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Maine Sunday Telegram
March 5, 2000

Text by Melissa L. Kim, photos by Ellen Kanner

Check out our route on this map.

Size: 202,064 acres

Highest Point: Baxter Peak (5271 feet), at the summit of Mt Katahdin, the highest point in Maine

History: Established in 1930, a gift to the state from Governor Percival Baxter

The winter season runs from December 1 to March 31.

No special permission is required for day use, though day users are requested to check in and out at the self-registration boxes or at park headquarters in Millinocket.

Winter camping and hiking, technical climbing and alpine skiing are permitted only with a special use permit. You must request a permit a minimum of two weeks in advance of your trip. All winter parties must have a minimum of four people, with one leader and two alternate leaders. Strict requirements exist for all winter use activities. Rangers will check gear, permits and itineraries. The Baxter State Park Authority takes winter use seriously and requires all visitors not to underestimate the potential dangers.

Accommodation in winter can be in cabins, bunkhouses, lean-tos and tents, and reservations are required. The Park Authority accepts reservations starting November 1. Reservations must be by mail or in person.

Winter fees:
Cabins: $20/person/night
Bunkhouses: $12/person/night (Chimney Pond bunkhouse $25/night)
Lean-tos and tent sites: $8/person/night

For information, contact:
Baxter State Park Authority
64 Balsam Drive
Millinocket ME 04462

Here is the view from Russell Pond. Click to see the 360 degree view.
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Check out the movies:
  • Fred Dillon snowshoeing and Melissa Kim skiing
    (1 MB file) (4.7 MB file)
  • What is it like to walk up a hill pulling a sled?
    (1.5 MB file) (4.7 MB file)
  • Out for a day on the trail with safety gear in tow.
    (1.5 MB file) (4.7 MB file)

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  • I had a vague idea about what a winter trip to Baxter State Park would be like. But when I signed my application detailing my next of kin, I never expected to fall into moose tracks, hear accordion music across a frozen lake, use a riveting gun to build a sled harness and see moonlit clouds sweep across the Katahdin range.

    It all began with building our sleds .
    Last fall, my friend Matthew Bampton invited me to come along on a winter backcountry skiing expedition. For Bampton, 38, an accomplished outdoorsman and trip leader, it would be his seventh winter trip to Baxter, the 202,064 acres of wilderness in northern Maine legendary for its natural beauty and high peaks.

    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.

    See Matthew Bampton gear up for a day out.
    The park sends out a packet of information to anyone interested in winter camping, hiking, technical climbing and alpine skiing in Baxter. All parties must have a minimum of four people, with a leader and designated alternate leaders. All leaders must fill out Certifications of Training and Experience and give references, and all party members must fill out Certifications of Physical Fitness.

    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)

    On the trail.
    Click here for more photos of Day One.
    We loaded our mountains of gear and food onto the sleds, strapping enormous cooking pans and snow shovels on top. I stepped into my skis, buckled on my sled and started off down the trail. A gentle incline gave broad views of Grand Lake Matagamon to the right, and the steep slopes of Trout Brook Mountain rose up to the left.

    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.

    See Melissa pull the sled in this movie.
    Skiing with a sled is a contradiction in terms. It's more like walking, especially on an incline. The belt for the harness fits snugly over the hips. It made me feel like I couldn't quite stretch my legs all the way, and sideways motion was awkward.

    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

    Resting in the bunkhouse.
    Click here for more photos of Day Three and listen to the musical entertainment.
    On our rest day, we decided to get a little exercise. One group took a snowshoe trip while the other group opted to hike up and ski down a mountainside. Before we split up, Bampton outlined all the gear required for our day trip. The list was almost as long as our complete gear list.

    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.

    Reviewing our gear.
    Click here for a complete gear list and listen to Bampton describe the equipment.
    We had perfect conditions for our trip, but weather can change or injuries can occur before you know it. Bampton has experienced the unpredictability of Baxter. "We have, on occasion, bivouacked in the snow, changed our route and been forced to dig into the emergency iron rations," he said. It's important that each person is reliable and self-sufficient. "Things can get ugly fast if you lose your head," he said.

    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)

    Treating blisters.
    Click here for more photos of Day Four.
    We left Russell Pond under cloudy skies and a moderate wind. We whooped and flew on the downhills and before I knew it, we were back on the surface of the South Branch Pond. The winter sun, low in the sky, cast long shadows through the birch trees, giving the mountainside a crazy zebra-striped pattern.

    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.

    Take a look inside a bunkhouse.

    Related links:

  • 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.

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