categories: Cocktail Hour
I’ve lived in Maine almost twenty years and had yet to climb Katahdin. True for my friend Drew Barton, too, and for our friend Mark Pires. John Field had been up there before, but not since about 1990. So Drew made the mandatory reservations and the four of us climbed into Mark’s family minivan and paddled and portaged our way east and north three hours from the Park and Ride in Farmington (occasional views toward the end of our goal through power-line openings in the thick trees and over lakes dotted with inns) till we reached a gatehouse wherein Pomola’s agents ruled: our paperwork, thanks to Drew, was in order. (Pomola, as every Abenaki knows, is a bird spirit, also a spirit of the night, the spirit that causes cold weather, and lives atop Kahtahdin, where no man may go, not without a permit, not without a fee, certainly not without proper hiking boots.) From the gatehouse we portaged the absurdly heavy bateau to a roaring brook. Roaring Brook Campground, that is, where at the next picnic table six young people prayed before their dinner of canned meats and bags of chips.
We hadn’t planned our own dinner as a group and so each man had brought enough for everyone, including rather vast amounts of sausages, also much garden produce. Soon enough our tents were up and the fire of three-dollar bundles of birch and cedar perfectly seasoned was crackling and ears of corn were roasting, ranks of sausages sizzling on skewers, also onions and peppers, also a concoction by John of burger meat and veggies in a tinfoil wrap. We regretted the lack of potatoes but carried on, imbibing beer (on my fellows’ part) and a delicate white wine (upon mine) and shots of vodka (Drew explained that the very small size of his flask would prevent “climber’s curse” the next morning, though it did nothing to quieten our growing excitement at the prospect ahead of us, in fact made it quite a bit noisier).
Another of Pomola’s agents stepped into our circle of light: Ranger Bill. He asked our hiking plan, seemed aghast. “The Helon Parker Trail is steep,” he said. Drew had also warned us thus. “And once you’re up there, you only have the Knife Edge to reach Baxter Peak.” Ditto. “Maybe if you go up the Chimney Pond Camp trail some of you bigger, older guys….” Icy finger pointed at me… “can assess how you’re feeling about the Knife Edge, maybe say Enough and turn around.”
Six a.m. and the din of cell phone alarms was rivaled only by robins and blue jays awakening. Within an hour the coffee had been made and ingested, our rucksacks packed, the various maps thoroughly fingered: we would take the Helon Parker Trail as planned. We tied our craft to a tree in the day-use parking lot and soon were thrashing our way though the brush so to sign in at the ranger station. Thereafter the path was very wide and stony, steep from the start. Quickly our weight/height ratios sorted us into an order that would prevail for much of the morning: John (short only a hand or so of seven feet high, boulders like nothing to his step and gait, our expedition geologist), Drew (far less lofty, but thin as Thoreau and an avid athlete, our forest ecologist), Mark (a geographer aspiring to a somewhat planetary roundness), and myself at the rear (no scientist, but a nice enough fellow full of foul jokes and jibes ((cf the identical reports of the farts the sausages had instilled in us one and all)) , and already regarded in some circles as the new ninth moon of Jupiter, gaseous and colorful, bright pinks and various unexplained spots and excrescencies).
The great thing about this hike is that once you’re above tree line, it’s all laid out for you. Which is also the awful thing about this hike. The Mountain is a rough crescent ridge of many peaks arranged around a glacier-carved cirque that could easily be mistaken for a volcanic crater, if you weren’t with a geologist, a forest ecologist, and/or a geographer. The Helon Parker trail, named after an early agent of Pomola, is another of those frank New England trails: straight up a ridgeline to the bottom hook of the great crescent. This means all you’re looking at is Pomola Peak and not the rest of the challenge. Because Pomola Peak is quite plenty to contemplate from that angle: a pile of loose boulders stacked upward and upward and then moreso. The vertical ascent is about 3400 feet from camp to first peak. That’s three Cardigan Mountains, which had to stand in as my practice climb.
After three hours, John reached the top of Pomola. Three hours and twenty minutes, Drew. Mark and I were doing fine, just doing it more slowly. You look ahead and pick out the blue blazes painted on rock faces: That’s a trail? Not exactly, more a series of suggestions for getting through the maze of boulders perched at least as much vertically as horizontally.
