Mount Katahdin

It has been a long, good journey, which is why I have not posted a new article in over a week.  I just completed a 2,000-plus-mile road trip in our new Subaru Outback, covering some of the Maritime Provinces and all of the New England states.  On the drive up north from Peaklessburg, I took in Mount Katahdin for the first time.

Before I go on, I must confess that I once underestimated this mountain.  Katahdin is Maine’s highest peak in Baxter State Park (an hour-and-a-half drive from Bangor, Maine) with an elevation of 5,267 feet / 1,605 meters and is the final destination of thru hikers of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). Unfortunately, based on the photos I’d seen years ago, stories from Adirondack hikers I met, and the fact that Katahdin rises as mainly the sole mountain massif from what I once considered a dull, featureless forest made the peak completely uninteresting to me.  I was wrong to make such judgments.

In terms of the AT, Katahdin’s mountain features overtake all other peaks on the Appalachian Trail south of Presidential Range.  For instance, Clingmans Dome, a tree covered peak in the Smoky Mountains, is gently rounded; in fact, an auto route was constructed to its summit, like that on massive Mount Washington.  Katahdin by contrast, is like a miniature version of Mount Logan in the Yukon Territory.  Okay, that might be a big stretch.  Katahdin is not covered in glaciers and snow year-round.  However, both stand alone on plains and rise and stretch at length rather than a beautiful conical peak.  On Katahdin, the peak ascends through a combination of moderately sloped arms alongside deep cirques created by former glaciers.  In addition, the forests of northern Maine are beautiful too, and I would think crossing such country without a maintained trail would be a challenge in its own right.

While the AT route takes thru hikers up the Hunt Trail straight to the summit, the most spectacular path on the mountain is the Knife Edge Trail, which links Katahdin’s South Peak (5241 feet / 1,597 meters) and Pamola Peak (4,902 feet / 1,494 meters).  A local told me that the trail was so narrow on either side at times that it had to be straddled with one leg on each side.  Truth be told, it is not that narrow.  However, when the south flank of the mountain is on one side and the South Basin (with a drop of approximately 2,000 feet over half-a-mile) on the northern side is separated by a mere several feet (two or three at parts), the route is extremely dangerous and should be attempted only in relatively calm winds and dry weather.  There are alternatives to getting around this trail by heading north from South Summit instead and taking the Saddle Trail.

Now back in Peaklessburg I can say that Katahdin is well worth the visit – not for settling for lower standards or because it is the terminus of the AT or because I have been in the city too long.  Katahdin stands as one of the northeast’s formidable mountains in its own right.  If you have climbed its summit I would love to hear your story, so please leave a comment or email me.

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Too Far from Our Beloved Mountains? Try Hiking the Coast

Esowista Peninsula

A view from the shore along the northern Pacific coast of North America. 2008.

My wife and I got away recently… No, not to Stowe, Vermont yet; we are still collecting and counting votes at, as explained in the May 26th post.  We left the city for the day to visit Assateague National Seashore in Maryland, and it was far from a walk on the beach.  It was a hike.

As hikers, we are mainly seeking nature and solitude when we venture outdoors.  If we can get to our favorite mountain range then great, but that is not always the case.  National Seashores and state parks along the coast may be nearer to us for when we need to hop a pack.

Before you go, determine whether your coastal destination is a sun tanning beach or whether it is natural seashore.  It probably goes without saying, we are not looking for California’s Long Beach or the Carolinas’ Myrtle Beach.  If we are going to cover the shore as a hike, we need to find publically accessible coastline such as Assateague National Seashore.  Consider also visiting in the early spring, late fall or winter when crowds are down.

For a coastal hike, we should come prepared for a hike as normal (see the tab “About Backpacking and Traditional Mountaineering”), but wear quick drying clothes and carry a rain jacket/windbreaker but make our own determinations about footwear, especially if the majority of our route crosses sand.  While it is nice to walk barefoot in the sand, hopping a backpack of any weight for a distance will start to apply pressure to the arches of your feet.  Teva-like sandals may be preferred for light daypacks or full hiking boots if we are carrying anything larger than a day-and-a-half pack.  If our coastal hike will cover mostly rocky outcroppings and some forest, such as those found in the northern coasts or along the great lakes, full hiking boots may be best.

As for traveling and settling, first, expect to cover less ground than we normally do on level ground.  Rocky outcroppings or sand can make for slower going.  Second, if we plan to camping, check with the land management agency on whether camping is permitted and what their rules are for campfires and treatment of human waste.

While traveling a coastal route may usually be fairly direct, navigation charts are still necessary.  A basic map of the area and a compass may be useful especially if we have to significantly alter our path away from the shore.  Also be sure to obtain the current tide charts for your area, if for nothing else, to ensure that our campsite won’t be submerged by evening.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides charts for the United States and Fisheries and Oceans Canada also provides tables.

