pamola Peak then along the jagged ridge to Baxter.
Pamola, Chimney Peak & the Knife Edge
Tomorrow we will do the traverse from the Cathedrals to Pamola Peak. We will tread where Pomola dwells and I greatly desire to feel something yet unknown.
We stop by the ranger outpost on our way back. Leroy is there. I’m not sure if he is a ranger or not for he is very old and his clothes looks like that of a Maine hunter from the past. We get some Poutine and smokes from the snack shop and each get a ranger snow globe from the gift shop.
The place for gifts, smokes, & salty meats
A quiet evening is in store. The Laphroaig comes out. As we sip, the Chimney Pond Tales flow like the whiskey. After a few chapters all of us drift into our own thoughts then sleep comes down.
Morning comes. The clouds have returned and the air though damp has warmed more. Our visibly is limited. Once on the Cathedrals fifty feet is about as far as one can see.
On Baxter Peak the mist has become heavy, just short of rain. Even though a view would be nice, I’m enjoying moving along the Knife Edge in this fog. Its the perfect environment for the image of I’ve conjured. Close to Chimney Peak the clouds open with little holes for a few seconds and offer us a chance for some views.
Nearing Chimney Peak- photo Fredwardo
Gorillas on the Ridge
The mountain sweeps down and contours around in the quintessential ancient cirque form. This is the place where Pomola roams, but where is he?
The clouds close upon us once more and on Chimney Peak, a light rain greets us. The down climb is a little tricky as is the ascent to Pamola Peak for the rocks are slick.
Man in Sneaker, Chimney Peak – photo Fredwardo
On the summit we pause. This is the place Pomola had his first smoke. A smoke that consisted of birch bark, balsam fir and tar paper. It is here his beard caught fire from the pipe. This is the place he dove headlong from, eclipsing even the brightest comet, down into Chimney Pond. As I think of this another part of the myth enters my thought. He does not like humans and his spirit causes cold weather. It’s all too obvious now, Pomola is away. We pay homage to him before we descend. A smoke in this magical place, a small gift to the wind and leave some pipe-weed in a nook for the beast.
Its our last evening in the basin. With heavy hearts we finish off the Laphroaig, the last of our whiskey.
Rain is falling. In the morning we play the valet card, and radio the rangers to bring our car to Roaring Brook. Early season on Katahdin is a time of no guarantees. But many things can happen that are unforeseen. Short days and total solitude better be on the agenda, if not perhaps you should stay away.
Not so good. In fact, not good at all!
To my companions, Doug, Chris & Freddie. Thank you for enduring me on the trip and suffering thru this tale. I know walking with Man in Sneaker was tough. But it was not my frickn’ fault you all just brought ice boots and slippers. Fucking-A!
Many thanks to the Baxter State Park Rangers and especially Rob, you guys are awesome! But I suggest you get more meats on your snack menu.
And lastly to any fool that reads this cone of crap. Good job and remember to use the hand sanitizer after.