I had planned an autumn backpacking trip through the Maine North Woods for several months. My hiking partner Fran Maineri and I were to start at Roaring Brook Campground and trek northward through Baxter State Park to the Matagamon Gate at the north end of the park. Then we would trek south following the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) through the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, a 71-mile distance though some of the most spectacular wilderness in northeast.
When I first learned about the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in 2016, I yearned to explore the area. The name intrigued me. What lay in the shadow of the Katahdin massif? What secrets did this old timberland hold? I have hiked in Baxter State Park for many years, ever since my daughter attended the University of Maine at Orono. I have summited Baxter Peak five times, once in winter, my final ascent of New England’s hundred highest mountains during the winter season. I was again returning to the land of Katahdin, but had never ventured into the territory beyond the eastern boundary, now the Monument.
Fran and I arrived at Roaring Brook by shuttle from Millinocket. Following our 10-day excursion, our shuttle driver, Lloyd, would pick us up at the southern end of the Monument. Lloyd was a native of the area and shared with us a great deal of the history and culture of northern Maine.
We began our hike into Chimney Pond Campground under darkening skies. Rain began falling as we made our way along the Chimney Pond Trail, arriving at the campsite damp and cold. It rained all night, and in the morning we doggedly shouldered our packs and began the climb to Hamlin Peak, along the Hamlin Ridge Trail. As we neared the summit, clouds obscured the trail ahead. A light rain continued to fall, and I soon began to feel a damp chill creep into my core. Through the misty fog and yellow sunlight, we found the junction with the North Peaks Trail, and began our traverse along the exposed ridge, using cairns to keep us on track as clouds and rain continued to move across our path.
As the trail descended off the ridge we finally reached tree line and a break from the endless cloud cover. The drizzle continued, however, dampening our spirits and bringing doubt that we would see clearing skies. When we finally arrived at Russell Pond, after the long slog, it was dark and dreary. Every stitch of clothing and even our feet were soggy from the drenching rain. In the evening we pondered whether to continue. Rain drops pattered on the cabin roof as I fell into a restless sleep.
When Fran and I woke from an uneasy sleep, we looked out over Russell Pond. The cloud caul was breaking up and lemony light was filtering through the cracks in the gray blanket. The emerging sun reignited our yearning to complete the trek. With a burst of confidence, we decided to push on to South Branch Pond Campground, continuing into the Monument.
With sun rising in the east, and clouds slowly lifting off the mountains encircling Russell Pond, we headed to South Branch Pond. It was the coming of autumn and the sun reflected off the changing colors of the forest. Orange, yellow and red leaves fluttered to the ground with a freshening breeze. By noon a brilliant sun was shining through the forest overstory. Warblers dashed about in the tree branches and chickadees belted out their familiar call, “Chickadee-dee-dee-dee.” This was a turn-around day, our fortunes going from dismal and foreboding to full delight.
When we arrived at South Branch Pond Campground, we spent the rest of the day drying our sodden clothes, and took an extra day to climb North Traveler Mountain. After a two-day interlude, we continued our trek, camping one night at Trout Book Campground and then the next day hiking out of the park through the northern gate. We followed the park road to Matagamon Wilderness Campground, where Fran and I looked forward to a shower, burgers, beer and pizza at Mama Bears’ Kitchen, the restaurant at the campground. With great anticipation we couldn’t wait to begin our trek into the Monument.
For years the 87,563 acres of forestland that make up the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument provided pulp wood for the paper mills in Millinocket, as well as choice fishing and hunting grounds for Native Americans and later native Mainers. With the demise of the paper industry in the northeast and the closing of two paper mills in Millinocket, the land was taken out of commercial production and put up for sale. Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, widely known for its lip balm, hand cream and other personal care products, gradually purchased parcels of the land for preservation, with the ultimate goal of creating a national park. After years of effort, with both public support and criticism, she turned her attention to creating a national monument by way of the Antiquities Act of 1906. On August 23, 2016, the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was established by proclamation by President Obama.* The roads and paths that connect through the Monument are now officially part of the IAT.
[footnote] *The Antiquities Act was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, who spent his early years, while attending Harvard University, hunting, fishing and hiking in the area. At the time, Roosevelt befriended Bill Sewall, a well-known guide and log driver from Island Falls, Maine. The two became lifelong friends. Roosevelt would be pleased to know that the land he tramped through with Bill Sewall has been set aside as a national monument. William Wingate Sewall, Bill Sewall’s Story of Theodore Roosevelt, Duff Press, 2007. [end footnote]
After checking into the Matagamon Wilderness Campground, we noticed a little brown-and-white dog trotting along the camp road. He came over to our shelter and glanced at us with an inquisitive eye. He seemed to be checking us out, making sure we were registered guests.
