Monday, October 26, 2009

Katahdin (Part 1)

Mount Katahdin is the northernmost peak of the Appalachian mountains that stretch from as far south as Georgia to Maine, and some say, to Canada too, depending on how pedantic you are on cartographing the mountain peaks. It has inspired hikes, climbs, poetry, paintings, a piano sonata and most notably, the writings of Henry Thoreau, who wrote of Katahdin:

"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, such 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".

Katahdin actually means the Greatest Mountain in native Indian language. The Indians are obviously not well-travelled. Katahdin is by no means the greatest mountain in the world, whose height (1600m, slightly taller than Cameron Highlands) would barely cause a ripple among the sheer enormity that is the Himalayas. But there must be something about this particular Maine mountain that so inspired such dramatic prose. So it was not mere coincidence that I decided to embark on this pilgramage in the summer of 2009 to Katahdin, having been acquainted with both the Appalachian mountains and Henry Thoreau before.

I took off on a 330-mile drive via Interstate 95 from Boston to Milinocket, the nearest town to Mount Katahdin. Car rental is costly, especially if you are travelling alone, so you can be sure that I had overturned every timetable in every single bus company (Greyhound, Vermont, Concord) that ply on the Maine roads before deciding to go rental. I keep telling myself, how much would I pay to see Katahdin, and the practicalities of financial matters paled into insignificance.

Interstate 95

The mountain ranges loom far ahead , up among the clouds.

Welcome to Baxter State Park

Katahdin lies inside Baxter State Park. The story goes that Governor Percival Baxter was so spellbound by Katahdin that in order to prevent loggers from mining the surrounding area that he bought over the entire piece of land around the mountain, and entrusted it to the care of the state of Maine. That was how it became a state park. For the record, 204733 acres is slightly bigger than the island of Singapore.

The infrastrature of Baxter Park is laid out in this way: there is only one road leading into the Baxter Park, via an entrance. The nearest town, Milinocket, is probably 20 miles away. The base camps scattered around the main mountain ranges are located about 5 miles away from the entrance. You can elect to drive your vehicles to some of the base camps (like Roaring Brooks, Katahdin Stream and Abol), and you pay $24 per day for vehicle+man, or you park your car at the entrance and hike your way into the base camps--for $11 a night. At no time are you allowed to spend the night anywhere else in the park, so basically it means every night spent in Baxter State Park costs at least $11 per head.

I parked my car beside a lake, which was near the entrance. Seemingly tranquil and serene, but who knows what lurks beneath.

Since i would be away for a few days at least, thought it would be prudent to have the number plate recorded just in case the car gets stolen. But it was remarked to me (later of course) "nobody would come here to steal cars one lor." True.

Recording the numbers for security, not for 4D.

Spread out my barang-barang. From left to right:
Insect repellent (25% deet), Crumpler camera bag with D70, 17-70mm auto and 70-200 manual lens, a dozen toblerones and snickers, peanut butter, guide book with map of Baxter state Park, note book, Paul Theroux reading material and pencil, a pack of organic carrots, torch light, bread, Campbell soup tin can, 2 toggle ropes, rain coat, groundsheet, and an Adidas backpack.

Having never hiked overnight before in my life and lacking necessary experience, packing up has been a woeful hit-and-miss affair on hindsight. Why in the world would I want to carry reading materials up there? I realised my folly halfway up the mountain, with the weight of the books digging into my flesh. And what's with the 70-200mm lens? I had thought about it, and thought that I will never forgive myself if I come face to face with a bear and do not have a good zoom lens with which to shoot the bear with. Incredulously naive, because the first thing I should do is to make as much noise as possible to drive the bear away, and then run in the opposite direction--for dear life. On the other hand, the toggle ropes proved to be very useful later when the hikes turned to climbs. Finally, I can never overstate the importance of that humble groundsheet, without which, hmm, I could not contemplate beyond.

After packing my stuffs, remembering specifically to lock my car, and paying my dues to the rangers on duty at the entrance, I began to hike my way into Roaring Brooks camp with a spring in my steps. Loved every minute of it, but a very friendly ranger driving by insisted on picking me up along the way. Learnt from the ranger that Baxter State Park is a very well-policed park, with over 40 rangers on duty at any one time, unlike his last call of work, Denali National Park in Alaska, while 10 times larger in area, had only 4 rangers working in it. I guess he must have had a back-breaking time in Alaska. But I was getting excited too, because Denali (McKinlay) was also where Christoper Mccandles perished, and he must surely have heard of him, but I was careful to keep mum. I didn't want him to think of me as another silly college boy trying to tempt fate just because he watched "Into the Wild" on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Instead I joked about his workload being cut up by 40 times, which would otherwise never happen in the corporate world, and he beamed, "It certainly is!".

At this point in time doubts began to creep in. I had wanted this trip to be wild, but not so wild that I would lose my life, nor so mild to be like a walk in the park either. And with over 40 rangers policing every aspect of life in Baxter, it certainly sounded like a trip to Central Park indeed.

