Baxter Park Circumnavigation

The sound of gunshots startled me awake. I couldn’t see anything in the dark, but I knew it was cold. We were deep in the wilds of Baxter State Park in northern Maine, a minus 20-degree sleeping bag covering everything except the icy tip of my nose. My mind went from zero to 60 in no time flat, trying to figure out where the shots were coming from. Then I remembered—the trees! Sap expands and trees start popping when it’s ridiculously cold out. We were 10 miles into a 70-mile, self-supported circumnavigation of the park. The only thing sillier than dreaming a well-armed militia was lurking to ambush a group of skiers? The fact that we were out here in the first place. Who wants to spend eight days camping in winter, pulling 80-pound sleds around a wilderness area in Maine?

 

 

As Greg, Scott and I walked out the door of the Gateway Inn in Medway, Maine the day before, the cold greeted us like a slap in the face. Breathing hurt, the wind stung and our nostrils froze with every inhalation. The frost had grown thick overnight on the windshield of the car and the scraper broke with the first pass over the driver side window. The doors begrudgingly opened. The engine labored to turn over. Everything we needed to survive eight days of Maine winter was packed into the car like an overflowing meat locker that required a strong budge of the shoulder to close the door. After ten or 15 minutes of warming the car’s engine, we were ready to roll. Our goal was to circumnavigate Baxter State Park in northern Maine, home to Mount Katahdin and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. During the summer, one can drive around the park, minus seven and a half miles between Russell Pond and Roaring Brook. We were going to ski the whole thing, pulling sleds filled with everything we’d need for eight days and sleeping in lean-tos. 

 

Our first day gave us a glimpse of what the whole trip would look like. Cold temps, easy travel, difficult travel, sunshine, clouds, lots of laughs, lots of grimaces, frozen fingers, growling bellies and beautiful views. We left the southern entrance to the park, Abol Bridge, skiing away from the cars that we wouldn’t see for over a week as thoughts of excitement and doubt intermingled in our heads. We skied across frozen, snow-covered lakes under impressive views of the Katahdin massif. We struggled through wind-blown forests without much snow cover, pulling our sleds up and over root systems and large boulders, helping each other when our sleds would tip over from time to time.

 

We finally arrived to our first night’s camp at dusk. Foster Field, along the park’s tote road, was historically used as a garbage dump where park patrons would come to watch bears forage for any tasty treats left by other visitors. Today Foster Field has been cleaned up and repurposed as a group campsite. As a means of energy conservation, and perhaps laziness, we threw our sleeping pads and bags onto picnic tables under an open air shelter, melted snow to rehydrate our pre-packaged meals, ate dinner, prepped for bed and promptly fell asleep. It was around 8:00 pm and we figured we wouldn’t come out of our cozy cocoons for twelve hours, until the three of us simultaneously awoke to the gun-shot sounds of the trees popping. Eventually the sounds of snoring overtook the sounds of the sap expanding and we were all back asleep.

 

For those that have limited experience camping in the winter, I can assure you that there are many chores. Waking up on day two, and every day after, looked the same. Wriggle out of your sleeping bag. Shake off the frost that accumulated from breathing through the cinched up opening over your face . Organize all the things that you kept in your bag at night to ensure they didn’t freeze (batteries, water bottle, fuel canisters, contacts). Get all your puffy layers on and then slip on those comfy down booties. Stretch. Fire up the stove and get water going. Find breakfast. Eat breakfast. Fill water bottles for the day. Check the map. Check the weather. Stuff your sleeping bag into way too small of a stuff sack. Roll up your sleeping pads. Break down the stove. Break down camp. Start to pack the duffle bags. Secure them in the sleds. Strip down to your active layers. Put on your ski boots. Lash down your duffle to the sled. Click in to the waist strap. Click in to your skis. And finally, get going!

 

 

Every day seemed to be a continuously slow uphill slog. We joked about the fact we didn’t know a loop could be uphill the whole way, as the time we spent with gravity on our side was minimal. Miles slid by underneath our feet and our systems got dialed in. Moving through wild lands triggered primal senses. Everything we needed to survive was with us. Our connection to the outside world dissipated as our connection to our surroundings blossomed. By day four, we were skiing to South Branch Pond in the northern end of the park and our planned meeting spot with our friends, Sayde and Kelsey (while they weren’t able to commit to the whole trip, we were able to make it relatively easy to meet up almost half way through the circumnavigation).