The next day, after a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, home fries and oven-baked bread from Mama Bear’s Kitchen, the same dog was sprawled across the steps of the front porch. Stepping gingerly over this cute little pooch, we made our way across the bridge spanning the East Branch of the Penobscot River to start our trek south through the Monument. As we began our hike on the Messer Pond Road, along came this little dog, scampering up behind us. He darted ahead, looking back at us as though to say, “Follow me.”
Continuing along the old logging road, Fran and I felt certain the little guy would turn around and head back home. This was not the case, as our mysterious friend continued leading the way, occasionally running into the woods, barking furiously when he’d treed a squirrel or chipmunk. By reading the name tag on his collar, we learned his name was Little Boy. Fran kept commanding in a stern voice, “Go home, Little Boy. Go home,” to no avail.
Our route followed several abandoned logging roads leading to a path along the East Branch of the Penobscot River. By late afternoon we reached Grand Pitch Lean-to where we camped overnight. Little Boy, who was still with us, settled in, and we assumed he would be our travelling companion for the next several days.
Then, as Fran and I were preparing our dinner, a couple of young hikers came busting out of the woods, heading back to Matagamon Wilderness Campground. This was Little Boy’s opportunity to return to civilization, dinner and a warm bed by leading another party on a backwoods ramble, this time returning home. The last we saw of Little Boy was his hind end and stubby tail darting into the woods, playing trail guide for the newcomers.
The Grand Pitch Lean-to is located near a 30-foot cascade where the water from the East Branch roars over an escarpment. After we settled in for the evening, the rumble of the river lured me to this powerful cascade. With the sun setting and skies darkening, I wandered down to the embankment. White water poured over the rocks, while billows of foam rose from the pools at the base of the rapids. A light mist drifted along the swirling river, and I could smell the churning water. After spending an hour enthralled by the power of this magnificent river, I returned to the lean-to, slipped into my sleeping bag and was lulled to sleep by the sound of the water tumbling over the rock ledges.
We awoke in the morning to dazzling splashes of sun filling our shelter. Fran and I quickly packed our bags and began the next leg of our journey, hiking 10 miles to Lunksoos Lean-to. When we arrived in mid-afternoon, dark clouds were again hanging on the mountains, and soon after the rain began to fall. Suddenly we were engulfed in a downpour as lighting flashed and thunder reverberated off the mountains.
As we were settling down to eat, trying to stay dry, three hikers emerged from the fog and sheets of rain. They were overjoyed to find this shelter and belted out shouts of joy as they entered our encampment. Fran and I quickly made room in the shelter for our new roommates as they stripped off their wet garments. One important lesson I learned from my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail: you always make room for others when the weather turns foul.
Throughout the night the storm’s intensity increased. The deluge sounded like thousands of rivets being driven into the metal roof. The wind gained ferocity and was soon blowing rain water into the shelter. We moved our sleeping bags closer to the inside wall along with our gear in an attempt to stay dry. I lay awake most of the night, as I’m sure the others did too, listening to the pelting rain and howling wind. I worried that if the rain continued into the next day, we wouldn’t be able to resume our journey over Lunksoos and Deasey mountains. And Lloyd was expecting to meet us in three days. If we didn’t stick to our schedule, what would happen to our ride back to Millinocket? We had no cell service. We were in a wilderness! This thought plagued me all night. I knew we would have to continue our march, regardless of the weather.
In the morning I rousted myself out of my cozy sleeping bag and was relieved to find that the rain had stopped. My nerve-wracking anxiety ended. The thick cloud cover was breaking apart, the fog was lifting and the sun began to poke its head above tree line.
Following breakfast we said farewell to our stablemates and began the climb of Lunksoos Mountain. When Fran and I reached the summit, we were awed by the view of the eastern side the Katahdin massif: Pamola, Baxter, Hamlin Peak, the North Basin and North Peaks. This is a view few people ever see unless they are standing on Lunksoos. How fortunate we were to be on this mountain on a cloudless day, with azure skies forming a backdrop.
After a brief interlude we trucked on to Deasey Mountain with its even more amazing 360-degree view of Katahdin and the Turners, along with the prominent peaks of Mount Chase and Sugar Loaf to the north. An added bonus was discovering the Deasey Mountain fire tower. Constructed in 1929 by the Maine Forest Service, it remained in service until 1969 and is one of the few remaining groundhouse lookouts in Maine. Inside we found an alidade table, an instrument used for sighting the bearings of a forest fire. While no longer used to sight forest fires, the alidade table helped us to locate distant mountains and landmarks.
