Baxter State Park: 4th of July Weekend 2016

Posted by Michael Martin on

In case you haven't noticed, Baxter and Katahdin are a heckuva long ways away.

Accordingly, Thursday evening, Jen and I took the train to BWI and then flew to Manchester, NH, where we rented a car, and checked into our hotel room around midnight. On Friday, we drove up leisurely through Maine, stopping to see a few lighthouses, eat lobster in Portland, and visit a brewery, as well. It was the early evening before we rolled into Baxter.

I wasn't sure what I was going to think of Baxter, honestly. I had followed the Scott Jurek kerfluffle a few months ago. It was immediately clear that BSP is being run according to a land management philosophy that is entirely different from what we were used to, one that restricts access. The park rangers will tell you that the park is run for wilderness first, recreation second. There are few parking spots. The only road running through the place is a narrow gravel road that you have to drive about 10 mph on. A sign near one landmark states, "If lot is full, come back later." It is easy to see how a trail runner and his Red Bull entourage might run afoul of the BSP culture. It's about as far from Shenandoah and Skyline Drive as you can get.

That said, there are some upsides to this approach. There are comparatively few people in the park, and the trails are immaculate. From the summit of the peaks, there is virtually no sign of civilization at all. In general, I think Jen and I came away very impressed by the tranquility and beauty of the park.

We had booked (in March!) a little lean-to at Nesowadnehunk Field, which was very nice. But its position at the Tote Road meant that our plan to climb Baxter via the Knife's Edge was problematic. Getting from Nesowadnehunk to the Roaring Brook TH was a 3-hour round trip! Also, the weather looked bad. There was 100% chance of rain Saturday.

Saturday morning, then, we set out to climb North Brother, which is one of the three peaks on the New England 115 list. The day was dark and prone to drizzle, but we climbed away, passing a lake and at last reaching a saddle between North and South Brother. We scrambled over boulders to reach the tree line of North Brother. There were big views, but we had to climb into a cloud to reach the summit. The wind came up as we took summit photos.

Back down below tree line, I talked Jen into doing South Brother and Coe. Just shy of 4,000 feet, they were on the list of NE 100 highest, and it would be a good warm up for Katahdin. Plus, it was a more aesthetically satisfying line! South Brother did have good views, but the clouds were at eyeball level, and Coe was the same. Baxter was entirely shrouded in mist across the dramatic Klondike.

As we descended steeply off Coe, Jen asked, "Are we going down a slide?" Indeed we were. We hadn't know it was there! We picked our way slowly down the steep rock face. At one point, we had to traverse airily along a seam. But we got down. The lower, less steep slabs were covered in slick slime. Yuck. The rain started in earnest as we descended in the forest. We reached the cars around 6pm, and retired to Nesowadnehunk for beers and brats.

The North Brother-South Brother-Coe loop is a good one, worthy of DC UL, though it's not really backpack-able. At least, we couldn't perceive anywhere to camp.

Michael Martin posted on

Sunday morning, we woke early to climb Baxter and Hamlin. I had decided that the Knife's Edge was just going to have to wait for another time, given our location on the Tote Road, so we planned to climb via the AT.

One of the unintended consequences of BSP's approach is that there is a huge early morning rush to get parking spots at these trailheads. With a 7am departure time, we barely grabbed a spot. We remarked to each other that next time, we'd be better off camping at the TH we wanted to use.

But we were off and climbing, along with everyone else there that day (another unintended consequence). There weren't really that many people, but since everyone was leaving at the same time ... Well, it sort of felt like Old Rag. Nevertheless, Katahdin Stream Waterfall is beautiful and we made quick work of the initial climb. And what a climb it is. Starting around 1,500 feet, the summit is 5,200 feet. On our left, the line of the Brothers revealed itself.

As we left the tree line, around the Gateway, and about 1,200 feet below the summit, the wind came up high. It had been gusty even at the base. There were many hikers there who were quite unprepared for wind (as in shorts and a sports bra), but Jen and I had hats, gloves, shells, etc. Still, Jen got a little whigged out in the wind with a class 3 move. I don't think it would have bothered her if we weren't in a gale.