 

We turned off the Tote Road, away from the snowmobilers, and after a few seemingly endless uphill miles, we found relief in a cruiser downhill to camp. As we scoped out the best lean-to on the pond, the girls arrived right on schedule. In addition to their contagious enthusiasm and positivity, they also brought in more chocolate! We hugged, welcomed them from there near 16 mile ski in, and after a bit of probing around camp to find the fire pit, built a roaring fire to get warm. Two days later, after a failed day hiking attempt in bad weather, our new team of five started moving south in the direction of the cars still 30 miles away. We arrived at Russell Pond for the evening, sleeping well despite the knowledge the next morning might make or break our plans. The biggest unknown was the Wassataquoik Stream crossing, usually a thigh-deep crossing in the summer, but enough volume flowed in the winter that we weren’t sure what we’d encounter. When morning came, we skied through the woods following fresh moose tracks snaking along the banks of the river. Thankfully when we came to the crossing, we found a solid sheet of ice stretching from shore to shore. Relief was palpable, albeit brief.  After tentatively making our way over the frozen river (I hate crossing frozen rivers), we proceeded to lose the trail, spent an hour trying to find it in the untrodden snow and then encountered the first of nearly two dozen deep water bar crossings.  Each one was unique, but the maneuver was the same. Find the narrowest place to cross the span, unbuckle from our sleds, and fireman everything down, across, and back up the drainages.  It was tiring, grueling work and each one we came across drained our energy like the water that was being drained from the snowpack higher up.  After almost eight miles and eight hours, we came to the last crossing.  

 

We skied into Roaring Brook in hopes of finding solace in an empty bunkhouse with a wood stove. I could see smoke rising from the chimney, heard a cacophony of voices as we neared and my hopes dwindled. Instead of lingering around we skied to the closest lean-to and started to strip wet layers and exchange them for dry clothes. It was crucial to our survival that we carried two sets of base layers on the trip. We’d sweat during the day and need to change out of those wet layers each night and hope they’d dry in our sleeping bags over night. The system worked, and we stayed dry for most of the trip. 

 

Dry and warmer, we settled in and a ranger came by that night, he asked us if we wanted to know what happened in the Super Bowl the evening before. We were all Patriot fans elated to hear the tale of one of the greatest football comebacks of all time. After a fire and dinner, we crawled into our sleeping bags for the usual 12 hours and slept soundly. 

 

Our plan when we set out from the beginning was to climb Katahdin itself on our last day of the trip. However we woke to negative fifteen degree temperatures and a howling wind that sucked as much heat out of our bodies as it did our motivation. After a quick and cold discussion, our group decided it was too risky to expose ourselves for up to 12 hours in the elements above treeline. So we packed up our final camp, and started the thirteen mile ski out to the cars. It was bittersweet, leaving without climbing the mountain, but we achieved what we’d set out to do. We were all still friends, no one got hurt, and despite the cold temps, we all had a fantastic time.

 

We reached the cars, thankful they started up on the first crank. We scraped the ice off the windshields, exchanged wet synthetic clothing for dry cotton, cranked the heat and set off for burgers and beers. Eventually the smell of hamburger overcame our senses and we devoured copious amounts of food, reminiscing and already planning for the next trip.


Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Just a bit of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail:

 

Even the slightest wave from any hint of wind seemed to splash water into the canoe. Ned and I knew the hazards of piling all of our stuff and our large bodies into a craft better sized for two pre-pubescent boys (which aptly describes our maturity levels but not our physical stature), but we figured, “Hey, the trip is mostly flat water, right?”

We were on our last day of a four day trip on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail trying to keep up with our nearly twice our age friend as he began his 1500 mile paddling odyssey from the Adirondacks of New York to the northern most point of Maine. From there he will switch from a canoe to a kayak, and start paddling out to the Atlantic Ocean on the St John River and down the entire coast of Maine. Just writing that makes me tired, but John is still out there paddling as I sit in a warm coffee shop reflecting on the short portion of our trip.

Paddling north on the Saranac River, we heard the water moving faster through the river channel and as we rounded the bend we saw the first set of rapids. A quick move around a downed tree on the right and we were fully into it.

“Rock straight ahead,” Ned warned.

“Yep, I see it. Give me a draw on the right,” I instructed.

While Ned tried directing the bow, I made a big draw stroke in the stern but it was too late. We hit the rock, flipped the boat and were instantly in the cold spring melt-off of the river.  Too concerned with keeping all of our gear together, the temperature of the water didn’t even register.  

 

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Back in Maine, and before we left, Ned and I had been packing, repacking, calling outfitters, borrowing gear and finally loading up the car for the seven-hour drive from Portland, Maine to Long Lake, NY.  We had made hasty plans to meet up with our friend, John, on his second day into a 75 day canoe and kayak trip dubbed the “PaddleQuest1500.”  At 60, John is a force to be reckoned with.  He’s in top notch shape and his positivity is contagious.  This trip had been a dream of his for a long time, and of course, Ned and I hatched ours over a few beers one night in the weeks leading up to John’s departure.  We borrowed a boat, PFD’s, paddles, dry bags, paddling jackets and pants, and even next-to-skin layers made for paddling.  We obviously needed all the help we could get to pull off this trip.  Thankfully our friends at Good To-Go, provisioned us with tasty meals to stoke our furnaces each night as we recounted each day on the water and zipped up our sleeping bags to stay warm in the 20 degree temps we saw each night in the Adirondacks.  During this time last year, the lakes were still covered in ice and snow, but due to the mild winter, ice out came early this year and we saw ourselves paddling in 60 degree temps during the day, but anytime we dipped our hands in the water we were quickly reminded of the solid state these lakes were in just a few short weeks ago. 