Three and half hours and Mark crested the top, having lingered to keep me company. My neck had begun to hurt (I have a spinal injury, did I mention?), and worse, my imagination had started to kick in: my climbing partners swinging my corpse by feet and hands and 1-2-3 out and into the abyss. Did I mention the abyss? Those 3400 feet are fully visible below and everywhere around you is the world.
But I did scrabble up the last lichen-covered boulder and onto Pomola, breathing heavily, last but not least. There was the south, and there was the north, there was the west, and there was the east, all laid out plain. There was the up, and there was the down. There also was the rest of the mountain, which had been entirely and mercifully hidden till that moment: first South Peak, then Baxter Peak, which is the crest of the climb. Between was a series of craggy clefts and mini-peaks and titanic rocks strewn along a dragon’s back. “That’s not the Knife Edge,” I said confidentally, looking for some other way to proceed.
Drew and John and Mark and the other ten or so people gathered up there all nodded their heads: Yes, that was the Knife Edge. I’d been picturing it for years: a nice, smooth knife with ants marching along it orderly, nervous about the steep elevation on either side, yes, but. And I’d been picturing it all night: the nice Fiberglas model on the porch of the ranger station, bumpy Knife Edge, yes, yes, but trail smooth, even smoother for all the fingers that had traversed it over the years. They should have glued gravel to the model. Lots of gravel, and a few pieces of broken glass. They should have mentioned that the first gesture of the trail off Pomola was a drop of some fifty feet all but vertical, and the the second was a climb back out of the notch and up the Chimney, as it was called, I guessed because it was completely vertical, and you would be cooked.
At least the weather was good.
But really, a little more: I can’t overstate it: despite all I’d heard and read, the Knife Edge was more than I’d bargained for. It was more than I’d bargained for by an order of magnitude or so. I said I couldn’t do it. I said this out loud. I’d go down the Dudley Trail, enough of an adventure for my neck. I ate some gorp. I breathed a while. I felt the pain in my neck subside, my near panic subside. I’d be fine.
If Thoreau could do it, so could I!
Once you start quoting the “Ktaadn” chapter of “The Maine Woods” (my favorite of Thoreau’s books—less brash than “Walden,” more adventuresome, more narrative drive, plus, you know, Maine), it’s pretty hard to stop. I re-read the chapter after our climb and found it abstract about the experience but also very specific, both in winning ways, lots of talk about Prometheus, also boulders.
My gosh, what Henry and his pals did is unbelievable—basically paddled and walked and portaged a bateau from Bangor, about 75 miles through rough forests—and then marched straight up to the mountain, where they camped on rocks, spit trout on sticks and cooked them like we’d cook organic chicken-and-basil sausages, lit a whole spruce tree on fire accidentally (imagine Ranger Bill’s reaction to that…), then in the morning climbed the mountain as they found it, straight up a riverbed for starters, so as to avoid the tangle of alpine trees and shrubs and possible bears, and into the clouds.
His first ascent (which was the fifth or sixth ever, or at least he thought so, the Abenakis not being mountain climbers, peaks being for the great spirits only: “The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains,–their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn.”)
Pomola, apparently, lives on the top of Ktaadn still…
“In the morning, after whetting our appetite on some raw [i.e. unreheated, salted] pork, a wafer of hard bread, and a dipper of condensed cloud or waterspout, we all together began to make our way up the falls, which I have described; this time choosing the right hand, or highest peak, which was not the one I had approached before. But soon my companions were lost to my sight behind the mountain ridge in my rear, which still seemed ever retreating before me, and I climbed alone over huge rocks, loosely poised, a mile or more, still edging toward the clouds; for though the day was clear elsewhere, the summit was concealed by mist. The mountain seemed a vast aggregation of loose rocks, as if some time it had rained rocks, and they lay as they fell on the mountain sides, nowhere fairly at rest, but leaning on each other, all rocking-stones….”
At the top he reflects on the place of people in nature (Contact!), and then he’s out of there. He and his party leave the mountain by means of their friendly riverbed, leaping from rock to rock even when it’s too far to jump, sliding on their backs through waterfalls….