Lastly, carrying a wildlife guide of birds and sea life of the region is a great way to take in the environment.  There tends to be several distinct habitats along the shore from the sea itself, beach, dunes, grasses and woodlands all with its own residents.  Use the tide chart to know when it is safest to know when it is best to explore the sea bottom at low tide.

Denali: Exploring Alaskan Backcountry

Savage River, Denali National Park and Preserve

The Savage River at 11:30 p.m. in Denali NPP (Szalay)

For those of us lucky enough to visit Denali National Park and Preserve, the pure backcountry experience can be found away from the parking lots and picnic benches (which are available too, for those that travel with friends and family in need of a tether to civilization) that sometimes breakup our hikes through state parks, or (ahem) Shenandoah.  To make the most of the opportunity in Denali NPP, we have to know some things unique to navigating it and the far north in general.

We’ll assume that we all read the last post, “Denali: Planning for a Summer Visit,” so that we’ve already determined that hiking into the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve will suit us and our companions.  If our companions are not on the same page, the backpacking trip by misery through association with irritating hiking buddies with annoying habits that only come out on the trail, or buddies that say, “what do you mean we have to camp outside?”  It’s best to find out these things well ahead of time.

Guide References. We should familiarize ourselves with the park’s layout and major features before we go.   Start by getting oriented through the park’s website, in particular its page on the backcountry.  These days, it is the best resource.  For guide books on the backcountry, the two books that were readily available until relatively recently were Denali: The Complete Guide by Bill Sherwonit or Denali: A Backcountry Companion by Jon Niernberg.  Both are not currently in print but used copies may be obtained through Barnes & Noble’s website.  I suspect that they are out of print due to technology trends and because the Denali’s backcountry is difficult to quantify in writing.  By contrast, covering the Adirondacks, which has an elaborate network of maintained trails, is a subject ready for a guide book since it covers fixed trails rather than areas of tract that is subject to change.

Maps. Maps are always king, especially in trail-less Denali.  For general park orientation, my favorite is map 222 from National Geographic, which covers Denali National Park and Preserve.  It provides a general lay out of the entire park and wilderness backcountry units (into which the park is divided for management purposes) as well.  But when actually traversing cross country, nothing beats the square maps from the United States Geologic Survey (USGS).

Permits. The first thing we need to know is that the National Park Rangers manage the backcountry of Denali through a permit and a quota system for each backcountry unit on the park map.  Day hikers do not need backcountry permits.  All trips start, essentially, at the Park Headquarters, where we file what amounts to our “flight plan.”  Permits are issued by the Rangers for specific backcountry units on a first-come-first-served basis.  Because each backcountry unit has a maximum number of hikers permitted each day (around eight, depending on the unit), the unit we may have preferred to go through may be closed to us on our arrival.  So it is good to have plan Bravo and even Charlie ready.

Bears. Before the Rangers allow us to go in-country, we are given BRFCs, for Bear Resistant Food Container, also known as a food canister.  These are necessary, especially if we plan to camp on the open tundra where a place to hang our food bag out of reach from bears is impossible.  The canister closes flush without a handle, with the help of a little screw head-like notch, so the bear cannot get in no matter how much he or she hits it, squeezes or punts it.  It is great that the National Park Service issues them to backcountry hikers, but if we plan to backpack elsewhere in the far north, we should invest in one to take with us.  They run about $70.  In addition, we should make noise when we travel – human conversation is a unique sound and simply saying “Stay away, bear” repeatedly should do the trick.  Bear spray is also popular and might be good to keep accessible on the hip belt of our packs.

Cross Country Travel. If we have backpacked in the lower forty-eight, we probably have the basic skills necessary for hiking Denali.  But in addition to the basics – such as camping, protecting food from animals, packing, basic map and compass skills, and general physical fitness – we need to acquire additional skills for the Alaskan backcountry.  For example our expectation for our anticipated rate of travel needs to be tweaked.  This is because in the far north, sometimes the ground feels spongy.  Still, other terrain may feel like it is falling out from under us, particularly on a scree field or sometimes on a gravel bar.  While wildernesses like this make for slow going, it is just part of the challenge of negotiating routes in the far north, where there are no established trails or maintained trails.

River Crossings. There are numerous rivers throughout the park and finding the safest and proper place to cross them can take a great deal of time.  Preferably, cross at the widest braids where the river runs shallow.  We should get advice on the rivers we expect to cross from the Rangers before setting out.  Also, while some hikers are comfortable crossing in their boots, I remove mine despite the temperature of the water and wear old sneakers or Teva sandals – whichever I brought to wear in camp.

Campfires. Unfortunately, for backcountry travelers in Denali NPP, campfires are prohibited.   So plan to cook on a camp stove and stay warm in our fleece jackets or sleeping bags.  Most of us respect (as we should) the rule and know that an absurd portion of forest and brush fires are cause by people, but the satisfaction of light and warmth of a fire is the chill on the beer.  It may not be a bad idea to spend a night at a car camping site along the park access road before leaving just to use one of the permanent fire rings.

In a later post I will talk about some recommended day hikes and overnighters in Denali NPP. As well as what gear to bring.