We descended to tree line and paused for a second. Six military-style guys with good equipment came trooping by, grim-faced. I thought, "Wow. They must've have started early to summit so early." It turned out they were retreating. The winds on the tableland had been entirely too high and they had turned around. They were the sort of guys who would egg each other on. We retreated as well. No one was all that happy about it.

A bit chagrined and disappointed, we had lunch outside the park. On our way back in, we picked up a few hitchhikers on the Tote Road. It turned out that they were from Maine and had started before us (around 6:30am). They had reached the table lands but found the winds so fierce that they hadn't dared turn back on the Hunt Trail and had instead bailed out on the Abol Trail, without getting to the summit. They had spent hours picking their way down.

Perhaps somebody summited that day, but no one seemed to know who. My scheme for summiting Baxter and then hiking over to Hamlin was definitely not happening. That would have been hours in the gale, fully exposed.

So, we dropped them off at their car. They next morning, they treated us to a little trail magic at breakfast, buying our coffee for us in Millinocket.

So, Baxter and Hamlin would have to wait till another time. So it goes.

Monday was all about getting home. It really is a long ways up there.

Matt Scharf posted on

Nice report. BSP definitely has a unique management style, but I think it is worth it to preserve such a beautiful area. I still have North Brother and Hamlin on my list (got Baxter back in 2012), so I'm game for a return trip sometime. Perhaps in conjunction with a trip through the 100 Mile Wilderness?

JDH posted on

Nice trip report - so Abol Trail has reopened?

Michael Martin posted on

@ Matt ... Sure, I'm game. But I bet you'll never talk Jen into going down that slide on Coe again (not that one needs to).

@ Jose ... We were a little unclear on Abol Trail. It wasn't listed at the visitors' center as closed, but someone said it was. The Maine-iacs (is this a term? if not, it should be) said that it had been re-routed. They got down it.

Jen posted on

Yes. Once down the slide is enough. :)

For the Abol Trail, the park website indicates that it is still closed but it wasn't listed as closed in the park. It is being rerouted and news reports say it will reopen this year. Apparently, they are rerouting about a mile of it to avoid the slide, which has become unstable in parts.

Karan posted on

Sounds like you guys had quite the adventure! Nice..

I am curious to know - how did the Coe slide compare to the Macomb slide? The Macomb slide probably last for about ~600 feet descent over ~0.3 miles..

Jen posted on

@Karan, we were talking about that. To be honest, I'm not sure, mainly because of the difference between going up the Macomb Slide and then down the Coe one. My sense is they are similar but the Macomb Slide had more opportunities to stay to the side. We had a somewhat dicey traverse on the Coe one - again, would it have felt different if we were climbing up?

I'd say my takeaway is that if I were given a choice, I'd go up the slide. (I think that's a choice most would make, though!)

Karan posted on

Makes total sense.. It would be very different experiences going up vs. down a slide, so hard to compare.

And good point having a chance to stick to the sides on Macomb : Kylie ignored the cairns (and would have continued all the way down, had I not followed the cairns and seen that the trail re-entered the woods) pretty much and stuck to the left side which seemed better..

Andrew L. posted on

I generally find down-climbing while scrambling scarier than climbing up. Some of it is the instinct to face out when down-climbing vs face into the rock when climbing up. When the terrain gets really steep, facing in is the way to go, but it's a bit disorienting for advancing on long sections going down.

Another item to notice on slides is how far dislodged rocks fall. At the top of the Macomb slide, the rocks seemed to tumble for 40'+, so the trail was pretty steep and there was a potential for long scraping falls. But as we got further down the slide, the dislodged rocks didn't tumble nearly as far, so while there was still a substantial slip risk, we were out of the cheese grater fall area. By where we picked up the trail in the woods, the rocks only slid a foot or two when dislodged.

As Karan noted, the Macomb slide is wide, so it gives one a lot of options for going with their preferred footing. E.g., in the center for part of it was a solid rock slab, which is quick going if you trust the traction on your shoes and are willing to stand right over your feet. Or you can opt for the side as most of us did, which had looser footing, but more good options and limited the fall danger some.