So down into the notch, not so bad, wearing my neck brace, followed by a brace of teenagers no one had told not to tailgate, though I said a kind and upward word thus. And then up the chimney—and here my one moment of real fear (Thoreau does not mention fear but only alludes to it, and it’s doubtful he traversed the Knife Edge at all): a spot where I couldn’t find a handhold or quite the strength to pull myself to kneeling, John above saying he wished he hadn’t come that way, saying I should go back and try something different. So Drew went first and found the way. I followed, not taking his proffered hand, as I didn’t want to pull him off his perch, kill us both. Mark next, without complaint, all of us tearing our hands and knees on the rough rock.
Looking ahead from the top of the chimney, elation, a sense that despite the sharply defined col piled with rocks that had to pass for a trail, I could make it, that we could all make it.
Of course, the steady stream of other climbers was reassuring, too. I found them all far less irritating than I might on some other hike, each one more evidence that I’d be okay. One guy in sandals, a 12-year-old in bare feet, high kids in dreadlocks, young lady with a Barbie tucked in her rucksack, a man fairly jogging. Two of Pomola’s agents in uniform, young women eyeing my neckbrace. “Sir, how are you doing?” I was fine, but don’t call me sir. “Sir, your leg is bleeding, do you want an alcohol wipe and a bandage?” No, no. That was just from kneeling my way up the chimney. “Sir, what happened to your neck? Did that happen here?” They passed me, carried on skeptical.
Ahead, the knife edge got very steep, and again I was in pain, again last up the hill, but pretty happy with myself once I crested the last boulder and found my friends around the sign at the peak. After all, I was one of the older people up there on the edge (I’ll be 57 tomorrow) and happy with the world, amazed at the fair weather—very little wind, very few clouds, none of the pelting rain we’d been advised to expect (my rucksack filled with pounds of gear I wouldn’t have to use). Dozens of people, all with reservations of both kinds, all with cars waiting down in parking lots. And the world out there, Maine everywhere, and Canada, and Mt. Washington over in New Hampshire, and our home mountains visible distant, and the dust trails miles long of logging trucks, and log yards, the glint of distant windows, and lakes, lakes and islands, all the things Henry saw, and didn’t see—his climb was in the mists, his climb was only the advent of people here. And all the trees, the billion trees, the ancient flood plain, the ancient tracks of the glacier, the mounds of mountain debris all deposited by ice and grown over and pacific in sunlight and cloud shadows tracking, the earth meeting air.
It was pretty nice.
I paused in pain at the top of South Peak with my fellows, regrouped, ate six more Advil, then forward to the summit, which is Baxter Peak. After Percival Baxter, who assembled parcels of land on his own then gifted them to the state back in the ’30s to be forever wild, over 200,000 acres, since much added to, acres in which he commanded that no roads be built, roads being the furtherance human encroachment.
Forty or fifty people atop Baxter peak, not all of them Knifers—there are several easier routes available. One guy in a more elaborate neck brace than mine, hurrah! His son had just completed the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia, which my man had climbed, too, having got hurt in the meantime, throttled by a drunk. “My surgeon will kill me,” he said.
I knew what he meant, but I’d had the same worry in a different vein, had put off surgery hoping to avoid it altogether. And at the top of Kahtahdin I imagined I’d done so, really still think I’ve done so. If you can hike the Knife Edge via the Helon Parker, how bad could the disk fragment lodged inside your spinal column actually be, right? Your body’s various -phages resorbing it efficient enough, correct?
Also at the top: a couple who’d just completed the through-hike, complete with movie camera and model releases and bottles of champagne. Also the girl with the Barbie, who’d decided the notch was too much and turned around, unashamed. Also a red squirrel, who’d found a source of food in the crumbs of hikers. Also a raven scavenging. Also a tall rock cairn that some say brings the peak to exactly one mile. Also a sign: Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Nothing quite wild anymore, but all of us up there had definitely had the chance to die that day, and all of us had stepped where Thoreau had stepped, and gazed upon the same boulders, the very same.
Drew and John and Mark and I weren’t waterfall divers but descended via a trail through an area we dubbed the Drew Barton Krumholz Plain, since he was so very pleased with it, a beautiful tundra of rocks and lichens and mosses, home of Thoreau Spring, which I must research—(Henry mentions no spring, and from the Ktaadn chapter his route is unclear to me, though no doubt well known). And where John thought we might see an American Pipit, famous bird that nests only in the high tundra up in Canada, and on Kahtahdin. We made a number of pipit jokes, hilarious in our relief at being headed downhill.
Drew spotted the actual bird. We all confirmed it.
