Maine Sunday Telegram
March 5, 2000
More than just a walk in the park
Text by Melissa L. Kim, photos by Ellen Kanner
It took me about a tenth of a second to say yes, and the trip was set for President's Day weekend. Photographer Ellen Kanner and I would join seven others to ski and pull sleds loaded with gear from Baxter's north entrance in to Russell Pond and back, a round trip of about 42 miles covered in five days.
I knew it would be fun, but I also knew it would be hard. A winter visit to Baxter is more than just a walk in the park. Only about 500 people venture into the park in winter, and the park authorities make sure that all who do take it very seriously.
The Baxter State Park Authority looks for preparation, winter expedition experience and leadership when granting permission to winter parties. According to Mary Ellen Bell, Reservations Supervisor, "We don't want people in there that don't know what they are doing. That's why we have such strict guidelines." They always err on the side of caution, she said, and turn away parties that aren't qualified.
Bampton, our trip leader, has Maine EMT certification, Wilderness First Responder certification, seven years of winter trips to Baxter and 20 years of experience winter hiking around the world.
Our three alternate leaders have extensive winter camping, hiking and mountaineering experience as well as other credentials. Phil Daligan, 50, from Peak's Island, is a registered Maine Guide with EMT certification. A professional kayak guide, Daligan has among his many qualifications 15 years of experience winter climbing, ski mountaineering and high-altitude expedition climbing and guiding around the globe. This was the fourth winter trip to Baxter for Blake Strack, 38, from Cape Elizabeth, who also has Wilderness First Responder certification. Amy Tchao, 35, from Falmouth, has first aid and CPR training.
Day One: Matagamon Gate to South Branch Pond (11.2 miles)
Mike Silvius, 36, a carpenter from Portland, skied beside me tightening ropes and adjusting straps on the sled. Silvius, on his third winter trip to Baxter, had given a sled-building workshop two weeks earlier. He'd helped us construct harnesses from PVC conduits, elbows and connectors, which were then riveted to a plastic toboggan at one end and bolted to a hip belt at the other.
I was glad of both the training I had done running, skiing and testing the sled and the gear. My backcountry skis had metal edges and scales deep enough to make climbing relatively easy. On the truly steep slopes, however, the only way up was to take the skis off and walk.
After about six hours, a long downhill took us into South Branch Pond Campground. It looked like a ghost town. The boarded-up ranger station, crew cabin and lean-tos were knee-deep in snow. A curl of smoke from a chimney led me to our bunkhouse, where the fast skiers had already arrived and fired up the wood stove.
The bunkhouse was luxury itself. The main room had a wood stove with firewood and kindling already chopped and stacked by the park rangers. There was a long picnic table, benches and a counter for food preparation and two bunkrooms off the main room. We hung wet gloves, gaiters, jackets and hats from a clothesline stretched across the ceiling.
People began to pull food and drink out of packs like magicians pulling rabbits out of hats. Each night, we ate like royalty. Bampton emerged from a bunkroom with a puckish grin, holding a small case. Out came a small button accordion and the night's entertainment was set.
Day Two: South Branch Campground to Russell Pond (9.6 miles)
More perfect skiing conditions prevailed. We skied through a notch into Upper South Branch Pond and suddenly the vista exploded. The peaks of the Travelers curved to the east, a valley interrupted, and then Katahdin revealed itself for the first time. To the west, the Pogy Mountains presented a kinder slope, white birches standing in formation like matchstick soldiers.
Animal tracks are easier to spot in winter and they were abundant here. Deep canyons left by moose and delicate prints from snowshoe hares were the most common. We also saw tracks left by deer, coyote, squirrels, spruce grouse and an unidentifiable large cat. Actual sightings were rare, so I felt lucky to have a brief encounter with a marten and an excellent look at a pair of moose.
After five hours of skiing, we came down through thick woods to the frozen surface of Russell Pond. In my journal, there are only exclamation points to describe the view. I stood with Katahdin rising in front of me, the world reduced to large swaths of white, green, brown and blue. In winter, small details fade away, allowing the landscape to make grand sweeping statements.
Day Three: Rest Day
You need to be prepared for all eventualities in winter and keep in mind that you are miles from help. The last person we'd seen was a park ranger on our first day, and as the park staff stresses, rescue may be slow and uncertain. We relied on each other and on our own resources. That meant we carried a camp stove, fuel, matches and small pan; first aid kit; extra warm clothes; a snow shovel; food and water; flashlight; small knife; map and compass; watch; and a bivouac bag. The most important message: never travel alone.
That evening, Silvius and Annemarie Marcucci, 36, from Portland, prepared a Venezuelan dish called hallacas, corn meal stuffed with a meat and vegetable stew, wrapped in smoked banana leaves. Meals had been planned carefully, keeping the strict carry-in, carry-out policy in mind. We'd drained, frozen, un-packaged or re-wrapped most of our food ahead of time, even pouring liquids like red wine and maple syrup into plastic bottles that are easy to compress and carry out.
To work off dinner, I went with Bampton on a midnight moonlight ski across the pond to collect water from the spring. Thick clouds skated back and forth in front of the full moon. Eerie bluish shadows raced across the frozen pond. The mountain peaks were there, then gone. As our skis disturbed the newly fallen snow, it flickered like phosphorescence and the planet seemed truly alive.
Day Four: Russell Pond to South Branch Pond (9.6 miles)
Governor Percival Baxter bought this land in the 1930s and set up a trust to preserve it for future generations. He was well aware that people come and go while the mountains stand witness to the passing of time when he said, "Man is born to die, his works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine."
I lingered on South Branch Pond with Phil Daligan, trying to make the day longer. Daligan has hiked in all the corners of the world and still he paused to lean on his poles and look around in wonder. "Everything else falls away here," he said. "Nothing matters. Jobs, money, the lot. You shed all those things when you're out in this wilderness."
It's not quite what Baxter was talking about when he said, "Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes." But it's what I think of now.
Day Five: South Branch Pond to Matagamon Gate (11.2 miles)
It all went by too quickly. We dawdled packing up at the bunkhouse, each of us wanting to be last. We took too many group photos on the porch of the bunkhouse. The trail, now familiar, sped by.
On our way out, we passed a group of five people coming in. Cheeks flushed, faces glowing, they pulled sleds just like we did. At first I felt vague annoyance seeing another party doing the same thing. But then I remembered. It's what you find in the park the mountains, lakes, wildlife and the solitude that makes it special, not the visitors.
Baxter State Park is administered privately by the Baxter State Park Authority. There is now a official Web site at: Baxter State Park with detailed information on trails, campsites, reservations, rules and regulations and more.
The Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce has business information, education and recreation for Millinocket and the area around Baxter State Park.
For more on Maine's state parks, see the Maine Department of Conservation Bureau of Parks and Lands Web site.