We then began a slow, long descent of Deasey Mountain, trekking through a virgin forest, which is rare in these parts of Maine. We rambled along Wassataquoik Stream (Abenaki for “a place where they spear fish”). While walking along the stream we heard the grunts of a moose calling for a mate. It was the beginning of mating season, also called rut, when bulls are engaged in numerous behaviors to attract a cow. Moose can become aggressive during this time, so Fran and I stayed on the alert for any sightings.
Following this meandering trail we suddenly found ourselves staring at a trail marker located on the other side of Wassataquoik Stream. To continue our journey we would have to ford the stream. The hard rushing water was swollen by the recent rains, which meant we’d have to wade through waist-deep water. This is a reality when hiking in the backcountry. At the time there were few if any trail reports posted on websites, and no trail guides, warning you of such risks, as the Maine Mountain Guide does now. You must be prepared to handle the unknowns. Rescue may not come for days, if at all.
Fran and I considered our options: look for another crossing, turn back and return to the campground or risk crossing the furious stream. With cautious deliberation we decided to plunge ahead across the stream. We carefully planned our route where the stream looked shallowest. Then we unbuckled our packs, wrapped them in heavy duty garbage bags, took off our boots and socks, tied them onto our packs, put on our Crocs and flung our packs high onto our shoulders.
We decided to go one at a time. If one of us fell in the water, the other could jump in for the rescue. Fran went first placing his feet carefully on the stream bottom, using his trekking poles for balance. The rushing water was pushing him downstream, but he was able to stay upright and made it to the other side without incident.
Now it was my turn, knowing that with one slip I might be thrown off balance and find myself floating down stream, struggling to keep my head above water, with the 40-pound pack weighing me down. With much trepidation I slowly picked my way through the turbulent water, sliding my feet along the slick rock bottom, using my trekking poles to maintain balance. When I reached the far side of the stream, we both breathed a sigh of relief. Our ford was successful; we stayed dry and could continue on our journey.
We rambled along a well-maintained logging road to Katahdin Brook Lean-to listening to song birds. They seemed to be singing in celebration, welcoming us into their homeland. The youthful woods we were walking through was once a clear-cut. Clear-cutting opens up a whole new level of vegetation that otherwise would not be present. The area was springing to life with wildflowers, beech, birch and red maple saplings, grasses, hobblebush and ferns of all kinds. This clear-cut, like many others in the North Woods, serves as primary breeding ground for a wide diversity of birds, such as the black-backed woodpecker, chickadee, whippoorwill, quail, rusty blackbird, spruce grouse, as well as the blackpoll and bay-breasted warblers. It’s also prime habitat for moose, deer, rabbit, fox, coyote, bobcat and Canada lynx.
The next day, we packed our bags for the last time. We planned to meet Lloyd at a predetermined place on the Katahdin Woods and Waters Loop Road. He would drive us to Millinocket, where we’d pick up our vehicle. As we began our final steps of the journey, Fran said to me, “It’s amazing, we’ve seen so many signs of moose, yet haven’t even eyed one.” Just then, up the road, a big bull reared his head, glaring at us and blocking our way. I took several pictures and felt our journey was complete. However, there was one more event in store for us.
After meeting Lloyd and loading our bags into the van, we began the last segment of our trip. As Lloyd steered his van along the gravel road, we were confronted with a young moose standing in the middle of the road. Lloyd tried to maneuver the van around the stubborn fella, but he galloped ahead, not letting us pass. After about 5 miles of this pass-and-block game, the young moose ran to the side of the road. Lloyd made his play to pass, gunning the van, squeezing between kicking hoofs and the shoulder of the gravel road. I held my breath, hanging onto the door handle, hoping not to crash. We sprang free at last and left the moose in the dust. It was a harrowing moment and we’d had our fill of moose.
The rest of the ride to Millinocket was uneventful, and we arrived just before more rain closed in. It was an epic adventure in the Maine wilderness that we will long remember. I hope to return some day to continue my exploits, exploring the vast network of trails in Baxter State Park and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
When I returned home, I was continually reminded of our canine hiking companion, Little Boy. I remained worried and wondered if he had returned safely home. To put my mind at rest, I decided to phone his owners at Matagamon Wilderness Campground. They explained that Little Boy frequently takes off with hikers, only to return the following day. They added that Little Boy had left that morning to accompany a group of backpackers, again playing the role of trail guide.
For more information:
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Headquarters, Millinocket, Maine; (207) 456-6001. nps.gov/kaww/index.htm
Maine Mountain Guide, 11th Edition, edited by Carey Kish, Appalachian Mountain Club Books, Boston, 2018.