And then down the Chimney Pond trail, which is nothing but a rockslide, passing by end-of-day hikers in agony, some of them and at least one the rangers were going to have to come rescue. (“When will the rocks stop?” she asked me plaintively. I suggested a rest and a big drink of water, also positive thoughts.)
My feet hurt, but only that, despite my worries in the night. The rest of me rather soared, sliding downhill in the granite-grain sand of the slide. And then we hikers sat at Chimney Pond after the rough descent and looked up at the walls of the cirque, at the bottom view of the Knife, hard to imagine we’d just been up there, our hilarity somewhat moderated by the time. Ten and a half hours of hiking thus far, the hardest I’ve ever done (because of the rocks, only because of the rocks). And 3.3 miles to go. Very likely we’d make it to Mark’s car by dark.
Very likely we’d enjoy a big dinner at a good restaurant in Millinocket shortly.
Very likely Mark would manage the long drive home.
Home by one a.m., very likely, new confidence, body and soul.
Bird Species seen on our trip:
blue jay (CG)
white-breasted nuthatch (CG)
downy woodpecker (CG)
tree sparrow (CG)
red-eyed vireo (CG)
cedar waxwing flock (SSP)
yellow-rumped warbler, juveniles and m-f worn plumage (Sandy Stream Pond – SSP)
common merganser juvenile (SSP)
common goldeneye juvenile (SSP)
hermit thrush (SSP)
boreal chickadee (Helon Taylor Trail, Chimney Pond Trail)
pileated woodpecker (Helon Taylor)
red-tailed hawk (over knife edge)
northern harrier (a pair cruising the top of the mts)
winter wren (landslide trail)
raven (cruising the top)
American Pipit (NW side of Baxter Peak on the Saddle Trail)
Notes From Drew Barton:
NATURAL COMMUNITIES (ALPINE ONLY): Windswept Alpine Ridge – esp. on beginning of Saddle Trail on NW side of Baxter Peak, Pamola Peak; Subalpine Meadow – upper Helon Taylor Trail and lower NW side of Baxter Peak on Saddle Trail; Zotzenfrozt (aka Spruce-Fir Krummholz) – upper Helon Taylor Trail and the Drew Barton Memorial Zotzenfrozt Plain in saddle between Baxter and Hamlin Peaks; Heath Alpine Ridge – upper Helon Taylor Trail, Pamola, and NW side of Baxter Peak on Saddle Trail; Alpine Snowbank (small depressions where snow stay longer) – Pomola Peak, NW side of Baxter Peak, Alpine Cliff – Knife Edge, steep, landslide part of Saddle Trail.
PLANT SPECIES (ALPINE ONLY): alpine azalea & diapensia (tight, bright green mats; arctic species), alpine bearberry (boreal-arctic species), alpine bilberry (the species I said was common on Saddleback but I couldn’t ID it – I have now! Dark blue berries that tasted OK but not great), highland rush (that grass-like thing that was everywhere that I mis-ID’d at first as Bigelow sedge), Bigelow sedge (the coarse, sharply edged grasslike thing that I gave only cursory notice, but now realize is rare in distribution but locally common on Katahdin), black crowberry (long stem covered with very short stiff needle like leaves and many black berries), 3-tooth cinquefoil (with white flowers), lapland rosebay (arctic species), heart-leaf birch (pointed out to Bill on Helon Taylor, a mt and Downeast coastal birch), labrador tea, bunchberry (leaves and berries look like flowering dogwood because in same genus), mt. cranberry (berries of which we ate), stiff clubmoss (those very cool stiff standing clubmosses esp on the Saddle Trail), meadowsweet (flowering on the landslide part of the Saddle Trail), mt. alder (landslide and mid Helon Taylor), bush honeysuckle, pale laurel, sheep laurel, rough leaved aster (little yellow flowers; somewhere on top – can’t remember where), squashberry (the viburnum bushes with light red berries on lower Saddle Trail and parts of Helon Taylor), high bush blueberry, late low bush blueberry, balsam fir, red spruce, black spruce, paper birch, mt. ash, northern wild-raison (viburnum with thick leaves on mid Helon Taylor), Mt.-holly (small leaves purplish leaf stems, on mid Helon Taylor); many other species that I couldn’t ID or didn’t even see, like that viny clubmoss, the incredible green, red, gray, etc. lichens, the many mosses