Spent a night inside one of the huts at Roaring Brooks camp. It is primitive, with wooden planks for bed and candles for light. "I am the noble savage, living in the primitive age of the world." It's always cool to be able to quote Thoreau and actually mean it. When darkness descends upon the land, the woods comes alive with fireflies dancing in the trees and the river sparkling with moonlight. These are enchanting moments that will remain in the deep recesses of my soul for long to come.

The morning after. Washing up beside Roaring Brooks, the icy-cold water stings me awake and hydrates me for what is going to a gruelling day.

I was carrying a few nigging fears with me at this point. I had forgotten about buying iodine pills in Boston, and was obsessed with the fear of drinking from the streams, until a fellow hiker said,"Just drink it up, let's worry about the ringworms later." Also, I had read that summertime was black fly season, and had heard stories from a Canadian traveller earlier that his face got stung so bad that it swelled for a few hours. So there, my 2 obsessions coming at the start of the hike, fear of black flies and fear of drinking poisoned water.

To get to the mountain proper, I had to cross a few miles of thick forest, but rest assured, paths have already been cleared for us. There is no need to trailblaze through. And, temperate forests, with their sparse undergrowth of soft lichen and moss, are a joy to walk in.

Into the wild...

Started the trail around 5am, with the sky already quite bright. I had elected to do the Helon Taylor trail, which is a hike with only a few climbs, after which it should adjourn to the infamous Knife Edge before reaching Baxter Peak, the tallest peak of Mount Katahdin.

This is the Helon Taylor trail, which involves jumping along these boulders.

Oh yea, and one more fear, the fear of getting my boots wet. So this stream was a considerable challenge in keeping my boots dry. My Timberland Gore-Tex held up nicely, and passed the test with flying colours. Of course I replenished my water supply here too. River streams don't come by so often in the wilderness.

A 2-m tall boulder, one of the few climbing challenges along the trail, facing me.

Easily done--looking down.

This is getting fun. At this point, I had still thought of Baxter State somewhat like a more rugged Sunday climb at the gym. I recalled the joke in the Peep Show, where Jeremy mentioned that "the world is his gym, the mountains, the rivers.", whereupon Mark concurred, "The world is my gym too, well, just that little bit where it is actually a gym." That's the polarity between country and city life.

Wildlife--I mustn't forget to photograph the wildlife I encountered along the way.

Slowly the treeline becomes more exposed. I think I am halfway up the mountain already.

The scenery gets more breathtaking as I go higher up.

More wildlife.

I am soon up among the clouds. I expended approximately 5 hours of non-stop hiking to get to this far. Everything goes to plan. This is still a stroll in Central Park.

Steep climb

Uh-oh. The steepest climb yet. I think it was a 2.5-m climb here. There was no other way but to somehow haul myself up. After much difficulty, including throwing my 2 baggages over the top, could I actually overcome the boulders here.

After doing a few more 2-m haul-ups, I soon realised that its not so easy after all. Looking down, I was thinking, oh my gosh, I am actually CLIMBING now! Quelling my fears, I keep telling myself, "Comon, you've done all these before at the Kallang gym."

One advice they always give...

...Don't look down.

And a new fear supplanted the old ones--the fear of falling. This particular fear of falling is quite unlike that encountered in roller-coaster rides. It is as if the sheer intensity of a roller-coaster ride gets diffused across time, resulting in a less acute but no less palpable throbbing of the heart. It doesn't matter how high you go, because by the time you climb to a certain height, it doesn't make a difference to your brittle sack of flesh anymore. I was thinking, the Helon Taylor "Central Park" trail must have ended, and I must be on this so-called Knife Edge already. If so, then I must be near the peak already.

Is over yonder the peak? No it isn't.

Sometimes you couldn't see over yonder, and you thought that what you saw was the peak. You hastily scramble up, only to see yet another of such mound, and yet another, and yet another. Its beginning to take a toll on my physique.

Taking a break. I'm not alone in getting tired from all these humps.


Wildlife shots indicate my generally high state of morale for I still have it in me to find the mood, not to mention energy, to observe wildlife (mostly insects unfortunately) around me. For a while, I was worried about snakes lurking beneath the undergrowths. But bah...none whatsoever.

This is getting a bit hardcore now. Not unlike one of those fearsome obstacles you have to overcome in those Nintendo games in order to progress to the next stage. I was thinking, hmm, should I just give up and turn back? At this moment, the choice still lies with me, because I had hiked over what is not too difficult to backtrack--a gentle slope punctuated by some large boulder climbs.

It was really tough getting up that wall, but I kept telling myself, this must be the Knife Edge, and I must be nearing my journey. I was elated to see a signpost upon scaling that final rockface, only to realise its not Knife Edge. It was only the Helon Taylor Trail that I had done, and its already 11am now. I had taken 6 hours to trek just 3.2 miles? That must be terribly slow by anybody's standards. And in order to get to the real peak, Katahdin Peak, I have to trek through a 1.5 mile long ridge called the Knife Edge.

Signpost that says Pamola Peak (not Katahdin), and gently points Katahdin-bound hikers to what lies to their left...

...the Knife Edge.

to be continued...soon...


dappled grass said...

when's the next update? i enjoy reading abt your travels. :)

TagYerit said...

Great post on Mt. Katahdin ... I've linked to it from my new web site The Quotes of Katahdin (

Rich Newman