 

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We met up with John in the small hamlet of Long Lake, enjoyed a delicious meal at the local inn, and crashed out early to get a jump start on our first day of paddling.  We awoke to calm waters and were excited to get the boats wet.  Paddling north up the 10-mile lake was wonderful.  It was as if we were traveling on a mirror the water was so calm.  Long Lake drained into the Raquette River and after a few more miles of paddling we came to our first portage trail.  With heavy packs on our backs we worked our way over a rugged and muddy mile to put back in on flat water.  As the afternoon waned, we found ourselves at the three-wall shelter that would be our camp for the night.  Water treated, stove cranking, hot food, bellies full.  A bit of rain overnight kept things brisk and damp in the morning as we packed up and put back on the slow-moving river.  We portaged the boats again and stood on the shores of Upper Saranac Lake facing a stiff headwind and whitecaps on the water.  We all took a moment to be thankful we didn’t have conditions like this the previous day! After a quick lunch we launched the boats and didn’t stop paddling for what felt like hours, but it was realistically only 30 minutes or so. We’re strong like that. More portages, more paddling, a trip through the upper locks and we called it a day by the time we arrived to an island campsite on Lower Saranac.  After Ned made a few casts that came up empty on the fly rod, John and I started up the stove to boil water for our delicious dinners of Thai Curry, Classic Marinara with Penne and Smoked ThreeBean Chili.  Now you might be thinking, “These guys brought some serious fine dining cuisine with them!” and you wouldn’t be wrong, but preparing this dinner doesn’t take a full back country kitchen. In fact, you just add boiling water and wait a bit while you share stories of the day, the month, the year, whatever!  Of course eating food out of a bag is convenient, but rarely tasty. However the folks at Good To-Go have done things right. All the ingredients are real and the dehydrated food comes back to life so much better than freeze-dried.  Disclaimer time. I shoot photos for the company, but I promise my opinion is not biased. Even before I started working for David and Jenn I was buying their food and relishing every bite. Seriously.

 

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Sleep came quickly and morning came even quicker. We paddled through another set of locks onto Oseetah Lake and headed north to the town of Saranac Lake. We met up with the folks at St Regis Canoe Outfitters who helped shuttle our car and provided us tons of good info on the remains route for the next two days.  Ned and I also arranged for a set of wheels to be dropped off at the beginning of the 5-mile road portage we had coming up the next day (and I tell you what, they made that walk a breeze!). We walked around town, had some lunch and a pint, and put back on the river for the afternoon.  By the time we made it to Franklin Falls Pond, it was getting close to dusk and we were ready for more food and bed.

A beautifully calm sunrise got us up and ready for the day.  By the time we’d lay our heads down that night, we’d have a full-value day.  We made quick work of Franklin Falls Pond, portaged around the dam, paddled across Union Falls Pond, portaged around that dam, and put back on the Saranac River.  Lots of dams in the Adirondacks.  

Within two miles, the river grew louder, we hit the rock, and you know the rest.

 

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Of course John was able to pull out into an eddy and help rescue Ned and me from our predicament.  Unfortunately in doing so he scraped the bottom of his kevlar boat to the point a serious fiberglass repair was in order.  We still had a few more rapids to paddle before taking out for the five mile portage, and after searching around for a bit and a bit of bushwhacking, we found the faint trail that took us out to the road.  Ned and I found the stashed wheels (Thank you Mike Lynch!) and we made our way down the road.  We discussed options for repairing John’s boat and determined the best course of action, with rain in the forecast that night, would be to hitchhike to my car, come back and grab our stuff and head into town for a night in a hotel where the fiberglass patch could cure overnight and John wouldn’t have to skip a beat for gashing his boat while trying to help Ned and me.  After five miles of walking, I finally caught a ride and made it back to the car thirty minutes away.  As soon as I started driving back to the guys, I saw Ned’s arm wildly waving out of an oncoming truck.  We both pulled over and made sense of the situation.  Ned had thought I wouldn't be able to hitch all the way to my car and he had scored a ride to come help if it was needed.  We got lucky catching each other, and the family driving the truck Ned was in invited us all back to their home for a superb meal of prime rib, grilled potatoes and veggies, and of course a couple pints.  It was late by the time we loaded up John’s boat on my car and we made it into the closest town with a hotel by nightfall.  John new the place from previous travels, but what he failed to mention was there was an indoor water park attached to the hotel!  We were as kiddy as schoolboys and with fifteen minutes to spare, we downed board shorts and received awkward looks from the presumably fifteen year old life guard on duty as we giggled our way down multiple waterslides until they kicked us out.  Next stop was the brewery, again attached to the hotel, and after a few more pints we went to work patching John’s canoe and hit the hay soon after. What a wild day.  When morning arrived, we ran some errands in town (after Ned and I hit up the water park again), and drove back to where John could put back on the water without missing a beat. We said our goodbyes and watched as our friend continued his amazing journey by himself.

 

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It was such a wonderful time on the water with John, and we were so happy to share the tiniest bit of his experience with him.  Knowing he’s still out there going strong makes me excited about the prospect of meeting up with him again soon!  Much thanks to everyone who helped us get out there: Good To-Go, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Wenonah Canoe and DeLorme inReach!